PRINT October 1968

A Reconstituted Diary: Greece, 1967

“WE WILL TRY TO MAKE this a fine event for you,” said the Captain over the intercom. What an easing thing to hear, especially among the vaguely nauseous uncertainties that my stomach and intestines are transmitting from one part of my brain to another. My seat is earth-rooted, but when I look out of the head-size, claustrophobic, rainbow-catching window I get a weird, disjointed, perplexing feeling. Going to Greece after nineteen years of dreams about returning. Reluctantly retrotting, not freely wanting to confront myself with the inevitable jangle between polished remembrances and dispassionate physical presences. Saw Hombre by dawn. Couldn’t decide which was better, the technicolor on the screen or in the sky. I should prepare myself for continuous evaluations. From the moment I entered the plane my overcast fears dissipated to a lower, further closet of consciousness. It wasn’t only the Captain’s words but also a matter of maintaining controlled dignity in the presence of many people. I freed some of my cowardly feelings to go and haunt others. People are a good cathartic. Funny, here in the sky the fear of death has a chocolate covering of inevitable magnificence. France looked like a rock under a microscope. The magnificent lavatory in the sky was event enough, but eating and drinking next to non-conversant strangers thirty thousand feet up in bird territory is a performance of stupendous, selfish, tragically lonely, chuckling grandeur. It would be nice to share this, to plant the seed of amazement in someone else. Being up here is not the same as being on the ground looking up and thinking of being in a plane. I have been on ships and can anticipate drowning. I know car feelings and can empathize collisions, but even with the wing bending somewhat, up here the fear is paradisical. No reason why this feeling won’t continue past the crash. The colors outside are pale, unorganic, stretched out, pure, sleepy, monotonous, maternal.

WE (RELATIVELY) WHIZZED by Greek customs, but couldn’t decide whether to get a taxi or wait for the company bus. We got a rumbling ’54 De Soto taxi that kept breaking down against my wishes, but finally came to our skimpy modern hotel. Something unnameable, unsmellable about Athens at first glimpses. It must be the speed with which I left New York and arrived here. There was no time to forget New York. No time to get slowly acquainted with a new environment. This way Athens is a slightly peculiar suburb of New York. Only it isn’t. Rows and rows of few-storied buildings, weird for the balcony belts around them. Hills and valleys of these short and cheesy residences and every so often a couple of columns or a ruin that looked fake. The Parthenon strutted about like a two-thousand-year-old public relations snow-job. Historic fish bones. How often soup has been made of them! The land from the sky was more dimensional than France; it had greater sculptural variety. The airport was stretched out, there was something less bland about the way houses looked against the mountains and sky. Inside Athens the revived Greek architecture is of a smaller scale than in the U.S. This recollection of the past is thoroughly contained, condensed, scattered in cornices, windows, facades. The modern buildings looked human in their humble off-streamlines. I have a peculiar immediacy with the people who walk about. A lot of gold teeth. No attempts at a natural facial restoration. They are all traders, bargainers, and negotiants. But the game is played on a primal digestive tract level. Stark staring emotions. I feel a little intimidated. No, I sense my mind dashing here and there where I keep my past, trying to identify things and feelings. I can’t call the hotel home, although home is just a bundle of memories. There is too much obtrusive life flowing all around the room. I’m living on top of substanceless noise. My cousin Tom, with whom I’m making this trip, is snoring. I hope it doesn’t continue for thirty nights. Sounds like a hellish creaking door, moving furniture, and worse things. I’m waiting for him to get up so we can both go get something to eat. I hate to be confronted with servantry. I’ll use him as a shield.

