Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Greece, Part One (Athens)

I cannot emphasize enough the contrast between my first welcome to Spain and the one I received this time around. Whereas I first arrived in Spain in September 2011 with two large suitcases (one of which was missing a wheel for whatever reason), with a limited knowledge of Spanish, and with no idea where I was supposed to go, this time I was greeted at the airport by Susan and Dani and got a ride by car directly to the apartment. Along the way, we talked in both English and Spanish, and I even got to impress/insult Dani with an elaborate Spanish blasphemy that I had learned in my wonderful profe's class last year. Although the weather was grey and wet, the welcome I received this time around was a warm cup of hot tea compared to the sweaty, sun-burnt, exhausting lack of a welcome Madrid first gave me.

To be honest, I was somewhat worried about living in a bigger city too. I've never spent more than a week or so in a big city, so the prospect of spending the next three months here was somewhat terrifying. I'm typically a fan of smaller towns, even if they lack as many options for gluttonous activities. Fortunately for me, Susan has been living in Getafe, which is a much smaller barrio of Madrid. So, as it turns out, although Getafe is just a few train stops away from the city center, it's tranquil and uncrowded here. Plus, this is the view from our terraza:

Susan and I had a very enjoyable anniversary weekend the weekend after I arrived. We took a stroll through the nearby park, Los lagos, and made a trip to Sol, in the city center. We cooked a delicious meal of salmon and rice on Saturday evening, where we learned that sometimes companies use cashews when making pesto, and are much less likely to make that abundantly obvious here. Thankfully, my allergic reaction was extremely mild and, from what I could tell, entirely external. On Sunday, we ate at a nearby Japanese restaurant in Getafe and got some sushi that was overpriced but riquísimo.

Just as I was getting over jetlag and getting into the swing of things here in Madrid, Semana Santa came along and Susan and I took off for Greece. Though I consider myself somewhat experienced in the ways of travel (and especially frugal travel), I had yet to endeavor to adventure this cheaply. It's not that we didn't spend a lot of money, but we attempted to cut costs in a lot of ways in order to splurge on the more important bits.

Our first financially sound decision came when we realized we'd have to spend the entire night in Zurich, Switzerland before our connecting flight to Athens. Given that we would have had to take a taxi to the city center to find anything resembling a cheap hostel or hotel and then return by taxi by 6 a.m., we decided to find accommodation on one of Zurich Airport's many luxurious benches. In fact, we found a nice set of chairs near a vending machine, a bathroom, and a couple of bearded men with sleeping bags. Before you laugh, they were much more prepared than we were. I watched as the bearded men fell right to sleep, comfortably, while I fought to even get situated in my chair. Susan and I dined on canned tuna and pumpkin seeds and then she passed out next to me. Thanks to the man with the floor cleaning vehicle, the fluorescent lighting, and a trio of rowdy German youths, I got exactly zero minutes of sleep. I eventually conceded and read the better part of Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is a nice travel companion (though perhaps cliche), but the book deals with his descent into madness, which closely paralleled my thought process in the Swiss airport.

Susan sleeping under the ever-watchful eye of Leo.

It wasn't all bad, though, as I passed right out on the plane to Athens. I think I even managed nearly two hours of shut-eye before we landed. Susan was thoughtful enough to save my complimentary croissant and orange juice for me, too. Upon arriving in Athens, we asked a frustrated information desk attendant how to get to the random and obscure address of our CouchSurfing host. We eventually settled on getting to Syntagma Square, which seemed like one of the most important places in the city center. The nearly hour-long metro ride was made better by the fact that most of it was above-ground, and we even had free entertainment from some Roma kids with accordions. They spent most of their time playfully fighting each other rather than playing music, though.

We arrived in Syntagma Square and sought out a map. It's crazy how dependent you become on GPS-based smartphones and whatnot. As soon as your phone dies or you don't have a data plan, you're out of luck. Fortunately, I was born early enough to learn how to read a real-life, paper map. It turned out to be the best four euros we spent in Athens. We stopped and shared a salad in a store/cafe called Public. We stared at the map for the better part of an hour, trying to find the street where our host lived. Finally, we figured out the Wi-Fi password of the café and asked the almighty Google for answers. Before you judge my immediate failure and regression to technology, the street wasn't located on the map. So with assistance from navigation technology old and new, we planned a route.

We ended up passing by the parliament building and through the National Gardens. It was actually a shortcut of sorts to get to where we were going, with the added bonus of being a beautiful path. We stopped to inquire about the big fancy building in the middle of the park and a security guard fellow explained that it was originally a rich man's house, then Greece's first radio station, then a museum, and now a sort of convention center for politicians and other higher-ups. You never know until you ask, I suppose.

The fancy building in question.

We proceeded a bit further and found the Olympic Stadium. It was more recently renovated after centuries of neglect and became the site of the first modern Olympics back in the late 19th century. What I appreciated most about the site was that it wasn't just a ruin or a tourist attraction, like most similar places in Athens. They still hold various events there, like sporting events and dances.

