With Godfrey on the Holy Mountain
or The Last Temptation of Matt

Mount Athos

"Perhaps there was some unseen force guiding me in the search for the spirit, but not with the passionate commitment of this monk I was speaking to, whom after traveling the world as a sailor, tasting life and deciding he wanted something more than the transitory pleasures of the flesh, had devoted himself to the pursuit of peace and inner truth. Who was I but some kid from the suburbs who saw religion as a new high with no apparent dangerous side effects, and my relationship to God as proof that I really was a cool guy. In that brief shining moment I felt really stupid, which if you believe Socrates, is the first important step to enlightenment."

One of the few friends from the USA to come visit me on Sifnos was Godfrey. It was during what had to be my most spiritual and my most hedonistic summer. Godfrey was with me for the spiritual part. The other part is classified information.

I had heard about Godfrey months before we ever met. He was living in Irepetra, the most southern city in Europe on the island of Crete, but our mutual friend Robert Kirkland knew that we would hit it off. For a year Robert would tell me that he could not wait for me to meet Godfrey when he came back to North Carolina from Greece.

Little did Robert know that we would be making a spiritual sojourn to Mount Athos, the last surviving remnant of the Byzantine empire. A rocky, mountainous peninsula, inhabited by monks and spiritual teachers in a setting that has remained unchanged for over a thousand years.

According to tradition, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist were on their way to Cyprus to visit their old pal Lazurus who had made the most of his second chance, when they ran into a storm that blew them way off course. They landed on the shores of the Athos Peninsula, and Mary was so overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings that she asked her son (Jesus, for those of you who haven't read the bible or watched television) to give her the mountain, even though its inhabitants were pagans. In response a voice boomed from heaven, (or wherever) "Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved." She assumed that meant she could keep it.

No one knows when the first monasteries were built but, some of the Athonite monks claim Constantine the Great as the founder of several. It is reported that monks from Athos participated in the council of 843 convened by the empress Theodora to discuss restoration of holy icons. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there was a great influx of monks and that was when many of the larger monasteries were built. Many of these were destroyed by pirate raids and it was during this period that every female (human or animal) was forbidden entry to the mountain, the famous 'No Chicks Allowed Rule'. During the Turkish occupation, the monasteries were recognized as a separate state and became a haven for intellectuals and academics. It is credited with the preservation of much of the Greek culture that once again took root after the fall of the Ottoman empire as men of high intellectual and spiritual caliber came down from the mountain and spread throughout the country, serving as teachers and preachers, encouraging the Greeks to remain faithful to their ancestral traditions and paving the way for the rebirth of Hellenism.

Nowadays there are twenty inhabited monasteries, though their populations have dwindled. Monasteries that once held several thousand monks now count twenty or fewer inhabitants. There are also sketes, which are sort of colonies of the larger monasteries that are smaller and easier to keep up, and then there are scattered communities comprised of houses called kellions, each with a church. Beyond that are a few areas where monks and hermits live in stone huts or caves on nearly inaccessible ledges and cliffs. The monasteries are inhabited by orthodox monks from Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria but mostly from Greece.

But we didn't know or care about any of that stuff. We just thought it would be a cool place to visit, and I have to hand it to Godfrey. If he hadn't prodded me, I might have never gone up to the holy mountain, despite the fact that my cousin George had been living up there as a monk since the early seventies. So when Godfrey and I met in the Plaka, the old city of Athens, in the shadow of the Acropolis, Mount Athos was where we decided to go.

Mount Athos is treated as if it is a nation in itself, kind of like the Vatican except instead of being in the middle of Rome, it's out in the wilderness and very difficult to get to. I remember reading about the Hunzas, who live in a remote valley in the Hindu Kush mountains and the only way to get to this valley is by trekking for days over dangerous snow covered mountain trails or by an airplane that flies between the craggy peaks with only inches to spare between the tips of the wings and the mountain cliffs. Depending on the season your chances of survival are reasonable to slim. I suppose that's how you keep nice places from getting spoiled. You put them where the difficulties of the journey make it not worth the trip for all but the most strong willed and adventurous. Or in the case of Mount Athos they send people first to the American Embassy, (if you are an American), and then to the ministry of Foreign Affairs for a bureaucratic nightmare that makes you long for that icy trek through the elements.

