Travelling leads to strange encounters. Especially if you’re committed to speak the language of your destination.
In World War II a young Royal Navy sailor by the name of Ernle Bradford sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out brainwashed because he had been imprudent enough to say “Kalimera” to the man behind the counter. A few years ago I went to Delphi and was imprudent enough not only to say “Kalimera” but to follow it up with saying that I hoped to read Herodotus in the original someday.
All avalanches begin with a snowflake.
Chance encounters. And Ulysses found…
How I Encountered Plato and Aristotle in Delphi
At the end of a holiday to Greece a couple of years ago I dragged my family -rather forcibly – to Delphi. It was August: the sun was bright, the sea crystal clear and Athens teeming with life; not surprisingly, the family bristled at the idea of leaving all that to embark on a three-hour-long coach journey instead, to some godforsaken inland location, only to see a few more ancient Greek ruins. In their opinion, we had already seen quite enough. Universal agreement was that nothing – and that included Knossos and the Acropolis – could outdo the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion anyway. Not that any of them had wanted to go to Cape Sounion either to begin with of course – no, that was another of my ideas.
But I wanted to go to Greece since I was ten, and having waited decades for this to happen, I was not going to come back without having seen Delphi. So reluctantly, they climbed on the coach. And all I can say in justification now that none of them – this includes the youngest whose interest in traipsing around on rocky hillsides in hot weather equals zero – complained after they’ve seen the place. Delphi has style; Delphi won them over. And I’ve got a handsome red-figure replica vase on the bookshelf with Theseus slaying Procrustes to prove it: my family’s thank you gift for taking them to Delphi.
So we had scrambled among the ruins in blazing sunshine; we had stared at the view of the Gulf of Corinth. Finally, it was time to catch the coach back to Athens. At the hotel they told us to go to the end of the street but there was no sign of a coach stop there – indeed, there was no sign of anything at all. It was an ordinary end of a street with no distinguishing features whatsoever. The coach might have indeed been in the habit of passing that way three times a day but there was no evidence of this to be seen and it was certainly not passing that way according to the guidebook. According to the guidebook, the coach was only going to stop on the main square. After a short debate on the merits of taking the hotel receptionist’s word for it, we decided to head for the main square. But when we reached it we felt that the main square, upon closer inspection, was somehow lacking as a main square. Worse, it was equally devoid of any indication of a coach stop. In fact, my husband voiced the opinion that there was no way a coach could take that tight corner to get into this nice little square to begin with. In other words, we were at a complete loss.
At this point, a local man came down the square. Approaching him, I inquired in my atrocious Greek about where to catch the coach for Athens – and he sent us straight back to the same end of the street we just came from. I frowned. Trying to to explain how already we’ve been there already threw up all sorts of interesting Greek verb tenses which I was not altogether certain of having mastered… and he mistook my frown for not understanding him. He offered to walk us to the place.
In that five-minute walk, we had the usual local-meets-tourist conversation: “Where do you come from?… Is this the first time you’ve been to Greece?… What did you like best?…” All of which I was perfectly equal to. And although the Temple of Poseidon ruled, rules and will rule supreme forever, I of course was polite enough to assert that in addition to the Temple of Poseidon, we liked Delphi best. (Near enough true as well.) Pleased about this, he asked if we had a particular interest in history and archaeological sites. I said yes and volunteered the information that the reason I was trying to learn Greek was that I wished to read the ancient Greek authors in the original. This was entirely true: in the outside pocket of my backpack I carried the solid volume of Reading Greek: Text and Vocabulary by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (I left the accompanying volumes of grammar and study guide at home), its pages, full of my pencilled notes, slightly stained by drops of sea water – I don’t necessarily need a bath tub to spoil a book, the meltemi lashed waves of the Aegean Sea do just as well.
“Have you read Plato?” our guide asked.
“Uh… not much, actually.” I had read bits of his Republic. Was it a major mistake to mention my ambition for reading the ancient Greeks to this bloke?
“Only in Hungarian…” Brightly: “I’d like to read Herodotus in the original. And Xenophon’s March of the Ten Thousand.”
“Yes, yes, you like history…” he said, almost impatiently, “but Aristotle…”
I was never overly fond of philosophy and the only thing I did read by Aristotle is his Poetics. And there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to discuss that in Greek! But no matter – our impromptu guide, growing more and more excited, was getting into his stride. He forgot that my Greek was rudimentary in the extreme: he launched into a long and enthused speech about the merits of ancient Greek philosophy. Needless to say within three sentences he completely lost me, and all I could do is to nod enthusiastically every time he said Plato or Aristotle. (My family, trooping docilely behind us, was really impressed.)
