It’s All Greek To Me

  • Author: Dolora Dossi
  • Date: Oct 10, 2013
  • Location: Athens

 

Ever since I was little, from the time I read about the Greek gods and goddesses, the myths explaining the constellations, and the stories about the heroes Heracles, Odysseus, and Perseus, there was just something about Greece that beckoned. Maybe the remnants of the Siren’s call luring foreigners to her shores. My first recollection of Greece was from the SRA (scholastic reading achievement?) lab at St. Martin’s Elementary School in San Jose. Around the second grade, students hone their reading skills through a series of color-coded packets exploring a variety of topics. I loved SRA and climbing up the colors to the pinnacle, gold. I still remember the stories about Cassiopeia and Orion’s belt.

 

My English degree included mythology classes reconnecting me with the stories of the Titans and Olympians. Then I decided to include a Psychology degree after taking George Jackson’s Myths, Dreams, and Symbols class at Sonoma State. My doctorate degree is from Meridian University whose name used to be the Institute of Imaginal Studies. Meridian’s tenet is restoring psyche (the Greek word for soul) to the practice of psychology. While there, we became well versed in the ancient world of the Greek myths. The school even offered 2-week trips to Greece that included pilgrimages to holy sites and ancient ruins. I wanted to go, but the cost and Liam being so little prevented my joining some friends who went one year.

 

Most people get a moony look in their eyes when you mention wanting to go to Greece. It’s a place that people yearn to visit. And here we are. We have spent a week here. Our journey began on a Ryan Air flight out of Rome in the darkness. The woman who owned our apartment in the Jewish Ghetto advised us to secure her driver, Francesca for our early morning journey to Rome’s other airport, Ciampino. We aren’t the hire drivers type, but a bird in the hand with an Italian willing to make the call and arrange the whole thing for us turned us into that type on the spot. We took a local route through tiny lanes along the old Appian Way as the working class of Rome began waking.

 

Ryan Air was grounded due to fog, so we amused ourselves in a variety of ways for a few hours waiting for some sign that flights would resume. Up in the air, I bade farewell to my lovely Italy and wondered about balmy, dreamy, mythic Greece. We landed on the island of Crete. Crete! Come on. Crete is so ancient. Zeus was hidden here from his father Chronos. We took a big bus to a seaside town, Chania (Ha-knee-ah). The bus station in Chania is in the modern, upper town. It was bustling, with bus drivers barking out destinations and people scrambling to buy tickets and get information. This was hardly sleepy, white washed Greece.

 

We walked to lower Chania, the old Venetian stronghold, along a path littered with graffiti and hastily built cement buildings circa 1960-something. We arrived on a cobbled street with many pensions advertising “Rooms to let.” Many of these places, with names like Hera’s, were unmanned, but there were handwritten notes letting patrons know that there were rooms and to take the key and look for yourself. Everything was left open. I later read that Crete holds honor above any other attribute. It showed in the trust people had that you would pay your bill or return a key or leave things the way you found them. Somehow, we were led to a pension, Nora’s, run by a Scottish woman, Natalie, who moved to Chania after seeing it on TV and falling in love. Our room was in a 14th century Venetian building at the top of a bright blue, winding staircase. Our windows looked out to the Mediterranean and the Venetian wall built to protect the territory from both the sea and invaders. The lower town was a hodge-podge of Venetian, Turkish, and modern design, partly torn down, partly restored. Maybe if I hadn’t spent the last 5 weeks in Italy, I would have found this town even more charming and lovely. But to me, lower Chania felt like a town built for tourists, somewhat like the fake towns that cruise lines build where their giant ships dock, like Sitka, Alaska.

 

All the workers and shopkeepers are Greek. All the patrons are European, Australian, or American. Wherever you went to eat, you heard this mélange of languages. It was hard to get a feel for Greece or its culture when in the midst of this swell of travelers. Is Crete the ramshackle upper town, with garbage and empty storefronts? Was it this colored mini-Venice down below? I know what it wasn’t; it was not the mythical place of my imagination.

 

The next day was sunny. We got a tip to walk to a far beach about 30 minutes down the road. We made our way there, past little tavernas offering tourist menus, dogs and cats with no discernible owners, until we found a rugged beach with no people on it. There was one older woman in a protected area, so we decided to go into the water there. The water was neither cold nor warm. The old woman motioned to Liam, speaking in Greek, and he had no idea what she wanted. From where I was in the water, I could ascertain that she needed help getting out of the surf. He went to her and offered his arm. What a sight to see Liam helping this old woman, probably taking her daily, therapeutic dip in her hometown sea, hobble out of the water. A fish bit Jim. We moved on until we came to the end of the cove.

 

We purchased a grass umbrella and two lounge chairs for 5euro. That was money well spent. The skies were dappled with puffy clouds, the waters were clear (and fishless), the day was warm. Could this be Greece? I went for a swim across the cove, but the waters were more turbulent then their glossy appearance, and I got a little seasick. We spent the day reading, snoozing, and playing. It was a good day of rest after our whirlwind of Rome and traveling.

