Before covid, when travel was still a low risk proposition, I spent a summer touring some of the Greek islands with my boys. We started in Kos and continued by ferry to other destinations. I was interested how much of the Greece, which I came to know as a child, was still out there and could it still be found. To my surprise the short answer is yes it can, but as so often you won’t find it where tourism has taken over. In Kos there are, as so often, multiple layers. The resorts are a cartoon version of Greece, which has little to do with the actual country. Professional staff creates a world made up from squeaky clean gardens that run between flawless white bungalows in the Cycladic style, opulent buffets tailored to the customers food preferences, a quite atmosphere carefully walled of from whatever is out there.
If you wish, you can fly in, be bused to the resort, spend some luxury time, maybe gain a pound or two, return to the airport and leave without ever having seen Greece but at least you can say you have been to Greece and it was wonderful.
Some visitors venture outside to visit historic Greece. That too can be done in a carefully orchestrated fashion. Hotel busses take you to Kos old center with its remnants of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. Shops in town invite you to spend a little money on a souvenir which will serve as evidence that you have been to Greece.
Go a little further and you find the truly ancient Kos. The cult of Asclepius, a doctor rumored to bring people back from the dead, dates back 3000 years and left us with the ruins of what is probably Europe’s oldest sanatorium. If you are lucky enough that your kids have a knowledgeable grandma on their side to tell the story, then they have at least seen a little of the Kos that once was.
But, as I said, I wanted to see what Greece is today and how much it had changed from my first visit just forty years ago. So I had to go out on my own and found it. For me modern Greece is an exercise in continuous improvisation, a relentless struggle with small time success, set backs, and aspirations that are always just a little larger than the dedication of the protagonists.
Then it was time to move on. But this time by boat. Waiting at the harbor was the true beginning of our journey. All harbors have that inevitable mood of transience, everyone is going somewhere, no one stays, even the boats and their goods just come and go. The air smells of diesel from idling engines and everyone is waiting. The heat and anticipation builds as the day goes on and when that boat finally appears on the horizon the entire place shakes of its sleepiness and jumps into action. Truck engines start, harbor workers appear out of no where, travels gather their belongings and move towards the boarding area, for a brief moment the harbor bustles with life. When the boat has left the entire place will inevitable return to its sullen sleep. But for us the journey had began and Rhodes was our next destination.
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