Friday, June 29, 2007

Goodbye Ellada

[VACATION] Been gone from Salt Lake for 29 days now. We leave Athens tomorrow, June 30, at mid-day, return to Salt Lake around 10 o’clock the same night after about 17 hours of travel and a 9 hour time change. That should be enough to keep us rattled for awhile. So, this will be my last blog from Greece. But, I’ll likely add some things about this trip once I get home.

I don’t know much about blogging except that I probably violated every unwritten blogging rule on this trip. I didn’t blog often. I didn’t blog short. I didn’t link to lots of other blogs. I just wrote. I didn’t blog short nor often because on this trip I went days without decent Internet, or even any Internet at all. So things piled up. Short ideas became long pieces. My bad. But in the end, much of what needed to be recorded was recorded. So that’s OK.

I’ll try to keep this one short, though as right now I’m on a ferry to Athens, somehwhere in the Aegean Sea with a large island to my right. I don’t have the energy right now to ask which one. We left the island of Tinos today at 3 and it’s four-and-a-half hours by this type of ferry to Athens. We’re on the Blue Star Ithaki, the third time we’ve landed on this particular ship on this trip. We were on Tinos for four days and prior to that, it was three days on Syros.

Each island of the Cyclades has its own personality. On prior years I’ve stayed on Santorini, Sifnos, Paros and Naxos. I’ve visted Mykonos and Delos. So this trip we tried something totally different and chose two islands that few Americans visit. Syros is only half the size of Tinos but has 35,000 full time residents, while Tinos has only 8,000. Syros has a large Greek Catholic population, as does Tinos to a lesser degree (of 750 some odd churches on Tinos, over 200 are Catholic). Syros also boasts a fine mid-size town in Ermopoulis, once the shipping hub for all of Greece. It remains the administrative head of all the Cycladic islands.

Somewhere along the way, Syros developed its own robust economy so it barely goes out of its way to attract tourists. Thus, a visitor there is met by a Greece that time forgot—a polite one, a structured one, a well-planned one, and one thoroughly Greek. The vast majority of the tourists to Syros are Greek, mostly well-to-do apparently, and nearly all in search of the perfect batch of Loukoumi sweets for which the island is noted. On Syros, you can start to glimpse a piece of Greek society far removed from the flea markets and coffee shops. We saw plenty of SUVs, some of the largest private boats we’ve encountered in Greece and enough jewels to bury a pharaoh with. The shops of Ermopoulis are full of high fashion wear. Syros just defies the rest of Greece, starting with the good roads, and the drivers upon them not trying to kill you.

Tinos was much the same, but as it is an island of Pilgrimage (the devout from all-over flock here to a Virgin Mary miracle site, the Church of the Panagia, to which women crawl for nearly a mile uphill to attend), we met a smattering of people from other parts of the world. Nothing like what you’ll find on Santorini, Mykonos or other better-known islands, but not so nearly full of Greeks like Syros either. Tinos is a pretty island. Very nice beaches and some of the finest traditional villages in the Cyclades are found here, each with a bevy of dovecotes surrounding it—Tinos was heavily influenced by the Venetians, hence the taste for pigeon.

Great local fare, too, including a local Tinos cheese, a local cured meat called Louza, and salads laden with capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Tinos is also home to many loukamathe stands—and most Greeks I know flock to loukamathes, a kind of donut usually smothered in honey. We stayed at the Tinos Beach hotel, a fine place to stay if you ever visit the island, with many Western flourishes including a hotel gift shop, something not often seen in a Greek hotel.

I said I would keep this short, but naturally didn’t. Here’s what I should have said and kept it at that:

Greek women should quit doing two things. They should quit wearing bikinis and they should quit smoking. I like bikinis and I have a first hand understanding of smoking, so this is unusual. But in Greece, women of all ages and all sizes wear bikinis. Sometimes, it just doesn’t become them. As for smoking, I could care less if they smoke, but they smoke incessantly. It ain’t sexy in a French art student sort of way, when not only are those women falling out of her bikinis, they’re also no Virginia Slim.

I’m not an anti-smoking crusader. If one wants to smoke, especially in mostly outdoor Greece, who’s to care? But, it looks really bad sometimes. The guys also. They’re not exactly Marlboro Men, being choked at the waist by ill-fitting Speedos, and all. It’s that they don’t know when to stop. Like in a line. Or in a crowded eatery. Or on a bus. Or in a cab. Or on the ferry. I think the second hand smoke debate is bogus except for workers locked into those environments, and that for the rest of us, it’s more a nuisance to be around smokers. Most of Greece seems to smoke, though. Again, so what, because after all, being free means being free to smoke, right?

But here’s my biggest gripe about it. Those smokers in their saggy bikinis and their elasto Speedos, tend to toss their ciggie butts all over the place—usually next to the rest of their beach garbage like water bottles, soda cups and sandwich wrappers. Tinos has some nice beaches, as noted above, but all over them, and on Syros, too, are cigarette butts and other litter. Both those island attract Greeks—not the rude French, the loud Germans or the Ugly Americans. They are Greeks, despoiling the same Greece that millions of visitors from around the world so admire and revere. So, if they’re going to smoke like a chimney, ok, and if they look damn foolish doing so, OK, too—but at least toss the filters, eh? I remember American beaches having the same litter problem. U.S. beaches cleaned up. I hope Greek beaches do, too.

And I really don’t care if many Greek women look silly in bikinis. I don’t really care if they smoke. I just wish they wouldn’t get so pissed when I laugh at them. It’s ok. They laugh at me—the fat American who could easily spend his money at home, but travels all the way to Greece to spend it there instead. That’s pretty funny. But, at least, on that rare occasion, I use an ashtray. (John Saltas)

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