“Good luck!” The taxi driver said, his raspy Greek accent escaping through a gentle smile. “For what?” I replied cautiously. “For the climb!” He indicated to the hundreds of rocky steps leading around the cliff-edge and upward, arching out of sight. The prize at the summit was the monastery of Hozoviotissa at Amorgos. An eleventh-century marvel, something out of a tourist brochure for lonely and wanderlustful Christians - a whitewashed tooth in a brown, craggy mouth, it looks as though the mountain was built around it, apologetically. Magnificent in its unconquerable will, it stood defiantly against the wide womb of the glittering Aegean and a three-hundred metre drop. The wandering steps, steep and uneven, seemed to challenge you to move, to follow. And so as the sun thought about setting on a Friday late-afternoon, my dad and I did.
The view from the monastery’s walls was well worth the sweaty, undignified climb. Pausing for breath, I let my dad wander into the church, while I stood and stared out at the endless, misty sea. We had arrived at around 6:30pm, just as the light began its long Mediterranean melt from day to night. A few students on a school-trip milled around me, waiting for the keenest ones among them to finish their gift-shopping and pilgrimaging. They were, for the most part, tired and quiet, and all bar one (on her phone) stood alongside me, staring quietly out into the Aegean, trying not to think of the sheer drop below. Glancing down revealed a jagged rock face, and swirling, frothy waves. Into this wild abyss the wary group stood on this brink of hell and looked a while. And then the one on her phone began to play Ed Sheeran out loud, to a mixture of groans and cheers from her classmates. Solitude, sometimes, is best society. I turned to venture into the monastery, passing a sign that decreed: ‘No Trousers For Women. No Shorts For Men.’ I looked down at my shorts, and then at the selection of baggy trousers hanging next to the sign. I hastily popped some on, and went to go find my father.
Steep, cold steps led upwards ominously, cavern-like, looking more like the home of a horror-movie villain from the 1920s than a religious treasure. At an alcove halfway up, underneath a mostly-circular window, sat, inexplicably, a two-metre long model of a Greek battleship, bristling with missiles and turrets and insignia. No helpful information sign justified it, no picture of some admiral shaking hands with a monk. Just a battleship, and a window onto the ocean. I nodded to myself, made a little note in my notebook, and continued up the stairs, towards a dark shrine-room. I ducked under the door, and stepped down into a low-ceilinged building, finding my dad inspecting a faded, muddy-brown portrait of something or other (I learnt later it was of Adam and Eve commiting man's first disobedience, holding an apple each, and both looking rather nonchalant it must be said). The room was lit by dim, frenetic candlelight, and dotted around the place, crinkly, silver-plated icons mingled with older wooden ones - both types alarmingly fragile-looking in their own ways. Behind an imposing, curtained, wooden cabinet, we were told, was something very special: depending on who you asked, the icon this monastery was built to protect dates from (according to wikipedia) the early ninth century, and (according to one large, hairy, slightly patronising patron in the shrine-room) the fourth century AD. Most believers assert that it arrived on the island mysteriously one day from Palestine, on an unmanned boat. Very impressive for a piece of art - take that Mona Lisa.
My relationship with god and the spiritual is, if you can’t tell already, rather strained. A strict Catholic upbringing preceded a stricter Atheist downbringing. We won’t go into the reasons for that now, but safe to say: better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven. I have since learnt to appreciate pretty spires and Handel’s Messiah, and my youtube suggestion feed is substantially less ‘Atheist OWNS religious nutter’ and ‘10 BEST hitchslaps’ nowadays. When studying the Renaissance at uni, it was more curious fascination - like Attenborough studying chimps - than bitter hatred, although I couldn’t help giggling at painted tablets of women miraculously healing having fallen into big wooden barrels. While my Satre/Hitchens/Dawkins-inspired antitheism has undoubtedly lessened over time, when stepping inside a monastery or chatting to a priest, it still takes much of my energy to prevent eye-rolling or various dissenting groans escaping from clenched teeth.
My father, on the other hand, has had less of an abrupt fall from paradise. His devoutly Deist persuasions are evidence of the persistent residue of an Irish Catholic, monastic, education. I am convinced that something from deep within his subconscious called him back towards the stern eyes of institutional judgement - and it was for this reason, I believe, that I found myself soon sitting with him in a waiting-room, in line to speak with a monk. A Greek Orthodox monk, but this didn’t really matter - Dad is never really one for the details. And so, we sat there on our blissful seat (a plush burgundy settee), surrounded by four walls covered floor-to-ceiling in dozens of sepia and black & white portraits of old men with little black hats, be-robed and stern-faced, all somehow looking down on us, whatever their placement on the wall. To our right, sat a large, empty chair, a throne really, with a grand ebony frame and ivory lion heads as its arm-rests. In front of us was a table, and on it was an open guestbook - “What a blessing to be here, love from TX” was the comment that caught my eye. So many questions. Why choose this place of all places to visit if you’re coming all the way from America? How many Greek Orthodox, yet non-Greek speaking, adherents are in Texas? If this person wasn’t Orthodox, did he/she even notice or care that this was a Greek Orthodox monastery? Why is it that Americans always assume everyone knows their state abbreviations?. The book sat next to two little empty shot glasses of psimeni, recently finished off by dad and I (psimeni is a traditional drink from Amorgos made of raki, cinnamon and honey - its thick, sweet ichor belying a deceptive 30% alcohol content) and a little bowl of turkish delight - my kryptonite. I’d had three pieces between spotting the bowl and sitting down - four since then. I’d dribbled a little trail of icing sugar, which was now being duly swept up by a kind-faced, devout-looking custodian.
