Tag Archives: pilgrimage

Chocolate Cake for Breakfast

Looking back, I think the first seeds for this trip were planted when I read The Camino, Shirley MacLaine’s account of her pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostela Camino in northern Spain. I was inspired by her encounters with entities from past lives, her visions and revelations. I told myself that I’d like to take a similar journey someday, but one with better food and more comfortable accommodations. And here I was, nine years later looking over the breakfast buffet at my hotel in Athens thinking about Shirley and the meagre meals she was offered at the refugios along her 500-mile trek.

Socrates, my seat mate on the plane from Heathrow, told me that Greeks don’t do breakfast, and it was all too apparent from the offerings before me that this was the case. The cold hard-boiled eggs, dry bread, deli-sliced processed cheese and what I assumed was ham, canned fruit cocktail, and overly-thick Greek yogurt represented a veritable feast compared to the meals Shirley encountered on her pilgrimage, yet I longed for something more.

I headed for a cafe I’d discovered the day before that claimed to have the best coffee in the city. After seating myself outside beneath the awning, a waiter approached. I remembered Socrates telling me I must try bougatsa, a phyllo pastry with a creamy custard filling sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. I ordered a latte and asked if they had this classic Greek confection, but alas, no. From our brief interchange, I knew the waiter’s understanding of English was limited, and my ability to speak Greek was nonexistent. As he waited patiently, I heard myself say, “Pain au chocolat?” Now, I was totally aware that I wasn’t in France, but I thought – well, to be honest, I wasn’t thinking – it had just poppped out of my mouth. The waiter nodded and minutes later was back at my table with a large piece of chocolate layer cake. Deciding I may as well make the best of a botched communication, I dug in. And I have to tell you, it was one of the best pieces of chocolate cake I’d ever eaten.

Acropolis Museum ©2009 Charlene Nevill

Acropolis Museum ©2009 Charlene Nevill

After devouring every last crumb, I set off for the new Acropolis Museum. When I arrived, there was a long line and when I got through security, I learned that my ticket to the Acropolis did not, in fact, grant me entrance to the museum as had been advertised. The line for tickets was equally long, and I knew that the museum was closing early that day because of the national  elections, so I decided to give it up and come back at the end of my trip.

Ruins under Acropolis MuseumBefore taking off, I examined what was visible of the ruins of an ancient  city beneath the museum discovered when construction began ten years ago. The neighborhood, inhabited from the fifth century B.C to the 12th century, included private villas, bathhouses, workshops and cisterns, and the dig uncovered a treasure trove of busts, coins, children’s toys and cooking utensils. The site which had been filled with truckloads of sand to protect it during construction won’t be totally uncovered and open to visitors until next year, but I was fascinated by what I could see through the glass walkways leading up to the museum.

Herod Atticus Odean ©2009 Charlene Nevill

Herod Atticus Odean ©2009 Charlene Nevill

It was now late morning and I had no other plans for the day, so I joined the tourists and Athenians on the walkway on the south slope of the Acropolis. I wasn’t on the lookout for more monuments, but I had to stop to admire the Odeon of Herod Atticus, a stone theatre built in 161 AD. Still in use, the Odeon is one of the main venues of the annual Athens Festival.

As I continued meandering along some of the same streets and alleys I’d walked the day before, I was thinking how strange it was for me to be moving through the city with no map and no predetermined plan. Walking more slowly, stopping to observe whatever caught my attention, listening to my instincts – it had all worked surprisingly well on my first day in Athens. But a half hour into my after-dinner walk, I realized I had wandered into unfamiliar territory and I had no idea how to find my way back to my hotel. With the crowds, the lights and the souvenir shops, I was beginning to feel like I was trapped in a Twilight-Zone carnival where all the vendors looked exactly alike. But instead of giving in to fear of being irretrievably lost, I remained calm and just kept going. And after walking in what seemed like a maze for at least an hour, I found myself back in front of the restaurant where I’d had my dinner.

The labyrinth, a maze-like structure from Greek mythology, is often thought of as a symbolic form of pilgrimage, and in modern times it’s used to quiet the mind and to promote a contemplative state. The streets of the Plaka with my hotel, The Central, at the center of the maze, had served that purpose for me with the added bonus of helping me let go of a deeply-imbedded fear. I hoped that after this journey as I made my way back out into the world, I would have a broader understanding of myself and my place in it.


The Tests Begin

Moon Over Athens ©2009 Charlene Nevill

Moon Over Athens ©2009 Charlene Nevill

Despite rather ominous predictions, I have returned unscathed from my journey to Delphi. As promised, there were tests. And there was an unexpected development. But I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to make the trip and I’m even more grateful to be home.

