So in the summer of 2003 we decide to stop worrying about world events and go to Greece. For most of us, our last trip there was in 1985; my wife and daughters are making their first voyage, however.
With my mother, sister and brother-in-law, we visit our old family homeland on the island of Samos, the magical volcano island of Santorini, and of course the sprawling capital of Athens -- site of the summer Olympics beginning this week.
It is not as we remember it. For better or for worse, Greece has become a full-fledged Western nation.
The new airport is our first shock. Immaculate and sleek, it is staffed with polite and efficient workers. Polite and efficient Greek workers.
Weve never encountered such a thing. For a moment we think the plane took a wrong turn and landed in Germany.
But it makes sense in a way. German engineers built this new airport -- as well as the new Athens subway, also a state-of-the-art engineering masterpiece.
Germany, in fact, is Greeces number one trading partner. Clearly some Teutonic discipline has rubbed off. Its all a result of that brilliant -- or brilliantly insane -- thing called the European Union.
The sticker shock hits us like a discus upside the head. The Euro is absurdly strong against the dollar -- about a buck and a quarter -- and American wallets begin taking a long cold bath the moment they come off the plane.
Fifteen years ago you could rent a spacious waterfront room for maybe $100 a week. Now its closer to $100 a night.
But its the frappes that kill us. We become addicted to these frothy and delicious iced coffees, made with instant Nescafe. Few things are more delightful in life than sitting down at a bustling cafe in the late afternoon sipping a frappe and watching Greece be Greece.
At three Euros a pop. For Nescafe.
Usually a highly opinionated people, the Greeks have uncharacteristically mixed emotions about the whole Euro thing. Our cousin Spyros, the London-trained economics professor, says with a cynical smile, Were not Greeks anymore -- were all Europeans now.
Being in the EU means a higher quality of life and more goods on the shelves -- generally a greater assortment than here in the Wal-Mart Nation. But the shift to the Euro has a downside: Wages have not kept up with the cost of living.
One taxi driver tells us that when Greece went to the Euro, consumer prices jumped 40 percent the first day. He says though he gets a month off paid vacation every year -- as most Greeks do -- he can no longer afford to go anywhere.
Athens taxi drivers are the best barometer of how things are really going in Greece. We realize how Westernized the place has become when one driver shocks us with the previously unthinkable question, Do you mind if I smoke?
As with most Greeks, taxi drivers have other jobs. The driver often doesnt know where youre going. One of you is expected to sit in the front seat and help him out, maybe by holding a map and helping him navigate the aggressive Athens traffic and illogical street signs.
The Olympics, of course, are a prime topic of conversation in the taxis. Driving through the smog and traffic, scooters darting in and out all around you, its impossible to avoid the construction projects and road widenings -- all made even more time-consuming by the inevitable archaeological finds the workers uncover.
We pass by one sewer project. Looking down into the gash in the ground, we see ancient-looking terra cotta pipes, most likely from the Byzantine era, still being used until recently.
The taxi drivers admit the planning for the Olympic Games is in total chaos and no one has any idea how theyll eventually pay for all of it. But in that particularly Greek brand of optimistic fatalism, they have a serenely perfect faith that things will work out in the end.
I do too.
Athens is as crazy as we remember, but the Athenians themselves seem much more confident and proud than on our last trip. Lets just say personal hygiene has taken a huge leap forward.
We climb to the Parthenon on the ancient hill of the Acropolis, as all good tourists must. The temples restoration scaffolds are down now for the Olympics, but when we visit they still attend to the Parthenon like large crutches.
At dusk, a detail of Greek soldiers marches in to take down the flag on the summit overlooking Athens. The ritual is fraught with meaning.
Here, at the birthplace of democracy, the conquering Nazis unfurled their swastika banner in World War II. Every day the Greek flag flies on the Acropolis is a great day.
The soldiers sing the Greek national anthem, off-key but with fervor, as they tenderly fold the blue and white banner. It is a stirring ceremony and a lesson in true patriotism.
Greeks are devout Christians, but they still revere these old pagan sites. Dying from the heat on the Acropolis, I unbutton my shirt completely, like Im in Key West or something. A nearby tourist guide politely but firmly motions for me to button my shirt back. The Greeks no longer worship Athena, but this temple built in her honor is still sacred ground.
