Look up at the crowded apartment buildings that line so many streets in Athens, and you'll probably see pots of basil on most balconies. Travel through the isles of Greece and almost every whitewashed island house has at least one pot of basil on its doorstep. And, what's tucked behind the ear of that truck driver gesturing furiously at you to get out of his way as he speeds along the Athens-Thessaloniki highway? A sprig of basil for him to sniff from time to time to banish the highway's miasmic exhaust fumes. No wonder that the 19th-century Greek politician Ion Dragoumis said, "A pot of basil may symbolize the soul of a people better than a play of Aeschylus."
In fact, the pot of basil, lovingly clipped to a perfect sphere, may be the only item in Greece that outnumbers the cellphone (kineto). The 11 million-plus Greek citizens have at least 12 million cellphones, with many adults wielding at least one for business and another for personal calls. One May Day, I watched families deep in the Arcadian mountains gather wildflowers to make traditional May Day wreaths, stopping only to dance age-old circle dances -- all the while snapping photos of each other and sending them to distant friends on their ubiquitous cellphones! The wreaths, the dances, many of the words the dancers spoke, would all have been familiar to the ancient Greeks. Only the cellphones were new.
Most Greeks are besotted with all that is new; in fact, a common greeting is Ti nea? (What's new?). Still, most Greeks are fiercely proud of those longtime attractions that attract visitors: Greece's mind-boggling physical beauty and its glorious past. Certainly, for most of us, to leave Greece without seeing the big three from antiquity -- Athens's Acropolis; Olympia, the birthplace of the modern Olympic Games; and Delphi, the most beautiful ancient site in all Greece -- would be, as Aeschylus himself might have said, tragic. As for Greece's physical beauty, it is so stunning that it traps you into spouting clichés. Palamas, the poet who wrote the words to the Olympic Hymn, was reduced to saying of his homeland, "Here, sky is everywhere."
Of course, Palamas was right: The Greek sky, the Greek light, the Greek sea are all justly famous. This is especially obvious on the islands. Just how many islands there are depends on what you call an island, an islet, or a large rock. Consequently, estimates of the number of Greek islands range from 1,200 to about 6,000. In any event, almost all of the approximately 200 inhabited islands are ready and waiting to welcome visitors; more than half the hotels in Greece are on islands. Each year, more and more Greek hotels aspire to be boutique hotels, with Wi-Fi, spas, cocktails by the pools (fresh and saltwater), and restaurants serving sushi as well as souvlaki. Still, on the islands and on the mainland, throughout the countryside, picture-postcard scenes are around every corner. Shepherds still urge flocks of goats and sheep along mountain slopes, and fishermen still mend nets by their caiques. In Greece's two largest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki, where cars seem to outnumber residents, the country makes its presence known in the city in neighborhood street markets that sell cheese from flocks of sheep that graze on distant mountains and fish from far out to sea.
If this sounds romantic and enticing, it is. But remember that the Greek love of the new includes a startling ability to adjust to the unexpected. Everything -- absolutely everything -- in Greece is subject to change. The boat that you board in Piraeus, to visit the island of Tinos, may steam past Tinos to Mykonos, and then wander back to Tinos via several unscheduled stops at unidentified islands. Ask anyone on board -- including the captain -- why this happened and you'll see that most Greek of all gestures: the face and shoulder shrug. Then, you'll probably hear that most Greek of all remarks: "Etsi einai e zoe," which literally means "That's life," but might better be translated as "Whatchya gonna do?" With luck, you'll learn the Greek shrug, and come to accept -- even enjoy -- the unpredictable as an essential part of life in Greece.
Recently, the unpredictable has become almost the only thing that is predictable in Greece. Greece's massive debts, the government's unpopular attempts to restructure the economy, involving tax hikes and salary and pension reductions, led to strikes and demonstrations in 2010 and 2011. At press time, serious questions remain as to how Greece will solve its problems. Tourism -- which makes up from 15% to 20% of Greece's annual income -- was significantly down, as word of strikes closing museums and archaeological sites and disrupting travel persuaded many potential visitors to go elsewhere. Most Greeks are deeply concerned about the future, worried at the decline in tourism -- yet convinced they will weather this storm as they have weathered so many others since the dawn of history.
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