Rackham’s Zelkova

They were colleagues, associates, students—friends of a man. They met at the top of the world, where the mountain peaks meet, where the air is pure and sparse. Then they climbed yet higher. Evening light stretched long across a lower plain, threw darkness to the depths of a narrow gorge, and set the sky aglow.

Led by a priest, who held his robe by the hem as he went, the pilgrims walked in single file. They traced a path the man had often walked—there above, where the spirit soars and, so, refills. They stepped up stones carved by ages. They tread on earth gathered by last years’ rain. They rounded an ancient well, its domed ceiling fallen. Its stones now hid beyond reflections on dark water.

At length, they came to a rare forest. Tangled roots joined to knotted trunks. Trunks spread to arching boughs, clothed in crenelated leaves. The priest halted beneath the largest tree. The breathless pilgrims congregated round its wide trunk, sheathed in weathered bark. The tree’s branches embraced them. Its roots, like seats, invited them to rest a while, to refill the spirit.

The pilgrims stood in dappled light. Some spoke of the tree and of the man: of the tree’s age, its qualities, its meaning to the man; of the man’s wisdom, his knowledge, his generosity, and his passion for trees.

The priest lit incense in a censer and began to chant. A cool breeze blew, rustling leaves and grasses, mixing a forest perfume of incense, faint asphodel, and dry-dirt dust. The congregation swayed to the rhythmic chant. Goat bells jangled out of sight. The sound, like water tumbling down a mountain stream, joined the chanting as a choir.

The priest concluded the ceremony, lifting the cloth from a plaque: a dedication of the tree to the memory of the man.

Spirits refilled, the congregation dispersed. Descending in groups of twos and threes, they left the tree, now, by their investment, made unique among all the trees of the rare forest.

 

At the top of the world, where the mountain peaks meet, where the air is pure and sparse, you may find a path that climbs yet higher. When evening light stretches long across the lower plain, throwing darkness to the gorge, you may follow the path, where the man once walked—the man who taught us about trees and forests.

At path’s end, you might rest a while in the tree’s embrace. In dappled sunlight, feel the cool breeze, smell the asphodel, hear the goat bells like a tumbling stream. And there above, a filled spirit lingers. 

Oliver RackhamOliver Rackham, 1939-2015

Zelkova abeliceaZelkova abelicea, circa 1300-

Dedicated August 6, 2018, Xyloskalo, Omalos, Crete
Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Moody

 

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Potamida, Ancient Cretan Village

Regional vases at the Archaeological Museum of KissamosA Potamida vase (lower left) on display at the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos

From as early as the seventh century BC, craftsmen of a river bank settlement took white clay from nearby hills to make pottery. The style, unique to the settlement, produced a simple, squat vase with sturdy handles. An example is held at the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos, along with similar wares from other regional towns.

Today, a village named Potamida, after the Greek word potam for “river,” straddles the Rema, a seasonal stream. A disused footbridge crosses the watercourse amid a jungle of bamboo, grapevines, and fig trees just below the modern bridge.

The clay hills, called Komolithi, sit above the village. Similar white clay can be seen in a thick, geologic layer all along Crete’s north coast. At Komolithi, embedded fossils of microscopic sea creatures indicate it was once a seabed. Only in two places, here and near Sitia in eastern Crete, has erosion produced such magnificent forms in the friable rock. The slender buttes reach up as high as 20 meters beneath shrubby caps.

White Hills of KomolithiKomolithi

The site has become a tourist attraction, though little visited. Perhaps this is best. Wind and rain will wear it away soon enough.

Another local attraction is the watermill, which is marked with a sign from the road. The mill, reconstructed in 2013, lies down a narrow path beside the home of Marika, who holds the key, should it be locked.

A chimney-type watermillWatermill

Marika is an ancient woman, stooped by age so low to the ground one must bend at the waist to shake her hand. When you do, she’ll peer up and flash a wide grin. Then she’ll treat you like an old friend, chattering in Greek. Whether you speak the language is of no consequence whatsoever. You’ll understand that Marika wants you to sit down and enjoy homemade cakes while she retrieves the iron key.

The door to the watermill should be closed, though it’s rarely locked. Inside, wall displays explain its workings. In addition to the olives that have taken over since World War II, Cretan farmers harvested crops of wheat and corn from ancient times. The grains were ground at windmills and watermills scattered around the island.

This one is a “chimney” watermill. A narrow canal, called a leat, diverts water from the stream higher up the valley. The leat is gently sloped to bring water to a point above the mill. The water then falls down a near-vertical shaft, like a chimney, and shoots out a nozzle two meters (6 feet) below the mill house. The spurting water turns a horizontal wheel. Its axle turns the millstone above.

Saint Peraskevi's ChurchSaint Peraskevi’s Chuch, Potamida; Peraskevi is the patron saint of eyes

Saint Peraskevi’s Church of Potamida is not so much an attraction as it is a curiosity. Not so much the church as its bell tower, which has a clock on each of its four faces, all showing different times, none correct. Not so much the tower as its bell that rings the hour every hour… at precisely eight minutes past. In Crete, even the Greek Orthodox Church is on island time.

Opposite the church is a ruin. Carved lintels still hold open windows in stone-block walls. The interior is filled with similar stones, fallen from ceilings and upper floors. Medieval plaster clings in a haphazard pattern. Central arches resist decay. Nothing remains to hint at a construction date, much less to tell us when the wooden door, now dust, was last closed.

Venetian manor house  secret schoolVenetian manor house, secret school

During the Ottoman occupation (1669-1898), Christians were forbidden to school their children as they were used. The now-ruined building, which had been a Venetian manor house, was used as a secret school.

Door with murder holeFacade, fortified palace

Atop a western hill overlooking the village, the Ottoman pasha’s fortified palace crumbles, year by year, into a pile of stones, held together by the roots of fig trees and caper plants that choke the interior. It, like the secret school, would have been in use until 120 years ago.

An archwayInside the ruins, an archway yet stands

Just outside the village is the home of two fine folk, David and Juliet, an English couple, who settled in Crete 20 years ago and built a house from the ruins of The Old Olive Mill. They teach yoga and invite friends and artists to stay in extra rooms. This summer they host yours truly as writer in residence.

800-year old olive treeIn front of The Old Olive Mill, an 800-year old olive tree still bears fruit and serves as support for a climbing trumpet vine

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Army Training at Camp Gordon

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”

My cousin Bruce recently sat down with Uncle Jesse, Ben’s last surviving child, to refresh their memories, to tell the old war stories again, second-hand now that the main character is no longer with us. The quote above stuck with Jesse and his twin brother, Wesley, because their father often recited it.

For the officers and non-commissioned officers in charge, military training is an exercise in organization. Equipment must be requisitioned and delivered to the training field; trainees must be housed, clothed, and fed three times a day; they have to be moved to and from the training site. Actual training takes place only a few hours per day.

For the soldier, military training is an exercise in patience. But while a soldier waits, the devil called boredom is his companion, and moral suffers. Busy work is a common solution.

Camp Gordon in Chamblee, northeast of Atlanta, Georgia, was one of 32 military training camps that sprang up near America’s large cities in 1917. As part of his War Preparedness Movement developed in 1914 while he was Army Chief of Staff, General Leonard Wood called for training camps to be built near cities with rail access and a large water supply.

Soon after the declaration of war, the camps were under construction as trainees were moving in. All those clapboard buildings needed painting. As did the stones that marked the borders of roads and walkways.

Barracks at Camp Gordon Postcard

During the first days of training in that hot, humid Georgia July of 1918, Private Potts and his comrades would have learned military courtesy and drill and ceremony, instilling the high degree of discipline required of a soldier. Later, they learned the use of arms. Most American boys of the era were familiar with hunting rifles, which is fortunate since, due to lack of equipment, they often trained with wooden stakes.

The latter part of the six-week training period would have included two divergent forms of combat tactics: maneuver and trench warfare. In the early days of the Great War, the Allies employed maneuver warfare to combat the invading German army, pushing it back or recoiling before its advance. However, improved technology, notably more accurate, mobile artillery and the machine gun, made the battlefield a more lethal environment. The Allies dug in to secure their gains or prevent further losses.

Trench warfare led to what General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, called “abnormal stabilized warfare.” Pershing believed the stalemate in Europe was the logical outcome of the defensive tactics that define trench warfare.

Pershing advocated, not formations facing-off in open fields as in battles of the American Civil War, but large-unit maneuver tactics, where the infantry advances through opposing lines, pushing the enemy off the field. At the same time, Pershing acknowledged the role of trench warfare and allowed for its basic instruction in the training program.

Abandoned in 1921, the Camp Gordon site became a naval air station during World War II. Today, a plaque among the hangars of Dekalb Peachtree Airport marks the site of the World War I training camp.

Almost 70 years later, while the times of painting clapboard buildings and border stones were long passed, during my own Army training in 1987, my comrades and I laughed at the same aphorism:

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”

 


“Training of the American Soldier During World War I and World War II,” Roger K. Spickelmier, MAJ, USA, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1987.

