An Ionic Column
I was persuaded to start blogging a couple years ago. That coincided with a trip to Greece, and, at the time, it seemed that a blog trip report would be a good idea. It seems the blog fad has passed, but part of the report was written: and this column has been shamefully out of date. So, I am transferring the report, in chapters, here: with the hope that I can actually finish it. If not, what I have written will at least amuse some folks.
"Home Is the Sailor..." Part Four
July 30th, 2008
The day of the race dawned. I wanted to be sure we got there on time, so we got up extra early. I am not sure what time that was, as for me, extra early usually implies about 9 AM: but I am sure it was earlier than that.
Mrs. Economu made us breakfast and we hit the road.
By now the route was familiar. Leave Napflion, head for Argos, turn right at Tiryns, pass Mikenae, past the freeway and into the Nemea Valley.
The valley was clogged with busses and cars, and the policeman directed us to the parking lot, which was a not very smooth field full of weeds. Just like home, and the early days of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. We parked and made our way as far as we could into the madding crowd, where chaos reigned supreme. --I mean that spelling, by the by. There we were, a couple thousand athletes being kept under such control as possible by the few people who had some idea what was going on.
We were to run by age group and gender. Men first, then women, then younger men and children of both genders but in different groups.
I was one of the Old Guys, and we were to run first, so eventually we were let into the locker room.
At the time of its excavation, and possibly still, it was the oldest locker room yet discovered. Primarily, there are some standing columns. These are, to my recollection, from the era of 500 BCE. To this basic layout there had been added wooden structures for practical use, and the whole covered by a big white tent. One wooden rack had suspended from it a line of arbylos (pl?) filled with olive oil for rubbing one's self down. There were volunteer slaves in yellow handing out khitons of the short tunic type, with peronai (cinctures) (cords or belts) for the waist. They also provided plastic bins in which to dump one's street clothes.
I considered the prospect of running nude, as they did in Ancient times. I have been assured that I would not be arrested, but nobody thus far has done it.
I considered what my body looks like at Age 39, then stripped, went over and oiled myself: and put on the khiton. I noted that I was not the only person to run 'naked under the kilt.' I am used to doing games in the nude, and maybe some of the others were: but esthetics triumphed and we compromised. Most of the Old Guys kept their underwear on.
We then crowded around the entrance to the tunnel.
The stadion, like most of those from Ancient Times, consists of a big horseshoe shaped berm. People spread their blankets on the rising ground to watch. The athletes enter the stadion through a stone tunnel, which at Nemea is still preserved as it was back then. It's under restoration, with scaffolding, but you can still use it.
The chaos continued until one of the ranking judges arrived, managed to get us together despite the polyglot of languages we spoke, and administered the oath. Being the first to run, we missed all the ceremonies out in the stadion, including the singing of the Olympic Hymn, but we had enough on our plates, comparing notes and nervously wondering if we would live through it.
I think one of the competitors was in his 80s. There have been competitors in their 90s.
Finally we were called forth, and a tall, strong-looking young man with a good voice for heralding and a good sense of pronunciation in several languages, announced each one of us to the crowd. A trumpet blared as each of us ran toward the starting blocks.
One gets one's lane assignment by drawing a lot. The lots were in a bronze helmet, and consisted of big white stones in which letters of the Greek Alphabet had been etched and painted.
I drew Zita.
In my excitement I forgot completely that the Dread Zita Lane is one of the two Bad Lanes. Beneath the surface of the soft clay, an outcropping of granite extends under that lane. Not being an experienced runner, I would not have understood the danger anyway.
I said another prayer to Nemean Zeus and asked him for what arete I might add to my life.
The hysplex was drawn tight and ready. The hysplex is an affair of ropes that allows the starter to release all the runners at the same moment. I think Nemea is the first place to make use of the actual device is modern times.
The Greek equivalent of "Ready, Set, Go!" was cried out, and the hysplex went down. I took off (I am told) like a bullet from a 45 Magnum.
