I seem to remember some pithy quote along the lines of “Traveling helps you to see the familiar once again as strange.” Anyhow, that was certainly the effect of our trip to Belgium, Greece, and England – by the time we came home, it seemed as exotic as anything else we had seen.
Our main reason to go to Greece was that the kids have a deep fascination for Greek mythology – so we thought it would be a great time to seize their interest and explore as many ruins as we could, which turned out to be about two per day on average. The main reason for England was Jeannine’s love of London, plus a home exchange deal. And the main reason for Belgium was that flying in and out of it yielded the cheapest deals – though once the crafty Belgians have you there, you’ll be leaking money like a nonregulated bank.
We came to Greece armed with an archaeological guidebook, which helped us to know more about what we were seeing, but later in the trip we found an even more useful travel book: Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day tells you just what to do and watch for in 5th century b.c. Athens, and so helps bring to life the ruins of the Agora, the Parthenon, and some further-flung sites we also visited like Delphi and Eleusis. For me, the most interesting ruins were at the Agora – downtown ancient Athens, basically – because it was easiest to imagine what it would have been in Socrates’s day. We stood where he was sentenced to death, and where he would have been lampooned by Aristophanes. Modern-day Athens is narrow, twisted, dynamic, mysterious, and exhausting but fun. And the ruins in Greece are everywhere; imagine the frustration of Greek gardeners as they turn up tiles and cornerstones with every swing of the spade.
We were surprised by the number of stray dogs and cats throughout Greece. That might sound sad, but by all appearances these loose animals are fat and happy. They feast all night on Greek food, and stretch out luxuriously during the day in the middle of walkways.
We stayed in a little town west of London, which meant we spent a lot of time navigating our way through transit systems. We find this to be fun. But apart from the insides of railway stations, we also managed to see some key sights – the Tower, the Globe, Big Ben, Parliament, St. Paul’s, British Library, etc. etc. We also took day trips to some of the smaller towns nearer to where we were staying, like Winchester, Guildford, and Oxford. One critical event along the way was my son’s loss of his iPod, which sent him into a kind of cybernetic detox, but through the magic of technology and exceptional human kindness, we were able to get a message to the person who found it and arrange for its return. Of course we liked some of the big, touristy things (like touring the dark and dungeony “Clink”, the namesake of all prisons to follow), but we mostly enjoyed walking through the neighborhoods and markets, looking at the wonderful old buildings, and taking frequent breaks at pubs. We were very excited to tour the British museum and see the so-called Elgin marbles, which are statues that were taken from the Parthenon and brought to England. There’s an ongoing contest over who gets to keep them, and the issue has grown more complicated the more I think about it. (Our family is currently of mixed opinion on the issue; courts of Europe await our decision.) We spent the last couple of nights in London, and it was nice to have more time to explore and to see the city at night.
Then it was off to the train again, under the channel, through France, through Brussels, and finally to Ghent, where I participated in a Spinoza workshop, and my wife and the kids toured the city by boat and by cobblestone. We left the next day for home, but were delayed overnight in Chicago, which did not disappoint us a bit. We managed to get downtown for a couple of hours and feel the energy of my favorite city.
We were away just long enough (3 weeks), and what we saw was just exotic enough, to make it seem strange to finally come home. Perhaps a zen master can clean his mind just by willing it, but for the rest of us we seem to require a lot of motion, a lot of distraction, and a fair bit of disruption, to cleanse our eyes and see things again freshly.