Greece: A Memoir; Part 4: Delphi (1976)

Back in Athens I stayed just one night and then was on the move again.  This time I hitchhiked through the hills to the northwest to Delphi, site of the ancient oracle.  It was a long, hot trip, and I remember at one point passing a crossroads in an unusual sudden intense downpour.  Right at the intersection of small hill roads leading in various directions was a concrete bus stand, and I had a sudden urge to get off there, strip down to bare skin, wait until all traffic passed, and frolic in the rain, thus accomplishing two things:  first, washing the filth and sweat off my body, and second, washing my spirit as I did a Zorba-dance of life.  Common sense overcame impulse though, and I continued with the trucker with whom I’d found a ride.  I was practical enough to realize that I might stand in that isolated spot for many hours before another generous driver stopped, and it was late afternoon already and I didn’t want to get caught in the pitch dark of the countryside.

Another fit, this time of tension and dislocation, hit me when I got to Delphi.  The town was perched on a steep green hillside and there was only one main street; it was loaded with trappings of tourism like garish restaurants with foreign food like hamburgers and pizza mixed with the traditional Greek cuisine, travel agencies, and souvenir shops.  It was also, compared with other places I had been, mobbed with tourists of every size, shape, and fiscal condition, toting day-packs and cameras and maps and all sorts of other tourist do-dads.  I was so put off by the sight that I decided to pass right through without stopping, to keep going with the trucker, who was heading for the ferry crossing to Patra in the Peloponesse.  As the driver was heading down the steep switchback on the other side of town, though, I reconsidered.  Tourist swarm notwithstanding, the village was in a beautiful location.  The hills were so emerald green they seemed to glow, as did the wildflowers with gemlike radiance.  It was a very famous location to which I might not have opportunity to return.  And there was one other thing:  another traveler had told me that Delphi was renowned for being the abode of good dreams, that if you slept out in the open on the hillside you would surely have one.  This rumor I wanted to test.  So, I had the amiable trucker drop me off, and lo and behold, no sooner had I jumped off the truck than another trucker picked me up and brought me back up the hill.  It was the fastest ride I had ever had in Greece, and I took it as a sign.

Then I found out the bad news:  Delphi was expensive.  I can’t blame the locals for cashing in on all the invaders, but the meals were out of my price range.  I wandered into a restaurant at random, probably thinking to order a small soup so I could fill up on the free bread.  It was between mealtimes and the place was almost deserted, so the owner, a young man with an obvious limp, came up and chatted with me.  He told me that if I would help him serve tables in the evening he would stake me to a real meal, not just soup but full-course with all the trimmings.  Not really thinking about what it would involve, I agreed.  He brought out plate after plate of food, and retsina to wash it all down.  We chatted for a long time until the sun set and tourists began to arrive for dinner.  Soon the place was full, and the owner was rushing around taking orders.  I, on the other hand, had forgotten about our bargain, sitting as I was in a rosy retsina glow;  he came over, sweating and harried, to remind me.  Dutifully I got up and grabbed some plates and took them to a table; then I realized what I had gotten myself in for.  The customers were a group of European tourists, young people like myself, and they treated me with distain, as a servant, as an inferior.  I hadn’t been prepared for that.  Obviously I should have thought the situation through before I agreed, but the prospect of a good filling meal had got the better of my judgment.  Now, faced with the prospect of an entire evening being treated like shit by fellow travelers, I reneged on my promise, apologized to the restaurant owner, grabbed my bag, and walked out.  In retrospect it was a lousy thing to do; I had give my word, after all, and had even accepted payment in advance.  But something came over me and I just couldn’t handle the situation.

By this time night had fallen.  The streetlamps were dim, but the lights from the shops, restaurants, hotels, and so on filled the main road with a kaleidoscope of color.  Most of the mob had retired to their meals or other forms of entertainment so the street was curiously deserted.

I chose a path between buildings and headed down the hill.  After the one row of commercial establishments there was open countryside.  I walked out onto the tall grass of the hillside, and when I felt I was far enough from the noise and bustle I spread out my sleeping bag.

A spray of brilliant stars shone overhead.  I watched them for a long time, then took off my contact lenses and went to sleep.

I don’t know what I dreamed, but yes, I did have wonderful dreams.  I was convinced that the dream legend was true.  I awoke refreshed, inspired, invigorated.  I was ready once again to face the world and whatever it threw at me.

Back up on the main road, the restaurants and most other establishments were still closed.  I walked to the edge of town, stuck out my thumb, and caught a ride onwards.

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