Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rhodes - a crossroad in time and cultures

I Don't Know When or Where exactly it happens, but it does. Somewhere mid-Atlantic, maybe as early as the Outer Banks, you'll notice forks begin to turn. By the time you arrive in Europe, Italy for example, they've completely turned over. The phenomenon is so obvious that if I were to cover your eyes and fly you for a few hours, even in circles for part of them, and then removed the blindfold in some anonymous restaurant, you could easily tell which side of the Atlantic you were on. Apparent though it now seems, of all the trips we've taken, we hadn't noticed this before. It was only while on our Greek isle cruise that I first noted this phenomenon. With eating being such a large part of cruising and with so many Europeans aboard, since after all it was an Italian cruise line, it wasn't long before I began to notice the maneuvers going on in their plates. Forgive me because as you know I'm not the greatest detective, even when the obvious is staring me in the face. For sake of a better name, let's call their technique "Continental" and ours "American" style. Doing the Continental, Europeans hold their forks in one hand and their knives with the other. This is our convention as well but a main difference is that they never seem to put their knives down! Well sometimes they do, but it's only long enough to pick up another utensil, such as a spoon, which they'll then grip throughout their meal. Theirs is truly a two fisted approach! Most apparent and a dead giveaway that you have arrived is how they manipulate their forks with the tines pointed down. I wonder if spy agencies like the CIA or Mossad teach their agents to avoid "out-of-place" forking so as not to give themselves away? In general, it's tines pointed up, American style, while the tines are pointed down, Continental style. When cutting, American etiquette is to hold the fork upside down. Because most forks have a curve, this positions the tines downward into the food and holds it for cutting. We then turn our forks over, pointing the tines up once again, as we bring it to our mouths. Continental style, the "tines down" to "tines pointing up" in the time it takes to reach your mouth just doesn't happen. Tines down is about it, all the time! It's fascinating to also watch how they direct food to their forks and the nonchalant maneuvers they perform to pile a bit more mash and one more pea onto their inverted forks, stabbed into a bite of meat, all the while using their knives in well developed plowing, buttering and flanking techniques. How did it get this way? Well I'm guessing we colonists left the Old World for the Americas well before that French invention of the tined fork was widespread enough for style to develop and transfer with our ancestors across the Atlantic. For better or worse, we each developed our own inimitable and now very characteristic styles. By the time I took notice of this behavior, we'd arrived at the island of Rhodes (again confirming how quick I am on the uptake!). While it was 9 AM inside the ship, it appeared to be 1400 AD in Rhodes. With a seaside panorama including idyllic windmills, brooding fortifications and mysterious mosques just beyond our ship's dining room windows, we were eager to put our breakfast forks and knives down, say "ciao-ciao" to our Argentine and Avignon tablemates and go ashore. The past was waiting for us.

The Greek Island of Rhodes marked our farthest away point since our cruise had departed Bari. From Rhodes, we would be heading back to Italian waters. Rhodes sits only a stone's throw off the coast of Turkey at a crossroads of three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa. Its beautiful Mandrake Harbor was built by the ancient Greeks in 408 B.C. It is best known for once hosting one of the legendary seven wonders of the ancient world, the 107 foot high bronze Colossus of Rhodes statue. This statue was completed in 280 BC after twelve years of construction adjacent to the entrance to the seaport. Unfortunately, it lasted for only 56 years before collapsing when its rivets couldn't withstand the forces of an earthquake. As the story goes, though hard to believe, its remains cluttered the ground for over 800 years. When finally removed to be made into coins, it took some 900 camels to cart the debris away! Today, much much smaller statues of a doe and a buck, the modern symbols of Rhodes Town, have the duty of protecting the harbor. One sits to either side of the entrance to the old port atop a slender column. Their representation is just about everywhere, even found underfoot on manhole covers (see photo album). Rhodes' combination of old and new makes it a unique place to visit. With its windmills, mosque minarets and towering castle walls, it borders on a vintage 3D foldout storybook, with something new popping out at you with each page turn. The old city begins by the shore of the port and is surrounded by stone fortress walls. St Catherine's Gate with its twin crenellated turrets leads you directly into the heart of the city, so rich in history. This imposing entrance was built in 1478 by Grand Master Pierre d'Aubusson as part of his efforts to strengthen the fortifications against a much feared Ottoman (think today's Turkey) attack. He must have been clairvoyant because the attack actually occurred two years later. Today Rhodes Town has been transformed from fortress into a vibrant, compact cosmopolitan center of over 50,000 inhabitants. I loved its pillared windows with colonnade arches so reminiscent of Venice, its cafes each with its own flamboyant color pattern of chairs spilling into the streets and the terraced rooftops throughout town. Even the small alleys of this alluring city, some paved with river stones on edge in pebbled mosaic patterns, are appealing.

