When I was a child, my teacher pulled my mother aside and had a conversation about my reading skills or, rather, lack thereof. Concerned at my non-existent progress and my petrifying silence, my teacher suggested that I may be mentally handicapped in some way. Now, there is nothing shameful in having a reading disability or a mental handicap but there is something amiss in the diagnosis when the child in question (me) just doesn’t. My mother knew that. But she was worried. Language and reading comprehension are integral in a child’s development and the truth was I was having a much harder time than my peers—so what to do?
So she and my father worked out an agreement between the two of them: if they couldn’t get me to read, they would read to me. Most parents read to their children. But my parents picked up that torch with the veracity of Philippides running from the battle of Marathon to proclaim the defeat of the Persian army to the Athenian assembly. In other words, they read to me A LOT.
Every night without fail, no matter which parent’s house, no matter how long their day had been, my parents read to me. We started with the basics: If Your Give A Mouse A Cookie, Mr. Putter and Tabby, The Bernstein Bears, Babar the Elephant, etc. But the rate at which I devoured these age appropriate books could not keep up with the short storytelling nature of these texts. So we moved from the finite to the infinite, we moved into myths.
There is no end to mythology, it is a constantly replenishing well in which there is always another thread, another variation, another recomposition to be experienced. Sitting in a drawer in my mother’s house is the book that started it all, the compass rose, that not only still serves as my guide through the tangled, circular web of Greek mythology but was the enigma machine that decoded that impenetrable world of words for me: The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki.
If you have children, or even if you don’t, buy this book. If you love Greek mythology, or even if you don’t, buy this book. It remains to this day one of the most beautiful books I own. And, let me assure you, I own a tremendous amount of books. It’s a simple paperback that you can pick up on Amazon for under fifteen dollars and for that bargain price you will possess some of the most stunning artistic renderings of Greek mythology I have ever seen.
These images possessed me as a child. I made my parents pick this book up over and over again because I was entranced. Even when they weren’t home, I would take up the book and turn the pages over and over, trying to reconstruct the stories from the pictures and from memory. But it wasn’t enough. The images weren’t enough. They were an important part of the ritual but the spell was incomplete without my ability to decipher the incantation. So, in between bed time storytellings, I would sit by myself, and try to work backwards from the residue of my parents’ readings the night before, the pictures as a guide, and, rather inexplicably, one day my mother came home to find me reading contentedly on the couch. By myself.
Very quickly the bookshelf, bedside table, and floor of my childhood bedrooms filled to the brim with every edition of any and every Greek mythology book I could get my hands on. I have two versions of the Encyclopedia of Mythology, which I had to be talked down from lugging to England. But there was one story I became transfixed by and that, to this day, occupies whole shelves of my house with its different variants, translations, and iterations: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. These epic poems are among the first known works of Western literature. The two poems cover a twenty year epoch of Greek history: The Iliad takes place during the final year of the ten year Greek campaign against Troy—a conflict ignited when the Queen of Sparta elopes with Prince Paris to become Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships. I love The Iliad. It is a tale of Gods, battles, forbidden love, tragic death, ingenious plots, and heroic glory. But my heart has always lain with the second text: The Odyssey. The Odyssey relates the ten-year saga that is Odysseus’s journey from Troy to return home to his kingdom of Ithaca, a small rocky island off the coast of Greece. But hey, home’s home.
Odysseus always spoke to me—even before I became the transient traveler I am now, it was wandering Odysseus, not the beautiful and abused Helen, not the clever and steadfast Penelope, not the glory hungry Achilles, not the powerful Agamemnon, not even the gods themselves, nor any other character held the same sway over my young, little heart. None of them were Odysseus.
I did not travel to Greece. I did not travel to Turkey (where many scholars believe ancient Troy once stood.) I traveled to three different cities in Croatia, a place that has nothing to with Greek mythology, The Odyssey, or Odysseus himself. Yet.
Yet all the while, as I moved through Croatia, I found myself thinking of his long, long journey home. A different country, a different sea, and yet I felt myself reliving the voyage of my first hero, my Odysseus, transposing his wandering encounters across the Aegean onto these three cities along the Adriatic, each evoking a different ports and persons of Odysseus’s odyssey.
