Let's Get Out of Here
At the hostel, I met two Americans from California: one an ROTC cadet from the University of San Francisco studying in Germany for two semesters (and refusing to shave for the eight-month duration, just to enrage his commander back home), and the other an Orange County stoner with a Jewish grandmother, who used that connection to move to Israel, near the Syrian border, four months ago. We talked about beer, and I realized how much I missed hops, for there is no pale ale on the Mediterranean. After a few of the mild Greek lagers, we went to bed at 11.
It did not feel like the Fourth of July, sitting among the polyglot frivolity of a hostel bar, with Palestinian immigrants shouting at each other in the streets outside. It rained, too, even though Greece is normally dry from May to October, and continued to rain occasionally for three days after that. I had abandoned my umbrella in Crete the day before, not seeing any need for it, which by Murphy's Law explains the phenomena.
On my way to Thessaloniki, capital and chief city of the northern regions, I passed by the Persian War battlefield of Plataea: By Thermodon and Asopus, where the grass grows soft, shall be gathering of Greece and sounds of strange tongues; and there beyond lot and portion many Medes shall fall, armed with the bow, when the day of doom comes. —Herodotus
Anyway, I didn't want to waste time trekking out to the out-of-the-way site on foot, so I walked north of Thebes and across the shadeless Boeotian plain, a checkerboard of yellow, green, and brown. I stayed off the street, fearing the Greek drivers who substitute the horn for caution, until I got to the National Road, where I installed myself at an on-ramp with a thumb out.
Many cars and trucks drove past. I was entertained when the driver of one sedan ignored me firmly, while his wife shooed his hands like flies and almost grabbed the steering wheel trying to get him to change lanes, as if I might leap at them. In the back, a one-year-old girl with a pacifier met my eyes and waved cheerfully. Eventually a police car pulled over, with two officers in the front, and the passenger rolled down his window.
"Hi," I said.
"What are you doing?"
"No, it is forbidden."
"It is forbidden!"
"Well I'll just walk then."
I stood there waiting for them to leave, and they waited, too.
"Go!" said the officer. "No waiting! It is forbidden! Start walking!" The old mustachioed driver did a walk with two fingers.
"How far is it to the bus stop?" I asked. They talked to each other for a while, then told me to get in, and drove me to a diner where the owner lectured about something for thirty minutes until the bus arrived. He spoke English, but I only understood a few words, which made no sense when taken out of context.
I went to Lamia, and from there took a bus through the pass at Thermopylae, wider than it once was, with the end of the long island of Euboea in sight across the straights. A plain spreads out where once there was only a road, but the steep mountains of central Greece still rise in defense, and under them lie cracked stones that I guessed from the bus to be the Phocian Wall, and a great bronze statue of Leonidas where the Three Hundred fell, along with five-hundred rarely remembered and never memorialized Thespians.
In the space between the high mountains and Euboea, the grey clouds opened and let in slanting pillars of sunlight against a burning screen. Then the star set, and we navigated the wide Thessalian plain in the dark.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
—Simonides of Ceos
Ten million years had washed the towers clean of sand and shale and left them solitary and magnificent: not walls but buildings of a city, some solemn and others wide and riotous, pockmarked with caves like windows where crosses and dyed sheets hung. The sediment was not monotonous, but shaded and lined with patterns of limestone, marble, serpentinite, and metamorphic rock. The domed caps, like the roofs of Orthodox chapels, bore garments of pine and brush, and monasteries crouched crustacean-like, established as refuge against Jihadi and Crusader by bearded abbots who could not help but be cowed by the divinity of design in those silent, indomitable anomalies of tectonic and geologic drafts.
I walked up from the town of Kalampaka to a path through the noisy jungle in the crevices between the towers, which led up to the first monastery I wanted to visit. There are a dozen monasteries at Meteora, and despite my habitual indecision I had no trouble choosing Agia Trias as one of the few I had time for, since it was the vertiginous location for the denouement of For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore's best attempt at James Bond.
The climbing was steep, and the noontime temperature 100 degrees; when I got to the entrance, I looked like I was going through heroine withdrawal, and earned weird stares from the families who had sensibly driven there. Bridges and stairs had replaced the old cranes and bird cages as routes to the monastic fortress. The path carved up the precipice through tunnels, closed or open to the view, to the pinnacle and the low, red-roofed structure there.
Agia Trias smelled like candles — like an old church — like the same air had been circulating inside for 500 years. The plastered stone and unstained wood looked ancient but clean. Gilded portraits of Christ were the only decoration, and they covered the walls of the monastic chapel. In Rousanu, the second monastery I saw, the chapel displayed scenes of a river of blood and timeless oppressors torturing and killing Christian saints, their faces rubbed away by some offended heathen, though a woman scoffed when I asked if the sabre-wielding executioners were Turks.