The US Embassy is as much a deterrent as any snow-covered lion-guarded mountain pass. A few years ago it was surrounded by green carpet grass and beautiful fountains. Built in the days when America symbolized freedom and hope, its grounds had a welcoming look, like you could even go there for a picnic. However, after the fall of the Junta, Greeks saw the embassy as a symbol of the tyranny that had fallen over the country for 7 years and in fact, blamed the CIA for the fascist dictatorship that had "saved" the country from communism. Now, twelve years later, the US embassy was surrounded by a ten foot high steel fence, police with sub-machine guns and bullet proof glass. They had turned the fountains off but that didn't matter because you couldn't see them anyway. It was a fortress and this is where we had to go to get permission to visit what to many is considered the Holiest place on Earth.

Because we were Americans we didn't have to get in the line of people awaiting visas that stretched down the block and didn't seem to be moving at all. These were students and people who wanted to visit family in America, or people who just wanted to get out of Greece to find a job, and as the plain clothed guards motioned us through with their Uzis, I felt like a traitor. We were led to the inner sanctum, past well-armed hired security and finally to a US Marine guard sitting in a booth with glass so thick he had to use an intercom to talk to us. We were sent to a few different people, questioned, given a paper and sent on our way.

The Greek Ministry of Foreign affairs was a little easier to get into with no guards or bullet proof glass or even anyone to ask directions. It was an old neo-classical building with high ceilings where everything echoed and nobody in any of the offices understood what we wanted. Eventually though through perseverance and by acting like the kind of people no bureaucrat would want hanging around all day, we were given a four day visa to visit the Holy mountain.

We had flown to Thessaloniki rather than take the train. We didn't want to spend the money, but we wanted to get there and not be burnt out. We flew a domestic Olympic flight; as we touched down all the ceiling panels fell on our heads, surely a sign from heaven that we were on the right path.

We would have left that night for the village of Ouranopoulos, the last town before the frontier that separates Athos from the rest of the world, but the only way to go was by taxi and that would have cost as much as air-fare back to America, so we decided to hang out in Thessaloniki. We found a cheap old hotel and had dinner in some dive of a restaurant near the waterfront and then walked down to the hip section of town where we had a beer and listened to seventies rock music in a sleazy bar. We made a decision to not get too sloshed so we could be on our best behavior tomorrow when we went to the Holy mountain. We went to a really terrible movie starring Anthony Quinn - who played a shepherd leading a group of refugees across a mountain range in the Spanish civil war. We both agreed that it was the worst movie we had ever seen and I tried to talk Godfrey, a film reviewer by trade, into writing a rave review, just to see if anybody was paying attention to his weekly ramblings in the Spectator, or local arts magazine. We went back to the hotel and got an early night's rest for the big journey the next day.

It was a four hour bus ride to Ouranopoulos, over mountains covered in pine trees and through small villages. The last half hour was along the coast. We made our way down the peninsula to where the road came to an abrupt end in the village. Beyond the village was a series of twisted goat paths through ravines, mountains and valleys. The only legitimate way to get to Mount Athos was by the small boat that left every morning at seven, filled with pilgrims and priests and returning monks and workers. From this point on there were no women allowed.

Ouranopoulos was the last stronghold of feminine life and this thought crossed my mind as we sat in a small cafe eating dinner. I looked around at the last women I would see for four days. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never spent four days without seeing a woman, or even one day. I could feel the first pangs of panic start to spread like waves through my consciousness. I looked around, suddenly desperate for female companionship on what seemed like my last night on the planet earth. Godfrey went back to go to bed while I prowled the dusty streets for a good twenty minutes before giving up.

