Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Saying Good-Bye to Greece

I fell in love with Greece. There's no other way to put it. Our time there was enchanting, magical, almost mystical, and I don't think there's a time when I've ever felt closer to Mark.

We left Mykonos at 3:00 a.m., earlier than planned because high winds were expected in the Aegean. The captain altered our itinerary a bit, and we sailed all morning toward Kythnos. Most of the passengers did what we did that morning - sat out on the sun deck reading, enjoying the sun and the fresh sea air.

Around mid-day, we arrived off the coast of Kythnos for a swim.

Mark swam from our ship to the sand bar in the distance. I was too chicken.

From there, we sailed to Poros, across the Saronic Gulf from Athens and its harbor at Piraeus. Storm clouds began gathering in late afternoon. That night, we had the Captain's Dinner.

The town of Poros

George, the chief steward/hotel manager. He told us he had lived in Utah in the 60's and had worked at La Caille. 

Shortly after Mark had taken these pictures, we decided we weren't that hungry and got up and went back to our room. Within 10 minutes of us returning to our cabin, it poured down rain. We later heard that the passengers sitting at the end of the dining deck got soaked and all the tables had to be hastily moved away from the edges of the deck.

The next morning, however, it was beautiful. Mark and I took a walk around the town of Poros, while others went off to see an ancient amphitheater.

That afternoon, we motored back to Piraeus and had our last dinner on board that evening (but down below in the enclosed dining room). It was a memorable evening as we had an opportunity to talk with some of our fellow passengers whom we hadn't gotten to know very well. First, there were Paul and Margaret, a delightful older English couple who live in a charming village in East Sussex. Then there were Lynn and Andy, another of the half-dozen or so Australian couples on board. We hadn't talked to them before, which was a shame because they are charming people as well. Among other things, Lynn shared with us how heart-warming she thought it was that Mark and I felt we could and did show affection for one another. That made us feel good.

All too soon, Friday morning came and it was time to say goodbye to the Panorama II, to the sea and to Greece. We knew as we left, however, that we would (hopefully) be back ... someday.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Patmos, Mykonos and the Landscape of Cancer

It was hard, sometimes. In conversations aboard our ship with other passengers, talk would invariably come around to travel. Most of the people were retired and liked to travel. But when we told them of our cycling in France, etc., some would look at us askance and make well-meaning comments like, "What do you do for a living?" When first Mark, then me, said we are retired, it would be, "But you're way to young to be retired," or something similar.

There were many times when I wanted to say, "Look, we're retired for a reason. Mark has advanced stage prostate cancer, ok? We're doing a lot of traveling now because there will come a time - unbeknownst to us - when we will not be able to do this."

But I didn't.

Except a couple of times. Discreetly.

The first was after our incredible day in Patmos which I wrote about here. We were having an early dinner aboard ship that evening. Then, Nadia our cruise director told us there will be a "surprise." We surmised it would be Greek dancing, and Mark wasn't in the mood for that. We slipped away before dinner was over.

As we passed Nadia's desk, she importuned us to stay, saying we'd have time after dinner to go into town. Mark stepped outside. I leaned over to Nadia - whom we had grown fond of during the past few days - and said three words to her. Why, exactly, I said it, I don't know.

"Mark has cancer."

Her eyes found mine and she said, "Oh. Go. Go! I understand."

Why did she understand? What did she understand? That sometimes exuberance can assault the senses and almost mock someone who has a terminal illness? That sometimes, it's too much?

It didn't matter. She understood.

But those three words - "Mark has cancer" - unleashed a torrent of emotions in me as we walked off the pier and into the village. We saw Vera, our guide from earlier in the day. I had wanted to talk to her about something she had said in a quiet moment during our tour to both Mark and me, as well as privately to me. But she breezed by on a bicycle, saying that she was on her way to an appointment. Further deflation.

I tumbled into despair. I felt as if everything I had experienced that day, all the euphoria, was phony, a fake. We went back to our cabin where I proceeded to lose it. I don't remember a lot of what I said as Mark tried to comfort me, but I do remember saying, "It was like I experienced this euphoria, this happiness, then turned a corner and saw Death sitting there in a chair, smirking, blocking the sidewalk, not letting us pass." This has been a characteristic of so much of our life together since Mark was diagnosed: moments of euphoria, exquisite happiness and exhilaration with life and with each other contrasted with moments of sadness, angst and even terror over what we know awaits around some bend in the road that stretches before us.

