Lately, I have been working a lot on the relationship between the senses and water. My main focus has been on how ancient Romans would have experienced flowing waters in fountains, especially in Greece, which I covered in a lecture here in Athens in 2015, now being turned into an article. What I find most important about this research is its resonances not only in the ancient world, but through all time periods, especially our own. Our senses guide our understanding of the world.
In 2007, the Greek National Tourism Organization unveiled a new campaign: “Greece: Explore Your Senses.” In the promotional video, which aired throughout the world, we are invited to experience Greece through our senses:
In the video, we see the crystal blue waters of Zakythos and Lefkada, among others. We hear the water moving. We understand the touch of the waters. We can imagine the taste of the red wine and and the smell of fresh pastries. My Greece, while perhaps not as glamorous, is still sensual. Everyday brings new sensations and brings back old ones–which make this country one of the most vibrant I know.
I have also begun to think about the relationship between water and the senses in modern Greece. Oftentimes, a non-Greeks has a few stock items (among many others) in their head when they think of Greece: the Parthenon; ouzo; summers spent on beaches with blue waters. I have been trying to think more about these waters and their importance to life in Greece.
The waters of Greece, whether one of the various seas surrounding the country, or the many rivers and lakes dotting its countryside, are a lifeline. In order to reach the hundreds of islands of Greece, ferries that cross the seas are still a popular form of transport. And a number of islands are still only accessible by boat (e.g., Delos). Traveling through water, just as the ancients did, is a sensual experience in and of itself. Whether it is the memories of docking on an island for the first time, as you pull into the harbor, passing by dramatic landscapes of the island, with the seagulls flying above and diving in the water, or the feeling of the wind rushing past you on the top deck on the open waters of the journey, with the smell of the salt hitting your face.
Waters are also healing here. Recently explored in the periodical Greece Is, the hydro-thermal waters of Greece are numerous (perhaps nearly 800 locations)–a number of which have been turned into curative spas, such as at Eidipsos in Evvia. Again, the healing properties of water were well known and exploited by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Eidipsos was known for being a curative holiday for many Romans, including the General Sulla in the early first century BCE.
But water in Greece still resonates past ancient traditions that are still popular in modern life. I recently attended a launch of Perrier water’s new campaign, ‘Photo Extraordinaire Project.’ The collection of photographs by famed Greek photographer, Marina Vernikou, explores how air and water (especially because of effervescent nature of Perrier water) can lead to new dimensions related to thirst and pleasure. What is exciting about this campaign for me is the juxtaposition of the models in the water: there is an innate sensuality to them all. We can see how the strong Greek sun hits the models as they drink the Perrier, but also how the transformation of their bodies through the waters of the pools that they stand in. There is vitality in the photographs through common elements–namely air and water.
Not only through these photographs for Perrier, but other works of Vernikou capture the energy of Greece, which is often manifested through the use of water and light. And this strikes me as a common theme living in Greece itself. Greece is a sensory experience for all who live and visit here: the noisy traffic of Athens; the majestic views from atop Lykabettos hill; the smell of cigarette smoke at a local cafe; the inviting taste of hot bougatza at one of the bakeries in Morosini Square in Herakleio early in the morning; the spiny feel of sea urchin shells after picking them up off a beach in the Peloponnese. Regardless of time period or location, the senses drive life in Greece. And at the forefront is water, one of the most basic and life-giving elements.