Taking a Look

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Big, Fat Greek Disaster

Charlotte Bronte once said that life is so constructed that an event does not, cannot, and will not, match the expectation. For as much as I have studied the words of Miss Bronte over the past several years, I should have heeded her advice more carefully when I stepped off the ship in Athens, Greece. Then again, even if I had taken her wise words to heart, I should imagine that I would feel just as disappointed and frustrated as I feel now. For Greece, land of Olympian gods and mythological monsters, birthplace of democracy and free thinking, home of moussaka and gyros, has been thoroughly disenchanted.

Luckily, the wrath of Zeus did not descend upon me during my first day in Athens. Perhaps because I spent the day traveling back in time into an era where Zeus was still regarded as king of the gods instead of king of the postcards. The day began at the field where once stood Hadrian’s Arch and where now stands Hadrian’s Many Crumbling Columns and Large Chunks of Rock. This does not make what remains of the Arch any less impressive. Considering the Greeks constructed it 1,900 years ago I would say it’s holding up pretty well for its age. I have a feeling people won’t be paying five Euros to see my remains two millennia from now, so thumbs up to the Arch!

Fast forward about forty minutes, one gelato, and two aching feet later and there I am standing at the top of the ancient Athenian Acropolis. Most people assume that the Acropolis is the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athena that sits at the top of the rather daunting hill you must climb. This is false; the term “Acropolis” refers to all of the ancient sites found on and around the small mountain on which the Parthenon overlooks Athens. So, on the way up, you can exhaust your digital camera to your heart’s content with the Temple to Nike, the Altar of Athena, the Sanctuary of Zeus, and the Theatre of Dionysus.  Eventually, you reach the Parthenon itself, which sits sternly at the top of the hill. A soft, Greek breeze touches your cheek as it weaves through the craggy columns. You blink through the pillars and see half-walls and cracked arches. As the people around you fight for nonexistent shade, you take a moment to soak up the feel of the Parthenon, perhaps cast your mind back to a time when the temple not only stood fully intact, but was also ornately painted and decorated for some primitive festival to Athena. 

If you can manage to do all of that, I tip my fedora to you. Because I couldn’t.  Don’t call me a spoiled brat just yet, though, because I did enjoy the Parthenon. I enjoyed the entire Acropolis. I found it to be an inspiring testament to how not only architecture, but culture and creativity, can last long after the creator is gone. It reminded me of the power of stories, which immortalize the storyteller as long as the tale keeps being told. The Parthenon is one epic story, keeping alive the history of ancient Greek religion, politics, and social studies. The problem is that all the chapters in this story are scattered about the world. As mighty as the Parthenon is, only about a third of the structure that currently watches over Greece’s capital is part of the original temple. A second third is housed in the Acropolis Museum, an impressive architectural feat all on its own, and the final third (mainly statues, sculptures, and archways) sit in the British Museum in London. Oopsie. Bearing this knowledge in mind, plus having to angle your camera around an entire wall of scaffolding while keeping your feet from wandering past the velvet ropes, makes it difficult to fully appreciate the Parthenon in its intended glory.  Like listening to every other word of a great speech. Or going to a baseball game that only plays two innings.

The Arch, the Acropolis, and the Museum, touristy though they may be, are well worth the trip to Athens. They do require a full day’s efforts, though. But as I rested my head in the back of a suspiciously creaky Greek taxi, listening to Lady GaGa’s “Judas” drift back to me from the radio, I found that our trip to Athens had been well worth it. Although apparently we just missed Hilary Clinton speaking at the Acropolis Museum. What the hell are you doing in Greece, Hilary? Their economy is worse than ours. Jeez.

SPEAKING OF the Greek economy, allow me a moment to enlighten you on the subject. I have no clue if word has reached the States or not, but it’s all anyone can talk about on this continent; the Greek economy is at an all time low. Some forty percent of the Greek people are unemployed, and the government is being accused of all sorts of corruption. The Greek people have spent the last several months rioting, protesting, and striking in order to get the government’s attention. Since members of the European Union have been hesitant to help Greece because of the severity of the situation, all hope of climbing out of this despair rests on the Greek Parliament. The citizens of Greece have felt ignored by Parliament, however, and the tension was mounting to a peak during the five days our little floating campus spent there. And we certainly felt the effects of the economic crisis first hand.

