In June of my high school senior year, we fourth-year Latin students prepared for our end-of-term celebration. Ms. J., our teacher, announced we were going to have a Roman banquet. In addition to the little speeches we were to give in Latin, Ms. J. would perform an oration as a character named Marcellus.
On the appointed day, we arrived in class with ‘togas’ draped over our street clothes and began the celebration by toasting Marcellus with paper cups of grape juice. All conversation proceeded in our rudimentary Latin; we even attempted to pull off some corny ancient Roman jokes.
The greatest source of mirth, however, was not our lame attempts at humor but our Latin teacher. She had let her hair down, literally, and swathed in a bed sheet dyed orange, she gave a pseudo-tipsy oration.
The lessons, culminating in this experience, planted a little spark of curiosity about ancient Greece and Rome that has glowed like an ember in my psyche for decades and now it has kindled anew. Although I accumulated over the years an eclectic but imperfect acquaintance with the literary classics of those cultures—Homer’s epics; Dante’s Divina Commedia (referencing Virgil); a novel about Circe, featured in Homer’s Odyssey, and one concerning Lavinia, wife of Aeneas the mythical founder of Rome; Mary Renault’s narratives based on the Minoan culture of Crete; and many books on Greek and Roman mythology—but when I recently re-read Robert Fagles’ outstanding, compelling, and lively translation of the Odyssey, I wondered if a stay in the country of its origin would enhance all I’d learned so far about Greece. Thinking about the land’s artists and philosophers, its literature and bloody conflicts, and its influence on our contemporary Western culture, I decided I should see it for myself some day.
To equip myself for a future visit to Greece, I read the Odyssey again, this third time in the form of Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel entitled The Odyssey: Based on Homer’s Poem. Hinds’ masterful story-telling artwork communicates the epic with wit; beauty; the rough and raw setting of the ancient Peloponnesus and island of Ithaca; and a deep understanding of the epic’s power.
What next? I searched for books that would sum up the Greek world of antiquity and also detail the ways contemporary Western civilization has responded to it. Charlotte Higgins’ It’s All Greek to Me met my criteria. With straight-forward, clear, but not simplistic narrative and illustrations, Higgins conveys the heart of ancient Greek culture. An enthusiast of Homer’s work, her introduction and first chapter (“The alpha and omega: Why a life without Homer is a life half-lived,”) drew me in. Higgins says Homer’s work is the fountainhead of European thought. For nearly 2700 years people have been responding to the Iliad and the Odyssey in poetry and stories, theater and film, visual arts, and as ever in academe. Why?
Higgins ‘s short (193 pages plus appendices) but meaty and distilled story of Greek antiquity answers that question by providing insights into its politics, views on death and the afterlife, democracy’s original definition and application, misogyny and the women who defied it, war, science, and philosophy. It inspired me to read translations of Plato’s ‘Death of Socrates’ (the Phaedo and Crito) and other philosophical dialogues. The text is witty and down-to-earth, the sort of writing that makes one wish to meet and have long conversations with the author.
Higgins’ work also led me in a browser search to a different version of “It’s Greek to Me,” the title of Andrea Granahan’s memoir of the two years she, her husband David, and their two very young children lived in Greece in the 1960’s. David was finishing up his MFA in sculpture and Greece seemed to be an ideal place to work on his projects. The free use of his friend’s house in Vourvoura, a mountain village in the Peloponnesus helped them decide to undertake the journey.
In the 1960’s, the U.S. dollar was strong. One could ‘do’ Europe on $5.00 dollars a day. Nevertheless, Andrea and David were on a tight budget. Pursuing their own odyssey, they traveled across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on a freighter and arriving in Vourvoura, found their house, like the village, had no indoor plumbing or electricity. The couple was plucky and their year taught them about their Greek neighbors’ simple life and the value of community.
In Andrea and David’s second year abroad, they set up home on Paros, one of the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea. As in Vourvoura, they lived as simply as their neighbors: they ate the same local and unprocessed foods; they learned to speak passable Greek (which led to many beloved friendships); and they enjoyed local religious and festive occasions. They also shared their neighbors’ grief and joy, work, and relaxation.
Their stay in Greece had to end. Family and opportunities in the U.S. required them to leave a Greece they had not anticipated but grew to love. As Andrea wrote toward the end of her book, “The way the old [e.g. customs, architecture, farming methods] mingled with the new without a break had given rise to that precious sense of ‘time out of mind’ we had both discovered here.”
In high school, I was playing at being a Roman, but the language of that ancient land persists and informs not only Romance languages like Italian, French, Romanian, Portuguese, and Spanish, but also English. What the Romans created in their time still resonates in the twenty-first century. That can also be said for the Greeks. At the moment, I’m learning to parse the Greek alpha beta online, and I hope that one day I will talk and walk in the footsteps of the ancients—if only to say kali mera, good morning—and gain a stronger sense of their reality and the way it has become ‘Greek to us.’