Dancing on the Wine Dark Sea

dlb_036_440x600.jpgBATW Best Bronze, Essay in an anthology

My darling Aphrodite, I love you. Will you marry me? The handsome Greek restaurant owner on Santorini pleaded with my eighty-year-old mother as they line-danced to bouzouki music in a late-night bacchanal on a terrace overlooking the Aegean. My mother loved dancing, charming men, and living in general. After being widowed for the second time in her late seventies, she kicked up her heels and, in many ways, relished life to its fullest. During those years we traveled together frequently and had our own high-spirited odyssey around Greece.Dancing on the Wine Dark Sea

Homeric Hymn to Demeter:

I begin to sing of Demeter, the holy goddess with the beautiful hair. And her daughter, Persephone, too. The one with the delicate ankles, whom Hades seized. She was given away by Zeus, the loud-thunderer, the one who sees far and wide. Demeter did not take part in this, she of the golden double-axe, she who glories in the harvest. Persephone was having a good time, along with the daughters of Okeanos, who wear their girdles slung low. (Composed circa seventh century BCE)

On our first morning in Greece, my friend Gloria and I went down to breakfast on the outdoor terrace of the Athens Hilton. Facing my eggs Benedict, all I wanted to do was lie flat on the cool terrace floor. So I did.

Waiters in white coats discreetly stepped around me, perhaps interpreting this action as eccentric American behavior. The Greek fascist regime was in full force then, and people tended to mind their own business. Gloria and I attributed my wave of nausea to bad airplane food. We proceeded to plan the rest of our trip: first by bus to visit important sites, then by sea to Mykonos and Crete.

I had just broken up with the man for whom I had left my husband. Perhaps the anxiety of learning to live the single life was stressing my system. When Gloria, a colleague at the California college where I taught, suggested a trip to Greece, I thought what better way to mend a broken heart and move on with life.

Both of us were steeped in Greek literature and history. But in the fertile lands that spawned the beginnings of our civilization, our demokratia, and stories of randy gods and goddesses, I could not have guessed at the irony of my ongoing queasiness.

Our first stop was the famous amphitheater of Epidaurus, an easy day trip from Athens. We also visited Mycenae from where Agamemnon departed for the Trojan War, after he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, so the gods would turn up the winds to fill his sails. His wife, Clytemnestra, was not pleased, took a lover during his ten-year absence, and murdered Agamemnon in the bath after he returned. Breaking up with my husband and now ex-boyfriend seemed much less dramatic from this perspective.

Epidaurus was both a healing center”where Asklepios, son of Apollo, cured the ill from all over Greece”and one of the world’s oldest theaters. I hoped a visit there would cure my continuing nausea. Following in the footsteps of millions, we climbed high up in the enormous amphitheater that once held 10,000 spectators and tested its legendary acoustics. Our tour guide, so far below on the stage that she seemed a tiny speck, dropped a drachma, and we heard its distinct ping as it hit the stone floor. Then she tore a Kleenex tissue, and, yes, we could hear that as well. We were sitting in what would have been, no doubt, the poor people’s seats. I thought about the challenge of getting acoustics right in contemporary theaters and wondered about the many mysteries we still can learn from the ancient Greeks. Beyond the stage and backdrop (the skene), mountains rose and clouds floated in a blue sky. These ancient theaters were built to remind us of the connections between our temporal world, nature, and the spheres of the gods.

The next day we took a bus fourteen miles east of Athens to Eleusis, site of the Mysteries, which date back to 2000 BC and earlier. Believed to have come from Egypt via Crete, the cult of Isis”the Earth goddess”later was worshiped as Demeter and finally the Virgin Mary. My low-grade sickness continued, as I stumbled up and down ancient stairs, soaked in the heat and odors of summer vegetation. Poppies dotted the surrounding slopes, and cicadas buzzed in the overgrown bushes.

I had read that this area was once the terminus of a biannual procession that began in Athens along what was called the Sacred Way. Anyone could participate, as long as he or she were not a barbarian (i.e., spoke Greek) and had not committed blood crimes. As they walked, people, especially prostitutes, called out dirty words and obscene jokes. The overall celebration marked Demeter’s reunion with her daughter, Persephone, when she returned from her six-month annual sojourn with Hades, god of the underworld. During her daughter’s months in the underworld, Demeter was too sad to tend to fertility, hence winter set in. The ancients also reported that Persephone was reborn from her mother in the midst of huge fire and brilliant lights seen for miles around. Bulls and phalli were part of these rituals, depicted in frescoes as far away as Pompeii.

Here amidst this ancient place of orgies and bloody sacrifice, the thought that I could I be pregnant flashed through my mind. If so, what would I do? I was on my own. I couldn’t afford to stop my work, both teaching college and training horses. No one was going to take care of me. I wondered if I would be able to get an early flight home.

