May 30, 2006

Photos from Santorini

My paradise deflated: the volcanic cliff of Santorini, showing Oia, the town we stayed in at the tip of the crescent-shaped island.

The cruise-ship port of Santorini. The town above is Fira, the main town on the island. The zigzag trail on the left is where donkeys ascend with passengers and their luggage. Not many people choose that way up anymore, but there's a cable car too.

Stairs going down the cliff...

And more stairs.

The edge of the sea from clifftop.

A view of the caldera from our hotel.

The little pool at our hotel. We ate breakfast on the patio every morning. Alas, it was the exact same breakfast every day, with hard dry toast and powdered orange juice.

The far end of Oia from our hotel around the curve.

Volcanic island in the middle of the caldera.

Photos from Athens

A discriminating collection showing the first phase of our journey. Photos by Susan except for photo of Susan, which is by your faithful correspondent.

The Acropolis from afar, seen beyond the streets of Plaka, the formerly picturesque quarter of Athens.

The Parthenon ringed by tourists.

Some clown doing Embracing Horse, the primary posture of tai chi, in front of the Parthenon. Embracing Horse is recommended for achieving correct body alignment.

The Porch of the Caryatids at the Parthenon.

Susan wants to be a caryatid.

The Acropolis at dusk from the rooftop bar of our hotel.

Same, at night.

Beginning of the nine-hour ferry journey to Santorini.

May 28, 2006

Spiritual Advantages of Plantar Fasciitis

So: what am I going to do with myself this Memorial Day weekend while I’m hobbled, forced to spend hours lying on the couch? I’ll meditate.

Will I meditate like this kid, who supposedly sat in the forest for ten months without eating or drinking or moving? No. I’ll sit for fifteen or twenty minutes, and the entire time my thoughts will wander. I’ll think about how I’m meditating, and I’ll think about what I’m going to do next. I’ll catch my head sinking as I fall into a half-awake dream: I’ll dream of water balloons, of pith-helmeted explorers, of anything as long as it’s distracting and irrelevant. (My very first post on this blog was about this very problem.)

Meditation will not bring me one electron-orbit closer to nirvana. It will, however, bring me a bit of medically verifiable relief from stress. If that’s all it ever does, that’s plenty.

This kid Bomjan, according to one well-informed school of thought, is developing the highest level of yogic power; he’s entering the deepest level of trance, at which ordinary body processes can be transcended. But that is not buddhahood. All of us are already as enlightened as he is; and the Buddha himself warned sternly against extremes of asceticism. This kid will die one day, just as I will, and if reincarnation exists, he will be reincarnated; he will not have escaped the wheel of samsara.

Buddhist meditators often rail against the chattering “monkey mind” that plagues us humans. Meditation tries to quiet that incessant background noise as a preliminary to overcoming the self, the ego. But I like the monkey mind. It is the source of ideas. Amid all that jarring noise, you can sometimes pick out one clear melody. As William James said, 90% of the universe is waste; the valuable stuff can’t come into being without it. Inefficiency is a higher efficiency.

And I love being a self. It is our niche, our special glory and burden; whether we evolved or were created, it is what we are here for. And it is a preparation for whatever our descendants will be that surpasses us.

There’s a story (scroll down to Comment 13 in linked post) about an accomplished Buddhist master who, before meditating one day, asked his wife to make his favorite curry. While she was making it , he went into meditation – and stayed in it for thirteen years. When he emerged from his trance, he asked his wife, “Is the curry ready yet?” So deep was his trance, time had stopped for him. And yet he still wanted the curry: he had not conquered desire.

I can still want the curry without having to meditate for thirteen years.


May 27, 2006

Revenge of the Trail

The past two weeks in Greece we'd been doing a lot of strenuous walking, including a 10-mile hike over a rough, stony trail in Samaria Gorge, and I felt in great shape. I've always loved to walk, and I made a resolution to keep in walking trim when I returned home; so yesterday I took a walk on Austin's Hike and Bike Trail -- maybe 4 miles. I reached what I'd decided would be my halfway point, turned -- and my right heel went limp, and for the rest of the hike I limped with an insistent dull pain in my heel, barely able to continue by the end. Making it worse, I got confused by a construction detour, and by my pain, and went at least an extra half-mile, probably more, before I realized what I was doing.

