Friday, August 27, 2010

Greece - ancient homeland of the gyro

After the emotion of last week's post (for me - I don't know about you), I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with a more personal account of one of my favorite subjects. Next week, I will be so fortunate as to get to go to Greece for my third time. 

Greece is mostly in the news these days because of its flagrant disregard for any fiscal common sense. By virtue of Greece, many countries like ours can say, we may be idiots, but we aren’t crazy. That’s because Greece, mostly due to excessive spending on far too many government employees with fat pensions and other insane entitlements, has far more government debt than their entire country can produce in total in an entire year. We spend and have borrowed too much also, but it is a still only a relatively small (but growing) percentage of what we produce in a year.

So, it is easy to imagine people not having the best perspective on Greece right now, particularly if they know little else about it. A year or so ago I was dumbstruck when some kid online (I hope he was a kid) asked with distain what was so great about ancient Greece, and I had to scold the brat and remind him that Greece invented or substantially developed so much of our culture as to be an inseparable and indestructable part of it (for a detailed list of Greece's contributions, I copied it in my 6/20/09 post, Death of the West, starting with the alphabet we all use, but really, just about everything). Even the planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, Mars, Mercury, Venus and Pluto (still a planet to me), are just Latin names for the Greek gods or titans that the Roman adopted. Do they not teach this stuff in school anymore or was he just out that day?

My view is the polar opposite of his and has been since I was a little tyke. I remember clearly still my mother teaching me to read from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology when I was very little (my sister insists it was her, but, sorry, my memories are what they are), and I count it as the second book I ever read. And most of the mythology in it was Greek. So, stories of Zeus and Athena and Ares and Hermes and Apollo were soldered into my brain at the earliest possible time and they have never gotten out.

When I was little older my mother became a little concerned about my fascination with Greek gods and felt that she had to warn me that they were just stories and not real gods. I was a little embarrassed that she thought I was buying it (although, I couldn't understand how she believed in her God either). But, whether they were real or not, I couldn’t get enough of them and strange as it may seem, I have never stopped reading about them, or Greece in general (I’m too lazy to count but I have something in the area of 50 books on Greece in my living room right now; maybe obsession is a better word than interest).

In 1990, my friend asked me if I wanted to go there with him (he's part Greek and had been there many times), as he was looking for company. We traveled to Turkey, traveled down the coast and then popped over to the Greek Island of Kos for a few days. That might not seem like a Greek trip to you, but the Greeks colonized what we now call the west coast of Turkey many centuries before Christ and it is still a great place to see Greek ruins. Ephesus (as in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the Bible), for example, contains some of the most interesting Greek ruins I’ve ever seen and is not too far from Istanbul and the site of ancient Troy, which, if the Iliad is really history, the Greeks sacked something over 3000 years ago.

I leave aside the Turkish part of the trip (although, that is where the toilet seat bit me on the ass, where we saw an amazing underground water cistern, where I ate dog meat [not on purpose], where my friend tipped the bellhop so much less than I did that I thought he might kill him, where we took a walk one night and ended up at an outdoor whorehouse that makes the red light district in Amsterdam seem tame, where I received the most pleasurable beating of my life, and other exciting adventures) and go right to Kos, which is actually only a few miles off the Turkish coast.

We were able to rent a room overlooking a pleasant square there for the equivalent of $10 dollars. And I mean for the two of us. Even back in 1990, ten dollars was like nothing. We rented motorbikes, which provided me with some . . . excitement.

Taking the bikes out one day, we began riding to the top of the island, where we figured we would have an outstanding view. Actually, the islanders thought it would be a great place for a garbage dump and that’s precisely what it was. So, we turned our bikes around and started down the sandy road.

Now, I had never ridden a motorbike before, but it wasn’t real hard. Unfortunately, as we were leaving the dump, my back tire hit a patch of sand and the cycle was thrown sideways. Although I doubt I was going more than 5 miles per hour at the time, it was enough to throw me off. I landed on my hands and knees and ripped the skin off one of each. Now, it did hurt like the dickens, and a smarter man than I would have gone to a doctor, but, instead, we decided to go to the beach, because after all, what better treatment could I get than to submerge my wounds in salt water? Honestly, I still don’t have an answer to that question and maybe it was a smart thing to do. I don’t know. I’m a lawyer not a doctor and I failed 9th grade health.

So, away we went to the brilliant blue sea, and I walked into the beautiful Aegean, named for the legendary Aegeus, probably meaning goat-man, the father of the hero Theseus, who threw himself into the sea and drowned when his dummy son forgot to put up the white sails on his returning ship, signaling that he was alive. Kids. What are you gonna do? Anyway, it got a sea named after him and how many of us get that honor? Now, it hurt a lot when I ripped the skin off my knee and elbow, but it hurt a hell of a lot more when I put them in salt water. You know that saying about rubbing salt in a wound? Turns out it isn't just a saying.  But, I figured if it hurt that much, it must be like Bactine and be anti-septic.

But that was not the end of my motorbike adventures. You would think after the fall I would have been a little shy about riding again, but, keep in mind, I was a moron. So, the next day, with me still in a lot of pain, we took off again. I forget where we were exactly, but I was following behind Fred who passed over a little bridge. Naturally, I followed. Unfortunately, as I did so, a bus entered the bridge coming in the opposite direction. We passed each other going 20-30 mph with, I estimate, less than four inches between me and the bus on my left, and me and the concrete wall on my right. I have been near death too many times in my life not to think I might just be part cat, and I count that as one of my nine lives. I’m not being over-dramatic either. It was close.

Yet, that too was not enough. A little further down the road I suddenly felt a very sharp pain in my throat. Now, keep in mind I had recently ripped most of the skin off a knee and elbow, but, I tell you, dear readers, that was a mere pat on the back compared to this. Now, a brighter man than I might have stopped and looked in a mirror or felt around with his hand, but he wasn’t there with me. Fred, not having almost died in an accident with a bus, was well ahead of me and I decided to catch up by going a lot faster (which, again, had I a brain in my head . . . ).  The pain in my throat did not subside and while approaching Fred, I did some thinking and concluded that was one of the most painful experiences in my life up to then. I put it number three on the most painful things in my life, ahead of the times I had suffered the special pleasure of receiving a blow or kick between the legs. When I caught up with him at a light, for some reason I didn’t want to appear unduly concerned and just casually asked him, is my throat bleeding by any chance? He leaned over and pulled a thistle out of me. It had to be 4 of 5 inches long and must have just been just blowing down the road like a dart looking to kill someone when I happened along. Maybe I was lucky it landed where it did, instead of an eye, a few inches away.

Anyway, the next day I traded in the motorbike and got a moped. Remember, like my country - I'm stupid, not crazy.

Two years later, Fred and I went back to Greece with his brand new girlfriend and another friend of ours. This time we stayed in Greece and traveled to Crete, the largest island, not far from northern Africa, then Santorini, one of the most romantic and beautiful spots in the world, and Mykonos, also a fabulous playground of sun, sand and little villages.

I will tell only one story from this trip, but there were quite a few (like the Night of the Murder, the best orange juice stand in the world, the mean-waiter faces, and my battle with an insect bigger than my thumb). This one I have told dozens of times. I believe we were on Mykynos. Fred and his new girlfriend had not known each other more than a few weeks and they were not yet getting along so well. I woke up from a nap on the beach and wandered over to the restaurant where I saw Fred at a table. I sat down and we were soon joined by Elke. I was a little concerned that Fred seemed to be flirting a bit too much in front of her with our waitress, who, for some reason, I remember was an American mortgage broker who quit her job to travel and after visiting Egypt, was then waitressing in Greece. Anyway, there were vibes going back and forth and Elke did not look particularly pleased. At some point Fred turned to Elke, a German by birth, and said to her, pleasant as can be, “Elke, my little schweinhund, do you have any money.” So, my jaw dropped and I looked at him and said, “Fred (you idiot), do you know what ‘schweinhund’ means?” He said, “Sweetheart?” I suppose that was a reasonable guess if you’ve never seen Hogan’s Heroes, but, in case you didn’t know, it means pig-dog.

Later, when our other friend came up to us and Elke repeated the story to her, all she could say was, “I hope you didn’t give him the money.”

Actually, she did. And later, in spite of the inadvertent insult, she later married him. Awww. Anyway, she says that it was one of her German grandfather’s favorite stories until the day he died. One of mine too, probably until the day I die.

Anyway, I and the little woman who reads this blog just to see if her name is mentioned are going to Crete for about 6 days and then later meeting Fred, Elke and their ten year old on Santorini for a few more days before heading to the mainland so that they can go to the beach some more, and I can go look at what’s left of Sparta and Mycenaea and Argos. I never had a good camera to take with me on earlier trips and am quite excited about it, even if it is my third time. What could be better than Greece in September? I'm also curious to see if I can understand anything the natives say. Probably not, but here's why.

A few years ago, I decided to study ancient Greek just in case when I die, there is a heaven after all, and after I get over my pique for being wrong all these years, I find out that you have to speak ancient Greek if you want to meet anyone like Aristotle, Homer or possibly even Jesus. I have a few things I'd like to discuss with Plato, for one thing, as he has always bugged me. But, actually, I really just wanted to read Homer in the original and in my fourth year now, I am at least getting somewhere with it. I should have done it when I was twenty, of course, but, next time around I’ll be a lot smarter, having all the experience from this lifetime. Earlier this year, I also started on classical Greek, which is a marginally different than Homer (reading Herodotus right now), but which is a little harder for me. At the same time – and I honestly don’t know why I'm doing this except that I found a free website teaching it – I started modern Greek.

I’ve already written here a little about my ancient Greek studies (9/21/07 - For language lovers only), so I won’t go through it again, but I have to say, I was floored right from the beginning about just how many words the author(s) of the Iliad (we don’t even know if there really was a Homer, but likely not) used are still the same basic words in English and other languages today. More interesting to me, looking at the Old English Beowulf, also one of my favorite books, was written in, it is evident that somehow, the language "Homer" used perhaps 2600-2800 years ago, is much more recognizable to an English speaker than Old English is to us from only a thousand years ago. I realize that this doesn’t seem to make sense, but it is inarguably true. I have theories about why, but I will leave it to another day when I understand it better myself. I might have to learn some Old English first and I'm not sure that is in the cards.

But, back to the issue at hand, although modern English speakers could not possibly read Beowulf in the original without a lot of study (again, it is only from a 1000 years ago), modern Greeks can learn to read Homer rather quickly, as it is to some extent the same language. That itself is remarkable. Although a Greek would tell you it is very different, coming from my perspective, the similarities far, far outweigh the changes. In fact, during the last century, when Greece was debating how to teach Greek in schools, many educators still favored teaching it through ancient Greek texts. It simply wouldn't be possible for us to learn modern English by studying Beowulf in its original form (we can read Middle English authors, like Chaucer, with a little help).

Less than 30 years ago, the Greek parliament finally, and apparently abruptly, forced through dramatic changes in their written language that caused a bit of a firestorm there. They got rid of what are called breathing marks at the beginning of words that started with vowels (whether you pronounced it with what we would call an “H” sound or not), vamoosed two of the three accent marks and chose a style called demotic (from the same word as democracy – demos – people). People were apparently pretty upset about it and there were riots. Imagine if in America the powers that be suddenly decided to officially do away with capital letters and quotation marks and so on. Actually, some Greeks I have met online through my study of modern Greek have told me they still use the old style, but that’s because they are 40 and older and had already used it. Younger people never used it and it will likely die out in another half century. Oddly, I found that many of those who learned a bit of ancient Greek in grade school seemed to hate it, and some seem to believe it is too hard to really learn. That strikes me as pretty funny, and I am sure, if they tried, I could teach any of them in just a couple of months and after that they would at least read it much faster and better than I will ever be able to, as it is their native language.

My struggles with speaking modern Greek are legion (I really don’t get to practice in a real life conversation) as opposed to just reading, where it is only a question of learning vocabulary and grammar. For one thing, in ancient Greek, scholars believe that they pronounced the alphabet not all that differently than we do now in English, with a few differences. That part was not difficult to pick up - really, a few hours. Not so in modern Greek, where pronunciation has long ago gone through some major renovations. For example, they pronounce “b” as if it were our “v,”; “d” as if it were our “th” as in “then,” “mp” as if it were our “b,” “vt” as if it were our “d,” most of their vowels and diphthongs as if they were written “ee” as in “peek,” and after “eu” or “au” you have to remember to add a “v” or “f” sound. I am not quite capable of making their “g” and “x” sounds without sounding like I am trying to swallow a feather. Frankly, when you add in that they accent their multisyllabic words somewhat differently than we do, I don’t know how I haven’t bitten my tongue in half trying to pronounce them. Sometimes I just start stuttering.

Nevertheless, for the last six months or so I’ve been trying it out, and, if I know the vocabulary I can keep up with someone speaking Greek for a few sentences, but only if I can also read along (as I can on the new website I’ve switched to). But, and I hate to use this pun, if I don’t have text to read along with – it is all Greek to me. Like listening to Martians with speech defects speak with marbles in their mouth. Bluhbluhbluhbubluh. I'll see how it goes when I get there. I'll may be embarrassed to try and speak it myself because it would just take too long to think out a sentence and I know from native Greek speakers my accent is borderline horrific. Maybe just for fun..

Until next week, as the Greeks say – Χαίρετε. Γεια σας.

*Photos, in order - ruins of library at Ephesus, the extinct volcano at Santorini, a windmill in Mykonos and the town of Fira in Santorini overlooking the sea.


  1. Anonymous8:05 AM

    Who is your little woman??

  2. Anonymous8:07 AM

    Who is the little woman

  3. For me to know and you to find out (unless, this is actually you, in which case, you clearly know).

  4. Anonymous8:34 AM

    Howdy reading this page was indeed many pleasurable , posts like this give motivation who reflect this forum:/


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .