Xenophobe’s Hellenica
                                     The wreck of the Dimitrios

by Stefan Beck

Of course, they must from time to time get officers altogether unfit for the post—men whose nautical knowledge dated from yesterday, and who, moreover, had no notion of dealing with human beings. It would be very odd if this practice of sending out people ignorant of the sea and unknown to the folk of the country did not lead to some catastrophe. Callicratidas at once summoned the Lacedaemonians there present, and addressed them in the following terms:—“For my part,” he said, “I am content to stay at home.”

Xenophon, Hellenica

The first thing I did as a college freshman was hang a map of Texas on my wall. I wasn’t from Texas, nor was I pretending to be. I’d bought the map—handy, easy to fold, no bigger than the windshield of a Greyhound bus—on a road trip that summer with my best friend. Having proceeded too slowly from Connecticut to Florida, and having tarried too long in Fort Myers and New Orleans, we got to Texas just as our money gave out. We stayed for two nights and then drove home in a straight shot. The map, my only souvenir of the state, was also a standing challenge: Texas was as far west as I’d ever gone. The map’s sun-baked yellows and oranges, its craquelure of highways, back roads, and rivers, spoke of America’s inexhaustible splendor, of all that remained to explore. It also made me think of getting coldcocked in a honky-tonk, with Doug Sahm singing “Why? Why? Why?” from the jukebox.

Later in freshman year I met a girl with a map on her own wall, a map of Ohio. She was from Ohio and didn’t care who knew it. Her map looked not to a frontier but to home and hearth. It hinted at small-town tedium. And there was something decidedly small-town about Sarah. She had grown up in her father’s childhood home. She was valedictorian of her high school class, and held many track and field records. Her comprehensive ignorance of movies, music, and pop-cultural ephemera suggested a strict or at least unnervingly wholesome upbringing. It didn’t occur to me back then that small towns in Texas might also produce girls like this. Toponyms like Cut and Shoot, Gun Barrel City, and Point Blank made it hard not to think of Texas as a state full of Annie Oakleys. Of course, Annie Oakley wasn’t from Texas. She was from Ohio.

If Sarah didn’t bring Annie Oakley immediately to mind, neither was she boring. Her apparent Midwestern normalcy wasn’t to blame for our parting ways after a season of what you could just barely call dating. Yet that normalcy, and my vaunted sense of adventure, did make our senior-year reunion, days before Commencement, more than a little embarrassing. In the years since we’d met, I’d gone nowhere, explored nothing. There’d been an off-term with friends in Connecticut. A summer at home, working third shift at Stop & Shop. A Manhattan internship. I hadn’t used a passport since I was seven, which is to say I no longer had one. Now, what had Sarah been up to? It turned out that she was going to receive a degree in classical archaeology (a complete surprise to me), that she’d traveled extensively in Greece, and that she’d acquired a polymathic knowledge of literature, art, geography, history, and foreign and ancient languages. Held up to her standard, I was scarcely educated at all.

After graduation, I moved to New York to take up a bottom-rung editorial job while she headed to Pompeii and then Greece. I counted myself lucky just to carry on a correspondence with her. In the fall of 2004 she sent me an email that concluded thus:

Unfortunately, I have had few adventures since I left Lesbos. I did fall asleep on a local bus after visiting an Archaic Greek sanctuary site on . . . Chios, wake up alone three hours later, still safe inside the bus, but unhappily locked in the creepy bus garage 4 km away from my hotel, and find myself reduced to petty vandalism (sweatshirt-wrapped fist, sweaty brow, nothing-proof glass window) in my wild-eyed attempt to gain freedom. . . . Your hyphenating and reformatting, I trust, went better.

That the slight was probably accidental made it sting even more. It was clear that she was destined for daring exploits, and I for em dashes and kerning. I should have tendered my resignation and hopped a tramp steamer. Instead, to complement a job with no chance of advancement, I entangled myself in a relationship with no chance of advancement. One day this girlfriend, a stay-at-home oenophile, sent me to work with a black eye. By the summer of 2005 I was pale, weak, and miserable. Sarah’s emails had given way to big padded envelopes with Greek, Italian, and German postmarks. She sent along foreign comic books, bric-a-brac, and things I won’t name that ought to be repatriated. She was tempting me. It was bait.

“There is always one moment in childhood,” wrote Graham Greene, “when the door opens and lets the future in.” For me, that moment came late—I was twenty-two—but it was impossible to miss. On Sarah’s way to Tennessee—she was to live with a fellow digger while delivering pizzas and dabbling in contract archaeology—she passed through New York. We agreed to have lunch. She came into my office without knocking, without warning. She was bronzed like a baby shoe. The sun had bleached her hair blonde, and working in its heat had made her palm-frond slender. Deep in my reptilian sub-brain I understood that I had to make straight the path. I was single by Thanksgiving.

By spring, however, stuck in a Chinatown studio so small that it had no bathroom sink, I was confronted with the absurdity of my situation. I couldn’t date a girl in Tennessee, nor could I move to Tennessee for that purpose, at least not on the basis of some correspondence and an intuition. I could visit, but that presented its own problem: Even though we already knew each other, were already friends, a visit might make me feel like some businessman flying to Moscow or Odessa to interview prospective brides. I suppose what I really wanted was a way to spend time with Sarah minus the bald romantic imperative. After all, it was possible that one or both of us would realize it was a terrible mistake. Why not preempt the awkwardness, situate ourselves on neutral ground?

