A few years ago I spent quite a bit of time in Europe. Not alone: with many other people. And I saw the insides of theatres, for the most part. But there was also a fair bit of Europe in there as well. It was a good time for writing: I filled up a moleskin and a half with journal entries on that trip, and I briefly entertained the thought of cleaning some up and compiling them. I never made it to the end of that project, of course. Because who cares about crappy journal entries?
Me, mostly. Maybe you’d also care to see some; I don’t know. I came across a few I’d written in Greece sitting on a hard drive that I probably typed up a couple of years ago. Maybe gave them a new coat of paint, at one point. Probably later in 2010. Still, there isn’t much embellishing going on in there. In fact, they’re almost devastatingly general. A little sentimental.
When I read them again I very much remembered how it felt to see Greece for the first time but not having the luxury to linger, what with being ceaselessly borne forward by the momentum of the road.
There lies an uncommon pleasure in watching the Ionian Sea speed by in a rush of water, plowed aside by our boat. Our wake trawls hugely, as if someone were dragging an island through the waves.
Right now I’m watching a boy practically heave himself over the side of the ship to get a better glimpse of the sea. He twists himself impressively in an effort to be both on the boat and in the water, his hair whipping in the wind of our passage.
His friends call him back, and I’m half tempted to take his place. There is nothing wrong with being lost at sea. The ocean is a study in contrast, and watching the dance of gleaming sunlight glazing each glassy, roiling crest brings a tremulous feeling to my chest. I feel as if I were trying to catch a soap bubble on my finger tips, and not have it burst, dispersing that magical ratio of tension and liquid into meaningless space. But the sea as a whole is a ponderous thing: shifting between turquoise, lapis, and and a murky green. Look hard and you’ll understand that beneath the surface there are well and truly fathoms.
Near the end of the deck, a French hornist plays “Amazing Grace.” The song is wrong for the scene. It’s not the melody that comes leaping out of the water, as joyfully as a dolphin, nor is it the groan of the engine, which sounds like a hundred slaves rowing below deck.
But still, the roundness of the horn lays itself thick, enveloping us as we watch the sun dip its warm rays into the sea. The scene is tastelessly majestic: a study in the contrast of dark clouds against violently saturated colors. At that moment, the sun could very well have been a fiery disc drawn along by the chariot of a young god, ready to make its journey under the ocean of the world. There’s inspiration in the history of it; in the unchanging nature of the feat. Nothing seems irrevocable about this moment. If someone made a mad leap overboard I would expect him to pop up out of the water again, laughing for the sport of his fall.
Every hope, every blessed optimism, is spread out before me like wings of red from behind a dark sunset. An illusion of an evening goes by in bold yellow and tangerine, bursting out from the blackness hanging over the horizon. The colors fade, and slowly we make our way below deck, hearts creaking from the magic.
On that ship, and in the small hours, I dream of the sun.
Sunrise. The philhellenic part of me may have been waiting its whole existence to watch dawn’s rosy fingers break over the Ionian Sea, but it shall have to remain disappointed for now. The mainland is in the east, and once the sun peeks over its crags everything is suddenly illuminated: from the ancient rocks and pines, to the modern, boxy buildings lined up along the shore. It’s a new day, acknowledged by a dotting of fishing boats on the water.
There’s no time to lose in morning. And so it’s off to climb the crags of Ionia, roadside shrines marking the passage and the passing of people on mountain roads. Churches pop suddenly out of the landscape: round little things in the orthodox tradition, accompanied by towns and villages to worship them.
The tarmac becomes more cracked, on the roads down the mountains, and the shrines become fewer. The morning’s freshness gives way to dust and crumbling brick yards; troupes of feral dogs and signs in both English and Cyrillic that look like they haven’t been replaced since the eighties.
What most captures my attention is an enormous wall of graffiti, which possibly predates my birth. I get the message, I think, even though the only things I understand are the Communist symbols mixed in with the words and painted onto cliff-face by someone with a large, square hand. It’s a dark look into Greece’s tumultuous modern history.
We stop at a gas station with typically outdated English signs. Four Euros will give you a carryout container of potatoes but sorry, he can’t give any change. The cashier is not used to large bills. The women’s bathroom is a wreck and the small café seems to be inhabited completely by chain-smoking men who regard us silently, a dish of cubed cheese set down before them.
Soon, a youth comes by. He doesn’t look exactly native. He tries to sell us bootleg videos. Porn. No one is interested.
I think of the riots we watched on television about a week before we came. These are hard times. I wonder what these men speak of, in their low voices, as they chain-smoke and watch us. Their stares are unreadable, but not angry. Or wary. I don’t know what to make of it.
The café has a selection of packaged ice cream with English names and slogans. Ridiculous ones. Like “Chocolate Orgy.” There’s a tiresome debate on the merits of fudge over cookie dough, then it’s time to hit the road again.
It’s the morning and we think ostensibly of going home.
Everyone longs for home, says Odysseus,
Through the epochs and the ages.
Everyone longs for home—
But I can’t seem to find one in the motion of the world
Or the motion of the waves.
I can only bear in mind the bodies on this windblown deck,
And the gaze of those I’d rather forget.
Every beauty I’ve known is false.
We can only hope in the face of the inevitable.
Odysseus thinks I accuse him. I can’t tell him I do not.
Greek white, Greek white. Every one longs for home.