I thought of nothing but getting to the end as fast as I could.
But then -- something started to go wrong.
Inside myself I felt like a pinball machine being lifted and tilted. My balance was going.
I kept pumping my legs, but they were landing unevenly.
I went tumbling, ass over teakettle, as the saying goes. My legs landed, my head struck, my shoulders and ribs. I remembered in a flash falling off the trellis at Greyhaven and breaking four ribs.
Then I scrambled up and started running again.
Epinephrine is a great pain killer. I ran, single-mindedly, but noticed that I was passing another man in another lane.
I reached the end, threw up my hands, and thanked Zeus.
Then I noticed that I was hurting.
Dr. Kim Sheldon, who is now head of the Nemea department at Cal Berkeley, appeared next to me.
"Come on," she said. "Our medics will be happy to have something to do."
She took me to the side where two women were waiting with medical gear, and translated for them and me as all the questions were asked. They coated me with mercurichrome in places that I had not noticed were bleeding. Dr. Sheldon went in search of ice, and let me know that she had been sitting next to Diana when I went down, and that if I could walk, she would find me with the ice.
I returned to the locker room and stripped off my khiton. As I was dressing I turned and...
There was a young man changing who looked, I swear, as if he had stepped off the Argos. I said: "You look like one of the Heros! As if you had stepped off the Argus."
He smiled and the whole room lit up. "No, really," he said shyly. "But my hero is Alexander the Great."
Frankly, if you look like that, then you are destined to win.
All bandaged up, and with ice packs from Dr. Sheldon, I managed to get across the field, up the path, and finally to Diana. I eased down next to her and she checked to make sure I would live. She had got me with the camera when I started, but not as I went down. She had got me when I got up and kept running.
"They cheered more for you than they did for the man who won," she said.
We watched the next race, and of course, Alexander won. (He told me his name, but he will always be Alexandros to us.)
After a while, and many more races, they announced that the women should get ready. Diana headed for the locker room and left me her camera. I struck up a conversation with a young man next to us, who had finished his race. He turned out to be a sports historian, which he felt to be a rather obscure field. I laughed, considering my admiration for Dr. Miller, and we talked about the upcoming "Footsteps of Herakles" long race.
At such a distance I was not sure whether that was Diana or not down on the field. People tend to look a lot alike wearing a standard white khiton. But it turned out I picked the right woman (in a great many ways) and got shots of her race, where she came in with the middle of the pack. Way better than she had expected, it turned out.
She returned to the hill and said: "I guess the wounds tell us that you won't be doing the long race."
"What?" I exclaimed. "I didn't win the race I ran. Byron was counting on me to win. If I don't try the long race, I won't have a chance. I may not have a chance anyway, but hey, it could happen!"
I am sure she thought I had scrambled my brains with the run. After all, I had never before even attempted a long race. And hey, it was only seven and a half kilometers, over a mountain, from the Ancient Temple of Herakles beyond the next village, back to the stadion.
The races in the stadion were continuing when we put our khitons back on, they loaded us on busses, and we headed for the Ancient Temple of Herakles.
"Home Is the Sailor..." Part Three
July 28th, 2008
In the second installment I commented on Greeks giving directions. Diana sent me the following:
"This is going to be interesting. I took lots of notes. You didn't. You are right, you do have a good memory. Since you are doing the narrative, I think I'll report with a series of essays.
Navigation was complicated by the fact that people had pasted posters over some of the road signs, and main streets don't have signs on them anyway-- you are there, aren't you? You must know what street you are on. We had to stop and ask two people before we found the place. After that we gave up on street signs and used landmarks-- "When we pass the store with the big red percentage sign on the window, we go down a block, turn left, and then drive several blocks, turn left again, but not hard left because that's one way, up, around, and double back again to get to our street, except when construction equipment is blocking the way."
