Archive for the ‘In My Life (Pers)’ Category

11/18 – III: The Glass Flowers

April 22, 2011

Across the Charles to Cambridge, I meet my friend Martin at the door to the Natural History Museum.  Martin’s brother Lucky, a composer and conductor, had an untimely death, and the Harvard Music Library is archiving his manuscripts and recordings, so Martin is completing a geosh (a wonderful Gaelic word for a family burden handed down that no one but you can resolve) by trucking the boxes of his brother’s work from Boulder to Boston.  He is waiting for his bold-as-brass daughter to come down from my class, where she is working handily through the process of becoming one of our graduates.

Always priestly, always real, and always keenly observant, Martin is a pleasure to be with, and I am sorry that I have only a short hour before I must drive north again.  We go upstairs to see the famous glass flowers, of course – Martin is a master gardener.  These glass flowers are amazingly real – no Chihuly undersea fantasy forms here, but flowers, leaves, stamens and seeds so accurately rendered a century ago by a couple of Russian craftsmen using simple tools on a bench.  So real that they become totally prosaic in minutes – yes, they’re glass, but they have the dusty museum look of just-gathered real plants, no artifice involved and therefore no artistic ‘lift’ either, beyond the ‘how did they achieve that?’  And anyway Martin and I are chattering away to each other sixteen to the dozen, catching up and singing our spirits to each other, close friends that we have been these twenty years.

Inside this building I suddenly remember my other visit there: As a freshman, and with all the innocence a plebe possesses, I had requested, and been granted, an interview with Ernst Mayr, the eminent evolutionist of the time.  I brought along my reel-to-reel recorder – this was 1967 or early ’68 – which the old gray man with a large chest and head looked at askance, but said nothing.  With a distance of more than forty years, I cringe at my ignorance of evolution.  My questions would be better today, but still not up to Ernst Mayr’s standard.  As it was, he must have wondered how he got stuck into this, a meandering and inept interview from an undergraduate with no point beyond a freshman anthropology paper.  When I brought up something about eugenics, the old German bristled and I was soon sent packing, but with enough for my paper for sure.

I am surprised to see that he lived until 2005 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_W._Mayr) – he seemed quite old then.  He got to comment on Dawkins and all the modern neo’s.  May I also live to pass one-hundred.  Martin too.  Misty too.  You too.

Today is – would have been – Teddy’s 95th birthday.  She was forgetting things and people.  Always a sharp observer, timekeeper, and a rememberer of facts, she hated her diminished capacities, and checked out fairly quickly after they started to fail.  My father checked out quickly after he was forced to leave his beloved home of many years for the retirement apartment.  Obviously, Mayr kept his grip.  What will make me lose my grasp on this life that I love so much?  When will my words fail me, and my ability to understand the developments in my own field? What cleavage from my sense of purpose will send me tumbling toward my death?

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Solstice 2010

April 22, 2011

It’s the astrological event of the year: the solstice coming with a full moon and a total lunar eclipse.  I set my alarm and turned to at 3am this morning, but I only got as far as the bathroom skylight, confirming a totally overcast sky – nothing to be seen.  When I came to in early dawn, the world was dusted with snow.

Solstice is my New Year; the Nativity, however hopeful, and the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar do not hold a candle to the power of these long nights and short days, and this one where the sun stands still and begins its six-month ascent. (Though the Bucky Fuller voice inside me reminds you that it’s the 23 degree cant of the Earth that is responsible; the sun is only apparently moving.)

The winter, of course, has just begun – as the days get longer, the cold gets stronger – but the promise of new light is enough to get us through this time when even the spinach in the greenhouse has faded to black.

I am reminded of another lunar eclipse, more than 15 years ago, when I took my new lover Quan down to Cape Elizabeth, and we peered out across the sea to the blood-red moon, and in a sudden urge and a strength of voice I did not recognize, I prayed aloud to Artemis to release her handmaiden so that she could become a mother, a Hera.  It was a worthy gesture, from heart and gut, but it was a prayer not answered: Quan and I never had any children, and she is still the amazonian warrior I continue to love so deeply.

Sap

March 21, 2011

It’s the warm days and cold nights of late winter that power the rising of the sap in our New England maple trees.  The expansion and contraction (plus some valves in the xylem) insure a one-way flow of slightly sweet water against gravity from root to bulging bud.  The larger trees are tapped with bungs and buckets to catch the stream, and this next weekend will be the ‘sugaring-off’, where gallons of sap are carefully cooked down to jars of syrup (40:1) or even the soft and distinctive maple sugar candy (60:1).

