07.05.2009 22 °C
Greece welcomed us at the end of May first with a glorious sunset, visible from our taxi which was careening at speeds of 120 KM on the 80 KM roads but our driver was in there by far not alone. Upon landing at the Athens airport we learned of the public transportation strike held but thankfully taxis were exempt. Earlier in the day, while leaving Istanbul we became aware of the May first status as a national Holiday in Turkey and the protestations and conflicts which resulted later after our departure. Taking a shuttle bus to the Istanbul airport we met a fellow traveler from the Netherlands, living not far from my old home town who told us about the mayhem which happened the day before in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn on Koneginne Dag (Queens Day). How 7 people died with many more wounded when in a deranged moment, by car, an attempt was made on the lives of the Dutch Royal Family and while they survived physically, it will change how a country looks at safety and protection and April 30 will never be seen and celebrated the same. At the root of what happened in Turkey, Greece and the Netherlands the same ailment can be found. Fear of existence in a world where many are losing their jobs and homes. Still, it was not the world’s economy which filled Tom’s hospital room with its CNN sounds but non-stop reports of the swine-Mexican-H1N1 flu. Traveling by air on May first brought it even closer, many people were seen in both the Istanbul and Athens airport wearing a filtering mask and at the Athens airport it was not a stamp which was placed in our passport but a flyer from the Hellenic Centre for Disease control and prevention, alerting us to swine flu in humans and what all to avoid, including visiting swine breeding locations and not to cover sneezes and coughs with hands, instead with upper arms.
It is every year that many people die all over the world from different strains of the flu and its complications so we have decided to not add it as an additional worry to our travels but stay very focused on where the bus and taxi drivers are coming from out of narrow alley corners because they still remain our most immediate danger.
Returning to Athens, to Greece was very monumental to Tom and I. In the fall of 1973 we were here. It was our very first trip together at the prill age of barely 20 (Els) and almost 22 (Tom). We see our return as a successful completion of a trip around the world starting many years ago and that the next two European months are an extra. While our return to Athens almost 36 years later may be significant to us, wandering around the Acropolis last Saturday, seeing the Parthenon and Athena’s temple once again, monuments which more than any other epitomizes the glory of Ancient Greece in the 5th Century BC reminds us that in their grand scheme of time we are merely a dot. Spending the day retracing our steps we again became enthralled with the grace and harmony found in the Parthenon even while most of it was surrounded in scaffolding for reconstruction purposes. In 438 BC, in an attempt to achieve perfect form the Parthenon lines were ingeniously formed to counteract unharmonious optical illusions. “The base curves upwards slightly towards the ends, and the columns become slightly narrower towards the top with the overall effect of making them both look straight“.
Simply not much different from the grace and allowances we make in relationships so that harmony can appear.
We booked our Athens stay at the Apollo Hotel on Archilleos Street and while it boasted an Acropolis view from some of the balconied rooms we were so surprised when it actually did. Traveling as long as we have and booking on internet we have become quite skeptical. I have walked down to the reception desk upon arrival and showed them the picture advertised on internet only to say” THIS is the room we want to stay in tonight and where are you hiding it? ‘ En suite’ should mean the bathroom is attached to the room and not a flea infested , squatter toilet without paper two floors up. The Apollo hotel was great, the view was more than promised as was the walking distance to Athen’s great sights. With Tom only having been discharged from the hospital the day before we limited our wanderings and took many rests which in Athens are a sight in itself.. Again here, as in Turkey, they are at the early beginning of a hopeful successful tourist season and prices are still lower. For some unexplainable reason so far, last Saturday, May 2, none of the sights in Athens charged admissions including the Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora and museums which was highly appreciated by us, even more so after traveling in countries where as tourists we usually were charged up to 10 times more. The money saved was of course spent on a very good meal and surrounded by street vendors we were highly entertained while the sun once again colorfully set over Athens. Street vendors carry their wares in sheets which make good displays on the ground and somewhere an extra set must be hid since the wares offered are immediately changed when the weather does, which quickly can in early May Greece .
