Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hellenic Adventures

Behold, gentle reader: the first installment of my European journal, which I promised to post when I got home last August, and am now so doing! Sometimes, I do actually keep my promises. Not often, though. The following text is edited and revised from my original notes, which are more awful than I remembered, and often mix the past and present tenses. I'll fix it where I can, but bear with me.

Day One: Los Angeles to London

My sister Chelsea and I boarded an early afternoon flight from LAX to Heathrow aboard Air New Zealand, which I have to say is the classiest airline I've ever flown on. However, I'm afraid that no amount of class can make a ten hour flight anything other than a ten hour flight, especially when you're too cheap to buy booze (I'm not even sure they had any, come to think of it). With the help of a generous selection of in-flight movies (I chose Wall-E), my Nintendo DS, and the Greatest Works of Chopin, I managed to stave off boredom for about five hours. I spent the rest of the flight sleeping for two hours and watching the plane arc over Greenland on my mini screen.

Day Two: London

British Airways wouldn't let us check our bags seven hours in advance of our flight to Athens, so we had to pay sixteen pounds for storage space, the first instance of Europeans taking my money and far from the last. Our things secured, we set out to see as much of Merry England as possible in six hours. It turns out, you can't see much.

You may have heard that cars in England drive on the left side of the street; what you may not have realized is that this appears to be the only traffic law in existence. There are red lights and green lights, but they don't necessarily seem to have anything to do with when cars or people stop and go. In spite of the manifest insanity of the motorists, I didn't see any accidents, but I was nearly run over by a taxi more than once.

Chelsea and I stumbled through what I assumed was downtown for a few hours, marveling at the architecture and the crowds, and thoroughly lost because we'd neglected to buy a map. We found ourselves amongst embassies, and later wandered into Queen Mary's Gardens, in the heart of Regent's Park. With all of its multi-colored roses, the place had a definitely English, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of feel, reinforced by the swarms of turkey-sized pigeons who scavenged for scraps at the outdoor cafe where we ate lunch. Birds that big belong in farms and zoos.

With directions received from our accommodating waitress, I made a point of expressing my secret love for literary-historical kitsch with a quick pilgrimage to 221b Baker Street, home of the Sherlock Holmes museum, perhaps England's most famous literary cos-play exposition (not that I would know anything of dressing like fictional people). If that place was not an authentically preserved 19th century apartment (and I happen to know it wasn't), it still did an excellent job of looking like it to a humble tourist like me. Best of all, the man in the gift shop agreed to watch our bags without charging us, though he repeatedly warned us that he was not actually taking responsibility for them.

We passed a number of minor landmarks on the way to Trafalgar Square, centrally located among some of the city's most famous structures. Admiral Nelson's Column, in particular, was very, very big. I haven't been to the Washington Monument in years, but in some ways Nelson's big spike seemed more impressive, though it's less than half as tall. It probably had something to do with all of the giant lions. Pressed for time, we admired the facade of the British Museum, then worked our way down Whitehall toward Big Ben and the Parliament building. Being tourists, we of course took pictures, but it was difficult to get a good vantage with the crowds and fences everywhere.

The London Underground is very fast and practical, but quite probably the most crowded public transportation I've ever seen; I even saw some poor people pressed up against the glass of the windows and doors, "packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes" at rush hour, as Sting might put it. Interestingly, the Underground is not entirely underground, especially the part that runs toward the airport. The parts that are, however, resemble a kind of high-tech hobbit hole, with lots of round portals and doors. There are also posters for movies, bands, etc; the big promotional item at the time was Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno, with posters substantially more revealing than would have been permissible in the States. And boy, were there a lot of them.

By the time we returned to Heathrow, my sleep deprivation was becoming obvious enough to raise the eyebrows of security guards. A persistent hallucination of someone calling my name turned out to be my sister actually calling my name, trying to get my attention before I wandered off to God-knows-where. But by the grace of God, we we managed to get on board our overnight flight to Athens, where I managed to get a pitiful hour and a half of sleep.

My final impression of London was of a modern, yet deeply impressive historical city, invested with a stately grandeur that was only enhanced by delirium and exhaustion. I could have spent hours in any number of places, but we had places to be, and many more things to see.