My first test was one of patience. After a ten-hour flight, I had an eight-hour layover at Heathrow. Rather than dash into London as two of my friends had suggested, I decided to get into the proper frame of mind for a pilgrimage right in the middle of Terminal 5. Feeling not unlike Tom Hanks in the movie The Terminal, I wandered up, down and around both levels several times. I ate. I read. And instead of obsessively engaging strangers in friendly chatter, I sat and calmly observed the people and the space around me and listened to my own thoughts. As daylight turned to darkness and the lights came up, the interior space that had resembled a giant gymnasium a few hours earlier took on the reverential air of a cathedral and there was a palpable hush as the travelers moved about more slowly.

The second test occurred after I arrived at my hotel in Athens. I’d had a pleasant flight from London and I’d arranged a cab to pick me up at the airport, but it was 4 a.m. and I was very tired. After checking in, I made my way to the elevator which turned out to be the size of a matchbox. I wrangled my small suitcase and my small self into the claustrophobic space and prayed as the doors slid closed barely missing my nose. So far, so good.

When I got to my room wanting nothing more than to climb out of the clothes I’d had on for what seemed like days and climb into bed, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on. Just inside the door, there were the usual switches, but pressing and pushing them up and down did nothing. I parked my suitcase inside the room and headed back to the front desk. I was told to insert the room key into the slot at the top of the first switch. Back upstairs, I found the slot, slid my key in and there was light. Hallelujah! But two minutes later, the lights went out. Fumbling about in total darkness, I located the key I’d set down on the beside table and reinserted it into the slot. Lights! Two minutes later, darkness descended once again. Back at the front desk, I learned that the key needed to remain in the slot. Oh. I wondered if I might have been able to figure this out if I hadn’t been awake for over 24 hours. But no matter–I could see at last. And I had arrived at my destination without incident.

Before collapsing, I grabbed my camera and headed for the roof hoping to see the moon above the Acropolis. And there it was shining down on the Parthenon. It wasn’t a harvest moon, but it was full and it was beautiful.


Great Expectations

“Man cannot discover new oceans until he has courage to lose sight of the shore.” – unknown

Delphi ©2007 Leonidtsvetkov

Delphi ©2007 Leonidtsvetkov

In anticipation of my departure, I’ve been experiencing a myriad of emotions, mostly fear and sadness. The fear no doubt is related to that chat I had with Source a while ago about being tested on this journey. And my clairvoyant friend Angelika warned me when this trip was just a fantasy that I could make all the plans all I wanted, but Spirit would have final say in the way things would unfold. And the sadness? Well, I have a premonition that nothing will be the same when I return.

But according to writer, teacher, travel leader, and documentary filmmaker Phil Cousineau who has been on the road all his life, this is exactly what can be expected when one sets out on a soulful journey. In his book, The Art of Pilgrimage, he recounts innumerable stories about pilgrims, sojourners and explorers who have traversed the globe throughout the millennia.

Siting Muriel Rukeyser’s essay, The Life of Poetry, Cousineau compares the fear of soulful travel to resistance to modern poetry. “A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response. So too with powerful and soulful travel. It seizes your imagination, but the way through to the sacred moment can also be through deep anxiety about the unknown. The possibility produces fear in many travelers, even at the threshold of their own door before leaving home.”

What am I expecting to find at Delphi? If given the choice, I would wish for a transformative experience analogous to that of Henry Miller, who was so moved by his travels through Greece that the account of his journey, The Colossus of Maroussi, “streamed from the heavens” straight into his soul. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

So, I am off at last. I leave today unfettered and untethered, so you won’t see anything from me until I return mid-October. In the meantime, don’t forget to look for the Harvest Moon this weekend. God willing, I will be viewing it rising above the Acropolis.


You Always Take Yourself With You

In response to the news about my upcoming pilgrimage to Delphi, my friend Gary suggested that there’s ‘no need to travel to the dusty realms of the world’ to find enlightenment. I’m sure this is true. In cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension, neurosurgeon/rock star/superhero Buckaroo says, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And my former boss at Tiffany & Co. used to say, “You always take yourself with you.” I think the idea here is to look within instead of running around trying to find what seems to be missing in our lives.

But what of desire? When I graduated from high school, my best friend and I jumped on a Greyhound Bus headed for California. I can’t remember what inspired this trip, but I think it may have been my cute second-cousin Jeffrey whom I had met on a road trip with my parents. What I hoped to accomplish by seeing him again, I have no idea. But no matter; I think my friend and I just needed to experience the world outside our conservative Midwest suburban environs.

Charlene and Karen

At the Claremont

So after saving a dollar each week for four years, we bought our tickets, packed our bags and were off despite parental admonitions. I don’t think we even met up with Cousin Jeffrey. But we learned that we could take care of ourselves and we found out that we could do it without much money. Having spent almost all our savings on our tickets, we decided to bring Carnation Instant Breakfast, powdered soup, and crackers with us. I remember gazing through a restaurant window in Denver at chickens turning slowly on a rotisserie longing for a hot meal that didn’t include soup. But we didn’t starve, and we returned with our virginity intact in spite of our encounter with two cute guys we met at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland.

I guess I could opt for hours of meditation instead of traveling to Delphi. Who knows? I may come back having felt nothing. If that happens, dealing with disappointment will be an adventure in itself.