Greece Again October 30 - November 16, 2005
Politics still dictate transportation in the Aegean and leaving Turkey required touching Greek soil to access the fleet of larger ferries plying the seas westward. We made the obligatory short hop from Bodrum, Turkey to the Greek island of Kos before heading to the Greek mainland. The main port town on Kos is a wildly popular summer destination and there was still some life in its center at the end of the tourist season in November. Being the hub for the eastern most cluster of Greek islands, it retained some vitality in the off season.
Our stay on Kos was extended to 5 nights because of the infrequent ferry service, which was enough time to learn how quickly the island became small. Two or 3 days would be enough to bike on almost every bit of paved road on the island and you could surely do it all in a day in a readily available rental car. A local, thirty-something man who had lived in England referred to his native soil on Kos as a "shitty little island" and was anxious to talk about any and everything during our brief encounter at the grocery store. "Island Fever" was my thought--a restlessness I had heard that some Hawaiian islanders experience.
As our luxurious and reassuringly stable ferry with a
capacity for over 2,000 people made several
island stops on its way to Piraeus, the port serving Athens, we gasped at the
thought of life on these islands--in ancient or in modern times. These small Greek
islands looked charming from our ship with their familiar clusters of boxy, white
stucco buildings; domed white churches with bright blue trim; and the occasional hillside
stone windmill in ruins. But the tourists were essentially gone for the
better part of the next 6 months and the port villages looked almost like ghost towns. Most
of the windows were shuttered closed and only a few people were out and about
in the low winter sun. Usually the only trees were a few clusters in the small urban area
around the port
and scrub, or maquis, was the highest thing growing on the rest of the island. Rocks and
dried weeds filled in between the scrub. Bill wondered if even a herd of sheep
would survive on some of these islands.
I thought about the young man in the Kos grocery store as we briefly stopped at these smaller, less populated islands and imagined how I too would go stir crazy. Peace and solitude are nourishing but when one wanted some stimulation it would likely be through passive channels, like reading, TV viewing or the internet. If one lived on these islands it would be so hard to follow up on a new curiosity in an active way. Even something like cooking with new ingredients or dabbling in a new hobby could take weeks of serious preplanning and likely involve a half or full day of transport time to a larger island's city--transport that would only be available a few days a week. One would have to go ready to make a 'buy' decision as too much time would be invested to window shop before making a selection. And as we knew from prior, ferry-halting spring storms in the Mediterranean, islanders can become completely isolated for days at a time.
I can imagine that depression and alcoholism are huge problems on these islands. Residents must revert to "react" mode when the tourists swarm during the summer months, with many locals being involved in the industry and perhaps working long hours. In September and October tourism tapers down, and by November they are all but gone. With few resources to access, I can imagine that many residents just shut their brains down as the demands upon them disappear and the forced structure to their days evaporates.
Athens was the only certain port of call on the westward portion of our meander from Asia Minor towards this year's final departure point of Frankfurt. And our Athens stopover was for the sole purpose of revisiting the renovated-for-the-Olympics National Archeological Museum. This museum was one of our first history teachers abroad as it had extensive exhibits that were bilingual with English. I still remember standing in front of the large, aging, white panels taking notes for seemingly hours as I was introduced to the Cycladic cultures, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. We anticipated seeing their wonderful finds in smart new displays and being able to absorb more details since actually having visited a number of the archeological sites.
We spent the better part of 3 days in the museum and still had to whiz through the last third of it to see it all. But as expected, we were able to savor the details of many more exhibits this time instead of just sorting out the big picture. I enjoyed watching for the first pieces of glass in the chronologically ordered displays as we read about the development of glass while in Turkey. It was surprisingly difficult to distinguish ancient glass (1500 bce) from ivory, ceramic and even lead pieces from the same era.
We scrutinized an ivory
deity found in a Mycenae tomb that looked reminiscent of Hindu influenced art as
there was no mention as to where it was crafted. That piece had me pouring over the pages
of our electronic encyclopedia that evening to determine if there was evidence
of trade between the Aegean Sea and the Indian subcontinent in the 2nd millennium bce
(there is). Still unanswered however was the question: Was this deity carved by Mycenaeans or was
it imported from farther east?
We spent 2 hours alone in the room with the very oldest scraps of pottery, some made a 7,500 years ago. I get positively buzzy with excitement around beautiful pieces of Bronze Age and Pre-Bronze Age pottery. Part of the thrill for me comes from seeing finely crafted things from the beginning of the ceramic era. And seeing ancient pieces that are so aesthetically pleasing gives me a sense of connection with these faceless, nameless peoples. Rather than looking at leftover bits from an anonymous culture, I feel like I connect with the artisans in a small way because we share a fondness for the same things. And here, as in a couple of other museums, we felt like we aroused the suspicion of the guards because we lingered so long over these ancient artifacts that most visitors breeze by as they head for their favorite eras.
We have logged so many hours in museums that we not only study the finds in the exhibits but now we also evaluate the museum itself. Greeks have a reputation for doing just enough at the last minute to get the job done--a reputation that generated a lot of anxiety for them as Olympic hosts--and we saw evidence of their last-minute style in the museum. The museum was closed for a couple of years to spiff it for visitors to the 2004 summer Olympics and it still wasn't completed when we visited in the fall of 2005. The 3 rooms of Egyptian displays were still closed with no available opening date. The last displays in the last room on the upper floor had no labels at all. And exhibits here and there were missing half of their English labels. The variable quality of the written material reflected work being done in a hurry. One big info panel had the dates for the major historic periods muddled and other explanatory pieces were posted without sufficient proof reading. But we loved our lengthy visit in their renovated museum and hope that the passing of the Olympics won't deter them from completing the final details in the exhibits.