If this season produces a one-way flow in the trees, it has a two-way effect on the humans: we head up to spring in the sunshine, and back down into winter at night. The ‘warm’ days are maybe 45F / 9C, and the pond is still covered in ice, but any sign of warmth’s enough for those of us who froze all this extra-snowy winter.

‘Spring-cleaning’ may be simply a tradition in most of America, but for us northerners it’s a physical urge that borders on necessity.  There’s too much ice and mud out here yet for a real turf-out of the garage or the blankets the cats have been sleeping on, but the warmth of the day demands that we do something different and helpful, so one of the early spring jobs is to re-stock your woodpile.

We’ve been using wood all winter long, but we’re about done – even if we get some more snow, we won’t be lighting too many more fires.  The remaining dry wood must be brought to the front, and the wet wood outside brought in to dry out for the summer to be ready for the cold again which comes much too soon, no matter how I try to extend the sailing season.

But it feels good, like it’s cleaning something up, to throw the old dusty wood around, and lug successive armfuls of heavy beech and oak from the pile steaming in the sun to stack neatly in the shed.  It’s real work, man’s work, body work after two weeks of running seminars – which is work, sure enough, but requires so much of my feminine side.  My body revels in it, aching a little as the sinews stretch, but falling gratefully into the rhythm of a repeated task.  Slowly the shed fills with neat rows  of wound-up sunshine, which will dry and then unwind in our stove next winter. Quan and I do it together, and by the time we are finished, the chain saws and old bits of wire and the rest that has been thrown wherever it’ll go over the winter is all in order.

Stuff! It accumulates around us so easily in this Western world, and with such a big place, stuff of all kinds keeps filling in our spaces and has to be sorted and recycled.  Spring-cleaning leads to garage sales.  Going to other people’s garage sales results in more stuff.

It’s still too early for all that – not even any crocuses yet, let alone daffodils.  By nighttime the air chills down, the fat old moon rises huge (full and at a rare perigee). Our ‘sap’ changes direction and pulls down and inside to light one of those fires and eat soup that’s been simmering all day.

Tomorrow we will bring food to the fox under the barn on the hill; tomorrow we will go to the river to scope out what has to be done to be ready for summer, tomorrow I will pack for the next two weeks of teaching in Europe.  But tonight we lie together watching the fire dance, spooned in the comforting fit that only comes with a long marriage.

Race

March 8, 2011

I love boating of all kinds, but dislike yacht clubs.  The desperate smell of needing to be ‘cooler than thou’ is so rife in these places, which also tend to be filled with the idle rich parasitized by feckless youth.  Nevertheless, through a friend I had an intro at the Sydney Yacht Club, and this was the only way I was going to get out onto the water in anything larger than a surfboard – so I am grateful.

The CYCA has the pleasant, slightly brutal informality of the Aussies, but still has that competitive tinge to the air.  I am sure if I knew anything about boat classes, racing rigs, ocean passages and the like, I would be as insufferable as anyone, but the fact is I sail my boat, often alone or with a friend, and the watch comes off as I step on board.  I don’t really know what anything is called, settle for adequate rather than cinching everything down for maximum speed – it’s a holiday and a hobby, not a job or a sport.

I did my best to keep up with the yachties over a beer, but ended up wandering down the walkways between the slips in the forest of masts.  Mostly sugar-scoop sterns and racing machines with names like Rodd & Gunn and Wot Eva, though there was one sweet classic sloop named Samien – a rose among the thorns, as far as I was concerned, in this sea of frozen spit and aluminium.  Out on the ends were the ocean races that cross the Pacific, or at least The Ditch between here and New Zealand.  Signs – For Sale or ‘Crew needed bound for Tahiti” – spoke of the romance of the Pacific yachting life I once considered but was not destined to know.

After a bit of palaver, I was welcomed aboard the Cyrene with Bill and Mark and Sandy and Garda and Elena and Tim.  About the size of Tycha, but a racing machine, with the composite sails and ropes running everywhere through jam cleats.  They lent me a pair of those fingerless gloves and off we were.

The spirit of the Monday night race was cheerful but intent.  I took a station at the winch, which I know how to grind.  Where I am very reluctant to go to the trouble of changing headsails (they take up so much room), these guys had a surfeit for every wind and sea condition.  Of course on this evening, we were within Sydney Harbor, with a light to moderate breeze – hardly seagoing conditions.

