Athens: Thoughts From Three Years Younger

I’m heading back to Greece again in two weeks!

When I first booked a ticket to Athens three years ago, I had no idea what a big part of my life the country was about to become. Here’s an edited-down journal entry I wrote while I was there and once I’d left…

Late November 2017, and the thoughts went something like this:

East Meets West

Athens. I’d never given the city much thought prior to going there, but when round-trip tickets bounced back on my search engine in the “very affordable” category, I just booked ’em without much of a second thought. Having had my heart-strings pulled on a few times by the horrifying news stories of Syrian refugees crashing upon Greek shores while escaping war torn cities, I had been searching for a way to become part of the solution all summer. With my current ticket getting me within a few hundred miles of the refugees, I got to work searching for a way to get involved. In short, I found my way “in”, but the organization I’d be working for/with didn’t have an opening for me until January.

With my ticket already booked, I decided to just enjoy my time in Athens in November. It was the perfect time to be there, escaping the encroaching winter of New York and cashing it in for the typical sun and 70’s of southern Greece. I spent my first week in solitude and then my friend flew over from the Netherlands to accompany my second week.

Athens defines the idea of East meeting West. The buildings, the people, the language. It’s something my cab driver told me on my way into the city from the airport, and although there wasn’t anything to base his words off of, it just sort of came together bit by bit, making more and more sense as my time in Athens grew.

Money

My cabbie also alerted me that Greece was “new poor”, meaning that they’re not used to being poor, it’s something that they’re still getting used to. They don’t know how to be poor yet. I didn’t experience many indicators of this newfound poorness–that’s not something one necessarily picks up on while wandering around a city, especially one that has a lot of tourism attached to it. I will say though, the few conversations I did have with people about money were certainly intriguing. One man suggested to me to leave a one or two Euro tip for every meal, coffee, or cab ride that I took. He further elaborated that if one tourist per day did this, it could significantly assist someone with paying their rent. Another man was far more frank about his financial situation: “It’s only a financial crisis for the people who don’t have money,” he said dismissively.

Mount LycaBettus

In what I can only assume is buried deep in my character at this point in my life, the first morning the sun rose in Athens, illuminating where I was in the world, I saw this massive hill that the apartment I was in sat right at the base of and knew I had to climb it. So, I did. The vantage point was enticing, the abundance of greenery at the peak was calling to me, but mostly, dammit, a hill, I have to climb it!

As I was soon to discover from the top of the hill, Athens is a sprawling sitting, situated between mountains and sea. In a few spots, the natural geography protrudes above the city buildings, disrupting the human construction with a handful of hills that present as too difficult to build on. I snapped photo after photo of the unique setting from this hilltop and then proceeded to revisit the top of that hill 10 more times throughout my stay, both during the day and in the middle of the night.

My hill, positioned on the right hand side of the photo with the distinctive beige buildings of Athens in the foreground.

Beige

I don’t know what the regulations are for Athens, or if there’s some structural benefit to it, but all of the buildings in Athens are the same color, beige. This made me feel that East meets West vibe even more as, from afar, the city seemed to resemble some of the Syrian cities I’d seen in documentaries I was using to preview the conflict the people I’d be working with were escaping. Geographically sepaking, Athens really is East meets West, as it borders the Middle East, is close to Africa, and acts as the gateway to the European Union. I was grateful each time I was able to sit atop this city. Of all of the apartments in the city, I’d rented out one that was within proximity of this crucial hill.

Police

At night, even after midnight a time or two, I ventured up the hill to gaze out at the city lights, my favorite part being the Parthenon–illuminated on another hilltop a few kilometres away. To me, it looks just like a miniature replica they sell at tourist shops. The night bares nothing to worry about in Athens. You can walk the streets with no issue, so I was told, and so I encountered. I’d also noticed that women didn’t seem to take much issue with being alone. They didn’t cross the street accordingly, or even seem to need to be especially aware of their surroundings. Athens isn’t America. The people seem to police each other, which seems highly effective. The police, I was told, are useless. Due to numerous laws, they aren’t really allowed to do anything. One man told me that you could literally walk up to a cop and start peeing on his shoe and there’s nothing he can do about it.

They do patrol the streets though, so people openly see them doing nothing and wasting tax payer dollars. Other interesting tidbits I learned from Greeks: When you’re in prison, you’re allowed to check-out, tool around in the free world, then check back in later. What? Also, if you murder someone, you get a “life sentence” which is not to exceed 15 years. 15 is the maximum sentence you can get in Greece. Also, if you’re assaulted, you need to be careful or you may end up in trouble. You can’t “respond” with more force than is being inflicted upon you or you’re the one that gets in trouble. For example, if someone attacks you with a gun, you better only defend yourself with a knife.

Food & Coffee

I feel like Gyros and coffee are everywhere in Athens. And for good reason–they’re both perfection. Even the vegetarian gyros are baller. They stuff them with french fries! And the cappuccinos here put all of the other cappuccinos I’ve ever had to complete and utter shame . There’s a coffee place just around the corner from the apartment, so it was fun to order from the same two baristas and help them practice their English.

Downside? Pollution. There were so many spots where I felt like I couldn’t escape the fumes from the cars. It just seemed to get trapped between the concrete and the buildings.

Ads or Politics?

A time or two in Guyana, specifically when I was in Corriverton, a coastal town that borders Suriname, a car drove by with loud speakers on top of it. The loud speakers ran a recording of advertisements for sales at the local shops. Retro–but effective, since a thirty-minute slow drive around town would be all that was necessary for everyone to hear about the sales. I was woken up by similar cars many times in my initial two weeks in Athens. The language though, made it so I couldn’t tell what the messages were about. It was probably Greek, but honestly, it could have been something else. Given the tone of the city and what I was learning, I don’t think these were ads being projected into the streets. I was also woken up one morning to a massive mob of people calling and responding through an adjoining street. Politically, some sort of mild unrest was going on.

The Acropolis on a dawning evening in the capital of Greece.

Language

It’s intriguing to exist in a culture where the language is so foreign. Not everyone knows English. And the Greek language is everywhere, on road signs, and in the air. Unlike my time in Guyana, I don’t stick out like a sore thumb in Greece. In fact, I actually somewhat blend in. It seems like 90 or 95% of men in Greece around my age seem to have dark hair and beards. This may seem silly, but the number of people who’ve approached me speaking Greek is staggering. I still haven’t been able to navigate how to politely signal to them that they need not complete their statements to me because I’m already clueless as to what they’re saying. A few times, I thought it best to let them finish, but then when I didn’t respond right away, they thought I needed the question rephrased. It’s comical. Especially the inevitable, disappointment Greek equivalent of “Oh” when they realize they’ve wasted their time on me. And then they march away…


Aaaaaaaaaand that’s all I got in terms of journal entries from my random first stint in Athens. I stayed for two weeks and then jetted back to the U.S. for a road-trip with my brother, Christmas with the family, and then made my way back over to Greece in January for my first round of volunteering with Echo100Plus, which ultimately rerouted my life. Now, I’m off to Greece again, for the fourth time. Each stint has grown in terms of time I’m over there, so I expect to be stateside again by 2025 or so. Just kidding. Maybe.

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