25 July 2001 Athens

We awoke to the impossibly long, low "C" of the starboard engine's aft maneuvering stabilizer. We were backing our prodigious posterior into the ancient port of Piraeus, a gateway to the city of Athens. Out the window, we noticed we weren't the only member of the plus-sizes cruise club in attendance. Two or three other vessels were in port, including Celebrity lines' new "Millennium," as big as the Princess. It would be a crowded day in the ancient city... much like any summer afternoon in Athens.

Jen and I grabbed our breakfast in our stateroom; we had a long day ahead. Most of the tours of the city were designed as a long, full-day excursion to three or four landmarks. As most all tours were leaving between 8 and 8:30, the lines forming in the Princess theatre were a bit antsy. We edged forward, trying to get an extra inch closer to the gangplank, until, free of the constraints of the vessel, broke into a mad dash for the buses. We (politely) knocked aside the slower old ladies and (gently) plowed past children on an (almost civilized) rampage to get the "best" seat on the bus. Hey, I'm from New York; Jen and I sat right up front. Our guide fit nicely into my expectations. Having grown up with Greek friends, and having roomed in college with a guy who dated one, I had found the women of Greece to be savvy, self-assured, fiery of temperament and almost invariably beautiful. Our guide was warm, with a keen, edgy wit and infectiously passionate about her country. The day was warm as well - well over 90°F - but dry and not unpleasant. Reports called for it to be up to fifteen degrees hotter the following days, so we felt somewhat lucky.

Athens is a city replete with vestiges of millennia past. It seems like a birthday cake filled with gold coins. Ultimately, Athens is both a center of commerce and a lovely summer resort, rather like Miami. It just so happens that occasionally one turns a corner to come face to face with the Parthenon, or any one of dozens of such three-thousand-year-old monuments. They tend to stick out, especially when surrounded by condos. Frankly, it's disorienting. Like Tokyo or London, Athens is also an International City in all the ways that American cities simply aren't. They welcome and accommodate international visitors far more graciously than we do. Signs, even the names of banks, are posted in Greek and English. Visitors' Centers all have free literature available in over half a dozen languages.

The Parthenon with Jen, multi-tasking: waving and fanning herself.

Our first landmark was to climb the inevitable Acropolis. It was the essential stop, the high-water mark of the culture that ultimately begat our own. We made the slow ascent among, I would approximate, a million billion other tourists, a unit of Greek soldiers in fatigues and a bunch of Greek dogs. The latter were unceasingly friendly. We passed vistas of modern Athens and a modern amphitheatre as we headed back in time a few thousand years.

Over the summer, we had been building a n understanding of the scale of the ancient world. We had begun to sense the dimensions at Pompeii, where we saw a city stretching for two miles. Ephesus helped us understand the loftiness of these structures. The Parthenon, standing high on the Acropolis was more than a suggestion of these dimensions: it simply stood before us. One must climb the hill to view it, of course, so you first experience the buildings from a worm's-eye view, making them look frankly awesome. Though the British have stripped many of the stone reliefs for their Museum and the Turks (accidentally) blew it up in the thirteenth century, it still is extraordinarily impressive.

The acropolis holds not only the Parthenon, but also the Erechtheion, which features the famous 'Porch of the Maidens,' Jen's favorite, with beautiful statues of the Caryatids. It is also supported with gracefully feminine Ionic columns, where the neighboring Parthenon strictly sports heavy Doric columns. Seeing these in proximity was yet another moment of "aha!" like those I had experienced on the trip since the Globe theatre. Reading about these differences is just not the same as experiencing them viscerally: the Doric columns look macho. More of the original statuary from these building is held in an archeological museum also atop the Acropolis, where we were still overrun by tour groups, though sheltered from the rising heat of the day.

  The next stop was the Plaka, Athens' shopping district. I'd heard bad buzz about this town. Perhaps it is Hollywood that leads tourists to find Athens a grimy city. Some time in the 1950's, art directors for sword-and-sandal epics began to look at pictures of the excavations of classical civilization and saw gleaming pillars of white stone. They must have assumed that ancient Greece and Rome was radiantly monochromatic: white togas sweeping through equally doughy buildings. We therefore come to Athens or Rome expecting to see pristine, airy structures. Of course, it nothing like that today, nor was it three millennia ago. In ancient civilizations from Egypt to Greece and Rome, buildings were actually rather garish, painted from pillar to statues with any color they could create. The marble simply outlasts the paint. Athens isn't some pasty and antiseptic alabaster bore: it's vibrant. I found Athens to be anything but grimy- it's open and sunny and jovial. It's far more western than Kusadasi, and more familiar to navigate culturally. After all, it's a closer relation to American society. Heck, it's friendly. We shopped for a an hour or two, picking up gifts and souvenirs. I picked up a museum-quality reproduction of a vase depicting Euterpe, goddess of music. Jen got a bracelet in the quintessentially Greek pattern called "meander," symbolizing the continuity of nature and of life. We would have bought a colorful chip-and-dip plate, but it was serving as a bed for a small kitten. Yeah, I was destined to skritch every single cat in Europe. The stores and their owners were wonderful, charismatic folks, peddling both treasures and tchotchkes. We were really falling in love with Greece. Even in this rather capitalistic corner of the city, old and new cultures rubbed elbows: as we wandered back through the center square, we saw a Greek Orthodox priest in traditional robes heading back in to church. Cool.