I walked the roads and stairs to Varlaam, and then to the Grand Meteoro monastery, two-storied and the largest there, wide with character and medieval halls. Satisfied, I took a game trail down the hill, slid down a dry riverbed, and followed old paths through the jungle at the roots of the pillars, laden with self-conscious awe but happy enough to scrabble around on the rocks.
Back in Trikala, I investigated train times for Thessaloniki. None of the Northern Greeks spoke English, but an Australian woman translated for me. She had been living in Greece for 15 years and was losing her accent. Outside, a woman managed a broom like it was a leash with a small and overly-active dog tethered at the end.
The train left to-morrow, but the lively hometown of Asklepios was a cheerful and charming riverfront village on the Litheos, locked in the foothills of the northern range that encircles Thessaly's landward side. I did not mind staying another night.
Of the unseasonable storms that followed my shedding my umbrella, the one in Trikala that night was the most sudden and violent. I went out to get a gyro, and while I was sitting there the grey clouds that had been looming since late afternoon burst open in a torrent like a waterfall. Gutterless, the streets flooded to dirty glass and reflected lights in patches of color. Besieged Greeks came out of their stores or stopped on their way home and huddled under canopies to ruminate over the remarkable weather. After having a coffee, I hobbled back toward my hotel like Deckard in the beginning of Blade Runner, only I was protecting my newspaper instead of the other way around, since I still wanted to read it.
The next morning I took an early bus to Thessaloniki, a modern city, if Applebee's and Starbucks are the ribbons awarded to metropolitan modernity, but one that retains the touch of Hellas: the ruins that obstruct construction, the omnipresent sight of Byzantine churches and legendary spots, the old men in black seated at kafeterions, and the strange Greek song-and-dance performances called bazouki — all attractive, but on Thursday I wanted to see Up.
For a long time I had been trying to see the new Pixar movie, and in Thessaloniki I learned that the Greek release was not until late August, to provide time for dubbing. Dubbing? I forgot that they dub all cartoons here. I count Up as the hardest thing I'll have to miss overseas, except maybe Christmas (and apparently my Great Aunt's birthday party). In frenzy of stubborn rage, I decided to see an American movie anyway, and picked Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. What a mistake.
The ten minutes with Optimus Prime are great, but the other 140-minute abortion, the part that is either a noxious teen romance or an ad for the US Military, is fucking horrible. The whole story is either contrived by an idiot (Michael Bay) or ripped off from StarGate and The Last Crusade, everything just a slapstick excuse for painfully unfunny comedy and over-budgeted action sequences where Shia LaBeouf runs around and screams in slow motion under a hail of excessive CGI, and where Optimus is usually absent.
How hard is it to make a giant robot movie about giant robots, Michael Bay? And who keeps giving you all this money? And why did you replace Ratchet and Ironhide with two unfunny and vaguely racist Jar Jar Binks clones? And what's with the rock song about Jesus in the credits? Why can't it just be something awesome, like Stan Bush's You Got the Touch from the 1986 Transformers? Actually, why can't the whole movie be like the campy '80s one?
I don't know why Optimus Prime signed on for this mess. He'll probably end up found dead in Thailand like David Carradine, another star-studded suicide, or a failed attempt at auto-erotic asphyxiation.
You got the touch, you got the power!
When all hell's breakin' loose,
You'll be riding the eye of the storm.
You got the heart, you got the motion;
You know that when things get too tough...
You got the touch!
—Stan Bush, from Transformers: The Movie
At Vergina is the tomb of Philip II, which remarkably escaped pillaging until 20th century archaeologists could set up a ticket booth. A dim and sterile chamber under the dissected mound displayed the one-eyed, crippled king's stash: weapons and armor, plates and bowls for food, tripods, and the gold box that held his cremated remains. His panoply and his swords and spearheads were crusted with age, except the golden trim, still gleaming. Wooden stairs led to the tomb, behind a segmented pane of glass: a great marble door crossed with supports, and flanked by Doric columns. A line of blue bars decorates the entablature, under a detailed hunting frieze. I said the only prayers I could conjure: "Holy shit."
On discovering the tomb, Manolis Andronikos wrote, "I felt an electric shock run up my spine. That I held the bones of Philip in my hands? Too astounding to take in." Philip is one of those colossal characters of history: so unbelievable in traits and exploits that he sounds fictitious. To see his armor, his sword, and the theater where he met the dagger of a spurned lover, where Alexander was named king, is incredible proof that he really lived.