Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day 99 – I step into the world of Zorba The Greek

It was 4:30 am, and we were still a good hour from Pyreus, when I met Giorgo. Me, I had slept like a baby on deck, but he had been walking around all night pulling his suitcase behind him. Giorgo is a Greek American who is trying to get settled near Tripoli, in the ancestral homestead. We fell into easy conversation and, since I was heading for Tripoli and I had a car, I offered him a ride. He was very grateful, and in return offered to guide me through Korinth (the same Corinth of the letters of Paul to the Corinthians) and Mycanae (the same Mycenae from which Agamemnon led the army that lay siege to Troy, and for whose king Hercules performed his twelve heroic labors).

We had a great time, with me being the visiting scholar and Giorgo being a new Zorba, enchanted with showing me the beauties of the Peleponese (the big peninsula that looks like a hand pointing down, south of the Gulf of Corinth). We started by stopping at the Corinth Canal, which joins the Aegean Sea with the Gulf of Corinth (itself a gulf of the Ionian Sea).

From there we went to Korinth, which is absolutely amazing. Korinth was continuously occupied from about 800 BC to historic times, so it is an incredible collage of Greek, Roman, and Bizantine architecture. A spring assured the prosperity of the ancient city, with easy access to the ports in both the Gulf of Corinth and the Aegean.

Our next stop was Mycanae, which was overrun by tourists. It was a mountain fortress and a military power, and in the Age of Bronze was probably the dominant culture through southern Greece. The Myceneans reportedly had the Cyclops build their city, which one can almost believe looking at the enormous rocks used for the ramparts (like in Machu Picchu, the giant blocks are carefully carved to fit tightly together, without the use of mortar).
By this time Giorgo was falling asleep, so we headed toward his home, in the small village of Luká, near Tripoli. By this time I had been invited to make his home my base of operations, and in typical Greek fashion Giorgo was a most gracious host. He fixed a delicious late lunch of Greek salad and thick slices of feta cheese, coated with egg and flour, which were first fried in olive oil and finally flambé in brandy. Probably a direct hit to the ticker, but absolutely delicious!
Giorgo fell sleep after that, but not before giving me instructions to go have a cup of coffee in the house just down the hill, where Thia Ghoni, a little old Yaya, managed a tiny restaurant. So I dutifully did as told, and for a half hour stepped out of the set of Zorba The Greek to step into the set of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. First of all, I am totally unsure how to introduce myself to Greeks (outside of the generic kalimera, or good day), but because the phonetics of Greek is so similar to that of Spanish my first instinct is to speak in Spanish. The middle-age lady at the restaurant looked at me like I had come from another planet, called something to someone in the back, and the little place exploded with four generations! The task of dealing with the foreigner fell unto one of the aunts, who in heavily accented English said hello and asked me who I was. “I am a friend of Giorgo, who lives in the next house up.” She reflected for a moment “Giorgo? Giorgo?” she said as she searched her memory. “Ah, little Giorgo, from America! I am his aunt, but I haven’t seen him for years.” She reported her findings to the crowd, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by young and old, nieces and aunts, nephews and uncles, who settled comfortably to receive the latest news from the family in America. I of course could give no details, so I fell into my usual routine of telling them about Mexico. They were fascinated, and clearly eager to communicate, so I had to accept a cup of Greek coffee and converse at length with the crowd through the good offices of my gracious interpreter. It was so cool!

The afternoon was still young, so I headed toward Nafplio, a charming port city on the Aegean. The town is dominated by a medieval castle high on the cliff, so I had to dutifully climb the 999 steps to get a breathtaking view of the village. Afterward I wandered through the lively narrow streets, and for the first time had a chance of entering a Greek Orthodox church (most are kept under lock and key except for the time of the services). The Greek Orthodox are great believers in icons and gilded decorations, and in entering this church for the first time I understood why: As soon as you step in you are “inside” a holy place, where all your senses are “kidnapped” into spiritual contemplation.

On the way back I felt like a kid in a candy store, because every few kilometers there is a sign directing you to the ancient temple of such and such, the city of this or that, or (the one I couldn’t resist) the Mycenean dam of Tiryns. This structure is more a diversion dike than a dam, and it is not easy to see after 2,500 years of erosion, but it was awe inspiring contemplating a great engineering work of antiquity.

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