The next morning we were up at six. Before we were totally awake we were aboard the boat to the port of Daphne, the entry point for anyone coming to Mount Athos. The boat stopped first at the nearly deserted Saint Panteleimon to leave some supplies for the few remaining monks at this giant city of a monastery. We arrived in Daphne and joined the mad rush off the boat. We were ushered to a table to have our papers checked and dated by several official looking monks and then pointed toward an old bus that was waiting for us. Everyone was a monk. Even Godfrey was dressed in black, and I felt strangely isolated, but at the same time thrilled, to be somewhere so different from anything I had ever known.

The old bus started its engine and we were off on the dirt road that climbed back and forth, gradually making its way up the lush wooded mountains. After a half an hour we reached the administrative capital of Karyes, a small village with a cafe, and a store that sold everything that a monk could possibly need.

It was at this point that we decided to find my cousin. We didn't know what else to do or where to begin. We asked several monks and finally one of them told us, "Yes I have heard of him. Father Theodore, as he is called, is at the Skete of the Prophet Illias not far from here. It is known as the American Monastery." He pointed us in the right direction and we set off to find my cousin George, now known as Father Theodore. Not far from here is a relative term in Athos where monks walk everywhere.

Not far could mean a mile away or it could mean hours away as it was in our case. After walking for an hour we came upon a small cluster of houses and decided to ask directions. We picked the friendliest looking house and I knocked on the door. We were met by a very old monk with a long white beard who beckoned us in and sat us at a small table. As we discovered for the first of many times that day, it is customary to greet all visitors with a large glass of clear mountain water and a small glass of even more clear home made tsipuro, which is like ouzo without the licorice, only a lot stronger. Monks don't get visitors very often, in fact that's sort of the point of being a monk and this is especially true of those living in the houses scattered around the wilderness, away from the monasteries. However, when they are blessed with a guest, especially from the outside world, they want to know everything and they want to keep you there as long as it takes to hear it and that is where the tsipuro comes in. By the time we left the little house, we were staggering through the woods and the directions he gave us might as well have been in Turkish.

I vaguely remembered being told about following the dirt road and this is what we did until it split and we were forced to make a decision, the high road or the low road. We chose the high and followed it up the mountain for a couple hours. It was hot and we were thirsty and irritable and all I wanted was to find the Skete of the Prophet Illias. I remembered that usually they name the churches on the highest mountains after the Prophet Illias, so as long as we were going up we were on the right track. Unfortunately I was wrong and what we were following was a logging road that came to an end in a clearing in the middle of a pine forest. We had no choice but to turn around and go back to the main road near Karyes.

When we got to the main road we met another monk leading a donkey. He was easily eighty years old and we talked about his years on the mountain. He couldn't get over Godfrey and kept asking me in Greek, "Are you sure this is a boy? He looks like a sixteen year old girl." To anyone who knows Godfrey, that gives you some indication of just how long the old man had been on the mountain. By no stretch of the imagination does Godfrey look like a sixteen year old girl unless you've spent so long thinking about it that everything looks like sixteen year old girls... trees, rocks, grizzly bears and even Godfrey. No matter, this old monk was convinced and when we finally reached the point where our paths parted, he kissed me once on the cheek and would probably still be kissing Godfrey if I hadn't pulled him away. Godfrey was not shaken. He thought it was just a custom.

The old man had left us with these words, "Turn left at the cross." It seemed simple enough until we looked around and realized there were crosses everywhere. Back in the real world, well in Greece anyway, there are crosses by the side of the road that are little shrines that commemorate accidents or near accidents. If a truck driver is racing down the road and goes into a skid heading for a hairpin curve and a five thousand foot cliff, he is praying..."Holy Mother of God, if you let me survive I will build a shrine for you on this spot." If he survives he builds one, if he doesn't, someone builds one for him. Either way there's a shrine and somebody regularly comes around and fills a little flask with oil or lights the lantern or leaves something useful to some poor unfortunate traveler. That's what we were looking for and it took us a while to realize that someone, or everyone, had made crosses out of sticks and put them everywhere. "The old man has tricked us." we thought. (Godfrey pointed out the similarities between this and the cemetery scene in 'The Good, The Bad And The Ugly'.)

