Greece

 

Seen from a Greater Distance       


    In the spring of ‘68, I set out by train from Victoria Station, London, on a journey arranged by a travel group associated with Cambridge University. Crossing the channel by ferry, I was full of thoughts about the romance of travel and the mysterious beauty of the sea. Following an overnight train journey as far as Munich, Germany, I had a day to explore that city. My reading in preparation had included The Greek Stones Speak: the Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands by Paul MacKendrick, a paperback bought at the High Hill bookstore in Hampstead. But I did not know then the translated poetry of C. P. Cavafy, a Greek who lived most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. He would have had much to say to me at this time, facing as I was then a return to Texas, the College, and my life’s work on the farm. I’m convinced I could have remained in England after my year of employment there, and that the return, if it ever was a “choice,” would be the most significant in my life.

    Cavafy (1863-1933) was homosexual, and he had realized how different his life might have been if he too had remained in England. In 1907, when he was forty-four, he wrote, “But how much a man like me—so different—needs a large city. London, let’s say. Since...P.M. left, how very much it is on my mind.”

    Instead of Cavafy, for reading on the journey, I’d taken The Thief’s Journal, by another homosexual, the French Jean Genet: “My solitude in prison was total. ... I had the bitter joy of knowing I was alone. ...”

    “Without knowing,” a phrase repeated:  Years earlier, seeing a beauty in his face and movements, I would not have glimpsed the death-inviting, Friday-after-pay drives north from the sale barn in town to the beer joints across the river that ended Doyle’s brief life. Playing Fanny Crosley hymns from Cokesbury, as I did then at church, while his mother, Miss Grace, motioned me to pick up the tempo, I might, just might, have followed on to pious inferences (about marital fidelity?) that brought down Basil’s telephonic rage, ending those halcyon Army days we’d known.

    From a return to the College, believing I could build on a foundation of hard work already laid, to president Moseley’s unforgiving summation, was a brief interval of but two years. From one condition to another, “not knowing,” I was passing toward understanding as though it were not too late to turn back.

    Two poems by Cavafy:


The City


You said: ‘I will go to another land; I will try another sea.

Another city will turn up, better than this one.

Here everything I do is condemned in advance

and my heart—like a dead man’s—lies buried.

How long can my mind remain in this swamp?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look, I gaze

on the ruins of my life here, where I’ve spent

and botched and wasted so many years.”


You will find no new land; you will find no other seas.

This city will follow you. You will wander the same

streets and grow old in the same neighborhoods;

your hair will turn white in the same houses.

And you will always arrive in this city. Abandon any hope

of finding another place. No ship, no road can take you there.

For just as you’ve ruined your life here

in this backwater, you’ve destroyed it everywhere on earth.


Ithaca


When you start on your way to Ithaca,

pray that the journey be long,

rich in adventure, rich in discovery,

Do not fear the cyclops, the Laestrygonians

or the anger of Poseidon. You’ll not encounter them

if a rare emotion possesses you body and soul.

You will not encounter the Cyclops,

the Laestrygonians or savage Poseidon

if you do not carry them in your own soul,

if your soul does not set them before you.


Pray that the journey be a long one,

that there be countless summer mornings

when, with what pleasure, what joy,

you drift into harbours never before seen;

that you make port in Phoenician markets

and purchase their lovely goods:

coral and mother of pearl, ebony and amber,

and every kind of delightful perfume.

Acquire all the voluptuous perfumes that you can,

then sail to Egypt’s many towns

to learn and learn from their scholars.


Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.

Arrival there is your destination.

Yet do not hurry the journey at all:

better that it lasts for many years

and you arrive an old man on the island,

rich from all that you have gained on the way,

not counting on Ithaca for riches.

For Ithaca gave you the splendid voyage:

without her you would never have embarked.

She has nothing more to give you now.

And though you find her poor, she has not misled you;

you having grown so wise, so experienced from your travels,

by then you will have learned what Ithacas mean.


       

    1968 March 17: How far from my little flat in London...saw many famous paintings at the museum in Munich....

    Back to the station for a 4:10 p.m. train to Belgrade. I guess I’m not as brave as I thought. This train goes on through to Istanbul. Not a word of English do I hear, but, oh, such a hub-bub of voices.... Clouds starting to break...climbing through the mountains.... Three Yugoslavs in the compartment...planning to murder me? The train stewart takes our passports. “Amerikon!” he says.

