Saturday, September 25, 1999

Returning Home

Time to return home. I exchanged my drachmae for dollars at an exchange rate of 306.5 to the dollar. My luggage was x-rayed TWICE on the way the plane. We boarded an MD-11 and soon we were in the air, flying over Italy, then France, then England, Ireland and Iceland. I'll be back in Houston by tonight. What did I learn from my first trip abroad?

Some people say you aren't truly educated unless you've travelled abroad. I don't know about that, but I have gained some precious experiences this week. I have walked in the footsteps of the Minoans, Hellenes, Persians, Romans, and many others. I've walked streets dating from 1700 B.C. to the first century, to the middle ages, to the nineteenth century, to he present day -- a span of more than 3,500 years of history.

I've learned the food is never as good as at home. Especially on a cruise. Our dinner options last Thursday were either Turkey Schnitzel or a GrouperBurger. Need I say more?

I know how it feel to be discriminated against when trying to get service at a restaurant.

I've learned foreign nations have a love-hate relationship with America. They emulate our style of dress, watch our movies and listen to our music, yet at the same time they spray-paint "Killers go home," or write "USA" with a swastika for the S.

I've learned if you give an old man a microphone in a bar he will sing "My Way."

Friday, September 24, 1999

More bad cabbies!

Back in Athens, I wanted to go back ot the area where the old Olympic stadium was. I told the cabbie I wanted ot go to the stadium. "Olympic stadium?" Yes! Off we went. It seemed like were going the wrong way and it wasn't too long before we'd left the city of Athens completely. Um... where are we going? "Olympic stadium!" Sure enough, he pulled up at the new Olympic Stadium, being built for the 2004 Olympics. I was annoyed, to say the least. I explained to him that's not where I wanted to be and he waved me off. "I'm not going back to Athens today," he said, and drove off.

Well, I was here so I may as well look around. I walked into the stadium, a modern white structure. It seemed really big, even for a stadium, and I was surprised to see an analog clock where in the US you'd see those cheesy digital ones. After that I stood on the side of the road waving at cabs until one finally stopped. The driver put me in the front seat since he was driving his friends around in the back. As he was talking with them he kept gesturing and reaching out with his hand, gesturing as he talked, and I was almost afraid he was going to put his hand on my knee.

Thursday, September 23, 1999


We arrived at Santorini about 3:00 PM.

Santorini was once a large island, round, and occupied by Cycladic people probably related to the Minoans. In about 1400 B.C. there was massic volcanic eruption--the largest known to have ever occurred, many times more powerful than that of Krakatoa. The crater has an area of 88 km, which would make for quite a spectale if it wasn't for the waters of the Aegean, which must have rushed into the crater in a devastating torrent, sending steam pouring into the air and creating a niose that must have been heard for miles. The explosion buried the city we call Akrotiri in ash, much as Vesuvius would dot o Pompeii and Herculaneum in another 1,479 years or so. (Writing down that number of years between Akrotiri and Pompeii really brings it into perspective, doesn't it? We are as far removed from the fall of Rome as the people of Pompeii were from the Minoans. There's so much we don't know.) The explosion ripped the heart right out of the island and the crater is so big we sailed the ship into it.

From the ship we took "tenders," or little ferry boats, to the island. On the way I could see some amazing geologic formations--I tried to get a picture but the whole thing is just too massive. The city of Akrotiki is slowly being excavated, and they estimate it may take another hundred years to finish. They are very slowly and tediously brushing the ashes away so as not to disturb whatever they might find. Unlike Pompeii, no human or even animal remands have been found, which leads to the theory that the island was evacuated after warning signs from the volcano led the locals to run away. Where they went, of course, is unknown. The guide said the absence of any precious jewelry also indicated an organized escape before the blast. She said they did find some Egyptian imports, and that they believed there was a strong mercantile industry in the area. One building had four looms inside, which led to the theory it was a merchant's home or perhaps a workshop. There are more pots like the ones at Knossos, and the murals were of similar design. There were bulls' horn motifs and a mural of ships travelling back and forth between two lands with people in festive postures looking on.

If I worked here I should find myself digging 24 hours a day until I had uncovered all the secrets of Akrotiri. I asked the guide if there were any known Egyptian texts that mentioned Minoans. She said no but they did mention Northerners. No one is sure who they were referring to.


