Mopeds, lions, and squeezes on a Greek isle

This was given as a "chapel" talk to the high school on Jan 11, 1999.

Mopeds, lions, and squeezes on a Greek isle

It’s a strange coincidence that Dr. Crain spoke last Friday about escape. The weather over the past 10 days is starting to get to me. I don’t mind the cold, but with all of the snow I haven’t had much chance to go out running and I’m starting to get cabin fever. So, to counter that feeling, for me at least, I’m going escape by telling you a yarn set in sunny, hot, and dry weather. Even though we’re just starting the new year, this story has nothing to do with resolutions or goal setting. In fact, it has virtually no moral or message at all.

As some of you know, in the mid-80’s I worked at a school in Athens, Greece. Just a few weeks before we left Athens to come here to Fort Wayne, an old friend of my from grad school arrived in Athens. Now, my friend Gary was and is a curious character. He is an ancient history professor at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and if you were drawing a cartoon of an ancient history professor, you might well draw Gary - tall and skinny, thick glasses, and this wild bushy mop of hair out to here. He’s naturally friendly, and he has this disarming way of asking even total strangers extremely personally questions without causing offence.

Well, Gary had this idea that he wanted to visit some of the nearby islands in the Aegean sea. His dissertation had studied the economic history of the Aegean in the 4th century BC mainly through the records of hog prices, and now he wanted to visit some of the places involved.

Gary's first choice was the island of Kea. Kea is the first of a string of small islands that stretch southeast from Attica like stepping stones. It’s about 15 miles long, shaped like a quotation mark, and about 15 miles (or a 1½ hour ferry boat ride) from the mainland. Apparently it was a prosperous place in antiquity, and the birthplace of the poets Simonides and Bachylides. But these days it’s pretty quiet. As one guidebook puts it – “Kéa is the island of choice for vacationing Athenians. Don’t expect to meet many foreigners; there are very few, most of them preferring to visit other islands.”

Well, Gary had heard there was a hotel in the main town in the center of the island, Ioulis, and someone had told him you could rent mopeds in the port town, Korissia, and your could ride around the island and visit the sites of the ancient cities. Gary invited me and my wife to go along. My wife is usually much wiser than I am in such matters, so she immediately said no. I was up for the adventure so on Friday morning I met him at the downtown Athens bus depot. Gary’s idea was that we would take a bus to Sounion, the southern tip of Attica, from there catch a ferry to Kea, somehow get to Ioulis in the center of the island, find a room, and then the next day we would explore the ruins of ancient Kea. That was his idea. It wasn’t quite a plan, because, as I discovered when I met Gary at the bus stop, he was almost completely unencumbered by any actual specific knowledge of the island.

The first step was to find the right bus. No problem – we just walked down the line of 20 or so busses shouting “sto Sounio?” until one of the drivers nodded. Once we got to Sounion, catching the ferry was easy. We made it over to Kea, where we managed to catch a bus and rode up to Ioulis. Once off the bus, we started looking for the hotel. Fortunately for us, Ioulis only has a population of 700, and has only one hotel, the Hotel Ioulis, so after fifteen minutes or so, we found it. The owner was sort of cranky when we admitted that we didn’t have a reservation, but after letting us twist in the breeze for about 15 minutes she finally decided she did have a room she could give us. It was a nice room – first floor, great view, and just 3 doors down the hall from the bathroom. So far, so good.

The next morning we got up early and set off to visit the local museum (15 minutes to view in entirety) and the island’s most noted landmark – a 20 foot long prehistoric granite carving of a lion. It was the one thing on Kea that our guidebooks told us how to find. It was impressive, but after you’ve walked around a giant prehistoric stone lion a couple of times, what can you do? So we went back down to the port, to see about renting transportation so we could see the ruins.

“Where's the old stuff?”

Gary particularly wanted to visit the sites of Poisses and Karthaia, two of the ancient cities. Since our guidebooks didn’t say how to find them, while we were buying stuff for lunch at the local market, I also bought the only map of Kea we could find. “Better than nothing,” we thought.

Looking at the map closely now, I have to laugh. “Touristikos Hartis Keas” “Tourist Map of Kea”. It has a pretty blue sea, lots of little cartoons of sail boats, sunbathers, and windmills. It even shows the roads: a solid red line for “major paved roads”, a dotted red line for “unpaved road – passable”, and a thinner dotted red line for what it calls in English “unimproved road”, but in Greek “rural, hard-to-travel dirt road”. Of course, less than a forth of the roads were solid red lines, and it was hard to tell which dotted lines were the “passable roads,” but it didn’t look promising. If I would have looked closer, I would have also been troubled by the fact that the map showed several streams flowing up over hills and then back down.

After renting our mopeds (Gary’s Greek was a bit rusty and he’d almost rented us bicycles until I objected) we took off on our 12 mile trip to the first site, Poisses. When we got there we found a beach, a campground, and a taverna or café. No sign of ruins. We went into the taverna and did what archeologists traditionally do in Greece. We asked the bartender, “Pou einai ta archaia?” “Where’s the old stuff?” He shrugged and pointed to the top of the nearby hill. We scrambled up the rocks to the top and found a whitewashed chapel, a few paving stones and the outline of a foundation smaller than this room. I was less than impressed.