It was an attack of plantar fasciitis, a condition I've had twinges of in the past, but never anything like this. Sometimes I wake in the morning with an ache in my heel, but gettiing up and walking around makes it better, while lying in bed makes it worse. Yesterday's attack was of a different order. At home, I could barely take a step; I hobbbled in pain, gripping furniture for support. This morning it's a bit better -- I've been taking ibuprofen and stretching my foot and calf muscles -- but I still can't walk freely or put my weight on the sole.

Among the risk factors for plantar fasciitis that apply to me are increasing age (does that apply to you?), walking for exercise, and suddenly increasing one's level of activity. Among the risk factors that don't is obesity.

Although it's frusrating to have this happen, I'm grateful it didn't happen while we were hiking Samaria Gorge, where there is no way out except by walking to the end -- rescue vehicles can't get in, and only in life-threatening cases will park workers carry you out on a stretcher, since they risk their own health in doing so.

Anyway, today I'm going to take it easy and let Susan continue to teach me to accept help kindly offered. Which is another thing I have trouble doing,

May 25, 2006

Wrapping Up Greece

We're back in Austin after a 25-hour day of airplane travel, including the waiting time. What a bright and shining country this is when you come back to it after being away! Landing via Olympic Airways with fellow passengers who were mostly old Greeks (actually the plane was less than half full), I imagined how the immense spaces, the wide roads, the ever-growing prosperous communities where average people live in neat, clean, spacious houses, must look to a newcomer from a cramped, poor, shabby country, the way it looked to my grandparents. No matter how much fun I've had on a foreign vacation, whenever I come back I feel like kissing the ground.

I want to thank all of you readers and commenters who kept up with my reports for the past couple of weeks. I wrote them on the fly, and time didn't allow me to answer the comments individually, but it's great to see comments by familiar people and new ones alike. Thanks too for letting me know that one of the posts was a "Best of Austin."

And a special reply to Ali Eteraz: Best of luck to you! Be my guest!

Just to wrap up a couple of experiences I didn't get a chance to report about before I left:

On the beach at Agios Pavlos we set up an impromptu nudist colony along with a few other couples. I mentioned earlier that at that southerrn Cretan village there's a series of sandy coves separated by walkable rocks. You go from cove to cove, meeting progressively fewer people as you go on: in some coves you find no one at all. At about the third cove, we found a gray-haired man in very good shape running nude along the beach. At about that time we also found a young nude woman sunbathing, who sat up hunched when we came on the scene, raising her knees and wrapping her arms around them in the classic "hide the peach" posture. Well, we found a patch of sand of our own and stripped and ran into the small Mediterranean surf and swam naked, and later I did tai chi naked on the wet sand. (Photos of that event will NOT be part of my forthcoming online offering.) Each couple or singleton was spaced far enough from the others not to feel intruded upon, and we scarcely said a word to each other, and looked at each other only briefly and semi-covertly, but I think a sense of community was formed: we were all supporting each other in the same release from inhibition. None of us was a perfect specimen, and most of us were middle-aged; we were exactly what we were, and that was all we needed to be. We could look and think, "Oh, there's a person who's thus-and-so, and she's going around naked! I can too!"

The next day we were in a completely different environment: back to Herakleion, the capital of Crrete, to prepare for departure. A few kilometers away from Knossos where the Minotaur killed his victims, the streets of Herakleion are a labyrinth that would have stupefied Theseus. I have never seen a more confusing city; it makes, for instance, Casablanca look like an orderly, well-laid out product of intelligent design. The combination of signless streets, uninformative maps, hectic traffic, and road construction made finding our destinations almost impossible. The big street we hoped to go on was closed for repair, and the alternate routes were arranged in one-way patterns that forced us to go around and around in repeated circles, with our hotel seeming unreachable in the center. Finally, I don't know how, we pierced through, and in a lucky moment I happened to see that one of the interchangeable white buildings we were passing had a sign with our hotel's name on it. If I hadn't seen it in time, it would have taken us forever to get back.

We ate at a wonderful unpretentious restaurant near our hotel, the Heliopotis (my transliteration). The word means "sun drinker" and it was coined by the Nobel-winning poet Odysseus Elytis to imply a thirst for life, light, and learning. The artistic, humane spirit of the owner, who chose such a name for his small haven from ugliness, came through in a mustard sauce for roast pork, and in cabbage leaves stuffed with mincemeat and rice in an egg and lemon sauce. If you're ever in Herakleion, seek it out. It's not in the guidebooks but it should be.