We got everything up and shipshape, and maneuvered around the warning guns to be on the starting line as the seconds counted down and twenty boats argued for prime position.  We were pushed up (legally, but nastily) so that we had to turn around and run the line late.  We were soon settled, with the crew on the windward rail, and I could enjoy the view of the Opera House, the bridge I climbed (was it only last week?), and the Sydney skyline (that’s ‘skoyloin’).

There seemed to be about three captains among the older men, and a lot of lines, sheets, and halyards to control, with contrary orders stepping on top of each other.  Once we made the upwind mark, out flew the spinnaker (which I have never even used on Tycha – you need a crew of at least three to fly one, and for the race we were all fully engaged – topping lift, brace, two sheets, and the halyard, pole – arms and legs flying everywhere.  I tried to watch while helping, as I would like to add this to my sailing repertoire.

It was twice around the course, so it was jib to spinnaker to jib to spinnaker – we all got our exercise.  The sun set behind the Opera House and bridge in spectacular fashion, and it was deep dark before we cracked a beer back at the slip.  They were all very nice, and said kind things, but I slipped away myself not to invade on their dinnertime.  Churlish of me to be reverse snobby about yacht clubs when they so kindly took me on, but I prefer my leisurely approach to the Maine coast than tear-assing around a harbor in search of a sic transit gloria.

Surf’s Up

March 6, 2011

When in Oz, do as the Australians.  The alarm went off in the dark, and I wished I could have a bit of a lie-in after seven days straight of teaching.  But it’s my early morning surfing lesson.  Just across the street on the beach Mark was lifting the garage door on his surf shop in the little cement building under the palms. My “G’day” is getting less self-conscious.

Mark is about my age – at least he’s been hanging on this Cronulla beach for over forty years. Tan, but lined and a little gone to paunch, he looks more like an executive than an overgrown teenager (Masa, the guy I had the other disastrous day when I couldn’t even find a place to get a lesson, fit that bill).  Mark’s gone from surfer to surf board shop owner to surfboard designer to runner of surf programs for local schools, youth-at-risk – turning surfing into good works.  Doing a private lesson like this is a little money on the side – with a heart operation and an ear problem behind him, he’s semi-retired and has nothing to prove.

He kitted me out in a wet suit and a long board, and we walked in the dawn gloom across the sand to the break.  Time after time he set me in motion in front of the waves.  Patiently he got me to make haste slowly in turning getting up on the board into a single balanced motion.

I’m proud to say that after an hour, I was actually up on the board and, as Mark said, “You’re riding the board now – next comes riding the wave.”  Not much of an accomplishment for anyone who knows surfing, I know, but after falling off and wiping out any number of times in an hour, it was great to be up there, feeling the board as a boat.  The same moment happens when a wind-surfer stops being an enemy and starts becoming a tool, and I see the same relaxation when someone gets the ‘feel’ of my sailboat.  I would need a lot more time at it that I am not likely to find, but it was good to feel the wave under me.  I was muscle-tired by the end, and falling because of weakness and lack of neurotransmitters rather than ineptitude.

We stopped for a few minutes on the way back, squinting into the now-risen sun.  We watched the surfers already out in the green waves, and he analyzed their techniques.  But more fun was watching him read the water.  I prompted him on this, and soon I could see the rips and the rivers where the rip heads back to see (the easiest way to get out there), and the waves breaking on either side of these outgoing currents.  He can tell what will happen to a wave before I can even see it forming, and I felt as much awe of him as others feel when I start bodyreading.

I came back to the hotel and had that unheard of luxury, usually physiologically impossible for me – the mid-morning nap.

Ocker

March 5, 2011

I was too tired last night to take a cab to downtown Sydney from my suburb or Cronulla for the Mardi Gras parade, but that Sydney has a large and strong gay community is certainly a change from when I was here before in 1988.  There is an Australian word – ocker – that describes the old Australian male ethos.  On the one hand it is strong, self-deprecating, blunt, plain-speaking, and unpretentious, with a ready humor.  On the other, it also implies sexist, homophobe, coarse, pig-headed, provincial, and as anti-intellectual as any Tea Party ‘keep your government hands off my Medicare’ American.

Some original settlers here really did hunt the aboriginals for sport (see Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines for an amazing journey through the unique and complex Aboriginal culture – it is so sad that such a writer should die so early).  Later, well-meaning British colonial officials decimated the culture by taking the children away and teaching them English, as we did with many of our originals.  The situation is still tragic and egregious in both our countries.

Paul Hogan shows up a bit of Australian ocker attitude in the beginning of Crocodile Dundee, but he is well-tamed into feminist sensitivity by the end.  Australia has likewise abandoned the ocker culture to allow in the gay, the feminine, the foreign, and the sensitive.  Like America’s Wild West, it is easier to be nostalgic about it now that it is gone than it was to live through at the time.

