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My Big Fat Greek Vacation

I had been to Crete as a hormonal 14-year-old with my family, and this year I decided to revisit, my own hormonal teenagers in tow.
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I had been to Crete as a hormonal 14-year-old with my family, and this year I decided to revisit, my own hormonal teenagers in tow. My memories were probably more than a little tinged by nostalgia: renting scooters and getting lost in olive groves, managing to crash a Greek wedding to which we promptly got invited, sweating through ruins of Spinalonga, the former leper colony island, which in my 14-year-old mind loomed as a horrific tragedy but also carried a whiff of fear of contagion, and the Palace of Knossos, where a handmade sign posted over a doorframe announced " The labyrinth of the Minotaur is closed." And then there were the pebbly beaches that hurt my feet, but where the Greek boys made me feel beautiful long before I thought I could be.

But first I had to convince my husband that Greece, and especially the Greek Islands, were not a third world country despite everything on the news. And maybe this time the labyrinth would finally be open.

We started close to the ancient and beautiful city of Chania in western Crete. I had rented a villa on hilltop online, and so had no idea what awaited us besides a pretty nice view and a giant round bathtub prominently featured in the photos. Giorgio, the owner of the villa, was our first foray into Greek hospitality. A tall, sturdy man with soulful eyes and longish hair in a ponytail ushered us inside the alabaster-floored living room where an enormous table groaned under food. Platters of sandwiches, salads, bowls of fruit and bottles of wine, bottled water and even American soft drinks. This last one made me wonder whether Giorgio had bought all the hype about obesity in America and so provided a family of four with enough food for forty. But his generosity didn't end there. At the wood oven and barbeque set in a delightful stone gazebo overlooking the mountains and ocean, he told us he'd cook us a barbeque on any night we wanted. He also extended an invitation to a taverna where we would have the real experience of Greek food and hospitality, and additionally offered us anything from ironing the sheets and haircuts by his wife to bringing fresh bougatsa hot from the oven for breakfast and helping us rent mopeds. I've often rented houses in foreign countries before. I've never encountered this generous enthusiasm before.

The next day, off we went to rent scooters, only to find that the laws had seriously changed and now you could only rent one if you had an international drivers license. My sixteen-year-old son's independence vanished in a puff. But once we got on the road we realized this was not such a bad idea. For you see, the Greeks just may be the worst drivers in the world. Now, I've been to Thailand and passed endless buses turned over in ditches, I've driven a Vespa through Rome and I've survived years of Boston driving, but I've never witnessed the random madness of Greek drivers. We found out quickly that the shoulder of the highway was in fact used as the slow lane, so unless you wanted to hurtle down a two-lane road at eighty mph, you had to drive with your left wheel on the white line and your right one in a ditch. Just when you thought you had things under control cruising in the ditch, a car or truck or bus would plunge by and HONK. After a few days on Greek roads, we discovered everyone honked all the time, and for reasons not entirely clear. Sometimes it was because we were making a turn, sometimes because we weren't, other times we were too slow at 70 mph on a country lane, and other times, it seemed to be a friendly wave kind of a honk. As my older son Jonathan said: it's like the drivers are a primitive people who can only communicate basic primal emotions through a series of honks.

One night, driving down a dark lane, which was actually the main road, we got honked at by a moped. My husband sped up. But no, the moped kept honking. So my husband slowed down. That seemed to be the desired effect, and the moped driver passed us in a cloud of exhaust, a loud and prolonged honk, and a raised finger. "What's his problem?" We all grumbled in the car. "Asshole." But the moped kept up the prolonged honk, even as it passed us and barreled down a straight road down a hill with no other traffic visible. A second, two seconds passed, and the moped was still mournfully bleating a long protracted honk down the hill. Another few seconds of the extended honk and we realized the guy's horn had stuck. He had to stop at a gas station and we waved to him merrily as we passed and yes, honked.

Back at the house, two housekeepers had stripped all of our beds of sheets and were happily sitting outside by the front door drinking coffee, smoking and chatting. One of them had brought a ten-year-old daughter along, but whether to teach her tricks of the trade or because she didn't have school, was unclear. They offered us cheerful smiles and waves and otherwise showed no further inclination to continue their work.

