Thursday, August 26, 2010

Layers Run Deep

Corinth. The Temple of Apollo. Greece has many temples dedicated to the god of the sun--like Delphi and Epidarus. But the temple here is the oldest in Greece and the only ancient Greek temple in Corinth. It's quiet. The sun warms my back as we venture through time.

A little history...Built earlier than most--around 560 BC, it had a tile roof, 38 Doric/limestone columns--of which 7 are still standing. This important location--the Isthmus of Corinth--a narrow strip separating Peloponnese and N. Greece thrived till the 8th century. Conquered by Phillip II in 338, who was then assassinated, Corinth soon came under the leadership of Alexander the Great--who led the Greeks against the Persians. It was partially destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, and then rebuilt in 44 BC under Ceasar the Great--Roman Corinth emerged.

This magnificent epicenter held 800,000 citizens by the time Paul the Baptist arrived--who made two visits in the 50s AD. It was a place of business and pleasure, mainly populated by Jews and freedmen. In 67 AD, Nero wielded his golden shovel, and began constructing the Corinth Canal (but it was not finished until 1893! Talk about procrastination.) Corinth began its decline in the 300s AD, and then it was destroyed in 396 and all its inhabitants sold into slavery. When Constantinople fell , the geographic treasure of Corinth became a sought after prize. Captured by the Turks in 1458, the Knights of Malta in 1612, The Venetians in 1687-1715, back to the Turks, and then the Greek people finally laid claim to their lost city in 1822. It became the new center of commerce between N. & S. Greece--the main shipping route between the Ionian and Aegean Seas.

Now, walking through this ancient site, I'm once again struck by the layers. A sacred site: from prehistoric times, to Ancient Greek, Roman, and then Christian. Tied together by columns. Structures. Gardens. Fountains. Language. There is evidence here in Corinth that the Greek and Roman alphabet overlapped. A very unusual thing. (The Greek alphabet was adapted from the Phoenicians in 7th C BC.) What is it that connected these distinct cultures together? Was it merely stones constructed into meaning? Or an invisible spiritual bond emanating from the Earth? Centuries upon centuries of sacredness.

Most of the visible ruins are Roman--but much has been topple by Mother Nature. Statues of John the Baptist. A sacred spring and Peirene's Fountain--major sources of water for Corinth. Peirene has a beautiful story. She was a woman who wept so hard after losing her son, that she dissolved into the spring forever. There are possible temples to Aphrodite and Octavia--but the evidence not as obvious as the sun god's sanctuary here.

It's no surprise the air itself feels pure. Corinth is 85% mountains. Pine (its sap soon to be the STRONG, white wine called Retsina,) Cypress (known for connecting heaven and earth,) poplar, and eucalyptus. A castle far on the overlooking mountain. A fortress of protection. A point where 3 continents meet-- a variety of flora--olive and grapes. Wine. Vineyard. Homer said that "whoever doesn't know how to make wine is a barbarian." I can see that here. So beautiful. So green.

And then there are the dogs. The big-nosed, daschound/dobie (and who knows what else!) mix. She's just had babies (somewhere) and she is so so skinny. My heart breaks for her. I scratch behind her ears as she lays behind a rock in the heat. She moans. Out of joy or pain--I'm not sure. I fall in love with another dog too--a shepherd mix. He lays on my leg, melts into me as I rub his soft belly. I want to take him home.

Layers run deep. Longing. Sadness. Joy. Perseverance. It's all here, wrapped up in columns and mosaics and clear, sweet and beautiful air.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Long Live the Sea

Sounio, Greece

We drive south from Athens, along the serene Aegean Sea to the southernmost point of mainland Greece: Sounio. The gorgeous aquamarine horizon draws me in. Sunshine reflections make me drowsy--golden sprays across the water.

Poseidon's Temple. A grand temple to the god of the sea. The creater of islands. Calm seas. Earthquakes. The sanctuary stands atop sheer cliffs along the coast. A landmark for sailors. A site of striking beauty.

First mentioned in the Odyssey as Menelaus' first stop. The first temple was built around 500BC but never completed--but destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. The current Temple of Poseidon (and a temple to Athena) was constructed on top these old ruins in forty years later. Fifteen of the original Doric marble columns stand today.

