How Traveling To Greece As A Teenager Changed My Life:
I can easily divide my life into thirds – the third before I experienced Greece, and the two thirds since then.
My trip to Greece when I was fourteen (almost fifteen) opened my eyes to the wonders of ancient history, the beauty of the Aegean Sea, the incredibly delicious Greek food, the fascinating mythology, and the warm and generous Greek people.
I’ve gone through my photo album of the pictures of Greece that I took as a teenager with my little Instamatic camera and I’ve come up with the highlights, the places that had such a profound effect on me that I remember them like I saw them yesterday.
Why We Decided to Go to Greece:
The reason for our trip to Greece was a rather melancholy one – my mom had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year and had surgery. My dad asked her where in the world she’d like to travel, and she said she wanted to go to the Austrian alps, climb a mountain, and spin around just like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. She also wanted to cruise down the Danube and get all dressed up and attend the opera. My dad said to pack our bags, we were going to Austria.
So, how did we get to Greece? Well, no sooner had my mom purchased a whole new wardrobe suitable for Austria (to her, pack your bags meant get a new wardrobe), my dad came home and announced that we could go to Greece for three weeks for the amount of money we would spend on just one week in Austria. Of course, it would have to be in August, which was the height of tourist season and hot.
My mom rallied to the idea, since she’d always wanted to go to Greece. We’d had a beloved Greek housekeeper when I was little who we called Ya Ya (grandma in Greek). My mom had been busy writing a book, so Ya Ya would keep an eye on me, straighten up the house, and make the most delicious Greek food. We all eat lunch together and Ya Ya would regale us with stories about Greece over Turkish coffee for the adults and hot chocolate for me. Then Ya Ya would tell our fortunes from the grounds left in the cup.
That’s four-year old me with Ya Ya in the picture.
Our First Stop was the Parthenon – Wouldn’t that be your first stop too?
When our plane landed in Athens, I experienced a huge culture shock. It was hot and dusty, crowded and overwhelming. Once we got to the hotel we were able to recover a little from the jet lag. The next day we were off to see the Parthenon. The Parthenon is the temple of Athena seen in the picture, the Acropolis (Greek for high city) is the rocky citadel on which it sits.
The first thing that struck me was that this incredibly ancient temple is smack dab in the middle of modern-day Athens, with cars whizzing by and people going about their business. As our tour guide pointed out areas of interest, she mentioned that the Greeks are very resentful of the fact that Englishman Lord Elgin, who was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, helped himself to several antiquities from the temple in the early 1800’s and brought them back to England. They were purchased from him by the British government and placed in the British Museum, where they remain to this day. I think that would bother me too.
The Parthenon once held a statue of Athena that was 40 feet tall, covered in gold and ivory. Just imagine how impressive that would have been.
One of the most spectacular events of our trip was witnessing a light show at night from a hill that’s opposite the Parthenon. In the performance, lights would shine on different areas of the Parthenon and the voices of the gods would boom from the speakers. It really was like the gods were speaking from Mount Olympus.
Temple of Poseidon – A breathtakingly beautiful location overlooking the Aegean:
Do you have a favorite Greek god or goddess? I do, and it’s Poseidon. From the time I first learned to swim, I fantasized about what it would be like to live under the sea.
Fittingly, the Temple of Poseidon is on a peninsula called Cape Sounion (just a short distance outside Athens) that is surrounded by the Aegean Sea. Although there is not much left of the temple, it’s easy to see that this spot is the perfect place to honor Poseidon, and it has served as a landmark for sailors for centuries.
On a sad note, visitors to the temple have been carving their names in the marble ever since Lord Byron first scrawled his name in 1810.
Delphi – Consult with the oracle:
Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, is the home of the oracle of legend. I remember really looking forward to visiting the site since my name is Greek for prophetess, and the sibyls were known for traveling througout Greece and the Middle East predicting the future.
