Get it?! Geeking out? Greeking out? Ah, forget it. That was terrible. Moving on…
Athens! Land of mystery, of ancient gods and goddesses, some of the oldest most fascinating things I have ever seen, some of the tastiest food around, and that sweet brand of “organized chaos” that I have come to know and love.
From the moment I arrived, Athens felt like a city with an identity crisis. Actual ancient ruins aside, half of the city was crumbling, and half of it gleamed like Disneyworld.
It was the year 2002, and Athens was frantically getting ready for the Olympics in 2004, and it desperately wanted to look good. There was a sense of energy about it, and also a sense of confusion – like there were too many things going on at once and nobody had really decided what the overall vision was supposed to be. There was construction and scaffolding everywhere, perhaps adding to that unfinished and chaotic feeling.
Take our hotel, one of the recommended local budget hotels in town. It was pleasant and clean on the inside (with the exception of the old-fashioned elevator which wasn’t fully enclosed and traveled up and down a tiled wall, threatening to snap your fingers off if you got them too close), but on the outside, the building’s façade looked like a bombed out warzone. Out on the street itself, you saw all sorts mingling together. Well-dressed business people lunched at swanky looking cafes, while dodgy drug-dealer-looking types shuffled past, peering at you curiously from under dark eyebrows.
However, speaking of cafes, the food was tremendous. If I were to go back I wouldn’t eat for a week beforehand and then just eat myself silly on baklava and street gyros. That said, I’m thankful that I didn’t pick up any little amoeba friends like my roommate did when she was traveling through Greece! You have to be smart and careful – meat cooked and shaved off a spit is the best kind of meat, in my opinion, but it’s also a little sketchy if you go to the wrong place.
I did have one of the scariest moments I’ve ever had as a traveler while in Athens. On a scale of “1 to scary,” it was slightly less scary than being stopped at the Mexican border when my father-in-law didn’t have a passport, and slightly more scary than getting stuck in Guatemala because of an exploding volcano. You see, I had booked my flight separately from my friends who were traveling with me, and I arrived at around 3:30am in the Athens airport. Their flight was supposed to arrive a few minutes before mine, so I expected to find them there happily waiting for me. But they weren’t there. To make matters worse, the arrival screen appeared to show that their flight had arrived. We didn’t have cell phones. The “information desk” guy only spoke Greek. I waited around for an hour. Did my friends arrive arrive and leave for the hotel without me?!
My heart started to pound. I had the kind of fit of terror that you can only have at 4:30am when you are alone in an extremely foreign country. I waited a little longer until 5am and figured out how to change my money and use the payphone. I looked up the number to our hotel, miraculously remembering that another friend had arrived the day before and was already there. I somehow managed to call the front desk and connect to his room, waking him up and shouting, “Have you seen Kristin and Kirsten!?!” and, “What should I do?!?” I’m sure he loved me at that moment. But thankfully he was kind and sympathetic (obviously realizing that he was dealing with an emotionally unstable person) and told me how to get a cab to the hotel if I needed to get there on my own. So, slightly relieved that I had a Plan B, I hung up the phone and decided to wait another hour for my friends. Well, I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story – their flight in London had been delayed and they ended up coming in almost 3 hours late. I felt incredibly guilty that I had doubted them, and very sheepish that I had freaked out and panicked.
But enough of that story – back to Athens! So what did we do once we were finally there? I suppose we followed the normal sightseeing tourist route. We walked up to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, buildings and museums full of ancient Greek relics. The smog was harsh in Athens (almost as bad as in Mexico City) especially up on the Acropolis. However, for some reason it made for some stunning photos – my camera lens picked up a startlingly blue sky against the Parthenon in some cases, instead of reality, which was dusty colored smog.
We peered down the hill into ancient amphitheatres, such as the Theatre of Dionysius, one of the oldest known theatres in the world, dating from 500BC. We hiked up the hill of the Aeropagus where the Apostle Paul spoke to the intellectual leaders of Athens in AD51 about his strange “unknown God.” And in general we just wandered around the city to see what there was to see, of course.
While the famous sights and ancient ruins of Athens were both impressive and worthwhile, travel is certainly much more than sightseeing. Travel is about getting a feeling about a place; the seemingly small sensory things that stick in your mind and create multi-dimensional memories. When I think of Athens I think of the sweet honey taste of baklava, the foreign musical sounds wafting out of a Greek Orthodox church over the din of traffic, ruins gleaming under multicolored lighting after dark, and that searing asthmatic feeling in your lungs that you get when you struggle up a rocky hill in high altitude and smog. Athens is certainly much more than all those things, but those feelings and memories make it a real place in my mind. As long as I keep in mind that I probably only scratched the surface of the place and the culture in 3 days, I can appreciate and remember the small part that I experienced as something personal and unique.