26 July 2019

On A Journey With Sappho

Last night, I arrived in the place where I'm starting the epic (sort of) journey I mentioned in yesterday's post.

At least one epic is related to the trip I'm on now.  Think of the Odyssey.

Now, I hope I don't have to be like Odysseus and spend twenty years trying to get home.  For one thing, I still want to be a Major League Baseball player.  Hey, if I were to sign with, say, the Mets at this point in my life, I'd be the first known transgender player in history.  

All right, that was a bad joke.  But no less than Bart Giamatti, a former MLB Commissioner and Yale literature professor, suggested that part of the game's appeal is that its goal is to reach home.

Where I am now, I don't think very many people know much about baseball--unless, of course, they've spent time in America, or have relatives there.  The funny thing is that in the little bit of time I've been here, I've talked to a few residents and all have heard of the neighborhood in which I live:  Astoria.  If you're familiar with my "nabe," that might be a clue as to where I am: Astoria, until recently, was home to more of this country's natives or their descendants than any other place outside of this country.

I am talking, of course, about Greece.  I arrived late yesterday and fell asleep almost immediately afterward.  When I awoke, it was well into the night, but people were out and about.  

Such scenes were pretty common in the New York of my youth:  People would gather in parks and other public places to chat, eat, drink or just hang out.  That sort of public life is quickly disappearing from the Big Apple and is all but nonexistent among the young people who've moved in during the past fifteen or so years.  

As soon as I got back to the apartment where I'm staying, I booked myself on to a "Good Morning Athens" bike tour that starts, literally, just a few pedal strokes from the Acropolis Museum.  It's a very easy, slow-paced ride done on hybrid/comfort or flat-bar road/city bikes. (I chose the latter.)  But for me, the point of such a ride was not speed or distance or any other sort of physical challenge.  Instead, it was a way to introduce myself, and be introduced to, a city and culture I have previously seen only in books and images.

The entirely flat ride--something that seems impossible in this hilly city--was led by a delightful young woman named Sappho.  Really:  Even with my penchant for storytelling (if I do say so myself!), I could never make up such a detail.  Or, if I could, I would never use it because readers or listeners would never believe it.

All right, her name is spelled Sapfo.  Still, you can't come up with a better name for a tour guide in Greece. 

Our tour group consisted of, in addition to myself, a family from Atlanta, a couple who are about my age and live in the Washington DC area and a younger German couple.  Our ride spanned about ten kilometers and included a number of stops.  We didn't go into museums or the Acropolis, but we did see that symbol of world history and culture just about everywhere we turned.  We did, however go to the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, where all sorts of official ceremonies--and the marriages of wealthy and well-connected people--are conducted.  

Next to it stands a Byzantine church constructed on the site of an ancient Greek temple.  

We also stopped at the Roman Agora and the "original" Olympic stadium.  At least, it's the first stadium built for the modern revival of the Olympic games, in 1896.

That's about as close as I'll come to being an Olympic athlete.  Even if I were to become one, at this stage in my life, I'd have nothing on these guys:

We got to the Presidential Palace just in time for the changing of the guards.  While not as impressive as the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, it is a sight nonetheless, if for no other reason that those guys are performing their moves clad in heavy wool uniforms and shoes that weigh 2 kilograms in 34C (92F) weather.  

Sapfo pointed out that the "goose step" differs from others in that the soldiers bend their legs to make the number "4", commemorating the four centuries of oppressive Ottoman rule  (I couldn't help pointing out another kind of oppression that went on for 400 years in America) that ended with the War of Independence in the 1820s.

For their troubles, the guards--who are chosen for their height and abilities with weapons--are paid the princely sum of 8.5 Euros a month.  Granted, they are given housing, food and everything else they need when they're on duty, but on their days off (four a month), what can they do?  Most of them come from the countryside and, although a good meal and drink can be had for a good deal less than in New York or Paris, those young men still can't do much.  Even if they could "go out on the town," most would want (or be expected) to send money to their families, but the cost of doing so wouldn't leave much left to send.

It's no wonder, Sapfo said, that she and others refer to those young men, and everyone else in the military, as "victims."  Greece is one of the few European countries that still demands military service from all men, and all who end up on special assignments (such as the Presidential guard) are chosen them.  Oh, and everyone is paid that same princely sum every month.

(At least I wouldn't have to worry about being drafted if I were to move here:  I'm over 35 and, oh, only males are required to serve!) 

Now, just as I don't want you to think our ride was a race, I also don't want to give you the impression that we only concerned with such high-minded things as Hadrian trying to turn Athens into the cultural capital of the Roman Empire or the debates of Socrates.  We also partook of another important aspect of Greek culture:  food.  Across from the Agora, a group of people was leaving a church.  One of them had brought in a traditional ginger cake that's offered after a mass for a loss--of a person or any thing of importance in one's life. That cake, which I liked, is a symbol of hope that the person or thing will return, or that there will be a new beginning.

What I (and probably everyone else) in the group liked even better was served at a cafe where we stopped.  It's the best ice cream sundae I've eaten in my life.  At least, it looks like vanilla ice cream with red sauce. Greeks, however,  don't call it "ice cream" and, technically, it isn't:  It's made from yogurt.  But it--kaimaki -- is just as creamy, if almost chewy, and has the most enjoyable, complex combination of flavors I've ever tasted in a dessert.

Kaimaki is perfumed with mastiha, a spice that comes from a tree that grows only in one area of Greece, and is served with the most delectably sweet-tart cherry sauce I've ever savored.

If today's ride were only about riding, I'd wince that I rode ten flat kilometers, with stops, and consumed as many calories as I did.  Then again, the kaimaki and even the cake may not have as many as I might expect.  Even if they do, well, I am not on a journey to count calories, or kilometers (or miles).  

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