I’m offering a little eye candy to start the week off right.
As some of you know, one of my family’s best (newish) traditions is planning reunions in foreign countries. I don’t get back to visit my folks nearly as much as I’d like, but meeting up in intriguing destinations adds a whole other level of magic to seeing each other again. We recently got a chance to create some more memories.
Since living in Paris, I’ve met my parents in Prague, Portugal, and Istanbul (all of which were fantastic, the latter two particularly a dream). My favorite trip category is fit to overflowing now, because I’m adding a new one to the list.
We recently took an unescorted package tour to Greece, meaning a travel company booked all the logistics – hotels, transfers, ferry tickets – but we were on our own to explore each place as we wanted. It’s not how I usually travel, but gosh it’s nice to have someone else take care of all the details sometimes. With 3 stops in 8 days, though, we agreed we didn’t have nearly enough time to bask in our surroundings.
I have never seen water the color of the Aegean Sea and the whitewashed houses against that sparkling blue really does look like a perfect postcard (souvenirs which I bought because my dinky camera would in no way capture what I was seeing).
At the tip of Santorini is a town called Oia where we watched a stunning sunset, along with thousands of other tourists.
At first feeling cheesy for crowding in with the masses to wait around for an event that happens each day, any doubts were dispelled when the sun began to descend.
The glowing orb disappeared directly into a gap between 2 mountain peaks rising from the ocean. It was like the valley cradled, then swallowed, the sun.
Everyone began to applaud spontaneously. It was strangely moving. Indeed, the miracle is that the sun does set every day. The act of slowing down and witnessing with full attention, giving nature its due – well, it was a highlight.
Other highlights included a terrific tour through the prehistoric settlement/excavations of Akrotiri and stuffing ourselves with delicious food.
Up next was Mykonos, but not before a rough ferry ride to get there. I get terribly seasick, even when I down Dramamine. The crossing was a nightmare, where all I could do was sit as still as possible for three hours while my mom held my hand (how wonderful to have mama close when I’m sick! A rarity in adulthood!)
It speaks to my newfound love of the Greek islands that I will risk similar voyages in the future. The waves of nausea, like many things in life, were awful, but temporary; rewards are often greater than the negative experiences we endure along the way.
We were appalled when we first stepped foot on Mykonos, though. Known as “the windy island,” the name is no joke. Gale force winds (responsible for those choppy waters that did me in, I’m sure) blew us around as soon as we landed – and it was freezing! From skimping around in little sundresses in Santorini to bundling up again and steeling our bodies against the wind, it was quite a shock.
Mykonos is also known for its nightlife and let’s just say my parents and I aren’t crazy party animals.
But we wandered the town and discovered a lovely beach, Platys Gialos (which we picked for the promise that it was less windy). Suddenly, paradise was at hand again. We also found another fantastic restaurant (my god, the food. I might happily live the rest of my life on a Greek diet).
We also took another (hellacious) ferry ride to Delos, one of the most important historical, mythological, and archaeological sites in Greece.
(Can we just pause a moment and read some history books now? A quick blog recap of visiting Greece is hard! Ok, but let’s continue…)
One last ferry (5 hours! But the smoothest of all the rides) brought us to Athens. Just one full day in the capital, which is nowhere close to what’s needed to do the city justice. But we happily did what we could. With such a rich history, ruins are all around – and everywhere you dig. (The current metro system took decades to construct because they kept finding valuable archaeological sites underground).
The Acropolis Museum was the most well-thought out museum I’d ever encountered. As you approach, glass panels on the ground allow you to peek the excavations underfoot. On the top floor, the display of the Parthenon’s frieze has the exact dimensions of the central structure of the Parthenon itself.
My favorite figures in the museum’s collection were the Caryatids, female sculptures used as architectural supports. Our tour guide endearingly called them “the girls.”
Afterward, my dad and I scaled the steep hill to the actual Parthenon. My mom has bad knees which make walking painful. She insisted we go up to see the classical temple without her. We made quick work of it as we didn’t want to leave her alone for long, though we had her blessing to linger as long as we liked.
And this is really it, in fact. We saw wondrous things during our vacation. But it was spending precious time with each other that was of utmost importance.
It should be noted that Greece has been suffering a severe economic crisis for years and a new stage of the crisis is developing even now, as the G7 summit opens today. The country is at risk of defaulting on loans, their place in the EU in real jeopardy. I wish we’d had more time to tune into the stories on the ground. I should know more.
But this trip was about listening to each other’s stories. We are so rarely, the 3 of us, all present in the same space. My parents reflected on their relationship in ways I had never heard before, revelations and telling moments spooling forth.
On the fourth day, my father woke in the middle of the night with serious chest pain. Only on this trip did I learn that he’s already had two operations for clogged arteries. I worried over his heart. And everywhere we went I looked for places for my mom to rest; her legs could only take her so far. The body can age quicker than the mind or the spirit. I am so grateful for each present moment; the time we have must never be taken for granted.
* * * * * * *
A couple enlarged black and white photos hung in the hallway of my childhood home, the only two prominent pictures that were framed. They featured four beautiful women in a setting of rough exterior walls and leaves. Each woman eyed the camera with a different expression. My mother was one of them, a snapshot from one soulful summer she’d spent in Crete.
I always loved how alive and glamorous everyone looked, my mom so familiar and mysterious at the same time. I’ve carried a smaller version of one of these images with me wherever I’ve lived.
The photos come from my mom’s first trip to Greece 44 years ago. She hadn’t been back since. As soon as we arrived in Santorini (which she’d also visited in 1971; we had a poster of a blue domed church and the sea tacked in our kitchen), she was reminded of how much she’d liked the island. But I always associate her with Crete.
On this trip, I learned more details about that summer she’d taken off for Europe with my oldest sister, then 6. In a serendipitous turn, she’d run into a couple she knew from New York. All of them had ended up in the same European port city without ever planning it. The couple were boarding a ferry to Crete and so my mom joined them. She told me the experience changed how she viewed life.
I’ve always said that I ended up in Paris on a romantic whim, and it’s not to be blithe. It’s true. I’ve always felt so strongly the many gifts my mother has given me, but it only occurs to me now how I owe my openness to her.
I’ve been in one of those see-saw periods again, questioning everything from work to love, writing to purpose. For a couple weeks, I was literally breaking down crying every day, though I couldn’t completely articulate why. We often only see the highlights reel of other people’s lives through social media, and I know posting gorgeous photos from Greece might fit that category, too. But the full story is that I struggle and fight the blues, too. But I know these intense periods are times of transformation. I am emerging again with more light and energy, the glow from Greece still in my skin.
I wonder, when you look at that nearly half-century old photo, if you can guess which one is my mother. I wonder if you can see in me the woman I am because of her. She conveyed to me, in subtle and quiet ways, the simple and essential lessons: acknowledge joy. Ride through the hard times; they pass. Board the boat. Stay awake to the beauty of life.