Timless and Elemental
"Many have felt that in the dazzling sun of Greece the psychological dark labyrinths of the mind are penetrated and flooded with light, that in this merciless exposure one is led not to self-exploitation but to self-exploration under the glare of necessity, that to 'Know Thyself' is for all Greeks, from ancient into modern times, the only preoccupation worthy of an individual. Beneath the blazing sun of Greece there is a sensuous acceptance of the body without remorse or guilt." - Kimon Friar
And the transformation is complete. I'm barefoot as I move around my apartment, wearing nothing but a swim wrap around my waist and the spaghetti strap camisole I usually sleep in while I hand-wash my towels in the bathroom sink, not wanting to bother Agapi so soon for fresh ones. My T-shirt and bathing suit are hanging in the shower, where I rinsed the sand out of them from the beach. I didn't even turn on the water heater. I have no lights or air conditioning on. I don't need it. Salt-sea air and sunlight pour through the open windows, drying the clothes I have spread out on the wire rack. The only whites I packed are underwear, and I don't exactly have the luxury of separating my laundry when I get the chance to do it, so whenever I take my clothes out of the washer I feel like I'm starring in Alex and the Amazing Technicolor Panties. They come out a different colour every time, and this makes me smile.
Nine hours earlier...
I didn't even consider getting out of bed when I woke up that morning. I'd bought instant coffee, bread, honey and butter the day before, which made going out right away unnecessary. Instead I reached for the Frances Mayes book still spread-eagle on the bed where I'd fallen asleep reading it the night before. When I finally did get up, I made myself breakfast and stayed in my pajamas for another two hours, writing.
When Elena took me to Knossos she'd asked yet again when I was going to Chania. "You have to go," she insisted, and I just managed to stop myself from voicing my next thought out loud: I would but that would get in the way of my laying-around time. God help me when have to go back to work. I was enjoying this a bit too much. Life here was too easy. Some days the most I did was doze for hours on the beach, reading and/or sipping a cocktail, or MAYBE take the bus into town for lunch or an ice cream.
I enjoyed going for walks on the pier in the Old Port of Heraklion. I usually only made it as far as the Koules Fortress, a crenelated Venetian Castle about a quarter of the way out, but today I was determined to walk to the end. I didn't know how far it was - kilometres maybe (two, I later found out in my research). The rounded end was a faded, barely-visible speck from the shore, the ancient stone walkway seeming to stretch out forever into open sea. It could take as much as an hour to walk the full distance, and I'd learned already that it was a suicide mission without sunblock and water. There was only one opportunity for shade along the way, and I stopped there on my way out, sitting on the rocks in the shadow of the Venetian wall surrounding Koules. There was only one other person there, a fisherman reeling in octopus. I watched him for a minute, waiting for the Israel Kamakawiwo'Ole rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to end on my iPod before I pressed on. The resigned, almost sad ukelele strums and gently-longing lyrics brought me back to endless winters spent huddled under a blanket, pouring over textbooks at my computer desk and fighting the temptation to open Lonely Planet on my web browser: "Someday I'll wish upon a star, wake up where the clouds are far behind me, where trouble melts like lemon drops, high above the chimney tops; that's where you'll find me...".
Remembering, I resisted the urge to shudder and smiled instead. Those dark days were behind me. All at once any guilt I'd felt about lazing like a sloth around the beach bar by my apartment - aptly named 'Heaven' - vanished without a trace, shoved aside by vindication. A small white butterfly (or was it a moth?) danced into my field of vision. My smile grew. I wondered if it was a sign. Then I saw a second one. And a third. I glanced around, and a laugh escaped my lips. I don't know where they came from - disturbed from between the rocks or flying in from open sea - but all at once I was swarmed by dozens, the edges of their wings glinting silver in the sun as they oscillated like origami against the backdrop of that blue, blue ocean, a few of them kissing my cheeks or landing in my hair. "Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly and the dreams that you dream of, dreams really do come true."
I stood up and kept walking, moving slowly, patient with myself. Even the wind is hot here. You sweat and feel the sear of a sunburn sitting in the shade. Exposed on the pier without so much as a bench to rest on can feel like treading water in hell's lake of fire. If you don't make frequent stops to drink from your water bottle, you might pass out before you get anywhere close to the end. I knew by now though that this part didn't last forever. You could push past it. At about the halfway point the waves of heat from the mainland yield to a sea breeze almost chilly enough to make you shiver. It happens suddenly, an invisible wall rising as if from nowhere, your reward for getting this far.
