28 September 2011: Greece a land to love, learn from

Greece a land to love, learn from

I don’t know if I’m able to go on a vacation, the intent of which is to escape, do nothing substantial, to completely let go and to be only in the moment of the time and place.

My Greece travel companions wondered why I focused on writing articles and became nearly frantic when unable to connect to the Internet to submit them by deadline.

Having returned, I realize the difference: They were on vacation, while I was on a journey. Greece—especially its food—was not just to be enjoyed, but to be learned about in order to increase my knowledge and understanding so to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate it. OK, I admit my questions about the food were limited to preparation, but the rest, from the Acropolis to Mt. Olympus, was to be gobbled up and savored.

Perhaps it stems from a natural proclivity to be a life-long learner. To be other would be akin to a tiger changing its stripes.

Joseph Campbell calls the last leg of a journey The Return, which includes bringing back a gift. For friends, it took literal form: olive oil, carefully packed in my check-in luggage, and baklava in my carry-on. To you, my readers, I offer insight into my learning, which admittedly might not be as fulfilling as olive oil or baklava, but will have to do.

The best way to summarize my experiences is to say I would return in a heartbeat if finances and circumstances allow, which is amazing in that I harbored doubts before departure given the news of the country’s dire financial situation.

And I admit to a level of fear of the unknown, symbolized by insistence on drinking only bottled water at the outset. By the end, the only discomfort was self-induced: a slightly sprained knee from running down a steep, rocky slope and a chunk of skin from the bald noggin removed due to failing to duck low enough beneath a carpeted bulkhead.

Driving in Greece, which makes navigating the Los Angeles expressways a Sunday drive to the country, is not for the faint of heart with motorcyclists darting in and out sketchy lanes. Traffic signs are inadequate and confusing, and the general minimum speed is flooring it.

We fortunately just missed the real dog days of high heat and humidity, but the sauna we stepped into debarking from the passenger ship from Naxos at Piraeus, the port of Athens, I hadn’t felt since I last sat in a rec center steam room.

The language was fun to learn with simple lines saying “hello, good day, thank you, and you’re welcome” flowing naturally from the tongue by the end. English is commonly spoken as youngsters learn it early in school with many public signs in English script.

I cannot comment on the wine, not being a connoisseur, but I can affirm that ouzo, the licorice tasting liqueur, is both tasty and powerful, and will leave it at that.

I was fortunate to strike up conversations with a range of natives, from young adult to senior. Two sensibilities seem to be constant: love of country with a correspondingly pride in being Greek and apprehension about the country’s future.

Another lasting impression is the strength of the Greeks. After repelling the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, Athens enjoyed superpower status. Since then, not so good, as a native might phrase it, unless one counts the role of Greece in the Byzantine Empire.

From Alexander of Macedonia and the Romans to the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, Greece endured long-term subjugation. Interestingly, Greeks celebrate “Ochi (NO!) Day” on October 25, the day in 1940 when they gave Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Il Duce, the hand gesture indicating they were not willing to submit like sheep to the fascists.

One cannot but help to admire the pluck of the Greeks, which, accompanied by their openness and hospitality, induces a love affair.

On our last night, we were entertained by local troubadours, one playing the traditional Greek instrument, the bouzouki. The first number they did was the theme from “Zorba the Greek.”

Not only did it cause me to want to get up and dance—one teammate said he’d pay good euros for the ouzo if that would help—but also it reminded me of the Anthony Quinn movie based upon the 1946 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and how much Greece has changed.

Greece is a land and people to love. It is from there our western ideas, with emphasis on the individual, sprung.

Perhaps in 2,500 years, America will be seen for its contributions to civilization. One can only hope.

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