Sarah solved the problem by inviting me to visit her in Greece that summer. She was to resume work at a dig called the Mitrou Project, jointly administered by the University of Tennessee classics department and something magisterially denominated the Fourteenth Ephoreia of Classical and Prehistorical Antiquities. Cursory research revealed that Mitrou, a tidal islet in the Gulf of Euboea, was “[f]or most, if not all, of the Bronze Age . . . the largest and most important settlement of East Lokris.” But never mind all that. Sarah sang the dig’s praises like a tout selling a timeshare. During the previous summer, she’d gone to work each morning by tramping along a sandbar or, at high tide, through shallow water. On karpouzi (watermelon) breaks, she and her friends had plummeted from Mitrou’s escarpments into the Windex-blue waves of the gulf. At a bar on the shore, they’d rewarded themselves for their labors with octopus and marides (fried whitebait), ouzo and tsipouro (moonshine). They’d partied hard every night, but the fresh food and sea air had been so restorative that nobody was ever hungover or tired. If I’d pressed her, she might have claimed that everyone had gone naked and women had given birth without pain.

I’d never been much of a philhellene. What little mental image I had of Greece came from diner murals. Having worked at a literary magazine for two years, I regarded Greece as a repository of proper nouns that poets used to firm up half-baked sherds of verse.* Still, if I didn’t go, something was wrong with me—inertia, cowardice, even xenophobia.

Here is my saving grace, and my no-longer-secret shame: I thought I’d impress a girl by taking a trip that nobody in his right mind would have refused. Inasmuch as drinking on a Greek beach appealed to me more than drinking across the street from my apartment, it was because Sarah was on that beach. That said, it served my purpose to have a noble motive at the ready. I told everyone that the trip was about correcting a shortcoming. I wouldn’t have dreamed of deploying the cliché “broadening my horizons,” but that was more or less the idea.

Vacations rarely live up to the hype. This one took my expectations and made a perfect mockery of them. In the popular imagination, Greece is Mykonos, a paradise of blue skies and marshmallow architecture. To say that Tragana, the Greek village where Mitrou is located, wasn’t Mykonos is a start. Had it not been home to an excavation, few Americans would ever have set eyes on it. The Greeks there were by and large hospitable, but the archaeologists weren’t moved an inch by my enthusiasm, the misguided zeal of a recent convert to travel. I wasn’t, it turned out, even welcome on the dig unless I agreed to work, in which case I’d get a cot in an old ship captain’s living room, a mile from the walled, gated house to which my prospective girlfriend had been assigned. On my first morning I was jolted awake by a string snapping on the guitar of an Italian ceramicist named Salvatore. It was five a.m., and time to rise and shine.

I worked. Sarah’s love of privation and hard labor was part of her appeal, and I wanted to prove my mettle. I was put on wheelbarrow detail. Mitrou was a mound of dirt rising from the sea, ringed by stone scarps in which exposed ancient cist tombs could be glimpsed here and there. It was mockingly hot and dusty, and the only shade to be found was in olive groves that were also, as I recall, thorn groves. The undergrowth was so dead and dry that it seemed like it might be ignited by footfall or a hard look. The place resembled a penal colony. Yet it was swarming with young people who, despite being obviously, profoundly hungover, seemed to think they were at a resort.

For hours I worked harder than I ever have, dumping zembilia (baskets fashioned from old tires) of backfill into my wheelbarrow and pushing it to a pile many yards away. By midday, uneasy about spending such a pricey vacation as a day laborer, I begged off and slunk away to eat lunch. Then, in the late afternoon, I joined Sarah and her friends at an elastika, or tire repair shop, to drink canned Löwenbräu with the locals. The place belonged to the town moonshiner, Yorgos, a balding man in blown-out flip-flops and a threadbare polo shirt who plied us with grilled fish, spitted lamb, and his homemade, Styrofoam-textured feta. To be appreciated by a local, as opposed to seen as a revenue source, seemed to be the highest aspiration of anyone on the dig.

I have a photo from that afternoon. It looks like the scene inside an auto shop in any American town. Water bottles full of motor oil stand on a workbench. A heavy-set, bespectacled guy called Noam, with an Akkadian- or metal-style beard, sinks his massive frame into a chair. A native mechanic, Dimitri, clean-shaven, muscular, wearing a black ballcap, reaches for his drink. He doesn’t look all that Greek. If you squint, you can make out a map of Tragana on the wall, the only clue to how far I’d traveled for so mundane an experience.

My attempt at work made no impression on the woman in charge of the Mitrou Project, who was named, like some Harry Potter villain, Aleydis van de Moortel. Though I’d promised to write about her dig in the Wall Street Journal—an impetuous promise I somehow did manage to fulfill—she decided I was up to no good. There was a simple explanation for my presence on the dig (Sarah was a girl; I was after her), but it didn’t cut any ice with Dr. van de Moortel, who was convinced that I’d flown to Greece at great personal expense in order to sell Sarah drugs. The evidence was there: Since my arrival, Sarah had been acting differently and spending less time with the dig’s staff. Open and shut.

The next day I was given a task away from the site, away from Sarah. Her job, operating the dig’s total station, meant she was never not on the site. All Aleydis had to do to ruin my vacation was keep finding work for me at the apotheke, or warehouse, and making me eat horta, a dish akin to mustard greens.

The apotheke housed all the excavation’s equipment—pickaxes, shovels, and zembilia—and finds. But the Mitrou Project had just built a new and improvedapotheke, nearer to the island, and I’d get to help load moving trucks. I could return from my Hellenic adventure and tell people, “I helped these dudes move. It’s cool, though, they gave me really primo horta.” I observed a spider like something out of a kaiju movie emerge from beneath a pallet I’d been unpacking. When I accompanied the truck to the new apotheke, the police followed, “to discourage hijackers.” I wondered ruefully if I’d ever get to visit the Acropolis.

In an unguarded moment I told Aleydis, hoping to elicit pity or understanding, that I’d previously never been outside the United States. Aleydis, who was Belgian,responded with a few thoughts about the parochialism and incuriosity of Americans. “I think a lot of people can’t afford to travel”: I don’t remember if I said this or only thought it, but I did repeat it, smugly, whenever describing this encounter to others. Whether or not she was right about Americans, she was right about me. On my salary, travel was bank-breaking, but it was ridiculous to pretend that my parents wouldn’t have sent me on a semester abroad in college. If only by accident, Aleydis had me dead to rights.

