129. 2011 Trip, Part One – Getting out of Town, “Givens” and Greece

It’s summer. Enough talk about troublesome issues. Time to put all that behind us and go traveling again.

Get out of Town!

Brothers and sisters, taking a break from regular life is important. We need to get out of the house, away from the job, and do something different – even if we only go to grandma’s house. This gives us a new perspective on life, on whatever we’ve been doing or thinking about. It’s the “Sabbath” principle. Time off makes us more creative, more productive. It’s also an end in itself. God created us to open up our hearts and minds to new things and grow. So go!

When I was working I went on vacation regularly, taking as much time off as I could get away with. (That’s why I’m rich and famous today…) But really, I believe it did expand my mind and my outlook on life, and it increased my faith – even if it did diminish our savings.

I’ve seen a lot of places – 46 of the Great Fifty and I don’t know how many foreign countries now. But when it was time to travel almost always I wanted to go to Greece. Now that my health won’t permit long distance travel, I miss Greece enormously. But I’m beyond grateful for all the trips I had. (See Posts 2, 3,  7, 12, 19, 24, 34, 47, 60, 81 and 82.)

So today we’re going to Greece again – in 2011. At least I am. If you want to go somewhere else for a few weeks, no problem. Grandma’s house? Switzerland to see the mountains and ride the trains? – an incredible place. Antarctica to visit the penguins? Wherever. If so, I’ll miss you.

But I hope you’ll come along. I love to share Greece with you.

“Givens”

I have loved Greece from the first time I saw her. I awoke, looked out the porthole of my room and saw the Ionian islands approaching through the grey mists of dawn, and said to myself “Yes!” I can’t explain it. It just was. It still is.

Have there been things like that in your life? that are “given”. You don’t have to think much about them, you suddenly just “know”? People and places and the like that you love, just because you do? I hope so. These are gifts from God. As in all things, we need to use sweet reason regarding them. But then… go with them!

I’ve had several such experiences: When God first “knocked me over” with his presence, and showed me that he was real and that I, who was not particularly religious at the time, should be ordained. (That was a shock to me – not to mention to everybody else.) When I first knew that Jesus loved me and I loved him. On the first date with my wife-to-be and I knew she was “the one” and have never doubted it in the almost-52 years since. When (this came more slowly but was no less sure) God and Saint Nicholas led me into Orthodoxy.

These things have been the “givens” in my life. They just are. Through them God has shaped my life. And one of them is Greece.

I love home, too, certainly. Maybe someday I’ll write an ode to Wisconsin and take you to this wonderful place. Did you know that Milwaukee was just ranked the fourth best place in the US to retire to? (Milwaukee?! Yes, Milwaukee!)

But this one is about Greece.

Looking back, I see that I’ve told you some of these stories before. I don’t care. I love reliving it. I love Greece.

Greece

I also see that I have forever been trying to describe Greece to you, to give you the “feeling” of Greece. I think it’s as foolish as trying to describe my wife. Nevertheless, I’m going to keep trying.

Greece: A crazy place in some ways, often disorganized and chaotic. God only knows when the ferry boat will actually leave – sort of like Amtrak. No wonder there are few Swiss tourists in Greece – it would drive them absolutely mad.

Did I ever tell you this story: When they were first trying to get the Athens nefos / νέφος (smog) under control, they passed a law that on odd days of the month, only cars with odd license plate numbers could drive into the city, and likewise with even numbers. The Athenians’ solution? They bought two license plates, of course. That gives you the picture.

Our regular hotel in a south Athens suburb faced on a six-lane highway with cars going very fast and motorcycles zooming even faster hither and thither in between. Why Greek motorcyclists are not all dead I have no idea.

The Greeks: Blunt, charming, gregarious people who rarely stop talking. They love to argue. This even carries over to second generation Greeks in America. Once during a presidential campaign, I had told people at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, that it was fine to discuss politics at church, but if they started getting excited, “zip it up”. One Sunday at social hour after Liturgy I saw a table of Greeks arguing like fury, so I went over to see what was up. They were all for the same candidate (Obama – sorry you Republicans), but that didn’t stop them from going at it!

Maybe that’s because many of the Greeks are bright, care about ideas, are well educated, can discuss a multitude of subjects intelligently. And if they’re “religious” (as many of them are, but too many of them aren’t any more) they have a deep innate piety that doesn’t seem to exist in America – except with some Orthodox and maybe a few old-fashioned Roman Catholics.

Greek restaurants: People rarely eat evening meals till 9 p.m., at least in the summer when we’ve been there. One time in Athens we went to a good restaurant and tried to get a meal at 8 p.m. The waiter was kind, but I think he was stifling a laugh – these tourists! He made us go away and come back at 9. when we were almost alone.  “Normal” people began to arrive about 10 and God only knows (because we certainly don’t) how late they stayed. How they then get up and go to work early I have no idea. Maybe it’s different Greeks who go to work early.

And then when you want the waiter to bring you the bill, to logariasmo, parakalo / το λογαριασμό παρακαλώ – good luck! He looks away every time you try to catch his eye. Often the only way is to go up and ask him. But this is because (unlike many American restaurants where they hurry you along) the Greeks and many Europeans assume you will want to enjoy your meal slowly and talk and drink wine with friends and family, maybe all evening. Good thing!

Meals outdoors in the summertime, sometimes under grapevines. I didn’t eat indoors for weeks at a time. Food tastes so much better that way, like a picnic. Why is it I can drink like a fish in Greece (well, a small fish), but at home a glass of wine almost knocks me out?

The open display of Orthodoxy: people crossing themselves as they pass churches, even while riding the light rail and the Metro. Icons everywhere – in restaurants, banks, taxis, the post office! Divine Liturgies on TV on Sunday morning. During Pascha, game shows begin with “Christos anesti!” And, at least where I have been, almost always churches have been full.

