My friend Mikhalis informs me that in the most recent elections, the Greek fascist party carried seven percent of the popular vote, up from less than one percent in the previous election cycle. In a nation of ten million, Mikhalis claims that one million are now out of work, and that his own job is sufficiently insecure that he has begun plans to decamp to either England or the U.S. In this, Mikhalis is lucky; he holds dual citizenship. Most Greeks will never have such a luxury.
The last time I saw Mikhalis, in a shabby Athens alleyway, he had just introduced me to a former political prisoner who’d spent some ten years in a Greek jail for reasons that I’m sure were never fully recorded. I shook hands with this leather-clad stranger––he’d just rumbled into the alley on a Harley––and he looked me over as if I could not possibly be worth knowing. Nevertheless, he shook my hand because of my connection to Mikhalis, with whom I attended graduate school. He said, in Greek (translated by Mikhalis), that he hoped I would like Athens, and his country.
I did, as did my family. We spent a month there in 2007. Our youngest, Evan, was two-and-a-half, and his stroller had gone missing on our flight from Paris. Our older boy, Corey, was six, and carried our entire diaper supply in a cunning little red backpack. We had very little money and one goal: to see the country as best we could until we ran out of funds. This, then, is Greece as we encountered it, in slightly better times.
Across the street from our two-star Athenian hotel, the young Communists of Athens (the KKE) are having yet another series of organizational parties. Since they seem to occupy an entire building, Athens must have many, many communists, all of them under the age of thirty (most under twenty-five). Not one of them has an iota of aesthetic sense; flags and posters have been taped up at all angles, with weird gaps left between. On balance, they’re an attractive lot physically; the men look earnest and gesticulate a lot, while the women chain smoke (so do the men) and finger the straps of their camisoles. They bend over tables a lot and wave pencils. One girl, improbably, is blonde; another, eschewing the fabled Great Leap Forward, blithely sports a Gap t-shirt.
Below, pedestrians are busy ceding their sidewalk space to motorcycles. Not merely parked, these cycles, but gunning their engines and sidling through crowds. Ten years ago, before Greece joined the EU, Athens had perhaps three hundred thousand cars. Now, the streets swarm with some two and a half million autos, and who knows how many motorcycles and scooters. What caused the deluge? Fixed low interest rates (a first for Greece, so people can suddenly borrow as they never did before) and the EU’s insistence that Greece abandon the many tariffs formerly placed on automobile purchases. Yes, Athenians are downright proud of their growing metro system (the accent gets placed on the “o,” not the Francophile’s “e”), and the pride shows in people’s obeyance of certain rules: it is forbidden to eat or drink on the trains or in the stations, and nobody does. Indeed, the metro, trains and tunnels and all, is the cleanest place in all of Athens.
Athens has several nice parks and gardens, but the locals don’t seem to care. I make this judgment based on the fact that they don’t use or frequent these quiet green places. We have entire playgrounds––indeed, whole forests of skinny-trunked pines absolutely laden with cones––to ourselves. Evan and Corey are delighted (though not so much as I) to discover that if you look sharp amongst the ruins and dry grasses, you can scare up roaming tortoises.
As a language, Greek has trouble translating the word “Disposal.” The welcoming sign on our hotel bureau says in bold print that the staff will always be “At Our Disposition.” And the website for our upcoming Nafplio apartment claims that, “A/C and TV are disposed in all the rooms.”
Having finally spotted an unattractive Communist across the way, I am reminded of the beauty captured by the ancient sculptors, both Greek and Roman, who once worked these lands. What’s shocking to me is that for nearly a thousand years after the Hellenistic period, artists forgot the precepts of art, as if a candle had been blown out and not one of the remaining inhabitants knew where to find the matches. Even with this historical arc as an obvious local object lesson, 21st century Greece does not teach art in its public schools. They claim, says Mikhalis, that “the museums are doing a good job already.” Yes, places like the small but thorough Benaki Museum host school groups, but it doesn’t take much to see that Athens today is a mess partly because art and aesthetics have been ignored, and virtually all the art that is celebrated is between 2,500 and 1,500 years old.
