Friday, June 11, 2010

Random Observations on Greece

Below I have jotted down, in no particular order, some passing thoughts. This entry is long, the accumulation of two weeks of observing Greek culture.

* * * * * *

First, le crise: one sees its effects everywhere, from diminished attendance at famous ruins to empty tour buses. The ill-fated CHAT tour we took to Mycenae and Epidaurus had a total of 16 people for a bus that normally seats 60. Restauranteurs hustle passerbys, trying vainly to fill tables. Rod noticed several large oil tankers mothballed outside of Piraeus, casualties of lessened demand for energy.

My brother-in-law, like most Greeks, is frantic about his savings. A retired doctor, he is seeing his pensions cut, which is bad enough. If Greece is ejected from the EU for insolvency, then the country will return to the drachma, a move that could potentially reduce life savings by 70-80% as the currency is radically devalued. For the young, this is bad enough; for the old, it is devastating.

The economic meltdown has, not surprisingly, soured some civil servants. Several times I’ve had government employees pretend not to hear me; I’ve also been bullied. I’ve learned—largely by watching Karin and Vassos—to push back, raising my voice if necessary. It isn’t pleasant. Business people, however, cannot afford to indulge whatever resentments they might harbor. Consistently we have found waiters, shopkeepers, and hotel employees to be unfailing courteous and eager to please; indeed, their anxiety is almost palpable. “Is everything alright,” they ask constantly. “Do you want anything else?”

Back in the States, we read articles about profligate, irresponsible Greeks. And, indeed, the professional and moneyed classes appear to have been particular egregious in ripping off the government (although it was reported here recently that nearly 300 tax inspectors, the equivalent of our IRS employees, didn’t pay taxes for thirty years). However, hearing Vassos and Karin talk about the Kafkaesque bureaucracy and the inequities of the taxation system has made me far more sympathetic. If I were living here, I too would probably engage in “fiddling” (to use Vassos’ word) to survive. At the moment, they are expected to supply receipts for 25% of their annual expenditures: can you imagine saving every grocery store or café receipt? Even worse, this law, just passed in April, is retroactive for the entire year. Predictably, an underground industry in fake receipts is emerging.

Property rights in Greece also strain human endurance. An apartment cannot be sold until it conforms to specific government guidelines, such as replacing old, drafty windows with double-glazing, a practical means of energy conservation. The difficulty is that every apartment in the building must do the same. In other words, not only the seller but also every inhabitant in the apartment complex must install double-glazed windows before the government will permit the transaction to go forward. Try talking your neighbors into that one!

* * * * * *

I know my distaste for cruise ships borders on the obsessive, but their environmental impact is frightening. For several years, Rod has complained bitterly about cruise ships illegally dumping sewage in the Caribbean or Alaska or the Mediterranean. Before we sailed on Cunard, he researched their environmental practices, satisfying himself that everything is recycled, filtered, treated, and disposed of properly. Cunard goes so far as to prohibit passengers from tossing cigarette butts overboard. Many companies, though, do not comply with international standards.

Prior to this trip, I had not fully appreciated the negative economic impact of cruise ships. For instance, when we toured the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, I noticed tour buses from the cruise liners disgorging people in front of the stadium. They jumped out, snapped photos, and took off. Not one person paid the entrance fee—a paltry 3 euros—to enter the stadium. Had they done so, it would have generated much-needed revenue. In this enormous stadium, which seats upwards of 60,000 people, we were the only tourists present until another couple entered towards the end of our visit. This pattern does not bode well for countries dependent on tourism. People on cruise ships spend very little, if anything, on the local economy. They don’t pay entrance fees; they don’t stay in hotels; they don’t buy local goods (other than the odd t-shirt manufactured in China); they don’t spend money in restaurants; they don’t tip for services. They do, however, add considerably to the carbon footprint.

* * * * * *

Greek food is delicious but repetitive, especially in the south. Cuisine in Macedonia uses seasoning and herbs generously, resulting in more varied flavors, perhaps due to Slavic and Turkish influence. In Attica, though, the choices are pretty narrow at restaurants. I’m typically American insofar as I want every cuisine imaginable at my disposal. Greeks, though, have a very conservative culinary palate: they want Greek food.

Consistently we have been impressed by the quality of fresh produce. Tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes. Olives and olive oil, of course, are simply divine. In the south, one sees mainly olive trees and orange groves (and the fresh orange juice is extraordinary here). We were, however, completely unprepared for the variety of crops in Macedonia, which include corn, rice, almonds, hazelnuts, potatoes, peaches, eggplant, and tomatoes. Beautifully maintained farms are everywhere in the plains of Macedonia, and most people here try to buy locally.

Without a doubt, Greeks make the best ice coffees in the world—and they consume prodigious quantities of it. By far, the favorite version is the frappe: one takes Greek coffee, a bit of water, some sugar, and, if desired, a splash of milk. This is whipped until frothy and then served over ice. A fancy variation entails whipping the coffee and milk separately, and then spooning the foamy milk over the coffee. Frappes are delicious, and a great pick-me-up after several hours of braving Athenian heat and smog. Half of Athens seems to sit in cafes knocking back frappes, from early morning to late at night. I think the economy would collapse entirely without them.