After I’d vomited over some of the most fertile sites of Western culture”Delphi, Epidaurus, Mycenae”we decided to save money by taking the ferry over from Piraeus to Crete. The Meltemi, the hot winds of August, blew heavy on the Aegean. Because of these relentlessness winds, the ancient Greeks avoided open sea travel as much as possible during this time of year. We soon discovered why. What was typically a nine-hour overnight voyage took almost fifteen hours. I lay on the center of the top deck, watching Orion and the seven sisters rock back and forth overhead. After downing seasickness pills, which had little or no effect, I finally read the directions and noticed a bold-print warning: Do not take during pregnancy as may cause birth defects to fetus. I began to panic at the thought that I was carrying a deformed fetus.

When we reached the terra firma of Crete, we checked into our economy hotel. Just down the street was the Palace of Knossos, which we visited the next day, marveling at the flush toilet that the Minoan queen enjoyed four thousand years ago. I wondered what her life was like. Having a daughter to carry on a woman’s lineage was central in this matrilineal culture.

That evening Gloria announced she was leaving to tour with a professor from Germany she had met during our ferry crossing. There’s no point in my staying with you, she said. You’re sick and can’t do anything. I may as well have fun.

I felt abandoned but decided it was time to make some decisions. Changing my Pan Am return ticket home, I booked a flight from Herakleion to Athens, happily forfeiting my return ferry ticket.

Back in California, I was grateful that abortions had just become legal.

Song of the Sirens

Draw near . . . illustrious Odysseus, flower of the Achaean chivalry, and bring your ship to rest that you may hear our voices. No seaman ever sailed his black ship past this place without listening to the sweet voice that flow from our lips, and none that listened has not been delighted and gone on a wiser man. (Homer, The Odyssey)

Twenty years later I returned to the land of Homer, accompanied by my mother, the archetypal Siren.

My darling Aphrodite, I love you. Will you marry me? The handsome Greek restaurant owner on Santorini pleaded with my eighty-year-old mother as they line-danced to bouzouki music in a late-night bacchanal on a terrace overlooking the Aegean. My mother loved dancing, charming men, and living in general. After being widowed for the second time in her late seventies, she kicked up her heels and, in many ways, relished life to its fullest. During those years we traveled together frequently and had our own high-spirited odyssey around Greece.

My jaunt with my mother came years after my first inauspicious steps on to Greek soil. It was natural that we finally shared Athens and the Greek isles together. Greece lived in my imagination from my earliest memories thanks to her. An avid reader and elementary school teacher, she had read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and tales from Greek mythology to me as a child. I imagined sailing the Aegean with Odysseus, visiting the lands of the Lotus Eaters and Circe and the Cyclops for myself. As a college professor, I taught Greek literature. My mother named me Diane, the Roman counterpart of Artemis, the free-spirited huntress. Artemis frolicked in the woods, surrounded by animals, without a thought to marriage or children.

Like my mythological namesake, I enjoyed my adventurous approach to life and my work with animals, for many years as a professional horse trainer. Yet, sometimes I thought about what I was missing, having remained child-free. After all, my mother enjoyed having a daughter. I would have no daughter but would continue on my namesake’s path. Like Demeter and Persephone, my mother and I were accepting of where our lives had led us.

At our hotel in Delphi, my mother telephoned my room. Giorgos, our driver, is knocking at my hotel room door. What should I do? she said. She had been flirting with the poor man for several days as we toured around. How could he know that she was only kidding? Maybe you should let him in, I advised. You’ve been leading him on for days now. Meanwhile I was busy with our young tour guide who was licking my cheek and nibbling my shoulder.

Mom and I sailed to Santorini, this time on the calm seas of early June. The lost Atlantis, some believe, is under the waters of Santorini’s bay. We visited the archaeological excavations underway, and in the afternoon, hired a local man with a rowboat to take us to a beach I had heard about. A nudie beach, I told my mother, who hoped to add yet another act of daring to her repertoire. On the beach, my frisky mom stripped to her white cotton underpants and bra, and enjoyed splashing in the clear warm Aegean. When our oarsman and boat returned after the designated hour or two, he asked us to wade out to the boat. Seeing my mother, still in her underwear, having trouble negotiating the pebbled bottom, he jumped out, waded to shore, and, to her immense delight, scooped her up into his arms, both of them giggling their way back to the rowboat.

On our first night we had dinner at an open-air taverna, with the full moon illuminating the Aegean and the island’s chalk-white cliffs. We drank ouzo and retsina, ate souvlaki and tzatziki. Did you know, a fisherman at our table asked, that in the old days if a wife was rebellious and refused to have sex with her husband, he would be advised to rub her gently with olive oil for seven days? After that time, she would become sweet and compliant. He winked and passed me the olive oil for my salad. Winking back, I doused my tomato, feta, cucumber, and olives with the ancient golden remedy.

