If there was a single moment that captured my feelings about Greece perfectly, it was hopping out of our car at the Santorini port after yet another lovely chat with our driver, who was yet another of the kindest people I have ever met. As we waved goodbye and walked off Jack, smiling but serious, said, “Bye! I hope everything goes well for you in your entire life.”
Athens, Mykonos, Syros, and Santorini, and the constant (along with an abundance of gyros) was the overwhelming kindness of the Greek people. In Athens, Phil taught us all about komboloi beads (It becomes a part of you know what I mean?), the waiters always helped Carmel order their favorite thing on the menu, and our good friends at the bead shop in Psiri struggled to find the English words to match us with our beads, gave us a discount, gave us all a free one, took a picture with us, and then ran out after us to give us their card lest we forget them. As if there was any danger of that. And it just kept going. In Mykonos, Maria and her boyfriend were two of the warmest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and she told us that her mom said, “If we always had guests like them our jobs would be very easy!” simply because we were always smiling. In Santorini it was all about Giorgio, who consistently and happily provided us with not only the best but the cheapest option for meals, ATVs, boat trips, anything we wanted.
Never have I felt such strong connections with people who passed in and out of my life so briefly, who live lives vastly different from mine on the other side of the world, who speak a different language, and that is a tremendously beautiful thing. I never felt a hint of resentment, irritation, impatience, manipulation – nothing. And as a fairly loud group of 14 college-aged American tourists…that’s saying something. It was simply a barrage of hardworking, genuinely kind, patient, and overwhelmingly helpful individuals who were happy with their lives and wanted you to be happy with yours. Sending so much good karma to all the people we met – I really do hope everything goes well for you in your entire lives.
Second highlight? Food. I counted 11 gyros and five Greek salads on the week, and I could’ve tripled both of those numbers without getting sick of them. Italian food is obviously tremendous, but there is a noticeable paucity (CSawyer shout out) of grilled meat, and I am nothing if not a carnivore. The trip also led me to discover a passionate love of feta cheese now that I stopped wrongly associating it with the gross soupy consistency of cottage cheese.
Why hasn’t America picked up on putting french fries in gyros? That seems like about the most American thing you could do with a pita full of meat. But alas, french fries with paprika dipped in tzatziki is classic Greece. Speaking of which, I’ll take tzaziki over ketchup and barbecue sauce any day of the week—and I love both of those things.
Of course each place we went had its particular appeal. In Athens, the Acropolis was the Acropolis.
And by that I mean…it was exactly as awe-inspiring as you’d expect the embodiment of the height of ancient Greece and founding of Western civilization to be. The kind of thing that makes you want to break out into Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Only partially kidding. So I’ll break it out right now, because God knows it was just about the only thing that made The History of the Peloponnesian War worth it and it just feels necessary:
“Thus our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. And they are surely to be esteemed the bravest spirits who, having the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, do not on that account shrink from danger. In doing good, again, we are unlike others; we make our friends by conferring, not by receiving favors. Now he who confers a favor is the firmer friend, because he would rather by kindness keep alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another’s generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a debt. We alone do good to our neighbors not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit. To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state. For in the hour of trial Athens alone among her contemporaries is superior to the report of her. No enemy who comes against her is indignant at the reverses which he sustains at the hands of such a city; no subject complains that his masters are unworthy of him. And we shall assuredly not be without witnesses; there are mighty monuments of our power which will make us the wonder of this and of succeeding ages; we shall not need the praises of Homer or of any other panegyrist whose poetry may please for the moment, although his representation of the facts will not bear the light of day. For we have compelled every land and every sea to open a path for our valor, and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity. Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.”
Seeing the Parthenon, the mightiest monument of Athens’ power, touring the Acropolis Museum, a week later seeing its stolen parts at the British Museum, and now reflecting and rereading this speech—this is what you could call a PLS moment. One of the most PLS moments I’ve ever experienced in fact. Give me a minute…
Not to mention the story Rick told us about the flag atop the Acropolis: on April 27 1941, the Nazis marched up there and forced the flag guard take it down in order to replace it with a Nazi flag. He promptly wrapped it around himself and jumped to his death. A few weeks later on May 31, two 19-year-olds, Apostolos Santas and Manolis Glezos, climbed the Acropolis during the night and tore the Nazi flag down. It was one of the earliest notable acts of resistance against the Nazis, and was one of the bigger stepping stones in my love affair with Greece and its flag, which proudly flies everywhere.
The other lasting win from Athens is my komboloi, which now also happens to have been blessed by the pope and is one of my most prized possessions. If anyone is planning to buy worry beads in Athens, go to the shop on Ag Anargiron in Psiri. Another one of those unexpected connections that could not have been more worth it. My beads are made of camel bone, and make a rather satisfying click when I get down with my Greek self and twirl them around. The lady at the shop struggled to tell me that they are meant for someone who “is going to have a big life,” in her words. I’ll never know what variation of the word big she simplified there, but to me, it was perfect. Here’s my komboloi hanging out on the beach in Mykonos a few days later.
Speaking of Mykonos…lovely Maria informed us that during the offseason there are about 8,000 people on the island. In the summer? One million. And boy were we there during offseason. There were a couple of times I felt certain we were the only people within a five-mile radius. Many of those moments came riding through the mountains on the backs of ATVs. And it was awesome. We eventually made our way through the maze (the town was purposely built as a maze to ward off invaders) and discovered an area with some semblance of humanity and two massive pelicans, but Mykonos was still empty enough that it had a peacefulness about it that I don’t think summer visitors get to experience. We lay on beaches completely alone (apart from Roscoe, the stupidest dog on the planet), and I loved it.
The one day we spent in Syros was a bit of a dark time for me owing to a brutally rocky ferry over from Mykonos which left me dazed confused and nauseous. But a cute town and an equally cute old man that owned our hostel. Side note: Lily I love you. Imminent death would have occurred in these couple of days without you.
Same deal for the beginning of Santorini, when I luckily managed to stay asleep for the first seven hours and struggled colossally during the last two and a half. Also, there was that time we almost died sprinting off the boat. This seems like an exaggeration only to those who weren’t there. Most of us reported the feeling that we were still on a boat for the next six hours on solid ground. I did on and off for the next two days—I suspect my inner ears broke somewhere along the line in these 21 years. But Lily and I dancing like maniacs on the black beach, riding ATVs in the mountains under a full moon, my first lamb gyro, jewelry shopping, Giorgio, breakfast crepes, and the sunset in Oia more than made up for my struggles.
Rick Steves says if you can’t get a postcard worthy picture in Oia it’s time to retire your camera…I hope I can keep it a little bit longer with these two.
Again, sending all the good karma I’ve got to all of our Greek friends. Thank you.