Greece: Spa for Exhausted American Spirits

Updated 2 years ago David Stone
Lunch with the locals in Kos. (Next time, someone remind me to take off my glasses.)
Lunch with the locals in Kos. (Next time, someone remind me to take off my glasses.)
Photo courtesy GNTO

Six months in the U.S., raw heat from racial and political division, frequently mixed, a lunatic presidential campaign, police violence caught on cameras, violence against the police, and little but the first days of spring to brighten the mood. A prescription for our malaise…? Time spent in Greece… or the Hellenistic Republic, if you want to get picky about it.

A couple of disclaimers: Getting away from dodging millennials lost in their smart phones, tourists moving so slowly you think they may have stopped and the ground in filth of the subways will inevitably improve your mood, all by itself, and if you wrap up your visit sharing lunch, drinks, ideas and jokes with a super model who wraps an arm around you for the inevitable photo, you will fly home, fit and optimistic.

But I think I’d feel the same way about Greece, even if I never met Elena Kountoura, super model turned politician and, now, top cheerleader for her nation’s tourism.

After the turmoils at home, a week immersed in Greece may be the best medicine for any American. Here’s why.

See a photo gallery by clicking here.

A Taste of Being Greek

Love for spanakopita (spinach pie) was about as far as my curiosity about Greece took me before a chance to see, touch, and taste much more arrived. 

Of course, all American kids learn the basics about Aristotle and Hippocrates, and Socrates is a minor quirky hero of mine. But these men are long dead, and the nation that spawned them has been overwhelmed by history’s march as well as unsettling current events.

Anthony Quinn, playing an earthy Zorba, dancing on a Cretan beach with Alan Bates, is closer to my history but a little too linked to hippie uprisings left behind in my youth.

This Greece must be different, and I was far from sure about what to expect. Recent news had not been bright for the nation that gave us democracy and the seeds of humanist art.

Following news about Greece’s fiscal crisis, its battle with the European Union and political uncertainty, I expected at least to see a country struggling with basic needs, unkempt streets, utilities unreliable and angry frustration bubbling beneath the surface.

As the U.S. news media narrative spilled out, I also expected crowds of homeless refugees, overloaded boats navigating the Mediterranean and protestors pushing back.

I saw none of that, though. We spent days on the islands of Rhodes and Kos, as close as you can get to Asia Minor without entering Turkey, and passed delicious hours on the Aegean Sea. I saw mostly a paradise that, except for contemporary improvements (little things like sanitation and plumbing) was much like what Homer described in the Odyssey “while sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech.”

Greeks, as Elena Kountoura told us, are passionate. This isn’t a simple cliche any native can claim is true. It’s something my friends and I saw every day. And there was another element that frequently goes unmentioned: Greeks have great senses of humor.

Even the politicians are funny. George Hatzimarkos, Governor of the South Aegean Region, was as good as a standup comedian while sharing funny anecdotes from his experiences as a visitor to New York, and a lunch with Dimitris Tryfonopoulos, from the Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism, was sprinkled with enthusiasm and spontaneous toasts of “Yamas!”

(When you go to Greece, and you definitely should, “Yamas!” is what you’ll say in place of “Cheers!”)

To be clear, the long financial crisis is always close to the surface. I was relaxing on a wall in Rhodes Old Town when an old man came out of a bank, talking to himself in frustration. When I bought handmade glass as a gift for my wife at a family’s shop, I got into a conversation with the owner who described the frustration of watching his middle class lifestyle diminish without any solution in sight.

But the difference is that the Greeks I met, however dismayed with where governments have stranded them, were not angry at each other. They are well-informed about how their economic troubles developed and are hoping for a political solution, sooner than later. 

They aren’t even mad at Germany or the European Union, the usual bad guys in the media narrative.

In short, unlike an increasing element back home, Greece refuses to become a victim culture or one preoccupied with assigning blame.

It may be that some were on their best behavior when our group spent time with them, but when I had chance encounters, I found them equally proud of their culture, genuine and surprisingly trustworthy. 