When we arrived I immediately recognized the famous red and black columns that were set up here and there, "restored" by Sir Arthur Evans. The columns are unusual because they are inverted, with the wider part at the top and getting more narrow towards the bottom. Archaeologists have guessed the reason might be more walking space, more surface area for roof supports, or simple aesthetics. Ultimately, we don't know why, and probably never will.

Here are there were alabaster blocks that had once stood in the thresholds of buildings thousands of years ago. Although they have been partially eroded by esposure to rain for millenia, they still make the place glisten and gleam. The climate was much different 4,000 years ago, of course, and trees were more abundant. Much of Knossos was probably made of wood, all of which is gone.

A long line of tourists formed at one building. This one housed the throne so well known and celebrated. They call this the throne room because of the greater number of doors in the walls (four per side) and its superior view of the river that would have been below. The famous throne might not be a throne at all, but because it stands alone in this important room, well, we guess that maybe this is the oldest throne in all of Europe. It was roped off, of course. Later I saw more such "thrones" in other rooms, which made me a little suspicious of the whole throne theory.

Not far from there was a balcony-type area with a restored painting of a bull. You may recall that the bull appears to have been sacred--structures resembling stylized horns are found about, there is evidence they sacrificed bulls, and in paintings they participated in bull-jumping. As much as serious historians criticize Evans for restoring parts of Knossos, I have to say that without his restorations, I would probably be pretty bored right now. Most of the areas we saw were little more than eroded, crumbling foundations. I was, however, surprised by the large amount of pottery that survived. We saw a large number of huge casks for olive oil. In some places the alabaster has turned black. The guides tell us that some casks of olive oil tipped over in an earthquake, broke open and spilled onto the floor. Inevitably a fire started and charred the alabaster, and perhaps parts of the city.

In many buildings there is an open-air chamber (a "lustral basin") that the archaeologists say had olive oil seeped into the floors. They theorize the Minoans would go here to perform purification rites and bathe in olive oil before entering the city. Again, we don't know. It's quite dangerous to try to guess what was in the mind of a Minoan living 4,000 years ago.

Seeing the pottery reminded me how much more I admire Minoan art than Hellenistic. The murals they painted represent sport, trade and nature. You see people in harmony with their universe. Nothing representing warfare or a preoccupation with death, slavery or power. Instead, they depict whimsical blue monkeys, dolphins, flowers and people carrying flasks instead of swords. I saw pottery decorated with beautiful and intricate spirals rather than the jagged edges and straight lines of the Hellenes.

The Aegean Sea

4:30 AM. As I write this I'm sitting at the very back of the ship in a deck chair with my feet on the railing. I'm as close to the water as you can get. the moon is behind me; it's turned a milky vanilla color as it sulks behind the island of Crete. I can't see much beyond the ship lights yet. The propeller that hurls us forward leaves a wake of white foam that feeds out into the darkness. I wish we were going the other way so I could see the sun rise from here. (The other side of the ship is extremely windy--here I am protected by canvases stretched strategically pver the side rails.) I have a walkman with me and I'm scanning local stations. Most radio Greek music sounds similar to Latin music--subtract the trumpets and add a dash of Middle Eastern flavor. I can smell breakfast cooking in the galley behind me in preparation for the 6:00 am buffet. We are due to arrive in Crete in two and a half hours. Bacon smells waft from the galley. In the distance faint lights stretch out in a thin line on the Southern horizon. My finger slides over the radio dial and suddenly I'm hearing Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads. My solitude is violated by noisy cleaning crew members running around, straightening deck chairs. Time to relocate . . .

We are approaching Crete, the home of King Minos and his great palace of Knossos. I read about this place as a child, and I'm thrilled be be seeing it now. From what I've read, there's no way Theseus could have come from Athens to see King Minos. The Greeks didn't even exist yet as a people during the heyday of Minos. I can't remember the dates for Knossos right now but I want to say about 2,500 B.C. That predates the Trojan War by more than a thousand years. The lights of Heraklion burn brighter and more distinctly. Soon the lights grow into buildings and ships, distinguishable only by the outline of their lights. Breakfast time. I chatted with some of the women and talked excitedly about going to Knossos. I mentioned Theseus, Aegeas, Ariadne, and Minos. "My," she said condescendingly. "You obviously remember the names." I took that to mean she tought I was showing off. When the time came to disembark I was first on the bus.