Fortunately, the best part – the easy, blunt, sarcastic, self-deprecating humor – remains, and I am really enjoying  Australia an Australians.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

March 2, 2011

When I lived in London, I never did anything touristy unless one of my American friends came to town – and then I would gird up my loins for the trip to Greenwich or Buckingham Palace, or Hyde Park Corner.  I never did make it to the Tower of London in ten years of living there.

My genial Australian seminar organizers and mates for these two weeks Brad (sharp-eyed, athletic, shaven-headed) and Geoff (gentle -eyed, but observant, with the resigned, tolerant, and self-aware air common to fathers of three girls), had never climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, but they bought tickets for my visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was here before at the end of ‘87, you couldn’t climb on the bridge, though I did see the bicentennial fireworks, sitting with my one-year-old daughter who learned to walk on a Sydney porch.  They have continued the fireworks tradition, trying each year to outdo the last.

I don’t know what I was thinking  – that we were just going to walk up the bridge, and these guys are athletes, like most Australians, so I imagined being humiliated as they sprinted to the top.  I didn’t bring any trainers – was going to buy them on the way to the airport, forgot, they are mightily expensive here – so here I am in boat shoes.

But the Bridge Climb was a good choice, and a totally unexpected variation on a carnival ride.  I thought it was a lot of overplayed palaver at first – the T-shirts and Sno-Globes for sale in the lobby, the photos of celebrities who have made the walk (the most recent and most famous being Oprah the previous month). The orientation in a series of locker rooms, medical forms and taking a breathalyzer test (two people were eliminated on that one), getting into a jump suit like an astronaut, going through a metal detector, strapping on a hankie, clipping on a cap and lanyarding your sunglasses (nothing, but nothing, must drop), a raincoat, and a radio with a headset – seemed totally over the top just to walk up a bridge.

There were about 12 in the group, all pleasant enough.  Most were from overseas, including a couple from Carolina and a fellow from Toronto (with one ‘Stry-an with a thickened accent of flat vowels presumed to lecture us Americans and Canadians on the Queen’s English).  The oldest in the party, Maureen, was going up for her 70th birthday with her daughter.  I wasn’t very hopeful be the time we set out 45 minutes later – seemed like a tourist trap and a doddle.

Finally, you drew yourself into a belt system with a webbing strap – just like the one I clip myself into my boat with when the going gets rough.  The end of the strap was a unique and clever little yo-yo-shaped metal doohickey that we threaded onto a steel wire as we stepped out of the staging area and onto the bridge-work.  We all went single-file in the same order all the way, as were always strung to the wire.

At this point, I was glad of all the prep and safety gear.  Five stories above the street on a tiny catwalk with a metal mesh floor, I tried to hide my fear from my compadres (morbid fear of heights didn’t enter our conversations about organizing workshops), but I was alternately gripping my strap or a handrail, as we traversed metal ladders up past the road and railways, and up onto the bridge itself.

Once onto the span (still the longest single-arch metal bridge in the world – go somewhere else for the factoids of how much metal was used, and why it is the record-holder still – the only ones I remember are an estimated 10,000 rivets dropped into Sydney Harbor and that 16 people were killed in the making, and one Irishman who fell survived by hitting the water just right – straight as an arrow and toes pointed – and came up with only three broken ribs) the fear was over.  The arches on each side are wide, the climb easy, and the power of the wind abated by being strapped in.

One sits astride the city, stretching out in all directions from the sea to the Blue Mountains.  The view from the top is magnificent; looking down at the Sydney Opera House, of course, the most recognizable building in the world, and the complex waterways of this vibrant cities that combines the best of LA, Seattle, and New Orleans.  Out away lay Manley Head, the last land before the endless Pacific.  Sailing yachts, tugboats, ferries, tankers, and luxury motor yachts passed under us while we were up there.  We could see schools of fish jumping in the green waters of the bay.  Our guide Darren pointed out the sites and pumped a steady stream of cheerful information to us through the headsets of the radio.

The whole thing was exhilarating and very worthwhile.  By the trip down I was very nonchalant, pulling my yo-yo along the wire with aplomb.  I found the business aspects most interesting.  Many governmental obstacles had to be overcome, and the thing took nine years to put together (the Bridge Climb, not the ridge itself – that took less).  It used up the fortune of the man who pioneered it.