* * * * * *

The police presence in Athens is striking, especially by comparison to Macedonia and the islands. We didn’t see a single cop on the island of Santorini in four days. I’m sure they exist, but we never saw them. Only twice did I see police in Thessaloniki. In Athens, the police are everywhere, riding doubled on small motorcycles and patrolling the streets.

A demonstration took place last week while we were at Karin and Vassos’ apartment. We heard gunfire and angry chanting, which seemed mainly directed against the Israelis for their bombing of the aid ship but also included swipes at the government. We stayed in the apartment until the demonstrators had moved well beyond the neighborhood. The firebombing of the bank in Athens has made us uncharacteristically cautious.

* * * * * *

Graffiti is the bane of Greece. Never, ever in my life have I seen so much graffiti. Virtually every building in Thessaloniki is covered in slogans and crude drawings. Athens isn’t quite as bad, but it’s bad enough: the Plaka is utterly defaced. In Paris, graffiti appears on apartments in the projects, as well as some buildings in more transitional neighborhoods such as the Bastille. Here, though, graffiti isn’t confined to poorer areas. Elegant, historical buildings; modern edifices; snazzy new apartments—nothing is spared. One even finds slogans spray-painted on ruins. I suppose Greece simply doesn’t have the resources to cope with it. A few years ago it was fashionable to defend graffiti as a form of serious artistic expression. To anyone still sufficiently benighted to maintain that view, I would suggest spending some time in Athens and Thessaloniki. You will come away never feeling the same way about graffiti again.

* * * * * *

The foolhardiness of my sex sometimes defies credulity: rarely do I see female tourists in sensible shoes, no matter the nationality or age. I watched a well-dressed, middle-aged woman hobble through the Acropolis Museum like a Chinese maiden with bound feet. Eventually she removed her high-heeled sandals and walked barefoot, wincing with every step. Of more concern are the women climbing treacherous precipices in flip-flops or platform sandals. The slippery stones of the Acropolis, worn slick by thousands of years of use, pose an equal threat. Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen women limp, stumble, and fall; fortunately, none were seriously hurt. By far the most idiotic spectacle concerned the teenage girls who made the grueling trek to the acropolis on Thassos. Several were crying as they rubbed blistered and bloodied feet, and none were wearing appropriate shoes for such an arduous climb. Do I like my Ecco walking shoes? As a fashion item, hell no. They have, however, saved my feet and my neck. Come on, ladies: show a little common sense.

* * * * * *

Jackie O sunglasses are everywhere in evidence at the moment. They’re very popular with young Greek women, who sport enormous frames that make them look like starlets from the seventies trying to dodge paparazzi. Gladiator sandals are also a big fashion item in Athens, especially in gold-colored leather, as well as oversized handbags. I haven’t noticed any particular trends for men, most of whom wear the global uniform of jeans and t-shirts.

* * * * * *

Rod drools at the motorcycles that fill the streets of Athens. From hot pink Vespas to Moto Guzzis and BMWs, motorcycles rival the number of cars. They’re a convenient, fuel-efficient way to get around, especially given that Greece now has the most expensive petrol in the EU. Helmets are required by law, but it’s clearly not enforced: I’d guess that no more than half of all motorcyclists wear them. Guys often drive around with helmets dangling from their elbow, a strange phenomenon we can’t quite figure out. Rod thinks it might be a way to comply with the letter of the law; technically, one is wearing a helmet even though it’s covering the wrong appendage.

* * * * * *

We have been largely spared the dreaded Athens smog, although as temperatures rise, both Rod and I have found ourselves rubbing our irritated eyes and coughing a bit. I feel it at night when I breathe. Rod claims the smog is vastly improved over what he remembers from twenty-five years ago. The government is clearly trying to discourage driving by offering various modes of public transport, including buses, trams, suburban trains, and the new underground. We should be half so fortunate in the U.S. Another recent measure entails odd/even driving, which essentially halves the number of days folks can drive in a major city. If your license plate ends in an odd number, then you can drive only on “odd number days”; the same principle, of course, applies to even numbers. In Athens and Thessaloniki this law is strictly enforced, which accounts I think for the heavy use of public transportation.

Speaking of which, public transportation—despite the strikes—works very well indeed. We’ve used buses, trams, and the subway in Athens and liked all of them. I was impressed by the clever way that ruins have been incorporated into some of the subway stations. The trains were a bit surprising: I expected something sleeker. Basically the cars look like an updated version of the London underground, whereas I thought, given the newness of the system, they would resemble the ultra-modern trains we’ve seen in Norway and Sweden.

Public transportation is astonishingly cheap: one euro is good for 90 minutes of unlimited travel on any combination of services. For three euros, you get unlimited travel for 24 hours. Poor African immigrants beg for discarded three-euro passes from tourists such as us, hoping to use whatever time remains on the card.

* * * * * *

Like many European countries, Greece takes alternative medicine seriously. A pharmacist in Santorini told me their use of homeopathic drugs is just second to Germany. Natural and organic goods are everywhere, from cosmetics to wines. That same pharmacist was appalled when I asked for insect repellant with DEET. He steered me toward a natural herbal spray. I was dubious, but it works very well, even staving off the aggressive Macedonian mosquitoes. I’m buying another bottle to take home with me.