Our three American friends arrived from Athens, and the seven of us followed Giorgio to a village taverna empty of tourists. We were made to drink shots of honeyed raki that went straight to our brains. Course after course of Greek specialties was served, each one with a lengthy and sweaty explanation by an eager-to-please Giorgio. Then his beautiful wife arrived arm in arm with our housekeepers, all happily waving and shouting out in Greek, which Giorgio attempted to translate. "He says" pointing to his wife, " you have beautiful family and everyone must drink to health!" A man, possibly related to Giorgio, (or possibly not) was providing appropriately ethnic music on his computer, the speakers tinny and the blue glow of the screen lighting an empty corner of the taverna. By the time a famous rice dish -- prepared only for special occasions -- was wheeled out, all of us were so inebriated we got up to dance the Zorba to the thin, canned music. Back at the house our sheets were back on the beds, but a few of them still wet. And the giant round bathtub ran no hot water.

We went to Giorgio's wife's hair salon where our friend Michael got a haircut that she promised would make him look like George Clooney, but which, several days later, Michael decided looked more like George Looney. His wife Sheila got a mani/ pedi, and limped for a week from a cut on her toe. I spent most my time in a pretty grotty bathroom in the back of the salon, staring at a small sign that said " please do not throw paper in the toilet." Who would want to throw actual paper in a toilet, I wondered, picturing Greeks attempting to flush printer paper, newspapers and letter envelopes.

In the following days we made car trips to Elafonisi, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world famous for its pink sands - although it was pink not so much from the pink sands but from a lot of pink tourists. We drove to a still-working monastery on top of a mountain where three monks in black polyester robes and giant beards sweated as they took our money for bottles of olive oil, and then asked my husband for his autograph. Thinking he looked famous, they had looked him up on their computers, they admitted in broken English.

In the beautiful Venetian built town of Chania, my husband kept getting asked if he was Mick Jagger. I think the Greeks meant Keith Richards, but didn't remember but one name from the Stones. It's true my husband looks like a rock star, even when on vacation, but Mick Jagger? "He's like a foot shorter," I'd snap when some other person ambled up with a paper and pen. My husband remained gracious and kind through all this mistaken identity even as I seethed, but we probably did get a lot of restaurant seating and free drinks because of Mick Jagger. Thanks Mick. (We did, however, find out the Cars were huge in Cyprus.) We drove down roads with no rail guides and drop-offs of hundreds of feet where my husband had to take really deep breaths. We ate tzatziki and moussaka and Greek salads in endless tavernas. A week later we said goodbye to our friend Giorgio and drove across the island to Elounda. Elounda is apparently a famous tourist village for famous politicians and Arab Princes' - not that we would have recognized them even if we did see them. Our house was an immaculate modern dream overlooking the bay. The owner, a former actor and still-looking-it Yannis, searched for us on his motorcycle in the middle of the night in the village square, since I had messed up his instructions on how to get to the house. My son Oliver remarked: "Those Greeks sure are nice people. Once they get out of their cars."

I had really been looking forward to revisiting Spinalonga, the tiny deserted island off the coast, which was a leper colony until 1957. As a fourteen year old, I had stumbled through the tunnel that takes you into the center of the village in tears, my head full of melodramatic scenes of young lovers torn from each others arms, sometimes maybe even literally. (You know, lepers, torn, arms...) Much had changed since. For one, the ugly midcentury leper housings, which had in 1978 still been intact with bowls on tables and blankets on beds, have been eliminated. The island has reverted to its Venetian and Turkish roots, golden and crumbling and hot. Also, a cashier has been installed right before the tunnel, along with a restroom. Yes, only one, but still.

Unfortunately, the lady in the ticket booth told me it had ceased to function, probably because all the paper thrown in it had clogged the pipes. What was up with these Greeks and paper in the toilets? Once I knew I couldn't go, I could think of nothing else. There was no possibility of relief on the rocky hot tiny island unless I wanted to squat in the open and wave to other tourists as they went past. Needless to say, the beauty and pathos of walking through well-preserved ruins had taken a definite backseat to the pressure of my bladder.

