Hot dust at my feet, hazy valley behind me, I trudge up the hill. Fuchsia wildflowers cling to the rocky ground, struggling to survive in arid conditions. The rest of my group has scattered over the hillside, some already walking to the nearby (air conditioned) museum. Sweat drips down my back and I drink the last of my water bottle as I reach the top. I walk a little way down a path where I can survey the valley below in solitude under the shade of the pines. Golden columns rise far below me, where once people from all over Greece came to consult the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Some trips are etched more indelibly in my mind than others, have had a more lasting effect on my life. My trip to Greece is one of them.
When a local university scheduled a two-week trip through Greece—a week visiting archaeological sites in the Peloponnese, and a week cruising through the Cyclades islands—my mother-in-law signed up. Knowing I had long wanted to visit Greece, she asked if we—I, my husband, and our 12-year-old-son—would like to join her. My husband and son weren’t interested and I wasn’t sure about going without them—it would be an expensive trip “just for me.” But the temptation was irresistible. Without my husband and son along, I would be free to consider only my own needs and desires, to listen to my inner voice, a voice that had been largely drowned out by anxieties, everyday responsibilities and sheer laziness. As a college student, I had gone white-water rafting and worked on an archaeological dig in Israel. That woman had all but disappeared. I hoped while I was fulfilling my dream of visiting Greece, I could unearth parts of myself I had buried. I put aside my fears and guilt and paid my deposit.
Before we left, I decided that to make the most of my trip, I would follow two rules: I would do everything and I would eat everything. To my surprise, my rules proved easy to follow. Something about the freedom from responsibility swept away the layers of self-consciousness and insecurity that bound me at home. The few times I needed rule number one provided me with some of my best memories. It got me into a castle courtyard on Naxos where I drank wine while listening to a man play the sheep’s stomach. It plunged me into the 70-degree Aegean every day—at home, I’d never immerse myself in water that cold. One afternoon, several of us swam to a nearby beach, and convinced our tour guide, Dmitri, to teach us some Greek dance steps. Frankly, you haven’t lived until you’ve danced on a deserted beach with a Greek god in a Speedo.
Eating everything proved even less challenging, except for the squid and octopus (rubber bands and erasers, anyone?). I fell in love with Greek yogurt (it hadn’t yet hit American grocery store shelves), salads of crisp cucumber, bright red tomatoes and chunks of feta cheese, and pastitsio, luscious layers of pasta, ground meat and béchamel sauce. I even took part in an informal ouzo tasting.
And I loved every minute of it. We sweated our way through archaeological sites during a summer heat wave. We gazed at the Parthenon from the roof garden of our Athens hotel, and took pictures of the small patch of ground where they light the Olympic flame. So many of the antiquities we saw were fragmented that we privately dubbed the trip the “Bits and Pieces Tour.”
On the cruise portion, I spent the time we sailed between islands curled on a couch in the shade of the top deck, reading, writing in my journal, or simply staring out to sea. I found that instead of relying on someone else, I could buy the bottled water and get the Euros from the ATM.
From every trip we bring back more than a few souvenirs and a suitcase full of dirty clothes. We bring back knowledge of other ways of life, and adjusted attitudes to others and ourselves. Accepting the gift of freedom during this trip changed my attitude towards seizing new opportunities and doing things just for myself. Greece was all I hoped it would be, but what I remember most is how I felt about myself. I liked myself. I felt open, curious, happy, and free.
After I returned home, I began taking watercolor classes, joined a writing group and on our next family vacation, found myself hiking in the woods of Yellowstone instead of reading a book on the lodge porch. Among the bits and pieces of ancient Greece, I found bits and pieces of myself. I won’t lose them again.
About the Author: Kathy A. Johnson is a freelance writer and editor based in Florida. She continues to find new bits and pieces of herself, and often writes about them