Forget Mykonos, Try Syros, Your Friendly Neighborhood Greek Island

ermoupolis syros greeceI arrived on the Greek island of Syros on the night ferry from Samos at 2:30 a.m., bleary-eyed and in need of coffee or a bed, maybe both. My sons, then 2 and 4, were still half-asleep, wondering why the hell we’d hustled them out of their tidy bunks in the middle of the night. We stepped over backpackers, most of them heading to Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini, who were still asleep in the corridors of the boat, and alighted in Ermoupolis, the cultural and administrative capital of the Cyclades island group.
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I had heard that Ermoupolis was a thriving place, busy year round, but not touristy. But at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday night in early June the place was dead, with just a few cars there to greet the ferry – mostly locals picking up friends and relatives. I had reserved a room at a place called Lila’s Guesthouse and though she had promised to pick us up at no charge, I somehow doubted she’d be there. I booked a swanky looking one-bedroom loft with two balconies in a historic building that had once housed the French consulate for 60 euros. If I was Lila, I would have told me to take a taxi. But there she was with a little sign waiting to take us to our room.The drive up the steep hill above the port was a perfect introduction to our ancient neighborhood. The hotel is less than a mile up the hill from the port, and I could get there easily via a series of staircases, but if you told me to drive there, following Lila’s path in an out of a labyrinth of anorexic alleyways, I don’t think I could do it for a million dollars.

Lila’s turned out to be a revelation and so did Syros. Tourists flock to Mykonos, which is undeniably picturesque but can be a zoo – crowded, expensive and touristy to a fault. But hop on the ferry in Mykonos, fork over 8 euros and in an hour, you’re in Ermoupolis, a fascinating little city that is home to many of Greece’s wealthiest shipping magnates.

It’s a small island that attracts far fewer tourists, but it has pretty much everything you might want on a Greek island: seductive beaches, nightlife, history, old churches, a thriving port, and great food at reasonable prices. There are no large, beachfront resorts but it’s a great place to experience Greek culture and hospitality.

Tourism is manageable enough on Syros that you feel like the locals you meet actually have an interest in meeting you, in sharp contrast to busier islands, like Santorini, Naxos or Mykonos, where you can sometimes feel like the whole point of every interaction is all about buying and selling. We spent just four days on the island but on each day I met people whom I’ll never forget.

Dimitrios, Lila’s husband, was a businessman in Athens before they decided to move to Syros in order to live a quieter life. He was a jack-of-all-trades but what I found most interesting about the way he ran the hotel was how he made the place a magnet for neighborhood kids, who would pop by to talk about the latest soccer match or have a drink. It made me feel as though we were part of the neighborhood rather than just a bunch of transients in a tourist ghetto.

Dimitrios noticed that one of my shirts had a huge hole in it and he said he’d send it to be sewed. The next day it was as good as new for 5 euros. And when I asked him to recommend a laundromat, he said, “Why? I’ll do your laundry for you.” When I protested that we had a huge bag of dirty laundry, he waved me off, and within a few hours, all of our clothing was washed and folded into neat piles in our room. The charge? “No charge,” he insisted.

One afternoon, we were out taking a walk and my sons were fed up with the strong sun and all the hills, so we stood around trying in vain to find a taxi. I saw a woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she could call a cab for us. She got up off her chair, walked into her apartment, emerged moments later on the street where we were standing and then crossed to the other side.

I saw her walk a half block up the street and wondered what was going on until I saw her pull a phone card out of her purse and pop it into a pay phone. After she made the call, she came over to explain that she had no phone in her apartment because she was unemployed and didn’t have much money. She stayed to chat with us while we waited 10-15 minutes for our cab and we learned that she had gone to beauty school to become a hairdresser but had long ago given up trying to find work. I tried to give her a couple euros for the phone call but she wouldn’t take it.

The following night, we went up to Ano Syros, a fascinating 1,000-year-old Catholic neighborhood located high above the port that is filled with vistas and atmospheric tavernas and shops. We met a woman selling hand-painted souvenirs she made herself that seemed absurdly undervalued for how beautiful they were, and as she began to wrap them up in lovely little bowed parcels, she started telling us about what a mess Greece was in. She told us she was still proud to be Greek but started crying recounting all the people she knew who were struggling to get by.