On day three I was given a less manly but equally dull, Sarah-less task, namely painting over outdated information on the balsa tags used to label finds. If day one had been characterized by my willingness to make an effort, and day two by mounting self-pity, day three found me barreling toward panic. When things go wrong in big, catastrophic ways, it makes for a funny anecdote, if nothing else. There’s nothing funny, though, about the death by a thousand cuts. I was in Greece, but not the cool Greece, not Athens or the Cyclades. No problem—there was still a beach! But I was stuck a mile away from it, in the middle of a barren, rocky field, staring at screen sieves covered in shattered pottery. Well, there were other young people, right? It turned out that all the tanned, gorgeous field school students worked over by the beach. Getting closer to Sarah seemed no likelier than white-water rafting on the Styx.

I pulled myself together, and determined that there was, in fact, one place to stay in Tragana. I took a room, at ten or so euros a night, in a motel geared toward the odd trucker or transient. The sheets were stiff and rough as shirt cardboard. The wallpaper resembled a diagnostic manual on skin diseases. The shower was a hose and a hole in the floor. I loved it. A famous travel writer once wrote of returning to civilization from the hinterlands that “to lie in hotel bedrooms contemplating the fissures like forked lightning across the whitewash, to turn on a tap again—even if it gave egress to nothing more than a few Titian red drops and an outraged centipede—inspired us with the awe of a Red Army corporal in the state rooms of Tzarskoe Selo. . . . Contrast is all.”

That writer was Patrick Leigh Fermor. He was talking about the contrast between the Mani, one of the most rugged, inaccessible parts of Greece, and the rest of the country. For me, the pertinent contrast was between being under Aleydis’s thumb and being on a real vacation. I wasn’t in Kolonaki, the rich district of Athens. I wasn’t in Santorini, drinking tequila from a college girl’s armpit. Yet suddenly I was free to spend my mornings on a balcony, looking out on battered pickups full of garlic bulbs, listening to roosters and goats and the crackling PAs of vans—you find these, Sarah had explained, in every Greek village—peddling watermelons and plastic chairs. I could explore the beach, examining bits of amphorae and then tossing them back like fish whose lives I’d spared. (In Greece they have ancient pottery like we have Mountain Dew bottles, but keeping so much as a flake of potsherd is illegal.)

Still, my troubles didn’t disappear overnight. Sarah had to work most of every day. My Greek began and ended with parakalo (please) and efharisto (thank you), so my interactions with the natives were restricted to ordering food—mostly oktopodakia (grilled octopus) and gyros, as they were easiest to remember. To be at the site without working seemed like bad manners, and I was uneasy around Aleydis, who now regarded me as a shirker as well as a probable narcotics trafficker. I kept having to remind people that I was on vacation, that I really just wanted to lounge.

The vacation excuse seemed strangely impotent—and for that I blame Kerill O’Neill, the co-director of the Mitrou Project. Kerill could out-dance and out-drink anyone of any age and did so every night, but he could also wake up early and work so enthusiastically as to destroy the work/play dialectic altogether. He washomo ludens even when swinging a pickaxe. And though he had a girlfriend on the dig, one some years his junior, it was impossible not to worry about the light his example was putting me in. I had to compete with a Platonic ideal.

I demonstrated my masculine gusto by eating constantly. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because I wasn’t exactly sold on Greek food. No less an authority than Jeffrey Steingarten wrote the following of the land of feta and retsina: “Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.” The kicker here is that, in a Greek village, there isn’t any local Chinese place. Americans, who often take a self-flagellating view of their parochialism and incuriosity, should note how many different cuisines they eat in a given week. In a Greek village, every place is a Greek place.

The culinary cynosure of Tragana was the Butcher Shop. This wasn’t a restaurant with an edgy name but rather a genuine butcher shop, plus an Astroturf patio and a bunch of collapsible banquet tables. Diners at the Butcher Shop enjoyed a view of meat on hooks and a cleaver-wielding man in a bloody apron—Leatherface aschef de cuisine. As in the States, it was customary to ruin the meal by filling up on bread. It was also customary to go on eating bread throughout the meal. The famous Greek salad, a meal unto itself, conspired with the bread to leave you sick-stuffed just as the main course arrived. This involved souvlaki skewers, paidakia(lamb chops), keftedes (meatballs), kotópoulo (chicken), loukaniko (sausage), and, dauntingly, kokoretsi (offal wrapped in intestines). All of them were served at once; to eat some of each was mandatory. Thus I had to consume mountains of everything, and to navigate oceans of wine, to embody the sort of Zorba-like largeness of spirit I thought Sarah would require.

I had an easier time of this at the other end of town—at Maria’s, the open-air taverna across the water from Mitrou. Maria was among the locals who adored Sarah, though Maria herself was something of a pariah. A hefty, bosomy woman with a huge scar from what I understood to have been a drunk-driving accident, she smoked and drank heavily. She couldn’t have known that Sarah enjoyed similar outlaw status—hardworking, indispensable to the dig, yet subjected to the suspicion and rough treatment of her boss. She couldn’t have known that Sarah was, despite her manifest popularity among the staff and townsfolk, something of a loner and eccentric. There was, nevertheless, a kind of sympathetic vibration at play between them. It made the taverna a perfect backdrop for my wooing, with Maria as a benevolent observer, always ready with fish and booze.

