June, 1994. I was a 14 years old, and the next grandchild in line to accompany my grandmother on her annual archeology trip. One by one, she eventually took all 10 of her grandchildren on a unique trip of exploration, art and ancient history. This year it was my turn, and we were going to Greece.
Growing up, archeology and Grammy were synonymous in my mind. Sharp-minded, unflappable and eternally curious, my grandmother spoke Greek fluently, read the classics in Latin, was the president of the Board of Trustees at the American Archeological Society in Athens and knew People. Lots of People. Her downstairs glass cabinet housed several museum-worthy artifacts that for all I knew, she picked straight from an archeological dig.
Grammy despised slothfulness and boring people, and never admitted to ever being bored herself. And me? I bit my nails anxiously, was extremely self-conscious and preferred to stare awkwardly in silence than attempt small talk. Needless to say, I was a bit intimidated by the idea of spending the next 14 days with her. I was biting my nails just thinking about it. But I managed to arrive in Greece prepared: Armed with a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey, my little blue journal to record pertinent reflections, a notebook where I could quickly jot down “items of interest” (i.e. Greek vocab!), and a small sketchbook and pencil I would whip out at the first inkling of boredom.
First stop: Athens, where we visited the Acropolis with the iconic Parthenon sitting on top. I was awestruck most by the majesty and permanence of the formidable Doric columns against the smoky sky and the beautiful 6 maidens of Karyai. Did you know that there are layers to the Acropolis, as each new period built onto the existing structures? The original Acropolis was built over 1000 years before the one we recognize today, during the Mycenaean Period— the earliest Greek civilization. And thanks to Grammy’s People, we were able to bypass some “Personnel Only” type signs and walk down some hidden passage ways to see the inner parts of the old Mycenaean walls. Pretty cool.
Next stop on the itinerary: Pylos, which means “no dark cloud” in Greek — a windswept ocean town drenched with sun, the remnants of ancient clay pottery scattered across the bay.
We visited the Palace of Nestor, nearby. Below is a picture of the king’s throne, with a strange indentation on the ground nearby. Do you know what that indentation was for? (And no, it was not where the king kept his barbell when he wasn’t using it.)
We were told by our guides that archeologists really had no idea. It was a total mystery! I wonder if they’ve made any headway since then?
At most stops we visited the inevitable museum created to house whatever artifacts were dug up from the sites, our intrepid archeologist guide Cynthia Shelmerdine filling us to the brim from her bottomless pit of ancient Grecian knowledge. She made archeology a fun adventure.
By the end of it, I had eaten my weight in watermelon and feta cheese; I had learned to love Greek olives, and discovered I did not like octopus. I had mastered my awkward crush on the 18 yr-old boy in the group by challenging him to climb 854 (or was it 908?) stairs up to a giant citadel, I swam in nearly every pool or beach we visited, and if I ever felt bored, I never admitted it, even to myself.
From the end of the postcard, you’ll gather our last stop was the legendary Troy, located just across the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey.
I must admit that I shouldn’t have worried so much about pleasing my grandmother. As I was sifting through photos and memorabilia from the trip in preparation for this post, I came across an old postcard Grammy had sent my mother:
What? Did I really read correctly that she was anxious not to be a bother to me? She who pushed me to be and act my best, be curious, never have a dull moment? It looks like I passed her test– wrote in my journal, talked with others, asked questions, etc. But turns out, it really wasn’t so difficult after all, because I actually really did love every minute of my trip to Greece. Ok, I had my bumbling, uncomfortable moments, especially when in the presence of said 18 yr old Lacrosse player. But the trip was right before my freshman year in high school and in a sense was a pivotal experience for me as I learned to navigate the social maze called adolescence. Greece taught me there was more to the world than Gap jeans and social cliques. I discovered that adults were just as, if not more interesting to talk with than my peers; that history was fun and really really fascinating; that the old cliché was true: there was no shame in being myself–even if it was a little quirky or odd. Hey, if Cynthia Shelmerdine could do it, couldn’t I?
Most of all, I discovered I could push, challenge, and enjoy myself, on my own terms, irregardless of anyone else. This, I realized in the end, was what Grammy really wanted for me. It was the gift she gave me.
It wasn’t until a week after I was home when I realized with a shock another gift: My fingernails were growing out! Somewhere along our trip, I had stopped biting them. I had been so preoccupied, I had broken my habit, and I’ve never picked it up again.
“I have looked with newborn eyes
My first thoughts can tell no lies
The windy air, the olive trees
The citadel over rocky seas
A fleeting glimpse, a backward glance
Then out of the picture altogether
Until at last, some fateful day
Time will take me back that way
And bring to me old memories
Across my face, like one cool breeze
Then I think perhaps the past
Is the only thing that lasts forever.”
— Poem by my 14 yr old self
— Madelene Pario