In The Hill of Kronos Peter Levi considers his various journeys to Greece. His first trip was in 1963. A night at Heathrow waiting for a long delayed flight to Milan gave him ‘romantic pleasure’. Then a hot slow train journey to Genoa to catch a boat which called at Naples then cut between Sicily and the mainland on its way to the Gulf of Corinth, Parnassos to the north, and the first scents of pine and thyme on the way through the Corinth canal. On another occasion he took the train all the way to Brindisi, an ‘arduous route’ with only the advantage of the four cities of Rimini, Ancona, Bari and Brindisi. Rimini has ‘the finest marble decorations of the Renaissance’. Brindisi is where Virgil died. On the boat he makes friends with a sailor from Chios who sings mournful folk songs. He comes on deck at dawn for his first view of distant blue-grey islands. Or it was the Orient Express to Venice and all the way through Yugoslavia. You could travel in the same coach from Calais to Athens. But you need to know the baker’s tucked away near the station in Athens, and the smoked meat shop in Milan. However you go you should take the advice of ‘an old central European exile who told him that “you must not descend on Athens for the first time from the air, like a gangster or a salesman of stockings.”
It surprised me to realise that my journey to Athens took place only a couple of years after his. I had thought that I belonged to a different generation. Levi’s erudition and his relatively early death place him, from my perspective, in a more distant past.
I was nineteen I think when I got a job, maybe now you’d call it an internship because I didn’t get paid, as a lorry driver’s mate for a journey to Athens to pick up a load of fish. It was a one-off. The owner of the lorry must have been quite an entrepreneur. I was supposed to help Dave with all things foreign. The fish, I think they were grey mullet, or was it red? – had been caught off the coast of west Africa and would have been quite a novelty in England at that time. For me the biggest adventure was spending so long with Dave the lorry driver.
I was enjoying my few old memories of that trip until I realised it’s like driving into the sun. I can’t see anything else. What happened between Calais and Paris, between the Mont Blanc tunnel and Ancona? why do I remember nothing of the journey by sea from Ancona to Patras? I’m blinded by a few images to which I must reluctantly grant iconic status. And the journey home has been replaced by one image. Back in Salisbury the owner of the haulage firm opened up the back of the lorry and to his satisfaction and my annoyance revealed among the ice and silver fish many cloudy bottles of white wine which we had ignorantly smuggled into the country. He seemed more pleased with the wine than the fish and was unapologetic about using us as ignorant mules. We didn’t even get a bottle. I don’t think so anyway, but here again I could be blinded.
When you tell a story you normally select and edit, but I can set down my memories of that trip in their narrow entirety.
1. We are driving down a one-way, three-line road in Paris which slopes down to an underpass. There’s a road sign which indicates the maximum height for vehicles in the underpass. Dave calls out, how high is 2.8 metres or whatever it was, and while I’m still thinking about this there’s a loud crunching bang, luckily we couldn’t have been going very fast or the whole roof of the lorry would have been stripped off. I had to get out and wave my arms about as Dave reversed against the streaming traffic in the Paris rush hour. Somehow we got out of there without attracting the attention of the authorities and the lorry didn’t seem to be too badly damaged.
2. Somewhere in southern France we stopped at night by the road side and I slept under the lorry. Maybe Dave needed to stretch out across both seats, I don’t know.
3. We were stuck on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc tunnel, waiting for documents. Without of course realising it, we were discovering the disadvantages of not being in a single market. I have no idea what these documents were, I don’t know if I ever knew. After we’d sat there for a day or two I hitched back through the tunnel to France to phone Salisbury and ask what we should do. I couldn’t phone from Italy because there was a strike. The Owner was pretty pissed off, we were wasting valuable time, just go, go! he shouted. Don’t worry about the papers. So we did. Did these documents matter or not? I never knew. While we were waiting I wandered away from the car park and sat on the edge of the glacier’s moraine. Occasionally, though undisturbed, a small stone would move, trickle gently down the slope. The whole thing was alive and moving very slowly. Once I walked down and found a virtually abandoned alpine village. This was the first time I’d been to a settlement without streets and pavements. The houses were set in what seemed like a random pattern linked by stony paths. The weather was grey and I saw nobody.
4. Only in Ancona did my journey to Greece intersect with Peter Levi’s. It has ‘shadows and dramatic monuments’, he said. We were to catch the ferry to Patras, but there were more papers to sort out. The offices were in some kind of palazzo; stone columns, high ceilings, a long wooden counter built like a wall dividing the public area from the slow bureaucrats beyond. Angular shafts of sunlight teemed with dust. It was very hot outside, and cool inside. Something must have been resolved, but I only remember the waiting.
5. This is where my personal memories become confused with images from a common culture. Did we visit the Acropolis? I think so.
6. On the way back Dave wanted to fix me up with a prostitute on the boat. Apparently there were lots of them on the boat, and lots of lorry drivers. I said no and felt horribly ashamed and embarrassed.
7. Near Milan the freezer motor packed up, which obviously could have been disastrous, since we were on our way home with a load of red mullet caught off the coast of West Africa by Greek fishermen. It was amazing that it had lasted that long after the accident in Paris. But it turned out – I don’t know how, did we look it up in a manual, did I make another tricky phone call? – that one of only two places in the whole of Europe where they fixed those motors was in Milan and somehow I found the place, and they fixed it.
8. One more snap – I think I saw the Corinth canal on the way to Athens, so deep, with dead straight sides cut through nicely solid rock.
And that’s it. Is that where fiction begins? The only place where I sense something growing out of the uncertainty of memory is that office in Ancona, the long solid desk or counter built like a wall, like a fortified frontier, the border between the anxious, impatient and ignorant like me and the officials on the other side who were, and this is probably made up and of course influenced by familiar fiction, inaccessible and trapped in those beams of dusty light.