Wednesday, September 22, 1999


The old city of Rhodes is still very much alive and not in ruils at all. The exterior of the buildings is maintained as it looked in the 1500s. In about 1522 or so the Turks drove out the Knights and the Knights fled to Malta. Sulieman the Magnificent waslked these very streets and prayed in the church, thereby turning it into a mosque. He built a minaret there, but someone most unwisely stored gunpowder in it. One evening during a storm, lightening struck and the electricity ran down the minaret, setting off the gunpowder. BOOM! No more minaret. Only the foundation remains.

There are many images of the Colossus of Rhodes here but they are all based on the inaccurate depiction of the statue standing, straddling the harbor as ships sailed between its colossal legs. So the only thing I bought was a small outfit for Sheridan.


Atop the Acropolis of Lindos is the Sanctuary of Athena Lindia. Occupied since at least the 9th Century B.C., it has been built on, built over, and built around by Hellenes, Romans, Byzantines, and the Knights of St John. Getting to the top involved climbing a lot of stairs, and I'm surprised my legs held out as well as they have.

The fortress looked like and medieval fortress you might imagine--with crenellations and wedge-cut archers' windows, archways and stone floors. There is no marble in Rhodes so the structure was built from sandstone. The mixture of medieval architecture seemed to clash with the columns from the old temple. A legend says that Paul the Apostle visited this temple during his trip to Rhodes (is there anwehere in Greece this guy hasn't been?) On the streets, women sold tablecloths and doileys.

Tuesday, September 21, 1999

Ephesus & Patmos

Most people I've talked to on board came here for at least two weeks, and some as long as eight weeks. How can people afford to do that? I envy people their long tours, but suspect I would burn out long before eight weeks. The food on board ship is terrible. Though the cruise ship is owned by a Greek company, it's clear they cater mostly to English-speaking, mostly American tourists. The menus at the bars and all prices are in US Dollars; the newsletter and entertainment are primarily in English. The cruise director, a tall blonde from Austria, speaks German, English, Greek, Spanish, French and a little Italian. She's had oppotunity to learn the languages, though. She's Austrian, so theres your German. She lived in Gibraltar, so there's your Spanish and English. She's married to a Greek... you get the idea. Most of the waitstaff is from the Philippines. Entertainers are generally Latvian or Romanian.

Today we docked in Kusadesi, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus. We took a bus to the ruins. Our guide explained that Ephesus was once a major port city, and the site was about 3,000 years old, but that most of what we'd see dated from its zenith in the First Century. Some say Mary the Mother of Jesus settled here. Our guide took the opporunity to complain about historic artifacts being "stolen" and placed in the Brisish museum. From whan I saw there's plenty left for the Turks if they'll just get serious about excavation.

I knew Ephesus was supposed to be an extensive site, but wow! Marble streets and majestic columns, intact staircases and theaters, collonades, and a library. I could easily have stayed the entire day wandering the streets of this ancient city. It didn't take long for me to realize I would have to ditch the tour group if I was going to see anything detail, so I slipped away from the group and headed off on my own. I saw countless remains of columns and statues with engravings in Greek and Latin that had faded almost to oblivion. At the end of one road was the amphitheater where, so they say, first met Anthony and Cleopatra. Again I crossed paths with the Apostle Paul, for here, we were told, he gave his famous speech that resulted in the cry of protest, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" We followed a road that once led from the coast into Ephesus, but the waters had long since receded. I can only imagine what the Turks will find once they sift through the ground along that route--the trash and castoff of millenia lay in the earth beneath our feet.

After Ephesus they took us back to Kusadesi and to a shop called Lapis Ege, where the shopowners served us apple tea and showed off some expensive Turkish rugs. They wanted as much as $1,000 for a small one, and the cheap ones were $250. I was suspicious of the prices and didn't buy. We had a few minutes before returning to the ship, and I traded 1,000 DR for 1,000,000 TL. I think I got ripped off, but it's cool to be a millionaire in any currency.

Later that afternoon we arrived at Patmos. I'm sure the Tourism Board has selected a nice cave where they claim John the Baptist wrote the Book of Revelations, but I was tired of the hype and chose instead to visit a remote beach. These islands have high hills close to the shoreline and the climb is well worth the effort. Gazing down from the summit you'll see the valley looks like undulating waves of earth and shrubbery flowing down to a sandy edge where it met the cobalt blue waters of the Aegean. There are no sounds of wildlife or birds or vehicles, only the dim roar of the sea below.

