Friday, June 14, 2013

Thrice in a Lifetime

      It’s Friday, June 14, and this afternoon we leave for Greece and Italy. The last few days have been a whirlwind of closing out another school year and preparations for the trip.  Wednesday I visited a branch of our bank, where they will exchange dollars for euros free of charge, and the duration of our trip came up in casual conversation.  When I revealed that we would be staying over until July 28 the teller did a double take and exclaimed, “Wow, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, isn’t it?”  I smiled (I hope not smugly) and agreed, but actually it’s a ‘thrice-in-a-lifetime’.  Please hear me well, oh jealous Fates, I’m not bragging, I am deeply and humbly grateful for yet another chance to spend time with my beloved in what can only be described as Paradise.  
If you’ve followed this blog before you will remember that five years ago after a talk I gave in Paestum on ancient foodways I was invited by a wonderful young man named Fabio Astone to stay the next summer in an apartment in his villa while I did research and wrote on Roman viticulture and winemaking.  The trip that followed was one of the high points of my life, not least because we came to love so well Fabio and his parents, Rolando and Filomena, my gentle twin by a different mother, Fernando La Greca, professor at the University of Salerno, and Fabio’s sweet, beautiful girlfriend Katiuscea.  That plus living in a gorgeous little seaside town called Agropoli in what must surely be one of the prettiest spots in the world, the Cilento.  If you think I’m merely emoting here, please check the archive for blogs for that year.
So we were ecstatic when the Astones invited us back.  Two summers ago we spent five more weeks in Agropoli and, impossibly, it was even more incredible because we were so comfortable with our hosts, with the logistics of living in Italy, with our beautiful little snuggery.  This summer?  Out of the question.  The Astones’ parents/grandparents, like so many from the Cilento, emigrated to Brazil many years ago and the apartment is reserved for their biennial trip home.  No matter, these people are so dear to us now we know those bonds of love will last forever, and surely we can find a few stolen hours to visit when we’re in Sorrento, some 50 miles north of Agropoli.  So imagine our delight when we learned that the senior Astones will not be able to visit this summer and the junior Astones will put up with these two vagabonds yet again!
This trip will surely be memorable for a number of reasons.  First of all, this is my first trip to Greece.  Yep, doctorate in classical studies and never been to Greece.  How can I begin to tell you the significance of that?  Short version, I’ve dreamed of seeing that cradle of Western civilization since I was eight years old, and that’s fifity-five years.  That was the year my mother gave me a wonderful book of mythology by a couple named Dulaure.  It’s still a classic, Sandy uses it with her fourth graders and I’m happy to say many of them are as wide-eyed and rapt as was the little hick from Tennessee all those years ago.  I particularly remember the story of Zeus and Io, one of his many mortal lovers who, when jealous Hera almost caught her philandering hubby in flagrante delicto, was transformed into a heifer.  Hera was no fool, she simply asked for the heifer as a gift and placed her new ‘pet’ under the watchful eyes of hundred-eyed Argus.  The Dulaures have a wonderful picture of Argus with his hundred eyes, all splayed out on various improbable parts of his anatomy.  Heady stuff for a kid used to the pablum of Mother Goose!  You doubtless know the story of how Zeus sent his wily son, Hermes, who played his lyre and sang a long ballad so soothingly that finally all Argus’ eyes dropped off to sleep and Hermes took a sword and lopped off his head.  Mission accomplished.  Years later I taught classical mythology at one of the University of North Carolina campuses and I can assure you it’s every bit as compelling to contemporary youth as it was for me.  Look, it’s one thing to ask how and why those myths developed, but it’s quite another to think about why they persist, and the answer to that question is quite simply that they speak so forcefully to the most fundamental elements of the human condition.  There’s a reason that Freud and Jung named so many of the complexes they encountered in their patients after mythological figures such as Oedipus.
As I matured that interest in classical cultures was nurtured and broadened by National Geographic.  I don’t mean to make our little town of Martin, Tennessee, seems like a backwater; it was a college town and my dad was the college physician and my mom earned a master’s degree in library science from one of the top programs in the country at the time when most women didn’t make it past sixth grade.  Plus she was an insatiable reader.  So we kids were ‘exposed’ to culture at the local college, sometimes willy-nilly.  But it’s hard for kids these days, what with instant access to world cultures via Google, to understand what a magic window on the bigger world that magazine with those incredible pictures was for small-town American kids.  Probably big-city American kids as well, when you consider how isolated and often xenophobic America of the 1950s was.  I distinctly remember several articles by my hero, George Bass who, as director of the Center for Underwater Archaeology at A&M University, almost single-handed invented that new field. My love for classical archaeology has never wavered. 
So you can be sure that when we touch down in Athens ole Dave will be wide-eyed and ‘grinning like a mule eating sawbriars’ as my friend Steve would say.  But this tour is special as well because of some of the people, both adults and students, who will be along.  I don’t want to invade their privacy, so let it suffice to say that my current students and one very special former student are all the sort who will soak this stuff up like sponges.  What a treat to share that with them!  Additionally, we are traveling with friends of over 25 years and that always makes the trip special for us.  (Carol, come with us again next time!)  Bob and Donna’s kids grew up with our little rugrat and we’ve always thought of theirs as at least half ours, and the last of the brood is now 16 and will be flying the nest soon, so I take a sort of paternal joy in sharing a bit of classical culture with bright, curious Hunter.
And then there is Agropoli, of course.  But not just as tourists.  I will be finishing the last chapter of the book, From Vines to Wines in the Classical Roman World, and beginning to make revisions.  My goal is to have a first draft ready by fall to send to the publisher to be juried so I can discover if my poor little misbegotten brainchild will find a home or is so deformed that I need to quietly bury it and go on to the next project.  I think the prospects are good, simply because I have designed the work to be useful rather than brilliant.  My mentor in Chapel Hill used to say, “If you can’t be brilliant, you can at least make a good list!”  That is advice that I have taken to heart.  And as part of that research and with the patient guidance of Fernando, I have stumbled across an intriguing little archaeological mystery.  Fernando, a young colleague named Aniello Botti and I are searching for palmenti to catalogue.  These are little treading vats for wine (you know, like Lucy and Ethel stomping the grapes in the tub), but in this case cut into native rock.  And often in some spectacularly remote places.  Our primary goal is simply to document these sites, no easy task because of their locations and the fact that they are disappearing from folk memory with alarming speed so they are often hard to locate.  But secondarily I would like to obtain GPS co-ordinates for those in the Cilento to submit to 'Progetto Vinum', a group using various elements of technology to study the early history of Italian wine.  One of the things that fine group is trying to do is make a database of all the palmenti in Italy (they occur all up and down the Appennine range as well as on the islands) complete with GPS co-ordinates so that scholars can visit and study them.

    The upshot is that this promises to be an incredible summer.  And I hope you'll come along for the adventure!