As we ate, we noticed a young man walking back and forth in the street. He walked in one direction, got to the end of the block, turned, walked to the other end, turned, walked back, and so on. He did it all through our dinner. Often he kept one arm pinned to his abdomen. We asked the restaurateur, and he told us that the young man was a Turkish Kurd who had once been arrested by the police in Herakleion and had been severely beaten, causing brain damage. Now he walked back and forth, and the people on the block took care of him. Human rights in the EU!

After this European travel, we've been thinking we'd like to see more of North America from now on. We want to go to Zion National Park -- and swim with manatees in Florida -- and raft in Idaho -- and see the tides in the Bay of Fundy -- and the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. There's so much to see on this side of the world, and it's so disappointing to go to someplace like the Parthenon or Knossos and find it's all covered in metal scaffolding, or it's just a rubble of stone propped up by some bygone archeologist's reconstructive guesswork. To tell you the truth, there's more going on in Austin than in all of Greece: better food, nicer people, and above all, a sense of the present. Some women swim topless in Barton Springs Pool, for that matter. Not that that means anything to me, of course.

May 22, 2006

The Beach at Agios Pavlos

This might be my last post from Greece, or maybe next to last. We head home in less than 48 hours and will be in transit before then. (Also I'm working on a weird old sticky Greek keyboard, the only one at this old beachfront hotel, and I can't find certain keys like the apostrophe and the dash -- wait, I just found them by unlocking the number lock! -- but it's still taking extra time because those marks are found under keys different from the ones that picture them.) A billowing curtain in this little cubicle is blowing against my left arm as I type, and the keyboard shelf keeps sliding in under the desk.

We drove down to the south coast of Crete through the mountains: beautiful green and rock-gray peaks and olive-growing valleys, untouristed farming villages, lots of yellow and purple wildflowers and clusters of red poppies. The White Mountains, so called not becausse of snow but because of limestone, which at the tops of some peaks makes tear-streak paths that look like ski trails.

At the end of the road is Agios Pavlos (Saint Paul), not exactly a village but a seaside location for one old hotel and three yoga retreats, who have chosen this spot for its beauty. (On the way, a Mercedes roadster passed us fast on a narrow turn and I said, "I'll bet that guy owns one of the yoga retreats," and sure enough, when we got here, the Mercedes was in the retreat's parking lot.) We took a room for two nights at the hotel, 25 Euros a night, a nicer room than in Santorini for less than a quarter of the price. We're overlooking the white/red/black rocky headlands and the black pebble beach and we have a big terrace from which to eat dinner and have drinks and coffee. The headlands are a lot like a smaller Big Sur: there are rocky grottoes you can climb into and through and over, and tide pools, although there seems to be a lot less tide pool life than in California. (Susan speculates on a difference between tidal life at shell beaches and at rocky beaches. Or maybe it's just overfished here.) The wonderful thing is that there's a succession of small beaches in the shape of linked sandy coves, with climbable rock between them. You can go from cove to cove for several kilometers, and while there are handfuls of people at the first one or two, the next ones are completely secluded. The isolation seems to make people want to undress: we've seen nude sunbathers and swimmers. This morning we plan to take a hike on the ridge above the beaches, see what's down below, and descend through the sand dunes, which sometimes have plank steps to help you. (We're not feeling any soreness from Samaria Gorge, by the way. And if anyone's wondering about our drinking the stream water there, those streams are the sources of the excellent bottled Samaria brand water we keep drinking, both from the bottle and the tap. You can see the pipes running alongside the streams. It's among the best water I've ever tasted. We also tried some in the middle of the village of Spili where there's a famous fountain, a long trough whose eighteen spouts are the heads of eighteen lions.)

This is a perfect place to wind down and experience nature after a vacation too full of boutique towns and traipsing crowds. Susan is a swimmmer and she's loving this place. We snorkeled together yesterday among the sponge-covered rocks near the shore, and saw a lot of little fish and some sea urchins and some lovely underwater rock shapes. We'll do some more of that today. And we'll sit at dinner and listen to the gossip of the yoga students: about what phase of the moon is best for getting your hair cut or for taking vitamins, about plans to open vegetarian restaurants. I'm thinking that if one were a heterosexual male at these retreats, one would either have a field day, or drive off in shock.

A couple of stray observations now that the vacation is about to end:

1. It's not true that Europeans aren't fat. We've seen some very significant pot bellies here. But I think it's only the men who are fat here, not the women.

2. As a corollary, it's not true that portions are small. Appetizers and desserts are always built for two, and main dishes are often immense. But people leave a lot on the plate.

