A moments pause before I leave for my year abroad has me reflecting on one particularly happy trip.
There were only about 35 people on the three-masted sailboat cruise of the Greecian Cycladic Islands and, as my family would discover, we all had at least one thing in common. All 35 of us were in Greece, in the Aegean, on that particular boat to honor a transition in our lives. There were a handful of recent retirees taking that hesitant first step toward doing what they always said they'd do: enjoy life. There were couples celebrating monumental anniversaries, an engagement that would unite two families, students graduating from college or med school and entering the scary world of adulthood (shiver). For some of us, the dream trip was an escape from a more tearful anniversary: the passing of a family member the previous year, the first vacation after a particularly nasty divorce, the last time we'd be together as a family before a year's separation. We represented all ages, all parts of the world, but we had all chosen Greece to be the host of our joint Life Celebration.
As I prepare to embark upon a chapter in my own life journey, I've been thinking a lot about Greece. I realize now it wasn't the grand scope of Greece that made it so special, really the perfect location for any milestone celebration. No, it was the combination of all the perfect moments: the sips of ouzo, the dips in the aegean, the "kalimsperas!" in the evening, the special gleam in a countryman or woman's eyes when describing why they believe their particular island is, in fact, the home of the gods.
Every morning we all met on the deck of the ship with our first cup of coffee and admired the beauty of the golden sun peering over the dramatic cliffs of whichever greek island with the typical blue and white villages we had pull into during the night. On cue someone would joke about how lucky we were to have such a perfectly sunny day after all those other days of rain. I don't think Greece knows the meaning of a "gray day." We certainly didn't see a single cloud white or gray while we were there.
In the afternoons we would explore the islands and hike to the hellenic ruins they all have hidden away among the olive groves. On the island of Kia we were led to the 1,600 year old lion statue that was said to have protected the natives from raiding pirates.
Every village we visted had a few taverns (some only had the one plus maybe a cafe) and often the propriators didn't even have a menu. A grinning, bronze-face middle-aged man would come out to the terrace and announce what he'd been cooking that morning. On Kia where we sampled some of the most delicious food of the entire trip the owner gave us a choice of an eggplant casserole, rooster, cow tongue or fish. You never asked a Greek proprietor what kind of fish it was: "It's just fishes!" he would say, shrugging his shoulders. Whatever is was, the "fishes" was always fried, drizzled in lemon and then that stapple of the Greek table, tzatziki sauce, was brought out for dipping. And it was always delicious.
Coming from the US east coast where most of my friends flocked to the polluted and ticky-tacky shores of Myrtle Beach, Long Beach and Jekyll Island, I admit that I had who had ventured out to the somewhat more secluded and better preserved beaches had never seen truely blue water. It is only possible to describe the color blue that was in the Aegean as "Aegean blue." So blue and yet so clear that you can see the sand at the bottom 50 feet bellow you in some places. Every day the ship would anchor and allow us to jump out and swim in that blue expanse. Cold! But essential.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about Greece the land and Greece the food without talking about Greece the people. Although it is important to realize that Greece is a combination of all three. There is also Greece's turbulent and fascinating history, the influence of classical culture, the 500 year long Turkish occupation and the Greek Orthodox tradition that lend themselves to understanding Greece, the country. But the land, the food and the people are essential. The Greeks we met were not only friendly or hospitable, they were full of life. Upon returning to North Carolina the restaurant owner of my favorite Greek restaurant, who himself is from Rhodes, summed Greek people up like this. "Greeks are great appreciators of beauty. Whether it's a beautiful glass of ouzo, the atmosphere of a beach-side restaurant or a pretty girl, Greeks melt in the presence of beauty." But what we found to be more endearing than even this is that the Greeks we met were always receptive to experiencing something of beauty. And it was this attitude, I believe, that made them so easy to fall into conversation with, so easy to befriend. They love their home and as soon as they see that you also love their home they want to share with you all the beauty of the place.
This man with the memorable coiffure was the artist of the island of kia. He painted social, political and religious commentary as well as scenes from the his home village there in kia. There were some repeat characters such as the village mayor who he depicted as a donkey and the orthodox priests who he drew with goatish features.
A local business man who took travellers to the top of the postcard town on the cliff of the island of santorini.
Some of our dearest friends from the trip were the crew themselves. Vaso, Niko, Niko, George and Davide taught us traditional Greek dancing and on the particular occassion the dancing went on late into the night. The paper napkins strewn across the deck replaced shards of pottery; traditionally, the hostess of any party, in this case Dear Vaso, would chip plates over the dancers while shouting "Hopa!"
A typical scene in the square on the island of siros. The children come out to chase pigeons, their parents to drink a Nescafe or mythos and watch the soccer game and gossip, and the grandparents to catch up with old friends. Everyone wishes everyone else "Kalispera" or "Yassis" which means, Good evening or hello.
We tasted liquors that were made from the sap of a tree that is native to a certain Cycladic island and only weeps this potent sap on this particular island. We were allowed to try this liquor because our friend, Niko, wanted to share the beauty of it with us. We swam a two miles in the Aegean, from one inlet to another, because that same friend had fond memories of swimming that little bay when he used to live there and he wanted to gather urchin from the other side of the bay for dinner that night.
This was a different swimming excursion, but in this case we swam out away from the boat so we could get this great view of the temple of poseidon on top of the hill just as weather-weary sailors have seen it for millennia.
In Athens we enjoyed a taxi driver for 11 hours (though he only charged us for 8!) who drove us to all the tourist sites in Athens. But when we expressed enthusiasm in seeing more sites around Athens he then took us to Corinth, Mycenea and a coastal town that he took his family to just because he thought it was particularly beautiful and he wanted us to experience it. Then on the drive back to Athens he stopped at a small road-side monastery with what they claimed was a 1000-year-old painting of the Virgin. He went in with us, kissed the painting and explained that he liked to take his children there whenever he thought they needed to escape the chaos of the city. For anyone going to Athens, do not think of stepping one foot on a 50 person tour bus. Our taxi driver, George, worked for a taxi touring company owned by a man, also named George, who began the business when he realized he cared more about sharing the beauty of his country with his passengers than he did about taking them from point A to point B. Contact him! http://www.greecetravel.com/taxi/