I never understood Homer’s “The Odyssey.” It was one of the first books I ever studied in high school, and despite my attempts to find it interesting, I never enjoyed it, lost interest, and received a big fat “C” on my paper. It was “all Greek to me,” my Humanities teacher say by rolling his eyes as he handed me the paper.
Until I traveled to Paros, that is. Paros is a small island near Athens, which is less popular than Mykonos or Santorini, but just as beautiful. I ended up there with my sister in the summer of ‘77, after a long trip from Stuttgart, Germany, followed by a hot, noisy Youth Hostel in Athens, and a quick boat ride ‘outta town.
We slept on the beach, ate canned food from our backpacks (not kidding) and tried our best to fit into the culture, but it did not work. My never-ending freckles, and my sister’s height, made us stand out like corn in a turnip field. We made friends and enemies instantly. We camped on the beach, near an older couple from Rutgers, as I recall, for safety purposes, but I do not remember them. Diogenes, though, was unforgettable. He was a very old and leathery man, with a long greying beard and never-been-cut-before white hair who walked with the help of piece of driftwood, a daily bottle of Ouzo and whatever he could steal. He lived on the beach, dressed, well… in a loin cloth, in a bush, which he decorated with small pieces of self-made photos, ripped from the pages of celebrity magazines discarded by the daily tourists; each stars’ photo stuck on a branch, as if to emphasize their importance.
We met him the very first evening, and he invited us in, to try some old beer he likely found on the beach, get warm by his raging fire and share stories, some which he clearly made up, and others which he vaguely remembered. During his flights of fancy, he sang songs, which were borne from a far-off place, possibly a beautiful island, which he himself had once visited, or from his childhood long ago, which he recalled in on-and-off moments like a light bulb. He was translucent. Mixing old classic songs with drunk poetry, he told us through beer breath how much he loved his island and how happy he was to know us; strangers, now friends, and instant family. “O Solo Mio…” he bellowed, as he danced around the fire. He had nothing, and everything all at the same time. And he was truly alive.
I am going to back to Greece this fall, for the first time since high school, and I will try to find Diogenes, even though I know he is long gone. Maybe I will see him sparkling in the stars from Santorini, or find him in the flames of a fire on a Mykonos beach. It does not matter. He is forever with me, just like all of the friends who live on in my heart. Like Homer, Diogenes’ story is not about the beach he ended up on, but the never-ending story he wrote along the way.