I arrived in Athens just after noon, although Merle wouldn’t finish work until 5pm. We were planning to rent a car for the weekend, so I dropped my bag at the airport luggage and stopped off at the tourist information centre. I’d spent the flight reading up on the Greek writing system and some key phrases, so I thought I’d try out what I’d learnt.
“Yia sou,” I said, pronouncing it ‘yeeah soo’ as the guide suggested, but the guy just stared blankly. “Hello,” I tried again.
“Hello.” His accent was thickly Greek.
“Um, how do you say that in Greek? Hello, I mean. Yeeah sou?”
I tried to be amused by his merry laughter. He was pleased that I was trying, wasn’t he? “Yasu.”
I repeated it the way he did – one word, both short syllables with the accent on the first. The pronunciation isn’t as exact as they make out in the book, but I could deal with that. He gave me a map and directed me to the bus that would take me to Syntagma, the center of Athens.
While I waited, I looked around at the signs. To my untrained eye, the world was covered in algebraic equations, though somehow the Greeks are smart enough not to need operation signs. ‘E95 Î£Ï…Î½Ï„Î±Î³Î¼Î±’ said the one I was looking for. ‘E95 Syntagma.’
“The E95 isn’t running today,” I overheard someone say in English.
“Excuse me. Did you say the bus to the centre is not running today? How are we meant to get to town?” He seemed to just be a passenger, but I realised I’d been waiting a lot longer than the 20 minutes the guy at the information desk said it was between buses. I decided to trust him.
“You can take the E94 to Amaya,” he said, pointing to a railway station on the top left part of my map, “walk down to here and catch the metro in to Syntagma.”
An hour later, now already 3pm, I got off the E94 at a wide street crowded with people and street vendors selling various nuts – roasted, honey dipped and other styles that I neither recognised, nor had the language skills to understand if they told me. What I didn’t see was a train station. With nothing to help me get my bearings, I decided to head right and see where it lead me. I was more interested in seeing the city by walking than by catching the metro anyway, and this seemed like a good time to start.
One kilometre down the road, I found what appeared to be a street name sign and pulled out my map again to check my location. That name, ‘Messogion,’ wasn’t anywhere in the top left section. I checked other street signs around but was no better off. In a vane attempt to locate myself, I looked up at the sign again, and back at the map. Sign, map, sign, mapâ€¦ After repeating this ten times, I had to admit that I was totally lost.
“Can I help you?”
I turned to see a slim young girl smiling pleasantly. She made me feel guilty for the stereotypical image I had of Greeks based on those I met in Australia. Looking back, I’ve only met a few and most of those don’t fit the Con the Fruiterer stereotype either, but somehow that image had worked its way into my subconscious. She was beautiful, smartly dressed (and now I think of it, there wasn’t a gold chain in sight the entire time I was in Greece), and very helpful.
“No, you’re looking in the wrong place. We’re over here at the right-hand side, but off your map.”
I thanked her, cursed the guy at the airport, turned and walked down the street the other way. Messogion took me most of the way to the centre of town, but after an hour of walking, and still not on the map, I stepped off the dusty street into a bakery. Only baklava was familiar, but I didn’t want anything so sweet. Spying something like carrot cake, I pointed it out and held up one finger. The girl behind the counter said something that I guessed meant ‘one slice of carrot cake, 40 cents,’ but I hadn’t learnt any of those words yet, so she may have been saying “You don’t speak Greek, do you?” We exchanged Euro for cake and she said ‘have a nice day’ as I left. Or was that “My gypsy friends will look after everything else you have in that wallet.”
I’m sure I’m being unfair here. I never saw anybody that looked gypsy-like, but the Lonely Planet’s warning to keep an eye on your belongings was fresh in mind. The other warning was a little more complex. Some young men make friends with travellers and offer to show them good bars, shout them drinks, help them talk to women, then give them a huge bill. I was going to be staying with a local so that wasn’t so much a concern for me, but I latched onto the gypsy threat. Besides, gypsies appeal to my sense of fantasy.