Two days later, we were in Mykonos. The highlight of that day, believe or not, was seeing a pelican. We had been walking around "Little Venice" with its warren of tiny streets, and as we turned one of many, many corners, we saw a large pink pelican waddling its way towards us. Seemingly unperturbed by our presence as well as that of two other couples, it slowly wended its way into the tiny square where it began to preen itself, occasionally flapping its wings.

Mark was transfixed. He has long loved pelicans. When he took his first cycling trip to Europe five years ago and blogged about it, he named his blog Pelicanus Maximus. When he got his Serotta bike prior to going on this trip, he named it Pelicanus. We have a watercolor print of a pelican that we bought several years ago in Mendocino, California. But Mark had never seen a pelican up close and personal ... until that afternoon in Mykonos.

He was powerfully moved by the experience. For him, it was almost spiritual. An omen. A good one.

That evening, we had gone back to the ship for a quiet evening. We thought almost everyone else was in town. As we watched the fading sunset on the sun deck, George, the chief steward, approached us and asked us if we'd like to join a group of ladies for dinner. They were all older and single and had elected to eat on board (as part of their tour package) rather than go into Mykonos.

The dinner ended up being a delightful experience. Lots of good conversation and laughter.

One of the ladies was a very interesting woman named Kassia. She had intrigued me for the past several days. An American, she has lived in Florence, Italy for many years. I would guess her age to be around 75-80. She was always one of the first to go swimming in the ocean when we had that opportunity, and she always went barefoot around the ship. I also detected a sharp wit. I didn't formally meet her until a couple of days into the cruise, but once I did, I felt something toward her that I guess could be described as a "connection."


As we were sitting at dinner that evening, Mark told the story of meeting the pelican that afternoon. Of course, he didn't explain what a profoundly spiritual experience it had been for him. For some inexplicable reason, however, I got up and whispered in Kassia's ear that Mark has advanced stage prostate cancer. She looked up at me, nodded ever so slightly, then I went back to my seat.

The next morning, Kassia, along with others, sat at our breakfast table. Everyone was talking about what they had done the previous day in Mykonos. Mark briefly retold his pelican story and mentioned at the end that he saw it as an omen. At that point, Kassia leaned over to me and said, "Yes, it was an omen."

After breakfast, Kassia drew me aside and asked if I could spare a few minutes. We sat down and she proceeded to tell me that a little over 25 years ago she had a metastasis and was given six months to live. She decided, however, that she wasn't ready to die. But she would not "fight" her cancer. Rather, she began a program of alternative medicine and meditation in which she imagined herself holding and loving her cancer, this part of her that was diseased and injured. 

Kassia determined that she would love her cancer, much as she would hold and comfort a beloved injured child, rather than seeking to "defeat" it. "We," she added, "tend to say, 'I have cancer.' That's not correct. Each cancer is individual, personalized. I have *my* cancer and you have *your* cancer. Mine is a part of me and yours is a part of you. It is personal, not some generic thing 'out there' that needs to be fought and defeated."

"I would say this to Mark," Kassia added," but you are the one who shared this with me. But please feel free to tell Mark, and I'm happy to repeat my story." When I told Mark, he smiled and said, "Before every yoga class, I sit in meditation and imagine myself loving my cancer. That is always the intention for every yoga class." He had never told me that before.

I choose to believe that it wasn't an accident that we saw that pelican in Mykonos. I choose to believe it wasn't an accident that I decided to open up to Kassia and she in turn to me. I choose to believe it wasn't by chance that Vera was our guide that morning in Patmos. And I choose to believe that, in the landscape of cancer, one is sometimes led to sources of inspiration and knowledge, to teachers and healers. I choose to believe, because I know how I have felt in my heart when such serendipities occur.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Of Mykonos, Paradise and Age Appropriateness

The day after our visit to Mykonos, we woke up to find ourselves anchored off a small island opposite Delos, an uninhabited island that is the site of extensive ancient ruins. Mark and I had decided we'd had enough of ancient ruins, so we opted - as did others - to stay on the ship to swim, read and soak up the sun.

It was a delightful morning. The sky was almost cloudless. The water was warmish. It felt good to be alive. Mark and I borrowed the ship's kayak and paddled around the point of the island opposite Delos and found a tiny rocky beach, just big enough to secure the kayak and allow us to shuck our swim suits and go skinny dipping. The water, as usual, was crystal clear, and it was fun to experience it au natural out of sight of the ship.