I first find myself visiting Circe’s Island, or Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city.
Circe was a goddess of magic and she is best remembered from The Odyssey as the enchantress with a penchant for potions and for turning her enemies (also known as the men who came to her island and invaded her home) into wolves, lions, swine, and other beasts. So basically, she’s my kind of feminist. Much like Odysseus’s sojourn on Circe’s island, I didn’t intend to stay in Zagreb for long. Coming from Budapest, and desiring to get down to Dubrovnik, stopping in Zagreb was both a logical and necessary port of call. And, much like Odysseus, I found myself bewitched.
Zagreb is a city of bells and nuns, of steampunk and summer. Zagreb is Fugazi and bad beer that makes you crazy; it’s museums as dedicated to the wonder of love as to its failings. There is a play on darkness and light here that would be worthy of a Vermeer painting. There is an ease, a comfortability with one’s self and the ambiguities of life that instantly has me longing for a return. Zagreb is a place you unintentionally stumble upon and willingly never come back from. Particles of magic swirl through the air, dusting the tulips that carpet the city.
Magic in the air over Zagreb
In Zagreb you sit and you smoke and you drink coffee. You soak in the world. But there’s a flip side to it, some granules at the bottom of your coffee cup from which you don’t predict the future but shape it. Everyone in Zagreb knows about everything. As a generation, I have never met so many young people who knew so much about the arts, culture, politics, music, etc. across such an international scale.
There are some cities where life bubbles beneath the surface, others where it bellows forth from every nook and cranny; Zagreb is a city where life floods through you, where you are buoyed up by it. There is desire and dreams and drive but there is a confidence in the pursuit and knowledge that their hunger will be satiated.
I spend most of time in Zagreb with people. From the moment I arrive I am enfolded into a group of friends. We go to impromptu summer concerts, dance amongst abandoned buildings. We talk about music and life and art. We laugh so much. It feels like going home to the friends that have known you your whole life. That’s how it easy it is.
Circe and Odysseus have one of my favorite relationships of The Odyssey because they exist on an equal playing field with each other. They’re a match. After he’s escaped her bewitchments, Odysseus’s stays for another year. Unlike later on in story, he doesn’t stay because he is trapped, but because he chooses to. Circe doesn’t imprison him, doesn’t feel the need to curse him, instead they become friends, and it is her good advice that saves Odysseus time and time again over the rest of his journey. Penelope may be the love of his life, but Circe is Odysseus’s soulmate.
I am only in Zagreb for an all too brief three days. Yet it is the only place the made me consider changing course, changing plans, and staying longer than I had intended. And there are not many people or places in the world that have ever managed to almost convince me of that. Perhaps one day I will go and stay and stay. But that’s an adventure for another time.
Despite the mutual respect and friendship between them, Circe’s home is not Odyssey’s final resting place. And, for now, Zagreb is not mine. So with her wisdom and the encouragement of the gods, he bids his dear friend goodbye, and continues on his voyage. So I, with a bus ticket and warm memories, bid my dear new/old friends goodbye, and continue on my voyage.
Magic in the air over Zagreb
In The Odyssey, after Odysseus loses the remainder of his crew in a shipwreck (brought upon them by the sun god Helios for eating his sacred cattle) he finds himself stranded on the island of the nymph Calypso. He remains there, as her captive and sometimes lover, for the next seven years. Keep in mind, it took the man ten years to return home to Ithaca—so 70% of that journey time was spent on this island. It is said that Calypso fell in love with Odysseus the minute she set eyes on him and decided in that instant that he would be the mortal husband to her immortal self. She manages to enrapture him with her singing and before he’s realized it, seven years pass.
As I leave Zagreb, and before I get to Split, I stop to visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park, a forest reserve in central Croatia renowned for it’s complex system of terraced lakes and waterfalls. I spend less than seven hours there, the shortest respite of all my visitations in Croatia. Yet when I emerge I feel as if a lifetime has passed.
