Grey-Eyed Athena Meets Dionysus
My first stop was Greece for purely romantic reasons.
I wanted to see the Agora where Socrates had corrupted the youth of Athens. I imagined I would free climb the cliffs at Delphi to see where the Oracle stood. I learned you can’t do that. Turns out there are turnstiles, barriers, and ticket-takers. Thus, I never went to Delphi.
I had just finished my first year of grad school, left a four year relationship, turned 20, and (re)discovered alcohol. I was enjoying a new life of limitless experimentation.
I was eager find the edges of who I was and tease them further. I wanted to grow, expand, and become a fuller version of myself. It was time to leave the country.
So Greece it was, the backdrop to my years-long study of and love affair with philosophy.
In the day I wandered the streets of Athens, seeking out the least populated places to explore, places that didn’t require reservations or passports.
Meandering, I stopped at a small Greek eatery with tables in the sunlight. I flipped through the menu slowly, fingering the pages absently and with little agenda.
The restaurateur spoke to me with surprise.
“You move like a woman. No one moves like a woman anymore.”
I smiled at the compliment, but laughed at his choice of words, as if to “move like a woman” might be some lost feminine ideal.
I understood that he recognized a certain sensuality to moving slowly, available to either sex, but it’s rare to find the time or patience to do so.
Later, while still winding my way through the streets of Athens, I came to a small church. The outside was nondescript except for a heavy wooden door with a small plaque indicating to visitors what was inside.
I stood in the doorway for a long time, trying to determine whether this was a place of worship that shouldn’t be disturbed. It didn’t seem like tourists came here often.
I was startled from behind when a young priest approached me and indicated it was okay to enter. I spent a long time studying the intricate painted murals that covered the stone walls, reverently taking in the details of each scene and bathing in the smell of incense.
The priest watched me with kind eyes as I did so. When I finally began making my way toward the door, he spoke to me in heavily accented English.
“You are a woman of God,” he said, matter of factly.
“I suppose I am,” I replied, cocking my head and smiling, a bit sheepish.
He held up a hand in gesture for me to wait, and went to retrieve something from behind a pew. He returned and held out to me a small wooden box filled with thick sticks of incense. His kind eyes danced as he looked at me.
“Please take this as a memory of your visit today,” he said.
At first, I protested, but the sincerity and humility with which he offered persuaded me otherwise. I simply had to accept.
At night, things were different. I went hard into the hostel scene of rooftop parties and flowing drinks. Initially, it felt exhilarating; new friends, lively conversations, blurry memories lingering in the morning.
I found I was staying on longer than most, and the ebb and flow of mostly American and Australian undergraduates started to feel routine. You could only have the same conversation so many times, and I started to understand why the young man running the hostel seemed a bit unfriendly and cynical.
I started to feel unfriendly and cynical myself, disappointed that I had so badly misinterpreted what “backpacking” meant to my generation. I had somehow thought everyone would be equipped to wander off into the wilderness at a moment’s notice. Instead, the young women I shared my room with were provisioned with hair curlers and heels, and I once again felt the sense of not belonging that had plagued me for most of my adolescence.
As a solution I went harder, only to find myself miserably hungover at a sidewalk eatery. After dragging myself to the bathroom to purge the mistakes of the previous night, I realized my bag had been snatched from my chair. None of my company had noticed.
No more camera, wallet, or passport, I made my way to the embassy for an emergency replacement. My friends spotted me some euros, and the hostel knew I was good for it at that point, so they let me stay on a few extra nights while I got things taken care of.
Frazzled and discouraged, I wasn’t willing to let it dampen my journey. Luckily, I had bought a little travel guitar as soon as I got to Greece, and I set up at the Acropolis busking my way to a meal.
I decided to change directions and do a little couch surfing. I bunked with a student from the university and she showed me the Athens art scene, as well as the scarring from the most recent bombings.
Haggling with a Greek shop owner, I insisting on buying an over-priced camera. I wouldn’t relent, feeling a bit victimized by my recent losses and wary of being scammed, and he eventually gave in in disgust.
