Living In The Land Of God's Retirement
Here goes — I'm going to tell you a joke. Telling jokes well takes, above all, timing and I tend to flub that up. But, since this joke will be written down and you will have to read it doesn't that put the onus of timing on you? And, even if the joke falls a bit flat — you'll get the idea.
It was the beginning of the world. God created the chaos. Then he created the sky and the firmament. He created for six days and on the seventh day he rested. Some time later he came down to earth. He sat on the top of a mountain (probably Olympus) and summoned the peoples to come and be granted their portions. Representatives of the various inhabitants of the earth climbed the mountain to where God sat and he bestowed upon them one-by-one their domains. To the Chinese, China. To the Africans, Africa. To the Norse, Scandinavia. To the Chileans, Chile. And on and on.
The day progressed and the lands were allotted. As dusk fell God stood, preparing to depart from the mountaintop. Suddenly, a voice called out,
"Wait, wait! Wait God, I'm here."
God turned around to see a short, dark-haired, muscular man running up the mountain path.
"I'm here God. I'm here," he panted. "What land do you have for me?"
"Who are you?" God demanded. "You're late. I have dispersed all the lands of the earth."
"But God, this cannot be," cried the man. "I'm late because I've been so busy spreading your word. All this time we've been your faithful, loyal messengers here on earth. Surely, you must have saved some bit of land for us Greeks."
God looked at the man and felt a twinge. How could he leave a people forgotten? He sat back down with a sigh.
"Well," he said, "there is this one small land. It's broken into a thousand pieces. It's rocky and mountainous and surrounded by sea. It has no wealth of resources. It is hard to get to and hard to work upon. It's just a little place of beauty that I was saving for my retirement."
I warned you, I'm not a good joke teller. And, of course, the joke doesn't bear up under scrutiny. Just swallow it. Swallow it and sense the taste of it. The essence of Greece. The fundamental element of Greeks. They live in the land God had saved, God had selected; out of all the earth, to be his place of rest in his final days.
It's outrageous! It makes no sense. How can God retire? And it is quintessentially Greek; proud, defiant, egotistical and right. Because there is something divine about this land.*
Rarely does a visitor to the land of the sun, the sea and the olive tree leave it untouched. To the degree that one is open, one's senses alive, their mind willing to dismiss the Lord-and-Master Reasonability, to this degree one is moved, affected and awakened.
First, one notices the light. Imagine. Did these guests of Greece often think about the light in their home lands? No. Perhaps 'the lighting' would be noticed as 'poor' or 'overdone'. Perhaps some think of their winters as 'dark'. But simply to walk outside or sit on a balcony and to think, "My, the light is wonderful," this is a quality of Greece.
This unique light graces everything including yourself as you wander under it. It exaggerates the mountains, their pine and cypress covered folds, their craggy clefts and peaks or their bare sloping shoulders all impressed upon the mind. The light plays with the olive groves and the fruit orchards turning citrus globes and pointed olives into van Eykes and Claesz's. It divides and conquers in the sea breaking into colors without name; catching your breath and calling you to follow the flight of the seagull. It enters you and shatters all your senses.
The smells of Greece find you and tickle your brain like long lost memories; the smell of thyme and dust on the baked hillsides, the salty brine and seafood scent on the shore, the perfume of jasmine, citrus and linden blossoms and the heady odors of roasting lamb or grilled octopus all preludes to the tastes. And eating in Greece, this is not an event of nourishment based on the body's need of caloric intake, it is reveling in existence.
First and last is the glory of the olive. Until you have experienced it it is impossible to understand the taste and necessity of true, pure, fresh olive oil (even better when organic and unfiltered). It is rich and alive and everything it touches tastes exuberant — the tomato, the beans, the fish, the cheese, the bread.
Naturally, there is local wine or raki and spring water to augment the meals and always music. I mean to say, except in the cities, all one need do is quiet their mental voice and the music of Greece is everywhere. The sea sings from Vivaldi to Beethoven. The birds twitter and chirp from boughs or cry and call from above. The wind fiddles in the trees and bows across the valleys. Poetry rings in the sheep bells and church steeples.
Are you touched yet?
I could do this again and again and again without repetition. Have you ever been to Delphi? Have you seen the valley of a million olive trees, nearly a mile below you stretching all the way to the Gulf of Corinth? Have you sat on a carved block that was once a part of a temple to Apollo? Have you followed a donkey path twisting down a mountainside to emerge in a sandy bay facing the myriad blues of the Ionian Sea? Have you had your fill of mousaka, kalamari, horta and red wine and danced to the bouzouki and lyre? Have you slept on the sand and been awed by the limitless star- strewn heavens?
Somewhere in the past year I found an article in which the author cautions women who believe they want to marry a Greek man. Not because their culture will most likely be different than the woman's. Not because the bureaucracy of Greece is a maze of futility and aggravation. Not even because the handsome young man might have the ulterior motive of wishing to end up in the lovely young lady's home country. No, the author's warning is this: You may have fallen in love with Greece, not the man.
What can I say. I do believe I loved my husband. I am grateful for and delighted with our two amazing children. I appreciate the gift of good cooking learned from my mother-in-law, and some of the subtle lessons I gleaned from my stick-in-the-mud father-in-law. My brother-in-law taught me to play tavli and was our constant, expert travel guide when the children and I visited Greece.
I must admit the cultural differences snuck up on us. My husband and I really did have different modus operandi. And although we had always talked of moving back to Greece, when it came down to the nitty-gritty he found he couldn't leave the convenience and predictability of America.
But I, I had to come back. This land claims me. The sea stretching to the arching horizon, or splashing and sparkling on the rocks of a nymph's cove, nearly infinite in color and voice, she calms and opens my mind. The mountains ponderous and achingly beautiful, they speak to me with wisdom and perseverance, they guide me and protect my soul. The olive, she blesses me with food and warmth, shade and kindness and she wins my heart. The suffering fruitful, aromatic earth; I turn her soil to plant, I gather her herbs, greens and flowers, I enjoy the products of the beasts that graze upon her. I tread her with bare feet and she is my body. Above all, shine the sun, the moon and the stars, the lights of this spectacular country, they feed my spirit.
So I live here, in the land of God's retirement.
*It's fun to tell this joke to Greeks. They don't laugh, they nod.
camouflaged by the leaves
learning to fly
the spring wind unable to decide
in which direction to blow
the scent of evening filling the air.
now do you understand?