Maria Lalic, a Compendium Poet who also works as a tour
guide in her native Serbian language, invited me to
join a group that was traveling to Epidavros and Mycenae,
I did not know what surprises were before me. Although
I had been to the area before, she knew I wanted to
write first-hand about what it is like to travel with
a group in a tour bus; my only similar experience had
been in 1979 when I visited Delphi. The trip in June
has become a cherished memory, not because of the curiosity
factor or splendor of the artifacts I saw nor the beauty
of the scenery we passed in our travels, but the spirit
and kindness of the people I traveled with: a group
of women from FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of
Macedonia, visiting Greece because they were skillful
(and fortunate) enough to have won a three day tour
With the exception of the tour guides, I had conversations
with only three of the women, one in Greek, two in English,
but hand signals, smiles and Maria's translations sufficed
with everyone else, and I came away from that Friday
with knowledge of how alike we humans are in our differences.
In addition, instead of the usual coin dropped onstage
in the theater at Epidavros to test the acoustics, I
had a rare treat: I heard a renowned actress with the
National Theater of Belgrade read an impromptu poem.
And it's true. You can hear well, even from the highest
seat. The fact that I could not understand one word
didn't detract from my experience!
First-prize winners of a trip to Greece, the women were
from 22 cities in FYROM. One hundred women of different
nationalities from there all traveling together in two
buses, staying three-to-a-room, getting along, seeing
new places, having fun, and enjoying their time free
of normal routine. Each one had won the coveted title
of "Skillful Woman," prize winner in a competition
that tested competence in cooking, baking, meal presentation
and table decor. Afterward one of the women showed me
pictures of her winning cakes. She had rosette studded
and other floral cakes whose beauty and delicacy rivaled
any I'd seen at New York weddings. Her work took an
entire day to prepare.
Early in the trip, before we were even in the Peristeri
area of Athens, the women on my bus began to sing rousing
happy songs that my feet took to mean "dancing
time!" So did others: at a certain point there
were at least 6 women dancing in the aisles. If I had
had the aisle seat, maybe...
In 7/8's time, the music and songs led to much laughter.
I heard the 1-2, 1-2-3 beat of the Greek music I'd grown
At the end of one song that evoked thoughtful laughter,
Maria translated for me:
give me wine to get drunk
to forget all my troubles.
give you wine my dear son,
as much as you want to drink,
but your troubles you'll never forget."
when the women sang a mournful song that touched my
weepy places, Maria told me they were singing it for
her: it was from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Considering
the problems of war that led to her living in Athens,
melancholy music, full of longing, was appropriate.
The tour I joined was handled locally by Galini Tours
in Koukaki. Running foreign-language tours in Greece
means putting together unique combinations of people.
Beba ("Baby") Valsamakis, originally from
Zemun near Belgrade, has lived in Greece for 25 years,
and with her Greek husband Costa designs and handles
tours for people who speak Serbian, Croatian, Russian
or English, locating restaurants and entertainment.
So when Vesna Chipchic, well-known on stage, radio,
cinema and television screens in her native Belgrade
traveled to Greece recently and wanted to take a tour
run in the Serbian Language, she called Beba. One tour
was available in Serbian, the FYROM Skillful Women,
and Vesna and her party joined it.
When The Former Republic of Yugoslavia was one country
of 24,000,000 people and six separate republics (Slovenia,
Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro
and Macedonia), the actress became well-known throughout
the Republic because of a national television series
called Hot Wind. Delighting the fancy of audiences throughout
Yugoslavia, Vesna played the put-upon wife of a man
who caused constant problems because he lived his fantasy
whenever he could: that of the life of a Greek man,
despite the fact that he had never traveled to Greece.
His odd behavior extended to missing work, spending
the day listening to Greek music, dancing Greek dances,
eating foods and going to restaurants and bouzoukia
to continue his fantasy. He behaved like a typical stage
Greek, dancing, drinking, eating, making music and chaos.
Vesna's husband's odd behavior was a major cause of
problems for her, but not for her fans. They loved the
situations she had to deal with constantly, and they
loved her. Even today, years after the series ended
and there is no longer one National Television station
broadcasting to all of the former republics, the actress
The program's theme of living quite well, despite the
fact that the living is fantasy, intrigued the minds
of a nation dealing with war much too close to daily
If this trip to Greece was a sort of homecoming for
the character she played on Hot Wind, the actress herself
was a delight. A lively woman with a warm and welcoming
smile, lovely rounded face and a sunny disposition,
Vesna showed warmth and generosity to her FYROM fans,
smiling a welcome, nodding a yes when yet one more person
wanted a picture taken with her. And agreeing readily
when Maria asked her to demonstrate the acoustics by
giving the impromptu reading that charmed her audience.
During the bus ride, Maria gave orientation talks in
Serbian while I read her English guidebooks to familiarize
myself with what we'd be seeing. The visit to the Epidavros
Museum was perfect for women interested in things domestic:
the tunics and other clothing on carved statues from
both Greek and Roman influences have sculpted folds,
softly draped, that look like real fabric, and as if
they would move when touched. Beba gave the accompanying
lecture to the entire group.
We then took a five minute ride to Xipolia, a ceramic
souvenirs shop it was hard to leave, and then to Kolizeras
restaurant in Mycenae where they treated us graciously
and fed us well. Photos of past guests included Jackie
Kennedy Onassis, American President Bush, and other
dignitaries too numerous to list.
We overstayed in every stop along the way, unfortunately
making Mycenae just a drive-by, since the gates were
about to close when we arrived. The upside? A night
out at the Plaka.
Two of the many unexpected pleasures of the trip (besides
absolutely fantastic pitas, one cheese, the other cheese
and leek, FYROM specialties in taste and shape made
by one of the women and shared with Maria and me) include
a possible invitation for me to attend the renowned
Struga Poetry gatherings next year, and a definite invitation
to join these women at the next contest in their homeland
so that I can write about it. They want women from other
countries to enter the competition: opening it internationally
is their way of introducing the world to their own special
corner of it, to let us see we are not so different