Little Details (6/4/09)

A pocketful of Drachmas

June 4, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Konstas promised us a room with a view. A pocketful of Drachmas secured a quiet oasis with a balcony overlooking the sea. Hotel Aegean wasn’t the Ritz, but it met the needs of a young family with a toddler in tow.

Journal entries from our 1998 trip to Greece reference ubiquitous olive groves, banana trees and stunning architectural ruins on which we climbed, sat and picnicked. I noted details of family-friendly spots like playgrounds and ice cream parlors where — if timed right — we dipped into bowls of frozen confections just as the sun set over the Aegean Sea.

We flew Lufthansa from Boston to Frankfurt to Athens, reading “Good Night Moon” over and over, hoping to lull our daughter to sleep. If she fussed, we shifted tactics, plying her with chocolaty M&Ms. We did what we had to do to minimize disrupting fellow passengers. The sweet infusion dissipated cries yet elicited the unintended consequence of raising our daughter’s alert level. Sleep would not come until the end of our flight — just in time to wake her as we deplaned. “Never disturb a sleeping child” doesn’t apply to transatlantic travel.

The drive from Athens to Sounion took just over an hour. Our daughter snoozed in her car seat, clutching a fuzzy gray bunny. We navigated streets gingerly, trying to decode signs, most of which appeared in filigreed Greek lettering.

My husband, veteran of numerous math and physics courses, would enthusiastically blurt out, “delta,” “sigma” or some other familiar, isolated letter. The problem: Each letter was hopelessly embedded within strings of indecipherable symbols.

Highway 91 — we could read numbers — twisted and turned, hugging the Aegean coast known as the “Attic Riviera.” Urban landscapes yielded to sleepy towns with whitewashed villas and “villas-in-progress,” unfinished dream homes presumably belonging to émigrés employed overseas spinning pizzas or dishing up gyros. Working for a Greek restaurateur as a teen, I met many Greeks washing dishes in America, hoping to return to the Old Country, pockets lined with hard-earned dollars.

We checked in and collapsed into a nap. We woke hours later, showered and walked along the beach, catching our first glimpse of Poseidon’s Temple. Constructed in 444 B.C., the mass of marble columns sits on a promontory, affording the mythological god of the sea a front-row view of approaching ships. Legend states that Aegeus, King of Athens, leapt to his death from these cliffs, imparting his name upon the waters below.

Farther along the beach, we encountered a terraced taverna. Crusty bread with sprinklings of sesame seeds, crisp salad layered with feta and kalamatas, and real Greek yogurt drizzled with honey cost the equivalent of $15. Our daughter boosted the nutritional value of her kid-friendly vegetables — French fries — by dipping them into yogurt. A crescent moon rose above shimmering waters. The moon, the sea and Konstas’ promise kept served as a positive entrée to our Grecian adventure.

The next morning we rose early, eager to embark on a long car drive to the Peloponnese region. A faulty alarm prevented our rental car from starting, forcing us to wait two hours for the agency to send staff to free our wheels from their electrical bondage.

We backtracked toward the capital to pick up the highway to Nafplio. Driving through Athens with its seeming “make the rules as you go” drivers, multiple lanes, kamikaze scooters “scooting” in and out, and intermittent signage flavored by diesel exhaust qualifies as the most harrowing car ride of my life. Our daughter slept in the back seat, timed to wake up at only the most stressful moments. My husband — seasoned by driving the Paris peripherique and rotating the rotaries around London — repeated several times, “We’re going to die” as cars swerved into our uncertain path.

Four hours and several simulated cardiac arrests later, we landed in Drepano at the Triton Campground. For the equivalent of $17 per night, we pitched our tent beneath an olive tree. Pristine bathrooms featuring luxurious hot showers were cared for by a smiling woman who hummed Greek tunes as she mopped incessantly.

A camping trip to Italy the year before taught us the kid-friendly nature of architectural ruins. We climbed column remnants and fashioned images from Play-Doh near the base of Apollo’s Temple in Ancient Corinth, a city dating back to the 10th century B.C. From this very spot, St. Paul issued his Letters to the Corinthians, familiar to anyone who regularly attended Sunday Mass. I kept thinking of all the prostitutes hanging around outside the temple who did not heed Paul’s words.

My husband and I parented in shifts while meandering Byzantine ruins in the fortified town of Mystras. I zeroed in on orthodox icons, hoping my toddler would be drawn to colorful images of saints. We sang ABC’s in the amphitheater at Epidaurus, experiencing first-hand the amazing acoustics carrying our timid voices aloft to my husband’s seat in the stands.

I used time on my own to sit among the ruins, close my eyes and imagine what my surroundings were like in their heyday, with merchants hawking goods and children running along narrow streets. History reveals itself, but you must listen carefully.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or