I never called myself a polite paranoid before. The people seem to be of one social class, they have handsome faces. Odd to hear Greek coming out of their mouths, they must be dubbed. The streets are faintly littered but not sooty. The escalators from the subway on Omonia Square come right up onto the sidewalk. This changes the entire square into a large living room at night. The town looks like an antique copy. It’s a man’s town. The women are drab and neat but not extravagant. The Church of St. Eleftherios is small. When you enter alone your being gets squeezed and released. It’s a one-man church. The Virgin on the apse extends her arms and the gesture of embracing is assumed, inherited by the apse. Christ looks down at you from the dome. There is a visual emotional dialogue between you and some out-of-the-world beings. Architecture that pushes and pulls. (How nice to talk to the Byzantines in a contemporary New York language!) This rough, delicate church is next to a huge one of more recent construction. Nothing wrong in the contrast. Another one is between the pillars of a modern office building. How nice is the shift in feeling between the inside and the outside. These old churches sometimes have in their walls marble plaques of even earlier structures. The past is always manipulatable. I love the smell of wax, the sparkle of a semi-hidden jewel, thin layers of grime on geometry. Here and there are contemporary reproductions of icons. I tried to erase them from my mind. I guess the poverty-corniness, the old and the reproduced is O.K.

NOT BEING ABLE TO RELAX and enjoy the environment but wanting to meet my parents and sister, to see how they look and to get that over with, we took a creaky DC plane to Salonica. Two events strong enough for recollection at this time were: the oil slick along the second propeller that seemed to glisten and glitter in the sun similar to the way the summer sun shimmered on the lake of Kastoria in my youth, or like a waving mob of people; and the glimpse of Mount Olympus silhouetted snow white, emerging through a pale blue hazy atmosphere that hid the water and the rest of the land. It appeared up there like a cloud. I never thought that any mountain could become a cloud. Salonica airfield was vast, the horizon was a wall of variable mountains. On the bus trip to the city, a couple of cypress trees and a green meadow with a scanty smattering of piercing red poppies. The road dotted with crumbling small mansions of a prettier time intermobbed with modernistic structures. Both Athens and Salonica have Bauhaus accoutrements, additions to a few basic cube shapes. Salonica is sloppy with small streets and cramped buildings. We rang the doorbell three times, my mother and father opened the door, were surprised, happy to see Tom; and when they saw me (I hadn’t written of my intended visit) there was plenty of loose and loud trembling emotion. My sister came home from school later on with a fever. Our visit did not abate it.

The oppressive, suffocating feeling of underlying censored family entanglements begins. But I kind of like it. My parents were planning to go to Kastoria for Easter, and, since we were going there also, I reluctantly agreed that we would all go in the VW we were going to rent. Next morning my father woke us up with the news that there had been a revolution and something about martial law. A couple of tanks were passing below our seventh-floor balcony, and when I directed my binoculars toward a tank the gunner aimed his gun at me. Of course I made a disappearing act of the binoculars and reverted to natural vision. I felt a comic disbelief. It was the essential ingredient to really start the day and the visit. The balcony looks down on a square with Roman ruin excavations and a bus depot on the north side, two churches on the south. People hang their wash on the balconies. Messages about the revolution filter in through a vague curfew. There is some irrational hoarding of bread. After seven o’clock there is no street movement. Orders of shoot to kill. I’ll have things to tell my friends in New York. About one in the morning the streets and square are well lit and the atmosphere is clear. There is a sound of changing neons, a slowly moving blue-light cop car and a barking far away dog. I am a solitary anticipator, receiver of the more irrational aspects of life. Anxious yet secure in my U.S. passport I spat from the balcony and heard my spit splitting childhood war echoes. The Greece that I remember is very near the surface. This revolution is an eruption of my past, it is staged for my return. But I can’t think about it now. War is many things to people. It is destruction, irrationality and death. But it is also magical, animalistic and a great amplification of emotions.

If I seem to keep taking my esthetic pulse it is because I see life in terms of art rather than something else. It is a way of criticizing and thereby perfecting what I see. Next day; things getting back to normal. I am enjoying the people who come to visit, even the more cliché-ridden. How different Salonica was for me in 1947, when I first saw ships and jellyfish, neons, trams, elevators, a shooting gallery and a dozen movie houses. Before New York came into the picture and masculinely obliterated everything else. How different I was! A trembling mother-clutching neurotic. I now feel cramped. Faces are important. I continuously interject faces of people I’ve seen throughout my visual explorations of the town. Two policemen phoned from downstairs for us to put the Greek flag on the balcony. My father told them he didn’t have one, besides he is an American citizen. The policemen insisted that they would take him to jail if he didn’t comply. My father told them the equivalent of O.K. let’s go. They left and my father went up a notch in my goddamned book of values. Odd. There is no tremendous pressure, just a funny feeling of something peculiar and twilighty. Greek flags alongside the family wash flapping in the sea wind.

