‘I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people,’ said Isaac Newton, who showed that every particle in the universe is attracted to every other particle.
*** Baseball Caps and Holy Water
In 2019 I drank holy water from the spring of Saint Athanasius. This was in Mount Athos, a region of Greece famous for being entirely governed by Orthodox monks. To reach the peninsula, to which I’d been sent on an assignment, I’d flown to Thessaloniki, spent a night in the resort town of Ouranopoli, collected a visitor’s permit – one of the holy visas called diamonitirions – from the Mount Athos Pilgrims’ Bureau, and then finally taken a passenger boat to the port village of Daphni.
Mount Athos has been a monastic statelet since the year 963 when its autonomy was granted by Nicephorus Phocas, emperor of the Byzantine Empire. A few nods to the modern world aside (you do see cars, you do see phones) it has not changed that much in the intervening years, making it one of the last pockets of authentic 10th century culture. If you think going to the Colosseum in Rome is exciting, imagine if it wasn’t in fact a ruin but an operating amphitheatre with the same gladiator-oriented events programme it had when it first opened.
I’d never tasted holy water before, and it was like any other water fresh from a spring. Actually, that’s probably only partly true. To be honest, I don’t remember anything about the sensation of drinking it, which is strange given how lucidly I recall the moments beforehand: being wedged into a minibus filled with men, a profusion of rosary beads on the dashboard, a wilderness of Mediterranean shrubs to our left and right, the growl of the engine fading and the handbrake going ‘crrrrrrk,’ and then all of us clambering up a path. There was a cup permanently chained to a post next to the spring, and I waited for my turn to scoop a little liquid from the waters below, and then… nothing. It’s as if somebody deleted the footage (footage, which, for the purposes of this metaphor, contained data from all five senses.)
More than anything, I remember feeling like a sort of double agent, a tourist among pilgrims. Despite being in exactly the same place and looking at exactly the same things as the men I happened to be travelling with, I would have an entirely different experience of those things because the immanence of miracles was plainly unavailable to me.
My feeling wasn’t helped by the way the pilgrims dressed, which was exactly like the men you find at tourist attractions: baseball caps, polo shirts, beige chinos, hiking trainers. Still, I’m sure they remember, in vivid detail, the refreshing coolness of Saint Athanasius’s water as they brought it to their lips.
*** Becoming a Single-Sex Province
Women are never given diamonitirions. They’ve been forbidden from entering the peninsula for roughly a thousand years, which is to say pretty much Mount Athos’s entire existence as an independent polity. Look into the origins of the ban, which is always one of the first things people mention when Mount Athos comes up in conversation, and you will find, among accounts of astonishing miracles and divine decrees, earthier stories involving affairs with the wives and daughters of shepherds from the mainland.
In this telling, the place became a single-sex province so as to keep minds focused on the tasks of chanting, praying and general monastic maintenance (tilling the fields, administering guests or involving oneself in the products for sale in the gift shop). Encountering people for whom one might feel sexual attraction is distracting for the work of the monk, goes the logic. The fact the men who visit Mount Athos are told not to wear short trousers hints at a possible flaw.
Still, Mount Athos is undoubtedly a fragile ecosystem, the monks a sort of endangered species, and if you were to change anything at all about the way it works there is a significant chance the whole thing would simply fall apart. ‘We have lion reserves, elephant reserves, monkey reserves,’ the writer Tom Whipple recounted a pilgrim saying. ‘Why not monk reserves?’
*** My Name Is an Attractive Place in the World
Something I like about being a regular tourist is being able to plan my own pilgrimages based on a passing whim, like the time I travelled alone in Spain from San Sebastián to Léon because the first city shares my name. We should visit the places that carry our names at least once in our lives. And I’d heard of a restaurant near Léon said to serve the best steak in the world. When I sat at my table and started considering the menu an American academic leaned over from nearby and gave me a piece of advice that sounded like, and would work quite well as, an old proverb: ‘If you’re in the best steak restaurant in the world, then you should order their best steak.’
Or the time when a former girlfriend and I decided to make sense of Venice by tracking down every painting we could find by the Renaissance artist Giorgio da Castelfranco, better known as Giorgione (which translates to the far less impressive sounding ‘big George’). Giorgione is a tantalisingly enigmatic figure but it’s not that we were particularly interested in him, having some objective outside the usual checklist of tourist attractions (this historic palace, that historic bridge) felt like freedom. But not too much freedom.
In a sense, both trips involved inventing tourist attractions mostly for the pleasure of then ticking them off, a pleasure that ended up exponentially magnifying whatever qualities were inherent to the relevant city, artwork or steak.