To our left mulled a final babble of students, also in line for the monk or buzzing around the gift shop. Most were alert, quite attractive, women in their early twenties, whose modest dress (mandated black skirts which covered the leggings, mini-shorts or god-forbid trousers underneath) was offset by copious amounts of makeup - which made me wonder whether a trip to visit monks was cause for special beautification. I sneezed suddenly. There must be cats, I thought. They’re unbelievably omnipresent in Greece, and I am unbelievably allergic to them. “Geitses!” a kindly-looking student from the doorway exclaimed in my general direction - I thanked her, correctly assuming that this is the Greek equivalent of ‘bless you’. We got talking, and it turned out that her and her classmates were from a Peloponnesian Architecture university who’d come to the island to visit the building - but more importantly to get personal audiences with the monks who were, it transpired, mild celebrities. Inevitably, as happens with almost all conversations between strangers, there came a long, awkward silence. As a British person abroad, I felt a duty to uphold the national response - to sigh as loudly and, as conclusively as I could, proclaim “right!”. The Greek student felt no such awkwardness, and a moment later, she sighed as well, although much more contentedly. She looked out the window behind our settee: “it feels like heaven up here”, she breathed. I looked around me - at the strange, bearded, sepia faces staring and judging, at the shadows flickering in the stairwell, at the big throne of judgement to my right - it felt much, much more like purgatory to me. Of course, I did not say all this, I laughed politely and said “yes it really does”. My dad, who had been studying the guestbook intently throughout this exchange, promptly stood up, said ‘things were taking too long’, and wandered off out of the room and back down the steep stairs. I shot an apologetic smile to the architecture student, and stood up too, making sure to grab another piece of turkish delight - I plucked, I ate, and then I scrambled after Dad, duly leaving a little trail of white sugar on the wooden table.
Outside, I spend a few minutes jotting down some things in my notebook, before trying to catch a photo of the monastery framed against the gentle hazy blue sunset-light, swapping lenses and filters frantically, mumbling, no doubt, incoherent nonsense to myself. I barely noticed an old couple totter past me, and begin their long journey downward, careful, compromising footfall on uncareful, uncompromising ground. I hadn’t seen them inside - they must have been resting on the wall near the other entrance. The wife has crutches and travels painstakingly slowly, all the while accompanied by her husband, who clutches his khaki-green, canvas hat as if in solidarity. I turn to watch them. There is silence - but the tinkle of goat-bells and the crunch of the crutches. Soon, though, a gaggle of architecture students swarms out the monastery, bringing up the rear-guard of what must have been a long day out for the supervising teachers. They rush past me, and then past the old couple, sprinting to the best spot on the path to take photos of the monastery for instagram. My dad, tired of my ponderous procrastination, of my note-scribbling and of my photo-snapping, bids me goodbye to wait in the taxi - his tired glance backwards at me ironically providing a perfect photo for a triptych, with him, the students, and the old couple dissected by a tree. The three stages of man. The futility of the climb. No looking back. Or something.
The first two groups pass by the latter, and soon, just the couple remain, now framed against the Aegean. Something roots me in place - I can’t take my eyes off the old couple. I watch how they are dwarfed by the vast sea and vast cliff and I wonder what exactly has prompted their journey - whether theirs is just the excursion of some bored tourists or a last-ditch search for some sad cure. The final group to rush past me are the friendly architecture student and her fashionable friend. I catch a whiff of nuclear-grade, fruity perfume as they pass. As if they know how perfect the photo would be, the two friends pause to take some snaps on the level above the old couple. In my mind bubbles up a cacophony of grumbling thoughts about ungrateful youth and the dangers of technology and superficial commercial culture - the sort of stuff my nan would complain about. Regardless, I get my snap, and so do they, promptly racing past the old, hobbling couple, who use it as an excuse to pause their long descent and ponder things for a moment.
And then it was just me alone - and the gentle tinkle of goat bells, and my camera, notebook. Watching the old couple, many metres below. I took a breath, and began my descent, in the process, snapping a few more shots, skulking silently and guiltily behind them like Gollum - although I needn’t have bothered to skulk, they were utterly uninterested in anything other than their journey. After a dozen or so photos, I too walked by them, scooting past the husband with an overly apologetic manner. As I did, I turned and stole a glance in their direction.
I discovered that they were not that old at all - or at least not as old as they should have been - not as old as they were in my head. I was greeted by the husband’s pair of round, red, childlike glasses, a slightly beaky nose, a silly-looking moustache and a full head of grey-black hair. Above all, I was struck by a warm, youthful smile. “Kalispera” came his soft voice (not gravelly and thick as I imagined). His wife had no wrinkles on her face (as she did in my head). She did have grey hair, but this was starkly offset by a beaming smile and a sonorous voice that floated and danced above the sea breeze. The only wrinkles on her face were gentle creases around her intense, determined blue eyes. She glanced at me long enough to smile - but her gaze swiftly returned to her crutches, the steep craggy steps, and the long road home. I, too, turned to concentrate on the descent. As I skipped down the steps to my dad sitting impatiently in the cab, I heard them talk softly in Greek to each other behind me. This was followed by a gentle laugh and then immediately by the tentative clatter of crutches on the rocky path once more.
Another gentle tinkle of goat bells. They melt into the Aegean, which is now hazy and dripping up into the twilight. As I reach the bottom of the path, I steal one final look back at them. Framed by a cliff-face and the fused eleventh-century monastery on one side, by a writhing Aegean on the other, they, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.
NB: there are 12 Paradise Lost references in this blog. That’s not at all important for the narrative, I’m just quite proud of it.