On Monday, our second day in Greece, the taxi companies organized a three day strike. To make their statement bolder, they proceeded to block in all of the buses the night before, effectively eliminating two major forms of transportation. As luck would have it (for them, not us) the metro system was down. There is still some confusion amongst the shipboard community as to whether or not the metro workers were striking, or if there were construction issues. Either way, it was day two in Athens and there was no way to get into, out of, or around all the major sites. 

Option B: the Greek islands. We were all going to do it up Mamma Mia style. Yeah, that worked out real well. My plan was to head to Mykonos and stay there for two days, then head back for my SAS sponsored trip to Olympia. One of my friends agreed to accompany me, but she was reluctant to take the early ferry on Monday morning, so I agreed to wait. Little did I know, the only other ferry running to Mykonos that day was at 5:45 pm. It takes four to five hours to get from Athens to Mykonos. So I twiddled my fingers for a day and schlepped through the giant port in Piraeus until I found the minuscule booth where I could purchase the ridiculously expensive one way ticket to the island.

So, right on schedule, we arrive at Mykonos around 10:00 pm, and that’s when it becomes public knowledge that oh hey, we don’t have hotel reservations. Fortunately for us, a swarm of pesky hostel owners waving Xeroxed pictures of their accommodations pasted on colored paper, descended upon us. Great! We can trust our lives to a total stranger, get cozy in the back of their trucks, and maybe donate an organ or two if we’re lucky. 

One woman emerged as being semi-presentable and not quite as shifty as the “hotel manager” who kept looking over his shoulder when the port police walked by. This woman assured my friend and I that she could provide us with a room that had a gorgeous view of the island, was close to town, and would be exactly what we paid for. Well, off we went. But not before picking up a pale, lanky Belgian couple that constantly kept their hands intertwined to accompany us. Oh how I love making new friends.

The first sign that this woman was lying came when she turned out of the port and started driving in the opposite direction of town. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt because, in her defense, there are technically two small towns on each side of Mykonos, so I just assumed we would be headed towards the other side. Well, we ended up at neither side. Her “hotel” was really just her house, smack dab in the middle of the island. I couldn’t even see downtown Mykonos from the balcony. The only other person we encountered as we jerked our way up the dirt road to her cottage was an old woman walking down the slope barefoot and carrying an empty grocery bag. And the island had just experienced a total black out. 

Where the hell was I?

It might have ended up being an exciting adventure, and something to laugh about later, if it weren’t for all of the logistical problems that arose. For one thing, if we went into town to go out at night, how the hell were we going to get back? There are less than thirty taxis that patrol the entire island of Mykonos, and most will not take you anywhere unless you have a full party. This did not bode well for our dynamic duo situation. We attempted to get in touch with a friend of ours who had offered to let us crash in their hotel room prior to Greece, but the reception on the Skype call didn’t go through, and my phone refused to send a text message, so that was a bust and a half.

Eventually we sucked it up and asked if the woman would not mind if we stayed somewhere else. She was kind enough to return us to the port, where we could catch the bus. Enter unsettling and jaunting revelation number two: we did not have enough Euros for the bus. And how far is the port from the town, you ask? Why, it’s a forty minute walk, my dears. How do I know this? Because I walked it.

In retrospect, walking into town was an idiotic move on my part. At this point, it was close to midnight, if not already past, and all of the hostels, motels, and hotels were booked for the evening. People kept telling us that reservations for the evening were always taken in the morning. SHOCKING. If only we had taken the morning ferry…

After the hotel quest proved fruitless, we hit the ATM and got in line for the taxi service. Sucking it up and returning to the woman’s house was better than nothing, right? After we begged her to let us stay the night, we could organize a new plan of action in the morning, hopefully find our friends, and get this Mykonos trip back to a functional level. But! (que drum roll) unsettling and jaunting revelation number three stole the show! I had to be back for my trip to Olympia on Wednesday morning, which meant we would have to leave Mykonos tomorrow (meaning Tuesday) afternoon so that I could get back. AWESOME.

