GREECE," wrote Irving Stone in 1975, "is God's love affair with the planet earth."
Of course, Stone wasn't exactly the first to discover that, but now, for a variety of reasons, the rest of the planet earth -- a good portion, anyway -- appears ready to find it out for themselves.
Some 4 million tourists last year inundated the mountainous little country with its sparkling beaches and breathless mountain top views as well as its glimpses into 5,000 years of venerating freedom, the arts, the mind. The tourists come from Europe,Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, France. There were 70,000 who came all the long way from Australia. And some 600,000 Americans -- a 20-percent increase over last year.
Greece and the islands, especially Crete and Rhodes, are rapidly becoming the place-dropper's delight. Greek archeologists worried aloud last summer about the damage those millions of pairs of feet will be doing -- are doing already -- to the marble stairways that withstood thousands of years of onslaughts by hordes of conquering armies but may yet fall victim to the crepe sole.
But mostly, the Greeks are delighted with the tourist bonanza, and several factors -- in addition to the obvious attractions -- tend to make Greece relatively paradisical from the tourist's standpoint. For although the geological fault in northern Greece may not be at its most stable, the government, since the fall of the junta, is both stable and democratic. So is the drachma. Moreover, for Americans, the drachma is a good buy, a rare phenomenon indeed in these days of plummet and poor parity. The drachma has stayed somewhere close to between 36 and 37 to the dollar for more than a year now, as Greek tourist officials are quick to point out.
Add to this the eagerness of the passionately nationalistic Greeks to share the vestiges of what is at the same time their past glory and the wellspring of the highest values of the western world. It is only the dimmest eye that cannot see the Athenians cheering Theseus on the Pnyx; Athena, in fact, planting the sacred olive tree near the Parthenon.
At Delphi one expects the oracle to come out from behind the eons-old rock formations. One can all but see that poor pixilated crone, stoned on whatever hallucinogen might have been in the volcanic vapors she inhaled from deep inside Mt. Parnassas prior to her oracling, her incoherencies turned by the attendant priesthood into the world's longestlasting behind-the-scenes system of international political bossism.
One accepts as historical fact the existence of the quarrelsome, demanding and capricious band of gods from the Olympian heights. One is present Olympics, the games banned by Theodosius as an affront to the newly sovereign Christianity.
And on the islands, those incomparably lovely outcroppings in the Aegean and Ionian seas, some 4,000 of them, here too the past comes alive -- Knossos and the labyrinth; an entire civilization wiped out in the aftermath of the explosion of Santorhound, where the semicircular rock cliffs now embrace the peaceful lagoon, all that is left of what some speculate (with little evidence, but myths die hard) was Atlantis.
Wherever you go in Greece, however you go, there is the imprint of Christos Coulouvatos. The name is rarely heard by the average tourist, but it is hard to be in the country for more than a day without running into a Coulouvatos operation. Coulouvatos runs, indeed is Hermes, the largest single tourist conglomerate in the country. Hermes (named, appropriately for the messenger of the gods) is the parent organization for Traveline, the tourist booking agent; Chat Tours, the ubiquitous fleet of airconditioned, mostly Mercedes or Fiat tour buses in Greece as well as a fleet of cruise ships, hotels -- some built, some abuilding -- along with an army of highly educated, multi-tongued tour guides who are licensed by the government and required to have degrees in classical studies or archeology, or both. In fact, they are unwaveringly polite (if a little frosty, sometimes), more or less adept in the languages of their clientele, and extraordinarily well-versed in the history, the art, the myths, the philosophy, the historical impact of the classical and Byzantine worlds.
Just mention these guides to Harry A. Haralambopoulos, director of the Greek National Tourist Organization for the Western Hemisphere, based in New York, and he stumbles in his enthusiasm as he searches for the words in English. "The best," he says, "just the best. Maybe it is just because I am a Greek, but I think we have the best tour guides in the world."
From a Tourist's Notebook:
On a Chat Tour bus, gazing awestruck at the Parthenon from the Pynx, then from the Parthenon gazing awestruck at the city of Athens and the Port of Piraeus you are struck by the multitude of languages, dialects, accents. A tour bus can be a veritable Tower of Babel. But everyone who wasn't speaking French or German or Greek or Italian or Swedish or English with Canadian, British or Aussie overtones, was somehow ether a Yankee or a Red Sox fan. Because it was late September and early October and wherever you were -- at Agammemnon's tomb at Mycenae, at the Oracle of Delphi on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, at Olympia -- almost every American asked almost every other American (albeit a bit shamefacedly, but nonetheless desperately) if they'd heard who won the game yesterday, the day before yesterday, even two days before yesterday....
The camaraderie of the misplaced permitted a Chat-tourer to ask this urgent information from a Key-tourer or a Maupintourer or anybody else who looked as if he might know.
Playoff? The news swept the company. At Nauplia somebody'd heard it on a faint signal from the U.S. military services station in Athens. Somebody thought it might be three games. Somebody else said no, just one. Somebody said they asked the oracle at Delphi, but by that time that greatest oracle of them all, the International Herald Tribune, had been acquired and (never mind three days late) it was at last established that the Yanks were in the series and the Redskins had beaten Dallas.
