Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A mother and son's journey to Greece, now and then, May 9, 09

The Toronto Star (Travel section)
BY David Layton
Aviva Whiteson
Special to the Star

Here are the first words my mother said to me after I told her we'd each have a private veranda aboard our ship: "Be careful that you don't lean over the rails or you might fall over!" She was serious.

Not long after that she called to say that spring in Greece is unpredictable. She'd looked at the weather forecast and told me to pack warm clothes — for the next few days "layers" became her favourite word. "Do they heat the boat?"

The boat in question was the luxurious Silver Wind, a ship so white you almost needed sunglasses just to stare at it, and one of four ships operated by SilverSea Cruises.

"I don't know, Mom, but they might have some blankets we could wrap around our shoulders."

"It's not," I added, "like the old days."

Those days were in point of fact the young days, when I'd been a child, my mother a young woman, and our mode of transportation was one step up from a donkey. It had been almost 30 years since my father, Irving Layton, my mother and I last travelled to Greece together. Mother's Day was approaching, an excuse for us to go back there, but this time without my father, who'd passed away.

My mother is 76. I am in my 40s. If not now, when?

Our first stop was the Hotel Phaedra in Athens, where my parents and I had stayed in 1967. The tiny, toy elevator I used to joyride when I was a kid was still in operation, but as with my mother and me, much has changed over the intervening years. Once charging less than $5 a night, the hotel, like Athens, has been renovated and transformed for the Olympic Games in 2004. But the view of the Acropolis, which we can see from our balcony, is unchanged and eternal. So, too, the Plaka, the historical district, with its village houses and cobblestoned streets that surround it.

It was on one of those very cobblestones that my mother, on our first night, tripped and fell. My mother, previously so concerned for my own welfare, now lay on the ground with a serious gash on her forehead, a possible concussion, and the definite need to find a hospital.

Here's a valuable lesson someone once passed on to me: When in need, always go to the best hotel, even if you aren't staying there, and avail yourself of their services. The incredibly helpful concierge at the Grande Bretagne found us a doctor and then flagged a private taxi to take us there. One MRI, four stitches and two hours later, we emerged from the hospital.

It was now 11 p.m. We hadn't slept for 18 hours. Was my mother tired?

"I don't even have a headache!" she said. What might have ended our trip before it had even begun turned into the best cure for jet-lag. We went to a taverna and sipped ouzo, listening to live bouzouki music.

I knew travelling with my mother was going to be exhausting, but not quite in this way. She never stopped. In Rhodes, it was off to the whitewashed village of Lindos to visit some old friends of hers; in Marmaris, Turkey, we rented a jeep that broke down in the mountains. We hitched a ride back into town. There wasn't a musical performance, variety act or dinner reservation aboard ship that she wanted to miss.

A friend who helped me shop for the trip kept picking out cute little momma-boy sailor shirts for me to wear. Many of my friends thought it strange that I wanted to travel with my mother. I think it's strange that you wouldn't want to.

On our final night of sailing, the lights of the Ionic islands twinkling in the distance, my mother took my hand and said, "This is the best trip I've ever had."

Greece may be eternal, but we are not. Time passes. So next Mother's Day, take your mother on a trip. It's not as bad as it sounds. Promise.

David Layton is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
No wonder I want to repeat the whole trip again - but only if I can hold fast to my son's hand

The first time I sailed to Athens with my son, David, he was only a few months old.

We'd travelled there in an old Greek tub of a ship, our tiny cabin so close to the waterline that every time I opened the porthole, half the ocean sloshed in.

Four decades later, he's now taking me on a journey and it's on a cruise ship called The Silver Wind, where we each have a luxurious suite with glass doors opening onto a large veranda and a dressing room which was twice the size of my previous cabin.

Before we started our life of luxury, we'd decided to "slum" it for a few days in Athens, revisiting our old haunts.

I'd booked us into the Phaedra, a funky little hotel at the base of the Acropolis, where we'd always stayed and where David's favourite activity was riding the creaky old elevator up and down, to the intense annoyance of the two brothers, Stamatis and Yannis, who owned the hotel.

Despite our massive jet lag, we didn't want to waste a second and set off on a preliminary stroll.

As we negotiate the uneven cobblestones of the Plaka, I stumble and instinctively reach out to grab my son's arm, except that he had reached out to grab me, and in a split second I realize that, at 76, I am now the child and he the parent.

After a trip to the emergency ward and four stitches later, I cling to his arm like a limpet whenever he offers – which is all the time.

Even though I had dragged him all over the world when he was young, whether he wanted to go or not (and mostly he didn't), I'm lucky that he still wants to travel with me.

He's a great travelling companion, far more caring for my comfort than I am for his.

We have almost identical reactions to places and situations, both love going off the beaten path at the various ports of call.

We walk into whatever town we berth at, explore narrow alleyways, drink at local tavernas and then, at departure time, return to our floating palace, there to be enveloped in pampered luxury with only a gangplank connecting the two different worlds.

It never fails to astonish me that each morning we step out onto our verandas and there, like magic, another world appears in front of my eyes – Corfu, Rhodes, Kusadasi, Turkey, where we take the local bus to Ephesus and splurge on a private guide who is more intent on showing us the site of the brothels than the place where Paul preached to the Ephesians.

Later that evening, the cruise line arranges a special concert in one of the amphitheatres where, wrapped up in fleecy blankets, we listen to a string quartet, sip champagne and gaze out over the softly lit-up colonnades of one the most amazing ruins in the world.

Not that it was all paradisical. There were, of course, my constant motherly admonitions – "Make sure you're dressed warmly enough" ... "Don't lean too far over the railings" ... "That food always upsets your stomach."

I seem to have an endless supply of these shibboleths and can't stop trotting them out, even though the results are invariably counterproductive.

The bottom line, though, is that I love my son's company and, despite the mother-guilt, I console myself with the thought that I must have done something right.

When it comes time to disembark, I have a sudden panic attack at not being able to call room service at 3 a.m. if I have a sudden craving for Assiago Italiani or Bitter Chocolate Mousse.

Not that I did it, but I loved the idea that I could have done it.

No longer was there anyone hurrying across the dining room to assist me in peeling the foil off my yoghurt container or press exotic drinks on me at every turn.

No wonder I want to repeat the whole trip again – but only if I can hold fast to my son's hand.

Photo: Fond memories, past and present, of family trips to Greece that David Layton took with his mom, Aviva Whiteson.

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