(Waterfalls of Plitvice)
To walk through Plitvice is to walk through wonder. Here, here is a place that seems to belong to another world; submerged bridges, billowing waterfalls, gazing out from the jutting cliff face to behold the strength of nature’s gushing, wet, veins—would it be so bad, so foolish to remain here? To give up life and become nymph to this place? Traveling across the lakes, walking up against those thundering waterfalls, the mist kissing my lips flirtatiously, I feel mythic. Blessed by the gods of water I feel primal and empowered. But besides the beauty, the hues of cerulean and turquoise, the foam made of a thousand different mermaids broken hearts, besides the smell of water and wet sopping into every pour, there is one element that stands out most clearly in my mind. Walking out of this ancient valley of lakes and canyons, the sound of galloping waterfalls, the sound of my own human heartbeat magnified outside of my chest, gradually ebbs, until the beat hushes, returning to the protection of my own rib cage and sacred Iambic pentameter. Yet the quiet itself is a gift; the silence after a waterfall is the richest I’ve ever heard.
Eventually, the Gods intervene and command Calypso to release Odysseus. Gifting Odysseus with supplies of bread and wine and a raft, she bids him a final farewell. But if the goddess Athena hadn’t intervened on Odysseus’s behalf would Odysseus have ever chosen to return? Or would the comfort and beauty of his present life with Calypso have been enough? The name Calypso is related to the Greek word meaning “to conceal.”——an embodiment of those things that divert people from their goals. This is a world in which fate is the arbitrator of all things and Odysseus has a different fate he is destined to fulfill. The waters of Plitvice are the closest to enchantment I have ever come; if there is magic in this world it is in each and every particle of mist in that place. But all spells are temporary and the delight of a seven years or seven hour rest, must eventually give way to a wanderers true voyage.
One final look over my shoulder and I wave goodbye to Calypso. The bus door shuts, and we exit the harbor. Odysseus and me, wandering together once more.
Plitvice National Lake Park
All through out The Iliad and The Odyssey, Odysseus is referred to as ‘Clever Odysseus.’ He is resourceful, wise, master mariner, enduring, and cunning Odysseus. He is a superb tactician and a brilliant mind; he uncovers Achilles’s disguise and convinces the fabled warrior to join the Greek camp; he conceives of the infamous Trojan Horse and hands the Greeks the method through which they will finally raze Ilium to the ground; he evades his own murder by tricking the Cyclops; he is reunited with his beloved wife after defeating her suitors in a game of strength and cleverness. Yet for the incredible maneuverings of his mind, he is not in fallible. His brilliance helps him but, more often than not, what truly saves Odysseus is the kindness of strangers.
I arrive to Spilt as the first flickerings of twilight appear, sparking across the water’s surface like little flares of bioluminescent star dust. Perhaps I am simply tired from a long day’s bus ride, perhaps I’m to preoccupied by the intoxicating proximity of the sea, or perhaps it’s simply because Athena or Artemis has decreed it be so, but I fairly immediately get lost and cannot find my way to my host. After wandering around the same block in circles, a woman I’ve passed half a dozen times approaches me and asks if she can help. Together we puzzle out the unmarked side road I have to go down. She walks me to the door and waits across the street until she sees my successfully shepherded in side.
Then I meet Tonka. Tonka sits in the ambiguous generation gap between my mother and my nona. She has electric red hair, glasses thick enough to serve as goggles, and a cigarette permanently in one hand. Her English is broken, my Croatian is non-existent, and somehow we stay up late in to the night discussing the development of Split, Croatia’s place in Europe, and global politics at large. In the early morning we get up together and wander the winding streets, second nature to Tonka, and go to the fish market. As we pass through the clothing, vegetable, and fish stalls, every other step we stop as Tonka sees another friend she must say good morning to. We wander around the market, the air thick with the smell of the sea and salt and blood. It’s elemental, it’s divine. After carefully instructing me on which fish to purchase we head home to have a late morning brunch with Tonka’s husband, Darko.
Looking across the table, at Tonka and Darko, for a moment, I see my grandparents before my grandfather’s passing, sitting across the dinning room table, laughing and talking about their travels together, smiling at one another that way only two people who have seen the world together can. My heart hurts but in the best way.