Over 200 employees work this gig, taking up to 1800 people safely up and down the bridge in a day.  Now they are raking it in, and it is very well-run.  Of course they take photos and get you for that on your way out.

Most intriguing to me was the security system that they had to perfect to get governmental permission to do this business: You were never off the steel wire from the moment you stepped into the catwalk until the moment you stepped back in.  There was no way that you could remove the yo-yo from the wire, even if you wanted to.

Even your hip belt was cleverly constructed so that you could not remove it from yourself if you chose this way to end your life spectacularly.  Even if you managed to get a ceramic box cutter onto the bridge like some terrorist, it would take you so long to get through the webbing that Darren & Co would have been on you like white on rice.  I find my fear is less of falling than of jumping – that the devil in me will urge me over the edge against my other will and better judgment.  But even here they are protective and protected – you couldn’t commit suicide on this ‘ride’ even if you wanted.

Down the bins with the jump suits and recover your goods from the locker, and back through the lobby to the street.  Touristy it may be, and expensive it is, but it is a unique opportunity to see a unique bit of engineering in two forms: the bridge itself, and the operation to take people up and down it with absolute safety.

Though I wonder how we would all feel if an earthquake such as happened at Christchurch, New Zealand last week had occurred when we were on the bridge.

Millions Against Monsanto

February 23, 2011

Never before in human history have so few people had such control over the food supply of all humanity.  What they are doing with that control is extraordinarily dangerous, in my opinion.  Our biological heritage represents 3.5 billion years of research and on-the-job training for genes, biology, and the metabolic cycle of exchange.  Biology in general and food in particular are part of the ‘commons’ – what we partake in collectively – and should not be ‘owned’ or liable for alteration without representation.  GMO crops have shown themselves to spread easily into non-GMO areas, which could lead to a massive and uncontrollable experiment with all of our lives.  Be informed, and take action if you feel the same way:

https://organicconsumers.webex.com/mw0306lc/mywebex/default.do;jsessionid=Gs1yNlGT1ZlqWn1MLfDzfMGXDp5phd2yvnyDDdjzNFnJlWghDB3H!-219442439?nomenu=true&siteurl=organicconsumers&service=6&main_url=https://organicconsumers.webex.com/ec0605lc/eventcenter/event/eventAction.do%3FtheAction%3Ddetail%26confViewID%3D279380859%26siteurl%3Dorganicconsumers%26encryptTicket%3D945e4e5400c5355171b6c7d1bbbe10ca%26encryptTicketRegister%3Dfcc41586825ea7ba381896b771c363fb%26email%3Dmolly%2540viaorganica.org%26%26

Dimitris on Santorini – last Greek blog

February 5, 2011

Up at 6:30 to head out for the airport with the morning commuters to catch our plane for Thira.  I had been here a couple of years ago as a teaching-guest of George Kousaleos, but then it was thronged with people; now it is dead, dead, dead – many of the stores closed and shuttered, hard to find lunch (but what we did find was good – our first gyros).  The views from the village atop the caldera are just stupendous and ever-changing as we traverse the little alleyway paths on this windswept January day.  Cat’s paws claw along the bay below, which is devoid of cruise boats, whereas when we were here before there were always several steaming in and out of the passages at the open end of the island’s C-shape.

Sunset from our hotel room

A maze of paths up the cliff

Amazing rockwork in a patio

How many churches can one island support? It's the sailors made good who build them.

After lunch we read our way into a nap, which lasts in Misty’s case until 8 pm, while I quietly read the copy of the Iliad she had picked up. Letting her sleep is an uncharacteristic act for me – it has taken three marriages for me to achieve this allowing.  In my first, the timing was all mine, and it was all hurry.  In my second, to Misty’s mum, in my 30’s, came the struggle to admit of another’s time; she won, but the marriage lost.  Now, in my third, with me in my 60’s and Misty in her 20’s, I can allow another’s timing to take over my own.

I am glad I did, as she had an important dream – hers to relate if she wants to – which we discussed while cracking the pistachios we picked up yesterday on Poros. We went out for a drink about ten, to a bar with assorted lost locals with bare midriffs revealing tramp stamps (those ubiquitous lower back tribal tattoos).  Techno music (techno? 2011?) blaring made it hard to understand each other, at least with my dimming ears, so after one drink we plunged back into the cold night, with the stars blaring silently above.

It is hard to credit just how shut up this place is – the German girl we met on the roof terrace is the only other guest in our whole hotel, and feels like the only other tourist on the island.  She speaks perfect English, having worked in rural Georgia for a couple of years, but now she is an engineer in mainland China.  We meet her again in our way out to the bar, and find out she has been called back to China suddenly on a work problem.  She feels relieved – it is so cold and dead here; Misty and I have each other as company, but I wouldn’t want to be here alone.

