Greece Spa for American Spirits celebrates the healing affect of time well-spent surrounded by the Aegean Sea.
A prescription for America malaise…? Time in Greece…
Getting away from millennials lost in their smart phones, tourists moving so slowly you think they may have stopped and the filth of the subways improves your mood, all by itself. You fly home, fit and optimistic.
But I think I’d feel the same way about Greece, even if I never met Elena Kountoura, super model turned politician and, now, top cheerleader for her nation’s tourism.
After the turmoils at home, spend a week in Greece. It’s the best medicine for any American.
A Taste of Being Greek
Love for spanakopita was about as far as my curiosity about Greece took me, but a chance to see, touch and taste Greece suddenly turned up.
American kids learn the names, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Socrates is a quirky hero of mine. But these men are long dead, and the nation continued through history.
Anthony Quinn played Zorba, dancing on a Cretan beach with Alan Bates. That’s closer to my history but still a half-century in the past.
Today’s Greece must be different, and I was far from sure about what to expect. Recent news was not bright for the nation that gave us democracy and humanist art.
I expected a country struggling with basic needs, unkempt streets, utilities unreliable and angry frustration bubbling beneath the surface.
As the U.S. news media narrative spilled out, I also expected crowds of homeless refugees, overloaded boats navigating the Mediterranean and protestors pushing back.
Not what you expect: Greece is a spa for American Spirits
I saw none of that.
We passed delicious hours in Rhodes and Kos, as close as you can get to Asia Minor without entering Turkey, and on the Aegean Sea. I saw mostly a paradise, updated, much like what Homer described in the Odyssey.
Greeks, as Elena Kountoura told us, are passionate. That’s not a simple cliche. It’s something my friends and I saw every day.
And something else that doesn’t get noticed enough: Greeks have great senses of humor.
Even the politicians are funny.
George Hatzimarkos, Governor of the South Aegean Region, shared comic anecdotes from dealing with New York as a visitor. And lunch with Dimitris Tryfonopoulos, from the Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism, was sprinkled toasts of “Yamas!”
“Yamas!” means “Cheers!”)
The Greek financial crisis is still close to the surface.
Relaxing in Rhodes’s Old Town, I saw a man leave a bank, talking to himself. When I bought handmade glass as a gift at a family shop, the owner who described the frustration, watching his middle class lifestyle diminish without any solution in sight.
Come to think of it, that sounded soft of American…
But the difference is that the Greeks I met, however dismayed with where governments stranded them, were not angry at each other. They are well-informed about how their economic troubles developed and are hope for a political solution, sooner than later.
They aren’t even mad at Germany or the European Union, the usual bad guys in the media narrative.
In short, unlike an increasing element back home, Greece is ot a victim culture or one preoccupied with assigning blame.
Yes, You Can Trust Greeks Bearing Gifts
Accidentally discovered honesty of everyday Greeks helped make Greece a Spa for American Spirits. Even a long economic slump failed to make them dishonest.
We had two examples.
Shopping in the beautiful seaside town of Lindos, my friend Jan bought a caftan from one of local shops enlivening the narrow, ancient streets. Shortly after rejoining our group as we prepared to pull out, she got a Facebook message.
The shopkeeper discovered that she overcharged Jan, ringing her up for two outfits instead of one. The shopkeeper searched for Jan on the internet and sent her a message offering to correct her mistake.
There are places in the world where this wouldn’t happen in a million years.
Greece spa for America spirits: more integrity
Two days later, returning to Rhodes by ferry, my friend Daniel discovered his smart phone missing. Inside it were personal and valuable items.
While we guessed at where he may have lost it, one of our guides checked the ferry operator. Sure enough, his phone was recovered by another passenger and turned in.
Neither story is, we weren’t tourists leaving Greece in a few days with nothing bad to balance against them.
Tourists get ripped off all the time. In some places, it’s part of the local economy. Greeks don’t operate that way, not in our experience anyway.
Greece Spa for American Spirits: Blurring the Racial Lines
Genetic research shows us that the idea is nonsense, but race defines and divides us in America. It’s constantly reinforced in the media, but segregating people by skin color makes no more sense than doing it according to eye or hair color. These are trivial differences among people, but the system won’t let them go.
Worse yet, many defined as “black” are lighter skinned that others defined as “white,” but the divisive distinctions continue. They poison social awareness and fuel bigotry.
In Greece, these distinctions don’t exist in the same visceral way.
The nation’s been ruled by many invading forces. Each left a cultural stamp, and out of that evolved cultural unity.
98% of churchgoers, for example, are Greek Orthodox. And the racist and xenophobic New Dawn Party gets only six to seven percent of the vote in national elections.
Not a completely smooth social fabric but not as torn by conflicts as the U.S. Greeks may not notice it, but the contrast for me was as refreshing as a dip in the Aegean Sea.
What I didn’t see in Rhodes…
Walking through a crowded shopping zone in Old Town Rhodes, I spotted my friends Daniel and Kinya at a distance. They were easy to see because they were the only really dark skinned people in the tourist crowd. I noticed, but no one else did.
