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Literature

A Writer’s Fabled Odyssey to Ithaca

June 14, 2019

Pico Iyer, born in England to Indian parents, has traveled much of the world and written about it for many publications as a man so spiritual he’s known as the 14th Dalai Lama, who lives in Japan but regales about many cultures: Greece may be his favorite, a place he’s visited over more than 50 years and where he said he’s charmed by people and a culture not in a hurry.

Fittingly then, for such a noted Hellenophile, he made the Odyssey of the Odysseus of Greek myth, this time from Athens to Ithaca, the island home of the fabled hero who took so long to return from the Trojan War his wife Penelope didn’t recognize him and Iyer joked that the journey may have been set back because the ferryboat was delayed.

In a travel feature for the New York Times, Iyer wrote that the trip from Greece’s capital to the oft-overlooked Ithaca, or Ithaki, was worth it once you get there because it’s not Santorini or Mykonos or a Greek island overrun with tourists like ants on a hill.

That last visit came in mid-September, when he was told the island’s bus may or may not be running because, as he noted, nobody in Greece seems in a hurry to get anywhere anyway, one of the reasons it’s so irresistible to writers and many others.

“I decided, therefore, to rent a car, and as I steered along the precipitous, one-lane road that soon placed me high above the sea, a sheer drop before me – no guardrail quite often – I was shocked, again and again, by the heart-clenching beauty of the place,” he wrote.

Travelers, especially writers, can afford the gift of time to get from one end of Greece, Athens on the east, to off the western coast where Ithaca is, languorous luxury in a hurried world of gigabytes and instagram gratification, where so many selfies are selfishies, and Ithaca seems the perfect end, as it was for Odysseus.

“All in a landscape where the deep blue sea surrounds you on every side, and the indigo and scarlet and orange flowerpots are bright with geraniums and begonias. It’s not just that you feel the presence of a rural past everywhere in Greece; it’s that, amid this elemental landscape of rock and cobalt sky and whitewashed church, you step out of the calendar altogether and into the realm of allegory,” wrote Pyer – before he landed on the island.

There was no remainder of Odysseus’ palace, just a couple of huts on a barren hill, time taking away everything except the legacy of the myth but leaving undisturbed the natural beauty of the island that still beckons like a siren call for those seeking serenity and escape.

Pyer said he found in the small village of Stavros a set of display boards featuring an essay titled Ithaca: Conceptual Place, and that, along with olive trees and blue-green coves of the sea far below, it was put this way about Ithaca.

“The past nor the present exist. The present is not what one would consider contemporary, but it is situated in a limbo. A reality that would choose to be up-to-date but is unable to be so.” Noting that nobody really knows what existed here or didn’t, the author went on, “On the island, there is Nothing! … Nothing …”

Pyer said he brought with him the Dom DeLillo 1982 novel The Names, set primarily in Greece and which he was reading for a third time and found it was tied to what he was seeing in the country and on the island, recognizing that, “I was chilled once more by a sense that Greece represents something distant and strong in our collective memory.”

A character described how the wildness of Greece can overwhelm modern-day sensibilities, like hearing echoes from the past of ancient Greeks who trod the same lands, sat in the shade under olive trees to eat, cooled themselves in the seas without the noises of civilization.

Pyer said the novel was a critical part of his past and understanding of Greece, as he traveled the country extensively the summer the book was published. “It was a pivotal moment in my life; I’d just turned 25, and I was leaving grad school at last to get a job in Manhattan. As I prepared for adulthood, I woke up before dawn most mornings in a no-star hotel, went out to catch the first bus and rode along the coast to the next small town to look in on its sights and facilities before heading off the next day. I’ve seldom known a more dreamy and contemplative time,” he said.

At the end of that trip, he said his girlfriend of six years came over to Ithaca from Boston to join him – and to say goodbye. “We spent our days on the island of Odysseus’ homecoming preparing for a separation. After a long evening at a taverna, under colored lights and grape leaves, she descended into a boat with a new friend while I trudged back to our small hotel alone.”

He said little has changed on Ithaca in 37 years apart from some yacht owners discovering the port of Vathy’s little main town and some boutique hotels and swimming pools.

“But the Circean rhythms and mythical features were no different from before. I went into a market to buy peaches and chocolate and juice for a quiet dinner in my room one evening and the bill came to the equivalent of $2.30, as if I were back in my grandfather’s time.”

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