Friday, September 19, 2014

An Athens Afternoon

It felt like we were in the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” 

When we walked through the customs doors two hours late at Athens airport last Thursday, we were greeted by Vassilios, our middle-aged driver and guide for the afternoon. His face featured a huge smile and twinkling eyes that portended his propensity to laugh easily and heartily. Within those first few minutes walking to his taxi, the thought came strongly to my mind that he could easily be a Greek Santa Claus.

Vassilios, like many other Greeks, had lost his job as a result of “the Crisis.” The financial crisis of the fall of 2008 plunged the United States’ economy into the Great Recession, but the aftermath in Greece was far, far worse. As the travel coordinator on our cruise later commented to us over dinner our first night on board, “In Greece, we speak of ‘B.C.’ and ‘A.C’ – before crisis and after crisis. The two worlds are totally different.” 

In order to survive, Vassilios had started offering tours of Athens. He is not an officially-licensed guide, but he has a car and a knowledge of the city that is his home. As he later explained to us, his car is a taxi and he is a licensed taxi driver because in Athens one cannot transport people for hire in Athens unless in a taxi. (Taxi drivers’ union?)

Vassilios took us along some lovely beaches on the way into Athens. At one point, he pulled over saying, "Here. You take a picture." After duly obeying him, he said, "Now, I take a picture of you. Smile! No, SMILE!" The result was the above picture.

After following Vassilios to his new canary yellow Mercedes and stowing our bags in the trunk, we were off. We hadn’t even got out of the airport before he said in his richly accented English, “Ok. You come to Greece, you think you don’t speak Grrreek. Am I right?” We each nodded. “Ok, I show you that you already speak Grrreek.”

That’s when it first seemed like we were in a scene from the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” His voice sounded just like that of the father in the movie, only jollier. And just like in the movie, Vassilios proceeded to list a half-dozen English words that come from Greek. Then, as we drove toward the city, he started mentioning how Greece has the best of this and the best of that. Again, I was reminded of the father in the movie.

(As an aside, at our dinner the first night of our cruise, the cruise director sat at our table and as I was relating our experience with Vassilios, the subject of the movie came up. "I LOVED that movie, she said. I've watched it so many times and laugh each time I see it!" That inevitably led to laughing about lines in the movie. I thought it was hilarious that the first one she mentioned was "It's a ceke (cake), a ceke!" Those who've seen the movie will know what we were talking about.)

We then drove to the Acropolis, a place I never thought I would see in person. 

My introduction to the classical world occurred in my freshman year of college at Illinois Wesleyan University. Academically speaking, that year was one of the most wondrous of my life. One of the reasons for this was my Humanities class, a two-semester course that was required of every student at IWU. It was a junior-level class, but because I had proficiencied out of a mandatory freshman writing class, I was automatically put in the class.

I loved it. Because IWU was such a small school, all of the lectures were given by full professors, and my individual class was also taught by a full professor. Each of them brought their own expertise and passion to the multidisciplinary course, opening the wonders of Western civilization to me for the first time.

The passion of the professors was contagious. I dreamed of going to Greece some day to see the sites where the classics we were reading were written, where Socrates taught, the birthplace of the intellectual world that has been passed down to us through the centuries. But that dream eventually faded and quietly died for various reasons.

Now, a week ago, I was climbing the Acropolis to see the ruins at the heart of that great civilization.

I've long since stopped asking myself, "What if?" What if I had followed my passions in college instead of joining the long line to a gate labeled, "Be Practical." I could list other "what if" questions. All of that is an exercise in futility.

However, the flame that was lit during that year at Illinois Wesleyan University never entirely died. It informed the way I tried to raise my children to be independent thinkers and value higher education for its own sake rather than as a glorified vocational school. It also guided me throughout my life, if only in the quiet chambers of my inner soul.

We saw a couple of other sites that afternoon, including the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, pictured below.

But the highlight of our short visit was the Acropolis. I long ago forgot the details of what I learned about this place and the Golden Age of Greece during that year at IWU. But I have never forgotten how I felt while learning it. That feeling returned to me that afternoon as I gazed at the Parthenon, my youthful dream resurrected and fulfilled. It was ... magical.


  1. Very beautiful, Joseph. I'm going to have to go back soon. I've been concerned about the economic crisis and the number of strikes, etc. I don't want to go to an island and have the ferry boats go on strike (although there are worse places to be stuck).

    When I was there in college 20+ years ago, the city buses were on strike for the entire 19 days I was there. A friend of mine went there about 3-4 years ago, and the hotel people told him which areas to avoid because of protests, etc. I do get the impression that things have more recently calmed down.

    Your description of Greek personalities is spot on. Have you heard the story yet about how Greek was nearly the national language of the United States? If not, you'll have to ask someone about that one. It's pretty funny.

  2. I've always wanted to go to Greece. Not for the antiquities but for the blue and warm waters. The sites require reference. How did all this fit into what we in the west have become?