The walkway jackknifes, the visual field doubling back on itself to form the illusion that you are reaching the end. Like a mirage that dissolves into nothingness as you approach, the elation fades when you realize you have only arrived at a corner, the pier stretching out before you for another kilometre or so. Looking at it, I stopped seeing a lungomare (walk by the sea) and saw instead a metaphor for this trip. Last night I'd wondered for the first time what it would feel like to get home. I thought about my time with Mario and Filomenia at my first apartment in Rome, a different lifetime. A different person. It felt as though I'd been on the road forever, and yet, when I stopped to get my bearings, I realized I was only a little over halfway there. I still had a ways to go yet. Sometimes it's better when that part stays hidden from you.
I did get there eventually. The trick is settling in, focusing on the journey rather than the destination, as I'd learned to do already. Graffitied on the stone wall surrounding the blunted point, someone had epically spray-painted the words "the end".
Metaphor is something deeply engrained in the Greek mentality. I'd first realized it listening to Antonio speak back in Athens, noting the way he always related a point he was making to another idea. It was a way of thought that, like so many other things, had survived thousands of years, rooted in the teachings of Greek myth.
I decided I wanted to cook for myself that night. When I stopped to get groceries, the cashier recognized me from the day before. I told her exactly what I was doing here, and saw a heart-breaking mix of fascination and envy reflected in her watery eyes. She looked to be about my age or younger, and she was heavily pregnant. Too much time in the throne room at Knossos. With my tomatoes and cheese and oregano, she handed me one of the blue glass "evil eye" talismans that were ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean. "For luck," she said.
I put the talisman in my luggage with my St. Christopher medallion. After putting away the groceries, I didn't even have to think about what I wanted to do next. My face was red and puffy from my walk in the sun, and my shirt was clinging to my back even inside the apartment. To hell with lifelong phobias. It was hellishly hot. The white sand burned the soles of my feet as I dashed across the beach, not stopping until I was neck-deep in water so blue it looked like it had been dyed. I panicked for an instant when I realized I couldn't touch the bottom, then splashed back toward the shore and waded comfortably.
The cold felt lifesaving as it wrapped around me, the salt healing the sunburns and blisters on my feet. I remembered a line of text in the Frances Mayes book I'd read that morning. She'd been talking about swimming in the ocean on Crete: "The pleasure feels so simple," she wrote. "I can visualize the ventricles of my heart filling with salt and sunlight...Days here move the knowledge into the body."
A Greek poet once explained it like this:
"Here, in this mineral landscape
of rock and sea, sapphire and diamond,
which to the wheel of Time offers nothing
here in the great victorious light
whose only stain is your own shadow,
and where only your body carries
a germ of death;
here perhaps for a moment the false idols
will vanish; perhaps once again
in a dazzling flash you may stare
at your true self."
I didn't know whether it was a result of long stretches of time spent alone doing nothing but thinking or something about the timeless, elemental nature of Greece, but I was beginning to experience this truth for myself. I thought about Liz Gilbert's Physics of the Quest: "If you are prepared most of all to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you."
Old demons that I thought were dead and buried resurfaced, looking suddenly less menacing in the light of day. Or was it just less important in history's vast scope of human mistakes, tragedy, death and life? In its unwavering certainty of its own identity, Greece transcends to its inhabitants an acceptance, a stark understanding and self-confidence which only time and experience can bring. It was saying something that I still didn't know the words for 'please', 'thank-you' or 'excuse me' in Greek but I knew ' good morning', 'good afternoon' and 'a******'.
Things I thought I'd forgiven myself for long ago probed at my consciousness, making me realize I never truly had. Not until now. Even the gods, after all, weren't perfect. Maybe Antonio was right all along. Maybe Greece really was the best. There was a reason so much of the culture hadn't changed for thousands of years. It didn't have to. What it was had sustained it for this long. It was good enough for itself.