Monday, September 20, 1999

The Olympic Countess

The air was crisp and cool as we loaded the bus for Piraeus, a port town south of Athens. Though it's considered a different town, there was no break in the buildings, and it was impossible for me to tell when we left Athens. Along the way our tour guide explained the way things work on the cruise--how we had to leave our passports, check in and out, and how we really don't to be left behind at one of the islands. We arrived early at the departure gate--a long building rather like an airport, with x-ray machines and metal detectors. Within 15 minutes the line of passengers extended out the door. We were the first to board; travelling with a tour group sometimes has its perks! I chatted with a couple from New Zealand and she offered me a lolly. Heh.

We sailed into the Aegean right on schedule. The ship, the Olympic Countess, is not large and the ride is a bit more bumpy than I would like, but the water is midnight blue and islands dot the horizon--silhouettes behind a cloudy haze. It's easy to sit on deck and lose yourself somewhere between the sea and sky. They tell us there are 300 islands in Greece, and i wonder if they don't look just as they did when the historic prototypes for Jason or Odysseus sailed these in very waters.

At 4:00 I picked up a photocopy of my passport and my assigned passenger ID number: 666, which is funny as hell. Somewhere we lost time, because we arrived at Mykonos 30 minutes late, and the sun was already setting. Mykonos is an island famous for its white stucco buildings with accents in blue or red, with stairs everywhere. Slow and steady windmills matched the pace of life here. There were plenty of jewelry shops and postcards--many nude! We didn't have time to see much, unfortunately, and it was back to the ship for a forgettable meal at a table with assigned seating. After dinner entertainment consisted of singing in broken English and a magic show. After that, everyone disappeared and went to bed. Seriously! I stood in the lounge, alone, around 10:30, in amazement. "Mambo No. 5" echoed across the empty dancefloor. This definitely wasn't a party boat!

Sunday, September 19, 1999

How do you say Customer Service in Greek?

Having the afternoon free, I asked the tour guide for suggestions and she recommended hanging out at Koloniki Square. It's an area of shops and cafes with narrow streets and alleys. Pigeons were everywhere, including on the tables where people were eating. I found a place indoors to eat. Quickly growing bored with Koloniki, I decided to try Mt. Lycabettus, a high point in the city where one can see Athens laid out below. Hailing a cab was a problem. Cabbies may ignore me or they may stop. If they stop they may speak English or they may drive off. If they do understand English they may or may not feel like it, and they'll drive off. Finally a cabbie acknowledged my existance and, when pressed, admitted he could feasably take me to Mt. Lycabettus. Reluctantly, he drove me over to the entrance. There's a funicular you can ride to the top for 1,000 DR. At the top is a one-room church with samples of Greek Orthodox iconography and a donation box. The main attraction was the view. The city of Athens stretched out below me in all directions, a mass of white buildings that stretched out towards the distant hills. I could see the Aegean Sea. It truly was spectacular.

Next on the list was the Athens Stadium, where the first modern Olympics was held in 1896. I rode back down the funicular and stopped three cabs before I found one willing to take me to the stadium. He wanted 8,000 DR to drive me around to see the stadium and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I told him it only cost me 1,000 to get there and he could forget it. Finally a cab took me for only 375. The Stadium is made of marble and has 106 steps to the top (I counted; I climbed). At the far end were two-headed, Janus-style busts of Athena and Poseidon, the two deities associated with Athens.

Back to the hotel restaurant for dinner. I ordered lamb brochette and a glass of wine. The waiter wore a nametag that read WAITER. He never offered me a refill--or anything else, for that matter. When I tired of waiting for him to return so I could ask him for the bill, I laid 10,000 DR on the table. And waited some more. Greeks have no concept of customer service.

The Acropolis

I got up at 7:45 and dressed for the Acropolis tour. The sky was overcast and threatening rain. On the bus ride over we saw the palace guards in their ceremonial uniforms. They really do look a little silly in their white skirts and leggings with huge pompoms on their shoes. We passed the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian's Arch, both of which I hope to photo next Friday on my free afternoon.

The Acropolis is steeped in history so deeply I can't begin to do it justice. It's iconic, and has come to represent the best in ancient Greek civilization. Of course, it was built with money extorted from the Delian League, but no one seems to care, and the tour guides rarely bring up that sort of unpleasantness.