World War I Military Camps, New Georgia Encyclopedia

 


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’ journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

As the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service.

Military Induction and Entrainment

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever…”

Next date:

August 24—Embarkation, the Tunisian, and the Bridge of Ships

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A Dark Hole on Zovigli Hilltop

“In one corner, a two-foot square opening in the floor captures one’s attention. Four rusty rungs set into the stone lead down a few feet. Below that, only a flat rock floats in cool darkness.”—from Exploring Zovigli

Ruin atop Zovigli

A dark, square hole in the floor of a ruin on a hill piqued my curiosity. The first time here, I was ill equipped and alone. So, with intrepid friends, Helen and Neil, I returned a month later to Zovigli hilltop at Akrotiri Spada. Neil brought rope and a pair of sneakers almost large enough for my feet. I carried the sneakers, tied together over a shoulder. We hiked to the summit along a faint, switchback trail on Zovigli’s east flank.

While Helen and Neil took in the magnificent view, I looped the rope around the first rusty rung and pulled with my weight to make sure the rung would hold. It did. Sneaker shod, armed with a small flashlight, and with two safety observers now present, I lowered myself down, testing each rung as I went.

Savety observers

Helen and Neil survey the descent

It’s a unique sensation: feeling your way down in darkness, toes reaching for the next hold, exposed to any looming danger. Perhaps decades had passed since anyone had been down here. What did they leave? What happened since? What waits in the dark?

The most dangerous thing I could imagine was a wild animal, recently fallen in the hole. A trapped badger in close quarters, scared and desperate, might shred my legs and rip off a sneaker before I could scramble out of reach.

The scariest thing I could imagine was a skeleton. Human or otherwise, the moment light catches curved bones and empty sockets would be a heart-stopper.

Rough hewn rock

Rough hewn rock walls

Ten feet down, the hole opened up into a small space only a few feet deep. Large rocks covered the bottom in an uneven mound. With outstretched arms, I could almost touch the rough hewn walls on opposing sides. I guessed it to be a bomb shelter.

 

There were no badgers, no skeletons—nothing of interest whatsoever. To be sure, I displaced a few rocks, exposing black, damp dirt in two separate places, finding only spiders and snails.

“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”—Dr. Linus Pauling

Emerging

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Military Induction and Entrainment

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States.”

The words feel like strangers in the mouth, being, at the same time, repeated after a man in uniform and of such moral import.

The American flag on his right, the Tennessee Tristar, left, the army officer stands before a group of young men. They are farmers, teachers, laborers, and railroad men. All dressed in their best clothes, they’re aligned in loose ranks. A small suitcase or a simple bag, containing a change of clothes and a shaving kit, sits on the floor to each man’s left. Their right hands are raised, palms out.

The officer continues: “I, state your name…”

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”

June 27, 1918, one hundred years ago today, my great grandfather spoke these words, right hand raised, at the Houston County Court House in Erin, Tennessee, and so became a private in the U.S. Army.

The two oaths, taken by all commissioned and noncommissioned officers and privates, were defined by the First United States Congress in 1789. The oath for officers changed over the years, but the oaths for enlisted men stayed the same until the mid-20th century.

Following the brief ceremony, Private Potts was escorted onto a train with several dozen other draftees. On boarding, each man was given two box lunches, supplied by the Red Cross Society of Erin, that would be his dinner and supper. The train pulled out for Camp Gordon in Chamblee, Georgia, where they would undergo six weeks of military training.

Three months from that day, my great grandfather would be fighting in France.

Form 1029  Provost Marshal General Office

Form 1029, Provost Marshal General Office, showing Benjamin Franklin Potts (12th entry) was inducted and entrained for Camp Gordon June 27, 1918, and arrived two days later

Two of Ben’s three brothers were also drafted for the war. Nine months prior, Roy Albert, two years Ben’s senior, took the same train to Camp Gordon. The youngest, Clyde Brake, would leave for Camp Wadsworth near Spartanburg, South Carolina, in September 1918. Only the eldest, William Rufus, was excluded from the draft, being married with two young children at the time.

 


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’ journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

As the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service.

Next article:

Army Training at Camp Gordon

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Exploring Zovigli

“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”—Walt Disney

Akrotiri Spada is the northernmost point of Crete and the very end of Rodopou Penninsula. It’s marked by Zovigli, a conical hill that rises 70 meters above the surrounding terrain, which is 300 meters above the sea. Evenly spaced around the northern half of Zovigli’s base, oval shadows belie cave openings, the objective of our present expedition.

