Ancient Greek deities are a very different bunch from the ideas we have grown accustomed to here in the west. They get down and dirty. Also they love to shape change. Zeus had a habit of ravishing people as all sorts of different strange horny beasts. Often in the Odyssey, Athena takes the form of just some bloke, in order to subtly guide events. In some ways it’s reminiscent of the thing that’s thought of as demonic possession in Christian doctrine. Although not to be feared – to be welcomed. Usually you don’t work out that the person you met is a God until after they’ve helped you out.
I was expecting my arrival in Ithaca to have been somehow dramatic, or momentous. In keeping with book 13 of the Odyssey, it caught me unaware. Having been in the sun on deck for much of the voyage, I was sitting in the belly of the ferry dreaming into this laptop, and suddenly someone shouted “Ithaca?” to me. I looked out the window and there it was.
Out of the ferry, I took stock of where I had been disgorged. Hills everywhere. Scrub and olive trees clinging to the sides. Not a building to be seen, and a winding dirt road tracking up the hill. I travel light, and thanking my lucky stars for that I started up the track. Turning to watch the ferry crawl back to the wine dark sea, and taking this photo
a woman came up the track past me – a straggler from the ferry. “Is it far to Vathi?” I asked her – mainly by way of psyching myself up for that usual epic walk that occurs when you arrive somewhere new and don’t take taxis. “Yes, it is far. Too far to walk. Would you like a lift?” Thanking her we walk to her nearby car and she opens the boot for my bag. On the back seat I see a pile of dog-eared printed pages. They are covered in Greek writing, but taking a very familiar form. Some of it is highlighted in orange. It's such a familiar sight to me, that I almost overlook how out of place it is. She’s an actor. And there I was thinking there are too many in London – you go to a remote island in the Ionian sea, bang – first person you meet is one. The world's bursting with the fuckers.
It is indeed a long drive to Vathi – about an hour and a half on foot I expect. “Are you an actor?” I ask, with a gesture to the scripts. She is upbeat – “Yes – we have a play, here, only amateur, three nights starting Friday.” Dammit – I will be gone by Friday. “Can I watch the dress rehearsal?” “Yes of course. You won’t understand a thing.” “I don’t care.”
She drops me at her friend’s apartments – a little out of the centre of town, and high up with the most stunning view of the bay. By the time we’re there she knows that I’m on a tight budget. I’m relying on fellow feeling here. I get the apartment for an excellent rate. They have all I need – a balcony where I am sitting typing in the dying rays of the sun, a fridge, a hotplate and a little oven.
It only occurs to me afterwards that this sort of thing probably happens all the time in Greece. The right person at the right time. And the whole thing about Gods popping up as ordinary people to direct everyday events makes more sense. In England we are usually so unwilling to engage with strangers that these moments of goodness pass us by. “Is it far to Vathi?” “yes – it’s about 3 miles – you go all the way to the top of the hill, left at the crossroads and then round the mountain pass and up and down a load of hills with your bags.” “Thanks.” “No trouble.” A very different experience – and that’s if you’re lucky. “Is it far to Vathi? … Excuse me – is it far to Vathi? … Hello? Madam? ... Only I’ve never been here before and … never mind.”