Musicians on the bouzouki, karamoudzes, baglama, and daouli drums began to play their irresistible music. Soon we were all line dancing. Several women said, We’ll teach you an ancient women’s dance. This used to be the only dance women were allowed. It was for widows who danced their way off the edge of a cliff. I looked skeptically at the drop at the end of the restaurant terrace. We won’t do that tonight though, they assured me.

I remembered twenty years earlier during the fascist regime when I first visited Greece. Gloria and I got up to dance at a taverna in the Plaka in Athens. We were the only ones on the floor, proudly showing off the steps we had recently learned at our lessons at a San Francisco Greek restaurant. We’d been told that we might have a problem if we danced in Greece. When a handsome man approached us, Gloria said to me, See, it’s okay for us to be dancing. He came so close that I could sniff the ouzo on his breath: Seet down, he snarled. Women don’t dance in Greece.

That same night Gloria and I did enjoy the plate-bashing party. Some people at the restaurant invited us to join a birthday celebration. Shades were pulled down on all the windows. It’s against the law these days to break plates, they whispered. Suddenly everyone jumped up, started dancing and dashing china to the floor until we were crunching broken pottery with every step.

Here on Santorini, although there was no plate-smashing, the chef appeared from the kitchen and began dancing alone in the middle of the floor. We all clapped, urging him to still-higher leaps and slaps of hand on heel. He did several backflips, then tore off one of his sleeves, placed it on his head like a chef’s hat. I hope he doesn’t sweat in our tzatziki, said my mom. Seeing her gyrating in her seat, the chef urged her on to the dance floor. He tore off his other sleeve and placed it on her head.

Meanwhile the charming Adonis of a jeweler, Thanassis, whom we had met earlier that day when we were looking at traditional Greek key design necklaces, joined our table. He and I had made a tentative date as we left his shop. I slipped away for a tryst at his apartment where I learned that it is not only thousands of years of philosophy that the Greeks are adept at. No wonder, I thought, that Lysistrata and her friends wanted their men back in their beds. As the rosy-fingered dawn broke over the white cliffs and blue waters of Santorini, Thanassis drove me back to my hotel where I caught a few hours sleep before my mom and I sailed off on the early-morning ferry to Páros for our next island adventure.

Both my mother and I disliked early mornings, but this one was special as the sun peeked over the blue Aegean and then rose up as we sailed into its path. What a magical trip this is, said my mom. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful daughter.

Ditto, for me, I said. How many mothers would be the belle of the ball at a Greek taverna and then not mind when I run off with the most handsome Greek on the island?

I was only concerned that I didn’t have to take this ferry by myself if you didn’t show up. I’m not sure where we’re going next!

Five years later, I was back in Greece, this time accompanied by my mother’s ashes. My plan was to sprinkle them in the waters off Santorini, a place where we had both had such fun together. I lay awake in my hotel in Athens, thinking about my mother’s recent death. I was in the same hotel, not far from the Plaka with a view of the Acropolis, where my mother and I stayed as we began that last madcap voyage together. I thought about my mother reading Greek myths to me at my bedside so many years ago. Now I was returning to Greece to scatter her ashes in Homer’s wine dark sea.

So many memories here. Greece, ancient and modern, had intertwined itself throughout my life. My mother’s death marked the end of my family. Yes, I was alone but my life was a satisfying one”and there were lots of adventures still to come.

Suddenly my bed began to jump around the room. The hotel rocked, and when I looked out the window, it seemed that the Acropolis itself was undulating. In the morning, I learned that a major earthquake jolted Greece, the epicenter was near Sparta. Hotels had fallen over and hundreds of people had been killed. Having never felt earthquakes anywhere other than my home in San Francisco, I recalled both the fragility and continuity of our world.

Since my mother had loved her time in Greece and flirted shamelessly with every handsome young Greek who crossed her path, I felt she’d like being out there in that clear blue water where new generations of young Greeks would be frolicking. Some friends and I chanted a poem I had written for the occasion:

You danced music into my life:

I send you dancing on all the seas and beaches

of the world.

You gave me peace.

I wish you peace with the winds and the waves

and the seas

which are always and everywhere.

(Selection from Hymn to Audrey)

As I freed her ashes into the azure water, the calm bay suddenly sizzled and glittered with the sparkles of a million diamonds. Wow, what is happening? one of my companions gasped. This was the stuff of Greek myths, and we looked at each other wide-eyed. Very possibly by now my mother was playing the coquette with Charon, as he ferried her across the Styx, and was enticing Hades himself into a line dance.

That night I caught the midnight ferry from Santorini to continue my own odyssey on whatever island lay ahead.

©Diane LeBow 2006