02 September 2008

Greek Finale

Alpha and/or Omega...which one is it? After 40 years it's hard to keep track.

Yes, the last time I was on the mainland of Greece was in July, 1967 and headed in a very different direction in more ways than one. It was my alpha odyssey that carried me far and wide over the course of two years and started my lifelong addition to travel.

Geographically that trip I was heading back to Turkey. It was a few months after the military junta and Greece was not a particularly great place to hang out under the circumstances. Things had been sketchy there since before the coup, February 1967, when I left for Egypt. I had definite misgivings about the country in general, but I had left the Christmas check my father sent with American Express to cash. Months later in Istanbul American Express told me I had to travel to Greece to access the money so off I went.

This trip it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to pick Athens as my departure airport to catch my flight back to Thailand. The other choice was Frankfurt and traveling through the Balkans to arrive at Athens sounded much more interesting.

Up to now, the choice had proven to be a good one. My journey the full length of the Adriatic coast was delightful; full of visits with friends, wonderful new treasure spots and surprises, with still more to come.

In spite of all the ominous warnings that the frontier can often be drawn-out and tedious going from Macedonia into Greece, we fared quite well. Everyone had proper support documents while our bus driver was seasoned from doing the run regularly and works the system well. The row of buses that proceeded us were still stationary when we were able to gear up and leave.

Arriving in Thessaloniki around midday meant I was better than on time. I was a half-day early so I needed to make a decision whether I stay over in Thessaloniki and wait for the cheaper train or go out that day on the evening express, due to arrive in Athens just shortly before midnight. Nothing about Thessaloniki made me want to stay, so I pressed on to Athens where the hotel I had booked for the following night did have room and was a short five minute walk from the station.

A full 36-hours to explore and relive memories from so long ago. Would anything look the same?

My first nice surprise was the new spiffy Metro system they put in before the Olympic games. A two block walk took me to the Larissis station on the main red line with connections everywhere. I headed straight for Syntagma Square and started my reaquaintence with Athens from there.

Up on the hill I could see the Acropolis clearly and, yes, the antiquities are at the core of Athens tourism. They seem to recognize this and appear to be making an effort to preserve them.

However, the throbbing soul of Athens in 1967 was to be found in the Plaka, that unique warren of winding coblestone streets and local shops. I had worked for a few weeks that first trip in a small leather shop and I was anxious to explore an area where I had so many fond memories.

The disappointment and sadness were immediate and the more I walked the more intense they became. Just where were all the little local craft shops? Where are the cottage industries and local artisans? Where, oh where are the Tavernas with locals playing dominoes or backgammon, fingering their worry beads and nursing their coffee or retsina? Simply gone and replaced by global trademarks like "United Colors of Beneton" and "Mango" stores. Slick glass and chrome numbers with an upscale look that could be anywhere on planet earth, interspersed with rows and rows of shops offering cheap plastic junk. Nothing quaint and unique to Greece.

It's one thing to set up chairs in the Orthodox churches; I see no reason the faithful should have to stand. But to allow global entrepeneurs to destroy a precious heritage, in my way of thinking, borders on the criminal. It's a ploy to attract tourism funds throughout the world, but at what a price. It highlights the movement all over the world to replace real in-depth travel with splashy tourism. Look fast and buy lots, but don't expect a seminal experience. It ignores the reason many of us chose to travel in the first place--a desire to understand and appreciate cultural differences around the globe. It factors the locals out of the equation and sadly diminishes the travel experience.

One day in my memory bubble was all I was up to. Fortunately I was scheduled to fly out the following day and not test my meloncholy limits any further. It was omega time for this trip.