Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Further Reflections Greece

Greece is in the main shockingly run down. There are unfinished building constructions everywhere. It is messy, dusty, and dirty. The buildings are in the main in poor shape. It is crowded. Tagging is everywhere! It is on trains, doors, signs, and any surface. Even the rocks beside the shore in Kavala are tagged! And the tagging is poor. Thessaloniki was the worst, but even here in Kavala, by far the nicest place we have visited, it is everywhere.


The people drive madly. The drive from Tolo west toward Patara along the northern rim of the Pelopenese was a lesson in driving. I thought I was in a formula one race. Rather than a nice 2-lane motorway as we had previously experienced, there was one lane with a wide shoulder (not wide enough for a lane). Everyone flies along firmly pressed into the shoulder and it is 'who dares wins' in the passing stakes. It is bedlam. The speed limit is 120 but that is clearly a guide. In fact, all road rules here are general guidelines, anything goes. Eventually, the Schumacher in me was found, and I went for it. Emma held on for dear life, and we came through unscathed after no close calls.

We had some fun on the bridge from the Pelopenese to the northern half of Greece not far from Patara. The bridge was blocked by a crowd of Harley Davidson's from all over Europe setting a world record for the most bikes on a bridge or something. It was entertaining seeing the bikers in their thousands roaring along beside us. It did slow us up rather!

Obesity is a huge issue here in Greece. It is not surprising when you see what their restaurants and cafes sell. Pasties are everywhere, cheese pies! Big ones. They eat a very high carb diet indeed. Men everywhere look 9 months pregnant and ready to breast feed. I feel rather odd as a middle aged man and relatively fit and slim. I should have a pastie gut hanging out over my jeans. In fact, life really revolves around food here. I am also tall here, not too many 6' men, most in the mid 5' range.

The language here has surprised me having done NT Greek to a reasonable level. I am finding I can read a lot of the words and understand them. It would not take much to grasp this Greek at a reading level. However, understanding their speech is another thing altogether, the speed of speech is amazing. Subtitled English programs are fun, trying to read the Greek; it is surprising how much I recognise. One example is thank you: ephcharisto i.e. 'grace (charis) upon (epi) you.' Parakalo means 'you are welcome, please' and the term is found in the NT regularly of 'I warn, encourage, exhort, urge' etc.

The religiosity has been an experience. 98% of Greeks profess Christian faith of the orthodox variety. There are church's everywhere, and little shrines on the sides of the road. On Pentecost Monday it was a holiday across the nation and churches were open for worship. It is a given that people believe in God and that Jesus is for real. Yet, the religion is very traditional and nominal. There is little evidence of young people having a passionate and committed relationship with Jesus. To me one of the things about Christianity that stands it apart is its freedom, its ability to adapt to culture, its openness to new worship forms etc. Yet here it is locked up in history and tradition. Furthermore, Mary who is Theotokos ('mother of God') is the number one hit. It all resonates with Roman Catholicism. Icons everywhere. Paintings abound. Mary, Jesus, and the saints of the eastern church. We watched worshipers enter the sanctuaries genuflect and then kiss the paintings as they came to worship. Jesus is the boy with Mary as the main event more often than not. As in Rome, I was faced with the dilemma; is this authentic worship that pleases God? Or is this idolatry? Or does it depend? I am an evangelical charismatic protestant through and through! The worship is deeply sacred however, and the spaces are awe-inspiring. In one service we listened to a group of Greek women chant; it was very discordant but strangely moving. There are candles everywhere, one pays a euro, and lights one. There are sarcophogi everywhere, the great saints buried in the churches. These are little shrines, people writing prayers and placing them upon the graves asking for the saints to answer them. There is no Pope, but intercession is needed. The priests face away from the worshipers, separated from the worshipers by a wall with a door through which to view their backs as they go about whatever it is they do there. It feels very ritualistic, more ancient Jewish worship in the holy of holies, rather than the freedom of access all believers (who are priests) to our Lord through our one high priest Jesus. So, it is deeply perplexing.

In my view, whatever God's verdict on such things is, western European Christianity is in trouble big time. There is little evidence on young people embracing the faith with passion. They populate the bars, cafes, shops, restaurants and more, listening to rock music, dressing provocatively; money rules the world. Their religion is not open to their culture at all. If the church and faith is a worry in NZ, it is worse here! Greece will never fall to Islam though, their history of conflict with the Turks rules this out. However, there needs to be a renewal. I can't see the Orthodox clergy opening themselves up to youth worship? Unless it is happening where I cannot see it, which is possible.