    I bought an English paper and am reading about the financial crisis. Worse since the Depression and stock market crash! Tourists having difficulty changing money in England. I tell myself it’s good I am getting this trip to Greece now.... Speculations about Bobby Kennedy...can’t tell you how uneasy I feel.

    I got a good night’s sleep on the train, but at some time during the night, I felt it breaking in jerks to a stop and heard the thin whistle of another train in the distance. “Yugoslavia,” a voice said in the dark. “I refuse to worry,” thought I. A man came with a flashlight in my face. “English?” he asked. “No, American.” He went on.

    I woke to watch the landscape go by. Flat, flat plain. Corn stalks stacked. Poorly broken ground. Poor villages with unpaved roads. Ducks on a pond nobody takes any pride in; refuse on the banks. Man, horses, wagon. Miles to the next village, open land between, not a fence in sight. Stands to reason in a Communist state....

    Belgrade. Dingy station. Changed $10 check.... By 10:30 I’m out for a walk...

... down the main street from my Belgrade hotel...shop windows display dusty goods in a poor way. Russian soldiers everywhere, in long coats and heavy boots; I watch them from the corner of my eye. Some are good-looking with intelligent faces. Most carry no weapons on a fine Sunday holiday. Everybody outdoors.... I make my way to the opposite end of town, to a spot overlooking the Danube where an old fortress crowns the hill. A man comes up and starts to talk. Says he reads National Geographic magazine, telling all the things he knows about the U.S. He doesn’t seem to be a beggar....

    I continue to walk, taking a few pictures. Actually there isn’t much that is very pretty. Three Russian soldiers think I took a picture of them (I didn’t); they watch me carefully. I pretend to ignore them....

    On Monday morning I took the 9:15 train out of Belgrade for Greece. It was an all-day trip, continuing until 2:30 this morning, ideal to finish my view of Yugoslavia. All day I watched the changing scene: A peasant country. Dusty, reddish-brown earth. River shows the same brown, muddy color. High, rolling hills south of Belgrade, becoming mountains in long ranges we go between. Some snow visible. Hills, too, brown with last year’s leaves still clinging. Mountains in the distance are gray. Villages of small, poor houses. Most roads not paved; pigs in the road. Sheep, ducks, chickens, goats. Corn stalks everywhere in dome-like shapes, and sometimes high in the branches of trees. No appearance of flowers yet, but many fruit trees. Men and women sowing by hand from a container held waist high in front. Only two tractors the whole day: plowing is done by teams of cows, sometimes by one horse. Peasant women work outside, dressed all in black with black scarf over the head. Characteristic sight is women sitting out in the open, knitting, watching herds of sheep. All are attended by such watchers. Most villages show no sign of a church, but in the very south it is common to see a tall, needle-like minaret. This landscape creates an impression of strength. Woman and grown son sit opposite me. She in peasant’s dress. Good face. They insist on sharing two oranges.

    The train runs on. I dread the night, no rest in sight. Will get off at 2:45 a.m. in Larissa, Greece, too late to go to a hotel. I am able to stretch out on a vacant seat. A dark “creature” from Chili, South America, came into my compartment just before the train left Yugoslavia. I imagine him to be a Communist in training. Finally the time comes to get off. Feel fairly well. Try to make the Greeks understand where I want to go, then settle down in a waiting room till morning. It is about half full of people, most looking like vagrants. One is entirely mad. He keeps mumbling to the person next to him and gesturing wildly at pictures on the wall. Then several Greek soldiers come in to wait, very fine looking and fit. Finally, at 6:00 o’clock I go out in front of the station to wait for a bus. A man waiting too asks me in Greek and German where I am going. He finally understands, calls a taxi, takes me by the bus station first, has the taxi driver go in and find out when the bus leaves, and tells the people around where I want to go. Needless to say.... Their interest makes me just ache to talk. The bus finally comes. Before we start, a little quarrel has to be sorted out, noisily, because two people have been assigned the same seat. (Wonder if I’ve complicated prior arrangements.) Finally, we’re off. Again, I can’t tell you all my impressions as the bus moves along. A car passes with a wooden coffin sticking out the trunk. Bee hives on mountain sides. Fruit trees in bloom. School children in formation making the sign of the cross before teacher on steps. Woman beating her wash on a stone. Sheep and shepherd on mountain side.

