In Cradle of Western Civilization

Article excerpt

"So how are the Orioles doing?"

Not being a sports fan, I had no specific answer to Vasilios' question, but I was certain they weren't doing as well as I. After all, I was sipping an excellent morning coffee at an outside table at the small Hotel Seahorse, facing the small harbor of the small town of Mithymna on the large Greek island of Lesbos.

Things don't get much better than that.

"And how come you know about the Orioles?" I asked.

Vasilios had brought coffee and some cookies when I had sat down to join two other members of our Classical Cruises tour of the Greek islands. The artist couple from Nantucket and the travel writer from Baltimore had exchanged the usual information about our origins and occupations before they had finished their coffee and started their climb to a nearby medieval fort.

Being totally climbed out, I had stayed behind to admire the tidy, picturesque harbor with its fishing boats and old stone buildings.

"And where did you learn to speak such excellent English?" I continued.

Vasilios smiled. "You can blame my aunt from Brooklyn for both," he said. "She came back to the island when my sister and I were little, and she insisted we learn to speak English. She's a smart lady. And my sister subscribes to USA Today, so we can keep up our English, as my aunt wishes. I like baseball, so I read the scores."

OK.

Similar encounters throughout the islands confirmed my initial impression that the Greek people share too much in common with the American people for us to be unkind to one another.

True, some extremely rude political posters had been slapped on walls all over Athens during my visit last year, but I wasn't too happy with President Clinton, either. There also had been a large protest outside an Athens hotel that had scared the liver out of some members of the tour the night before departure. It seemed pointless to call their attention to the fact that they had walked through the protesters unharmed (and uninsulted) leaving for and returning from dinner.

Whatever hostility existed ended at the port of Pireus, where we boarded the Clelia II, a private yacht the owner charters out when she is not using it.

It was going to take us on a 10-day tour through the islands that are the cradle of Western civilization. We would see the banqueting hall of King Agamemnon, who led the Greek attack and siege against Troy. We would see the cellars of Minos' palace, which gave rise to tales of the Labyrinth, where the Minotaur killed human sacrifices. We would see Santorini, the remains of the most powerful volcanic explosion ever experienced on earth, the explosion credited with destroying an entire civilization in one day.

We also would see them from a most luxurious floating hotel. The Clelia is a vision of mahogany and brass with staterooms the size of studio apartments and an international staff just waiting on our every whim.

All this and weather that approached perfection.

The captain, a most hospitable Greek, explained that the yacht had the latest thing in stabilizers but rarely needed to use them in the calm waters.

Actually, it is redundant to say "hospitable Greek."

From our experience, to be Greek is to be hospitable, even in a land that yields its treasures only to hard labor. The cab driver who delivered me from the airport to my hotel asked, "Is this your first trip to Athens?" At my affirmation, he turned a corner, gestured widely with his right hand and proclaimed, "Then let me present the Parthenon." And there it was, glowing white marble crowning a high hill in the middle of a 20th-century city as if a time warp had opened. …