"Have you ever seen the Acropolis?" my eight-year-old son asked my girlfriend, who hadn't been able to join us on our trip to Greece.
"Only in pictures."
"In person it's bigger, with more scaffolding."
Children can of course be relied upon to go the high-low route in remembering their travels. For every breathtaking sunset, there's a jellyfish caught memorably in a fishing net, and you can guess which of those two subjects is still being discussed months later. As Theo and I made our way through the Hellenic peninsula, it became clear that he was in Greece for the water—the chlorinated water of hotel pools.
I'd been to Greece a dozen times, and Theo was making his third trip. But in the two years since his last visit, he'd essentially become a preteen, and I'd made the transition, in his eyes, from demigod to an amusing but sometimes irritating appendage. ("You're my sidekick," he informed me at the outset.) Our plan was to spend a few days in Athens—something I'd managed to avoid doing since the mid-eighties—and then drop by a beautiful island or two before joining my parents in the serene mountain village my grandparents long ago called home.
Athens had changed, I'd been told, and so it has: efficient new airport, gleaming new subway, new restaurants, newfound desire to play by EU rules... but same old struggle against innate disorganization and bureaucracy, most evident now in the city's frantic race to prepare for the 2004 summer Olympics, which it was, briefly, in danger of losing.
Soon after landing at Eleftherios Venizelos airport, I discover that my Greek-language skills have not deserted me: I argue effectively with not one but two pushy people in the taxi line, employing only a minimum of sweeping arm gestures to make my points. But between that and the long flight, I'm exhausted when we check into the Hilton around lunchtime. Not Theo. Our internal clocks are not yet synchronized: mine tells me to lie down; Theo's tells him to ping-pong around the hotel room in search of things to climb. "I've listened to music," he shouts after 10 minutes of trying to amuse himself. "I've read. I've played my Zorro Game Boy." He jumps on my bed for emphasis. "Now I wanna make a friend!"
He does, down at the pool. And we spend a quiet first day: lounging poolside (and puzzling over the identity of some striking blue-bellied sparrow-like birds), having an early dinner at the Hilton restaurant, and enjoying a nightcap (ouzo for me, water for him) at the Galaxy Bar atop the hotel. From there, we have a view of the Acropolis and Athens's "other" hilltop, Lycabettus. Even the urban sprawl that extends to Piraeus, five miles away, whets our appetite for exploring.
Athens is pretty quiet in August, but it's still Athens. On Sunday morning we make the baking-hot 15-minute walk down Vasilissis Sofias to Syntagma Square to see the changing of the evzone guards in front of the Parliament. The ritual has drawn what seems to be every tourist in the city. Theo marches alongside the police band and the giant, fustanella-clad evzones as the procession returns to the nearby barracks. Farther along the avenue we look in at the Hellenic War Museum, a large building devoted to a topic we could still view, last summer, with some detachment. Theo is excited by many of the artifacts (swords, guns, uniforms) of Greece's various conflicts, and I'm amused to run into my old friend Kolokotronis—a hero of the 1821 war of independence and a major character in the glory-that-was-Greece history lessons of my Greek parochial school days—represented here by his death mask.
Theo is a nascent musician, so the Museum of Greek Popular Musical Instruments in the Plaka, the old part of town, at the foot of the Acropolis, seems a promising diversion. Tucked away off the main tourist squares, the museum houses a lovingly presented collection of strange and wonderful instruments: baglama, gaida, floyera, even bells, shells, and wooden planks. Photos and text accompany each one (a zournas-player at pelion, says the caption under an old photo of a man from my grandparents' part of the country who's kicking out the jams on an oboe-like thing), and, best of all, so do tapes of the instruments being played. "Too sad, that music," says Theo, removing the headphones at the clarino display. But he listens to every single recording.
The Acropolis (despite its scaffolding) is still a remarkable sight. No number of visits can ever make me feel jaded about this spot. As a toddler I ran among the Parthenon's columns—the temple has long since become off-limits—and the fact that I did and Theo can't only briefly dampens his mood. That night we dine outside at the foot of the Acropolis on grilled octopus and Chardonnay, milk and spaghetti at a restaurant called Vithos. A full moon rises over the mass of clay rock and ghost-white temples: it's extraordinary.
Ruins of a more recent vintage can be found in Athens's formerly industrial district of Gazi, where enormous gas tanks have been converted to radio stations and cultural centers, and where the quiet streets are filling up with trendy restaurants and bars. Mamacas, the restaurant at the vanguard of Gazi's gentrification, has a look—sleek, appealing, updated taverna—that matches its menu. The restaurant, and Gazi itself, reveal an Athens changed from the one I remember: more international, more more modern, more fun.
