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.
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
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
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.
Stone Greek Language Courses