by Sophia Tellen
It was generous then, as it is now.
Greece was burning. In August 2007, 175 fires erupted simultaneously from the Ionian Sea in the west, Ioannina in the north and the Peloponnese in the south. Fed by gale force winds, walls of flame descended on houses and villages. The land of sun and light, dreams, hopes and illusions, was going up in smoke. On the 9th of September, Theodorous N. Ikonomou, the President of the Greek Forest Owners Association, reported that “for four days repeatedly over 200 fires occurred per 24 hours. Over 150 arson mechanisms were collected in the aftermath of the fires. 75 human lives lost, including five fire-fighters. There was relatively little damage to ancient monuments but considerably more to Byzantine churches and other treasured buildings.”
Greece was burning; I was outraged. The fires burned through my decades and awakened youthful memories; youthful passion; youthful love.
I knew little about Greece, save that it was full of monuments and islands, but, at the age of ten, I had met a real Greek – Kyriakos – at his grocery store in Cape Town. So I knew: Greeks sell vegetables! At twenty, in London, I met a Greek girl, Jota—a goddess if ever there was one – and whenever she got mad at her boyfriend, an engineer twice her age, she would unfailingly threaten, “Aiee come with the kitshennaiff!” A few minutes after threatening him with the kitchen knife, she would inevitably be smiling. Jota had him completely bewitched! Indeed as she had all her admirers.
So I also learned that Greek goddesses were passionate and temperamental. Now, Jota also knew, by first name, all theshipónas—the flamboyant clan of Greek shipowners who met each year at the Cathedral of the Divine Wisdom (Saint Sophia) in London.
Jota said, “If you come to Church with me this Greek Orthodox Easter, you will see all the shipónas. Come, and they will invite us to their homes. Easter is their greatest time for feasting and celebration.” She went on to relate that people begin to gather in the church by 11 p.m., many carrying large white candles. The church bell tolls at midnight as the priests announce “Christ is risen!” There are fireworks and even gunshots from the crowd as each person answers with the joyous responses—“Truly He is Risen,” and “Alithinós O Kírios”—“True is the Lord”. Where after the people carry their candles to their homes, and let them burn all night, to symbolize the return of Light to the world; then the feasting begins. The traditional foods on the Resurrection Table are smoked salted pork; cheeses; creamy, lemony soup made from the lamb sweetmeats; and Greek Easter breads. Plenty of wine, Retsina and Ouzo insure a feast that will last throughout the night. And yet people are up early on Easter Sunday morning. Happy Greek Easter!
Slowly I gathered bits of information: even today, the Greek fleet is the largest in the world. However, Pamela, who was a year older and wiser, had more profound knowledge. She had read Homer by the age of nine, and knew about Greek hospitality. “It is quite exceptional!” she said, and quoted what Menelaus said to Telemachus, Odyseus’s son.
…far be it from me to keep you here for any length of time, if you wish to get back.… What I say, is, treat a man well while he is with you, but let him go when he wishes. However, do give me time to bring you some presents…
On the way to Rome, we stopped at Baudetaccia, the Etruscan Necropolis, “as the sun sank and light thickened on every pathway.” And it was there, quite by chance, that a vital fragment was added to my pre-Hellenic kaleidoscope. The only other people there were an elderly couple: a stern archaeologist and his rather prim wife, who introduced themselves. Shocked at seeing young girls out so late, the gentleman hoped to send us on our way with wisdom, mapped out for us our ten days in Greece, and to ensure our safety, issued an earnest warning: “The Greeks will try to give you Ouzo! They are used to it, but you are not. Don’t accept it! Greece, yes! But Ouzo, no!”
We saw many wonderful works of art in Italy, such as David and the Sistine Chapel, but it was a relief to get away from Italian men of all ages, who pursued us in spite of the most vigorous protest, till we finally had to enquire from an older woman what might be the most effective insult, and resorted to repeating: Go casa, go home!
We took the ferry from Brindisi, and after a stress-free crossing, set our feet on Greek soil in Patras towards nightfall. A pleasant welcome awaited us at the new Youth Hostel. We were the first to stop there; it had fresh, whitewashed walls, a good kitchen and showers. The rooms were small, with new bunk beds, but no mattresses. We stayed there for the night, grateful for its safety and the courtesy of the Greek caretaker. The next morning we stepped out confident and happy, our bodies decorated by a night on naked metal springs.
The sun rose. Pamela drove us to Athens and we arrived innocently on a sweltering August day, insouciant as yet of being in Greece without knowing a word of Greek. The heat hung over the city thickly, like a kind of smothering daylight-moon blanket, blocking out the sun.
Just then I was assailed by a desperate need. “Pam, stop here please!”
But there was nowhere to park, and so, swept along by the crazy traffic, Pam headed northwards, till we found ourselves in Kifissia, one of the most exclusive suburbs of Athens.
“I can’t wait a moment longer!”
“Hold it!” Pam said. “I’m stopping here!”
