9/7/2019 through 10/5/2019
“John and I enjoyed Europe.”
There, in five words, is a description of the month that began on September 7 and concluded on October 5, when John flew back home from Athens. Here is another brief description – this time 58 words:
“I flew to Belgium on September 7, where I met my brothers Bob and John in Bruges. Bob was able to stay in Bruges for only a few days, but John and I continued our tour, visiting Paris, Venice, three Croatian cities (Split, Korčula, and Dubrovnik), Athens, and finally Santorini, before John flew back to the United States.”
And now for the long version.
What follows is almost 20,000 words describing what was fundamentally a typical trip to Europe by a couple of typical Americans. There is no hope that I might produce a comprehensive account of this last month; there is hardly any hope for a comprehensible one. To do the trip justice would require a book-length essay, and an ability to shape a series of unremarkable tourist activities into an engaging, thoughtful narrative. Instead of attempting such a thing, I’ll transcribe the notes that I made while traveling, on airplanes, trains, and ferries, correcting minor errors as I go, and then I’ll press the “publish” button in WordPress.
This record is mostly for the benefit of those of us who were there – Bob, and especially John and me. Anyone else is welcome to keep reading, but I will not be hurt or surprised to learn that most people waded ankle-deep into this mess, thought better of their decision, and returned quickly to shore.
Bruges – September 7 through 10, 2019
The bus from Huaraz to Lima left a half-hour late, which meant I was sitting in the Zbus waiting room for an hour and a half. The unsmiling young woman behind the counter dispensed information in inaudible, exasperated monosyllables. A man stripped to the waist and washed himself in the men’s room sink, in full view of the waiting room, because the bathroom had no door.
The bus took me over the Altiplano again – 14,000’ this time – and down a long series of switchbacks, to towns where agriculture was possible. As we entered the coastal plain, the visible fug that was so familiar to me from Lima could be seen, groping at the foothills like a parasite looking for a warm cleft into which it could burrow.
The bus stop in Lima was in a part of town I hadn’t known existed – big, flashy shopping malls, busy and bright in the gathering darkness. I had been nervously marking the bus’s progress in Maps.me, waiting for our arrival at a station that might allow easy access to the aeropuerto, but I needn’t have worried; this station was enormous, prosperous, and obvious. I caught a taxi to the airport and arrived too early to check my bag, so I established myself in the food court, typing, until they kicked me out at midnight. My flight was scheduled for 2:15 AM, so this was my opportunity to check my bag, go through security, and spend my last Peruvian soles (on a deck of cards and, incongruously, a chocolate bar that I planned to import to Belgium – the chocolate capital of the world).
A five-hour layover in Toronto was uneventful except for exchanging texts with Jim Nielson and for a conversation with an engineering professor of approximately my age – a slim woman named Holly who lives on 35 acres of land near the college where she teaches and where she goes for long walks, disturbing the resident coyotes and, according to her, the cougars, too. She had been to Oaxaca and asked me eagerly if I knew about the Oaxaca Lending Library – a resource that I spoke about with warm approval in my first blog post of 2019, http://jimbogar.com/wp/out/. Holly and I were delighted by each other. We exchanged contact information and then I hurried to my gate, where they were broadcasting stern warnings about the final call. I was the last passenger to board the plane.
The sun set over the Atlantic and rose again over northern France.
A shockingly friendly and helpful person at the Brussels airport directed me to the train and helped me buy a direct ticket to Bruges.
John met me at the train station in Bruges, looking happy and fit; he had arrived the day before, 9/6, and had already acquired the local expertise that enabled him to guide us into town and to our private room in St. Christopher’s Bauhaus hostel, where we had two small beds in a tiny room for $100/night. The toilet was in a closet whose roof sloped so abruptly that it was difficult to stand up while urinating, and the shower room was so small that it was almost impossible to dress and undress in there.
John was tempted to take a pedicab from the train station, because this service was being offered by an attractive young woman, but this would have meant asking her to drag our two enormous American selves and my luggage all the way across town – and besides, she was asking 18 Euro for it, whereas a taxi would have been 10 Euro. We said, “No, merci,” with some regret.
My brother Bob and his friend, Justin, had just arrived in Bruges, at the end of their “Beer and Bikes” tour. Their companions were Dave (a Dan-Acroyd sembable with a pleasant personality and a keen mind) and another Bob (their crapulous guide).
I’ve been writing on the bus, but just took a break to visit the gardens at Giverny, outside Paris. Mom would have adored this place.
Bob lay in wait for us around a corner near Bruges’s bell tower, springing out to take a picture of our surprised faces. It was good to see him again. He was half-bearded, in a familiar way, and his puff of grizzled hair was even more untamed than usual. He seemed a little tired to me – an impression that made sense, when the six of us convened in a good restaurant for an early dinner, and it became clear that the guide’s idea of sampling beer was to find a first-rate artisanal brew, preferably one produced in tiny batches by Trappist monks, and to pound pints of this down your throat until you can hardly walk. Bob had been biking 40 kilometers while half-drunk, every day for more than a week. No wonder he looked tired.
Our dinner was at an outdoor table behind a charming place. The courtyard had a setup for a game that is something like horseshoes, except that you roll a disk weighing perhaps ten pounds and the size of a wheel of gouda toward the stake. We divided into two teams and threw a bunch of remarkably random shots. I can’t remember which team won, if the word “won” applies here. When the game was over, Bob revealed that he had noticed that the disks were weighted unevenly, so that the side of each disk that still retained vestiges of paint was heavier; the disks reliably veered in that direction. Armed with this knowledge, I threw one last shot, after the game was over – and dropped it two inches from the pin. I was surprised that Bob had kept this information to himself, until I remembered that I am less competitive than practically anybody I know. You’d keep this information quiet if you wanted to win, of course. If you wanted to “win,” I mean.
Break for a simply incredible lunch at an old mill and home designed by one of Marie Antoinette’s architects. Wine, salad, main, dessert.
After dinner we followed Guide Bob through the dark streets of Bruges – no two of which meet at a right angle – to another restaurant where, to my amazement, I discovered that the plan was to drink more beer. I ordered a pint, against my better judgment, because everyone else was doing so. I finished it, but my energy was flagging. Before arriving in Bruges that morning, I’d been in transit for something like 41 hours; although I’m sure I got some sleep in that interval, while sitting upright in airplanes, I’m also sure it wasn’t much. At about 10:00, I excused myself, saying that I needed to get some sleep. John accompanied me back to the hostel. He said the next day that he’d never seen anyone fall asleep so fast.
Bob, Justin, John, and I each bought three-day museum passes, which let us into Bruges’s major attractions. We saw a church with lovely paintings, old frescoes that are being painstakingly exhumed out from under eleven coats of paint, and a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo – the only one of his works to have left Italy during his lifetime. The Gruuthusemuseum, with Hieronymous Bosch, Frans Hals, and lots of “Flemish Primitives.” John and I climbed the bell tower, where we were lucky enough to be standing when the carillon clanged into action. It played #1 from The Well Tempered Clavier, I believe, but so cacophonously that it was hard to be sure. John and I also visited the one working windmill on the city’s old walls, now destroyed, and a museum devoted to reproducing life 100 years ago – a schoolroom, cobbler’s shop, grocers, and so on. The Church of the Holy Blood. The Old City Hall.
Bob and Justin moved from their hotel room, which I never saw, to a wonderful place just ten minute’s walk from our hostel. We used their new place as a base of operations, drinking beer, eating cheese, bread, and sausages (bought, prepared, and served by Justin), and watching TV (Amazon’s series The Boys and In Bruges, the 2008 film that we had been told was “basically propaganda for Bruges.”) In the days following the film, we found ourselves in virtually every spot that the movie used as a location.
We also launched a day trip to Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Trappist monastery at Westvleteren, where Justin said they made “the best beer in the world.” This claim seems to me to be something like trying to identify the world’s most beautiful landscape, elegant painting, attractive woman, or cutest puppy, but there’s no doubt that Westvleteren 12 was a tasty beverage. From Wikipedia:
In 2014 (Westvleteren 12) was rated best beer in the world by Ratebeer.com.
Following these events, interest in Westvleteren’s output increased and stories appeared of the abbey’s stock being low, forcing the monks to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer. In an interview, monk Mark Bode explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite demand: “We make the beer to live but we do not live for beer.”
The monastery is a half-hour drive from the nearest town, but this hadn’t daunted the swarm of international beer nerds that packed the restaurant. It was an interesting outing.
I read about Ypres before we rented a car and drove there, but it was impossible to reconcile the horror stories of the First World War with the pastoral landscape that surrounded us on the motorway. I had read Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” aloud to John in our hostel room; despite having been familiar with this for many years now, it was everything I could do to get through it. Here it is again, in case you haven’t read it recently:
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Flanders Field museum was a technical marvel but didn’t have anything like the information density that I was looking for. After spending way too much time there, we got back into the car and drove out to Passchendaele’s Tyn Cot cemetery, where 20,000 of the 500,000 men who died there in 1917 are interred. The fields between Passchendaele and Ypres were deep, deadly mud in 1917, but now they’re sleepy pasturage. Two German pillboxes flank the lower end of the cemetery; the one on the left had been dubbed by the British the “Irksome Pillbox.” The major, central pillbox has been used as the foundation of a memorial and cross. A high-schooler who was volunteering there took great pains to show us the graves of two Americans – both of whom had been fighting with the Canadians and neither of whom was identified as American on their headstones. He also had a notebook that showed, in schematic form, what this area had looked like in 1917, with the placement and orientation of the trenches at the time. This was exactly the information I’d been craving.
Break for a scant two hours in the Palace of Versailles – a monument to the consequences of combining a lack of education, poor taste, untrammeled narcissism, and all the money in the world.
On our last day in Bruges, John and I spent the morning visiting the windmill and other sights while Bob and Justin went for a run. Then we splurged on a good lunch at a sidewalk cafe – mussels and frites for John and Justin, Flemish beef stew for me, and spaghetti for Bob – while watching a constant stream of tourists take selfies next to the canal across the street. Bob sneaked off to pay for everything, because he is an excellent person. Then we got chocolates and coffee and beer, and then, since we had the whole afternoon ahead of us, we rented bicycles and rode them the five canal-side kilometers to the town of Damme, where John and I sat down for beers while Bob and Justin continued to roll through the countryside along the flat, open paths. A small clutch of drunken regulars sat propped up against the exterior wall of the pub. When, in a conversation about canalside bicycling, it came up that I have been to Amsterdam, a rheumy woman nodded knowingly and pantomimed smoking a joint. “No, no,” I said. “Not for me.”
“But that is all they have in Amsterdam,” she protested.
“Not at all,” I replied. “They also have prostitution.”
The next day, aboard an “Easy Jet” flight from Paris to Venice.
