Travels in Greece, Part III: Why It Matters

So why go on about my trip? What purpose does this have beyond sharing some photos and stories of a voyage to one of the most interesting countries in the world?

I think travel is good. It’s beneficial to anywhere new to you. It is especially good to get off of Planet America once in a while, not to bash the USA, but just to get some perspective about how people in other parts of the world live, act, and think.

See, America is a huge country. Which is great! And while there are regional differences–think New Hampshire versus Kentucky versus California (in a three-way fist-fight, my money is on the Bluegrass State), there is much more similarity between the states than there is between the U.S. and other countries.

Okay, you can argue that Canada, the UK, Ireland, and Australia are all quite similar, but you get my point.

Spending a length of time in another country makes you think about your home. I had some particularly interesting thoughts and feelings, given that I and my entire family is Greek, and so is my wife’s. I’ve written about the changing nature of America and what being an “American” even means anymore, This was underscored in Greece, which has a cultural cohesion we just don’t have in the United States.

It’s interesting, because the United States has historically been billed as “A Nation of Immigrants.”

Or has it? This is actually more of a modern conception. The first few great waves of immigration, including the one my family came to these shores during a century ago, were actually tightly controlled affairs. And the integration was not as smooth as we’re lead to believe.

And of course you have the African-American population, who were brought here as slaves and then, even after the abolition of the slave trade and then, finally, the institution of slavery, had difficulty integrating into the wider white-dominated society. And they were here from the founding!

So going to any monoethnic, monocultural nation is a bit of an eye opener.

And it was kind of nice! Being Greek in America, you don’t exactly stick out like a sore thumb, at least from a visual standpoint (though most people guess my ethnicity on the first or second try). But there are only about a million of us here, we are a minority religious denomination, and not everybody understands the glory of moussaka, souvalki, roasting lamb, pig, or goat on a spin, spanakopitabalkava, or bougatsa.

People in America do get gyros. But I digress.

Anyway, I liked being around people who got the food, the music, the dancing, the religious traditions, and all of the other cultural touchstones.

And it got me thinking . . . it’s good to keep places what makes them unique, that keep Greece Greek, Japan Japanese, Saudi Arabia, Egypt Egyptian, Brazil Brazilian, and so on.

We see this sentiment to a degree here among the states as well. “Keep Austin Weird” comes to mind. Or how New Yorkers want to keen New York NEW YORK. The South doesn’t like the Damn Yankees moving there. Some in Oregon and Washington claim that Californians irrevocably changed their states. Hell, people in New Hampshire get pissy when Massachusetts residents pack up shop and move to the Granite State.

How do you preserve these state cultures then? Discourage people from moving there? How?

It’s a weird thing, but it really makes you wonder. We like to believe in freedom of movement, but there are also issues of national sovereignty. Obviously, nations can do things that U.S. states cannot. But do they? Should they?

Tough questions, and interesting ones. Do I have any answers. Absolutely not. But travel just makes a guy think about these things.

Anyway, that’s why this whole experience is important. Not my experience. Just travel in general. I highly recommend that if you have a chance to visit a foreign country, you take it.

In my life I have been to Canada, England, Greece, Austria, Germany, and South Africa. Each have offered insights into not only my life, but my homeland of the United States. Each have been worthy experiences. I only wish I had the time and the resources to travel more.

Where would I like to go next? That’s an interesting question. There are places in the U.S. I am yet to see. I’ve spent time in most of the coastal South and parts of the Midwest. But I’ve never been to California outside of L.A., never seen the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or the rest of the mountain west.

As far as other countries, I definitely have a bucket list: Italy, Hungary, France, China, Japan, Australia, India, Egypt, Israel, and Russia come to mind. As you can see, I’m into places that have a lot of ancient history. Maybe I’ll make it to these places someday. And maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

But what I do know is that I’d love to go back to Greece again, and soon.

So now a little fun: Some of my favorite things about Ellada–that’s Greece in Greek-talk–and some things that I find a little . . . less-than stellar.

First, the good!

The food. Oh God, the food. Everything tastes better. The meat and vegetables must be fresher or something. Maybe they use fewer GMO-produced items. Maybe it’s the water, the soil, or the magic that old Greek yiayiades and pappoudes seem to infuse in every bite. But the victuals in Greece just obliterate most of what you can get here.