3. Even at a secluded place like this, only a few women go topless. It's not endemic like you've heard. And some of the topless ones are Americans seizing the opportunity to break free.

4. If you're going to Greece, don't stay on one island for more than three days, unless it's Crete, which is by far the biggest. Do some island hopping and the places won't get stale. But since the most frequent ferries go to the most heavily spoiled islands, you need to do some planning.

5. Lonely Planet guidebook for the Greek Islands is inadequate in some ways. Its entries are often outdated, as if they've been carried through from earlier editions and not checked. Its recommendations are often the most obvious places; there's little exploration of the less well known hotels, and their restaurant recommendations have turned out poorly in at least two cases for us (see previous post for mention of a defunct restaurant they touted highly). I suggest using the Cadogan guide to the Greek Islands (a British publisher) written by Dana Facaros, someone who knows and loves Greece and writes well and wittily.

6. I'm trying to think of what I wanted to say next, but I can't. Or I'll save it for a later post. Or something. But be on the lookout for photos that we'll post after our return. Bye for now!

May 21, 2006

Old Places

Chania was redeemed for us the other night when, wandering the back streets of the Venetian port and getting disgusted by all the tourist restaurants fronted by touts entreating you to come in and try the moussaka (which is apparently made by a hidden factory somewhere -- it's the same in every restaurant), we came upon a little cafe/ouzeri, the Ouzeri To Montato, which was completely devoid of customers. At the two-table outdor terrance, an old (maybe 60) woman in black sat patiently talking to a friend. We inspected the posted menu, which had some interesting small dishes on it, and passed by once, on the theory you shouldn't eat in a restaurant where no one else wants to. Then, on a second pass, feeling we couldn't tolerate any of the other choices, we hesitantly walked in. It was like being in a grandmother's dining room, except it had six small wooden tables instead of one, covered with blue and white checked tablecloths. At the back, the open kitchen looked absolutely like a home kitchen, with a sink, a stove, a fridge, and aluminum pots and pans spread out all over. There was no sign of any cooking being done. The woman was talking on the phone, fast and loud, and for five minutes she didn't stop to welcome us. But when she did, she was quietly friendly and spoke a few words of English to my few of Greek. We ate Cretan food -- a lamb and cheese pie, some boiled wild greens -- different and nice. Then somehow we got into a discussion with her -- I guess we were asking about the Cretan folk music a sign for which was posted on the wall -- "Very Inexpensive" -- and her husband came out, a hearty iron-haired man, and told us in words and gestures about his son, a fine musician, who tours the States playing that kind of music for Greek immigrants (his group is called Omonia). We told him where we were from; we showed pictures of our kids; we drew maps on napkins; he brought us free raki (a Turkish liqueur, like ouzo) and a glass for himself -- the wife looked on merrily; we toasted one another; he took down his lute from the wall and began playing in a halting, erring style; he asked our professions and then asked me what Greek writers I liked (Kazantzakis -- not really, but that old self-glorifying windbag was Cretan so I threw in his name -- and Homer and Plato etc.) and he drew circles on the tablecloth to indicate some Platonic mystical system he believed in. Then his daughter, in her twenties, passed by in the street and was called in to translate -- she spoke good English as a result of a commercial course - amd shrugged off his mystical beliefs, but we all talked more and had raki-filled fun. It was the archetypal travel experience that everyone wants to stumble into, and we had. At the end I made a patronizing mistake with the bill: I vastly overtipped, mistaking a European 1 in the total for an American 7, and they protested but I thought I had only tipped 10% instead of 50%, so we left in ignorance of having insulted them, until I figured it out later, on the hotel terrace overlooking the harbor lights. Must every human encounter contain its portion of painful misunderstanding?

Next morning we woke at 5:30 to get a bus to Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe: a 16km (10 mile) walk, on a rough, often steep path, the entire way over stony dirt, with a 1,250m. descent from mountains to coast, much of it down a zigzag log-risered makeshift staircase at the beginning. Ate our own homemade trail mix on the way, and drank the water from the many springs coming out of the mountainside and the cold stream running through the middle (both the guidebook and the long-haired trilingual German guide, who does this trip day after day, assured us the water was perfectly safe). A fast shallow stony stream, the water clear enough to have made Hemingway put the shotgun away. The high gorge (up to 300 m.) narrowing till they were only 3m wide at one point, the Iron Gates, where the wind blew constantly and a swarm of flies gusted all around, loving their little niche. The rock strata so folded by earthquake activity, they were vertical. Small olive trees and bonsai oaks and lots of wildflowers (wild mountain thyme, smelling like a recipe) growing in the cracks. A beautiful black-crimson whorled candlestick of a flower called dragon's aroma, fecal-smelling, that fed on flies attracted by its scent.