The Greek tour guides took it all with faint but undisguised disdain.
First things first.
Everything is marble in Greece. They use it as we use linoleum tiles on floors, for stairs, for tables -- not just the tops, either. You know the country is a big marble quarry surrounded by olive trees, but it takes getting used to. Mount Pendeli is just outside Athens. A lot of marble there.
Did Lord Byron deface the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion?
His name is indelibly carved into the marble, as each tour guide more or less gleefully points out to each clutch of tourists in as many languages as there are on earth. If the poet didn't do it, he sure is getting some bum rap. Maybe it was that pirate (corsair, was the way the guide put it) who stole the lead that held the pieces of the glistening temple together. Can't trust those corsairs.
There aren't supposed to be too many tourists in September. There are. Lots of them are Americans, but most of them aren't.
The weather is indescribably beautiful. There is a special quality to the sunlight. Perhaps because the sky is so blue.Perhaps because wherever you turn it is reflected off of white marble. Greece, said the camera fan, is an F 22 country.
Athens is a 24-hour-a-day traffic jam anyway, and in the days preceding the country's October mayoral elections, there was, as often as not, a political rally or demonstration clotting one major artery or another. Somebody has suggested that Athens' traffic is the preferred local method of population control. Maybe, but there is some evidence of a kind of cracking down on offenders. Go through a red light and you can find yourself in jail.
A young American woman got into a hassle with a cabdriver and, because of the unsolicited -- and not especially welcome -- intervention of a Greek newspaperman, ended up at a police station where she was asked to sign charges (of trying to hustle a tourist) against the cabdriver. It was all a matter of 20 drachmas or so -- some 70 cents -- and the young woman, a psychiatric nurse from Boston, understood no Greek. Moreover, because the charges were mostly based on a conversation between the newspaperman and the driver (who was weeping copiously by this time) she was reluctant to sign anything. But she was having trouble communicating this to the Greek-only speaking police.
Finally, as she told it later, a fellow dressed in a T-shirt, who had been lounging against one of the desks, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, sauntered over and in perfect English, in fact, Bostonian English, asked if he could help.
And so it was quickly settled that no charges would be filed and that the driver would take her to her hotel for the smaller price. Meanwhile the translater told her he had a degree in engineering from M.I.T.
"How did you end up being a policeman in Athens?" she asked, maybe a little skeptical.
"Oh," responded her rescuer, "I'm not a policeman. I'm a prisoner."
A Greek-American visiting the land of his forefathers with his wife and kids (who were waiting for him in their hotel room), he had run a red light and won a 48-hour jail sentence.
The Boston nurse went off with the the cabbie who, still weeping, took her to her hotel.
She presumes the American engineer was eventually reunited with his family.
We are informed by Dimitrious, a friendly Chat Tour bus starter with whom we strike up a tad more than the ritual kallymerra-parrakallow relationship, that there is little personal crime in Greece. Crimes of passion, of course, but there was a cabdriver who just found a bag with 4.5 million drachmas and turned it all in... didn't even take a reward. Traffic violations, well that's different....Hustling a tourist, that's really bad.
Sure, the Greeks have TV. The antennae on the top of Santorini, ne (maybe) Atlantis, reach high into the cerulean sky over the Aegean Sea.
The only TV set we saw was cheerily giving forth with a Greek-dubbed "Little House on the Prairie." Except on Mykonos where the whole town was glued to a soccer game.
Women in Greece do not have it easy. Driving through the countryside you see them picking cotton, carrying immense burdens, often riding sidesaddle on donkeyback, always -- in the countryside and on the islands -- dressed in voluminous black skirts. They also have the heavy jobs in inland tourist hotels, even bell-hopping.
They are the shepherds; they spin the yarn -- you see them on the roadside with what appear to be handmade spindles -- and, of course, their handwork is legendary. In the countryside, the women all look old. The "crone" face of the goddess Artemis comes to mind....
Most of the tour guides we saw were women. Occasionally one will lapse from her carefully offish stance and hint that guiding tours is about as much as a well-educated woman in Greece can aspire to as careers go.
"The Greek mainlanders have a special feeling for the people of Rhodes," the cruise ship briefing-leader/guide was saying. She explains that through occupation after occupation -- some thousand years worth -- the Rhodians were able to maintain their Greek identity, sometimes under extraordinarily painful circumstances as, for example, when the most recent conquerers (the Italians for nearly half a century, ending only with the end of World War II) had forbidden the teaching of Greek in the schools. The island of Rholoes seems a lovely place to live. If Santorini was Atlantis, Rhodes might have been Eden.
There are a lot of tourists.
One is not permitted to climb onto the Parthenon. One is not permitted to play frisbee on the playing field at Olympia.
There are a lot of marble stairs to climb in Greece, both on the mainland and on the islands. The Greeks liked to know what was coming so they built their palaces high. They wanted their gods to be able to appreciate the temples in their honor so those were built high, too. An acropolis is the highest point in a given area. An ode to Clark's Wallabys would not be inappropriate.
It would be nice to have a house on Rhodes. Crete, maybe.