I had gotten delayed by at least one day in almost every place I visited in Greece, so by the time I made it to Corfu where my flight home was from, I only had 3 days to wet my appetite for everything Corfiot. My flight then got cancelled and I had to fly a day home early, so I was basically down to 1 and a half days. Luckily, my couchsurf hosts’ mother owned a 5 star hotel in Dasia, a beautiful mountain top suburb, and his best friends family owned the best restaurant in Corfu town, the Italian ‘La Famiglia.’ Between them and their friends, I basically saw all the islands best highlights in 36 hours, including a private beachside hostel where the owner home grew her own olives and vineyards and homemade her own cheese and raki.
All the food in Greece had been a pleasant surprise: with a similar climate to Italy, they had exquisite olives, grapes, wines and limoncello. It’s a fact that Greece sells all its best extra virgin olive oil to Italy where its blended with Italian EVOO and sold as Italian. The fresh feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, olive oil and balsamic vinegar shaken together for a traditional Greek salad never tasted the same from home to home, but always tasted incredibly fresh and delicious. Greek mousaka and gyros were also made with a personal touch by everyone, but equally amazing every time.
There were many things in Greece that I either didn´t expect or became so regular that I couldnt imagine Greece without them. The first and best of all, was Greek hospitality; every Greek host or friend I made, I also met their closest friends and extended families. If I was ever alone and Greekless, a Greek guy would pick me up off the street or invite me into his shop for coffee. Even when I walked into coffee shops to order a cup of Greek coffee, the smiley waiter or owner would come out with coffee and a bottle of water and tell me ‘don’t worry about it, drink.’ On the way to Corfu, I stopped in Patras, and sat in a cafe alone to sip on a frappé (the Greek version of Instant coffee on ice with sugar). The guy beside, Xristos, me waited until I left to chase me down the street and ask me where I was from and what I was doing here alone, and then invited me out with him and his friends to the top of Patras for a vantage point out onto the sea. There I realized another Greek stereotype: philosophy. It means ‘friend of knowledge’ in Greek, and he wasn’t the first or last person in Greece I met who wanted to dig deep into my foreign mind and discuss existential philosophy. Xristos’ friend started heavy, by asking me ‘do you have religion?’ and following up with my surprised answer with an even heavier answer, ‘What is God to you?’. Then he asked me if I believed all of the worlds problems couldn’t be solved with love, and if not, how or who can solve world peace. I met many more deep thinkers in Corfu, who drilled my beliefs for meaning and reason. When I told them about my ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ book idea, they told me it was brilliant, but that I had to be prepared to have the answers for the sequel, the ‘Rest of Your Life Crisis.’
Another weird re-occurrence was a fascination with Sweden. My couchsurf host in Santorini wanted to move to Stockholm, my couchsurf host Johnny Bravo in Corfu learned how to speak Swedish, and the Italian restaurant guy had lived in Sweden. All the friends in Corfu I met were also musicians or musically inclined, and of the 10 couchsurf host possibilities in Corfu, 3 more were musicians or singers. It reminded me a bit of Iceland, where every musician is involved with 2 or 3 different solo or band acts, and look to music as a way to get out of their home island.
Every Greek home I stepped into, I was offered Greek coffee, homemade cheese, Hellenic beer or freshly picked olives. The Greek hospitality ideals must have been taken from the Persian past, and their current economic recession didn’t give them any excuse to spare an expense. Everyone complained about the current state of affairs, unemployment and wages at unacceptable rates, but in reality, the Greek people are not suffering nearly as much as their Scandinavian counterparts (ie. Icelanders) since they still have home and family ideologies that reign true. I don’t know if it was chance or luck that I was blinded, but I didn’t see the real consequences of the recession: if you have family, friends, and happiness, I don’t see what more love money can buy anyway, so ‘Ya-mas’ to the Greek philosophy of living.
Everyone I met in Greece told me to spend as little time as possible in Athens as possible, or just skip it all together, but that seemed like a ridiculous idea. Who goes to Greece and doesn’t visit the Acropolis? There´s a reason its one of the most tourist ridden destinations in the Mediterranean, but also curious why it never makes it on any Seven Wonders of the World lists (not even the Ancient Hellenic list).
