Greece again (five years later)

My love for Greece started during my first visit there in 1985. Since then I have returned a few times and enjoyed it every single minute. It is easy for me to remember the last time I went to Greece because it was the Summer right before my father died, 2015. This time was a bit different.

My love for Greece is very much in the Romantic vein, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats or Shelley. Maybe even in a philosophical vein like Socrates and Plato, like the Stoics. In Greece you are transported to the origins of our Western civilization, our education, our way of thinking, dare I say, we haven’t even improved that much the concept of Democracy… other than the obvious -although we might even be regressing on that front since it looks like the state of Florida will not allow convicted felons to vote, as if they were not citizens.

The special aspect to this visit was that I arrived by boat! (see previous post). Our first stop was Methoni. This village sits on the farthest South Western corner of the Peloponnese (the mainland) and is therefore a strategic location for anybody passing by. Because of this strategic location, there has been a castle there since Medieval times. During the Venetian expansion they took over the Ionian sea, up to and including Methoni, building or re-building the tower which manages to be strong yet elegant at the same time. Later, the Ottoman Empire took over, and they added their characteristic Byzantine “touch”. Eventually the town and the castle passed hands a few more times as it saw action during the Turkish invasion and World War II. In this fortress in Ottoman times Cervantes was held captive after his participation in the Battle of Lepanto.

Right between the castle walls with its Venetian coat of arms -The winged lion of St. Mark’s- and the beach is the lovely Methoni Beach Hotel, where Efi served us a couple of delicious Gin and Tonics! Since we had swam ashore, we were lucky to find a generous fisherman that gave us a lift to the boat. Even though he was a Barça fan and that he did not like Real Madrid, I am grateful for the lift.

Our next stop was a couple of “fingers” over, the quiet little island of Elafonisos, with a great wild beach at Simos. Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the shore.

The next day we sailed by the amazing Monemvasia, a massive island plateau with a fortified village. It is reminiscent of the Israeli Masada fortress! But our destination was the island of Spetses. We arrived at the lovely cove of Zogeria, with its obligatory chapel and beach restaurant (what in Spain is called a chiringuito). A short motorboat jump away is the main town of Dapia with its old and new harbor. The village sits -like most Greek island villages- on the slope of the hill. Fortunately, only residents can have cars on the island, but still everybody moves around on dusty old scooters and quads with the occasional golf cart or electric runabouts.

Due to the relative proximity to Athens (there are a few high-speed passenger ferries from Piraeus), Spetses is one of the popular getaway islands for Athenians to weekend. Think Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket for Bostonians. This influx of well to do Athenians leads to nice restaurants and shops, with the downside being higher prices and some crowding.

The village is well distributed and has all the requirements of a nice Greek town -and then some:

  • A cute shopping street
  • A grand, old-school hotel: the Poseidonion
  • Great fish restaurants on the harbor
  • Coffee shops
  • Old churches
  • A fantastic bar with the biggest collection of Scotch I have ever seen, and old Rock and Roll!
  • It even has a couple of museums, the Spetses museum which chronicles the history of the town and the small but rich Bouboulina museum. This museum in housed in Bouboulina’s grand 19th C house downtown. She was the first woman ever to have been named Admiral for her continued fight for the independence of Greece. If you are in Spetses it is worth the short visit.

On my last day, my dear friend Matthieu came to lunch on his lovely Boston Whaler motorboat and we went to his house on the mainland village of Tolo. The next day, after a nice dinner by the sea, it was time for me to return to Madrid. Just like that, my short visit was over. But I cannot wait to return to my spiritual home.

Sailing

My stints at sailing have been admittedly few and far between. I loved learning to sail during Summer Camp on Lake Geneva. That feeling of freedom, of you and the wind. After that I remember taking out a Hobbie Cat during my honey-moon, going out on my father in law’s lovely motorboat on Lake Winnipesaukee, and going out on friend’s boats once in a while after that. But when a dear friend invited me to crew his sailing boat from Valencia to a Greek island, I jumped at the opportunity.

The boat

The boat

Spain was still easing out of the Coronavirus quarantine restrictions when I took the train to Valencia. The boat was not ready yet, so I spent a week in Valencia, visiting old friends -even an old student, who I was able to see at her Opera recital!, walking about and helping to get the boat ready for sailing. (See previous post)

Skippering

Skippering

Finally, the boat was ready, Manolo our third man jumped abroad, and we sailed out. The crew was super nice Captain Jose, and Manuel, a good friend of his and a solid sailor, which left me as the lowest on the boat’s hierarchy. But those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for a challenge and always open to learning, specially if it is something as fascinating as sailing.

Full moon during night watch

Full moon during night watch

The boat is a 2006 20 mt German built Hanse that the owner has extensively tricked out. It is a beautiful combination of high-tech and old-world. Each of us gets our own en-suite berth. There is an island kitchen, big, flat screen TV, full bar, etc, etc, etc., oh and super-important: a state-of-the-art Nespresso machine!

