Sunday, 29 May 2016

europe 2016, day 10: athens (may 7)

It is 11am on Sunday, May 8, and I am sitting at a table outside on a balcony in our bed-and-breakfast in Santorini with what I am well aware is a view anyone might envy me. The view was new to us this morning - we arrived here from Athens late last night (our flight landed at midnight) so we couldn't see anything yesterday except some twinkling lights indicating to us where all the houses stood on the island. Our taxi ride from Santorini Airport in itself was quite the adventure, though. For one thing, the driver paid no heed to the double yellow lines on the road that I am fairly certain mean the same thing here as they do in America, and swerved around Santorini's winding roads and hills at a reckless pace. He also had any number of friends calling him every few minutes - what they had to talk about at midnight I can only imagine; all I could understand was "Hela!" and "Ciao ciao ciao." Halfway through the ride I saw Tiff reaching surreptitiously for her seatbelt. Wise decision, I thought.

When we arrived at our B&B (Ersi Villa), the reception was dark and the door locked, though our host Elias had told Judy he would be waiting for us. We stood there a little disconcerted for a few minutes wondering what to do when a little old lady with tightly curly hair emerged from around the corner in her pyjamas and wordlessly approached us, beckoning us to follow her. It turned out that she was Elias's mother, and that Elias himself wasn't there "because it is Saturday night." An understandable explanation.

She took us up to our room, cautioned us not to drink the tap water as it's salty, told us breakfast would be from 8:30am to 10:30am, and left us to collapse onto our beds. That was all last night (May 7) in the dark, so waking up today and going outside to actually see what our surroundings looked like was a load of fun, and sheer delight.


Break above represents Judy calling me to join her in going to talk to Elias, our host, about things to do today. And now I'm sitting and writing this on a rocky overhang on the edge of Oia watching a beautiful sunset -- but hang on a second here and let's back this up to yesterday's full day in Athens. Santorini will come in its proper place and time.

We started our day early, leaving our Airbnb (and our backpacks, which we would pick up later from our host George), and set off for Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus in central Athens to meet our guide for the walking tour we'd booked, Bill-or-Jimmy. Ours ended up being the Jimmy half of Bill-or-Jimmy, and we started off on our tour with him in what might fairly be called the most eclectic group of tourists ever assembled. Jimmy himself was a rare gem. Born and raised in Australia to Greek immigrant parents who later moved back to Greece when he was in his early twenties. His story goes that not long after they moved, he flew out to Greece for a visit (after much urging from them) and apparently was seized when he landed at the airport - wanted for mandatory military service, as his parents had registered him as a dual Greek and Australian citizen. I imagine such a moment would have had a life-shattering shock, but it seems to have worked out well for him, as he's still living in Athens and settled with his own family twenty years later.

We started our tour with the background on Hadrian's Arch, built by - wouldn't you know it - the Roman emperor Hadrian when he came to rule. Hadrian was a philhellene - a friend/lover of the Greeks and Greek culture - and the one to take up again the task of finishing the Temple of Zeus after work on it had been halted. The temple was the first thing you would see through Hadrian's Arch upon entering the central city from the outskirts.

After Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus, we headed to Zappeion Hall, the first building to be built for the revival of the modern Olympics in the 19th century, and whose benefactor, Evangelos Zappas, is known as the founder of the modern Olympic Games. As the aristocrat who instructed the stadium to be refurbished in marble and the one to sponsor the costs for doing so, he is also where Greeks get the phrase "Who's going to pay for the marble?" - today used to ask someone how they plan to pay the price of an expensive purchase. For instance, a father might say to his son who has just told him he wants a new car, "And who's going to pay for the marble?"

I like this phrase. I think I will start incorporating it into my daily speech whenever I can.

From Zappeion we headed to the Olympic Stadium itself. It was a grand sight. The stadium seats 60,000 people, which is an insane number. I have trouble picturing what 600 people looks like, let alone 60,000. Tiff bought a giant spanakopita from a food stand there and shared it with us.

Next we headed to Syntagma Square. Syntagma means "constitution" - the square is a symbol/celebration of when the Greeks demanded and received their first constitution. Parliament buildings are there, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Got to see the interesting spectacle that was the changing of the guards at Syntagma, and Jimmy explained to us the symbolism behind all of the pieces of their uniforms, fantastically bizarre ensembles which would have gotten ripped to shreds by the judges on Project Runway. The red hat symbolizes the blood shed during the 400 years of oppressive Ottoman rule. The black dangly tassel type accessory hanging from their hats stands for the tears shed by mothers during this reign. The kilt has 400 curls, or pleats, or some such thing that you could fit 400 of onto the fabric, another representation of the 400 years, and the shoes have large pompoms, because everyone loves a good pompom. As a side bonus, these pompoms are also where soldiers could hide small daggers for hand to hand combat. Killer shoes.