The Knights Hospitallers captured and established their headquarters on Rhodes when they left Italy after the persecution of the Knights Templar. They used Rhodes as their base of operations from 1309 to 1522 A.D. The most beautiful and interesting part of the old city for me was the related 'Street of Knights', an important street during the medieval phase of the town's history. It stretches from the New Hospital-Archaeological Museum at the bottom of the street to the Palace of the Grand Master at the top. This late Gothic period cobbled street is completely restored and lined by the buildings that these religious warriors once occupied. The street is flanked by 'hostels', many still sporting original marbled coats of arms, shields and heraldic emblems on their curbside walls. These ancient hotels were used by the knights for lodging, separated according to language or nationality. Walking along this historic avenue, I imagined how it may have appeared in the 14th and 15th centuries, vibrant with life and crowded with knights, footmen, horses and hawkers. The Knights of old have long since been replaced by camera toting tourists like ourselves. With its diverse architecture and rich history, stretching from the dawning of civilization to more recent bombardment during WWII, it has survived to become a veritable fairytale amusement park for visitors.

His Name Was Demitrius and he was a full blooded Greek and himself a hawker of sorts. We were in the back streets of Rhodes by this time, very close to the back wall of the old town. We had strayed far and realized it when we came upon sprayed graffiti which read "Freedom in Palistine". Demitrius' shop, or I should say his very young wife's shop, was named "The Greek Connection". It had nothing special to offer, just him. We were passing the place and he was sitting outside in the sun, on the corner, just across from his doorway. Our interchange began when on passing him I offered a "buon giorno". My inflection must have been way off for he was quick to reply "You are not Italian". That's all it took, I was interested. He was a character, the only character in this spontaneous street theater, and I liked him. We sat together, the three of us, and chatted for some time. He claimed to have once been a university sociology teacher until he lost his job. In fact, he was fired over a student's complaint, having struck him, but as he claimed, for cause. He had been insulted and had demanded an apology, which not forthcoming, concluded with a blow. Since then he had dabbled in flipping real estate here and there. He claimed he was a student of physiognomy. Ever heard of that one? I surely hadn't. It's a combination of the Greek word physis, meaning 'nature', and gnomon, meaning 'judge' or 'interpreter'. Figured it out yet? A 'physiognomisist', if that's what they are called, is someone who can assess a person's character or ethnic origin from their outer appearance, especially their facial appearance. The TV series "Lie to Me" revolves around an eccentric, in-your-face doctor with similar abilities who helps the police solve cases. Demitrius could have used a TV gig like that or at least a reality show. He prided himself in his ability to do these interpretations thus explaining why he had correctly challenged my "buon giorno". For a man with a supposed pulse on mankind, he mentioned how he didn't particularly like Russians or Germans and would not engage them when they passed by, following their physiognomic appraisal of course. Maybe it was their "stiff upper lip" outlook toward things but he also found the English seemingly frightened of emotion. We'd covered a lot in a short time. He was at once eccentric, quirky and evidently volatile, but then what would people say of me! He was on the mend at the moment from an injury to his foot, which he displayed to us. It had a nasty deep gash in it, administered by a startled family cat. This would-be Henry Higgins of sorts was sunning his foot at the moment. Being diabetic, it was healing slowly. Apparently physiognomy did not extend to assessing the character, let alone the intentions, of the family cat!

Another Business Person, this one a tall, lean, mustachioed sculptor, also did a brisk trade. His little shop was crowded with attractive busts, figurines and plaques of what else but the pantheon of mythological Greek gods and goddesses. Like the majority of those we talked with, he spoke English very well. Clad in a dusty, full length apron (see photo album), he was quick to tell us about a recent article published in an international journal about him and his studio. We already owned a Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and winemaking, which bedecks a wall in our kitchen and were excited to find a bust of its Greek equivalent, Dionysus. We'd seen others that day but his depiction was far superior to any of the others we'd seen. Luckily Dionysus, though lacking a passport, made it home in one piece and now adorns a wall in my home office to remind me when it is that 'happy hour' for a welcomed fruit-of-the-vine elixir. Corralled as I am by these two godheads, thus far my liquid diet is going just fine - I've already lost two whole days!

