I remember waiting for our luggage at the old Athens International airport. I was 16 years old. I waited with pride for my framed rucksack to come onto the roundabout. Secretly I was hoping I could join the hippies hitchhiking around the islands, but I think the rucksack was enough to raise concern for my father. If I did try join the wandering dope smoking free love group I would have been grounded very quickly.
So instead of spending my Greek summer holiday on some beautiful and idyllic island I spent it in a mountain village in Arcadia. As usual, as I did every year.
This year I wanted to explore. Exploring was a difficult concept for Greeks, considering their heritage of ancient expansion and marauding, chasing after each other’s wives and destroying cities in the process.
First I walked around the valley in a day. From Kakouri to Simiades to Kapsas to the intersections with the main road, then back through Ancient Mantinea past Ta Xania and through Pikerni home. Each village was smaller than ours, and of course, Mantinea was in ruins. Each cafeneio had old men sitting on wicker chairs at small tables nursing a coffee when I passed in the morning and a drink in the evening. I greeted some, but others really looked through me like I was a xenos; a stranger. Strange at that.
A few days later I left for the top of the mountain behind the village. I packed food and water and left early in the morning before the 35 degree heat would melt me away. Most people in the village on the way to the fields knew me and greeted me, but turned around as they passed to inspect my blue nylon framed rucksack. At the edge of the village I skirted a dry river bed and passed a bloated dead donkey amidst the rubbish dumped by the villages in the days when there was no municipal collection. From the river I chose one of the paths through the pournari, a kind of bushy oak with leaves like holly that tear at your skin and clothes. I started the ascent, gentle at first, then steeper and finally almost a cliff, before reaching a small plateau just below the peak.
Here was a small white church, the reason I had climbed: Analipsi, the Ascension. It was rectangular and low and had a low bent wire fence around it. I rested in the shade and lay out my sleeping bag next to the south wall ready for the evening. I had a small gas cooker and cooked some rice and canned meat. I lay down to sleep in the quiet darkness. I was nervous, because all the villagers wanted to know why I wanted to climb in the first place, and in the second place, why I wanted to sleep there.
I did not know either.
The next morning I was awake when in the soft light of the mountain sun I saw and heard a couple with a donkey approaching the church. They knew who I was, and by the time I returned home and had a garden shower, the whole village would know that I slept on Analipsi.
I slept there because it was cooler than in the village and you can smell wild rosemary and oregano even without stepping on the leaves to release the aromatic oils.
The couple came to collect mountain tea. I forgot to take some back.