* * * * * *

Restoration is not merely an academic question in Greece: as new sites yield unexpected riches, such as the ongoing dig at Akrotira, archaeologists have to decide just how extensively to restore ruins. The archaeologist I spoke with at the Acropolis Museum said that with digital imaging, they now have the means to reconstruct the Parthenon in its entirety. One risks, however, ending up with a Disney-like fantasia, and one period’s imagined reconstruction of the past does not necessarily accord with that of future generations. Evans’ controversial reconstruction of Knossos on Crete is a case in point. The archaeologist said they’re trying to steer a middle course; at the Acropolis, for instance, sites will be restored to the extent that they have extant pieces: they will not manufacture new stones or bits of marble. He guesses it will be another decade or so before the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, and the Odeum are finished.

* * * * * *

Greek toilets are a puzzle. Signs warn against disposing paper in toilets, but I was never able to get anyone to explain the engineering problem. My sister-in-law Karin reiterated the warning, simply saying, “the pipes can’t handle toilet paper.” Well, why not? Modern toilet paper is designed to dissolve quickly, and human waste certainly poses a great risk of blockage. Irritably, I contemplated violating this edict, but terrifying cartoons of unhappy toilets spewing forth their contents—these are invariably posted on the wall just above the cistern—disabused me of the thought. It remains a mystery.

* * * * * *

One still sees middle-aged and old men clutching worry beads. I have yet to see any men under the age of 30 holding them, but perhaps they have not yet accumulated sufficient woes. I’ve also been struck by people of all ages crossing themselves—usually three times—when passing a church. Most impressive are the motorcyclists who manage to observe this custom while navigating through crazy Greek traffic. Even my brother-in-law, who is not especially religious and openly critical of the Greek Orthodox Church, crosses himself when passing churches, albeit only once. I’ve wondered if he eliminated the other two gestures as a mild protest against their perceived avarice.

* * * * * *

I have loved every minute of this trip, but I haven’t had the same reaction to Greece that I’ve had to other countries, such as France and South Africa. I could imagine teaching here for a semester; I could also imagine sailing around the islands for a couple of months. I couldn’t live here, though, nor am I inspired to fantasize about purchasing property. There is something about Greece, perhaps the weight of history, that makes me melancholy: all those civilizations; all that destruction. It’s too burdensome. Even the sun wears one down after a while. And while Greeks are delightfully hospitable, their intensity can be exhausting. Perhaps it’s the entire package—history, climate, landscape, national character—but this is not a country in which I could dwell for long. At some future date, though, I would like to visit again.

The Last Day in Athens

We moved slowly this morning. Rod and I knew this would be an arduous trip, but the last couple of days I have felt especially tired. I don’t awaken refreshed but groggy, with heavy legs and sore feet. Two weeks of non-stop hiking in the Greek sun (and now smog) have finally caught up with me.

We spent the afternoon at the Benaki Museum, considered the best private collection in Athens. The antiquities on the ground floor don’t come close to rivaling the new Acropolis Museum or the Archaeological Museum, but the other floors were an unexpected surprise. Antonis Benakis acquired objects over the course of a long lifetime, and he had the foresight to purchase items that weren’t especially valued at the turn of the century, such as Cypriot costumes or needlework from the islands. He even bought interiors of mansions about to be razed: the first floor has an extraordinary Macedonian living room, replete with stone fireplace and elaborate plaster walls. The second floor focuses on objects and paintings related to Greek independence, a motley but fascinating collection ranging from Bryon’s pistols to images of Turks bayoneting hapless women and children. Like most Americans, I am woefully ignorant of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Greek history, but now I want to know more.

The collection is housed in the Benakis paternal home, a gorgeous neoclassical building near the Parliament and various embassies. The museum café is very nice and appears to be popular with the ladies who lunch, mainly well preserved and coiffed Athenian matrons clutching shopping bags from Dolce and Gabbana. Clearly, the economic crisis has not affected the very privileged.

Afterwards we walked through the National Botanical Gardens, which are lovely. It’s hot today but breezy with low humidity. The pathways in the gardens are largely shaded, making for a comfortable stroll. We will rest for a while and then head off for a farewell meal at Daphne’s, supposedly the best restaurant in the Plaka.

The National Archaeological Museum

On Thursday we ventured over to the National Archaeological Museum. I wanted to see the finds from Akrotira (especially since we had visited Santorini); I also wanted to see the famed objects from Mycenae as well as figurines of actors. The nineteenth-century building housing the collection has been renovated nicely, although the overall effect pales in comparison to the new Acropolis Museum. The objects from Mycenae are truly spectacular and these alone justify an excursion. There’s much more to see, however: an amazing collection of Attic vases; exquisite jewelry; interesting household items. The sculptures are fairly lackluster, but then one realizes how much was looted by foreign countries or purchased on the illegal antiquities market. I think the collection has also suffered from the rise of regional museums since WWII. There have been a lot of recent discoveries, and excavation is ongoing, but various regions now want to keep their own objects, not send them to Athens.

My one deep disappointment had to do with theatrical masks and figurines. I was permitted to snap photos (sans flash) of vases with scenes from plays, but the new exhibit of clay figurines of actors is off-limits for reasons of international copyright. The exhibit opened in 2009, and the museum has not yet registered photographs of the objects. I desperately wanted images for my seminar this fall. I will contact the museum, but I have little hope of getting through the famed Greek bureaucracy.