A tree growing out of a wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beware of Dog - but it's a little poodle!

 

 

 

"Underbite" - our attached dog

Mostly we are meeting animals – Else has brought a street dog up with her from the bar. Only a few cats will come for cuddles or even food; they are alley cats, mostly, and skitter to shelter when a human comes near. Dogs, when I lived in Greek countryside in the 80’s, had a hard life.  They were not pets, but simply guarded the house or the goats, barking incessantly when anything showed up, but mostly fending for themselves.  Now, they seem to have a better life.

This dog abandons Else for us, and follows us back down the hill to the bar, waits for us patiently circled up on the sidewalk, and then follows us back up again.  He has the most amazing underbite; he looks like a canine Churchill.  He seems cheerful and well-fed, if a bit scruffy.  As we say goodbye at the hotel door, she has a very hard time leaving him to the cold night, rubbing his belly until he sneezes.

I am so glad to see Misty naturally has the compassion it took me so long and so many failed relationships to win.  Her boyfriend has it too, so it is not just a guy thing to be hard-ass, though whether you are a classic feminist or a difference feminist, we men are bred to battle, and cannot afford not to steel our hearts somewhat.  In my case, I way overdid it.  In Julian’s case, I wonder how his compassion will survive the rigours of military training.

On every trip, I forget something.  This time it was razors, which was easily remedied when we fpund a store (although: what’s Greek for ‘razor’?), but the unforgivable was to buy new shoes before setting out. I have three Bandaids on each heel, but they still throb with every step.  I am old enough to know better, but I was not going to come to Greece with running shoes like every other American.  Now I am wearing my reef runners everywhere (looking just like the American I am), still hurting in my heels, and with no support for running around these rocky climes.

Going morning shopping in a foreign land is an unsung joy.  In America, this might involve a store huger than you’ve ever seen (that still doesn’t have decent bread), with a bewildering variety of ways to make your clothes smell like a perfume factory rather than your clothes when they come out of the wash.  Or maybe a greasy spoon with bad coffee and white toast and eggs over easy.  In France or Italy, this involves finding a cafe with hand-shaking coffee and a fresh pastry.  In Germany, you might get perfect fruit from a surly vendor, while in the Arabian countries, you must pick among the carts of fruit to find the edible, and hopefully peelable (a banana or an orange comes in it’s own container, automatically germ-free).

This morning it runs to local cheese, some decent salami, and then follow the smell to the bakery for bread hot from the oven and a couple of fresh squares of spanikopeta – cheese and spinach baked in layers of fine and buttery filo – irresistible even though hard to carry in a backpack.  Thus armed, Misty and I took off along the ridge of the caldera, around the island in a large arc, perhaps 8 miles, to the little town of Oia (ee’-ya) at the northern end of the island.  The path wound up and down, with cobbled cement to cinders to loose gravel underfoot, as we moved along the layers of black pumice and red lava, alternating cliff views of the calderic bay on one side with the windswept Aegean with whitecaps furrowing off to other mountainous islands on the other.

Path in the red pumice

At the first hilltop church, we stopped for a snack, and Misty chatted musically with a French woman walking her dog, while I listened and mostly understood, but am tongue-tied in front of my daughter’s proficiency.

 

 

 

 

My daughter and Oia - proud much?

Finally we had a largely sunny day.  Though the air started cold, by the time we had climbed our third hill to the tiny church at the top (there’s always a church at the top, but often unmanned and locked, as this one was), we were sweaty with effort, and pulled off our shoes and socks and enjoyed the 360 degree view while we ate our simple lunch washed down with fresh little satsumas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here it was an easy downhill run into Oia, a melange of the Cycladean architecture jumbled together with paths, and more Orthodox churches than would seem possible in such a small town – maybe a thousand people left in the wintertime.  In the summer, when I was here before, it was choked with cars and buses, and these little pedestrian pathways were so solid with tourists that moving through them was a slow, gelatinous, and polyglot process.

The villages cling to the cliff

But now our unimpeded footsteps echoed from the close walls and closed doors of an off-season tourist town.  While we had taken the walk on its own terms, planning sunset in Oia and a taxi-ride home in the dark with maybe a stop at the taverna where I had traded songs with an old Greek sailor, I had an unspoken agenda of seeking out Dimitris, an iconoclastic icon painter from whom Quan and I had bought a few lithographs that now have pride of place in our home.