“I don’t know what’s happened to our country,” she said, drying tears from her face.

Our last night in Syros was magic. We visited a tiny, picturesque little village called San Michalis, up above Ano Syros, and had one of the most memorable meals of our lives at a place called To Plakostroto (see photo above). There are only two men still living in San Michalis – Francesco and Giovanni – and we met them both, along with a host of their friends, who had dropped by to play cards.

Francesco played a tune for us on his goatskin tsabouna, we tried some of his homemade wine and as we looked out at a panorama that included six neighboring islands, I couldn’t help but feel as though we’d captured something elusive, a spirit, a feeling, something – that thing we look for on the road that makes a place dear to us. We found Greece in a ruined hilltop village with just two residents but these kinds of undiscovered edens are dotted all over the Aegean. All you have to do is just step off the ferry in the middle of the night, when everyone else is still asleep.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Lost And Found: How Uncertainty Makes Travel Memorable

As the bus begins to pull away from the bus stop in Chania, I catch the old man’s eye again, giving him a thumbs-up through the window. He stares back blankly – then leaps to his feet, waving his arms, pointing, shouting. I raise my hands in an uncomprehending shrug, keeping the palms turned inward to avoid flipping him a mountza, the traditional Greek insult. He shouts louder, as if volume alone could break through the language barrier that had us miming to each other a few minutes ago. Then his body slumps into a pose recognizable the world over – “Oh, you bloody fool” – and that’s when it hits me in the stomach.

I’m on the wrong bus.

I have an hour before my ferry leaves the port of Souda, taking me away from Crete and back to mainland Greece. If I don’t hit that ferry, my carefully engineered schedule slithers through my fingers and I’m left untethered, without local knowledge, a decent enough grasp of spoken Greek or the money for new tickets. Without that ferry, I’m lost.

I sit down, by order of my knees, and stare out at the dusty, baked scenery as we rattle God-knows-where-wards. And then something strange happens. Panic ebbs away. I start to appreciate how lovely the light is, the rose-fingered sunset fading through the spectrum into that special glowing blue that enlivens domed roofs and door-frames right across Greece. I’m warm, I’m well fed, and I have no idea what is going to happen next – and it’s this last feeling that is so intoxicating right now.

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it’s really this: why do I want travel to be easy?

When most people travel, they seek the unknown – either in a familiar, packaged, piecemeal form with the help of guides and tour operators, or the raw, improvised version that’s so popular with people young enough for their nervous systems to take it. I go off the beaten track using a third approach, which I like to call “Oh You Bloody Fool.” Somewhat appropriately, it’s a way of travel I accidentally fell into. I go places, things go wrong, and I fall through space, screaming. This is usually, but not always, a metaphor.

There’s a perverse joy in having your travel plans collapse around you. I’ve missed many flights and will doubtless miss many more. Once I get over the initial shock, once I’ve leaned against the nearest wall and cursed everyone up to and including the Wright Brothers, a calmness steals over me. I change. Lacking any alternative, I’m forced to become the person who can deal with this mess. My senses fly open, taking great gulps of the world around me, collecting data for my suddenly hyperactive brain to sift through in search of Life Or Death Answers. My heart thumps. My jaw sets. No time to waste – and off I go.

In “A Field Guide To Getting Lost” (2006), Rebecca Solnit says:

“The thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade getting lost. I’ve been lost on England’s North York Moors in the middle of a rainstorm with the light fading – one of the few times I’ve genuinely hated not knowing my location. I’ve blundered across Berlin at 4 a.m. in search of my hotel, clutching a rain-dissolved paper map. I’ve suffered a thousand deaths of embarrassment in front of strangers, and I’ve eyed other travelers – so competent, so self-assured – with a mixture of envy and hatred. Why can’t I land on my feet instead of my face? Why does it all have to be so hard?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it’s really this: why do I want travel to be easy? When it’s easy, it’s a non-experience that our memories can’t get a grip on. Thanks to the miracle of GPS, we need never be lost. We can get from A to B knowing exactly what B looks like and having a machine dictate the entire route to us. Our technological support networks are vast and all-powerful, and our guides, physical and virtual, know more about the places we’re going than we ever will. We are mired in certainty and we need never put a foot wrong. But what if that’s not what we need – or why we travel at all?

