It’s not easy to see a country in weeks or years, and even more difficult to see it in days. When planning our trip to Athens we had to make sacrifices and find ways to fit all that we wanted to see into a short span of time, and one of the ways we managed this was to cram sights in on some days and wander on others. One of those days we spent touring islands on the worst sort of packaged cruise, the type of service you see advertised and you just know it’s going to be filled with screaming kids, grouchy suckers and at best, other folks like us, doing it on the cheap. It’s a trade off—see three gorgeous Greek islands in one day, but lose any sense of independence. We decided to treat it as an adventure. We saw the sights and found the inspiration for one of the best days of our lives later that week, but we also had to face the reality of world politics unexpectedly.This trip took place in July, soon after the end of what was termed major conflict in Iraq, and more particularly during the time that the world was increasingly angry at U.S. behavior. Greece is a bridge in the world, in that it resides in some ways in what would be considered the west, and in other ways in the Middle East. It is a part of Europe, close to Italy but bordering Turkey, just south of the Balkans and not far from Syria, Israel and Africa. The culture that I experienced seemed to reflect the idea that it exists in a nexus of conflicting cultures and philosophies, and was at the same time a unique culture all to its own.On the ship we spent much of our time watching the people interact, trying to determine the countries of origin and the corresponding behaviors, doing our best to offset the behavior of other Americans aboard. As people watching goes, it was certainly not a representative sample for any given place, but was wildly entertaining nevertheless. The first stop, Poros, was a small Greek isle populated on one side with aggressive magnet and postcard saleswomen, and on the other, steep climbing staircases flanked with quaint homes painted white to deflect the sun and vibrant pinks and blues to enhance the sky’s beauty. We were only allowed about 45 minutes on the island, having fallen behind at the dock in Athens, so we experienced more sales pitches than beauty. Anyone visiting would be well advised to head opposite any direction that the ships crew might direct you, should you seek calm more than commerce.As we boarded the ship to leave Poros we were confronted by a steward who demanded to see the color of our ship passes. We’d known that a meal would be provided, but had yet to see any real hint at how or where. The steward noted our pass color and physically directed us toward a lower deck cabin. Once there we saw our meals laid out—pasta with tomato sauce, basmati rice and a selection of well-soaked sliced fruit. A suitibly generic world-meal, one might suppose, but we were disappointed. We had hoped we might come to the Greek isles and eat Greek food, but it was not to be on the ship.We seated ourselves across from a young couple, both perhaps 35 with olive skin and festive vacation shirts suggesting a recent trip to Ibiza, Spain. I’d initially thought them Israeli, but decided it would be politic not to make assumptions, given my naivete and the likelihood that a non-Israeli Arab might not take such an assumption amicably. We sat, the four of us, in uncomfortable silence for a few moments until the young woman spoke up, asking if we were on honeymoon. We weren’t, but it turned out that they were and were on their way next to Rhodes. They pronounced it ro-das, probably the correct pronounciation but not the way of my 3rd grade world history teacher, so it took a few moments to catch up. This was the way for much of the conversation—they spoke three languages each while I, stereotypically, struggle with one and Michelle makes do with one and a half.The man sat quietly across from me as Michelle and his wife discussed marriages, the size of their wedding and cultural differences as they pertained to weddings. Now that I think of it, we both sat silently while they did this. When the subject of Greece arose, he said that he was raised in Greece or had relatives in Athens, hence their visit. He kept his eyes down or to the side, never meeting mine. I realize American mores differ, but I still felt a compulsion to try to make conversation, which clearly was not interesting him. Then Michelle asked where they were from, and there was a pause, as if for consideration.