After a day-trip to Kusadasi, a beachside city with a wide boardwalk and good shopping, I took the dolmus up to Ayvalik. I wandered around the old quarters in Ayvalik for too brief a time. I had to catch a ferry, so I only had a few hours in the city, but I would return to Ayvalik in a heartbeat. The town was built in close quarters, with narrow streets and small shops; people seemed quite friendly and were quite obliging; and it was on the beach! After living in this land-locked county for nearly 7 months, I didn’t realize how much I missed the ocean. The the fresh smell of salt water, the cold coastal winds, the sense that “hurry” is a four-letter word.
I had booked my ferry ticket online, so I had to go to the office opposite the ferry terminal/customs office to get my paper ticket. After I’d gotten it, I waited in line to get my passport stamped, then walked to the docks and claimed a seat on my ferry. It was only me and another woman on the 1.5 hour ferry to Mytilini. She was a Turk who had lived in Germany for the past 35 years. She only spoke German and Turkish, and while I know negligible amounts of both, we somehow had a good conversation, aided by our passports and pictures of her children.
This is one of the greatest reasons to become a polyglot: being able to converse with a wide range of people. Anyone who knows/has learned English has a somewhat “English” perspective on the world. Talking with someone who doesn’t speak English, and talking with them in their native language – that’s when you get different perspectives.
The Kurds here who know English are pretty “westernized,” even if they only speak a few words. They have the motivation to learn English due to an admiration of British and American culture. So they often insult or disregard Kurdistan, thinking that their country needs to be Americanized in order to be civilized. And I’ve found that Kurds who don’t know English are much more patriotic, and they also want Kurdistan to become Americanized but they have much more difficulty reconciling the two cultures. Those who know English usually have a very European view of Kurdistan. Those who only know Kurdish want to be European, but they are so Kurdish that they can’t understand what that means. In talking to non-English-speaking Kurds, you see the real tensions between Kurdish society and its industrialization by foreigners.
Anyway, to return to my previous point: conversations with locals is one of the BEST THINGS about travelling. My brain gets twisted around in all sorts of fashions when I absorb new perspectives. It gets more flexible, too.
So I arrive in Mytilini at night, with high winds blowing through the yellow-lit restaurants lining the bay. I was in GREECE.
I was hungry so I bought souvlaki, a heavy pita/chicken/tsatsiki/chips contraption which seemed to me like a Mediterranean shawarma-dohoner-falafel hybrid. Cheap, filling, definitely not healthy. Reeeeally excellent travel food.
I didn’t have a place to sleep yet, and I was in a situation I really try to avoid: Searching for a bed after dark, alone, in a foreign country.
But it was Greece so I didn’t feel too worried. Greeks are very friendly and very, very chill. It was also the off-season so I was confident that lots of beds would be available. Eventually, a desk manager at a nice hotel pointed me toward a low-price hotel across the harbor. Easy peasy.
The next morning, I snuck into the hotel breakfast bar (I hadn’t paid for it) to grab some tea. A middle-aged professorial-looking Greek man was in there, sipping coffee and watching Greek parliament on the television. We started talking – Greeks LOVE to talk, and they tell the BEST stories – and he told me about sights to see in Mytilini. And a LOT more. He told me about the Ottoman Empire, and Genoa, and Andrea Doria, and Barbarosa, and Aristotle & botany, and Germany and Greece and the euro, and loans and non-reciprocal exports, and the Nazi party in Greek parliament… it was all fascinating, but I had to extricate myself because I wanted to see the town.
Like the castle. I didn’t know there was a CASTLE in Mytilini! Obviously I walked there first. It was only a 20 minute walk from my hotel. I looked up, and suddenly there it was. With a Greek flag flying!
The first entrance I tried was barred.
I tried another. Still barred.
So I climbed over the wall into a courtyard. All the entrances there were barred as well.
After about a half hour, I found a gate whose top was about 2 feet from the arch. Bingo! I tossed my bag over, then climbed over the gate.
I had the WHOLE castle to myself – must have been a holiday or something. There were little churches, and crumbling parapets, and tombs, and even a bathhouse.
After wandering around there, I climbed over the opposite wall and dropped onto the roof of a small stone building. And, magically!, it was a small chapel carved completely from the surrounding stone. Beautiful.
I wandered the town after that, stopping in a small tavern to eat a delicious lunch of calamari, my favorite food in the world. I was on the coast! I could eat calamari and all the seafood I wanted!
So I did.
There is a nice little market district in Mytilini, too.
I found a little second-hand shop which I loved. I found old postcards, drachma, maps, and books. I found a couple books in English. Treasure! I really cannot find good English-language book in Kurdistan. So having a paperback James Bond novel to read was an absolute delight.
Greeks take a siesta in the afternoon. While I wandered, I watched many shopkeepers shutter their storefronts. I took that as a sign to duck into a cafe. I ordered an espresso and read my new-old Bond novel.
Greeks LOVE cafes. As I drank my coffee, the cafe slowly filled up with university students and a mixture of working/unemployed twenty-somethings. Cafe culture is such a part of Greece that, I was told, if a Greek travels to a place without cafes, he doesn’t find something else to do – he just does nothing. I ended up chatting with a bunch of other Greeks and learned a LOT about the debt crisis. Even though the guys with whom I was talking were fervently denouncing the Greek government and Germany, at the tables surrounding us men and women were playing backgammon and drinking coffee.
In Greece, there is not a palpable air of distress concerning the debt crisis. On the surface, things seem relaxed and cheerful. But talk to any Greek, and they’re most likely unemployed or working insane hours to make ends meet. Many young Greeks have moved back in with their parents or have moved abroad to work.
It seemed to me that the Greek “natural state” was one of relaxation. On the other hand, I think that the American “natural state” is one of stress. In the U.S. I find that people often judge how successful they are by how busy they are. Americans like to brag about how little sleep they get, how many hours they work, etc. But Greeks? They’d languish on the beach all day if they could swing it.
Not that there’s no Greek work ethic. It’s just that there’s an equally strong relaxation ethic.
UP NEXT: the ferry ride from Hades.