My fourteen year old is less impressed with Greek history. While visiting a well-kept temple to Artemis outside Athens, she calls the temple columns poles --though I suspect this is done largely to annoy her father.
Shes interested in the action. She loves the bustle of Athens, bursting at the seams with stylish and slim twenty-somethings, all glued to their cellphones. She takes careful note of what theyre wearing, and is surprised at the level of their fashion sense.
The guys wear Capris here, she says, impressed.
Indeed, Greeks of all ages are light-years beyond the frumpy polyester attire and armpit stains that I remember from previous trips. Athenian women, in particular, are the most fashion-conscious females Ive seen anywhere.
And soon, it dawns on us: There are almost no fat people in Greece.
Greek stores are awash in the latest Italian shoes, and my wife is impressed at the beauty and selection. Though here, too, the cruel exchange rate rears its ugly head. Maybe next trip, sweetie.
While in Athens we have dinner with Spyros and his mother, our Aunt Vanta. She has retired to a spacious apartment in a nice area of town -- though there is some grumbling at the amount of Albanian immigrants that have moved in the neighborhood recently.
The food in Greece is the best Ive eaten anywhere, bar none. Not so much because of the cuisine, which is basic, but the extraordinary freshness of the ingredients, which are generally bought each day for that days meals.
Juicy and alive with taste, fruits and vegetables in Greece are as far removed from the waxy, hormone-enhanced produce in American groceries as Spam is from filet mignon. The smooth and succulent feta cheese is a universe away from the salty, pungent paste we get here.
The exception to this, ironically, is seafood. Because of drastic overfishing in the Mediterranean, much seafood in Greece is frozen and comes from elsewhere. By law, frozen seafood must be marked as such on the menu.
I ask the Greeks about this. On this issue they are uncharacteristically vague, changing the subject immediately. It is clearly a blow to national pride.
This evening we dine outdoors -- as Greeks prefer -- overlooking a long park area filled with playing children and the usual loose dogs. Families are here in abundance, with people of all ages staying up until late, enjoying the cool night breeze.
My wife comments, The Greeks do it right. The adults put the kids and the dogs in the park and sit in cafes all night.
Indeed, Greek children go along with their parents to any and all events. Its not unusual to see children of 8 or 10 still playing at midnight, while their parents have beer or dessert at a nearby cafe.
It can get crazy. Greek children are famously overindulged, and get far more boisterous than is usually tolerated in the states. But overall there isnt a more child-friendly place.
Greeks of all ages delight in babies and young children. Shopkeepers talk to them directly and offer them candy if theres any around (which with the legendary Greek sweet tooth, there almost always is).
Its not unusual to stand in line and have the cashier hold everyone up just to admire your child. And the Greeks behind you dont care -- they smile and join in.
If someone paid that much attention to your child in America, youd call the cops. But as one writer has put it, In Greece, the default is positive.
In other words, if you dont know a Greeks intentions, you can assume theyre good. Because of this, Greece has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe.
The difference in attitude is liberating. In America, safety means more cops, more laws, more gates. On the contrary, the more freedom a Greek enjoys, the safer he feels.
Its a heady thing, living the way humans were intended to live -- without fear. Its nothing short of addictive, and I see how so many people go to Greece on vacation and simply dont come back.
They say Greece has no drug problems because prison sentences for possession are so high. Im sure thats true, but I have another explanation:
People who are truly free have no need for drugs.
Santorini is surely the hottest place on the planet. But for some reason we dont mind. The frappes do help.
We stay in rooms overlooking the dramatic -- and still-active volcano crater lagoon near the islands main town. My five-year-old is entranced and inspired by the awesome view.
One afternoon with the sun going down over the crater she is spontaneously inspired to put on a long, improvised dance for us on the terrace outside, with elements of ballet and modern.
When we leave the island, she is heartbroken. To this day Santorini remains for her a magical place apart.
Its not too shabby for adults either. Theres a party atmosphere here, and when the shops close down the discos open up. The British tourists are not nearly as obnoxious as youve been told.
The most special part of our trip -- the real reason we came to Greece -- is Samos, our ancestral home, a lush oasis of wooded mountains amid the generally dry-as-dust Aegean islands.
We see our old family olive groves and our old family winery. We spend an evening in the waterfront central square, or platea, of the main town. Everyone from toddlers to teens to seniors gathers here each night to enjoy the breeze, eat ice cream and talk on cellphones.