Tired of museums, we decided to jump one of the trams going to the coast. The ticket taker seemed horrified that two well-heeled Americans would resort to this means of transport: “Do you understand that it’s very slow,” she repeated several times. We were, I noticed, the only foreigners using the system both there and back. Yes, the trams are slow, but we didn’t mind; indeed, we enjoyed the chance to take in additional neighborhoods.

We went to the end of the line and found ourselves in the Stadio Irinis area, which was eerily deserted. We noticed the police presence; we also watched several young Greek males size up a parked Mercedes. I don’t know if they were about to spray it with graffiti or attempt a break-in, but whatever their motives, we clearly needed to move on. We returned to the tram and reversed our course, stopping at Flisvos Marina. This locale, pretty and well maintained, overflowed with people. Parents pushed babies in strollers; lovers strolled hand-in-hand; middle-aged men displayed their young wives and mistresses. Here at least we would not be robbed.

Tired and hungry, we looked for a restaurant and settled on Brasserie Sud. I expected mediocre food, as is often the case with marina restaurants, but we were both so hot and tired that we didn’t care. It was 6.30 p.m., and we hadn’t eaten since the morning. We actually ended up having the best meal of our trip. Brasserie Sud serves Mediterranean food, a loose mixture of French, Italian, and Greek cuisines. Rod and I shared a plate of grilled vegetables topped with goat cheese for a starter, which was excellent. Then we proceeded to our main courses. I had a risotto with spinach and salmon that was absolutely delicious, infused with lemon and fresh dill; Rod had a terrific seafood linguine. Sated, we wandered around the marina, staring wide-eyed at very expensive yachts. Powerboats dominate, and we both noticed the high percentage of foreign flags. A lot of Brits seem to keep yachts in Athenian harbors and why not? Does the Irish Sea really seem very inviting after the Aegean? I think not.

On the tram ride back to our hotel, I realized for the first time that I am homesick. I’ve loved this trip, and I’ve learned a lot, but I’m tired of hotel rooms and tired of living out of a suitcase. I miss my dogs and my horses, not to mention my friends. I’m ready to go home.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The New Acropolis Museum

While it was still cool this morning, we crossed the street to look more closely at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. We see it from our hotel balcony—we have a fabulous view—but we had not yet walked around the grounds. Only 15 out of the original 104 columns remain, but it’s still impressive as hell. Afterwards we walked over to the Panathenaic Stadium, site of the 1896 Olympic games—the first since ancient times. The stadium had over the centuries fallen into disuse, but was restored at the end of the nineteenth century. It was completely deserted, sadly so. The stadium is magnificent, and the modest admission fee includes a very good audio guide explaining the history of the site.

We sat down at the stadium cafe to have some fresh orange juice, and, as often happens, ended up chatting with a staff member, a young woman in her twenties. She said that most of her friends were unemployed or working minimal jobs, even those with M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s. Nonetheless, she was concerned that we were having a good time and was eager to supply us with suggestions.

As the day warmed up, we retreated to the air-conditioned environs of the Acropolis Museum. We stayed over six hours, an indication of how smitten we were with the collection and the building. Architecturally, the museum isn’t especially striking from the outside; certainly, it pales in comparison to the Getty or Bilbao museums designed by Frank Gehry. Inside, though, it’s just brilliant. Natural light bathes the sculptures, and the interior space somehow captures the feeling of walking through the Parthenon. The top floor, where one views the friezes and metopes, parallels the Acropolis; the lower floors line up with the street. Most remarkable of all, the entire building stands suspended over an active archaeological dig. Glass panels built into the floor just outside the museum entrance reveal ongoing excavation, showing the layers of civilization upon which modern Athens is built.

Until my afternoon in this museum, I had not realized the extent to which the southernmost part of the Acropolis has yielded a treasure trove of everyday artifacts. Here, one doesn’t see the precious treasures of Vergina but the objects used everyday by artisans and priests, cavalry and slaves. I learned a lot. Equally informative were the floors containing friezes from the Parthenon and statuary from the grounds. Commentary is excellent, something not necessarily true at the older museums, and augmented by a very good video on this history of the Acropolis.

The Acropolis Museum clearly wants to be accessible. Entrance fees are laughably cheap by American standards—5 euros for adults and 3 for “special category”—and even the café and restaurant are reasonable. We had an excellent lunch comprised of three dishes (tomato salad, grilled eggplant, and Santorini-style fava beans with capers and olive oil), bread, and white wine to the tune of 21 euros. The portions, in typical Greek style, were substantial. The last time we ate at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, we paid nearly twice that amount for far less. The museum also provides free lectures. We stayed until 6.15 p.m. to hear one of the archaeologists talk about horses in ancient art; he stayed and chatted with us afterwards, generously giving me the names of several colleagues who specialize in classical theatre.

When I was in graduate school, I went through a heavy Latin phase. I needed to learn Latin for my studies, but my curiosity took me well beyond basic competence. I became good enough to sight read Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, and, of course, Cicero. Seeing my facility with the language, my Latin professors urged me to learn Greek; they also tried to woo me over to the doctoral program in classics. I’m too old to become a classicist, but I am thinking about Greek once again . . .

The Ghastliness of Organized Tours

I have yet another item to add to my list of “things I will never, ever do again—in this lifetime or the next.” Against my better judgment, I agreed to try a bus tour to Mycenae and Epidaurus. Originally I wanted to rent a car for the day, but Rod worried about navigating the notoriously tricky Athenian traffic (now much diminished because of the economic crisis) in exiting the city.