The Greek light is not extraordinarily special, it just shows its face more often. The food in the market is very gutsy, oily, salty, fishy, pungent. Evanthia, who lived next door to us in Kastoria, and liked me and was beautiful, came with her husband and brought dazzling peach-colored roses from her garden. Took a long uphill walk to the remnants of the old city wall. A lot of crumbly houses. The old houses like the old people. Everybody wears nondescript clothes. The emphasis is on the head. The Greek head speaks to me. I keep seeing mouthfuls of my past parading around. Some apartments are below street level with only a slit for light. Maybe a glimpse of someone inside. Passing by. A lot of men in a cafe. If I stop and think about the private lives of the people I see in my walks I make myself sick. Empathy is a bottomless whirlpool. Better to think of them as the environment. What is this need I have to embrace people I’ve never been introduced to? I must have met them. I saw in Evanthia a type of face that I’m attracted to. She is a prototype.

Salonica has great ’30s iron doors. Passing by, we saw a large, unpaved street flanked by new tall buildings and in the middle of the road on a small hill was a grumbling old house and decrepit garden. It had temporarily stopped the building of the street. That house was a tragic juxtaposed jewel. I feel wounded but can’t pinpoint the position. The colors they paint the houses on the hill are bright blue, red, yellow. How wonderful is that washed-out blue for the exterior. It condenses the beauty of the sky. The empty Church of St. George is a tremendous domed structure with a strange echo at dead center. I liked the silence, the coolness, the vastness of its embrace, the massiveness of the walls, the lightness of the ceiling, the mosaic and sculpture remnants. The Byzantines were generous artists.

ON THE ROAD NORTHWEST through Edessa, a short sun-filled walk on the floors of Alexander’s Pella. Five wondrous stone floor mosaics and thoughts of ancestral stupefaction. Traveling again. The mountains are sparsely-vegetated elephant hide, nude Macedonian mountains. I wouldn’t mind being buried on top of one of them that has a sesquipedalian view. Later on in a misty early evening we passed one of the smallest, slipperiest, curvy, weather-holed roads with a steep slope to some dark-lit villages below. Stopped across the lake to see the flickering, breathing lights of my youth, my body. Hundreds of remembered images, feelings, hungers, pleasures and fears of my childhood there commingled into a quick, thick, intolerable identification, Kastoria. Sky and water were the same phosphorescent, pale, dull blue. The city was suspended in between. I had expected to see it by daylight, perhaps because that’s how I left it, and that’s how it is depicted in postcards. How generous that I saw it at night. How gentle not to get a quick, cold shower of a twenty-year change. It looked like an Antiochian tapestry and also like a Flash Gordon city. And this view I saw through cypress trees, with my family waiting in the car.

Morning. The water closet isn’t working. Below the hotel window, a neat blind man is delivering apples to a newsstand. My memory feels burglarized. There is too much change. My cousin Pavlos took us on his old-style boat with an outboard motor for a lake ride. The sky had cleared and the view was a typically vast shy heartthrob. The waves the boat made were sculptural. We visited an old monastery with an 11th-century church. One figure on the fresco wall had his limbs extended yet severed, and the palms a short distance away were helping to lift a sleeping Virgin. Martyrdom and the lifting of belief were conveyed with one pictogram. At my Aunt Angelica’s they were slaughtering a lamb. The children of my various cousins were around, peculiarly taking my childhood place. The slaughter looked cleaner than I remembered. And I heard the Greek anthem while I was on the toilet. There’s a terrific view from my aunt’s lakeside house, but I decided I couldn’t live there. I need more than picture postcard places. I love nature seductions, but not every day. There are mental plans to be materialized.

Went to the police to get a piece of paper that will allow us to leave the country when the time comes and, in typical small-kingdom fashion, where each clerk is a minor demented despot, we were sent here and there and finally to the military command post. They kept our passports and told us to come back tomorrow. I felt half-fear, half-micker. Oh, how I dislike proving things, especially identity things. We left trying not to think evil and cursing the little bastards.