I walked the last of the route into Syntagma munching on something that looked and tasted roughly like carrot cake, but which turned out to be soaked in honey. After locating the meeting point, I went for a walk down the main shopping street but was out of my depth in trying to compare the fashions I saw with that of any other country. Perhaps it was different, perhaps not. The one thing I did notice, to my delight, was the large number of lingerie shops with posters showing just how sexy Greek women can be.
Right in the middle of an intersection halfway down the street, perched a quaint church. This church was particularly striking to me after seeing so many grand, spiky, statue covered cathedrals. Greek orthodox churches are all domes and rounded edges of brickwork and would appear to hold only about 20 people. Looking at a picture of the typical inside of these churches shows that even the small interior is broken up into smaller rooms. It had a cosy feel that I appreciated more than the purely impressive cathedrals I’ve been gawking at for the last year.
From there, I looked left and caught my first sight of the Acropolis. I later learned that the building visible from the centre is the temple of Athena, which is much smaller than the famed Parthenon, but even so, the collection of pillars stimulated this travellers sense of wonder. I’m not one to visit tourist sites, and had never had Athens on my list of places to visit, but I suddenly found myself in awe at being so close to something that dated back to the time before the start of our calendar.
It was approaching 5:30, so I used a distant siren to distract me from the view and headed back up to the fountain at Syntagma, which served as the local meeting place. From the steps above the square, I watched a solid stream of people coming out of the shopping area to the metro entrance below, like ants bringing food back to the nest. The sun was getting low and my jumper wasn’t enough to keep me warm, so I began a moderate pace around the square and up the steps towards the parliament building when I was stopped by an old man pointing at his wrist. Not speaking any Greek, I simply showed him my watch, and saw something light in his eyes that might have been, “foreigner! Locked on target.”
“Thankyou. Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” I said, hesitating. He didn’t look like the sort of ‘young man’ that would drag me off to a bar to meet women at a cost, but it did seem like a good place to lurk in search of helpless tourists.
“Where are you from?”
“Australia! Welcome to Greece.” He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. “I’ve been to Australia. Sydney is a beautiful city…”
He held a conversation with himself while I looked around for Merle, shifting from foot to foot to make it difficult for anyone to open my backpack without me knowing.
“Great beer in Australia.”
“I don’t like beer,” I volunteered, finally deciding the old guy was harmless and just wanted to practice his English.
“Really? Don’t you drink?”
“Yes, but I prefer spirits, like ouzo.” There was no harm in complementing the local produce.
“Yes, ouzo is delicious. It’s cold out here. I know a nice pub just over there. Why don’t you join me for a drink?”
“No thanks. I’m waiting for a friend,” I said, glad of the excuse, yet wishing I was comfortable enough with people to go into bars in strange cities. He wished me a great stay and walked off in the direction of the pub. I still hadn’t decided whether or not the old guy was one of the men the LP had warned about when Merle arrived.
It had been 3 years since I’d seen her during a short diplomatic training program she’d attended in Japan, but we’d written regularly ever since. She’d written in December to tell me that she had been trusted with an assignment in Greece, now responsible for basic activities such as issuing visas and more exciting activities like managing economic relations between Estonia and Greece. I watched the petite blond search the square as I walked towards her, then smile shyly as she recognised me. In the first awkward moment, she offered her hand and I grabbed her for a hug.
“I wasn’t sure I’d recognise you,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure either. I had to look over the photos you sent me before I came.” I wanted to say that she hadn’t changed, but there was something frail about her now. I remembered her silky blond hair, pale blue eyes, quiet voice, and skinny frame, but I recalled a strong presence that seemed to be lacking now. Where was the girl who confidently made her way through the strange culture of Japan with only 3 weeks experience, and had dragged me up to dance salsa at Nasca? She was still there, I’d find, but hidden behind the uncertainty of whether the romance was still alive. I’d been hoping and fearing the same thing. Merle was special to me, having been there when I needed company and distraction during my time of greatest stress in Japan. She had similar interest in languages and travel, and had encouraged my writing long after she left. But I’d had a failed long distance relationship last year and didn’t want to get into another.
“What should we do now?”