Day Three: Athens

We landed at about three in the morning, and spent many hours waiting for our ride to the hotel. Fortunately (maybe?) there was a television in the terminal. Greek television in the wee hours is a lot like American television: a vast expanse of repetitive infomercials for arguably useful consumer products, as far as the eye can see. Later they showed a series about Greek folk songs and dances, most of which consisted of holding hands and moving in a circle while an old lady looked on with approval. I put up with as much as I could before passing out.

Our next stop was the Hotel Austria, our first of many landing spots with our tour group. It's sort of like an upscale hostel, in that it's nicer than a hostel, but only half of the air conditioning units work. It's in a great location, overlooked by the Acropolis, which is about five minutes away if you can find your way through the city's twisted streets. I got used to seeing the Parthenon after only a little while, and it looks beautiful when it's lit up at night, but I was disappointed to see that it was covered by scaffolding, part of an ongoing maintenance (it really needs it).

After collapsing in my horrible, horrible bed for a few hours, I met some of the guys from the tour group and went to check out the new Acropolis museum, which has an impressive array of artifacts, statues and friezes, as well as a creepy transparent floor that reveals the excavation site beneath the building. All this for one Euro! Europe will never be this cheap again.

Later on, the whole group had free dinner courtesy of Hotel Austria, setting a dangerous precedent that we were told would never be repeated again. Afterward we separated into semi-coherent groups, and went out to explore the city and its nightlife. A Puerto Rican girl and I tried the local ouzo, which is a lovely drink if you wish that licorice could intoxicate you. We went in circles through ancient streets filled with shops and merchants, and some guy tricked me into buying the girl a rose at an outdoor cafe.

The group is made up of six guys and forty three girls, which is undoubtedly a potent recipe for awesome. The most interesting ones, however, are already spoken for, which is fast becoming the story of my life. In any event, the scarcity of Y chromosomes ensures that I receive my fair share of attention, for better or worse.

(Spoiler: Nothing ever happened)

Back at the hotel, I found some English language sitcoms (with Greek subtitles) on a few channels. But since I can only handle so much Ray Romano, the default station soon became CNN International, which is sort of like an inferior BBC. The lack of quality television made sleep all the more appealing, and I actually managed to catch up on some well-needed rest.

Day Four: More Athens

We woke up at the crack of too-damned-early and gathered for a hearty breakfast of cereal and (severely) watered down orange juice, then met up with our bus and got our cameras ready for a fun-filled day of tourism.

Athens being the capital of Greece, there were a number of notable modern buildings, such as the old and new parliament buildings. There were also new buildings designed in classical, columned style, including the National Academy and a beautiful, beautiful library. We piled out of the bus to see the original, 1896 Olympic stadium. Students of recent history will recall that the Olympics came to Athens once again in 2004, but we only ever saw that building from a great distance. While riding on the bus, I concentrated on a new game I resolved to play over the course of the next month: teaching myself the local language by reading the bilingual street signs. Progress was predictably slow.

Finally, we reconvened near the hotel for the main event: a hike up to the Acropolis in the nigh-unbearable Hellenic heat (temperatures reached forty-plus degrees Celsius, which is roughly what death feels like). With rugged determination we waited in line, bought our tickets, and wound our way up a stony path that, for God's sake, should really be paved after two thousand years of use. Waiting at the top was the proud remnant of the cradle of western civilization.

I don't mean to sound unimpressed, because the Parthenon, Erechtheion, etc, are all very impressive buildings. However, I would have been infinitely more impressed if I could have gone up there alone, at night, with all the scaffolding removed. The Acropolis in movies and pictures is stoic and timeless, but the real site is positively teeming with people and cameras, and the extensive repair work makes the place feel old, not ancient. Tacky as it may sound, I wish I could see the Parthenon rebuilt and restored to its ancient glory.

From the Acropolis, you can see an impressive Christian church on a tall hill, dedicated (if I remember the local tour guide correctly) to Saint George. The female contingent of our tour group, in spite of all available facts and evidence, believes this to be the castle from the movie version of Mamma Mia!, and nothing I can say can ever change that. Sigh.