I am beginning to get a little bored. It rained all day today, but I can now see some Greek blue. All this time that the clouds were raining, the sky was blue; I had forgotten I miss the centuries-old houses, the dusty, rubbled atmosphere of war; the bombings, the hidings, my aunt’s slightly ripped belly, the fear of separation, the playing in bomb pits, the sound of executions, armored vehicles, the strange pride in being visited by a catastrophe. Here and there are genuine remnants of my past, intact sections of streets, but they are a totally new experience. The gypsies are sad and beautiful, with flowery clothes, round faces and painted cheeks, holding silk-screen rugs for sale. Kept seeing others later on, camping on hillsides all over Greece. That way of life is so much a part of my dreams. So are Greek myths. I went to school thinking that myths were not myths but history. Everybody in Kastoria wears a suit. There was a fair for Easter but it wasn’t very colorful. Most of the peasants stayed in their villages due to the political situation. I walked by the neighborhood of my youth. It was altered and shrunken, but I didn’t have time to cry or compare. I left feeling there was an attempted rape of my memories. Now that I’m thinking about it, it has enlarged somewhat. That is, I’ve forgotten what I saw and went back to the picture I grew up with. The icons of St. George weren’t cruel looking at all. Why do I remember them differently?

We got our passports back with a signed piece of paper. Nothing to worry about. Just came from Mavrovo, a fertile village where my father’s father had a house that was burned before I was born. We stopped by the garden my father owns with his brothers. It used to be a walled forest for me, with several varieties of fruit trees, heavy underbrush and an occasional poisonous snake. My mother told me once that grapes from our garden got a prize in Salonica. I remember being taken there as a child in huge family summer excursions. Now the walls are leveled, the ground is powder dirt. Some drab, isolated trees and stumps remain. I didn’t even get out of the car. We stopped by an old church with frescoes of Hell on the outside. The door was closed, we could not see inside. Easter is a cloudy day.

METEORA. I DON’T REMEMBER seeing anything more shockingly grand. The trip from Grevena to Kalambaka (the town at the feet of Meteora) is murderously jittery. We beat the living daylights out of the VW and ourselves. Yesterday we drove to Aposkepos, a village that has a terrific view of Kastoria. Coming back we picked up a cocooned peasant woman who had about seven flies encircling her. Needless to say, the flies entered the car with her and she blessed us for our kindness. All forms of kindness embarrass me. But getting back to Meteora, I’ve never seen taller and sexier rocks. Male and female voluptuous feelings. Monasteries on top of voluptuous feelings. It is truly a place for a hermitage. The monastery of Metamorphosis has a recent doorway and uncountable steep steps through the side of the rock. A heavy old kitchen with a smoked dome. In the church a bearded monk with a hollow look was lecturing to tourists. I remembered an older woman in town whose eye sockets were like the horizontal holes on the side of some Meteora smooth rocks. The icons at St. Stephen had scratches and holes around the eyes of the saints. If the Turks were the ones who did it, they improved them.

Ferry to Peloponnesos. The sun directly overhead. In front of me and the boat the silk, silver, slivered sea. Small light explosions, dancing sparks, sun butterflies, instant sun poppies. Anything. I stayed on the deck for three hours leaning on a pole thinking of Ulysses and the Sirens. He must have been an exhibitionistic masochist. So am I. The road along the sea toward Patras quite beautiful. Olympia is fragrant with rolling hills and huge old trees. The fragments at the museum very good. Didn’t like Hermes, too mushy. Peloponnesos is more what I imagine ancient Greece to have looked like. Perhaps because it is the way the English saw Greece. I hate to dizzy myself with guide books so Tom does all of the navigating. What’s nice about Olympia is how large the statues and ruins are. I keep thinking of Hitler athletics though. Boredom is creeping in. I’m disappointed that the ruins are ruins. They are not teeming with ancient people.

