WHAT I LEARNED IN GREECE

Yes, I am a world traveler. I have expeditioned to two foreign countries in my time, one of which is Canada. But I did go to Greece at a point in my life, not that long ago – oh, six or seven years ago, before they were bankrupt and selling off the Parthenon and whatnot. It was not a pretty country, although there were some places that held a certain desert-ish appeal. At one point we were sailing along the shore of Crete on the blue Mediterranean, and for all intents and purposes, we could have been putting along Lake Roosevelt in a party barge, gazing at the sand-colored cliffs.

One thing that happens in Greece, which a native Greek explained to me, was that when tourist season comes, everything stops but the tourist stuff. Everybody leaves their jobs in construction, repair, and remodel, and goes straight to Santorini or Mykonos to occupy the family tourist-related-stuff sales stall. So, as a result, there are major unfinished works of repair left abandoned all over the landscape of the nation, waiting for all the Westerners to go home and let everybody start back in wherever they hung it up for the season.

We had to take a boat out of Piraeus, which is a port city about 17 miles south of Athens. Piraeus possesses a certain reputation for bad behavior, partly because ports are like that, and partly because there are so many wealthy Americans and West Europeans and Australians carelessly roaming around just begging to be robbed. Plus, since it is tourist season, you can’t afford to buy anything unless you are one of the aforementioned, which we were not. So, we sat on a bench in a public square – not a fancy square, but kind of a seedy one – and waited for our ferry. In this square, across from our bench, was a vast pile of dirt, a huge hole, and a long, unmarked ditch that reached clear across the main pathway and partially down the road. It was a ditch of some significance, too: about 14 inches wide and maybe a foot deep, lightly sprinkled with loose dirt, gravel, and trash. Another relic left for the duration of the Greek tourist season, waiting for the city workers to return from their far-flung pilgrimages.

As we observed this scene, we saw many people traverse the square. People walking, people on bicycles, women pushing baby carriages, good-looking young Greek men on scooters with gorgeous sloe-eyed girlfriends on the back, octogenarian old ladies dressed in black, women shepherding three or four toddlers at a time, and dapper old guys carrying worry beads in one hand and wearing fedoras.

Without exception, every single Greek looked down, saw the ditch, and made accommodations to get across it. Nobody was surprised to see an unmarked ditch across a highly-traveled local route. Nobody needed orange traffic cones, reels of yellow “Caution” tape, or a flagman to tell them how to cross the ditch. And, most tellingly, not one single person sprawled on his or her face while obliviously marching to their own inner tune, al la a typical American.

I believe this has something to do with liberty. The Greeks seemed to have a sense of personal responsibility for themselves that Americans lack. Americans are so accustomed to having some mommy pick them up and wipe their tears and then steer them to the nearest personal-injury attorney to sue whoever has enough money to make it worthwhile, that they have lost their ability to keep themselves safe. Guaranteed, if this scene was in America, the people tripping into that ditch would have piled up like dolphins in a tuna net. Much legal folderol would have ensued, and everybody but the taxpayers would have profited many times over.

And the lesson I learned in Greece was – you can use your liberty to take care of your own self! There are places in the world where people do exactly that!

And there were other things I learned in Greece as well – how too many Americans are loud, bossy and rude, how it is easy to be taken advantage of if you are too trusting, and that if you know exactly enough Greek to say “I do not speak Greek”, people will assume you are fluent. But I’ll save those for another day. Meanwhile, make it a point to look down, at least occasionally. It might pay off.

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