I’d been expecting that she would have at least the first evening planned, but it didn’t take long to put all the pieces together and determine that we had to pick up my bags from the airport and get a car before doing anything else. She bought the train tickets for me, in English to my surprise, and we headed off to the last stop on the line.
“I have a pass,” she said, explaining why she hadn’t needed to buy her own ticket, “but I don’t need that.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “They can’t fine me for not paying because I’ve got a diplomatic ID.” I would hear the same in many forms over the next few days. Merle was rightly very proud of her position, and excited by her new status and extraordinary rights, though a little awed by her new responsibilities. Personally, I find the exceptional rights unreasonable. There is some merit to allowing visitors a mistake or two if they break a law that isn’t in effect in their own country and isn’t advertised clearly at customs, but they should still be tried properly for anything so blatant. I certainly wouldn’t expect to be let off for not paying train fares, and I would think that a diplomat has responsibility to show respect to her hosts by knowing and following the local laws. Merle agreed, but she liked to joke about it and wasn’t about to give up the ‘get out of jail free’ card. And perhaps I don’t understand the strength of the rule because as I write, a Belgian diplomat in France is being investigated for murder.
The train, or metro as they call anything with power running through the rails, took us to Ethniki Amina (EQNIKH AMUNA), the very spot I’d walked from a few hours earlier.
“I live very close to here,” she told me. I groaned and told her of my unplanned expedition. “You’re lucky you didn’t take a taxi,” she said when she’d finished laughing.
By the time we’d caught the bus to the airport, picked up my bags, rented a car, complete with tyre chains and driven back to her place, past Ethniki Amina, it was after 9pm and I was hungry. She gave me a quick tour of the large apartment, completely surrounded by a balcony and windows in every room, then called a taxi to take us to dinner.
“Where to?” Or at least, I assumed that’s what he said. My Greek was getting better, but that meant I had three words rather than only two. Merle spoke through the inch of open window in the passenger door, giving the name of the suburb. Without saying a word, or even looking at her, the taxi sped off. Three more taxis did the same before one finally allowed us to open the door. Greece is the only country I’ve been to where lone passengers ride in the front seat, Australian style. Merle told me of more surprises.
“They will often pick up another passenger going in roughly the same direction.” Sure enough, a few minutes after she’d spoken, we screeched to a stop and another passenger got in. “We once had five people squeezed in to a cab and the driver stopped to take another person. There aren’t enough taxis in Athens, so they can make their own rules. They don’t even know the city very well, and get angry if you don’t know the directions yourself.” Almost as if the driver was listening for cues, he turned around and said something in Greek. Merle engaged in conversation for a few minutes before sitting back, lips pressed tightly. “He’s angry because I couldn’t tell him how far down the main street to go before reaching the restaurant.”
He found it though, and we wandered in. Merle was presented with a rose and we were invited to join a private party. Well, we weren’t actually invited, but the people at the door, owners or hosts, were very friendly and in no hurry to push us out. In fact, I think they enjoyed speaking English and demonstrating Greek hospitality. I wondered if they were practising for the influx of tourists they’d get next year for the Olympics.
“Do you need to give the flower back?” I asked Merle, worried that we were stealing from the hosts, potentially even depriving a guest of her gift. Merle shrugged her shoulders and made to give it back, but the giver looked horrified so Merle gave him a big smile and hugged it as we left. We followed the directions they’d given us to another restaurant, and from there to another, but they were all closing for the evening. We finally ended up at a small place with plastic tablecloths and rickety chairs, but the owners were just as friendly and the food worthy of a plush restaurant. We paid 5 Euro each for a large salad and a plate overflowing with Greek meats, chips and more salad. Greek food is Mediterranean in style, and the simple sausages, meatballs and other meats are flavoured with leaves and tasty spices. This type of food has always been my favourite ‘junk food,’ but of course it’s really quite healthy, and I was looking forward to days of it. Unfortunately, my appetite always drops when I’m travelling and I barely managed half of what was put in front of me.
That may also have been because it was already a couple of hours past my usual bedtime and that, combined with the deluge of new sights and languages, was enough to have me snoring as soon as we got back.