JOURNEY TO ANOTHER PLANET GREECE

May 1 1969

JOURNEY TO ANOTHER PLANET GREECE

May 1 1969

JOURNEY TO ANOTHER PLANET GREECE

GREECE, IN SPITE of its dictatorship, is one of the few places where you still find spontaneity, joy and warm communication between human beings. Men still dance simply because they feel like dancing, sing at the helms of fishing boats, and live with such zest that a visit to Greece is like being dropped on to another planet. The relaxed life is partly due to the sunny climate. The sea is warm and as clear as gin. A man will go out in the evening for a swim with his dog, the two floating along a quarter mile offshore like corks. Much of the life in Greece takes place outdoors. Restaurant owners set tables on the sidewalk and, if they need more space, right on out on to the street. In some towns, such as Patras, the street is barricaded so cars won’t annoy the diners. People parade languidly up and down the white moonlit streets, and the voices of village children playing games in the soft Aegean nights is one of the memorable sounds of Greece.

I had a unique look at all this when my wife and I took a two-weeks cruise on a 75-foot motor yacht owned by a professor of classics at the University of Calgary, a tall, 70-year-old Oxford graduate named Alban D. Winspear. He spends his summers on the boat, the Lysistrata, informallyshepherding shore trips to archaeological sites and giving classical lectures, which he calls, less formidably, “deck talks.” Winspear got the idea of conducting cruises on chartered Greek fishing boats while visiting Europe in 1958, and a few years later had the Lysistrata built in a shipyard near Athens. Winspear wasn’t the least interesting aspect of the cruise. Beneath a stratosphere of scholarship he has roots in Alberta where his father took the family when Alban was 11. The result of this mixed background was that Winspear could switch from quoting poetry, as naturally as a Shriner tells jokes, to belting out a solo of Home On The Range in full view of Mount Parnassus. He usually accom-

It’s relaxed, sunny, spontaneous, where a man can dance and snap his fingers without feeling kooky. It’s a world apart — yet just a direct-flight away. It’s where you can live on a budget — and cruise on a yacht, with a Canadian classics professor to guide you. Robert Thomas Allen knows why you won’t want to leave: he’s been there

panied us on our evening strolls around town, wearing a yachting cap, smoking a Papastratos cigarette, ordering drinks for us in courtly Greek.

During our visits to these towns it was hard to believe that back in North America there was a world where people hustled around with briefcases and ulcers. On a September night, a town such as Nauplia on the Gulf of Argos is a village under some kind of enchantment. You hear music, look in

a doorway of a café and see a man, alone and in shirt-sleeves, doing a poised and intricate dance among the tables. He waves and invites you to join him. You sit in a pattern of light made by a street lamp shining through leaves. You look up at a Byzantine fortress or turreted Venetian castle on a moonlit mountaintop and feel that you’ve lived here before. Families dine at tables laid with white tablecloths in a town square under a fountainshaped street lamp. Children play around the tables; there is quiet conversation, the clink of wine glasses.

Greek children, as far as I can see, are about the luckiest in the world. They scuttle among parents’ and grandparents’ legs at all hours, thoroughly loved and knee-deep in approval. The process of going to bed apparently stretches out indefinitely. You hear a child’s laugh somewhere above you at 10 in the evening and look up and catch a glimpse of a bare-bellied youngster being chased around a balcony by a doting grandmother. I asked one Greek woman if they had sitters in Greece. She didn’t know what I meant. When I explained, she looked at me as if I were mad. In Greece you take the children with you to have a good time.

Parents seem to take a special pride in dressing their children. You walk up a street that looks like a socialworker’s nightmare, and see coming out of a dark and squalid doorway a little girl in an immaculate dress so white you’d think she was standing in a spotlight. And young people behave toward adults in a way that’s enough to make anyone from the wrong side of the North American generation gap break down and sob. Teenage daughters hold their mothers’ hands. Highschool kids shove through the crowds on buses to help you find your stop, and wave to you when you get off.

