Here in Ann Arbor, unable to travel, I am missing the Greek balcony, a private and public space: it’s neither in nor out but something in between. Poet Alicia E. Stallings, who lives in Athens, notes on Twitter: “Very Athenian neighbor quarrel tonight: we fired up the grill in the yard to pretend like it was a Friday, but it turns out lady upstairs had just done her laundry. Words were had.” (It was indeed Friday, but what is Friday anymore, anyway?) When I write her about this, laughing, she adds that the woman also menacingly suggests she might water her plants while Alicia’s husband works on his laptop below.
In the early weeks of quarantine, from balconies in Athens, friends filmed videos of their neighbors clapping for health care workers. On Easter, when Athens is often eerily quiet, as many Athenians return to their home villages, say, or travel to an island, the quarantined city’s balconies shone bright with candles.
These two poems by George Seferis explore the disorienting confusion and fear that arises from living through war and catastrophe. Seferis spent his life as a spokesman for the Greek state and Hellenic culture, working as a career diplomat and poet. He lived through the Balkan Wars, World Wars I & II, and the Greek Civil War as well as continual political crisis.
His poetry interprets Greece’s contemporary tragedies as the result of a mythical hubris, especially internecine murder in the heroic past. Bloodshed in the present is due to an endless chain of retribution set in motion by ancient Greeks who transgressed against the laws of nature, the gods, and the rights of their fellow men in pursuit of power and self-gain.
“…to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost everywhere.”
“You need to be able to receive beauty.”
I am on the island of Patmos for Easter. Though I haven’t come for the holiday specifically. It so happens I’m off from work because it’s Easter, arguably the most important event in the Greek holiday calendar; Christ’s birth the less celebrated event as compared to his death as necessary prelude to resurrection. Patmos, the island where St. John the Divine is said to have had his vision of the apocalypse, generally feels mournful this time of year. Not infrequently it will be a sun-splashed day anywhere else in Greece while here clouds gather in their overcast greys. I am not a believer, though I’m hard put to call myself an atheist. Perhaps agnostic, with its Greek root, is closest to describing my feeling — that is, gnōsis (knowledge), and so agnōsto (unknown) would make me a believer in the unknown.
We walk back onto the road and down towards Niko’s house. The herd of sheep follow us and begin to run up the rocky dirt path. The island whispers. Trees sway above, letting sporadic splotches of sunlight warm the road, pierce the ground, looking like a bundle of rocks landing on the Aegean’s surface. Tiny figs dangle from each branch, growing. I turn to look at the free animals as they hurry to push by. Some get trampled, stuck and pinned between a bigger body and the half-opened fence separating the den from the road. Others squeeze through the tiniest of crevices. They all wiggle themselves out and soar together. They cheer in unison, ringing their bells up the mountain. They don’t have to worry about financial crises.
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.
Over the echoing Skype line my parents mention seeing a northern harrier on the outskirts of Ottawa. Perched on a post as they drove along, it had leaned into the air to sail off across the fields, a pearl-gray ghost slipping away. Still speaking, I pull The Sibley Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America from the bookcase beside me. I leaf backwards through the waders and rails, overshooting the raptors to land amidst ducks and geese before paging my way forward to find the harrier. I then press the illustration up to the webcam, trying my best to keep it steady. “That’s the one,” says my father, smiling back at me on the screen.
EXODOS. I deciphered the Greek letters, extrapolating from the Cyrillic alphabet learned in college Russian. Exodus! A hairy Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments popped into my mind. A domestic Moses, my husband spurred our lagging, quarreling kids on to baggage claim and immigration.
In the fall of 2001, while I was living in the south Thailand border town of Ranong, I had a brief love affair with an Australian woman named Eva. I first met her on the swimming-pool veranda of the aging hotel where I was renting a studio for $150 a month. Travelers would occasionally pass through Ranong to renew their Thai travel visas at the Burmese border, and Eva had just returned from a visa run with a British couple I’d met the day before. That night the four of us went out to drink whiskey and sing karaoke at a local nightclub. The following morning, the British couple headed north for Bangkok, and Eva moved her things into my room.
A wave of suicides has swept over our battalion. Those who attempt suicide are deceived if they think they may do with themselves as they please. From now on, I order company commanders to carry out preliminary inquiries, interrogating anyone who has attempted suicide. The results of such inquiries will be sent to me immediately and official indictments will be remanded to a Special Military Court.
–Daily orders of Captain Commander Vasilopoulos Antonios on March 6, 1948.
In Greece, people visit islands. There are a lot of islands to visit. They head for beaches, coastline, the sea, to lie on the shore and look out at the water. But to find an island, you should really look inland. The island is the thing behind you. Turn around.
On a small Cycladic island, a second home for me by marriage, I swelter by the beach. Idyllic, busy, and anonymous. A limited sense of context: a watery horizon; sand; shops, bars and restaurants. At 40°C in the shade, it’s all swimming costumes and ice cream and plastic toys.