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Stories from Greece

Athens, Greece

Arriving in Greece

michelle11 a.m.: Out the airplane window I stare at the blue sky and white cotton ball clouds. Blue and white - the colors are a reminder we are flying to Greece, home to the blue Aegean Sea and white-washed buildings perched on island cliffs. We are excited to eat Greek food (feta cheese, olive oil, kalamari...), to see the Parthenon and other ancient ruins, and to island hop, basking in the Mediterranean sun. Tim's good friends, Bill and Cecilia, are getting married on the Greek isle of Santorini on May 20th, and we are thrilled to join them for the celebration.

A few days ago we started our eleventh month of travel. Leaving Asia and entering the West once again is evidence we are slowly making our way home. My emotions are mixed as our trip is drawing nearer to completion. I long to see family and friends but will miss the constant adventure and growth that travel gives.

5 p.m.: Now we are sitting at an outdoor cafe, eating kalamari and drinking beer under the shadow of the Acropolis. It is amazing how an airplane flight can transport you to another world in a matter of hours. We spent the afternoon walking around Plaka, the old city of Athens, next to the Acropolis. Souvenir shops line the narrow streets selling leather goods, reproductions of ancient Greek art, T-shirts, postcards, and other touristy paraphernalia. People sip coffee in outdoor cafes, flowers decorate balconies, and dogs sleep in the sun. I am overwhelmed at the striking difference from Asia. Gone is the land of Buddha, Hindu gods, and temples. Now we are in the land of Greek gods and Christian churches. Gone are the trash lined streets, shoddy constructed buildings, and beggars. Instead, we are surrounded by spotless streets, renovated buildings, and chic stylishly dressed city-dwellers. The prices are different too. The cost of a cup of coffee here is the same amount we paid for a decent hotel room in Kathmandu. It depresses a budget traveler! I predict a lot more self-catered meals, dorm rooms, and much less shopping! top

Back in Time

timWe ascended the Acropolis with flocks of noisy Greek school children who were herded quickly up the hill by fast talking teachers whose expressions clearly told each passerby, ""I don't get paid enough for this crap."" But as much as I enjoyed watching the action of the comical crowds, I forced my attention away from the present and towards the past. I wanted to feel the history of what I was about to see.

It seems little coincidence that the Delphic Oracle planned the site 2500 years ago as the province of the gods and dedicated it to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. For here is a heavenly connection to the root of wisdom in every western nation. Our philosophy, architecture, democracy, literature, art, drama, and even sports owe a debt to the culture that erected these buildings. And so, the Acropolis is a direct link to our own past.

Walking with the school children, we passed the Theater of Dionysus. This 17 000-seat amphitheater was built in 161 AD and in its day, hosted dramas by Sophocles, Euripides, and other well-known writers.

Rising higher up the Acropolis, we entered the top of the plateau through what remains of the Propylaia's immense solid gates (erected in 437 BC). We passed though towering pillars and the view opened up to reveal the area's crown jewel: the famous Parthenon, one of the wonders of the world and an instantly recognizable symbol of international history.

One must have a grand imagination to envision how this building looked in its prime.

I always thought of it as white marble. But in fact, brightly colored sculptures depicting marriage feasts, contests with centaurs, and mythic battles encircled the top of the building. A 12-meter high ivory, gold plate, and jaded statue of Athena stood watch inside. Above her, a blue ceiling hung decorated with gilded stars. I built a fuzzy reconstruction in my mind and transported myself back hundreds of generations.

Just down the hill, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle presented ideas that changed the world. A few hundred years later, the Apostle Paul argued the new religion of Christianity and won over Greece's first converts.

The Acropolis is a wonderful place for people with imagination and time to kill. For the majority of visitors, like the Princess Cruise group that I saw, a tour guide fires a 30 second history lesson into a crowd and sends them on their way with 20 minutes of free time. I was glad we were on our own to linger and enjoy. top

Food for Thought

timSomewhere in life I picked up the notion that Athens was a polluted city with crazy drivers. But having just traveled in India and Nepal, I feel I've arrived to a relaxed spotless wonderland. Nobody is coughing up gooey wads of phlegm from the depths of their lungs as they do every five minutes in Kathmandu. Nor are vehicles zigzagging at top speeds and full horn through twisted pedestrian lined streets as they do in India. It seemed so clean in Athens that when I looked down at the trash-free sidewalk, I had the disgusting thought that it was clean enough to lick!

