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Friday, February 15, 2002

The Day I Figured it all Out

A better title would probably be The Day I Reached The Point Of No Return. It wasn't really something I was conscious of when it happened. It is more a matter of hindsight. I look back now and can point to this particular day during an Aegean summer and hold it to blame for my rejection of most of what American pop culture considers to be worthwhile. Some veterans of military service become battle-scarred or traumatized by their experiences. I feel that I was also traumatized by the three years I spent living in Greece while serving in the Air Force. My trauma has consisted of trying to find a lifestyle in the USA that comes remotely close to the times I spent in Greece. The day I am about to describe being the most perfect example of life in that country, to me a perfect blend of equal parts remote Balkan mountain village and island paradise.

When I woke up that morning I was already packed. I still get anxious about travel, I don't sleep well, and I can hardly wait to get started. I double-checked and then triple-checked all of the vitals: passport, money, and bottles of wine for the boat trip. I locked up my apartment and started looking for a cab on the deserted morning streets. Too early for cabs. My pack wasn't very heavy so I didn't mind the walk. Ivan lived about a mile from me and it was all downhill. I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door to his apartment. It was a hot July morning and I couldn't wait to start the trip. Just a short cab ride to the port of Piraeus and we'd be on our way.

No answer. I knocked again. Again no answer, not a sound coming from the other side of the door. It was unlocked so I stepped in. Ivan was passed out on the easy chair in his living room. I guess you could say that Ivan wasn't the anxious type when it comes to travel. He hadn't packed the night before and although he didn't sleep the night previous it wasn't because of butterflies in his stomach. It was more like a bunch of rum and cokes in his stomach. After all these years I can still remember what he drinks. I guess that's because, like the rest of us, he drank a lot. I think you can call drinking an occupational hazard of military life.

I was pissed off that he wasn't ready to go but he did an admirable job with the fireman's drill of getting showered, dressed, and packed. We were out the door in about 20 minutes and flagged a cab almost immediately. The ship to Paros was called the Panagia Tinou, the Virgin Mary something or other. We had a little less than an hour before departure and spent it drinking coffee with a bunch of fellow travelers in a dockside cafe.

My coffee of choice for those hot Greek mornings was something called a frappé, an iced coffee. The Greeks have borrowed the French word for iced and to order it in Greek I always asked for “ena frappe me ligi zahari, para kalo” an iced coffee with just a little sugar. If you don't specify "just a little sugar" you will get a coffee with about two snow shovels' worth of sugar. I make frappés at home. Use two teaspoons of Nescafe instant coffee, milk, sugar and shake with ice in a cocktail shaker. Drink it through a straw and you'll be pretty close to the national summertime drink of Greece. I live in Valencia, Spain now and I can’t believe that they don’t drink frappés here.

The cafe was filled with the sort of typical euro-trash backpackers that populate every landmark, train station, hostel, cheap watering hole, and inter-island ferry on this continent in the summer. I had certain rules that I developed while living in Europe about human interaction and they generally served me well. I never asked anyone where he or she was from. I thought this was a pretty silly question and you had to only talk to someone for a minute or two when this question answered itself. Asking where someone was from is like asking someone what their major is at a college mixer. I always kidded that if at our dorm mixers in college we gave everyone a name tag which stated their major and home town nobody would ever talk at those things; they’d just go around reading name tags.

I also tried to steer the conversation away from politics if at all possible because once on that subject it was with a sort of mathematical certainty that some pseudo-hippie would start off on some rant about how Americans are a sack of bastards and are destroying the world. Don't get me wrong, I'm about the least jingoistic person I know and in a group of Americans it is usually I who will start off on a rant about how Americans are a sack of bastards and are destroying the world. It is kind of like my little brother when I was growing up: I could beat him up but God help anyone else who tried to do it.

This was during the Reagan years, a president I didn't vote for twice. I was in the Air Force then and I was fairly left in my thinking, enough so that I'm sure I was in danger of violating some sort of military regulation. If anyone at a conversation was criticizing Reagan it was probably me, but I listened with my jaw practically biting my tongue in half as some Austrian gal was bad-mouthing the U.S. president. She finished by contemptuously adding that she couldn't believe the American people had elected a former actor as their president. She looked around the table for agreement. This was just too much for me.

"Yeah, I couldn't imagine anything in a politician's past that could be worse than being an actor. Can anyone here think of anything in a politician's past that could be viler than to have once been an actor?" I suppose I should mention here parenthetically that at this time the leader of Austria was the former Nazi, Kurt Waldheim. Not just a Nazi but SS. He was responsible for deporting Jews from Greece. Also at this time the spin doctors working for the Austrian president worked furiously to explain that his war career was more like that of some sort of low level secretary. Dave Barry had the best joke on this topic. He said at one point in the controversy that Waldheim had missed WWII entirely because of car trouble.

