In early September 2005, with Louisiana and Mississippi under watery siege back in the U.S., we were drifting, hollow-eyed and worried, around Greece. Turns out, Greece was a little hollow-eyed, as well.
Odd metal boxes perched on posts line the dusty, precarious roadsides of Greece’s southern mainland, the Peloponnese. Few are exactly the same size and shape, but most have little doors that allow you to see inside. Some contain letters, candles, or fake flowers, others what seem to be bits of trash and faded images of ikons. Most stand apart from civilization, sometimes in clusters, more often all alone.
At first I mistook them for art objects, akin to the dioramas I create. Each seemed dedicated to anything from Coca Cola to the Virgin Mary, a not-altogether bizarre pairing for an American sensibility.
I asked Adam to stop the car by dozens of these boxes; I wanted to study, touch, photograph each one. As we’d drive away, I’d watch them recede in my mirror, wondering at their inscrutable isolation.
Days into our journey we found ourselves at rest in the tiny seaside resort town of Githio (also Gytheio or Gythio), a quiet place that saw its heyday in about 1896.
As the only customers in a huge cafe with an ochre-tiled floor and arched windows thick with vines and geraniums, we had the proprietor’s full attention. As we all looked out the window at a wedding party emerging in a cloud of balloons from a small church by the harbor’s edge, he opened a bottle of retsina and told us with a heavy sigh that he was moving to Connecticut.
A kind-eyed guy in his very late 30s, he lamented, in almost perfect English, the Greek government’s rash pattern of overspending for the Athens Olympics one year before. In the wake of his country’s great honor, there was little left for education, health care, even road maintenance.
He nodded in the direction of the bride and groom and said, “Honestly, I’m not sure what’s left for them.”
Looking past him out the window, we saw a picturesque village of pastel-painted hotels full of Greek weekenders and German tourists. The air was soft and grey in the early evening, and we heard the slow twang of a bouzouki being strummed. A little girl laughed, and Adam ate yet another olive. Githio was our home for 36 hours, and with the innocent eyes of tourists, seemed just lovely to us.
But soon our host would be off to Stamford to help run his cousin’s restaurant, hoping to build a new life with more security. Thinking that his dream might be unrealistic in light of yet another government letting its citizens drown as we spoke, we merely wished him luck. Looking down into my wine, I thought to ask a question he might be able to answer.
“Um, what are those metal boxes by the roadsides I see everywhere? Are they pieces of religious art?”
He looked taken aback for a second, then quickly recovered.
“No…those are shrines to people who have died in motor accidents. Many people here go over the side, the mountain roads are not safe at night.”
We thanked him for the tip and sank back into our chairs, boats bobbing in the Aegean, a balloon snaking free above the little church, towards the sky.