John and I had breakfast at the hostel’s restaurant, almost every morning; 5 Euro for a buffet with muesli, hard-boiled eggs, juice, bread, and instant coffee dispensed by a machine. Bob joined us on the last morning, because he is an excellent person. The three of us walked out onto the street after breakfast and were chatting comfortably while strolling toward the bus stop when the bus we were hoping to catch went by. John and I yelled “Bye, Bob!” and broke into lumbering trots under the weight of our bags, leaving Bob standing alone on the sidewalk. I feel bad about having run away from him. He and I won’t see each other again until December.
We bought tickets to Brussels for about 15 Euro each. I realized, perhaps 10 minutes later, that I had already bought these tickets, back in Bolivia; it is depressingly routine for me to have done something like that and then forgotten it. Wasting money occasionally is part of any trip like this, but still – incompetence stings.
We had a lot of time at Brussels Midi train station, which we used to drink coffee and eat stir-fried vegetables from the food court.
Photos from Bruges.
Paris – September 11 through 15, 2019
The trip to the Paris’s Gare du Nord was the usual stressful experience that was nevertheless easier and more convenient than it had any right to be. I was making this point to John yesterday, when I observed that only miracles of engineering and system design make it possible for a person like me, without any help, to make his way through Mexico and South America, fly from Peru to Belgium, and then arrange transportation and lodging across half of Europe. It’s amazing to think about how many complicated systems need to work flawlessly for this to have happened.
We took the Metro to the Républic stop, where we staggered down the Avenue de Républic under our loads, admiring the young men and their skateboards, to the Rue des Trois Bornes, where we couldn’t find our Airbnb. When our host, Julien, came to our rescue, he seemed slightly incredulous that, having found #1, we hadn’t been able to locate #2, which was a block up the street, on the other side.
Our Airbnb was absolutely perfect. Just past several sidewalk cafes and one of Paris’s charming Wallace water fountains, up two flights of creaking wooden stairs, in the 11th arrondissement. Julien, a trim, tanned, gay young man, showed us the ropes with genuine charm and friendliness. After a brief collapse, John and I set off for a long walk down a long capped canal, past guys playing palenque and flotillas of electric bikes and scooters, to an open harbor full of pleasure craft, to the Seine, where we walked west to the far end of the Île de la Cité, to a sidewalk cafe just past the Hôtel de Ville, where we sat down and had vin rouge (me) and champagne (John), toasting ourselves for being so indubitably and awesomely in Paris. And then took the Metro home.
On our first full day in Paris, John thought he might give his aching feet a break, so we split up. I walked down to the Centre Georges Pompidou, where a bought a 4-day Paris Museum Pass and then struggled to figure out that horrible building. You enter, buy your ticket, and then follow the “sortie” (exit) signs to the escalators that take you up the outside of the structure. The sixth floor was off limits to me and my pass – a special exhibit devoted to the undeniably accomplished but nightmarish and unpleasant works of Francis Bacon – so I started on the fifth floor, where most of the titans of 20th century art are represented by attractive but second-tier works. Miró, Picasso, Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollack, Jasper Johns, Duchamp, and so on. I wasn’t really in the mood for it. The fourth floor was “contemporary” art (as opposed to “modern”), which means art since 1965 or so, the best of which was mildly amusing, but most of which was dull, derivative, and often intentionally and actively offensive.
After Pompidou, I got as close as I could to Notre Dame, which wasn’t very close at all; in the aftermath of April’s fire, the entire complex is cordoned off. Scaffolding covers the missing roof, and cranes are busy on all sides. I saw in the news recently that many tons of lead roofing material were aerosolized by the flames and deposited in a toxic flume over Paris.
Then I visited St. Chappelle’s magnificent stained glass, and would have visited the Conciergerie prison, where Marie Antoinette awaited execution in 1793, but for a sign saying something like “Fermeture exceptionnelle. Merci de votre compréhension.” From there, I walked to Shakespeare and Co., where I sadly looked at all the books I couldn’t buy. Oh, yes – by this time I’d bought a gelato, two scoops, strawberry and passionfruit, and paid an eye-watering 8 Euro for it. I fed the last scraps of the cone to a pigeon with a maimed foot, who pecked the pieces out of my outstretched hand and then approached to within inches, looking up into my face with greedy expectancy.
From Shakespeare and Co. I walked through the Latin Quarter to the Pantheon, a place I’d seen only from a distance on my previous visits to Paris. It’s enormous and grand, but absurdly self-important and aesthetically ridiculous. It’s a kind of secular church, huge but more solid than it needs to be – the Shaquille O’Neal of 19th-century architecture, if I can put it so badly. I admired Foucault’s Pendulum for a little while, which dangles from the central dome and swings with remarkable calm imperturbability back and forth over an inlaid section of floor, dismissed the ridiculous statuary and interior decoration, and went down into the crypt, to photograph the graves of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, the Curies, and other notables.
By now, John and I had exchanged texts. He was at the Grand Canadian Bar, on the Left Bank – a 20 minute walk from the Pantheon. I told him to sit tight and set off to meet him. He was seated outdoors with two older men from Toronto, Don and Bill, who were visiting Paris for just a day or two before taking the train to Normandy and touring WWII battlefields. We enjoyed talking with them. They must have been well-to-do; Bill’s old house in Toronto was used as a set in the recent Stephen King film, It. They weren’t sure that their train trip on the following day was going to happen, they said, because of the upcoming one-day transit strike.
This was the first I’d heard of this. Our cute, dark, Slovakian waitress told us about how bad it was likely to be, and also expressed remorse at the fact that the French don’t tip – although she admitted that she does okay, because most of her customers are Canadian and American tourists, who leave tips even when no one else does.
I thought John and I might be able to use the electric bikes and scooters to get around on the following day – the day of the transit strike – but John and I had a hell of a time with the wifi in our Airbnb; I was able to download the Velib (bike) and Lime (scooter) apps to my phone, but John had no luck. This meant that a combination of inexperience and ineptitude gave me, with a working phone, a fun and romantic electric scooter ride through the heart of Paris, all the way to the Musée d’Orsay, while John tried and failed to pick up a taxi (all of whose drivers looked dourly out at him through their windshields and waggled an index finger in the universal “no” sign), and then gave up and walked the whole way there. Meanwhile, I entered the museum and looked at a few statues before realizing that I should wait for John and retiring to the superb cafe on the fourth floor, with the enormous transparent clock looking out toward Sacré-Cœur. By now I knew he was on foot – a text had said he was “still miles away” – so my Kindle and I made ourselves comfortable. Finally, I got a text saying that he’d arrived, but that he’d been given a hard time at the x-ray machine in the security line and so, tired and dispirited, had retired to the courtyard, where he intended to read his book and wait for me as I enjoyed the museum. “What the effing eff?” I responded, and joined him outside. I gave him my jump-the-line museum pass, hoping that having a different x-ray operator might make it easier for him to get in, while I joined the line for the regular plebs. Ten minutes later, we were both inside.
We spent all afternoon at the Musée d’Orsay, leaving when they ejected us at closing. What a great experience. It was overwhelming, in the best whelming way. Afterward, we were faced with the transportation problem again, and once again John got screwed. I was able to rent a standard bicycle, but John couldn’t – and I couldn’t give it to him, because, without my phone, he couldn’t check it back in at the end of the ride. I got home in happy comfort, while John spent 20 Euro on a taxi that took him only a few blocks through almost motionless traffic before he gave up and, once again, did the whole thing on foot. When he finally arrived, exhausted and dripping with sweat, we eased his aches and pains at an excellent restaurant just a few feet away, which Julien had recommended because of its excellent “terroir,” a word I knew only from Georges Simenon’s series of Maigret mysteries.
Back at the apartment, I plugged my laptop into the TV and we watched Amélie, an absolute delight which John rightly said was a French It’s a Wonderful Life.
We had been thinking about devoting the following day to the Louvre, but John understandably felt that he had had enough long walks and transcendent museum experiences on the day before, so we compromised; we scootered to the Orangerie (I having figured out how to use the app to check out more than one scooter at a time), where we took our time with the delightful water lilies, and then found a restaurant in the Tuileries, where we had a couple of large beers, bread and cheese, and a nice conversation with a couple from Amarillo. The Texan woman told us that her visit to Monet’s home at Giverny had eclipsed their visit to Versailles, as far as she was concerned. John and I had only been dimly aware that a day trip to Giverny was even possible. Interesting.
I’m writing this aboard our flight from Venice to Split via Barcelona (of all things).
After lunch, John and I split up. His plan was to head west, for the Eiffel Tower / Champs-Élysées / Sacré-Cœur, while I spent the remainder of the day in the Louvre.
My pass did not allow me to jump the line at the Louvre, so I joined the long queue next to the I. M. Pei pyramid. An Indian couple in front of me had a slim little boy in their arms, whose black hair and direct gaze made him appear to be a miniaturized version of the adolescent he’ll be in another ten years. This boy was perfectly happy to grasp my proffered index finger and to play the game of passing his sweater back and forth.
By the time I got into the museum, it was 3:30 in the afternoon – two and a half hours until closing. It isn’t possible to do justice to the Louvre in one visit, even in the best of circumstances, but with two and a half hours the best you can hope for is seeing a few highlights and having a few happy surprises. I set off with brisk determination to do what I could. The Venus de Milo! Check. Look – a couple of Leonardos! The Winged Victory of Samothrace – probably my favorite sculpture in the world! I was standing in front of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or maybe it was Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” when it occurred to me that I wasn’t taking any time to do any musing, and that musing is the whole point of a museum. This realization made me slow down. I stopped to admire one masterpiece after another, doing what I could to ignore my watch. When I couldn’t deny that time was getting short, I made my way to the exhibits of ancient art, strolling through the delicious Cycladic statues, ancient Egyptian art, and then, saving the best for my last moments, the ancient Near East. This was a great decision. After a few rooms whose small, battered contents, though abstractly interesting, began to make me wonder whether I’d chosen wisely, I went through a doorway that opened up into a reconstruction of the Palace of the Persian King, Darius I of Susa, where monumental architecture and decoration from 500 BC crowded the space. An enormous gateway whose columns were topped by the heads of bulls dominated one side of the hall. The walls were covered with blue tiles and grim, alert soldiers in bas relief. The only thing I’ve ever seen to rival it is the royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal in the British Museum. It was spectacular way to end my visit to the Louvre.
John, meanwhile, had solved the scooter-rental problem, and had zipped over to Sacré-Cœur. The hills were too much for the dinky motor of his scooter, and the cobbles nearly jounced out his fillings, but he still had a nice trip. It was a pleasure for him to travel through the city without having to walk every step of the way, for a change.
John and I had been talking about spending the following day – our last full day in Paris – on a day trip to Versailles, but, when I looked into this online, I discovered to my disbelief that all of the morning trains were fully booked. After a moment of paralysis, and a little more poking around on the web, it became clear that this was a problem that could be solved by “an infusion of U.S. dollars,” as our father used to say. We could book a bus tour that left at 8:15 the following morning, down by the Tuileries, and which promised to visit Giverny, feed us lunch, and then visit Versailles, all for the painful but not unendurable price of approximately $150 a ticket. This is about what it would have cost us to book the transportation and entrance tickets and lunch ourselves, we reasoned, delusionally. But still.