In the hotel the only things that I know are my clothes. Perhaps that is enough. At night I keep dreaming of people I know in the U.S. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe I wanted to be recognized, welcomed. To be presented with the whole of Greece so that I could swallow it. These statue fragments are so magnificent and the Greeks who are the custodians are so ignorant of art as it is alive today. That’s it. I want the Greeks to know my name and what I do just as they know the names in antiquity. But of course Greece is now elsewhere. Not a single person has taken me for a Greek. It would have been nice to have experienced love with people at each site. People who would have embodied, distilled the spirit of each site into a human equivalent. Faces that would have seemed to contain the wisdom and beauty of past times. It would have been easier to have more of the animal in me, more of the conqueror.

From Olympia to Tripolis the road zigzags over high, rolling, treed mountains. Near Argos the view again becomes tremendous. Nafplion is a small, clean town, with a Venetian fortress on its hill and a calm sea at its feet. We found again a good restaurant. It’s a dream town. Some streets are one house wide and most houses are two, three or four stories and of the late ’80s. It was the capital for a while and has some academic but nice, small, aristocratic architecture. The hotel we’re staying in has a nice front but is putrid inside. The last time I saw a more rotten bathroom was at the American Can Company in the ’50s. Morning breakfast by the sea. The Nafplion sea is a faintly rumpled bedsheet. I bought a Newsweek on the newsstand yesterday. Reading about the U.S. is reading about the past. It’s such a disjointed feeling, even reading about myself (“Art of the Sixties”). Simultaneity is meaningless for me. The theater at Epidaurus doesn’t need a performance. The mountains and valley that are framed if one sits in the upper-center seats is enough.

But I loved loved loved Mycenae with the two great understated tombs and the storage tunnel in the citadel. The building rocks were just the right gigantic size. I proudly, amazedly, absorbed the panorama of mountains, valley, sea, and sky. Like finding that some clod uncle had left words of real poetry. Glad that something centuries ago can touch me. Artists don’t talk anymore about having their work last a thousand years. I guess it is frightening to think about being dead for a thousand years. But I like to tiptoe over morbid thoughts, perhaps find something significant. Flies or bees were inside the tombs in whirlpool clusters providing infinitesimal slavish aeration and a lot of buzz. Coming out of one of the tombs I heard a flute. I had seen shepherds with sheep but forgot romantic daydreams I used to have. Here a shepherd was playing his flute on a mountain near this magnificent tomb, administering the environment’s esthetic coup de grace.

Mycenae is primitive yet huge, religious yet mathematical, disappearing yet there. I like the way it communicated with the ground. Civilizations ought to expire alone, not in the back yards or living rooms of subsequent civilizations. I climbed a boulder with a ferocious drop on one side to partly help fate, with this show of intensified daring, to help me find some treasure. I picked up a tiny colored stone and felt it in my pocket. Let a portion of my brain cry later on for past glories and childhoods. What a gripping structure is the tomb of Agamemnon; the gradually increasing height of the entering passageway, the massive lintel, the round cone of the inside, the way the echo hits you back, a felt reverberation. Best of all the absence of modernity. The Parthenon would have looked much better if modern Athens had disappeared.

I went to the Acropolis about 6:15 on a hazy, sleepless morning and found the goddamned doors closed. O.K., relax. The view of the city isn’t bad. The farther stretches of Athens look like the bare bottoms of mountains. Ironic to have a city look like a mountain. The theater of Herodus Attikos has the white clown make up of vast restoration. So much of the scenery in Greece is foreground and background. In this way the background almost always has a different color. As if a filter had been dropped over part of the scene. Yesterday we stopped by Acrocorinth. I climbed up into a tiring Venetian fortress of Babel with puzzling man-made pits hidden by shrubbery. It has another spectacular view of the country as far as Nafplion. So I recollected facts and dreams about the Crusades and walked among the thousands of bees and bugs and nice-smelling flowers, until the desire for rest and return, coupled with impolite thoughts of getting lost, got the better of me. The sun’s rays are becoming stronger. I turned my back on my superimposition of Acrocorinth on the view of Athens and saw the sun dully emerging from the Parthenon. Unfortunately below this the ticket stand with five milling guards does not enhance the view. The sun partially destroys the Parthenon and wall and speaks warmly. If I look at it long enough I’ll erase the presence of the guards and pretend that the sun emerging from these stones has the magic of past essence, past genos, past power. Never mind.