Maria’s was to seafood what the Butcher Shop was to meat. Out front, octopuses rappelled from trees, advertising their grill-bound tentacles. I ate kilometers of tentacles, and I’m confident that it was my love of them—frank, greedy, requiring no exaggeration—that won Sarah over. I didn’t need to appreciate everything about her adopted land, as long as I appreciated this one thing with rapturous intensity. That the octopus, along with the stray cat and the toothless, black-cladyia-yi(grandma), is a staple of Greece’s postcard industry did nothing to dampen my ardor. I spent as much time as I could in Maria’s, gazing out at the laborers on Mitrou, savoring my lemon-drenched tentacles and beer, tentacles and ouzo, tentacles and tsipouro, waiting for Sarah to wade back from the island. I readMoby-Dick and got my first proper tan. Sarah and I ended up a bona fide item.

Three months later, I was on a train to Philadelphia. Sarah had come back from Greece in September to enroll in a post-bac program in Greek and Latin at the University of Pennsylvania, and I’d quit my job to go live with her. It had taken me a while to find my nerve, but my job paid so little that I was forfeiting a good thing in name only. We lived in a studio on the edge of West Philly before moving to a vermin-infested one-bedroom across from Varsity Pizza, whose proprietor conversed with Sarah in Greek and once invited us to a baptism in Patras. Sarah applied to graduate programs, was accepted to every single one of them, and chose Stanford.

I was in awe of her. She was beyond any doubt the smartest person I’d ever met. She filled our apartment with Loeb Classics, read the Iliad in the original while I struggled to produce articles on the likes of Al Gore and Woody Allen. Each morning, while I slept off the previous night’s Yuengling and Cheez Whiz, she ran half marathons along the Schuylkill River and through neighborhoods of Philly I never ended up visiting.

I was happy to postpone or abandon any ambition of my own that might interfere with her manic academic goals. When she announced that she’d found work for the summer, on a dig in the Nemea Valley, near Corinth, my only demand was that I get to bunk with her instead of marking time in some lousy motel.

My first trip to Greece had been, needless to say, unorthodox. Sarah had shepherded me from the Athens airport to Tragana. When my time was up, a taxi had taken me from Tragana back to the airport in the dead of night. I’d seen Athens from moving vehicles, and places like Santorini and Mykonos not at all. It was like traveling from Greece to the U.S. and spending two weeks in my northern Connecticut hometown. People would inquire about Times Square and Hollywood, but you’d be able to tell them only about the Congamond Lakes or the Granby Oak.

This time around, with an entire summer in Greece ahead of me, I was sure I’d get to take in the Parthenon, the windmills of Mykonos, the nightlife. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The trouble had started stateside. I hadn’t made any effort to learn modern Greek. As for ancient Greek, I was too lazy to bone up on Homer or Thucydides even in translation. The author who came closest to capturing my attention was Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose Mani and Roumeli called out from Sarah’s shelves. Aware that Leigh Fermor was regarded as one of the finest travel writers in the language, I browsed in these books from time to time. When summer came, they were sandwiched between my underwear and computer charger. I’d have to read them. There’d be nothing else to read.

There’d be nothing else to do, either. Whereas Mitrou was one of the most appealingly situated and hardest-partying archaeological projects in Greece, Nemea was landlocked and dull, staffed by Canadian students who spent their down time napping or watching Scrubs. At Mitrou, I’d hoped for respect on the grounds that I was taking an honest layman’s interest in Greece. Instead I’d been an object of suspicion. At Nemea, I hoped for respect for having worked out a way to go abroad all summer while continuing to draw a freelance income. The attitude I got was something along the lines of Haven’t you got someplace else to be? Do you two really have to be together all goddamn year?

I’ve never really liked or understood that kind of romantic pragmatism, which seemed to be standard operating procedure among archaeologists. Young men and women sent their fiancées and fiancés to Greece to engage in torrid and, thanks to Facebook, barely disguised affairs, only to marry them anyway upon their return. Some archaeologists at least had the good taste to take their summer flings seriously. A friend went to Tragana during the winter for a bout of serious soul-searching, before wisely choosing her stateside boyfriend over a Greek auto mechanic who operated equipment on the dig. I couldn’t imagine an arrangement with Sarah that entailed going our separate ways every summer. She was my best friend. My willingness to spend three months eating Greek food and hand-washing my clothes was the highest compliment I could pay our relationship.

My idealism on this score contributed to my growing interest in Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose wife Joan was his traveling companion in Greece as well as the dedicatee, “with love,” of Mani. Every day, after waking up at ten or eleven (by which point the archaeologists had long since decamped to their site), I would go sit in the plateia (town square), soaking up the sun and reading Leigh Fermor. The question that troubled me: Was Sarah my Joan, or was I hers? Did I even qualify as a Joan? When I wasn’t in the plateia or glaring at the hideous mural across the street from my balcony (the legend “BIG DISCO” paired with a goggle-eyed, afro-sporting head), I was wasting time and euros in the internet café. Or I was ordering salads without number, just for the sake of a little human interaction. Joan Leigh Fermor? No, I was like a downmarket version of an ambassador’s wife.

One afternoon I took a long walk to the excavation, photographing the ekklisaki (little churches) I encountered along the way. The motley architecture of these ubiquitous roadside memorials—picture fancy birdhouses, or novelty mailboxes—was for me an object of real fascination. By the time I reached the site, I was feeling powerfully Leigh Fermorian: a man on foot, taking stock of his surroundings. Thus masculated, I thought about offering my services to the dig. Sitting around all day was getting old, and I knew my way around a wheelbarrow. Then I saw the problem with my plan. This wasn’t Mitrou. The Nemean excavation looked to me like a modest hole in the ground, one that didn’t appear to be yielding much of interest.