Zovilgli hilltop at Akrotiri Spada
Zovigli hilltop (upper right), elevation 370 meters

Lightly clothed against unseasonal April heat, wearing a hat and sunscreen against the rays, I carried in pockets a camera, a small flashlight, a pocket knife, and the dumbphone. A one-hour drive along a rough, gravel road took me to the start point, a lone farmhouse near the end of Rodopou.

Peninsulas Gramvousa (left) and Rodopou define Kissamos Bay

Peninsulas Gramvousa (left) and Rodopou define Kissamos Bay

Akrotiri Spada is named after its shape on a map. In Latin characters, the Modern Greek spelling is Spatha, which means “broad blade” or “sword,” and akrotiri means “cape.” Exploring is more fun in a place called Sword Cape.

A dirt track, impassable by car, leads two kilometers to the peninsula’s point. There, the hill is surrounded by several structures, including an empty concrete building, the remains of two stone-built towers, and a goat pen, the inhabitants of which roam free across the rocky landscape. The concrete building is certainly a wartime construction, built by German soldiers during the WWII occupation of Crete. The two round towers, both on the cliff’s edge overlooking the sea, were used by the Germans, but they may have been built earlier, possibly by the Venetians.

Ruined stone tower overlooking the Sea of Crete

Looking west from the point of Akrotiri Spada, a ruined stone tower overlooks the Sea of Crete; beyond is the point of Gramvousa Peninsula

Thorny cushion

A shrub called thorny cushion attacks exposed flesh below the knee

On approach to the hill, I surprised a goat kid, who put out a call to its mother. The nanny, on the hillside some distance away, returned the call and started down, while their herd-mates expressed displeasure at the unexpected visit. So, to a chorus of bleating goats, I picked my way over uneven terrain, up the hill toward a shadowy opening, avoiding sharp stones, holes, and thorny-cushion shrubs.

Beyond the cave openings are tunnels, blasted out of the stone hill by the Germans. The tunnels extend up to 50 feet straight into the hill. Inside, green moss grows in thin film on the walls near the entrances; a layer of goat droppings covers the floors. Bore holes in the rear of each tunnel give away the digging method: drill a hole a couple feet deep and the diameter of a dynamite stick, insert explosives, stand back and hold your ears, then clear out the rubble.

In front of the tunnels are gun emplacements and various structures I guessed were once headquarters and mess hall. Each emplacement is connected to the next by a man-height trench, also blasted out of solid rock.

Gun emplacement at 3

Gun emplacement at 3., tunnel behind

In all, I counted five tunnels. The trench leading east from the easternmost tunnel, which I refer to as the first or 1., leads to a large hole. Its purpose I could not guess.

In the opposite direction from the first tunnel, the trench leads to a rock slide. Pacing my steps, I counted—roughly, due to difficult footing—forty to fifty paces between each of the other tunnels. However, moving west from the first through the rock slide to the next tunnel, I measured twice the distance. Therefore, I presume the rock slide must cover another tunnel or some such emplacement.

Field sketch

Field sketch showing emplacements around Zovigli’s base

Emplacements from east to west:

0. Hole, trench begins
1. Gun emplacement and tunnel
2. Rock slide (buried emplacement?)
3. Gun emplacement and tunnel
4. Headquarters, tunnels on either side
5. Mess hall and forked tunnel
6. Depot, trench ends, road begins

What I call the “depot” (6.) is the foundation of a small rectangular building. An old track, now grassed over, starts there and goes a hundred feet or so before becoming lost in stones and thorny cushions.

Looking up the west face, it didn’t seem so very far to the top. I was ill equipped for climbing, shod in flat sandals. However, I knew from earlier satellite reconnaissance there was a rectangular structure up there, and this might be my only chance to explore it. So, I screwed on my hat, stuck the Arizonas to my feet, and scrambled to the top.

From Zovigli hilltop

From Zovigli hilltop, 370 meters above, a tour boat rounds the cape

I was alone, but there were witnesses. I reached the pinnacle and looked down. Passengers aboard a tour boat, likely on its way back from the remote beach at Diktynna, must have been saying, “Look, there’s a guy climbing up there!” and “Oh my God, he must be crazy.” I posed for photos.

The rectangular structure may be another wartime construction. Two by three paces in area, five feet high, the four stone block walls and a similar floor are in better shape than the ruins below. In one corner, a two-foot square opening in the floor captures one’s attention. Four rusty rungs set into the stone lead down a few feet. Below that, only a flat rock floats in cool darkness.

