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Monday, December 06, 2004

A Little Time, A Little Gas, and a New Country:

Another Greek Memory

The first major road trip that I took when I arrived in Greece was also one of the more memorable weeks I spent in a very memorable three years of residence there. I took countless trips in Greece but this one still stands out clearly in my mind. Writing this has helped to jar loose from my memory some things that I didn't know I still carried with me. I wish that I could remember more.

If I'm not mistaken, this is the first time that I have ever written that I did something twenty years ago. I was in Mexico a couple years ago and I was talking with an old guy and he asked me whether or not I had ever visited his village before. I knew that I had so I thought back and I was shocked when I told him that it had been twenty years since I was there last. That was the first time I had that thought but this is the first time I have written it down. I’m now old enough to have done things twenty years ago.

I haven’t been back but I can only imagine that life in Greece isn’t quite as idyllic as when I moved there twenty years ago. Greece back in those days was a country without a single American fast food restaurant. This type of foreign investment was illegal. The fact that there were no McDonald’s was fine by me; I loved Greek food right from my first Greek salad. I loved pretty much everything about living in Greece and I couldn’t wait to see more of the country. My fantastic girlfriend came to stay with me that first summer and we were ready to see the country.

During her first week in Greece she and I were introduced to an important aspect of Greek life: A general strike. The Greek workers at the air base where I worked also went on strike. Because I was new I was considered “nonessential” so I was told to stay home until further notice. I took “home” to mean “within the internationally recognized borders of Greece” so I thought this was a great opportunity for a road trip. My friend, Chris, and his Greek girlfriend, Marina, would be joining my girlfriend, Eileen, and me for a trip of unknown length and a destination to be determined on the road.

I had about six months of intensive study in the Greek language before I arrived in Greece so I pretty much hit the ground running, linguistically speaking. I had a pretty good rudimentary grasp of this very difficult tongue from the beginning, a language that very few non-Greeks bother to learn at all. I was invariably asked if I was Greek when I was speaking with a local. They assume that any xenos who speaks any Greek, no matter how roughly, must at least be of Greek heritage. My friend Chris had studied Greek with me back in the States and would go on to master the language better than anyone I have ever met who has learned Greek as an adult.

On about our second day in Greece Chris and I learned the severe limitations of the Greek we had learned. We had spent most of the day in Athens walking around tirelessly with the intent of getting hopelessly lost. By the time we had thoroughly accomplished the getting lost part we had already stopped three or four times for coffee. We had mastered ordering coffee in Greek by now, something that we had never studied in our stateside class. We stopped to have lunch at a taverna buried deep in a residential neighborhood, far from the tourist path.

When we were handed the menus we quickly realized that we had absolutely no vocabulary for food. I couldn’t read a single item. We explained to the waiter that we didn’t know anything on the menu. He may have encountered this problem before because he didn’t hesitate to take us both back to the kitchen and showed us everything they had to offer. I remember having chicken, kotopoulo (blogger doesn’t permit Greek letters), and I also remember that I asked to take one of their menus. Chris and I studied the menu like a test. I was always able to read menus after that first day.

Before I moved to Greece I already knew that I loved snorkeling. We were terrific swimmers in my family and I had lived briefly on the island of Oahu when I was in high school. I would spend entire days bobbing up and down along the coast exploring every coral reef and rock formation. To this day I prefer the freedom of only being burdened by a mask and fins to the SCUBA diving with all of the gear and thought that goes into that sport. If whatever I am looking at on the ocean floor is less than 60 feet down I can get their on my own lung power.

The Aegean is a wonderfully clear body of water. The lack of plankton makes it even clearer than Hawaii’s waters. In some places you could watch a coin drop forty feet to the bottom. We brought along our snorkeling gear on this trip just in case. I would never leave my snorkeling gear at home on any of the trips I took in Greece.

I think we had a little more than a week before we were supposed to report back to base. Practically no one had a telephone so it wasn’t like they could call you and tell you to come back early if the strike ended. Chris and I figured that we could just about drive around the entire mainland of Greece before we were considered AWOL. We loaded the car and got a very early start on our road trip.

After about three miles of driving Marina said she needed to stop for a cup of coffee. At the end of my life, when everything has been tallied up, I will find that about 30% of my life was spent getting coffee. It is, without a doubt, my favorite drug and the one I cannot live without. I wanted to get out of town and see the country but you can’t drive around under-caffeinated, that shit will kill you. I was always amazed to watch Marina drink coffee. In her very Greek fashion she would put about a third of a cup of sugar in each of her cappuccinos.

Before you know it we had finished our coffee and we may have even made it out of the Athens city limits before stopping for another. We were going to drive up the western part of the mainland along the Ionian coast. We spent a few hours walking around the ruins of Delphi but I was anxious to get to the coast and do some swimming.

I don’t remember much about most of the drive but every thing was new and fun for me during my first summer in Greece. Having Marina along on this trip really unlocked a lot of doors figuratively and in one sense literally, which I will tell you about. If you are lucky enough to have a native host come along when you travel around a foreign country it is like the difference between trying to find a place by reading directions and going somewhere you have been before.

We decided to stop for the night at Parga, on the Ionian coast. Marina had heard that it had some great beaches and that was enough for the rest of us. In the months that I had known her she hadn’t steered us wrong. If we didn’t like Parga we could always drive somewhere else.

The sun was just beginning to fade when we crossed over the bridge which spans the inlet to the Amvrakikos Gulf. As the sun set the temperature went down, and a thick bank of fog rolled in off the sea. The last few miles before Parga we passed through a creepy olive grove of strangely gnarled, centuries-old trees that seemed to appear like ghosts in the headlights. The haunted appearance of this grove of olive trees was probably a side effect of Greek coffee overdose. I drove through the ghosts and found a hotel in Parga.

The next morning we had breakfast in our hotel and finally made our way down to the beach. The sea was completely calm and as clear as the sky. Walking down the hill I could see the underwater terrain off the coast of Parga. It looked like a huge avalanche of boulders had rolled down the hill and sunk in the crystal clear water. The shoreline was a zigzag of small coves with cliffs looming over each one.

We rented a little paddle boat and spent the better part of the next three days underwater. I set new personal free-diving depth records. Of all of the underwater places in the world that I have visited, Parga remains my absolute favorite. I couldn’t get enough of the underwater caves, arches, and amazing rock formations. The underwater visibility was better than anywhere I have ever dived. I was as happy as an otter.

One afternoon we decided to dry out from the hours and hours we spent in the water by exploring the Venetian fortress that sat perched on top of the hill overlooking the village and the inlet. We packed a picnic lunch of wine, roasted chicken, bread, cheese, and fruit and headed up the cobblestone path to the entrance. When we arrived at the gate we saw that it was secured by a heavy lock and chain. We thought briefly about sneaking in but this was a fortress and was built not to be breached. We were simply four more foreign invaders who were left standing outside the citadel. I am one of those rare breeds who has no problem with giving up, so I was ready to eat the lunch right there in front of the fortress and get back to the water. Marina told us to wait at the gate and she walked back down the hill.

Twenty minutes later Marina was back with the key to the gate which we opened and then locked behind us as we entered our private Venetian fortress. If there is a better way to spend an early summer day than discovering a deserted 17th century Venetian fortress with a beautiful woman, feasting on Greek food and wine in one of its towers overlooking the Ionian Sea, then I haven’t come to that part of life yet. Over the course of a very good life I can look back and say that was a really good day.

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