    Arrive at a hotel, nice for $1.50 per night. Wash and shave, eat lunch, which I select from all the pots on the stove myself, then set out to see Meteora, a group of 13th Century monasteries inaccessibly perched on tall rock formations. Worth all the trouble. So happy and thankful....

    March 20: [Arta, Greece] ...with a balcony looking over a river at mountains. A stone wall surrounds the hotel  on the site of a 13th Century castle.... Last night...to the tavern for supper where some Greeks who speak English wanted to talk. One recounted memories of love affairs with American tourists...not intended as offense but a sign of true and lasting friendship for America.... They also pointed to a group of people across the room, the town’s new elite since the generals’ dictatorship was established last April. Without too much emphasis, I led them to admit that dictatorships are not a good thing. It aroused me to no little suspicion that these pro-American Greeks live so easily and untroubled with...that table across the room. If I’d chosen another place, maybe I would have found anti-Americans. “Don’t feel that way,” they said. “Vietnamese are yellow people, not like white people, and they don’t die the same way, like you and me”. I made no reply to this, just listened. Maybe I ought to seek out the other...though the implication may be unfair to America....

    I’m still in raptures over Meteora. Did I tell you? Amid all the beauty of the walk back from the monasteries, with fruit trees blooming white on the hillsides around, the air was
trembling with the music of sheep bells, in all tones. As a souvenir to be intimate with this place, I bought five bells to bring back to Texas...bargaining for such purchases doesn’t come easily yet.

    I must remember the bus ride to Arta as the most beautiful mountain drive I’ve ever had...pine trees, reddish soil, snow, blue skies, streams, vast mountains. Higher and higher we went. The roads were very poor in places and in others land slides and boulders had crashed down across the road....

    I’ve just been told that the interpreter will arrive in about ten minutes. So I begin to anticipate tomorrow. I thought about it on the bus too, wondering how I can deserve such a view of Greece...have a dread of appearing to Vasilios’ family as someone to whom they are indebted; it would be too shameful. I’m thinking of the way Albert Camus wrote of Jesus, in The Fall, and of how he says of Christians, “I hate them for what they’ve done to Jesus.” [inexact quotation] Jesus, he knew, was not all innocence, and that is why he died. He knew his life was spared while Herod killed the children of Palestine, trying to get him. If Jesus was full of sorrow then, so am I... but no one calls on me to pay. I have enjoyed so many good things...been happy while others have suffered, were hungry, cold. Any help to Vasilios is only a way I try to.... They owe me nothing.

    The interpreter does not speak English as well as I had hoped....