On the other hand, costs are much higher and the mentality of the west is freaking me out. I am now sitting in a coffee shop with a cup of black coffee that costs five times more than it would in Asia. It is essentially the same coffee, even if it tastes like it has been smoldering on the burner all morning. Gone are my days of lounging in Asia at pennies a day - they have been replaced by the European need to move. Time is money. Even sitting here, cell phones break my peace and I feel the cost of my hotel nearby.

Everyone in the west moves with a purpose. The streets are no longer full of people with idle hands and lots of time. Instead, the masses are hustling from place to place or hidden away in office complexes being productive. In this respect, the streets feel almost dead. In many ways, the life of a small village in Nepal feels more alive than the huge city of Athens.

The mentality of the west is efficient - like the woman in the sandwich shop in Athens who prepared food at a pace unseen in Asia. She was a one-woman production line who oozed perfection and made every movement count. I was amazed as she lined four bread rolls up and sliced each one with a quick swipe, concurrently checking her computer screen for orders. Then her hands went to work in a flurry of motion customizing orders and handing them out. Her movements ticked with all the precision of a Swiss watch.

The pace of her life was as "west" as the pace of a travel agency we visited in Kathmandu was "east." When we purchased tickets in Kathmandu for a simple flight, it took three people three hours to complete the task - they offered us tea, the office power went out, the modem connection was lost, and we chatted about the small things. The hurry was gone, replaced by casual conversation and a slower pace of life.

The mentality of the west is also material. It is a place where shiny glass and advertising frames stores selling luxury items such as designer clothes, cell phones, digital cameras, and leather shoes. At home I remember a feeling - a sick hunger almost - that urged me into stores and made me want to buy. This feeling literally made my mouth water and filled me with the anticipation of pleasure - a promised prize awaited my purchase, whether I bought a new CD or a new computer. And yet here in Athens, the advertising messages that surround me don't seem to have the same effect. I've slowed down to the pace of countries where the advertising is less conspicuous and people have only a fraction of the disposable income of the west.

When you trek in Nepal, there are no televisions or billboards. You have no need for fashion, as you wear what keeps you warm and you are not out to impress people. Your attention turns to your surroundings - to places that are magnificent. But after almost three weeks in the mountains, I leafed through a German fashion magazine that a tourist left behind in a mountain lodge. Its glossy content promised all image and no substance. I saw the whole fashion industry in a new light - where I once saw glamorous women, I now saw emaciated models with ridiculous makeup and clothes that cost more than the average yearly salary of a Nepalese porter. I laughed. The existence of the life in the magazine felt light years from mine.

So what will I be like when I have a new job and money? Once the precise targeting and name branding of western advertisers makes its way back into my consciousness? I'm sure I'll revert back to my old habits. But perhaps I'll be a little wiser all the same. top

Folegandros, Greece

Blue and White

timThe ferry dropped us off on the sleepy island of Folegandros with a handful of other passengers. Only 561 people live on the island year round, but the population swells with tourists in the summer. By the look of the empty streets we had clearly arrived outside of high season.

An empty bus hauled us up to the cliffside town of Hora on a road flanked by terraced farming hills. From above, the island probably looked like a life size topographical map. But from the bus, the dry rocky terrain outside of town looked desolate - supporting only desert shrubs, dry grasses, and a few stunted trees.

Once in Hora our bus driver discreetly asked if we needed a room. His shady demeanor made us a little nervous and his offer sounded too much like a drug dealer offering "good stuff." But we followed him anyway and found a room far nicer than any we had stayed in months. With a TV, phone, fridge, and lots of other details not typically present in our budget trip, shady or not, the deal was too good to pass up.

The town looked fantastic. Wasting no time, we dropped our backpacks and left to explore.

Hora's adobe-styled buildings reminded me of the American Southwest - thick walls, rounded corners, and graceful archways. But the brilliant whitewash and deep blue trim that covered the town set it apart from anything I'd seen before. The contrast with the clear blue sky and surrounding sea was fantastic. The blue and white landscape felt uniquely Greek.

Seven hundred years of history graces Hora with a timeless feel, from the old domed churches that cast white crosses against the Aegean sky, to the play of odd angles in the medieval section of town. A soft peace floated through the air and quieted my mind like meditation.

Looking through town was the visual equivalent of a deep breath of fresh country air, where my vision became clearer and crisper than normal. Perhaps it is the dry air, strong sun, or contrasts in color that heightened my senses. But for whatever reason, I felt as though I just removed a pair of sunglasses only to discover that they were filthy and obscuring my vision. Suddenly, everything became sharp and beautiful and Hora was of my favorite destinations from this year of travel. top

Idyllic Day

michelleToday we wandered along the stone walkways of Hora, the charm and quaintness of the place beckoning us to explore every nook and cranny.