The Greeks are unquestionably the most open, solidly friendly people I’ve encountered. You’ll be in a fascinating clutter of shops in, say, Nau-

pactus, buying a pair of running shoes. Customers stand around staring at you until you wonder if you’ve violated some local taboo. Then suddenly one will bend down and feel to see if your toes come to the end and you realize they’re really worried about you. Once when my wife and I were looking for some film, a man and woman came out of a shop, nodded, smiled vigorously and sent across the road for a friend who spoke English. While we waited, they brought out a worn and backless kitchen chair for my wife, dusted it off, blew on it and motioned her to sit down, and both stood beaming at us to indicate they couldn’t have been happier about us being there, although they hadn’t the faintest idea what we wanted. Another time when we wandered around a maze of silent, narrow back streets of a town that wandered up a hillside, admiring the flowers that blazed against the white stone walls, a woman in a black head kerchief came hustling out of a house toward us, grasped our hands and smiled in a spontaneous personal welcome to Greece. Greek people act without hesitation on impulses of goodwill. Once, up in the hills, a man whom we’d turned down as a guide came running after us and handed my wife a flower to show there were no hard feelings.

Greek towns have retained the sounds and feeling of some basic things we have almost forgotten. A man going to work doesn’t disappear with an anxious look into a commuter train; he waves for half an hour from his small fishing boat to his children on the quay. There was so much going on around the waterfront and the village streets that the passengers of the Lysistrata often found it hard to keep their minds on Winspear’s talks. One time while he read from Thucydides of the Spartan-Athenian wars, with the same breeze that confounded the Corinthian fleet unraveling his hair like loose ends of a ball of string, a little girl up on an old Venetian wall shouted a shrill “Good-by” through so many vital moments of Aegean history that Winspear, whose expression alternates between a rather terrifying owlish stare and a pleasant boyish grin, exploded, “Oh, for ... ! GOOD-BY!’

Winspear’s talks tied in with our visits to archaeological sites. At Mycenae he talked about the Oresteian tragedies of Aeschylus. When we climbed the ramp on which the homecoming Agamemnon rode to his own murder, Winspear sat in the shade of the Lion’s Gate and in the clear, still

morning read from Agamemnon, first in Greek then in English, starting with the soliloquy of the watchman who had been waiting for the news from Troy: “ so now I am still awatch for the signal flame, the gleaming fire that is to harbinger news from Troy and tidings of its capture. For thus rules my Queen, woman in sanguine heart and man in strength and purpose.” Other parties of tourists gathered and sat silently on the ancient stones, if not understanding the words, sensing their dramatic impact and, perhaps, a message clear to every wife who for the past 3,170 years has wanted to stab her husband.

While Winspear taught us a bit of Greek history, Maria, the wife of Captain Michael Aggeleides of the Lysistrata, and her daughter Vassiliki gave us our first real experience with modern-Greek cooking. We had green peppers and tomatoes stuffed with meat and rice; a delicious bean soup; moussaká, a standard Greek dish, which is a widely varying sort of Greek shepherd’s pie topped with cheese; and chicken baked in an oliveoil sauce. Most dishes are served with a sauce made from olive oil, as common to Greek tables as butter is to ours. Some people object to the very thought of it. I don’t like it myself when it’s poured pure over, say, slices of fresh tomato or cooked zucchini squash. But cooked olive oil takes on a nutty, non-olive-oil flavor, and when it is flavored with tomato sauce and spices, it’s delicious.

One of the things I like about the Greeks is that they keep the cold drinking water coming. You get it in a decanter and as soon as the decanter is empty, it’s filled again. But if you want something stronger, there’s a variety of drinks available. Ouzo, the Greek aperitif, is made from grape stems, flavored with aniseed, and smells and tastes like licorice. It is probably the strongest drink I’ve ever tasted except straight gin, and hits you in a funny way, giving you a solid, basic kind of clobbering from the bottom upward. Friendly bartenders tell you that three is about all anyone can take without getting corked, which Greeks never seem to do. Retsina, a Greek grape wine flavored with pine resin, has the scent of a very good varnish, but tastes like wine. It’s supposed to be almost unswallowable by North Americans, but I found I could swallow unlimited quantities of it with a steady smile. The older it gets the better it gets and the less resin flavor it has. The many other light white and red table wines, to me, tasted like any good French or Californian wines.

Our cruise ended at Piraeus, the

port of Athens, which was so jammed that the Lysistrata could only pause briefly at dock while we parted and said our good-bys in a wild flurry. My wife and I took a cab the seven miles to midtown Athens, where we settled in for three weeks.