The more I think about it, the more unusual it seems to actually live in a city like Athens. Many cities in the U.S. have their impressive historical landmarks, but even the oldest of America's cities are only a fraction of the age of Athens and Rome, and none of them have the sort of large-scale archaeological work that can be found in the very heart of those cities. I can only guess at how the locals feel, since their perspectives are the opposite of mine, but it strikes me as surreal that a Starbucks can be found in walking distance of the Temple of Zeus.

With a little bit of downtime, my sister and I found the rock where St. Paul preached to the Athenians, and some enthusiastic Christians gave us some pocket New Testaments. We walked through the old Agora (it was mostly grass and broken stones), and ended our official tour at what I believe was the city's principal Orthodox Cathedral. The group split up for lunch and an afternoon of free time. I ended up ordering something that wasn't particularly tasty, so lunch was mostly unremarkable, but it led to an interesting debate on the proper pronunciation of "gyro," which even our Greek waiter was decidedly unhelpful in settling. The true pronunciation, as near as I can tell, is something like "yuro," but all I can say for sure is how much I'm looking forward to Italian food.

Next we went shopping in a bazaar, where I discovered gelato, socialized with some of the girls, and fell in love. With gelato. Seriously, ice cream will never taste as good again. WHY CAN'T WE HAVE GELATO?

For the most part, the wares were conventional: things like tee shirts, plastic statues, and other tourist-ensnaring goodies. By far, the award for "strangest product on sale" belongs to the wooden bottle openers shaped like penises. Yes, that's right. If the Greeks wish to combat the their reputation as the most homo-erotic culture on Earth, they should take a long, hard look at their bottle-opener industry.

A group of us ended up at the one-Euro Acropolis museum again, for no particular reason except to escape the oppressive heat. Shortly thereafter we returned to the hotel, where I hunkered down for the evening, eschewing the nightlife in favor of reading, relaxation, and a light dinner.

Day Five: Delphi, Patra, and Beyond

We said goodbye to Athens today, passing a few new landmarks on the way out (my favorite was a sculpture of Icarus falling to Earth). From there it was out to the great Greek highway, on a pilgrimage to the Oracle of Delphi. It was quite a distance, so we stopped for lunch at what was apparently a fairly major rest stop, and I had some exceedingly excellent Souvlaki pork.

Delphi is located high in the mountains, just past a small town which functions as a ski resort in the winter time, where the roads are barely wide enough for cars to travel in two directions. It truly must be said, the bus drivers of Europe are heroes, if only for the great dexterity they bring to impossible twists and turns. As for the mountains themselves, I have rarely seen a more dynamic, impressive landscape. I don't know the relevant statistics in terms of height, but the mountains of Greece are visually epic.

I enjoyed the experience of Delphi much more than that of the acropolis, although it required significantly more climbing. It's a shame the temple to Apollo at the site did not last as long as the Parthenon has, because it would have made a beautiful sight against the rugged, rocky backdrop. Higher up we saw an amphitheater, and at the highest point we came upon the stadium, where athletes came in days of yore to compete in the famous Delphic games. Well, I've heard of them, anyway.

The mercifully air-conditioned museum has a huge collection of impressive, beautiful, and sometimes bizarre artifacts unearthed at the site, which was once completely buried. My favorite was a huge Sphinx, nearly intact, perched on a tall pillar. There was also a bull, which must have been made of wood at one point; all that remains of it now is the silver leaf that plated its surface. It's frustrating to imagine how beautiful these places must have been two thousand years ago, with all of these once-beautiful things now broken into pieces. The reconstructions, however, are often amazing in their own right, and it's impressive just how well these artifacts have survived centuries of neglect and abuse.

Back on the bus, we continued driving down the southern coast of mainland Greece, stopping briefly at a lovely pebble beach. The mountains of the Peloponnese were clearly visible across the Corinthian Sea; it was a beautiful afternoon. Unfortunately for the girls who'd broought their swimsuits along, there was no time for swimming; a terrible shame, I say.

Eventually we reached a bridge which allowed was to crossed over the sea into the city of Patra, which is not very historical, but has a convenient ferry dock. There we waited for our ride to Corfu, a wait that lasted an unfortunate five hours. Even a delicious pizza dinner can only take up so much time, and there's not much fun to be had in a seaport terminal with no wi-fi.