We were most captivated the town's un-touristy simplicity - no crowds, souvenir shops, disco bars blaring techno music, or trendy boutiques, just a few small grocery stores and plenty of outdoor cafes to sit and relax away the day.

During our exploration we bought fresh pastries at the town's one bakery, cherries and tomatoes at the one produce stand, and then bought picnic items for lunch. Perched on a stone wall, we nibbled on bread and cheese and watched the local life: an old man and his donkey passed, a gang of five tiny dogs raced by, looking like they owned the streets, children on bikes whizzed by, and then an old man shuffled by, still in his pajamas.

I needed to buy a dress for the wedding we were attending in a couple days but there were no clothe shops to be found on the island. I wondered where the locals bought clothes. It is obvious they bought them somewhere -they all seemed adequately dressed (except the old man in pajamas - he could have used a new outfit).

My dress dilemma was solved when I discovered a man selling clothes out of a van in the main square. He had arrived on the morning ferry. His green van was stacked high with blue jeans, t-shirts, dress shirts, and a couple dresses. I browsed through the van door while waiting for some local women to make their purchases and then I bought a simple black and white dress. Perfect!

Hora sits on the top of a cliff overlooking the sea and in the afternoon we stopped at a white washed wall to gaze at the aqua blue sea below. I could stare at the water all day, letting my eyes swim in its rich, deep color. A cat approached and rubbed against my leg. The population of Hora might be small but its cat population is thriving. Cats roam the streets freely and can be seen rummaging through trash bins, emerging from small crevasses, sunning on walls and doorsteps, and begging beside cafe tables. It is hard to resist their huge cat eyes begging for food. But give a tiny morsel of food and soon your table is surrounded by cats of all sizes and colors serenading your meal in a loud symphony of meows.

Late in the evening we walked up a stone path to the church overlooking the town. Along the way we met some of the local residents: a snake, a donkey, and a herd of goats. I could have done without meeting the snake! We ended our idyllic day by watching the hot pink sunset from large rocks on the edge of a cliff. top

A blinding-white home in the strong sun of Folegandros, a quiet less-visited island in the Greek Cyclades. A blinding-white home in the strong sun of Folegandros, a quiet less-visited island in the Greek Cyclades. A burro stands ready in the small medieval capital of Hora, on the island of Folegandros. Cats in Greece seem to be treated as royalty. This one peers inquisitively from her perch on a café chair. A Greek church overlooking the dry rocky fields of Folegandros. This slow-paced Cyclades island is visited far less than its touristy island neighbors and sizes up at a mere 32 square kilometers. A blinding-white home perched on the top of a cliff burned by the strong sun of Folegandros, a quiet less-visited island in the Greek Cyclades. A bright orange moss covered boulder contrasts with the blue sea on the quiet island of Folegandros. Deep Aegean blue water stands in contrast to the dry hills of Folegandros. This slow-paced Cyclades island is visited far less than its touristy island neighbors and sizes up at a mere 32 square kilometers. Greek church bells from the Pantanassa Church on Folegandros. This slow-paced Cyclades island is visited far less than its touristy island neighbors and sizes up at a mere 32 square kilometers.

Santorini, Greece

Looking Sharp

timIt isn't easy looking distinguished when you are a budget traveller. After all, I've worn the same Teva sandals and two pairs of travel pants for a year straight. But when a good friend of mine got married in a Greek Orthodox cathedral, I needed to clean up my act.

I started in Nepal two weeks ago with a 14 cent haircut. I couldn't beat the price, but I could do without the careless speed that the barber wielded his a huge pair of rusty scissors. But all things considered, my haircut doesn't look much different than a $35 salon cut in the States.

I had my suit and shirt custom tailored for $33 in Vietnam. Strangely enough, these clothes have travelled almost as widely as I have. First they took a three month cruise on their way to my mother's house in Florida (thanks Hahn!). Then a fast UPS flight to Washington, DC (thanks Mom!). Living the jet set life, they immediately got dry cleaned, met up with a tie, and were hand carried to Santorini on the back of my friend's back (thanks Bob!).

Another wedding guest lent me dress socks (thanks Ali!). And I purchased shoes just 30 minutes before the start of the wedding at the only shoe store in Santorini open on a Sunday (thanks Visa!).