I’m not pondering any of this as my bus takes me away from Chania. I’m fully in the moment, hunting for clues to where this bus is going, scanning the horizon for landmarks that tally with the map in my “Rough Guide.” There are 11 people on that bus. One lady is wearing a brown hat; one man has spectacularly hairy ears. These details are unforgettably burned into me by an elevated level of awareness …

I’m having the kind of travel experience I left home in search of.

Ten minutes later, the port of Souda hovers into view, and I realize, with curious disappointment, that I’m saved. I’m on the right bus after all. I unwittingly compensate by getting off the bus far too early, forcing me to sprint the final mile with a fully-laden backpack, and then I spend the first hour of my ferry ride lying semi-naked on the cool metal floor of my cabin, trying to bring my temperature down. The rest of the journey is a self-recriminating haze.

These days, being lost is at the heart of the kind of travel I love, filled with stories I don’t know in advance, positioned along the uncomfortable line between serendipity and disaster. Occasionally wild uncertainty is thrust upon me, as when I was robbed of my passport in Düsseldorf, seven hours before my flight home to England. (Ever wondered how long a UK emergency passport takes to put together? About six hours.) I’ve learned to appreciate these experiences for what they are – a living hell at the time, a treasure-trove of travel memories afterwards. All that said, I give myself lots of leeway nowadays, spacing out connections and over-budgeting where I can. I may be a bloody fool, but I’m not stupid.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

­­Waiting In The Pythion Of Time

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One of my prime New Year’s resolutions for this year is to put together an anthology of selected pieces from my own writing career. With 30 years of narrative stories and reflective essays to sift through, I figure there must be enough material for at least a very slim volume.

As part of this process – or perhaps just as a very clever way of procrastinating the hard work of getting started on this process – I’ve been reading through old journals and letters recently. This can be a dangerously detouring pastime, of course, but sometimes it turns up one of those little seeds that blossom into a whole world I had forgotten.

So it is with a letter I have just come across, written in the winter of 1976 to my parents from a Greek border town called Pythion, where I was waiting for a train to Istanbul. Sometimes it is just such global synapses – way stations – that unencumber and inspire us.

Here is part of what I wrote:

*****

I took the 10 p.m. train on Tuesday from Athens and arrived in Thessaloniki around 11 a.m. the next morning. In Thessaloniki I was informed that the Istanbul train had left earlier that morning, but that I was in luck – there was another, special Wednesday-only train leaving for Istanbul at 13:10. When that one arrived, I learned that it traveled only as far as the border.

Still, that seemed better than nothing, so I had a very pleasant ride through Thrace with a compartment all to myself, and arrived at the border – poetic Pythion – at 2:30 a.m. Pythion being off-limits to foreigners, I was invited by the sole stirring being to sleep in the station’s waiting room, which I did rather comfortably until 8:30, when I was awakened simultaneously by a policeman demanding who I was and someone shouting in German that the train for Istanbul was leaving in 5 minutes.

I scrambled down the platform to the train, the policeman chasing after me, only to discover that the train had come from Istanbul and was bound for Athens.

And so I sit in the Railroad Buffet at Pythion, eyed by a suspicious policeman who can’t imagine what a foreigner would be doing here if not trying to uncover state secrets, and contemplating 10 hours of warming my toes and fingers by an old pot-belly stove in one of the more obscure of the obscure corners of the world.

Situations like this make me question the nature of reality. I am sitting on a hard wooden bench at the end of a long, stained table in a dirty, cold, deserted Greek border town, scratching out letters under a layering of turtleneck, work shirt, sweater, raincoat and scarf, and eating peanuts and figs to keep warm.

This is certainly one kind of reality, but is it any more real than that envisioned for me by my friends in Athens, who imagine me right now walking under minarets through crowded streets from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque, or than the picture you may have of me right now (discussing me halfway across the globe even as I write these words) walking through sunny Athenian streets to the gleaming pillars of the Acropolis: Is my here any more real than that there?