We ran into a similar problem in the palace of Knossos, where despite thousands of tourists every year, the bathrooms closed before the site did. And so, my husband sat in the shade and photographed tourists instead of participating in our private tour with the formidable Marinella; an aggressive Greek version of my Czech grandmother, clad in brown polyester and comfortable walking shoes. She gave us the tour in singsong English that sounded like a recording. Our friend Michael, who is a writer, collects stories like my husband does photos. There is no human being he cannot lure a story from, and as he chatted with Marinella between her songlike descriptions, I took it for granted he was up to his usual. Not until Marinella began to take extreme measures to avoid the large groups of Russian tourists did I realize what Michael had done in the quest for fun: instead of getting a story he was making one up. His 16 year old daughter Nicolaia assured me Marinella seemed to think no less of me, since as a former Czech, (and thus once occupied and oppressed by the Russians,) my loathing of the Russians was warranted. (BTW, one of my closest friends is a Russian!) Marinella, trying her best to please us, barreled mercilessly through throngs of Russians --elbowing and sometimes even kicking them if the need arose and they couldn't otherwise be walked around -- and so assured us of a lovely and very private visit of the ruins. But the Labyrinth was still closed.

We (the women and children, that is) also did several harrowing hikes up and down mountains to monastery ruins, caves and other assorted and very dangerous exploits while my husband and Michael gave out Mick Jagger's autographs for free coffees in the nearby tavernas. Then it was time to split up; our friends went to Rome and we roughed it first class on the ferry to Mykonos.

This time I had rented a house above Paradise beach, formerly known for nude sunbathing and hippies. The owner of this house, also named Yannis, proudly showed us the house of his own design, and as we got to the bathrooms, pointed out that no toilet paper should be thrown into the toilets. So that's what the signs meant! No TOILET paper. I was simultaneously offended and relieved. So what exactly does one do with soiled toilet paper? In Greece, one throws it into a receptacle that ought to be near the toilet. And if there isn't one? Does one put it into ones handbag? Why the hell would anyone provide a toilet with toilet paper next to it but without the ability to flush it? Didn't the Greeks INVENT plumbing, for Christ's sake? But it was good to know they weren't attempting to use toilets as paper recycling bins.

Mykonos was really a present to my husband who loves St Barth's and St Tropez above all other vacation spots, and so far had been a really good sport driving us to every loony place I wanted to go to, but it must be admitted -- without real enthusiasm. Now he was on familiar ground. Tropicana club on Paradise beach started the party by 4:30 pm. Suddenly, the music was cranked up to eleven, three dancing girls in bikinis took their places on bar tables, beefy sunburned guys in baseball hats on backwards ordered more beers and champagne and pumped their fists in the air to the beat, presumably to impress the drunken girls already wobbling their way up from chairs to join the table dancing. Even a little further away on the sun loungers where I tried to read, the beat was so hard it felt more like chest compressions than music. But my husband was delighted as he overpaid for lunch and pulled out his Leica while I tried to read The Silkworm with my heart at 128 bpm's.

I had worked hard on my bikini body, remembering how good it felt to be ogled by boys when I was a gawky 14-year-old, and so I had brought my best bikinis and wasn't ashamed to toss off my wrap. For nearing fifty, I thought I looked pretty good. That is, until set in the middle of a beach of twenty year olds. I was the age of the beachgoers parents. I was as hot as ...Mom.

I resolved to start looking into vacations in Senior homes in Florida for next year. Lying there, feeling old, I realized that what I wanted from Greece was not so much the tactile experiences, but rather my ability to be excited by them. The excitement of the unknown. The days filled with unlimited potential. I wanted to recapture the feelings of a fourteen year old. Having realized this sad little fact about myself, I came to terms with not being fourteen pretty quickly. Greece hadn't disappointed. We'd had a wonderful rich vacation -- which I spent apparently married to Mick Jagger.