Giverny was pretty beyond our expectations. It felt like a small miracle that we had been standing in the Orangerie just 24 hours earlier, surrounded by Monet’s water lilies, and now here we were, standing at the edge of his water-lily pond. We couldn’t have planned it better, and we hadn’t planned it at all. Late-season flowers were blooming all around us, happy tourists were taking each other’s pictures on the Japanese bridge, the gardens abutting Money’s home were ablaze with black-eyed Susans and nasturtiums, and Monet’s home itself was a calm, colorful treat, full of Japanese engravings and reproductions of his paintings. John, in a triumph of hope over experience, bought a book of Monet-inspired garden plans from the gift shop.
Our guide, Florence, was a slim woman of approximately my age, wearing a red dress, a pair of white open-backed shoes, blonde hair cut to her chin, and a genuine, friendly smile. It was clear that she had been a pleasure to look at for every moment of her life. We were going to lunch, she said, at a little place that…I don’t know. I could never understand anything anyone said over a bus intercom. Something about the site and an architect associated with Marie Antoinette. We rolled through small, absurdly charming villages in Normandy for an hour or so, stopping finally at a park where an old mill stood at the edge of a slow, green river. This was our lunch stop.
Both the setting and the food were superb beyond anything we had dared to imagine. There were three bottles of wine on the table. The meal came in three courses, giving us plenty of time to talk with other people at the table. Carol, a newlywed, was traveling with Carolyn, her mother, both from Washington D. C. Carol said, with some passion, that she would never, ever, never get married again. Carolyn put herself out to be social, happily asking the table, “Why is it that wine tastes so much better in France?” John had a conversation with a friendly Australian man to his left who made strenuous eye contact with me as they talked, even though I couldn’t make out more than an occasional word. He was remarkably well informed about American politics, poorly dressed, and willing to finish each course of this delightful meal by swabbing his plate with scraps of bread and then devouring each scrap, licking the crumbs from his fingertips. John told me later that this man was gay, and that the woman he was traveling with, who I’d taken for his wife, was in fact his sister; this explained the peculiar eye contact, but it deepened the mystery of his dress and table manners.
Versailles, as I’ve already intimated, was repellent. I don’t know how it might have seemed to me if the space hadn’t been jammed with other tourists. We shuffled from room to room, pressed up against each other in doorways, gaping moronically through our upraised cell phones at the ceiling decorations and hideous gold-encrusted furnishings, and at each other, posing with upraised peace signs amidst the decaying, offensive splendor. John and I paused by the occasional open windows to appreciate the hint of a breeze that sometimes wafted through.
Jacques-Louis David’s monumental canvases of Napoleon’s coronation were fun to look at, but the rest of the experience was a trial. The back of my hand to Louis XIV. John and I were glad to walk away from the Palace of Versailles.
On the following morning, we carried our bags the few blocks to the Oberkampf Metro station, caught a train to the Gare du Nord, another train to Charles de Gaulle airport, and flew to Venice.
Photos from Paris.
Venice – September 16 – 18, 2019
The Marco Polo airport in Venice offers two obvious ways to get into town: a bus that crosses a causeway and then drops you off at the extreme western edge of the network of islands, from which you must then walk, dragging your bags along with you, and a water bus, which costs more (15 Euro), but which takes you right down the Grand Canal, from which practically every house in town is a five-minute walk. We chose the latter, because obviously.
We were met at the Rezzonico dock by our host’s mother, Anna Lisa, a woman of advanced but indeterminate age, with hair a dark shade of purple, a thick impasto of makeup, and what would be called an aquiline nose by her friends. Anna Lisa’s somewhat bizarre appearance was more than offset by her friendliness, though. She led us down alleys and over bridges, chatting about the squares and mask shops and glass shops and restaurants and about the enormous cat that was napping behind one window, which, she said, “every night, he walks across Venice.” Our Airbnb contact, Martina, was waiting in a 2nd-floor window for us when we strolled up. She and her mother explained the apartment in great, not to say excruciating, detail, including a long story about a battle with an unlicensed restaurant nearby; I wasn’t clear on the details, as usual. They were rhapsodic about a different restaurant, right around the corner, and made us promise to visit.
John and I thanked them for their hospitality, ushered them out the door, heaved matching sighs, and left, heading back to the square under the 18th-century church we’d just walked through, where we sat at tables under an umbrella and drank a couple of grateful beers. Then we went for a walk along the canals, stopping every few seconds to take pictures of the bridges, architecture, boats, and people. We had each seen dozens – hundreds – of photographs of Venice in our lives, of course, but those photos had failed to convey the impression we had of being entirely surrounded by – engulfed by – the beauty and charm of the city. It’s pretty in every direction, all the time. Every street is a pedestrian street, except when it’s a canal. Every house is hundreds of years old, with wooden shutters and little window boxes. It’s overwhelming.
We had dinner that night in the place around the corner our hosts had mentioned, which was every bit as excellent as we’d been told. The chef and the head waitress were both charming people, who served us Primitivo wine and peanuts and olives and ham before a table opened up, where we had more wine, and platas from the menu, and a citrus/vodka dessert endrunkener to conclude the meal. It came to 88 Euro, as I recall, and it was worth it.
We began our first full day in Venice by making coffee in a little Italian stovetop espresso device and putting a load of laundry into the washing machine, which turned out to be the slowest method of washing clothes short of hanging them outside and waiting for a hard rain. I used the time to catch up on email. John had decided to take the morning off to rest his feet, but by the time the clothes had been hung up to dry he had changed his mind, so the two of use set off east for St. Mark’s.
The closer we got to St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, the thicker the crowds became, and the denser and more tasteless the tourist shops – until we got very close indeed, when all the shops became Tiffany’s and Dior and Louis Vuitton. This was expensive tastelessness, on a grand scale, directed at us amorphous, ordinary mortals, shuffling by on the cobbles outside. St. Mark’s was pretty, but we were not tempted to linger there, still less to actually enter any of the tourist sites. Instead, we made our way northwest, through the unremitting crush of humanity, to the Rialto bridge. We had lunch in an unremarkable restaurant in the shadow of the bridge, and then made our way back to our apartment.
I hadn’t originally intended to spend the afternoon doing travel business, but it seemed to me that there was a lot to be done, and that there was no time like the present. So, while John put his up his aching feet, I booked a flight from Athens to Kathmandu, booked an Airbnb in Athens for the days after John returned to the U.S., booked flights from Athens to Santorini and back, and booked an Airbnb in Santorini’s main city, Fira. I was still working on this when John woke up, used some of my first aid supplies to bandage the Paris-induced blisters on his toes, and then got to work making dinner, using eggs, cheese, and wine we’d bought the previous evening at a grocery store near the apartment, and chanterelles, potatoes, and onions we’d bought at a floating produce barge down by the place where we’d had beers during our first hours in town. It was delicious.
After dinner, we walked to the Venice Jazz Club, where I’d made reservations after learning that it was Latin and Bossa Nova night. At 8:00 the doors were open but the place was deserted, so we walked the dark streets for half an hour, taking pictures, and returned when enough other patrons had gathered to keep us from feeling conspicuous.
I had brandy while John sampled a variety of different endrunkeners – a word I invented one page ago but which now seems an indispensable part of my vocabulary. The music was wonderfully accomplished and interesting: Caravan, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, La Muerte del Angel, and so on. Jobim, of course, but also talents of whom I’d never heard. The tall, friendly, humorous, intelligent man who seated us and took our drink orders, Federico, was also the colossally talented pianist. John and I were very self-congratulatory about being there. When the music was over, at about 11:00, neither of us was drunk, but John was a tad happier than usual, and was no longer capable of figuring out how to pay the bill; he invited the guitarist, who has a girlfriend in Portland, Oregon, to stay at the Burien house whenever he comes to town, and the guitarist seemed to be seriously entertaining the idea. I wonder what his name was.
Yesterday morning – thank God, I’m almost caught up (Ed. Note – this feeling didn’t last long) – we slept in for a while to let the fumes of the Venice Jazz Club dissipate, which effectively ended any aspirations we’d had of visiting St. Mark’s before the crowds gathered. We got out in the morning, though, taking back streets east-southeast to the Peggy Guggenheim museum, a charming space with a collection that is a stunning achievement for one person and which, if it were moved to Seattle, would instantly be the finest assembly of 20th century art on the West Coast. Picasso, Braque, Miró, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Giacometti, a Pollack that was out on tour, and, my personal darling, Duchamp. And others, of course. Paul Klee. Piet Mondrian. A stunning collection. Man Ray.
We followed Maps.me – our essential companion, especially in a place like Venice, where no two points are ever connected by a straight line – to a pizzeria at the south end of the main island, where we ordered too much food and watched the clouds gather over the charming houses and hotels on the other side of the broad canal. We waddled home afterward, aware that we’d ruined dinner for ourselves, but not caring very much.
After an hour or two of relaxation, we hit the streets again – this time north, to the old Jewish quarter. The name of this district, the Ghetto, is where we get the word in English. We crossed the Grand Canal on a bridge near the railway station and entered an unexpectedly touristy district as a few drops of rain began to fall. We bought cappuccinos and sipped them under a loggia, sharing the space with a young man in renaissance Italian garb who was frowning down at his smartphone. The rain didn’t abate, but it didn’t get any worse, either, and it had never been at all serious, so we shrugged our shoulders and set off for home.
As we were approaching the neighborhoods we recognized, we filed down the Calle del Tabacco, to a little square surrounded by apartments, where two kids clambered on the central capped well and a somnolent restaurant drowsed in one corner. The perfect place to smoke the cigars that John had had the presence of mind to buy that morning. We took shelter from the small breeze next to one of the buildings, where opera music leaked from an open window, and got our Cuban Romeo y Juliets fired up. Then we sat on the steps under the well and watched people walking by. A dad showing off his soccer skills to his young son. A group of friends meeting in one corner, exchanging smiles and hugs. A tubby male tourist and his tubby wife, pushing a stroller; the man had a tee-shirt whose graphic mimicked the power meter on a phone, with a single red bar in an otherwise empty battery icon, and the words “Daddy Meter” beneath. More achingly beautiful young women than we could count. Another group of friends exchanging warm greetings.
The cigars had generated that nicotine-fueled euphoria that I remembered so well. We were in bliss.
Eventually, bladders and a consciousness of the lengthening shadows forced us to our feet. We were nearly home when John observed we were out of wine, so I sent him ahead to use the plumbing while I backtracked to the grocery store and repaid his purchase of the cigars by picking up a bottle of Primitivo, some brie, focaccia, fruit, and a little chocolate. It wasn’t dinner, but it was something like dinner, and it was delicious, especially when paired with the penultimate episode of The Boys, which we watched with great satisfaction as the noise began outside our window, from that colorful, happy, deeply hated unlicensed restaurant in the square below.
