31
Dec
18

Greece is the Word – Part 1

Simon, me and Bas with a lovely view of the Akropolis

As I drove through the streets of Chania on Crete in the wonderful country of Greece, I felt like I was in a Jason Bourne movie. The alleys and streets – in this case the waterfront – were barely wide enough for a car and teaming with people.

While nobody shook a fist or shouted angrily at the American driving on the cobblestone wharf, I felt the same way I did when I watched Jason Bourne drive cars down stairways and alleys in European cities.

You’re probably not supposed to drive your car here.

As it turned out, I wasn’t not supposed to drive there but I wasn’t exactly supposed to drive there.

Especially in smaller cities in Greece, there are lots of places you can or have to drive which don’t seem like places you should drive.

But the whole time, tired from a long drive to Chania, I felt tremendous discomfort.

Which is how I have felt for large portions of this trip. I’ll dig into some more fun trip stuff over the rest of the week (it’ll wrap up when I’m already back in the states in a few days), but I wanted to talk about how traveling in the world has felt for an American who has never been off the North American continent and only barely dipped his toes into other countries (Mexico and Canada).

Walking through most of Greece, it’s really uncomfortable to not be able to read…. well, almost anything. There’s actually a surprising amount of English around, but most of everything is in Greek.

Shocking, right?

It’s not like I didn’t expect it, but what I didn’t see coming was just how weird it made me feel. First, I just felt kind of stupid. I’ve never tried to learn Greek, so why my brain should expect me to be able to read it or feel dumb when I can’t, that’s a matter to take up with my therapist I guess.

But I felt dumb, or perhaps more gently to my self-worth, ignorant. Having to ask everyone if they knew any English is awkward. And it just felt kind of insulting? Like I couldn’t be bothered to know how to speak the language?

Which, again, nobody expects. Nobody here has given me the side-eye when I said I didn’t speak Greek.

It’s interesting though. In our country, there has always been an overarching feeling that people should speak English and while I’ve rarely heard anyone say it, I wonder if that assumption bleeds into tourists.

Silly, right? And yet it’s pervasive in many parts of our country and it followed me to Greece where I expected to be treated the way I assume and have seen immigrants treated back home.

It really is a reflection of how broken I feel the character of our country is in many ways and – here’s the word again – uncomfortable to sit with.

And once I did, once I got accustomed to that, I realized nobody was judging me for not knowing Greek. I also decided I would work hard to learn some simple Greek greetings (good morning, good afternoon, good night) and polite phrases (thank you and you’re welcome).

But I am never totally comfortable because I’m always at a slight disadvantage. I walked into a museum today and after the first room or so, nothing was in any language but Greek. I picked up a menu a few nights ago and it was totally in Greek.

My map GPS was acting up, so I tried to follow street signs but they were all – wait for it – in Greek.

Luckily people are nice here and I am with a group of folks so we manage. But it makes one feel uneasy.

More than anything, being out of one’s element – in this case out of one’s country – has been a reminder of how much the world does not revolve around myself and America in general.

While a few times I have talked to locals about US politics, and they are very concerned with the direction our country has taken, what we do in the US is an abstract.

The Greeks – and you can insert most other nations here – have their own issues and day to day problems. It’s not that they give zero craps because they know that big mistakes by America will often result in disaster elsewhere (hello economic crises!), and US companies and entertainment still resonate here (Coca-Cola is a big deal).

Even the International version of the NY Times is less interested in us than we are.

But we aren’t nearly as important as we think we are. The world doesn’t cater to us.

And considering a lot of folks in the US seem to think it does, or should, this has been a good reminder for me, that it does not.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. 

While Mark Twain is correct, travel is also a privilege in multiple ways. You have to have the opportunity – the time, the money – to do it. And you have to want to.

We live in a country which doesn’t even take the time to visit itself, so expecting people to head to another continent…. it’s a nice idea, but unlikely.

For me, though, being in a new place, outside my comfort zone, has been great. I’m a fairly liberal, open minded guy. I like to think I embrace new ideas and opportunities, but I don’t push my limits the way I should.

This has been a great opportunity to put myself in situations where I have to grapple with things I don’t understand, people I don’t understand and situations I cannot control.

That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing my son’s and nephews are here and experiencing it as well. I didn’t travel like this when I was young, and this has been an opportunity to really show them a world they don’t get to see.

I’ll touch on some of that tomorrow (or the day after – it’s New Years and hangovers might ensue) as well as a few other things.

In the meantime, I hope you and the people special to you have a wonderful New Year and I’ll see you in 2019.

Or as they say here in Greece: Eftychisméno to néo étos!

 

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