I’m still trying to digest Ireland and figure out exactly what to say about that trip, and I realize that there’s no hurry. The lessons that come from travel keep deepening as time goes on. Some details may fade, but that only leaves the important abstractions in sharper relief.

Of all the trips I’ve taken and of everywhere I’ve traveled, I have never been so transformed as I was by my trip to Crete. I had gone to a plant walk led by Patricia Kyritsi Howell at the Southeast Womens Herbal Conference in 2007. She had that combination I love of a sharp mind and a dry wit, to go with her deep well of knowledge. When I got home I googled her and saw on her website “2 spots left for herbs and food of Crete trip.” My mother had studied archaeology and art history and I knew that the Minoans were her favorite and that she dreamed of seeing Knossos. I called her up immediately and we decided we were going, no question.

We went to Knossos, we met an old shepherd on the top of a mountain, we went to an essential oil distillery, we ate snails and artichokes and octopi cooked in their own ink. We learned that the mid-day nap is so central to the culture that it doesn’t have a specific word like “siesta”, it’s just “mesimera”, Greek for “mid-day”. Botany hikes and one of the oldest olive trees in the world. Thyme plants that look like tiny ancient trees. It was all quite wonderful.

But on the second to last day of the trip I was grumbling. “We’ve been touring around for over a week and I’ve hardly learned anything about herbs.” And, in a way, it was true. I’d gotten so used to the way herbs are taught at conferences and schools, the legitimacy-craving approach one so often sees in books and blogs. There were no powerpoints, no lists of constituents or pathologies. In fact, Patricia’s habit of asking the Cretan people we met “What do you think a person should do to be healthy?” yielded more advice about time with family and friends than anything. Nobody said anything about exercise or diet or which herb to use for what malady. Where were my specific data tidbits? I wanted information.

And then a long slow Sunday morning brunch, a walk on a terraced hillside, epiphany! The lesson of herbs on the island of Crete is to live life, enjoy things, season your food well. In the States, I realized, we spend half our time trying to figure out how to live and have so little energy left over for actual living. On Crete, they just live. They don’t need newspaper articles to tell them what to eat. Herbs are just part of life. They can just eat the same food their great grandparents did and be vibrant in old age. They can feel proud to pass their ways on to their children and grandchildren. I bought a little package of dittany at a farmer’s market in Crete, and keep the label because I love the slogan “for medicine or for breakfast”. Herbs can really be that simple. You can just relax about it.

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