Ithaca Dreams

Olive trees along the shore of Dexa Beach on the Ionian island of Ithaca, thought to be Odysseus’ homeland, as told in Homer’s eighth-century B.C. epic poem “The Odyssey.” Credit Alex Majoli

Odysseys (not to mention, The Odyssey) are a fundamental aspect of our family’s peripatetic lives. Having lived in 5 countries on 4 continents, there are places that continue to draw us back with roots that run wide and deep. Greece is one of those places, for multi-generational reasons. It strikes me as strange that we’ve never been to Ithaca, at least the one that Pico Iyer writes about here.

The Ithaca we’re tethered to in many ways is the Ithaca of the new world: the birthplace of our sons, the home of Cornell University, the place that draws us back to a 3rd generation, still.

The strength of stories is as powerful as the bonds of love for family and for motherland, and I thank Pico for continuing to share his with us all.

One writer chronicles his voyage to the island of Ithaca, where Odysseus was once reputedly king.

I STEPPED INTO a taxi on my arrival in Athens and mentioned the name of one of the city’s most central five-star hotels. The driver was thrown into a frenzy, and not only because he seemed to speak no English. As we zigzagged at high speed through the jampacked streets, he tapped frantically on his smartphone and started calling friends, none of whom were any help at all. When, finally, we pulled up at the entrance, I was greeted by a wild-haired, gesticulating front-desk man who said, “We’re so sorry, sir. We have a problem, a big problem, today. So we have made a reservation for you in our other hotel. Half a block away.”

The problem, the taxi driver conveyed, was that every toilet in the hotel had flooded.

In the fancy new place where I ended up — it took us 20 minutes to go around the corner thanks to narrow, one-way streets — I walked into an elevator to be confronted by two thickly bearded Orthodox priests in full clerical dress crammed into the same small space, cellphones protruding from their pockets as they wished me, in easy English, “Good evening.” The mayhem of the little lanes I’d just come through, the sunlit dishevelment of the buildings, which seemed to be collapsing as much as rising up, the graves in the middle of the city: I felt, quite happily, as if I were not in Europe but in Beirut or Amman.

The real antiquity in Greece, I thought — and this is its enduring blessing, for a visitor — is its daily life; on this return trip, retracing a course I’d followed 35 years before, from the classical sites of the Peloponnese (ill-starred Mycenae and healing Epidaurus) all the way to Odysseus’ storied home on Ithaca, I was noticing that it’s precisely the slow, human-scaled, somewhat ramshackle nature of arrangements here that gives the country much of its human charm. Yes, you can still see Caravaggio faces around the Colosseum in Rome; along the ghats in Varanasi, India, you’re among the clamor and piety of the Vedas. But in Greece, it’s the absence of modern developments — of high-rises and high-speed technologies — that can make you feel as if you’re walking among the ancient philosophers and tragedians who gave us our sense of hubris and catharsis.

Forget the fact that the Klitemnistra hotel is down the street from Achilles Parking; what really gives Greece its sense of being changeless is that the Lonely Planet guidebook gives you a cure for the evil eye, and a man is crossing himself furiously as he attempts to double-park. The Grecian formula that keeps the place forever young — and old, and itself — has less to do with the monuments of kings and gods than simply with the rhythms of the day: Fishing boats are heading out before first light and the shepherd’s son is leading the priest’s niece under the olive trees in the early morning. Black-clad women are gossiping in the shade and donkeys clop and stop over ill-paved stones in the siesta-silent, sunlit afternoon. At night, there’s the clatter of pots from the tavernas and the sound of laughter under lights around the harbor.

All in a landscape where the deep blue sea surrounds you on every side, and the indigo and scarlet and orange flowerpots are bright with geraniums and begonias. It’s not just that you feel the presence of a rural past everywhere in Greece; it’s that, amid this elemental landscape of rock and cobalt sky and whitewashed church, you step out of the calendar altogether and into the realm of allegory.