I am here, but in a few weeks I will be at the Acropolis, and in 24 hours I will be wandering Istanbul’s alleys. Maybe all three are concurrent realities?

At any rate, last night, when I was sleeping happily somewhere in northeastern Greece, I had a dream that all my traveling was just a dream, and that I was actually still living in Connecticut, and in my dream I woke up from my dream (of traveling) and felt this tremendous relief and joy to be home and still so young as not to have to worry about being out and alone in the world.

Then, a split second later, I woke up from that dream – and found myself sweaty and disheveled in a humid train compartment speeding somewhere through the Grecian night.

And so I wonder about this pithy waiting room in Pythion – is this too a dream from which I am about to awake? And who/what/where will I be then?

*****

Now, three and a half decades later, I read these words, and life’s border towns and way stations come back to me: the raggedy, muddy-streets-and-strung-light-bulbs place where I spent an itchy night between India and Nepal; the misty, barbed-wire swamp where I once longingly looked out from Hong Kong toward then-forbidden China; the snow-locked sentry post between Pakistan and China; the dusty honky-tonk of Tijuana and Nogales.

I think of a one-cafe town in the middle of Malaysia where I was stranded between buses, and a patch-of-grass “taxi stand'” in Indonesia where cicadas serenaded me for hours while I waited for a ride; I think of a slumbering French railroad station where I passed an afternoon reading Proust and pondering the tall grasses that waved dreamily in a drowsy breeze, and a high Swiss village where I ran out of gas and francs, pitched a tent in a frosty field and watched the moon dance to the music of Van Morrison.

As I think back on all these places, one truth becomes clear: They were all way stations to adventure. They were the gathering of breath and coiling of muscle before the great leap into the unknown. They were the portals to wonders unimaginable and unforgettable.

And so, at the beginning of this new year, I find myself in the Pythion of time again. Just now the station master has come and checked my ticket, stamped my passport, waved me toward the platform. And here comes the train – I can see it now, all steam and gleam!

Already the pulse quickens, the mind races ahead once more: What lessons lie ahead, I think; what wonders are in store?

[Photo Credit: Grant Martin]

‘Winged Victory Of Samothrace’ To Get $4 Million Makeover

Winged Victory of SamothraceThe “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” an iconic Greek statue housed in the Louvre in Paris, is going to undergo a major restoration, Agence France-Presse reports.

The museum will spend an estimated $4 million to clean the statue and repair structural problems. The statue will be out of sight to the public until the spring of 2014.

The statue was made sometime between 220 and 185 B.C. and is considered a masterpiece of ancient Greek art. It was discovered by a French archaeologist in 1863 on the island of Samothrace in the Aegean Sea. It had been housed in a small building at the highest point of the religious sanctuary on the island.

The statue stands atop the prow of a warship (not visible in this shot courtesy MJM Photographie) and was intended to commemorate some unknown naval battle. Sadly, no dedicatory inscription has ever been found, so exactly what victory the Victory was celebrating will remain a mystery.

The Greeks Are Not Lazy

greek womanThe reason why Greece is in such serious trouble is because the Greeks are a lazy people who while away the days drinking ouzo on the beach, playing backgammon in cafés, smashing plates and dancing the Sirtaki – Zorba’s Dance. Now their culture of irresponsibility is finally catching up to them and they’re in danger of bringing the entire global economy down with them.

Not everyone has been this blunt in assessing the Greek crisis, but the country and its people have been taking a beating in the court of world opinion over the last year. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, implied that Greeks needed to be more like Germans in how they saved, how many hours they worked and how frequently they vacationed. This, despite the fact that according to the OECD the Greeks work longer hours than anyone else in Europe – a full 40 percent more than Germans, for example.

Next, “60 Minutes” got in on the “Greeks Are Lazy” innuendo with a story that stated, “In the past, when the Greeks found their accounts overdrawn, the country simply printed more money, or devalued its currency, to accommodate the relaxed Greek lifestyle.” The clip to accompany the narration showed a pair of young Greeks laughing and embracing.And Fox News analyst Bob Beckel said that Greeks were “a bunch of lazy people who don’t work.” And scores of other politicians and pundits have been less blunt while delivering a similar point.