Taking a break in Mallorca

Taking a break in Mallorca

We sailed out of Valencia on motor power since there was not enough wind to fill the sails. I was surprised to see Ibiza only a few ours out of Valencia. We sailed on, I got the 1:30 to 4:00 am watch, unexpectedly it passed by in a rush as I explored the gorgeous night sky, meditated, and of course did my watch duties: making sure we didn’t crash with anyone, keeping an eye out for icebergs and making use of that Nespresso machine.

Quiet waters

Quiet waters

I awoke as we approached my beloved and very familiar Mallorca. My heart filled with memories of my youth and family. (See previous posts about Mallorca). I waved bye-bye to my favorite island only to face a rough head wind on the crossing to Sardinia. We were under full sail, but we were slamming 3 mt waves with no prospect of stopping any time soon, so we did a 180 and headed back to the shelter of Mallorca. Our resourceful Captain wisely picked a cove right on the South-East corner of the island so we would be ready to head to Sardinia as soon as the wind changed direction. A little down-time from the buffeting wind was welcome, as was a first swim and a quiet dinner.

On course for the Messina Straight

On course for the Messina Straight

The forecast did not change, so we stayed put another day. We hit the beach on an inflatable kayak which would rip a valve as we arrived on the beach. We stayed for a gorgeous local seafood stew lunch “Caldereta” plus a few cocktails to celebrate Manuel’s 50th birthday. The punctured kayak barely got us back to the boat!

Smoking Mount Etna

Smoking Mount Etna

As beautiful as that cove was, we had to get moving. Instead of risking the continued headwinds on the crossing to Sardinia, we decided to go around the North of Sardinia where the winds were much friendlier.

We had nasty headwinds all the way to Sardinia so before crossing the treacherous -but beautiful north shore we stopped for the night in another gorgeous cove. We arrived too late for a swim, but we did enjoy a nice plate of spaghetti al pesto.

Lighthouse through binoculars

Lighthouse through binoculars

The next day we were running low on fuel, so we stopped to refuel and to rest before the long haul to Sicily. During the way I was allowed to steer for the first time. While re-fueling I managed to run ashore to throw out the trash and to the supermarket where I purchased some overpriced ice, bananas, oranges, and strawberries.

The ice was critical for our sunset chill-out sessions where the crew (not the captain) would enjoy a gin-tonic listening to some nice tunes while enjoying the sunset.

Every sunset is beautiful

Every sunset is beautiful

From there we continued sailing for a couple of days to the narrow straight of Messina that separates mainland Italy from Sicily. Coming out of that channel we were welcomed by a great aft wind that pushed us nicely to Riposto, right under smoking Etna volcano! The nice marina folks allowed us to park for a couple of hours after refueling so we could do some grocery shopping. We passed by the pretty and well-balanced town square with its church and town hall, we did our grocery shopping and still had time for a quick cup of espresso before boarding. I had not been to Italy since 2004, so that brief stop was wonderful, and the cup of coffee one of the best I can remember (see previous post).

The full coffee experience in Sicily

The full coffee experience in Sicily

From there it was a straight shot to Greece, where our first stop was Methoni with its Medieval, then Venetian, then Ottoman, then on and on octagonal tower. My dear friend Miguel de Cervantes was held captive there after being captured after the Battle of Lepanto and before being taken to Algiers where he would spend a total of five years.

The Venetian-Ottoman tower in Methoni

The Venetian-Ottoman tower in Methoni

From there we sailed around the Peloponnese stopping again at the amazing isthmus at Simos beach on Elafonisos. Our final day was an easy sail to the charming island of Spetses.

Isola Molara off the coast of Cerdegna

Isola Molara off the coast of Cerdegna

Although I started this adventure quite worried about my lack of “real” sailing skills, my colleagues were patient and amazing, teaching me everything they could about this beautiful craft and art that is sailing. So by journey’s end I was participating actively on all maneuvers!

The crew

The crew

During my pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago (see previous posts) I have learnt that spending over ten days outdoors in nature naturally resents your mind and soul. This was no different, if anything it was even better as there are fewer distractions on the ocean: just the sound of the wind, the horizon, the stars at night, even dolphins came to swim with us for a while! It was an experience like no other I have ever had, and I hope to do it again soon. Now that it is over, I miss the camaraderie of the boat, the constant reading of the wind, even the night watches!

PS: If you are a sailing aficionado our trip from Valencia to Spetses was about 1300 Nautical miles, about 1500 land miles and about 2400 km…

Summer recap and back to school

Well, it has certainly been a different summer, and I am happy to be back to my boring, monastic Chapel Hill lifestyle. When I was a child summers went on forever, but now they are like the weather in Boston, you blink, and its over.

