Greece, From the Unbeaten Path

EACH year in the Greek isle of Samos we have the good fortune of encounters rich in insights. We have stumbled on them by the mere missing of a bus, the taking of a different turning. Robert Frost's poem - ``The Road Not Taken'' - has somehow woven itself into our experiences: ``Two roads diverged in a yellow wood....'' The start of our Grecian affinities took place at a bus stop in Karlovasi. What more natural than to fall into conversation with an elderly Greek who came wandering past, his pockets stuffed with books, reading as he went. ``What is it?'' we couldn't resist asking. ``Homer, of course,'' he replied. We became so engrossed in talk with him that we glanced up just in time to see our bus drive off.

``You'll not get another for two hours or more,'' our new acquaintance told us, adding, struck by a sudden thought, ``Why not come along to my class for more Homer?'' Why not indeed? What better way to wait for a bus? He settled us at the back of a dusty classroom in the old village lyc'ee. The children giggled at first, then accepted our presence. There hung about the room a distinctive odor of chalk and ink, pencil shavings, and leather. Generations of lively, black-eyed young Greeks had c arved their names in the desks. The old master took up the Iliad.

``In the last book of the Iliad, `Priam and Achilles,' we have a reference to our own beloved Samos,'' he began. ``Iris of the whirlwind feet started at once on this mission. Halfway between Samos and rugged Imbreos she dived into the dark bosom of the sea....'' He read on, absorbed, lost to any other world than that of Homer. Tears stood in his eyes. We were stirred by the beauty of his reading and by what he read. The restless pupils, who had strayed into private daydreams, sat up and listened, enthra lled.

``We are heirs of a great tradition,'' he said, looking up. ``We must be proud of it.'' He tried to catch hold of some elusive memory. ``That poet of yours,'' he called to us, ``the one who never came to Greece but understood our spirit. `Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' was what he wrote - that is all you need to know. He knew. Come back another time,'' he said to us. ``There's always more to find in Homer.'' What is not to be learned in the interlude between two buses?

Samos in spring is a time of roses and jasmine, of the song of the nightingale. To hear them sing we catch the early bus from Karlovasi to Vathi, getting off at Platonaika, at Zenephon's caf'e. This particular day our arrival coincided with that of a regular fleet of tourists on motor scooters. They talked, laughed, shouted at one another, playing outsize transistors in an explosion of ear-splitting sound. To escape we left our usual road, the one that climbs steeply up under Mount Ambelos into Aidonia, valley of the nightingale. ``Long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth - then took the other....'' Robert Frost's yellow wood was golden for us. We went deeper and deeper under the pines, walking into silence, only broken at last by the crowing of a cock and a dog barking.

From a high terrace, like some spirit of the woodlands, a small, gray-haired woman watched us come. She called down to us the lovely greeting, ``Kronya polla - may you have many years!'' When we told her that we were there in quest of quiet she adopted us at once, welcoming us to her small croft as if it had been a palace and she, Paraskeva Dioletti of Samos, its ruler. Around her were orange and lemon trees, heavy with fruit. A superb bronze and russet rooster stalked among brown hens, whil e a black and white mongrel whined from an upturned barrel. ``Arape! Arape! Quiet!'' she ordered.

Who gives like the Greeks? She picked so many oranges for us that we tried to protest. We could never carry all these. ``Easy! Now listen!'' she said. ``You will hear my own orchestra.'' In the branches overhead small brown birds fluttered in shafts of sunlight. There came a wonderful trilling and fluting, a cascade of magical sound. The three of us stood together, silent, bound together in shared delight. Paraskeva smiled at us as if she had summoned those musicians specially for us, her orchestra of n ightingales. ``One day down there they'll give up all that noise and learn to listen,'' she said.

By turning to left rather than right, by taking just this path, we had stumbled on contentment in Paraskeva's quiet kingdom. She might not read Homer, but beauty moved her as it did the old schoolmaster.

ONE recent autumn we had an encounter that set up for us especial echoes. Our bus left Karlovasi in the north to drive off to Marathakambos in the south. Above Marathakambos the gaunt, bare shape of Mount Kerkis rises up, not like gentler wooded Mount Ambelos with its cypresses, olive groves, and cherry orchards - no nightingales would sing here. ``Back toward six,'' the driver called as he drove off. We had abundant time to swim, walk, and explore before returning to the bus stop. The October light was a tangible golden haze, even Mount Kerkis was softened in blue mistiness.

Toward six o'clock, a group of tourists had gathered with their radios, expensive cameras, and snorkels, increasingly impatient. ``Where on earth is that bus?'' In the air hovered an impression of too much sun, too much ease, too much money for too many possessions. Something else grew on us, a strange sense of waiting, not only for a bus but for something else. A message? A revelation?

Just then, along the road from beyond Marathakambos, came a swirling of dust. Out of it emerged, magician-like, an extraordinary figure, lean, white-bearded, wearing the dark robes of an Orthodox priest. We guessed at once who it was. He was a legend in the island - Papa Leonidas. He was soldier turned priest, expiating for having fought and killed in war Turks, Germans, Italians. Now a penitent, he wandered around Samos, barefooted, carrying only an icon, a wooden cross, and a Bible. ``Nor scrip for yo ur journey ... neither shoes nor yet staves.'' An unorthodox figure at any time, he appeared even odder among the well-shod tourists, sun-worshippers, and pleasure-seekers.

HE approached our group, appraising us. His black robe was tattered and green with age, his unshod feet leathery, burned almost black with years of crossing pebbled shores, climbing thorny mule tracks that led to rocky caves. Whether we liked it or not, he had chosen us as his congregation. Out of a torrent of words the essential message emerged, the only one he ever preached: ``What does a man need to live? Only bread and water. What does he need for his soul? Unceasing wonder at the creation around hi m, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the sea, the hand of the Creator behind it all.''

At first we shuffled uneasily. Who was this dusty bearded ancient? What was he talking about? Someone snickered then was swiftly silent. No one dared exclaim: ``Where on earth is that bus!'' We began to listen with more attention, for there was something compelling about Papa Leonidas' creased and furrowed face, his vivid blue eyes. It was becoming increasingly obvious that in his quest he had come on truths that not one of us had ever apprehended.

At length he finished, looked round us, disconcertingly. Weighed in the balance and found wanting. We watched him go, absorbed back into the evening haze. Where would he sleep that night? ``The foxes have holes....''

The bus arrived. ``Sorry I'm late,'' the driver called. He was not to know what we had gained by his failure to run on time.

From the green island of Samos we have taken away so many memories - the old master absorbed in Homer, Paraskeva listening to her nightingales, the uncompromising truths of Papa Leonidas. Each in their own way illustrated Henry James truth: ``The great thing is to be saturated with something ... with life.''

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