Friday, 27 May 2016

europe 2016, day 9: athens (may 6)

Today was a highlight day. One for the books. I'm in Athens right now (what a thing to be able to say!) in another lovely Airbnb - not as delightful as the Brussels one, but still nice - and it's difficult to realize that I was just in Belgium this morning. But I was, and there you have it - the (insane) nature of traveling around Europe.

We had another early start in Brussels today, but not as early as it was supposed to be, seeing as all of us overslept and woke up at 6:45am, which is when we had intended to leave the apartment. With some noteworthy hustling on everyone's part, we were ready and out the door to Gare du Nord in 20 minutes. Once we got there we played my favourite game of Pick the Shortest Line and failed spectacularly, choosing the one line with the lady who took the same amount of time to buy her tickets as five people in the line next to us. It took an eternity but we finally got our tickets, and made it to Brussels Airport in a timely fashion.

At the airport we saw evidence of heightened security in light of the recent attacks - lots of armed soldiers everywhere, for one thing, though I'm not sure how much safer that made us feel. Got through to our gate without too much trouble. Judy set off the metal detector and got a patdown, which made me feel safe - you never know, with Judy - and Tiff got her juice confiscated, which made her feel sad. On the plane at 9:30am and all three of us immediately knocked out, waking up three hours later in Greece.

We'd originally planned to take the metro from the airport to our Airbnb, but our host, George, contacted me the night before our flight and told us that there were strikes planned on pretty much all forms of public transportation for the weekend that we would be there. So the metro was a no go, but on the bright side, we got to have the true Greek experience of not being able to take public transport anywhere thanks to strikes.

Thankfully, George arranged for his friend, Panos, also an Airbnb host, to come and pick us up from the airport and take us to our apartment for 40 euros, which was cheaper than a taxi. The main problem was how to get in touch with this Panos, of whom I knew nothing besides his name and the fact that he was going to meet us at exit five. This turned out not to be that big of a problem, however, as we did have a cell phone number, and we realized Tiff could use international data to iMessage him.

Tiff texted him and he immediately called; she handed the phone to me and our conversation went something like this:

"Hi, this is Panos!!!!!!"

"Hi Panos! This is Yurie. Are you here at the airport? We're outside exit five right now."

"I'm on my way - I will be there in two minutes! Exit five, yes??"


"Okay very good. And you have to cross the street since it's a taxi line right outside; I will pick you up in the middle lane."

"Got it. We'll cross and wait for you there."

"Great, I will see you girls soon! Also, can you take a picture of yourself and send it to me so I can recognize you?"

No, actually, I can't, because I look like I just walked through a hedge backwards and haven't showered in five days, I wanted to tell him.

Instead I said, "Oh!....Sure." And hung up.

"What did he say?" Tiff immediately asked once I handed back her phone. She had been - I won't say paranoid - extremely cautious about texting the number and giving away too many details about ourselves before we could verify it was actually the person we were supposed to get in touch with. I had tried to argue that this caution was unnecessary given that it was the number George gave us directly and short of someone ambushing Panos on his way to the airport and stealing his phone and posing as him, there was no reason it wouldn't be the right guy. To no avail. But it's always good to have one paranoid person in the group.

"He said he's on his way. He sounds nice. And you need to take a picture of me."


"He asked me to send him a picture so he can recognize us. Judy, do you want to be in this picture with me please." It wasn't really a question.

"Nope," Judy said promptly, and sidled away from me.

So I proceeded to pose awkwardly for a terrible photo which Tiff took and sent to Panos, after which we stood outside and looked out for a grey Kia. After several minutes, we saw him approaching, and as he pulled up to the curb the first thing he said was, "I liked your selfie!"

Panos turned out to be a big Greek guy, I guessed late twenties, with a broad and easy smile and a cheerful, welcoming manner that made all three of us feel at home in this country at once. A gift, that. We all piled into his car cosily and had a very enjoyable forty minute drive into the city. Panos is one of those naturally great, comfortable conversationalists in whose company it's impossible to feel ill at ease. The ride passed cheerfully with him cracking jokes, singing along loudly to the radio, asking us about ourselves, airing his thoughts and opinions freely, and telling us his own endless supply of travel stories. He's a full time Airbnb host with several listings that he manages at once, and also runs his own business in hospitality that involves helping and coaching other hosts to provide the best experiences for their guests. In the past two years, he has met nine hundred people, and in the past six months, visited twelve countries. Let's put this in perspective. In the past two years, I would guess that I've met about seventy new people, and in the past six months, I've visited five countries (but for most of the year, that number is zero or one).

When we got to our Airbnb, Panos let us in (he and George are best friends, and he helps George out with his guests quite frequently when George is unable to meet them, it seems) and gave us the quick walk through. He also invited us to a dinner he was planning for that evening, an invitation we readily accepted.