Athens is a huge city, sprawling with construction, reconstruction, and suburban spread. It looks nothing like the postcard picture of Santorini, the bleached white homes exchanged for stained stone and marble. Still, the center of Athens is a walkable maze of old streets and stone steps, laying under the shadow of the Acropolis. The Acropolis is a citadel, built on the top of a platform mountain, in the city dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. The Parthenon is the pillared, ruinous temple that makes Athens and ancient Greece so famous. Its big and impressive, but shrouded in construction canes and all the good stuff has been taken out of it and placed in the Archaeological Museum nearby. The view from the Parthenon over Athens is something to remember, but you really have to stretch your imagination to recreate in your mind how this city once looked or functionied in all its glory.
I couchsurfed in Athens with Yannis´ brother, my host from Crete. He took me to a ‘hipster’ bar, the TAF (the Art Foundation), a courtyard in the center of an abandoned building whose ruinous rooms offer exhibiting space for artists. Then we went to a forested courtyard bar called Six Dogs where the most trees in Athens congregated for a luscious green space between high rising, crumbling buildings. We always went out with is best friend, who was also originally from Crete, and after learning about my blog, advised me that Crete should be a whole chapter. Then, he warned me not to drink too much raki before I wrote the chapter, since ever glass of raki makes the brain one year younger… as his own jokes became more and more immature.
My brain was exploding with new Greek terminology: as the reading of their alphabet had become accessible to me, I started to realize how much English vocabulary has been borrowed directly from ancient Greek. Words for astrology, astronomy, physics, mathematics, algebra, philosophy, medicine and many other sciences are derived directly from Greek, and I found myself reading and understanding store front signs for ‘Pharmacy,’ ‘Apotek,’ ‘Optometry’ and ‘Orthopedic’ in strange letters. It’s a wonder why the ‘lingua franca’ was ever French, or now English, since Greek language and alphabet is the oldest recorded language in the history of the western world (younger only to Chinese).
The history in Greece was also flabbergasting, since everything was thousands of years older than any mentionaly anthropological history of Iceland or North America. Their rich Greek Mythology and Ancient Minoan culture provide millions of unanswered questions and curious wonderment, like how did they have flushing toilets in the year 1750BC?
I finally made it to Delphi, recommended by a fellow medievalist from Massachusetts, known as the center of the world in Ancient Greek mythology. Lonely Planet described the hilltop town as a place surely to be discovered and exploited by tourism eventually, since it was magnificently perched in the snowtopped hills of Parnassos mountain over to the Gulf of Corinth, with every house, hotel, restaurant and bar a million-dollar view you never had to pay for.
I really believed that places like this only existed in postcards, but Santorini really was the picture perfect image of Greece I had always imagined. I had left Crete, which identifies itself as especially Cretan, not only Greek, and arrived at iconic Greece, with all the blue-roofed white houses hanging over the turquoise Mediterranean sea. Not surprisingly, it was super touristic, with people from all over the world flocking to the cliff-side villages for greek salad, ouzo, and a sunset picture from Oía town. Both Oía and the main town Fira are full of tourist shops, hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars, and not much else, but the rest of the island is a quiet pastoral landscape, with vineyards and olive trees growing like bushweeds.
The donkeys in Santorini are something special, but most of them are not actually donkeys but mules bigger than Icelandic horses. They´re decorated with an assortment of saddles and straps, colourful blankets and trinkets, and jingle whenever they move from the cowbell strapped under their neck. Their purpose it to carry weary travelers up and down the hundreds of cliff side steps from the ports to the mountain top villages, and watching their farmer hands hoist dainty little women up and down off their donkeys is a hilarious sight. I decided to walk myself down and up, feeling sorry for the poor things, but made friends with one of the farmers. He needed help taking his 10 mules home at the end of the day so he tied them together, head to tail, and insisted I ride with him. We rode the train of jingling mules up and over the town, through winding alleys and narrow steps, and arrived to the open farm land hiding on the slope below the town. I untacked and fed his mules, some of which were imported from Italy (and his most prized possessions , and he gave me one of the colourful trinkety bridles to put on my horses in Iceland.
I took a tour of the volcano and hotspring, two of the most popular tourist destinations off Santorini´s main island. When the tour guides realized I was from Iceland, they immediately started apologizing for how lame their volcano was compared to Eyjafjallajokull (they could almost pronounce it correctly) and that their hot spring wasnt really hot, but just marginally warmer than the sea water.
