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Friday, December 03, 2004

A Greek Memory

I don’t know who had the idea originally; it could have been me but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that did matter was that it was a great idea. I was living in Athens, Greece while doing my service in the United States Air Force. I was insuring your very freedom while living a life of luxury back when the dollar was strong and the Greek drachma was exceptionally weak. Those days of the hegemony of the U.S. dollar are about as faded as the memory I am about to recount.

We all had apartments in the communities of Glyfada, Voula, or Vouliagmeni which lie directly south of Athens. My apartment was at the very top of the hill of Glyfada, beyond which there was only mountain. I had a wonderful two bedroom, top-floor apartment with a staggering view of the Saronic Gulf and the Islands of Aegina and Poros. Sitting in my living room looking out at the Aegean Sea was better than watching a good movie. I don’t think I let a single day go by without saying to myself that I had it made. Standing on the deck of my apartment, looking out at the sea, I was literally on top of the world.

I paid around $100 a month for this spectacular apartment which was incredibly reasonable, even on an enlisted guy’s wages. Everything else in Greece was equally as inexpensive for us and we lived like kings. We had the best of two worlds: American dollars and access to American products at the Base Exchange (BX) as well as everything Greece had to offer--and it had a lot to offer. We lived incredibly uncomplicated lives, free from telephones and television. We were exempt from the hounding of the American marketing juggernaut. No one gave a shit what kind of car you drove. You couldn’t have bought a new car even if you wanted one. Greece was like our Walden Pond except with ouzo, souvlaki, and a steady stream of gorgeous Scandinavian tourists all summer long.

Summers were fantastic. I always tell people that you simply must visit Greece during the summer while you are young and free enough to appreciate all it has to offer. You need to swim naked with your girlfriend at a nude beach while your body is still worth showing off. You need to dance all night in an old windmill converted into a disco. You need to amaze Europeans at the beach with your skills throwing and catching a baseball or a Frisbee. Summers are fantastic in Greece but the winters are cold and grim. How do you make it through the winter in your fabulous apartment with lousy heat?

U.S. service people had been skiing in Greece before my friends and I got there but we took it to a new level. Lift tickets were about $1 so skiing was an obvious choice for winter entertainment. What we resented was the two hour drive up to the Mount Parnassos ski area. I don’t know who had the idea originally but we decided to go in together and rent an apartment in the village of Arachova which lies at the foot of the mountain.

Arachova is an extremely picturesque Balkan village that clings to the lower slopes of the mountains looking down on the Gulf of Corinth. If you drive a few turns around the mountain road from Arachova you can walk around the ruins of Delphi, something we used to do late at night when the tourists had left, the watchmen had gone home, and we could have the place to ourselves. The village had a couple of souvenir shops for the occasional tourist bus that would stop on the way to Delphi. There were a few tavernas and a small store or two and that was about it for Arachova which is somewhat of a metropolis of a village in this isolated little corner of Greece.

The apartment we had the first year was a small place directly above the family who rented to us. We had to pass through their place on the way up the stairs to our unheated little affair. Our landlady, Zoë, would enter the apartment at will and usually timed it when we were in various stages of undress. She would totally freak out upon seeing our electric heater. Even when we offered to pay the entire electric bill for both apartments she would point to the heater and rattle off a string of obscenities in Greek that I hadn’t yet learned. I think she must have thought the heater was plutonium-fueled. For our frugal landlady, the use of electricity was as painful as passing a kidney stone.

The next winter we had a few more people interested in kicking in for the rent so we needed bigger and a little better accommodations. My Greek was decent so I volunteered to go up before the ski season and find a place to rent. My younger brother, who I hadn’t seen in a couple years, dropped in out of the sky to visit at about this time and he made the trip into the mountains with me. I couldn’t imagine a better initiation into Greek life and culture than my brother experienced in his three week stay.

Before we left, I made a trip to the BX to pick up the items that fuel the underground economy in the vicinity of every overseas U.S. military installation worldwide. Nothing has extricated more servicemen from tough jams, nothing has greased more outstretched palms, nothing has spread more goodwill towards Americans overseas than cartons of Marlboro cigarettes and Johnny Walker Red Label scotch. Had I been more of an entrepreneur I could have made a bundle selling my consignment of booze and smokes on the black market, but I just used my ration to grease palms and open doors.I liked being a generous big shot.

We left early in the morning and steered my old Subaru wagon on to the National Highway north. Gasoline was cheap on base but expensive at Greek stations, so I always carried a couple of plastic five gallon gas cans in the back along with a lot of other survival gear essential for anyone who often lived out of their car. I had blankets, a Bunsen burner, always at least one change of clothes, a flight suit and boots (just in case my country called), shampoo, deodorant, coffee, top ramen packets, water, and, most importantly for an old car, a roll or two of duct tape.

My brother was full of questions about Greece and one of the first things he asked me about were the tiny altar boxes scattered around the roads of Greece. I called them “Yorgo boxes,” in honor of the most popular name for Greek men. Yorgo boxes were small shrines erected along the sides of the road where a Greek had been killed in a traffic mishap. Greeks are notoriously bad, violently aggressive drivers so there were Yorgo boxes all over the place. We called the National Highway “Death Race 2000” after a lousy sci-fi film I had never actually seen but I can’t imagine is worse than the National Highway.

It was a cold and rainy day and we had reached about the half-way point to Arachova when I pulled over to the side of the road next to an abandoned construction site. Under the cover of the first floor of the unfinished apartment building, I lit up the Bunsen burner and brewed a couple of cups of Greek coffee. My coffee addiction was fierce even then and I couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without a fix. It always seemed like camping, and to me camping has always been a good thing. I felt like one of the gypsies whose camps we passed on our way up to the mountains.

I don’t remember, but it is safe to say that on this day we probably stopped in the village of Levadia to buy a couple of spanikopitas at a great little bakery. This was something I did on every trip I made up this way. Spanikopitas are phyla dough pastries filled with spinach and cheese. From Levadia it is only another twenty kilometers or so up the mountain to Arachova. I had an appointment with an older guy named Stavros in his souvenir shop.

My brother and I entered the shop and Stavros led us to the back to some chairs near a wood burning stove. He made us another cup of strong coffee and he offered us some really strong Turkish cigarettes. I have never smoked but I always obliged in these kinds of circumstances simply to be polite. It is a very European thing to offer everyone around you a cigarette when you pull out your smokes. The caffeine and the nicotine certainly helped me to speak Greek better but we didn’t get down to business until we had discussed how everything had gone for us since we had seen each other last.

I gave Stavros a carton of Marlboros and a fifth of Johnny Walker. He immediately poured out shots of the whiskey even though it was only about ten in the morning. We finally got around to the subject of an apartment. He introduced us to a guy named Costas who would show us around. Costas was the best connection I ever made while I lived in Greece. If you wanted anything done he was the guy to ask. He could get you a deal on a kerosene heater, show you a cool backcountry ski run, and drink Metaxa brandy with you next to a blazing fire in the local bar until three in the morning on top of running the local ski shop.

I was skiing with Costas one day when a terrific storm hit the mountain, dumping several inches of snow every hour. It isn’t often that you get the opportunity to ski powder in Greece and we were getting in as many runs as we could. They finally shut down the lifts and closed the mountain and advised everyone to start making their way back down to Arachova. The driving was treacherous. I had to lead the convoy of cars and buses down the mountain in my sure-footed Subaru equipped with tire chains. I could only see a few feet in front of the car and on several occasions I drove right into huge snow banks. It took me over six hours to make the trip down to the village which usually took about twenty minutes.

I met Costas’ wife at the taverna in town later that evening. I asked her if he had made it down safely. She said that he was still up on the mountain, but she didn’t appear to be the least bit worried. When I ran into Costas later the next day he told me that instead of wasting his time trying to drive down through the storm he and a couple other stranded skiers had broken into the ski chalet up on the mountain that was owned by some wealthy Greek. They spent the night there drinking his booze in front of a blazing fire. The next time I was stuck in a blizzard I would stick close to Costas.

Through Costas, I was able to find a two bedroom apartment. The only catch was that the bathroom was a few steps away across an enclosed courtyard. I can’t even remember what the place cost but it was definitely within our budget. I was working a schedule of six days on with three days off in a row. I would be spending almost every one of my days off up here in Arachova. Out new place had a big kerosene heater and could sleep about eight not-very-picky people.

This was no condo in Vail but it had its charms, the most appealing of which was the fact that we were the only xenos, or foreigners, in the village after the tour buses pulled out. For nightlife we frequented the only two bars in the village. As much time as we spent in these bars we kept to a simple rule: no matter how many white Russians we drank, it didn’t matter how many ouzo shots we downed, we still would wake up and make the first lift of the day. I remember being so morbidly hung-over one day and trying to ski in an almost complete white out that I couldn’t tell if I was going forwards or backwards.

Before that season began I had to go to Germany for some sort of refresher training. About the only time you made money as an enlisted guy back then was when you made a move. You got paid X to move, and if you spent less than X you kept the balance. We practically made a living out of spending less than we were allotted on our moves. For any sort of temporary duty assignment (TDY) you were paid a per diem amount. On this trip to Germany I used my per diem to buy new ski gear at the giant BX near Frankfurt. The trip to Germany that fall not only paid for my top-of-the-line ski gear, but it also broke up the agonizing wait for the beginning of the ski season in Greece.

The snow came early that year and we were skiing before Christmas. The ski conditions at Mount Parnassos were generally pretty terrible. I got pretty good at skiing on ice and very wet snow. The Gulf of Corinth weather was trapped in the east in this dead end of mountains. Whiteouts were common, high winds would sometimes almost halt your downward progress, and making turns in the slushy snow or glare ice was often a big challenge. Not that any of us cared much. I can’t ever remember having a better time than on those perfect days when a big group of us skied together. We would put a bottle of apelkörn--a Germany apple brandy--in the snow at the top of a run and do a shot before skiing down to the lodge.

On the rare occasions when the sky was completely clear, Mount Parnassos was hard to beat. Sitting on the lift chair at the top you could see the mountain ranges of the Peloponnesus and down to the Gulf of Corinth. On days like these we would catch the first chair in the morning and ski so many runs our legs would collapse. We only went during the week to avoid any crowds so we practically had the place to ourselves. With these perfect conditions we wouldn’t even stop for lunch. After taking the last chair up we would wait for everyone else to ski down, even the lift operators. We felt like trespassers as we made the last run down, watching the sun set on this little corner of the Mediterranean. Thoroughly exhausted we skied right up to my Subaru wagon which was the last car in the lot.


  1. Hey was just rolling thru wanted to let ya know ya got a cool blog here Nice Job.

  2. Gracias, amigo. Just saw this comment only four years later.


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