    March 25: How far behind with this letter.... The company had put on their best bus...lef
t at 8 o’clock and drove three and a half hours over poor mountain roads. All the country people riding seemed to know the purpose and showed the greatest sympathy and consideration.... The views were more and more beautiful as we climbed...until we arrived at the village of Vasilios’ family. His father met us and insisted on carrying my bag to the house, down, across and up a steep mountain ravine...to a house of stone damaged by a recent earthquake. In two rooms live father, mother, grandfather and grandmother, aunt, and sixteen year old brother Constantine. One bed...and sleep on rugs. Cooking is done on a small fireplace hearth. Everything in excellent order and clean.
     All greeted me with a kiss on the hand which I tried to return, not the expected thing, I g
uess. Asked if I wanted to have lunch with the family. Yes. I don’t know who provided the simple meal. It included some meat which I’m not sure the family could afford...will leave an extra $10 to pay expenses arising from my visit. After lunch I gave Vasilios’ mother an ornament made in England to hang round her neck. She is a tiny woman with one foot turned sideways and dragging behind. To Constantine I gave a copy of the picture book, Family of Man. I made pictures, including a close-up of every member of the family. The house sits on the side of a broad mountain in a gloriously beautiful location. Soon we left, and Vasilios’ father accompanied us to the next village, about an hour away by bus to see Vasilios at his school. Unfortunately, the bus got stuck in a bad place and we did not arrive until six o’clock. I was nearly exhausted from emotion, to say nothing of the journey. This village,
too, is surrounded by magnificent mountains. Before the sun went down...a picture of Vasilios and his father against that scene. We went to the restaurant of the only hotel, a humble place, and were able to exchange a few words and many sympathetic looks. Vasilios wore the badge of his high school on his coat, and that made me very proud... good in mathematics and composition...looks healthy. The room was full of other school boys who had come to see the foreigner. Soon they were cleared out and the village mayor and another official, the town clerk, I think, came in. I didn’t do much talking, but the two women [interpreters] were lively and talkative; everyone understood why I was there. Vasilios’ father sat at the table too, not saying anything, and from the look on his worn face, as removed from these more prosperous villagers as I. After a long wait, the hotel manager brought in a m
eal, paid for by the villagers themselves to show hospitality. At about 8:30 I was taken to the home of the village priest, where I slept under a great shaggy sheepskin in the cleanest bed you could ever imagine. The bus would leave for the return trip at 8 o’clock the next morning, so I was out by seven. Vasilios was watching for me to come up the steep rocky road. We walked along together; soon his father joined us. I gave him the fountain pen in its nice box, from London. The mayor came... women joined for a walk around the village. I could easily have cried...the time so short. Vasilios seems a good-tempered boy. Everyone says...a very good family. We met the military representative in the street. He said, and it was translated, “The Greek people are poor but their hearts are good. Their poverty keeps them that way.” Oh my! Time to go. The square...full of people watching...handshakes all around. Vasilios about to cry, but smiling. I do feel that, in spite of my inability to talk through my interpreter, the people could feel the sincerity...wrung dry, and didn’t feel that I could respond to another thing, no matter how grand, for the rest of the trip.
    Athens...pleasant hotel room with a balcony. Windows afford a broad view of the Acr
opolis and Parthenon.... National holiday...military parade...watched a part, interested not so much in the parade as in my own thoughts: last December the King attempted to overthrow the present military government.  Banner: “The Army is Greek.” Latest Newsweek...Bobby Kennedy’s decision to run for the nomination.
     March 27 - April 3: ...fortified hilltop of Mycenae. From here the Greeks set out for the siege of Troy, described by Homer. Lion Gate. The Greek countryside is glorious in springtime...fruit trees in bloom. Olive trees over a hundred years old, and still young, in well-cared for fields, worked by a man and a donkey. Spring flowers...a riot of color, yellow, white, red.... In the museum at Olympia we saw a beautiful statue of Hermes dating from the Fifth Century before Christ.... In Crete, the remains of the Minoan civilization, older by a thousand years than Classical Greece.... At Phestos... great storage jars...broad monumental staircases...tried to remember all that I have read.... Sat by the impressive grave of Kaza
ntzakis, author of Zorba the Greek. Rough stones, wooden cross shaking in the wind, snow-covered mountain. I learned from an American couple...President Johnson’s Monday announcement he will not run again.



    As remembered later: In Athens, I chanced to sit alone on a park bench to change a roll of film. It was a new German camera. A man about my age came and sat immediately next to me. In broken English, which I somehow instantly understood, he offered himself. I sat entirely still and finally looked at him. He was well groomed and may have been attractive; he waited, and then said, “Do you want me?” I said, “Yes,” but waited. On the train coming out I’d read Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal. I also wanted to get good pictures on the trip. So I said, “I’m afraid.” The man walked away. Does it help now to remember that I rose to find him? Disappeared. I went instead to the Archaeological Museum, alone, and looked long at Agamemnon’s “golden mask”. Returning to London, I was the only passenger on the enormous airplane.


    ... and now (2010), finding another poem by C. P. Cavafy: not Alexandria; London, for me.


The God Abandoning Antony


Suddenly, around midnight, when you hear

an invisible troupe of players pass

with exquisite music and solemn voices—

do not lament in vain your waning luck, the many deeds

undone, all of your life plans

gone astray; no, do not lament.

Emboldened now, and as one long prepared,

make your farewell to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.

Above all, do not fool yourself, do not say

it was just a dream, or that your ears deceive you;

do not stoop to such empty hopes.

Emboldened now, and as one long prepared,

as is fitting for someone like you, worthy of such a city,

approach the window steadily

and listen, stirred, but not to the point

of whining or complaining as cowards do.

Let that music be your final joy,

the exquisite instruments of that mysterious troupe,

and make your farewell to her, the Alexandria you are losing.