Our trip in Greece this time is different. We are of course older but probably no wiser. In 1973 we landed in Rhodes and slowly traveled our way up by ferries to Athens while stopping and staying at the islands of Kos, Leros and Myconos. We remember the ferries very fondly, broke as we were then (and now) we traveled steerage which today is called economy class. In 1973 the ferry boats were not the luxury 8 deck monsters which now give us an idealic crossing of the Aegean Sea ,watching islands roll by while the American Extreme home makeover and Super nanny are shown on a TV above.
Then, in 1973, Tom and I snuck in the life boats dangling on the upper deck and enjoyed a calm crossing while in steerage it would not have been pleasant and now we wonder about all the rules we broke as 20 year olds.
This time our destination is one island only . The island of Santorini and while our ferry took us by the islands of Paros and Naxos only pictures where taken of them while they showed us other great places to come to and rest. Our first view of Santorini gave the impression of snow topped mountains and it was not until we were closer that we saw instead the white washed buildings of the villages perched high atop the cliffs. It was around 1450 BC that the volcanic heart of Santorini exploded, sank and left an extraordinary landscape. It remains possible that the volcanic catastrophe destroyed the Minoan civilization but neither this theory nor the claim that the island was part of the lost continent of Atlantis has ever been proven.
What is proven to be true is that Santorini is an absolutely delightful and colorful place to be in early May. Prices are cut in half to attract the early birds which allows us to have great lodging in Pension George, a charming, of course whitewashed, blue trimmed family run pension in the centre of the island, within walking distance of the capital town of Fira. George’s wife Helen is English which sure aids in communication. Just up the street from us is the best bakery on the island and every morning we take a short stroll and pick out our loaf for the day and together with the fresh feta and fruit from the store next door, accompanied by a bottle of Santorini wine it makes for a good meal on our balcony. The first morning in the bakery I was a little overwhelmed with all the choices of bread and wondered if the proprietor would let me tap the loaves and see which were crispy since our languages did not meet. During my somewhat embarrassing attempt to purchase a crispy loaf of bread a friendly villager walked in with great understanding of the English language who showed me the bread I wanted and now each morning I happily only point a finger and the bread of choice is there. Our first two days here were rainy. We somehow are destined to bring rain there where it is needed and in Santorini it has been rare and the vine bushes show the shortage. We gladly do our part to make the wine flow. Thankfully we can afford the rainy days and during those days Tom rested, healed even more but lost a cap on one of his molars. With the cap in hand we walked through the small town of Karterados and found the local dentist-office , mentioned by Helen from our pension and within minutes Tom’s cap was back in place. In Karterados the dentist still works by the first come, first served order and can afford to charge only 30 Euros for remounting a cap since the overhead is almost nil. He performed not only as the dentist but was the receptionist, dental hygienist and accounts payable. Tom paid considerably more the first time it was put down and it did not stay in place. Hopefully we now are done checking out local emergency dental and medical care.
We plan on staying 10 days here in Santorini and there is plenty to see and do. Buses are not quite running on schedule since the tourists are not all here yet but that makes it even more entertaining. We hopped on buses yesterday which were either an hour late or an hour early depending on the sounds around us, for us they happened right when we walked up not expecting anything and pleasantly surprised. We have as of yet not learned when one is supposed to pay for these bus rides. Invariantly the bus driver says “ pay later” and often we part from the bus and have not paid and wonder if later in the day when we do it all evens out. The island can be walked easily as we did today and after a 45 minute hike we found a black sand beach all to ourselves. The water is still extremely frigid but doable for a short time only to say that the salt of the Aegean Sea was tasted on our lips while enduring a brain freeze.
After now six weeks of traveling there where we did not understand the languages and it all sounded Greek to us, with pun intended now it does. There is something with the Greek language that makes it fascinating for those of us who do not understand it to watch. When words are lost, one pays more attention to the other forms of communication, facial expressions, body language, timbre, gestures and the Greek gives plenty. While the words exchanged could be as banal as “ honey, did you remember to turn of the lights” , their communication gives forth an intimidation, an aggression foreign to us.
We are surrounded by the colors of Greece, the intense blue of the Aegean sea with a sky trying to match daily while all are sprucing and white washing the immaculate houses for the summer to come.
It is a good place to be in early May.
Tom and Els