I looked so sharp that Michelle almost didn't recognize me after a year of dressing dingy! top

Greek Wedding

timMichelle and I just attended the fabulous wedding of two good friends. Events like these are the stuff romantic movies are made of. As Bill is an aspiring actor and screenwriter, maybe it will see the silver screen someday. If so, the wedding would go a little like this...


Plot Summary A Greek American visits his ancestral homeland for the first time, where he marries his American fiance. Beautiful scenery surrounds the action that culminates in a huge wedding feast and party with 38 friends and family members from home.

Location The town of Fira, on the Greek isle of Santorini. This charming cliff side town overlooks a 3000-year-old volcano caldera, now flooded with the waters of the Aegean Sea. Old white buildings, luxury hotels, and beautiful churches climb from the waterside to the top of the precipice.

The Players Groom: Bill is a handsome New York actor and writer in his early thirties who grew up in a small Greek community in Ohio. In addition to learning Greek from his parents at an early age, he is an accomplished Greek dancer.

Bride: Cecilia is a stunning blonde New York advertising executive with an effervescent personality and a love of life. Though not of Greek descent, she has an interest in learning the Greek language and culture.

Kumbada: The Kumbada plays an important part in a Greek wedding by directing the ceremony and symbolically creating the matrimonial bond between husband and wife. Played by Bill's middle brother, Steve, whose affable personality and steadfast character are important in this role.

The Best Man: Bill's youngest brother, Mo, is a bulky New York personal trainer and student. He sports a mean goatee, short cropped hair, and cool black suit. Back at home, he could pass as a Mafia hit man.

The Plot Act 1: The Wedding The scene starts late afternoon with guests waiting in front of the Metropoli Church of the Blessed Mary, a large Greek Orthodox cathedral overlooking the sea. Music rising from a balcony below draws the wedding guests to the cliff side overlook. Led by musicians, the wedding party makes their grand entrance into the pedestrian plaza.

Enter the cathedral. Byzantine frescos along the inner walls and upper dome depict scores of hallowed saints and the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. A vessel by the door holds thin burning prayer candles. The wedding party approaches the bushy bearded Greek Orthodox priest, who stands aside the altar wearing his traditional black robe and hat.

The priest and cantor start the service in a duet of hymns. After a short gospel reading in Greek, the bride and groom reverently kiss the gospel and the priest's hand. The priest then blesses the rings, which are lying on a silver tray surrounded by chocolate covered almonds (koufeta). The Kumbada places a garland of lace and flowers upon the heads of Bill and Cecilia. This crown, the stefana, is connected by a ribbon and symbolizes a noble marriage and the beginning of a dynasty between the new couple. The Kumbada switches the stefana from head to head three times by crossing arms.

The couple drinks from a goblet of blessed wine, then take their marriage vows together in both Greek and English. Newly married, they symbolize their travels in life together by circling the altar three times while the guests throw rice and cheer them on. Lastly, they signify their everlasting relationship by switching rings three times.

Act 2: The Toast The wedding guests follow Bill and Cecilia down a cobblestone path to a reception patio. In a symbol of fertility, the guests eat bites of chewy honey-almond dessert as they pass through the threshold. Champagne is passed around and by the light of a Santorini sunset, the best man gives a toast to the newlyweds and then husband and wife cut the wedding cake.

Act 3: The Party A hired bus whisks the wedding guests off to the beachside town of Perivolous and the party starts in earnest - with the screech of brakes and several loud explosions from the restaurateur's powerful homemade gunpowder and sea salt explosives. Guests periodically throw these to the ground throughout the night, no doubt causing fear among those with poor hearts.

A feisty five piece Greek band strikes up and appetizers fill the table - bread, tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip), fava beans, fried feta cheese, cold feta cheese, Greek salads, cherry tomatoes, fried eggplant and zucchini, and little sausages. The guests laugh, drink, and eat so much that a palette cleansing dance session is ordered. Bill and Cecilia start the first dance with the accompaniment of an accordion, guitar, singer, violin, and tambourine. The families join in for a Greek circle dance, with each dancer clasping hands on their neighbor's shoulder, kicking and stepping collectively to the beat.

Appetites return in time for the fish course - crispy kalamari, little red fish, succulent white fish, and delicious lobster. More circle dancing follows.

Dinner continues with homemade liver sausage and lamb. In the third round of dancing that follows, the circle of dancers soon overgrows the restaurant and spills out into the street. The tempo of the music gradually quickens until the band is playing at a furious pace. Guests struggle to keep their feet moving to the beat. Faster and faster, their feet are in a frenzy of motion. The restaurateur and other guests celebrate outside with blasts from the 12-gauge shotgun he brought out from the back. The roar is deafening, but the noise no longer fazes the guests.