Madrid was home base for the summer, although this year I rarely got out of the house other than to grab a coffee in the morning and around the block to the gym in the afternoon.

My ten days in Greece were my real break. Caught up with old friends, made new friends and enjoyed my beloved old Greece with its special sunlight, and sea, and food.

We passed July in the country house at La Navata where I spent the mornings on babysitting duty for one, two or all three of my sister’s children. We would walk down to the village to buy bread and the newspaper and to have a coffee – Cola Cao – chocolate milk for the kids. During the afternoons I would work on my dissertation, finishing chapter 3. There were a couple of excursions: one to El Paular Monastery and the nearby hills, and of course a couple of visits to El Escorial with my dear friend Paco.

Another highlight of the Summer was having my sister and her two oldest here in Chapel Hill for a fortnight! We had a blast! (see previous blog post).

And then I had my 50th birthday. Well, at least it was better than my 49th, this time I did not get arrested for speeding. To celebrate, I gave this old blog an upgrade! So now it is http://www.antonioyrocinante.com without ads or Wordpress’ promotions. But I must confess it was difficult to pass my first birthday without my father.

Classes started three weeks ago, so we are back to the grind. I am teaching a section of Spanish 204, Advanced Intermediate, the first non required class. Mostly students that want to major or minor in Spanish. It has 12 great students. The downside? Class is at 8:00 am. My other section is Spanish 300, which is Composition. Of course you can’t have a course where you only write, it is like the guys at the gym that have these explosive upper bodies but Tweety Bird legs, as my cousin Arnold would say, so I have to work on integrating all facets of language development into the class.

Start of school also means that I have to get going on my dissertation again. I am starting the fourth – and last chapter (I still have to write the intro and conclusion). I am very excited, but this also means that I will not have much time to blog.

My other project, as I have mentioned before is getting a job for next year, as this should be my last year at UNC. I hope to defend my dissertation in the Spring. As is normal, I have mixed feelings: Of course I want to finish and see what the next chapter in my narrative holds, but on the other hand I love Chapel Hill and UNC and my friends and colleagues here.

So for now it is over and out from Chapel Hill.

WordPress upgrade

A few days in Madrid

What are the best three reasons for being a teacher? June, July and August. Well that is the joke anyway. The last few years I have spent June in Madrid, doing research, hanging out with friends, walking about, and spending time with my family. This year besides my holidays in Greece, I spent most of my time at home with my dad. I did manage to go out for a quick coffee, to buy bread and the newspaper in the morning, and in the afternoon to the gym – with someone always staying to hang out with my dad.

One evening one of my old students from Buckingham Browne and Nichols was in town, I could not resist sharing my beloved city with him, showing him around, eating tapas at El Espejo and finishing a long evening walk at my favorite bar, Del Diego.

So I did not have a very social month, basically just working on my dissertation and hanging out and doing home stuff. Still, it was very enriching for lack of a better word. Once my father passed we came to La Navata, to the country house.

Revisiting Cavafy

my old Cavafy

my old Cavafy

Sad and melancholic after returning from Greece, I found my old Cavafy book and I am re-visiting it!

My brother Theo introduced me to Constantine Cavafy years ago – through his poem Ithaka (which I posted on this blog on August 19, 2011). Now as I reread poems I discover new beauty in his words. The poem which has struck me the most during this re-reading has been God Abandons Antony or God Forsakes Antony, published in 1911. The story is of a defeated Marc Anthony in Alexandria (which centuries later would be home to Cavafy). After being moved by its elegance I remarked on the importance of the story of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Of our fascination with that love story, with ancient Egypt, with the Roman Empire, and so on, so I started thinking of my favorite connections to this story…

The first one that came to mind where the lyrics from one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs: Blinded by Love, when Mick Jagger sings:

The queen of the Nile

She laid on her throne

And she was drifting downstream

On a barge that was burnished with gold

Royal purple the sails

So sweetly perfumed

And poor Mark Antony’s

Senses were drowned

And his future was doomed

He was blinded by love

Of course Cavafy’s poem is born from Plutarch’s telling of the story. Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen used the poem for one of his songs, but changed Alexandria, the city, to Alexandra, a woman. Of course there is Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra born from a translation of Plutarch, there is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and so on and so forth, but for now I leave you with Cavafy in his own translation:

If unexpectedly, in middle night,

an unseen company be heard to pass,

with music and with voices exquisite, —

turn not away and uselessly lament

your fortune that is giving in, your work

that came to nothing, the projects of your life

that proved illusory from first to last.

As one prepared long since, as fits the brave,

bid now farewell to the departing city,

farewell to the Alexandria you love.

And above all, do not deceive yourself:

say not that your impression was a dream,

that, it may be, your hearing played you false:

to futile hopes like these never descend.

