I remember very well how it started. I was fresh-arrived in Athens and I was standing beneath a corrugated iron awning on Athenai Street. I had just come out of a bank and had a great wad of thousand-Drachma notes in my pocket and felt utterly rich. I had only exchanged a few hundred Dollars, but I had arrived in the Realms of Gold and the world was mine. It was like that in Greece in those days.
For a few moments I thought I might go to Istanbul. I would go by boat, of course, sailing up the Bosporus toward minarets glimmering in the golden sunset. Then I reminded myself that this year I was going to Lesbos, and that evening I boarded the M/V Sappho, appropriate for a trip to the home of the poet.
Wind and rain put the deck out of the question and I resigned myself to the great ashtray of the third-class lounge where I found the rear of the room taken up by a peasant family who had spread out carpets and pads and lace-covered pillows and a woman with a kerchief on her head was seated on the floor making coffee in a small biriki over a gas burner. There were loaves of bread and jars of food and the men reclined on pillows and smoked and I heard Turkish being spoken. It was a picture of oriental domesticity that neither the crew nor the other passengers seem to think at all remarkable in the lounge of a passenger ferry. I might not be going to Istanbul this time, but I was going east.
We arrived eventually at Mytilini, the port of Lesbos. I knew Mytilini from a famous incident in Thucydides when the Athenians consider slaughtering all its males and enslaving its women and children in punishment for rebellion and Cleon begins his argument for bloodyminded policy with the comment that it had long been his belief that a democracy could not govern an empire. The American Constitution was written by men who had read Thucycides. From the window of my hotel I can see a grass fire burning on a hillside in Turkey. Lesbos sits in a broad bay, surrounded on three sides by Asia.
I spent a few days in Mytilini and had a distinct feeling of being unwelcome. This was not helped by the many large, red KKE -- the initials of the of the Communist Party of Greece -- and hammer-and-sickles daubed with proletarian vigor on backstreet walls.
After a few days I set off across the island to Eressós, the home of the poetess Sappho, on the “seldom-visited” western side.
Busses left from a central station, plainly chosen for the convenience of its customers rather than because it actually had room for busses. The vehicles were packed in so tightly between the old buildings that I could not imagine how they extracted themselves, but I knew that the Greeks did this every day and I had seen huge busses turn around in the narrow streets of mountain towns where I barely had room to turn around on foot, and happily enough it was not my problem. I had a seat by a window. The old man sitting next to me smelled of fresh oranges and I hoped I smelled as fresh. I would notice that not only did he cross himself whenever we passed a church, but whenever a church came into view in the distance.
Despite the apparent casualness of the operation, we left exactly on time, maneuvering out of the tightly packed bus park, down a narrow street and then off bumping through terraced groves of twisted olive trees gnarled from years of pruning where large black nets were rolled up on the ground, to be unrolled and spread out when harvest time came and the men and women and children would beat the branches with long poles to knock loose the olives that would fall down and be collected in the nets in a process that was probably old in Homer’s time. I describe this so authoritatively not because I have ever actually seen it done, but because I have seen it in a painting of the Mytilinean folk artist Theofilos Hadjimichail. Actually, his painting shows the fiercely mustachioed farmer striking the branches and the numerous bekerchiefed women of the household picking up the olives from the ground, but I chose not to over-interpret specific images.
But what an odd name is Hadjimichail. Michael who went on a hajj. It probably means that many years ago, in a community where Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side, Michael, a Christian, went on a pilgrimage, probably not to Mecca but to Jerusalem, and when he returned he added hadji- to his name, as his Muslim neighbors did when they had gone on a pilgrimage to their holy city.
Longhaired goats wander through the olive groves and now and then the driver blows his air horn, for no apparent reason. The road climbs through reforested hills, past Greek military installations with “Do Not Photograph” signs and gun positions pointing toward the Turkish coast. When you can see your ancient foe from your breakfast window it has some effect.
We passed through small villages with stone houses and others with red brick and I notice even a few houses that look to be of mud brick. There were roadside shrines and an old shepherd in traditional dress, though I felt he was dressed for the benefit of the sheep rather than the tourists, as I notice that I was the only foreigner on the bus. We stopped at desolate-looking villages to pick up school children. My orange-scented seatmate departed, replaced by an equally pious elderly lady clad in statutory black.
