Ah, Athens. Ah, Greece. Especially in the foreign service, you can’t go home again; or, if you return to a place where you served happily before, none of the same people who made it home will be there. So it becomes a completely different experience to be enjoyed just for itself. And that’s what happened for six days in Athens. Only my friend from Erie, Dolly Di Marco, still lives there, as she has for thirty years since she married a Greek ship captain and had her lovely daughter Elena. My Greek diplomat friend, Xenia, is the consul general in San Francisco and wasn’t going home for Greek Easter. Nor were my friends Diane and Norman; she is an art professor at the U. Of Minnesota and they will be returning in the summer to their home overlooking the harbor of Rafina, access port to the Cyclades Islands.
I departed Cairo in the middle of the night and it was still the middle of the night when I arrived in Athens with only two hours of sleep at best. The metro which was only completed in 2004 all the way to the airport is closed so more lines can be added so I had to take a cab to Dolly and Elena’s. Dolly went to work and I to bed, miraculously. It felt great. Dolly and I wandered around the old city parts, known as the Plaka, drinking coffee and reminiscing. On Tuesday, we invited a friend of Elena’s to come to the house for a much needed pedicure and manicure. Then off to the hairdresser for and equally much needed color and cut.
Next, a quick trip to the American Embassy to see the new consulate building behind the existing building which was being built when I left. Spacious new headquarters for Americans in Greece to come to renew or replace passports and for Greeks to endure their interviews in order to get a visa to visit America. All the Greeks who I had worked with are still there and it was so lovely to see them and to be remembered by them. Two members of my A100 class are now assigned to Athens so they gave me the grand tour and then Elaine and I walked down to the local platea restaurant "Flower" where we had all enjoyed many a horiotaki salata, the traditional Greek salad.
On Wednesday morning, Dolly and I picked up a rental car and drove to beautiful Nafplio, a Venetian city on the coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula. April is too early to go to the islands and even Nafplio, a favorite Athenian weekend spot was pretty sleepy. While I lived in Athens, I always took visitors to Nafplio if their time was limited. There one gets a taste of the sea, a medieval castle, access to the Mycenaean bronze age archeological site, and the chance to eat lots of Greek food and sip cappuccinos or wine by the sea. Dolly and I did all of that and more, including visiting another lovely town near Corinth. Upon our return to Athens on Friday night, we headed out for some old Greek torch songs at a bar Dolly knows of. It was fun.
Saturday morning early, I was off to Corsica with Easy Jet. No assigned seats on Easy Jet, just a mad, pushing rush for the five hour flight to Paris Orly. Then a couple hour wait for a flight to Ajaccio, Corsica. Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean (Crete, Cyprus and one other which escapes me are larger) and while it is an rather unwilling part of France, the Italian influence is very strong. Lovely old limestone farm houses, a spine of mountains down the middle that makes driving hair-raising and the views breath-taking. Kathryn (political officer at US Embassy Kabul) had taken three weeks R and R to meet her UCLA freshman daughter Joan in Spain for her spring vacation and now her sixteen year old son, Alex, in Corsica. I was lucky enough to be able to tag along. They were renting an old flat in a one horse/no internet town two hours from Ajaccio via twisting, turning roads. No superlatives can adequately describe it’s wildness, its savage beauty, or the hikes we enjoyed/endured.
On the third day, we embarked on a 8.6 mile hike (these are not ambles but real hikes over rocks and through creek beds with lots of ups and downs). Half way through we got lost, wound up somewhere else, and figure we managed more like ten miles by the time we regained the car. It took me three days to recover and then we decided that we just had to try it again and do it right. Wrong. We made it throught the first part where the previous error had been made but got lost again. This time we logged thirteen miles. Every inch between the tips of my tows to the back of my waist hurt. A lot. But I was ever so proud of myself! I can keep up with someone fifteen years younger than I am and a sixteen year old and still be here to talk about it.
Mostly, hiking was what we did. Imagine a young man who willingly spends a week of spring vacation with his mother and her old friend! It was great. We had lots of great Corsican food, heavily weighted toward very Italian, thin crust pizza and drank a bunch of Corsican wine.
Kathryn and I spent yesterday in Ajaccio again because Alex left in the morning. While still a small city, it had lots more life than the rest of the island. Shops, restaurants, and, of course, a nice walk up to the top of the ridge for another breath-taking view of the harbor.
So, here I am, sitting in the Jet Blue, wifi provided area in JFK after getting up at 5 am in Ajaccio, flying to Nice, waiting two hours, enjoying a nine hour flight to New York and finally on US soil. How long ago the flight to San Diego and then Hong Kong feel. And yet I have savored each and every moment. I know that I will look back on this last three months as one of the most amazing things I ever did. Memories of sights, scenes, conversations, old friends and new, relationships, understandings and observations of history and people, a vast display of natural and manmade wonders and problems.
Tonight I’ll spend two hours driving back from Buffalo with Scott. And while I’ve been gone, Marty, Kelly, Kelsey and Davey have moved back to Erie from Florida and I’ll see them tonight too. I’ve missed Coug’s, Scott’s, Mom’s, Heather’s, and Kelsey’s birthdays during my oddysey and it will be fun to give them all the gifts I’ve gathered from around the world.
I will conclude this travelogue by saying that above all what I realized on this trip, as I have during the last ten years or so of what Jane Fonda would call the late second act, early third act is that I am truly blessed. For lack of health, financial wherewithal, bravery, confidence, most people don’t have the gift to be able to do what I have done. My sense of gratitude is immense and I stand in awe at my own good fortune. I have seen a world where people with mangled limbs live without food or shelter; I have been in places where people are waiting and trying to kill each other in the names of religion and nationalism; I have heard of young lives being cut down by breast cancer and other scourges. I’ll never know why I have been so favored to have had such a charmed life. I only know that my gratitude is boundless.
Thanks for sharing my odyssey with me.