We booked with CHAT, a company reputed to be very good, supposedly with well-trained, knowledgeable guides. Initially we were impressed: we were fetched on time and the Mercedes bus—I didn’t know such a thing existed—was quite comfortable. My heart began sinking as the guide, a very overweight woman, intoned her commentary with a lassitude just this side of boredom. I mention weight not out of prejudice but pragmatics: the guide’s considerable bulk and poor condition prevented her from actually accompanying us around sites. She wheezed her way to the entrance of Mycenae, lectured a bit about the famous lion gate, and then turned us loose for all of twenty-five minutes while she went back to the air-conditioned bus and collapsed.

Twenty-five minutes? To explore the famous seat of the House of Atreus? Frantic, I raced around as quickly as the heat would permit, desperately trying to see everything. This, I thought, is what cruise ships do to their passengers, setting them down in Venice or Barcelona for half-a-day with a mandate to “explore the city.” We were similarly shortchanged at Epidaurus. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have waited thirty-five years to see this theatre. Pissed does not even begin to describe my mood by the afternoon.

I’m not sure whether it’s the fools at CHAT or our particular guide, but we spent more time stopping for coffees and eating lunch (mediocre) than we did exploring the ruins. I missed nearly everything at Epidaurus, a large, historically rich site, other than the theatre, for which we were allotted 30 minutes. I did learn that the famed acoustics are somewhat overstated. Yes, one can from the upper seats hear a coin drop in the orchestra—but just barely. Actors delivering lines in a normal speaking voice would have strained the listening capacity of their auditors. During the dramatic festivals, audiences attended three tragedies and a satyr play over the course of the day. The actors would have needed to project considerably to maintain attention, especially as the cumulative effects of wine and sun took their toll.

I’m not sure how these myths arise or why they’re repeated as received opinion. Ever the skeptic, I tested acoustics and sight lines in every theatre we’ve explored (six on this trip alone). Epidaurus is no better than several others; indeed, I think the theatre at Thassos, a smaller space, has superior acoustics.

I was downcast on the long bus ride home, but I reminded myself that the occasional off day in an otherwise splendid trip is to be expected. I am, however, contacting CHAT tomorrow . . .

The Glories of the Acropolis

On Monday, our full first day in Athens, we were blessed with lovely mild weather, sunny but breezy. We decided to take advantage of the temperate conditions and spend the day outside, hiking around the Acropolis. We caught a little tram near our hotel that runs all day: for 5 euros, one can jump on and off until 7.00 p.m. It felt a bit Disneyland, but we were grateful for the ride, knowing the hours of arduous trekking that awaited us.

I didn’t know if seeing the iconic buildings of the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, or the Odeum of Herodes would move me. They did. Even the hordes from the Princess Cruise liner—I am truly beginning to hate these vessels—couldn’t destroy the moment. The Parthenon is simply stunning. I pretty much had the Theatre of Dionysus to myself. Folks would glance around and then exit quickly, clearly unimpressed by the rubble. The Parthenon is fairly self-evident as a building, as is the Temple of Athena Nike; the Theatre of Dionysus, however, doesn’t make sense (aside from the seats) if you don’t know what you’re looking at.

Unfortunately, one can no longer enter the orchestra; the thrones reserved for the high priest and dignitaries are also cordoned off. As I madly clicked photos and studied every detail, a nice Englishman came up to me, slightly embarrassed but sufficiently desperate to ask a favor of a stranger. He had been robbed of his camera the previous day and wanted to know if I was willing to share my photos with him. He suspected from my intense scrutiny of the site that I might be a theatre specialist but wasn’t certain (thus the embarrassment). It turns out that he teaches movement and historical dance at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and was in town for a conference. We talked shop at length and exchanged cards. I promised to e-mail him my photos when I return home.

After a late lunch, we explored the Library of Hadrian, which once contained 18,000 precious papyrus and parchment rolls, all lost to invading Goths. We also wandered through the Roman agora. I loved every minute.

We showered back at our hotel and headed out for dinner at a “traditional family style restaurant” in the Plaka (fresh, nicely prepared, if unexciting food). While dining, an incident occurred that revised my notion of Canadians as the most benign people imaginable; indeed, we have run into a number of unpleasant Canadians on this trip. It is a bizarre phenomenon I cannot explain, almost as if the nation suddenly decided to counter their stereotypical reputation for niceness with truly shitty behavior. Alternatively, it could be that we’re consistently running into the only nasty Canadians on the face of the earth, the dozen or so who happen to be traveling in our orbit.

Anyway, the story is this: a Canadian couple at an adjacent table struck up a conversation over dinner at said family-style restaurant. They had done a tour of the Greek islands (another cruise!), spent time in Istanbul, and then wrapped up their trip in Athens. They ordered heartily: appetizers, entrees, wine, and dessert. And then they stiffed the poor waiter (and the waiters here work their guts out during tourist season). We were appalled when we realized what had happened. As someone who has worked in restaurants, I know firsthand how upsetting it is when customers walk out without paying. This instance seemed especially nasty given that the couple in question had just enjoyed a luxurious holiday their waiter will most likely never know. Sometimes I think David Mamet is right: people are swine.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Journey to Athens

Those old Greek ladies are tough. While we were having lunch in the dining car, an old woman slipped into Rod’s reserved seat. She resolutely refused to move, even though she had a second-class ticket in a first-class car. She didn’t care: she wanted Rod’s seat and that was that. Another woman in the compartment spoke to her sharply and finally threatened to call the conductor, at which point the old woman finally yielded the seat, shooting us the evil eye as she marched away indignantly. Five minutes later Rod heard an uproar in the next compartment—voices raised angrily in Greek—and we realized that she was working her up way down the aisle, trying to bully someone else into giving her a first-class seat. You had to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else.

Our trip down to Athens was otherwise uneventful. Vassos and Karin, ever generous, saw us off at the station. The train is clean, modern, and efficient—we arrived to the minute—and we were fortunate to share our compartment with a delightful woman, oddly an academic like myself. We chatted at length about Greek universities, the Greek economy, and her specialty, which happens to be philosophy or, more precisely, Aristotelian ethics. Pleased with our acquaintance, we exchanged contact information. We may get together for a drink this week.

The scenery throughout Greece is just lovely. The landscape changes quickly as one goes from the plains of Macedonian into mountainous regions and then down towards Lamia before reaching Attica. Each region has its own distinctive look, but to a Californian like myself it seems oddly familiar. The train ride from Thessaloniki to Athens is particularly scenic, a 5-hour journey I highly recommend.

Our hotel, the Athens Gate, is right across from the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s arch. Truly it is spine tingling to stand out on the balcony and look upon these ancient edifices. From the roof garden one also has a panoramic view of the Acropolis. The New Acropolis Museum is just around the corner and the Plaka within easy walking distance. The location is terrific. The hotel itself is very handsome, although the noise from traffic might make sleeping difficult. My first impressions of Athens are mixed. It lacks the sweeping boulevards and stateliness of Thessaloniki but possesses a chaotic charm of its own. I suspect Athens is much like my birthplace of L.A. (to which it is often compared), a city that doesn’t grab visitors at first but, if given half a chance, offers its own seductive charms.

The Sacred and the Profane

We left Thessaloniki on Friday morning, heading northeast. We stopped in Philippi, another expansive site like Dion that includes the remains of an agora, a theatre, shrines, settlements, and even early churches. Its historical associations also stopped me dead in my tracks, although I am finding that my scholarly penchant for specificity drives the Greek guides a little crazy. Philippi—for those of you who remember Roman history—is where Antony and Octavius defeated Brutus and Cassius. I had read that the battle took place in the fields just outside the ruined city walls, but there are lots of fields and several city walls. The guides pointed vaguely to various locales, but, when pressed, it became clear they really didn’t know. Finally one of the administrators in the spanking new museum (open all of one month) came out to speak to this crazy American woman who was carrying on about the Battle of Philippi. Finally, my curiosity was satisfied, and I could gaze upon a field bounded by trees, imagining the clash of swords. Then again, he probably fabricated the information to get rid of me.

Philippi is also where St. Paul was imprisoned for preaching to the locals (“Letters to the Philippians”). We thought about hiking out to see his prison cell, but we had already spent nearly three hours trudging around the ruins and the impressive Hellenistic theatre. This one, I might add, has superb acoustics.

Vassos snoozed in the car during our peregrinations; he joined us for lunch at the café on the site, where we had surprisingly decent food. A little white dog, miserably abandoned, hovered under our table. I looked at Rod imploringly—there was something about this creature in particular—but he pointed out the many hurdles, legal and practical, that stood in the way of adoption and transport. It was very difficult walking away.

We carried on, driving through the scenic beachfront town of Kavala, until we reached the harbor ferry that would take us to the island of Thassos. I knew something of the island's historical significance. Rich in gold and minerals, Thassos was claimed by successive empires. Thassos is also notable for a landscape that differs dramatically from the arid, rocky topography of the Cycladic islands. It is green, covered with dense fir trees, and very beautiful.

The resort where we spent the night is very attractive, both open and modern while still retaining a Macedonian feeling. The hotel pool is enormous. I immediately changed into my swimming suit and plunged into the cool water, swimming contentedly until Rod hailed me for dinner. The food, unfortunately, was nowhere as nice as the setting: this meal turned out to be the most mediocre and the most expensive of the trip. Far more satisfying than the cuisine were the hotel clients, many of them Yugoslavian, Albanian, or even Russian. Thuggish young men smoked endlessly and talked into their cell phones, while their girlfriends looked bored and pouty in only the way that Slavic women can.

On Saturday we checked out and then drove to the Old Port, a scenic village where old-fashioned fishing boats still bring in the day’s catch. I knew about the theatre at Thassos and wanted to brave the climb, even though I could glimpse its remains high on the hills overlooking the town. Surely, I thought to myself, it can’t be that far. Well, it was. Poor Karin gave up after a while—it was a hot day—but Rod and I ended up on the wrong path and found ourselves halfway up to the acropolis. Foolhardy creatures, we decided to climb to the very top, thinking that we would detour to the theatre on our way down. It turned out to be much more demanding than we expected, with difficult, sometimes treacherous footing and very steep inclines. Drenched in sweat and exhausted, I was feeling glum and middle-aged until espying a group of teenagers on a school outing. The boys looked pissed and several girls were crying from the strain of the climb. I felt much better about my aging body from that point onward.

