10 Hellenic travel lessons


Everything I ever needed to know about travel, I learned on a trip to
Greece. I was young and new to the travel world. Working for an airline, I merely had to write a destination on an empty ticket and the world was my oyster.

Greece was where I wanted to go first. But the night before we were
scheduled to leave, my girlfriend broke up with me. Not wanting to give her the satisfaction of canceling (and because the hotel room was
non-refundable) I decided to go anyway. Here’s what I learned.

1. Sample the local traditions. Retsina is a Greek white wine that has a pine taste to it. I never cared for it, and had always associated it with bitter laundry water, but I decided to try it in its native setting. It was a hot day, the scenery was magnificent, and the wine was ice cold and delicious. Now, every time I have a glass I think of my wonderful time in Greece and smile. Try the local cuisine even though you might have pre-conceived notions. You may be pleasantly surprised.

2. Be your favorite travel companion. Sure, I felt a bit awkward at firstbeing at a romantic destination alone. But I learned to enjoy my own company. I took the island by storm aboard a rented moped and experienced many adventures. When being seated at a restaurant I would sometimes get asked “only one?” and I would reply “not only, but all of one.” The only time I actually wished my ex-girlfriend was with me was when the airplane bringing me to the island was preparing for an emergency landing, but that’s just bitterness talking.

3. Do something daring or out of the ordinary. I ventured to a little island that tourists and locals go to bask in the sun. At the time I was not accustomed to nude sunbathing, but when I stood out as the only one wearing a suit, I decided to shed my inhibitions and join in. I felt I had grown up that hot day on the beach, but for appearance reasons, I stayed away from the cold water. If you decide to do something like this, I can’t emphasize strongly enough to apply a much higher grade of sun tan lotion in those areas usually unseen.

4. Relax, not everyone is out to rip you off. At first I was an uptight tourist, guarding my wallet, and looking over shoulder at every turn. The locals kept reiterating “Relax, this is Greece.” I was soon able to actually relax, and the enjoying part came much more easily. I am not saying you should let your guard down but to take normal precautions. Try to enjoy the beauty rather than to dwell on the worst-case scenarios.

5. Go with the unexpected. After I had missed my ferry back to the main island, I caught a ride back in an old fishing sailboat with three sailors who had a full mouth of teeth between them. Their lack of English proved to be no barrier as we sailed into the sunset, sipping Ouzo, and singing Bob Marley songs. It remains one of my fondest traveling moments of all time.

6. Break your agenda. It’s good to have an agenda but if something else comes up, don’t be afraid to make changes. I had a tour planned for a certain day but when a local invited me to a traditional gathering, I canceled my trip. The gathering turned out to be a huge Greek wedding, where I met a new girlfriend, and I had the time of my life.

7. Have fun — but don’t go overboard. I was dancing at the wedding,
breaking plates and drinking my fair share of alcohol. I don’t smoke but when a local offered me a Greek cigarette I took it as a token of
friendship. It took me the better of an hour not to be sick in front of my new friends. If you don’t do something like that at home, don’t start on vacation.

8. Take pictures with character. I had a throw-away camera and I took many pictures. Some were of gorgeous sunsets and others of beautiful scenery, but the picture I treasure most is the one of me and the three sailors with full, or should I say semi-full, smiles. Nobody likes posing for cameras but force yourself to — and make a funny face once in a while. Don’t you have enough pictures with that phony smile you hate so much?

9. Take a nap. The late night dining habits of Greece and Spain have taught me the importance of napping. There is something decadent about waking in the afternoon and starting the day anew. Yes, you are on vacation to sample culture and to have fun, but you are also there to relax and get rested.

10. Live your adventures to the fullest. I mentioned earlier that the
airplane flying me to Greece almost didn’t make it. While I sat there
staring out the window with my lifejacket on and thinking that it was my time to perish, I thought of all the things I hadn’t done, seen, or
experienced. After we landed safely, I felt that I had been given a second chance to do some of those things. Take a good look at your life. If it were to end tomorrow, what would you have missed out on doing? Do them now, while you still can.

I previously asked for your favorite in-flight tips and I thank the many of you who responded. I will publish a collection of those tips in a future column. Now I am asking for your favorite tips on traveling. What made that particular vacation extra special? E-mail me and I will share them with everyone. Again, there is a prize for the top two tips.