Your auctor continues:
Having settled in, Diana felt it time to eat. However, we didn't want to repeat the financial disaster of the previous night, so she asked Mr. and Mrs. Economu if they knew of a nice taverna nearby. Mr. Economu said he did. (We mistook what he said and thought it was owned by his cousin, but it turned out it was not. He just thought it a good place, and nearby, for his guests.)
We asked for directions, and he said: "I'll show you!"
He walked us to the corner, pointed, and there was, a couple blocks distant, a discreet neon sign. We walked down the semi-paved street in the gathering darkness and entered a garden courtyard with a canopy over it and romantic lanterns hanging around. We had not yet learned about Greek dining habits, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
We were greeted by the proprietor, who had an incredibly handsome face with a greying beard; aquiline nose, and brilliant, alert dark eyes. His wife sat behind a counter, almost invisible. She was beautiful in a kind of Sophia Loren kind of way. A young man we took to be their son, very tall and equally good-looking, seemed to be learning the ropes. I would guess him to be in his early twenties, the couple perhaps in their early forties.
I am not sure what we ordered, except that it was delicious. I think it might have been our first moussaka on Greek soil. We also ordered a bottle of Nemean red wine. It was more than planned for in the budget, but we are very fond of Nemean red wines, and after all, were there to run at Nemea.
The recorded music was Greek, and wonderful.
How to describe that Magic Night? Well, if you have seen Disney's "Lady and the Tramp," it was THAT romantic night: except that there was no spaghetti, and we were not, after all, dogs, and the food was Greek, not Italian.
It was so wonderful I don't even remember the desert!
It was warm, and after dinner we walked slowly back to the hotel.
This might be a good place to introduce the most important observation of the whole trip.
The people of Hellas are warm, friendly, kind, and many of them speak English: which was really good, because my modern Greek really sucks: we kept leaving the phrase book back at the hotel. They went out of their way to help us, over and over again. It was like San Francisco used to be, forty years ago: only it was the whole country!
If you want to go somewhere, Hellas is the place to go.
In the hallway we looked out the big window at the lighted castle and the full moon, Diana took pictures, then we retired for the night. That meant that Diana turned on the refrigeration unit, and I bundled up under blankets.
The shower, by the by, consisted of a shower pan slightly smaller across than the average Neopagan. The drain in the floor was not only helpful, but really necessary.
In the morning Mrs. Economu prepared us a Continental breakfast, which included Cafe Helleniki (at my request), juice, toast, etc.. Oberon G'Zell once complained that Greek coffee was too sweet and tasted like mud. Well, its boiled coffee and there are some fine grounds at the bottom, but I happen to like it. You don't drink the grounds any more than you would drink the dregs of really old wine.
The plan was to go to Nemea, so that we could try out the track. We hopped into the Fiat and headed out, but we had to go right past Mykenae, and how could we pass up a chance at that?
As one drove up the hill we observed the signs, new and old, for many hotels. They mainly were named for historical people. "Agamemnon's Hotel," "The Orestes," etc.. But one had a new sign, and under that the older, more worn sign:
"Klytemnestra's Rooms, with Bath."
We figured that was a good place for singles to stay, but probably not auspicious for married couples.
We paid our admission, bought guide books, and moved past the gates into the Archeological Park of Mykenae. We drank from the fountain, then went into the small but very good museum, which includes a helpful model of the site.
Then it was time for the big one.
The Lion Gate is every bit as impressive as one ought to expect, but it is only the begining.
It is easy to believe that the Kyklops built the walls of Mykenaen cities. If you live in an apartment, then I would venture than many of the stones are bigger than your dwelling place.
A lot of the site is off limits to tromping around, but that is all right: as you keep going up and up, you can see down into such features at the grave circles. There is pretty good signage, so you can mainly know what you are looking at, though there is a bewildering amount of it to see.
Climbing to the top, we came at last to the palace.