There were actually several oracles, called Pythia, who were chosen from women of good character in the town of Delphi. Only one would serve at a time and only on the nine warmest days of the year. People from all over Greece and beyond would travel to Delphi to ask for her help, although her answers were never straightforward and could be interpreted many ways.
What struck me the most at first about this famous site was the beauty of the surrounding countryside and the fragrance that the cypress trees and other plants gave off in the warm sun. There is a definite spiritual quality to this ancient site and I had fun imagining what it would have been like when the oracle was present.
Knossos, Crete – The maze of the Minotaur:
Knossos is the site of the oldest civilization in Europe, yet it is not as well know as many other ancient Greek archaeological sites. The Minoan civilization, named for King Minos, is believed to date as far back as 2700 B.C., although the earliest settlement was around 7,000 B.C.
The Minoans were known for their bull dancers, acrobats who would run at a charging bull, grab it by the horns, and vault over it. There are numerous frescoes depicting these dancers, who were also depicted in Mary Renault’s novel, The Bull from the Sea. The Minoans worshipped the bull, and it’s still not know whether bull dancing was a sport or a religious ritual.
I was fascinated by the myth of the Minotaur, the man with the head of a bull who was the son of King Minos’ wife, Pasiphae. Minos and his brothers had fought over who would rule, and Minos claimed that he had the gods on his side. To prove it, he prayed to Poseidon to send him a bull, which he would sacrifice to show his allegiance. When Poseidon sent him a beautiful white bull, Minos thought it was so beautiful that he chose to sacrifice another bull from his herd, thinking Poseidon wouldn’t notice.
Of course, Poseidon did notice, and made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull, and the result of that love was the Minotaur (that must have been a difficult birth!). Although Pasiphae nursed and cared for the Minotaur, he turned into a man-eater, so Minos consulted the oracle at Delphi who told him to contruct a maze next to his palace at Knossos and put the Minotaur in the middle. It was the demi-god Theseus who would slay the Minotaur.
Greek Food – So much more than just stuffed grape leaves:
If I could be anywhere in the world right now, I’d be in a taverna on the beach in Greece eating calamari and people watching. I’ve spent the last 30 something years dreaming of what it was like to sit right at the edge of the sea, enjoying all that wonderful seafood and smiling at all the Greek people who seemed to always be having such a wonderful time.
What surprised me the most about Greek food was how fresh everything was. The tomatoes and the melons were at the peak of ripeness, the fish was literally right out of the ocean, and the bread tasted like it had just been taken from the oven.
The tavernas offered mezes, little plates of food similar to tapas. We could enjoy a little bite of everything, and my parents washed it down with retsina (white wine flavored with pine resin). At the end of the meal they’d have ouzo, a licorice-flavored liqueur that turns white when water is added. Yes, they did let me taste both of them, which made me feel very grown up and sophisticated.
It had been ingrained in me from a very early age that I had to have at least a taste of every new food, and that’s how I learned that I love little octopus that are grilled with a splash of olive oil and seasoned with salt, that cod roe salad (taromossalata) is a delicious caviar dip, and that spanikopita is my favorite way to eat spinach.
How My Life Changed After Visiting Greece- Why I can’t wait to go back there:
When I went to Greece, I was a rather self-absorbed teenager (as many teenagers are). Visiting such an ancient country, with such a rich and vibrant history, made me realize that there is a great big wonderful world out there, one that doesn’t revolve around little me.
I was so fascinated with the history and culture of Greece that I would go on to take a class in Greek word origins in high school, and classes in Greek mythology, Greek philosophy, and Greek comedy (Arisotophanes is really not that funny) in college.
Sadly, my mom’s cancer would return, twice, finally claiming her life just two years after our trip. But I have such lovely memories of our trip to Greece and all the experiences we had. I know I’ll return to Greece – I have to. I can’t wait to see Santorini, and I would love to show my children all the fabulous sites I saw – they’re both teenagers themselves.