Luckily we came upon another house and though we were a little reluctant to drink any more tsipuro, we realized we had no choice and entered the gate. We were in luck because this time the monk was a young one who was working in the yard and really didn't give a damn about the outside world. He talked to us as he worked and gave us directions. "Take a left at the cross in the road." As we were leaving he said to me, "Why do you want to go back to the outside world. Why not stay here?" I told him I was thinking about it but that I would miss women. He laughed. "You would not miss them. You would have everything else. You would have this beautiful land and you would have God."

A few yards further down the road was a large carved wooden cross. The horny old monk had been telling us the truth. It marked a path that led off to the left and we finally felt like we were getting somewhere. We were both getting tired and Godfrey was starting to fall behind, so I was the first to see the Skete of Proffitti Illias, rising out of the mist like some magical Kingdom of Oz. It was a dream or a scene in some fantasy cartoon movie and I watched and waited to see the look on Godfrey's face when he saw it too, a medieval city in the middle of an enchanted forest, surrounded by thick walls with the spire of a church rising from the center of it. We quickened our pace and in a few moments we were ringing the bell in the courtyard, letting the monks know that visitors had arrived.

We were met by two monks in their late thirties. One carried a tray with two glasses of water and two more glasses of tsipuro. We spoke in Greek and I told them we were looking for my cousin. The light haired monk told me that Father Theodore used to live there but had moved up in the hills to a kellion. He told us the Skete of Profitti Illias was part of the Russian Monastery of Saint Pantokratoras. I thought it was strange then that the monk in Karyes referred to it as the American Monastery. "And where do you come from?" He asked us again in Greek. I told him we were from America. A place called North Carolina. "I don't believe it." he said in English.

It wasn't what he said, but how he said it that took us by surprise. He said it like an American. In fact he was American, from Brevard, North Carolina where his father was a Baptist minister and a neighbor of Billy Graham. He had been on the mountain for sixteen years. He took us into the dining room and fed us some canned vegetables. The monks had eaten just before we arrived and there really wasn't much food, but we were happy with whatever food they had and we told him all that we could about what was happening back home in North Carolina. After dinner he gave us a tour of the monastery and as it got dark we sat on the wall overlooking the forest and the sea beyond, talking about monastic life and the spirit. He showed us to our rooms. There were services every morning at four, but they were not obligatory for guests. We decided to skip the service, but to this day I wish that I had gone.

There was another guest at the skete that night and we spoke to him in the refectory. He was a German who had been coming to Athos for a number of years. He had been in Greece during the war as part of the occupying army and was now returning in peace. He really looked the part of an ex Nazi, with a deep scar across his face and even a monocle. We spoke to him for awhile, but he wanted to do all the talking and Godfrey and I were soon irritated by his arrogance. I tried to steer the conversation to spiritual matters but he waved me off. "I'm not interested in that", he said.
"Then why are you here?" Godfrey asked.
"I come to see the treasures that are in every monastery. There's a fortune of gold on this mountain." The old Nazi said.
"Hey, man. Didn't you take enough gold last time you were here?" I asked.
Our relationship with our new pal went downhill from there.

The next day we had breakfast with our friend from North Carolina and left through the heavy wooden gate that the monks had closed at sunset and opened at sunrise. We followed the path that led through the vegetable gardens and orchards and down the mountain alongside a small brook. After about twenty minutes we had to stop to catch our breath. Not that we were tired but because it was so beautiful. It was a warm sunny morning and we were in the most beautiful surroundings one could imagine. Colorful dragonflies buzzed around us and butterflies stopped to gently flap their wings on the banks of the stream. It was the kind of place they tell you to imagine when you listen to a guided meditation tape. There was magic in the cool sea breeze and I felt a kind of joy that reminded me of what it was like to take LSD before the world became such a serious place.

