Vol. 67, In Greece: Athens
Two summers ago, my daughter and I joined a friend, her infant, and her mother on a multi-city jaunt through Greece, Italy, and France. Well, we didn’t make it to France. We left them in Rome, they went on to Florence, Venice and various points in France. The blessing was that my friend made the itinerary. She chose hotels, travel dates, modes of transportation. We traveled by bus, boat, and train. She believed in a “see more” approach to travel. Not my style, but I’m always open to new experiences.
My daughter and I arrived to Athens late at night before my friend and her mother arrived. They were to arrive early in the morning. Unfortunately, we arrived in the middle of a heat wave, daily temperatures of 100 degrees. Even more unfortunate was the fact that my friend booked us in no-frills hostel. She was using a trip she had taken years before as a template for this trip. However, her first trip was done solo with a sleeping bag. She was not seeking comfort, but rather adventure. As a new mother and with another mother (me) in tow, it was a different scene.
When we were safely installed in our room in the hostel, my daughter rebelled. At 4 and a half she was clear about one thing: the hostel sucked. “I don’t like this house,” she cried. We had just come from visiting friends in London who treated us with love and all of a sudden we were in a bare room in a building made of cinder blocks. The walls radiated all the heat the building had absorbed during the day. There was no air conditioner, no fans, and no ice. I promised my daughter that as soon as the sun came up we’d go out and find new housing. She had a hard time understanding why we couldn’t leave right then and there and find somewhere else to stay. I had a hard time feeling safe with the balcony doors flung open to catch the non-existent night breeze and putting up with the curious stares of the German (I presume) young men who were partying in the room next door to us.
When my friend finally arrived in the early dawn hours, she was shocked at the state of the hostel. We gathered up our suitcases, hit the pavement, and found a hotel around the corner for a cheaper price than what we were slated to pay at the hostel. After that hellish intro, we were delighted to find an open air market the next morning. It was right around the corner from our hotel and the vendors had beautiful fresh produce.
The train system in Athens is surprisingly beautiful and well-marbled. I presume it was renovated for the 2004 Olympics. I found it fascinating that there were no signs warning people to stay away from the tracks and no differently-colored edges on the platforms to show people how far back they should stand. I chuckled thinking about how different New Yorkers must be from the train riders in Athens. In New York, there are signs and announcements and bold orange or yellow strips on the edge of the platform warning passengers to stand back. And still people regularly stick their heads out down the track to check to see if their train is arriving.
On our first day, we found the National Garden of Athens which was gorgeous and huge. The garden contained a children’s library, an outdoor cafe, a play ground, a mini zoo and more. A few days later, we went to the Parthenon, which is set up on a hill. We had to do a bit of climbing to reach it. At the top, before you actually get to the Parthenon, you’re treated to a stunning view of the surrounding parts of Athens. It was wonder ful to look at these ancient structures and sculptures that I’ve studied since elementary school, however the Parthenon looked different than it looks in the history books because it was surrounded by cranes and archaeologists on scaffolding. There were signs noting that the current restoration was being done to “correct mistakes” from previous restorations and to incorporate some of the loose stones found around the site. With the effort of the climb, we were blessed to have an overcast day because the heat was no joke.
The Parthenon is the main attraction of the Acropolis complex, but the entire complex has two ancient theaters and other ruins. On our second night we went to a traditional Greek dance performance in one of the ancient open air amphitheaters. The costumes were incredibly complex. Most of them featured thickly-woven textiles either as belts, or skirts, or headpieces, sometimes even vests. The men’s costumes showed a traditional attitude toward fashion that seems not to exist in contemporary Greece. During one dance, the men wore fluffy miniskirts and shoes with pom poms; during another, they wore black tights, knee high white boots and sparkly necklaces. I guess in ancient Greece men took fashion very seriously!
When we went to the main shopping area of Athens we saw a few busloads of American travelers. I guess I’ve traveled “off the beaten path” so often, I didn’t know what it was like to travel well-traveled routes. I was also surprised at the large African presence in Athens. In the neighborhood where our hotel was located there were a few small neighborhood businesses run by Africans, and in the glitzy shopping area there were many roving bag sellers. Just like the unlicensed vendors, I see here in New York, these vendors had their wares arrayed on white sheets that were spread on the ground. When the police were sighted, the vendors quickly wrapped their wares in the sheet and bolted. The other unlicensed vendors were roving perfume sellers, these seemed to be more Mediterranean Europeans rather than Africans.
My curiosity about the African presence in Athens led me to have a brief exchange with a vendor who was selling bootleg videos. He spoke fluid Greek and seemed to be up on all the videos a Greek buyer would want to see. He told me he was from Tanzania, and other Africans I had seen were from Senegal, Nigeria, and Sudan. I also met an Algerian man who could have passed for Greek but proudly proclaimed himself African. I didn't see as many African women, but one morning when we went to breakfast, we saw a long line of immigrants who appeared to be from various countries. From the vibe in the air we (perhaps wrongly) assumed they were in line for social services and there were as many women as men in that line.
I found Athens to be a feast of flavors and experiences with an easy-going vibe that allowed me and my daughter to move around generally unmolested. While there wasn’t anything in the city that would necessarily draw me back, I enjoyed the trees, the landscape, the ancient ruins, and the markets.
I remember one experience in particular that reminded me how often—in the eyes of a foreigner—things can easily be lost in translation; translation being a lens in which a viewer assumes they can correctly read a situation from the outside. During one of our downtown jaunts, I saw two African men arguing. One of the arguing men showed a few other men who had gathered around the bottoms of his feet. Priding myself culturally savvy, I thought, “Oh, he's insulting the guy he’s arguing with, and egging him into a fight by showing him the bottoms of his feet.” But moments later, after his “opponent” had left, the man sat and began recounting the argument to one of his friends. He flashed the bottoms of his feet again and I saw red whelps on the bottoms of his feet. I had created an insult when the man was simply showing an injury. Isn’t interesting how even when two people speak the same language we can create back-stories and lose grasp of the meaning of the conversation, allowing true communication, sadly, to slip between our fingers.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam