International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Hacktreks in Greece
Island of Ariadne
Its a relief
to leave Karditsa in Thessaly, central Greece, a dry, inland area,
and head for Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades. After a
six-hour ride from Piraeus, the Athens port, I approach the Naxos
harbor by ferry, the town rising out of the rocky shoreline like
white sails on the sea.
Ive just spent
two days in Karditsa, rummaging through the town records, trying to
learn more about my father, Tom Greekas, who was from that area. He
left there in his late teens, heading for Canada, the new world, seeking
his fortune. My mother was born in Portree, Isle of Skye, Scotland,
arriving in Canada with her family when she was fifteen. They became
lovers when she was a widow, and I was born soon after.
They didnt marry.
I first met my father in Vancouver, B.C. when I was sixteen. I cant
recall what he looked like, exactly. He seemed glowering and forbidding,
disapproving of my bleached hair and heavy makeup. He also was a Jehovahs
Witness, wanting to set me on the right path. I wasnt sorry Mother
had refused to marry him. I rejected him, too.
I never saw him again. Now dead for a number of years (he died at 60
of a coronary), he casts a long shadow. Though I wasnt interested
in pursuing him when he was alive, Ive always wanted to know more
about his roots, biological and cultural. But I also want to know more
about Greece, the seat of western culture.
First I spend a few days in Athens, doing all of the tourist things,
using the Metro to visit the Acropolis, the Parthenon, Hadrians
Gate, and the National Museum. While Im impressed with the historical
significance of these relics, and moved by them, ancient Athens, the
city Ive read about in history books, no longer exists, and Im
eager to leave. The Aegean calls, and Im anticipating my time
As the ferry nears the Naxos dock, the first thing I notice is a rectangular
marble archway emerging from a bluff on the edge of town. It appears
to be a doorway overlooking the sea, suggesting an entryway; there is
no visible structure to enter or leave. It has a haunting quality to
it, neither an entrance nor an exit. Just a frame. Its great size as
a doorway suggests something more, but all you can view from either
side is sea, sky and land. You keep getting thrown back onto yourself.
Its moving to view this folly, built in the sixth century B.C.
when Naxos reached the peak of its glory under the leadership of the
tyrant Lygdamis. He had to abandon several ambitious building projects,
such as the never-completed "Portara," temple of Dionysos,
god of wine and protector of Naxos, and of Apollo, the god of music
and of the sun, rulers of the island. This archway, then, was to be
part of the Portara.
Everywhere I look, I can see the blue-green Aegean and frothing surf,
inspiration for the blinding white walls and blue trim, a Greek architectural
signature. And the beaches seem from a dreamclean golden sand
so bleached in places it's almost white, the water warm, buoyant, and
Cycladic Islands, mountainous and barren, cant support much
life. Naxos, the most abundant island of the Cyclades, is the exception.
Farming and stock raising occur in the island's interior, and the
residents also make olive oil. A modern cheese factory produces
a high volume of top quality cheese, and Naxos' white marble is
famous for its quality.
as Kaliopolis, the town of Naxos, and the capital of the island, has
been located in more or less the same place over the centuries. The
old houses, windows filled with flowers and bougainvillea creeping over
the whitewashed walls, have developed conical fashion around the ancient
Venetian castle at the town's center. Cobblestone streets wind through
arched porticoes, stone stairways leading to the houses' towering wooden
doorways, representing Cycladic architecture.
I spend the next morning wandering through Naxos labyrinthine
streets, built to confuse pirates during their attacks on the town.
It has a bustling commercial section, but mainly Im interested
in the residential areas, built into the hillside. Frequently I get
glimpses of the Aegean and the harbor, where I end up for lunch. Starved,
I wander into the Flamingo restaurant and order, grateful to sink deeper
into my seat and listen to Greek folk music while waiting for the food,
mellowed by the local beer.
The waitress glides out of the cafe's interior and places a plate in
front of me, heaped with calamari, bits of white skin and purple tentacles
showing through the crusty golden batter. Theres a side dish of
potatoes (grown on the island and considered the best in Europe) that
are golden too under their skin, and mealy, cooked with a hint of garlic,
olive oil, and chives. A simple green salad adds crunch and chlorophyll.
In Naxos, Im not thinking about my father or the questions I have.
I submerge myself in the sound of waves hitting the shore, never far
from their insistent pounding. Theyve been calling out to travelers
for more years than I can imagine.
I'm particularly intrigued with the legend of Ariadne, secret lover
of Theseus, son of Aigeas, demi-god and hero of Athens, a story that
gives Naxos a mysterious flavor. Theseus went to Crete during the reign
of King Minos intending to kill the Minotaur that lived in an inescapable
underground labyrinth. Ariadne gave Theseus a thread so he wouldn't
lose his way.
When Theseus returned to Athens, he took Ariadne with him, but the gods
ordered him to abandon her on Naxos. Dionysos, the ruler of Naxos, fell
in love with Ariadne, but she remained indifferent to him, her heart
belonging to Theseus. Overwhelmed by inconsolable grief at losing her
lover, Ariadne climbed the "Palatia," a small island to the
left of the town, and threw herself from the sheer cliffs on the seaward
side. From then on, the island was called "The Island of Ariadne."