The movie ends with a party on wheels, as 38 people return to Fira on a crazy 2 AM bus ride, dancing in the aisles.


So maybe this won't make it to Hollywood, but I still wish Bill and Cecilia all the best anyway. Congratulations!

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A weathered doorway in Ia, a picturesque town located in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. A pink, white, and blue church in Ia, a town in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. Sun sets behind a windmill on the picturesque town of Ia, located in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. A yellow, white, and blue church in Ia, a town in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. The sun sets beyond a chuch on the picturesque town of Ia, located in the Greek Cyclades island of Santorini. A fresco of Jesus adorns the Metropolitan Church of the Blessed Mary, a beautiful cathedral in Fira that overlooks a 550-year-old volcanic caldera.

Naxos, Greece

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

Two octopi dry on a line on the island of Naxos, Greek Cyclades.

Samos, Greece

Night Ferry Ride

michelleOur ferry left Naxos at midnight, headed to Samos, an island only 3km from Turkey. Greek ferries are large and spacious vessels offering carpeted floors, snack bars, lounges, and comfortable chairs. But when we boarded the ferry the niceness of it was hidden by sleeping bodies strewn on chairs and the floor. Passengers who had boarded six hours earlier in Athens had marked their territory with luggage, belongings, and their own bodies. Entering the lobby we stepped over an overweight woman who had made the space near the doorway her bed. Out cold, she was oblivious to the traffic milling around her head. On the floor, bare feet shot out from under rows of seats and I morbidly thought they looked like dead corpses being stored with the luggage.

It took us a while to find a seat. Every time we found unoccupied seats and sat down we would be shooed away minutes later by people claiming the seats were saved. After a couple of repeat occurrences I felt like I was playing a sick game of musical chairs and found my patience tested. Finally, Tim and I split up to fend for ourselves and I found an empty seat wedged between two snoring, sunburned tourists.

I knew sleep would not be an option -the lights blared overhead and music seeped from a nearby television. Every once in a while a senior citizens group in the lounge would burst into song. The hours ticked by slowly and I tried to keep a positive attitude despite my losing battle to inner grumbles. I realize long rides, sleepless nights, and unpredictable events are part of the adventure of travel. The good thing is I usually forget the pain and inconveniences once I arrive at a destination and only remember the excitement of it all.

Our ferry arrived in the Samos main port at 7 a.m. and we were welcomed by the quiet of a Sunday morning, except for the ringing of church bells. The port town, Vathy, reflected everything I thought a Mediterranean town should be - Venetian designed stately buildings topped in terracotta tiled roofs, a walkway lined with swaying palm trees, plenty of cafes to drink coffee, blue water, and bright sun. I was glad to leave the ferry and recover from the long night in such a place. top

Greek Passion

michelleNo one could ever accuse Greeks of being a meek and timid people. They are more like little firecrackers, ready to explode with opinions, greetings, laughter, or insults at any moment. I had to adjust to their way of communicating after coming from Southeast Asia, where showing strong emotion is equivalent to losing face.

The elderly are the most interesting to watch. The white haired women are short and stocky with large drooping bosoms, round buttocks, and their wrinkled faces clearly express it would be a mistake to get on their bad side. Their presence, whether standing on a balcony calling to neighbors below, watching grandchildren play in the park, or returning from the market carrying local produce, makes any stroll in Greece more interesting. They exude a quiet confidence, filling me with a sort of reverence as I watch them pass on the street, big hips swaying to their slow steady steps.

The old men can be seen socializing together on benches in the village square, their conversations growing loud and animated and then fading to contemplative silence, almost in a rhythmic pattern. The men also hang in kafeneia, Greek cafes serving only men. I peek in the windows of the smoke-filled rooms as I walk past and see men playing cards together, reading the paper, or participating in animated discussions.

When the Greeks are unhappy they are not shy about expressing their anger. I met a couple from Florida who had this tale to tell: Walking in Plaka, the old city of Athens, a kind, grandmotherly-type shop owner ushered the couple into her store with a smile. They had read in their guidebook it was appropriate to bargain and, after browsing, picked an item and asked for a reduced price. They must have bargained too low for the woman's demeanor changed instantly and she began yelling, hurling insults, and chasing them from the store. They ran down the street as people stared and felt like they had just been caught shoplifting instead of trying to make a business transaction.