I feared we might outsleep the coming morn
As much as we this night had overwatched.
This palpable-gross episode of The Boys had well beguiled
The heavy gait of night. Sweet friends, to bed.
We have done nothing today but make our way to Marco Polo airport, fly to Barcelona, hang around, and fly to Split. We’re somewhere over the Adriatic right now. In a few minutes, we’ll be in Croatia.
Photos from Venice.
Split, Korčula, and Dubrovnik – 9/19-25, 2019
We got up too early in Venice, packed our bags, and walked down to the Rezzonico water-bus stop. The sky brightened over the Grand Canal as we waited for our ride. We were on our way to Croatia, via Barcelona; a geographically nonsensical route that obliged us to fly 1500 miles to cross 240 miles of the Adriatic, but which was the cheapest and fastest way for us to get there.
The Marco Polo airport is noteworthy only for the long moving sidewalks that take you from the canal to the terminal, the Barcelona airport is notable for the attractive use of panels of olive-green glass they’ve chosen to use for the walls of every shop and restaurant in the facility, and the airport in Split is notable only for its absences – no shops or restaurants, no information desk where two Americans might learn the best way to get to town.
Our taxi took us to a spot where a narrow street dove into a hole in a taupe city wall. The driver said our destination was 50 or 60 meters down that way, so that’s the way we went – past a Game of Thrones souvenir shop, with a replica in plastic of the Iron Throne, past restaurants and gelato stands, to a square where walking tours followed guides carrying umbrellas and wands overhead like standards into battle, and where dozens of tourists took photos of an ancient palace in one corner – Palace Cipriani, which turned out to be our Airbnb. We met our doughy, Aspbergery host, Joseph, retrieved the keys, put down our loads, and went out to find dinner.
After eating, at a funky and good plant-based restaurant where we heard a lot of old rock and roll, including the second of three separate airings of “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies over our two-day visit, we strolled down to the harbor, admiring the colors of the setting sun, walked under the palms along the row of waterfront restaurants, and then chose to reenter the old city through an archway, low among the restaurants. This space appeared to have been built as the world’s biggest wine cellar, with columns and arched ceilings. I’m not sure what Diocletian used it for. It is full of souvenir shops now, and, as we subsequently learned, it is where Daenerys chained up her dragons. We followed the crowd up a long, steep flight of stone steps, which opened up into an airy plaza flanked by Roman columns, a hexagonal church, and a lovely old bell tower, all nicely lit against a cobalt sky. John and I gaped in amazement.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked.
A young woman in loose cotton clothing looked over her shoulder and smiled at me. “You’re in Diocletian’s palace!” she said.
I had come to Split aware of its reputation for age and beauty but having done no research whatsoever; the existence of this part of town was a complete surprise to me. Other people don’t travel this way; everyone else we meet has been thinking about their destinations for months or years. People are able to book their treks on the Inca Trail a year in advance, for example. Doug, the unexpectedly gay man at our post-Giverny lunch stop, had booked this bus tour months earlier, and was surprised and somewhat put out to learn that John and I had signed up the night before, and that we hadn’t even thought of visiting Giverny until running into the Texans at lunch on the previous day. This happenstantial approach to traveling means that I often miss important things, and usually have not read about the history and context of the places I visit – but I don’t know how I could do otherwise, given that I’m living on the road. If I devoted as much time to planning as everyone else seems to – Martin, poring over his plasticized tabulated planning documents in our high-altitude Peruvian tent comes to mind – I’d hardly have time for anything else. At the moment, for example, I am not sure where I’ll go after Nepal; northern Thailand has attracted a lot of expats, but I keep running into people who tell me that northern Vietnam is not to be missed. When am I going to make up my mind about this, and how? Maybe I’ll turn my attention to this question in the interval after John flies home from Athens.
After that wonderful nighttime walk in Split – an experience of surprise and delight I am unlikely to repeat – we were eager to devote the next day to exploring the old city in the daylight. We rambled slowly through the labyrinth of streets, climbed to the top of the palace’s vestibule, which is open to the air like Rome’s Pantheon, and paid for entrance to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, which is the former mausoleum of Diocletian and, according to Wikipedia, a building that is noteworthy for being “the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure.” We visited the crypt beneath the church, and then the Baptistry, down a narrow lane whose sagging walls were propped up with reassuringly stout timbers; the Baptistry had been a Temple of Jupiter, under Diocletian, but had been converted to this much less interesting function a long time ago. All of the old statues are missing noses and often heads; early Christian imbeciles thought that these sculptures glorified paganism and so “defaced” them.
In the afternoon we took a taxi to the Archaeological Museum, a little north of town, where one young man concluded his visit and left the building as we bought tickets, leaving us to explore the museum and grounds by ourselves for the next hour. The excellent collection starts with flint shards from the late Paleolithic and works its way through every period of local history, right up through the early Christian sarcophagi, out in the courtyard. Lots of fibulae, for holding robes closed, lots of glass bottles for holding “unguents,” lots of coins, from hoards people buried, hoping to return to them if only they could avoid the tragedies that hovered in their futures. Statuary and Roman mosaics. The streets of Split were packed with slow-moving tourists, grimly licking their gelatos, and yet John and I were alone in this treasure house. It was baffling.
I am transcribing these notes into my laptop during my last hours in Athens. I’m sitting on a shady park bench under an olive tree, having just checked out of my little Airbnb, where I have spend most of my time since John flew home, playing on the computer and listening to the wailing of Middle-Eastern music on the apartment’s shortwave radio.
On the day after the trip to the museum, John and I spent the morning on a kayak expedition. We paddled away from a beach on the north side of the wooded peninsula west of Split – a peninsula entirely devoted to parkland – past eroded limestone at the waterline and a lovely pine forest, to a beach where we got to loll around for 45 minutes. Most of the group (maybe ten people, none of whom seemed interesting to me) followed the guide off on a cliff-jumping expedition, but I was happy to swim, instead. The water was warm and buoyant and the swimming felt effortless; I was probably off shore for 20 minutes. This was my longest swim for many years.
The kayak organizers had promised us snorkeling gear. I had told John the previous evening that I was really looking forward to this – that snorkeling is one of my favorite things to do – but, when we got to the beach, and I asked Viče, our guide, about it, he looked up and down the beach as though surprised I couldn’t see this for myself and said, “But there is no snorkeling equipment.” When I got back from my long swim, John said that someone had found an abandoned snorkeling mask, so I put that on and went back into the water. There were half a dozen species of small fish in waist-deep water, right along the shore. It was incredible that I had been swimming among them and been totally oblivious to their energetic, independent lives. Maybe I’ll be able to rent snorkeling gear in Korčula.
After getting back to Split, we changed clothes hurriedly, grabbed pizza to go from a stall under our apartment, and set off for the bus stop at the edge of town. The #22 to the ruined fortress of Klis was due in a few minutes. When we got to the bus stop, we met a young couple who said they’d been there, waiting for the #22, for more than an hour. The schedule that was posted at the bus stop said that the next one was due in ten minutes. After 15 minutes, I called an Uber, and all four of us piled in. The couple were Jake and Emma, from a little town an hour’s drive west of London. They were big Game of Thrones fans, and were eager to see Klis, which had been the set for the slave city of Meereen, where Daenerys had…well, you either already know all about this, or you couldn’t care less. Jake had a series of interesting photos on his phone that allowed us to compare stills from the series – with the costumed extras, and the platforms covered with flags and garlands, and the pyramids and castles that were added to the background during postproduction – against the ruins that rose out of the ridgetop in front of us. I don’t understand, except in the most superficial way, how it’s possible to use a computer to convert such a site into a place that appears to still be inhabited. The word “magic” is frequently used to describe the work of Hollywood, but it has never applied so well as at the fortress of Klis.
When we had seen everything that Klis had to offer, John and I walked past a wedding that was taking place under the ruined walls. An accordionist and guitarist sang harmonies while the bride and groom smiled and posed for pictures with the guests. This reminds me to mention Red Adventures, the tour group that organized the morning’s kayak expedition, because they appear to be able to organize self-guided bicycle/kayak tours of the Croatian coast and islands; it may be possible to plan a vacation to Croatia that is a wilderness experience, a bicycle trip, a kayaking adventure, and a visit to dozens of charming villages. This reminder about Red Adventures comes to mind because one of the wedding guests was an attractive young woman in a red dress, about whom I joked, “Now she looks like a Red Adventure.”
We had lost track of Jake and Emma by the time we left, at 4:30, but there they were, at the base of the hill, waiting for another hypothetical bus. John and I suggested that we share another Uber, and then we repaired to the terrace of a restaurant that looked up the hill at the fortress, where John and I had beers and the Londoners drank Coca-Cola. A waiter at the bar had tuned the television to a local soccer game – a game that John and I had seen getting underway when we looked down on the field from the Klis battlements. The team from Split was destroying the visitors, to our inexplicable satisfaction. And then we called the Uber, rode it back to town, shook our new friends’ hands, and will never see them again.
John and I walked through the northeast quadrant of Old Town – unknown ground, to us – and found an excellent restaurant which only regretfully seated us, every table being reserved one hour hence. John had risotto while I had pasta with mushrooms and truffles, and we split a bottle of Merlot.
The following morning, we took the ferry to Korčula. The harbor on the east side of Old Town has five or six enormous cruise-ship docks; it wasn’t at all obvious which one might house our ferry. A half hour of irritated confusion led us to the correct queue, though. We were in Korčula by 12:30.
From the plane to Athens, 9/26.
We were met at the doc by Roko, an unsmiling Croatian man with a substantial gut and a gimpy leg, who put our luggage into his small red car and then drove us very slowly the half-mile to the apartment he was renting us, showing us the boat he used to own, and a boat that looked just like his new boat, except for some of the paintwork, and the grocery store, and the pharmacy, and another grocery store, and a good restaurant, not too expensive. He pulled mostly off the road, with the right-front tire inches from falling off the sea wall, to show us the plastic chairs we could sit on later, if we wished, and to point out his own private dock. “I guess you probably aren’t going to drive off this wall,” said John. “Ha ha.” Then, when we got to the white, sun-drenched apartment, he showed us the light switches, the kitchen appliances, how the windows worked, the fuse box, and where to find extra soap, sponges, paper towels, toilet paper, linens, and so on. John was saying things like, “Okay! I think we’ve got it! Yep! Thanks so much!” We were both incredulous when Roko mentioned his wife; people who talk in such a torrent usually do so because they have no one else to talk to. I think Roko is friendly and open and social to a degree that Americans in general, and John and I in particular, find incomprehensible and off-putting. He offered to grill us any fish or meat we might buy, and invited us down to his house for a glass of wine later; we thanked him, said “maybe,” and then closed the door behind him, relieved to have rid ourselves of this clearly superior person.