Of course, there is a possibility that Jimmy just made all of this up to make the terrible fashion nightmare that was the soldiers' uniforms a little more justifiable. But that level of fabrication wouldn't even be worth the effort. At least their hats were slightly less ridiculous than those of the Buckingham Palace guards.

We were allowed to go up to stand next to the guards for pictures, Jimmy informed us, but strictly prohibited under any circumstances from doing any of the following things while we stood next to them:
  1. Touching them
  2. Throwing up a peace sign
  3. Giving a thumbs up
  4. Making any sort of gesture with our hands, really
  5. Taking a selfie with them
  6. Grabbing their noses and yelling "got yer nose!"
That last one might not have been stated explicitly as a forbidden activity. Easily inferred, though. Guard positions are highly respected in Greece and it's not just any old Joe who can become one. To qualify to become a guard you have to be over a certain height (I believe 180cm), at least fairly good looking, and able to pass a series of rigorous examinations. Tall, handsome, intelligent Joes only. As such, they must be afforded the highest respect. No selfie stick foolishness, or nonsensical hand gestures, please.

Also, apparently, if you broke any of those rules, the guard would have the right to bang his weapon on the ground loudly to a) let the supervisor guard know he was being disturbed and b) give the rule-breaker a heart attack. When Judy went and stood next to him to take a picture, half of me was hoping she would accidentally bump into him so I could see him bang his weapon and give her a scare. The other half of me was thinking, wow it's super hot and I could really go for a milkshake right now.

After Syntagma, we made a quick pit stop so we could all take a bathroom break, and also so we could get our second cup of frozen Greek yoghurt. We then headed back toward Monastiraki Square (heading back to Monastiraki was a recurring theme all throughout the day) but took a different fork, following the road that led up to the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. Along the way up we also got a nice view of the Agora, which was pretty dang cool. Seventh grade social studies vocab quizzes coming to life!

I spent a good portion of the hike up to Mars Hill lamenting my decision to wear jeans instead of shorts because it ended up being much hotter than I'd expected. Tiff's biggest regret on our trip is the time and money spent on Skansen in Stockholm (which she has brought up, I want to say, about once a day since then); mine is easily any time I don't dress correctly for the weather. Time spent doing something not super fun? All good, still a pleasant memory. Four euros on low quality, instant hot chocolate? Fine, at least it warmed me up when I was freezing in that forever-line waiting to get into the Anne Frank house. But skinny jeans when I could have worn shorts, and I am a duck dying in the rain. My usually sunny outlook on life turns dreary, dampened by the constant aggravation and despair over the fact that I could have been nice and cool but am sweating instead. It's somehow the one thing I can't be optimistic about. 

In spite of the heat, we reached the foot of Mars Hill soon enough. The first thing we saw upon arriving was a plaque embedded into the rock which had the message that the apostle Paul preached on that rock a couple of thousand years ago to the Greeks. Does it get more surreal than that?

We climbed up to the top and were greeted with breathtaking views of the city of Athens and a lovely view up to the Acropolis and Parthenon (unfortunately closed for admission because of the government strikes). The view of Athens itself was so pretty. Did I write last night that Athens wasn't pretty? Well, I was incredibly stupid. Athens is beautiful. There are no buildings higher than the Acropolis (there's a law to prevent any from being built in order to preserve the view), no skyscrapers blocking any horizons, and instead you can see everything for miles and miles of uninterrupted landscape. Or cityscape, whatever. 

And to be looking down at all this magnificence from Areopagus, where Paul preached to the Greeks about God the creator of the universe - his famous "to an unknown god" sermon - well, there aren't really any words to adequately describe what that feels like. Before sleeping last night I read Acts 17, the passage that details Paul's preaching on Areopagus, and tried to let it sink in that I had been able to stand on that very same hill just hours before. It didn't.

We spent a good deal of time up there, enjoying the view, walking around, taking pictures, reflecting, marveling. Said goodbye to and tipped Jimmy, who had been a really excellent tour guide, and he gave us a recommendation for dinner on Adrianou Street, giving us a business card for the restaurant and telling us to tell the owner that Jimmy had sent us, so we would get well taken care of. We thanked him and then left Mars Hill, headed to a popular hole in the wall place for gyros (again) called O Kostas.

We then took the increasingly familiar trek back to Monastiraki to hunt up the smoothie place we had found the day before for more Greek yoghurt and smoothies. Spent some more time popping in and out of the shops like so many whack-a-moles constantly appearing in different places, with a particularly long stop in one very colourful, very pretty shop full of scarves and tea towels. I think that was Tiff's heaven. 