As one prepared long since, as fits the brave,

as most fits you who gained so great a city,

approach the open window steadily,

and with emotion, but without the plaints

and supplications of the timorous,

listen — knowing it to be your last delight —

listen to the elysian sounds, the exquisite

instruments of the mystic company;

and bid farewell to the city you are losing,

farewell to the Alexandria you love.

My beloved Greece

What does one do when one of your most dear friends from university invites you to his housewarming party in a Greek seaside village? You tell them you are too busy working on your dissertation, that you have family obligations and that your graduate student budget does not allow for adventures in Greece. What does one do when he insists and ends up sacrificing his last frequent flier miles to get one’s sorry ass over in business class? You humbly and eagerly accept and pack some serious sun protection.

This is exactly what happened to me this summer (except the sun protection bit). My dear friend Matthew, who has been patient enough with me to be a groomsman at my two weddings and who came to visit me in Madrid last summer did just that.

I had not been to my beloved Greece since the mid-nineties, so going back – and for such an event was very especial. Mark Miller, the third musketeer, came in from New York on the same day as me, and Matthew drove us a couple of hours to his house in the lovely village of Toló, near the old Greek capital of Nafplio, on the Peloponnese mainland.

The house is more of a compound, high on a hill overlooking the sweet village of Toló, the sea and the beautiful islands. It includes Irina’s 8 Cooking Hats Cooking School and the house. When we arrived, construction crews were working frantically to finish all the last-minute details, and they would continue for the next two days before the grand opening party (but not before I befriended the construction guys – soccer is the key here – and they let me sign my name on some wet cement!)

The cooking school building has a bunch of guest rooms. Mark and I settled into the gym / Pilates / Zumba room and also temporary storage and staging area for all pre-party supplies: liquor and wine, fireworks, furniture, and random nick knacks. Not to mention two queen sized pull down beds and our own bathroom.

The first two days I must confess where hectic: Helping Matthew and Irina prepare everything for the party: peeling pistachios, making big paper flower pompoms – and hanging them up, shopping for enough supplies to feed a hungry Roman Legion, chopping and prepping all sorts of food with Alex (who would become a dear friend, my little grasshopper), Susanna and George, buying and transporting enough alcohol to fuel a year of parties in Ibiza, helping the DJs set up speakers and cables, organizing. Lots of organizing and cleaning. Lots of cleaning. Unfortunately Mark was suffering from acute chronic jet lag so he seemed to spend the first days just eating and sleeping. But he is such a fantastic sport that he took all our joking on the subject in stride.

For me, preparations for the party continued until even after the first few guests arrived, with just time for a quick shave and shower before helping to pass around mountains of food. Once the party started I could finally enjoy a gin and tonic, a cigar, and dancing. Lots of dancing.

Matthew’s wife Irina learnt about Toló from Nelly, a classmate at hotel and culinary school in Switzerland. Nelly owns an adorable boutique hotel on the beach with her brother Manolis where Matthew and I would stop in between chores (remember, Mark was mostly sleeping) for a coffee, or frappé. Petros, Nelly and Manoli’s dad who adores Matthew, would insist on cooking us some eggs. It will be hard for you to find a nicer family than the Vlachakis.

Irina is a popular food blogger in the Russian Interweb, so we received plenty of Russian food bloggers and friends (picking them up and shuttling guests around was another fun chore!). We were also lucky that Alfonso, another of our dear friends from university was in the area with his sailing boat: the beautiful, sleek, state of the art Athina, so he also came, bringing with him his friend Alessio, a true Italian bohemian, ex actor, world traveler and master storyteller and his captain José.

All in all Irina and Matthew gathered an awesome group of beautiful, high energy people. The days after the party we went on excursions to the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus, to George Skouras’ vineyard and winery, to the town and castle of Nafplio, even on a boat cruise to a remote island, with its obligatory Greek Orthodox chapel on top – where coincidentally the aforementioned Nelly was baptized. Neither my hack writing, nor my hack photos can do justice to the time we had.

For me, to use a Greek word, my visit to Greece was cathartic. It had been about twenty years since I had been to Greece and I have such fond memories that I can now add to. This summer also marks the fifth anniversary of my full catastrophe (to use Zorba’s expression), so having ten days of fairly carefree sun and sunshine was a welcome relief.

Besides meeting a bunch of phenomenal people, I managed to go to church the morning after the party (getting up was a bit rough) for a beautiful Greek Orthodox service, eat lots and lots of delicious Greek food, spent the day sailing on Alfonso’s boat from Toló to Spetses (returning on his speedboat), visiting with friends and basically forgetting all my responsibilities for ten days.

It is at times like these, when you relax, let your defenses down, that life comes creeping back in, you can joke, laugh, feel, allow yourself to love and appreciate friends and allow yourself to be loved and appreciated by friends.