Save for American-style BBQ. I will put that up against any other country’s food culture. Gimme my ribs!

The family culture. People do things as families, especially outside of the cities. Everybody in the extended clan participates in the majority of activities. The old-timers aren’t left alone to rot, and the kids usually aren’t shunted off to daycare or nannies. Are you partying all night at the bouzoukia until dawn? Bring the kids, and your grandparents! It’s awesome.

The music. And not just the traditional stuff, which I love. It’s a fact that even the pop music is awesome, far less annoying than the comparable tunes over here. I think it’s because even Greek pop incorporates traditional instrumentation, scales, harmonies, and structure. And singing in Greek just sounds cool to my ears.

The churches. They are everywhere and they are gorgeous.

I love Byzantine-style architecture, and seeing how the Byzantines were, essentially, Greek, at least culturally, there’s a lot of it in Hellas. Simply gorgeous.

Millennia-old Church of the Panagia Kosmosotira in Feres, built by the Byzantine Emperor Isaac Komninos.

The history. You’re driving along and–BOOM. There’s some ancient artifact. The friggin’ subway system in Athens is full of them, discovered as ground was excavate during the major renovations done in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. You can go to Alexander the Great’s birthplace of Pella, walk on the Acropolis where the great philosophers taught and St. Paul preached to the Athenians, stroll along the beach in Thessaloniki and see the White Tower.

Subway artifacts.

There are ancient monasteries, cathedrals, temples, ancient cities on islands, and don’t even get me started on the beauty of the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounio. Simply stunning.

Temple of Poseidon.

If you’re a history buff, this is the place for you.

And the not-so-good . . .

Sleep. Or lack thereof. See, everyone takes naps during the afternoon, so stuff isn’t open, which is annoying to an American used to everything being available 24/7. And then, recharged by this siesta, everyone stays up until approximately seven o’clock the next morning (a slight exaggeration) and sleeps until noon or something. It can mess with your schedule.

Some toilets operate differently . . . I’m not just talking about holes you do your business in, though they exist in thankfully rapidly dwindling numbers. No, I mean the fact that, in a lot of toilets, you can’t dispose of used paper in them. The septic systems–what septic systems there are–just can’t handle it. So you end up throwing the paper goods in a wastebasket which just seems . . . wrong.

Graffiti. Nearly every spare concrete surface has been spraypainted on–“tagged” in the American parlance. It’s ugly and annoying, the equivalent of urinating all over public spaces. Thankfully, the vandals seem to leave the relics and monuments alone. Who says there isn’t honor among whatever it is that you call people who spraypaint all over everything?

Oh, right. Vandals.

People talk during church. I have never been to a service, baptism, or wedding in the old country where most of the congregation sitting in the back isn’t incessantly carrying on conversations AT FULL VOLUME. The entire time. It’s annoying and kind of weird. Show some reverence! The denomination is called GREEK ORTHODOXY.

Everybody smokes. It’s so prevalent it’s difficult to make fun of. Even the kids, I swear; it’s like the cover of Van Halen’s 1984 album (not really, but close). Now, smoking doesn’t bother me personally–hey, smoke what you want. I myself enjoy a cigar now and then, so it’d be hypocritical for me to bemoan this particular national habit. But it is unhealthy, and I can’t imagine it’s good for the public state of health in Greece.

The crisis. And more than that, people’s attitudes towards it. They blame Germany. They blame the EU. They blame their own government. All are worthy targets for their ire. And then they go and demand to keep their benefits, and want more. And no matter how much people cry poor, there always seems to be money to go out for coffee or drinks or food. A fraction of their country pays taxes, and yet they vehemently oppose austerity. It’s a cultural problem that’ll take a while to fix.

Anyway, this wraps up my excursion to Greece, the land of Yianni, the famous salad, the equally famous yogurt, and a bunch of old dudes with beards and togas and whatnot. I hope you enjoyed this, I hope it makes you want to travel not just to Greece but to the world, and more than that, I hope it gives you something to think about.

Check out Parts I and II of my low-budget travelogue while you’re at it. You won’t be sorry.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here.

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