Maybe I was just naive, but I can’t believe how much the world has changed in the last few decades.  In the summer of 1988, I did a study abroad in Athens, Greece as a Temple Law student. Who wouldn’t choose to spend the summer in Greece?  It’s the birthplace of democracy, the Socratic method, and some really cool ruins.

Athens experienced exceptionally high temperatures in the summer, not just because it’s a Mediterranean city, but because for years there was no requirement for catalytic converters on cars which meant many more pollutants in the air than here in the U.S.  A catalytic converter reduces pollutants from a car’s emissions by speeding up the conversion process using heat from the engine to split off the harmful gasses, resulting in steam.  Athens could have used a few catalytic converters in the late 80’s because the resultant inversion that trapped the pollution at ground level rivaled the smog in L.A. and added to our thermal misery.  Today we have ozone alert days.  Then it was just pollution.  

The University of Athens recognized that soft American students used to air conditioning and swimming pools would not fare well in an academic environment that included floor fans to move the sweltering heat from one side of the room to the other so classes began early and were done by lunch.  To that, they added a few Fridays off which accommodated weekend trips to the islands, and on a couple occasions we had a four-day weekend and one very special five-day weekend.  Part of the beauty of Europe is its close proximity to all the places Americans long to see, but have to plan long in advance to make happen.  Our Professor suggested we use the five-day weekend to go to Cairo, a 2-hour, $100 flight and quicker to get to than the Jersey shore from Philadelphia on a weekend.  Exotic Egypt!  

Egypt came with a “few” restrictions:  don't travel alone; don’t go anywhere without at least one male in the group; don’t show your legs, i.e., no shorts, and no pants either if you don’t want to offend anyone or maybe be attacked; cover your arms in the mosques and other holy places; don't drink the water; don’t raise a ruckus because we may not be able to get you out; don’t stay out late at night; act like a lady, but really that meant like a lady from the 19th century; and on the list went, ending with don’t be afraid of the machine gun-toting guards at the airport.

We got an up-close and personal look when we landed. Three guards stood holding guns at the ready.  What they were ready for, I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s proximity to the desert — the closer you get to the untamed, the more chaotic things become — although there seemed to be little chance of the airport being taken over by Beduins.  Still I’d only just arrived and had no idea of what the Egyptians had to deal with on a daily basis.  Perhaps additional armament was needed to live there.  It was 1988 and Europe was experiencing occasional bouts of terrorism whereas in the U.S, it was simply something that happened “over there,” not in our shining city on the hill.

After 9/11, all that Camelot crap died.  Now when I get off at the train station at 30th Street in Philadelphia, there are practically three police and a dog at every gate all carrying glocks (with the exception of the dog — but just wait). In fact, there are so many guns in the train station now, it would take an hour just to count them.  What I find most troubling is the normalcy of it all like, “Life During Wartime,” except we’re not in war time, at least not on American soil.  Guns have proliferated to the point that states have begun to implement a “campus-carry” law making it cool to carry in the event you need to thwart one of the all too common madmen on the loose with a gun. Imagine walking to calc or bio and suddenly there’s a shoot out on the quad and you have a gun, so, well, why not?  Get in there!

What defines normal?  I submit it’s as mercurial as the weather in southeast Florida during hurricane season. That same summer, on a different weekend, this time to Mykonos, part of a group of islands in the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, we were causing a ruckus as tourists visiting Mykonos do.  The island encourages it, in fact, with its eclectic night life and bars offering live music and cheap drinks.  So it was that on August 8, 1988, my friends and I made our way to a bar offering both, the latter tequila slammers — tequila and ginger ale — for 100 drachma.  That was about 80 cents.  One of us got the idea to drink eight of them since, after all, the numbers on the calendar had aligned and when was the next time that was going to happen?  A couple centuries?  And since the Greek islands are about sun, fun, and a sort of recklessness where you push the limits of your own definition of yourself, we, a group of half a dozen law students, found ourselves dancing on table tops of the cheap plastic variety.  (If memory serves, we had gone cliff-diving earlier that day or over that weekend so it wasn’t all alcohol-related madness, but simply madness).  When the waitress saw us, she, as a concerned and conscientious worker, asked us to dance on the bar instead since it was much sturdier.  Who were we to decline?  Minutes later, we were dancing on the bar, shining the lights that hung from the ceiling on the patrons and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe.  

Needless to say, I had a legendary hangover and have not been a fan of tequila since that night. I am also very grateful for a Facebook-free world back in 1988. It would be a different trip today. Guns are de rigueur and the guy dancing on the bar next to me may have a license to carry.  A glass breaks or a door bangs shut. It sounds like a shot and suddenly, you’re smack in the middle of a shoot out, just like the Wild Wild West, but on a bar in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  

Someone pass me the tequila.

Published by Pam Lazos


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