My self-pity was turning toxic. I felt an angry edge creeping into my conversations with Sarah. It wasn’t her fault I was bored. She was doing her job, and keeping me entertained wasn’t part of it. Lucky for me, the job wasn’t doing much to keep her entertained, either. We fled the village on weekends. Our options were limited by the shameful fact that neither of us drove stick. It’s possible to rent an automatic in Greece, but it isn’t cheap. Though my first driving lesson had been on a car with a manual transmission, I hadn’t driven one since, and I didn’t want a refresher course in a country whose treacherous roads had made ekklisaki a kind of national folk art. (These shrines are, in fact, even erected to mark accidents that everyone survived.)

Without a ride of our own, Sarah and I had three options for getting out of town. One was to go on a dig-sponsored field trip. We only took advantage of this perk once. It was a tour of Mycenae, led by our dig’s director, James Wright. Whenever I’m tempted to feel cheated by my foreign wanderings, I call this outing to mind. It was from Jim that I learned about Cyclopean masonry—stonework employing limestone chunks so huge that Greeks of the classical period supposed only Cyclopes could have moved them. It was Jim who narrated our stroll from the dromos into the Treasury of Atreus, a magnificent tholos or “beehive” tomb built during the Bronze Age. It was Jim whose voice we followed down the steep stairs of Mycenae’s cistern. To descend forty feet or more into the ground, to experience the cistern’s strange grandeur only as a dampness in our nostrils and a darkness blindfolding our eyes, was unforgettable. Not even Mycenae’s Lion Gate could compare.

Another way to escape from Nemea was with Jim’s son Nico, who worked as a pottery artist on the dig and who knew Sarah from an abortive stint at Mitrou the previous summer. Nico drove stick. He knew the highways, the contours, the craggy and piebald topography of Greece better than anyone on our dig save his father. He was curly-headed, rangy, Christ-thin, and, except for his forearms and the bridge of his nose, a practically diaphanous white. (He was also completely imberb, to trot out one of Leigh Fermor’s prize vocab words.) Nico was a model for the junior Leigh Fermor I wished to become. It will come as no surprise that he’d gone to Reed College, that he rolled his own cigarettes, that he lived the rest of the year in a Tyvek wigwam pitched inside a warehouse in North Philadelphia. But those were mere trappings. What he shared with Leigh Fermor, what I envied to the point of mortal sin, was a belief in his ability to “coerce life into a closer resemblance to literature,” as the writer put it in A Time of Gifts. For Nico, as for Leigh Fermor, “translating ideas . . . into deeds overrode every thought of punishment or danger.” Some people—I include myself in this sad collective—can’t help expecting the worst, but Nico expected only the most charming or memorable, and was usually granted it. He drove like a rally racer, not because he had a death wish but because the possibility of his grieving family contributing a shrine to the landscape didn’t even occur to him.

At the Agios Nikolaou Sintzas monastery, near Leonidio, a building carved right out of a cliff face and accessible by a road so steep and winding that it made even Nico nervous, we were greeted by some angry rams. While I retreated from their flaring nostrils and stamping hooves, Nico all but tried to pet them. It was a preview of where our day was headed. When the monks refused to answer our importunate knocking, Nico took us, as a consolation prize, to a shipwreck he knew of in Gythion, a port in the northeast corner of the Mani peninsula.

The beach at Gythion wasn’t the kind that beckons club-drugged American vacationers to Greece. It was littered with rusty jetsam and petroleum lumps like desiccated blackberry jam, and the water was roiling with candy bar wrappers and condoms. Its sole attraction was a grounded ship—the Dimitrios, as the letters emblazoned on its prow informed us. The wreck was an Ab-Ex masterpiece, its broad stripes of white, seafoam green, and oxidized brown interrupted by a savage slash of dried-blood red.

There were no openings on the shoreward side. Of course not. On the seaward side, however, waves had bashed holes in the vessel’s hull. Even though I’m a self-taught and commensurately awful swimmer, I agreed to accompany Nico into the ship. (Sarah, in a rare access of prudence, stayed put on the beach.) We took off our shirts and waded in, picking our way along a promontory of cracked concrete just below the surface. As we prepared to enter the ship, I thought of a passage I’d read not long before in Mani, where Leigh Fermor writes of exploring a cave near Marmari—a cave that, according to legend, is a portal to Hades:

I . . . made for the cave which yawned like the lopsided upper jaw of a whale (the lower jaw being submerged), about thirty feet above the sea. . . . The cave grew much darker as it penetrated the mountain-side, and a couple of bats, which must have been hanging from the roof, wheeled squeaking toward the light. The roof sank lower, and, swimming along the clammy walls, I found a turning to the right and followed it a little way in; but it soon came to a stop. . . . The ceiling had closed in to about a foot and a half overhead . . . . The air was dark but under the surface the water gleamed a magical luminous blue and it was possible to stir up shining beacons of phosphorescent bubbles with a single stroke or a kick. . . .

I had never imagined the whole of the cave’s floor to be under the sea. None of the legends mention it, though there is not a shadow of a doubt that this is the cave through which those famous descents to the Underworld were made.

Not every watery hole is an entrance to the Underworld, but the hole in the hull of the Dimitrios—the hole I was about to pass through—had the unmistakable look of one. It might, I reminded myself, wind up being the entrance to my own private Underworld.

Just as I clambered in, a wave struck my head. There was blunt trauma, and blood, and for a moment I was certain I’d be knocked out, swept along the ship, and keelhauled. Nico helped me through, though, and I found myself staring—dazed, elated—at a cathedral of rust. Nothing looked sound enough to support our weight. I was conscious of a muted roar, as if I were inside a conch, and of a brackish, nostril-puckering odor.

“Holy shit, man,” Nico said. “You looked fucking terrified.”

We climbed a rusty ladder to a perilously Swiss-cheesed deck, where only the barest intimation of structural elements guided us from harm. There was nobody to wave to—the beach was deserted. Where the fuck was Sarah? Had she tried to follow us? True to form, I was already playing footage of the tragedy in my head: Sarah floating against the ship, radiating a corona of blood—the same fate I’d narrowly escaped. Without hesitation, I hopscotched across the deck, scrambled down the ladder, and plunged back into the sea. I found Sarah wading on the shoreward side of the ship, examining its graffiti, poking at the rust. She was fine. Everything was fine.