We reached the monastery of Saint Pantokratoras around noon. It sat on a rocky hill overlooking the sea and there was a small gazebo-like structure that we hung out in before entering the monastery. We were met by a very old monk who asked us if we wanted to see the treasures. I don't think we cared whether we saw the treasures or not, but the old man seemed so proud of them that we agreed. He told us that the monk with the key was not there but we could wait in this room until he got back. We half-heartedly agreed and he led us into a room, turned around and locked the door behind us.

I for one did not mind that we were now prisoners. I could take this time to write in my journal (which I lost anyway) and reflect on our experiences. Godfrey on the other hand did not like being locked up and began pacing the floor and then voicing his displeasure. I was irritated by his inflexibility, yet I could see his point. There was no reason for us to be prisoners. All we wanted was to see the treasures and we only wanted to see them to be nice. It was very Kafka-esque.

Luckily for us there was a monk next door to us in the kitchen, fixing lunch and he heard us banging and let us out. I told him what had happened and he shrugged his shoulders. "Crazy old man." he said.

I talked to him while he cooked and he told me a few things about the history of the monastery. It was founded by two Byzantine nobles in the middle of the fourteenth century and at one time housed over two hundred monks, most of them Russian. We spoke about other things and I noticed a framed portrait of John F. Kennedy. He saw me looking at it and said in English, "A great man." Once again I was caught off guard. "You speak English?"
"Sure I do. I've been to America many times. Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York. I was a cook in the merchant marines." I thought about this for a moment. I thought of myself as a spiritual seeker, but really what had I done besides read a few books and meditate here and there and do a little yoga before moving on to the next thing? I didn't have the hunger for God or understanding that these guys had. Perhaps there was some unseen force guiding me in the search for the spirit, but not with the passionate commitment of this monk I was speaking to, whom after traveling the world as a sailor, tasting life and deciding he wanted something more than the transitory pleasures of the flesh, had devoted himself to the pursuit of peace and inner truth. Who was I but some kid from the suburbs who saw religion as a new high with no apparent dangerous side effects, and my relationship to God as proof that I really was a cool guy. In that brief shining moment I felt really stupid, which if you believe Socrates, is the first important step to enlightenment.

The old monk finally came back with the key and took us in to the church to see the treasures. We oohed and aahed at the gold inlayed crosses and the thousand year old painted wooden icons and the bones of deceased spiritual leaders and holy men, but it was kind of wasted on us. To tell you the truth, I can't remember much about anything he showed us.

We were told by the monk-cook that to find my cousin we would have to go to Karyes and ask. He was pretty sure that the kellion he was living in was called Maroula and was close to the town. Someone would know.

We set out on the dirt road that connected the monastery to the town. It was pretty much uphill but we were feeling energetic and didn't stop until we met a young monk coming from the opposite direction. We told him we were on our way to Karyes to find my cousin, Father Theodore, feeling much like Dorothy, the lion and the tin man looking for the Wizard of Oz. "I know him. He lives in the hills above Karyes. You are very close." We asked where he was going. "I'm going for a swim. I do this everyday." I couldn't even imagine a monk swimming. What do they wear? Black bathing trunks? I would have asked him but he was already on his way down the road.

In Karyes we were given instructions in Greek and in my usual manner I kept nodding my head long after I had stopped understanding. So it was not long before we were lost in the woods again. Finally we came upon a little house with the most beautiful garden I had ever seen. We entered the gate and were met by a monk who could have gotten the job as Santa Claus at any department store in America. He showed us his garden, which he was very proud of, in fact devoted to. He gave us tsipuro and we told him about America and he recommended we give up our worldly ways and stay on the mountain. After getting directions we said goodbye and set off down the road, still looking for the small path that would lead us through the forest to my cousin George at Kellion Maroula.

I should tell you a little about my cousin. His family name was George Econopouly and he was from Huntington Station, Long Island. He was my mom's favorite nephew and would come to our house to stay weekends. They would talk and listen to Bob Dylan and he would sneak out to the far corner of our yard for a cigarette. In 1967; during the May Day student strikes, George stood in front of his school with a sign that said "US get out of Vietnam." Under instructions from the coach, he was beaten up by the football team, and then suspended from school. It was even in the papers. I remember reading it and feeling very proud of my cousin.

He never went back to school and a short while later he left home. He drifted around New York and out to California and back to the East coast. He joined a group headed by Timothy Leary and was given the honorary title of the "Keeper of the Sacred Tablets." He broke contact with everyone in the family and even his old friends and we just heard rumors of his wherabouts. Someone had heard his name called over the loudspeakers at Woodstock. Someone said he was in a commune in New England and left because everyone just wanted to sit around and get high. The story, which he actually told me, is that while he was in Boston, he saw my Grandmother in a dream and she told him to go to an address in Brookline. It was the Greek-Orthodox Seminary, and since that day he has been a monk. I had seen him once in New York City in the seventies. He was the cook for the Archbishop at a Russian Monastery on the upper East side. It was the center of the Russian Orthodox church because the church within Russia supposedly was under KGB control. I was visiting my ex-girlfriend Robin and sleeping on her couch a couple blocks away when I found out he was there. We spent the afternoon drinking vodka and eating canned sardines and oysters with a bunch of Russian monks. It was one of the greatest days of my life. Ten years later we were together on a mountain top in one of the most sacred places on the planet. He spotted us as we walked out of the woods and over to where he was working in the fields. His first words were, "Hey, I know you."

Godfrey and I spent the next two days with my cousin George, now known as Father Theodore, and the other monk who lived in the house whose name was Father Nicholas. He was Russian but had lived most of his life in Chicago. We sat in the kitchen and talked and drank their home made wine and ate fried potatoes and spaghetti. It was still early in the growing season so there were very few vegetables to eat and no money to buy them. But it didn't matter. We spent lots of time reminiscing about our childhood, which was pretty boring for Godfrey, but eventually got to some topics that we all could relate to, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Armageddon (not the band). He told us stories of the Holy Mountain, about why they keep the doors to the monasteries locked. He told us about demons and evil spirits that wander around to tempt the monks. He told us of a monk who opened his door to find Satan standing before him, in disguise of course, and how the monk leaped upon Satan and started strangling him.
"Are you sure it wasn't a salesman?" I asked.
"No, because when he released him the flesh on his hands was seared." Father Theodore said.

He told us other more practical things like how wolves come down from Bulgaria when the winters get really cold. When a monk kills a wolf, they hang the carcass in the town and anyone who owns a mule gives the monk fifteen thousand drachma, the idea being it would cost them much more if this particular wolf had killed their mule. It seemed like a great idea and I considered becoming a wolf hunter, but then remembered it would go against my vegetarian philosophy.

He told us there were snakes as big as telephone poles.

He told us that the Greek Government wanted to take over the Holy Mountain and turn it into a big museum with hotels and a casino.

I asked his interpretation of the number 666. Purely from a monk's point of view, of course. He believed it represented the bar codes that exist on almost every product in America. He thought that one day everyone would have one of those marks tattooed on them and that's how the anti-Christ would know where you are and what you are doing. That made sense.

But there was very little seriousness up there on the holy mountain those two days and nights. There we were, four guys, two of them monks, having a great time, drinking wine. Eating spaghetti with cheese and french fried potatoes. And at no time did I ever think, "Golly this is great but I wish there were some women around." Mount Athos is the most elite boys club in the world.

I asked my cousin about staying healthy on the mountain. It seemed such an ideal setting for a natural lifestyle, but he admitted that his health was not good. He and many of the monks had ulcers, which I found hard to believe. What was there to worry about? No bills, no girlfriends. One's fate was entirely in the hands of God. He explained it to me. "Monastic life is not meant to be a vacation. We are not exchanging one set of earthly pleasures for another. We believe that there is a path to God through denial and suffering. The reason for the ulcers has to do with our eating habits. In the large monasteries we all sit down together while one monk stands at the head of the table with a book of scripture. When he starts reading we can start eating and when he stops, we have to stop. It's not what you would call leisurely. The faster he reads, the faster we eat. But we are not eating to enjoy the taste. We are eating to sustain the body to render service to God."
"And you have the most beautiful water in the world and yet no monks swim, with the exception of the young guy we met on the road." I said.
"Yes." Said Father Theodore with a smile. "I know him. He's a little eccentric."

My favorite room was in the basement. Godfrey discovered it on a trip to the bathroom. In it were the skulls of every monk who has ever lived in the Kellion Maroula lined up row after row on shelves. Someday my cousin's would be there.

Finally it was time to go. I don't remember doing much besides sitting around that table talking. Godfrey and I discussed it. We could have hiked around the peninsula and taken in as many sights as we could in those four days, but we both agreed that the experience of hanging out with these two monks, high in the hills, away from the other monasteries, was the way to do it. It was a unique experience that would not be available to many other people. We also agreed that to do it right we would need more than 4 days. My cousin told us to stay. "They're not going to do anything to you. The only time they know you've stayed too long is when you are leaving and they check your passport. What are they gonna do then? You're leaving anyway." It made sense, but something in me wanted to leave. Something in me wanted to spend my time on Sifnos, meeting Scandinavian girls, getting drunk and making love on the beach, playing guitar, riding motorcycles and playing basketball. The spiritual life was pretty cool, from my perspective, but at that point in my life I was more interested in immediate rewards, not the hereafter.

So we left. We walked with my cousin back to Karyes where we caught the bus to Daphne. I remember waving goodbye and wondering if I would ever see him before he was one of those skulls in that basement room.

When we got to the boat we were greeted by the same mad scene as when we arrived. We noticed in the crowd a Greek-American guy around our age speaking to a young red haired monk. I made friends with them on the boat. The Greek-American's name was Nick and he turned out to be a friend of my friend Dino Nichols, from Boston college. The monk was named Tom. He was an Irish Catholic from Chicago who came up to Mount Athos to check it out and ended up staying for a year. He started telling us about his experiences in a passionate, exuberant, yet very American way. "Oh, man, some of these Holy Fathers are heavy. I mean they do miracles, you know, like some of those Eastern gurus." I imagined my cousin many years before when he first arrived fresh from the sixties. Tom kept on talking and we listened and asked him questions about his life on Athos. When we got to Ouranopoulos he confided in us, "I'm a little nervous. I haven't been off the mountain in over a year. I don't know what to expect."

Poor Father Thomas was in shock when we got off the boat in the real world. "Look at these women. They're trying to seduce us. Look at their clothes. Look at their lips." He was yelling and we had to quiet him down. I could see his point but somehow it didn't bother me the way it did him. Gradually he adjusted and we all took the bus to Thessaloniki for a real taste of Babylon. Thomas had some bureaucratic nonsense to deal with but all the offices were closed by the time we arrived so he decided to hang with us. Godfrey and I had made up our minds to take the midnight train back to Athens after we found out all the flights were booked. We found a chicken restaurant and started eating, talking and drinking. It wasn't long before Father Tom was drunk. He kept talking about the mountain and his Holy Father's miracles and the women that walked by, and how drunk he was. "I'm a shitty monk." he cried.

Finally it was time to go. "Don't leave!" said Father Tom. "I'm having such a good time."
"If we stay any longer, Father Thomas, you'll never go back to the monastery. I think we've corrupted you enough." we told him. We left him waving a tearful goodbye to us on the platform of the Thessaloniki train station.

We were crammed into a compartment for six, with eight other people. Seven of them were soldiers on their way back to basic training in Larissa. In fact the train was completely full of soldiers. The one other non-military inhabitant of our compartment was a Greek kid who lived in Brussels. As the train started to leave the station he and Godfrey decided to make a mad dash to the concession stand for a bottle of ouzo. They made it back to the cheers of the soldiers as the train was beginning to pick up speed.