I like Athens better the second time. On the Parthenon. The spaces between the columns are giant keyholes. It’s not possible to inspect the temple while walking around it because the ground is full of uneven rock formation. Inside it, moreover, it is also like walking on rocks because the marble floor is worn off. From the outside the temple looked too heavy to me, yet the columns of the Erechtheum were too skinny. To hell with scientific, architectural, esthetic adjustments. I liked being inside though. I like voids better. I liked the two semi-circular grooves by the doorway on the floor; also the rain canals; also the faint Christian painting on one of the walls. A nice clutzy thing. Just inside the torn fence that surrounds the Acropolis, the Athenians often shit. I wonder what it feels like for them, shitting on the bones of the glory that was Greece.

The noise of the city began to increase, people started photographing themselves and I started leaving. The guards were talking politics. I tried to imagine Pericles standing there among the columns and ruins and all I could see was a silkscreen cloth of an academic drawing of Pericles talking, gesturing to a crowd, that used to hang in the hall of our apartment in Kastoria. From the distance the Acropolis looks like a vast tourist attraction. In its midst, however, the city is a later addition, a backdrop, inferior landscaping. Athens is a reclining city. I was put off by the lights surrounding the Acropolis at night. A company with only one star-actor. Went to the Archaeological Museum and ooh’ed ah’ed my way through half of it and then had a reaction. I missed the great pediment at Olympia and I missed the Charioteer. And felt good and bad that Greek sculpture is so overwhelming. I wonder why I didn’t like the Parthenon. There’s something corny about round columns. Moreover the spaces between the columns from the inside look Egyptian.

GOT A DISJOINTED CALL from New York. Arnold wanted to know how I was and if I needed anything. There are many ways to look at revolution. The conversation was bugged. I hope it was. It’s nice being even dimly a part of a revolution. Tom wanted to visit the islands but I heard too many people gushing about them. We raced toward Sounion when the sun was five inches from the horizon, and made it just in time, after persuading the guards to let us inside the temple area. The sun didn’t go down, there was a cloud cover. The sky got lit up with all the colors that gaudy but genuine artists put in postcards and it even reminded me of my pastels.

Returning to Athens with a gradually darkening sky, a crescent moon and a dot planet, there were reflectors imbedded in the middle of the road. Our car’s lights lit them for a short distance and it looked as if there were people under the road, lighting the reflectors. As the road is curvy you could see a portion of dark mountain jutting into the silver-grey sea, and also you’d see an extent of light from a car cutting the mountain. The car seemed to run and catch its tail light. We briefly relieved ourselves, each on a different side of the road. I took the one facing the sea. The edge of the sea on this trip looked so pick-liftable. You could snugly cover yourself with it. I keep forgetting that the sea is a slippery fluid. I keep forgetting the depth, the living things that it embraces, its ability to choke me. I see it as beauty and therefore pleasure, and how can I be frightened of pleasure?

Driving to Sounion, I thought, how beautiful, now is as good a time to die as any. But why think of dying? In order to perpetuate this beauty. Or else because the scene, the beauty doesn’t climax into a face. I’d like to see the sunset in someone’s face. I like to pretend that I’m mixing, diffusing, spreading out all over the scene of the sunset, assuming beauty myself. Stood on top of the Marathon dead today and looked at the surrounding view. It is not the same earth, otherwise I’d get at least a shiver.

We met the representative of the company that rented us the car on Mitropoleos Square and he added an extra charge to the bill. Tom refused to pay. There was some back-and-forth convincing shouts. The man took us with his friend to the outskirts of Athens to make a long-distance call to his company. I was preparing myself for gangster play. After about one half-hour of arguing, we settled for half. We haven’t told the incident to anyone or to ourselves. I’m all packed. After being processed in a dumb jam at the airport, I was called by Passport Control. I was asked to prove who I was and that I was my father’s son. Someone with my name was wanted for something he did in 1963. I was too stunned to worry. They let me go after I showed them the piece of paper that I had picked up in Kastoria. I am now sitting in the airplane hearing myriad Greek-Americans. It is a charter flight.

Lucas Samaras