My sister Debbie is making candy dish fortune tellers out of paper placemats, a fitting endeavor on the way to Delfi, site of oracular prophecy. We’ve stopped at what is possibly the cleanest and most stylish way station we have ever seen, drinking limonadas and stretching our legs three quarters of the way to our destination. Our knowledgeable, gravel-voiced driver Marcos (AKA the Greek Ernest Borgnine) stays to himself, drinking coffee and answering his cellphone, which, to the delight of my twitching fingers, plays the theme to the video game “Galaga” whenever he gets a call. Benjamin forces me to play the prophet, asking the candy dish “Will Baba let me get a bouncing ball out of the bubblegum machine?” He tremulously picks “Orange” and then “Tiger,” and I dutifully move my fingers the requisite number of movements. He picks “One,” and holds his breath, even though he himself as written out all the possible answers underneath not ten minutes before. “Absolutely,” is revealed under flap One. Benj merrily makes his way to the round glass dispensing machine, clutching his 1-Euro coin, and not only gets a Tinker Bell ball for his cousin Shaela on the 1st try, but a BEN 10! ball with his second! This prophecy has been particularly propitious. The magic of Delfi is at work.
We were warned by several people not to go to Delfi, that it was too far away, too rermote to be worth it, but I am so very glad that we went. There’s something about chartering a van to go two hours into the Greek countryside for a spot of culture and back again that feels straight out of an E.M Forster novel (one that includes a portable DVD player for the kids, thank the gods). We’re in foreign climes, taking a leisurely jaunt in our carriage during our indolent summer abroad. There’s nothing one can do to pass the time but converse on light subjects and doze pleasantly, looking out at the landscape and twirling one’s parasol. Here’s where one would contemplate the green rolling hills, blanketed in olive trees. One’s blood would begin to stir, recalling an exchange of looks with a sooty-eyed, full-lipped youth. Alas, nothing of that sort has happened yet, though I swear the man behind the counter at the way station gave me a special look when I ordered “tha thelumei tha pitei tria limonata, parakalo.” Then again, maybe not. I was still wearing the damned money belt (and, yes, wearing it backwards still makes you look thick in the middle. Thicker.).
Delfi is even more profound an experience than the Acropolis, if that’s possible. Maybe it’s the setting, high up in the mountains, rocky peaks encroaching on all sides and towering firs everywhere. The site feels more ancient. The structures are cruder than at the Acropolis, but all the more impressive for it. The giant slabs of rocks and marble feel more like a primeval force of nature than man-made. In photos, they may look like a bunch of rocks, but staring up at them in person, one imagines titans at work.
One travels in a winding path, constantly up, up, passing the sacred waters where supplicants would purify themselves, pass the treasuries of various city-states, the theatre, arriving at the Rock of the Sibyl, where one can imagine the priestess, fueled by chewed laurel leaves and mania, making her cryptic predictions. Onward to the massive Temple of Apollo (another snake protector, Python, slain here by Apollo) and then still further up to reach the stadium. All of this lays in its natural state; there are very few markers and many times not even a rope separating you from the ruins.
In my book, Liberace Under Venetian Skies, I have two Greek characters who practice an ancient pagan religion from the mountainside, and I’m happy that my description of their practice would not be out of place in this environment. I imagine them posing on these rocks, immobile, for hours, guardians of the sacred cave. I’ve also put them on Vespas, which is perfect considering all the motorbikes barreling down Athenian sidewalks. It’s a relief.
The last stop is at the museum, which houses many of the artifacts found at the site. Amazing to stare up at a huge sphinx, which seems poised to ask you questions, and wander through within touching distance of pieces more than three thousand years old.
Interesting, how these fragments of friezes and sculpture force the viewer to engage their imagination. These remnants require an act of synecdoche; we see a part and imagine the whole. A single foot, a piece of shoulder and a paw transforms into Heracles wrestling the Nimean Lion; the bottom of a skirt conjures up an entire Kore; we observe a sculpture of an intensely-gazing youth holding untethered straps in his hand and instantly his chariot and horse springs up around him. The past comes alive only when we will it so.