Last night there was a spectacular thunder storm. From my experience, only Greece can put on such a thrilling lightning display. There is little wonder why the ancients placed the god of lightning at the top of their pantheon. Once last Autumn during an evening dinner party in northern Euboia, where I live when I am not in Athens, there was a thunder and lightning storm of such intensity that one of the lady guests was forced to cover her eyes with her fingers and stick her thumbs in her ears. Another lady, a special friend, had quite the opposite reaction. The Aladdin lamps had all blown out from the ferocity of the wind, and in the dazzling brilliance of the lightning flashes, coming one after the other in rapid breathless succession, I could see her face, the years wiped away, eyes wide and alive, a hint of smile on her open mouth, each flash driving a wave of pleasure down her arched back and through her whole body. Aphrodite born, the power of Zeus enticing her motherless out of the sea foam.
Across the street from the ruined Temple of Olympian Zeus stands an imposing concrete Best Western Hotel, where I stayed when I first came to Athens, what seems so long ago to me now. A travel agent in London had booked the room for me—she thought it better not to stay in a hostel the first night in a new city. Her commission was no doubt flashing behind her eyes as she said it, but it was probably all for the better, as I’ve subsequently heard that the Athenian hostels also pass for homeless shelters. My plane arrived before sunrise that morning, so when I got to the hotel, with surprisingly little difficulty, it was too early to check in. I left my pack in the lobby and went exploring. Turning off the main street, the torturous Andrea Singrou that goes to the sea, I wandered the side streets, where I soon encountered a lovely little church. A man was on the steps, who struck up a conversation with me after I had ducked inside for a minute or two. He is my first real Greek, I thought, and happily accepted his offer to take me to his pub, as he called it, where I supposed I’d join someone named Zorba in a couple rounds of ouzo. The pub turned out to be a dark tiny bar, where two older women hustled stooges like me, the bill for their overpriced drinks extorted by a muscleman who was probably half-Turk. That was my first experience of Greece, those were my first real Greeks. I left a hundred dollars poorer.
There have been worse first experiences of Athens. A dear friend was even younger than I when he first arrived on a crisp winter’s day, without a place to stay or really any idea where he was. A nice well-dressed gentleman approached him and said, ‘Oh, you can stay in my place,’ and my friend, God bless him, agreed. When they got to his well-apportioned flat, there was a suspicious click of the front door lock, followed by a lovely dinner with lots of drink, the gentleman fondly describing how he too likes this movie or that, how he finds Ella enchanting as well—physically like-minded to all my friend’s tastes and dislikes, with a little press of the shoulder here and a little ‘I’d like to kiss you’ there, until the gentleman went to the toilet and so gave my friend a chance to escape. Luckily he had seen where the key had been put.
The Mediterranean is dark like that, dark and calm and often wine-red. Its stillness is at first unnerving to a Californian, only familiar with the restless crashing Pacific. One can swim in the Mediterranean, really swim. But in summer its stillness makes it tepid, like a bathtub, no relief from the heat.