I wanted to love Greece. In all sincerity. But it felt like an acquaintance you are just not sure you want to become real friends with. Upon arriving in Athens, on a cold, gray, rainy day my initial reaction was of shock; after all, we have been “chasing the sun” since the beginning of our RTW trip. With the exception of a few scattered days of rain, the vast majority of our time in South America and Africa has been blessed with sunny days, warm weather and bright blue skies. At first, I attributed my blues towards Athens to the unexpected bad weather. Being from Seattle, and used to the intermittent rain, we took tours and went to ancient sights and museums all the same. I really didn’t want to feel the same way I felt in Seattle – depressed, tired, trapped, craving the warmth of the sun. But the sun came and stayed, and I started feeling a bit better and more energized. Still, the discomfort persisted.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why I still have such mixed feelings towards Athens even after leaving. Like any big city, it is crowded, the air is polluted, smoggy, smokers puff around everywhere, the buildings are sooty, and the streets hum with heavy traffic. It’s similar to Paris, and Rome – but I absolutely love those cities and their perfect blend of ancient and new; Paris and its “je ne c’est quoi” attitude, the sophisticated cadence of a language that makes even curse words sound like love declarations. And Rome, the Felliniesque capital of Romance and dolce vita, with its perfect coffee and energetic citizens. Yet both cities and their respective countries have irritating traits and cultural idiosyncrasies, like any other place in the world.
In Athens the ancient ruins and historical sights stand like a paradox against the background of contemporary constructions and modern life. The Acropolis sits atop a rocky hill that offers a panoramic view of the entire city, surrounded by a nice arboretum and a couple of well preserved amphitheaters (Dionysus and Herodes), its ancient monuments (the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Nike) surprisingly still up after suffering a millennia of invasions, demolitions, reconstructions, erosions and continuous pollution. Those beautiful and time-defying constructions stand out like sore thumbs amidst the cruel concrete jungle. The Parthenon will likely forever have to be supported by endless scaffolding in order to keep itself standing. The realization that it will one day crumble, or that nothing of its original building will survive after so many inevitable face lifts made me choke a little. The feeling continued at the beautiful Ancient Agora, although I was in awe with the stunning and well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus. Those gorgeous pieces of ancient history barely stand a chance against the unforgiving rhythm of progress. For every amazing archeological find and innovation in preservation methods, there is the destructive force of humanity in the form of cigarette smoke, uncultured tourists, and claustrophobia-inducing crowds.
A friend said to us, “get out of Athens and go to the Islands!” Indeed, a short excursion to Hydra was very uplifting. The small island is the only one that has resisted progress and doesn’t allow any vehicles – the only means of transportation is by donkey! The cold Aegean waters are a scintillating mix of silver, turquoise and cobalt blue. The green hills and their white washed little houses and quaint atmosphere made me smile. But I still couldn’t quite shake that feeling of sadness.
We stayed in Nafplio and watched the rituals of Greek Orthodox Easter – people gathered outside the church waiting to light their candles at midnight, the fireworks and traditional chanting. It was lovely. We drove to Delphi and visited the Oracle of Apollo, and to Mycenae to visit an ancient fortress and look at a mountain known as “Sleeping Agammenon.” In Epidaurus we tested the incredible acoustics of one of the most well preserved amphitheaters in all of Greece, and in Olympia we saw the well-marked ruins of that once amazing athletic center – so much ancient history, so many beautiful columns, temples, statues and artifacts. After several days out of Athens, we returned on Orthodox Easter Sunday to have a traditional meal with some of our best friends – surrounded by Greek folks dancing like Zorba, eating roasted lamb and drinking Ouzo. And I still felt sadness.
It wasn’t until we reached the far island of Samos that I felt some semblance of empathy towards Greece. After a 10-hour ferry trip, and a 40-minute taxi ride, we arrived at our quaint white–washed B&B, where the owners (The Galini family) agreed to have us although they were amidst preparations for high season. Their hospitality and sincere care made us feel completely at ease. Our rooms faced a stunning panoramic views of a calm Aegean shore beach sided by olive tree–covered mountains was like a miraculous balm to my soul. Dimitri’s home cooking was delicious and we had blue skies and plenty of down time.
I try to always avoid having expectations of any kind – they are a true source of deception and disappointment. I am adept of going through life enjoying the moment and reacting to things as they come. So although I did not nurture romantic visions of Greece, I was still slightly disappointed. The Greek seem to me like they are stuck somewhere in the early eighties: bad hair, questionable fashion sense, unpolished manners (language barriers? Or just impatience?), safety rules that are optional at best, and so much cigarette smoking that one doesn’t get any relief even in open areas. As a Brazilian, I could almost consider some of those things downright funny – how you can park a car anywhere (double park, on the sidewalk, over crosswalks etc.), how there are still operating video rental stores, how you are guaranteed to hear obscure 80’s pop at any restaurant or retail store, or even how two of the seatbelts in our rental car were completely busted. Instead, it just makes you wonder why. And it just aggravated my sadness.
Could this overall picture have any connection with the economy being in dire straits and Greece’s current perilous position with the EU? It could likely be a similar reason, for example, for why Brazil is not a “first world” country – there is a general lack of collective good sense, and everyone is so used to being on survival mode all the time. Brazilians have a hard time following rules because they are constantly focused on “taking the most advantage of every situation” instead of building a conscience towards the collective well-being. And the people are so jaded from centuries of political corruption; it is a deep hole from which there may not be a way out. I only speculate, and mostly out of curiosity.
We have been six months on the road and the impending end is starting to affect me subconsciously. All cultures we have experienced have their good and their ugly – it’s all part of the trip. But the one common factor is humanity – it’s the people in each place that make you feel connected, welcome, and their ugly make you stop and think about your “own ugly”, the things you adopt, and the things you are happy to leave behind.