Knows he's cute. Probably even knows it's good for tourism.

Stewart, right, saying "did you push the button on the right?.

  Lunch followed. Our bus met several others at a seaside club for a buffet. The food, of course, was Greek. I have a real passion for dolmathes, pastiscio and spanokopita, and I'll be darned if they aren't even more succulent in their home country. We sat overlooking a beach, bustling with local swimmers. Have I mentioned that Greek women are almost invariably beautiful? We were joined at table by a family of seven from Hong Kong, though it took us almost a half hour to learn that most of them spoke some English. We were relieved not to have said anything embarrassing (though you think I would have learned something from such films as Lifeboat and Better off Dead). We also bumped into Stuart and Cheryl again, who seemed about as wilted from the midday sun as we.

The afternoon brought us to the Temple of Poseidon. It stands away from the bustle of downtown, out among public beaches. One paradigmatically Midwestern woman asked our guide about Greek morality regarding beachwear. Our guide patiently explained that all cultures have different standards. For many years, Greek women have been comfortable bathing topless, but now standards are becoming more liberal, and bottomlessness is more accepted- a phenomenon we could confirm as we drove down the road. "If someone needs to change," our guide explained, "it is no matter just to go ahead and do so on the beach."
"Then if we wanted to go swimming, we could just strip our clothes off and jump in?"
"Well," she replied, her eyes twinkling, "perhaps not you."

  Poseidon's temple sits, as you might guess, on a hill near the water. Again, we witnessed the juxtaposition of the modern 'Zorba' culture with the land of Icarus and of the Minotaur, rounding a corner to see it's unmistakable silhouette above us. It was gorgeous, the airy columns framing the entrance to the Aegean sea.. The legend of the Minotaur begins at this temple, by the way, and feels most plausible as you stand, rapturous, amid the stones. Beep, beep.

Ah. There it goes again. This might be a good point to mention that the European continent, the home of the monuments of ancient classical civilization and home again to the rebirth of art in the sixteenth century, is currently being decimated by a single, tiny menace of the late twentieth century. It is my sad duty to report that the cell phone is killing Europe.

Everywhere we went, the splendor of an ancient coliseum or the tranquility of a majestic cathedral was obliterated by the shrill, digitized beeps of one of those ubiquitous miscreants emulating Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It is a most ironic twist that these damn phones are trying to play tunes by the same composers whose birthplaces they are desecrating. (And why, for goodness' sake, won't manufacturers at least do these compositions justice? Why, in an age when we can compress actual sound files into tiny packages of data to poach on the internet, are we still listening to these computer-beep refugees from the 1970's game 'pong'?) If someone does silence the beast by answering their phone after a minute or five, they proceed to communicate in a voice cranked to a decibel that peels paint. Oh Alexander Graham Bell, we hardly knew ye. Your device is designed to carry a voice speaking at a moderate, even subdued level to its intended recipient. ("I'm sorry, ma'am, but it appears you've confused your cell with two cans of tomato soup joined by a length of string.") In a terminally crowded landmark such as Poseidon's temple, the conversation level is already impressive. Add cell phones to the mix, and it becomes rather deafening.

When the din of cell phones subsides, one realizes that modern technology has brought us another land mine. I refer to, of course, the video camera. One is surrounded by 'still' cameras, and I understand fully the need to take these images home with you- to try to capture and frame the way in which you personally view the landmark. You are looking at some of our own results on this page. I will wait for a photo, even though it makes walking around the crowded site much like a

Poseidon! Beach houses behind me and down the hill, cell phones around the back.

barefoot dance on broken seashells (whoops! excuse me! after you!). But I'll be hanged if I'm going to stand around while someone shoots fifteen minutes of other people standing around: I march forward (tromp, tromp tromp). I now appear in several dozen home movies shot at the Temple of Poseidon. I still await my stipend as an extra.

It had been a long day, and we were thrilled with Athens, but beginning to droop. Our busride back to Piraeus was positively narcoleptic. At port, we saw passengers were also returning to the "Millennium" in the next berth. Folks stood around on both decks and compared the two behemoths (ours, of course, was much better). We waived jovially with our fellow travelers, and in a fit of American piquancy, collectively did "the wave" as we pulled out of port.

Dinner that night at the Desert Rose again, speaking Itanish with our waiter. A scary-bad (and, though unannounced, interactive) "murder mystery" was performed by the crew. Alistar got murdered a few minutes in, and it was all downhill from there. Jen and I bailed to enjoy the night air on deck, a ritual which we were enjoying enormously, especially after the heat of the day.

As we went to bed that night, we knew one thing for sure: that we must, and would eventually return to Greece..

Next: Toto, I think we're not in Europe anymore...

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