We spend the morning eating Croatian olives and drinking Croatian beer (noticing the trend yet?), as Darko basks in having a new audience to tell his tales to. A waiter on the cruise ships for fifty years, a legacy now carried on by his son, he’s talks about sailing around all the waters of the world; from the sea of Japan, navigating the fickle waves of Cape Horn, and traversing the draconic Southern Ocean, all the way down to Antarctica. Twice. When I ask him which, of all the cities in all the world, which one is his favorite, his reply is simple. He takes a sip of beer, pats the table lovingly, and says “Spilt.” It’s easy to understand his answer.
After story time, Tonka and Darko walk me into town before going off to visit their family and leaving me to explore the city. The heart of Split is tiny and centers around the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace. The ‘Palace’ (it’s technically one part fortress, one part palace) was built by the Romance Emperor Diocletian during the 4th century and was meant to be his future retirement home. Wouldn’t we all love to retire to a palace on the coast of the Adriatic? Though, most of what remains of the palace is full of gifts shops and restaurants, there is a special preserved piece of its heart that remains protected. To see the ruins you have to go down, descending into the bones of the earth. All the walls are wet and dampness fills the air. In the first few rooms, there is no light, only the sensation of water being all around you, as if this is Poseidon’s kingdom, not Diocletian’s. Then you emerge from the labyrinth into a courtyard filled with the kind of grey sunshine that is only born from the premonitions of ocean storms. In the courtyard I find two cats, a pair of real life sphinxes, little ghosts of emperors past, the last of their kind left behind to guard the place. We sit together in the courtyard. I can’t see the sea but I can hear it, smell it, I feel it. Here amongst the ruins of this ancient palace, with my small Roman guard, I feel at ease, at home.
(The bowels of Diocletian’s Palace)
The grey blur of the clouds intensifies to sharp iron. I bid the emperors farewell and wander my way back into the living part of the city. But Zeus is already there and lightening is flashing across the sky and I run into the doorway of a shop as the heavens open up. The storm is intense; the rain is thick and dense, creating small explosions of water each time it lands.
After Odysseus parts from Calypso, it doesn’t take long for him to find himself in trouble once more. A tempest is sent by the God of the Sea, Poseidon, as retribution for Odysseus blinding his son, the great Cyclops. Odysseus’s food and vessel are destroyed. He is alone in open water. Well, not quite alone. The goddess Ino sees him and takes pity on him. Ino was a mortal queen of Thebes who was later transformed into a minor goddess of the sea. She rescues Odysseus from the sea by giving him a veil that will protect him from drowning and carries him to a nearby island where she knows he will find safety and assistance.
I cannot even begin to recall the number of times I’ve been utterly lost while traveling, from wandering around Beijing two blocks from house to unintentionally getting a rickshaw tour of Dhaka to almost being stranded in rural Poland, getting lost is simply a part of the nomad experience. Getting lost can be terrifying and stressful, I’ve definitely cried more than once because of it. But it is also a humbling experience. Not because it is a reminder of my own infallibility (I am already very aware of that) but because it reminds you that people are kind. It’s easy to forget. We are constantly inundated with all the terrible things people do. And there are many, many bad people in this world. But there are also some Goddamn good ones. Odysseus doesn’t make it back home because of his cunning and resources, he makes it back because of the goodness of strangers, mortal and immortal alike. The best part of Croatia, of this journey, have been the people, the strangers I have met. The people that guide you, rescue you, share with you, they’re what makes us want to stay and they’re also why we have to go on.
The rain bursts down the ancient streets of Split, slipping along its angled walkways, making its way once more back to the sea. Finding its way back home.
After being saved by Ino, Odysseus finds himself once more a stranger in a strange land. Emerging from the woods naked (because, for some reason, this is highly emphasized in the text) he happens upon the princess of the island, Nausicca. She clothes him, feeds him, and advises him. She takes him before her mother the Queen. Odysseus recounts to her and her family the saga of his travels since the fall of Troy. Moved by the trials of his journey, the Queen grants him the ships that will finally land him on Ithacan soil.
What must have it been like, to hear the man himself spin the tale of his own adventure? Traveling from Split to Dubrovnik, I feel as if I have entered some ancient story, some long lost portion of some hero’s odyssey. Or perhaps, for a few brief snatches here and there, I step into my own picture book of myth and legend, seeping into the artistic and ethereal renderings that dance along the Dalmatia coast: the blue blaze of the Adriatic emerging in the morning sunlight, the way the sea seems to bleed into the battle worn mountains, a sapphire assertion of whose land this really is. The air smells of warmth and wood, the kind of fire that only burns on boats.