I arrived at Eressós. A local tourist publication says there are five hotels. My guidebook says there is one. The men sitting at the two-table coffee shop haven’t heard of any, but one comes to my aid and phones a cab to take me the four kilometers to Eressós Skalla, where there is a hotel. While we wait for the cab my benefactor tells me that many years ago, when he was a young man, he had worked as a spongediver at Tarpon Springs, Florida. As it happened, when I was a little boy my grandparents had taken me to Tarpon Springs where I had been told that many of the divers in their once-flourishing sponge industry had been from Greece, which I had thought to be a wonderfully romantic fact and it never occurred to me that I might one day be sitting at coffee with one of them.
When the driver appeared it turned out not only to be a woman, but the daughter of my benefactor (now what are the odds of that?) who took me to the Sappho of Eressia Hotel where I discovered I was the only guest, not only in the hotel but in the whole town, as whatever else there was was still closed for the season.
I was given a large room facing the sea (which at this time of the year -- it was late March -- was not as desirable as one might think). It cost a little over seven Dollars a night. I had to share a bath, but, being the only guest, I shared it with myself.
I went for a walk along the beach and found what looked to be an unexcavated acropolis and climbed an old tower where I looked down on a field of wildflowers spread out like an oriental carpet. I came back to the hotel to find a huge meal of lamb and salad, potatoes and beer, and afterward sat with the owner and his family to watch Turkish television. It was a program about a robot who has a TV cooking show and I thought it was pretty funny, even if I had no idea what any of them were saying. Or maybe I misunderstood it completely. I went to bed happy.
The next morning I awoke tired. I hadn’t slept well. I was the only stranger in the only hotel in a remote village on a seldom-visited stretch of island under cold, gray skies, with images in my mind of a Turkish robot remorselessly cutting vegetables, coupled with a dream of a huge insect getting into bed with me. I awoke to a leaden sea beneath a leaden sky.
On the other hand, I knew that I get in these moods from time to time when I travel and I would get over it. And anyway there was hot water in the shower.
Then downstairs, Nescafé and bread and a fresh orange, which I cut with my Swiss Army Knife and ate it dribbling down my chin.
A hot shower, clean clothes, Nescafé and a fresh orange. All the low-budget demons of the night were forgotten and it was a perfect morning.
After breakfast I went off down the beach, poked around the ruins I had noticed the day before and was investigated by goats. I met Michailis who told me that the tower I had seen yesterday was Venetian and that they liked Americans, but not the American government, because it gave millions to the Turks. American aid to Turkey was the one recurring complaint that Greeks had about America, or at least about the government. I never picked up on the point as it happened to be a subject I had absolutely no interest in, though I did not see how aid to Turkey could nowadays be any disadvantage to the Greeks, even if they may imagine themselves to be at daggers-drawn with their neighbors across the Aegean. And anyway, my grasp of the language was in no way adequate to argue politics. And they always seemed to make clear that it wasn’t a criticism of me personally, so I always agreed with them.
Michailis also told me that in the summer the town was full of tourists, particularly lesbians who came here on pilgrimage to the birthplace of Sappho. But Michailis said I shouldn’t worry, because there were always plenty of the other kind of girls.
As it happens, I have had a fair amount of exposure to Sappho’s poetry. She was a lyric poet of the 6th Century BC. While the epic poets sang of gods and wars and mighty heroes, the lyric poets were the first to speak in a seemingly personal voice about feelings and emotions. I had been exposed to Sappho through a friend who performed her poetry, both in Greek and English, to the accompaniment of a harp or lyre, as lyric poetry was intended to be, and I honestly do not think that the case for Sappho’s “lesbianism” is that strong, but I would not argue the point as I do not think it affects the worth of her poetry.
While the hotel had hot water, its rooms were unheated and the first days of spring were bracingly cold. A four-blanket cold. The second morning my host had graciously offered me lamb or fish for supper that night, but I had figured out that he would have to buy the lamb, while for the fish he goes out in a small boat and catches it himself, so I ask for fish.
After breakfast I sat on the porch of the hotel, talking with the owner’s wife. She said there was a bank in town, but it was only open Wednesday and Friday. But my grasp of Greek continued to be imperfect and when I went looking for the bank, it turned out that it was only a fellow from Mytilini with a bundle of banknotes and a receipt book who did business at a coffee shop table, though this proved entirely adequate to my needs.
She also told me there was no pharmacy, but when I told her what my problem was she offered me what she said was a laxative, but looked in its twisted paper wrapping like candy. It also tasted like candy, but I appreciated her gesture and ate a piece, figuring it was some homeopathic nostrum that would do me no harm and I would eventually be someplace where I could find real medicine. Later that evening I realized I had unfairly made light of her remedy and that the question was not whether it was adequate to its task, but whether my viscera were sufficient to handle it.