We were on a public bus in Athens and the driver stopped too quickly, sending an elderly woman to the floor with a thud. She rose unscathed, and united with all the other women aboard, they proceeded to ream the driver with a cacophony of verbal insults. The driver just watched stone-faced through his rear view mirror with an air of unconcern, as if this was an every day occurrence.

Another time we were on a train, waiting at the station to leave when a young couple boarded and sat at the far end of the carriage. An irate old man followed û I presume the girl's father û yelling and screaming. All the passengers' necks stretched to get a better view of the red-faced man shouting and projecting spittle inches from the couple's faces. It was too much stress for the young man who escaped to the train's toilet until the tirade was over, leaving the girl to fend for herself. She sat staring out the window and puffing on her cigarette, indifferent as the bus driver had been when his passenger was flung to the bus floor due to his bad driving.

The old man was putting on an impressive show involving his whole body: feet stamping, finger wagging, arms waving, eyes bulging, and repeatedly pointing to his heart. Since all the screaming was in Greek I made up my own story about the conflict û the girl was running away with the young man to Athens and the father didn't approve. He was screaming for her to return home and she was breaking his heart with her disobedience. It was a stirring story of family loyalty and romance, but of course, for all I knew, he could have been yelling at her for cooking a lousy breakfast and giving him heartburn. When the train whistle blew signaling departure, he stopped screaming, straightened his collar, and calmly departed. The young man didn't emerge from the toilet until the train was moving and the coast was clear.

I don't think these emotional explosions are uncommon among the Greeks. We have witnessed many as we travel through the country and I am impressed by the energy that goes into an argument û shaking fingers, shrugging shoulders, waving arms, and fists pounding chests. It has the same intensity as a maestro conducting an orchestra with concentration and passion.

Where the Greeks can be passionate in their anger, I find they can be equally passionate in their kindness. A Greek couple we met on the plane from Nepal spent hours with us, giving us advice and tips for our time in Greece. Old women squeeze my arms in affection as I pass; old men holler the Greek hello, "Yasas!" A hotel owner brought freshly baked cake to our room, still steaming from the oven. After a wonderful meal, a restaurant owner brought wine and a plate of fruit to the table, on the house. These are only a few examples of the kindness shown to us while touring Greece.

With a history of strong tradition, mythic gods battling in the heavens, festive dancing, great wine, and the birthplace of democracy, it is no wonder Greece is a land of passionate people. The enthusiasm and zeal they show in expressing themselves is an art form in itself. top

An old beaten up couch sits outside of a home on the Greek island of Samos, near the border of Turkey. A typical start to dinner in a Greek restaurant - a paper tablecloth, a carafe of inexpensive red wine, a load of bread, and a view of the sea. Poppies grow on a hillside near the village of Manolates, Samos. Red pillars adorn the rooftop of a colorful building on the Greek island of Samos. A weathered window on the Greek island of Samos, near the border of Turkey. A weathered window on the Greek island of Samos, near the border of Turkey.

Chios, Greece

Family Reunion

michelleChios is our last destination in Greece. The island has a turbulent history riddled with invasions by pirates, Romans, Venitians, and Turks, as well as destructive earthquakes. It is a fascinating island with medieval towns, huge mansions from wealthy merchants and seafarers, beaches, and unique architecture. We plan to explore and tour the major attractions but this is not our main purpose in visiting.

Our main purpose is to join Bill Kotsatos' family (the groom) as they travel here after the wedding. Bill's father grew up in Chios but left at the age of sixteen for the United States. Forty-five years later he is returning with the company of his three sons, his wife, and his new daughter-in-law to reunite with friends and family and introduce his family to their heritage. We are just tagging along, honored to witness the reunion! top

Chatty Encounter

michelleOur hotel lies one block from the Chios main port and I decided to spend the final moments of evening light by the water. I found an empty bench on the walkway lining the harbor's edge. The water's surface was calm, still, and looked soft like velvet. Boats floated by, lights reflected off the water's surface, and local residents were out for an evening stroll. Parents pushed babies in strollers, lovers held hands, and friends conversed. People seemed to have no particular destination or time restraints - they were out to just enjoy the evening together. It gave me a wonderful feeling of community and that all was well in Chios.

Behind me cars and motorcycles zipped by on the street and a long row of cafes did a brisk business serving beer and coffee to customers at the outdoor tables. I watched as an old woman started to cross the busy street, hobbling with a cane. Her large plump body was easy to spot and the traffic stopped quickly, leaving plenty of space for her to cross. I chuckled when she paused in the middle of the street to shout a few cross words, wave her cane in the air, and wag her finger at the vehicles, as if to reprimand and warn them not to approach any closer. The growing long line of cars just waited patiently until she had hoisted her large body safely on to the curb before resuming their activity.

