Walking the backstreets of a Greek town, I heard music with a special twang. It sounded like someone was strangling a yodeler. Greeks tap their feet to relatively exotic music that comes with a strong whiff of the Middle East. The 19th-century writer who noted that Greeks can’t dance to European music and vice versa was probably on to something.
In many ways, Greece marks the cultural divide between east and west. And Greece, the only country in the European Union not connected with the rest of the EU, is the only country in the EU with its own distinct script on Euro currency.
Driving into the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula, we passed into Arcadia. Our guide explained, “This was the ultimate boonies in the ancient mind: land of Pan, fauns dancing in glades, Virgil, Ovid and scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
History has been hard on Arcadia. One town spelled out 12.13.43 on its hillside — the day all its men were killed by Nazis. Nearby, in the remote town of Dimitsana, men were generally spared from the draft because of their prized ability to make gunpowder — a complex family recipe of ground-up goat droppings, charred twigs and lime.
It’s a rough land with simple wines. A local vintner said there’s no fine $50 bottle of Greek wine. I asked him, “What if you want to spend $30?” He said, “Fine, you can buy three $10 bottles.” You drink Greek wines quickly — whites within a year, reds within two or three. In Greece for wine, I go with the rotgut — retsina(it makes you want to sling a patch over one eye and say “arghh”). But I prefer the good local beer and the cloudy, anise-flavored ouzo.
If a tourist complains about the food, it’s “fish with heads and the same salads every day.” I like fish with heads — squeeze lemon luxuriously all over it and eat everything but the wispy little tail. And the same salad every day reminds me how every day I wish the USA valued taste over looks in its produce. An ethic that I find makes eating feel right is to eat things that are in season and grown locally.
Visiting ancient Olympia is a Peloponnesian pilgrimage for modern tourists. And it was a Mecca of ancient Greece as well. All wanted to come here once in their lifetime. The ancient Olympic Games were more than an athletic fest. They were a tool to develop a Panhellenic identity.
Every four years, leading citizens from all corners would assemble here. Athletes — aristocratic youth — would stay here to train for months, brainwashed without knowing it to be Greeks. There were no losers…except quitters and cheaters. (Drinking animal blood — the Red Bull of the day — was forbidden. There were actually official urine drinkers to test for this ancient equivalent of steroids.)
The modern games are still all about people coming together. The five rings emblem represents the five continents. (While the USA recognizes seven continents, the rest of the world — which considers the Americas one and Antarctica not one — counts only five.)
Ancient games were men only. Women weren’t allowed in our modern games either until only 1928. In 1936, Hitler’s Nazi Olympic committee designed the first ritual torch lighting — which we enjoy essentially unchanged to this day. In 1936, they ran the torch from Athens to Berlin. On March 24, 2008, the torch will be lit at ancient Olympia and begin its journey all the way to China.
There’s a lot of B.C. stuff here in Greece. Pretty soon B.C. can become D.C. On nameless hills, you’ll pass stony remnants of people from centuries…D.C. Just because something’s B.C. doesn’t mean it’s got to be seen. Be selective in your ancient sightseeing.