I was on one of my internet tangents the other day and I saw that Marco Polo died in this month; January. To be specific, it was January 8, 1324. This is a seemingly random piece of information, one of a thousand I collect every day from the Internet. But some, like this one, set me off on my own little winding road of thought.
I do have a sort of fascination with numbers, but I don’t care for math, so my iPhone calculator and I computed that Marco Polo died 692 years ago. That’s quite a long time to be dead. Almost 700 years, and still I think many people around the world know his name. Why is that? The swimming game has surely contributed to his long-lasting recognition. “Marco!…Polo.” And, it’s been a while since I’ve been in school, but I bet squirmy little second graders still learn about him.
If I retrace the meandering roads of thought, I find the reason the death date of Marco Polo caught my attention was it reminded me of a photo. And, in less than ten seconds from seeing his name on Wikipedia, I was looking at a picture I’d taken of a road sign. The sign had “MARKOPOULO” written with large, white-block lettering in both English and Greek, on the typical green background of road signs worldwide. From that moment, I went on a wonderful leap back in time to three years earlier on E94 in Athens.
One of the benefits of travel is becoming alive. In a foreign land, my senses are heightened as they never can be at home. I’m more aware. Seeing Markopoulo on the sign, pointing travelers to his namesake town in Greece, stirred me up. There I was traveling the road in Greece—a fellow explorer, no doubt a kindred spirit—and his name reminded me of why I had put myself in this position, which at the moment was one of being immersed in Greek road chaos: to explore.
I had a moment with Marco Polo back then, so now, I feel I can drop the formalities and just call him Marco.
What was it about Marco that he should never be forgotten? His claim to fame is having authored one of the first travel books on Asia, written around the year 1300. It is gloriously titled, Livre des Merveilles du Monde or Book of the Marvels of the World. (Why an Italian wrote in French is another story for another time). It was a smash hit.
I took a road trip through Greece one summer, but Marco took an epic road trip, one that lasted 24 years. He transversed the great winding road of the day, the interstate through Asia known as the Silk Road, and his tellings of his fantastic journey blew the minds of many a 14th century Italian, including America’s own Christopher Columbus (he’s kind of ours, right?). It is said that Columbus had a copy of Marco’s book in his possessions when he died and had filled the margins with his own annotations.
This is understandable. Livre des Merveilles du Monde was on top of the bestseller list, compiled by the Venice City-State Times, for weeks (I may have the name wrong). So it’s conceivable that Columbus, a couple of hundred years later, would be all warm and fuzzy for Marco’s tales. After all, I prize my dog-eared and annotated copy of Walden, written in the 1850s. But, to have your name on a road sign and on the internet 700 years later? I bow to Marco.
Here I was in the 21st century, following the sign bearing the great adventurer’s name. I was leaving the horn-honking streets of Athens for a visit with those other enduring personalities, the Gods of Mt. Olympus. I moved up the coast of Greece along E75. My destination: an Aegean beach town.
Paralia Panteleimonos (I can never say it either) sits at the foot of the mountain of the gods, nestled in vineyards, with its toes in the sand. Marco’s road took him to Kublai Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu, and mine took me to a small apartment just a barefoot stroll away from the beach. The imposing castle of the Crusaders, Platamonas, built in the 1200s just before Marco was born, watches down on the German tourists and a few tavernas along the shore.
My Kublai Khan was Georgios Dimou, the owner of Helena Apartments, eldest son of the family and a fitness and yoga instructor in Vienna in the off-season. As it is in Greece, he invited me for a little sit-down and some wine made by him and his father. We shared stories of our lives, our lands, our cultures through a sort of English-sign language hybrid. He told me of how the neighbors shared what they had in his small village, supported almost entirely by the summer tourists. He told of how he traded his wine for eggs or meat. In this way, everyone had a bit of everything. No one was left wanting the necessities. As I listened and sipped, I wondered what my life would be like if I interacted with my neighbors this way.
When he handed me a fresh glass, an earlier vintage, he handed me a glass of friendship. Not that we kept in touch, but another benefit of travel is the memories made and the way they are recalled, often with pleasant unexpectedness. One random piece of information can return you to a place and time and make you want to write a blog post about how alive you felt, and how much you appreciated the moment in a strange land.
Perhaps the enduring quality of Marco is the sense of freedom we conjure when we think about explorers. I was a modern-day Marco, exploring strange and ancient Greek lands, where I did not speak the language, did not know the customs, and to this day I cannot tell half of what I saw.