Yes, You Can Trust Greeks Bearing Gifts

Especially for a traveler who has seen a different side of things in other countries, the accidentally discovered honesty of everyday Greeks was heartening. Even a long economic slump fails to make them dishonest.

We had two examples.

Shopping in the beautiful seaside town of Lindos, my friend Jan bought a caftan from one of local shops that enliven the narrow, ancient streets. Shortly after rejoining our group as we prepared to move on, she got a message on Facebook.

The shopkeeper discovered that she’d somehow charged Jan for two outfits instead of one. Rather than wait for Jan’s return, which may never have happened, the shopkeeper went to the trouble of finding Jan on the internet and sending her a message because she wanted to return the money.

There are places in the world where this would not have happened in a million years.

Two days later, after returning to Rhodes by ferry, my friend Daniel discovered that his smart phone was missing. It contained personal and other valuable information.

While we tried to figure out where he may have lost it, one of our guides checked the ferry operator. Sure enough, his valuable phone had been recovered by another passenger and turned in. It was back in his hands in hours.

Neither story is remarkable in itself, except that both happened to tourists who’d be leaving Greece in a few days and there was no negative experience to balance against them.

Tourists get ripped off all the time. In some places, it’s a part of the local economy. Apparently, Greeks don’t operate that way, not in our experience anyway. 

Blurring the Racial Lines

Although genetic research shows us that the concept is nonsense, race continues to define and divide us in America. It’s constantly reinforced as viable in the media, although setting people aside in groups according to skin color makes no more sense than doing so according to eye or hair color. These are trivial differences among people, but the system won’t let them go.

Worse yet, even though many defined as “black” are lighter skinned that many others defined as “white,” the divisive distinctions continue. They poison our social awareness and fuel the fires of bigotry.

In Greece, because these distinctions don’t exist in the same visceral way, life is already sweeter before you even consider anything else.

Over the centuries, the nation has been ruled by many invading forces, each of which left its cultural stamp, but out of that evolved a surprising cultural unity. 98% of churchgoers, for example, are Greek Orthodox. And the openly racist and xenophobic New Dawn Party gets only six to seven percent of the vote in national elections.

So, not a completely smooth social fabric but not as torn by conflicts as the U.S. has been this year. Greeks may not notice it, but the contrast for me was as refreshing as a dip in the Aegean Sea.

I will always remember walking through a crowded shopping zone in Old Town Rhodes and seeing my friends Daniel and Kinya approaching at a distance, easy to see because they were the only really dark skinned people in sight. What I noticed is that no one else seemed to. No heads turned or looked away. They were just two beautiful people blending with the crowds.

I’d have to ask one of them to verify it, but in all the time we spent together as a group, touring, shopping, sailing, swimming, I don’t remember a single Greek making any reference to color or race, positive or negative. 

It was a relief to let go of the constant awareness of race that infects us like a virus at home

Food and Drink

Wherever we went, our group was frequently ten or more hungry travelers, and we reveled in the shared food tradition that turns meals into low key parties. It’s meze in Turkey and tapas in Spain, and it’s the most pleasant way to dine anywhere.

The Mediterranean fare in Greece, at least everywhere we went, including open air dining on small, quiet islands and gourmet style at the Rodos Palace, was more diverse than the Italian or Spanish offerings I’ve discovered while traveling.

Each meal starts with a fresh Greek salad topped with a block of feta. From that tone-setting accent comes shared plates of squid, octopus, eggplant, risotto and such before it’s all topped off with a plate of fish not long out of the sea. The main course can be other options, but our group’s food preferences ruled out red meats and lamb.

Two other treats accompanied every meal. Drinks, most often local wines, were plentiful and enhanced the other treat: conversation. 

Eating together reminded me of family meals from my childhood, seven of us sharing great food, all talking at once, all appreciating and enjoying each other. It made me wish each one would never end, and the Greek love of life often gave me hope that they might not. 

Natural Beauty

Living in New York City, I see the East River just below my window. Usually, even on a bright day, it’s brownish. Often, there are white suds and dirty foam. Looking down at the riprap along the shore, the stones disappear at a depth of about one foot.