Six hours from the start (including about an hour's rest), we swam in the Libyan Sea and ate gyros at one of those restaurants where the owner grabs you as you read the menu on the stand; then a ferry to the bus for a long hairpin ride through the mountains back to Chania. Rockslides in the two-narow-laned road; a village party set up on the road itself, with tables and people milling and eating and habving to nudge each other aside for our bus; when two buses met face to face, or a bus and a cement mixer, their passage was something to behold.

Back home to search through unknown dark mazelike steets for a guidebook restaurant in a ruined Venetian house -- the restaurant itself turned out to be a ruin, completely demolished though the guidebook was copyright 2006 -- and then another serendipitous eating place in the warren of apartment buldings, an upscale Middle Eastern place thronged with Britishers and Greeks.

It was midnight and we limped back to the hotel. My feet aren't sore this morning: ibuprofen, organic Cretan beer, more raki, and stretching helped, I think -- but the guide had said that the real soreness would come after 48 hours. At which time we'll be driving through the mountains searching for some other beach.

May 19, 2006

Chania, Crete

So many details get lost in the rush from town to town, island to island, Internet cafe to Internetcafe. The other day I would have told you more about our last day on Santorini -- a prolonged stay there, partly because of overenthusiastic on my part, partly because of uncooperative ferry scheduling. I would have described wandering the same paths over and over, cimbing up an down the same hundreds of steps to the tiny port and back, stopping for dessert or coffee in the same couple of cafes -- modern, stylish, quiet, with a wittily idiomatic English-speaking waitress and a jazz-loving owner -- that we made our own. And about our disagreeable hotel owner, who cheated us out of half a day's fee which we could have saved by leaving earlier. Oh well. It's the travel tax, as a friend says: the extra you always end up paying for things you wouldn't have if you'd planned perfectly and people were always honest.

Then yesterday I would have told you about Herakleion, the capital of Crete -- a real pit, notable only for proximity to Knossos. This morning we rented our second little Hyundai and drove the short distance out of town to Knossos, and I'll say right away it was a big disappointment. Last time, they allowed tourists into the main rooms. Still on the walls were the two greatest Minoan frescos: the dolphins and the bull-leapers, chipped but largely intact, inspiring to see in the place they'd been painted 3,500 years ago; and there was Ariadne's dance floor, or so it was called: how inspiring to imagine a civilization where one of the main royal structures was a dance floor. Now, though, because of incremental damage from tourists' feet, the main rooms have been blocked off; I don't know whether the frescos are still there or not -- there are no signs explaining -- the only frescos left are copies. We saw two women in surgical masks working carefully at restoring a wall, and that was nice. We saw some two-meter-high pottery vessels, and a few crimson columns trimmed in black, and a lot of paving stones, some of which were dug into channels as water conduits. But no frescos to make me take in my breath and well up. A second time -- this time privately, just for me -- Minoan civilization disappeared.

Today we drove west along the north shore (Crete is the size and shape of Long Island, NY)to the lovely old city of Chania,a port from the time when Venetians owned it, and after that, Turks. We've got a hotel right on the U-shaped old harbor, with a semiprivate terrace over which swallows circle and twitter, and below which we can watch the crowds of bedraggled tourists trusging. At lunch the crowd was so thick it was demoralizing, but it lightened up between meals. We sat at an outdoor terrace and exhcnagd bleak thoughts about our fellow beings -- I wondered what it might be like to be a physician, able to glance at each person and tell the ways they'd lived badly, knowing on the basis of bad teeth or a pot belly or a bent back or a blotchy complexion that they'd drunk and smoked and worked at such and such a wretched job, knowing what their life expectancy might be. Not excepting ourselves; feeling too keenly that we were part of the crowd, when for so long we'd strained not to be. Maybe a doctor, looking at us, could see that particular strain.
Knossos, too, had aroused thoughts of mortality: how beautiful those people had been, and how they'd chosen to live in a place so ridden with volcanoes and earthquaks it had destroyed them en masse. I wish I'd known Ariadne. There are Ariadnes enough in our civilization, and someday they'll be wherever she is. All that's left are a few short stumps of columns, a few paving stones. The rest has to be constructed out of imagination, and for the most part inaccurately. And the buses full of imperfection keep driving up for that. Beautiful imperfection, it's all we have.

