Modern Athena


Greece’s fortunes were down, but ours were up, so between the May 6 and June 17 elections, my husband and I made our way to the remote Mani Peninsula in the Southern Peloponnese. If the Peloponnese is a lowered hand, joined to the Greek mainland at the slender wrist of Corinth, then the Mani, south of Sparta and famous for its blood feuds—the only region never conquered by the Turks—is certainly its proud middle finger. The Greek struggle for independence began there, in Areopolis, a town named for the God of War.

We rented a silver Audi with a talking GPS we unimaginatively named Athena. She guided us along German-paved EU highways with shiny new English-language signs, which eventually gave way to short-cuts through orange and olive groves, then to switchbacks across the treeless, lunar slopes of the Taygetos mountain range. These were dotted with prickly pear cactus and with clusters of fortified stone towers from which the Maniots of old used to conduct their Tarantino-esque vendettas. Still, we were right on track. Athena was a modern woman who knew the premodern world. She knew which hidden lanes led magically to UNESCO sites and which dead-ended at abandoned shacks. “Bear left,” she would say. “You have reached your destination.” Her English was ostentatiously flawless, her instructions invariably correct.

Our stone house in Drosopigi was a new construction in the traditional style, some 400 meters above sea level, looking out over the heavenly Skoutari Bay. We found it on Airbnb, the first Americans to take the plunge, and for something like $85 a night, we had twice the comfort we needed—two verandas, two bathrooms, two flat screen TVs. I turned thirty that week, and to celebrate, we ate in Limeni, a neighboring seaside town where Posh and Becks had recently vacationed. There were truffles on the menu and tables overlooking a quiet harbor. We had the place to ourselves.

Once Drosopigi was a village of some several hundred people. Today there are eleven residents including Dmitris, a sweet, middle-aged sculptor, the opposite of bloodthirsty, who also looks after our rental property and works the polls during elections. The last one had been exhausting; he spent all day collecting votes. Impressed, we asked about the turnout, which, after a brief mental calculation, he estimated at four, maybe five people. He was pretty sure that everyone would vote the same way the next time around, but he urged us to disregard the dramatic things we heard in the news. Times were lean, yes. There were troubles. But the political situation really wasn’t so bad. As if to underscore this, he pointed to a ruined tower on a hilltop across the way. It was here, he said, that the man who might’ve become the last Byzantine ruler was rumored to have hid when his empire fell.

Stories in the Mani have a way of repeating themselves, gaining verification through recurrence. Almost everything the locals told us echoed something we’d read in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1958 book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. In the first chapter, a barber in Sparta—humorless, war-mongering Sparta!—warns Fermor against the Maniots. “They’ll skin you alive,” his customers chime in. “They’ll eat you!” At our own Spartan pit stop, a friendly tavern manager practically replayed the scene, widening his eyes and drawing his finger across his throat when he learned where we were headed. Meanwhile, in Drosopigi, it became difficult to differentiate between a Dmitris recommendation and a Fermor one. They loved the same secret coves and untouristed beaches and spoke of the region’s rough, unspoiled beauty with the same reverential tones—Fermor because he’d “discovered” the place, Dmitris because he was from there. The two had even met once, when Fermor was retired in Kardamyli, a picturesque seaside spot of which Dmitris heartily approved. Maybe that’s the nature of a region with a neolithic history, little intellectual tradition, and few remaining inhabitants. The stories that last are like fossils: more or less set in stone.

Even the most unverifiable of Fermor’s Mani tales found a way to feel like truth. He writes of the morbid noonday hour in summer, when the ghosts of blood feud victims are said to roam the blistering countryside, demanding vengeance for their deaths. We saw no ghosts, but one day around noon I came across a monstrous brown snake on the overgrown footpath between the village square and our house. Six feet long at least, and as big around as my arm, he slithered frantically toward a low rock wall, which he catapulted so muscularly that I almost threw up on the spot. When we told Dmitris about it later, he assured us that giant brown snakes were the harmless kind, but that it made sense I’d encountered him at noon. That, he said, was the time of day when snakes tended to get a little frisky.

Snakes, ghosts. Either way we were safe, tourists outside the laws of blood feuds, omnipotent with our Athena. Meanwhile, Dmitris, with his long gray hair and his fondness for a strong, homemade herbal liquor called chipporo, spent the week beleaguered by the breakdown of his car. He had to have it towed half an hour to a shop in Gytheio, then wait several days for the replacement part to make the journey from Athens. In the meantime, he was at the mercy of friends—and us—for rides to the grocery store in neighboring Areopolis.

At the store, we bought outlandishly cheap plastic jugs of table wine and tubs of Total yogurt, a Greek brand I now proudly purchase at Whole Foods, imagining myself to be doing my part. It’s winter in New England now, but I still buy a quart every week—“My fage to help the Greek economy!” As if the repetition will somehow verify it, make me more authentic and altruistic, and not just another lucky tourist who gets to skip through someone else’s hard times.


Katherine Hill lives and writes in the Northeast. Her first novel, The Violet Hour, will be published by Scribner in summer 2013.


Photo from Flickr Creative Commons.

Modern Athena

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