As we sat on the porch I saw her husband go out in a little boat in the cold, spitting rain to fish for our evening meal. Later, I went out for a walk in the village and saw cats and chickens in the street and noticed large, regular cut stones that probably came from a classical building repurposed to the foundation of the church and heard what I took to be goat bells jingling like a calypso band and heard someone down a street playing a flute. Later that evening two other guests arrived at the hotel, young German women sensibly dressed in Bundeswehr fatigues. I was no longer alone. The next morning the girls, who said they had come to Lesbos to visit sites connected with Sappho, ask if I would like to hitchhike across the island with them.
Of course, I said ‘yes’.
At the time I thought of them as the Rhinemaidens, but I now remember them as Xena and Gabby. The next morning we set off across the island for the mountain town of Agiassos.
Hitchhiking with two nice-looking young women proved unsurprisingly easy. In no time at all a truck stopped for us and Xena rode in front while Gabby and I sat on produce in the back with our faces in the wind like a pair of happy German shepherds.
Agiassos was sprawled across several hills and was one of those Greek places where everything seems to be uphill. How something can be uphill both coming and going is a mystery to me, but it happens regularly enough in Greece that I have come to accept it.
We asked around and locals directed us an elderly widow in a little stone house built into the side of a hill up a steep and slippery-looking stone street. Two rooms upstairs and two down, with a bathroom hacked into the side of a boulder. There was neither hot water nor heat, other than a charcoal brazier in the bedroom. It was decorated with plaid curtains and plates and dolls and china figurines on the mantel and a bundle of church candles on the stairs. Things that an old person would have. There was a moist chill about the place, but the charcoal fire warmed and seemed to dry out the room and after a day sitting in the wind on the back of a produce truck there was not much problem in getting to sleep. The next morning one of the girls complained that our landlady had turned off the electricity sometime that evening, but I had never noticed.
The next morning we were out early and shared our breakfast with a pregnant cat. Concerned that the puss had not gotten enough to eat, considering her delicate condition, Gabby bought a fish for her, but a smaller, quicker cat (perhaps an ungrateful child by an earlier marriage) snatched it from the expectant feline.
After obtaining the usual conflicting advice, we set off over a rough, steep road toward (we hoped) Plomari, some 24 km distant. Being too far to walk in a day, we intended to hitchhike, but there was no traffic on the road and we walked for hours, our ears sharp as infantry listening for tanks as we hoped a ride might come. At length a truck came along and carried us over what appeared likely to have been the worst of the road, to the mountain village of Megalokhori where we bought a nice lunch and rested a bit before taking off on what turned out to be an even harder walk.
I enjoy walking, but at my own speed, while the German girls were serious walkers and I couldn’t keep up with them, so they left me to catch up later and strode purposefully off toward Plomari. I lounged under an olive tree and filled my water bottle from an antique spring and eventually caught a ride and reached town about ten minutes after they did.
Since their arrival they had met Nikos, who owns a fishing boat, and had arranged for us to go out with his crew while they fished, and so we spent four hours out on the cold, rough sea tossing about in a small fishing boat, during which time I learned as much about the Greek fishing industry as I cared to.
As the boat rolled in the swells I noticed that Xena was leaning calmly against a bulkhead. When I spoke to her she seemed curiously unresponsive. Later, she told me that she had probably been asleep; that she was able to sleep standing up and found it a particularly useful talent.
We got back to port about 9:30 and found a nice place for supper. While I was fading from the day’s activity, the girls were going strong and a party of Greek men sent ouzo over to our table. Having no doubt that the girls could take care of themselves, I went off to bed about midnight.
The next morning my legs are aching and the girls wanted to do a 15 km circuit through the hills, part of it off-road. So we agreed to meet in the evening and I headed off to a beach a few kilometers to the east for a pleasant day of writing in my journal and staring off into space and we met that evening for supper.
The next day the girls wanted to go to Mytilini to catch a boat to Chios, but I had no interest in the place, so this seemed a good point for us to go our separate ways.
One of the several pleasures of traveling by myself is the ability to pick up companions as I go along to travel together for a while and then go our own ways. It seemed particularly easy to do in Greece, where I often met young women traveling alone, but as a man alone I was something of a rarity. Young men seemed to prefer to travel in pairs, while a fellow alone may seem safer and more approachable, both to the Greeks and to foreign women traveling by themselves who might simply want for a while the appearance of a traveling companion.
We left Mytilini on the same boat at four in the afternoon and sat in the pale sun on the top deck, sharing a loaf of bread Gabby had picked up that morning at the bakery. When the boat reached Chios we said goodbye and they went sprightly down the gangway and I stood at the railing and watched them stride off into the town as the evening lights came on, ready for some new adventure, and I missed them already.