Big Dionysian Day

This is the second of a two-part post. The setup is explained in part one, Big Apollonian Day.


Sunday, May 14, 2023, 8am: Naxos, Greece

As church bells gong, and waiters set up breakfast tables on patios on the beach, Mad and I jog through the narrow streets of the Chora, the old town, heading for the Apollo Gate — the majestic, mysteriously abandoned temple that sits on a rocky outcrop at the entrance to the harbour, and marks this place in time and myth and geography. A couple of locals glance back as we pass, as if to see who’s chasing us. Because really: why else would you be busting a gut to run through paradise?

The vibration frequency is lowwwww out here on the largest island in the Cyclades. The residents make Jimmy Buffett look like a nervous wreck. I’m not even gonna take notes today. Too anal. Living Dionysian is about going with the flow.

Our Big Dionysian Day could really only happen in this place. This place. Dionysus — god of carpe diem and truth-to-power and you-look-outstanding-in-those-slacks — was raised (if not born) on Naxos, hidden in away in a mountain cave by nymphs saving him from his hairtrigger father, Cronus. And Dionysus loved it here. So much so that (it is said) he made the land superfertile, suitable for growing grapes that become wine that takes the top of your head off.

“That’s actually what Dionysian means,” Mad says. “It’s when you get so drunk you wake up on the back of a donkey.”

The girls know a lot about Dionysus. Big-feelings guy. Craves craziness and makes craziness happen. Rarely without his posse. And a charmer. As Mad explains it, he was the only god who had any success getting through to Hephaestus, who got crossways with Zeus, stormed off in a huff and locked himself in a volcano. Dionysus sauntered up one day with wine. “You and I, we’re peas in a pod,” he hollered in to Hephaestus. “We’re outsiders. We’re underdogs. We don’t get no respect. Let’s go back, brother, and stick it to the man.”

10:00 am. Sun’s up over Agios Georgios, right in front of the hotel. Beach time. Brown sugar sand, which the wind is blowing around. Nobody’s in the water; we soon discover why. The spring in Greece has been unseasonably cool, and the ocean feels like … a Canadian lake. “At least it’s not too hot,” Jen says, as we penguin around in it, thigh deep, chucking a little skip ball. (She’s right, as usual. Better to be here, now, than in a month’s time, when record-breaking heat will descend on southern Europe, sparking deadly wildfires and evacuations on nearby Rhodes.) “You went swimming,” says the apartment owner, a burly fellow called Mike, coming by with towels. He shakes his head. “I think if I went swimming in there today I would die.” This poor guy—it turns out he never received any of our text messages from the mainland telling him when we were arriving. He wanted to pick us up at the ferry, but he didn’t know which one. So he dutifully drove his car out to meet each boat, all day long, until we finally fetched up near midnight. I gather this was just Mike being Mike, but it’s also xenia – the spirit of hospitality, the cultural code of guest-friendship in Greece. It is, as the ancients put it, one of the varieties of love.

Noon. Ish. There are multiple temples to Dionysus on Naxos. Tourists build their vacations around visiting them. But not us. Not on Big Dionysian Day. When you make rigid plans, you foreclose on happy accidents. You submit to Chronos.

That was last week’s deal, in Athens. To go Dionysian is to toggle over to its opposite, what Alan Lightman calls “body time.” This is how people got on until the 14th century, when the mechanical clock was invented. You estimated what you could still do today by how much light was left in the sky. You slept when you were tired and ate when you were hungry (or cranky). The only weather report that mattered was the one coming from inside you.

We wander. This whole damn place oozes charm. You can see why Theseus brought Ariadne here after she helped him slay the minotaur over on Crete. They both needed to get their Dionysian on after that.  

Down at the harbor people mill around the bus station, There’s a bus about leave for the town of Filoti, about which we know little. We hop on.

It’s more like a motorcoach, and up it chugs, through the lush valleys, threading through fig and lemon and olive groves. This is the breadbasket of the Greek islands. Gourmands in Athens can recognize Naxos potatoes and Naxos cheese the moment they strike the tongue. Dionysus, who created all this, remember, was the original Epicurean. Funny thing is, he never started that way. He was actually trained as a Stoic. Then he developed a painful eye infection. It was all suck-it-up-buttercup and suffer in silence… until he decided that life’s too short. Pleasure (hedone), he concluded, wasn’t some fringe benefit maybe you get a few crumbs of if you’re lucky; it is the actual point of life. So Dionysius became “a renegade to the doctrine of pleasure,” as the (not-very-Greek-sounding) philosopher Donald Robertson put it.

