14 November 2008

Athens to Methoni

Greece April 2007: Part I
(first of several posts from the journal I kept during my trip to Greece last year)

We are being driven out of Athens by Nikos in his yellow Mercedes taxi.  It is a luxury that embarrasses me intensely--I did not order it, would never have done so; I would have attempted more tedious, "everyman" public transportation--yet I admit I am thankful for the comfort.  The drive to Methoni, across the entire Peloponnese, is expected to take 4-5 hours, depending on the traffic, which promises to be heavy due to the approaching Easter holiday.  It is Holy Thursday, and already Athens is emptying out, releasing her grip on those who go back to their families' villages for the biggest celebration of the year.  The Greeks do Easter like no one else.

My mother and I are on a pilgrimage of sorts, heading first to Methoni, but eventually to Filiatra, the town where my grandmother grew up (also not far from the area of my grandfather's boyhood).  This ancestral visit has been a dream of mine for a long time.  We have only just arrived in Greece the day before, and it's still hard for me to believe we are actually here--except for the smell of orange trees in bloom, surrounding Syntagma Square, where we have met Nikos to begin our day's journey.

"They are too bitter to eat," Nikos says when I mention the heady orange scent drummed up by a light rain overnight.  That's okay.  I am content to keep the memory of their perfume in my nose; my stomach is already sated.  There is no better breakfast in the world than a Greek breakfast of rich, tangy whipped yogurt with thyme honey, accompanied by coffee with warmed milk... at least, if it's eaten in Greece!

The sights out the window roll by, still mostly highway heading toward the Peloponnese.  We stop at a toll booth, and Mom notices the women working the booths.

"I see the women have taken over the toll booths," she says.
"Yes, it's better to see a beautiful woman than a man with a mustache," says Nikos.
I can't resist: "Or a woman with a mustache."
"What a nightmare!" Nikos says with a shudder, and we laugh.

At the Isthmus of Corinth, we stop to look at the canal cut through the neck of land that separates the Peloponnese from the mainland.  It was created in 1893, Nikos tells us.  He is well informed.  Perhaps not more so than your average Greek, it's hard to say.  Average Greeks, I am willing to bet, receive a more complete, deeper knowledge of history as part of their basic education than what the average American acquires.  It's a shameful imbalance, for which I feel the need to make amends.  The canal was created by the Greeks, the French, and the Hungarians, to facilitate shipping trade.  Nikos says the first one to have the ambition and idea for the project was Alexander the Great, although the technical engineering knowledge of the age was not up to snuff.  Apparently Nero also made attempts, abandoned them.  The canal is very narrow and around 4 miles long, at sea level and minus a locks system.  It is amazing to see how sheer the rock walls are.  Looking down is a surprise--driving alongside it, you have no sense of being so high above sea level, but the drop is a long one.  The water is a lovely blue-green.

We stretch our legs, use a bathroom.  A woman sits at a table outside the door to the men's and women's rooms, a dish of coins and an ashtray on the table before her.  She sits there all day refilling the paper in the stalls and keeping things clean.  "Madame Pipi," the colloquial French members of my family would call her.  It's quite a job, but she seems to do it with some small measure of grace, or anyway she manages a cheerful thanks when we leave our tip.

Nikos is on a cigarette break (had he been getting a bit crabby as the time wore on?).  The clean air campaign has yet to turn up in Greece and its restaurants.  I'd forgotten when it was like to be asked for a smoking or non-smoking table, as we were asked at the restaurant we visited the night before--or else you are NOT asked and you take your chances.  Nikos motions back to the car, and we climb in.  His mood has improved, and conversation becomes more personal.  Nikos is a large man, but he can speak with a great gentleness, especially when he tells us about his mother from Smyrna, who came to Greece in the great population exchange that took place with Turkey in the 1920s.

The countryside opens up around us, changes, becomes more rocky once we pass through the area where the fortress of Acrocorinth looks over the canal, the Gulf of Corinth, and the Saronic Gulf.  The limestone outcrop is approximately 1,900 feet high.  We pass through Nemea, the site where, in Greek mythology, Herakles wrestled the lion.  Today this area is one of the wine-producing areas of the Peloponnese.  We pass Tripolis, Megalopolis, through the Arcadian landscape made famous by the ancient poets.  Wildflowers are everywhere now--sometimes a single flower, hearty, brightly colored, and clinging to a rock; sometimes entire fields of bright yellow.  Yellow, blue, purple blossoms on trees, the occasional red flower (a miniature poppy?)... the vibrant green grass, new this spring and newly refreshed with rain, makes the "spring green" in a box of crayons look muddy and dull.  Sheep.  Steep inclines and hairpin turns.  We know how perilous each turn is by the number of shrines at the side of the road where other travelers, unlucky, never made it to their final destinations.

Here Mom tells me a family story--a ghost story if you like--about my Uncle Louie.  Louie and one of the Kiros men (of Detroit "Coney Island Hot Dog" fame) were working on a house for Kiros and his family.  Three quarters of the way finished, and Kiros travels back here to the Peloponnese, misses one of said hairpin turns and dies.  Later, as Louie is working on completing the house for the family, he is in the attic alone and hears Kiros's voice say, "Louie, look under the boards."  He hears it twice, and scared halfway to his own death, he nevertheless manages to do as he's told.  Under the floorboards, he finds a strong box with an immense cash savings inside.  He had no idea it was hidden there.  Mom says Louie told her the story himself and that he was not a man to give himself over to stories.  Who am I to disbelieve?  Stranger things have happened in our family.  I think about how disconnected we have become, the current generation, from the kind of energy and openness, from the kind of belief and willingness to receive that must accompany these kinds of experiences.

Mountains roll by, and my stomach rolls with them as we make vertiginous turns up and up, 180-degrees this way then that.  There's something surreal about watching the landscape pivot around you.  And then we're in a valley again, moving toward Kalamata and the olive trees, leaves flashing silver in the sunlight.  Groves of olive trees that go on and on.  Past Kalamata, the olives become orange groves, then olive again.  This is a valley where things grow.  I think of yiayia, Mom's mother, and the olive trees she signed over to a cousin who remained in Greece long after she'd emigrated--this cousin we may find in Filiatra, though we have long ago lost contact.  I think of how my grandmother had a gardener's hand.  I remember she grew roses.  She could take a thorny stem from any cut rose in an FTD bouquet and plant it in the ground, put a Mason jar over it, and next year she'd have the beginnings of a new rose bush in her yard.  She loved flowers, loved making them grow, and it seems a strange paradox, an irony that this woman who lavished love on roses, made them bloom in her presence, never knew how to nurture her children's souls in the same way.

But this trip is not about the past.  It is about us, my mother and I, the hyphenated ones, the Greek-Americans.  We cut through the mountains, tourists driven in our taxi, and we oooh and ahhh like the rest of them, though it does somehow still feel like coming home, too.  We pass through Pylos, stop at Methoni.  We say good-bye to Nikos, wishing him "Kalo Pascha," a Happy Easter.  We have arrived.

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1 comment:


greek students do receive more hitory education, but i think this is because the country has a more homogeneous population than america. teaching the history of the land we call greece starts in the third grade of primary school with mythology - at the same time, children are introduced to something called religious studies. religious studies, it has been stated, is a compulsory subject for greek orthodox christian students in greece - i find that almost offensive. we need to redress some balance in this respect, to be more in line with other european countries, given the high number of immigrants' children now attending greek schools. history is also a touchy subject in greek education; i find that it is not usually taught subjectively enough...

wonderful sojourn of your holiday experiences - i look forward to more stories

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