We climbed a series of steps, some old marble and some new concrete, and along the way peered down at the Odeon and the Agora. We saw a nondescript hill a stort distance away--a bare, knobby mound. This, they told us, was the Aereopagos, where supposedly Paul the Apostle preached his sermon about the Unknown God. Farther along the path we passed an impressive section of columns, and then to the right, we saw the Parthenon itself. It stands proud, strong, yet delicate--a perfect building for Athena, the goddess of wisdom, patron and namesake of Athens. I believe they said ten million people a year come to see it. Part of the effect was spoiled by scaffolding to facilitate the current preservation efforts. They are using titanium to replace the old iron reinforcements, and inside the Parthenon is a mess of scaffolding and a crane.

Saturday, September 18, 1999

First day in Athens

On the international Delta flights there is a screen where you can see a map that shows where you are relative to your points of origin and destination. On the map I see Corfu, Delphi, Cairo, Istanbul, Budapest, Naples, and ask myself why I waited so long to finally do this. I suddenly wish I'd taken a year to travel and work my way across Europe, doing odd jobs for a month and moving on to the next place.

The passengers cheered when we landed. We disembarked, loaded everyone into an airport shuttle, and rode maybe 150 yards to customs. We all looked at each other and wondered why we didn't just walk there. From the airport, Greece is brown and hilly. After having my passport stamped by a bored gate attendant, I went to baggage claim. The gate through customs was not heavily staffed, and to my surprise I was completely ignored. I expected some kind of greeting or questions--nothing. The area outside customes was a combination of auto rental booths, ATMs--all of which were empty--exchange booths and travel agents from Brendan and Cosmos tours holding up signs. Some people were smoking and there were three large dogs sleeping in one corner of the airport.

Three of us loaded into a bus to go over to our hotel and I got my first look at Athens. The drive from the airport isn't picturesque. I saw lots of auto-shops and an open-air market. Finally we arrived at my hotel, the Divani Caravel. Outside the hotel was a fast-food place called Pita Pan (ha ha). Sitting down to have a meal turned out to be more challenging than you might think. I didn't know whether to seat myself or wait to be seated. The cashier barely spoke English, and with some gesturing with a picture menu we worked it out and I had my first authentic Greek gyro.

I headed out to find the Athens nightlife and met up with a couple from Tennessee. They were headed to the Plaka so I tagged along. The Plaka is a restaurant and shopping district that resembles the French Quarter in New Orleans in many ways. The ubiquitious dogs were here too, roaming about seeking scraps from the tables of outdoor cafes. We went to a bouzouki bar on the roof of a building and listened to the music for a bit. We waited about 20 minutes for service and no one ever came to the table, so we left. Sort of an inauspicious beginning.

Friday, September 17, 1999

My first overseas trip

My Greek adventure actually began on one of three trips to Austin to teach ManageWise. It so happened that the a travel agency was located close to the State Auditor's Office where I was teaching and I wandered in on my lunch break. I picked up a few brochures and brought them back to the hotel and flipped through them, searching out the most intriguing tour within my budget and vacation time allowed. With a price of about $2500 and a week's length in mind, I narrowed my options rather quickly to two -- a week in England or a week in Greece. Both could be fun, but Greece won out for a few reasons. Perhaps it is in part because my brother and my erstwhile girlfriend Michelle both raved about how they loved Greece. Also, it boasts a great deal of history--being the Cradle of Civilization is no minor point. When I read the itenerary and saw places like Knossos, Rhodes and Patmos listed, I knew I should go.

After confirming with my boss that I could get away for a week, I agonized a bit more over the decision and committed myself via credit card. I have always wanted to travel, and though only a small percentage of the population of Americans even own a passport (someone said only 4% but I didn't verify) I'm probably in a minority of people within my income and education who have never been abroad. It seemed like a rite of passage. Okay, maybe I'm overestimating the value of travel a little. When all of us instructors went out for lunch one day to an Indian restaurant the topic of my impending trip came up. Greece. The birthplace of democracy. Home to the Parthenon. Streets where once walked Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Themistocles, Pericles, and countless Persians, Romans, Byzantines . . . all one instructor had to say was "My sister went to Greece. She went topless." Ahem. So much for culture.

Getting my passport was an arduous task that shook my full faith and credit in the United States government. The passport arrived ni the mail in a timely fashion. Inside it was my photo and the name Mary Frances Frederici, age 70-something, female. Insensed, I fired it back the next morning with a note that said, "I am clearly not Mary Frances anyone. Please fix this." A week later I was in Austin again and called the passport office. They said they had received Mary Frances' passport back but not mine. The following week I went there in person and after two trips to the Mickey Leland building, finally had a correct passport.