 

Our first Greek meal was at a taverna in lower Chania, Tamam’s. The plates of food were beautiful and rich—dolmas with some sour cream dipping sauce, tzatziki, homemade bread, olives, green olive oil, Greek salads. We stuffed ourselves with the bread dipped in the oil. Crete is famous for its delicious oil. Natives take their olive oil with them when they travel. At the end of the meal, it is their custom to bring a soft, coconut cake and a small carafe of raki, a digestive made from grape leaves. They brought 3 glasses and encouraged Liam to have some. It was burning strong, but surprisingly tasty.

We rented a car to explore the ancient ruins of this island. Instead, Jim and Liam spied a miniature golf/go-cart place. We stopped and they went 15 minutes around a course. Liam looked like he was Mario Andretti in a Formula 1—heaven. We played golf on a decrepit, yet challenging little course. Just normal life. Our sojourn took us up steep mountain passes, the terrain filled with olive trees. The interior of Crete looks a bit like Priest Grade outside of Groveland. We stopped at an olive farm for fresh-squeezed orange juice, a drink that is found everywhere. Lots of oranges grown here. We mainly meandered through the back roads of Crete, sometimes deep in the mountains, sometimes near the sea. The day was cloudy. This does not look like Greece.

 

Crete has a long-suffering past. It has been invaded throughout its history. First by Zeus, the main god of the Olympians, whose mother, Rhea, hid him there to protect him from his father, Chronos, who had a habit of eating all of his children to try to outwit his fate of being supplanted by one of his own. Then came the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, Dorians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Genoese, Venetians, Turks, British, and Germans.  Throughout all of this, the Cretans have remained a unique people in Greece with their own folk culture. Their resilience is amazing. And now they are facing another attacker, the horrible economy. We went to their open market, giddy with all the tastes of mountain cheeses, fresh yogurt with honey drizzled on top, samples of raki blended with honey and cinnamon, and the olives—too many varieties to find out their names. This seemed to be a Cretan scene. I wished I ate meat so that I could sample the lamb kebobs an elder gentleman was grilling over a makeshift barbeque. Women were selling clothes heaped in piles on a table. Shoes were equally heaped with no discerning matched sets. Things here were cheap, not just priced, but made that way too.

 

In spite of its incredible gentility and hospitality, it’s devotion to honor, it’s ability to reclaim itself even after the most intrusive invaders of all, the tourists, we are ready to leave Crete. But first we take a bus ride along the sea and through some steep mountains, around some hair raising narrow bends until we arrive in the sprawling port town of Heraklion. The guidebooks say to go to the archeological museum and then head out. We are here to catch a ferry to another industrial port town, Pireaus, near Athens. We have just enough time to catch a local bus to Knossos, the Minoan capital. It is here that King Minos lived and where the Minotaur was confined in the labyrinth. That just seems really old, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, a British archeologist decided to reconstruct and paint some of the temples and palace and it looks weird. We realize that the ancients painted their temples with elaborate designs and bright colors, but purists insist that ruins should remain as found. I agree. The affect here at Knossos gives the impression that everything is fake. Instead of being in awe that this place housed some of ancient Greek’s incredible mythic subjects, we felt a little uninspired. I am sorry that we didn’t have time to visit the museum in Heraklion where the treasures from Knossos now reside.

 

We boarded our extremely large ferry hours before it was due to set sail. At first, we were giddy with delight at the prospect of being on a semi-cruise ship together. It boasted of a pool, hot tub, casino, kid’s corner, restaurants, shops, disco. All that was in operation was a cafeteria. I guess leaving the dock at 9:30pm for an overnight to the port serving Athens doesn’t rate high enough to bother staffing those amenities. The pool was actually empty with a net over it.

 

Still, we were excited to have a cabin with two sets of bunk beds and our own bathroom. Hey, this is luxury. We’ve come a long way from our Vienna to Venice train ride! We had a somewhat yucky dinner in the cafeteria and watched out the window as the ship left the dock. Liam and I immediately felt motion sickness and decided to go back to our cabin post haste with hopes that we would quickly fall asleep. All night I was aware of the rolling and rocking and the strange buckling and grumbling noises that the ship made. I knew we would be getting a wake-up call at 6 to disembark. So this is Greece, in the bowels of a big ferry, bleary eyed and cold, going from one grimy port town to the next.

 

Part II to follow…

 

4 Comments

  1. Allen

    “a fish bit jim”…..

  2. Shannon

    Question to LiaM:

    Hi Liam,

    1. If you could change one thing about the places you have been, what would it be? It could be a specific thing about an individual place or could be something that would change in every place you’ve seen.

    2. What is it like being around your parents 24/7?

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      In Italy I would say less dog poo its everywhere.In Crete Hmmm… I don’t know maybe less Germans.In Peloponnese nothing!! In Athens less smog.fROM The top of the Acropolis theres smog everywhere.

      It depends sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re dull, sometimes they’re just flat out weird but I guess it’s not bad!

  3. Susan Day

    I loved SRA too — independently making my way through all those wonderful stories!! And I love reading your way of expressing/describing the experiences you are having. Please keep writing and writing and writing more!

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