Another 40 degree day under denim blue skies on the island of Aegina, pistachio capital of Greece. We’re kitted up with our brimmed Tilley sunhats, sensible shoes and a slather of SPF-40. Hub’s toting a day bag packed with energy bars and frozen water bottles that are sweating through to his back. Why are we doing this? I’m a student of ancient history and Greece has always been ‘the’ place to see for me. Hub isn’t wild about museums and doesn’t care that much for history, but we’ve trekked side-by-side through the Louvre, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, over cobbled bridges in Bruges and up the dizzying pyramid spines in Tulum and Thai temples, and he’s never said “no, I won’t go with you”. Love of my life for so many reasons…
We’d been hiking for an hour on our way up to the Temple of Aphaia Athena. It seemed like a tidy jaunt when we looked for it on the map, but although the guidebooks described it as being only 4 kilometers from the centre of town and remarkably well preserved, they failed to take into account that our state of middle-aged fitness was not equally remarkable or that the rutted, rocky cart path twisted up the mountain on a 35 degree incline and had not a stick of shade. Every set-back house along the way was guarded by large, irritated dogs attached with frail-looking chains to concrete blocks in the scruffy yards we stroll by.
I think about the legions of ill-fed slave construction workers who walked this road two thousand years ago, clad in rough sandals and thin cloth, beset by mounted overseers with whips. They strained against the pull of the hill, not to take pictures of dusty debris, but to toil until death over those carved stone columns I’m so eager to see. There are mounds of stones piled everywhere under the trees – hasty graves, perhaps? But it’s hard to contemplate in these surroundings, with the resinous scent of sun-baked pine in our nostrils.
We pause now and then to lean against a light post. I’m tired and I can see that Hub is too, but I cajole him to continue ‘just up to that bent-over tree’. He smiles, reaching for my sweaty hand, and when our fingers fold together, I feel that familiar meaty throb deep in my bones. Again, I realize how lucky I am, that this amazing man who has been more places in the world than I can imagine, is hiking up this pebbly hill under the blazing sun with me, and that sometime that evening, when we’re cool and rested, we’ll laugh about our seniors’ moments of inspired silliness. Fifteen minutes later, though, hotter still and covered in a fine layer of sand stirred up by our feet, we stop (halfway up, we think) at a relatively flat stone outcrop – some sort of firebreak bulldozed between the dusty trees and endless stone fences – and he shrugs off the backpack. We drink some more water, feeling the muscles in our calves start to twitch, chatting about how the sun is crisping the skin on our bare arms and how much farther we’ll ascend before making the go-no go decision.
The view over the brightly-painted rooftops to the white yachts bobbing at anchor on the sparkling waters of Marathon Bay is dazzling and we snap off a dozen photos, fiddling with F-stops, trying to adjust our digital light-meters to the harsh glare. I finish first and stand behind Hub, watching him frame his shots. He stops and stares towards the shimmering horizon for a few moments. I take a step forward and lean my front against his broad shoulders, pressing my chin into the soft curve between his ear and his shoulder, wrapping my arms around his chest, inhaling the aroma of his heated body until I feel light-headed and reckless. He leans back a bit, stretching his arms back around my hips to pull me closer and I think that this is another one of those best times that we’re accumulating, heated and juicy with the unexpectedness of it. He murmurs an endearment in Swedish as I spread the collar of his shirt and drop kisses on the flesh beside his throat.
Behind the rustle of the trees, we hear the scrape of footsteps down the road and a rangy, hatless blondish woman strides around the corner. She carries no water or backpack. She’s not wearing sunglasses or breathing hard, either. Up close, she looks to be about 70 years old. Her tanned face is corrugated from exposure to the elements, but she has a lovely wide smile below bright blue eyes.
“Are you going to the Temple,” I ask as Hub and I step apart.
“Jå, jå. About 2.5 kilometers more.” She points with a swirling motion to beyond the tops of trees bending under the wind on the crest of the hill. “Not far.” Then she says, “I do this every year for 9 years. Good walk.”
I reply, “It’s too hot. We need cold beer.” Hub pipes up, “ice cream, ice cream”, so we smile goodbye and she continues her trek up the hill.
If anything, retracing our steps is more punishing than the ascent. The so-called road is slippery with gravel the size of marbles and we step downwards and sideways, like mountain climbers descending the flank of a glacier. The ice in our water bottles has melted to body temperature and the dust of the ancients that I’d wanted so badly to experience is clogging our throats. Have we been eating enough salty olives and feta to ward off sun-stroke? The yard dogs are hotter and angrier than an hour before, snarling and lunging at the iron fences as we trudge by.
At the coffee shop, I stare at the menu, trying to decipher the alien alphabet, then find a tiny picture – ice cream. Euro 6 for a cone, the owner says from the shade inside the bar. Hub shrugs his shoulders and sits down under the awning but I shake my head and make an impolite noise with my mouth, then say out loud- episis akribos – too expensive – and drag out a chair. The man had gone back to buffing the zinc counter but when he hears me, he hustles over and stands too close to my arm. “I give you a cup – no cone. Three Euro only, okay?”
We lounge under the shade as we dip the plastic spoons into the creamy chill, saying um, um, smiling with our faces pressed close together and feeding each other the smallest of tastes of each explosive flavor. After a while, watching the parade of spray-painted scooters and crapped-out Ladas puttering up and down the street becomes tiresome so Hub pulls out a day-old Svenska Dagbladet and I flip open my spiral-bound pad and begin to make notes about our morning.
A suety dame of about 60 arranges herself loudly at the table next to ours. The place is empty except for us, but it seems that’s ‘her’ table. She stares through dark glasses with frames like the front end of a Maserati – all golden and sleekly sweeping out to the sides. Her jeweled fingers hover over her helmet of immovable hair and her mouth has the pinwale corduroy above-the-lip wrinkles of a woman much put-out. I’ve seen that appraising look of hers before – who are these people, she’s thinking – the substantial black woman sporting a plump orange flower pinned to the band of her hat, the sleeves of her blouse rolled above her elbows, sitting knee-to-knee with that more substantial toasty-skinned blonde man wearing pants-of-many-pockets and a shirt that matches his deep blue eyes. I suspect she’s asking herself why we’re there in that little café and perplexed that we dare to enjoy each other so much, in public. Or maybe not. As Hub would say if I mentioned it, who cares? He’s right, of course – all that matters right then is us. Sure, she notices me stop writing and gaze in her direction, but she doesn’t give a damn. Well, I’ve grown accustomed to her kind of scrutiny so although I take note, I shrug and don’t give a damn, either.
I fiddle with my camera so I can take a few pictures of Hub and I with the auto-timer, then he takes a couple of us with his movie camera. We laugh at the playback because we’ve got ice cream on the corners of our mouths – peach on mine and chocolate on his – then we kiss and it’s gone. Later, I sneak a glance at her from under my brows, but she’s lost interest.