No heads turned or looked away. They were just two beautiful people blending with the crowds.
It was a relief to let go of the constant awareness of race infecting us like a virus at home
Food and Drink
Wherever we went, our group was frequently ten or more hungry travelers, and we reveled in the shared food tradition that turns meals into low key parties. It’s meze in Turkey and tapas in Spain, and it’s the most pleasant way to dine anywhere.
The Mediterranean fare in Greece, at least everywhere we went, including open air dining on small, quiet islands and gourmet style at the Rodos Palace, was more diverse than the Italian or Spanish offerings I’ve discovered while traveling.
Each meal starts with a fresh Greek salad topped with a block of feta. From that tone-setting accent comes shared plates of squid, octopus, eggplant, risotto and such before it’s all topped off with a plate of fish not long out of the sea. The main course can be other options, but our group’s food preferences ruled out red meats and lamb.
Two other treats accompanied every meal. Drinks, most often local wines, were plentiful and enhanced the other treat: conversation.
Eating together reminded me of family meals from my childhood, seven of us sharing great food, all talking at once, all appreciating and enjoying each other. It made me wish each one would never end, and the Greek love of life often gave me hope that they might not.
Natural Beauty: Greece Spa for American Spirits
Living in New York City, I see the East River just below my window. Even on a bright day, it’s brownish. Often, there are white suds and dirty foam. Riprap stones disappear at about one foot.
Part of the East River’s problem is that it isn’t really a river. It’s a tidal estuary that reverses directions, velocity controlled by the moon. Because it has no true inlet or outlet, it never flushes clean.
Centuries of waste deposited in the estuary stayed there, some decaying, some not. Although the city claims it happens only during extreme weather, I watch raw sewage pouring into the water from outlets under the ritzy Upper East Side on sunny days.
A Seinfeld episode had Kramer jumping in the East River, and endurance swimmers race circuits around Manhattan. But the idea of jumping in or drinking it is disgusting.
I did both in Aegean Sea.
The water so clear you see the bottom twenty feet below, I jumped into the cool sea in a hidden cove on a nameless island under an unbroken sky.
It never rains in the South Aegean in the summer, so there’s no fear of being stuck inside waiting for the weather to clear. It’s always fair and warm.
On land inside the cove there were several abandoned, deteriorating buildings, including a church with some lasting altarpieces. The fashionistas took photos for Instagram, and others just enjoyed the water.
My instincts got me thinking about how attractive a small, private resort might be here. Quiet and beautiful, visitors enjoy a perfect retreat.
Imagine waking up every morning, sun sparkling the sea, blue hills like dreams in the distance…
Sailing the Aegean was like a day spent in a Greek spa for American spirits, one set aside for nothing else.
The Thing About Rules
I saved maybe the best and most surprising observation for last.
“Tell them we don’t have so many rules,” George Hatzimarkos, the South Aegean Governor told me, answering a question about the best things Greece had to offer.
He was smoking a small cigar at the time.
As a nonsmoker who appreciates rules that keep smokers from exhaling on my food in restaurants, I reacted negatively at first, but on further observation, something more subtle and contrasting between our cultures came to me.
In the U. S., we are used to seeing “No Smoking” signs everywhere, and yet, I see more smoking in New York than I saw in Greece. And that goes for other things too.
“Seats Reserved for the Elderly and Handicapped” are routinely ignored on our local buses.
I remember asking one young man, seated in precisely such a seat, to get up so that a man standing in front of him with a cane could sit. The irritated young man responded, “He doesn’t want to.”
None of those signs ever had an “if they want to” clause, and the idea is not to embarrass anyone into asking for a seat but to just get up and make it available, no questions asked.
It’s something we’ve lost in America, the common courtesies that my generation grew up with, and after visiting Greece, I can’t help wondering if all the nanny state rules and signs telling everyone what to do haven’t stripped us of personal responsibility for being kind and considerate.
Why does anyone need to be told to respect the rights of others or to assist the needy?
Don’t they just know anymore?
The plethora of don’t do this and don’t do that signs all over the U.S. suggests many of us need reminders, or have we just abandoned voluntary courtesy because our government tells us when and where?
The differences were clear to Governor Hatzimarkos from his trips to New York, his awareness of inhibiting rules and their overbearing presence. Back home, he was able t make it funny.
It will take more thought from social scientists to explain why Greeks don’t seem to need to be told what do to as we assume Americans must, but the effect, once you start watching, is impressive. Greeks show each other consideration, at least as much and, in my experience, more than Americans do, without needing fines for impolite behavior to inspire them.
I could write more about the personable shopkeepers, the dogs, goats and cats running free or the pride of the people, but you can see that for yourself. If a visit in the high season is too much for your budget, you can get all the pleasures, except swimming, from November to March, at around half the price. Temperatures are in the upper 50s then, and it never snows.
What are you waiting for? So many of us are fatigued and frustrated by what’s been made of public respect in the past year. Sharp edges are breaking through as tipping points after years of frustration.
Conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter. You will feel better for having immersed yourself in Greece. You’ll feel more human again.
And you just might learn some valuable lessons, too, about how to make a culture work and to live in peace.