*** Inside My Wallet and the Fur Coat
In Sabahattin Ali’s novel Madonna in a Fur Coat (1943), the protagonist, a Turkish man named Raif Efendi, is sent by his father to live in Berlin and learns about soap manufacturing so that he can take over the family business. Instead, he becomes a sort of perpetual tourist, wandering the streets and seeing the sights, trying to unearth self-knowledge he sorely lacks. Especially drawn to art museums, Raif eventually becomes obsessed with a self-portrait by a contemporary artist named Maria Puder. It becomes the subject of a daily pilgrimage and he spends all his time sitting in front of it, much to the bemusement of other gallery-goers. ‘Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me,’ Raif recalls. ‘I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat.’
Over bitter Greek coffee in a small restaurant in Karyes, the capital village of Mount Athos and a sort of central pump for minibuses that then course out to monasteries in far-flung corners of the peninsula, I got into a conversation with a Romanian pilgrim named Alex. He was between twenty-five and thirty-five, smooth-shaven with short hair, and had an intense yet generous manner that spoke of boundless self-confidence. He’d come to help one of the monasteries with an engineering project, but was also hoping for spiritual support in advance of a new venture, a fitness app related to swimming. We were headed for the same monastery and took the bus together. We chatted in the reception area as we waited to be processed by the Guest Master.
Suddenly, he handed me a laminated card, wallet-sized. He said it was a prayer token, that it would offer me spiritual support. It was also a sign of friendship, he said. Since that day, it has remained in my wallet.
In Madonna in a Fur Coat, a strange thing happens. Raif is granted access to the painting in the most physical sense possible: he meets Maria, and forms an intense friendship with her, one that threatens to become a love affair. Forms of attraction might be transmutable given the right conditions, though Puder is a cynic. ‘All unions are built on falsehood,’ she says. ‘People can only get to know each other up to a point and then they make up the rest, until one day, seeing their mistake, they turn their backs on sadness and run away.’
Romantic love, at least, is particular to the individual. We go to tourist attractions for many reasons but the biggest is always: because everyone else does. And then what does it even amount to once you encounter it? It’s usually so confusing to finally behold Machu Picchu or M&M’S World and realise it is still irrevocably filtered through the same person as before. You can see it but you’ll never get to be it.
Tourists like to take photographs that exclude all other tourists and to ask how they can find, e.g., the ‘true Tokyo’. In other words: how can I turn myself into a local for just a few days? How can I be it? But if they managed to do so the qualities of a place that drew them there in the first place would almost definitely be rendered uninteresting. As Geoff Dyer once put it, ‘you have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view.’
*** A Crispy Mess of Flies and Spiders Below My Feet
On a recent afternoon in a house in the countryside I was hoovering the floor and accidentally knocked a light fitting from a wall with my shoulder, thereby revealing a crispy mess of flies and spiders, their corpses enmeshed in a web-spaghetti that resembled something malevolent that wakes you with a jump from a nightmare, but could easily be wiped away with a little kitchen roll. The fly is attracted to the electric light because it thinks it is the Moon. The spider is attracted to the location attractive to the fly.
When things fall to the ground it isn’t just ‘because they do’ but because it’s the fundamental nature of one thing to move towards another. We call this tendency attraction, a word we also use for the desire we feel to be close to other people and for places that have accrued a sort of magnetism that renders the madness of people actually quite predictable – predictable enough to make a living from selling them T-shirts, dream catchers and fridge magnets, to know that if you place your cotton candy stall just right here you will make three hundred and fifty euros a day, as opposed to three hundred euros over there. The Eiffel Tower and the Las Vegas Strip have nothing in common and yet experientially are almost exactly the same place.
On my second evening in Mount Athos, at a monastery called Iviron, visitors were summoned to the chapel to behold the holy relics and I was ushered into the queue to join them. As each pilgrim reached the vitrines in which the relics were stored, he would engage in one or more acts of veneration. These included making the sign of the cross with his hands, kissing the Perspex in front of the relic, or an elaborate bow in which he fell to his knees, spread his arms either side and tilted his torso forward until his forehead almost touched the ground.
‘This was of course the reason behind the ancient pilgrimages,’ writes Olga Tokarczuk in her travel book Flights (2017). ‘Striving towards – and reaching – a holy place would bestow holiness upon us, cleanse us of our sins. Does the same thing happen when we travel to unholy, sinful places? To sad and vacant places? Joyful, fruitful places?’
When I eventually reached the relics, I could only look at them like the knick-knacks in a museum. I was interested in their history, and they were beautiful, but I could not access them. As I scrutinised the priceless Byzantine icons, elaborate silver boxes and so on, I imagined the eyes of the monks scorching my back, one muttering to the other: ‘that’s not venerating. That’s sightseeing.’ I resisted the temptation to fumble out a sign of the cross, just to fit in. When I turned around, I saw that nobody was paying any attention to me at all.