We meet our grandfathers relatives Evangelitsa and Giorgios in the platea. This older but still hardy couple lives up the hillside in Ano Vathi, an insular neighborhood with not a single tourist shop.
They invite us to a celebration in honor of St. Johns name day. At a small amphitheatre in the hills overlooking the harbor, children from the local church charm us with Greek dancing, singing and bouzouki playing.
At the end of the performance the kids do the traditional jumping over the bonfire, sparks almost catching on their pants as they leap over the flames.
My brother-in-law and I joke that there must not be many lawyers in Greece.
After the performance we go back to their home on one of Ano Vathis winding, narrow streets. In true Greek fashion, Evangelitsa brings out every single food item in the kitchen. Theyre not affluent people, but everything they own is ours for this night.
My wife admires some expert lace embroidery, asking about its origin. Turns out Evangelitsa made it herself. Without hesitation she gives it to my wife.
Meanwhile, Giorgios fills up some plastic water bottles of olive oil to take home with us. Olive oil he made himself.
It is the best Ive ever tasted.
The Greek love of freedom has a dark side. You see it every day on the roads.
Imagine the Italian drivers competitive machismo, the German drivers need for speed, and the Asian fondness for close-formation driving. Combine them all and you get the typical Greek driver.
There are only two rules of the road in Greece: 1) Never use your brakes when you can make the other guy use his; and 2) Tailgating is the best way to keep another car from cutting in front of you. All else is negotiable.
So naturally we rent a car.
Back in Athens, we drive to one of our old haunts from a previous trip, the coastal suburb of Porto Rafti. Most of us are in the rental car, with my brother-in-law as usual on one of his beloved rented scooters (by far the best and cheapest way to get around here).
Behind us, a woman in a Jeep is doing what Greek drivers do: Staying six inches off our bumper while in animated conversation with her passenger in between cellphone calls and lighting cigarettes.
While taking a left turn to get down to the beach, my sister does the American thing, i.e., signals left, turns left. Silly her.
While attempting to pass us -- on the left, of course -- the Greek lady in the Jeep smashes our drivers side door. Luckily no one is hurt, but we assume the local cops will be only too happy to pack off some Americans to one of those infamous Greek prisons.
The Greek woman flags down passing neighbors and tells them its all our fault. They gesture theatrically at us and make tsk-tsk sounds in our direction. She calls her husband, who arrives and begins concocting stories about us to tell the police.
But my sister, a fluent Greek speaker, outwits the crafty Greeks. She plays dumb, speaking only English -- all the better to get a little intel on the sly.
After a long wait in the blistering Attican sun, the police -- the astynomia -- arrive, a pair in one car.
Greek police are not like American police. Behaving more like air force officers than cops on the beat, they are well-educated, physically fit and impeccably groomed.
They carry guns, but as my wife puts it, they dont reach for them every five seconds like American cops do. In a country where handgun ownership is almost zero, the mere presence of a pistol on the hip is deterrence enough.
The ladys husband begins his smear campaign. They had seven people packed in their car, he tells the head cop. They were driving unsafely.
It is then that my sister springs her Trojan Horse. Thats not true, she tells the cop in perfect Greek. We had five in the car. The others were on the scooter.
The womans jaw drops. The cop immediately susses the situation and pronounces his verdict.
Well let the insurance companies fight this out, he says. After all, thats what theyre there for.
Besides, its just a rental car, he says, checking his watch. Its lunchtime.
The cop ends our encounter with an elegant, typically Greek phrase that could have come straight out of Homer: Ese eleftheri tora.
You are free from us now.
As the plane lifts off over the rolling green and brown olive groves of Attica for the flight back to America, we dont feel as if were going home. We feel as if were leaving home.
So much more to say, so little space.
I could tell you about the delightful afternoon in Takis jewelry shop in Monasteraki, being served frappes from a nearby cafe as Taki tells us funny stories and expertly spiffs up the jewelry we bought there years before.
I could tell you about swimming with my five-year-old in the chilly, crystal blue waters off Samos, the forbidding Turkish mainland looming a half-mile away.
I could tell you about hearing my fourteen-year-old pick out her first chords on her first guitar, a beautiful red Fender courtesy of my mothers expert haggling.
I could tell you about sneaking off with my wife for a quick ouzo and a game of backgammon in a tavern in Rafina.
But I think you should go to Greece yourself and come back with some stories of your own.