Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jury’s Still Out On Greece

Actual conversation outside American Embassy in Athens:
Embassy Guard:  Do you have a cell phone?
Me:  No, but I want to tell you, I have a knife.

More on the this below.  But first, let's talk about Greece. 

I think Greece is going to be one of those places I’ll have to mull over for a while before forming a more definitive opinion.  For the past eight days it’s had me on an emotional roller-coaster:  I love Greece.  I hate Greece.  I love Greece again.  I hate Greece again.  I need to let it sit.  See what things look like in the rearview mirror.

To be sure, many others have formed their own strong opinions of the Greeks, not least:  the Greeks.  I’ve never seen a people so in love with itself.  I’m talking Narcissus on steroids.  Everyone walks around in mirrored sunglasses like they’re too cool for school.  Which is actually doubly-awesome for them because, at the same time, they can admire their reflections in other people's Ray Bans.  There's nothing like looking at yourself looking good.

Recruitment sign for Greek police force. (For real.)

And, my gosh, the arrogance.  It hangs in the air worse than the worst humidity.  I never felt so stupid and insignificant as I was made to feel in Greece, a place that produced some of the world's smartest thinkers and practically invented civilization, or so it is widely believed.  I kept thinking of that line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the dad, Kosta, tells his daughter's boyfriend, Ian, a non-Greek:  “When my people were writing philosophy, your people were still swinging from trees.”

Sometimes I felt like telling the Greeks:  You know what?  Nobody likes you.

Seriously, many people—particularly in surrounding countries—have not-so-high opinions of Greece.  I feel like you can’t walk two blocks in Albania without stumbling upon some seriously profane, anti-Greece graffiti.  

Be it the Turks, the Albanians, the Macedonians, and maybe even the Bulgarians, it’s clear:  Greece is not winning any Balkan popularity contest.  I myself vote for Macedonia, because I loved it so.  Especially Lake Ohrid and G.

I also had reason to dislike Greece the moment I entered the country.  Let me tell you why. 

Some countries will not let you enter unless your passport contains two blank pages.  Still others require that these two blank pages actually face each other.  By the time I reached Greece, I had only two such blank pages—Page R and Page S. 

I entered the Greek passport control to find a gruff and unfriendly agent, who apparently did not speak English.  I stood silent while he flipped through my passport and recorded the essential information.  I’m sure he must have noticed that there were other spaces on which to place his visa stamp in my passport besides the last two-blank-facing ones.  But do you think he cared?

No; he didn’t.  He brought that library-stamp contraption right down on my Page R, and sullied my two-blank-facing pages.  I gasped, audibly.  But what could I do?  I moved it along.

Back in China, in 2007, I had more pages added to my passport amid my seven-continent journey.  I went to the consulate in Shanghai, asked for more pages, and 45 minutes later, I had a new set—A through X—added to the inside; free of charge.

Now I needed more pages because of Greece, and remembering my China experience, figured I could get this accomplished at the embassy in Athens.  I knew it was possible to have a second set added, because I’d recently met a backpacker who showed me his.  So I headed down to the embassy on Friday.

This is where the above-referenced knife-confession comes in.  When I approached the door, the Embassy guard asked me if I had a cell phone, presumably because cell phones are prohibited within.  It was then that I realized that I was carrying a knife I my backpack.  

It was a butter knife that I’d taken from the hostel that morning.  I didn’t like to eat the hostel’s free breakfast for breakfast—including tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hardboiled eggs and bread—so each day I packed those things up in plastic baggies and turned breakfast into lunch.  I’m budget-travel savvy that way.

I get extremely nervous around authority figures generally, and I think that’s why I blurted out “I have a knife” the way I did, without giving thought to the way it would sound.  Now I was afraid I'd be arrested.  I quickly pulled the plastic bag out of my backpack and showed the knife.  It was sitting in the bag alongside a slice of French bread and a pat of butter.  The woman looked at it and laughed, marking the first time in history--or at least in my experience--that an embassy security officer revealed a human side.  The guards at the front held on to my knife and other things while I conducted my business within.