Again, I feel that peace walking around these ruins. Maybe it's the ocean breeze. The absolute quiet. The solitary olive tree that stands guard. I'm struck by the white columns contrasting so vibrantly against the sapphire sky. Their royal construction. Solid. Ground to sea and earth of times long gone by. What magic is it that makes them still stand today? I am thankful to science for unlocking ancient mysteries. Thankful for stories and myths that spurred the oldest of imaginations. Thankful for builders who constructed such beauty with heart, soul, and grace.

The power of Poseidon truly lies here. I can see it in the sparkle of gold on the water. Smell it in the purest of air. Sense it in my son's eyes.

Long live the sea. Long live Poseidon.

(thank you steve for your far away temple shot!)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ancient Voices in Motion

One of my missions in Greece was to take my father back to Nemea, a village near Corinth where his parents were born. They passed away when he was a teen, and he'd never been to Greece. It was one of those important-must-do activities. So the day finally arrived...

We rent a car. Map out the route several times. Just about a two hour drive to Nemea--no problem. Ha! Let's just say it wasn't such a pleasant drive out of the city. Actually a hour-and-a-half-we-can't-find-our-way-out-of-Athens drive. Greek people are so nice. We stop. Ask directions. With my broken Greek and their broken English--we are told to go straight, turn left or right. But, they say, "ask someone else when you get there." AHHH! Where is "there?" It would have been nice if: a.) I spoke fluent Greek. b.) We read Greek (English translations on the map don't match up to Greek street names c.) We had a GPS. But alas, we didn't and we continue on--hearts pumping. I try to laugh. Make jokes of our predicament. Not a good idea. Just focus on the road. Get brother, son and father to Nemea.

Well, we do. Once out of the city, the drive is cake. Beautiful coastline. We cross the Corinth Canal from mainland Greece into Peloponnese. We wind through green, hilly country. First stop: Ancient Nemea, fomerly named Iraklion. Famous in Greek mythology and with Homer, this Nemea was the home of the Nemean Lion killed by Heracles. The Nemean Games were started by the famous "seven," (The Seven of Thebes,) to honor the infant Opheltes who was killed by a serpent while lying on a bed of parsley . The games began somewhere around 570 BC at Nemea's Temple of Zeus. Winners earned a crown of parsley, and the judges wore black in mourning.

Today, several temple columns have been re-erected. We climb all around the ruins--marveling at their stature and grace.We admire the column pieces on the ground. Massive, circular parts, once stacked together toward the sky. We visit the great alter and the ancient baths, pass skeletal remains of ancient Nemean citizens. I'm reminded of the heat on my skin. The chirp of the cicadas. We're alone at this ancient place. A place of mythology. A place of my origins. And it's magical.

Run near the stadium. Imagine the athletes bursting through the entrance tunnel. We hear voices. Ancient voices in motion. We move with them.

In the town of Nemea--it's quiet. Too quiet. Siesta time (3-5pm.) We're lucky to find a taverna open. We're starving so we gorge on Greek salad, potatoes, and enjoy a lovely Nemean red wine. Famous for its krasi (wine,) Homer called this place Ampelóessa, or "full of vines." We buy ice-cream bites from the sweet shop across the street. Other than the guy snoozing in front of his open air pet shop (really?) we don't see a single soul. We try to ask for a city hall to find records of my grandparents (Peter Polydoros or Mary Lazopolous) or any distant relative still here. But there is none. A cemetery maybe? We are told no. Much of Nemea was destroyed in WWII and we assume that these records disappeared along with it. We're down-trodden. Unable to grasp something concrete of our past. But we push forward. Visit a cemetery near Ancient Nemea. Beautiful tombstones--adorned with photos of the deceased. Lanterns. Flowers. (More on Greek cemeteries and burials later...)

On the way home, we stop at a Nemean winery. Rose and white. Light and fruity. We buy local pine honey as well. Yum. The drive back into Athens is just as fun as the way out. (Did I forget to mention that Greeks don't really follow any kind of driving rules? And motorcycles can appear magically just about anywhere on the road in a fraction of a second?) It takes us another hour just to get back into the city. We all get out at one point, ask different people directions and come up with the same answer. Our car rental office is just about 1/2 mile to our left. But... we can't turn around. So we take Syngrou Ave. for TEN miles down to the port before we can U-turn it. We're tired and cranky and completely delirious about driving in Athens. Wanting the hotel. Wanting dinner. Wanting some sanity.