It was at this point that the route became a little more difficult to discern. I may or may not have been partially responsible for getting us a bit lost. To be fair, I carried Susan's heavier bag for her during all this. We walked through some shady-looking areas, giving us a great first impression of the area where our CouchSurfing host lived. Fortunately, his neighborhood turned out to be nice. We were supposed to meet Christos at his apartment at 7:30, giving him time to get home from work. We still had an hour to kill by the time we found the apartment, so we ventured down the street a bit and found a little restaurant/bar called California (I later learned that we were actually right on time because there was an hour time difference between Greece and Spain, so we ended up showing up an hour late. Figures). We were obviously not in the city center anymore, as no one spoke a word of English. Somehow, I managed to order a beer and a hot tea. It's amazing how far a smile and some elaborate hand gestures will get you.

I've been CouchSurfing before ("officially" in Vienna and Barcelona), but this was Susan's first time. She was, understandably, a bit nervous. Our host , Christos, was an authentic Greek (with a French mother) who enjoyed cooking, dancing (especially swing), reading literature in French/English/Greek, and traditional Greek music. He had done a lot of traveling and had recently decided to settle down and get more in touch with his roots. Like most people who go out and travel, I think, he had developed a greater appreciation for the place where he grew up. Christos gave us a warm greeting and immediately started cooking a big stir fry and pouring us wine. Due to stomach issues and being in adventure mode, I hadn't eaten much and it didn't take long for the wine to take its hold on me. Christos and I stayed up 'til midnight trading traditional music from Greece and Bluegrass from Kentucky. I learned all sorts of things about Greek history, traditional culture, and Greek language. And although it may have been at the expense of a full night's rest, I wanted to take advantage of the experience; it's one that you don't get by staying in a hotel.

We set out early in the morning with a much lighter load and bought some fruit from a nearby shop. The owner was a friendly older Greek man with an Italian wife. It looked as though he passed his days hanging out with his retired friends in his shop. He spoke enough English to tell us about his triplets and his wife and to tell us that he didn't speak much English or Italian. It was enough to keep us coming back to buy fruit every morning we were in Athens. We also passed by the Olympic Stadium again, which was quite rowdy:

We walked back toward the city center and toward the main historical sites. Our first stop was Hadrian's Arch, which was a wonderful combination of the then old and new, both as a passageway from the old part of the city (toward the Acropolis) to the new part (built under Hadrian's command), and a mix of Greek and Roman architecture. The bottom part of the arch was distinctly Roman and the top part, Greek. There were inscriptions on either side, so if one walked through toward the Acropolis, they would read, "This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus." From the other side, one would find, "This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus." Poetic.

Right next door to Hadrian's Arch was the Temple of Zeus. There wasn't much left of it, and, according to the information provided, I don't think it was ever finished to begin with. Regardless, it was fairly impressive and old. It was essentially a collection of columns, one of which had fallen over at some point.

Also connected to the temple area was an archaeological site with some smaller temple sites. It was somewhat more difficult to visualize, as there weren't even columns left of them. But archaeological sites always interest me, as they're one of the more hands-on aspects of history. We also ran into a turtle, which we later found out was often portrayed as some kind of footstool for Athena in a lot of statues. We took it as a sign of good fortune.

After exploring that area, we ventured toward the Acropolis. First we made a few pit stops in some smaller shops. I found a nice key chain souvenir, as is tradition. There were a lot of less-desirable options found in most of the kiosks around Athens, including a wooden phallus. One of the vendors was suspiciously keen on selling me one, at a 20% discount, offering to write out the history behind it and everything for me. The one I did find was a bit classier and the owner talked to us for a while and even talked to us in Spanish. He correctly assumed Susan had some Hispanic ancestry and incorrectly assumed that I was a dumb, monolingual American. It was fun proving him wrong. We ended up talking about German president Angela Merkel's arrival that afternoon. He had a few choice words for describing her (cabrona was one). He was quick to shower us in compliments, calling us a beautiful couple and predicting our eventual marriage. We told him to slow it down.

The route up to the Acropolis was unclear and we ended up kind of zig-zagging around a bunch of beautiful little streets filled with markets and an old church. We bought some fresh fruit, including a whole box of strawberries, which we eventually had to eat all at once before we could enter the Acropolis area. The woman claimed that I could graffiti the marble with the berries. A clever one she was.

The Acropolis was at once disappointing and one of the most impressive things I've ever seen. I say disappointing because of how much of it has been destroyed and altered over the centuries by various invaders seeking to establish their dominance. No one set of people was responsible, though. It seemed like just about everyone sent a cannonball flying through the Parthenon at some point. Despite all of this, the site was still awe-inspiring. The Ancient Greeks form such a prominent piece of our Western history curriculum, so we've had so much exposure to the narrative, but it's an entirely different thing to stand in front of the marble that serves such an important role in that narrative.