Next stop was the Acropolis Museum, which was thankfully still open despite the strikes since it's a privately owned institution. The Acropolis Museum is fairly new - built in 2009 on the slopes of the Acropolis - and displays all of the statues, friezes, and artifacts that were found in the ruins. Super interesting stuff. The bottom floor had glass squares laid in so you could look down below into the archaeological site of the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood, and some random everyday artifacts on display. First floor was filled with statues that were around the Acropolis, and the top floor was the Parthenon Gallery. There was a reconstruction from all the salvaged parts of the massive frieze in the Parthenon of the entire frieze as it would have looked in the temple, with giant slabs of sculpted marble all hanging all around the gallery. Some panels were empty - the missing panels are on display in the British Museum, which bought them from Lord Elgin, who came and took them from Greece to take back to England. Something the Greeks are none too pleased about. I saw the missing sculptures when I went to the British Museum a few years earlier; I had thought that they looked very majestic and impressive. They would have looked even more majestic and impressive in their rightful place in the Parthenon Gallery.

But since they couldn't be on display there, I liked that the Acropolis Museum had those empty spaces instead with the signs saying those pieces were in the British Museum. Like a super passive aggressive dig at the British.

I also saw the remnants of the sculptures depicting the great contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens, and Athena's virgin birth from Zeus's head. I love Greek mythology because it makes so much sense.

We spent about an hour and a half at the museum, then headed where else but back to Monastiraki, which was quickly coming to feel like our home base in the city. Collectively decided to go to the restaurant Jimmy had recommended for dinner, which was at 9 Adrianou Street. After a bit of walking, I saw number 9 and exclaimed, "It's this one!" We were peering at the menu stand to see what the prices were like when the host, a bronze-skinned old man with an excellent white mustache popped up and greeted us effusively.

Wanting to confirm that this was indeed the place we were looking for, Judy asked him, "Do you know Jimmy?"

"Jimmy, yes!" he responded enthusiastically.

We looked at each other and shrugged; this must be the place, we acknowledged. Before we had a chance to hesitate, we found ourselves being seated at one of the many outdoor tables with a nice view of the Parthenon, our host pushing together two tables to give us the best view and most comfortable seating - "for Jimmy's guests!"

It was only after we were thus seated that we questioned whether this actually was the right place, as the name didn't look quite like the one we had on the business card, though the address matched. Judy decided she was curious and wanted to check, so up she got to investigate. She came back to our table a moment later, laughing, "Guys, this isn't the place. It's the one right next door."

Tiff's and my responses to this discovery were typically characteristic. She immediately became somewhat disgruntled, assuming our host had lied to us about knowing Jimmy just to get butts on seats. I wasn't convinced this was the case - he had responded so surely and easily - he could very well know Jimmy too, he was just next door - innocent until proven guilty, I pleaded. Either way, we'd already sat down and Jimmy's-friend-or-not-friend had brought us water, so it was too late to back out. It didn't really matter, though. The food was delicious - tzatziki and stuffed tomatoes and pork gyros - the view still beautiful and surreal, and the atmosphere simultaneously lively and mellow.

As we were paying our bill, our host came and brought us a platter of fruit for dessert, free of charge. "For Jimmy's guests!" he said happily. This seemed to change Tiff's mind about him.

"I guess maybe he does know Jimmy, then," she said amiably, spearing a strawberry on her fork.

Strangely enough, this free dessert had the opposite effect on me, and the doubt crept into my mind that perhaps Tiff had been right and he had only pretended to know Jimmy to get us to sit down. It seems we'll never know for certain, but regardless of whether or not he actually knew Jimmy, he treated us as if he did, which is what counts, I suppose.

After we polished off our fruit, we headed back to Monastiraki Square for the final time, this time to meet George, our Airbnb host to pick up our backpacks, which he had very kindly stored for us while we were sightseeing and driven to bring to us. We met him and his pretty fiancee, whom Panos had told us he'd been with for nine - nine! - years. Even at a first look, George seemed the polar opposite of Panos - steadier, perhaps inclined to a quieter, more stable lifestyle than Panos, who seems much more a friend-of-all-the-world-adventure-is-out-there type of guy. But George and his fiancee were both lovely, and we were touched once again by the kindness of everyone we'd met in Athens.

I think that is one of the biggest reasons I loved Athens as much as I did - so much more than I had been expecting to. At every turn, we were met with unfailing warmth: Panos, Maria, Steph, Jimmy, Jimmy's-friend-or-not-friend-we'll-never-know, George. There was not a moment of any hour while we were in Athens that some kind soul was not taking care of us, or instructing someone else to take care of us, and it made all the difference in the world.

Thank you, Athens.

No comments:

Post a Comment