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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Hacktreks in Greece

The Island of Ariadne
Lily Iona MacKenzie

It’s 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.

I’ve 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 didn’t marry.

I first met my father in Vancouver, B.C. when I was sixteen. I can’t recall what he looked like, exactly. He seemed glowering and forbidding, disapproving of my bleached hair and heavy makeup. He also was a Jehovah’s Witness, wanting to set me on the right path. I wasn’t 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 wasn’t interested in pursuing him when he was alive, I’ve 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, Hadrian’s Gate, and the National Museum. While I’m impressed with the historical significance of these relics, and moved by them, ancient Athens, the city I’ve read about in history books, no longer exists, and I’m eager to leave. The Aegean calls, and I’m anticipating my time there.

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.

It’s 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 dream—clean golden sand so bleached in places it's almost white, the water warm, buoyant, and amazingly clear.

The Cycladic Islands, mountainous and barren, can’t 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.

Originally known 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 I’m 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. There’s 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, I’m 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. They’ve 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t want her to become a tragic figure, and I didn’t want to see Theseus as an abandoner, like my own father.

I no longer can deny the truth. Ariadne could not change her fate, and I can’t 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 couldn’t 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 returned.

No long-lost relatives were there, eager to claim me. No remnants remained of my father’s 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 detailed—sophisticated. 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 various—occasional 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 isn’t 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 gadgets—cellular 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, really touched."

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 I’d expected, but I’d found something even more profound.

The waiter embraced everything that's noble and moving about the country and its people—their 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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