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The Gods Of Strangers

"Life. And death. Mysterious, magical, unexplainable."

Elena Carapetis went to Greece to research a new play. She discovered a timeless sense of self and place.

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Swimming with the Gods

Date: 25 Oct 2018

I went to Greece to research my new play, The Gods of Strangers.

To consume art, to consume culture, to consume life. To immerse myself in the stories of my ancestors.

I ended up remembering who I really am.

Here are some excerpts from my journal from that time.

I am in Athens. In a café. With hipsters, but swap the latté for a frappé and the iPhones for George Karellia cigarettes. 

The boys’ beards are thick and their eyelashes are long and people smile – lo and behold the hipsters are friendly!

There is flirtation here. Between everyone. There is lingering eye contact and banter and innuendo, but it’s not sleazy. It’s playful and common, as present in the interaction between me and the tattooed girl who brings me my metrio kafe as it is between the two old men discussing politics at the table next to me. The older one is slipping worry beads deftly through his fingers as he says something that makes his friend’s eyes twinkle with delight.

This place is alive. It’s hurting, yes. But it’s alive. I have counted six Greek priests so far. With their beards, long eyelashes and low man-buns, it’s easy to mistake them for hipsters, too.

At the Benaki Museum, the antiquities are beautiful, delicate and childlike at times. Primal and perverse with phalluses and V-shaped creases and breasts and holes. From a time where life was truly sacred, I guess, and death was respected just as powerfully.

Life. And death. Mysterious, magical, unexplainable.

Here they are crying out to me in the future, trying to make sense of this force that spits us out without warning. All those little statues, and the big ones too, expressing the terror and the awe we have felt since the beginning of time – that we exist, and we are here, and who DID that to us? All those little delicate pieces of pottery yearning for meaning, for mercy.

The rattles, the baby things to put in the graves beside their sleeping tiny one. The tenderness is heartbreaking. They are us. They love and live, cook their food, don their earrings and bracelets and plait their hair. They do what they can to manage the fact that they were thrust here without the language, knowledge or technology that we have.

Imagine the danger. The constant stakes of life and death, the fear, the inexplicable confusion. Yet among all this chaos, they made art. Art that is gazed upon by millions of future eyes all wondering about the person who forged this thing of beauty and longing before them. I imagine their hands, carving the stone, molding the clay, striking the flint. They are gone but the echo of their lives are still there. Valued. Fawned over. Worshipped. Like gods.

The first stop after Athens is the island where my father’s line comes from – Ikaria.

The island is named after Ikaros, son of Daedalus the architect of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Ikaros was said to have crashed into the sea here, after his waxen wings melted from flying too close to the sun.

The island is tiny and lush with diverse microclimates. It is known to be a ‘blue zone’, a place where the inhabitants live for 10 years longer than the rest of Europe and in better health overall.

I’m grateful that my genetic material can be traced back here and wonder if that is why I have been mistaken for a much younger person for all of my life. The people here are beyond hospitable, they are all embracing and full of joy.

They take the Greek notion of φιλότιμο (philotimo) to a whole other level. It may be because I am a woman travelling on my own, but I suspect this is just how they are. Ikarians are primal, ‘free range’ humans, and my new friend Marie-Anna, a formidable tall beauty who is half Ikarian, half Cypriot like me, says the reason why Ikarians live for so long is not what the scientists suspect … it is because all they think about is sex.

I get into my tiny left-hand-drive hire car and careen around twisting roads that snake their way up the mountain to a village called Monokampi.

This is where my ancestors lived for centuries. I find my great-grandfather’s house, still standing as sturdy as the day he built it, facing towards a glorious view of the Aegean Sea. I seek out the church he built on the side of a cliff, Agia Sophia.

The story goes the Saint came to him in a dream and told him her bones and the bones of her daughters were buried there. He searched and found them. It’s incredible. I often wondered how her bones ended on a tiny island far from Constantinople.

A woman called Lemonia escorts me to the church along rocky terrain by foot. We pass the remains of a house with a threshing circle and she tells me that was where a monk used to live. His name was Yianni Myraios and he stole the bones from where they were originally housed to save them from the Turks. He buried them for safe keeping. There is magic in the world.

Next stop is my mother’s island Cyprus – the birthplace of Aphrodite.

Naturally, I drive to the part of the coastline where she came bubbling up. The beach is comprised of smooth grey pebbles warmed from the sun.

Tourists lounge languidly and eat watermelon and lick at rosewater ice-cream that drips down the cone onto their forearms. I plunge myself into the turquoise clear water.

It’s a postcard. No filter needed to boost the colour or the beauty or the vibrancy of this place. I drive back to my hotel on the foreshore of Larnaca and consider the last four week’s Odyssey.

I am not Penelope, languishing at home, weeping over my tapestry. I am the traveller, the maker, the keeper of our history. I am the product of the bravery of my ancestors who dared to leave these mystical places in search of a better future for me.

It’s a cliché but it’s true. I owe them everything.

The Gods of Strangers opens at the Northern Festival Centre, Port Pirie, Nov 9-10, before transferring to the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, November 14 – December 2

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