Dubrovnik is often referred to as ‘the pearl of the Adriatic.’ It’s not hard to understand why. This whole place is built of underground caves and grottos, it’s full of spiraling rock-hewn staircases, backyards that lead into the edge of forever, secret steps and passageways that stumble out onto the sea. Here is another whose heart lies in it’s history; Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town is the stuff of centuries past (and the filming local of future Game of Thrones episodes and Star Wars scenes.) Wandering around the old city, I am astounded that people live here, that ‘home’—a concept that seems so normal and present—can be represented by stones and steps that have stood for over fourteen centuries. I’m not sure my house back home is even fifty years old let alone almost fifteen hundred.
(A view from the walls)
I am spellbound by this place, obsessed with seeing it from every possible angle, in every possible way, desperate not to miss one crumb of its beauty. I wander the streets of the city, traipsing up and down the Stradum (the high street) more times than I can count. I pass little cats with their heads pressed to the tiles, as if in the middle of their daily worship. I spend the evening sitting in the central square, beer in hand, reclining on the steps of a church, while a jazz singer’s voice washes over me. I fall in love listening to the city’s heartbeat. I kayak around the bay, exploring every rock and island along her coast, soaking the sun and sea into my skin. I fall in love with the city as the salty taste of her lifeblood coats my lips. In the early morning I hike to the top of Mount Srđ, the great mountain that serves as the natural wall to Dubrovnik. I fall in love with the city as my feet and fingers tenderly trace a path up her spine, feeling every rock and curve. But under the touch of my hand, for the first time I feel her scars, and I am reminded that even places made for myths have had to face the realities of war. There are crosses at the crossroads.
A mere twenty five years ago, just slightly longer than I’ve been alive, the Croatian War for Independence, and the other conflicts in neighboring countries, including the immensely violent and devastating Bosnian War, emerged from the destruction of the single country once known as Yugoslavia. I can’t imagine these people, this land, embroiled in war. Yet the scar tissue is there. There are different stones in the walls of the city where bullets and bombs destroyed the ancient supports. It seems impossible, a citadel designed to keep out arrows and spears trying to survive missile attacks. But at least Dubrovnik’s walls stood to protect her; outside the walls there was no safety, no escape, no hope. That sentiment, that image belongs to another age, and yet it is a piece of history that parallels the heralding of my own life. Dubrovnik is my last city, she is the most beautiful and the most recently returned home from battle. I am reminded that we are never so far away from our past as we might think.
My final evening here, I walk the walls at sunset, circling the city as the burning embers of the sun melt like wax over her roofs and ramparts. Time is different here, like the undulations of the sea, it seems to both be moving forward and back, reaching for the past while caressing the face of the future. I feel memories old and unknown, and memories new and unformed, lying side by, side dormant in my cells. I feel ancient.
As a blue darkness settles over the city, I climb through a hole in the fortifications, scrambling down to a secret set of rocks I have discovered. I sit and stare at the water. The black of the Adriatic is different than the black of the sky. Perhaps this is where Odysseus was caught between Scylla and Charybdis; maybe here is where he heard the sirens song. Who knows what secrets, what adventures this water holds? Its possibilities are oceanic in their mystery and magnitude. There is always more to be to discovered, to mystify, to enthrall. Dubrovnik is a kind of simultaneous paradise, a place that could easily lull you into staying forever yet has such a vision of the great world beyond as its gates that I can’t imagine sitting here not wanting to lap up the world. Looking at this water, the way the different layers of color and current move against each other, you feel what could draw a man back out on to its waters after twenty years away from home. That’s what happens to Odysseus.
A view from the mountain top
Eventually, after all his long years in distant lands and distant seas, Odysseus comes home to reclaim his former life. He spent ten years at Troy and another ten years trying to return home from it. When he finally does return to his beloved Ithaca, the baby he left behind is a young man, and the wife who remained so devoted to him is no longer his young bride. But he has endured so much to get home to them, surely he spends the remainder of his days in peace and contentment? And, for a time, he does. But he doesn’t stay. He leaves and fills the remainder of his life with adventures both tragic and epic.