Everyone's Santorini postcard

But if Phira was shut up tight, Oia was even more deserted – we saw four or five other tourists brandishing cameras (one cannot resist, it is so picturesque) on our way through town – so I had little hope.  Surely he would be seeking inspiration in the churches of Russia or the plains of Africa. Though he started poor and lives simply, his work has enjoyed such success that he cannot by now be other than a wealthy man, but you’d never know it.

Though Oia is a maze, I was pretty sure I could find his place again. As we approached my best guess, we heard gentle jazz emanating from below, so we ducked our heads and entered the gentle world of this atheistic but most spiritual painter – the kind of contradictory determination that is the essence of the Greek character.

Dimitris is a Gorgon with a severe mien capable of turning tourists to stone at the door and sending them away, but I paid no attention.  Once we were in, he recognised me, a smile lit his face, and soon we were seated on makeshift chairs, drinking a Greek coffee he brewed over a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton set alight upon a stone.

First, his atelier: a small tunnel of an off-white room, maybe 10′ x 20′, with paintings lined up against the walls.  The majority, and the most arresting at first, are the angels painted on old wooden doors studded with bolts.  Michael, Gabriel, George, and assorted angels of abundance stare gently and sadly out at you, with the traditional halo and iconography associated with each of these heavenly archetypes. Over the ceiling are pinned or taped bits of drawings he has done over the years, portraits of family members, renditions of bits of the Sistine or something, all covered with the matte patina of his paint dust and the curling smoke of his Karelis cigarette ever in the ashtray.

An old glass-fronted bookcase contains large art books of icons and other world art, but it serves more as a table than a resource nowadays, judging by the dust. At the end of the tunnel is one small window, and under this window his huge easel, a rumbling and rickety affair on wheels, so that he can change the angle as the earth spins his window under the sun.  Beside the easel is a long stick with a boffin of cloth tied over the end, which he grasps with his left hand to steady the right for the delicate tracery required in the icons he paints.  Besides the large and heavy doors, he works on canvas, but a lot on paper, the multiple brushes laid out on a table that also holds the ashtray and the rock for making coffee.

Now to the man: tall and thin to the point of being gaunt, Dimitris’ hair is a nicotine-softened white and hangs down to the pockets of his shirt.  Take away this dramatic hair and he is not a handsome man, kind of goofy-looking with an overbite and pocked skin, but the overall effect transcends any element – here is an artist, one so dedicated that his steady hand moves on through the winter, even when the throngs are gone, perhaps the more so because of it.

His delight to welcome real guests is immediate and genuine, “Let me make you a coffee” and out comes the stone, the wodge of cotton, and the blue alcohol flame. His 28-yr-old son, Apollon, lanky also but as handsome and cheerful as Dimitris is plain and taciturn, has just started apprenticing with him a few days before, and they are still working out the intricacies of their new relationship. “He is my boss now,” complains Dimitris, kindly, “Any other employee, I would have no trouble telling them to go out for water or to wash these brushes, but with him…”. Apollon is married with a little daughter, and lives in Megalohori (big village) near his wife’s family.  So it goes, he shrugs, the children move away.

We spend about an hour there in companionable conversation, ranging over his art and technique, how to emboss the gold or silver leaf that forms the basis of some of the icons, Bush vs Obama, the current Greek economic crisis, the history of the island.  He plays his Cretan lute, and I play his old and nicely toned six-string.  He likes The Glory of Love and writes down the chords. We like his Kelly Joe Phelps album and write it down to pick up when we are back in connected-land.

All sunsets look the same

But where you're standing doesn't

Misty and I walk down to the end of Oia for the famous sunset, which does not disappoint.  When I was here before, you crowded into whatever spot you could find; this time there are maybe ten tourists dotting the pathways on the end of the island. The moon hangs it’s crescent over the dying sun, turning on it’s brightness as sun as the shadow of the earth obscures the sun.

There is nothing for it but to go to dinner.  As he speaks to his wife Athena, I sense the care, almost fear, he has for her.  We close up his shop – such as it is, nothing much gets locked around her in the winter – and ride down with her to their house on the wide apron of farmland that is Santorini on the side away from the volcano.  Athena, half-German, half-Greek (but more Greek by far in spirit), has raised their three children, and is a Quan-like figure in opposing the Codex Alimentarius and basing so much on instinct.  We all get along like a house afire, and the food – who bothers ordering? They just bring whatever’s best.

After a long meal, we take our leave and walk to the hotel – and I am satisfied to have taken Misty in the oikos, the household of Greece.  There is much to see and hear and taste, but the feeling of the heart inside the Greek people – we needed an experience like this to really feel it.

