Return with a candle

By

Robert Louis Stevenson says that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive , but on a recent journey from Scotland to Greece we travelled hopelessly, despairing of ever arriving at all. Who could have foreseen fierce April blizzards that trapped our southbound train deep in snowdrifts? The Aegean Isles became as remote as the farthest stars, our stranded train a symbol of our helpless human condition.

Throughout the long day the guard's doleful voice sounded down the train, blaming for our delay the furies, the gods, on anything but his Royal Scot. Just as we gave up hope the miraculous took over: a deus ex machina in the appropriate form of another machine pulled our train from its snowdrift and we reached the airport with minutes to spare. We flew into Athens at dawn and sailed in dazzling sunshine from the Pireaus to the island of Aegina.

A week earlier we had celebrated Easter in Scotland with Luke's: If thy whole body be full of light, having no part of dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light. Now here in Aegina, carrying on the miraculous, was a second Easter, the Greek Orthodox Pascha, that continued the same theme of candles.

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Late at night, into the dark church, came the priest bearing the Easter flame. We lit our candles from his, one after another, until the whole church gleamed with a golden light and was filled with the honeyed perfume of beeswax. At midnight the bells chimed for the Resurrection. ''Christos anestos!'' chanted the priest. ''Christ is risen!'' The words passed through the night like a promise. Easter Day had dawned.

Life in a Greek island is a perpetual Pascha, with an impression of candles of all kinds moving along in a bright chain. What is it that calls us back again and again? What is the Grecian alchemy? It is perhaps above all a matter of absorption. In Aegina we were absorbed into the landscape, entering layer upon layer of quiet until, half mystically, we felt ourselves part of the shimmering golden light, of springtime meadows carpeted deep in crimson poppies and golden marguerites, of the air fragrant with thyme, sage and roses, of the jade-green Aegean where we swam.

By day we wandered all around the island or crossed over to those little islands, Moni and Anghistri. We travelled in buses to Perdika, Souvala, Mesagros , and from there set off on further wanderings. We picnicked outside tiny deserted churches on high, grassy hilltops, looking across the Saronic Gulf toward Poros and Hydra. Daily we climbed up to the temple of the goddess Afea, walking through woodlands where cuckoos called all day with a Grecian lilt to their voice.

If, by day, we belonged to the wide countryside, by night we had a single center, the taverna of our old friend of former years, Jannis. Here we were absorbed into Greek friendship and hospitality - filia and filaksenia - and into the language. The more you master Greek the more fully you belong to Greece and to the Greeks.

Each evening we reached the taverna by a twisting track under pine trees, sitting into the small hours with a circle of friends, until our talk became interwoven with the candlelight of the stars and the voice of the Aegean. Those friends bore the names of antiquity and there seemed nothing odd or incongruous, rather a marvellous fitness, in discussing politics with Plato, history with Antonis and architecture with Achilles.

Plato, whose namesake had been born in Aegina, held to the hope that in our violent world the philosophers might yet become rulers and bring us peace. Antonis was so immersed in ancient history that he made it live around us. If the taverna door had suddenly swung open and Herodotus and Thucydides came striding in to discuss war and peace with this 20th-century historian, we would not have been in the least surprised.

Achilles had spent a lifetime digging around the temple of Afea, studying the spirit of the architects of the 7th century BC who designed it, and of their workers who had raised those honey-coloured Doric columns in the sanctuary of the woods. Every now and then he would burst out, ''They knew how to build then, the Ancients!'' He would sigh and add, ''One day we'll learn from them.''

Jannis expressed the spirit of Greece in quite another way. Of the nine muses his was Terpsichore. While the three Wise Men, Plato, Antonis and Achilles, were searching solutions for the world's woes, Jannis would suddenly spring to his feet with a cry of ''Oriste!'' Then, tirelessly, with the most intricate and elaborate of steps, he would dance to us.

On our last night he gave us his last dance of friendship and farewell, the most magical of them all. A full moon glinted blue and silver on the Aegean and on the white path under the pines. He wove in and out of patches of moonlight and shadow, bounding and springing with demon energy. As we vanished off along the familiar track his voice, and those of our other friends, echoed through the dark after us, accompanied by the hooting of owls. ''Tou Kronou! Till next year!''

On our return to Scotland we found that the snows had melted and the sun shone. In the woods around our village, cuckoos called with Scottish accents and the chestnut trees bore creamy white candles. Home was all the more beloved after an absence, problems fell into place. They were still there, but after the weeks of Aegean spring and Aeginan friendship, the darkness was lessened as by the bright shining of a candle.

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