Keep Ithaka always in your mind
It was Oxi Day, the 28th October, a national holiday in Greece, celebrating the day they said ‘No’ to the Italian dictator Mussolini in 1940. (He demanded they allow German forces to enter the country and occupy strategic sites during World War 2. The Greeks said ‘Oxi’ – the Germans came anyway.) Families, friends, tourists and locals mixed together in a happy muddle, chatting, laughing, shouting, eating, drinking and generally having a wonderful time.
I was having salad and a beer at a table overlooking the water, enjoying the scenery when familiar music came over the loudspeaker. When asked, an elderly chap at the next table confirmed it was Dalaras, a quintessentially Greek singer I had seen in a concert over 30 years ago when I lived in Athens … My lunch was made perfect by that unique combination of beautiful weather, friendly restaurant, Greeks celebrating a special day and the soundtrack of my youth.
As I went to through the restaurant to pay, I passed this table above which was chalked a quote from Cavafy’s most famous poem, Ithaka, “When you set out on your journey to Ithaka, pray that the road will be long, full of adventure, full of knowledge …”
Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy (as he wanted the family name to be spelled in English) was a poet, the son of Peter-John Ioannou Cavafy and Charicleia Georgaki Photiades. He was born in Alexandria on 29 April 1863. Both his parents were natives of Constantinople, and Constantine was proud of his heritage and his illustrious ancestors. He wrote over 150 poems. This one epitomises the pleasures of life journey’s and the need to take time to relish every moment.
Ithaka (or Ithaki) is one of the Ionian islands and the poem is inspired by Homer’s tales of Odysseus and his lengthy voyage back to his wife Penelope. Translations vary; this version of Ithaka is from the official Cavafy site.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon, don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
* Sadly the Ithaki Restaurant is now closed but the pleasure it evoked, lives on …
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