John had been reacting badly to the mosquito bites we’d been collecting since Bruges, sprouting welts and scratching disconsolately, this morning he’d awakened with his left eye swollen shut in a slightly alarming, likely-to-frighten-small-children way. We’d gotten an early start, though, so there was no time to shop for an antihistamine until we got to Korčula. As soon as Roko left, John went off to find a Benadryl, while I explored the old town, on the little hill overlooking the harbor.
I had a lovely time, taking pictures of narrow streets festooned with laundry and decorated with potted plants and buttressed with stone archways, walking along the esplanade, and having lunch at a little place that served a passable Pad Thai. Meanwhile, John had discovered that the pharmacy was closed on Sundays but had heard that the clinic a little way outside town might be open, so he got a bicycle from a shop where the woman running the rental desk, when he explained his errand, gave it to him for free, tried and failed to figure out its gearing system as he labored up the hill past the supermarket, found the clinic – closed – and rode back to town, exhausperated. “Where would you go if you broke your leg on a Sunday?” he asked someone in Korčula. “I don’t know,” the person had replied. “Maybe I would take the boat to Ljnbrvnjk,” naming a nearby island whose actual name never struck my memory more than a glancing blow.
This reminds me to mention the preponderance of the letters “v,” “z,” and “j” in Croatian. When I said something about this to John, he said he’d seen a little boy coming up the street the other day, hanging onto his mother’s hand and amusing himself by hopping from foot to foot and chanting, “Vizj vizj vizj vizj vizj.”
So, while John was off getting hot and sweaty and frustrated, I was having a relaxed stroll around this beautiful old Croatian town.
We had only one full day in Korčula. On Monday evening, John’s eye had opened enough to allow him to squint through it, improving his appearance from “hideous” to “disreputable.” I had hoped to book a snorkeling expedition, but the forecast was for rain and lightning, every few hours, so I abandoned this idea and accompanied John to the local pharmacy, where the unsmiling young woman behind the counter, when asked about antihistamines, said, “Oh, no. We do not have real medicine here. Only herbs and, you know,” followed by a dismissive gesture at the crowded shelves behind her. She directed us to the supermarket halfway up the hill, where we could find a pharmacy that sold pharmacologically active products.
John recounted his previous day’s experiences with the bike as we walked up this hill. I’d had a good conversation with my daughter Laura the night before, in which she’d recommended something more potent than Benadryl, so John got a box of Claritin from the unsmiling woman behind the counter.
“Look at that,” I said, pointing at a box of “Forté” on an unreachable shelf – a box decorated with the silhouette of a rhino whose horn had been suggestively circled. “They can’t possibly be selling rhino horn, right?”
John, to my consternation, immediately asked to see the box. The pharmacists chatted earnestly for a moment and then brought a woman from the back, whose English was evidently better than theirs. “You want buy?” she asked, handing over the box, whose ingredient list, being in Croatian, was completely opaque to us.
“No,” said John. “We want to know – is rhino, rhinoceros, horn, you know,” – pantomimes having a huge horn thrusting out of his face – “in here? Really?”
“No, no,” said the woman, with sudden comprehension. “The horn, the box, is just a, you know, indication. A symbol. For, you know.” It represents, you know.” She looked earnestly at our faces, back and forth, having no idea what the English word for “erection” might be, and hoping to God that we wouldn’t force the issue.
I was glad to get out of there.
John took two of the pills immediately and said he’d had more than enough of huffing over the island’s hills on the day before, so we split up for the morning. I hiked over a treed hill, past an abandoned donjon, and then returned to the old town and climbed the bell tower, up the narrowest flight of public steps I’ve ever seen. An actual stoplight had been installed at the base of the one-way stairs. The view of the town from the top was the usual Adriatic perfection. I met a woman up there who told me nervously that she wasn’t really good with heights.
“Then why did you come up here?” I asked.
“It’s a bell tower, isn’t it?” she replied. “You feel somewhat obliged.”
John and I met for lunch in the old town, exploring the narrow streets and ending up down by the water, where we looked out at the yachts and watched a terrified school of little fish leap clear of the water while they were pursued by another school of slightly larger fish. It was brutal and beautiful down there.
It had rained overnight, and that morning, but the weather was mostly sunny by now, so after lunch I changed into swimming gear and carried our newly acquired swim mask down to the water, where I spent an hour communing with a dozen species of little fish, some sponges, and a thousand sea urchins, one of which I swam down to harass without disturbing his equanimity at all. It turns out that snorkeling without a snorkel or fins restricts you mostly to the surface, but that was okay. As I swam, a dozen big boats arrived, which lined up cheek-by-jowl along the dock, and whose wakes threatened to overwhelm the shirt and towel I’d left on the pebble beach.
We had our usual excellent dinner that night, at a restaurant that had been set up in what was either a narrow street or a wide alleyway, and returned to our apartment before the lightning and thunder began.
We are approaching Athens. Every ridgetop is crowned with wind turbines.
The ferry from Korčula to Dubrovnik was uneventful except for the bout of motion sickness I had to endure, starting several pages ago, with the words “We were in Korčula by 12:30,” at which point I thought “uh-oh” and put down my pen. I may be the world’s worst sailor. Nobody else on that crowded ferry, from the most energetic boys, hopping up and down and laughing at their weightlessness when they timed their leaps perfectly to the swell, to the tiniest dessicated old ladies, seemed to be having any trouble.
October 3rd – Flight from Santorini to Athens
I can hardly believe that this notebook has not yet mentioned Dubrovnik, Athens, or Santorini. The situation is teetering along the line that separates “desperate” from “impossible.”
John learned this morning, from a piece of email he’d been sent at 6:30 AM by the Internet company from which he’d bought his return flights, that XL Airlines, which runs the Paris-Newark leg of his return trip, had suspended operations on September 30. This would have been inconvenient news if he’d received it four days ago, but getting it this morning has left him with few options.
I bought tickets for the flight we’re now on to minimize the time John would have to spend at the Athens airport, and to maximize our time in Santorini; John will have time to get his bag and head for the security line, and no time to talk to anyone about his new problem with XL Airlines. He won’t have any time to look into this until he lands in Paris this afternoon! This is likely to be a long series of expensive and exhausting problems for him. He thought it might make sense to ditch the next leg of the return and try to figure out the logistics from Athens, crashing at my Airbnb tonight, if necessary; I think it’s probably better to get aboard every flight for which he has a ticket – I used the phrase “bird in the hand” when making this point to John – and hope for the best on his arrival at Charles de Gaulle. Maybe one of the “rescue fares” afforded by United or Air France might be able to help him tonight. If not, he’ll likely have to spring for a room in an airport hotel. At least he’d be close at hand for his next flight, though, and he wouldn’t have to pay for a last-minute flight from Athens – a ticket he already owns, after all.
This digression about John’s logistical woes is a tacit admission that there’s no reason for me to hurry up with the descriptions of the last week in Europe; I will not be able to remember more than fragments, and it’s impossible that I could make more than a tiny amount of progress before landing in Athens, so I’ll just scrawl whatever comes to mind, with no more than a nod toward the idea of catching up.
Our Airbnb in Dubrovnik was just outside the western gate in the old city wall. The unsmiling woman who showed us the place gave us each a set of keys, recommended a restaurant by the water, just down the street, and left us. John and I were sharing a bedroom with two twin beds, and the interior space had no charm at all, but that didn’t matter; we would only be there for two nights. We dropped our bags and set off for the restaurant our host had told us about.
A right on the narrow pedestrian path, where two young people behind a fence were sitting next to each other and sobbing into their hands, a left past the Dubrovnik Love Museum, a right past the burst-bellied remains of a fibreglass rowboat, and John and I said “Oh my God” in the same moment. We were standing at the pier at Blackwater Bay, where John Snow had sailed away at the end of Game of Thrones, and where Cersei had met Jaime, rowing ashore with her daughter’s body. The pier was covered with tourists, of course, and the little boats that were tied up there were distressingly ordinary, modern watercraft, and the bay itself was flecked with a dozen bright orange plastic kayaks that were being rented by an outfit on the cobbly beach, but still. Blackwater Bay. We were agog.
Dubrovnik had been high on my list of places to visit for a long time; I remember grieving during the bombardment of 1991, thinking that this famously beautiful city might be destroyed. I’d wanted to visit for at least 40 years, so I’d have enjoyed our brief stay in Dubrovnik even if Game of Thrones hadn’t used it as the set for King’s Landing – but the Game of Thrones tourism made exploring the city a kind of Easter-egg hunt. Here were the stairs where Cersei was stripped and led through the streets, while that Nurse Ratched woman walked behind her, ringing a bell and chanting “Shame!” And here was the House of the Undying, where Daenerys used her little dragons to roast that terrible, hairless wizard. And the fort over Blackwater Bay – that was the Red Keep, where the show had shot a sadistic tournament, presided over by Geoffrey, the boy psychopath, and where John entertained me by imitating Geoffrey saying “Oh, well struck, Dog!”
A map is displayed on a wall near Dubrovnik’s north gate that shows the density of the shelling the city was subjected to by the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1991. Seven ancient buildings were destroyed outright, and scores were hit by shells and shrapnel. Today, though, the only sign of this is in the view down into the city from the encircling wall, where many of the red-tile roofs seem oddly new.
We saw a poster for a concert that was being given that night in one of the old palaces – a solo piano doing Beethoven and Chopin, in a benefit for a local hospital. A little later, while we were augmenting the hideous throngs of hideous tourists with our hideous selves (the crush of humanity often felt oppressive), we noticed that someone was at the ticket booth outside the concert venue. Tickets were not due to go on sale for another hour – reason enough to dissuade poor timorous me from approaching the booth – but John walked up as though no one might think it importunate to ask for tickets at a ticket booth and was told that yes, we could buy them now, and that we probably should, because online sales were likely to consume every remaining seat very soon. We scored a couple of seats behind the pianist, with a good view of her hands, and went off to find dinner, very satisfied with ourselves.
The piano had been established in the palace courtyard, in a beautiful space full of columns and arches and taupe-colored stone. John and I recognized this courtyard at once – this was where that unctuous guy, the vizier of Qarth, a kind of mayor-of-Munchkinland figure, had come down the stairs to tell Daenerys that she couldn’t have the fleet she needed! John and I marveled at this absurd fact for a few minutes, until a woman in a floor-length, backless, white-lace gown came into the room, said a few words in Croatian, and sat down to perform.
I knew only one of the pieces she played – one of the Chopin etudes – but, even when the music was unfamiliar, it had been written by a genius, and even when the tempi and phrasing seemed to me to be bizarre choices, this pianist was doing things with her hands that bordered on the supernatural, and even when my attention flagged, from time to time, I could watch the play of muscles in her back, muscles whose complexity and vitality made her seem a Galatea as rendered by Rodin, come miraculously to life. The music ended too soon.
