Merle didn’t manage to get any days off while I was there, so I joined her for the trip into town, with a plan to wander. I looked around while we waited for the bus.
“Look how close we are to the mountains here,” she said. There was a park at the end of the street and the mountains loomed over the trees, no more than five kilometres away. “You can walk all the way from here into the mountains, but I haven’t done that yet.”
I had no strong expectations of what Athens would be like, so I wasn’t surprised. I was more interested in the building in the other direction. It was completely concrete – a monotonous grey – but its ‘igloo city’ structure of domes identified it as an orthodox church. I spent the time until the bus arrived trying to fathom how most of the world failed to build attractive buildings given complete freedom over the materials and colours used, yet the Greeks managed to give a plain concrete building all the fun of children’s playground equipment.
Once on the bus, Merle snuggled close and gave me a commentary of the journey. “I tried to draw the path the bus takes on a map the first time I took it, but it was too dark and wet so I couldn’t, but it wanders all over the place. The best way to remember where I live is to look at the number of the bus stop. The higher the number, the further away you are from the station. My stop is number 19.” It’s a very convenient system for tourists, as long as it’s charted properly. The stop number is no help if you don’t know which street it’s in.
Getting off the bus, we followed the crowd through the parking lot, then headed back the way we came and through a fence. “The way changes every day. I never know where the opening will be. I just have to follow everyone else, but I always get there.” Something else they’ll need to sort out before the Olympics. The metro journey was pretty uneventful, and we got out one stop before Syntagma.
“This is the embassy,” she said after a short walk.
“It looks like an apartment building.”
“It is. Estonia’s a small country so we only have a small embassy. One apartment is enough. Look! You can see the flag on the top of the building.”
“How does anyone find it?”
“That’s the good thing. No terrorist would ever waste his time with this building,” she said, laughing. “Here, let me show you the square. We can meet there at 12 and have lunch together.”
The square, just down the road, was a small park with a fountain that wasn’t running that day and a few park benches. I said goodbye and sat down to scan the map. There was a hill just to the north that looked interesting. Lykavittos Hill had a church and an amphitheatre at the top and what looked like a nice walking path up. I made my way through the streets until I found a park and started up. It was nicely overgrown near the bottom and I almost had to bush bash my way up. In most other places I’d been in Europe, trees were planted in stands, so it was a rare treat to find such wild foliage and I enjoyed picking my way along my own path. Higher up, I met up with a path and realised that I probably hadn’t entered in the right place, but as no one was around to complain I wasn’t going to waste time feeling guilty.
The church at the top was almost a small castle itself, with a flagpole in a walled courtyard overlooking the city. I looked inside the church, but I could only see a small front room, so I turned my attention to the city. The hill was higher than the Acropolis and offered a great view of the Parthenon and Temple of Athena, as well as the old stadium and numerous collections of ancient pillars. A couple of Japanese girls had arrived before me and I tried to exercise my conversation skills.
“nihon to chigaimasu ne,” I said, to show them that I was familiar with their country. “It’s different to Japan, isn’t it.”
“Huh?” said one, looking at me strangely. I repeated my sentence, realising that it wasn’t the best of opening lines, but unable to come up with anything better at the time.
“bikurishita,” said the other. “What a shock!” They went back to contemplating the view without responding further, and estranged, I headed off to find the amphitheatre. The path went down the other side of the church, past a restaurant, and along the ridge. Once I found it, the path was easy to follow, but the amphitheatre was locked up, with no way to view it from the path. I could see it was basically a set of tiered plastic seats, which meant it was modern and in use for some sort of performance, but I couldn’t tell what without seeing the stage. Determined not to be beaten, I scrambled up rocks to the highest point nearby and looked over the fence. The stage was a simple round concrete slab. I’m no expert in these things, but it seemed inappropriate for concerts and probably only used for theatre. The seats rose up around three quarters of the stage, so there was no room for a backdrop, and I imagined there would be little in the way of props either. I wondered what it would be like to come up here on a summer evening and watch acting in its purist form.
I still had an hour to kill, but that didn’t leave much time to get down and see anything else, so I found a comfortable rock and pulled out a book. It was one of my favourites, ‘A Game of Thrones’ by George R. R. Martin, but I couldn’t concentrate. True to the promise of all the writing manuals I’ve read, the act of writing 250 pages myself had opened up my awareness of my surroundings to the point that they were forcing themselves on me. I was trying to concentrate on the miserable scene where Sansa’s direwolf is put down because her sister, Arya, had attacked the prince (it all makes perfect sense if you read the book), but I was distracted by a scraping sound. I put the book down and took a few moments to listen. There was a road just through the trees, and someone was lazily scraping a shovel in the way of Balinese sweeping the hotel rooms. The day was chilly, but up on the hill, it had an atmosphere of the tropics – green, slow, peaceful.
Satisfied that I knew what the sound was, though still not sure why someone would be shovelling the road, I went back to Sansa’s trauma for a page or so. Behind me, and to my right there was a rustling in the bushes. I heard a cat’s tortured yowl and more rustling, then more right behind me. I turned to see two cats on the ledge overlooking the amphitheatre, one herding the other out of its territory. They both paused to look at me for a moment, then the grey reached out a lazy paw and took a swipe at the orange, which yowled again and slunk off into the bushes to my left. Just as I was opening the book again, a bird swooped past – brown with a flash of red – and I gave up reading for the day. There was too much to see, and even my subconscious wanted to take it all in. I wandered back down the correct path to the park and watched people make their way around town until Merle arrived.