We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the island and the ocean; on our way down, we found the theatre, which also occupies a beautiful setting. The antiquities on Thassos don’t seem to be accorded the care that we’ve seen at other sites—the island has just fallen through the cracks of the archaeological ministry—and the remains of the theatre need serious attention. Like the theatre on Santorini, this performance space is something of a puzzle: it is extremely hard to access, and one wonders about the performers or even audiences it might have attracted.

We finished our sojourn on Thassos with a delightful lunch by the waterfront in the Old Port. Starved for carbohydrates after my crazy climb, I wolfed down prodigious quantities of pasta with seafood much to the delight of my Greek brother-in-law. Throughout our stay, he has chided me for eating so little, even jokingly accusing me of anorexia (as if!). By Greek standards, I eat like a bird, but I tried to explain to Vassos that I have the metabolism of a slug. He would have none of it. Greeks really like to eat—enormous portions are standard—so he was happy to see me evince for once what he considers a normal appetite.

I nodded off in the car on the way back to Thessaloniki. We showered, packed, had a cup of tea with Karin and Vassos, and then fell into bed, content but drained by our whirlwind tour through Macedonia.

The Most Perfect Day Ever

Thursday was such pure pleasure that it could not but produce an accompanying sense of sadness; bliss, of course, is transitory. For someone like myself, who loves ancient history, sunshine, Mediterranean landscapes, and theatre, it just doesn’t get any better. Karin and Vassos drove us to Dion, an archaeological site southwest of Thessaloniki. The site is enormous and still under excavation. Karin remarked that it had virtually doubled in scope since her last visit a decade ago. We followed winding paths through a glorious landscape of meadows, streams, and thickets of poplars and London plane trees. We saw shrines to Artemis, a sanctuary partially submerged in water, hints of the agora, and even toilets and the sanitation system. The mosaics, still being recovered, were lovely. Dion has two theatres, a small Roman space that was probably used for lectures and musical performances, and a larger Hellenistic theatre. As has become my wont, I insisted on testing the acoustics, which were surprisingly poor. Most of the original seats are gone and nothing remains of the skene, which might account for the lack of acoustical “bounce.”

Vassos waited patiently in the car. At 72, he can no longer manage rigorous hiking over uneven terrain, but he generously encouraged us to take as long as we wanted. After Dion, we drove to Litohoro, an almost Alpine-looking village at the foot of Mt. Olympus. The village is charm incarnate. Karin and Vassos took us for a sublime lunch at their favorite restaurant, appropriately named Olympus. We sat on the deck, drinking wine, gorging, and gazing out at the cloud-covered peaks where the pantheon of Greek gods reigned. Our superb 3-course lunch cost all of twelve euros, an unbelievable bargain for the enormous Greek-style salads, bread, and braised lamb shanks that we inhaled. For dessert we had ice cream, which is excellent in Greece, doused in sour cherries that are almost candied. I’ve never quite tasted anything like it.

After lunch we drove to Vergina, the burial site of the Macedonian kings. This is where Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was buried after being assassinated at the wedding of his daughter (in the theatre, no less). Since the mid-nineteenth century, archaeologists have known that Vergina was an important Macedonian site; not until the mid-1970s, however, did they discover the royal tombs. Miraculously, Philip’s tomb survived grave robbers, and the contents, now on display in the museum, are simply breathtaking. Never have I seen ancient artifacts of such unparalleled beauty. Diadems comprised of golden oak leaves are so finely wrought they look as if they should bend in the wind. Purple and gold cloth that enclosed Philip’s cremated remains looks almost painted, so closely woven is the fabric. Etched on the gold larnax containing his bones are bands of lily, along with decorative rosettes. Silver bowls and plates, exquisitely but simply designed, appear eerily modern.

Brilliantly, the tumulus is recreated in its entirety, with the museum housed beneath. The tombs are intact, as well as the objects: one can see, for instance, a wall painting of Philip and the young Alexandria hunting, as well as the individual chambers. I was awe-struck by the artistry and skill everywhere in evidence. I am especially keen on the Hellenistic period: to see the opulence with which Alexander buried his father was, well, almost beyond comprehension.

Equally incomprehensible was the utter desertion of the museum, a phenomenon we’ve experienced throughout our several days in Macedonia. The royal tombs were empty, as were the other museums and archaeological sites we’ve visited. Museum employees, seeing my rapture, have been unfailingly kind in answering my questions and even allowing me into areas normally off-limits to visitors. Clearly, I have benefitted from “the crisis,” as it is called in Greece, and the resulting decline in tourism. Selfishly, having these extraordinary places to myself is part of today’s perfection.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Unexpected Delights of Thessaloniki

We arrived after several glorious days in Santorini to Thessaloniki Airport, where we were greeted by Rod’s sister Karin and her Greek husband Vassos. They whisked us to a hotel just two blocks from their flat; we unpacked; walked to their place; and then caught up over tea and biscuits.

Fortified, we set out with Karin and Vassos to explore the open-air markets of Saloniki. They are fascinating, the sort of thing one might have seen in Paris or London before Les Halles and the other old markets were razed. We saw fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, spices, figs, and other local products, all inviting. Old Greek ladies in black haggled with merchants while young, chic housewives pinched the flesh of fish suspiciously. I bought a little copper briki for my first attempts at Greek coffee once I return home.

