Ooh La La, Le Lyrial

Tuesday afternoon May 9

My cab driver to take me to the Atheneum drove up in a Mercedes E-Class. Very comfortable! His was another sad story, though. For 19 years he’d run a very successful flower importing business, buying flowers all over the world and selling them here in Greece. But with the “crisis,“ his business collapsed. Who could afford flowers? And yet his taxes kept rising. No sense in continuing. So now he’s a cabbie. And his son, a graduate engineer from one of Greece’s best colleges, can’t find work. He doesn’t want to leave the country, but he like all the others may have to. Among young unskilled workers, the picture is even more bleak. The unemployment rate among young people is 58%. That’s clearly unsustainable. But what can be done to change it? No one knows.

Coaches took us the half-hour drive to Piraeus where the cruise liners dock. The embarkation process was quick and simple. The ship, Le Lyrial, is beautiful. French registry, the senior crew members are all French. The waiters and cabin service people are Filipino or Indonesian, whatever. The crew is happy that I can speak a little French. And I can say “please” and “thank you” in both Tagalog and Indonesian, so that makes the waiters happy!

Tuesday evening May 9

Dinner this first night is by group, e.g., I sat with the half-dozen Columbia people. Interesting people, all. Everybody I’ve met has been stimulating company with stories to tell. Not surprising, because they’re all alumni of top universities – Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Northwestern, McGill (there are a few Canadians on board) and so on. Even a dozen or more Dookies!

The meal is excellent and beautifully served. I had sea bass as my entrée, perfectly prepared. The wines are French (of course) and well chosen. I drank a sauvignon blanc, just right with the steamed fish – grassier than the wonderful NZ wines, which are a bit fuller bodied and more lemon-y. All the alcohol is free on board (which is both delightful and dangerous!) including the wide selection in the mini-bar. As I write this, I’m back in my stateroom, sipping an icy gin-and-tonic after our shore excursion to the Oracle at Delphi (about which more in a minute).

Wednesday morning May 10

I was awake at 7AM, but still missed the sunrise. It was glorious anyway to see the morning sun sparkling on the sea. Breakfast is as varied and excellent as I now realize everything will be on this voyage. Anything you could want. I chose French toast, which seemed only appropriate!

Right after breakfast, we headed into the famous Corinth Canal, a narrow slit between the rocks of the isthmus that saves sailors about 500 miles. It was conceived by Hadrian two thousand years ago, but only completed in 1893. It isn’t useful anymore for commercial purposes – it’s only 58’ wide! But 10,000 tourist ships use it every year to give their passengers a thrill, it’s said. Actually, once you’re in it, it’s kind of boring. The four-mile transit takes an hour and there’s nothing to see but the back end of a tug towing us through and high rock walls on either side.

After that, we repaired to the auditorium for a couple of learned lectures – given the passenger list, one could be certain that this would be an educational experience. The first was by an archeologist from Penn who specializes in ancient Troy and all things Trojan. I learned more in an hour listening to him than the sum total of what I thought I’d ever learned about that place and that historical period in all my years of schooling. But I also learned that virtually everything I was taught is no longer thought to be so, so it doesn’t matter! He especially excoriated how Troy has been portrayed by Hollywood. Every frame of the Brad Pitt movie got it wrong, he said – architecture, costumes, history, geography, all of it was grossly inaccurate. When he talked to Warner Bros. about why they hadn’t consulted scholars who would happily have advised them for free, the filmmakers said they were just trying to align with the myths that were already in people’s minds.

The second lecture by a scholar from Dartmouth was kind of a mash up of Delphic oracle lore and historical feminism, focusing on the question of why in so many religions mostly dominated by men, the prophetic seers were so often women. She cited Moses’s sister Miriam in the Bible, for example, among a dozen examples down through the ages. The qualifications seem to have been that the women be either young virgins or post-menopausal women, women not yet in or past their childbearing years. It was not clear what that had to do with it, though.

After the lectures came lunch and then we were off to coaches that would take us the 14K up from the port village to the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle used to hang out. It’s still a pretty good hike on up the mountain from where the bus leaves us to the temple area. Kings and commoners would consult her, even though her pronunciamentos were usually enigmatic. She would sit on a tripod, which is still the symbol of victory in the Phyric games, also be held here. For example, she told the king of tiny Lydia that if he fought a war with Cyrus of enormous Persia, “a great kingdom will disappear.” Yeah, sure. The kingdom that was lost was his!

Her secret may have been that she was high. Her oracular chamber was deep in a crypt underneath the temple, on the exact spot where geologists confirm that two perpendicular fissures intersected. Fumes would emanate, released from the bedrock at it heated from the friction of the plates. She’d inhale, then speak the divine wisdom that had been imparted. Several people suggested that they’d had similar experiences in their youth when (unlike Bill Clinton), they HAD inhaled!

It’s become a cottage industry, the Delphic tourist trade. Over multiple millennia, all sorts of activities had taken place on this auspicious site including the aforementioned Olympic-like games among naked male competitors. The guide said they were naked because that made everyone equal. I told her that if she were ever to observe a large group of naked men, she would quickly realize that we are NOT all equal. She blushed.

On the way to and from the mountain we passed through a literal forest of olive trees.

When we got back to the ship, I needed a cold drink and a hot shower, in that order. A gin-and-tonic (the mini-bar is free, remember) was the first order and it was icy and delicious. Then the shower and I was ready to dress for dinner.

The weather has been spectacular. We’ve just gotten underway again, heading to Corfu tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, tonight is the traditional Captain’s cocktail reception and dinner, the only event for which we’re requested to dress up, “dress up” for men being jacket and tie. I had dinner with a guy who’d spent his life in advertising with Benton & Bowles, primarily opening offices worldwide to serve their primary client P&G’s expanding global marketing interests. His wife had worked with Leo Burnett in Chicago. We had an old home week discussion of our remarkably compatible interests, including many people we’d both known.

I didn’t get to bed ‘til 11PM again, having had a rich dinner too late at night. Hello heartburn. But not too bad this time. I’ll be ready to go in the morning when we pull into Corfu, another place I’ve never been.

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