I love the bedlam of Athens – for about three days. If you haven’t seen the Acropolis, you must. And the new Acropolis Museum – I’ll tell you a little more about that in a future Post.

But here’s the place I love most of all:

South to Crete

Overnight by ferry, an hour by plane is Crete, the Big Island way off the south coast of the Greek mainland. After some years I gave in and took the plane which is much more convenient. But really, I think the ferry is the way to go, at least the first time you visit. In the evening, as you sit on the back deck, the many lights of Athens fall below the horizon – and if the air is clear, the Acropolis may be the last thing you see. Then in the grey dawn, the Big Island rises out of the sea, first the mountains, and then the city emerges below. You feel as if you have come to another foreign country.

The north coast of Crete has become over-touristed since I was first there in 1985. Too many charter flights, too many high rise hotels, too many (I hate to tell you) drunken tourists at night. What’s with these Brits and northern Europeans?

The south coast of Crete is the place to be. (But don’t tell anybody. Then it too will become covered with tourists.) Wide open spaces with a few towns and villages scattered here and there. Closer to Africa than it is to Athens.

The high mountains are now to the north, pine-clad, snow-covered often even into early summer. Still-traditional villages scattered everywhere. Deep gorges leading down to the sea.

To the south and far below: the blue, blue Libyan Sea. Does everybody feel a thrill the first time they see it? I did. Then steep, sometimes frightening gorges taking the road down. And when you arrive: austere beauty, sparse landscape, cliffs plunging down into the sparkling sea. And as you get there, the almost never-ending roar of the waves.

As everywhere in Greece, Orthodox churches in every little village, and in the towns they are even thicker than Lutherans in Wisconsin! with the smell of incense sometimes wafting out from the doorways, very unlike the Lutherans in Wisconsin. Chapels everywhere you look. Church bells, sheep bells, goat bells and goatherders yelling at their flocks with words which I do not care to share with you here, and roosters for some reason crowing day and night.

Out in the hills, the pungent fragrance of the herbs and wildflowers. Long beaches with almost nobody on them – except me. Narrow roads over the hills and clinging to cliffs, with only the occasional tiny useless guardrail – sometimes with buses emerging alarmingly around the corners! On the north of the island, there is one wider road with a mix of extraordinarily fast cars and very slow ancient farm trucks, and me caught in the middle

Summers which feel like they’ll never end. The sun bursting full-strength over the eastern horizon, its rays a little while later shining through the east windows above the altars, and then over all the land. The all-encompassing light, the deep blue shadows, the slow peach then orange then red sunsets, promising yet another gorgeous day.

A side trip: Once on the island of Paros up in the Aegean, there were no rooms and I had to camp out on the beach – the huge yellow moon setting in the west, then the brilliant stars, finally the sun hurling himself up out of the sea beyond Naxos, the first island to the east. I will never forget it. On the second day I found a room and almost wished I hadn’t. Except for my back.

I love Greece. 

2011: A Retreat

At age 73, back when I was “young” and still working full time, the purpose of vacation for me was relaxation. I needed time to do nothing but eat, sleep, say my prayers, lie on the beach and read. Khouria Dianna can’t handle inactivity as long as I can, so she kindly gave me time on my own to “crash”, then she would fly over and for a while we would be a bit more active.

This time I made a real retreat of it. In those days I still loved finding the most out of the way places I could. I began with ten days at a small family taverna with a few rooms down (and I do mean down) at an isolated place: about $25 a day for a cozy little room (shared only with a gecko) and good food, and a long gorgeous beach backed by cliffs which I often had almost to myself. The nearest grocery and church were thirty minutes over the mountain via a steep narrow zig-zag road

As part of my retreat from the world, I did not watch television for 3 1/2 weeks and did not miss it. They had wi-fi even at that remote taverna. (Why are many rural locations in the US still not online?) But I also ignored the internet for 3 1/2 weeks and didn’t miss that either. I did carry a cell phone in case of emergency (that’s always wise) and a short wave radio (that seems so primitive now), so I could tune into the BBC for a few minutes a day, just in case I had missed the End of the World.

After ten days I picked up Dianna at the airport in Iraklion and she joined me at our regular hangout – a small taverna and inn just outside a village, still on the south coast.  That day I finally read a newspaper. I don’t know what I expected. I mean, except for the occasional disaster, the news is usually the same – just like the old soap operas. My reaction? “Aaargh!” American politics and economics seemed so appalling and I got so depressed by it, that I didn’t look at another paper for the rest of the trip.

On this trip my only concession to the digital age was my new Kindle, onto which I had downloaded many books. A great idea! instead of carrying twenty books I could use one little electronic device. Before leaving home I did wonder if it was wise to put all my literary eggs, so to speak, in one basket. What if something went wrong with my Kindle?

And so it did. My first day on Crete the screen went crazy (see to the left) and I couldn’t get it back. (At the time I blamed the Kindle, but looking back now, I think maybe I shouldn’t have rolled over on it in bed…) Happily there are bookstores with English language books even in the little villages, and I wound up reading and enjoying books and authors I hadn’t known. For a while after that my motto was “Down with Kindle, Back to Books”. This didn’t last. Now I’m back to the Kindle.

I said my prayers every day. Thank God I had brought a printed prayer book and a small New Testament. And I went to Church Sundays and holy days

That’s what we’ll talk about next week. Come along, and see what Orthodox worship is like 8000 miles from Wisconsin.

Forgive me for rattling on and on. It’s because I love Greece, and I love telling you about Greece.

Next Week: Going to Church on Crete and then in Athens

Week after Next: Out to Aegina and Saint Nektarios

Week after that: The Holy Apostle “Rocky Johnson”

 

 

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