Athens is a place that almost doesn’t seem real, like the lost city of Atlantis or Mount Olympus’s home of the gods. Its reputation as a mecca in the Western political, social, cultural, and spiritual ethos makes it seem from another dimension. It is transcended by myth in the minds of all who read about it. It’s inseparable from its significance and impact on the rest of the world. And it’s been a personal inspiration for me, having grown up reading about its history, and its myths having flamed the imaginations of my youth.
I remember waking up the morning of our Athens voyage in a subliminal headspace, like awaiting to meet a king from some holy land beyond imagining, or to see your favorite book’s pages manifest into real life. The morning air was bright and crisp. Not much could be seen from the port, just a collection of rolling islands dotted with white buildings and the twisted steel of industrial machinations making up the hustle and bustle of the busy shipping port. The inland hills blocked the view of the rest of the city. It felt like such a tease, my anticipation in the harbor was boiling over at this point as I could only catch a hint of the city even from the top of the ship. After what seemed like an eternity, our bus slowly pulled out from the port and we were on our way. The bus ride through the downtown sections of the city near the water had us crammed into tight streets with heavy traffic as we passed by coffee shops, graffiti, and the typical urban sprawl you would expect from a densely populated city. It felt claustrophobic, dusty, and entrancing all at the same time. We were flowing through the veins of hallowed ground. The lights, colors, sounds, and smells of the city all culminated in a melting pot of curious splendor. In the distance, in the shadowy spaces between the buildings, I could make out the arid hilltops and dramatic mountains of the surrounding area lit up by the morning sun.
The buildings slowly gave way to rolling hills as we drove south along the coastal roads outside of Athens. I remember being quite shocked at the dry landscape. I had not researched the actual climate of Athens so I did not know that the surrounding climate was quite arid and craggy. Rocky outcrops bubbled up from the hillsides, the textured stone gleaming pale and bright in the sunlight before plunging into the sea as cliff faces. The hills were peppered with colorful shrubbery and patches of grass. Against the backdrop of layered beige stone, the shrubbery almost had the effect of a chiseled beard on the face of some ancient sculpture.
Turning towards the waterside, the same effect could be seen on the patches of islands we passed. Arid, rocky, yet colorful and stunning, these islands seemed to burst forth from the sea in dynamic fashion, almost like leviathans breaching for a moment from their dark abyss, frozen in time once exposed to the sun. Passing the sandy beaches that overlooked these behemoths among the deep blue of the Mediterranean, I was saddened at the lack of time we had to actually sit down and breathe in this landscape with patience and consideration. All of this was a blur as our bus moved ever onwards, towards our southern destination at the edge of a high cliff, the Temple of Poseidon.
The Temple of Poseidon is perched atop a steep, craggy cliff with a spectacular panoramic view of the sea, and the surrounding islands and mountains. Its 2,500-year-old remnants consist of stone steps leading to an elevated foundation that still hold rows of striated, Doric columns that beam with pride and authority in the midday sun. Even though the temple is largely missing, the columns that remain carry enough beauty, significance, and power about them to cast a shadow on even the most breath-taking views of the surrounding area.
The columns were striking, permeating with the scent of an old, forgotten world. They seemed other-worldly and transcendent, jutting up like the ribcage from some fossilized ancient giant that you’ve only read about in myth. The energy in this space was enrapturing, pulling me up towards the heavens. Even among the winds and waves and the visual loudness and turbulence of the environment, the temple commanded a stillness amongst it all. It felt like a sort of silent purgatory, like standing at a gateway between our familiar world and that world which is ineffable and holy beyond all human comprehension.
I could talk about the historical and cultural significance of this place, but that seems a shallow and incomplete interpretation of its true essence. This temple carried a presence that was beyond even the profundity of myth and history, beyond beauty and power. It held me in a place beyond even space and time itself, beckoning me from a place I could neither perceive nor understand. It was a channel, a gateway into something inexpressible, into something…..other. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what exactly that is or what that means. Its essence is ultimately nameless, unutterable, and unknowable. I don’t know how else to describe the experience other than it felt like straddling the edge of eternity and I was lost in it. And I will leave it at that.
Once the façade of the ethereal faded and I was ground back to reality, we scampered onto the bus and headed back north towards Athens, but stopping first at a small, cozy village nestled up against the sea. There we walked down the narrow streets a way before stopping at a local restaurant for lunch. My wife and I sat in an inside corner table along with a gentleman from Spain, who did not speak much English. There were pitchers of wine readily available for ample and repeated pours, which we no doubt partook in. The servers would bring a plate (or several plates) of food at a time about every five minutes. The plates, like stones of a mosaic, filled out the portrait of the table, slowly creating an ever-expanding composition of appetizing colors and smells. Before us was an intimidating amount of various grilled meats, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cabbage, yogurt, fries, olives, and other things that I could not identify but ate with an enchanted fervor regardless.
The Spanish gentleman across from us gave an exuberant expression with each new plate that was added. He delighted in passing the plates around and sharing, uttering one-word sentences in what English he knew in attempts to communicate. He picked up on “marriage” and “honeymoon” from my wife and I and insisted afterwards that I eat hearty amounts of meat, pointing to his and my groin areas and uttering “help…function”. We laughed as we attempted to have half-formed conversations using gestures, groans, grunts, and hand and facial expressions to convey our emotion and experience. I was surprised at what all was able to be communicated despite not speaking the same language.
Nonverbal language can be quite effective, but the real common tongue is that of breaking break together. Food and communion are the great binder and equalizer. I found that the connection with food and the holy union of sitting and breaking bread with another transcends even the tallest of language barriers. Between the hearty plates of food and forks and flowing drinks and laughter, there is a bond that is formed. There is an immediate intimacy in eating and drinking together. It’s not just that it’s a basic need that’s being met. It’s at its heart, liturgy and theater. It’s a sacred ritual of nourishment and connection. The table is a stage, the plates and glasses and arranged foods are all set pieces, playing their roles, bound in an almost militaristic fashion to their function, character, and place.
All of this sets up for the grand act, a transmutation of energy from one life force to another. Its performance reflects that of any creation or destruction tale. It has the dramatic violence of stabbing, biting, and tearing at flesh and bulb, and at root and stem. The rhythmic mastication that follows is like a chant setting the cadence of this sacred dance. It’s destruction that leads to creation. It’s a conjuration of the celestial, drawing respect to the sacrifice of a life force, a life force that enters us, fuses with us, becomes us, and carries our actions, words, and intent into the depths of eternity. It’s the channeling and flowing of an unnamable force that guides all of life, and passes on the torch of breath. To break bread with another is to not only to share in this sacred knowledge, but to perform it, and to fuse with the divine itself. It is to face the fragility of our own flesh and bone. It is to honor our survival. It is to face our impermanence and our mortality and to be intentional about hurling our words, our actions, and our truth into the void nonetheless It is to hope that our light will illuminate the dark for the precious time we are here, feasting together.