August 19, 2011
Lost in the Odyssey
By MATT GROSS
SING to me of the man, O Muse – that cleverest of men, most favored by the gods, most frustrated by them, too. Sing to me of endlessly lost Odysseus, whose 10-year journey home, from the scorched and blood-stained plains of Troy to the Ionian island of Ithaca, was a decade of disaster. Sing to me of the Cyclops, the Sirens, Calypso and Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, of challenges confronted and conquered, destiny delayed and at long last achieved.
So sing to me, I begged the Muse one Friday evening in May, or, hey, you know what? Just send me an intercity bus – I’ve gotta get out of here.
“Here” was the seaside town of Neapoli, at the southeastern end of the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece, where nearly two weeks of island-hopping from the Turkish coast across the Aegean Sea had come to a sudden and maddening halt. From Cape Meleas – the last location Odysseus himself
recognized before the North Wind drove him into the monster-ridden lands of myth – all I had to do was hop a bus or two to the port of Patra, and from there a ferry could take me, at long last, to Ithaca, the place Odysseus called home.
In Neapoli, however, there were no buses until morning, and I had no choice but to spend the night in this cheerful, if sleepy, seaside town. Even a day or two earlier, I wouldn’t have minded. In fact, for the previous 10 days I’d been delighted by the capricious whims of bus and ferry schedules. But I was due to fly home to New York from Athens in two days, and now this delay was unbearable.
As I numbed disappointment with ouzo at a waterfront restaurant, I noticed something unusual on the sidewalk before me: a penny-farthing, one of those 19th-century bicycles with an enormous front wheel and tiny rear one. The owner, it turned out, was Jim, a 20-something hairdresser from Athens who was sitting nearby with his girlfriend, Chara, a schoolteacher. They were a sweet couple, definite hipsters, and I smiled when they asked me, as had practically every Greek I met on my journey, how I’d wound up here.
“I’ve come from Troy,” I said, “and I’m trying to get to Ithaca. Like Odysseus: no map, no guidebook, no route, no Internet, no hotel reservations.”
Thus began a tale I’d been telling, and adding to, ever since I’d begun my Odyssey in Turkey outside the city of Canakkale, where ancient Troy was located and, beginning in the late 19th century, unearthed.
But Troy was not where I wanted to linger. It was, for both myself and Odysseus, a starting point. My plan was not to follow the hero’s exact route – it stretched, some say, as far as Gibraltar, and was mythical in any case – but to stumble in his footsteps and try to get a glimpse into his psyche as he tried and failed and tried again to reach Ithaca, a mere 350 miles away as the crow flies, off the west coast of Greece.
Or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it. For Odysseus has no psyche, not in the modern, literary sense. One of the founding works of Western literature may be a travel story about getting lost, but apart from the image of heartbroken Odysseus crying on the shores of Calypso’s island, Homer rarely portrays his hero’s disconnection and desperation.
How does that lostness feel, I wanted to know, especially in Greece, where the lonely spaces between rough and empty islands are balanced by an unmatched reputation for hospitality?