Big fat Greek surprises
In spite of the profoundly dulled senses that come as a result of a day of international travel, Greece takes hold of you the very moment you arrive at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport.
The airport, just about 20 kilometers above the sprawling megalopolis of Athens, opened on March 29, 2001, and it is named for a freedom fighter, revolutionary, statesman and charismatic leader from the early 1900s, who died in 1936.
I had the honor of visiting a monument in his honor near his hometown in Therisos gorge near Chania in Crete on January 7, and his gravesite memorial in Akrotiri, which is also near Chania, the next day.
This was my first trip to Greece… I traveled to Greece with a group of McDaniel College students and faculty members. It was more of an academic experience as opposed to a vacation, if you will.
Nevertheless, this article and several more that I researched and pre-wrote while in Greece should not be considered reporting – or the profile of a country – but rather a collection of thoughts and vignettes that lie more in the tradition of a travelogue.
After a few days in Greece, one is struck with a number of surprising observations; nothing profound – some amusing and some mundane. However, there were quite a few things about Greece that I did not expect.
I was struck immediately by how huge Athens is. Although I really had no idea what to expect, I must admit that I did not expect an urban area of over four million people spread out over an area more than 159 square miles.
A U.S. State Department official told me that Athens is the fourth largest city in Europe. And my concept of “old” has now been redefined. You think Frederick (MD) is an old city. Try dating Athens back to approximately the 11th millennium B.C.; or how about having a recorded history that dates back 7,000 years.
The list of surprises, in no particular order, also includes: Turkish toilets, (french) fried potatoes, and the use of marble as a building material everywhere, including sidewalks and entire streets.
Add to the list large numbers of stray dogs and cats, huge presence of cigarettes and smoking, graffiti, disheveled infrastructure, and large inventory of abandoned and/or unfinished buildings.
To read the popular media, public sector employment in Greece is disproportionately high; however, I was surprised by the large number of shops and restaurants. In a State Department briefing by an economist from the Greek desk, it was reported that the country has a disproportionately large number of self-employed business owners.
Not to be overlooked was a subtle but persistent underlying undercurrent of tension, especially in Athens. This was primarily evidenced by the number of police officers that scurried around town on scooters, and the number of paramilitary officers who could be found at street corners with body armor, riot shields, gas masks, and automatic weapons. Hmmm, this is really not a familiar sight in central Maryland.
From what little opportunity I had to observe these officers, they appeared quite well trained, competent, and professional. Please understand this observation in the context that one criticism of the Greek economy is the large amount of its GDP the country spends on national defense.
This can come as a surprise unless you are aware of the centuries of conflict Greece has had with its neighbors, especially Turkey. Among those who know, the Greek military has a very good reputation.
Laugh out loud, “Where do Greeks park their cars?” It certainly appears that Greeks park anywhere they want – cars are strewn across the urban landscape, on the sidewalk, double-parked in the street, in the most madcap haphazard, if not humorous, manner.
One of the very first meals I had in Greece included, I kid you not, french fries. When one thinks of storied accounts of exquisite Greek foods, french fries, or ‘fried potatoes,’ as they are called in Greece, was not one of the images that came to mind. By the way, they are usually quite delicious. They seemed to come with every meal, whether they were ordered or not.
It seems at first glance that a high percentage of Greeks smoke, much more than Americans. And where does a Greek smoke? Anywhere they want. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only do Greeks smoke in restaurants, but also upon one visit to an out-of-the-way neighborhood Greek restaurant, a very nice waiter approached our table to take our order, with a cigarette dangling from his hand. It was too funny.
It may be argued that Greece is the artistic and cultural capital of the western world. That said, what’s with all the graffiti? It is everywhere – on buildings, churches, bridges, walls, the sidewalk and yes, on ancient historic structures and artifacts.
Maybe, in spite of the fabled Greek sense of independence, lawlessness, and freedom, they might consider enacting a seven-day waiting period on the purchase of a can of spray paint – or outlaw it all together. Yeah, I know; it’s not the can of spray paint that is committing the crime… Whatever…
What was not surprising was how friendly and accommodating the Greeks were that I encountered on the trip. Signage and menus were printed in several languages including, almost always, in English. Many Greeks speak just enough English that getting around and ordering food was not overwhelmingly difficult. The Greeks seem to take a great deal of pride in their food and their customer service.
For those of us who are history junkies, nothing may compare with seeing the juxtaposition of 5,000-year-old structures alongside all the trappings of life in the 21st Century. It is nothing short of amazingly wonderful.
. . . . .I’m just saying. . . . .