BY: AMIELLE CHRISTOPHERSON
During the Winter 2019 three week class, I went with Dr. Brandon Alakas and Geoffrey Dipple to Greece and Sicily for their AUCLA294 course (the blog for which you can check out here).
If there are any two places that are quite ideal for studying Classical literature, it is definitely Greece and Sicily. When we first landed in wet and rainy, damp and dreary Athens, all of us students had our sleepy faces pressed up against the glass of the bus, in awe of the glow of the city and the way the Acropolis stood above it all; illuminated and shining above the bustling city.
Most of us on the trip were those kids, the ones who read and re-read and potentially over read about the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and the many weird and awful ways they would punish each other and the humans just trying to live their lives. Getting to stand in front of the Parthenon, with its towering, crumbling columns and learning about the Caryatids holding up the Erechtheion, and to imagine the faith and dedication, the hard labour and sheer mental genius that went into constructing these structures. Also the fact that you can see the still entirely intact temple of Hephaestus from the Acropolis, surrounded by round, green trees, and another, mostly fallen apart, temple of Zeus is just…the amount of history that lives side to side and embedded within the daily routine of Greeks is absolutely astounding.
I kind of lost track of how many museums we visited, but the Acropolis Museum was the first one we wandered around in and it absolutely took my breath away. Of course I’d known the Greeks were artists, they were poets, they felt deeply and poignantly and eternally; we have so much evidence of that. But! Reading about that evidence, seeing photos of it, all flat and washed out and cramped between binding and cover does not compare to the way all of it looks in person. The way statues look almost human, the etch of muscle and bone under could-be-real skin, the delicate touch required to paint each of those vases and pieces of pottery, the life that was spoken into all of their pieces because they were their lives, they believed in these pieces.
We stayed the longest in the Greek seaside city of Nafplio in the Pension Marianna, a renovated monastery with a view of the mountains and the port, where you could watch the sunrise come up, all glittery and pink and gold and breathtaking, a fresh, brimming with juice orange sitting warmly in your palm. We ate farm fresh honey drizzled over Greek yogurt, with homemade orange, cheery, lemon marmalade (there was a little lemon tree in a yellow pot that greeted me on my way to breakfast every morning) and freshly baked, flakey goods sat next to the fresh hard boiled eggs and it felt like royalty.
After our time in Greece, we flew across the waters to Sicily and stayed a few days in Syracusa, then bused over to Agrigento and then up to Palermo. While the Acropolis was probably my favourite stop in Greece, my favourite one in Sicily had to be the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) in Agrigento.
There’s a mix there, between the old (these mostly crumbling temples (except for the Temple of Concordia)) and the new (art installations by Sicilian artists dot the landscape and blend in perfectly for what has sat there for thousands of years). It was so interesting to see the way in which people play with their history, the way they make it their own, how they show it respect but also don’t allow it to completely over dominate their own worlds and identities. That the Sicilians had made space, both within this site and within some of their museums, for their modern art and their current, flesh and bone and breathing people of today next to the dead and decayed and no-longer-with-us was inspiring. Be inspired by history, but not so much that you are intimidated by it. Respect history, but not so much that it dominates you. Pay homage, but not so much that you lose yourself.
Another one of my favourite things we got to see and learn about while we were in Sicily was the story of the nymph Arethusa. While Arethusa was unknowingly bathing in the river of the river god Alpheus, the god fell in love with her. However, the nymph rejected his advances and begged the moon goddess Artemis to please help her, which she did, by turning Arethusa into a stream. As a stream, Arethusa plunged into the ground and escaped to Syracuse. Alpheus, not wanting to be denied his love, called to the god Zeus to take him to Arethusa, which he did. Alpheus was turned into a stream and followed her to Syracuse, where the two are intermingled in the waters of the Fountain of Arethusa.
It was an interesting story to hear, especially when placed next to a lot of the stories we’ve been hearing the media over the last few years, about young women doing their best to stay away from predatory men and not being able to escape, and how men in power tend to help men in power while women often do their best to help other women. It was painful to think that, even after so many thousands of years, we’re still struggling with the same theme in so many stories and that some things still have not changed.
After years of wanting to visit these countries, to dive deeply into the history and explore the connections to our modern world and to really see how connected we are to things that happened so long ago, it was a wonderful experience finally getting to do so. The group that I travelled with was lovely and we had a great time exploring and exclaiming over the art together.