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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why I'm Falling for Greece (and the Rest of Europe)

I'm falling for Greece--both literally and figuratively, as I'll explain. In fact, I'm falling for much of Europe. I'm so impressed with the kindness of the people we met there recently in France, Italy, and especially Greece.

During a necessary 31-day exile from China due to tax regulations (something foreigners in China should do every five years), we were able to visit family in the US and then spend some time in Europe, including a week of work in one of Europe's most beautiful towns, Lucca, Italy, whose thick medieval wall is still completely intact. It provides a beautiful route for walking or bike riding. One of the nicest weeks of work I've ever had.

Near the end of our stay in Lucca, I was reminded that one my vulnerabilities is my high gravitational profile. There are advantages to being tall, but also some costs, especially when one is tall and perhaps a bit clumsy. While on a bike ride with my wife, I had to make a sharp turn on some gravel to avoid an oncoming biker and follow my wife on an unexpected route she took. Unfortunately, the turn on the gravel resulted in a little spill. Not bad, except it put a cut on my hand and on a leg, and we were supposed to go diving in a couple of days in Greece.

I was almost wondering if now I would have to call off the diving course we were signed up for (shame on you if you are somehow insinuating that there was some degree of reluctance on my part about the whole diving thing that my wife was very excited about doing). But the main wound was healing well by the time we got to Santorini Island in Greece (the place where many of the most popular pro-tourism photos from Greece are taken) and I figured maybe I'd be OK, maybe, just maybe. Shortly after arriving on Santorini as we walked about the steep streets and rugged steps of Thira (Fira), a town on a tall volcanic cliff overlooking the ocean, I took some shots from an elevated view point and then stepped back onto the steep path, only to find myself--here goes my gravitational profile again--suddenly falling due to an uneven step that wasn't where I expected it to be. I fell with my SLR camera hanging in front of me (it may have blocked my view of the gap I was stepping onto), which hit the ground hard. I was worried that it would be ruined, though it was OK--just needed a reset by taking the battery out for a second.

Almost as bad, I caught myself as I hit the ground by landing on exactly the same spot on my right hand that I had cut in Lucca, and opened up the wound again. More painful and a bit uglier this time. Now I thought there was no chance to go diving the next day as planned, but to my surprise (yes, of course this was a pleasant surprise!) it would be OK thanks to some spray-on glue of sorts from a rugged diving instructor and thanks to some good water-proof bandaids. Amazingly, I survived the four-day diving course, my hand continued to heal rather well in spite of diving, and now we are both PADI-certified open water divers. I've been so surprised to find how many people I talk to these days are serious divers. We are such slackers waiting this long to discover diving when it seems like everyone else has been doing it since they were kids. We're just beginners, but excited to be beginning.

A surprise for me after this fall was that a couple of Greek tourists who had been behind us stuck around for several minutes as I pulled myself together to make sure I was OK. They were very kind and thoughtful in helping a clumsy foreigner who had just fallen. I can say that this is not always encountered in certain other parts of the world, where something like a foreigner falling and passing out on a subway recently caused an embarrassing mass panic and exodus of about 100 nearby passengers on a subway in Shanghai, none of whom checked if the victim was OK and none of whom called authorities or anyone else for help, according to a local newspaper report which encouraged people to call for help in such situations.

I would find this kind of kindness repeatedly during my stay in Greece, and not just from Greeks. Spaniards, French, Italians, Germans, and others were this way, but the Greeks seemed especially warm and adept at being kind. I should also point out that it was the kindness of our Spanish diving instructor, Mark at the Santorini Dive Center, who helped me get past some difficulties on day two of diving where I was about to call it quits, and I'm so grateful for it because the experiences I had after that were truly wonderful and enhanced my awe for the wonders of Creation.

More surprising Greek kindness was encountered near the end of our Santorini stay as we moved to a little hotel in Perissa, closer to the Santorini Dive Center (the only dive center there with real on-shore facilities like a bathroom, shower, tables in the shade, etc.). The manager there, Margarita, was so warm and kind, it just amazed me. In fact, when she learned that were going to take the long walk down to the main beach in Perissa to eat at the place she recommended, she gave us a ride in her car, then introduced us to the owner of the restaurant (Fillippo at Fillippo's Restaurant), and arranged for Fillippo's wife to give us a ride back when we were done. These Greeks just wowed me with their friendliness and willingness to help. The food was impressive as well.

