Friday, September 10, 2010

The Greek Experience September 4th

It has been 20 years since we were last in Greece but both Tom and I have fond memories. We were newly in love on that trip and everything was seen with stars in our eyes. Our children had heard stories of the wonderful things we saw from us and from their friends so everyone in the family was very much looking forward to landing in this country. We have now been here a week and have done different things and have seen it in a new way. I know both Tom and Rhys have written about our experiences but I just couldn’t resist adding my thoughts.

Greece is relaxed in a way I rarely attain. Tom and I could both feel it within days of our arrival. It is kind of like when you are having trouble falling asleep. You are lying there in bed thinking a million thoughts and suddenly you realize you are not falling asleep. You make a conscious effort to stop the wave of thoughts and feel your facial muscles relax. That’s when you realize you aren’t falling asleep because you are actually pretty tense after a day of stress. Being in Greece is like this. You thought you were relaxed but then you realize there was a whole new level of relaxation and you aren’t there. It seems cruel to those at home to say we haven’t yet relaxed when we have been on vacation for the past four weeks, but I believe I am about to achieve a higher level of relaxation. Either that or I am getting seriously close to hysteria.

There are several indicators in Greek culture that these people see life differently. First off, their stores open at very irregular hours compared to Canada. The banks are only open from 8am to 2pm. Most other stores are open from 8am to about 2pm and then they close for a few hours and reopen around 6pm for another four hours or so. This must be because of nap time. While in Canada nap time is relegated to the small or elderly, in Greece it is a way of life. I like it. Except when I am trying to do banking at 2:30. People here need to nap because they are all going to get up and party until the wee hours of the morning. Restaurants don’t even get going until 9pm or 10pm at night and I wouldn’t know what time they close because I haven’t stayed up that late yet. This whole approach to work and socializing is quite civilized.

However, nowhere is this enlightened relaxation the Greeks have attained more obvious than during driving. Several times now, the Greeks have explained to me that words in Greek are spelled the way they sound. This makes sense, no? It certainly makes more sense than some of the ridiculous English spellings we concoct. Interestingly, this is never more obvious than when navigating the roads of Greece. Words don’t need to be spelled the same way every time if you are spelling by the sound, right? How does one spell Delphi? Piraeus? Athens? The road signs just take a stab at the word and if it comes somewhat close, that’s good enough. No need to stick with one spelling of a word. We all know how to sound it out, right? And if it sounds a bit different each time, as long as it’s close, that’s what counts, right? I mean if Nafplion is Nafplio or Nafplia what does it matter? Ending a word with on, o or a is really close, after all. Only a librarian might worry.

And while we were assured signs are in Greek and in English, that too is taken somewhat liberally. Yes, most signs are in English and Greek. Sometimes, this means the sign will be in Greek and then further along the same sign will be in English. Sometimes, this means the words will be written in Greek and English on the same sign. Sometimes, this means the word will be written in Greek and why the heck haven’t you figured out the Greek letters by now you silly traveler? A culture has to be pretty laid back to not be overly concerned about road sign spelling, in my opinion.

Another example of the stress-free approach to living is the roads themselves. Tom and Rhys have already shared some of the amazing things we have seen on the roads but I cannot impress upon you all how effective the roads have been at hammering home this more lenient way of viewing life. First of all, leaving Athens it became apparent that the lines on the road are as Julia said, “a suggestion” to the drivers. Motorcycles obviously are meant to follow any of the white lines like line tag, while cars stay somewhere on the pavement. The shoulder of the highway is just an extension of road. We were on a three lane highway when a car passed a motorcycle (who was carefully following the white line on the shoulder) on the right side, ignoring the other two empty passing lanes on the left of the motorcycle. Several cars drove strattling the white shoulder line, though we have since come to recognize this rule as the “pass me if you dare” rule. Within our first hour of driving, we inched by an overturned car on the highway, smashed and littering the road.

I am pretty sure there are no turn signal bulb factories in Greece. Either that or the owners are impoverished. No one could possibly need to replace a turn signal bulb as no one ever uses them. It is kind of up to the other drivers to guess which way you will move. Motorcyclists do not need to wear helmets. It’s too hot anyway. However, it may be law to have them on the bike as many motorcyclists seemed to carry it over their arm while driving. Elbow protection?

These factors delighted and terrified us as we drove. We laughed hysterically at the four car pass on the two lane road. We shook our heads at the major roadways that seemed little better than goat trails to us. It has all been part of the fun, especially our drive across the Peloponnese peninsula between Olympia and Nafplion that Tom mentioned. This drive deserves special mention and I really must encourage several of our readers to try this sometime. If you have ever thought of skydiving or bungee jumping as a fun thing to do, then this is for you! Just trying to leave Olympia is experience enough. If you drive in on a two way road, shouldn’t you be able to drive out on the same two way road? I mean, how can you head east by driving on the road west? And yet, friends, somehow this works.

Okay, let me add that we had to turn around more than one time in order to find the major highway to Nafplion. It said it was the major highway on the map. Yes it did. This road was terrifying. Imagine the Whistler drive without lines on the road or rails at the side, with shorter, tighter turns and the odd farm animal strolling out. Oh, and add a jet fighter flying low overhead as you make a critical turn. Tom was pretty sure the mountain was coming down on our heads. Every so often, Tom and I would both exhale making me realize we were holding our breath. Eventually the hysterical laughter set in. How can you do anything else when you are clearly going to die any minute? We crawled along this at times 3 metre (the sign said that’s how wide it was) wide major highway turning hairpin turns on cliffs with no rail. Some actually had a mirror, yes a mirror, to help you see oncoming traffic. Who makes a hairpin turn 3 metres wide, people? On a cliff, no less? And weirdly, there was oncoming traffic! We knew we were on the right road because we met people on it. I wonder how many commuters there are there? Less and less every day judging by the number of little roadside shrines. And let me tell you, passing roadside shrines to the dead every five metres does nothing for one’s stress level either!

And then, just when I thought I couldn’t take it any longer, there was a town! A town clinging to the side of this mountain! The buildings were so vertical, they looked like comic structures. We wanted to stop, more just to cling to the edge of the mountain in terror than anything else. What could these people possibly do for a living? They live on a 45 degree slope? Skiing isn’t an option. The snow wouldn’t stick to the side of this place. Ball playing is right out. I looked but strangely none of them seemed to be wearing ropes and clamps…or helmets…not even over their arms.

Today, we are on a great big ship heading to the beautiful island of Santorini. The sun is shining and the rental car is back in the parking lot at the port. They say you grow and change with travel. If I can achieve even a fifth of the laid back casualness of the Greek people, I think I will be doing myself a service. This will NOT happen while driving, however.


Mynnette said...

Holly- you fracture us with your humor- The roads bit is almost as frightening to read as to experience!MSW

maryanncart said...

Loved your humor! Is it kind of laughing so hard you may throw up? Last night, at the Dream Group, I had had a dream about you and Steven...worried we hadn't heard from you, Steve telling you to get pictures of Ian and me! Me thinking you had enough on your plate...guess stress travels! Love to all! BREATHE DEEPLY Mom

Deanne said...

"Greece is relaxed in a way I rarely attain."
Oh Holly you crack me up!! I couldn't stop giggling at that one. That said, I am soooooo glad you are relaxing!
Quite obviously, I will NEVER be able to travel by car in Greece.