Insignificant on Santorini

Akrotiri's ruins - the Greek Pompeii

Akrotiri’s ruins – the Greek Pompeii

“Nature’s first green is gold / Her hardest hue to hold. / Her early leafs a flower; / But only so an hour. / Then leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay.” -Robert Frost

I remember feeling small as I entered the covered ruins of Akrotiri. The ancient city unfolded before me to the far end of the building, which only houses what has so far been uncovered.

A Bronze Age community on the Greek island of Santorini, Akrotiri is known as the Pompeii of Greece, except it’s much, much older. It was destroyed in early 1600 BC by a volcanic eruption, but its preservation is incredible as it was immediately buried in volcanic ash.

An old storage room in Akrotiri

An old storage room in Akrotiri

The air was cool and fresh, and I hesitated to step forward into the ruins at first.

“Go ahead,” said the man who worked there. “Start by walking to the right and go around the outside until it leads you to the center.”

We had paid him €5 to enter the site, and much like a lot of the remaining workers on Santorini, his heart just wasn’t in it.

I did as he instructed, hugged the edge of the site, reading the placards on my way around about the history of the settlement, how it was once a Minoan village on the volcanic island of what is now known as Santorini, classically called Thera, located in the Cyclades islands.

My breath became slow, steady, intentional. Out of a reverence or maybe a desire to draw in its history, I slowed my heartbeat with each inhale, exhale.

Greek food....mmmm....

Greek food….mmmm….

It was an emotional experience for me, looking back. The remnants of lives lived were on display for me to glean a bit of insight into what life entailed for them. Scattered pots, protected for thousands of years by volcanic ash, revealed their true colors to me as I looked on.

The archaeologists left them where they found them, clustered together in what must have been a storage house for foodstuffs.

And then I meandered down through the middle of the site, the walls suddenly climbing higher around me as I left the tourist’s walkway on the raised periphery. A window displayed a piece of artwork, shaped by hands connected to a body thousands of years ago.

A resounding feeling of insignificance hit me in that moment. All of the things I concern myself with – what will I eat for dinner, which house should I live in, what should I do with my life – were suddenly laid bare before me through this ancient civilization, which concerned itself with the same issues. And they were now gone.

How lives are lived

A view of Nea Kamena from our hotel room

A view of Nea Kamena from our hotel room

But I was on holiday, so my melancholy mood quickly washed away back at Aroma Suites, where our room overlooked the Aegean Sea. One more amazingly gluttonous Greek meal of lamb or fish quickly dissolved my Kafka-esque query of what is the point of life.

The next day, we took a ferry 30 minutes across to Nea Kameni, the volcanic island that last erupted in 1950.

After climbing its vaporous crags for an hour or so, we jumped into the hot springs, which smelled of sulphur and felt incredible – except for those moments when the current changed and the cold Aegean brushed our skin.

The boat ride back to Santorini, when it exposed its fierce caldera edge to us, made me want to stay forever. That free feeling when you’re guiltless on the sea is ever alluring, ever fleeting.

Nothing gold can stay.

View of Santorini's caldera from Nea Kamena

View of Santorini’s caldera from Nea Kamena

Later that afternoon, we made our way over to Oia, the picturesque town on the northern side of the island, built into the edge of the caldera. The narrow passages and physics-defying architecture was enough to make me stay.

Atlantis Books' cramped interior

Atlantis Books’ cramped interior

But then I found Atlantis Books.

A cramped little book shop tucked into one of the passages, Atlantis Books was founded in 2002. It has an eclectic collection of books from all over the world in many different languages.

And the owners have a sense of humor; I found Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the comedy section, just to give you a taste.

We were greeted, surprisingly, by a New Yorker, who told us he had just arrived the day before and saw us on the plane from Athens. “I’m doing a bookshop swap with my friends, the owners, who are running my shop in New York while I stay here for a few months,” he told us.

And indeed, tucked in the back room, where he had clearly been chain smoking, was a tiny cot with his half-unpacked bag.

I imagined he was staying there alone in the off-season to write a novel. And that thought made me insanely jealous.

The small things are important

Oia, where I would like to just stay forever.

Oia, where I would like to just stay forever.

The next day – after chewing off my husband’s ear with my fantasy about how, maybe in 10 years, we could buy a vacation house on Santorini where I could hermit myself and write – we drove to the highest heights of the island, where ancient Thera rests.

This antique city was inhabited from about 800 BC to 726 AD, founded by Doric colonists from Sparta; and its residents certainly picked a strategic spot in which to dwell. Even driving up the Messavouno mountain to reach the site made me nervous – and I love heights.

Once again, I found myself confronted with relics of the past. I walked among the ruins of old houses and public baths, and I imagined what this bustling community was once like.

The ruins of ancient Thera

The ruins of ancient Thera

The ruins of a theatre carved into the mountainside told me they had their priorities straight.

And again, I saw those seemingly insignificant artifacts that were a testament to the lives lived here. The remnants of pots and jugs used in everyday life that made me feel so frail in Akrotiri were the very things that drew me in to these cultures, I realized.

These small things reminded me of my temporal connection to them, and them to me.

No, nothing gold can stay, but there on Santorini, I suddenly felt that my tiny, inconsequential life was somehow significant.

Me, suddenly significant on Santorini

Me, suddenly significant on Santorini

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