All, However, Is Not Rosy in Rhodes. For us it was a day of shopping and pleasurable sightseeing, yet for some Rhodians it is a question of day-to-day survival. We came to realize this shortly after seeing a tee-shirt proclaiming "Same Shit, Different Day" on sale outside a shop. I commented to Maria Elena how the shopkeepers are the ones who should be wearing them. A nearby saleswoman, overhearing me, asked what I meant. She was Belgian and had married a man from Rhodes and now made a living selling T-shirts and souvenirs. I explained what I'd meant ... that their lives must be numbingly the same day after day as one ship after another arrives in Rhodes, disgorges its load of tourists, gathers them up again and soon departs. How easy it must be to become anesthetized to the human traffic passing by each day. On that she related that she had seen a lot and some of it unfortunately had in fact been "shit". She described the hard times the Greek people were experiencing as a consequence of the belt tightening government actions then underway. Her words were a reminder of how a government, big enough to hand out entitlements was, also big enough to someday take them away. Case in point was that although there are but twelve months a year deserving, you would think, of twelve monthly retirement checks, Greece's entitlement state attitude had gone so far as to nonsensically legislate thirteen and later fourteen annual payments! During the "giving times", if twelve distributions were good, thirteen or fourteen had to be even better, especially if subsequently followed by "thank-you" election votes. Along with some corruption involving secret bank accounts, they had legislated themselves into poverty through loose fiscal policies. She said she was fortunate to have her business in a place like Rhodes. The tourist trade, though not as robust as in past years, thankfully still reliably flowed daily past her door. The unfortunate were current retirees who were seeing the government pensions they had been receiving, cut. Here in the US, we are thankfully only talking about government social security modifications for future recipients, not those currently receiving them. Hopefully it will stay that way. She, like many of her compatriots, was no stranger to sadness. She related how some, distraught because they could no longer make ends meet, had committed suicide. Peeling the veneer away had revealed a darker side to life here. I wonder if the next day she had donned one of her own T-shirts in silent protest or maybe even affirmation.

Tired From Shopping along busy Socrates Street and out-of-the-way places like Demitrius' "Greek Connection" lost among narrow cobbled alleyways, we decide to find a place to relax. It was not difficult, for tucked among the trendy boutiques and designer shops are an excess of eateries. We soon found 'Gaorag' (George?), or to be accurate, he found us, which was after all his job. He hooked us into the "Golden Olypiade Restaurant" and became our waiter there under the trees by an archeological site in the middle of Evdimou Square, where roads and cultures cross paths. We started with ouzo which was soon enough followed by white "moschofilero" (mos-ko-fee-le-ro) Rhodian wine, some fish, and because we enjoyed it so much in Santorini, a heaping of tzatziki with pita bread. To really fit in, we tried very hard to eat with our forks upside down but couldn't do it, at least not consistently. We'd blown our cover I think due to the ouzo or maybe it was the vino! Men in trench coats may have taken notice!

Our Time Up, we pivoted from the streets to back aboard ship. Heading back, we walked along the same shorefront that an assortment of invaders, each in their own time, had stormed in their attempts to besiege this city, some successfully, many not. Mare stopped to walk in the sea and combed the beach for tumbled pieces of colored glass smoothed by the waves and sand. Back aboard "The Fortuna" we rested on deck before dinner as preparations to depart were underway. Below us in the exercise area of a lower deck, the Spanish lyrics of Choo-Choo-Wah were pumping through the speakers as toning cruisers writhed to the beat, pumping their arms, thumbs up of course, in keeping with its catchy lyrics. Relaxing there, enjoying the view of Rhodes one last time over the heads of the exercisers, I thought of two things I failed to do in Rhodes. The first was to try the layered, Greek oven-casserole dish called "moussaka" (moo-sah-KAH). Layers of eggplant slices, cheese, and a meat sauce, are topped with a thick white sauce. It is something akin to Italian lasagna, with eggplant substituted for the pasta and white for a red tomato sauce. My other failure was to experience a true Turkish bath. If the cruise line had offered a land tour featuring a Turkish bath followed by a stop-off for some moussaka, I'd have signed up. To correct these oversights, we'll just have to dream of returning here once again, at once a fortress, world bazaar and, with forks upside down of course, a foodie's paradise.

Our Aquatic Life Afloat was nearing an end with only visits to Dubrovnik and Venice remaining. I didn't want to see our adventure end, but it had to. Looking off toward old Rhodes, sloping up from the water's edge to its far back walls, in the gossamer light of late afternoon, we attempted to retrace the streets and areas we'd traipsed through. We could see there were many more we hadn't explored, and needless to say, countless people we hadn't somehow interacted with or accidently met, for it is not just the place but also its people. There was so much more but no more time. Long anticipated as they usually are, our travels seem to fly by in a blink. We count down to their long awaited arrival and just as quickly, but reluctantly, begin to count up, keeping track of how many days remain - "Just arrived, still lots of time", ... "Gosh it's already Wednesday", ... "Oh no, we go home tomorrow". This lends weight to the notion that there is pleasure in anticipation alone. There is simple enjoyment in imagining and dreaming of what some experience will be like, what may lay ahead or what exposure to something or someone new will bring. Here for instance we had met three; a philosopher, an artisan and a shopkeeper. Though we may never be able to pass by and say "buon giorno" tomorrow or the next day, time and circumstance had allowed our paths to cross, however briefly, and for this we are grateful.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Rhodes”.