I had rented a car in Athens and was driving, in no particular hurry and with no particular destination, through the hills of the Peloponnese. It was summer and I was driving slowly and stopping often. In most of the little towns the best shade had already been appropriated by men talking and watching the world go by. In most cases I seemed to be the only part of the world going by, so I would stop for a soft drink and carry on some sort of conversation to the extent of our mutual language ability. Since this was usually where-are-you-from and families and news of the day -- and “yes” was almost always a safe answer -- I got along fairly well. At one point I became confused when one fellow started talking about how much he admired Oregon, but I eventually figured out that he was saying “O Reagan” -- “the Reagan” -- meaning our President. Since I had heard that the Peloponnese was a bastion of Royalist sentiment, I was not surprised that they should be well-disposed toward Mr. Reagan.
I had read in the accounts of earlier travelers about the social conservatism of the rural Peloponnese, particularly as it related to concern about family honor and the sexual purity of young women. According to these sources it had until recently been the custom that if you interfered with the purity of a maiden that her brothers were honor-bound to kill both of you, though even then the practice was said to be in decline. I haven’t heard anything about it lately, so I suppose it is another of those traditional customs that have passed by the way. And in any event, I thought I could enjoy Greece quite well without interfering with anyone’s purity.
At one town a young fellow asked if I would like to see something interesting. I didn’t catch what it was, but I think I should always say “yes” when offered hospitality.
He motioned me to follow him down a path between the houses, all the time busily talking, though I wasn’t getting much of what he was saying. As we went along he scooped up some water in an old tin and picked up a broom. He led me to a small field beyond the houses where he swept away some debris and poured out the water and stood back for me to see. And there, coming out of the dry brown earth, were the beautiful colors of a mosaic floor.
It was a fragment, maybe two square yards; its colors sharp and bright.
I exclaimed how beautiful it was, much to the pleasure of my host.
I asked how old it was. Very old, he said. Ancient.
In my honest delight at being shown this little treasure I fear I was not as sensitive to context as I might have been and, pointing to the pattern of the border, I said, “See, there is a cross. It is Christian.” I assumed it was possibly the floor of a ruined church.
My host was not pleased at my inference. His demeanor, formerly garrulous and friendly, stiffened.
“No,” he said sternly. “It is very ancient. It is not Christian.”
“True, true,” I said. “Not Christian.” But too late. The damage was done. I had defamed his antiquity. I had denigrated the dignity of his village’s ruins.
We returned in silence and no matter how effusive I was in my thanks and compliments to his hospitality, I had plainly botched things up and if I stayed around any longer he would probably bring up American aid to Turkey, so I left town under a cloud. As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror: he did not even watch me leave.