“Lebanon”, he said, still avoiding eye contact.Michelle and his wife went on, but I found myself locked in thought as he and I sat, face to face, eating our pasta. I know little about Lebanon as such, but I do know that the U.S. has not had friendly relations there for years, and that we have recently invaded and deposed a dictator in a nearby Arab country, Iraq, one which was ostensibly allied with his until recently. I know that at best he looks uncomfortable, and at worst, angry. About that time the conversation moved toward politics, to my horror:“What do you think of your government,” Michelle asked. My heart stopped briefly until I realized that we were at sea, travelling between Greek isles, two couples on vacation—why worry? She and I had been discussing the ongoing war in light of our location and travel in general earlier in the day.They paused again, and again he answered for them both,”Well… it is a Syrian government… you know.” I had not known that, but it didn’t make me feel better. The week before we left North Carolina President Bush had strongly suggested we might be invading Syria. Soon.Clearly they assumed we understood more than we did about their perspective, but the conversation was quickly illustrating to me how uninformed we really were. My nervousness rose, and I looked at him again: tall and fit with a tight clipped haircut. My paranoia asked, could he be Lebanese Army? No, he’d said they were, “in the banking sector…you know”. He consistently assumed us knowledgable when we were not about this part of the world, but while we are educated and more informed than the majority of Americans, neither of us knew much about the political climate of the Middle East. I calmed a bit and thought it through: upper-class Lebanese bankers on holiday in Greece. Surely this won’t be a problem.“What do you think of the war?” Michelle asked. A fair question, but come on, cut me a break, I thought.“No one likes war,” he said quietly, looking up for the first time. Our eyes met briefly, and from the look I saw there, I began to realize I had misjudged the situation entirely. “The Muslims, they breed in the streets”, he said, suddenly angry as his wife nodded beside him, “and we Christians are slowly forced out of government as they have five children to our one or two.”Ten even,” his wife said.I wasn’t enjoying this change of tide one bit.“If you want to come for us,” he says, more firmly, “we are ready.” As he says this he looks directly in my eyes for the first time. I got a chill.“We don’t agree with what’s happening either,” Michelle says, hoping to allay their concerns.“But we want Bush to help us, help us get rid of some of the Arabs in our country and let us keep our power. We can help you, we want business, just as you do.”We had all misjudged one another. They clearly thought that Americans simply didn’t like Muslims, being a largely Christian country, and would be happy to be rid of them at any time. They were Christians as well as Arabs, and so they felt this to be not only right, but thought we would agree. It was a frightening misconception and stunned me so thoroughly that I didn’t know where to take the conversation or how to repair it without conflict. We sat in silence for awhile, and eventually wound back around to travel and Rhodes to escape the tension. Apparently it’s a great place to party.When finally Michelle and I made our leave from lunch, it was clear that they were disappointed. We saw them several times that afternoon, both on Aegina and Hydra, and while they seemed inclined to have us tour with them, we managed to find reasons to go in a different direction each time. It took the rest of the afternoon, too, to think the conversations through.Of course they would feel threatened—they were part of the ruling minority and should there be a transition in goverment, it would be difficult for them. They looked down on the poorer parts of their society apparently, relating them to rats in exactly those words, and yet wrongly believed that we too felt this way. These realizations were what it took for me to realize how destructive our country’s behavior can be to world perception. Simply by being Americans it was assumed that we were racist, destructive, and money-hungry. They thought it perfecty natural to discuss the possiblity of our President coming into their country to do business and put down a Muslim population over lunch at sea. Then the question hit me: Why shouldn’t they think these things? We do invade and put down populations. We do use our military power to generate business opportunity. Our President is a member of a a priviledged, elite, moneyed class, and uses his power to assist those like him and to further the distance from those unlike him.It felt truly disconcerting. I wanted to tell them, and I did tell them, that most Americans didn’t agree with the way things were going in Iraq. Many in the U.S. didn’t want us to invade, and many more had supported the war based solely on the idea that they can trust the person who leads them, not expecting that trust to be abused. It turned out not to be within our power to stop. It was a harsh reality to face away from home, at sea on vacation. I thought initially we would struggle to connect, that this was someone else’s enemy, Bush’s enemy, not mine, but it turns out that as Americans sometimes we are simply our own worst enemy.