John and I devoted the following day – our only full day in Dubrovnik – to walking the circumference of the city walls, doing what we could to avoid the clots of selfie-mad Chinese tour groups, to visiting the Red Keep fort above Blackwater Bay, where technicians were setting up some kind of corporate event for Credit Suisse, and where teams of men had been put to work hauling chairs and lights and boxes of beverages up the hundreds of stairs, and where I saw one man sitting on several boxes of beer in the courtyard where Cersei had told Littlefinger that “power is power,” a man whose face and posture unmistakably conveyed exhaustion and defeat but whose tee shirt read “Unstoppable Energy!”, and, assuming that you haven’t lost track of the clauses by now, to a visit to a nearby park, where turtles swam gracelessly in a small fountain and where a stretch of packed dirt had been the setting for the feast-day celebration where Geoffrey had swallowed poisoned wine and died horribly but too quickly in his mother’s arms. It was all very satisfying. We had dinner at a little place in a narrow street under the north gate, high on the hill above Dubrovnik’s main churches and squares, and then went home to bed.
Shortly after dark, as John and I were settling in for the night, the air filled with loud explosions; it was the fireworks at the conclusion of the Credit Suisse event, at the fort above our Airbnb. It went on and on. “What must this sound like to the people who remember the shelling in 1991?” John wondered. We went outside to watch the flashes and met a woman in her pyjamas who had come outside for the same reason; it was a convivial moment between the three of us, all of us hardly dressed at all, craning our necks into the night sky.
At this point I reach the end of the notes that I made during the flight back to Athens; the rest of my notebook is nothing but unfulfilled potential. I will be getting my trip to Nepal underway in an hour, a process that begins with retrieving my bag at what amounts to a luggage day care, over by the Acropolis metro station, continues with a long trip on the Metro to the airport, and then, after a lengthy flight punctuated by a layover in Doha, my arrival in Kathmandu, tomorrow morning at 8:15. I am currently sitting at an outdoor table at Little Tree Coffee, a block from the Acropolis Museum. I just had an iced tea and a sandwich. I think I’ll stay here for another hour, burning through this laptop’s battery, before standing up and, with my walk to retrieve my bag, setting in motion the end of this trip to Europe.
The only thing that makes the sadness of leaving a place like Athens bearable is the excitement and joy of arriving in a place like Kathmandu.
Photos from Croatia.
Athens and Santorini – September 26 through October 3, 2019
John and I awoke early the following morning, packed, and walked out to the plaza which, at this time of day, was strangely empty of the crowds of cruise-ship passengers who had filled it every other time we’d walked through, queuing up obediently for the stream of buses that ferried them to and from their ships. We had decided to take a taxi up to the spot where we would pick up our airport shuttle, even though the pickup point wasn’t really very distant; we were sick of carrying our bags all over creation. We found a taxi almost immediately, who, as he drove us further and further in the wrong direction, explained that both this street and the street where our shuttle was going to pick us up were long, one-way boulevards, and that the only way to get from Point A to Point B, in this case, was via Point C, miles west of town. This sounds like a classic taxi-cab scam, but I think he was telling us the truth; having walked the route the day before, I knew that what he was saying about the one-way streets was accurate. It cost us ten dollars, 15 minutes, and five miles to go the half-mile to the shuttle pickup, but it was worth it.
I had arranged a taxi ride from the Athens airport to our Airbnb – a service that almost always seems a good idea, to me, since the rates are never more than what you’d have to pay to any other cab, the driver has been vetted by the Airbnb host, and there’s never any confusion about where the driver should be going, since he always knows the destination before he picks you up. I say “he” when I refer to the driver, because it is almost always a man; the one exception was the cab driver who took Jim and me to the airport in Lima, with whom we had a wonderful ride, singing along with the radio, and exchanging cheek kisses when we said goodbye on the curb. This morning’s ride took us through unremarkable light-industrial land, through environs whose unfinished nature and grime reminded me of Latin America, except a version of Latin America in which concern for appearances hadn’t quite been extinguished, and then into the city, which has a level of grafitti I haven’t seen since I first visited New York, in the 70s, and a remarkable number of utterly unremarkable buildings. John and I were craning our necks out the window.
“Look!” said John, pointing. It was the Acropolis.
Our driver took us up a narrow one-way street lined with restaurants, and then up an even narrower stretch that I’d have sworn had been reserved for pedestrians, and then past a Greek-styled church, and finally to the top of a street where he could go no further, because the other end of the street concluded with a flight of stairs. This was it.
Our “stone house under the Acropolis” would have been our best Airbnb experience – beating even the Palace Cipriani in Split – if the next place we stayed, in Santorini, hadn’t been so splendid. Still, it was excellent. John and I each had our own room, with big beds under graceful mosquito netting, and there was a big living room and a well-appointed kitchen. We kept the two air conditioners busy most of the time. The walls of the bedrooms were indeed large brown stones, whose age may have been impossible to determine but whose charm was undeniable.
After a little confusion about the keys – the guy who had shown us the place had forgotten to leave us a set – John and I walked the two short blocks to the restaurant district we’d just driven through, where we sat at a table on the sidewalk, looking up at the Acropolis and toasting our fabulous lives with the first of a long series of Alpha (ΑΛΦΑ) beers. I was feeling a little woozy; while our Airbnb host had been scrawling suggestions on a map, I’d had a juicy sneezing fit at whose conclusion I felt forced to finally acknowledge that the symptoms I’d been denying for the last 24 hours were in fact an oncoming cold. I was not feeling sorry for myself, though. This was paradise.
I must have slept that night, but I can’t imagine when it might have happened. My throat was sore and my nose was a spigot, but I’ve slept with such symptoms before; these discomforts were coupled with insomnia, however, as though my body was not only determined to subject my mucous membranes to a new and memorable experience, but also to ensure that I didn’t miss a moment of the fun. It was a relief when the sun rose and I felt I could get out of bed.
We had decided not to visit the Acropolis on our first day in Athens, although I cannot now remember our reasoning; it may have been nothing more complicated than the recognition that my cold would have made it hard for me to fully appreciate the experience. Instead, we walked along the pedestrian street on the northern border of the Ancient Agora, past the trinket and candy vendors, until we reached the entrance. We had decided to buy a four-day pass that would allow us to visit all of the major archaeological attractions of Athens, so we inquired about this at the ticket office, where the clerk explained that, since tomorrow was a free day at all the sites, we wouldn’t need the pass tomorrow, and thus might not get our money’s worth out of it. What she didn’t tell us was that all but one of the days of our stay in Athens were free days at the sites, so it would have been easy for us to have seen everything we wished without buying any tickets at all. I don’t regret having spent 30 Euro each for our passes, though – if the money is used to help keep these treasures available and protected, and to fund restoration efforts, I’m happy to have contributed.
The Ancient Agora (called “Ancient” to distinguish it from the nearby Roman Agora) is an enormous parklike expanse of ruins – or perhaps an enormous ruin-bedabbled expanse of park – at the foot of the Acropolis. It was the heart of Athens, as recently as 200 years ago, when the population was only 10,000 souls and everyone lived either here, in houses built atop and among the ruins, or on the Acropolis itself. Most of the ruins, therefore, are fragmentary, and were revealed only when the old houses were removed and the ground under them excavated; the incredible exception is the Temple of Hephaestos, on a small hill at the Agora’s north side. This temple survives in excellent condition because from the 7th century until 1834 it was used as a Greek Orthodox church, and so was not subject to being knocked down and used for building material. John and I stood outside the approach-no-further wire at the temple’s circumference, staring hungrily into its dark, cool, mysterious interior; we wished that we had Good Person™ passes, imaginary credentials that might allow respectful, intelligent, curious people to gain special access to such places, on the understanding that Good Person card holders would never litter, or touch the objects, or try to steal anything, or write graffiti, or even make any unnecessary noise. If only the people in charge knew how much they could trust us!
An episode of The Good Place was being shot in the Agora while we were there; we had to walk past signs warning us that by proceeding we were agreeing to our potential background presence in a TV show. A small, slim, blonde woman in a stylish outfit was talking animatedly with some support people; we didn’t see her face, but John said, “That’s Kristen Bell!” We contemplated the cosmic significance of this for a moment. “This would drive Guy crazy,” John continued. “If he were here, he’d want to go talk to her.” Even if John was only half right about this, it said things about my brother Guy’s self confidence and interest in celebrities that I could hardly imagine. Talk to Kristen Bell? I’d expect her to Tase me before I got a word out.
The three trillion cold viruses that were drinking tequilla, playing Barry White, and reproducing as fast as they could in my soft, drippy interior were making it hard for me to walk around with my usual verve. John kindly said he was happy to sit with me whenever I wished, so we spent five minutes on a bench next to a stand that had once displayed the statues of heroes, and another five minutes on a bench next to some truncated columns that delineated the ancient marketplace, and another five minutes on a bench outside an old church on the grounds, where ancient frescoes had been revealed beneath hundreds of years of heedless paint. I eventually felt capable of a visit to the on-site museum, where artifacts from the Agora are displayed. As we approached, we saw some activity in an open, shady area near the entrance – a passel of very young people in simple beige clothing, reading from scripts, gesturing dramatically, and making anguished facial expressions. “Oh, bless their hearts,” John said, with real empathy. “I know exactly what they’re going through.” These kids were terrible, but it took John’s experience to remind me that they knew they were terrible; we could walk quietly away from their awful production, but they had to stay there, suffering, until the last word was read. Bless their hearts.
The museum contained some beautiful objects, but the best thing about it was the building itself, a two-story structure, airy and open, that had been built to replicate the ancient structure that had stood on this exact spot. It was almost possible, while walking slowly through its arcades, to imagine what this might have looked like 2400 years ago.
After half an hour, John and I were ready for lunch. When we left, the actors were still shouting and gesticulating in the depths of their misery. We had lunch across the street, where I suggested that John might want to continue his exploration of Athens alone, while I went back to the apartment to take a nap. He agreed, of course, so, after eating, he set off for the Temple of Zeus, down by Syntagma Square, while I toddled back to our place.
I’ve never had any talent for naps, an insufficiency that is usually the opposite of a problem, since it means I am almost never tempted to doze away an hour in the middle of the day, but which did me no favors that afternoon; I was glad to put my feet up and do nothing at all for a while, but sleeping was impossible.
John, meanwhile, was having an interesting time exploring the ancient theaters at the foot of the Acropolis, and the Temple of Zeus, and the restaurant-packed Plaka neighborhood, and the Roman Agora, and the Monastiraki neighborhood. As evening approached, I heard him shouting in the street outside the apartment, asking to be let in; he’d bought a new SIM for his phone in Paris, but hadn’t yet used it successfully, so he wasn’t able to call me to let me know he’d arrived. We had been given only one set of keys to the apartment, and they were in my pocket. John and I didn’t address this problem until we were in Santorini, when our trip was almost over.
I had spent some time using the wifi at the apartment to research day trips to Delphi. When John got back and agreed to the tour I thought looked reasonable, we booked it for the following day.
That morning, on our way to the Agora, we had paused at a well-reviewed restaurant near the apartment and made a reservation for dinner on their rooftop terrace, where we could watch the sun set on the Acropolis and then watch the lights come up on the ruins.