Most of that legacy survives in the form of ruins, and Greece––Athens included––has so many ruins that they hardly know what to do with them. Half-hearted earthworks abound. All along the above-ground portions of the metro lines lie ancient columns and blocks, pilasters and crowns, all sufficiently common as to be essentially unremarkable, not in any way worth making a fuss over. A photo I walked away from but now wish I’d taken was of two larger than life-size statues standing at attention on either side of a service entrance into a basement beneath the massive (rebuilt) Roman Agora. Had these two monolithic guardians hailed from some more newly settled nation, they would have been prized, fawned over, and displayed indoors, with plaques and signage. Here, they’re surplus junk, barely worth setting on their shattered legs.
Having decamped for the Peleponnesian peninsula, we have managed to lose our Greek phrasebook. This is a disaster. We are now Strangers in a Strange Land, our command of the language relying now upon faulty memory and a memorized string of questions to which I cannot understand the answers.
Greek topography resembles almost exactly that of Southern California, combined with the half-built and sometimes un-built flat-roofed housing of Central and South America. Rebar, skeletal and twiggy, sticks up everywhere. Empty buildings pile alongside the well-off and inhabited, and everywhere you look are scrubby, low-growing trees resembling Californian chaparral. Olive and citrus groves dominate, each done in neat, spacious rows. Greek women favor big, seventies-style sunglasses and long hair. Nobody wears shorts, but skin-tight jeans seem to be socially acceptable, and young women like tops that don’t cover their belly buttons. The men are harder to classify quickly, but I know I stand out in every crowd: my nose slopes the wrong direction.
Our first touristy destination became Ancient Korinthos, the ruined Roman town just a few miles outside today’s eponymous city. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, a three-way intersection dominated by rusted advertisements. As we puzzled out which way to go, a very wrinkled old Greek woman arrived, dressed in traditional black with a cross ‘round her neck. She puttered right over, made motorcycle noises, and pretended to shift handle-grip gears, smiling all the while and chatting away in lively Eleneeka (Greek).
It turns out she was warning us to keep the kids away from the interior corner of the roadway, where motorcycles come speeding along with the apparently express purpose of giving this very nice woman something to warn lost tourists about. In attempting to communicate, we smiled a lot, made respondent motorcycle noises, and said “thank you” in at least three languages, partly because the only thing we could translate from our new guide was “merci beaucoup,” a phrase she knew how to say but not, so far as we could discern, how to apply. She did finally point us in the right direction, and just when we were thinking we’d really gone wrong and landed in some kind of dirt-street mining town, we saw imposing Corinthian columns rising in the distance, and knew we’d found our way.
Ancient Korinthos features a demolished theater, practically embalmed by the local hillside, and the site itself is only just beginning to “go touristy.” The dirt road we encountered is dirt because it’s just about to be repaved, and the walkways through the silent, stony city have sidewalks, probably for the first time ever. For lunch, we found a miniscule “super market,” where I finally learned which funny white containers hold yogurt. I opted not to purchase any of the twenty-plus turkey-sized frozen squid, their tentacles tied back over their bodies and the entire package done up in shrink-wrap. The squid outnumbered the frozen chickens ten to one.
Two days later, Evan had a messy diaper while wandering the ruins of the Epidauro’s Temple of Asklepios, a structure dedicated to a centaur-taught healer and very much in decay. Given a lack of appropriate facilities, I accomplished the diaper change with Evan resting atop a two thousand-year-old column base, which might well have been designed for this express purpose.
Later, after trekking up and down the Epidaurean theater and making all sorts of noises to test its vaunted acoustics, we treated ourselves to an actual restaurant meal. An item we did not sample from the translated menu was “Roast of Lamp.” Perhaps tomorrow, if we stay?