Why does he do it? Why does he fight so hard to get home, only to leave again?
I am writing about my trip to Croatia three months after I have left her beautiful shores. In the interim, I have traveled home to London and I have left again, on another epic journey of my own, this time through Scandinavia. And in a few weeks, I will be going home to my family for the first time in just under a year. Perhaps, Odysseus had to leave in order to come back. Perhaps, we can only truly comprehend one journey when we have finished another—only after traveling in a different part of the world could I begin to articulate, to tell my Croatian story. Or, perhaps, he left, I left, because we must. The traveler’s life is an endless Mobius strip of purpose: we are always leaving home, only to come back to it, only to leave again.
The last night of my trip is the first night of Passover. Passover is a Jewish holiday commemorating God’s liberation of the Jewish people from four hundred years of Pharaoh’s enslavement and their exodus out of Egypt. If Odysseus’s twenty-year journey dwarfs my seven-day expedition, then the Jews have outdone us both with forty years of wandering the desert. At least Odysseus and I got to be by the water. Despite my lack of Judaic ancestry, I have celebrated Passover almost every year of my adult life. I have eaten Seder dinners amongst the company of friends, neighbors, and strangers. The meals always stand out in my mind; a mixture of formal ritual performed with a sense of easy improvisation, food filled with stories, and the known and the unknown of the tribe sitting side-by-side clinking their glasses. This is one of my favorite moments of the year. I have always felt a kinship with the essence of this holiday; not simply because it is a homage to the endurance of the Jewish spirit but because it is also a testament to adventure, a commemoration to the hero’s journey.
Joseph Campbell, one of the forest most modern day scholars of myth, coined the idea of ‘the hero’s journey.’ Essentially, it is template that can be used to describe any story of folklore or mythology where a hero undertakes an adventure, has a moment of clear crisis, overcomes it, and then returns home a transformed person. All the great myths, the great stories of our times, follow this pattern: from the great Hebrew migration out of Egypt, across the desert, and into the land of milk and honey; from the twenty year saga of a clever man from Greece; even the adventures of a few rebels trying to fight the Empire with the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy; or the wondrous wonderings of one woman across Croatia, they are all shaped from the same primordial clay.
How is this possible? How can one model work across all these variations in person and time and space? Because it is not simply a guide for the tales and legends of our world, by the compass by which we navigate our lives.
The Adriatic Sea
I arrive home, to the city where they are always saying my name, smiling as the train pulls into Victoria Station. This is the first port through which I ever entered London, on impromptu day trip down from Scotland several years ago. Being at this station always makes me happy, not only for the childish thrill of seeing my name everywhere, not simply because it reminds of the day I knew I would make a home here, but because it reminds me of another home a few thousand miles away.
My mother loves Christmas. If she had her way we would keep the tree up all year (believe me, we’ve tried.) There is a running joke in the family that my inheritance will come in ornaments. Of the many, many, many aspects of my mother’s Christmas extravaganza, the heart of it to me has always been the Christmas village. Spread across any spare counter space available, the Christmas village is a hodgepodge of small figurines depicting different scenes from an English Christmas. There’s the lady pushing the baby carriage tinted with snow, the ice skating rink with children and lovers that will perform figure eights ad infinitum, and there is, at the heart of it all, Victoria Station with her windows all aglow.
Sometimes when we leave home, when we kiss our parents or our wife or our best friend goodbye, we don’t know when we’ll come back. We linger, trying to hold onto the edges of the moment, imprinting this last sight of them deep into our memories. What if we never come home again? But if I have learned nothing of my travels, I have learned this: you may never know when you’ll find your way home again but, no matter where you are in the world, home will always find you.
We must all in life make our own hero’s journey. But do not be afraid to set sail from Ithaca, to cross the desert, to venture into that great unknown, to boldly go where you have never gone before. You’ll come home again, the hero always does. But to be the hero you must start with the simplest, most impossible of all things: you have to go.
The Hero Path
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.
And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”
― Joseph Campbell
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