Then we hopped a local bus for the White Tower, a famous Turkish-Venetian landmark. We dutifully climbed the 500-plus steps to the top and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the harbor and the city. Lunch followed at a café near the lovely waterfront—recently renovated and expanded—where I indulged in yet more roasted eggplant. Gypsy women wandered through the outdoor seating area, aggressively thrusting their crying, dirty babies at the customers in a largely vain attempt to beg money. I have tangled with gypsies in other European countries, and I had an especially frightening experience in St. Petersburg when a Russian girlfriend and I were attacked while caught in downtown traffic. I will make a politically incorrect statement here: I do not like their lifestyle. Undoubtedly this sounds horribly bourgeois, but there is much to be said for getting a job and not dragging one’s unwashed progeny around the streets and subjecting them to a life of penury. Lest I appear prejudiced against ethnic gypsies, I will point out that I felt the same way about the stoner hippies, relics from the sixties and seventies, who until fairly recently panhandled in Berkeley, miserable-looking children in tow.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Archaeological Museum, which, like many museums in Greece, is small and manageable. The building is modern, light, and airy; the displays are well done, and we especially enjoyed a special exhibit on gold work in ancient Greek society.

Exhausted, we returned to our hotel for a rest and shower. Later that night we went with Vassos and Karin to a seafood restaurant where we met Christina, their youngest daughter, her husband Petros, and their darling daughter Yvonni (who I might steal and take back with me to the States). It was a relaxed, slightly chaotic, family evening that seemed so Mediterranean, with the toddler lurching around the table while the adults ate, drank, and talked over each other. People dine late in Greece, and I am having to adjust to dinners that begin no earlier than 9.00 p.m. and stretch on until midnight.

I like Thessaloniki far more than I expected; indeed, I’m not quite sure what I expected. Many of the buildings date from the nineteenth century, and the city has the look more of a Slavic city, such as Bucharest, than a Mediterranean one. Some of the boulevards are wide and lined with trees. Ruins abound. Casually scattered throughout the city, they are part of its everyday texture, not something to be seen as tourist sites. There is a north/south divide in Greece, with Thessalonikians looking down on their Athenian brethren, in much the same way that the denizens of St. Petersburg pity Muscovites or Florentines sniff at Romans. After some time in Athens, I’ll have a better sense of whether the Thessalonikian sense of superiority is justified.

Snapshots from Santorini

  • The Swedish woman--resident on the island for 18 years--who explained in painstaking terms how to make Greek coffee (to which I am now addicted)
  • The tourist sporting a t-shirt that declared, "I'm not a gigolo; I'm just a fucker"
  • The hairpin turns on the road to ancient Thira
  • The strings of donkeys trudging up the steep winding path from the Old Port to Fira; some looked thin and bedraggled
  • The easy music wafting through bars in town, ranging from Bob Marley to Pink Martini, hardly the strains of bazouki one expects
  • The sad spectacle of abandoned and semi-feral dogs everywhere, many of them lame from car accidents
  • The exhausting climb along the caldera from Fira to Firastefani, a journey we seemed to make several times a day
  • The young female shopkeepers who conduct business with teacup dogs on their laps
  • The Greek orthodox priests wearing very cool, very expensive, designer shades
  • The ghastly disgorging of tourists from the monster cruise ships: imagine 3,000 people overwhelming a small island town for 3-4 hours, truly the invasion of the barbarian hordes

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Last Day in Paradise

Fig ice cream.

This delectable concoction alone makes Santorini worthwhile, but the island has many pleasures to offer, from spectacular views to volcanic beaches. The fig ice cream, though, is pretty damn terrific.

This morning through a complicated series of maneuvers (i.e. local bus transfers) we made our way to the small business that runs mini-vans up the mountain to ancient Thira. The road twists around hairpin turns, which our driver attacked with alacrity. At points, I closed my eyes and breathed slowly and deeply, telling myself that he had managed to make it into his forties and would most likely survive this journey as well. I tried to forget that Greece has the highest number of traffic fatalities in the EU, information one should put far from mind when careening around 1,000 foot precipices.

The site itself is probably worth the journey for a classical history geek like myself; I'm not sure about the average Joe. The ruins are pretty, well, ruined, and it's difficult sometimes to reconstruct their original function. Commentary is pretty sparse, and the sour-faced guards were of little help. I did enjoy seeing the theatre, however, which is quite small by Hellenistic or Roman standards. Built in the second century A.D., it seated fewer than 1,500 people. Did road shows come through? Revivals of Athenian classics? Hellenistic comedy? Or the pantomimes popular with Roman audiences? It's hard to imagine a troupe of players bothering with a settlement this remote.

We braved the return journey down the mountain, eventually making our way back to our favorite patch of beach in Parissa, just in front of Meteora Cafe. Our hostess greeted us with open arms and a glass of wine: what is not to love about a woman who greets you as "my princess"? Fortified by good food (fatouche for Rod; eggplant stuffed with vegetables for me), we staggered back to the beach for several hours of sun and snoozing. The winds whipped up the water, making it a bit rough for serious swimming. I also forgot my prescription goggles and was nervous about accidentally swimming too far out (yes, I am truly that blind) into the wicked undertow. So I had to content myself with bobbing around close to shore.

Our journey home on the local bus from Parissa to Fira seemed so typically Santorini: a happy, tired jumble of humanity, from giggling local teenagers to sunburnt Germans, while the bus driver blasted Nine Inch Nails and Metallica.