Before we leave for Skiathos—hour cab ride, 1 1/2-hour line at the airport, 45-minute flight—we pay our respects once more to the Hilton pool, where I'm confronted again by the mysterious blue-bellied sparrows. Theo, on a break from some illegal diving with his new pals, pauses to watch the birds with me.
"Dad?I've noticed that mourning doves look like they have blue bellies, too, when they fly across the pool," he says. "Have all the blue-bellied sparrows we've seen been flying across the pool?"
He's right, of course. I realize to my embarrassment that those weren't blue feathers we were looking at, just sparrow-brown feathers catching the pool's reflection.
"I'll give you fifty drachmas if you'll keep it under your hat," I tell him.
"Sure," he says, taking the money and immediately performing a sight gag involving the coin and his Yankees cap. Rather obvious, if you ask me. Eight-year-olds. So unsophisticated.
Skiathos, one of the northern Sporades Islands in the western Aegean, is largely pine-covered, and clear, sharp, pine-scented air greets us when we land in the early morning.
"It's a little too strong," remarks Theo, sniffing.
"Take it up with Zeus," I reply. I'm still smarting over the sparrow episode and, sure, maybe my run of bad cards in our four-day-long game of war.
It's great to have left behind the hot concrete of Athens for the extreme beauty of the Greek countryside. We're booked into the Atrium Hotel, some 20 minutes' drive along the southern coast west of Skiathos Town. The hotel, new and built on a hillside, with wings on various levels, has a pronounced monastic look. Our room—white walls, wood-beamed ceiling, stone tiles—is a comfortable, four-star monk's cell. We have a view of the sea from our balcony, and from the pool and restaurant you can see not only the Aegean but more sky than you ever thought existed. In centuries gone by, Skiathos played unwilling host to Venetians and Turks. Today's invasion is more benign: the Atrium, like Greece itself, draws an international crowd—Germans, Italians, French, English, Greeks, a few Americans—and there are kids galore for Theo to cannonball into the pool with.
Skiathos is ringed with terrific beaches, and there's one in particular I have to show my son: Koukounaries, famous for its "golden sand," a striking mineral glint most noticeable in the clear, shallow water. ("I like this!" Theo announces when he sees it, and does a headstand.) I had been taken to Koukounaries as a child, and what I remember best—in that high-low way—isn't the sand or the sea or the pines that rim the shore, but the fact that while playing with my bucket and shovel I sat on a yellow jacket, with predictable results. The story delights Theo, who vows to protect me from any of the monster's descendants. And, in fact, he spots one by my neck and brushes it away. Murderous insects aside, the place looks familiar all these years later: mobbed, but pretty as ever.
Skiathos's coastal bus system is great for getting around. You climb aboard with all the sunburned vacationers and listen for your stop ("Number sixteen!" called out in English). This is how we get, in one direction, to Koukounaries, and the opposite way, to Skiathos Town. The town's main drag, Papadiamanti, has the sort of tourist shop scene that always makes me crave solitude. But it can be fun through a child's eyes. Theo excitedly points out everything he wants, and I cheerfully refuse each request—just a father and son having a blast together. We finally agree to buy what we think is a portable Parcheesi game, but given that we've never played Parcheesi and that the instructions are only in Greek and German, its Parcheesiness remains an open question. Whatever it is, we play it for days.
Mesoyio, the oldest taverna in town—opened in 1923 by the present owner's grandfather—is far enough from "downtown" for a quiet dinner. Because Greek culture is so child-centric, there's almost no restaurant off-limits to kids. Theo and I pick an outdoor table under a cover of vines, and dig into horiatiki salata (Greek salad), gigantes (giant white beans), kolokithokeftedes (uh . . . meatless meatballs made of squash), and pastitsio, a baked macaroni dish that's Theo's entrée of choice whenever he's not feeling adventurous.
From Skiathos we take a ferry to Skopelos, another stunning pine-covered island about 30 minutes away. Skopelos is relatively unspoiled and untrafficked and, we realize even before we dock, deserves more attention than we can give it this time. In the main port, we drop our luggage at the Minoan Flying Dolphins ticket office—the hydrofoil to the mainland city of Volos will be the next leg of our journey—and spend a few hours café-hopping, ordering rounds of frappés (a sweet iced-coffee concoction) and chocolate milk, and feasting on the coiled tiropites (cheese pies) that are unique to this island. I've booked us on the mid-afternoon Dolphin rather than the evening one. I start to explain again why I chose the earlier departure, but Theo interrupts. "You made the right choice," he says gently, and takes another bite of his Skopelitiki tiropita, scattering phyllo crumbs for yards around. Overwhelmed by affection, I buy him a fishing net, then spend 20 minutes persuading him that trawling the filthy harbor water is a very bad idea. On the Flying Dolphin we stand on the deck, soaking up the sun, wind, and spray. As we follow the Pelion peninsula north to Volos, Theo spots a real dolphin leaping over the waves.