As museum buffs we also enjoy watching for biases in point of
view, like in an Istanbul museum where the late 20th century military invasion
of Cyprus was described as a "peace initiative". By the end of our visit, we
felt that the Athens Archeological Museum had taken a
Greek-ocentric perspective: there was ample mention of what disseminated out
from the Greeks, with little credit for what came in. As often is the case in
museums, there was no
mention of the Celtic finds though some of the bronze pieces smacked of the Celtic
culture. And cities in Greece that were actually colonies of Asia Minor cities,
weren't identified as such. It was a good reminder of the hazards of
self-teaching history through museums as you must already know part of the story
to spot the biases.
Out & About in Athens
We didn't spend all of our time in Athens with our noses pressed against the new antireflective glass displays--we spent 2 days outdoors on foot. We enjoyed the long walk from our hotel to the Acropolis so much that we arrived with too little time to justify the $12 per person entrance fee. A bit disappointed, we savored the fun we'd had exploring the open air markets along the way and shopping for the odds and ends that we hadn't found while in Turkey. And having been disappointed in the past at the quality of affordable hotels our guide book directed us to, we also spent time checking out a half dozen hotels and recorded our findings in the "Country Details-Greece" file (also available from our home page). The day had been a satisfying one though we failed to reach our original objective. Luckily we were able to extend our stay and we made it to the Acropolis on our second effort with time to spare.
Being a pedestrian in Athens was just as harrowing as we remembered it. The drivers were merciless in training newcomers to the streets as to their lack of rights. As a pedestrian, you don't begin crossing the street on the green 'walk' sign but wait until the cars and motorcycles complete their turns. Pedestrians were left to hope that there was still time to cross on a green or had to try again on the next round. Also, it was dangerous to stand on the curb cut-outs that I think of as being for wheel chairs and strollers because in Athens they instead were more often used by motorcycles driving on and off the sidewalks. And unlike most cities, even the pedestrians didn't seem to have a codified behavior--they didn't predictably bear left or right when things got tight. The helter-skelter courses of many of the walkers bogged everyone down in their efforts to dodge motorcycles and other obstacles on the sidewalks.
The dogs of Athens however take the zaniness of it all in stride, like these 2 snoozing on a narrow patch of sidewalk in front of the museum. We still keep alive the phrase "like an Athens dog" when we cross streets in busy cities as it was during our first visit to Athens that we watched how the dogs shielded themselves with local pedestrians when they wanted to cross multiple lanes of heavy traffic. We now do the same in many cities and bolt with the pack of pedestrians while on the "downstream" side away from the oncoming cars.
We dashed to the western island of Corfu from Athens by bus (and then ferry) rather than biking in hopes of a long afternoon's reunion with a US cycling couple we met a year ago in Spain. Unfortunately our rendezvous was clipped short and we were left with a chance meeting at the ferry dock as they were waiting to board the ferry we had just debarked. We were quite disappointed with the anticipated but missed opportunity as we rarely get to talk shop with fellow cyclotourists. But Corfu was a beautiful place to shed our deflated mood.
Corfu was one of those places I wanted to see--not because I knew anything about it but because it was a familiar name. And as usual, there is a reason the name is spoken often enough for me to know of it, as the main town on Corfu and the island itself were delightful. When I returned to Bill and the bikes after looking for hotels, I blurted out that it looked like Venice without the canals. Later I was amused to learn that it had been a Venetian outpost. There was something about the maze of narrow stone alleys and the lack of vehicular access in some areas that reminded me of Venice.
We cut short our visit to Corfu to take an unexpected detour to southern Albania. The steep roads and closure of most of the tourist facilities outside of the main port town made it less inviting to explore Corfu than we anticipated. We settled for 1 museum day, 1 riding day, and 1 day planning our trip to Albania. As on Kos, the reduced winter ferry schedule was in part driving our schedule.
History Repeating Itself
Learning about history has been a fun sleuthing game but as many have long said, understanding the past also helps understand the present and anticipate the future. Not having news for a couple of weeks and then hearing about the 6th night of riots (with many more to come) in the immigrant estates in Paris brought history lessons to mind. Being exposed to more frequent daily European news over the last few years had heightened our awareness of the terrible problems of immigration: the desperate need of people to leave horrific social and political situations and the potentially destabilizing effect on the more affluent countries they stream into.
The Paris riots brought to mind a poorly understood time of upheaval in the Mediterranean civilizations in roughly the 1200-900 bce period. The destruction of several civilizations including the Hittites, Minoans, and almost the Egyptian social order is attributed to the mysterious Sea Peoples. Historians debate as to whether they were the cause or the effect: were the societies disintegrating and the migration of hoards filled a vacuum or did some triggering event unleash migrations that overwhelmed established societies. It has always been a bit difficult for me to comprehend the disruptive potential of the unorganized Sea Peoples but seeing the Paris riots put an analogous scenario before me in vivid color.
And we also watched the uncertain outcome of the fall German elections with interest. The German government, like several in Europe, is formed from a coalition of several parties if no party wins a clear majority in the elections. And the people vote for parties, not individuals, so even the final chancellor is in question until party approve after a successful coalition is formed. We believe it was almost 2 months after the elections until a coalition government was formed, with ministers quitting before the new government was even off and running. We thought about how this hiatus in the German government structure could have in prior eras created a vulnerability that a belligerent neighbor would have capitalized upon by attacking. Bill also commented that this was the same kind of chaos and political uncertainty that allowed Hitler to rise to power as a compromise candidate in the 1930's.
Fortunately neither the Paris riots or the labored process of forming a new German government lead to national or international disaster, but both situations amplified how more catastrophic outcomes could have occurred in the past.
Where We Are Now 12/4/05
We just arrived in Frankfurt, Germany from Munich by train and are poised for flying back to Portland on Tuesday.