Margarita told us about her husband, who worked on a big ferry that goes between Santorini and Crete. In fact, it was the ferry we would be taking the next day. His job title was something like "boson" which sounded pretty heavy, but I wasn't sure what that would be. But maybe we'd be lucky and run into him, who knows?

On the High Speed 7 (Cosmote 7) ferry the next day, my gravitational profile struck again. As we got on the ferry and tried to figure out where to leave our bags down in the crowded bay for automobiles and bags, we were rushing from one side to the other amidst the crowd as we were being directed with a degree of confusion. I didn't see a sudden projection on the floor that caught my foot as I was pulling a carryon and carrying a couple of bags that made me top-heavy. Alas, I was in free fall again, and will you be surprised if I told you that I broke my fall with my right hand? The heel of my right hand? Unfortunately, there were some relatively sharp metal ridges on this floor that are OK for automobile tires but not so easy on human skin. This sliced a noteworthy section of skin including the wounds that had been healing slowly during four days of diving. This time there was more blood, but fortunately it was not too bad. I just wanted to find a place to wash the wound and get something to keep it compressed and dry. To my surprise, people flocked around me to help instead of scattering to the wind or just standing around at a safe distance to watch and take photos. Staff members from the ferry took me up a floor and stuck with me. When I spotted a restroom and went in to wash the wound, a man escorted me to help. Then he brought me over to what looked like a captain of leader of some kind who was very attentive and helped find some bandaging for me.

A sweet German man went and got his wife, a nurse, who came and took a look and explained that it was shallow and would be OK, and gave me some kind guidance. The leader from the ferry crew and other staff members continued looking after me and saw that we were escorted to a nice first-class section of the boat, and they gave the same kind treatment to the German couple who had helped us, and we all got free drinks. Sweet. Later, I remembered that I wanted to find the "boson" to meet Margarita's husband. As I walked back into the main part of the ferry, one of the staff members rushed over  to see how I was doing. I explained that there was a "boson" on the ship whose wife was named Margarita, and wondered if there was someway to find such a person. She kindly brought me over to a main desk, where I had been given help earlier, and made some calls, and then told me that the boson would be there soon. A few minutes later, Margarita's husband came to greet me--the same captain-like leader who had been so kind and attentive before. What is it about these Greek people that makes them so impressive? I told him about our experience with Margarita and thanked him and his wife for their kindness. What great people.

Like I said, I'm really falling for Greece, and for Europe. I just hope I can keep it more figurative in the future, and keep my gravitational profile under control.

I talked to a Finnish friend about my European experience on this trip, and she pointed out that this is consistent with her experience. She knows that many Europeans sometimes seem aloof and cold to Americans at first glance, but she feels there is a deep genuineness to Europe that many Americans miss. Whatever it is, I would like another serving soon.

The warmth of the Greeks was especially touching and I often wondered on my stay in Greece if this was at least partially a result of the Greek Orthodox religion, for which I have high respect and have had some positive experiences with very deep and genuine people. Of course, separating culture from a dominant religion is impossible, and many of the very warm and kind people I met on this trip were not Orthodox. Some were probably atheists. One even liked one of America's presidential candidates. So, as with most things in life, it's complicated. But thank you, Europe, for treating us so well. May Europe survive the troubles ahead, including the implosion of Italian banks that seems imminent. More negative interest rates and more money printing isn't going to solve this disaster. So many crises brewing, and I'm nervous for Europe and my friends there. But what an amazing place, and what great food.

Here are a few views from Santorini Island:


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your travel log.

"boson" is most likely botswain (yeah, it is pronounced "boson") and it is an official job in the US Navy:



Anonymous said...

Bosun. Boson is a subatomic particle. Good to bleed and people will help. Was in Lucca a couple years ago myself. Did you go to the Cinque Terre nearby? Beautiful hiking. Bell'Italia! Ciao.