Uncovering Greece On a Cloudy Day
THE Greek islands: blue skies and water, warm sun and beaches, yet still quiet and uncrowded. This was what we were expecting. Instead, it's the coldest, rainiest June in history, and history goes far back at Naxos, the island where it is said the god of the vine, Dionysus, was born from the thigh of Zeus, to lighten men's hearts.
To make the most of a dismal day, Pierre and I take a bus tour of the island, the largest and most fertile of the Cyclades. There are about 30 of us: one group - mostly Americans - listening to the tour guide in English, another group listening in German, and the small remainder in French. The guide herself is Dutch, blond, and volatile. The coach driver is Greek, with a steady hand on the wheel, which is more than necessary on the rugged, washed-out roads.
Mount Zeus, the highest mountain on the island, at 3,200 feet, is completely in the clouds. The guide points to where it should be. "It's a pity to do this tour today," she says, wanting to be sympathetic. "You'll have to come back to Naxos another time." We hear the "such a pity" also in German, "wie schade," and in French, "quel dommage."
I watch the different reactions to her dire weather forecast. Some of the Americans are taking it in their stride, they're on vacation, they'll have a good time. Some of the Germans are boisterous, still hoping to go swimming on the other side of the island, where there are long, sandy beaches. And some of the French are complaining, even when the guide is speaking in their language. Pierre, my French husband, is embarrassed and speaks only English for the rest of the tour.
We stop at Apiranthos, an ancient Venetian citadel perched high in the mountains, which was once filled with marble. Some of the white houses need repainting, but much of the former brilliance remains. Grape vines and bougainvillaea cling to the walls and overhang the terraces. We enjoy the freedom of a short visit after the long bus ride. I walk on ahead, imagining the white walls, the winding alleys and terraces, the scarlet blossoms in warm sunlight.
I turn around to see whether the others are following. An older man is watching me. His gray hair is thick and curly, his wrinkled face is strong. He is dressed in a brown jacket and trousers with a white shirt. Leaning forward a little, both hands on a cane, he is standing in front of a small white house.
Several of our tour group walk past me and continue down the paved lane. They are in a hurry, wanting to get back on the bus. Pierre stops for a moment in the little square opposite the house and waits for me.
I glance again at the older man and realize that he wishes to show me his home. I walk in his direction and pause in the low doorway. His house is one room, bright and orderly, with whitewashed walls. There's a white woven bedspread with a dark brown design on a single cot. On the clean cement floor in one corner are potatoes. The old man smiles when he sees that I notice them. He points to an adjoining alcove, a sink, a wooden shelf, and a small bathtub.
I move to leave. From his front door, the view extends over the old city walls to the fertile green farming lands below. My Greek host takes my hand and then gently gives me a kiss on each cheek. I walk to join Pierre, who is still waiting in the square. He tells me he didn't follow me lest the rest of the group follow him. I turn to wave goodbye. The old man is there, in front of his home. He raises his hand and waves back.
As we walk on down to the bus, I try to explain the one-room house, the potatoes, and woven blanket, and the view - the entire valley at his doorstep. I falter for words. Slowly there is more light, the marble steps start to shine, the grapevines grow greener. The sun feels warm on my face. I look up at the sky, the clouds are dispersing, uncovering patches of blue. Our tour guide will be able to show us Mount Zeus, and the water will be blue along the sandy beaches.