I managed to find a couchsurf host in Santorini, Giorgos who worked at a car rental and tourist guide company. After finishing work every day at 7pm, he then carried on his professional expertise by showing me around the island. We caught the famous sunset in Oía, also drove to the lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the island, and explored other, half abandoned, white house villages. His parents were visiting him so the first night I arrived home to ‘meet mama and papa,´ an occurrence I´ve grown accustomed to from all my Greek friends so far. His mom fed us home made greek food and we dined out at the only Mexican restaurant on the island. We dabbled in a Friday´s night festivities but the grand, luxus clubs were mostly half empty, since summer and tourism season doesn´t really begin til June.
Everyone kept telling me ´summer´is so great in Greece, as if 30°C and sunshine isn´t summery enough. It was my summer holiday anyway, and I´m just relieved I had more of greece and Greeks to myself. I left Santorini on the slowboat, since it was a 10 hour sail that stopped at 5 other cycladic islands. I started to realize that all these little islands had the same blue-roofed white houses, and as paradise kept repeating itself, I found myself day dreaming what it would be like if I just got off at the next stop.
My travel philosophy of showing up without a plan or map backfired when I flew into the wrong town in Crete. I had expected to land in the capital where my couchsurf host was waiting in Heraklion, but instead I landed in Chania (150km west of Heraklion) on Easter Sunday. I was doubly confused since Easter had been a few weeks before in the rest of Europe, but the Julian calendar makes Greece’s Orthodox easter a little later. So, I was in a strange but beautiful town, with most of the city shut down and many people out of town. I strolled the Venetian harbour, with a handful of other sunkissed tourists, and only figured out the holiday was happening after passing a dozen lamb roasts – after days of fasting from meat, they put an entire lamb on a stick and rotate it over a barell sized bbq, yielding enough meat to feed an army.
I took one of the only buses going to Heraklion that afternoon and sat in the bus station there waiting for my host, who was actually standing 50m away from me. The pitfall of couchsurfing is that you never really recognize people from their pictures, so after standing beside eachother for 10 mins, it was only after I called him and his phone rang that we figured eachother out. Yannis was probably the best host I could have imagined, a local born and raised Cretan who thought it was only normal to give me his bed and take the couch, make his best friend show me around while he worked, and introduce me to his extended family for easter Monday brunch. We drove out to his parents village Zaros where 20 or 25 of his family members stuffed me with lamb and goat meat smothered in lemon and salt, and poured me full of home made wine and raki, the local alcohol which makes even Brennivin look good. We feasted all day long, only to reach dessert and coffee time, and I paid the next day for my food coma.
The day before there had been a tragic accident in the village, so Yannis explained that the meal had been quite tame and ended early. He also acknowledged how great it was that I had been the comic relief of his family, which I had noticed and laughed anyway at all the jokes I didnt actually understand. But the next day the joke was on me, as a wave of either the stomach flu or unweathered food poisoning paralyzed me for 24 hours. Yannis catered on me hand and foot, skipping lessons to forcefeed me soup for lunch, and thankfully it passed by the following day.
When Yannis arrived home every evening from physics tutoring, we drove around on his motorcycle to the ports, the beaches, look out points and the famous Knossos archeological site. Knossos is one of the largest Bronze age cities discovered, and perhaps the oldest European city ever found. It is the site of a Minoan civilization palace, supposed location of the infamous Labyrinth and half-man-half-bull minotaur, that has been inhabited since Neolithic times (7000BC).
With Yannis’ help, I learned to read Greek on my first day, which proved really helpful for understanding all sorts of signage. However, being able to read Greek didnt help me understand what I was saying, and it just seemed to confuse Greek people that I spoke only some words in Greek but didnt understand a word they said. He taught me to count to ten and all the important phrases I needed to know, including the “christos anesti” greeting I had to give to each and every one of his family members for easter. We roadtripped south to the hippy town of Matala, and along all the country roads was the appetizing smell of olives in the air. Little church shrines lined the road, where a life lost in a car accident would get a miniature church built for them instead of just a temporary cross or bouqet of flowers. We ran into a herd of mounted stallions on the way to Zaros, who were meant to escort the relocation of a sacred item from one church to another. I went with his bestfriend to the north coast of Crete to visit his summer house and aunties vacation apartments, and visited another friend of his working at a movie theatre for popcorn and raki shots behind the counter.
It was only 5 days I spent in Crete, with one bed ridden day, but I felt like I had been there weeks with an old friend. I atleast knew I could have stayed weeks more, but Santorini started calling and I finally, regretfully, had to leave Yannis’ clutches of hospitality.