Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On a Greek Island

When my friend Paul and I backpacked through Europe in 1970, we bought Eurail passes that allowed us unlimited train travel around the continent. We started our trip in London, where we spent several days. We were eager to see as much as possible so we railed and rambled through France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. At some point we figured we only had the funds and the time to go north to Scandinavia or south to Greece, but not both; we chose Greece.
Greece was a place I’d dreamed about going to when I was in the Army. I was learning to play the guitar and bought a Leonard Cohen guitar song book. The introduction included a bit about Leonard’s life on the Island of Hydra with his girlfriend, Marianne. I had his first two albums and loved his dark poetic music. On the back of one of the albums was a picture of Marianne sitting at a desk with nothing on but a towel. The room looked very stark and very Greek. I read and reread this introduction. I liked magining myself living on one of the islands with a babe like Marianne, writing songs and fiction, and in the evenings strolling down to the local village where we would talk, laugh and drink with locals and ex-pats. I think I may have melded this fantasy with my Hemingway fantasy from The Sun Also Rises. In my version the relationship works out better than it did for Leonard. I know what happens because I learned the song So Long Marianne. Leonard went on to fame and fortune. I never found out what happened to Marianne. Maybe she’s still in Greece.
Paul and I were knocking around Rome, taking in sites like the Vatican and the Coliseum, when we made the decision to go to Greece. The best way to get there was by ferry from Brendisi, which was on the opposite side of the peninsula almost at the very heel of the Italian boot. So we hopped a train to Naples, which we decided was the poorest and dirtiest European city we’d seen so far, and then took another train across and down the coast of the Adriatic Sea to Brendisi. The ferry was large and the crossing took a long time. We slept huddled on the deck surrounded by Greek families returning home. During the day these locals shared food from big baskets. Paul and I hadn’t brought any food and were envious. But as evening descended, the water became choppy and the boat began to roll from side to side. These same folks, who had gorged themselves earlier, were now hanging their heads over the side of the ship, offering up their bounty to appease Poseidon, or huddled in a corner moaning and looking miserable. Paul and I sat hungry and happily unaffected by the sea god’s wrath.
After the waves settled down, we watched with amazement, disgust and horror as waiter after waiter dumped huge crates full of garbage--bottles, cans, paper, cardboard and whatever--over the side of the ship into the pristine, indigo blue water.
On the Greek mainland, we crammed into a beat up old bus that took us to Athens. We conversed with some of the locals. At one point I asked a question about the current government and everyone became silent. We got the message through their silent stares that talking about the government in public was off limits. When we arrived and got out of the bus Paul realized he didn’t have his wallet which contained all of his money. As we mentally retraced our steps and fretted over this loss, a young Greek man about our age came running up and handed him the wallet. He had found it under the seat in the bus. All the money was still there, and he refused to accept Paul’s grateful monetary offering.
We stayed just one day and night in Athens. By now we had had our fill of big cities and big tourist attractions. We did visit the Acropolis, but by the second day we were on another ferry heading for the Island of Mykonos.
As we approached it, the island looked dry and barren from our vantage point out at sea, but as we entered the small harbor, the chalk white buildings accented with bright blue doors and window sashes looked like a jewel rising out of the ink blue water. Men with Greek fishermen’s hats helped everyone ashore. Old women dressed in black waited to greet the passengers. We didn’t know what that was all about, so we tromped off in search of a hotel. We soon discovered there were no hotels on the island and that we could easily get lost in the maze of small alleyways. It dawned on us that the ladies in black were homeowners looking for renters. Carefully retracing our steps, we returned to the ferry dock. There was no one around, so we waited. Before long, in anticipation of the next ferry, the gaggle of small round ladies in black returned. This time we allowed one of them to take charge of us and followed her back into the maze of white buildings. We found out later that the town was built in this maze-like fashion to confuse pirates. It worked on tourists as well.
Our hostess led us up a set of outdoor stairs to our room. It was small, sparse and adequate. Across the hall was the WC (toilet). Using very few English words and a bunch of hand gestures, she made it clear that we were not to put any toilet paper in the toilet. I really did pay attention to her and we both understood what she was trying to convey, so it must have been habit or a moment of non-attention, but before I realized what I’d done, I flushed and watched as the paper began backing up the system. “Oh shit!” I waited and watched thinking maybe just this once the paper would smoothly go down, but it didn’t and I knew I had to face the music. Our landlady’s naturally stern look became even sterner when I told her. I followed her back up the stairs as she sighed and loudly mumbled with each labored step. I could easily imagine what she was mumbling about. She didn’t allow me to get involved in the intricate process that followed even though I offered, but as I recall, she made Paul and me stand and watch. I never made that mistake again.
We found an outdoor café down by the harbor. We loved the food in Greece—meat cut off large horizontal roasting spits, fish straight from the sea, vegetable chunks smothered in olive oil and fresh baked pita bread. At this particular café there was always a white pelican sitting in the courtyard. Years later, I think it was the ‘90s, I happened to catch a travel show about the Greek Islands which featured a segment on this very same café. The host showed and described an old pelican that had been there for over 20 years. I wondered if it was the same one.
One evening we shared a table with a couple who looked to be in their late 30’s or early 40s, Mr. F. and Joan. Mr. F. had a conservative haircut and wore lawyerly tortoise shell glasses. Joan was attractive, a little overweight and had a great smile and laugh. We liked them right away. They were both very talkative. We noticed they were drinking small glasses filled with what looked like plain water. Mr. F. informed us that it was ouzo, a Greek aperitif that is supposed to help with digestion. He offered to buy us a round and we accepted. It was strong and tasted licorice. We bought the next round for etiquette’s sake and by the time we got our food, we were all a little bit schnockered.
We discovered that Joan and Mr. F. both taught at a high school somewhere in the Midwest. Neither of them was married, but they had secretly planned this getaway without any of their colleagues or students knowing anything about it. We thought it was very romantic and they really seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Paul and I had planned to take a bus out to some of the beaches the next day and asked if they’d like to join us. Joan had plans to go shopping, but Mr. F. said he would like to go along.
The bus dropped us on a hill above the first beach. We were told that if we wanted the best beaches with the fewest people, we had to walk from this one to coves further down the coast. So that’s what we did. We hiked across rocky fields, through olive orchards and grape vineyards, hopped over numerous stone walls and finally descended on a beach that was totally vacant. We decided to push on to the next beach for adventures’ sake. To our surprise there were quite a few people on this beach. As we drew closer, we noticed none of them had any bathing suits on. We stopped at the edge of the beach not sure how to proceed. After a long moment of indecision, Mr. F. whipped off his tortoise shell glasses and exclaimed “Oh what the heck!” Slipping out of his trunks, he made a mad dash for the sea. You had to love his spirit. We followed his lead and had a lot of fun splashing around in the surf. Only when we were ready to leave did we notice that we had left our swim trunks at the edge of the beach on the other side of several groups of naked people. I vividly remember this long self- conscious walk across the beach. As we passed the first group of young people, one of the women greeted us and tried to start up a conversation. There were several attractive young women in the group and I was having trouble keeping my eyes from wandering. We had just emerged from the cold water and I was painfully aware of my current shriveled state, which was just about eye level to the seated freedom lovers. Mr. F. however chatted away seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were all naked.
Our time in Greece was definitely one of the highlights of our 3 month European adventure. When we began to feel the urge to move on, we bought tickets on an ancient coal-powered train that took us up the coast to our next destination, Yugoslavia.

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