My parents, who had arrived in Greece first, meet us at the pier in Volos, and after the requisite beaming and hugging, we start up the mountain to Makrinitsa. The villages overlooking the city seem lofty and distant, but the drive, much of it on winding roads, takes just 20 minutes. As we approach, the familiar memories become real: olive trees, mountain streams, the chalet-like Pelioritika houses, the... parking lot. Makrinitsa has only one street leading into the plateia, or main square, so you must leave your car outside and walk the few hundred yards.
Almost immediately we run into a cousin. In Makrinitsa we can't swing a goat without knocking down 10 or 15 cousins. This one, Niko, operates a restaurant in the village during the summer. Right away he offers Theo, whom he hasn't seen in two years, a job as a waiter/busboy. Theo accepts. We check in at a hotel called the Kentavros (it means "centaur"; the legendary beasts were reportedly indigenous to the Pelion area, though I've never seen one), then head to the plateia below. Because it's car-free, Makrinitsa is also kid-friendly, and soon Theo has run off to join the local youths playing around the fountain and inside the hollow trunk of an enormous plane tree. My dad and I check a poster announcing the summer's events—Makrinitsa, population 600, has a nice little museum, 15 churches, and a full cultural calendar of music and art. Then we settle down at an outdoor table at the Pantheon restaurant and turn our attention to an evening tsipouro (local firewater) and spetsofai (a sausage and pepper dish, another regional specialty).
Far below us, the lights of Volos are coming on. By the tiny church across the square, a priest out of central casting—black robes, flowing white beard—is pulling on the bell rope. I feel lucky that my mom's parents, Spyros Mookas and Julia Patousia, were born here. In 1928 they had their wedding reception, which lasted two days, in this very square. Next thing they knew they were living in the East Bronx, returning only rarely to their village. But my American-born parents and I have been frequent visitors here; Makrinitsa is very much our home, or one of them, in spirit.
For the four of us, the days here pass as they always have. Breakfast (fruit, coffee, toast, honey, and yogurt) on the flower-filled Kentavros patio. Day trips to one of the nearby beaches, usually Boufa (officially known as Koropi) or Afissos on the Pagasitikos Gulf side, or over the mountain to some pretty villages—Tsangarada, Hania, Zagora, Horefto—and to the Aegean and the sublime beach of Milopotamos. The Pelion is also great for hiking, but even sitting in a plateia with a book and a lemonade has its points. An old narrow-gauge steam engine—the trenaki of Pelion—pulls a few passenger cars from nearby Ano Lehonia to Milies on Saturdays and Sundays: a slowly chugging, mountain-hugging 90-minute trip with vertiginous views. This toy-train-like rail journey takes on the feel of a safari when we see several Eleonora's falcons darting through the sky and, simultaneously, the conductor catches a passing tzitzika (cicada) and hands it carefully back to Theo for closer inspection. We skip the return trip because my dad meets us with the car. When he makes a wrong turn outside Milies, we come upon an interesting-looking roadside bakery. Soon we're gorging on hortotiropites (cheese pies with greens) and contemplating how diminished our lives would have been had we not gone down that unfamiliar road.
Evenings, we're sometimes able to coax Theo out to dinner—at Ta Skalakia, in the neighboring village of Portaria, or at Galini, which overlooks Makrinitsa's plateia. But mainly he's determined to spend his time at Ta Douska, our cousin's place, taking orders and clearing dishes. He insists on working past midnight till closing, and has no time for idle chitchat with his father and grandparents. But his Greek is improving, and because Ta Douska's dozen outdoor tables offer an Eleonora's falcon's—eye view of Volos, it's not an unpleasant spot to sit and watch Theo tackle his first job.
And that's when I have the Big Idea. Theo seems so happy here. Why not just leave him?How much does anyone really learn after second grade anyway?This could be the reverse of the traditional immigrant story: ambitious American city kid moves to Greek village, works hard in the restaurant business, and sends money to his family in the States—dreaming of someday retiring to Manhattan. But in the end, I have to reject it. The ice cream he took as salary wouldn't yield much in dividends for us relatives back in New York. And anyway, I know how much I'd miss being his sidekick.
George Kalogerakis is a contributing editor for New York magazine.