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A decade later, columnist finds America has invaded Greece November 1, 2007

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A decade later, columnist finds America has invaded Greece
By KIRSTIN FAWCETT For the Blade-News

Following an intermittently rainy week in Geneva, Switzerland, I was quite ready to trade drizzle for dry heat, fondue for fried calamari, and Lake Geneva for the Aegean Sea. Lucky for me, such a dramatic change of scenery was not only a part of my travel itinerary, but was also a mere three-hour plane ride away.
The world is different and beautiful in so many ways. Switzerland is starkly scenic, with rugged mountains scraping a pristine Alpine sky. However, as I descended down my plane’s tinny metal stairs and firmly stood on Greek soil, all I could see was blue. Everything in Greece is blue, from the sky to the mountains to the incredibly clear and salty water. The cerulean sunlight is brilliant yet blinding, even when shrouded by the layers of smog and pollution that hover above the Athenian cityscape.

As waves of heat hit my sweater-clad body full force, I started to realize in those first few Grecian minutes a fact which I would soon hold to be a universal truth: Everything in Greece is warm, from the weather to the sandy beaches to the noisy, inquiring, hospitable people. Everything is warm, that is, except for the sea. The Aegean is cool, though not cold. Rejuvenating, not bracing. The mild breeze and brisk water is a striking and delicious contrast. A less lovely, yet equally interesting juxtaposition is the seaside Temple of Poseidon’s white marble pillars silhouetted against nearby modern chrome hotels. Standing on the cliff where the temple was erected thousands of years ago, one could almost imagine Athena or Zeus lazily descending from the sky to recline amongst the temple ruins. Staring down at the beach below, infested with half-clothed European tourists, one could almost imagine Girls Gone Wild: Mediterranean Style. However, Greece’s largest disconnect had to be its Americanization. Once homogenous in its cultural ways, the country had been infused with a hefty dose of my home country since my first visit nine years earlier.

Despite my wide-eyed wonder towards Greece’s beauty, I am quite familiar with the country. I visited Athens, along with the islands of Santorini, Mykonos and Crete, at age 11. Most families go on vacation to Disney World or Ocean City. My family chose to haggle with gypsies in the outdoor market of Plaka, to order strange meats called souvlaki off of all-Greek menus, and to decipher the guttural, broken English of cab drivers. Nearly a decade later, I was ready to re-enter this unusual yet wonderful world. However, a foreign invader had proven to penetrate the strange, exotic cultural shield of Athens in recent years. Whow as said-conqueror? An American clown named Ronald McDonald.

Plaka, the oldest open-aired market in Athens, was the fiendish clown’s most formidable victim. When I was 11, the cobblestoned streets of Plaka had been littered with stands containing items both intriguing and illicit. I had been mesmerized by porcelain perfume bottles and silver jewelry, whereas my then-13-year-old brother had hankered after the illegal throwing stars and nun-chucks sold by shifty-eyed men.

In September, I was privileged enough to stroll through Plaka once more. However, the only similarity that I now noticed between the Plaka of past and present was its location. Swiveling my head back and forth, I realized that several stone streets had been paved over with smooth black concrete. A Starbucks was nestled among traditional Greek cafes and gyro stands. The gypsies and stray cats that had once yelled and yowled in the background were silent in their absence. The most noticeable change, however, had to be the McDonald’s standing next to the area’s subway station. The lunchtime line pouring out of said building was twice as long as the crowds swarming around a nearby Greek restaurant’s entrance. Plastered on the fast-food joint’s windows, the face of The Clown seemed to mock the presence of outside patrons.

Chewing on a gyro bought from a street vendor, I pondered Greece’s rapid globalization (or, should I say, Americanization?). Yes, Athens, an international hub of business and travel, is surely not immune to America’s pervasive influence. However, I was baffled as to how home had permeated such a culturally and historically distinct area of the city. My mind then flashed back to the 2004 Olympics, which the Athenians had proudly hosted in its city of origin. Obviously, once sketchy areas of the city had been “cleaned up” by the Greek government and officials for the sake of visitors and TV cameras. Talking to a nearby restaurant owner about Plaka’s evolution cemented my conclusion: Athens’ most historical district had been modernized (and Americanized) for global appeal.

My first reaction after the aforementioned revelation was resentment. America’s grubby, far-reaching fingers seemed intent on reshaping the rest of the world in its image. Nevertheless, after much thought, could I really resent a country for developing both economically and structurally? Plaka’s tourist population was obviously strong enough to support coffee chains and Big Mac habits, and the revenue from said-chain stores was most likely the reason that Plaka had undergone such a makeover. Maybe the crowds of hawkers selling illegal items had benefited from Plaka’s revived economy, allowing them to abandon a life of contraband for more honorable pursuits. Perhaps the residents of Plaka had longed for a paved street, and the international attention focused on the city had spurred the area’s reconstruction. Maybe more tourists now visited Plaka due to its comforting Western influence, thus increasing the neighborhood’s business, prosperity and calorie intake. Maybe Americanization wasn’t really bad for anybody, except for me, an American tourist, who was hell-bent on having an “authentic cultural experience.”

Toward the end of my stay in Greece, I had reconciled myself with the country’s evolution. I even grew to appreciate American stores and restaurants, as souvlaki and moussaka slowly yet surely lost their taste-bud charm. However, the best part of globalization, which I had previously overlooked, had to be that English was now spoken frequently among the population. The Greek people, whom I had been unable to talk with at age 11, could now hold whole conversations with me. During the course of our dialogues, I learned stories, opinions, and facts that ended up shaping, and making, my Greek experience. Maybe globalization prevented me from truly knowing Greece. However, a positive aspect of America’s far-flung influence had to be that I could now finally understand the most invaluable aspect of Greece: Its people.

Editor’s note: The writer is a Bowie resident and student at St. Olaf University in Minnesota. She is traveling abroad. Published 11/01/07.

Copyright © 2007 The Bowie Blade > A decade later, columnist finds America has invaded Greece

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