“This is what I thought Greece would look like,” one student’s voice rang out as the bus pulled in to Nafplio. What did she mean by that? Nafplio is a resort town, positively Venetian in style. What’s so Greek about it? But I knew precisely what she meant: it is quaint and picturesque with its layers of pastel-colored houses arranged amphitheatrically around the harbor, cafes lining the walk by the sea, fishing boats bobbing in the water. It’s a film set, a travel brochure come to life—charming, relaxing, a site for romance. “Can we stay here?” was the second question.
Athens has been chaotic and overwhelming: cars parked on sidewalks, people darting this way and that, street signs you can’t read, graffiti covering every surface. “This is Athens: gritty, gritty, gritty, ruins,” described one (the one who most likes Athens; I think it’s a compliment). Here in Nafplio you can wander down one of a handful of mostly pedestrian lanes, all cute, cup of gelato in hand. No need to learn a metro system, little danger of being felled by a motorcycle as you stop to take a photo of shutters or windowboxes or a posing cat.
Here, they tell me, is the authentic Greece. Not cosmopolitan cities but sunset-tinted villages. Not post-World War II apartment blocks but olive groves. Greece is a place you come to get lost in history, where you go back in time.
I’m not criticizing them, by the way. I’m fascinated with this phenomenon, which stretches back centuries, each new traveler to Greece declaring that something in the past, something more befitting of an ideal image, is far more real than the present staring him or her in the face. Heidegger found the Cycladic island of Delos his real Greece because it simultaneously revealed and concealed layers of being:
“Δἠλος, the manifest,” he called it, “the one that reveals and does not hide but, at the same time, the one that conceals and hides.”
Don’t think I’m not pointing to myself. Over the years I’ve grown to love the restless energy and multiple faces of Athens, but when I drive through the Peloponnese there’s something that makes me drop back in time and feel as though I’m witnessing the revelation of an absolute reality, beyond language, out of time, sublime, even as I know when the camera zooms in on the villages I will be seeing the reality of isolation and backbreaking work.
What earns the status of most real? The image that satisfyingly slots into the grooves of your expectations? The inescapably material evidence of grit and cigarette smoke and the stoniness of the stone? The breathtaking invisible that shines through the cracks of the visible? All I know is that I have to keep coming back.