Since the US election, I’ve been devastated by the state of America and the effect Trump has had and will continue to have on the world. I’ve imagined potential dystopian futures, from immigrants in cages like in the film Children of Men to complete nuclear annihilation.
In April I was lucky enough to take a research trip to Greece. I needed a vacation, and I needed a break from the constant terrible news. I made a point to not really look at Facebook—though I didn’t completely unplug. But while I was in Crete, it was difficult to avoid posts that implied a potential beginning of World War Three.
It’s the end of the world, I thought (not for the first time.) But then I realized I was in a place where the world had already ended several times, and yet below my hotel room people were meeting friends at cafés and generally enjoying themselves even though their economy is in crisis.
The Minoan civilization prospered 4,000 years ago and had an advanced engineering system—including having flush toilets at least 3,000 years ago. What is left of Minoan art is incredible and compels people around the world to journey to Crete to see the sites that remain. However, this thriving civilization was destroyed by earthquake, volcanic eruption, Mycenaeans—or a combination of all three.
Centuries later, Crete was occupied by the Romans, the Venetians, and then the Ottomans (which our taxi driver/tour guide pronounced “Othermans.”) During World War Two, the Nazis occupied the island. Our taxi driver told us this as his car climbed narrow mountainous streets through picturesque villages surrounded by farmland with a view of the sea.
“Did the Nazis come here?” my mother asked. “Yes,” the taxi driver said, “all over the island.” He told us they went into the hills, into the villages and killed thousands. There’s nothing quite like seeing a beautiful place and learning something horrifying happened there, yet the memories of those people and those cultures still remain.
I know it’s not a very optimistic way of looking at our current situation. I feel like things are falling apart in the US and all I read is horrible news about the current administration dismantling everything we took for granted (science for example). So it was especially enlightening to travel to an ancient land where civilizations have collapsed many times, and yet the people and the art remain and continue to be inspirational.
There is a kindness on Crete, a hospitality to the stranger and a more mellow way of life (even the soap dispensers seem to take a moment longer.) Coming from California, it’s hard to imagine a place with such a long, well-documented history. Visiting Greece in this time of uncertainty gave me a bigger perspective.
The world has ended many times on Crete, but people are still there, still going out to cafes and meeting friends, and they will offer you a “welcome potato,” or a cup of fish soup with a pretzel straw and a “from us” dessert with raki at the end of a meal. And for now that kindness is helping make it all a little more bearable.