Among the Qatar Airlines public-safety announcements on the seat-back screens: “Please remain seated when praying on-board.” That is not my hyphen in “on-board,” I need hardly mention. It’s 12:30 AM in Doha, Qatar, the same time zone as Athens, despite being, I don’t know, 2000 miles east. I’ll be in Kathmandu in four hours.
We had the best meal of the trip at this restaurant: attentive service, good food, a slow, luxuriant experience, a matchless setting, and, at the end, a visit from the owner, who brought three shot glasses of raki (a kind of anise-flavored rotgut brandy), which he told us we needed to down at one go. So we did. It cost a somewhat ridiculous amount of money, but I’ll never have another meal like that, with John, overlooking the birthplace of Western civilization, at sunset on a warm Grecian night – not that the uniqueness of an experience is a reasonable guide to its value. I’ll never again be fighting over the armrest with a guy in a maroon suit jacket in the middle of the night in Doha, Qatar, either.
I felt much better on the following morning, when we got up early, walked the 15 minutes to a hotel where the Delphi shuttle was going to pick us up, and then spent more than an hour in central Athens being transferred from one bus to another and picking up more tourists from different hotels. We started to wonder whether we were ever going to leave Athens, and whether any of these tour-operator people had any idea what they were doing. “The word for this in English,” John carefully explained to one of the organizers, “is clusterfuck.” But things like this have a way of working themselves out, and that’s what happened; we were soon rolling west into the hills, listening to our tour guide give us a beautifully condensed version of the history of ancient Greece and some background information about the oracle at Delphi. I was shocked to realize that he was doing a good job and that I could understand his voice over the bus’s speaker system. It was a pleasure to take this unexpected refresher course.
Delphi was packed with tourists, but despite the irritation of having to tolerate my fellow humans, there is something about that place that I find deeply stirring. It was so important, for so long, and now it is a realm of ghosts. John shared a few photos of Delphi with the siblings, and sister Barbara responded with the following, which seems to me to be so good, and so Barbara, that I’ll repeat her entire email below:
you guys … I think I would have to sit down with my head in my hands every day if I were to see all of… all of the wonders you are …with. I got goosebumps from this picture. Why, what is it? It isn’t more beautiful than other places, but there is a resonance. The placement in the mountains….? This place is …I had to go and look up everything I could speed read through and then read words by Pindar and imagine 565 BC and …overwhelm. intake of breath and hold it to try to fathom. and …after reading for half an hour …yup …just now I was holding the heels of my hands against the temples of my head. And I am just sitting on the sofa with my cat! and grinning and lookin at your faces and shakin my head. and my eyes slow blink and a “yeah” escapes exhale
Did you see wikipedia where it tells of when Christianity was gaining in power around 360 AD, and paganism was losing favor, a doctor, Oreibasius, to the then Emperor Julian went to Delphi to learn what might become the fate of paganism. Oreibasius was told by the priestess of Delphi (translation)
“Tell the king that the flute has fallen to the ground. Phoebus does not have a home anymore, nor an oracle laurel nor a speaking fountain, because the talking water has dried out.”
but she felt loss
And yet one look at the place.
The magic hasn’t dried, it is irrefutable. It is Apollo’s Gaia. Earth. Earth is the magic.
What you opened for me with a picture. Boy o boy
“Tell the king that the flute has fallen to the ground.” A visit to Delphi is a struggle between our intellects, our sense of beauty, and grief. I think it’s one of the most important places in the world. Barbara could not have put it better.
We used our passes to get up onto the Acropolis on the following day – although we didn’t need the passes, since it was another free day. It was harder for me to imaginatively project myself backward in time on the Acropolis than it had been at Delphi, or in any decent museum, for that matter. Part of the problem is the familiarity of the architecture, which all of us have been seeing in photographs since grade school. And then there’s the matter of the crowds. And there’s the sterility of the place to be reckoned with, too – it’s a sun-baked rock, where John, at one point, bent over to cheer on a dandelion that had somehow made a home in one of the crevices, a rock whose withering sun and dessication which seems so antithetical to human life that it’s a wonder that the Greeks built their temples up there. It also seems to me that the depredations of fools, down through the centuries, are more obviously on display up there than in many places. When the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC, the Greeks responded by rebuilding the temples on the Acropolis into the forms we’re familiar with – which, at the time, were a shocking leap beyond anything that had previously been created by the human race. The politician who made this happen was Pericles, but much of the credit for the genius of the work probably goes to the sculptor Phidias. But it’s been one damn thing after another up there ever since the Romans took over, including the willful destruction of the sculptures and decorations by early Christians, the ruination of much of the Parthenon in 1687 when it was being used as a powder magazine in a now-forgotten war and a cannonball made all the powder explode, and let us not forget the theft of the best of the remaining statuary by Lord Elgin in 1812, magnificent, heart-breaking pieces that still reside in the British Museum. John and I stood up there in the sun and squinted at the fragmentary remains of this wonderful achievement, and at the unmistakable evidence of the untrustworthiness and stupidity of humanity in the 2400 years since it was built. The Acropolis is a testament to the best and the worst of us.
After lunch at a sidewalk cafe, we set off for the Acropolis Museum, at the south side of the hill. We were shocked to see that the ticket line stretched back past the point at which any normal person would have been tempted to give up, past the “abandon hope all ye who loiter here” point, and then kept going, for dozens of hopeful, clueless people, concluding only when the line reached out of the shade and into the sun, where anyone waiting in line would have had their brains broil before they ever got inside. John and I decided to try again on the following morning, with the idea that we might get there before the crowds got too thick. John decided to head back home, while I set off to do the circuit that he had done two days earlier: the Temple of Zeus, the Roman Agora, and the busy neighborhoods nearby.
The Temple of Zeus is noteworthy mostly for the three massive Corinthian columns nearby, two of which are standing imperturbably in a greensward, and the third of which has collapsed between its fellows, into a series of rounds that looks like what you’d get if you pushed over a neat stack of checkers. I’m shamefully susceptible to this sort of thing – the romance of ruination – so I took lots of pictures. A woman from China or Japan or Korea – at least, I assume it was a woman – walked nearby, carrying a parasol to shade herself and wearing a skirt that grazed the ground, a blouse that covered her arms down to the knuckles, a floppy, big-brimmed hat, and a yellow mask that covered her entire face but for the eyes, which were obscured by sunglasses. It was a kind of secular burqa.
The Roman Agora was interesting, but much smaller than the Ancient Agora; I remembered the Tower of the Winds there, from my previous visit to Athens, and the cats that played among the ruins. I scouted the nearby streets to see if I could find a restaurant that I remembered as having been near the Agora 32 years ago, where I’d had a bowl of fasolada – bean soup – that had seemed to me at the time the finest thing I’d ever eaten. Even if that restaurant had still existed, and had not been remodeled in the last three decades, I’d still have been relying on a scanty and fragmentary memory to find it – like trying to recognize an adult from a damaged daguerreotype of a child. All of the restaurants I found were new, and most were full of tourists. The streets were full of tourists, too. The Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods were packed with us, squinting into our smartphones and licking our gelatos. Thousands of shops competed to sell us food, trinkets, and tours. I love traveling, but I was sick of being a tourist.
John and I realized that evening that we had missed our chance to see the Acropolis Museum. We had only one full day left in Athens, and we hadn’t yet seen the National Archaeological Museum; there is really no argument about which of those collections most deserves the attention of people who are running out of time. We discussed this while walking back in the darkness from an exploration that took us down yet another restaurant-lined street; four people were seated at one of the tables, one of whom was playing a guitar while a young woman sang, filling the air with her power and conviction. John and I stopped to listen and applauded when she was finished.
I had attempted to extend our stay at the “stone house under the Acropolis,” back when we were still in Croatia and I’d realized that an extra day in Athens was better than an extra day on Santorini, but the host hadn’t been able to accommodate us, so I’d found a different place nearby for one night. John and I dropped off our bags at the new place at noon, chatting briefly with the heavy, friendly middle-aged woman who was busy cleaning the place, glowing in a sheen of sweat. She recommended a taverna nearby and, when we told her that we were about to take the subway to the museum, warned us against pickpockets.
“I am not worried about pickpockets,” I said, showing off the zippers that protect the pockets on my travel pants.
“Those no problem for them,” she said, frowning and shaking her head for emphasis. “No problem.”
Her son called – he was the host who was renting us the apartment, and he and his mother were apparently a team – and offered to take us to the airport on the following morning. I explained that this wouldn’t be necessary and, after a few closing pleasantries, he said, “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow!”
“What?” I asked. “You will? Why will we see you tomorrow?”
“For to take you the airport!” he said. “At 6:00!”
“No, no,” I said. “We do not need a ride. We do not need to be at the airport until 8:30, so a ride at 6:00 would be too early for us.”
I thought that this had cleared up any residual confusion, but I was wrong.
The warning about pickpockets may have made me more vigilant than I might otherwise have been; if so, I owe that cleaning woman a debt of thanks. When John and I got onto the subway to go to the museum, I was immediately surrounded by three women, one of whom chatted amiably with John and me, asking us where we were from and saying “Trump,” another of whom waved her cell phone at me, asking me indecipherable questions about it, and the third of whom stood casually next to me, with a jacket draped over one of her arms. Was that a tiny tug on my wallet pocket, or was I imagining things? I checked it and, to my surprise, the wallet was still there but the zipper was open – a zipper I had closed and double-checked out on the platform, just a minute earlier. I moved away from the perpetrator, zipping the pocket back up, and stood next to John.
“Are you being vigilant about your wallet?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, tapping his pocket confidently.
“No, I mean hyper-vigilant,” I said. “Especially for the next two minutes.”
John looked with surprised interest at the colorful crowd of thieves that was edging up next to us again. He told me later that he regretted not having asked them to pose for a photograph. For my part, I wondered afterward why I hadn’t been willing to call them out on their shenanigans; surely the best thing to do, when someone is trying to take your wallet, is to say, “Hey! Stop trying to take my wallet!” I’ll do anything to avoid a confrontation.
The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is one of humanity’s great treasure houses. The collection of Cycladic art, of artifacts from the Minoans and Mycenaeans, the fantastic trove of gold artifacts, including the “Mask of Agamemnon” and a spectacular ivory bull’s head with gilded horns, bronze statues of gods and a life-sized boy, bareback on a horse, special exhibits devoted to works in marble that have hardly been equaled in the years since their creation – it had been too much to comprehend for a long time before John and I regretfully left. But first, I insisted that we find the Antikythera mechanism, which I knew was somewhere in the building but which we had somehow missed.
