These passages were taken from the letters I wrote to my mother during my first excavation season at Mitrou, in the summer of 2008. These excerpts were first published by the Classics department of the University of Tennessee in 2009, and I am re-posting them today for my friend Karina. I am back in Greece this summer for the first time in three years, and Karina asks, “Do you love it there?”
And the answer is yes. I do love it here. But I find it a difficult country, at times. And so I love it the way I love difficult people; with passion and compassion, with patience and bemusement, with occasional anguish and frequent silence, as I simply try to take in the moment with all of its contradictions.
Here is what I said in 2008. Doubtless I will find more to say later, in this year of storms.
June 14, 2008
TRAGANA. Rise every morning at 5:00 a.m. and stroll through the dawning streets, accompanied by the sound of doves hooting invisibly from beneath the eaves of every house, and the omnipresent roar of starlings, chickadees, and other cheeky little birds—a constant chorus in all Greek towns.
The center of Tragana is an ugly mock-adobe horror of a church, which nonetheless presides over a lovely communal space of prettily embossed cement, brick pathways and shade trees—this is the town square. Beside the church are a little school and a games court. The wealthier families and more successful shops seem to radiate outward from the church square and live within ear-shot of its bells, which are presumably sounded hourly by the quietly but firmly disapproving Greek Orthodox priest I’ve seen, dressed in a jet black cassock and a hat—as if in defiance of the fierce Mediterranean sun—with his bushy steel-gray beard bristling and his long hair bound at the nape of his neck.
The father, I am told, does not care for us “archaeologi.” We bring a good deal of money to his village, so he tolerates our presence, but he thinks we are far too interested in heathen things, and not nearly appreciative enough of Christianity.
The children, of course, are another matter. They love to say hello to us archaeologi, if only to show off the fact that we smile and say hello back. These are inevitably boys, ages 9 to 14 or so, sitting on the curbs or riding their bicycles around town when everyone else is having a siesta. One of the bold little things pedaled by the other day as I was walking to the Apotheke for an afternoon session and asked me in English where I was going—and then tried to persuade me to get on the back of his bike like a little girl so that he could take me to work! I laughingly declined, naturally, to spare his legs, his bike, and my own threadbare dignity…
June 26, 2008
I’m trying to think of something I can tell you about this trip and my experience in Greece that might interest you in general.
Greece is a land of slinky cats and despised and abandoned dogs. one of the first things I saw on the drive from the Athens airport to the village was a lean stray dog at a highway rest stop, peeling the bark from a tree and eating it—whether driven by hunger or thirst I could not tell. And there are dogs everywhere in the villages and cities, unrestrained, not spayed or neutered, slinking and skulk-ing down alleys or panting in the shade.
Nearly every female dog I’ve seen has had the hanging dugs of recent motherhood, sometimes one or two of the local males already in pursuit to produce another litter. The stray pups beg on the streets and follow strangers home to cry outside their windows.
It does make me a bit sad when I see a stray dog sprawled in the shade of the path into the Agora of Athens itself, and I certainly approve when people quietly leave a pot of water out for thirsty dogs in the heat of the day.
I’m impressed with the cats of Greece. Even the strays are sleek and muscular—they’re lean but they look healthy. My favorite cat so far was a pet in a tourist knick-knack shop in Athens. It was a white calico with a blunt round head and a solidly plump overfed body; the proprietor spoke to it in Greek, in the unmistakable tone of a man who loves cats, speaking to the cat he loves, and it rolled over onto its back with the universal body language of a fearlessly spoiled pet.
And of course there are bugs: cockroaches the size of a city bus at times, in the kitchen; a brilliant leaf-green preying mantis on the picnic table. And when you feel the first breath of morning breeze around 9:00 a.m. on the island, the cicadas begin their song in the pine forest, a constant rattle that surrounds you from all sides, as if thousands of invisible people were all shaking maracas full of dry beans at once.
June 29, 2008
Sitting beneath a natural awning of woven leaves and branches in the courtyard of the Doganos compound, listening to the twitter of birds and the sounds of the village. The chickens are strutting and fussing in their run, the grapes on the arbor are fat and starting to ripen rosy red, the peaches are still tiny and green on the branches of the tree, and the last of my laundry is swaying gently in the breeze.
The dry rugged mountains of Greece rise sharply to my left, and to my right a kilometer or two is the brilliant blue sea. I can smell salt when the wind blows from that direction, and today is a wonderfully breezy day.
After 3 weeks, I think I can say with confidence that Greece is an awful place to have to dig a trench—but a downright delightful place to do nothing. So long as you can idle your way through the heat of the day, walking sedately under a broad-brimmed hat or remaining peacefully in the shade, the land is thoroughly seductive. The soil is so fertile and the sun so constant that you can grow practically anything. The waters give you an endless variety of seafood to eat (or crush to make dye, if you’re an enterprising soul!). Hills and pastures will support tough animals like sheep and goats very easily; with enough armed men you can hold a parcel wide enough to run cattle, perhaps, although it’s not hard to see why the people of Lokris prefer ships to chariots and lamb to steak.
For thousands of years, people have been coming to this land and thinking it was beautiful and rich. The strata at Mitrou, if only we could dig deep enough, show occupation of the island that goes back to the Neolithic. The layers are so deep that it’s almost like a Middle eastern mound, a tel that forms on a desirable spot as one community after another, over centuries and millennia, builds and rebuilds and occupies and fights and dies over a patch of soil.
That is the story of Greece in a nutshell, the story that emerges from every site that shows such consistent occupation. Each succeeding generation from the Early Bronze Age on has paid the price of occupation by leaving a layer of ashes and the bones of those who came before them. And they all fought and sweated and bled and died for the same thing: a place to stand, a view of the azure sea, a handful of olives and a house full of dark-eyed children.