It's easy to feel like a failure sometimes. Goals not reached. Inadequacies revealed.

But even though I can't find my way home. Even though we didn't find the birth records or gravestones of great-great-grandparents I realize then--surrounded by my dad, brother, my son--that we've created our own memories here in the place we began. We've made our own laughter. Our own footprints. And for that, I'm grateful.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stillness, Strength and Honor

Athens. The sweet dogs. Over abundance of pigeons. Taxis. Cars. People zooming through the business district. The stoic guards at Parliament. Signs that speak of the recent protests. The Running Man statue, all made of massive plates of glass.

Then there's the amazing food. I fell madly in love with a pastry called a bougatsa while strolling through along the street near the Plaka. So enraptured by the flakey, phyllo crust and custard filling, I hadn't even noticed the waterfall of powdered sugar cascading down my shirt. Total tourist moment.

Italian food at a beautiful restaurant completely hidden in a dark Athens neighborhood, covered with pines and drenched with grape vines. Owned by an Italian man who lived in LA and then came to Athens. A very slow cooked meal. Battered and fried olives. Tapenade & freshly baked bread. Spinach ravioli. My beautiful family + laughs + food= a little bit of heaven.

I can't forget the interesting people. I remember the guy who picked up six or seven flats of eggs every morning from the small grocery store across the street. He'd pack them on the back of his moped and speed off through the insanity of downtown. Now that's talent. Or there laundry day (desperately needed after about 14 days of the same clothes.) We trek through the mysterious city in search of the laundromat. Tucked away next to a bar run by a Scotsman and filled with Europeans. It's happy hour, of course, so Dan, Steve, and a great American girl we'd just met (who'd just finished college--last semester in England and now off traveling for three months!) enjoy pizza and drinks while waiting for our spin cycle. The barkeep/laundry master keeps our machines running and our spirits high. It's one of those moments when everything just seems right in the world. The inspiration of those you love and clean clothes...

Ah, the history--where to begin? The Temple of Zeus. Unfinished until the Roman Emperor Hadrian completed it in 131 AD, seven hundred years after its beginning. Only 15 out of the 104 columns still stand today. Gold and ivory statues of Zeus and Hadrian have long disappeared, along with most of the temple believed destroyed in a medieval earthquake. Across from the temple is Hadrian's Arch--another iconic symbol of Athens. A breathtaking mixture of old and new. I feel a stillness here. A remnant of strength and honor swirling around in the air.

The old Olympic stadium. A naturally hollow bit of ground transformed into a stadium around 330 BC for the athletic Panathinaea Festivities. Found in the 1870 excavation, the stadium is 204,07 meters long and 33,35 meters wide and believed to hold up to 50,000 spectators. Used for arena competition in Roman times, and then restored for the 1st modern Olympics of 1896. Dan and Grayson race around (13 year old boy advantage) and emerge victorious.

The 3 layered Acropolis Museum--built right on top of ruins, and structured with transparent glass floors all the way up. So many artifacts. So much beauty and artistic design--luckily, recovered and there for us to witness. Everything built on ruins-- life underneath us--thousands of years of families, technology, love and loss--joy and pain--all in crumbled pieces beneath our feet. It strikes me so profoundly today, standing over these three transparent layers--An ascending, glass-floored gallery holds artifacts from the slopes of the Acropolis. The floor gives visitors a view of the excavation, its upward slope paralleling the ascent to the Acropolis. Thousands upon thousands of artifacts--stories and tragedies from a lost civilization. It's overwhelming and I'm not sure what questions to ask. Where to focus. I am taken in by the tales told in sculpture--the Greek gods fighting amazons--giants--titans. The attention to detail and perseverance in getting the story told and preserved for us to see so many years later.

It's that crazy mix of old and new that I love so much. The city presses on through difficult times, and 'm overcome. Treasures uncovered. Mysteries to be solved. Amazing food to be eaten.

(Thank you Jeremy, for the photos of: the guards, pigeons & protest sign. Your photos ROCK!)