An hour and a half later we secured a taxi (out of nowhere, the Belgian couple showed up and shared it with us) and returned to the woman’s house.  The Belgian couple snaked up to their room the minute we got dropped off, and my friend and I swallowed our pride and started knocking on the darkened door of what we were sure was our hostess’s room. No answer. We tried another door. No answer. We called her from the number she provided. No answer. We called her cell. No answer. We didn’t even hearing ringing from inside the house. You could imagine how I must have been beaming with joy at this moment, right?

The only thing left to do was to walk back into town and pray that we could find somewhere with a spare room. As we took the walk back into Mykonos I kept thinking that all we needed was a donkey and then our own little Christmas pageant would be complete. 

But I guess that story can only happen once in the course of history, because we did not end up staying in a stable that night. Around three in the morning (or perhaps it was closer to four) we wandered into a hotel lobby and practically collapsed at the front desk as we pleaded for a room. Zeus was feeling grateful, and something was available. I looked at my friend with what I imagined were bloodshot eyes and she looked right into them and said “I’m not comfortable paying for half of this room.”

Explosion. Credit card. Bill. Key. Shower. Bed. Out.


Things always appear better in the morning. So they say. I call bullshit. If anything, things appear much, much worse in the morning. “Oh my God, why did I do that?” “What the hell was I thinking?” “Did that honestly happen? Ugh.” 

In order to keep up the continuity of all events on Mykonos, we slept through checkout. Naturally, right? The angels had entered our story, however, because the staff didn’t charge us extra, and they kept breakfast waiting. I would imagine it was out of pity rather than hospitality, but I’ve never had a better plate of scrambled eggs in my life. We returned to Athens on the two o’clock ferry and declared that we would put this episode behind us and salvage whatever we could of Greece. 

That plan did not match up with the Greek’s plan however. Because the strikes continued, and this time the ferries joined the ranks. Uh. Oh. No buses, no taxis, no metro, no ferries. No will to continue on in Greece. No trip. And at some point in there I got sick and threw up for two hours in our closet-bathroom.  But at that point, it was practically expected. I recall having a moment, in between hurls, where I thought “Oh, right, this is what happens at this point.”

I will say this for Greece: I applaud it for having an English speaking theater that allowed me to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and successfully complete my childhood. I could spend an entire post paying homage to the series and how it has affected my life and holds the specialist, most sincerest (words?) part of my heart and how I laughed and cried and clapped and hugged it all out during the credits, but I won’t bore anyone with such nonsense. Just this: Harry Potter may be over, but it will never end.

By the grace of God, Greece, on the other hand, did end. When I have enough distance from the country and from the experience, I will probably look back and laugh at everything that happened. Until then, Greece can keep its beheaded statues and gun-wielding protesters, its striking transportation workers and creepy hostel matrons, and its unfriendly people and rude shop owners (be forewarned, Greeks HATE Americans). 

Though I have no desire to think or speak of Greece for the next several months, I can’t help but wonder how it would have gone if I did not have any expectations for it. Greece was “Greece,” you know? I feel that I could not help but form expectations on that silly little notion alone. But, if I have learned anything since December of last year, it’s that I must stop having expectations, because inevitably, I shall end up disappointed. I can’t expect to visit seven countries in a row and enjoy all of them, because each place is completely different than the last. I can’t expect those I care about at home to fully understand how much this experience means to me, because they are not me. Likewise, I can’t expect my friends here on the ship to fully understand why I do not want to return home in August, because they didn’t know me in December and February and, luckily, in March. 

There are all sorts of horrible expectations out there that we all fall prey to, these giant Greeces that we assume will turn out exactly how we envision them. But the sad truth of the matter is, the more you expect, the more you stand to lose. You can’t expect me to relay every detail of this summer to you, because how could I? I can’t expect you want to know every detail of this summer, because how could you? 

You can’t expect a voyage to heal all the hurt that you carry, because in reality it’s “out of sight, out of mind” coming into play, and nothing more. You can’t expect the man who once treated you with respect to always do so, because you are more easily replaced than you thought. You can’t expect those around you to fulfill the promises they once made, because even deans are capable of lying. You can’t expect people to sympathize with your disappointment, because it’s your own damn fault you didn’t make the best of the situation. You can’t expect to truly escape, because man has placed the world in his pocket, and there is no where left to run.

You can’t expect to look in the mirror and smile, when it’s all you can do to look at all.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world—that is the myth of the atomic age—as in being able to remake ourselves”—Gandhi

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this, Craiggers. Keep it coming.