(Note to readers: I still have one Italy post which is forthcoming. I apologize that this is out of order)
“We are a country afraid of itself,” said a man stopping to give us directions. This he told us by way of explaining we should be careful on the streets and that even locals have to worry for their safety. Pickpockets mostly, nothing too serious, but it left a very negative impression on this elderly man who expressed deep skepticism about the state of his country.
He may be on to something. While we’ve never felt unsafe, there is a dark feeling to Athens. It’s almost certainly attributable to the Euro crisis. You can see it in the graffiti covering almost every imaginable surface of the city, the lack of tourist crowds at the acropolis, the heavily armed police and private security guards that monitor even the most ordinary shops, and the generally solemn dispositions of people we pass by. Even the beggars seem particularly afflicted. This is a city in crisis, economic, and perhaps cultural as well.
Needless to say this city has some grit. It’s dirty, needs infrastructure maintenance, has a serious gypsy problem, but isn’t as noisy as you’d expect. I’m perfectly happy with some grit in my travels. There’s something banal about the sterile and predictable. Athens does flirt with the darker side of gritty, however. Maybe it’s the drug needle litter and stray dogs everywhere.
Call it what you like, but it is a fascinating time to be in Greece. There’s an inner journalist in me that wants to learn and tell the stories of these peoples. Being a fairly social individual, I’ve already had a variety of conversations that have given me some insight into the state of the country. I’ve included these along with some observations below.
Rivaled perhaps by our experience in Umbria, Greece has the nicest people that we’ve come across yet. We had a six-hour train ride from Thessaloniki to Athens, and made friends with everyone in the train car (Angelika, Nadiya, and interestingly, Socrates). By the end of the trip Angelika was scribbling down every restaurant to try and places to go while in Athens. She was also the first to me some dark foreshadowing for our experience in Athens.
“What do you expect from Athens,” she asked with genuine curiosity. The tone in her voice told me to lower my expectations. I told her politely that I didn’t have any.
Apart from the train ride we’ve been stopped on street corners and asked by perfect strangers if they could help us, received friendly smiles and helpful directions from burly looking security guards, and everyone at our hotel was extremely accommodating (although I suppose they’re paid to be that way).
I’m sure that this sort of hospitality and friendliness is deeply ingrained in their culture. I also wonder to what extent their friendliness to us tourists is influenced by the steep decline in tourism in their tourism-based economy.
This is a country where merchants, musicians, and other salesmen try the hard pitch to get your business. By that I mean they approach you and are somewhat persistent, however, always friendly. Walking down the Plaka (the main strip in the old town, a very pretty part of the city), just about every host, hostess and restaurant owner is in front of their store trying to usher you inside with promises of nice cold drinks, traditional home Greek recipes, or just telling you to come “right this way.” Often times they’ll follow you for 10 meters to offer up additional appeals to get you to come inside.
Initially this bothered me. I don’t like getting approached, or at least I’m not used to it. I initially ignored them and looked at the ground. Then I realized that it is a cultural characteristic and no one is being rude or pushy. After that epiphany I just politely thanked them for their offer and kept walking. The gypsies, however, are another story. More about that later.
No surprise, but Greek yogurt is a hit here. We had some served with breakfast at our hotel and found it somewhat leathery and thick, very unlike what we have at home. Sydney didn’t care for it much, but I thought it was OK.
At a café on Monastiraki Square we walked into a Greek yogurt shop that sold by the cup with an extremely wide and diverse variety of toppings. You could have the usual fruit toppings you’d expect but also peppers, figs, other vegetables and certain berries that I’d never heard of before: sea berries and bilberries. I tried the sea berries on my frozen yogurt along with some honey. They’re bright orange and look a lot like a corn kernel. They’re rather sour and somewhat bitter. They went surprisingly well with my thick creamy yogurt and they sticky sweet honey.
When begging, they don’t respect your initial ‘no’, or your second, third or fourth. Chunky gypsies with mouths full of gold teeth try and put on as if they’re starving, clutching their also fat sons to help their pitch. I didn’t buy it and they’re much more persistent than any other country I’ve been to. I had a fat gypsy child snatch a sandwich out of my hand and run away with a frown on his face as if I owed it to him.
History Under your Feet
It’s a fascinating thought that all around you, underneath your feet, there are the remains of an ancient civilization that was an essential component of what is western civilization. In addition to the obvious places like the Acropolis, you occasionally see these ruins pop up in ordinary places. We saw a construction site that was building some sort of residential or commercial structure, however, by law in Greece new constructions have to be excavated by archeologists. Sure enough, there was what looked to be an ancient house about 15 feet below ground.
Heavy police and private security presence
Police are decked out in black Kevlar with some heavy-duty firepower. They also like to ride doubled up on a motorcycle. They’re very common throughout the city. And where there are no police, there are private security guards guarding just about anything. Regular parking garages, an ordinary grocery store: you’ll find them. They’re very friendly, but it adds to this idea that Athens is guarding itself from itself. I understand a lot of this mentality. There are certainly plenty of security guards in America and plenty of police (though not as menacing looking).
Practically Empty Streets
It’s a very strange site to see the Acropolis. That is, to see it without elbowing through a crowd of tourists. There were about 20 other tourists with us on the top of the Acropolis – Greece’s most famous tourism site. For us, it was really neat. One of the worlds most famous vistas and historical sites, practically to ourselves. We took tons of pictures that are brilliantly lacking the brightly colored hat of the tourist taking a picture in front of you, or the family photo taking place to your left. None of that. Just us. On top of Greece. Pretty cool. And eerie. Eerie and cool.
Sheep brains were being swept off the floor as we entered a particularly gnarly market in the center of the city. I don’t know if this was a little house of horrors first and food market second, but they had all kinds of the more brutal looking carnivorous cuisines on fare. We walked by tables of what appeared to be cow livers, baskets of meaty sheep skulls, brains, lots of blood on the floor, and soviet looking butchers sucking on cigarettes. It was a weird sight.