Veni, Vidi, Venice III

May 26th, 2017

Thursday May 18

We did, and he said goodbye, off to see if he could find a hotel in the Lido section of Venice for a night before he took off for Trieste. Obviously, since he had been biking, he was traveling light – just a simple backpack with a change of clothing and a toilet kit. I felt vague stirrings of envy at his ability to live so free, although I suppose I could too if I were so inclined. At some level, I suppose I do, come to think of it. It just doesn’t have quite the same romantic feel to it somehow.

After breakfast, back on the bus to Piazzola Roma and to the vaporetto on the Grand Canal. According to the map, I could get off at the Ca’ di Oro stop and wend my way north to the landing for boats going to Murano and Burano, but the boat I was on didn’t stop there, so I had to get off at the Rialto Mercato stop and find my way back across the canal. I did, noticing on the way one of those 57th Biennial installations – two enormous white arms reaching out of the canal, hands clutching at a building! I guess it was some kind of a statement about the city sinking or something; I never did find out. Anyhow, I got happily lost wandering up and down alleys and over little canals. I was trying to follow my map, but it was confusing and not all the tiny streets and passageways were marked. I ran into a couple trying to follow their iPhone maps to the same destination, so we joined forces. Eventually at the end of a street we saw a patch of blue. Hooray, we’d found the sea! And almost exactly at the yellow and black stop for the vaporetto that would take us to Murano.

Murano’s cute, but a bit more touristy than I remembered it. There are a thousand little shops selling Murano glass tchotchkes. As we got off the boat, a guy was directing us to a demonstration of glass blowing. We followed around a corner and into a factory where there was a several Euro admission charge. Nah. Sneaky. Tourist trap. Rip-off. I declined, kept walking and around another corner I came upon another little glassblowing factory where they were happy to have me watch them work, free. It was certainly fascinating. The one guy was forming what appeared to be a large hand, putting it into the red-hot glowing furnace, then pulling it out to a work station and shaping it, over and over. Meanwhile, two other guys were melting globs of glass on pipes, blowing them into thin bubbles and layering them onto the first guy’s project. I watched for ten or fifteen minutes, but then got bored and left. I never did see what the end product was.

I strolled around Murano for a while; it’s like a miniature Venice with its own little canal system. Cute place. When I got hungry I stopped at a likely looking little canal side café and sat next to a couple from Omaha, Nebraska who were traveling with an eight-month-old baby girl. They were medical professionals, she a nurse and he an X-Ray technician. Brave folks. And unusual. People in the Midwest don’t travel abroad the way folks on the coasts do. Most of their friends don’t even have passports. But they’re avid travelers. Reminded me of what Mike said about our family’s reputation in his high school for “driving crappy cars and taking great vacations!” Exactly.

After lunch I went looking for a couple more of the 57th Biennial installations that were purportedly on the island, but they hadn’t opened yet. I did tour the Museo del Vetro though – the museum of glass. Fascinating exhibits of the tools used in glassmaking, an explanation of how various kinds of glass are made, glass objects dating from before the Christian era and some incredible glass sculpture and other glass art objects.

OK, I’ve had enough. I found my way to one of the island vaporetto stations and rode back to the Piazzale Roma to catch my bus home.

I’d had dinner at the hotel twice and the limited menu hadn’t changed from night to night, so I went looking in the little crossroads village for another option. I followed signs through some bushes that said Bar-Ristorante-Piscina and found a remarkably elegant place tucked away in the brush where I had dinner outdoors by a huge oval swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. I had a superb meal of all sorts of seafood in a light tomato sauce served over a thick kind of pasta I’d never seen before, washed down with a half-carafe of an excellent house wine. Who’d have imagined it? The front of the place was full of cars; it seemed also to be an off-site airport parking lot. It is only five minutes to the airport, so why not open such a profitable side business if you’ve already got a large parking lot for your pool and dinner business?

After I walked a back to the hotel, I went happily to bed a bit early. Maybe the half-carafe of wine had something to do with that.

Friday May 19

It’s not rainy this morning but it is cloudy and cooler than it has been – a good day to do exactly what I’m doing, relaxing on the little hotel terrace writing this blog and sipping my excellent wine buy from yesterday afternoon.

For lunch I walked a few hundred meters into the townlet and found a pizza joint where I could buy a tonne é olive sandwich to bring back to the hotel so I could finish off the bottle of wine with it. I must try making a tuna salad sandwich with olives like that; it was tasty.

The sun came out after lunch though so I threw on my swimming trunks and took the computer down to the pool. There I overheard a young couple with a baby speaking and guessed correctly that they were Welsh, from Swansea! How likely is it that I’m going to run into a Welsh couple poolside in Mestre, Italy?

When it cooled down I came back up to the room to pack. That went OK. It’s always easier to pack to go home than it is to pack to start a trip; you don’t really care if stuff gets wrinkled.

Feeling a bit peckish, I walked across the street to another restaurant I hadn’t tried. Wow! I wish they’d been open the first night I got here; I’d’ve gone back every day. Delicious meal, generous portions, reasonable price. Attractive place, too. Dignified old décor.

Funnily enough, the Welsh couple was there too with Baby Lucas. Mummy is bright red! All that hot sun today on that Celtic skin, and she’s a blonde besides? Ouch! But she’ll be the envy of her friends and family when she gets home tomorrow.

I’ve left a call for 5AM and booked the shuttle for 5:30. I’m looking at 18 hours plus, door-to-door. Maybe I’ll get some sleep on the way; we’ll see.

I’m ready to go home. It’s been a good trip – certainly a quality educational experience, but fun too. I’d recommend this voyage to anyone. I’m ready for it to be over now however. My own bed calls.

Veni, Vidi, Venice II

May 26th, 2017

Wednesday May 17

The hotel is across the road from a farm (and the property where it’s located probably been a farm too until recently) so I was woken up by a rooster and serenaded by a couple of other birds and beasts in the morning! It’s another glorious day: blue sky, hot sun, cool air.

After breakfast (an adequate selection, both European and American standard fare, and all of it fresh), the concierge (cum desk clerk and everything else) told me about a terrific deal in terms of how to see Venice. It’s a public bus pass that entitles you to any number of bus trips in a given period (24, 48, or 72 hours) but way more than that, the pass gives you unlimited access to the vaporettos (vaporetti?), essentially public buses on water that cruise the main canal systems and even go out to the islands of Murano (glass) and Burano (lace). I chose 48 hours – Wednesday and Thursday – partly because the weather is predicted to turn on Friday and partly because I want that day off to do things like repacking to go home Saturday morning – and writing this blog. I’d also seen the main attractions of Venice such as St. Mark’s Plaza and I wanted this time to get lost, explore the back streets and wander along the small side canals, go where the large masses of tourists aren’t likely to be.