Finally our overnight ferry arrived, but for whatever reason the boarding process was handled very inefficiently. To make matters worse, an unfortunate case of harassment by the customs authorities almost kept some of our group from boarding at all. I was quite frustrated and irritable by the time I got on board, and all I wanted to do was sleep.

Day Six: Corfu!

If getting on the ferry the night before was a nightmare, getting on the bus in the morning was a serious pain. Our luggage had always fit comfortably on buses on the mainland, but the bus on the Ionian isle of Corfu lacked a critical storage compartment. As a result, we had to stash about a quarter of our bags in the aisle, a violation of various safety regulations and a waste of everyone's time.

Our gloom dissipated when we arrived at the Corfu Palace, a five star resort, with no agenda for the next two days except relaxation and fun. We knew that we were unlikely to be so pampered again, so we intended to take advantage of it.

Unlike dear old Hotel Austria, the Corfu Palace has a genuine continental breakfast; unfortunately, it's not complimentary. We got a special deal at seven euros, and I packed my plate to get my money's worth.

There seems to be a policy in Greek hotels that electricity can't run in rooms if you don't leave your card key in a special slot. It's a clever way to keep obnoxious kids like us from wasting power, but it smacks of stinginess. Do the Greeks not realize how hot their country is in summer?

Corfu is a lovely island, and our hotel overlooks a small private beach, and even a picturesque little monastery on a small islet, connected by a bridge. But most delightfully, our tour guide discovered free wi-fi on the patio. Hosanna! I devoted most of my afternoon to lounging on said patio, finishing my book (a history of the battle of Thermopylae), checking my e-mail, and reconnecting with the people back home.

Dinner was at a charming little restaurant on the beach, with a very good seafood selection. Afterward, several people decided it would be a good idea to go out and party at some nearby bars. Being less outgoing, I had drinks with a few friends by the pool. In this regard, I may have gone a little overboard; I drank what I was later told was half a bottle of straight scotch. Needless to say, I slept very, very well.

Day Seven: Even MORE Corfu!

I'd like to address a misconception about Europeans: they do not, in fact, all drive tiny cars. While there are more cars here than in America that strike the eye as exceptionally small, the truth is that most of the cars are medium-sized sedans. There is a marked lack of large cars and SUVs, and I say that's all for the better, because the streets are narrow and irregular, and cars are parked with little regard for safety of space.

As for the idyllic paradise that is Corfu, this must be said: it is absolutely infested with vile, blood-sucking mosquitoes. By the time this day was over, I had scores of bites and bumps all over my legs. It didn't seem to matter that I spent most of my time far from the water, as the bastards would wait patiently for their chance and strike without mercy.

I did a bit of exploring around the vicinity of the hotel, not wanting to feel too much like a lazy American. First I went to the monastery on the water, where I almost forgot to remove my hat before entering the shrine, but I was reminded by the exceptionally reverent behavior of my fellow visitors. It was a pleasant little monastery, but I can't help but think that it would have been more peaceful without the airplanes taking off and landing directly overhead.

There wasn't much action to speak of in the afternoon. I took a nap, then took advantage once again of the free wi-fi and surfed the web. Later, some friends and I rode into town and had dinner at an Italian restaurant (becoming rapidly sick of Greek food as we were). There was a cat there, begging for food; at one point, it even put its paws on me like it was going to climb up on my lap. Being the compassionate soul that I am, I fed him a french fry (and it lasted about fifteen seconds).

On the bus ride back, we very nearly got stuck in a turn as a result of some driver's inconsiderate parking. Given the skill with which our driver navigated out of that jam, along with all of the other absurdly tight turns on the route, I'm prepared to say that Europe's bus drivers, be they charter buses or public transportation, are the best in the world. Whatever they're paid, it's not enough.

That night we did karaoke at a bar called Captain George's. Now, it must be made clear, I despise karaoke and avoid it whenever possible. However, I am also vulnerable to requests from pretty ladies, and several of them insisted on my presence. In spite of their pleading and cajoling (and also the beer), I did not participate in that musical murderfest, but I did partake in a little bit of close, crazy dancing. We stayed out late, had a grand time, and tried not to think too hard about what a pain in the ass it would be to leave in the morning.

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