My bucket list contains very few items, but a trip to Greece has been at the top for many years. The yen to see Greece started when I was a kid. Ive forgotten how I came to own a copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, but acquiring that tome changed my life. I devoured the tales of thunderbolt-throwing Zeus, wing-sandaled Hermes, and the mighty huntress Artemis. Demeter and I wept over the kidnapping of Persephone and rejoiced at her return, and I marveled at Athena’s cleverness in creating the olive tree and her small-mindedness in fighting for the Greeks against the Trojans when Paris, Prince of Troy, refused her bribe and named Aphrodite the fairest of the goddesses. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this: this book is beautifully written and illustrated, and it gives you the good, the bad, and the ugly about Greek myths.
So half a century and change later, Mark and I have spent the last three weeks in Greece. My friend Carie McKinney told me before we left that this country is magical, snd she’s spot on. Where else do you walk where Socrates queried his students, touch stones so large that the ancients declared they could only have been hoisted to make walls by Cyclopes, and scramble up graveled paths in cities that Homer described in the Illiad and the Odyssey? It’s been absolutely blissful.
But the Greece of today is pretty special, too. The people here have been nothing but friendly and very encouraging when we deployed our feeble Greek. (Shout out here to Sally Watkins, our travel agent extraordinaire, who not only planned and booked this mega-trip but tucked in a sheet of useful Greek words and phrases. Sally is amazing!) Mark studied ancient Greek in college and can actually decipher a few signs and menu items, but I will call this excursion a linguistic success if my vocabulary list reaches double digits. And my dears, the food! Spanikopita and moussaka and souvlaki and baklava – and eggplant dishes to die for and cheeses and yogurt with sour cherries and orange cake soaked in honey…. You get the idea. And this doesn’t even touch the joys of shopping in crowded stores opening onto narrow, twisting cobbled lanes, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from the rooftop hot tub, swimming out from rocky beaches into the Agean and Ionian seas, or cruising Greek isles with our friends Lynne Campbell and Sherry Lesikar. And I’ve only scratched the surface here!
But while a Greek vacation may be idyllic, it is not perfect. For one thing, the entire country is uphill both ways. Greece is the world’s most scenic stairmaster. If you’re coming here, take a step class beforehand and pack Advil. Too, the plumbing appears to be a bit wobbly. It’s wise to ask whether you can drink the tap water, even in major cities, and there are more toilet stalls than not with signs exorting you to throw the toilet paper in the bin and not the potty. In fact, I currently feel vaguely guilty about throwing TP in the toilet in our high class hotel here in Athens. But perhaps the worst thing about Greece is that you’re acutely aware that you’re doing exactly what a zillion tourists have done before you – and, sometimes, at exactly the same time as you, with the odd motor scooter thrown in just to make things more interesting. You’re taking the same photo of where the Colossus of Rhodes used to be that millions of people have taken. You’re laboring up marble steps at the theater at Epidauros that have been trod by several hundred people the day you were there. You’re clapping your hands and listening to the echo in the beehive tombs at Mycenae just like all of the people before you and all of the people after you. It would be possible to feel just a little sad at how cookie cutter you are.
So instead, you have to work to make Greece your own. And if you succeed, you savor those moments. Happily, we had lots of them. For example, there’s video on Facebook of one of them, when Mark took advantage of the acoustics at the theater at Epidarous and sang ”The Impossible Dream” to the applause of delighted spectators. Some moments are more fleeting, like our laughter when we discovered we were driving on the Poseidon Interchange on the highway from Corinth to Athens. (This god gets around; he also has a campground near the ruins of Tiryns.) We took pictures of some, like Hercules Rent-a-Car (clearly a second career choice for the hero) and epic food experiments, like Greek coffee (fail) and honeycomb (big win). But the most personal Greek moment is pictured above. In case you were wondering, it’s a picture of an Albanian family at a Greek restaurant.
Honestly, I took this shot on what had started out as a less than stellar evening. We were in Nafplio, which is nice enough but nothing to write home about. The hotel was difficult to find, probably because it’s not on a street, and we had to schlep three bags and three backpacks down three flights of slippery stone steps AT NIGHT. Our room was fine, but the bathroom smelled like mildew. We opened the doors to the balcony to air out the room and clambered down 50 mores steps (Mark counted) to find some dinner. We ended up at an Italian place, which was fine, except the “pizza with no meat” had bacon and sausage on it. The proprietor gamely apologized and went for a replacement, but by this time I was ready to use the one cry per vacation I allow myself. But that’s when the Kingdom of God showed up.