The bus stop is about 300 meters down the road and around the corner, opposite a tobacconist’s that I’d already visited the day before to buy a converter plug for the computer. For two Euros. To add to my collection. I have at least half-a-dozen of these things at home, but for an allegedly experienced traveler I forgot to bring a shocking number of things on this trip, including one of those converter plugs. Or one of our several Italian/English dictionaries. Nor did I pack any of the maps and guide books I have for Athens and Venice. Fortunately as I was heading out this morning the friendly hotel courtesy bus driver Christian chased after me to give me a very good map of the city and quick instructions about where the bus terminal was in Venice and where to board the vaporetto. Nice guy. I’ll slip him a bit of a tip when I leave.

The bus took about a half an hour to get to Venice and arrived at the Piazzale Roma, which seems to be the bustling main bus terminal for connections to all the local suburbs. A nice cop who saw me looking confused pointed out where the vaporettos (vaporetti?) boarded and there I was on the Grand Canal. An exhilarating feeling. I decided that for the first morning I would stay on the boat through one complete cycle (as I do in other cities around the world with the Hop On/Hop Off buses) and then decide where I might want to alight to start wandering.

The visual cacophony of boat traffic is incredible – dozens of the bus-sized vaporettos plowing in both directions, dodging speedy private water taxis, gondoliers slowly poling their iconic craft, and most fascinating to me, commercial boats delivering everything from farm produce and mercantile goods to bottled water to construction materials. Interspersed are small scows picking up trash and garbage to take out of the city. Everything coming in or out has to be transported by boat. Coming into the harbor yesterday I even saw a complete tractor-trailer crossing on some sort of a barge or ferry.
And later a boat leaving an emergency medical treatment center with a coffin strapped to its deck.

The buildings along the canal are fascinating, a magnificent and architecturally multivariate history of Venice, churches and palaces, hotels and hostels. Little arched bridges frame the openings to narrow secondary canals. One of them is of course the famous tourist magnet “Bridge of Sighs.” And its counterpart over the Grand Canal is the equally famous Rialto, a large ornate structure uniquely edged on both sides of the bridge itself with expensive shops.

There’s also a cacophony in Venice in the original meaning of the word, sound – church bells ringing, boat motors snarling, music floating out of apartment windows, people chattering in multiple languages. And above it all, birds! There are more birds twittering around Venice than one might imagine, not counting pigeons and seagulls.

The second time around on the vaporetto I chose to get out well past St. Mark’s and the main tourist mob in an area called Arsenal. I’d seen a small island named Isola di San Pietro that I thought might be an interesting destination, just because it was off the beaten path. (Or the beaten canal, as the case may be.) Maybe I could find a little seaside café for lunch out there, I thought.

Meanwhile, I stumbled into some sort of an art installation – giant painted tortoises in a park – and learned that the 57th Biennial Venice Exposition of the Visual Arts was on. Over the next few days I experienced several of the nearly two hundred exhibits, some on purpose and some by accident. I happened upon the offering from Catalonia, which I thought was fascinating. They’d audiologically mapped a hundred sites along the Venice canals and set up a boat tour where one would wear a blindfold mask and just listen to the city. The exhibit HQ was staffed by blind people. Unfortunately the boat tour was offered only on Friday and I would not be in town that day. Too bad. That might have been an eye-opening experience, no pun intended.

I also experienced films and sound productions (one from the an art institution in Wales), read literature, listened to poetry and saw installations and audiovisual demonstrations of all kinds. A lot of them had peace motifs and others were focused on tolerance. Still others were about climate change. The refugee crisis in southern Europe came into play as well. You get the picture.

I got hungry and tried to find a place on San Pietro, but they directed me back across the bridge and I found a café on a canal where I had a meal of calamari and a carafe of white wine. I chatted with a couple of kids who were on an art tour from Bates College in Maine. What an eye-opening experience they were having!

Finally, I found my way back to the Grand Canal and hopped on a vaporetto heading eventually (I didn’t care from which direction) back to the Piazzale Roma where I’d catch my bus to go “home.”

Dinner wasn’t served at the hotel ristorante yet (the Italians, like most Europeans, eat late) so I sat outside and got into a conversation with a large guy who turned out to be a 70-year-old Scotsman, living in Amsterdam, who’d CYCLED here 1000 kilometers through the Alps! Incredible. Apparently he does stuff like that frequently, long distance cycling. So common and well supported is this sort of thing in Europe that he was about to abandon his bike here and take the train to see some relatives in Trieste while some Dutch company would come and retrieve his bike and deliver it back to his home in Amsterdam. Amazing.

We dined together, him more sumptuously than I, and agreed to meet for breakfast.

Veni, Vidi, Venice I

May 26th, 2017

Tuesday morning May 16

The last time I saw Venice (sounds like a song title) my beautiful late wife Sylvia and I took the boys (then 11 and 9) to Europe for a month in summer 1976.   I’d just been hired away from GE by International Paper and as part of the deal I insisted that IP honor the four weeks of vacation I’d finally earned at GE by virtue of having passed my ten-year anniversary with the company. So it was a nice break between work lives as well as a much-anticipated trip.

We flew to Rome to begin the odyssey and after a few days there, we worked our way up to Venice through Bologna, Firenze and so on to rendezvous with our former Schenectady neighbors and dear close friends Tom and Barbara Dodd (who were Australian) and their two kids. Chris was exactly in between our two boys in age (and shared a birthday week with our younger son David) and Cathy was an early teenager at the time. They’d come down to Venice from where they were then living in Oslo, Norway by ferry to Poland and by car through the Eastern Bloc countries. They were in Oslo because Tom, a gas turbine engineer for GE, was helping the Norwegians to develop the North Sea gas pipeline pumping systems.   We two couples and four kids spent the next three weeks working our way up through Western Europe, ultimately winding up back in Norway via car ferry from Copenhagen.   It was an unforgettable trip, only slightly complicated by the challenges at every border (pre-EU, of course) to these two Australians who were living in Norway but traveling in a U.S. registered AMC Gremlin with one Australian-born and one Canadian-born child! Not to mention that in the car behind them, Sylvia, who was Welsh, was traveling on a UK passport, while Mike, Dave and I were U.S. citizens.   Oh, and we were also making the trip up as we went along, trusting that we could find accommodations for eight whenever and wherever we chose to stop for the night! It worked out fine most of the time, although I do remember that we had to sleep in a barn one night upstairs over the cows!

All those memories flooded back as the luxurious MS Le Lyrial sailed into the Venice harbor at dawn today.

What an incredible sight. This must be the most photogenic city in the world and I’ve just learned that it’s best seen from the sea.   Thank God we’re not still using film – I’d have blown fifty bucks before breakfast this morning!

As they have every other detail of the trip, the Gohagan tour company people managed our debarkation perfectly. A friendly, voluble Italian lady was at the foot of the gangplank to guide those of us who were going directly to the airport through whatever the arrival procedure was (we didn’t seem to go through customs or even immigration, which we 9/11 conscious Americans found odd) and onto the bus with our luggage.   I was going to the airport even though I was going to spend a few days in Venice before my flight on Saturday morning because my hotel in Mestre was only five minutes from the airport and I thought it would be easy for their courtesy vehicle to pick me up from there.   It was.   After depositing the people upstairs who really were flying out, the Italian lady came back and chased up the hotel driver for me.   She made sure my stuff was in the van and I was on my way before she waved “Ciao, ciao” and considered her mission accomplished. Thorough, efficient, and responsible. It was that way the whole trip.

The Venice Resort is a quite new small business cum airport hotel that feels more like a pensione. The staff are friendly and accommodating and everyone seems to be at least able to communicate in multiple languages.   I heard them speaking French, German and English (as well as Italian, of course).   The hotel has a small swimming pool (maybe 60’ x 30’) and they’re building what may be a little sauna house off one end.   Our room (I say “our” because my should-have-been traveling companion Rita made all the arrangements. Sniff!) is snug but adequate (big enough to contain a king-size bed) and the wee bathroom even has a bidet!   All in all, a great find.

The hotel serves a limited-menu dinner and breakfast (which is included in the price of the room), but not lunch.   Makes sense, although I arrived in mid-morning and it had been a long time since breakfast on the ship.   I found a little place in the crossroads village 300 meters down the road.   Half the staff is Chinese, which struck me as strange because the menu is entirely Italian.

I did have dinner at the hotel and it was OK. After dinner I had a drink on the terrace (the weather is gorgeous) and got into a conversation with a pair of ladies from Seattle. All at once they reached into a bag and produced what they said was a $150 bottle of wine that they weren’t going to be able to take on the plane in the morning and asked me if I’d help them finish it.   Oh, OK, I guess I’d be willing to do them such a favor! It was a winery -exclusive zinfandel from California, a deep red enormous wine the like of which I can’t remember ever tasting before. Huge.   Delicious in the extreme.   As to why they had a California wine in Italy, it turned out that they’d been on a wine and food tour and when they left the ship it was given to them as a present.   Only 100 cases had been produced of this vintage and they had bottle #787.   What a treat!

 

Splitting Off

May 26th, 2017

Late Sunday afternoon May 14

We hit Split, Croatia at about 4PM and off we went for one of the two tours we’d have of the city, since we were staying here a day and a half before making the long haul up to Venice Monday.

I had a personal interest in seeing the city: We might have lived here for a semester or two in the early 2000’s. I had been asked if I would join the faculty of a new Media University just being formed and I said “yes.” Unfortunately (or not) the university never got off the ground. Funding was supposed to come from three sources – private business, the city, and either the Croatian federal government or some United Nations entity, I forget. Whichever, the latter finked out. So I’m about to see what I missed.

Founded by the Greeks a couple of hundred years B.C. and named after a common shrub that grows in the area (really!), Split shares the same complex history of sequential military conquest as all the other places we’ve visited as we sailed up the Dalmatian coast. Various empires dominated for sometimes centuries at a time and left behind edifices, statuary and museums full of artifacts as evidence of their passing.

What sets Split apart from its sister coastal Adriatic cities (other than its sheer size – a population of nearly 200,000 – and its relative modernity and look of prosperity) is the enormous third century summer palace cum retirement home of Diocletian, about whom we learned yesterday from Dr. Bugh. One of its imposing walls was the seawall when it was built (complete with an emergency escape door for the wisely paranoid emperor), although now there’s a whole filled-in commercial street and seaside strolling area between that wall and the water. Inside the walls was a city – 2000 soldiers and everything required to support them, including hundreds of slaves. Incredibly, it’s still occupied. Hundreds of eople still live and trade within those walls.

An aqueduct built by the Romans 1700 years or more ago delivered fresh water to the city from the mountains– and still does!

A prominent feature of his palace was the huge mausoleum Diocletian built for himself. Here’s some more irony for you: Diocletian was among the Roman Empire’s most notorious and ruthless persecutors of Christians, but that mausoleum he built for himself is now a Roman Catholic cathedral! A few hundred years after the Roman Empire crumbled and the palace had been abandoned, Christian refugees escaping persecution turned up here and turfed out his remains. No one knows what happened to them.

We toured the palace and much of the whole 30,000 square meter space within its walls; the scale is truly impressive. Even the cellars are vast caverns. What else struck me is how the place can possibly still be standing, much less still occupied and commercially vital. In a region subject to earthquakes, no earthquake crumbled the walls. In a region bombed extensively during WWII – and remember that Split has always been a significant port – nobody bombed the palace. Amazing.

Tomorrow morning we’ll see some of the modern city of Split that’s grown up the sides of the ever-present mountains lining the coast.

Monday morning May 15

On the way to a remarkable museum containing virtually the life’s work of Ivan Meštrovi?, a world-famous sculptor born in this area, we passed through the urban University of Split complex atop a ridge above the city. Founded in 1974, it’s not attractive architecturally speaking – in fact, many of what are now its main buildings had been Yugoslavian Army bases abandoned when the 1991-1995 civil war ended. But that functionalism doesn’t seem inappropriate for a school specializing in the engineering courses required to prepare its 25,000 students to work in Split’s iron and steel and cement industries. (The city also produces excellent beer, by the way, thanks to the pure water coming down from the mountains!) Split once had a strong shipbuilding industry, as one might expect given its location, but lost that to China and South Korea.

Monday afternoon May 15

After lunch, off we go toward Venice, a pretty good haul – a little more than 200 nautical miles, which means we should be pulling into the Venice harbor along about dawn.

Meanwhile to keep the natives from getting restless, the faculty reassembles for three more lectures.

First up will be Marden Nichols from Georgetown, whose subject is “How to Build a Roman Palace.” Pretty timely, huh?

Next comes our new friend Elihu Rubin from Yale who will discourse on the subject “The Politics of Heritage: UNESCO, Preservation, and Global Tourism.” Having experienced the intrusion of up to 9000 milling passengers from the monster cruise ships at a couple of our stops, we all have some opinions about global tourism, I’m sure.

And winding up the afternoon will be the distinguished professor from Harvard Harvey Cox whose title is “The Serenissima: Religion of the Venetians.” (Note that proper academic theses must always contain a colon.)

I could take a nap or go work out in the ship’s gym or maybe get merrily buzzed at the always-open bar aft in the ship’s library, but hey, what are the credit hours at those distinguished universities worth? And wasn’t learning something a major lure for me to take this cruise in the first place? Reporting for duty, professors. I wish I’d been this responsible in my undergraduate years at Columbia.

[Notes to come]

Monday evening May 15

On our last night (sniff!) at a cocktail party on the aft deck we get introduced to the entire 143-person crew and staff — not just the people we’ve already met who take care of us directly, but also the people who work backstage or in the bowels of the ship, all dressed up for the occasion!   As are we, this being the night of the Gala Farewell Dinner.

And suddenly it’s over, all but the memories.

Quickie to Cute Korcula

May 26th, 2017

Sunday morning May 14

I’d never heard of Korcula, but it’s got to be one of the cutest little places I’ve ever seen. It’s perched on the point of the largest of what’s reputed to be 1000 islands off the coast of Croatia against the usual inland backdrop of steep, heavily forested mountains. How one gets from the interiors of these Dalmatian countries to these coastal cities is a mystery to me. I suppose there must be passages, clefts through the rock, but they’re sure not evident.

This charming medieval fortress townlette (pop. only 17,000) has one unique claim to fame: Marco Polo was allegedly born here. We were even shown his purported family home. Maybe so. I hadn’t realized until the guide told us that he was only 17 years old when he set off on the epic journey that brought us back from the Orient such wonders as gunpowder and noodles!

A highlight of our tour was a too-brief visit to the Abbey Treasury in what used to be the Bishop’s Palace where there was at least a day’s worth of spectacular historical stuff to see. Besides the great paintings and other valuable artifacts, we were shown an ingenious early voting device where you inserted your hand into a hole in the side and dropped your ballot hidden from view into one of two receptacles below. Simple but brilliant idea.

Korcula is 86% Roman Catholic so of course there are lots of religious structures, the most important of which are the resplendent Cathedral of St. Mark and the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, situated at the main gate to protect the town. They had to do a lot of protecting given where they are and the fact that great fleets from Venice and Genoa and so on sailing would occasionally think about dropping in. By law, every house had to have a weapon on hand. The guide told us is that one time when they were being threatened by a Venetian flotilla of 100 ships, the defenders armed the children of the town and posted them all over the fortress walls. To the Venetians it looked like too great an army to take on, so they passed.

Today things are pretty peaceful. Idyllic, in fact. Wandering around the hilly stone town I thought I could happily spend a week here, eating at all the seaside cliff cafés and sampling the local wines. Something clever they’ve done: to control and channel the constant winds, the streets to the west run straight to the sea, but the streets to the east are curved. Natural air conditioning!

Maybe I’ll get to come back someday (I actually took the excellent guides email address), but this morning we have to be on the launches back to the ship by 10AM. Boo.

Late Sunday morning and early Sunday afternoon May 14

To fill the time while we plowed through the sea toward Split (our last stop before Venice and the end of the tour, sniff!) there were three more educational lectures on the agenda.

Up first was Jo Ann Kulesza from Johns Hopkins who talked about the folk music from Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, all the countries bordered by the Balkan mountains and the similarities and differences among them. First she made an exhaustive list of the unfamiliar instruments used and the different sounds found in different countries’ music, such as the drone in Crete and the Byzantine clarinet. She talked about the difference between the major scale we’re used to and the Aeolian mode played only on the white keys. Finally she played video clips from various countries, described the costumes, and pointed out the differences in dance styles. It was an awful lot to take in in a short time, to tell you the truth.

Brian Rose from Penn came on after lunch to deliver a most interesting dissertation on “Archeology, Museums and War.” You may remember another speaker Elihu Rubin saying the other day that a museum was “a site of collective memory.” One of the things Professor Rose talked about was the propensity in and around war for the combatants to try to erase memories that don’t fit their particular narrative by destroying historic sites and sacking museums, citing not just ISIS now but looters and vandals from epochs ago. He talked about enlightened efforts to prevent that on our part in WWII citing the movie “Monument Men” and talked about pre-deployment training that had been done for our troops going to Vietnam and more recently to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, using playing cards as a training medium to identify sites and artifacts with historical value.

Finally Glenn Bugh (rhymes with Hugh) from the Smithsonian who’d talked to us before about Venice came back with a wide-ranging presentation he titled “Diocletian: The Split of the Roman Empire.” Among the swaths of history I’d never been taught was that Constantine the Great was the first Christian emperor, a convert in the early 300s AD. Ironically, the city of Constantinople was sacked by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when they detoured from their ostensible destination of Jerusalem in order to gain by looting the money they needed to pay the Venetians for the ships the Venetians had built for them to get there. Let’s just say it was quite a wide-ranging history lesson; I’m glad there wasn’t a quiz afterward!

One of the minor tidbits I found in my notes from his talk was that Alexander the Great was only 33 when he died. Geez, when I was 33, I was barely mid-way through my GE career; he’d conquered most of the known universe!

Dalmatian Delights

May 23rd, 2017

Friday afternoon May 12

Kotor, Montenegro represents both a town I’ve never heard of and a country I’ve never visited – a couple of boxes to check that are the main reason I took this cruise. (I’m still trying to catch my late wife Sylvia who’d been in 83 countries before she died!) Like most places on this dramatic west coast of the Balkan peninsula, it’s spectacularly situated, a little port city (population 24, 000) at the end of a beautiful bay, surrounded by impressive city walls and hemmed in by very steep mountains. (I was to experience exactly how steep a bit later, but I’ll come back to that.) The whole country of Montenegro comprises only 600,000 people and in a 2006 referendum those folks voted 54-46% to separate from Serbia. Religiously, the country is about 70% Orthodox Christian. Post-referendum, a bunch of foreign investors swooped in to take advantage of the real estate bargains in this “maritime gateway to Croatia” – Brits and especially Russians. The walled city’s history is the same familiar story we’ve heard and we’ll continue to hear all the way up the coast – the Venetians drove out the Turks but then Napoleon took Venice – but they’ve got a few unique historical claims of their own. The first book was printed here, for example, in 1493 – they claim. (But wasn’t Gutenberg’s bible printed forty years or so before that? Hmmmm.) The guide also claimed that there were no criminals here. “Except in the government,” she hastily added. It’s a cute little stone village anyway with narrow winding streets opening into public squares, each of which had a particular market role in the old days, one for vegetables, one for milk, et cetera. One of its most prominent features is an abandoned fort 260 meters up on top of the mountain behind town, so of course I had to hike up to see it – 1035 steps. I had a “Rocky” moment when I reached the top, pun probably intended!

Saturday morning May 13

While an alleged ballet troupe performed for us after dinner (one real dancer, three hoofers among the female contingent plus one impressively athletic guy), we cooked on up the coast all night to arrive in Dubrovnik, a hot spot for tourism these days. Well, not just these days. “Those who seek Paradise on earth must come to Dubrovnik,” wrote George Bernard Shaw sometime early in the last century. Dubrovnik was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, which still didn’t stop the Serbs from shelling it extensively during a seven-month siege in 1991. Grim times. Our excellent guide Matilda told us how her father had dug out ancient pipes and re-rigged them to catch rainwater because all essential services had been cut off. But the city survived, rebuilt, and rose once again to reclaim its former glorious title: “Pearl of the Adriatic.”

It seems unreal to me that the population of the Dubrovnik is smaller than the village of Chapel Hill – about 43,000, the guide says. Unreal, because Dubrovnik (née Ragusa, “city on a rock”) seems so vast and impressive with its fortified towers and cathedrals and its massive city wall. It’s more than just “a wall,” in fact – it’s a double wall twelve meters thick plus a moat. In a word, impregnable. Not that there haven’t been a succession of powers – Romans, Magyars, Ottomans, Venetians, French, Austrians, Hungarians and of course Tito and his Yugoslavian thugs – the city’s had to deal with, but it always seemed to be able to find ways to maintain its freedom. At one point in the city’s history that even involved paying “protection money” of 500 ducats a year to Venice for a couple of centuries for the right to be left alone!

With its wide main avenues and steep narrow stone-stepped side streets Dubrovnik is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever visited. Someday I need to learn how to insert photographs into these blogs.

As the cathedrals and statuary attest, the people of Dubrovnik are predominantly Catholic, putting up a “wall of Christianity” against the Turkish invaders in the 15th century. And it’s been so for far longer than had been thought – beneath the cathedral to Saints John and Jerome built in the 12th century they found evidence of an earlier basilica dating back to the 7th century. In the eye-popping treasury of the cathedral there is a golden relic containing a piece of bone from the arm of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city. There’s even a bit of the shroud of Jesus in there somewhere, it’s said. There are all sorts of religious edifices in Dubrovnik, such as a monastery we visited dating back to the 14th century that features a serene and lovely cloister.

Aside from the religious aspects of the city, it’s always been a maritime trading center for that part of the world. We visited a Maritime Museum and saw a plethora of exhibits demonstrating that rich history.

And speaking of maritime, a few of us Columbia alums had a delicious sea bass lunch in a street side restaurant up on one of the stone paved parallel passageways, washed down with a light dry fragrant white wine of the region called Tezoro. Sigh!

There’s so much more we learned – I can’t read all the notes I scribbled. I remember that when the early town fathers wanted to encourage people to replace their wooden houses with stone, they ruled that people who lived in wooden houses couldn’t keep wine. (That would have worked on me!) I remember hearing about their fascinating approach to republican government where they elect a new rector every month, which means he can’t be bribed! I remember seeing unique red coral jewelry somewhere. And on and on. Of all the places we visited, I must say this is the one with the most sensory overload.

That night on the boat there was one more parting experience to remember and one more sense engaged: a traditional Dalmatian folk music performance called Klapa, featuring four guys who played instruments (a sort of a tenor lute, a guitar, a standup bass and an accordion) and sang. I don’t know who had more fun, them or us!

I forgot to mention that after we came back on board from Dubrovnik and had lunch, there were two more academic presentations to fill the afternoon while we sailed toward our next stop, Kor?ula.

The first was by an archeologist supplied by the Smithsonian, Glenn Bugh, who spoke about “Venice: Queen of the Adriatic.” We’ll visit Venice at the end of the cruise, of course, but this talk was as much about its historical role controlling the seas through which we’re sailing for hundreds of years as it was about the city itself. In fact, the Adriatic was actually called for much of that time the “Golfo di Venezia.” I won’t try here to recite the exhaustive historical record Dr. Bugh treated us to as the Venetians grew from a bunch of lagoon dwellers to the mightiest empire on earth, largely by projecting sea power. At one time their Arsenali industrial complex could turn out a ship in a day. Their ships carried the Crusaders to the sack of Constantinople in 1204; in fact, the Crusaders breached the walls by climbing ladders that used the Venetian ships as platforms. That event ended the Ottoman Empire and led to the Winged Lion symbol of Venice appearing everywhere in that part of the world about as ubiquitously as the U.S. forces spread Kilroy through Europe in WWII.

Dr. Bugh did talk a bit about Venice the city. It’s really 130 islands, he said, which protect the city from the sea in a way somewhat similar way to how the Outer Banks protects coastal North Carolina. The average depth of the Venice lagoon is only one meter! They’ve been dealing with rising sea levels since 1000 A.D. and they’re still there, perched on a million “telephone poles” driven into the seabed. Why don’t the poles rot? Because after long enough, they fossilize!

The second “Gohagan Lecture Series” presentation wasn’t a lecture at all, but rather a talk by Tony Brown who teaches leadership skills at Duke. He led us through an interesting exercise that he started by asking us to list ten people, maybe mentors, who’ve had the biggest influences on our lives. Tops on my list was my junior high school/high school librarian who for seven years would lie in wait for me to pass by between classes and slip me books to read! She introduced me to a world of literature and a range of authors I quite possibly would never have discovered on my own. Tony asked us why what that person did for us had been so meaningful and then challenged us to think of ways to “pay it forward.” Because I think that there’s a negative correlation between the exposure to reading and the propensity to end up in jail, I thought that perhaps I could find a way to supply books to people in prison and perhaps even start a book club in a particular prison near where I live that houses people who’ve made some bad decisions but who aren’t hardened criminals. Maybe in the fall I’ll try to do that. Imagine if the hundred or so people who were at Tony’s session each came up with one idea to “pay forward” something that someone had done for us in our formative years. What a reward that would be.

Corfu to Kotor

May 22nd, 2017

Thursday morning May 11

Just above the Greek island of Corfu (which the Greeks call Kerkyra) is the Strait of Otranto, a fifty-mile wide narrowing between the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas.   Whoever controls Corfu controls the sea passage between Italy and the Balkans, which explains why it’s been fought over since at least the sixth century and why everybody bombed the heck out of the place during WWII, allies and axis forces alike. Its location couldn’t be more strategic. The Venetians ruled the island for 400 years. The Turks (Ottoman Empire) tried repeatedly to take it but never succeeded; the formidable fortress the Venetians had built in the middle of the 16th century (still standing and still impressive; we toured it) foiled their last serious invasion attempt 300 years ago. Napoleon won Corfu by default when his superior cannon power forced the city of Venice itself to surrender in 1797 and the British subsequently inherited it after they defeated the French at Waterloo. Corfu didn’t become part of Greece until the Treaty of London in 1864. The visible influence of all those cultures (and those who came millennia before, such as the Illyrians and the Romans) are part of the charm of the island.

Physically, Corfu is mountainous and green, thanks to more than 100 centimeters of rain a year. Meanwhile the mainland to which it was once attached (18,000 years ago) is arid, which prompts Corfusians to sniff that the tallest tree on the Balkan side of the strait is parsley!

The first Greek university (Ionian U) was founded here and the island today has no fewer than 18 philharmonic orchestras and attracts world-class talent to perform for its discerning audiences.   It is considered a mark of distinction for a singer to be “applauded in Corfu!”

Thursday afternoon May 11

 Next we crossed the sea and pulled into the harbor at Sarande, Albania. I’d never heard of the place, but during the 50 years of the benighted Communist era, it was a base on the Adriatic for Russian submarines and among the last bastions of faith in the failed Communist idea. “Nice on paper; a failure in practice,” is how our guide put it. As he described that period, the propaganda was pervasive and totally paranoiac.   Somebody was always said to be about to invade Albania, the people were told – the British, the French, the Italians, the Americans, the Greeks – so the country had to be perpetually prepared for war.   Universal compulsory military service for four years (unpaid).   Total censorship, total state control of the media.   Constant lying about everything. The country isolated itself from the world.   Even after the collapse of the USSR, Albania still sought to perfect the model Communist state. No one was allowed to say such anything negative about the failed socialist experiments to control agriculture and industry or the deplorable economic conditions, in public or in private.   The Party line was the only “truth.” Orwellian.

An illustrative tale the guide told (which may have some basis in truth) is that the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise, passing between the island of Corfu and the mainland, strayed into Albanian waters.   An eager Communist warrior manning a gun emplacement in the hills requested permission from army headquarters to fire on the carrier to avenge the insult.   “How big is the enemy ship,” he was asked.   “About the size of Corfu,” the gunner replied. “Let it pass,” he was told.

Perhaps because of its geography, at least the coastal area of what is now known as Albania has been occupied by waves of peoples since well before the birth of Christ. The architectural evidence is fascinating.   You can duck through a Hellenistic gate of an nearby ancient city named Butrint (called by Virgil “Troy in miniature”) and see a pagan shrine, Roman baths from the second century, the ruins of a great basilica from the sixth century, a reconstructed Venetian castle built a thousand years later, and more. The city walls originally built by the Illyrians are layers of archeological evidence as each occupying power built upon that base or repaired sections of the walls damaged by the earthquakes to which the area is prone using different kinds of stone cut in different ways and laid in different patterns.   We can also glimpse (beneath the sand spread to protect them) mosaic floors both Roman and Byzantine.

Sixty percent of Albanians are Muslims and the guide referred to a gleaming white minaret (paid for by Sunni Saudi Arabia) as “our new missile site!”

Sadly, Albania itself today is still a disaster with a crumbling infrastructure, 500 abandoned factories doomed by antiquated machinery and outdated technology, and high unemployment. For fifty years, the guide said, “Workers pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them.” There were also some banking scandals involving former Communist officials that cost more than a few gullible citizens their life savings.   It’s not a happy place. People in the street dress shabbily and wear dark scowls on their faces. However, there does appear to be some new construction on the hills surrounding the harbor. The rumor is that Norwegians and Swedes are taking advantage of the depressed economy to build condos. Maybe that will provide some jobs and bring a little life back to the place.

Friday morning May 12

Rats. I got up an hour too early. I hadn’t changed my bedside clock back an hour. My iPhone had picked up the time change, but I didn’t look at it ‘til I got to the breakfast room and there was no one there.   I don’t know if I could have slept another hour or not – I’d gone to bed an hour earlier than I’d thought for the same reason – but I’d have liked to try. My eyes look tired, that’s for sure.

It’s gray this morning and we’ve been motoring along hard all night.  I was told that the ship can do 17 knots.   There were whitecaps in the middle of the night and the ship was rolling a bit, but on the whole she moves through the water very smoothly and quietly.

What’s on the agenda for this morning are three more lectures while the ship is still on the long haul up the Adriatic toward Kotor, Montenegro. (I hope I can stay awake – shades of my college days!)

First up, a distinguished scholar from Harvard named Nina Tumarkin told a fascinating story about how the modern Greeks – genetically unrelated to the ancient Olympians – appropriated mythology and two thousand years of history to create a narrative dramatically distinguishing themselves from their Balkan neighbors!   To introduce her thesis, she used a video of the opening ceremony at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Opening ceremonies of Olympics are especially interesting, she said, because they paint a picture of how the host nations see themselves.   And there was Greece artfully portraying itself and its people as latter-day descendants of a seamless past to which in fact they are only connected by the accident of shared geography!   Tourism has become both the medium and the principal beneficiary of that clever and effective positioning strategy.

Next, a bright young associate professor from Yale named Elihu Rubin discoursed on architectural facts and features in this part of the world that but for his lecture we might have walked past without really seeing.   “Reading the City: Buildings, Streets and Public Spaces of the Coastal Towns” was the title of his presentation.   Like him, I wander on foot all over cities I visit, miles and miles some days.   But thanks to him, I’ll look for and see much more when I do that the rest of this trip and beyond. He talked about the difference between a colonnade and an arcade and how they function both as “a civic gesture by a commercial establishment” and also a stratagem to gain some extra space.  He said that the meaning of a public square has a lot to do with its relationship to the streets around it. (That will be particularly interesting to observe in some of the cities we’re going to visit on this trip.)   And he called a museum “a site of collective memory.” It made me sad to think about how the China’s Cultural Revolution and more recently ISIS in the Middle East both sought to erase that collective memory.

And finally, Joann Kulesza, a music professor from Johns Hopkins, showed us how the gods and goddesses from Greek mythology show up in classical music through the ages.   For example, I’d always thought Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” was evoking his impression of the planets, but of course it’s not. The suite is about the gods and goddesses that the planets were named after.   Mars, the god of war; Venus, the goddess of peace; Jupiter and so on.   She talked about the instrumentation and the characteristics of the compositions match up with what the dieties are about.   Mars features the blare of trumpets; Mercury the fleet messenger is represented by quickest paced piece.  Jupiter’s music is deep and profound.   Et cetera.   I’ll never listen to that music the same way again.

Ooh La La, Le Lyrial

May 19th, 2017

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.

Ti Kanis Athens

May 19th, 2017

Saturday morning May 6

I slept a solid nine hours, not surprising after having been traveling from 3PM when I left the house on Thursday, ‘til 8PM on Friday by the time I got to my hotel in Athens. Subtract seven for the time difference and it’s still 22 hours, right?

Both flights (RDU/LHR, LHR/ATH) were chockablock full. I guess the tourist season has begun. I was OK; I asked for aisle seats near the toilets – saves climbing over someone in the middle of the night. As it worked out, I got the seat where it steps down from three abreast (3-4-3 in Economy) to two on the window side of the aisles (2-4-2), which means I had lots of legroom. Comfortable, except for the huge Scotsman who was my seatmate on the London flight – not fat, just ginormous.

I’d forgotten how mountainous it was in Greece. Not Swiss peaks, just Appalachian-sized, but a bit more rocky and rugged-looking. Forested to the top, but none of the trees were bigger than apple trees or maybe I should say olive trees. The soil here looks very dry; I think the climate is arid.

The city is 40 kilometers from the airport, hence the 50 Euro taxi fare. Athens has sprawled to five million people or so (nobody really knows), which is about half the total population of Greece. (Nobody knows that for sure either, especially since the influx of refugees.)

My first impression of the city is “old.” Stone buildings, peeling stucco, lots of graffiti. Ugly. But look down one of the avenues and there up on the hill at the end of the street is the standing remains of some temple that was built half a millennium before Christ was born. It’s awesome to imagine that span of history.

The small hotel is right in the middle of things, lots of little stores, less than a mile to lots of tourist attractions. My mini-suite has a little balcony on the street, which I’d guess by the ashtray on the metal table is used primarily for smoking. The place is clean and the couple of staff people I’ve met are quite friendly. Breakfast is surprisingly ample – cold meat and cheese, fruit, yoghurt, cereal, at least half-a-dozen different kinds of bread, hardboiled eggs, scrambled eggs with peppers, Vienna sausages and chewy bacon – and of course, olives! My only complaint is that the coffee is disappointingly weak.

Trying to guess by their accents, my fellow guests are a mix of God-knows-what nationalities. I did hear a small family speaking Russian (the mother-in-law never shut up!) and another small family seemed to have an English accent. There was a beautiful Eurasian girl wearing a very tight-fitting sheath dress with a very large Nordic-looking guy who kept kissing and caressing her. There was an Indian family, the young son of which at least had an American accent. And two heavy girls whom I guessed to be Greek. I was told European men didn’t wear shorts, but except for a couple of guys in sweat pants, every man did have shorts on, with a tee shirt and trainers or sandals. I’m in gray silk parachute pants, a black tee shirt (the only one I brought with me, having been told that the cruise requires collared shirts) and black Birkenstocks. I’ll pass. And stuff seems to dry overnight, so I might get by with that one outfit and avoid digging into the suitcase, which of course is packed for the cruise.

The morning’s agenda: buy bottled water and beer for the room (I have a small fridge), and a SIM card for my iPhone. Then find the Hop On/Hop Off bus (the desk guy Anthony last night said there was one) for an orienting city go-round. Actually, I don’t HAVE to do ANYTHING ‘til next Tuesday when I catch up with the ship, an odd experience in my life. It’s hard to slow down and relax. I’ll try!

Saturday afternoon May 6

So whom did I meet at the desk on the way out this morning? Four Canadians from Toronto! We were headed to the same place, the just-around-the-corner Omonia Square to catch the Ho/Ho bus. Cheap – 17 Euros less a 2 Euro discount for buying the ticket at the hotel. The air is pleasant and dry, but the sun is HOT. My first stop was to buy an Athens souvenir cap – cheesy, I know, but I needed some protection for my nose and forehead. It must’ve been there that I lost my bus ticket while fumbling to find four Euros. Sigh. So when I went to get on the bus, I couldn’t find it. Amazingly, the loader said it was no problem, go ahead and get on the bus, he’d call the hotel. (He asked me what I’d paid and where I’d bought it and he was obviously satisfied with my answers.) When I got back to the hotel in the afternoon, there in my box was a replacement ticket. What are the odds? What a generous gesture.

I chose the front seat on the top deck and road around the whole one-hour tour twice, to get an idea of how the city’s laid out and what’s where, relative to my hotel. As I’d guessed, I can walk to just about anything I want to see. (Including, if I were so inclined, an area where there are a lot of brothels, the lady with a British accent who was doing the recorded English language tour guide helpfully pointed out!)

My impression of the city as “old” still holds, but “old” has a whole different meaning when you’re looking beyond a crumbling contemporary infrastructure to three thousand years of history. (I am still offended though at the graffiti everywhere, including on the walls of historic and significant buildings. It seems to me to be disrespectful, to say the least.) The streets, except for the long avenues radiating out from the various public squares, are narrow, randomly twisty, and choked with cars. I can’t remember seeing one bike, but there are lots of noisy motorcycles.

When I finally had had enough and went to get off the bus back near my hotel, I’d missed the actual stop, but the driver graciously stopped anyway – no doubt illegally. Accommodating people, these Greeks!

I did drop into a nearby convenience store and found that while I’d thought the beer I had last night out of the mini-fridge in the room was cheap enough at four Euros, I could buy four larger beers in the market for five Euros total! Everything seems to be quite cheap here, cheaper than in China.

I recovered after a cold beer and a little rest in the late afternoon and went out again. I took the bus to a bustling market area called Monastiraki and wandered up the hill to see what I could see. Hadrian’s library (or what used to be Hadrian’s library, now being reconstructed) popped up, as did several other ancient ruins, such as the old Roman agora. Gee, every place you look is a history lesson. It’s amazing that it hasn’t all been razed for development. But I guess its existence is a tourist draw and Greece needs that inflow of cash desperately. I strolled along an antique street and found the Athens flea market, but I’m really not in the acquisition mode – more the de-acquisition mode at this stage of my life. What a bazaar this city is, though. Jillions of little storefront shops selling fashion, phones and food. Many of them have a mirrored back wall to give you the illusion that the place is twice as large! When I got tired of walking (4.9 miles, the Fitbit says) I just intersected the tour bus line and reboarded to ride back to Omonia Square around the corner from the hotel. I found a little sidewalk café and had dinner – four skewers of chicken, salad and French Fries, about twice as much as I could possibly eat. Plus a water glass of white wine. Total cost? 10.50 Euros, about $11.50 at the current exchange rate. And no tip – an expat sitting nearby said sternly that one doesn’t tip in Europe. “Don’t ruin it for the locals” was the message. I felt guilty, but when in Rome…or rather, when in Athens, do as the Athenians do. Or as they don’t, in this case. I had an ice cream cone for dessert on the way home. 1.65 Euros. Geez. No wonder the guy’s an expat here. You could live pretty well here on the pension most American retirees get compared to most other capital cities in the developed world. Athens is even cheaper than China now.

Sunday morning May 7

I didn’t know what I was talking about yesterday. On Sunday it seems like all of Athens turns into a sidewalk sale, block after block in all directions, merchandise strewn on the pavement, people selling stuff out of the back of trucks, cartons in the street surrounded by shrieking women jostling each other to snatch up the buys announced by a cacophony of vendor squalls. Amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in China. I bought three leather belts for nine Euros. For all three, not each. And if I spoke Greek, I probably could have gotten them for half that. The sellapalooza isn’t for tourists, either, although there were a number of us wandering around. There are more household goods than anything else for sale, things tourist couldn’t easily take home with them, and the piles of books on stalls everywhere were mostly in Greek. I walked four miles, passing through the fruit and vegetable market on the way, an experience in itself in high-decibel haggling.
I grabbed a salmon sandwich on a loaf of crusty bread and brought it back to the room to have out on the balcony with one of the beers I bought yesterday. I bought four different brands of Greek beer to see which I liked best. So far, Alpha is winning.

I wasn’t very hungry, having had another filling breakfast at the hotel this morning. Yesterday I only had two meals, breakfast and dinner, twelve hours apart. It’s more than enough.

Sunday evening May 7

Even so, I decided to eat a nice dinner. The guy at the hotel desk directed me to a neat old wind-y street area called Psiri. (The P is silent.) It’s full of cafés and bars, most with dining in outdoor gardens or even along the street and virtually all with live music — guitars, keyboards, some kind of a lute, the occasional clarinet. I picked one whose outdoor dining area was on both sides of a street, with a narrow passage between tables for cars! A huge grape arbor lit with twinkling lights spanned the street. I chose a classic Greek meal – lamb souvlaki (basically chunks of lamb on skewers with peppers and onions) and a carafe of red wine. It was terrific and cheap: less than $15 total.

Monday morning May 8

However, I paid for it in another way: all those peppers and onions late at night (it was 9:30 by the time I finished) were a mistake. Two Pepto Bismals and four Alka-Seltzers couldn’t put out the fire in my belly. I slept hardly at all and when I did doze off toward dawn, a street crew started tearing up the street with jackhammers at 7AM right below my third floor balcony. Arrrrgggghhhh! Fortunately I had my Bose noise-cancelling headphones with me and I was surprised how well they worked. I got a couple more hours of sleep. Still, I felt terrible. Breakfast was dry toast, tea with honey and half of a banana.

Monday afternoon May 8

I spent most of the day in bed, resting and reading, but finally I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went over to the pharmacy across the street. I described my symptoms and the pharmacist prescribed Zantac. (Less than $3!) I emailed my own doctor home to make sure it was OK to take that (the dosage was double what’s available OTC in the U.S.) and he said yes, although he hoped that all I had was heartburn, not something bad news that I’d picked up in the food or water here. I was to take it before meals that might be spicy or otherwise acid-producing.

Monday evening May 8

So here came the acid test, so to speak. I was to have dinner with Mika Papazoglou and her family (father, mother, high school-aged twins) in a Cretan restaurant out in the far reaches of the city toward the sea. 17 miles from central Athens, in fact – almost the distance from Scarsdale to mid-town Manhattan. It was a fun meal – lots of small and not-so-small dishes to sample. Mika (who’d been my “minder” when I was the keynote speaker at a huge Abbott Labs conference here a dozen years ago) told me what they were, but I couldn’t begin to pronounce half of them much less describe them accurately. I know we had snails, mushrooms, some sort of liquid cheese, yoghurt of course, a salad with balls of something in it, and goat served with rice that had been cooked in the water in which the goat had been boiled! (OK, Zantac, let’s see how good you are!)

There was also a powerful spirit made from grape marc called Raki (which may be Greek for firewater!). After dinner, the same spirit mixed with honey and set on fire is called Rakomelo!

It was a delightful evening but I learned a lot not so delightful about what’s going on in Greece. Mika’s dad had been managing a Holiday Inn, but they weren’t paying him. When he “retired” they owed him six months salary, which he never saw. Also his pension was cut once and another cut is promised. Meanwhile, Mika’s husband is working in Dubai because he couldn’t find a job in Greece after three years of looking. She hasn’t seen him since December. 600,000 educated Greeks have similarly left because there are no jobs for them here. Her brother is working in Montenegro. There is great resentment of the EU (especially Germany) and even more of the IMF. There is no question, her father said, that our government has managed things very badly, but the consequences of their mismanagement have been compounded by the international bloodsuckers. People are losing their houses because they can’t afford the taxes even if they have jobs. And of course the influx of refugees has made things ten times worse. Nobody knows how many there are. They pour into Greece, the government supports them (hence raised taxes), and they have babies at an 8-1 rate compared to the Christian population. Eerily, I heard a lot of this before, when I was teaching in Macedonia. It seems to be happening all over. Still.

Tuesday morning May 9

The Zantac seems to have worked. I had a good night and a full breakfast this morning, without taking another pill. So far, so good. It probably was the peppers and onions late at night, although we ate very late last night too – we didn’t start ‘til 9 and it was 11 when we finished! Greeks eat late, I’m told.

Now it’s time to pack, check out, and make my way to the Atheneum Intercontinental Hotel to meet up with the tour.

Bye-bye Britain ’til Next Time

August 24th, 2016

Last day in the UK, so Ralph and I enjoyed a treat, a pub meal in “the Nellie,” a favorite pub of theirs in Farnham, dedicated to Admiral Nelson. They had a favorite quaff of mine on tap, Landlord’s. For the second pint, I tried all the other good ales they featured, but came back to Landlord’s. And to eat, oh, joy – a steak, Stilton and ale pie with delightfully flaky crust, one of the best I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t think I could finish it all, but somehow I did. I’ll diet tomorrow, to paraphrase Lillian Ross. (I think.)

From there Ralph drove me to the hotel we’d picked for me to stay in so that I wouldn’t have the anxiety of Heathrow traffic in the morning when I’m to fly home. It was extremely frustrating for him; the GPS kept putting us into a parking lot. We could see the hotel, but it took at least a half-hour to figure out how to get to it. No signage until we were actually there. But anyhow, we finally made it and all was well.

The hotel, called the Thistle Inn, was run by Indian people but was quite clean and perfectly serviceable. Curry was on offer in the dining room of course, but I didn’t need another meal after that big lunch. I settled for a pint of John Smith’s and a bag of salt and vinegar chips (or rather crisps, as they’re called here). I sat out on a rooftop lounge overlooking the runway; some of the planes taking off came quite close.

The bed was comfortable, but I slept lightly as I sometimes do when I have an urgent time that I need to be up. I woke early, in fact. There was a bus service to take me to Terminal 3 where I checked in at the Premium lounge. No hassle, even though Cunard had booked me in Economy. I needn’t have worried about my luggage being a few pounds overweight; they don’t give Premium passengers a hard time. I also zipped through the Fast security lane and settled into the Admiral’s Club to have breakfast while waiting for the flight to board. “Easy peasy,” as a dear Kiwi friend used to say.

Bye-bye, Britain, ‘til next time.