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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

August 5, 1963

We were awed by the size and emptiness of the Atlantic - the first sighting of the Azores was an exciting event (even though it was foggy at the time), as was the sighting of another ship. Gibralter was a disappointment: heavy haze and we sailed through shortly after sunset.

We went ashore for four hours at Genoa. It was our first visit to a foreign city and it was a good one with which to start. The narrow streets of the old city, the clothes line, the ancient buildings, the fantastic rush of traffic (mostly Italian automobiles and motor scooters rushing in all directions), the magnificent cemetery at the edge of the city; this was all very exciting, especially after nine days of ship life. (The dead in many places in Italy -- as in may other European countries -- are buried for eight years. The bones are then dug up, placed in a bone church and the grave is ready for another body - land is short in Europe and cannot be wasted on massive graveyards.

We spent a half day in Naples, enough time to visit Pompeii, visit a roof top garden overlooking the city, eat a spaghetti dinner, drive through the city (and again those tine cars -- with loud musical horns -- rushing in all directions and somehow miraculously no colliding) and a ride out to the airport for a charter flight to Athens. We arrived in Athens at about midnight, were all through customs in a half hour and in our hotels by one o'clock -- and a horrible night of waking up periodically and vividly sensing the rolling of the ship and the rumbling of its engines - a sensation which remained for another night.

Our hotel is situated about two blocks from Constitution square. The traffic again was wild and reckless but the Greeks do it in grand style: with Buicks, Pontiacs, Fords and other '50 vintage cars. Because of this it seems much more like an American city, even with the strange Greek alphabet neon signs (and Nescafe, Mobil, T. W. A.). We wandered through the old city: narrow, winding streets filled with horn-blowing Buicks and small shops, pushcarts and rushing people. Most exhilarating was a two-hour stay in Athenian park: waiters appeared from nowhere, took orders for refreshments, disappeared and miraculously reappeared with them. It was a cool and pleasant afternoon in a sweltering city - Athenians have a better solution: they close their shops and go home to eat and sleep from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. The afternoon is quiet - tourists seem to be the only people on the streets. And then the Athenians come out in frenzy at about five. (You can spot the tourists at this time: they are dragging along while the Athenians are practically running.) The tempo seem to build up until approximately 8 p.m. - it seems everyone is out on the streets by then and they are running, shouting -- such a mass of motion and noise we have never seen before (we still don't know where they're going, although we expect to find out when we get back to Athens). We had all we could do to defend the children (fortunately Greeks love children and we could see concern in their eyes for them - but the stampede continued). The eat dinner about nine or later and begin thinking about going to bed somewhere around 1 a.m. (we got meals here, by the way, for about 50 cents each - and they were good meals.)

The Boy Scout Jamboree is being held in Athens, by the way. Boy Scouts everywhere -- and from everywhere, including the U.S.

We left for Syros late Thursday afternoon, a six-hour boat trip from Athens. The voyage was complicated by the fact that the ship is also made stops at Tinos (eight hours) and Samos (23 hours) and a religious festival begins on Tinos on August 15th. The ship was packed. Villagers sprawled on every inch of the deck (space they had rented), above deck, below deck - walking anywhere involved finding stepping places between bodies. There wee no chickens aboard but there were plenty of people eating cheese, feeding babies, shouting, waving, and smiling. The Greeks, we discovered, are also a very dramatic people: sickness (sea) provided an opportunity for the most magnificent moans, groans and sobs imaginable. The fact that the sea was quite rough was complicated by the fact that the ship was listing badly from poorly stored cargo (the crew told us it was because people were concentrated on the port side to take advantage of the sunshine - this was not true because all parts of the ship were packed and the sun was on the starboard side anyhow). Anyhow, we have since discovered that many -- if not most -- of the Aegean steamers list badly. Under any condition, we were concerned - they are good salesmen everywhere (Syros is noted for Loukoumia). People moved in a hundred different directions - villagers who were going on the Tinos continued to sprawl on the deck watching the chaos matter-of-factly, eating, feeding the babies and occasionally offering friendly advice ("Why don't you push a little?") It was an experience.

Incidentally, the festival at Tinos attracts so many people that the shade on the island - along walls, under trees - is rented to the visitors by the local population.

Our hotel is on a narrow isthmus - our front window faces on the harbor (a busy place with plenty of ocean-going vessels tied up there) (Syros used to be Greece's largest port until the 1870's) and our bathroom window faces on the Aegean, each about a hundred yards away. Sidewalk cafes line the harbor front and crowds sit there enjoying the breeze (there are always breezes and the island is very comfortable) and talking and drinking Turkish coffee until the small hours of the morning. White-washed houses line narrow streets that wind their way to the top of the mountain - it is all incredibly beautiful. We walked a narrow street to the top: it was no more than eight feet wide, was lined all the way by brilliantly white houses and ended at the Catholic church at the top. (Most of the islanders - total population 14,000 - are Catholic). The view down to the sea is brilliant blue and breathtaking.

This will sound corny but there is a magic about this place. Partly the setting, partly the people, there is warmth, friendliness and generosity here. All the Fulbrighters have sensed it - we are counting the days (30) when will have to return to Athens. Many things that have happened have contributed to this. People come out of their homes to say hello. A Greek army unit marched to the beach, at which we were relaxing, to sing to us. Soldiers played with the children asked us if we liked their country, beamed when we replied yes. Fulbrighters have been invited into homes to be offered mastika. Everywhere there are smiles, greetings of welcome, questions about America - there is tremendous reservoir of good will on this island for the U.S. (The Greeks are also a teasing, hostile, shouting, tongue-lashing people - the arguments we have witnessed between Greeks have been monumental and usually over something which we could describe as insignificant. They tease their children cruelly - then show them sudden love and attention - it is all part of training for a life which has not always been pleasant and easy. It is this contradiction which is so fascinating: the warmth and suspicion, the frugality and generosity, passive acceptance and violent reaction.)

Our training program is underway - classes this weekend, then full schedules (including practice teaching) beginning Monday. The staff tell us that thing called "cultural shock" will set in soon, that the high morale will disappear for a time and the unreal quality of Syros will be replaced by the hard facts of teaching in Athens (and elsewhere). Another contradiction: Greeks admire authority, respect it, expect it in their lives - but as individualists they use every resource at their normal command (and they have the skills after many centuries of occupation) to undermine it, humiliate it. Nowhere is this quality more apparent that in the schools and it is this which is causing us the most concern.

That, roughly, is it.

This will be the only chance I will have to write for a time - I'll try to get in touch with you again sometime after we reach Athens in September.

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