Here’s a little context, because I know that the Gospels aren’t everyone’s bag. Particularly in Matthew, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God, which I interpret as what happens when we follow God in our hearts and our actions, to various ordinary things. The Kingdom, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed, a farmer sowing his crops, yeast, and other commonplaces. Notably, Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to piles of gold, kings, armies, celebrities, or beautiful or rich people.
With that information, return to the Greek restaurant with me. As we wait for pizza 2.0, I notice an older man and woman steering a woman in a wheelchair down the bumpy stone street. The woman in the wheelchair is maybe 40, and she has a body that is contorted in unusual angles. She also is missing most of her teeth. But she’s smiling, as are the man and the woman. They sit down at a table one away from us; at the table in between, another, younger couple quietly eats gyros. I think that’s about all that’s going to happen, but then a tall guy comes up to the threesome, greets them happily and loudly, and sits down with them. Then a small, wiry, deeply tanned older man who’s straight out of Central Casting for a Greek fisherman, plops himself down at the end of the table and, all smiles, starts talking rapidly and cheerfully. And then, one by one and two by two, about 20 people gather at the table. Hugs and kisses are exchanged. The woman in the wheelchair gets everyone’s first kiss and hug, and she returns them all enthusiastically. Concerns about Covid aside, this is a genuinely beautiful love fest, especially when somebody shows up with a baby girl to pass around, which starts a new round of kissing and laughing and loud talking. The people around the table don’t look alike; they range from my fisherman to a dyed blond in a white miniskirt to a grandmother who’s about as big around as she is tall to a lanky twenty-something guy with glasses and scruff who is running around with his phone taking pictures and recording video. Wine, beer, and food appear, and before our eyes a festival, a celebration of love and togetherness, unfolds.
The reactions of those around the celebrants is fascinating. The couple with the gyros looks self-conscious and uncomfortable; they gobble the last of their food and toss down some Euros so that they can leave as fast as possible. A beggar girl – Greece has a lot of beggars, and this one looks to be about eight years old – shyly approaches the happy table; she stares with big brown eyes at the group and tentatively holds out her plastic cup. The partygoers put money in and smile at her, evoking a shy smile in return. We put some coins in her cup, too. She leaves, and then up comes the musician you see in the picture. He sings in Greek, a happy, fast song that makes the partiers laugh and clap their hands. They put money in his cup, too, and he goes on his way smiling before we can chip in.
And what about us? My blues are gone, swept away by the sights and sounds of people loving life and each other and anyone else who happens by. Mark and I eat our new, correct pizza and pay our bill, exchanging occasional smiles with the revelers. As we are leaving, Mark tapped the guy with the phone on the shoulder and asked if he would like us to take a picture of everyone at their table, and the man handed him the phone. The partiers looked up and smiled widely. Mark took photos and handed the phone back to its owner. A quick check of the screen brought a broad grin to the guy’s face. ”Oh, these are the best yet!” he exclaimed, and he asked us where we were from. He declared his love for the USA upon hearing our answer, and he explained that his family is from Albania but lives in Greece now. We smiled and waved our goodbyes to the happy group and headed back to the 50 steps up to the hotel. But the climb doesn’t seem as arduous as it was on the way down, and our hotel room smells fresher when we open the door. I think it’s because we saw something like the kingdom of God at that restaurant. Everyone was welcome, the old and the young, the able and the more challenged, the smartly-dressed and the shabby. The beggar got money, and music was made. Some people didn’t know what to do with the hubbub and left, but we contributed just a tiny bit and got radiant smiles and happy goodbyes from the partygoers in return. And we were the better for it.
I know the language about kingdoms is sexist, and I know that most of what I love about Greece is what all travelers here love. So I’m a little hypocritical and a lot trite here. But we had a unique moment on this trip, and I’m happy to get to share it with you. Maybe what I’m really saying is that the Kingdom of God, for me, is like a blog post being read by a friend: it’s a love letter and an invitation. Come sit at table with me, in Greece or wherever, and let’s celebrate!