She parked in front of the imposing five-star Theoxenia Palace Hotel.
“But we can’t go in looking like this!”
A red carpet led up the stairs to the majestic white columns.
Cool and immaculate in her uncreasable white drip-dry Dacron outfit, Pam marched confidently toward the stately portal, while Maureen and I tagged along behind her, hot and crumpled. The night before had done little for our appearance.
The doorman saw us coming and dashed off inside to fetch the manageress. A moment later an extremely elegant lady in her thirties came hurrying down the hall. I feared she was going to shoo us away, like something unwanted. But she welcomed us with open arms.
“We were expecting you,” she said. “Are you the Royal Ballet?”
“No, but may we use the Ladies?”
Without even a hint of surprise, she ushered us with the utmost courtesy through the lily-decked foyer, to a luxurious pink marble sanctuary, and left us to it. We rested on plush velvet covered seats, washed in pink marble basins, and drank cool water to our hearts’ content. When, after long moments, we finally emerged, the staff treated us with the same courtesy as before.
“You see,” said Pam, “that’s Greek hospitality! Just like in the days of Homer!”
“The hotel is not called Theoxenia for nothing,” I replied. “One would think we really were royal dignitaries!”
(Almost fifty years later I learned through the internet, that “Theoxenia is a tradition from antiquity—a feast held in honor of a god or gods, to which the deity is invited and served as a special guest. In the Homeric ages, hospitality was under the protection of Zeus, the God of the Gods, who was also attributed with the title ‘Xenios Zeus’ (‘xenos’ means stranger). Hospitality for Ancient Greeks was of the utmost importance. A stranger passing outside a Greek house could be invited inside the house by the family. The host washed the strangers feet, offered him/her food and wine and only after he/she was feeling comfortable could be asked tell his/her name.”)
Refreshed, Pamela drove us back to the center of Athens and to the Parthenon, a temple built in the 5th century B.C. for Athena—goddess of war, handicrafts, wisdom and self-realization.
We marvelled at the tremendous strength and solidity of this building, at its breathtaking beauty. The marble it is built with has mellowed into the warmest ivory tinged with rose, varying with the sun.
What astounded me, however, was the live frieze of visitors. Most of the women were elegantly dressed in white. Draped against its Doric columns, or silhouetted against this sunlit symbol of antiquity, they stood motionless, while their men, at a respectful distance, gazed worshipfully into their cameras. Were they playing out some primordial ceremony for vestal virgins?
Dawn came early, but not with rosy fingers! (Quite unlike in the Odyssey!). Deep groans startled me out of sleep, only to find Maureen rocking to and fro, nursing a finger. “Something bit me,” she said grimly, “a yellow brown thing with four pairs of legs, front claws and a horrible long tail.”
Pamela woke up too, but said, “I’ve been sick all night and can’t move. Go and get help.”
I ran to fetch the landlady. Alarmed by what Fate had dealt us, she shouted out with all her might: “Skropio! Skropio!”
I feared the worst. Had Maureen’s time come? How many hours did she have left?
The call echoed through the house and again and again, we heard the woman’s lament: Skropio! Skropio! Such a disgrace! Was she not every inch a Greek; one of a race noted for hospitality, today as in Ancient Greece? Was it not her obligation to be hospitable to travelers? Had she not always been proud of inviting to her house a passing stranger?
Her voice held terror. What divine retribution would be hers? She had not washed the feet of the strangers, but with true kindness of heart, she had given them beds. And yet, here she was, betrayed by a scorpion.
(Almost fifty years later I learned that the policy of Xenia also includes the protection of traveling bards—and no doubt we, as young girls, fell into this category! Their safety was believed to have been secured by the aegis-wielding Zeus. If you played host to a traveler and performed poorly, you would incur the wrath of a god.)
The family came running; their voices resounded like a tragic chorus. They peered into every nook and cranny, scoured every inch of the domain. That scorpion had to be found and boiled. Maureen must drink the liquid! Only thus could the host’s honor be restored.
(Wise too late, I discovered on the internet “that Andreas, who runs the ‘End of the World’ taverna on Samos, keeps two bottles of Ouzo handy. One is two-thirds full of dead scorpions and one-third amber liquid. ‘This,’ he explained, ‘is the perfect antidote for a scorpion sting. When I catch a live scorpion I put it into the bottle of Ouzo; as it drowns it releases its sting into the liquid. Put this liquid on a sting and the pain will instantly disappear. The other bottle contains a poisonous viper.’”)
But this scorpion had made off with its life!
We were advised to hurry to the nearest hospital, some twenty kilometres away.
Maureen began to have cramps. Most deaths, I discovered on the internet, occur during the first 24 hours after the sting. “Scorpions use their pincers to grasp their prey; then they arch their tail over their body to drive the stinger into the prey to inject their venom, sometimes more than once.”
Maureen’s heart rate shot up! So did mine! What options had they, but to depend on me? Death by scorpion or death by driving?
