I didn’t post much new content over the last couple of weeks because my wife and I were on vacation in Greece and Italy. Whenever we go on trips to other countries, we try to learn and use a little bit of the language, which isn’t that hard in places that use the same alphabet we do. Even if we can’t speak the language, we can read street signs so we know where we are while walking around.

But Greece is a different story. Even using Google Translate and Maps, we were often stumped. For instance, while in Athens, we used the Metro to get around, but were often perplexed when trying to figure out which line to ride and in which direction. It reminded me of when I took my morning radio show to Moscow in 1989 and had to contend with similar problems because of the Cyrillic alphabet. What made it worse in Athens was the apps use capital letters, but the signs have both capital and small letters, which are as different in Greek as they are in English. Once, as we stood there trying to decipher which platform to stand on, I told Martha, “Okay, look for something like delta dot doorway backwards E.” Somehow, we figured it out and got where we were going.

On occasion, I feel like our global travels are in a time machine. We both grew up in the northeastern corner of the US, where it wasn’t unusual to find homes and buildings built two or three hundred years ago in the colonial era. Then we went to England and visited a pub that had been open since 1361. On our first trip to Italy, we saw the remains of the Colosseum and other buildings from more than 2,000 years ago. And on this trip to Greece, we climbed up the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, which was built several hundred years before that, and heard stories tracing back four millennia. On Crete, we saw the Palace of Knossos, a relic of the Minoan civilization that lived there 7,000 years ago. If we want to continue going backwards in time, I may have to plan a trip to Jurassic Park.

When we researched where to stay in Athens, many hotels bragged they have great views of the Acropolis. Turns out that’s not so hard, because you can see it from virtually anywhere in the city. We chose a place just three blocks away, and when we arrived, I was awed to open the curtains and see the Parthenon atop that hill (that’s my photo above). The next day, we were led by a tour guide from Hadrian’s Arch at ground level past other landmarks relating to Zeus, Dionysus, Nike, Athena, and Aphrodite before climbing to the peak.

It was a beautiful day and our tour group was far from the only one. I estimated more than 2,000 people were sharing the experience with us, which caused a few pedestrian traffic jams, but didn’t detract from my amazement at actually being there. It made me remember a line Stephen Colbert used on his old Comedy Central show circa 2010: “Greece’s economy is in ruins. Wait — Greece’s business is ruins!”

Incidentally, the architecture of Athens is something to behold, even away from the historic venues. Sadly, that isn’t true on the two islands we visited, Rhodes and Crete, where the landscapes are full of monochrome apartment buildings, all painted the same bland beige and looking like they came out of a 3D printer.

They also have a feral cat problem. They’re everywhere, including at one restaurant where we were eating outdoors at a place overlooking the Ionian Sea with another couple who ordered fish. The aroma must have set off the Cat Signal, because we were soon surrounded by a half-dozen of them, one of which actually jumped up and tried to pull the food off a plate. The restaurant owner came over with a spray bottle of water and squirted the animals until they went away as he apologized and explained they didn’t belong to him — or anyone else nearby.

Speaking of food, we enjoyed a lot of Greek specialties (pastitsio, souvlaki, saganaki, stifado, and baklava) and were pleasantly surprised to find eating out much less expensive there than in other European countries. Happily, everyone we encountered in restaurants, hotels, and even on the street spoke English fluently enough for us to converse with — and every restaurant had English versions of their menus. If they hadn’t, we would have had to learn how to pronounce the O with a vertical line through it, the O with a horizontal line through it, and the I with wings sticking out of it.

Which I think we had for dessert.

This is the first of three pieces on our recent trip to Italy and Greece. Read part two here and part three here.