There's nothing like a two-week trip to Europe to help you appreciate the little things, such as air conditioning, a fast internet connection or free bathrooms. After all the museums filled with priceless art, the tiny artisan shops tucked into cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean and the dusty ruins of some temple or city, the place my heart still calls out for is home.
The Greeks know a lot about home, about voyages and rust-colored horizons that stretch like a yawn over the Earth. After all, the tale of Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca, unfurled from the heart of Greece.
It seemed only fitting that I would end my journey there as well, on a rooftop terrace in Athens, watching dusk bloom and ripen the town below.
I sipped my pulpy orange juice and thought about endings. Beginnings. How eventually they begin to sound the same. I thought about all the sunsets I had witnessed and all the sunrises I had missed.
I thought about our cozy hotel in Nice, France, with its tiny elevator only big enough for one person and its windows that looked out into the narrow street; how the French sleep late and rise even later, so that the streets are empty at 8 a.m., when a bit of coolness still lingers in the air and there is only the restaurant owner taking deep "lungfuls" of a cigarette as a smattering of pigeons peck at the butts he flicks to the ground.
I thought about the exotic garden in Monaco that has cactuses so large you could not wrap your arms around them (not that you'd want to). I thought about Èze, a beautiful French commune that harbors an elegant medieval castle and fragrant jasmine.
I thought about the lively Saturday market we stumbled upon in Antibes, the tables piled high with spices and minerals of a million hues, the scents of olives and cheese and wine that chased each other around the stalls.
I thought about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and how you could see people of all shapes and colors doing the exact same pose. I thought about the Piazza Della Signoria in Florence and being awestruck by Michelangelo's "David." By Perseus holding Medusa's head and Hercules defeating the monster Cacus. It is odd and exhilarating to see the human form worshipped as a vessel of strength and beauty. I thought about The Birth of Venus. How great art erases time and makes a hush fall over a room.
I thought about Rome, the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. The vastness of everything making the city shrink. I thought about the Sistine Chapel and the cramping of my neck as I gazed upwards at the gentle curve of Adam's wrist, the promise in his outstretched finger. Did he tremble as he reached toward God? It is hard to imagine that such beauty could be created by human hands. It should be something like a sunset, an infinity of the universe.
I thought about creation, and I thought about death. Pompeii, a city of ash, preserved by the very means which destroyed it. Bodies in display cases, their insides a mystery. Would it be dust or calcified flesh? Would it be black or gray or red? I entertained the possibility that underneath the hardened shell would lie soft skin and springy muscle. As if the ash was merely a pause, and once chipped away, life would resume as normal, like a butterfly from a cocoon.
I thought about the Academy of Athens, a school of philosophy founded by Plato in 387 B.C. Wrapping around the walls are eight paintings, each depicting a scene from the myth of Prometheus, who brought fire and light to man. Similarly, academia brings wisdom and light to all who seek it.
Lastly, I thought about Odysseus. Now we have returned to the beginning, all the while drawing closer to an end. Odysseus knew a lot about voyages. The seeing of the world, the gathering of wisdom, the fighting of battles, and the return. Always the return. We are all of us returning, every moment, to the places that bear our deepest love.
Home, to the Greeks, is not something we leave, or miss, or make anew. Home is what we always are, the inevitable exhale, the rule of the seas to bend backward toward shore.
Travel far, and you will have great adventures. Travel farther, and you will find home.
What has Europe taught me? The beauty and richness of culture is not in what is preserved. It is in what never left. Take the thunderbolt. Grasp it tightly. The world is yours to strike at, to heal, to marvel at. Carry the flame as far as the light reaches, as far as your legs will carry you. Something familiar awaits.
Something like this:
We watched as the sky drank itself dark around the city. The noise did not quiet; in fact, it only seemed to crescendo. Someone below started to sing, a long, lilting ballad like the brush of someone's fingers through your hair. The lights of the Acropolis flickered on one by one, a luminous beacon of the past. A reminder that before us, there was this: the night breathing around you. The careful darkening of the sky. The promise of a sunrise as brilliant as it is infinite.
Everything glitters. Everything sings.
"We who set out on this pilgrimage
looked at the broken statues
became distracted and said that life is not so easily lost"
George Seferis, Mythistorema
"There is always a birth
–– said the Stranger ––
and death is an addition,
not a subtraction. Nothing is lost."
Yannis Ritsos, "When the Stranger Comes"