I took a number at passport services and waited.  Soon I was called and found a stone-faced Greek man sitting behind a window.  I told him what I was after.  He responded, laconically, “More pages; you must pay $82.”  I asked, “How long would it take?”  His terse answer:  “Two days.”  

This was Friday afternoon, and I was leaving Sunday morning.  I didn’t have two days.  Or $82, for that matter.

I left irritated all over again.  I felt like going back and telling the guy, in a childlike manner:  Well, China did it.  For free.  And it only took them 45 minutes.

But I thought better of it.  Plus, I figured Holland—my next and final stop—wasn’t one of those countries that would require two blank-facing pages.  I’m guessing it’s pretty chill at the Amsterdam passport control center, all things considered.  At least I hope this is so given that, at the time of this writing, I am flying on a plane about to land there.

Speaking of conflicts between Greece and others, I learned something interesting recently from a pamphlet called “The Parthenon Marbles In Exile.”  Apparently—according to the Greeks—back in 1801 “the Parthenon was systematically looted and its architectural members removed” when someone named Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to Constantinople, acquired a collection of Greek antiquities, principally from the Parthenon. 

The dismembered parts decorated Elgin’s Scotland home until sometime later they made their way to the British Museum, where they now sit as "the jewel of the Museum’s collections," according to the Greeks.  Meanwhile--to the Greeks' endless chagrin--“[t]he Parthenon, in contrast, has since that time remained denuded and truncated; its wounds gaping open.”

Apparently there’s been ongoing strife between Greece and Britain over the Parthenon treasures, which goes a little something like this:

Greece:            Listen up, you little pansies—you better give us our shit back or else.
Britain:            Or else what? 
Greece:            Or else we’re gonna come up there and go all This-Is-Sparta on your ass!
Britain:            Bloody bring it on, bitches.  In the meantime:  pound sand.

You’d think there’d be a way to split the marbles on this one.  So far, no suitable resolution's been found.

My last day in Greece was a good one.  It began with a trip to Delphi and ended with yet another home-run meal at my now-favorite Greek restaurant, the family-run Smile, where, by the end of the week, I had become a regular.  Last night I splurged on a special from the “Greek Crisis Menu.”  For 10 Euro, I had my first taste of moussaka—which was to die for—along with Greek salad, bread, and a glass of wine.  I hate to take advantage of a people in crisis, but not having worked for six months, I'm facing a bit of a financial crisis myself.

I finished my meal, and said yet another goodbye to new friends.   Contact information was exchanged and the family posed for a picture.  Zoe, the young daughter, hugged me on the way out.   I was touched.  And, I should mention--in contrast to what I've written above--in Athens the Smile family is stand-out in terms of friendliness, humility and good old-fashioned hospitality.  Not to mention the food is really something to write home about.

I made other friends around Athens, also revolving around food.  (You gotta eat, right?)  There was the guy by the entrance to the Athens Flea Market who remembered me each day when I stopped to buy a banana and other fruit.  And the men down a side street off Ermou selling the cheap and good 1.90 € chicken gyros.  The manager always greeted me with a "hello, sweetheart," but in a sweet rather than creepy way.  And finally, there was the young girl in the mini-market from whom I bought my Greek yogurt.  The strawberry, by the way, is exceptional.

I also enjoyed talking with some Greek firemen last night.  I met them on my last mad-dash around town, near Monastariki Square.  I told them that I’d like to put their picture in a calendar I’m creating.  I think they think I was joking, but I’m not.  It’s something I’ve been working on called “Authority Figures of Eastern Europe and the Balkans,” and I’m certain it’s going to make a very unique gift this Christmas.  I don't want to ruin the surprise, but here's a little preview:

Army soldiers in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Guards at the Presidential Palace in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Members of the UN-Unexploded Ordinance dive team.
Lake Orhid, Macedonia

Austrian peacekeepers in Mitrovica, Kosovo.

Police officer to the rescue in Kotor, Montenegro.

Cops on the beat in Berat, Albania.

Too-cool-for-school Athens motorcycle cops.
Athens firemen.  I'm thinking February.

I know, now everyone's gonna want one.