After lunch, we motored the short distance to Mykonos where we (us passengers) would be on our own for the rest of the day. Mark and I wanted to go to the famous Paradise Beach or its neighbor, Super Paradise Beach. I guess both have a well-established reputation as gay beaches. We lucked into sharing a taxi with a couple from Argentina and headed to Super Paradise Beach. It was not what we had expected. Blaring music, a party atmosphere and people who were mainly of an age to be our children.

A aerial shot of Super Paradise Beach (from the Internet)

We were there less than five minutes before Mark said, "Let's go. This isn't our kind of place." I had to agree. However, as we walking back out of the huge taverna that serves as the gateway to the beach, three of the most gorgeous, muscled young men I have ever seen walked in. It was tempting to stay just for the eye candy, but we felt like spectators at a fraternity-sorority party. Though Mykonos has a reputation as being one of the "hottest gay holiday destinations that Europe has to offer," we are way too old for that scene.

Instead, we took a shuttle back to town and proceeded to wander around the tiny streets of an area of Mykonos town known as "Little Venice." The following pictures were taken as we strolled.

We came around a corner and saw this pelican waddling up the street.
I will write about him in my next post.

This guy was selling handmade bracelets down on the wharf. I bought one with blues and browns to remind me of the colors of the islands. I asked him if I could take his picture because of his incredible eyes. I never knew there are so many Greeks (he's from Athens) with blue eyes.

We were back at the ship by late afternoon. We sat out on the sun deck to read, write and watch the sunset. Most of the rest of the passengers headed into town for an evening of revelry, but we opted for a quiet evening on the ship. It ended up being an unexpectedly interesting evening, which I'll write about in my next post.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Cruising the Greek Islands: Turkish Carpets

I wondered whether it was a requirement of the Turkish government, sort of a quid pro quo for not requiring us to have visas to enter the country. We had been told that, as part of our excursion to Ephesus, we would be stopping by a place for a demonstration of the traditional art of creating handmade Turkish rugs. There was a bit more to it, but I'm getting ahead of my story.

The place we pulled into was quite a little complex, but on first appearance, it gave the appearance of a quiet country home with a large shady front yard. We got off the bus and were greeted by a friendly Turkish man who spoke very good English. He was our host and we were "dear guests" (again). He guided us to a long porch where two women were busily engaged in weaving rugs.

Our host explained to us how the women tie the knots, how many knots there are per square inch, etc. He also explained that rug-making has been a tradition of the Turkish people for centuries. Up until very recently, it was their custom that each young woman make a rug to bring to their new home upon their marriage. Our guide later told us that she had not been very good at it, had struggled with it, but finally completed hers. It's about 1 ft x 2 ft and hangs on the wall of her living room.

Each woman worked from a different pattern such as is used for cross-stitch. On cue, they demonstrated how they compact the woven threads and also trim them.

After this demonstration, it was time to see a demonstration of how silk threads were traditionally harvested from cocoons. I don't recall a lot of the specifics, but basically the cocoons are placed in boiling water to kill the pupating silk worms, then the fibers are extracted from a number of cocoons with a broom-like object (see below). The threads are then gathered and fed over a hook and onto a spinning wheel.

We were then invited inside the buildings for a light lunch and drinks which was served in the room pictured below. Once we had finished eating, the sales pitch began. Our host had one rug after another thrown out on the floor, demonstrating various techniques, patterns and composition (wool, wool/cotton and silk). It was all very interesting, but I kind of felt like I'd been a victim of bait and switch. When the demonstration was over, a half-dozen salesmen came into the room to try to talk people into buying a rug. I suppose that if you were in the market for a Turkish rug, this would be a good place to buy one.

After waiting around for everyone to get back to the bus, we headed back to Kusadasi. We had some time to kill, so Mark and I walked around. Hawker central. We made the mistake of going into the bazaar and we wondered whether we'd get out alive (I exaggerate) due to the aggressiveness of the shop owners and salesmen. I guess some people would thrive on the challenge of bargaining with such people. I'm not one of them.

Back to the ship, then we sailed to the near-by island of Samos where we had dinner on board, then strolled the streets of the port town. The next day, we'd sail to Mykonos!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cruising the Greek Islands: Ephesus

The morning of the third full day of the cruise found us approaching Kusadasi, a Turkish port near the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. Once on shore, we boarded a bus that took us first to the ruins of the Basilica of St. John (of Patmos fame), thence to Ephesus. It was an interesting morning, but as I wrote in my journal the following day, "My only impression of Ephesus is that it - the visit - made me want even more than before to learn about the ancient Greek and Roman worlds."

