TAWN PARENT Commentary: Scattered images from abroad

May 8, 2006

We landed in the Marble City, nearly blinded by the light and the white and the reflection of it all. I think of Athens as the Marble City because of its many ruins, but also because of all the other marble buildings and the slippery marble sidewalks and, in our apartment, the marble walls and floors and marble countertops that make so much noise when you set your cup down. We felt compelled to bring some marble home with us.

My family spent five weeks in Greece and Italy for my husband's sabbatical project. He was there to work, and the kids and I were there to taste and smell and absorb and be dazzled.

Now, wobbly and woozy after less than 48 hours back on Hoosier soil, I'm still seeing stars. I haven't been home long enough for the trip to coalesce into a comprehensible whole, although I hope that will come. My vision is still kaleidoscopic, filled with cascading triangles and hexagons of experiences. Here are a few:

New habits: We walk and walk and walk. We dodge the maniacal motorbikes that drive even onto the sidewalk. We wear holes through our socks. The kids, who at home will barely stumble to the car, walk for hours without complaint. I feel so healthy. Who needs a vending machine when there are fruit stands everywhere? We pick up bananas for an afternoon snack and fresh berries for after dinner.

Don't talk to strangers: Greeks pin charms on babies' clothing to protect them from the "evil eye." Even tourist industry workers are wary of outsiders. A motorcoach deposits us by the side of the road in a strange town. No word about how or where to make our connection.

I try to hail one, two, five, 10, 20 taxis. They race right by. A few slow down enough for me to shout my destination in carefully rehearsed Greek. They give me a vague look of disgust, a slight lift of the chin, and drive on. Finally, after 25 minutes, one stops to let us in. This scene repeats daily.

Cash is king: Forget debit cards for French fries. Many restaurants and hotels say no to any kind of plastic, or accept it only by slapping on a 4-percent surcharge. People line up at the post office to pay utility bills in cash. We become intimate friends with our neighborhood ATM.

What Web? Cell phones are everywhere, but not the Internet. Greece is the least-computer-savvy country in Western Europe. More than 70 percent of Greeks say they have never used the Internet, according to the April 14 Athens News. Our efforts to get timely information online about tourist destinations and transportation schedules are largely in vain. Phone calls don't work so well, either. Greeks like to do business in person.

Striiiiiiiike! I curse the garbage trucks that bang and clang through the wee hours (to avoid the horrendous traffic?). Then I curse their absence. The workers are striking. The sidewalks slowly fill with 30,000 tons of trash. One day, we arrive at an Athens metro station to find a locked gate. Another strike. In Rome, it happens again. Two more strikes are planned for the first week of May. How do you run an economy when essential workers are constantly walking out?

Precious energy: Solar panels dot the rooftops. Many homes are heated only during certain times of day. At our apartment, we may turn on the water heater only for halfhour periods just before use. Everywhere people zip by us in "smart cars," tiny three-cylinder vehicles that get 60 miles to the gallon. Lessons to ponder for us wasteful Americans.

Late to bed, late to rise: Clocks reading 14:00 are not the only sign we're not in Kansas anymore. Many shops don't open until noon or later. Then they close for an afternoon siesta. One day, I approach an innkeeper at 4:45 p.m. to ask about good restaurants for dinner. "Now?" he says. "It's lunch time. Dinner won't be for hours." Restaurants typically don't open until 8 p.m., my son's bedtime.

Happy Greek Orthodox Easter: Highways are clogged days in advance. Athens seems to empty out. People drag entire slaughtered lambs, wrapped in trash bags, into buses. They are taking them home for Easter dinner. (The average Greek family of five spends $340 on their Easter meal.) The city all but shuts down for four days.

Get thee to a nunnery: Daunted by Rome's outrageous hotel prices, we opt for a convent that rents out rooms. It is tucked into a quiet nook just off a street with the inspired name of Glorioso. The nuns are imported from India; Italy doesn't grow enough of its own.

A sensory feast: We hear worry beads clicking in people's hands as they walk; inhale the tangy scent of oranges dangling from downtown tree limbs; taste cigarette smoke from the cafes as we pass; watch fuzzy, unripe olives plop onto our doorstep; savor that first bite into a hot croissant at a corner bakery each morning; indulge in the chilly delight of a dish of melon gelato.

So many memories. So little space. How to sum it all up? Perhaps the street sign said it best: Glorioso.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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