Nico joined us. “You should have seen your face. Scared shitless!”

I thought, but did not say, “Thanks for the recap, malaka.” (I’d learned and internalized this insult, which means something like “jerkoff ” and is of variable nastiness depending on context.)

The third way out of Nemea’s doldrums was the bus, or buses, to Tragana—a three-hour voyage involving a long, chain-smoking layover in Athens. Sometimes we could talk our Mitrou friends into taking us to Nafplion or Tolo—in other words, into driving us home. Other times we stayed put all weekend in Tragana. By the end of the summer, even this was maddening. All I could think about were the places I was missing out on—tourist spots that may have been stale to Sarah but that tantalized me like the vine-ripened clichés they were. Notwithstanding constant low-level grumbling, I was probably too accommodating. Sarah clearly regretted switching digs, and I understood that if she didn’t see the Mitrou folk on weekends, it’d be a year before she saw most of them again. Still, wasn’t it cruel to let me spend so much time and money on Greece and yet see so little of it?

I speak of “our” Mitrou friends, but I had a hard time believing they thought much of me. This suspicion had nothing to do with anything they did or said. Rather, it was that everything I admired in them—hard work, experience, joie de vivre, you name it—was signally lacking in me, and I sensed that they looked down on me for it. Nico, of course, had the opposite problem: the conviction that everybody he met liked him, admired him, and wanted to help him in any way possible. In this too he resembled Leigh Fermor. I never saw Nico’s conviction fail him, and if it ever failed Leigh Fermor, he never told. This passage from Roumeli is typical:

As he gave his horse a kick and moved off, a muslin bag of sugared almonds slipped and fell into the dust. I dived for it, ran after him, and, my luck still holding, remembered as I handed it over, to utter the ritual phrase of a wedding guest to a koumbaros; it is adapted either from the tenth chapter of St. Luke or the First Epistle to Timothy: “Axioi tou misthou sou!,” “May they be worthy of your hire!” He reined in, placed his right hand over his heart and bowed his head in a ceremonious gesture of thanks. Then, after a glance up and down and a pause, he asked in a thick rustic accent where I was from. I told him and asked him where the wedding was to be. “Tomorrow at Sikarayia,” he said, “two hours from here.” After another pause, he said, “Honour us by coming.”

Having none of Leigh Fermor’s knack for instantly winning people over, I relied on Sarah’s popularity. She knew it, and I hated that she knew it. Sometimes regret takes odd forms. One doesn’t so much mind the risks avoided, the conversations not had, the friends not made, as one minds not having been the sort of person to whom all of that comes naturally. It’s a kind of regret one gets to experience ex ante, and then to go on experiencing forever. I’d hoped to discover that I was a late-blooming Leigh Fermor, but I’d perhaps have settled for Sarah believing me to be one. As the summer lurched toward its conclusion, it looked like too much to ask.

One night at Tragana, intoxicated by frustration and self-loathing—as well as alcohol—I wandered away from the beach bar, pulled off my clothes, and staggered into the Bay of Euboea. Moonlit water looks the same everywhere, black and shiny as Japanese lacquer. Beautiful. Calming. Swimming back to shore, I ran aground in the shallows, but was either too drunk or too distracted to notice the injury. I found Sarah, and the calming effect of my swim was replaced by an urge to bicker. We walked back to Kerill’s spitaki (little house), which we were “renting” for the night, now sniping at each other, now flip-flopping along in the stoniest silence. When we got back, there was more fighting, followed by more silence, followed by—for me—a gradually intensifying pain. The last thing I remember of that night was landing on the floor and unzipping my pants.

Sometimes you attempt, as Leigh Fermor did, to coerce life into a closer resemblance to literature. Sometimes life does it for you. The next morning, Kerill and a gaggle of field school students found me asleep on the floor, tenderly cradling my penis. It was, though I’ve done my best to forget it, the wrong kind of purple and throbbing. I hadn’t run aground at all. I’d been savaged by jellyfish, unmanned at a stroke. Had there been a sword lying around, I wouldn’t have thought twice about falling on it.

Sarah didn’t ask me to accompany her the following summer, to a different excavation, on the Saronic Gulf. Nor did I want to. Our relationship had returned effortlessly to normal upon returning home from Nemea. We’d driven cross-country to Palo Alto, which, after some misgivings, came to seem to me like a true paradise. There was no need to tempt fate after a very good year by trying Greece a third time.

A year later, though, I did precisely that. In the spring Sarah led our alma mater’s classics study abroad program; she’d do her excavation season afterwards. Meanwhile, I drove from California to Connecticut, then down to Virginia, where I lived for a month in a friend’s spare room. I had no heat. I slept on a defective air mattress I called the Flight Simulator, as it was more useful for learning about roll, pitch, and yaw than for anything else. My dietary staples were sardines, Saltines, and pickle chips. When the weather improved, I spent my days reading on the great lawns of the University of Virginia and Monticello’s parks. I found the following in Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes:

Maugham tells us how his painter-hero Strickland, like Gauguin, went to Tahiti and knew that he was home, tells how he had lived his life in an agony of exile until he had come to that place, which he had never seen before—home. And that is what I felt with Bunny—except that instead of place I had lived my life in the hope of person, and here she was in the flesh, so that I could, as I had done with that other only a few nights before, reach out and touch her.

The passage was maudlin, the outpouring of a terminal drunk, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of recognition. I’d never felt a strong tie to a particular place, whether despite or because of having lived in eight different states. Were I to find some kind of anchor, it would have to be Sarah—and were it to be Sarah, it would have to be Greece. She and Greece were indivisible.