If you don’t know about the Antikythera mechanism, you should read this Wikipedia article on the subject, or look it up on YouTube, or both. The object itself is just a badly corroded lump of brass, but careful investigation and x-ray tomography have revealed that when the ship carrying it sank in the Aegean, in about 65 BC, it was a geared clockwork mechanism used to predict eclipses and track the positions of planets in the night sky. The Antikythera mechanism represents a level of technical sophistication, in 100 BC, which the world did not see again until medieval European craftsmen started making astronomical clocks, almost 1,500 years later. If the Antikythera mechanism had not been found by sponge divers in 1901, its existence would have been deemed impossible. I can’t think of any other man-made object that is like this – impossible, but for the incredible fact of its existence.
We had dinner in the taverna across the street on our last night in Athens, talking about the museum and looking affectionately at the mob of cats that came mincing around our table, aloof, wary, often bearing ears that had been half-chewed off in fights, but more than willing to accept any offerings that might fall from our plates. John observed that it was a good thing Barbara wasn’t there with us, because she would have felt obliged to rescue them all. I repeated an observation that I had made before, that John could do worse than finding some kind of a grant that would allow him to become a swashbuckling cat castrator, ranging the hills of Croatia and Attica, the scourge of feline testicles everywhere. John has not warmed to this idea, for some reason.
The following morning, as John and I were sitting down to breakfast, the doorbell rang. It was the cleaning mother, who was surprised to see that we were still occupying the place. We tried and failed to tell her what was going on – that her son had not understood the phone conversation I’d had with him – until I typed “We will leave in 20 minutes” into Google Translate and showed her the Greek translation. The light dawned on her charming, homely face. She disappeared while we packed our bags and returned exactly as we were about to set out for the airport.
I don’t know whether I will ever see Athens again.
I was in Santorini in February of 1987. At that time of year, and at that time of the last millennium, Santorini was a lovely, peaceful place, with deserted restaurants, donkeys drowsing in their paddocks, and empty roads along which I remember having taken long, uninterrupted walks. But times have changed. Santorini is still beautiful, but the cruise ships that crowd the caldera have done almost as much damage to the place as the eruption of 3600 years ago that destroyed the island and may have brought the Minoan civilization to an end. But this wasn’t immediately apparent to John and me.
We were taken to the vicinity of our Airbnb by the airport taxi, and met at the perimeter road by a Brazilian woman who used her excellent, lightly accented English to tell us about the town of Thira as she led us up the narrow streets to the Villa Mercedes, which would be our home for the next few days. This charming place was easily the nicest spot we stayed in during our month in Europe – big, open, colorful, and tastefully decorated. Not only that, but we were invited to use another unit with its own bathroom, if we wished; John and I had effectively rented two houses. Our host left us, having told us that we might enjoy ourselves more if we rented a car; John and I immediately locked the door behind us and walked up the hill toward the crater’s rim, looking for lunch and a view.
The town of Thira straddles the rim of the crater; most of the houses and businesses are on the east side, on the relatively flat ground, but the edge of the cliff is crammed with souvenir stands, and any place with a view is given over to a restaurant. Wherever it was possible to attach a restaurant to the cliff face, someone has done so. John and I sat down at a place with a fine view of the caldera, and of the cruise ships, and of the cable car that ran continuously from the docks below us up to the crater rim, and of the narrow lanes that snaked past hundreds and hundreds of shops, and of the thousands and thousands of tourists that filled those narrow lanes. The food was not memorable.
John had, perhaps inevitably, come down with my cold by now, although he didn’t seem to be as incapacitated by the virus as I had been; he was lucky with his reaction to the germs, or he has natural reservoirs of health to draw on that I lacked, or he had the same rough time with it that I did, but, unlike me, didn’t coddle himself or complain. I suspect the latter. This may be a good place to mention that before he left Seattle John wasn’t at all sure how his back and sciatica and general well being might react to the sudden activity of traveling all over Europe, and that he had been worried that he might find himself too hurt and exhausted to continue; his actual ability to push himself over cobbles and up stairs and down long streets, often carrying heavy loads, surprised both of us. He raised blisters in Paris, walking probably twice as far there as I did, and afterward was sometimes tempted to forgo sightseeing in favor of taking it easy for a few hours – but, in the event, he almost always chose to go look at some world-famous once-in-a-lifetime attraction instead of staying home in a horizontal posture. His constitution was encouraging and surprising to both of us.
We looked into renting scooters, but learned that we needed driver’s licenses with motorcycle endorsements to do so – those pantywaists – and then looked into renting a convertible, but learned that you pay an absurd premium for the privilege of feeling the wind in your hair, so we ended up with an ordinary little red thing that served us well. On our first full day on Santorini, we took this little car south – stopping to walk through the little village of Megalochori – to the ruins of Akrotiri, a Minoan town that was abandoned in the runup to the Theran eruption in the 16th century BC, as earthquakes made it clear to the inhabitants that staying on the island was a terrible idea. The ashfall on the town (whose actual name no one knows) preserved a number of superb frescoes on the walls of the village, which are now displayed in museums; John and I wished we’d paid closer attention at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where some of them are displayed. Here is an article that includes illustrations of most of them.
After visiting Akrotiri, we drove to the southwest tip of the main island, to enjoy the view across the caldera, and then set off to visit the site of Ancient Thira, the ruined town on a hilltop at the southeast end of the island. We eventually got to the bottom of a road whose switchbacks to the ridgetop were so daunting that ascending it seemed impossible if we were to meet any car coming in the other direction; not only that, but there was a sign at the base of the hill that seemed to mean “do not enter,” although it included some numbers that may have meant it was closed only at certain times of day, or maybe only at certain times of the year. The whole thing was just too intimidating. John and I decided that the prudent and mature course of action was to retire to the beach at the nearby town of Kamari, where I could go for a little swim and John could sit in the shade of a palapa and drink a beer. It was a sacrifice, but we were men enough to make it. From the beach, we could see some cars on the switchbacks, all of which were going downhill – was this a time of day thing, was it a one-way road, or was it a coincidence? It seemed important to have another beer while we discussed the mystery.
We returned to the Villa Mercedes for a little while but then drove back to Kamari, with the idea of having dinner and then seeing Joker, the Joaquin Phoenix movie that had just opened and was being shown at Kamari’s Cinema Vilatzio. Our dinner was good, but, as we were toying with the last scraps on our plates, John admitted that his cold was leaving him with no energy at all, and that he wasn’t sure he would enjoy the movie in his current condition. This made nothing but sense to me, so we abandoned the movie idea and drove home.
I had walked from Thira to the town of Oia, on Santorini’s north end, in 1987, and thought it might be fun to do it again, so I set off at sunrise on the following morning, leaving John to sleep a little longer, with the agreement that we would meet in Oia shortly after 10:00. Clouds had moved in overnight, so visibility was nonexistent for the first half hour of the walk; I spent too much time on the main road, where cars loomed up out of the mist in front of me in a very alarming way, before I realized that there must be a pedestrian pathway to my left, along the cliff edge. The clouds dissipated and the views improved as I walked, until I got to Oia, where my memories of a peaceful little village were destroyed by the greatest crush of cruiseship passengers I have ever seen. The place was a zoo. I got in line to take a selfie at a vista over the iconic blue-domed houses. Read that again. I got in line to take a selfie. I’m so ashamed. Oia is undeniably beautiful, but now it’s like one of those beauty pageants for little girls, so steeped in fakery and bad taste that the charm that prompted the pageantry in the first place has all but vanished under the makeup.
After some trouble with our phones, John found me at a little bakery. This was our last full day on Santorini, our last full day in Greece, and our last full day in Europe together. We walked along the sun-baked passenger street at Oia’s crater rim, through the crowds of pasty, scowling, fearful retirees, of bizarre, incomprehensible Asians, and of young people, almost recovered from their last drinking bouts and looking forward eagerly to their next, and I felt that I understood no one in this mob except my brother. I didn’t know how I was going to get along without him.
We worked our way down a long flight of stone steps, halfway to the harbor, only to squint dubiously at a path that had seemed reasonable on our maps but which looked like private property in actuality, and then climbed back up the stairs again. We made our way further and further west through Oia until the restaurants and trinket shops were almost extinct, and then turned inland and made our way back to the lot where John had found space for our little red car.
John dropped me off in Thira’s business district, up the hill from our apartment, where we had seen an Adidas store; holes were appearing in the soles of my walkers, which I had never liked, in any case. Someone on the Internet had recommended an Adidas shoe – the “Infernal Kaboom,” or something like that – as the ideal travel shoe, so, when the woman in this store told me that they had a pair in approximately my size, I dropped almost $200 for them on the spot, without bothering to look at anything else. They’re ugly, and a little too tight, but, whenever a tiny band of pain shoots across my constricted instep, I think of how little time I spent shopping for my new pair of Infernal Kabooms and my heart warms a little. In and out of the store in 4 minutes and 20 seconds – that’s the way to shop.
Before returning to the Villa Mercedes, I stopped at the place where we’d rented the car, to ask the people there whether it is possible to drive up the switchbacks to Ancient Thira. It quickly became apparent that none of the people in this agency, all of whom live on this tiny island, had ever driven up there, or even been tempted to visit. They conferred with one another briefly in Greek and then told me that yes, it is possible, but that I should be very careful, because the road is very narrow and very steep and very turns, and that it might be better to walk.
I remembered my visit to Ancient Thira from 32 years ago as having been interesting; there were bits of pottery in the dirt underfoot, an ancient phallus scratched into a low wall (a tradition that continues to this day, in the changing rooms at Kamari beach), a guide who seemed glad to see us, as a relief from the tedium of having the site completely to himself, and splendid views over the Aegean. But I had been disappointed by Santorini in 2019. John and I could spend our last afternoon together in a horrifying drive up to the site, where we would join a throng of other tourists (who are getting there via teleportation, I suppose) to look at a series of wind-blasted foundation walls. And then drive back down again. Or we could relax at our little villa, or perhaps walk around Thira with out hands in our pockets. It was an easy decision.
John spent the afternoon shopping for trinkets for our brothers and sisters. He had already picked up two or three things earlier in our travels, but there were still a few names on his list, and this was his last shopping opportunity until the duty-free shop at the Athens airport. He returned to the apartment with some nice choices.
“I know that I don’t have to bring back presents for people,” he said. “Nobody’s expecting it. But…” He raised his palms and shrugged his shoulders, in a gesture that meant, “But I want to bring them gifts, because I love them.”
And then he showed me something he’d bought for me: a little metal horse, in the beautiful style of the Minoans, with long, slim legs, a tiny waist, and a thick, powerful neck. I had rhapsodized about these horses when we saw them on display at the National Archaeological Museum, and about the love and skill with which the ancients have always depicted horses – in the cave paintings at Lascaux, in the Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs, in the Elgin marbles, and in the Jockey of Artemision, a wonderful bronze there at the museum in Athens – and here, in the brilliant schematics of the bronze-age Aegeans. I mentioned the tiny hips on these Minoan horses, and John said “I think it may betray a want of bottom” – a reference to an obscure line in one of the Patrick O’Brian novels, and a joke that no one else in the world could have made to me.
And, on the next day, he flew home.
God, John. Thanks for everything.
Photos from Greece.