May 16, 2006

Oia Sunset

An hour before sunset, the cafe terraces at the top of the villa-crowded cliff are filled with people. Then more crowds start walking in down the boutique-lined street, taking all available standing room at the walls overlooking the sea. We go to the ruined stone watchtower where the cognoscenti gather, and take a precarious loose-rocked perch at the tower's base, overlooking the zigzag cobbled path that descends hundreds of steps to the tiny (one sailboat dock, four shoulder-to-shoulder tavernas) port. Then we sit, and for the next hour gauge the descent of the yellow sun. People keep coming -- we're lucky to have found a spot, and this isn't the high season nor a weekend. A constant happy multilingual chatter arises -- English, American, Aussie, German, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, French, occasional Italian, and even some Greek.

"I'm rather disappointed in the progress of this sun," I remark after a while, because there's nothing to do except watch it and shift position -- and of course, look at the whitewashed houses descending stepwise down the cliff face and wonder who gets to live there, and who has the foresight to rent them. This is Oia (Ee' uh), one of the famous sunset spots of the world, and cruise ships disembark every afternoon for their passengers to see it. People are taking minute-by-minute photos of the sun, probably most of which will not come out very well. People are calling friends on other continents and saying, "I'm in Oia watching the sunset." There are no tourist children present, but one little Greek boy hidden in a recess of a cliff house is bawling steadily about whatever children bawl about; he has no idea the impact he's having on a herd of sophisticated adults.

Eight-thirty or thereabouts: the sun is starting to get noticeably lower. Quiet relief among the watchers. The click of camera shutters becomes louder, more frequent. The chatter subtly softens, as does the golden light. The band of purple-gray beneath the sun broadens. Another several minutes and the bottom of the sun touches the ridge of the island below which it will set. A little more waiting, and the sun is a scoop of orange ice cream on an invisible cone; then it's a flat disc, then a thinner flat disc, then a lens, then a line, then a point. Some people began to leave even before the sun disappears: they have places to go, and they want to avid the departing crowd, and they've seen sunsets before. Those who stay applaud hesitantly, not knowing if it's proper etiquette. (Susan was the first to clap.) On a sandy level spot beside the wall of a tower, a black dog lies curled up half-asleep, looking away from the sun.

Now the light is out, and everyone trudges back to the long, narrow shopping street, looking for restaurants. In truth, it wasn't the most spectaculat sunset I've ever seen: I've seen better in the West Texas desert and on the Mendocino coast and even in Madison, WI, overlooking Picnic Point on LakeMendota from Observatory Hill. But on Oia the sunset is a celebration. Here we are, from all over, and the sun is alive and so are we, we can eat and drink and laugh and shop and walk up and down endless flights of cobbled steps. And that's the way it will be every day from now till forever.

That was last night. Today, we took a boat ride into the caldera -- the volcanic crater, similar to Crater Lake -- to swim in the sulfurous waters of a hot spring (not as hot as we'd expected) and to walk up the slope of a volcanic island dating from 1957 and peer down. We got red sulfur stains on our bathing suits; the sun and spray and sulfur lightened and reddened our hair; we reurned lunchless to our room and snaacked on Edam cheese and fruit, and then took our rented car back out for the evening's traipsing and store-browsing and taverna-searching. I already know the best little place to eat: it's got no menu except a chalkboard, and when I went there 12 years ago an orange and white Manx cat (tailless, with high rear end) was prowling the floor, so much a twin of my dear departed cat Jasper that I stood up and shouted in the middle of the restaurant.

I'm writing this from an Internet cafe in Fira, the main town on this island, and I may or may not be able to get back here in the next three days or so. We're taking a two-hour ferry to Crete on Thursday afternoon --I guess that's Thursday morning for you -- and we'll see the Minoan ruins at Knossos -- the dolphin frescos, the bull-leaper fresscos, and Ariadne's dance floor -- then drive that island's winding mountain rads and see its Venetian port city and stop in a couple of villages. I'll try to post more during that time, but it will depend on the available resources and the schedule. We've been busy!