I felt like the unsavory American so many of my European counterparts thought me to be, and left the interaction embarrassed by my aggressiveness.
When it was time to move on, my host sent me on my way with a copy of her self-created Zine, all in Greek, and a gifted button up dress that better suited the weather than my jeans and t-shirt.
Before departing for my next destination, I found myself vindicated in my initial romanticism and distaste for the typical tourist circuit with a tryst on the jagged, ancient steps of the Acropolis, far beyond where the guard rails and signage indicated we were allowed to be.
Ciao Bella, Bella Ciao
I knew I needed something very different. I toyed with the idea of checking out the teeming art scene in Thessaloniki, but decided on a break from the city instead.
I found myself a remote destination in the Ligurian Alps of Italy, an abandoned medieval village first noted by history in 1073. A group had restored it in 1989 with the aim of inhabiting it and running it as a self-sustaining eco-village and cultural center.
After a flight to Rome and a sleepless overnight train ride wedged between two large, sweaty Italian men, I arrived in Ventimiglia. The little beach city was charming, but I didn’t stay long.
A 1970’s compact bus took me out of the city and into the mediterranean countryside, which looked all the world like the Southern California topography I grew up with. We bounced up and down barely paved roads and alerted drivers around blind curves to our coming with a circus-clown horn.
After a half-day’s journey, the bus dropped us off at a tiny village that was everything you’d imagine an Italian village to be. It was quiet and picturesque, with barely a soul on the streets.
This was Torri Inferiore, the tiny town below the eco-village I was seeking.
I asked an elderly, bent-over Italian woman with leathery skin where I could find Ecovillaggio Torri Superiore, and she pointed me up a steep incline leading out of town. I knew I had made it when I saw the distinct turquoise shutters on a little cluster of medieval architecture.
This is what I had imagined Europe to be.
Although there were comfortable private rooms available, I got myself settled into a tent to keep to my backpacker’s budget. The weather was ideal, and the view looked out over Torri Inferiore below. It was exactly what I had envisioned, though I didn’t end up sleeping there much at all.
During a communal lunch with the residents and guests, I chatted with another young American woman from New York. Afterward, I settled into the library to peruse the reading selection. A resident I had met briefly at lunch, a surly expat from Australia, walked by.
He made an offhand remark about the book I had chosen — Endgame, by radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen — warning me that it might not make for light vacation material.
He had me pegged as a blonde Californian college girl, which I was at least in part, and he was clearly sick of backpackers passing through what he thought of as his home.
I retorted that I knew what I was getting myself into, having just come from a year of grad school focusing on socioecological change. I don’t think I said it that politely.
He blinked and turned on his heel, sitting down at the table to exchange a few words. He quizzed me on why I was here, where I had come from; I told him I was sick of the recreational imperialism of the hostel scene and wanted to get back to the land.
His skepticism seemed to dissipate somewhat and he made his way to his quarters, with a goodbye slightly friendlier than before.
The next day offered me the nourishing solitude I was seeking, after a morning Iyengar yoga class taught by Valentina, a young Italian mother who lived at Torri with her husband and toddler.
I hiked around the little valley that Torri was nestled in, I lounged in the cool corridors of the medieval walls, saw the chamber where the residents made cheese as if no time had passed since its invention. I got to know the residents a little more; why they had come here to make a life, what they had left behind.
At dinner, the residents and guests gathered again as they did for every meal. The Italian table wine was freely flowing, and by the end of the night we were all intimate and red-faced. The skeptic and I exchanged a few glances.
Some of us had our guitars, and I did my best to follow along to rousing choruses of Bella Ciao, a classic anti-fascist hymn from the Italian civil war. We wound down with a lilting, romantic ballad called La Luna that I labored to find chords and lyrics for after my return to the states.