This settled, Panos went on his way, and we three got cleaned up and ready to hit the city. We called an Uber - since the strikes ruled out every other option - which, amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, which is the amazing thing, cost only five euros for a fifteen-or-so minute ride into the city center. Tiff was particularly excited about this - I could tell because she kept reminding us of it every twenty minutes for the rest of the afternoon.

We got dropped off at Monastiraki Flea Market, a giant flea market surrounding a central square that we had wanted to explore today. We immediately picked a street to disappear down, and wandered leisurely around, exclaiming all the while the surrealness of being there. This, we would say to each other, this is unreal. Amsterdam and Stockholm and Brussels were unreal but this is the unreal-est unreal. From the central square where we started out, you could see the Acropolis in the distance, and that alone was cause for all of us to really freaking flip out about where we were.

After not too much time meandering, we decided we wanted gyros and stopped at a little gyros shop to eat. It was upon taking our first bites that we all three simultaneously fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Greece. Heaven inside a pita for the too-good-to-be-true price of 2.50 euros. Every bite after the first one reaffirmed for us the fantastic decision we had made to add Greece to our trip.

Following the best three dollar meal we'd ever eaten, we resumed our wandering through the market streets, stopping occasionally to look around cute or interesting shops. The narrow side streets that all lead into each other and that are all lined with little shops reminded me very much of Seoul, especially Myeongdong. Right down to the persistent shop and cafe/restaurant owners who walk alongside you and try to coax you inside - though here it's mostly men, not women, and they are more charming and jolly than aggressive. The cafes and restaurants were especially pleasant to pass by - outdoor tables galore, live music, delicious looking food, clinking of glasses, a lot of laughing.

Athens doesn't strike me as a very pretty city the way Amsterdam was, or even particularly clean, but what you do get here is the distinct awareness of how ancient the city is. And largely because of this it has a flavour that the other cities we've visited don't have. Also - maybe because of the grubbiness and degree of non-perfection here - I felt oddly at home today walking the streets. It really did feel like Seoul in a lot of places.

Stops we made included a smoothie place for a strawberry smoothie that had Greek yoghurt in it - deliciously fresh - and one of the many shops selling about a thousand varieties of olive oil so Tiff and Judy could pick some up for their mums and so I could pick up some gifts as well. By the time we were done at these places, it was approaching late afternoon, so we started making our way toward the area we were supposed to meet Panos for dinner, near the Acropolis.

We stopped once again near the Acropolis Museum, this time for some frozen Greek yoghurt with nuts and honey which caught our eye. One spoonful and I was convinced that this was what the ancient Greek gods subsisted on. Bye bye forever, Chobani. Bye bye forever, Yogurtland. Bye bye forever, any other yoghurt of any kind, Greek or otherwise, that is not actually eaten in Greece.

After this perfect little rest stop, during which we all lamented that we would never be able to eat yoghurt in America again, we explored the surrounding area for about another hour and then headed to the restaurant Panos had picked for dinner. He was already there before us, and once we arrived he introduced us to his friend Steph, who had recently moved to Athens from London, where she'd been working in product management in the tech scene. She told us she had quit her job to go traveling, fallen in love with Greece last October, and decided to come back to live here for a spell. She now works with Panos as a host as well - he seems to have a talent for drawing people to him and sparking enthusiasm and energy for the things he's enthusiastic and energetic about.

Once the introductions were made, Panos put us in the care of Maria, the restaurant host/server, while he and Steph finished up some work. Maria ties with Panos for my favourite person that we've met so far on our trip. She was a petite blonde woman, wearing tightly fitting overalls that looked fantastic on her, talkative in the same way as Panos which made us all feel instantly taken care of, and bossy in a delightfully motherly manner.

We went ahead and ordered while we waited for Panos and Steph to finish working. Tzatziki, lamb, and moussaka (which took Maria a few minutes to teach us successfully how to pronounce with the correct emphasis). Again, could find fault with nothing - the tzatziki and bread in particular were perfect.

Panos and Steph joined us soon after, and ordered their own food, which they readily put on our plates as well. With their added company, an already lovely dinner became even more enjoyable. After having been only with each other in our little bubble of a trio for the past week, it was refreshing to have outside company and really interact with new people beyond casual conversations in shops and hostel shuttles. Both Panos and Steph are easygoing and open, and have traveled extensively, and consequently both had a lot of stories to share. Dinner flew by in a pleasing blur of great conversation and delicious food, with Maria checking on us periodically to admonish us to give her empty plates.

We finally parted at around 10pm, saying bye to Panos, Steph, and Maria - who gave us all hearty kisses on both cheeks as she hugged us bye - and hopping into another Uber back to our Airbnb. Feel like I got to experience a lot of the famed Greek hospitality firsthand today, and was very blessed by that. I'm inspired by people like Panos and Maria and how easily they welcome others - hoping to carry some of that spirit back with me to California and into my own life.

Athens, I'm in love.

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