She turned my direction and when she approached, it was as if we had been good friends for a long time. Her entire face lit up and, despite all the empty space on the bench, she plopped down so close to me our hips touched. She grabbed my arm, squeezed it with affection, and began to rapidly speak in Greek. Not wanting to embarrass her, I meekly told her I only spoke English, hoping she understood. She paused to look at me carefully, studying my face and then with a comprehending nod responded, "Ah, English!" I smiled in relief thinking I was saved from an awkward situation.

But then she went right on speaking Greek! I tried to listen as words gushed from her mouth but I understood nothing - after all, it was all Greek to me. Eventually I just relaxed, watched her gestures and got the gist of her words. She pointed to passing boats, giving what sounded like a discourse on each one. She discussed the passers-by and grew particularly animated when babies passed. At one point, she paused long enough to fish in her large handbag and produce a piece of gum for me. I chewed happily with minty breathe as she continued to talk and explain an injury, pointing to her wrapped ankle and silver-tipped cane. Through it all I nodded frequently, content to be a listening ear.

After a while she gave my arm another affectionate squeeze, stood, and slowly began her next journey - to the next bench over. The sun had set by now and I headed back to my hotel in twilight, thankful for the chatty encounter. top

A Moment

bothWe traveled today with Bill (or Vasili as he is known in Greece) and his family to the village of his father's childhood. Rather than write about this ourselves, Bill was kind enough to write this excellent entry for us:


I stood watching from the shore beneath the afternoon sun, thinking how they must feel. Much time had passed since they said their good-byes. And a lot had taken place. Like two energetic kids without a care in the world, the men splashed and swam about the warm Northern Aegean water as I sat on one of the large black stones that blanketed the beach.

"Swim on out here, you chicken!" Stamatie exclaimed to my dad from the shore's far reaches.

"You better hope I don't" he replied. "If I get my hands on you, you're going under!" he said before cracking into laughter.

It was the first time I heard my dad called a chicken. And I was thrilled.

My dad told me countless childhood stories of he and his best friend, Stamatie, swimming in this very spot. The two grew up together in the rural Greek Island village that sat 1,000 meters above our heads, carved out from the rugged mountain side.

"The water is crystal clear which you can see to the bottom – even from the village" he would tell me as I lay in bed.

Stamatie then focused his attention to me, still on the rock, as I watched this momentous occasion unfold.

"Yasou Vasili!" he bellowed in a deep rich tone. "Get out here!" he added, cupping his mouth while staying afloat.

I made my way to the water. The black stones were smooth, pill-shaped and large enough to stand on. I couldn't stay on any particular rock for more than a few seconds as they retained the sun's heat quite well, scorching the bottoms of my feet. Each rock served as a springboard to the next, which led me to the refreshing placid water that had been calling my name for years.

"I was home" I thought to myself after diving beneath the surface and watching a school of fish swim by.

I came up gasping for air and saw dad and mom, now in the water's depths with Stamatie. Then I looked for my wife. I turned back towards shore and saw her, my unparalleled inspiration, swimming with Tim, another inspiration. A dear friend and cohort of inebriated mayhem of years past; Tim was an ever-evolving individual in search of his next adventure. His girlfriend Michelle, I learned, was cut from the same cloth.

Tim and Michelle were traveling the world. They quit their jobs, left all behind and would go on to inspire anyone who would ever read their exotic and captivating stories posted on their web site. Starting in Panama and continuing through the hidden worlds of Asia, they made their way to Greece joining Cecilia and I along with thirty-six other family members and friends from the States, for our wedding. The site of Cecilia and Tim swimming together, back dropped on the opal beach humbled me in the same manner as did the site of my dad and Stamatie picking up where they had left off forty-six years earlier.

Earlier that day I had rented a Jeep, which gave me a sense of security for what lay ahead. Tim secured the magnificently compact Fiat Panda, whose tires were as wide as a ten-speed bicycle. We left the town center and followed signs to the village, and started by climbing a series of treterous switchbacks that propelled us high over the town center, giving us a breathtaking view of the port and neighboring Turkey. The road had no guardrails to keep us from plummeting over its narrow path. The steep road kept us at a constant incline while our seats bore the brunt of our weight. With every hair pinned turn I met, I could feel my heart pound in sync with the revving engine. In the Jeep, we sat perched even higher from the road's surface. But I remained cool and toggled between first and second gears with a smooth clutch action allowing for a sweet symphony to emanate from the transmission below. I felt pretty good.

