‘Everything’s OK. This is Greece.’
by Paul Kennebeck
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part article on the author’s recent trip to Greece. Read the first part of the series at denbar.org/docket.
The Sights of Athens
In a side street, a block from Syntagma Square, the Traveler watched protestors gathering, carrying signs, milling around, while a half-block away police were assembling with their riot gear. The Foolish Traveler waited near the huge police prisoner van and the many police motorcycles to catch the first whiff of tear gas, something he hadn’t experienced since his youth in basic training.
But the Traveler came to understand that something was wrong. Something strange.
It was a protest with no screams, no yells, no chants, no threats. The Traveler was slow to realize that the demonstrators were an angry protesting group of the hearing-impaired signaling their dissatisfaction of government operations by sign language.
On that day, in the Greek sun, the silence spoke loudly.
* * *
The Traveler enjoys what many visitors to Athens get overwhelmed by and grow weary of: museums, history, and ruins. (The Traveler is semi-wise enough to view these things alone, unless a companion truly wishes to see them. The Traveler recognizes that some people have no interest in a stone scribbled with aphorisms written 500 years before the Galilean walked the earth.)
Thus, on a mildly hot day he is pleased to stand in the sunshine and view the spot near the ancient Dipylon Gate where Pericles delivered his Funeral Oration. He smiles at the fact that in the hotel the basement wall is made of thick glass, allowing visitors to view the remains of the wall built by Themistocles to help defeat the Persians in 479 BCE.
The history of Athens cannot be escaped: Every time a hole is dug, archeological remains are discovered. The clean and orderly Athens Metro must be the only subway in the world sporting invaluable art works—the original amphorae, kraters, and marble statues discovered when the subway tunnels were excavated—now on display behind glass where they were discovered.
The Traveler rides the Metro because of its ease of use—and also because the Metro is far beneath the unholy vehicular traffic on the streets above. It is not clear to the Traveler if the Athenians purchase cars as small as toys—Kias, Hondas, Hyundais, Nissans, Peugeots, Citroens—by necessity, to be able to park them in doorways, on sidewalks, and behind tables and chairs, or if the Athenians park their cars on sidewalks, doorways, and behind tables and chairs because they just happen to purchase cars small enough to fit there.
The taxi drivers have small crosses hanging from their interior rearview mirrors, along with the Mati to ward off the evil eye. Greek children are named after a saint whose name has been in the family for generations; the child’s celebration of his Name Day is more significant than celebration of his birthday. When the Traveler was introduced to a Greek at the Parthenon, she immediately said, "Today is your Name Day."
Some Metro stops bear the names of Saint Anthony, Saint Dimitrios, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Eleftherios. Athens’ streets have similar names: Saint Constantine and Saint Andrea. Throughout the many neighborhoods of Athens are old churches whose interiors glow with candlelight reflecting off walls covered with icons and whose floors are formed of intricate mosaics. In many churches, small rectangular tin sheets embossed with an image of an arm or a heart have been placed by supplicants before icons of the Panagia. On the islands are hundreds of churches whose sole use will be to honor the church’s Name Day.
The author Jeffrey Siger said, "To write about Greece and ignore the Church is foolhardy." To the Faltering Traveler, the Orthodox Church is like Catholicism, but without the Jesuits.
A Stop on the Islands
The credit card company that owns the Traveler sent him a new card, which is smaller, thinner, and whose account number is imprinted on the card in a different location than on previous cards. The English-speaking woman at the rent-a-car place takes the Traveler’s credit card and attempts to run it through a tabulator that reads the card’s magnetic strip. The tabulator and the new card are mismatched. The woman places the card beneath the paper documents of the rental agreement, presses the paper hard against the raised digits of the card and rubs the black tip of a pencil over the paper. But the digits do not appear on the document. They are not raised high enough. Another credit card, with properly raised digits, has a perfect rubbing and the deal is completed.
There are no superhighways on the islands, except, arguably, for Crete. Two-lane (often one-lane) roads lead one about the islands. Small, intricate, expensive-looking memorials stand randomly along the side of the country roads. When the Traveler stops to view one, he peers into a window on the memorial, like a window into a tabernacle, and sees an icon and a candle and flowers and mementoes. This particular memorial is in memory of a young woman killed in an automobile accident at the spot where the Traveler is standing. Stepping quickly aside to avoid a car speeding on the narrow one-lane road, the Traveler understands why the memorial business is booming.
The Traveler, lost, seeks directions. He possesses the low-life linguistic skills of basic survival: he can read Greek road signs (when there are Greek road signs); he can read menus, order basic foodstuffs, take taxis or buses from the hotel, and find his way back again. The real pleasure is traveling with a wife who speaks the language.
The wonderful old woman in black provides the Traveler directions by telling him to turn left at the church. As he is about to leave she says, "Kalo dromo." The Greek language has many greetings: Good morning—kalimera; good eating—kali orixi; good week—kali evdomada. But the woman, with a smile, had wished the Traveler something he had never been wished before. "Enjoy a ‘good road.’"
Unfortunately, the direction to "turn left at the church" occurred before the Traveler was aware that this island possessed more than 750 churches.
How do you know when you have left the boundaries of the Greek village where the old lady gave directions? On the roadside at the village’s border stands the international sign of negativity—a circle with a diagonal line across it; inside the circle is the village name.
* * *
It becomes necessary to take a bus from one part of the island to another. The Traveler boards the huge new, very clean bus and holds out euros for the driver to take. The driver nods for the Traveler to make his way to the back of the bus. All the seats on the bus are occupied. Riders stand in the aisle next to each other, holding onto a metal bar. The Traveler wonders if the ride will be free.
A small commotion ensues. The Traveler sees a man at the front of the bus making his way from rider to rider down the crowded aisle of the bus. He appears to be selling tickets. When the man finally gets to the Traveler, the Traveler pays him and receives a small ticket. There is more commotion. The Traveler sees another man at the front of the bus making his way from rider to rider down the crowded aisle of the bus. When this man gets to the Traveler, he takes the ticket the Traveler just purchased from the ticket seller, tears the ticket in half, and returns half to the Traveler. Then the ticket seller and the ticket taker return up the aisle of the bus to stand beside the bus driver.
* * *
The Meltemi wind cools the Cycladic and Dodecanese islands during the heat of the summer, and if the winds are strong enough the humidity drops. Even so, it still is hot. Air conditioning is a must. The less expensive hotels provide their guests with room keys connected to a metal plug. When the guest enters the room and inserts the plug into a socket, the air conditioning is activated. When the guest leaves, taking the key with him, the air conditioning shuts off. The guest faces a return to a room that has grown hot; the hotel management saves money on the electric bill.
Wise children found a way to disconnect the key from the plug, leave the plug in the socket, and take the key with them. On return the room is wonderfully pleasant.
* * *
One of the early Greek creation myths describes the Beginning as being the domain of Chaos and, out of Chaos, was created Gaia—Mother Earth—and Uranus—the Sky and Universe. The Wary Traveler will testify that when the Creation was finished, not all of Chaos was used up; bits and pieces of it are still visible here and there on certain days in Athens and the islands.
* * *
But, with a change of laundry, and a little money and time, the Traveler would return to Greece in a second. D