The ancient placid sways gently under the belly of this tiny plane rising slowly into the hazy air. I’m trying to stay calm – to root my feet to the thin grey carpet of the plane floor and breathe – because I hate flying, especially in little prop planes like this one.
We skim the tops of clouds like cotton balls and I catch an occasional glimpse of the Greek coast. I’ve spent over a month and a half in this place I’ve grown to love so much. I know all the things that make me feel comfortable in a foreign country – how I like my coffee (freddo espresso, medium sugar), how to use the metro and the buses, how to say hello and thank you.
At this point, I can read the Greek alphabet easily and I’ve picked up a fair smattering of Greek, mostly greetings and foods. And I throw those few phrases out with enough confidence now that sometimes my “kalimera!” (good morning) is returned with a volley of Greek and I have to sheepishly say sorry so the teenage girls on the Corfu city walls or the flight attendants will switch effortlessly to their perfect English for the clueless and clichéd American.
But I love so much more about Greece than my comfortable familiarity can explain. Part of it is years of learning and fascination from afar – in college I studied Ancient Greek language and history and art history. I developed a fascination with the ancient Minoans and their bare-breasted snake priestesses, the mysteries of the Cycladic civilizations and their cool white figurines, Plato and his love of puns and beauty. Much of my joy here is from seeing things I’ve read about in books come to life – the Lion’s Gate at Mycenae, the frescoes at Akrotiri, the silence of Delos.
There’s more to it than these moments of recognition though. And it’s not just how attractive all the men are. Seriously, they’re very hot and we don’t talk about it enough. The other day in Athens at a hip coffee bar, the very cute barista winked brashly at me as I smiled requesting sugar in my iced espresso, marveled over my command of Greek (please and thank you! so advanced) and then gave me a free sugared pretzel to go with my coffee, just because. Flirting by feeding – I’m into it.
In most of Europe, my smiling tends to freak people out so I love a land where it’s appreciated. It’s not just how incredibly friendly everyone is – the old men selling me a sesame roll and telling me about their friends in Boston, the bakery owner admiring my travel plans while heating up my vegetable pie, the independent street cats who occasionally allow a chin scratch if they’re not too busy. It’s the philoxenia: the love of strangers that’s intrinsic to Greek hospitality.
And it’s something in the land and the sea that stirs an almost-memory – the soft slopes of the worn-in mountains that flatten and merge with the even softer sea, the warm white light against the deep cool blue of the water, the sharp-tailed swallows wheeling in the sky at dusk as they have done for thousands of years. Poppies pushing into crevices of ancient ruins holding their quiet dead secrets. The view from a terrace at Knossos on Crete as the hills echo with a whisper of a memory of people just like me so long ago. I feel small and new and whole, like my little walnut shell of a heart is opening.