Monday, February 22, 2010


Watching the Winter Olympics, starring cold and ice, made me long for Olympia, Greece, the stop on my cruise that followed Crete. After docking at the lovely port town of Katakolon, and driving through the scenic Kalamata countryside (covered with olive trees, just as you would imagine) we arrived at Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics.

Even before I learned that Olympia was a sacred site to the ancient Greeks, I felt the holiness in the air—something about the mountain mist, the quiet, the light. The Olympics were part of a festival that honored Zeus, and included processions, ceremonies, sacrifices and prayers as well as athletic contests. Games were held at Olympia as early as 776 B.C. and continued for more than 1,000 years. For each Olympiad a sacred truce was enacted to allow the athletes, spectators and pilgrims to travel safely to the site. The contests included footraces, discus and javelin, wrestling, boxing and equestrian events.

On our tour we saw the gymnasium, where athletes trained in the nude. “Think about that the next time you’re at the gym,” said our guide, Demetrios. Then we admired the Philippeion, (pictured above) a building Alexander the Great had built in honor of his father, and according to Demetrios, one of the most beautiful buildings in ancient Greece.

Most impressive to me was the imposing Temple of Zeus which once housed the gigantic gold and ivory statue of Zeus that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Though unfortunately the statue has disappeared without a trace, the size of the one pillar that remains standing (34 feet tall, 7 feet thick, weighing 9 tons!) allows you to imagine the grandeur of the original structure, worthy of the King of the Gods.

Temple of Zeus.

Temple of Zeus

After passing Hera’s altar, where the Olympic torch is lit for each modern Olympics, we paraded through the gateway to the stadium, where athletes competed as early as 2,500 years ago. The marble start and finish lines are still there, begging tourists to pose on them. Demetrios reluctantly allowed us to take photos, but only if we stood at the starting line, as the ancient Greeks would have.

Me behaving like a tourist.

As I watched the Olympics over the last two weeks, I thought of Olympia and the ideas from ancient Greece that live on: that sports can bring people together, can bring peace, at least temporarily; and that competition, which causes us to strive for greatness, pleases the gods.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Valentine's Day in Harlem

I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day. Maybe too many Februarys without a sweetheart scarred me; maybe I find overpriced red roses and prix fixe meals at crowded restaurants annoying. However, as a person in a ten-year relationship, I do appreciate an excuse for romance. So on February 13, Carl and I did some sweet things—saw a movie, relived memories from our early relationship, held hands. But on the 14th, we eschewed all things traditional and headed off to Harlem.

We met Carl’s brother Kenneth, who was visiting from California, at 125th Street and took the A train uptown to The Cloisters, a medieval art museum at the northern tip of Manhattan. From the subway stop we climbed up the winding paths of Fort Tryon park, the icy breeze invigorating as our hearts pounded, not in romantic thrill, but the effort of climbing up to the museum, though the quiet snow-covered park, the views of the Hudson, and arriving at a medieval monastery did have a certain charm.

Once inside my husband asked at the coat check if the museum had anything special happening for Valentine’s Day. The clerk looked even more surprised by this question than I must have, finally saying, “You being here, that’s what’s special.” As if that wasn’t sweet enough, fifteen minutes later, he tracked me down to tell me he had thought of some romantic items on view in the Treasury, including a wooden box depicting the German goddess of love spearing someone with an arrow. Standing in front of that box later, I squeezed Carl’s hand and kissed his cheek, seized by Valentine’s spirit.

We left Medieval Europe and traveled back to Harlem, searching out the outpost of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a Syracuse institution, where the brisket and ribs are worth the hour wait, especially when you can watch The Orange on TV. The red bows in the bartenders’ hair, little bottles of champagne on many tables and Valentinis splashing out of glasses were festive without being obnoxious, and the crowd of mostly large family parties was perfect for our own party of three.

Leaving Dinosaur, heavier and slower, though happier, we walked from 131st and 12th Ave, peeked into Grant’s Tomb, continued on to Columbia where some enterprising students had built an actual igloo on the quad. (We peeked into that too.) Onward we marched to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest gothic-style cathedral in the world, longer than two football fields and tall enough to accommodate the Statue of Liberty (without her pedestal).

The size of the building is what impressed me most, though I also loved the rosette stained-glass window and the American Poet’s Corner, which included Edna St. Vincent Millay and this quotation of hers: “Take up the song; forget the epitaph.” Maybe not romantic, but inspiring to this poet.

From there we walked through Morningside Park, up 125th Street, the commercial artery of Harlem, past The Apollo, and all the street vendors with their hearts, teddy bears, and flowers, ending up where we had started.

Exploring New York, visiting museums, cathedrals, parks, wandering down streets known and unknown, feasting on barbeque, sharing it with two people I love—that’s pretty close to my ideal day. What more could I ask for in Valentine’s Day?