Everyone wasn’t standing quite as upright as they should have been, and amidst the shuffling of glasses and scraping of chairs, the skeptic and I somehow found ourselves stumbling down the narrow trails surrounding Torri, heading away from the main house.
The night sky was entirely clear and the moon spotlit the valley, glancing off the river as we waded across. We continued our ascent up the thin trail, falling into bushes and tripping on stones in the dark until we made it to a tiny stone building in a clearing. He called it Ciappa. It was poised at the top of a terraced hillside that looked back at the village we had left behind.
Inside, we slept on loose planks that served as a floor. Below us, a second level was still being renovated. It turned out that this little piece of Torri had remained untouched in ’89 when the rest of the structure was modified for habitation. When he had found Torri, my newfound companion had asked to make a home there.
He told me how he had journeyed across the deserts of Spain on a burro, nearly dying on the way, and how he had studied the art of tea ceremony in Japan. He shared with me a Chinese poet who had written that “turning down drinks is for fools.” I decided this would be the heading of my journey.
The jingling bells and bleats of the goats woke us in the morning, and I watched them hop up and down the terraces as he drank his morning coffee. Below the last tier of green, the river opened up into a pool with a large, sun-baked rock in the center.
We swam here and sunbathed, he tended his vegetables, goats, and dog. I helped around the gardens and milked the goats from time to time.
We spent the evenings on the highest terrace enjoying his homemade aperitivo with other Torri residents, or sometimes alone, watching the moonlight play on the water below.
I remember so clearly looking up the terraces at the goats and being struck by the unbearable perfection of this moment. There was nothing I wanted for; everything was serene and idyllic — but it had come too soon. I had other places to go, degrees to finish, plans to execute. I couldn’t stick around here and live this life I knew that I wanted. This was my future, not my present.
Even more, this was someone else’s life, not mine. I hadn’t done a single thing to create it. I couldn’t stand to be an accessory in another person’s narrative.
On my final day at Torri, my companion told me he had a surprise. I waited awkwardly with a few guests looking on as he disappeared down the hillside, returning with a donkey in tow. I had met Cadichon before, but I hadn’t ridden him.
I was lifted up and set on his back, and my cheeks burned with embarrassment at the fawning onlookers.
Feeling begrudgingly like a storybook princess, I rode as he led Cadichon up the hillside. Once we rounded the corner and were out of sight, I relaxed and enjoyed the swell of the valley ahead of us and the donkey’s swaying lilt.
We stopped on a plateau and I was helped down from Cadichon’s back. My companion pulled several bottles of beer out of his backpack which he had brewed himself. We rested and drank, and I prodded him to tell me where we were going. He playfully refused.
At dusk, we made our final ascent and emerged from the valley to find a tiny, picturesque Italian village. He tied Cadichon outside of a little restaurant and we went in. He spoke to the patron in Italian, clearly a friend of his, and the man raised his eyebrows at me and smiled.
He brought us endless plates of food and plied us with wine. By the end of the meal, we were as tipsy as that first dinner on the patio at Torri.
Back down the hill we went, the going much harder on the way down. I had to squeeze my legs tightly to hold on to Cadichon’s back, which was made difficult by the fact that I was at a nearly vertical angle and everything but the immediate path ahead was pitch black.
At one point, Cadichon mistepped on the trail and I slipped off his back, falling hard on my tailbone. My shin was bloodied up, a scar I still have to this day, and my tailbone ached for the rest of my trip. I still had two months to go.
Eventually we made it back to Ciappa and slept.
The next morning I packed up my tent and he saw me off as I headed back to Ventimiglia and eventually, Berlin. I looked back at him as I walked away, and he looked sad to see me go.
By this time I was restless. I was no longer moving at the slow and sensual pace “of a woman”. I wanted to move on, to continue my journey that was meant to be mine alone.
I was now in search of something that I couldn’t define, but it wasn’t here. He was not the reason I took this trip. Just having found my freedom after ending my prior relationship, I did not want to disappear behind another man.
“Ciao, bella,” he said, and I descended the hill.