Just about then the whistle blew for our boat (at least for the sake of this memoir). We had paid for deck class seats which meant that we would be with all of the other travelers as almost no one booked an actual seat on these ferries. We climbed up to the deck and threw our stuff down next to some women backpackers who were already topless. A quick comment here on toplessness. Mardi Gras has just ended here in Seattle and if I hear another frat rat scream "show us your tits!" he's going to be dreaming of them while he recovers from his coma in the emergency room. My first experience with European toplessness was at a public pool in Dijon, France when I was 19. I was cool with it from the beginning and I always thought it was pretty natural. I've always been as much of a hormonal volcano as the next guy but what's the big deal? I don't understand frat rats and the whole Girls Gone Wild phenomena. Someone explain this to me please.

Greek inter-island ferries are something between the Love Boat and a slave ship. The trip between Athens and Paros was only five hours. Five hours is nothing in the timetable of slum travel. I’ve waited longer than that in freezing rain in the Andes for a broken down bus to get fixed. If the sun is shining and you have a piece of deck to sit on then life is pretty good on the Greek ferries. I always brought along a couple bottles of decent American wine that I bought at the Base Exchange in an effort to educate a small segment of the European population about American viniculture. We were sharing our wine with a circle of people and I waited until after everyone had commented favorably about the wine to tell them that it was from California.

A Frenchman in the group tried to take back his compliment but I told him it was too late, and that I was going to report him to the French wine society for being a treasonous dog. I think it’s a hanging offense in France to be anything other than insulting when commenting about a foreign nation's wine—especially when talking about American grape juice. I just feel that it's about time the rest of the world realizes that the US isn't just cheeseburgers and fries. Not that I have anything against cheeseburgers and fries in fact...wait a second. I just drooled all over my keyboard.

The Aegean in the summer is as beautiful as anywhere I have ever traveled. The water is crystal clear. A lot of this is due to the fact that there isn't much in the way of plankton, so although there isn't as much sea life, the water is very clear. On this day the water was flat, barely a ripple creased the surface. As the boat passed the tip of the Attica peninsula I pointed out to everyone the temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion. This is quite a sight and has inspired awe since its construction on this point in 440 b.c. back when Pericles was doing a complete overhaul on Athens and the environs. Lord Byron was so impressed with the temple that he spent a few hours there chiseling his name on one of the columns. I guess the security back in 1818 wasn't what it is today.

I spoke with a Navy commander back when I was taking Greek classes. He drove boats in this part of the Mediterranean and said that there were lots of nasty storms that came out of nowhere in these waters. A tempest in a teacup can be pretty dangerous. I had been island-hopping during a few of these storms and they put a big lid on the fun. Imagine a ship with about 90% of the passengers severely seasick. You don't want to be below decks on one of these runs no matter how hard it may be blowing on deck.

On this day you could water ski between the islands. The ship passed several small, rocky outcrops populated by a few goats and perhaps a very small white church trimmed in blue with a small brush stroke of clouds overhead. You are always in sight of land on this run into the Kyklades archipelago. If the ship went under you could dog paddle to the nearest nude beach. The last hour before landing is always a good time to find an empty bench below decks and take a nap. The day is only beginning.

The ship docked in the village of Paros and we found a room there after doing a bit of comparison-shopping. I guess I'm taking too long to get to the point because the part of this particular day that changed me was still to come. It all began with a sentence I've probably repeated at least three times a day for my entire life. "I am starving my ass off!" To say I was starving was being a bit hyperbolic but I certainly could have gone for a bite. I had three or four iced coffees and a couple of glasses of wine so far and it was now almost 1p.m.

I loved eating out in Greece because every time that I did I felt like I was somewhere exotic on vacation. That's a nice feeling to have for three solid years. On this sunny July day we took a table at a taverna overlooking the public beach in Paros. The cafe's tables were split by the main street with half of them in the restaurant itself and on the sidewalk and the other half where we sat across the street on a tree shaded patio. Like every taverna in every small village in Greece the place had small tables with the tablecloths clothes-pinned down so they would blow away on the days the sirocco blew in from Africa. The salt and pepper shakers were clogged up because of the wet salty air and the chairs were made of wood with straw webbing on the seats. It was also inevitable that you would have to wedge a matchbook under one of the table legs to keep it level.