Getting my sick friends to the hospital in Corinth was going to be up to me! But would I remember which pedal did what; which foot went where? And be able to get them there in one piece?
Maureen was prepared to take the risk. Pale and shaky, Pam had no objection either. Slightly ill myself, I at least knew that, like the magnificent cats that had lived with me, I had another six lives left!
My two companions were helped into the car, and with tearful hugs and heartfelt hopes for our survival, a crestfallen, tragic cast waved us off.
Feeling heroic, I mastered the fiery engine, negotiated narrow lanes and sharp inclines hoping for the best, and victoriously drove my two friends to the hospital in Corinth without killing them. I explained who my patients were, and why we had come, had them safely checked in, and booked myself in likewise for stomach ills.
Maureen was wheeled off in great haste, while Pam and I were put in beds side by side. I fell asleep. When I woke up, a tall, stunningly handsome doctor stood at Pamela’s bedside, examining her with attention. She was smiling up at him. Maureen, he assured us, would shortly be all right. He had identified the sting of the Mesobuthus gibbosus, the most potent scorpion in Europe. “It can inflict much pain,” he assured us, “but that is all.”
The tall, stunningly handsome doctor then glanced at me cursorily, diagnosed us both as having too much travel sickness, and put us on black tea, toast and rest. Whereupon he left…
…only to return at midday with two other doctors, one of whom spoke fluent English. Very pleased with their find, they assured us that we would soon be well, and invited us out for dinner that same evening. Upon which we did, indeed, miraculously recover.
Towards nightfall, the tall, handsome doctor took the three of us to the reception desk, and the management refused to let us pay, waving aside the mere idea.
“You see,” said Pam, beaming like a Cheshire cat, “Greek hospitality. I knew it!”
The three cavaliers: one tall and well-built, one plump of medium height, and one short and thin, certainly seemed gallant. They drove us to a taverna that nestled at the edge of the sea, and feasted and wined us like deities, by beach lights and starlight, to the tunes of bouzouki, while the moonlit waters lapped at our toes and enchanted us. This was living! Pam sighed in satisfaction. Ah yes! Greek hospitality was indeed “as in the days of Homer.”
But we had been warned: “Greeks, yes! But Ouzo, no!” So, when the doctors took us to the dance floor and offered us drinks, we were prepared.
Romance was in the air: the tall, dashing doctor and Pamela were beaming at each other. He invited her to dance. Then in a flash, they disappeared into the moonlight to walk along the beach. The other two took this as the signal, and amorous advances were not long in coming, as I concentrated on drinking my Greek Mountain Shepherd’s tea. The middle plump doctor and I were obviously mismatched; the thin little one was having no luck with Maureen. So they swapped round, at which point Pamela and her Adonis reappeared from their beach walk—looking somewhat subdued. But as for romance – we were an absolute disaster! We wouldn’t drink Ouzo, and we weren’t properly responding.
Generously, the plump doctor said, “You can sleep at my house tonight.” We got into his car, and he dropped us off, showed us our separate bedrooms, and looking somewhat depressed, he promptly left. We three huddled into one large bed. The night was full of strange sounds. A door creaked. Did we have a visitor? We were never sure. But three-in-the-bed must have been too much, even for the hardiest Adonis.
Next morning we tidied up, wrote a note of thanks, and left quietly without meeting our distinguished cavaliers again.
Maureen returned home.
We visited Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos, Delos, and that sheer wonder, the island of Patmos. Sunsets were unforgettable; as were the night sky and the wine-red sea: then dawn would indeed come early, with rosy fingers, over the whitening sea.
Before visiting the island of Kos we even traveled in small boats to Halikarnassos (Bodrum) in Turkey, past the medieval castle and explored the souks in search of a nargileh for my old uncle. An American deep-sea diver spotted us, and insisted on accompanying us through the souk. “You should not be out here alone.”
But the islands! It is impossible, here, to do them justice, unspoiled as they then were. But many tiny things touched me.
While sitting in a café along the harbor in Kos, having an iced coffee, I saw an olive-skinned Greek girl of around twenty-five, with a thick long black plait and deep blue eyes, mastering a small boat in the bay below—a goddess of striking beauty. She reminded me of Jota.
I also remember a fleeting encounter on Patmos, when I passed a Greek Orthodox monk in the street, and his deep, penetrating eyes met mine and made me stop and stare. It was like being pulled into a powerful unexpected magnetic force, and being held within it. Since then I have recognised this again in monks and yogis vowed to celibacy. At a certain stage of their practice, their bodies become incredibly attractive. These are the lovers of the Divine.
And today, when I want to drown a sorrow or celebrate some joy, I go to the Greek tavern down the road to drink a glass of Ouzo, listen to bouzouki and dream of going back.
Sophia Tellen is a freelance writer who lives in Switzerland. She wrote this story in honor of her best friend Pamela, whom she met at the age of thirteen in Cape Town, and who later bestowed on her—like a golden goddess—an unforgettable boon: a 5-day cruise of the Greek islands.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.