Hawkers are everywhere in Greece. It is due in part due to the tourism opportunities, and also because of the economic problems here. One Greek man told us that the shops are empty and unemployment is everywhere. It is clear in the cafes which are full of middle and older aged men with nothing to do. Many hawkers are Africans who have escaped their countries and seek to sell bags, watches and other items for a quick buck. They are illegal so if a cop comes near they grab their stuff and run as if their lives depend on it. When the cop moves on, they come back out and carry on as if nothing has happened.

Greek men are unashamed to perv at women. I have watched men as old as say 80 giving girls of 15 the once over. Emma has been on the receiving end of a few Greek men giving her the eye. What is done subtly in NZ, is done openly and brazenly here. It is hard to get used to!

Corinth was a stunning place. The site is superb. All the Greek sites are well signposted, unlike Rome which needs sorting out. They could do better even here, making it user-friendly. I get the sense that these people do not realise what a gold mine they sit on. The Acrocorinth and its views were absolutely amazing as the photos on Facebook show. One can imagine Paul, Luke, Timothy, Silas, Lydia, Clement and others up on the hill praying for the Greek world. Tolo was a cute little beach town. We needed a break and got it. I had a swim or two. On one swim I swam about 600m or so to an island and back. When I returned to the beach by the hotel the hotel was lined with residents clapping and cheering me. Maybe they aren't used to seeing typical kiwi lad behaviour. It was funny!

Delfi is phenomenal. The views were stunning. The site of the Delphic Oracle Apollo temple is amazing. There is a great theatre, a gymasium, a temple of Athena and more. There is a great emphasis on money where people bought offerings to hear their fortunes read. Were we doing it again we would not stay the night, a day trip is enough.

We have been stunned by the lack of reference to Greeks renowned philosophic tradition, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. There are some streets named after them, and there are some statues. However, the gods are more prominent. Perhaps it indicates what is left to look at. Perhaps it indicates that whatever the impact of philosophy on the normal person, religion ruled the world.

Thessaloniki was a dump. They are sitting on an archaeological gold mine, but it is undeveloped. Sadly the ancients sites sit below the developed city, so it is unlikely that much will be uncovered. We stayed on the Egnatian Way though; if you draw a line through the Galerius arch through to our hotel, we slept in the centre of the ancient road, where Paul walked.

Kavala is lovely, the nicest town we have visited. There is little of Paul here except a church on the supposed site of his arrival. There is a great acropolis castle which has been built on since Paul's day.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip is getting a feel for geography. Paul was a legend. It took 90 minutes to drive from Athens to Corinth. Paul walked it. It took 5 hours by train often through hills from Athens to Thessalonaki. Paul walked it. It took another 105 minutes from Thessalonika to Kavala (Neapolis), Paul walked it. The early Christians were amazing. He was probably about 5' tall. He would have been super fit, no doubt, without a shred of fat on him. Amazing!

Paul's strategy is interesting. I pondered why he did not stay in Neapolis, Amphipolis or Appolonia, but chose to stop in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea etc. One can only surmise that he chose some towns because of his strategy, assessment of their importance, mission possibilities and Spirit-guidance. Philippi had few Jews, so we cannot assume he did so on the basis of a Jewish community. I suppose he couldn't stop everywhere. Philippi was the centre of the Roman colony. Thessalonika was the ancient capital. Athens speaks for itself. Corinth was the major Peloponese city. Interesting.

Smoking! The Greeks love a fag. Women, men, everyone. It was hilarious sitting on a bus with two signs forbidding smoking and cell phone usage with a driver smoking like a chimney and often talking on his phone. It was manual bus, but it did not stop him using his hand held phone! Not in NZ! Men often stand in their shop front doors with a fag in the hand; no worries in Greece. I wonder at the life expectancy of Greeks with their diet and smoking; alcohol is also pretty big here. Perhaps it is the price of a dwindling economy; one has to find something to do?

The highlight for me has been Philippi. It was a small town nestled into the Acropolis hill. There were multiple temples to Artemis, Athena, Nike, Dionysos and others. While much is post-Paul it appears there was a gymnasia, library, agoara, fountains, Stoa, the jail, baths and more. It was very Roman. The new museum is exciting with some great finds. One of the highlights was (and don't tell anyone) jumping the gate and getting some shots in the prison. You can check them out of facebook.

Another highlight was meeting Konstantino. We were looking around the site of Paul's landing in Neapolis (Kavala) and a man in a cafe asked us what we were doing. This led to a wonderful encounter for about an hour. He brought us a drink each. He was a 77 year old Greek man, an ex-opera singer who had travelled the world. We shared stories. It was one of those moments of glorious humanity that one gets travelling. We returned to the same place today and I gave him a copy of my book, Whats God up To? He was most appreciative. There are beautiful image bearers all over God's world!

So we now await the next phase of our journey; we leave Kavala and travel to Drama by bus (about 20 or so k's, just past Philippi), and then do an overnight train trip to Istanbul. We are ready to move on from Greece.

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