We also acquired a new but consistently sub-par phrase book. This one suggests we ask for a “kilo of barm,” which seems very far-fetched; why would we embark on making sourdough bread (or hard liquor) while roaming a foreign land? The section on the post office avoids giving the word for “postcard,” but it does tell you how to say, “The house is near the woods and sometimes we’ve seen foxes and deer.” In the section on “relationships,” it goes from describing how to ask another person’s name to the single word, perhaps a command, “Stroke.”
Nafplio, says Mikhalis, is one of the three loveliest towns in mainland Greece. He does not exaggerate. High above it looms its ridge-riding seventeenth-century castle, the Palamidi, floodlit at night, and below lies the tranquil harbor from which Jason and the Argonauts supposedly sailed to search out the Golden Fleece. Palms and Byzantine walls, fishing boats and oil tankers, boutiques and Italianate street cafes: irresistible in combination.
The Palamidi, in part because it rises nearly a thousand meters above the town, demands to be visited, or climbed, even, by means of its seventeenth-century staircase. Corey managed it under his own six-year-old steam, but Evan required carrying much of the way. The time to ascend is morning, while the staircase lies in blessed shade. Above, in gleaming sunshine, the ruin sprawls out in all directions, though “ruin” is perhaps not quite the word. “Abandoned” might do better. The Palamidi was a working fortress, and remains surprisingly intact. The prison wing is especially well preserved, with rooms and doorways and windows, some of which retain the original gratings and bars. At least two dungeon passages descended down stairs into unknown depths. Even with Corey’s sharp eyes and my camera flash, we have no idea how far onward those tunnels led.
The views, too, both of the town and the Gulf of Argos, are to die for, perhaps literally; the cliffs, like the staircase that winds up them, are precipitous.
On the way down, Corey raced ahead to talk to two men, fellow explorers and complete strangers, who turned out to be teachers. They treated him to a lesson about the symbolism of the Greek flag: the cross in the corner stands for its Orthodox Christian tradition; the blue is for the sky, while the white is for the crests of the waves in the sea; the nine stripes come from the revolutionary slogan, “Freedom or Death,” used during the War of Independence against the Turks in 1821. Although Corey started his own explanation of the U.S. flag, these teachers assured him they knew all about the stars and stripes and then, with a flurry of apologies, dashed down the hill to catch up with their students.
To correctly pronounce Zakynthos, southernmost of the Ionian island chain, put the stress at the beginning: ZA-kihn-thos. Other stressors on the island are hidden, slow to discover; this is surely the only one required at the outset.
Once away from the cramped harbor town, one hears everywhere the constant chiming of goat-bells as the local goats wander along. Each goat has a bell with a different tone. The resultant gentle clamor, a pastoral carillon, sounds very much like ambulatory wind chimes. Evan noticed them right away: “Mama, come listen. I hear bells.”
While on Zakynthos, we based ourselves outside the village of Vasilikos, on a working olive farm with four purpose-built guest cabins, the Lithies Houses. Ours bears the name Villa Zoie. They are small, functional, and each has a delightful verandah.
The owners are Dionysius and Fotini. He speaks very little English, but she speaks enough to enjoy both her mistakes and ours. On our first day, Fotini watched us unpack our groceries and raised an eyebrow at our small bottle of store-bought olive oil. She said something to the effect of, “Here, you do not need olive oil. I bring.” The next day, she asked, “How much do you need? Half litre?” I tried to make her understand that for this adventure, we are carrying everything on our backs. Later, when she returned with a small glass bottle full of (delicious) oil, she stepped outside and remarked, to herself as much as to us, “I love this verandah. What we have here is peace.”