So I proposed to visit her at the end of her dig. We would see, for a change, the things I wanted to see, the things everyone wants to see: the new Acropolis Museum, Mykonos, Santorini, even Leigh Fermor’s beloved Deep Mani. She went me one better. Not only could we make the standard tour, we could go back in the fall and spend an entire month on Crete. The Stanford classics department would pay for it. I couldn’t believe my luck.

For once, everything fell into place. On my flight I sat next to a young, Americanized Greek who worked at a recording studio in Brooklyn. Relentlessly talkative, he ended up inviting me to visit his family in Thessaloniki. I’d considered it a form of politeness to assume that people didn’t mean for such offers to be taken seriously. But now I’d try my hand at being Leigh Fermor. I’d make demands on people’s generosity beyond anything they’d intended, and in so doing learn all about what makes the Greeks tick. What I wanted was for Sarah to know that I took her work, her life’s calling, seriously. I wanted her to see a traveler, a proper Leigh Fermor. How hard could it be?

On arrival, I went with Sarah to the big flea market in Athens, where everything from pistols to Greek zombie movies to moth-eaten shawls embroidered with John F. Kennedy’s portrait was for sale. I took pictures of graffiti, stray cats, every clichéd photographic subject under the sun (except gypsies and crippled beggars, for I feared the evil eye). We took a ferry to the Cycladic island of Syros, where we visited a museum of industry, the Church of Agios Giorgios, and a museum devoted to the Syros native Markos Vamvakaris, godfather of rembetiko—something like Greek blues, all about hashish, prostitutes, and the docks at Piraeus. It was more of a shrine than a museum, but I was in heaven, scrutinizing Markos the Headman’s bouzouki, komboloi (worry beads), cufflinks, and pocket watch. I was so smitten with it all that I didn’t see what was coming.

Actually, I suppose that’s not quite true. There were signs. I chalked Sarah’s fatigue up to overwork, her lack of interest up to the fact that she’d seen it all before. By the time we reached Mykonos, though, her lassitude and vacant expression were too much for me. We fought, and broke up. Sarah vanished from our cottage into the night. I stepped into the dark and silent street. The sky was filled with stars. It was impossible not to take a Google Earth view of my situation, to recognize how isolated I was. Later I found her slumped by the cottage’s back door. It was over.

Well, almost over. There was, for starters, a very long night to get through, a night of chain-smoking and staring at the wall, with its shitty windmill paintings. Why this was happening seemed as much a mystery to Sarah as it was to me, but in any case she had passed into a deep sleep. In a movie, I might have fled, slept in a wheelbarrow, and, come sunrise, slapped my cheeks and set off on an adventure. In moments of weakness I regret not having done so. In moments of clarity I remember that I wanted badly to go home, and nothing else.

Two of our pals from Stanford, Matt and Nick, had just arrived in Athens. The day after our breakup, following a dismal ferry ride from Mykonos to Athens, Sarah managed to contact them. Yes, I could crash with them until I got my return flight sorted out. At their hotel, I emailed my dad, whose frequent flyer account I’d used, that I needed my ticket changed: Everything had gone haywire, and I could no longer afford to stick around Greece. Then the three of us strolled out into the hot night to get dinner. About an hour later, Nick realized he didn’t have his phone, and, being of a nervous disposition, insisted we go back to the hotel to find it. While in the room I figured I might as well check my email, and sure enough there was a response from my dad. He’d taken my ASAP a bit too literally; my flight was early the next morning, just a few hours away.

I shocked myself when, at 3 a.m., I managed to ask a cab driver, in Greek, to drive me to the airport. Where had that come from? Osmosis? The cabbie and I hastened through the night, he supplying me with Marlboro Reds and telling me excitedly about a Santana concert he’d recently seen. He had the same prize-winning moustache I’d studied, with a magnifying glass, in old photos at the museum of industry on Syros. He seemed and smelled drunk.

I went home. Now I’d been to Greece three times. I knew that the rabbit-warren streets on Mykonos had been designed to confound invaders, that the unfinished concrete buildings of modern Greece had been left that way to confound tax codes. I knew which graffiti was about white supremacy, which was about soccer. I knew that I was no Leigh Fermor, and that I no longer had any great wish to be.

I even let myself nurse a few grievances against Leigh Fermor. His famously gorgeous prose can be verbose, overlarded with ten-pound words, and deployed in compulsive displays of erudition that would make Robert Burton blush. The closing chapter of Roumeli—“Mistra is a swoop of kestrels among cyprus trees, a neo-Platonic syllogism under provincial purple; Sinai, a fanfare of rams’ horns, Daphni, a doxology . . .”—sounds like Christopher Smart with a belly full of retsina. Here he is in Mani: “This country, even after years of familiarity, often calls forth these sudden feelings of naïve and Marvellian gratitude: What wondrous life is this I lead?” A little of this gloating goes a long way, in the wrong direction.

Eventually I found solace in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. It ought to be required reading for college students abroad. Much of what it says about the hokum of travel fetishism is timeless. Fussell is devastating, for instance, on the need of tourists to perceive themselves as true travelers:

A useful trick is ostentatiously not carrying a camera. If asked about this deficiency by a camera-carrying tourist, one scores points by saying, “I never carry a camera. If I photograph things I find I don’t really see them.” Another device is staying in the most unlikely hotels, although this is risky, like the correlative technique of eschewing taxis in favor of local public transportation (the more complicated and confusing the better), which may end with the anti-tourist being stranded miles out of town, cold and alone on the last tram of the night. Another risky technique is programmatically consuming the local food, no matter how nasty, and affecting to relish sheep’s eyes . . .

Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. . . . In Athens, one disdains the Acropolis . . .