Stone block ruins atop Zovigli

Stone block ruins atop Zovigli from above

A debate raged in my head. There was much swearing. I really wanted to see what was down there. I could have descended the rungs and hung a leg down to test the distance to the rock, but if I so much as lost a sandal in that hole, the return hike would be grueling. And much worse than that was well within the realm of possibility. After more minutes than sanity should have allowed, prudence won out.

On the highest rock, there is a cement column, which serves as a geological marker, beside a cairn. The latter indicates the place has been visited by at least a score of other climbers since the Germans left. I found a suitable example to add to its height.

Up there, it was just me and the wind, with the rocks and the sea and the whole world below.

Tell me again, Jonathan Livingston, what is the perfect speed…?

A Bonelli’s eagle

A Bonelli’s eagle, common in Crete

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Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

June 5, 1917, the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France. Earlier in the spring, a large-scale attack, called the Nivelle Offensive, failed with heavy casualties, resulting in a series of mutinies and mass desertions in the French army. In the Argonne Forest, a battle of mine-and-countermine, now two years in, was riddling the Butte of Vauquois with tunnels and craters.

In the United States, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service. One of these was my great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Potts.

In April, following the discovery that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join the war against its northern neighbor, the United States declared war on the German Empire. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was enacted in May. It authorized the conscription of men to raise an army, allowing certain exclusions. Among them, having a dependent parent, or a dependent sibling or child under 12 years old, were considered good reasons to be exempt from the draft.

In addition to this date, three other national registration days were held. One, on the same date a year later, to register men turned 21 during the year, followed by a second, August 24, for the same reason, then a third, on September 12, which broadened the eligibility age, from 18 to 45.

All four sons of Jack and Ellen Potts were of eligible ages. Benjamin Franklin, who was called “Bennie”* by his family, was accompanied that day by his brothers: William “Roofy”* Rufus, Roy Albert, and Clyde Brake.

*The nicknames are recorded in the 1910 census (image) when Benjamin was 16 years old and Rufus, 20.

According to his draft registration card, B. F. Potts was 22 years old, short in height, medium in build. He had gray eyes and dark brown hair. Born September 18, 1894, in Slayden, Tennessee, by 1917 he resided in nearby Tennessee Ridge. He laid and repaired track for the Lincoln & Nashville Railroad. He was Caucasian, unmarried, with no prior military experience and no good reasons not to get some.

Draft registration card  Benjamin Franklin Potts  June 5  1917Draft registration card, Benjamin Franklin Potts, June 5, 1917

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The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

Photo_240809 063At the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery,
east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France

On September 26 this year, we’ll mark the 100th anniversary of the assault on the Butte of Vauquois by the 35th Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.

My great grandfather, Private Benjamin Franklin Potts, fought there. Thankfully for me and my Potts family kin who came after, he survived. Many of his comrades in arms did not.

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The Hadrianic Road to Diktynna

P1000594

“Let me out here, Richard. Just around the next bend, the valley opens up. You’ll see an expansive view of the end of the peninsula. Stop there. You and Jean can take some pictures, and I’ll be along in two minutes.”

I was taking friends to Diktynna*, in the Menies Valley on the east coast of Rodopou Peninsula, Crete. I hopped out of the car at the spot I’d located earlier on a satellite image. On the screen, a blurry line ran down a ravine along side the gravel road that leads up the peninsula. I was doubtful, but I had to see what it looked like on the ground.

Two steps took me to the border between road and ravine. I saw it in an instant. I turned back toward the car and motioned Richard to halt. He and Jean dismounted to examine the discovery:

A few dozen meters of a road built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century. 

P1000595

* For more information about Diktynna and the temple ruins there, I recommend this article, The Hadrianic Temple of Diktynna in Crete, by Carole Raddato on her blog Following Hadrian.

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Retreat in Crete

“Hey Neil, I’m looking for a quiet place, beautiful surroundings, warm, with lots of sunshine to write for a couple weeks. Do you know of any place like that there in Crete?”

“My neighbors are looking for someone to cat-sit.”

I threw some T-shirts and the Arizonas in a bag. Brought the laptop connection to the Machine, as well. Staying at the home of new friends David and Juliet, a lovely English couple, hospitable, free spirits, big hearts, and 30-year residents of the Kissamos region on the Isle of Myth.

Between furry feline feedings, I visit old friends on the island, explore new-to-me ruins, and translate my recent French title to English.

The photo is from a hill above Potamida, showing the mountains around Topolia Gorge.

View of Topolia Gorge

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