I had always been more into Greek language and literature, and I now demonstrated conclusively why I was not a classical archaeologist. In front of the chapel someone had set up a marble column, and I strolled over to it and said, “This is obviously can’t be ancient,” or something like that. But Gary got excited, “No it’s ancient! It’s got an inscription!” Sure enough, in ancient Greek, it said, “Dedicated to Apollo and all the gods” Big deal. But Gary insisted on photographing it and taking a squeeze, just in case this startling bit of ancient history hadn’t yet been published. Since I had translated the inscription first, he even generously offered to share credit for the discovery. “Making a squeeze” is a peculiar practice of people who study ancient inscriptions. Since you can’t take the stone with you, and photographs don’t always show the cracks and details clearly, if you want to study an inscription later, you need a cheap, harmless way to make a copy. To make a squeeze, you take some soft, thick paper, about the weight of construction paper, spread it over the inscription, get it good and wet, and then use the bristles of a stiff brush to pound the wet paper into the inscription. When it dries you have a reverse image to roll up, take home and study later. We had lunch as Gary’s squeeze of “Dedicated to Apollo and all the gods” dried.

The road to Karthaia

Then it was off in search of Karthaia. Again I laugh as I read the fine print on the back of our “Tourist Map of Kea”, something we didn’t do at the time. “Besides the above mentioned, there is Karthaia, the ancient town, lying at the southeast part of the island. The cyclopean walls, the temple and the theatre, though not restored, are of particular interest for visitors with archaeological knowledge. But it is very lonely and isolated, so that one may approach it only by boat. As an alternative, there is also the possibility of going on foot – about 1½ hour from the locality Stavroudaki.”

Things started to get interesting as we left Poisses. First of all the paved road ended, leaving us on an unpaved “passable” road. Growing up in central Nebraska, I thought I knew unpaved roads, but this was even rougher, dustier, and rockier than I’d expected. But still, we made pretty good time till we got past the last little beachside resort on that side of the island. After we left there the road turned inland, and Gary only made it 200 yards before wiping out, luckily breaking only the headlight on his moped. This part of the road made the previous road look like an expressway. It was even dustier and rockier, and it also had steep hills, steeper than the little engines on our mopeds could handle. So for the next few miles, whenever we came to a valley we would ride down as fast as we could without crashing, then gun the engine and pedal like mad up the other side, usually jumping off and pushing our machines up the last 20 yards or so.

It was mid-June in Greece, so the temperature was 85-90, and by the time we made it to “the locality Stavroudaki” we were hot and tired. Stavroudaki turned out to be a tiny dirt parking lot, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Next was the map’s “1½ hour walk” down to Karthaia. It may have been only an hour, but by the time we got there, we were even more hot, tired, and thirsty, was well as completely out of water.

We walked around the ruins for a bit, and then as Gary started taking yet another squeeze of an inscription, I decided I really had had enough classical archaeology, and went down to the beach for a swim. As my luck would have it, as I was walking out into the surf, I slipped on a rock and mashed my ankle on a rock or some coral under the water, leaving it swollen, throbbing, and without a big chunk of skin. Even so, swimming was better than beating wet paper into rocks.

The return

After Gary came down and swam a bit, thirst soon motivated us to start back.

It was late afternoon, and by now the temperature was at least 90, and as we hiked back up to the mopeds, I became certain that I was just going to die. My ankle was stiff and hurt like hell, I was thirsty and dehydrated, and I figured that I would soon just have a heart attack and die, leaving my corpse to be hauled out on the back of one of the donkeys we had seen farmers leading around earlier.

Of course, we eventually made it back to the mopeds without my demise. I fired up my machine, but just as I was starting to think we might escape alive, I realized that Gary couldn’t get his moped started. Now I started to envision my heart attack coming as we walked our mopeds the 15 miles back to town. But I was wrong again, and after 10 minutes of swearing, we finally got Gary’s moped started. I think I rather forcefully advised Gary not to let his machine stall. Now it was back to the wonderful dirt roads of Kea. Having already expected to die, I think I was a bit less cautious than I should have been. I just opened the throttle and held on as my little moped bounced in and out of the ruts. I can recall thinking, “Either I get back to Korissia in an hour, or I die.” It seemed like a logical set of alternatives at the time. However, I had to stop several times and wait for Gary to catch up, since he admitted that he was actually more interested in living than reaching Korissia in an hour.

We didn't hit my one hour deadline, we did get back to Korissia more or less in one piece, paid the angry rental guy for the broken headlight on his moped, and made our way back to the hotel and dinner with plenty of retsina. The next morning we were tired and sore. In fact, I limped for weeks, and weird green stuff oozed out of my ankle for days. And that inscription Gary had been so excited about? It had been published by a Frenchman 20 years before.

So what did I get from this adventure, besides a sore ankle, stunt moped driving experience and the conviction I was not cut out to be a classical archaeologist? Nothing I suppose. But as I look back on it, it’s one of my fonder memories.

So if there is a point to this story at all, I suppose it could be summed up in the words of one of America’s most famous philosophers,1 “When you get to a fork in the road, take it!”

  1. Actually it was baseball immortal Yogi Berra, pretty much the same thing. :-)