Part of the East River’s problem is that it isn’t really a river. It’s a tidal estuary that reverses directions, its velocity controlled by the moon. Because it has no true inlet or outlet, it has never been flushed clean.

Centuries of waste deposited in the estuary stayed there, some decaying some not. Even today, although the city claims it happens only during extreme weather, I sometimes watch raw sewage pouring into the water from outlets under the ritzy Upper East Side.

Although a Seinfeld episode had Kramer jumping in the East River and endurance swimmers race i circuits around Manhattan, the idea of jumping in or drinking it is disgusting.

But I did both in Aegean. The water so clear I could see the bottom twenty or so feet below, I followed my friends into the refreshingly cool sea in a hidden cove into which our guide from Blunatura sailed us under an unbroken sky.

It never rains in the South Aegean in the summer, so there’s no fear of being stuck inside waiting for the weather to clear. It’s always fair and warm.

On land inside the cove there are several abandoned, deteriorating buildings, including a church that still has some altarpieces. The fashionistas in our group are busy taking photos for their libraries while others just enjoy the water.

My instincts from years in business stir my imagination with curiosity about how attractive a small, private resort might be here. Quiet and beautiful beyond imagination, the wealthy set could enjoy a perfect retreat.

Imagine waking up every morning with sun spreading across the uninterrupted sea, blue hills like dreams in the hazy distance…

This is one of a dozen or so spots that, passing, I believed could not be more beautiful, still pristine, still rich with gifts for travelers.

Sailing the Aegean was like a day spent in a spa, one set aside for massaging the spirit. 

The Thing About Rules

I saved maybe the best and most surprising observation for last.

“Tell them we don’t have so many rules,” George Hatzimarkos, the South Aegean Governor told me, answering a question about the best things Greece had to offer.

He was smoking a small cigar at the time.

As a nonsmoker who appreciates rules that keep smokers from exhaling on my food in restaurants, I reacted negatively at first, but on further observation, something more subtle and contrasting between our cultures came to me.

In the U. S., we are used to seeing “No Smoking” signs everywhere, and yet, I see more smoking in New York than I saw in Greece. And that goes for other things too.

“Seats Reserved for the Elderly and Handicapped” are routinely ignored on our local buses.

I remember asking one young man, seated in precisely such a seat, to get up so that a man standing in front of him with a cane could sit. The irritated young man responded, “He doesn’t want to.” 

None of those signs ever had an “if they want to” clause, and the idea is not to embarrass anyone into asking for a seat but to just get up and make it available, no questions asked.

It’s something we’ve lost in America, the common courtesies that my generation grew up with, and after visiting Greece, I can’t help wondering if all the nanny state rules and signs telling everyone what to do haven’t stripped us of personal responsibility for being kind and considerate.

Why does anyone need to be told to respect the rights of others or to assist the needy? Don’t they just know anymore?

The plethora of don’t do this and don’t do that signs all over the U.S. suggests many of us need reminders, or have we just abandoned voluntary courtesy because our government tells us when and where?

The differences were clear to Governor Hatzimarkos from his trips to New York, his awareness of inhibiting rules and their overbearing presence. Back home, he was able t make it funny.

It will take more thought from social scientists to explain why Greeks don’t seem to need to be told what do to as we assume Americans must, but the effect, once you start watching, is impressive. Greeks show each other consideration, at least as much and, in my experience, more than Americans do, without needing fines for impolite behavior to inspire them. 

Click here for a photo gallery.


I could write more about the personable shopkeepers, the dogs, goats and cats running free or the pride of the people, but you can see that for yourself. If a visit in the high season is too much for your budget, you can get all the pleasures, except swimming, from November to March, at around half the price. Temperatures are in the upper 50s then, and it never snows.

What are you waiting for? So many of us are fatigued and frustrated by what’s been made of public respect in the past year. Sharp edges are breaking through as tipping points after years of frustration. 

Conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter. You will feel better for having immersed yourself in Greece. You’ll feel more human again. 

And you just might learn some valuable lessons, too, about how to make a culture work and to live in peace.


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