I think the main reason why there seems to be so little sympathy for the plight of the Greeks is this persistent stereotype that the Greeks have been partying a bit too hard and need to put their noses to the grindstone and get to work.

I’ve been traveling to Greece for more than 15 years and have had the pleasure of getting to know lots of Greeks in the U.S. No two are exactly alike but the common thread I’ve noticed across this culture is their love for and pride in their country, and their strong work ethic. They travel the world in search of work but retain their culture and always strive to return home to Greece. Let me introduce you to a few of the Greeks I’ve met while traveling in Greece the last few weeks.

Sofia Tsatsa works at the City Market along the harbor in Kos, an island in the eastern Aegean that was home to Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine (see first photo). I was in Kos for ten days and shopped at this market every night, and Sofia and her co-workers, Barbara and Sotiria, were always hard at work. One night, I asked them if they were looking forward to the weekend or their next day off.

“Day off?” Barbara said, looking at me as though she was unfamiliar with the concept. “We don’t have days off.”

At the moment, there is no real minimum wage in Greece, no mandated vacation time and many employers are using the crisis as an excuse to slash workers’ wages. Sofia and her colleagues work seven days a week, ten hours per day, usually until 2 a.m. and they make only 800€ per month for their efforts.

greek bulgarianThink they’re an aberration? Walk out of the City Market, take your second left on Themistokleous Street, and meet Bogdana Petrova, a Greek of Bulgarian origin who runs the Easy Laundromat. Bogdana works from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. every single day with no days off. I brought a mountain of laundry to her shop one day and was almost embarrassed when she asked for just 6€ to wash, dry and fold the whole travel wardrobe of our family of four.

Duck out of the Easy Laundromat and head to the Kosta Palace Hotel along the harbor. Amble up to the front desk and you’ll find either Kotsifakos Manos (see photo below) or his wife, Elena on duty. Each day, one works the early shift and the other works the late shift, so they don’t see each other until 11 p.m. each night. Their next day off? Not until November 1, the start of the slow season in Kos.

These are the people you’ll meet when you travel to Greece. Take the time to talk to them, learn their stories and you’ll see the Greek work ethic in person. Trying to dissect exactly how Greece got itself into this mess is tricky, but if you want to try to apportion blame, start with Greece’s politicians, who have allowed the country’s oligarchs to evade taxes on a grand scale, while allowing Greece’s public sector to mushroom, all the while trying to pretend as though their government’s profligate spending was somehow sustainable.

Ask Dimitris Kalaitzes, the owner of Jimmy’s Balcony, a restaurant that overlooks Patmos’s glorious harbor, how Greece is viewed in the world and he’ll tell you about what an NYPD officer asked him after pulling him over on the Verazzano Bridge earlier this year.

“He said, ‘Greece is this small little country, how is it possible that it could bring down the entire world economy?'”

Greece is going to the polls again on June 17, and according to many I’ve spoken to, Syriza, a leftist coalition that wants to renegotiate Greece’s austerity deal with the E.U. and the I.M.F., may very well win.

“They are suffocating us,” said Anna Avgouli, the editor of Stathmos, a weekly newspaper in Kos, referring to the EU/IMF austerity deal. “The Greek people are ready for change and that makes Europe afraid. Greeks are ready to stand on their own feet.”

If you travel to Greece this summer, and you should, have no doubt that you’ll receive an even warmer welcome than usual. Greeks are angry and embarrassed by how their country has been portrayed in the international media and they are eager to show the world what their country and their culture are all about.

greek monk at st john monastery in patmosAnd if you want to put the current crisis in perspective, visit the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian, built in 1088 near the site where St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation. I asked the Monastery’s Abbott about the Greek crisis and his response summarized for me the capacity of the Greek people to endure just about anything.

“Crisis?” he said, looking a bit confused by my question. “We’ve been here for 10 Centuries and we will continue on.”

(Photos by Dave Seminara)