Here in the hills, the streets are so narrow that two cars trying to pass each other have to pull their mirrors in. There’s the occasional honk, but these folks aren’t mad at each other: they’re just talking.

We saunter through Filoti. You get to the end of it pretty quickly—but then again, you probably never get to the end of it. Most of the inhabitants are second- or third-generation on the same property. Because why go anywhere else? We’ll later learn we were only twenty minutes away, by foot, from the Cave of Zas, supposedly Dionysus’s little pied-a-terre. No matter. Right now we are flaneurs on these tiny charming sugar-cube streets and that’s enough. A lemon drops from a tree and I put it in my pocket. Two weeks later magic Naxos juice will end up on some spinach back home in Canada.

7pm. Ish. Early this morning we ran into a guy from Calgary who lives here now. He asked how long we were on the island. “Just a couple of days,” I said. “Today’s our Big Day.” He promptly wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it over. One word: Avaton.

And that is where we now find ourselves, as the setting sun turns the Aegean into Homer’s beaten tin. It’s a restaurant and wine bar — actually called Avaton 1739 — on a rooftop of a castle built by the Venetian explorer and pillager Markos Sanoudos in the 13th century. The view in any direction makes you take your hat off.

Avaton means “abbey,” and that’s what this was after it was a castle: the co-ed monastery of Ursulines. That “1739” is the date the monastery was operational. Genius move by the proprietor: the menu still features dishes the monks and nuns were eating back then. (They’ve warmed it up; also tarted it up, just a bit, for the modern palette. “Grub first, then ethics,” as Plato almost said.)

If we’d been sitting in this same spot a century ago, looking down into the courtyard, we might have seen Nikos Kazantzakis emerging from the old Monastery of the Jesuits next door. By then it had been converted into a business school where Kazantzakis studied and brewed up ideas for his plays and novels, including a rather famous one called Zorba the Greek.

That book – and later movie —is everything this whole Big Day is about.

In it, an uptight Apollonian named Basil meets a man who is his polar opposite—a rough-edged but large-souled Dionysian named Zorba. Zorba coaxes Basil to get his nose out of the books, and generally learns him up on how to be alive. Where Basil is consumed with planning, Zorba says, in effect: Don’t talk, don’t plan, don’t cogitate. Do.

Zorba goes to work for Basil as he builds a timber business. In the end (spoiler alert), the operation crashes, and the two men are literally sitting in the rubble, and Zorba says:

“We need to dance.”

I can’t help thinking the Dionysians got a lot right. There are limits to straight-line thinking. In any life of depth and purpose, you have to leave room in there for happenstance and delight. For awe. You have to be astonished on a regular basis. If you’ve lost the ability to be astonished by a place like this, then something has died in you.

In Athens, Jen and I seized the occasion of long dinners in restaurant patios (aided, frankly, by the poor service) to discuss with our kids everything under the sun: plans, ambitions, fears, the shrinking aperture of childhood, the winding-down lives of these slightly older parents. But here, on a rooftop in Naxos, was not the time or place for any of that. Words are Apollonian. The only ones we need we filch from the Japanese teahouse ceremony: Ichi go, ichi ei: one time, one meeting.

Or: “This moment will never happen again.”

Drink it in.


11:30 pm. And so the double-header ends. What’s the verdict? Head-first or heart-first? Which is the better way to live? Was the project a success? Did we arrive at a conclusion?

Any experiment that takes you to Greece to test it is, it’s fair to say, a successful experiment—however it turns out.

One thing that’s clear is that the unbridled, Dionysian passions are harder to find as we age. (If the girls had been here without us they might have gone full Zorba and be hitting a dance club about now.) But that probably also means it’s the side we should be leaning into as we get older. Whatever’s underdeveloped eats first.

Heraclitus, “the dark philosopher,” hatched what he called the Doctrine of Universal Flux: everything is changing, and all things eventually become their opposite. The Apollonian and Dionysian coalesce into the Story of Us. Whether that story is a tragedy or a comedy depends on how the light bends through the lens of who you are a this very instant.

Naxos sleeps. We thought we’d stay up to see the Corona Borealis – the crown of stars Hephaestus made for his homie Dionysus to woo Ariadne.

No doubt it’s up there somewhere, behind the clouds.

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