“Let’s go up to the Acropolis,” she said when she arrived. “I can take a long lunch break.”
“Sounds good. What’s the best way up,” I asked, pulling out the map. There were cliffs on every side that I’d seen.
“The entrance is around the other side, but there’s a path curving around the hill from this side.” We lost the path a few times, but Merle managed to read the signs quickly enough and the detours were worth making. The downtown side of the hill was covered in the square, white villas touched with deep blue that I associate with Greece. They hunched on top of one another in a charming way, leaving only a narrow path, also white, zigzagging up the hill. A couple of times, the path ahead opened out into a white courtyard of a larger villa, but these were usually fenced off and I could only look at the scene of trees, a rich green against the white backdrop, from behind a cast iron gate. I pictured dark, shapely women in bikinis strolling along the path and lounging in the courtyards, and there was no one to spoil the image. The only people we came across during the walk were a couple of other tourists heading for the Acropolis. I’m not even sure the villas were in use. They may have been built there as part of the tourist attraction a taste of the Greek islands for anyone who wouldn’t get the chance to visit them personally.
Merle tried her power at the gate, handing over the diplomatic ID as she asked for tickets. The lady behind the counter looked at it blankly. “What’s this?”
“I’m a diplomat. We’re usually entitled free access to museums.”
The lady turned to her counterpart and they discussed this for a couple of minutes. “I’m sorry madam. Only the ambassador and his wife are invited in for free.”
“Our ambassador is a woman!” muttered Merle as we were walking away.
I must say that I was disappointed with the Acropolis up close, but that may have been because it was under construction. The whole middle part of the Parthenon was replaced with scaffolding, and the roof was missing, probably also in preparation for the Olympics.
As we wandered around the site, Merle gave me a lot of history on the various buildings. The English took marble statues from the Acropolis and the Greek government was still fighting to get them back. The Turks took the lead clamps from the Parthenon pillars and replaced them with iron, which is less flexible and didn’t stand up to earthquakes as well. It may not have needed repairing if that lead had been left in place. I can’t remember the rest, but when I got home, I pulled out the Lonely Planet and read up on it. None of what Merle told me was mentioned, but that wasn’t surprising. But what Merle had told me was the Theatre of Dionysos was actually the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, and the building with the statues of Athena was the Erechtheion, not the Temple of Athena Nike, so I’m not sure how much to believe.
Merle was running out of time, so we headed down, grabbed lunch and I wandered into the National Gardens for a couple of hours. I didn’t expect to see any dogs in such a prestigiously named park in the middle of the city next to the Parliament, but it was large and unkempt, so the German shepherd that kept pace with me wasn’t out of place. There were a number of joggers out, many with their own dogs on leashes, and lots of strays, or at least unleashed, dogs making their own way through the park, snuffling in the undergrowth in search of a snack or an unclaimed shrub.
When Merle finished work, we took the car back to the airport and came back to town for dinner. She wanted to take me to a place that played music, yet wasn’t specifically set up for tourists. We wandered around many back streets looking for a restaurant she’d been to before. Many of the restaurants we passed had those annoying people who stand outside and grab passers-by. I gave them a wide berth, but Merle simply went up to them and asked if they knew a place that had live music. They were always surprisingly helpful and we eventually made it to the restaurant she’d liked before, but the owner told us that his singer had a sore throat so he couldn’t help us today, and directed us to another restaurant nearby.
It was a large place, and both the food and the music were good, but the highlight was the dancing. Not long after we arrived, a brave group of three men moved out to the space in front of the band and took turns performing while the others squatted and clapped along. They appeared to place an item on the floor, which became the focal point for the dancer to move around. He would spin slowly, with his arms out and occasionally kicking a leg up to about waist height. Their faces took on the self-satisfied expression of a guitarist enjoying his own music, and when their emotion was high, they would kick up a second leg before the first hit the ground. They had no eyes for the crowd, and didn’t seem to notice the other diners clapping along. It was more like peeking through a window at kids opening Christmas presents than watching a performance.
I had no eye for the subtleties of the dance – it looked extremely simple to me – but I could tell that the first man was the better dancer. He had a fluidity and grace that the others couldn’t match. When they sat down, an old man of about 80 got up to have a turn. He’d been sitting in the corner watching enviously as the young men danced. He swirled around with a look of extreme concentration on his face, movements all jerky. “This is a dance for men only,” Merle explained as he put in a burst of energy and kicked a leg up. “I think this man was probably a great dancer when he was young. He moves well, despite his age.” His face lit up when the song finished and the entire restaurant erupted in clapping.
“I don’t like Greek music much any more,” she went on. “It was nice when I first arrived, but it’s all I ever hear now and I’m sick of it. It’s on every radio station, and they only play about one English song every hour. Even in the nightclubs and bars it’s rare to hear Western music. It is fun to watch the young people, though. The girls will get so into the music that they’ll start dancing on the tables. And it’s great to see the locals getting into the music in places like this.” I had to agree, and I was still enjoying the music. The beatless throb of techno music that dominates clubs around the world only makes me stressed. This was probably the side of Greece that most appealed to me. Ummmâ€¦ besides the food.
I fell asleep as soon as we got home, much to Merle’s disappointment. She’d started lighting candles and getting out chocolate. It turns out I had come down with a cold – like most tourists, I hadn’t been expecting near freezing temperatures in Athens. The next day I slept most of the day, and didn’t have enough tissues to get me through the hellish trip back to Brussels. It wasn’t the most pleasant end to a holiday, and I only had a couple of days to recover before I left for a team meeting in the US.