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Hermes, Circa 2019

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I have shared the photo above on this platform once before. I wrote a series of reflections on the village where that photo was taken, and today I share a riff on all that. That photo was enlarged to take up an entire wall of our office in India, as a reminder to me each day of the purpose behind what I was doing. Our company’s mission includes education. It is mostly about conservation. That building, which I photographed 10+ years ago, after it had recently been abandoned, has been a reminder for me that one of these days I am determined to share whatever I can from our work in that village.

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This photo was taken of Bangor Vamvakou immigrants in 1949 as they returned to their village. Top left is Nikos Niarchos, a relative of the Greek shipping tycoon. From Top Left, the others are: Vasso Anglesi; George Limberogiannis; Eleni Markos; Panayiotis Servetis; Vasso Kokini; Katsilis Demetrios and Anna Leakou. Middle Row, from Left: Pota Anglesi; Angeliki Skoufi; Eleni Hatzi and Panos Dialialis. At bottom, Left to Right, are Yiannis Limberogiannis and Harris Belbekis.

Thanks to an online publication I follow for news from Greece I found this story that helps explain why I thought of the photo above just now. It gives me both hope and tangible ideas of what might be done. It starts with a group of immigrants in Bangor, Maine whose life trajectory was like that of so many others from the Lakonia region of Greece, including my mother. And the story leads back to a foundation that has been referenced once before in our pages, but this time the foundation’s work hits closer to home:

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a young person. But sometimes it takes young people to raise up a village, and this is exactly what’s happening in the Laconian village of Vamvakou.

Vamvakou is a short drive from Vourthonia, my mother’s village. So this video below strikes a chord.

 

Some of the images from Mamvakou could as easily have been taken in Vourthonia.

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Source: SNF

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Source: SNF

But it is the story of what is happening in that village that captures my imagination:

Can a once-thriving mountain village, today home to only nine inhabitants, come to life again?

Can it fill with visitors, permanent inhabitants, and model businesses while retaining its traditional character? This is the wager laid by a group of five young people who want to revitalize the village of Vamvakou, 900 meters up the slopes of Mount Parnon in the southeastern Peloponnese.

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Source: SNF

To realize this ambitious project, the five friends, Haris Vasilakos, Anargyros Verdilos, Eleni Mami, Tasos Markos, and Panagiotis Soulimiotis established the “Vamvakou Revival” Social Cooperative Enterprise and decided to move to the village. Continue reading

Resilience, Greece & Reasonable Questions

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Tourism is Greece’s biggest foreign currency earner. Photograph: Costas Baltas/Reuters

Nearly forty years ago I was in Greece for the second time. I accompanied my mother on a visit to the village where she was born and had lived until her teens. We had spent an extended period in that village ten years earlier, and into my child’s mind it had imprinted vivid memories that, by 1979, were as fresh as the smell of bread baking in the stone oven of that village home. And now, that re-visit with my mother is as vivid as can be, and even has a sound track. That album had just been released and someone in the village had a cassette tape of it, and it played from the sound system of a Volkswagen Beetle, doors open, as we had a meal overlooking the mountains.

I have had one opportunity to bring to Greece the sustainable tourism development tools I have been working with since the mid-1990s. This recent story in the Guardian, too short to truly appreciate the scale of the questions raised, is a welcome reminder to me of the work to be done in a place I care deeply about.

Greece tourism at record high amid alarm over environmental cost

With 32 million visitors expected this year, fears grow that the country cannot cope

Greece is braced for another bumper year. The tourists will not stop coming. For every one of its citizens, three foreign visitors – 32 million in total – will arrive this year, more than at any other time since records began.

It’s an extraordinary feat for a country that has battled with bankruptcy, at times has been better known for its protests and riots and, only three years ago, narrowly escaped euro ejection. Tourism is the heavy industry that has helped keep catastrophe at bay.

But is Greece almost too successful for its own good? Tourist numbers have increased by an additional two million every year for the past three years. Arrivals from China alone have doubled since 2017. But with forecasts predicting record numbers over the next decade, a growing number are asking: can Greece really cope? Continue reading