Trip Report: Athens
Athens was our last stop and this is my last report. I’ve been avoiding writing it, as if I could remain in some sort of Canadian-Greek time warp as long as my final thoughts remained unwritten. A final thank you to all who helped make my trip the wonder that it was.
I always need some time to let a place catch up to my expectations and tap them on the shoulder: “Excuse, but I’m the real Athens.” Then I can leave my expectations behind and start enjoying where I am. In Athens, I only needed five minutes. So many people had dismissed and disparaged Athens that my expectations were pretty easy to catch; Bill and I were braced for a city we would tolerate in order to see good ruins. A full quota of tolerance firmly in hand, we dropped off our rental car at the airport and hopped on the metro. Well, we came as close to hopping as we could while hefting our luggage. Interestingly, this was the only one of our many trips on the metro where an agent came through asking for tickets. We saw two poor fellows with un-validated tickets handed hefty fines. The Athens’ metro system is clean, quick, and easy to navigate; we used it frequently during our stay. I felt perfectly safe even traveling alone at 11:00 p.m. If Athens does sleep, it’s long after I go to bed.
Our home for the next four days was the Art Gallery Hotel, a small place in a residential neighbourhood at the Acropolis’ back door. It had wireless internet for Bill and two cats for me. Just around the corner was a pedestrian street lined with cafés and bakeries. We bought our water from the same kiosk there every day. Once we came up short, Bill digging through his pocket to try to find the final .10 Euro in change. The owner waved us on with “tomorrow.” Later I visited an optical shop one block over; my glasses were missing a screw. The man at the counter asked where I was from as he searched for a replacement. Hunched over my glasses, he shared his TV induced love of the Rocky Mountains and grizzly bears. “How much?” I asked. Another wave: “Nothing.”
The first stop on our first morning was what brings most people to Athens: the Acropolis. Huge and looming, it dominates the city as well as the agenda of tourists. We arrived five minutes before opening to find a handful of people waiting and had half an hour of peace before the tour busses arrived in full force. I became adept at taking pictures at special angles to make it look as if I were alone. Alone is how I like to experience these places, having a private dialogue with the past: “Hello, Susan, I’ve been here for thousands of years.” Rather than feeling diminished, I feel enlarged by such endurance. Bill and I were hardly alone at the Parthenon, but we were alone at the stone where Demosthenes and Pericles stood to address the Athenian assembly; we were alone at the prison of Socrates.
The past reached out and grabbed me by the throat at a small museum in the Ancient Agora I hadn’t even known existed. Walking by yet another case of pottery shards, I stopped to read the description: ancient osctra, the pottery ballots on which Athenians would scratch the names of those they wanted banished. There, on the top piece, I haltingly made out the scrawled letters: pi . . . epsilon . . . rho . . . Pericles. I needed a moment before I could move on. The Parthenon, the Erechteion, The Temples of Hephaestus and Olympian Zeus all are stunning. But Athens is full of big surprises in small places. Don’t limit yourself to the major sites.
The past is everywhere in Athens, but puts no brakes on the present. It shares the city gladly with trams, hardware stores, and frappés. Past and present aren’t the only coexisting contrasts. How could anyone dislike Athens? If you don’t like where you are, all you have to do is turn right or left and walk half a kilometre and things will change. Wait for the sun to set or the city to wake up from its afternoon nap and things will change. Let go of your notions of a classical capital city and things will change.
Bill and I sat one night in Syntagma Square, watching wave after wave of late shoppers wait for the light and then head doggedly for the metro. Rather than fight that mass of people with their elegant loads, we strolled down Ermou toward Monastiraki, the street slowly changing, the shops gradually becoming a little less polished, the graffiti more prevalent. Another night I stepped out of the metro stop at Thisio and headed down Apostolou Pavlou, part of the pedestrian road that rings the Acropolis. I immediately retraced my steps, convinced that I was lost. What that afternoon had been a wide, but quiet, paved path was now clogged with cotton candy stands and buskers. Some sort of illuminated whirly contraption was shooting up in the sky. I probably could have bought one for 5 Euros.
Bill and I prowled the block long stalls of the laiki near our hotel—one of the weekly farmer’s markets that set up in Athens’ neighbourhoods—admiring watermelon redder than any I’ve seen from Georgia as the hawkers called out their wares. We listened to the thwack of cleavers hitting meat and wood at the Central Market (warning: this is not a vegetarian friendly zone) and window shopped designer duds in Kolonaki. One night we ate spinach pie and drank ouzo while watching Indiana Jones at an outdoor theatre; another we tapped our toes to free jazz. Bill’s quest for meat led us down Evripidou past stores full of every weight and type of string, stores selling fishnet body suits, stores that proclaimed their goods in bilingual Chinese and Greek, stores whose fronts were strung with strings of spice, the scent of spilling onto the street. At the end, Telis and the biggest plate of pork chops you’ve ever seen. Bill was in hog heaven.
And of course there was our final night when I left Bill exhausted in our hotel room and went to meet some of the finest people I’ve ever known: Gas, Nick, Okeanos, Thalia, and my fellow visitors Susan and Jim. Without those four ambassadors, as well as the absent Electric Odyssey and GVRGirl, my trip to Athens would not have been as rich. We ate, we drank (well, some of us did), we jokingly argued, and like Cinderella, I left too soon. I guess I’ll just have to come back to Athens for that slipper I left on the Acropolis steps.
Pictures at http://flickr.com/photos/25804015@N00/sets/72157605550681647/