We were hungry but we didn't know what we wanted so we began with what we always began with: a couple of cold bottles of Amstel and a bowl of olives. Olives are the perfect appetizer or pre-appetizer. They stimulate the appetite without filling you up in the least. As much as I came to love olives while living in Greece I never wanted to eat more than a few at a time. They went well with the beer and provided enough substance to let me think clearly about the next course.

We had made vague plans to meet another friend of ours while on Paros. Very vague plans as we now mentioned to each other. We simply said that we would be on the island on a certain date and so would our friend Joe. That was it, nothing about a rendezvous. Sure enough as we took the first few sips from our beers Joe walked right past us. Ivan whispered and Joe turned around and without showing the least bit of surprise joined us at the table. The waiter noticed that someone had joined us and walked over from across the street.

We ordered a bottle of Mantzavino rosé, a Greek wine that wasn't half bad and was fairly consistent. Greek wine making was extremely unsophisticated back then and has have improved immensely since. I drank some pretty bad wine while living there but I always preferred bad wine to going without. We also ordered Greek salads all around. The wine came as well as a basket of bread. We toasted to something or other and enjoyed the view of the beach from our table in the shade.

This is probably as good a time as any to set the record straight on the Greek salad. They are called a horiatiki salad in Greece, a peasant or country salad. I had a Greek salad the very first time I ate in a restaurant there and it immediately became my favorite dish. I never cared for salads before because I don't care for lettuce. In all of the time I lived in Greece I never saw a Greek salad that contained lettuce and that was fine with me. I suppose there is a little room for improvisation when it comes to this dish but not much. There's never room for lettuce. Here is my recipe:
Greek Salad (horiatiki salata)

1 cucumber
1 onion
1 green bell pepper
2 tomatoes
Greek olives
Feta cheese
Pepperoncini peppers (optional)
Anchovies (optional)
Olive Oil and Vinegar.

Chop up the tomatoes, onions and bell peppers into rough pieces. I like to take a fork and cut the skin of the cucumber all around and then slice it up. Portion out the vegetables on each plate along with a couple olives, pepperoncinis, and anchovies. Top the salad with a piece of feta and drizzle with oil and vinegar. That's it. Leave the lettuce for something else. I would use it to line the bottom of my bird cage but I don't have a bird so I never buy lettuce.

Olive oil, Greek olive oil, is the subject of a future five page homage. "Ode to a Grecian olive oil urn" is what the poem should have been called. As you finish up a horiatiki salad there is a nice pool of rich olive oil on the plate that is the Mediterranean culture's answer to butter. Often the simplest of dishes are the most flavorful. Try this one.

Aegean Oil

1 cup of good Greek olive oil
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (balsamic if you must, you snob)
a couple cloves of minced garlic
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese (not Greek but what the hell)
a pinch of red pepper flakes
a pinch of chopped parsley
a pinch of oregano

Mix these ingredients together and let steep. Serve with bread for dipping. You will be amazed at how great this is and it will impress your guests. I just made up that name but it sounds hoity.

At about this point in the meal we began to realize that we were experiencing something special. It is important that you are aware of such moments as they are happening. This was becoming the quintessential Greek lunch. The three of us had spent dozens of afternoons having lunch in tavernas at dozens of places in Greece but this was like a pitcher during the late innings of a perfect game. Everything was exactly as it should be: the food was excellent, it was a perfect summer day, we were just beginning a week of travels among these islands, and we literally didn't have another care in the world beyond this small table.

The most difficult thing to explain about this afternoon is that we were exactly where we wanted to be. Our enjoyment of the moment wasn't clouded by anxiety about the future or regret of the past. Nothing could have made this time better for me. I used to read the French magazine Paris Match back then to practice my language skills. I remember sitting in a Greek cafe looking at pictures of French celebrities summering somewhere on the Riviera. I remember thinking that those people had nothing on my life. I was spending my summers at the most beautiful place in Europe.

It was on this afternoon that I think I became European myself. After about one and a half years in Greece I think that I had reached a point where going back and living like an American was going to be a problem. I had become used to sitting around like this in restaurants and cafes for hours and hours simply talking. We would bring someone into our group who hadn't reached this level of saturation, a newcomer. They still hadn't accepted the pace of Greek life. These people would complain when a waiter didn't approach the table quickly enough. They would want to plow through a meal with drive-thru window speed. Invariably this person would say something like, "Let's go do something." What these people didn't realize, and perhaps never would if they didn't stay in Greece long enough, was that we were doing something. It's a difficult thing to explain to someone who spends their days in the over-stimulated world that is American pop life that just sitting in a cafe is doing something, something highly enjoyable to the people in many cultures.