The Megaroon, or throne room, is built at the edge of a precipice, and is off limits to romping. The throne was backed by a wall which had collapsed, and which had been restored. Nobody was going to get at the king from behind, that was sure.
But looking at it, and pacing it out, I suddenly realized that it was essentially the length of the living room at Greyhaven, and perhaps twice as wide. Was it a Golden Section? I couldn't judge, but...
"Hey, Honey! This is doable! We have rocks in California! We could use cranes instead of Kyklops, but... We could build a Mykenaean palace!"
Diana looked at me dubiously, sweltering under the blazing, treeless sun. standing atop the citadel of Agamemnon.
Have I mentioned the light?
I think it was Henry Miller who first made me aware that the light in Hellas is different from that anywhere else. I suspect that it may have to do with being surrounded by seas. But, I had not quite known what to expect.
It suffuses you. It is like being in a bath or a pool of light. It seeps into you and fills you. It's not the heat, though there is plenty of that: it is the light itself.
We had been warned that if we wanted to see the cistern that supplied water to this wonderful construction we would need to provide our own flashlights. We had forgotten them.
Worse, our time was running out. Diana pointed out that we still had to get to Nemea before that sight closed.
"But... but... There's more ruins down there!"
Nevertheless, we needed to get to Nemea, and I didn't want Diana to melt into a puddle of butter like the tigers in the Sambo story.
We headed down.
--But we just HAD to stop at a couple of tourist shops, because, well, they had POTTERY!
Two stops was adequate, we learned much, and then we headed for Nemea.
We got to the stadion and the lad at the gate informed us we only had about twenty minutes. We paid our way in, drank from the mouth of the Nemean Lion fountain, filled our bottles, and headed in.
Hellas is very careful and respectful of its treasures, and I was not sure I would be allowed to try the course. But then, wandering in and checking things out, Dr. Stephen Miller (one of my heros) appeared, and said:
"You're here! I saw your name on the list but I thought it must be a joke!"
We had been trying to get there for twelve years, and I fear he had given up on us.
The young man from the gate showed up to tell us we had to leave, but Dr. Miller told him we were friends, and also told me to go ahead and try the course. He said all his students had been doing it for a week.
I pulled off my shoes, fitted my toes into the slots of the starting gate, and ran.
I must confess that I had been scared. I was afraid I would not be able to make it. That my legs would not hold out, that my breath would fail. I came to athletics late in life, and, frankly, I had NEVER run a full, real race before.
It was a miracle.
The clay upon which the Ancients ran (the very same clay on which I was running!) was a lightly crusted powder, soft under my feet.
I ran though the wind. I could feel the hot breeze, was aware of my speed and movement. All that I knew in those moments was my body, the gift of my effort to the God.
I dashed past the finish, stopped, breathing very hard, and thought: "I have a chance!"
The last thing my little grandson Byron had said to me on embarcation was: "Grandpa, I want you to win!"
For the first time in twelve years, I felt as if I might just be able to bring home a palm leaf and a ribbon, and a wreath of wild celery.
To read previous columns
The Music You Heard At the Beginning Was By Guillaume de Machaut, one of my favorite composers: he lived roughly between 1300 and 1377 of the Common Era. The piece is called Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure, and was performed by A. Couger in Midi. Notice all the wonderful quirky rhythmic stuff! You might like to check out Machaut at your Music Store, or on the Web.
Or, you can click on either of the two links below. The Orlando (Vocal) Consort provides Machaut's rhythmic, sensual, secular songs on Dreams in the Pleasure Garden.
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The Hilliard (Vocal) Ensemble gives us the first great musical treatment of the Mass that history leaves us, plus The Lay of the Fountain, more akin to the secular songs: but both the Mass and the Lay are replete with rhythmic colors brought back via the Crusades, so you could describe this disc as something like Chant as performed in the Arabian Nights. If you've never heard music from the Ars Nova, this is a good place to start.
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