This man in Delphi probably doesn’t remember us. But I will carry with me, for the rest of my life, the memory of this unexpected encounter: the memory of walking down a sunlit street in Delphi and listening as this total stranger talked, fondly, of Aristotle. Because it’s not often that somebody talks to you about Plato and Aristotle. And this was Delphi – Delphi! – and he talked about them in Aristotle’s own immortal language.
I wish I understood a blessed word of it.
And I told this story because…?
Because a long time ago, a man whose books I had occasion to mention already had the same experience – except he could understand Greek a bit better than I could.
“My Mother Came from Ithaca…”
This was in 1941, during World War II, and his name was Ernle Bradford. He was a young sailor in the Royal Navy, and he went ashore in Alexandria where he met a Greek by the name of Andreas who talked to him about Odysseus. This is how he recalled the meeting many years later:
I was just nineteen and an ordinary seaman, proud possessor of a uniform, an identity number, and a place on a gun’s crew, when I first entered the Averoff bar off Mehemet Ali Square, and met Andreas. I sometimes wonder what has happened to Andreas since 1941; in those days he must have been in his middle thirties. He was about six feet tall, but with a belly that disguised his height, and a dark, twirled-up moustache in the Edwardian manner which proclaimed him a happy and healthy ‘masher of the old-fashioned vintage. He was resting his belly on the marble slab of the counter when I first saw him. He was sipping a long glass of Zibib, so well diluted with water that it was only a faintly clouded colour.
As you can see, Ernle Bradford can write much better than me. You can practically see Andreas while my guide of Delphi remains both nameless and faceless. This probably explains while Bradford is the one who wrote countless interesting books about the history of the Mediterranean, while I’m the one who is reading them. The things I do share with Bradford are his fascination with the Mediterranean, his desire of talking to people in their mother tongues…
Alexandria to me was the city of the great Greek conqueror. It hardly existed as a 19th-century French and Anglo-Egyptian collaboration. It was myth and mystery, Antony and Cleopatra, the Bull of Serapis, Pompey’s Pillar, bearded anchorites, the Pharos, and a vague suggestion of infinite sexual sophistication. I was eager to transform my recent acquisition of classical Greek in the Upper Sixth into a language that could be of some practical use in this city to which the exigencies of fate and fortune had driven me. It was no more than this fact, this desire on my part to expand my so recently acquired knowledge, that caused me to say; “Kalee Spéra” to Andreas.
…and his love of reading, of course!
…I carried few books with me in those days, for one travelled light as a sailor. In the rack which supported the electric light cables over my head was stowed my entire library. Andreas had spoken of Ulysses. It was for that reason only that I reached for the first volume of the Loeb Odyssey, and held it out above my head in the swaying hammock. (A little swell still set into the harbour after the long day’s wind from the north.)
Reading the Odyssey? Me?!
I’m not a reader of the Odyssey – I’m one of those people who much prefer the Iliad. Any day, anywhere. But Bradford has a way with words and I’m just about being persuaded to give the Odyssey another go.
…Andreas had spoked of Ulysses as ‘the wily man’ – a kind of Greek Pantagruel. This was an idea which at that time was not immediately clear to me. He was in Andreas’s reckoning the Artful Dodger, not the Romantic Hero. He was the kind of Greek who could still make a living in Alexandria after all the others had gone to the wall. Ulysses was the shopkeeper with his thumb on the scales, and an eye to the girls, handy with a knife in a dark alley, and at the same time in some strange fashion or other, capable of honesty – or was it of great consistency? – over most of the major issues.
Ulysses, from that moment on, became to me a comrade in adversity. So I lived with him in my kitbag, in the same sea and under circumstances somewhat similar to those which he had known. Even when I became a petty king myself – the navigator of a destroyer, and able to keep my ears unplugged while the men at the oars were not allowed to hear the siren voices – those two pale green Loeb volumes followed me around. Transferred now from sailor’s kitbag to officer’s battered suitcase, they went with me to Sicily and Crete, to the Dodecanese, and to Lemnos in the far north of the Aegean Sea. They went to Malta and Sardinia, the Aeolian Isles, and many times through the straits where Scylla and Charybdis yielded so easily to the 40,000 horsepower of a destroyer.
But it was Andreas who first put me in touch as it were, with the man beneath the myth. It was Andreas, standing at his small bar on that hot afternoon – his shirt open, the sweat trickling over his matted black chest – who first said: “My mother came from Ithaca, you know.”
(Introduction to Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford)