I once had a teacher who told me that stepping off the plane in Athens, she felt like she was coming home. At the time, I had no idea what she meant and took it for the whimsical reflections of a romantic trapped in the body of my grade 12 French professor – boy was I wrong. You see, at the time I hadn’t yet had that full on feeling of being “in awe”. Travel was foreign to me (pardon the pun) and I wasn’t yet able to understand the pull felt by seasoned voyagers as they leave little bits of themselves in the most obscure corners of the world.
Signing up with EF Tours
Needless to say, when the opportunity presented itself to sign up for an EF tour (Educational Tours) through the high school, I turned to my globe-trotting parents with the biggest smile I could muster and asked them to let me go! Looking back, I shouldn’t have been shocked that they said yes. They knew then something that I would come to learn the more I traveled – discovery is the best education and the more you do it, the more you come to understand everything about yourself, and the world around you. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the door they had opened for me – the gateway to travel. Big mistake. I’m sure years later when I chose to abandon Canada to study, work and live overseas, they looked back to that day in high school wishing they had just said no.
So, alongside about a dozen classmates and two poor teachers who were given the task of supervising this venture, I made the trip from the Atlantic to the Aegean and laid my eyes on Greece. Greece: the land of Zeus, Aphrodite and OUZO (opa!) Um, hello? I was 15 or so, this was BIG deal. And the men, oh the men! Talk about the land of the Greek Gods – I was in heaven. You see, in high school, I was taller than all the boys, not into drinking, smoking, or any other social drug, and longed more than anything to find someone who found bodily functions to be as horribly grotesque as I did. So, as I wandered around Athens under the blistering sun, I was thrilled to have men winking their eyes at me and whistling in my general direction. These men were tall, dark haired beauties waiting to sweep me off my feet – men mature enough to smother me with lines from Homer’s Odyssey as we walked the beach hand in hand, sipping on Assyrtiko (Greek wine).
That, unfortunately, did not happen.
Greek Gods and plastic bats… Opa!
What did happen was boys approximately the same age as those I left behind, running after me holding plastic bats and trying to smack me on the behind! Why, you ask? Tradition!!! [Insert song from fiddler on the roof. Wait, scratch that, insert song from Zorba the Greek. Much more appropriate]. Just before Easter in Greece, young people run around with plastic bats smacking each other on the bottom or tapping each other on the head, depending on the message you are choosing to send. The atmosphere is fun-filled as children play in the streets, couples dine in the open-air restaurants lining the Plaka (the main square downtown lined with cobblestones, shops and cafes), and friends share a laugh over an espresso or a Mythos, the local brew. It is magical. And the best part? The sight from the Plaka as the sun goes down and the lights atop the Acropolis shine on the Parthenon, inspiring pride in Athenians and foreigners alike. Spectacular.
Battered and bruised after getting a feel for Greek night life, we climbed the Acropolis and saw the beauty of the temples in daylight. It was unreal. I mean, if you think the buildings look big from the bottom, wait until you get to the top. The Parthenon, a magnificent structure completed in 438 B.C, is a temple dedicated to Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and protector of Athens. It is said that the protector of the city was decided by the people of Athens at the time. Poseidon, God of the Sea offered his trident in protection of the city while Athena offered the olive branch. Since the city was more populated by women at the time, the olive branch, symbolizing peace, was chosen over the war faring trident, and the city was named Athens.
The spiritual and the sublime
While the Parthenon certainly impressed me, it was not until we headed towards Cape Sounion and Poseidon’s Temple, one of the most intense structures I have ever seen, that I was seriously in “awe”. The temple in no way surpasses the architecture of the Parthenon nor does it rival the magnitude of the Roman Colosseum, but this shrine to Poseidon, God of the Sea, is located on the water’s edge, surrounded by an onslaught of waves that can inspire the fear of God (literally) into all who lay eyes on this ancient wonder. Lord Byron (famous author) obviously felt the same way as he spent many hours writing by the sea, and even carved his name on one of the temple pillars to inspire future writers and pilgrims to the shrine – success!
Rivaling Poseidon’s Temple was a trip we took to Delphi, a mystical and wondrous place that houses the Temple of Apollo, God of light, sun, medicine, arts and prophecy. It is the latter that inspired the Delphic Oracle, the woman who was coveted across Greece and to whom people went for readings, no matter how big or small their question. Her secret? Be as vague as possible. I remember our tour guide giving us an example of an answer the oracle would give to women who asked whether their newborn child was to be a boy, or a girl. The oracle would remain silent for minutes and then reveal: “Boy, no, Girl”. Talk about specificity!
Island hopping… fast forward!
After having trotted around the streets of Athens, explored the beauty of the Aegean coastline and getting lost in the mythical splendor of Delphi, we spent a day or so touring a few of the Greek islands including Aegina, Poros and Hydra. The islands were stunning, with their white wash finish reflecting beautifully in the turquoise water below. But in all fairness, one day around the islands is like licking the top of a an ice cream cone. It’s just enough to make you want to eat the whole thing but not enough to get a real taste for the flavour underneath. In this particular case, after touring the island of Aegina, the flavour would have been pistachio (famous for their cultivation of the culinary nut) but to this day, I still consider a trip to the Greek islands as one I have yet to make.
A week in Greece was by far not enough time to wholly enjoy what the country had to offer, but it was definitely enough time to infect me with the bug. No, not bed bugs or some ancient Grecian disease, but the travel bug. The type of bug that makes your feet itch and you mind race a thousand miles a minute as you plan your next adventures overseas. I was hooked. Greece had become, for me, a land of “firsts”. It was in Greece where I first discovered the beauty of Europe; it was on the hills of the Aegean coast where my lips savoured the foamy delight of my first cappuccino; and it was in a Greek tavern in Athens where I fell in love for the first time in my life. Or so I was convinced.
Love at first dance?
His name was Nikos (Nikolaos) and he was a Greek dancer. I first laid eyes on Nikos when our tour group scheduled a night of traditional Greek fare at a tavern in Athens near the end of our seven day trip. He was a dancer, and I… was in love! There I was, eating my souvlaki when all of a sudden the music came on and Nikos chose me to climb up onto the stage and join the show. I was star struck and when we asked if we could take a picture with him after the performance, I swear he looked right at me and told me that I was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. He didn’t have to say it – I knew what he feeling. A few days later, I went back to see Nikos at the tavern and he was gone. I was devastated. We were flying out the next day and my eyes watered as we left Greece, but I felt it – I finally felt it! That feeling of angst as you take off for home and leave a little bit of your heart behind you. I now realize that the the pain was most likely caused by a bad Gyro, or some over-cooked Saganaki (delicious fried cheese) but I was convinced that Greece was where I belonged, and that Nikos would forever be the one that got away.