Finding Clarity on the Balkan Peninsula

One balmy September morning, I sat in the Austin airport breathing shallowly, gripped by apprehension. I was about to traverse the Atlantic to meet 18 Flying Longhorns and our four tour guides to experience “Authentic Greece” for two weeks. Elated as I was to go on the trip, I found myself racked with fear. Not so much fear of flying; no, this opportunity presented itself smack-dab in the middle of a volatile period in my life, and I knew the voyage would bridge two chapters in my own story. I asked myself: Am I ready to enter a brand new phase that would demand courage, kindness, and vulnerability? Am I ready to completely redefine myself?

The in-flight wine helped quell my nerves, and 18 hours later I arrived in Thessaloniki, where I gravitated toward others in burnt orange. I chit-chatted with my new acquaintances about the pleasant, albeit slight, temperature drop from Texas to Greece. We talked about bigger weather, too; Harvey had just devastated a huge swath of our state, including the home of one of our would-be fellow travelers whose sisters and mother made it on the trip.

That night, we dined on a rooftop terrace overlooking Aristotelous Square. Blake Sparks, BA ’08, Life Member, and her husband Adam, owners of Sofia Travel, flitted naturally between conversations, sprinkling in details of the next day’s itinerary. Elizabeth and David Sparks, Adam’s parents, who have been conducting tours since the 1980s, regaled tales from their many trips to Elizabeth’s home country. The four of them immediately set us at ease, welcoming us to this foreign land with the familiarity of family and entertaining us as if we were gods and goddesses incarnate—personifying the warm, welcoming Greek culture.

Ancient civilizations were drawn to the natural splendor of Greece, which to this day is staggeringly beautiful: rugged earthen mountains give way to either blinding-bright blue sea or valleys of silvery-green olive trees. The modern cityscapes, like Thessaloniki, are peppered with thousands-year-old ruins flanked by newer additions, like the Rotunda of Galerius—one of the oldest-known churches in the world which features both a minaret from the Ottoman era and multicolored street art.

We left Thessaloniki for Phillipi, some of us dipping our fingers in the stream where the apostle Paul baptized early Christians. A few hours in Elizabeth’s hometown of Verea were spent in a synagogue, where we read letters written in 2016 by children to the young victims of World War II.

Now friends, we ventured toward the sea, where I led a yoga class on a pebble beach; we laughed our way through warrior poses, adding the “Hook ’em mudra” quite liberally to our practice. At nightfall we dined seaside as one big boisterous family, and at some point, between delicately pulling whole fish skeletons from our entrée (a feat!) and passing carafes of wine, we gasped as a blood-red moon and its wavering reflection inched into view. The light shifted, turning the moon burnt orange. With magic in the air, and wine in our bellies, we burst into song: a heartfelt chorus of “The Eyes of Texas.”

Later, as we made our way to Meteora, we pressed our faces against the bus windows like schoolchildren, mouths agape at the 60-million-year-old rock formations and the still-operational 600-year-old monasteries precariously perched atop them. From there, we made our way to the olive-lined valley of Delphi, where we whispered to the Oracle and spotted the Temple of Athena.

We called Athens home for a few days. We tailgated on gameday, raising a toast to Athena at the foot of the Acropolis. The next day, we were, as Adam put it,  “Tourists at the Parthenon—just like Paul, just like Cleopatra, just like Mark Twain.”

In Mycenea, on the once-palatial grounds of Argos, we read scenes from The Oresteia: Agamemnon—one of the oldest plays ever written—and braved the pitch-dark depths of an ancient cistern.

Our last archaeological visit was to the healing center of Epidavros: a kind of archaic health and wellness spa and the site of an incredible limestone theatre. Words spoken in the center of the stage can be heard clearly, even in the nosebleed section.

A few quiet days in the seaside town of Nafplio rounded out our experience. Some of us shared a magical afternoon together in the Ionian, treading water as we talked about matters deep as the sea itself. Bobbing in the waves, I remembered feeling this same way before—unraveling life’s mysteries with a roommate in my San Jacinto dorm room.

On our final morning, I walked a mile to the beach before sunrise, passing our group’s faithful daily runner on my way. The sea was still, and the sky’s hue ranged from cobalt to lavender. Barefoot, I let my feet wander into the water. I reached down and picked up a perfectly smooth green granite rock the size of my palm. It was cool, gentle, and strong. Bringing it to my heart, I spoke into it: I am ready. I pitched it, and heard the satisfying plunk in the water, sending ripples that disappeared gently and silently, absorbed by the depths. Awestruck and happy, I watched the light catch the mountains in the distance, casting pink and purple shadows along their rugged faces and adding a touch of grace to their strength.

Suddenly, I saw the bridge to my new chapter lined with the friends who’d helped me cross it. They adventured, swam, stretched, sang, climbed, drank, shopped, ate, cried, learned, and laughed alongside me. Our journey together, where we began as Flying Longhorns and departed as friends, will be forever etched on my heart.


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