Peaceful it most certainly is. Early in the season like this, we have no neighbors; the Lithies Houses taverna is shuttered until the first week of June. After dark, the local variant of the whippoorwill swoops closer and yips in my ear. The goats settle, the chimes cease. The stars peek out. I wonder, where are the rebels here? The radicals? The KKE of Athens? Nowhere to be found, I’m sure. What’s to rebel against here, except solitude and rural charm? Revolutions don’t find their birthing in places like Vasilikos. For that, you need the noise and clatter of Athens and its urban ilk. The novelists and philosophers retreat to the country, looking for a spot to clear their heads. In the chaos of Athens or Patra, there’s too much input, it’s a sensory flood. Supposedly, those tightly packed conditions are where commerce thrives, but I wonder at what cost (no pun intended) to efficiency. Crowds are crowds are crowds; the antidote is here, with the bees packing in their honey and the lemons swelling on the trees.
The nearest beach is St. Nikolas, the sort of place where one finds jet skis and long rows of beachside sunshades. We headed instead, on foot, to Gerakas (pronounce YEHR-ah-kas), the island’s most famous sea turtle reserve. Not a turtle in sight, but we did find a fair number of dead or dying jellyfish. They resemble cupcake wrappers when floating, but once trapped in our beach shovels and buckets, they take on the visceral aspects of science fiction horror come to life. Their bodies, if that’s even the correct term, are astoundingly clear, but are no more attractive for that.
Gerakas, owing to its being favored by loggerhead sea turtles, is night-and-day different from Saint Nikolas. There’s no development whatsoever, and both after dark and before sunrise it’s completely off-limits. I note that no one is attempting to protect the languishing jellyfish population, but in a world of cuddly giant pandas and slimy bloodsucking leeches, one must, I suppose, make choices.
Gerakas’s most infamous resident is Yannis Vardakastanis, whom I unearthed around sunset at the taverna that he, years ago, hauled back up off the Gerakas beach as part of his nascent efforts to give the place back to the turtles. Yannis claims to have been sent to the hospital four times and shot more than once for his pains. Who would do this? His family. They didn’t want to move their money-making tavernas and beach chairs. Yannis, with no backing from the law, forced them. Needless to say, family relations aren’t good. As Yannis put it, “I’ve lost everything. But I still have my little corner of the world.”
Most people visiting this end of Zakynthos see some version of Paradise. Yannis sees Hell. Born in 1964, he remembers the place before roads, before farms and olive trees, before any concept of packaged touring. He claims the hatchling sea turtles used to blacken the beaches. Not any more.
On the way home later that night, I passed a gaggle of teens on motor-scooters, all sitting under the glare of a lonely streetlight and clearly asking each other, “Is this streetlight really all there is to life?” Yannis could answer this, but the real reason I was struck by the scene is that in the instant that I passed this group, a young man on a motorcycle rode by and nearly clipped one of the kids with the enormous overhanging hay bale he’d strapped to the back seat of his bike. The road hazards of Athens are markedly different.
On the main road, the occasional highway sign (hand-painted) boasts that Company So-And-So can show you “The Real Zakynthos.” So far as I can see, the “real” Zakynthos is divided into the beaches with their attendant tourist-oriented shops, and the interior farms and forests. The farms are well-kept, earnest endeavors, dominated by olives. The forests are literally awash in litter and hunter’s blinds. What’s to hunt on this mid-size island? Turtle doves. Shotgun shells carpet the forest floor almost as thickly as the pine needles. That the local population can cause such havoc in their limited arbors is beyond me. I expect tourists to litter: after all, they have no sense of ownership. But the actual residents? It’s appalling. And, sadly, all too “real.”