“Etymologically,” Fussell writes, “a traveler is one who suffers travail, a word deriving in its turn from Latin tripalium, a torture instrument consisting of three stakes designed to rack the body. . . . Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar is one of the few travel books to emerge from our age of tourism, observes that ‘travel writing is a funny thing’ because ‘the worst trips make the best reading, which is why Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads and Kinglake’sEothen are so superb.’” Did Leigh Fermor agree? What did he think of Eric Newby’s marvelous Short Walk in the Hindu Kush? What did he think of Wilfred Thesiger’s books? How, one wonders, did he excuse his own books’ lack of hardship, comic or otherwise?

I don’t believe Leigh Fermor omitted bad times, or that he meant to give a uniformly cheerful account of his travels. I’d never be so tasteless as to call him a fibber. He loved Greece enough to settle there for the rest of his life, in a house one obituary called “as essential an expression of his creative power as Pope’s Twickenham or Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill.” He was simply lucky. When in Greece, he wasn’t a traveler at all—he was, like Maugham’s Strickland, home. The same came true of Sarah. By the time we parted ways, she no longer seemed to regard the United States as home. She wanted to be in Greece all the time. She was a stranger to me.

I flew to New York and stayed there for a week or two, then booked a flight to San Francisco so that I could retrieve my car from Palo Alto. Wandering around JFK, I found myself staring at a beautiful woman and calculating the odds she’d be on my flight. She was, as it happened, not only on my flight but seated next to me. I felt that life was being coerced into a closer resemblance to literature. Was this the part in my romantic comedy where I’d leap out of the frying pan and into the feather bed? I wondered how long I ought to pretend to read before making some hilarious comment to her about the in-flight movie. Then Nick, coincidentally en route from Athens to San Francisco, came down the aisle. Smiling broadly, clad in his trademark Centaur of Attention t-shirt, he asked the woman to trade seats with him. She shook her head and said something in French—she seemed to have no idea what he was saying. Unfazed, he managed to negotiate the exchange with hand gestures. I wanted to garrote him with a seatbelt.

By the time the beverage cart appeared, I’d mellowed. I needed this, a final thwarting to drive home everything I was not. It had been fun to imagine I might become, like Leigh Fermor, a man who walked across continents, mastered alien tongues, turned strangers into friends. It had been heartening to find that such men didn’t exist only in books. Sarah was one, so to speak, as were many of her friends. To have known them was a privilege, in part because they showed me the edges of what I could do, or in any case what I wanted to do. Someday I might learn a little Greek, take a trip laid with tourist traps. But I wouldn’t seduce Frenchwomen on planes. Truth be told, a beer and a conversation in English, with a friend, were vastly more appealing. In Abroad, I’d been struck by the following passage:

In 1965, stuck in the Rome airport for seven hours with nothing to read, recoiling from the awful paperbacks on show—“dictionaries of sexology, the lives of the First Ladies”—Nancy Mitford spent her time regretting the dead. She concluded that “except relations I miss Robert [Byron] the most . . . It’s the jokes.” And a year later, on All Souls’ Day, again she gives herself up to recalling the dead, and again associates jokes with Byron: “It’s people one has jokes with whom one misses . . . Robert is still the person I mind about the most.” He had disappeared beneath the Mediterranean 25 years before, in 1941, when, aged 36, he was lost together with everyone else on a torpedoed destroyer.

I was glad to be back where the jokes were. I was eager to complain, to tell stories, and above all to be understood. In Greece there had been two kinds of people: Greeks, with whom I could barely communicate, and people like Sarah, who were so at ease that they’d lost the ability to understand homesickness and alienation. Returning to Greece each summer was her nostos, and for that I admired and envied her. But admiration isn’t love, just as tourism isn’t travel. For all the time we spent together, I was a day-tripper in her world.

Not long after setting out from Palo Alto in my car, I stopped at the Mad Greek Truck Stop in Baker, California, where a sign read ATHENS GREECE, 10,215 KM 6,348 MI. I felt so much closer to where I belonged. In Vegas I stayed at the Sahara, where I thought I saw Sarah’s name in lights. The next morning, on my way across the Hoover Dam, I was stopped and searched, and was happy to oblige. I bought gas on a corner in Winslow, Arizona—on its outskirts, anyway, at a filling station full of pamphlets, magnets, and beef jerky. Sarah and I had stopped there once, en route to California. This was, thanks to her, the fifth time I’d driven cross-country. I passed through Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee, finally coming to rest in Chapel Hill, where I was to loiter for a month on a friend’s couch without realizing it pulled out into a bed. Home was, for the time being, an unknown quantity.

Never having gotten to visit the Parthenon, I stopped off in Nashville to see its full-scale replica. Only an American could look with the right horror and reverence on our penchant for appropriation, our willingness to accept cheap imitations. Only an American could fully get the joke when I snapped a picture of that monstrosity, surrounded by a painstakingly manicured lawn, and said, and almost meant it, “Close enough.”

 

*I’ve since found reinforcement in Kingsley Amis’s assessment of Keats: “Even the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ . . . is full of . . . appeals to the remote and merely fanciful. What else are the references to hemlock, Lethe, the Dryad (tautologously described as ‘of the trees’), Flora, the blushful Hippocrene (seen as a kind of Greek red sparkling Burgundy, and apparently sedimented at that), Bacchus and his pards (brought in to effect a translation into poetese of the unpoetical notion of getting drunk)?”

If you’ve driven past a road crew, odds are you’ve seen a total station. It looks something like a Viewmaster perched on a huge yellow tripod. As one archaeological field manual explains, “[T]he total station can measure horizontal and vertical angles, slope, and horizontal and vertical distances. A total station also has a built-in calculator that performs trigonometric calculations, as well as an electronic field notebook used for storing data. The total station can interface with a computer for data transfer.” I should note, for what it reveals of Sarah’s temperament, that she’d gotten the job by pretending to know how to use a total station and then had surreptitiously taught herself, more or less overnight.

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Masthead

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