‘Everything’s OK. This is Greece.’
by Paul Kennebeck
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part article on the author’s recent trip to Greece.
he Wary Traveler sat buckled into his metal seat on the crowded toy-like propeller-driven aircraft that inspired little confidence in its ability to fly. The Traveler knew that if he survived the crash, which had a high probability of occurring, he would curse himself for having climbed onto the thing in the first place. The aircraft, parked at the loading gate at Argostoli airport, had just completed final boarding when the pilot burst out of the cockpit and hurried down the aisle to the narrow back exit.
The Traveler watched the pilot on the tarmac next to the wing argue heatedly with an airport official, a woman who didn’t seem to agree with whatever it was the pilot was shouting.
A middle-aged German couple seated behind the Traveler began whispering urgently, then unbuckled their seat belts, stood up, retrieved their baggage from the small overhead bin, and turned to follow in the pilot’s footsteps, out the door and down the toy-like steps.
The Greek air hostess told them to sit down and fly.
The Germans obeyed orders.
The pilot reentered the aircraft, entered the cockpit, and closed the cockpit door with attitude. A few minutes later, the air hostess came down the aisle, asking passengers if anyone would volunteer to allow a little girl, who was traveling by herself to visit her yia-yia, to sit on their lap during the flight. The plane was small. It was full. No empty seats. Passengers were shuffled around and the little girl eventually was buckled onto the lap of a woman who herself was buckled in.
The next passenger to enter the fully loaded plane was a woman in her thirties, carrying a small backpack. The air hostess opened the cockpit door and told her to sit on the jump seat in the cockpit behind the pilot.
The cockpit door closed, the engines started, and the Traveler was asked, "Is everything OK?"
"Everything’s OK," the Traveler said. "This is Greece."
In a few minutes, the craft began its run down the runway for take-off—the engine noise level rising, the seats shuttering, the craft bouncing—and then it was wonderfully, safely airborne, flying near the island of Lefkada where Sappho was said to have jumped to her death.
The plane flew over the Peloponnesus, passed low over the Parthenon glowing yellow in the sun and landed at Athens International Airport. When the plane had taxied and stopped at an arrival gate, the Traveler stood up to retrieve his baggage with moist palms. The air hostess said, "Sit down."
"I want to get off the plane," the Traveler said.
"You are seated in the front half of the aircraft. The passengers in the back half must disembark first. Otherwise, the weight will shift and the rear of the plane will smash down into the tarmac."
The Traveler obeyed orders.
* * *
The taxi driver said, "Oxi. I can’t carry all of you and your baggage. Taxi is small."
The Traveler pulled out a two euro coin.
"Oxi," the taxi driver said, "the regulations forbid that much baggage."
Another two euro coin.
"No, no," he said. "Regulations."
With another two euros the taxi was finally large enough to carry the Traveler, family, and baggage into Athens.
Food is important to the Traveler. In the restaurants that cater to those tourists who do not speak Greek, a laminated menu with color pictures of the food is placed on a stand in front of the restaurant entrance where the waiters wait, encouraging (doing much, much more than encouraging, actually) tourists to enter. There are full-color pictures of meatballs, cheese pies, lamb dishes, and fish heads.
The Traveler thought himself superior to any tourist who must stoop so low as to order food from a menu of garish Photoshopped pictures. But he was quickly reminded that when he enters the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s in his homeland and doesn’t know what he wants to order, he spends several minutes surveying the bright pictures of hamburgers and wraps on the drive-through board before deciding.
The cheese in Greece is not pasteurized. The Traveler had eaten feta in his homeland for years without awarding it any significance. The first time in Athens the Traveler tasted the soft white cheese in combination with black olives and white wine he understood its allure. There are tavernas where one eats wonderful Greek dishes flavored with the fresh basil, oregano, mint, and lemons that are grown in the garden you walk through to get to the outdoor tables.
The Traveler found some of the restaurants uncomfortable due to the cigarette smoke, which was nearly thick enough to obscure the "No Smoking" signs on the menu. This now wary Traveler decided not to speak to a waiter about this when he saw that the waiter was occupied lighting a patron’s Marlboro. The Greek parliament passed a law prohibiting smoking in public several years ago.
The Traveler encountered a group of Ohioans who were ending their two-week tour of Greece. In a discussion about Greek cuisine, a gentleman with an Indians baseball cap informed everyone that he had managed to have avoided any messy issues with Greek cuisine by having eaten chicken at every meal for the past 14 days.
The Greek Debt
Yes, a paperless transaction does not leave a paper trail. In some stores, the lovely shop girls inform the Traveler with a smile that by paying cash, the price of the item will be reduced. The Traveler can guess that the profit to the shop is in taxes not paid.
And the Traveler learns that some of these same stores stand on property that has been ruled by conquering Romans, conquering Turks, conquering Venetians, and conquering Germans, each of whom demanded tribute from the Greeks. The tribute was to be in the form of taxes. The Greeks made the brave decision—avoid paying tribute to any conqueror. No taxes.
Old habits die hard.
The cut in pensions, the forced layoffs, and the boarding up of businesses are the result of austerity mandated by forces outside Greece. The Traveler is told that, like all lenders, the European Union (the term is used broadly here) has exacted much from Greece to protect its loans to Greece. The EU is viewed (maybe wrongly, maybe not) by many as being Germany itself: a powerful country, a country that is a financial juggernaut leagues above Greece or Italy, dictating crippling economic constraints.
The conquering Germans are remembered best by Greeks in those grainy black and white photos of yia-yias, standing in the fields of Crete with upraised pitchforks as the armed German paratroopers dropped down on them. Today, the sons and daughters of those Germans own some of the best seaside property along Crete’s north shore. The grandchildren of the yia-yias can sometimes get terrific jobs there.
You thought the Greek euro debacle was about money?
There’s more. The debt issue is terribly complicated, but this is only a travel article with pictures. D
Read the second part about the author’s encounters in Greece in the January issue of The Docket.