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Life of Reilly: Athens style

From cheese pies to art of excuses, America can learn a lot from Greece

Posted: Wednesday August 18, 2004 10:02AM; Updated: Thursday August 19, 2004 1:37PM
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  Elpida Romantzi (left), Evangelia Psarra
Archery is taking place at Panathinaiko Stadium, the Sophia Loren of stadiums.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Forget democracy, sport and Grecian Formula 16. There's so much more we need to steal from the Greeks -- immediately and maybe sooner. Cheese pies, for instance. Our No. 1 priority should be getting these cheese pies. Lovely, flakey pastries with the god's finest meats and cheeses melting happily within. If you could run a film inside your mouth, you'd see your tonsils doing the watusi. And Greek taxis. Taxi drivers in Greece are like Steve Garvey. It doesn't matter if they're already with someone, there's always room for more. Doesn't matter if you're 10 centimeters dilated or holding your severed right hand in your left, the Athens cabbie will stop and pick up somebody if they're going your way. Sometimes two people. Sometimes three.

He slows down, and the ride applicant hollers her destination through the window ("The Acropolis? Please?") and with the tiniest of motions, the driver either wags his finger no or his head yes. And, suddenly, you are happily wedged in with Inga from Sweden. Tell me you wouldn't love that system the next time you're stuck in the rain in Manhattan.

Also, we must adopt the fabulous Greek driving law: Right-on-Anything. And the post office is open Sundays. And you can sit down for dinner at 1 a.m. anywhere in town. Great for sportswriters. Great for the makers of Pepcid AC. And no matter when you get your table in Greece, that baby is yours for as long as you want it. You could sit there and whittle if you wanted, they wouldn't ask you to move along. At one sidewalk café, I saw a guy sitting there from the last Athens Games.

Oh, and we need to do what the Greeks do with their great old stadiums. They keep them.

In America, as soon as an owner decides he no longer likes the color of his stadium, the city council panics, kisses it with the wrecking ball and builds him a new one. Mile High Stadium, Texas Stadium, Busch Stadium, we hardly knew ye. Word is they're planning to tear down down Camden Yards soon. The dumpsters are full. But at these Olympics, the archery and the marathon will be held at Panathinaiko Stadium, the Sophia Loren of stadiums, elegant, classic and gorgeous even now, at 108. Imagine that, an heirloom stadium, still useable even though it doesn't have a single luxury box, Verizon sign or seat license.

That's the other thing: In Greece, cheaters pay for stadiums. At one time, at Olympus, where this little Wreath-a-mania was invented, the entry to the stadium was a long row of statues in honor of Zeus, all paid for by the fines charged to cheaters in the Ancient Olympic Games. Had the cheats' names right at the bottom of the statues: Niko Nikolopolous, Boxing, Strychnine. Wouldn't you love it in the States? You come to the entry of San Diego's Petco Park, and there's a whole bank of stands and on a little plaque it says: Ken Caminiti, 3B, Steroids. Can you imagine the kind of improvements we could make at Wrigley Field alone? But the best thing we need to bring home is the Greeks' Louvre-quality excuses. The Greeks are much too macho to confess, so they've turned excuse-making into the 38th Olympic sport. It's fun to catch them with their togas down, just to see what beautiful and simple lie they will tell to cover it up.

For instance, when somebody asked why they didn't finish paving all the walking areas near the venues, leaving only dirt, the Athens bigwigs didn't just fess up and go, "Well, we never quite got around to it." No, instead, they declared, "We wanted to recreate the feel of the Ancient Olympic Games." Do you just love it? There were plenty of witnesses on Day One of the doobie-shaped torch going out for a reported 20 minutes. The Melbourne (Australia) Herald Sun even ran a picture of it, colder than a popsicle. Did the Greeks admit it? No, sir. "It was not out," a spokesman with the Athens Organizing Committee said. "We were simply testing the levels." And the level we were testing is zero. It's like the health club at our hotel. It's beautiful, except that there's no ventilation of air of any kind, nor water, nor towels to grab. But when I mentioned it to the man at the front desk, he smiled and says, "But, my friend, isn't the point to sweat?" I can't imagine what their excuse is going to be for still having scaffolding up on the Parthenon. Here we are at what is arguably the biggest undertaking in the history of mankind, and they still don't have it ready. Not to be nitpicky, but if the Olympics isn't a big enough deal to take off the old scaffolding, what is? The big podiatrists' convention coming in October? I can hear their excuse now. "You see," they'll say. "The guy who was supposed to take it down was in this motorcycle accident, and ..."

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