Aside from the incredibly noisy group of kids from Athens who arrive just as we are going to sleep, our hotel has been a boon, and we welcome sleep when the kids calm down.

ArcheoThira

The chapel and cave in the cliff

The last day, we take a taxi to Archeothira, e ancient city at the top of the hill.  The taxi driver asks us what time we want to be picked up, and we agree on a place down by the water.  He doesn’t even want any money – “You pay me at the end,” he says, and good as his word he shows up, and good as our word we pay him as he drops us in Phira.  On our walk down to the sea I take Misty off-road along precarious cliffside paths to my little church in the rock, perched beside a spring in a cave, which must have been there since ancient times.  We light a candle for those we love at the shrine, drink the water dripping through the rock onto the formations, and rest for a bit under the soaring cliffs above us. It’s rough climb – who carted all the cement up here to build the little church? – but Misty has been game for it all. Time to go home.

The spring in the cave - bathe in the waters and become a virgin again - so goes the legend

We were able to stay on the edge of the caldera for the final sunset, and then we enter the ‘travel tunnel’ – first to the tiny Santorini airport, then to the Athens airport hotel for a few hours (‘Fantastic Four’ with subtitles), and then to Rome, and finally to Boston – grateful to be home – that’s the great thing about travel, but it is hard to re-enter the usual world.  What a great ‘time-out-of-mind’ this was!

We love this country!

Limits

February 5, 2011

More snow.  Although that’s a likely forecast for Maine anytime through April, in the here and now it is a reality, another foot dumping down in snowball-sized hunks, alternating with drifting snow mist, and, at the end, crystals like Ivory Snow flakes, leaving the whole field twinkling in sequins this fine sunny morning.

As nice (and frigid) as the day is, limits have been imposed.  Those living through a real Maine winter (we got off lightly last year) are circumscribed.  We have run out of places to store this water in its solid form, so our lives get limited into small lanes of passage.  I start making a path from the deck to the rabbits – only one shovel width.  So many snows, the trench is hip deep, and that’s not down to the ground, just down to better footing of the hard snow.  Filling the bird feeders is a matter of bending down, not tippy-toes, but the birds are safe because the cats can’t make it through the fluffy medium to get at them.

The world is almost unrecognizable, fences between the rabbit pens obliterated, and the stockade designed to keep the foxes out could be easily leapt by the bunnies, let alone a predator.  But no fox is out hunting in this world of white – it’s too hard going.  Bobbie plowed around six, as light came, and I dig from the deck the other way to the cleared drive, and walk out to free up the barn between two banks higher than my head.

I can dig out the barn doors, and of course they get their grain and hay, but the poor horses have to trample down the paddocks themselves.  It’s slow work, and heavy on the legs.  I tried skiing, but the snow was so deep that within a half-mile I was sweating like a pig and turned for home.  The wharf is completely covered, and I have not bothered to shovel it off, as our attention moves away from the sea in the winter; there’s not much to do there, and the wind goes right through you.

The cats are fighting because there’s nowhere to go even if they do go out.  The rabbits have stopped fighting and just run around their front doors (they love each snow like it was the first, but they still can’t get far either).  In a couple of months, the world will open up, but right now it has closed in on us until we get a thaw. “As the days get longer, the cold gets stronger” is an old saying around here.  In the old days, before Netflix and easy travel, folks had the intestinal fortitude to withstand not only the winter, but the limits on human interaction it imposed.  If some national disaster cut off our power for a long while, we would not only have babies being born nine months later and people dying of cold, but I think we’d be killing each other as well out of sheer circumscription.

We have lost twelve cats to cars, predators, illness and old age since we’ve been here.  Each departure is hard, but this one especially: this morning Gandhi dove out the door and stayed under the deck – as far as we know, it is completely snowed in and we cannot see a thing in there – to leave his body behind.  We feel terribly, because he must have had a kidney infection or some such for a bit, but we took it as winter blues, pickiness on his food, cabin fever with the other cats, and sheer cussedness, in which he had a long trump suit.  Cats go to earth to die alone – it will be my favored way too, if I get the chance – and that’s what he did.  When we realized he had been out too long, and tried to find him, we could not.  By last night, when he hadn’t shown up, we were sure, and let go into grieving.  Ah, Gandhi, we could have been more attentive!

I wrote this at home, but am posting it from UK, where it is 50 degrees (10C) and raining.  Hope they’re doing ok in Maine, as the storms roll over like waves.