I felt anti-social and exhausted, so I climbed up into the luggage rack where I thought I would be left alone. I woke up to the sound of the gnashing of teeth, like a wild animal had gotten loose in the compartment. All hell was breaking loose but it was no demon. It was Godfrey. He had finished his bottle of ouzo and was crawling all over everybody, howling and laughing, completely out of control. There was nothing anybody could do but wait until he ran out of steam and passed out. When he spotted me up in the luggage rack it jarred something in his memory and he started trying to climb the walls to get up there with me, stepping on the young soldiers heads, causing cries of anguish that brought a crowd of people to the compartment door to see what was going on. I had to push him back to keep him out of my little nest. He fell back on top of the soldiers, who took it all good naturedly. When I woke up again he was fast asleep, his head on the shoulder of a young corporal.

The next morning came early for me, but a lot earlier for poor Godfrey. He was still drunk. I had to tie his shoes. I had to put his knapsack on his back. I had to lead him off the train and through the crowd. Then I lost him. I had to double back, find him and wake him up. He had fallen asleep leaning against a trashcan. When we made it out to the street there were no taxis to be found. Every time I left Godfrey to try to hail one, he would crawl off somewhere and go to sleep. We finally found a cab and took it to Godfrey's hotel where I left him at the check-in counter while I went to my room at Andrea's house in the Plaka. When I came to find him that night he was gone. Not only that, he had never checked in. I could not even imagine what had happened to him. Where could he have gone? It was a mystery that would go unsolved until he turned up 3 days later, fully recuperated, he had absolutely no idea about what he had done that morning, or on the train, or even why he never got past the desk in the hotel lobby.

We didn't see each other again until we met up on the island of Sifnos. He was with a Swiss guy named Andy. They had met in Tinos and shared an interest in alternative music and had become friends. They were sitting in a cafe on the beach but were going into town to rent motorbikes so they could see the other side of the island. An hour later they were sitting in the exact same place. But this time Godfrey was covered in orange mercurochrome and bandages. "I had an accident." he said, pointing to his bandaged head.
"How did it happen?" I asked him.
"We went to the bike shop and left our deposit and our passports and the guy showed us how to start the bike up. I took it into the street and started it and the bike took off with me on it and drove right off a cliff."
"Was the guy mad?" I asked.
"Yeah, he was pretty mad. The bike was totaled." Godfrey replied.
"Of course we'll have to build a shrine. How long did you actually ride it?" I asked him.
Andy thought for a moment and answered very matter-of-factly. "It was less then seven seconds." Godfrey nodded in agreement.

For some reason I started to think about the serenity of Mount Athos. No tourists racing around and falling off motorbikes. No discos blaring music until three in the morning. I thought of myself tending my little garden and talking daily with God, wandering through the quiet woods or sitting by the sea in total peace. And then I looked at Godfrey, orange mercurochrome and bandages covering almost every inch of exposed skin, drinking a beer and laughing as the tourist girls walked by. I sat down next to my friend and ordered a beer. Mount Athos was great and the afterlife is probably pretty good too. But I'll take my heaven now.

Return to Spearfishing in Skatahori Index

Athens Survival Guide

Help Support Matt's Greece Guides
Do you enjoy using my site? Have you found it entertaining as well as useful? If so please show your appreciation by booking hotels through the travel agencies and the links found on my Hotels of Greece site. The small commission I make on the bookings enable me to keep working and in most cases you won't find them any cheaper by searching elsewhere. You can find hotels in Greece by location, price, whether or not it has a swimming pool, and see photos and reviews by using this link to booking.com which also contributes to my website when you book.

Join Matt Barrett's Greece Travel Guides Group on Facebook for comments, photos and other fun stuff. If you enjoy this website please share it with your friends on Facebook. If you are appreciative of all the free information you get on my websites you can send a donation through Paypal or Venmo