This story complicates my knowledge of Ariadne. Until then I hadnt
been aware of what happened after Ariadne helped Theseus to escape the
labyrinth. I must have ignored the rest of the story, not wanting to
think that Theseus would abandon her after she had rescued him. I didnt
want her to become a tragic figure, and I didnt want to see Theseus
as an abandoner, like my own father.
no longer can deny the truth. Ariadne could not change her fate,
and I cant create a father out of foam from the sea. I thought
I could rescue him in Greece, that at last I could claim my place
as his eldest child. But I keep getting thwarted. Before leaving
Karditsa, I couldnt find his birth certificate in the town
records. From my brief inquiry, no one seemed to know anything about
this man who had stepped onto a boat many years before and never
No long-lost relatives
were there, eager to claim me. No remnants remained of my fathers
family. Of course, not knowing the language could have prevented me
from tracing my roots.
That evening, I return to the Flamingo for a light supper. The sunset
draws everyone's attention, the sun blood red on the horizon, looking
as if you could pluck it out. The colors seep into the indigo sky. Greek
folk music plays in the background, and the sea breezes are mild and
warm. A marching band passes as we eat, and a stage below us on the
waterfront holds a local band playing traditional music and dancers
performing folk dances.
The next day, I wander even farther from the waterfront in old Naxos,
letting myself get lost in the maze of passages, feeling Ariadne's presence
guiding me over the cobblestones. I pass her descendants, women carrying
their net shopping bags, the older ones wearing the traditional black
peasant dress, smiling shyly as they pass.
I eventually find the museum where I'm taken back in time to the third
millennium B.C. The evolution that unfolds in the artifacts impresses
me, how over the centuries the art became refined and more detailedsophisticated.
It's incredible to think that these islands had such a civilization
then, that their roots reach back so far, and that we in the West are
still benefiting from it. One piece is particularly impressive, the
massive torso of a male in battle dress, holding in his left hand a
lovely female form.
Later I take the bus to Halki, hoping to see inside the church described
in the guidebook, but it's locked. I do see several of the Venetian
towers that are scattered around the island, built during the Venetian
occupation, a period when frequent raids by pirates throughout the Aegean
caused the inhabitants to live either in the Castle of the town or the
interior regions of the island.
The fortified towers not only gave refuge from pirate attacks but also
offered early warning of these attacks. Lookouts passed signals from
tower to tower by lighting a large fire on the roofs, enabling the people
to be ready before the first pirate set foot on the island.
The bus, filled with villagers who've been in town marketing, their
faces brown and creased from the sun, winds through the hills, the landscape
variousoccasional splashes of green a welcome relief from the
aridness of rock and brush, Mount Zeus, the highest peak in the Aegean,
rising in the distance.
In the higher elevations, there are more trees, the villages offering
cafes and shady places to sit and chat. I walk from Halki to Filoti,
a half hour trek in the heat, and rest, devouring two orders of the
locally made fresh yogurt served with honey, a feast for the gods.
On my final day in Naxos, I go to Nikos for lunch. After the waiter
takes my order, I ask him where he's from. He replies shyly, in halting
English, "Lesbos." I ask about Sappho, the Greek poet from
antiquity who had lived there.
My interest in Sappho starts him talking, and he tells me about a contemporary
Lesbos writer who had some connection with the classical poet. While
he talks, I feel as if one of the Greek statues I've seen in the museum
has come to life. He seems an anachronism, stepping out of the pages
of history, far-seeingeyes the color of the Aegean.
When he isnt serving others, he visits my tiny table on the balcony,
grateful to talk about ideas and poetry. He understands that we aren't
free, trapped by modern life and our gadgetscellular phones, televisions,
computers. The things we've created to give us more freedom have become
traps in themselves.
After paying the bill, I get up to leave. He says, "My soul has
been sore and empty for some time and needed filling." He speaks
from the heart, utterly sincere. Then he quotes Oscar Wilde, who spoke
of "the quality of certain memorable moments."
His big, rough farmer's hand shakes mine, and he says, "I get nostalgic
for these talks I've had with people where for a few moments we've met,
That encounter was perhaps the greatest gift for me of the trip, the
culmination of my stay in Greece. Anything afterward was anticlimactic.
I may not have recovered my father in the way Id expected, but
Id found something even more profound.
The waiter embraced everything that's noble and moving about the country
and its peopletheir impressive history, depth of thought, earnestness,
ruggedness, and beauty. Ariadne had watched over me after all, helping
me to find the thread that connected me to this ancient world.
About Lily? A Canadian by birth, I now live in
the San Francisco Bay Area where I teach writing at the University of
San Francisco. I write poetry, fiction, book reviews, critical and personal
essays, and travel articles. My work has been published in numerous
Canadian and American venues, including Malahat Review, Tampa Review,
Travelers Tales, Cottage Magazine, Anima, Psychological Perspectives,
B.C. Outdoors, The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Poet's
Podium, Crazy Quilt Quarterly, Marin Review, Pilgrimage, The Naval History
Magazine, Marin Poetry Anthology, Northern Contours, Heartlands, Afterthoughts,
Prairie Journal, Prairie Fire, Other Voices, Voices in Italian American
Literature, The Denver Post, and The Vancouver Province. I've had interviews
with Brenda Hillman appear in Indiana Review and Berkeley Poetry Review.
© Lily Iona MacKenzie September 21st 2009
Phone & Fax: (510) 237-7991
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