Athens. Here is the most apt analogy I can provide for my visit to Athens:
I was on the metro system, which is surely a lasting relic of the 2004 Olympics, and people-watching. I felt a little guilty noticing, but there was no denying the browned teeth, sunken eyes, and overall lack of attractiveness that I had found so appealing and ubiquitous in Paris. I finally spotted one young woman across from me leaning up against the doors of the metro who was beautiful, though the rings around her eyes lent her an air of fatigue she might have felt for years. She had long, velvet brown hair, deep and dark Greek eyes, and a smooth complexion. I admired her beauty, what was left of it, for a couple seconds, until she slowly raised a finger up and thrust it deep into her right nostril, twisting it around for a few of my stunned heartbeats. I was relieved she didn’t stare at or consume the olfactory output, but I was disheartened nonetheless.
The metro system in Athens is curious. The signs displaying ETA countdowns of incoming trains display both minutes and seconds, but the seconds remain at 00″. This bothered me more than it should have, even more than the shrill opera music that boomed and echoed down the cavernous waiting areas. And even more strange was that the entry to the subways is enforced by some sort of “honor code” system, where one must buy a ticket, insert/validate it at a stand-alone pole, and walk unimpeded into the station. On my return to the airport the morning after arriving, I took my ticket from the previous day and inserted it into the validation machine, which turned green and made a happy beep, and walked into the station. The fine for not validating a ticket is sixty times the ticket price, but I had no idea whether or not I was liable.
Due to flight time complications (I was the second person through security at ORLY airport in Paris), I had barely slept, so when I arrived at my hotel and I immediately crashed in exhaustion. When I woke in the late afternoon, I only had enough site/sight-seeing time to climb the Acropolis, the sacred fist of rock upon which sit the Parthenon and temple of Athena Nike, among others. The Athens I saw was low and sprawling like a flood, so the height of the Acropolis makes it seem the center of a city with no center. Having heard and read so much of this place, I was surprised to feel little of the emotion I felt upon first seeing la Seine in Paris. Perhaps it was because the rock was crawling with other tourists, snapping away from behind their iPads and cameras.
I can’t remotely relish experiences like this when I have to share it with strangers (a “Happy Pizza,” like the one I had when I first visited the temples of Angkor, may (would) have helped me zone out everyone else’s presence). Also distracting was that the whole peak seemed to be statically under repair- static, because many of the tools, machines, and scaffolding had gathered dust. Descending the Acropolis, the ground and air were arid and in stasis. Cicadas buzzed loudly from every tree, and the soil looked less fertile than a beach.
After this, I wandered through the neighborhood below- Plaka- which crawled up the lower slopes of the Acropolis. It was an intriguing maze of narrow streets, too narrow for a car and filled with grapevines, whose constant bending and turns seemed
to egg me on further and higher. I wound my way up as high as I could, stopping once to hang out with a group of 10 stray cats. Even they couldn’t hold a candle to the Parisian strays, which take perfectly formed, crispy baguette dumps.
I’ve been very unfair here. Beautiful or not, the people (and cats) of Athens were generally very helpful and friendly. The restaurants on the hills of Plaka were charming and romantic, the hosts smiling and unpushy, and more than once I found myself overlooking a fenced set of ruins that no one had attempted to “revive.” These I preferred vastly to the Acropolis, knowing that the only hands besides those of Father Time to have carved the stones had withered away to bleached bones two thousand years ago.
I enjoyed my dinner right on the edge of one such field of ruins, with the sun setting just behind. I only had 15 Euros on me, exactly enough for a good meal and a half liter of wine (when in Greece…). For this reason I asked the waiter whether service was included, and when I tried to change my order to accommodate his tip he refused to let me change my order, instead insisting I return another time a provide his tip then. The place had excellent food and a view, and was called Dioskourio.
Seeing me with my pitcher of wine and thinking me a sad sight, a group of four drunk Greeks the next table over urged me to come sit with them. This is something I love about traveling solo- this unsolicited invitation would not have come otherwise. Two men and two women, childhood friends, proceeded to pepper me with questions and insisted I come with them to some local bars. After passing by nighttime lit ruins nearby that they found completely unremarkable, we went to one fantastic bar called Brettos which distilled its own colorful liqueurs, brightly lit up in a library of rainbows behind the bar. Then a flurry of unanticipated action and questionable decision making was followed by a 4:00 am cab ride back to my hotel and an amusing Skype call to Steven D Cohen.
I arrived at no grand conclusions or epiphanies while here, and everything I’ve written is essentially a chronological recount of my brief stay. In all honesty, I outwardly feel that this length of stay was enough of a taste, but I still have a sneaking suspicion that I missed much and more of the city that would resonate with me. I do intend to go back someday, if only just to find that waiter and give him his tip, with considerable interest.
Hello-yasho, yassos to many
Efradisto- Thank you