Even if you’re not a dove, to live in paradise is fraught with peril. Consider: Zakynthos was first settled, in recorded history at least, by the Kingdom of Ulysses (allied with Troy). Since then, it’s been invaded and conquered by the Athenians, the Spartans, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Saracens, the Normans, and the Orsinis of Italy. That takes us to 1204 and the fall of Constantinople, at which point the Venetians took control, sort of, lost it to the Turks, got it back again, and then lost it to Napoleon and the French. One year later, in came the Russians. Two years later, back came the French. (Lord Byron visited somewhere along in here, but probably left little behind besides unwanted pregnancies and a slew of equally unwanted venereal diseases.) Back to more traditional invasions: Welcome the British! And then, the Greeks, unified as of 1864, took it until WW I, at which point the Italians returned, then the Germans, and finally Greece again. As if that weren’t enough, the Old Gods hit the island with an earthquake in 1953, leveling 90% of the buildings.
The animal kingdom soldiers on largely unaware. Greece’s most successful immigrant, Zakynthos included, is the (so-called) English sparrow. They’re everywhere, the de facto national bird. Local lizards are small, swift, and tend to have greenish backs the color of sunlit moss. Local dogs bark a lot. Local roosters never shut up. The five local goats continue to ring their every move, but only four have bells. The littlest kid, frosty black, goes about sans cloche. I observed their owner herding them away last evening for some obscure goatish purpose; he greeted his flock by bleating at them.
We crossed paths with another goatherd this morning. The big nanny goat in the lead had teats that all but dragged on the pavement. Eventually (again by bleating), the goatherd rounded up all five of his unwilling goats, stopped traffic in both directions, and corralled his flock under a tree. When I came back the same way twenty minutes later, the goats had become hopelessly entangled, a sort of living goat-knot connected hoof to horn and tether to teat. Where the goatherd went, I have no idea, and I can only surmise that the purpose of leaving the five bleating, struggling goats in such a mess was to inflict some manner of Goat Punishment. Perhaps they’d been naughty in some way; I’ll never know.
As for Zakynthos Town itself, the sidewalks are, if possible, worse than Athens. Thankfully, it’s much prettier, something like Nafplio and definitely Italian. Even the people on Zakynthos look Italian (which, given the history, makes sense). The town’s great drawback is the unacceptably small space devoted to the bus station. The crowd there might well have become a mob had our bus been any more full, or the signage any more disorienting. It seems that every possible Zakynthian bus line leaves simultaneously at 2:30 pm, with much honking, shouting, queuing, and waving of arms.
On the way back to Villa Zoie, I ducked into the area’s one real “super” market in order to pick up our supper of psari, the generic word for fish, in this case red snapper. The woman at the market proudly opened the package (she’d ordered the fish the night before at my request, and gotten it freshly caught that morning), then said, “I asked them to clean it for you. I hope that’s all right.”
Inside the bag, four gutted but otherwise intact psari stared at me with a faintly accusing mien. “Is this what you expected?” they seemed to be asking, “and is your kitchen up to the challenge?”
Before leaving, I asked the proprietor if she knew Yannis (from the sea turtle beach, Gerakas). I suspected there might be a connection, since he and the crowded little market shop shared a surname, Vardakastanis. “Cousins,” she replied, and explained they only see each other once or twice a year.
In a bald effort to draw her out, I said, “He has very strong ideas.”
“Ne,” she agreed, “that’s why we only see each other once a year.”
Later, it occurred to me that Yannis hadn’t been around during our farewell Gerakas visit. Unremarkable, except with a man like Yannis. Given his situation, it was entirely possible that he’d been gunned down since last we spoke.
Psari and disputed sea turtle beaches notwithstanding, every Paradise must eventually be abandoned. The mid-sized blue-and-white ferry back to Killini and the mainland boasted two escalators, one up, one down, leading from the gangway to the passenger decks. As if to offer final proof that Greek and English will never coexist with perfect equanimity, an adjacent sign read, “It is your responsibility to use the escalator. If you desire assistance, crew your personnel.”
Mark Rigney is the author of numerous plays, including Acts of God (Playscripts, Inc.) and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press). His short fiction appears in The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Black Gate, Witness, and Black Static, among many others. Two novellas are pending from Samhaim Publishing, and two collections of his stories are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His website is www.markrigney.net.