View from the hill on which stand the ruins of the Basilica of St. John. During Greek and Roman times when the city of Ephesus thrived, the ocean came up the valley to the city. Centuries ago, however, the river that had created the valley silted up and the ocean retreated.

Our group standing and listening to our guide (with the white visor). She was a very pleasant, knowledgeable woman who seemed unflappable. She reminded me of Tour Guide Barbie from Toy Story 2 in that she had a constant smile on her face and used the phrase, "Dear Guests," over and over again.

Detail in the temple to the Roman emperor Hadrian

The temple

Another detail of Hadrian's temple

Library of Celsus

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cruising the Greek Islands: Patmos

“I love this place ... I want to come back. It is simply magical. I cannot express what I feel after being here today … I love life. I love this place. I. Love. This. Place.”
The island of Patmos is more about what one feels while there, rather than what one sees - at least to me. This is reflected in the above quote taken from a journal entry written after spending the day on the island.

Patmos is famous as the place where, according to Christian belief and legend, John the Revelator received and recorded his vision in the form of a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor. Two of the main tourist attractions on the island are the cave where John is said to have received the revelation and a monastery dedicated to Saint John that is almost 1000 years old. 

The port town of Skala. Our ship is visible at the dock.

Originally, Mark and I had decided not to go on the excursion to these places as well as the town of Chora in which the monastery is located. But we changed our minds after having been in Rome and Athens. Even though we do not believe in what is represented by the monastery, we decided it would be worthwhile to see the art there and to imbibe the spirit of what has been considered a holy place for almost 2000 years. We were glad we made that decision.

A cross affixed to a cedar near the Cave of the Apocalypse. Note the "evil eyes" at the top and bottom of the cross. 

What made the experience for us was our guide, Vera (pictured below). In her orientation talk, she explained, among other things, that the residents of the island of Patmos had deliberately kept tourist development of the island to a minimum. There is no airport on Patmos, only ferries, and large cruise ships typically don't go there. When we sailed in, there were no other ships in port. 

The island has a population of only 3000 people. There are no large hotels. This is the way the islanders want to keep it. Apparently, in a 2009 survey, Forbes magazine named Patmos as Europe's Most Idyllic Place to live, due to the fact that "Patmos has evolved over the centuries but has not lost its air of quiet tranquility, which is one reason why people that know it return again and again." [Wikipedia] I can believe it.

Another view of Skala from higher up.

The day that we visited Patmos, September 14th, is a feast day in the Greek Orthodox Church: The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, marking the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem as well as the recovery of what was believed to be the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. At the time we arrived at the Cave of the Apocalypse, a special service was being conducted inside, so we went on to the monastery.

Bell Tower of the Monastery

View from Chora

It was obvious that our guide really knew her stuff. She was an interesting woman. She speaks six languages and spoke English with a pronounced English accent. She struck me as urbane, as someone who has seen a lot of the world, a free spirit whose looks reminded me of the actress Anne Bancroft.

It was obvious as we commenced our tour of the monastery that she is not a believer in traditional Christianity, though she was raised Greek Orthodox. She respected Orthodox beliefs, but she also added her own viewpoints that had the effect of transcending what she referred to as "Christianism." She took the elements and symbolism of the story of John the Revelator and placed them in a larger context. She explored the themes of sin, death and resurrection from a different viewpoint, which seemed to Mark and I as almost Buddhist (though it became apparent later that she is not a Buddhist). 

I was particularly struck by the following statement she made in the context of a discussion of the concept of sin: "We are afraid to die and we are afraid to live." We are afraid to die for fear of the judgment of God, and we are afraid to live for fear of the eventual judgment of God.

In the courtyard of the monastery

Bundles of basil outside the monastery. Tradition holds that sweet basil grew over the hill where St. Helena found the Holy Cross, so in Greece the faithful are given sprigs of basil to be blessed by a priest.

Windmills outside of Chora

From the monastery, we retraced our steps to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse, which was a cave facing the sea where, according to legend, the apostle John went for meditation and prayer.  It was here that he is believed to have received the revelation. Afterwards, we sat outside in the shade of cedars while Vera shared her closing thoughts. As I sat there, I truly had the sense that Patmos is a spiritual place in the sense of being a "high energy place." A place of self-discovery, of letting go and being. A magical place.

This sense was further enhanced later in the day, after lunch, when Mark and I took a taxi to a nearby beach where we hung out for a couple of hours. It was quiet, lovely, beautiful, peaceful, serene.

Yes, I definitely want to go back to Patmos some day.