The first time I got in a plane was also the first time I traveled anywhere outside the northeastern United States. I was born outside Philadelphia, but before I was a year we had moved to Boston, where my parents were from. My father’s work had taken him from Boston, to Bloomington, Illinois, to Philadelphia, and then back to Boston. I arrived when we were in Philly, came to north to Boston, and had stuck there, as they say, like a possum up a tree. Starting when I was 14, my oldest brother was in college in New York City, so I visited there. I also had been to Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut. So when I got in a plane a few days after Christmas in 1980, it was going to be exotic enough; but when I landed in Athens the next day, I knew I was in a very different world.
Athens, and the other parts of Greece I visited, startled me. I knew I would see places that would take me back in time, thousands of years in time, but it also felt like I was going back into my own history. Italy is not Greece, but I am half Sicilian, and–according to my DNA–I am nearly a quarter Greek. Apparently, Greece conquering Sicily had a lasting impact. So now I know why everyone seemed familiar to me. They were my paisanos (or, more accurately, I probably had once been their paisano). As much as I felt like their kin, they had me pegged at every souvenir store and souvlaki stand. The first 100 things I heard in Athens were, “Parle Italiano?” They then knew from my puzzled look that I was American. “Here, here, I have the perfect thing for you!”
As I pull my home office back together I will organize a few things i still have from Greece: a nicely detailed journal, probably 50 pages of writing in all, and a decent set of perhaps 100 black and white photographs that I took and developed myself. (I had mad skills then! Three or four of them might even be worth scanning and sharing.)
But I don’t have to look at those pictures or read the journal to know the place that affected me more than any other. It was the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. That’s an image of it–a photograph my then-girlfriend took then printed in silkscreen. I am embarrassed that I did not take better care of this art, both because it was nicely crafted and because the place meant so much to me. So I’ve scanned it and hope the wear and tear are not too obvious. The picture was taken at some distance, from a surrounding hillside. The temple juts out onto a promontory, and in the picture you can see the people exploring the temple and then making their way out to the tip of the tip of the promontory for the view over the Aegean Sea. Sunset was coming, and the sunsets at this spot are a tourist attraction, but that doesn’t make them any less stunning.
The Temple was built c. 440 BC, a fact that was stunning enough to me. Boston might be an old city, but visiting a home built in 1640 and visiting a temple built 2080 years before that really did awe me. Looking at those people walking around that temple I couldn’t help think of people there 100 years prior, and 500, and 1000, and 2000. A hundred generations had taken the same steps I just had.
Plus I was an English major, quite full of my studies at the time, and there on one of the columns of the temple is an inscription of Lord Byron, who visited Sounion at least once in 1810. Whether it’s actually his inscription or not is apparently a matter of debate, but I took it on faith that it was actually his, that he had stood right there and inscribed his name where I then stood. I later wrote a fairly terrible poem about the experience, which ended up in my college literary magazine and I hope never sees the light of day. But it moved me then, and looking at this picture again moves me now.