May 14, 2006

Back to Santorini

Is it better the second time? I'd been dreaming of returning to this rocky, steep Cycladic island for more than a dozen years, ever since having the time of my life here on my own, stopping wherever I liked. Yesterday I returned via a nine-hour ferry ride from Athens -- a huge boat, the size of a small cruise ship, with eight decks, the bottom four or five for cars, and the interior including cabins, cafes, and "air seat" rooms that mimicked airplane fuselages, drop-down television screens and all.

Then we came in view of a large, high-cliffed island with white villages on top. Everyone went to the side to take photos. I thought it was nice, but I'd seen better: I'd seen supernatural beauty. "Is this Santorini?" my lovely companion asked, and I assured her, "Compared to Santorini this is nothing." A minute later, the bilingual loudspeaker anounced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we will be arriving at Santorini in a few minutes." In the time since I'd seen it last, it had somehow sunk down from heaven and become a place in the real world.

That moment on the ferry yesterday was a landmark in my life.

Oh, it's still a beautiful place, and certain views from certain angles are breathtaking. You've seen it on postcards: a high, sculpted volcanic crater filled with blue water -- the remnants of one of the most powerful exposions in history, which destroyed a major Minoan city about 1500 BC and, some think, gave rise to the myth of Atlantis. Clutching the clifftops, clusters of round-roofed little white houses with blue doors, molded into the caves, and topping it all a blue-domed church. The blurred rose-gold light at dawn and dusk raise in relief the bulges of the clif and cuts shadows into the recesses. With its irregular bands of red asnd black and gray and tan rock, and its semidesert vegetation of sage and wildflowers (and even cactus at one place -- we thought of home), it's like being in a movie: heightened color all around you.

We're staying in one of those clifftops apartment villas, climging down rough-coibbled winding stairs to our one-room studio. The view is unbeatable, even from out kitchenette window; the patios are bricked and whitewashed to contrast with sky and sea; we sit outside for breakfast, just breathing and saying, "Look!", then climb up and down to the waterside and back...

But the room is tiny, cramped, the bed narrow and sagging; there's no soap in the bathroom, and most of all the bathroom fixtures are in the old Greek style: neither shower stall nor bathtub nor curtain exists. There's a showerhead on a flexible metal tube, but you douse yourself in the midst of the sink and the toilet, and the water goes through a drain in the middle of the banked floor. The toilet seat and paper get wet every time you shower... and there's a discsreet little basket next to the toilet for you to toss the paper in...

We rented a car and I drove on the narrow winding streets, squeezing between vehicles and winding around curves and passing through stop signs like a native. In the passenger seat, she could scarcely restrain herself. We backtracked endlessly, even though there's only one main road, and finally found Thira, the main town-- except it really wasn't, it was Imiroviglia, the town next to it--and we walked on the cliffside path past lovely tourist villas and tavernas galore...This island is a tourist boutique heaven, or hell, whichever way you think of it...and partly to ease our stress we ate lunch in an upstraits taverna -- homestyle lamb in lemon sauce, and moussaka baked in a ceramic pot, and I practiced the word for "delicious" ... this place was worth it.

May 12, 2006

Pros Athene

I spent a measurable amount of my childhood on the rooftops of six-storey apartment buildings. Tonight I was sitting outside at that height again, at the rooftop bar of my hotel, facing the illuminated Acropolis. The broad yellow-lit mesa looked like the closeup moon does to an astronaut flying in, and it pleaded with us to restore not its columns but its spirit. Sitting drinking ice-clouded ouzo, I could not do anything for it.

We call it Athens, a name without emotional etymology, but its real name is Athene: the name of its goddess. The city and its goddess are one. If you were a youth from a tiny island, heading for the capital to apprentice in a sculptor's workshop, or a trader sailing from Ionia with your goods, you'd say "I'm going to Athene" -- "pros Athene" -- and when you arrived you'd make ceremonies to honor her and gain her favor, and walking in the Agora you'd be walking within her.

Looking at the high city (Acro-Polis) tonight, I could feel how you'd find a divinity watching over it. You could feel her knowing eyes, her discreet protective heart, hovering above the brilliant little human enclave. I felt the same thing some years back in a Berber desert town in Morocco. Looking above the red clay houses and the black rock peaks at the dusk-deepened blue and the scimitar moon, I could feel the presence of One who had breathed life into us and held us in his cupped hands. You couldn't not feel it there. I will lift mine eyes unto the hills.

