Ithaca is an idyllic island. The home of Homer’s hero Odysseus, Ithaca has become a metaphorical destination for many who consider The Odyssey, the epic poem penned in the 8th century BC, as a metaphor of our journey through life.
Just as Odysseus took ten arduous years to return to his homeland after the Trojan War, our own life journeys are often far more complex that we might anticipate. The journey to fulfilling each of our individual goals is both an outer and an inner one, frequently taking us along a long road peppered with obstacles and diversions. Odysseus reaching Ithaca is symbolic of reaching those goals set forth at the outset of our journey.
We each have many Ithacas in our life, some large, some small, but it is the journey itself, and how it is travelled, that is of more importance than the fulfilment of these individual goals. And even when a goal is reached, many smaller goals may have been sacrificed along the way as the circuitous route deemed them irrelevant or unattainable.
For many years, one of my Ithacas has been to travel, and in particular to spend time living in Greece. Originally, I thought I’d begin my travels in Greece, going straight to the heart of my desire to travel. But, in true Odyssean manner, our travels have taken on their own unique shape with us being blown more by the winds of fate than steered by our determination to reach certain places at certain times.
At the outset, we adopted Lao Tzu’s philosophy that “a good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”. This didn’t mean we let go of all intention but, rather, we held our intentions actively so we could move towards them the moment something favourable opened up, in the same way a dormant seed lies nestled in the earth until the right combination of warmth and moisture signal the time has come to sprout and grow.
Two-and-a-half years ago Sean and I left our lovely Lewes apartment in the South East of England. An apartment that had been one of my Ithacas — a spacious and beautifully renovated maisonette (top two floors) in a seventeenth-century building in the middle of the High Street. It was only a few short months after moving in that I was struck, as I walked up the stairs appreciating their pleasing sweep, by the awareness that however beautiful the apartment it would never be enough in itself. Something so obvious as to not generally be worthy of comment — and certainly not a new way of looking at the world since I was never one to put material acquisition uppermost — yet the strength of the feeling so soon after moving in surprised me. I knew in that moment my Ithacan apartment would be short-lived.
That journey upstairs was the catalyst to an existential few months that culminated in the realisation that travel, and a pilgrimage to Greece, was to be my next Ithaca. I was eager to leave as soon as possible but it was another three years before I set out, not alone but together with Sean, and a further two-and-a-half years before we reached Greece, one of my more treasured Ithacas.
The journey has been more circuitous than I could’ve imagined, and certainly more so than I would’ve planned, but it’s also been far richer than anticipated. Instead of a straight path to Greece, like Odysseyus, the journey to Ithaca has been rather zig-zagging and backtracking, yet all the while we were getting to know new places intimately as we lived like locals wherever we were.
Our familiarity and knowledge of particular places went far deeper than is possible in a few short weeks, as we experienced the sweep and passing of seasons: a sweltering summer in Vichy, France with its swarms of mosquitoes and wide Napoleon III boulevards; a sojourn in Monbazillac, France where we discovered the delights of Monbazillac AOC; a swim in the Bay of Biscay at Biarritz on the last day of summer; a bitterly cold winter in Burgos, Spain, a city we grew to love and which we documented with over 1,400 Instagram photographs, 367 of which we collected together in our book, Burgos²; a revisiting of Edinburgh followed by a brief love affair with Cornwall; enjoying the last days of summer in the South West of France before autumn took hold and it was time for the sunflowers and grapes to be harvested; a two-day journey from France to Italy, passing through both rivieras and the foothills of the Alps where, en route, we learned about the once-controversial statue of Apollo in Nice; a spring under the Tuscan rain, surrounded by olive trees and Chianti wine-producing vineyards, and close to Florence where we decided not to pay homage to Michelangelo’s David; another trip back to England via Lucerne in Switzerland; summer in Berlin where we joined in the World Cup fever and celebrations, and enjoyed cycling all over the city; a drive south through Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania to Bulgaria where everything got turned upside down because of an issue with the water supply (a story yet to be told); and, a stunning drive through the Bulgarian and Greek mountains, down through Ioannina, across the floating bridge to Lefkada and over the Ionian sea to Ithaca.
Thirty months and countless trials along the way, but we are here now having reached one of our Ithacas. As we continue to travel the larger Odyssean story will continue to unfold and, as it has been with these first two-and-a-half years, it won’t be the reaching of our goals but how the journey is travelled that will matter most.
Constantine P. Cavafy’s 1911 poem, simply entitled Ithaka, encapsulates the symbolism of The Odyssey. Here’s a reading of the poem by Sean Connery, with music by Vangelis, followed by the poem itself, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
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.
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Mufidah Kassalias is a writer, photographer and slow-travelling digital nomad. She’s also Co-Founder & COO of CreativeThunder.co, working with creative businesses and individuals, worldwide, to build tribes of loyal customers via strategic websites, visual storytelling, and social media.