THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES
On Tuesday we returned to the cradle of our relationship, the Argo-Saronic isle of Spetses, loosely named for its abundant pine trees (pityoússa) and famous for an heroic seductress named—no kidding—Bouboulína, who menaced Turks*.
I landed on Spetses in the summer of 1998 because Art Beer, a man well-named and Drama Chair at the University of Detroit-Mercy, had seen me play an histrionic Stepdaughter in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and thought I'd fit right into a Greek tragedy. For 24 seasons between 1974 and 2009, he and his wife Mary brought 38 productions' worth of undergrads and professionals to study and perform Classic Greek Theatre in Greece: three weeks of rehearsal on Spetses followed by a one-week performance tour. Each year they recruited from Festival Playhouse, the theatre of Kalamazoo College, where I was completing my freshman year.
I told my parents about the opportunity and they were good for a third. I got a grant from Kalamazoo and my grandparents made up the difference. I auditioned, was cast as Ismene in Oedipus at Colonus, and enrolled. Bret was invited and paid only for his flight.
Memory is a funny thing. A line keeps coming to mind over the past few days, "Hurry up and remember!" We are New Yorkers now, and we've invested two weeks of our New York lives into touring a small selection of Greece with our young children and an agenda: to revisit our past, to educate William and learn more ourselves, and to keep a three-year-old happy. When we pulled into Spetses and I cued my senses for the first surge of sense memory that cerebral memory cannot provide, I was surprised by how much my imagination had supplied over twenty years.
We checked into Spetses Hotel and made haste in revisiting the nearby campus where we had spent those life-changing weeks. William's interest was flagging but we tried to re-engage it by making the event about him:
Bret: "If it weren't for this place honey, you wouldn't be here." Silence. My turn:
Cassandra: "Look," sweeping my arm over the outdoor café where we spent every siesta, "It's just like the end of Coco but in reverse. Imagine, can't you see mommy and daddy twenty years ago?"
William: "Yes, and you look weird."
Children are awesome at keeping sentimentality in check.
We took a spin around the grounds and it was wild: the room where we did introductions and first heard each others' names, our dorm rooms that we (okay, I) knocked on but were occupied or locked, the window in which I had taken a precipitous "nap" after a late hot night of retsina. Typically I'm the family archive, but Bret remembers so much more. While he was experiencing his first time in Greece, I was experiencing my first time in love. As we piece together our memories, I supply a girl's minutiae on every time he addressed or ignored me in the days leading up to our confirmed romance. We then revisited "our beach," once empty save a small bar and few beach chairs, now crammed with cabanas, pumping George Michael, and Greek only in the sorority sense.
One of my favorite moments, yesterday morning William and I hiked up to the theatre where our group had rehearsed and performed via the same steep path that audiences take. We joked that if you want to catch a show, the 2/3 train from Harlem to Times Square is a far easier way to go...
My real memories of Spetses are Proustian: drip-to-your-elbow peaches, retsina pine wine, fresh peach daquiries, the shower gel I used each day, and every square inch of Bret. These remembrances fueled my nostalgia for paradise over the past twenty years. Spetses today is a far cry more touristy and when we spoke with locals about the change they said it had been good for business but came with the usual baggage. The most disappointing baggage to us was vehicular—the historically "carless" island now seems anything but. When I asked a native if the laws had changed he said, "No, still no cars. Only taxis, electric scooters, motorcycles, mopeds, hotel transport, business vehicles, and delivery trucks. They let us bring our cars here, but we can't drive them." "Katalaveno," gotcha, I replied, over the roar of a passing moto as I yanked my children from the street.
Over the years I have dreamed time and again of swimming up and around Spetses, Poseidon-style dreams in which I fly with the current and re-live the ecstasy of the clear warm sea. This time we felt it with our children, got scored 1-10 for our respective dives, oversaw William's first jumps into the sea, and refereed Cordelia's newfound passion for throwing rocks.
Yesterday we left Spetses for Napflion, another seminal spot from that first trip, and a breathtaking place rich with Venetian history. We spent today on the nearby beach of Tolo, where we met the kindest of all the kind people that we've encountered in Greece. As we search for lost time, make new memories and struggle to complete a conversation about it all, I wonder if in twenty years we'll come back alone, reminisce about when the children were small, run out of things to say, and turn to our books. The gods willing, we will.
*The Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled Greece from 1453 to 1821. Bouboulína lived to see the Greeks gain independence but was shot four years later by the father of a girl with whom her son had eloped.
The statue of Bouboulina that greets you in Spetses. Bret in front of our hotel, which we just realized prefixes his first name. The map of our route thus far.