"You know, Vasili failed the maneuverability portion of his driver's test" mom said.

Silence fell on us all as she laughed out loud in a hearty tone, breaking the tension that she just had supplied.

The only person in the Jeep with me who didn't feel any fear was dad. On this very road which was once a dirt and stone path, he and his uncle would make the 10-hour trek to the town center by donkey to sell their harvests of olives, plumbs and lemons. Now things were in perspective and with one eye on the road and the other focused on the Panda in my rear view mirror, we continued up the mountainside to the village.

A lifetime of questions and events ran through my mind as we passed olive, fig, lime, and almond groves. I thought back to my childhood in a small Ohio, steel mill town. Most of Egrigoros' inhabitants immigrated there in the 1950's, after learning of the plethora of unskilled and highly paid steel-mill jobs. My great uncle Modestos led the wave. He first arrived, scouted the land, and sent back word for the rest to follow. It was a prosperous time filled with unheard possibilities for those who came from the village's dirt floor homes. In America they were able to buy land, fertile, unlike the rocky mountainside to which they were accustomed. They built homes with indoor plumbing, and garaged black topped driveways, which they filled with automobiles. This, along with every other hair-raising notion of what America offered, called them in droves.

When the recession of the 1980's hit, the small town felt its impact. The treat of Japanese steel crept into our sleepy hollow, forcing riotous union meetings, wildcat strikes and crippling work stoppages. All feared for the worst. Husbands were laid-off and wives sought work cleaning homes and ironing clothes. Slowly, the steel mills began to grind to a debilitating halt, which transcended to every immigrant's kitchen table.

"Times were tough," I thought to myself, but we somehow managed.

As we neared the village, we were greeted by kilometers of Sparta bushes lining the road. They were small bright yellow flowers whose intoxicating fragrance wanted to put me to sleep. They filled the air, setting the tone for that June afternoon. With Cecilia as my navigator, ever glued to a map, we passed a sign that read "Egrigoros, 2km."

"I never thought I'd ever see that," I said to my passengers, recalling my dream of visiting the place of my father's birth.

After our hour-and-a-half long vertical climb, we arrived in the village. Egrigoros was comprised of fifty or so small huddled homes, all of which were hand built of stone and mortar with terracotta and slate roofs. Some homes were built into the mountain itself. Others stood freely, tethered to poles by telephone, electrical, and clotheslines. There were no streets in the village, only cemented walking paths, which intimately wrapped around the houses connecting the families as one. We learned that less than six families live in the village year round. Each family, whose roots were planted in Egrigoros, still kept a home here. Most were in great condition as they served as summer retreats. Others still, were neglected and overgrown with fig trees, Sparta, and wild brush.

At the top of the village sat the olive oil factory, which I later learned was built by another uncle of mine who had operated it for the past 35-years. As we drove down the village's dirt road entrance and parked our cars, I saw a lone man standing at the far end.

He seemed tall and strong, and was lit by the descending sun. A coifed thick white cloud of hair hung over his stark black eyebrows. Then I saw his eyes, sheer blue in color, radiating warmth as they introduced themselves.

"Stamatie" I whispered to myself.

"Yasou Modestos!" he enthusiastically yelled out which seemed to have echoed throughout Egrigoros and on to the neighboring village.

"Yasou Stamatie!" dad replied, matching his excitement.

The men greeted one another like brothers. Their hands met for a much overdue handshake, which pulled them into each other's arms, laughing like the kids they were.

Everything at that moment seemed to move in a slow and subtle manner. I turned to Cecilia who could only smile watching the moment. My brothers were taken aback by Stamatie, as was I, who looked just as he did in the only photograph we had of him. It was taken the day dad left the village. Both teenagers were proudly dressed in suites, standing with arms on the other's shoulders. Much hadn't changed. Mom ran to Stamatie and embraced him with a loving hug. I then turned to Tim and Michelle who simply watched as the villagers came running out, welcoming us all to their home. top

A man shoulders a bag through the medieval village of Mesta, southwest Chios. The streets of this well-preserved historic village were purposefully built in a mazelike manner to confuse invaders, which makes a casual stroll as a tourist all the more interesting. The owner of a café in the medieval village of Mesta, southwest Chios, poses for a photo. We were not really that hungry when we arrived at the village, but his overwhelming hospitality convinced us to stay and eat lunch. Afterwards he gave us each a shot of a locally made liqueur produced from mastic, a chief product of the island. I can't say I warmed up to the taste - which was somewhere between pine and turpentine - but I was happy to try it.