The strangest thing so far on this trip is that I should find my own guiding figure, my archetype for a psychology I haven't even believed in: not clumsy blowhard bad-father Zeus, or cold sublime girl-tormenting Apollo, or mad inspired Dionysos with his drunken groupies, but gray-eyed Athene, bronze-helmeted Athene, Athene of the shining brow. (In Phiilip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, one's daimon is of the opposite sex.) With an owl on her shoulder and a snake at her feet, she teaches warcraft not as raging, foaming, indiscriminate Ares does, but judiciously to preserve her favorites, to keep Odysseus safe. She teaches wisdom not abstract and inhuman like Apollo, but pragmatic and social, to safeguard her city from the Persians.

I'm going to wake up someone who reminds me of her, and we're going to explore the town.

May 11, 2006

Yasou! Eenoume Sti Athene!

Hi, we're in Athens! Arrived here at ten in the morning after an all-night flight via NYC, so it was about three in the morning when we landed and now it's nighttime and we've been awake all thrugh it -- we've had a full day. Our Class C hotel has free Internet and an unusually full breakfast, which we'll need tomorrow after having walked up to the Acropolis and down again and all around Plaka, the last remaining old-fashioned, charming neighborhood in Athens: colorfully painted little cottages on steep hills right next door to the monuments of Western civilization. The lower, flatter part of Plaka is thoroughly touristified, but even that part has some raffishly crass appeal, and if you climb into the heights you find real people in residence, often countercultural types, and local tavernas and kafenions tucked away in traditional quiet, not full of tourists and not fronted by tourist-grabbing managers.

I can get a lump in my throat just thinking about the people who built the Parthenon and the Theater of Dionysus. Being there, however, strangely, didn't add much to my pre-existing emotions. Maybe it's because the high plains of the Acropolis have been grazed to the nub, intellecually speaking, by tourists from the US, Britain,Germany, Brazil, etc etc, and their licensed, tag-wearing guides. More likely it's because every beautiful building in Athens seems to be layered in restorers' metal scaffolding, with a crane added to ornament the Parthenon. It would be ungrateful, though, to say I'm not glad to be here. I took s photo of S standing next to a line of classical caryatid beauties, and she took a photo of me doing Embracing Horse -- the most important tai chi posture -- right in front of the columns.

For dinner we sought out a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had been recommended to us by an Asian-European kid, and we got good grilled fish and a whole grilled squid and a metal carafe of warm white wine. Now -- S. is sleeping off the jet lag -- I'm off to the rooftop bar of the hotel, with its unobstructed view of the Acropolis, for an ouzo or two. I don't get jet lag much. Probably because I have sleeping disorders by the handful, which keep me up at night at home anyway.

Be that as it may, we're going to spend one more day in Athens -- which more than completes what there is to see in this drab city with its one magnificent central attraction -- and then we'll take a nine-hour ferry to what struck me, when I visited it a dozen years ago, as incontestably, a priori, the most beautiful place on earth: the island of Santorini. We'll be there for five days and nights. I'll tell you about it. (Pictures later, when I get back home.)

May 09, 2006

We're Off, Chris Is On, Fly Ash is Back

Hi there! Me and the Ms. are bound for Greece tomorrow morning -- we're going to land in Athens, spend a couple of days there, then a nine-hour ferry to the incomparable island of Santorini for five nights, then another ferry to Crete. A two-week vacation, planned last fall, and I'm thinking, What kind of people who have to work for a living fly off to Greece in the middle of May? Well, it's the best time of year to go there, and we've wanted to do it for years. I was there a dozen years ago on a solo tour and have wanted to go back ever since, accompanied this time. For some reason, we expected we might have a window of leisure about now, and although that isn't actually the case, we're forcing a window open.

I hope to do some travelogue blogging from there, maybe starting the 12th or 13th. There will be numerous Internet cafes so it shouldn't be a problem unless we're just too darn busy whirling from one amazing sight to another. Then after we come back I hope to post some photos.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend that you visit my son Chris' new blog, CHRISTOPHER ALTHOUSE, launched a week ago. It's excellent -- well written, observant, caustically witty, quirky -- and his subjects include pop culture and human behavior. It's got some good photos of Austin cafe life, too. It's in the vein of his mother's fine blog, but with Chris' own incisive and highly personal viewpoint. He's already building a good-sized audience and it can only climb upward.

In addition, I recommend that you order a copy of the book by Matt Bell and Josh Maday at DANCING ON FLY ASH, a well-designed volume that includes sixty of their best microfictions -- 100 words or less -- from their first year of blogging. I've followed their posts almost from the beginning, and it's great to have these well-written pieces in permanent form.

Talk to you later!