Later, we made a pilgrimage to the Parthenon, which can be seen from all directions gleaming serenely in the sunlight, and took a bus ride to Sunium on the southeast coast of Attica. We spent an evening up in the hills of Athens watching two hours of Greek folk dancing, and a few nights before we left for home we went to a wine festival in Daphne, a monastery outside Athens. You pay 60 cents to get in and spend the evening there

drinking as much as you want from big kegs of 12 different kinds of wine, free. You wander around with a carafe or a glass in your hand listening to music and watching Greek men, women and toddlers dance. My last recollection of this place was the sight of a little boy who seemed about a foot and a half high, standing in front of the orchestra, all alone, hypnotized by the music, arms outstretched, flexing his knees, looking as if he were going to try to fly. A man came up and began to circle him, snapping his fingers, everybody applauding. It was hard to leave the scene, and it was even harder when, shortly after our evening in Daphne, we had to leave Greece. □

Getting there is only some of the fun and most of the money. Then it’s relax and enjoy, at bargain prices

A holiday in Greece, compared to a visit to most other European countries, costs more for the trip but a lot less when you get there. Canadian Pacific Airlines has a direct flight from Toronto, or Montreal, to Athens, which costs from $584 return, excursion fare, to $1,209 first class. Ordinary economy return costs $760. It’s little more than an eight - hour flight to Rome, where you touch down briefly but don’t change planes, then two hours later you are in Athens. You can also get to Greece by taking the train from Rome to Brindisi for $20 and a Hellenic Mediterranean Lines’ ferry from Brindisi to Patras on the Greek Peloponnese for $22.50 with a cabin (or slightly more or less if you just go to Corfu or continue to Athens). Olympic Airways flies from Corfu to Athens for $18. When my wife and I took the rail-and-sea route there were no double cabins available on the ferry, so my wife joined the other women passengers and I shared a cabin with four men. We arrived at night in Patras 24 hours later, as some defiant young man with a guitar was playing Never On Sunday, which is now banned in Greece.

Since the military dictatorship took over, tourist trade has fallen off about 20 percent. Empty cruise ships jam the harbors. Yet the government is making great efforts to offset the damage done to the tourist industry. Customs and immigration officials bend backward to make things easy for visitors. Foreigners get 20 percent off the cost of hotel rooms. Even without these inducements Greece is an exceedingly inexpensive place to stay. A spare, but clean and comfortable double room with private bath and a balcony at the Asty Hotel, overlooking Omonia (Harmony) Square, a main hub of action in

downtown Athens, costs $3.06 a night. Basic fare in taxis is 15 cents. You can get a drink of ouzo for 10 cents, a 300-gram bottle of Domestica wine with your meal for 43 cents and a kilogram of retsina wine for 26 cents. A quarter of a baked chicken, the best I’ve ever tasted, with mashed potatoes, costs about 60 cents. A couple can have dinner out and go to a movie for about two dollars. You can easily pay more if you go to places near the tourist areas, but in the villages prices are even lower than those above.

The cruise on the Lysistrata costs about $300 (calculated on $280 U.S. funds) plus your bar bill, a tip of $15 for the crew and the cost of land transportation and admissions to museums and archaeological sites, which, for two weeks, cost in the neighborhood of $12. Free cruises are given to all honors-classics students from the University of Calgary, and other free and half-price cruises to accredited students anywhere. The Lysistrata makes 10 two-week cruises between April and late September, covering an area from Corfu to Rhodes and Istanbul and the Greek islands off the Turkish coast. Ours was cruise number nine, around the Gulf of Corinth, the Saronic Gulf and to ports around the Argolis Peninsula, stopping at Naupactus, Itea, Corinth, Eleusis, Aegina, Hydra, Spetsai, Nauplia, Porto Kheli, Poros, Epidaurus and Piraeus, with side trips to historic sites that included Delphi, Mycenae and Tiryns.

Bus excursions to the main historical sites of Greece are very cheap, and trips by public bus even cheaper. A two-hour bus ride from Athens to Sunium, on the far southeast coast of Attica, for instance, costs $1.36 return, and for a small admission charge you can visit the shrine of Poseidon, one of the most spectacular sights of Greece, where you look out over the Aegean above waters that foam and curl and break over the rocks 200 feet below.