We spent a couple of hours just walking around the Acropolis area, taking it all in. Outside of the main area, there were trails leading around down below. We trekked around the entirety of the trail, stopping to have a few pumpkin seeds and canned tuna again. We had a view of one of the smaller theaters down below while we had our almuerzo. After a while, we started heading back toward Syntagma Square to meet up with Christos. We passed a bunch of streets that were closed off because of Merkel's arrival. There were police everywhere. I honestly don't know that I've ever seen that many police in one place before. I think it made me feel more uncomfortable. We actually ran into our friend who sold me the key chain earlier and he gave us a lecture on the cyclical nature of history. He seemed very suspicious of Germany and drew a lot of parallels between contemporary Germany and Germany of the 1930s and 40s. I enjoyed him, even if he was a little kooky.

We met Christos at Public and went upstairs to the bookstore. I wanted to find a book with some basic phrases in Greek. I had become so used to knowing Spanish and traveling to Spanish-speaking countries that it was something of a culture shock again when I came to Greece. The different alphabet certainly didn't help. Christos ended up recommending a Greek novel called Zorba the Greek, telling me about some of his past experiences reading literature from the country that he was traveling in and how it enhanced both the journey and the reading. The English version was significantly cheaper than the Greek one, surprisingly. I bought it without thinking a whole lot about it, but it ended up being a wonderful purchase (more on that later).

The weather took a turn for the worse and started raining, but we followed Christos through the streets to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant where his friends were waiting. They had already ordered a whole mess of food and there was more on the way. They invited us over to the table and wasted no time in getting to know us. They shared their wine and their food and we ended up ordering a few more plates at Christos' suggestion. It was similar to Spanish raciones, where everyone just orders communally and splits the bill equally. Honestly, you end up eating a bigger variety of things but eating less in terms of portion size, so it's great.

At the expense of sounding like a typical American tourist who thinks everyone should accommodate me linguistically, I was so thankful that most Greek youth study English fairly extensively (or at least the classes they take are super effective). All of Christos' friends were fairly fluent. The only other girl present, apart from Susan, was a sweetheart. She was eager to learn everything she could about Kentucky. I started out listing all of the wonderful things - horses, bourbon, basketball, nature, etc. After a few glasses of wine, we got into the nitty gritty things, though. I started to very heavily and openly criticize the coal industry (mountaintop removal) and the state of public education in Kentucky. I only worry because I hope I didn't paint a predominantly negative picture of my homeland, as it most certainly does kick ass.

After dinner, we got to accompany Christos and his friends to his swing dance class. Although it was a beginners course, they were already about 8 months into it, so it wasn't really something we could just jump into. We had a lot of fun watching, though, and the music was awesome. Christos struck me as a perfectionist and the type of person that goes all-out when he gets into something he enjoys (a man after my own heart). It really showed in the dance class, as he broke out his shiny dance shoes and broke it down for us.

After the dance class, all of Christos' friends and some of the dancers took us to a souvlaki restaurant. As we had already eaten, we just got something to drink, but the souvlaki looked amazing. Susan tried to order hot tea and the waiter just laughed. It was akin to trying to order hot tea at a sports bar, I suppose. They pretty much only sold souvlaki and beer. We hung out with those guys for a while until we realized that it was past 1 a.m. and decided to head back to the apartment. At this point, I had slept very little in a three day period and was looking forward to hitting the hay.

The next day, we had a much more relaxed day. We stopped at the old man's shop again and bought some more fruit and then headed up behind the Olympic Stadium and hiked up the hill. We found an excellent view of the city (though not quite as good as from the Acropolis).

We passed through a big flea market of sorts downtown. They were selling things that you could find at just about any flea market in the US, which was disappointing. We did end up finding some people selling more specifically Greek things, but then again, it was still a flea market. We eventually found an amazing park that led up to a lookout rock near the Acropolis. The park wasn't much like a typical park, as it wasn't well-groomed or structured in any particular way. It was just an area full of nature that you could hike around in. We actually had to climb up a few rocks to get to the top. Honestly, I enjoyed it more so than most parks.

We ended up heading down below the Acropolis area and checking out the Ancient Agora. They had restored/rebuilt part of it to look like the original and turned it into a museum. The museum housed a lot of the findings from the site, which was superb. From my memory of the Disney film Hercules, they must have done their research for the art style on the pottery and such, because a lot of it immediately reminded me of the film. We followed around a little American family that kept quizzing their kids on various aspects of Greek history and architecture. Those kids knew more than I did.

For dinner, we decided to splurge a little and hit up an Italian restaurant near the apartment. Susan got a raw salmon salad that was quite good. I ordered the day's special - a vegetarian lasagna that rivaled my mom's (and that's saying something). Susan had to help me finish it off, but it was so good.

I'll end part one here, as this is getting quite long and we changed scenery the next day. To be continued...

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