'Good enough' are exactly the words which cross my mind as I arrange my version of dakos somewhat clumsily on a plate that evening. I don't have the barley rusks that are normally used, but the bread I have is stale enough to mimic the crunchy texture. I'd chosen the tomatoes for no other reason than I could smell them. I pile them on the bread, crumble a block of feta over top, finish with olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano, revelling in the forgotten comfort of cooking. Alongside the dakos: cold scraps of leftover lamb from yesterday's lunch. It had been spit-roasted over an open fire, basted in its own juices. Beauty in simplicity. Timeless. Elemental.
I catch my reflection in the full-length mirror as I take my plate from the counter. My hair is long and loose and there's a crown of freckles on my forehead that wasn't there before, just below the hairline where the sunblock doesn't quite reach. My skin is tanned, especially the back of my neck and shoulders, which have gone from milky white to the rich golden-brown of chocolate chip cookies after eight minutes in the oven. With the solitary freedom to eat only when I'm hungry and abstain when I'm not, my stomach has flattened out again. I'm still bigger - thicker - than I used to be, but the fat has been replaced with muscle from walking and swimming and carrying. These are changes I'm not entirely unhappy about. I look healthy. I look strong. Strong as Greece.
I don't bother with a fork and knife as I take my dinner outside. I will eat with my hands.
Why do I always end up drunk after every meal, even when I don't mean to? I'll tell you why: In Greece, like in Italy, wine is sometimes cheaper than water. A 'carafe' (a half litre) is almost always cheaper than a glass (don't ask me why) and most places bring you a small decanter (several shots' worth) of complimentary raki with your bill. I didn't stand a chance.
I'd asked Elena if there was one dish I should try while I was on Crete and she'd answered without hesitating, "Snails."
"Snails," I'd echoed, my voice dark with disconcertion. They were as ancient and traditional a dish as there was on Crete, she said, and no one should leave the island without trying them. "I'll try anything," I assured Elena, thinking of the cuttlefish and lampredotto I'd already put away on this trip.
"Me too," she replied, approving, "except bugs." I was silent. "You've eaten bugs, too, haven't you?"
I flashed on the lemon ants in the Amazon basin. "Kind of."
So here I was at 50-50, a tapas taverna on Market Street that Agapi had recommended. I was staring down the self-service menu. My pencil hovered over the selection box next to 'snails' for an inordinate amount of time. They were prepared in the traditional way Elena had described: very simply with olive oil, vinegar, rosemary and plenty of salt. I was tempted by other menu items that were more within my comfort zone - stuffed grape leaves, saganaki, spinach pies, spiced pork... But when I thought about what I was going to regret not ordering when I left here, it was snails. 'You wanted adventure,' that annoying voice inside me heckled. I almost had to close my eyes as I marked off the box, adding also an order of 'fava' (mashed chickpeas with capers and olive oil) and a carafe of chilled white wine, because I would need it.
The portions at 50-50 were cruelly large for the price, each 'tapas' plate enough for a full meal. The snails were piled high in a brown-and-cream ceramic oven dish that could have held chip dip at a party for dozens. I refilled my wine tumbler from the dented aluminum pitcher, readied a bread-and-olive chaser, and picked up one of the snails. If I could take comfort in any part of the situation it was that, thanks to a fervent passion for the Travel Channel and Food Network, the waiter had no idea I was a snail virgin. I exchanged my clunky fork for one of the toothpicks in the cup next to the salt and pepper shakers, and used the end to coax my first victim out of its shell in one smooth, fluid twist. I remembered something Anthony Bourdain had said after he did the same thing with a periwinkle in Paris: "See that part there?" He'd indicated the darker, tiny spiralled tail with the end of his toothpick. "That you want to pinch off. We don't really need to discuss why. You just probably want to do that." So I did.
The poor creature made several trips from my mouth to the plate and back before it finally made it to my lips. I counted to three. I expected it to be unpalatable, the mucusy slime and molten slug guts too challenging even for me to get down, but as I chewed the first one, very slowly, I was startled by how wrong I was. The texture wasn't slimy at all, more rubbery, not all that different from shrimp or octopus. As for the flavour, all I could taste really was the vinegar and herbs it had been cooked in, along with a generous brine from the salt. It was...delicious. I spooned several more onto my plate, their shells making a hollow clacking sound as I heaped them onto the ceramic. I ended up eating more of them than the fava, which I packaged up to eat with a homemade Greek salad later. The wine, too, turned out to be unnecessary, but I drank it anyway.