It's All Greek to Me
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Originally published on Gate37.
“Excuse me, how long does it take to get to the city?”
“Why did the other taxi say 20 minutes?”
“He drives Mercedes.”
“I don’t understand.”
Welcome to Athens, the city of misdemeanor. Like many a European city, Athina is home to German-made toll ways, Starbucks knockoffs on every street corner, and sneaky taxi drivers who attempt to convince you that the “22 Euro” on the meter really means “35”.
But unlike other European cities, Athens isn’t pristine. The streets are littered with souvlaki wrappers, cans of Red Bull, and inexperienced beggars still dressed in their business suits. Buildings across the city remain half-built – left stagnant from lack of funds – and fleets of teenagers roam the streets with bloodshot eyes and conspicuous bulges in their oversized jeans.
“DON’T GO TO ATHENS ALONE!” The internet warned me, after I had already booked my flight and AirBnB; “A quaint apartment in the heart of the beautiful city,” the listing read. “AC included!” But I am a mythology buff, and overcautious Americans wouldn’t deter me.
I opted for the Mercedes in the end, and made it to the apartment in just under half an hour. The taxi driver’s eyes twinkled when we arrived. “35 Euro!” he said to me. I glanced at the meter dejectedly. “Not 22?” I asked, already passing him the change. But the signs hung across the airport terminal dictated the standard – 35 euro to Athens! What a steal.
I stood in front of the building – Anastasiou Tsocha 18-20, as my host had told me. The address was correct. The door confused me. “ATTORNEY AND DENTIST.” I switched my phone to roaming and called the AirBnB number.
“Isn’t it great?” Anna, the host, said to me. “It’s all lawyers and doctors, so it’ll be quiet!”
Day 2 was better. Anna had pointed out a cafe with decent WiFi right around the corner from the law firm/apartment. My morning was spent with three espresso Freddos, a stale cinnamon roll, and the most peculiar playlist I’ve ever heard in a cafe. Walking in, I was pleased to hear Dean Martin crooning from the small speakers hung in each corner. I glanced at the menu, all in Greek. For a moment, I entertained the thought that I understood at least some of it. Greek is similar to Arabic, right?
“One omplakoi, please,” I said to the cashier. She blinked at me. “Um-pa-ko-pee?” Pitbull began blasting through the speakers. “Oom-pa-loom-pa.” No response. I pointed to the pastry behind the glass.
“A cinnamon roll?” she asked, painfully slowly. I nodded, paid the 1.40 euro and quickly made my way to a vacated couch. So began my typical workday – laptop open, signing onto Skype. I called my coworker in Beirut.
“Why are they playing ABBA so loudly?” she asked.
Technically speaking, it was my second time in Athens; the first had been one month prior, when I spent a grand total of eight hours roaming the street bazaars, eating gyros and visiting the Acropolis, before heading back to the airport. The typical, if hasty, checklist of an American in Greece.
This time around, I didn’t have the chance to prep. I didn’t Google “Must see in Athens” or watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding before my flight. I forgot to look up where the museum was in relation to my AirBnB, and I didn’t think to translate important phrases into English (although “Where am I?” would have been a convenient one to have). So in-between emails and Skype calls, my hours of daylight were spent aimlessly wandering the streets. I found a quaint and “authentic” looking Greek restaurant for my daily luncheon. To my only slight disappointment, I quickly discovered it was a tourist trap for English-speaking TripAdvisor readers and the odd business traveler. The waiter handed me a menu – in English – open to the “GREEK SPECIALS” section.
So much for authentic, I thought to myself. I ordered moussaka, which tasted of my Arab childhood.
“Would you like to try some Greek ouzo?” the waiter asked me. Why not? He handed me a short glass of a milky liquid. In Beirut, where I now live, we have arak – a strong, licorice-flavored alcohol. Ouzo is the Greek equivalent, which I only discovered after gagging on the first sip. I could see the waiter laughing at me from across the room. So, in what I now look back on as idiotic determination, I looked straight into his eyes, tipped the glass back, and swallowed the contents whole.
His expression of shock quickly morphed into one of amused concern as I began spluttering into my napkin. Arak, as it happens, has always been revolting to me.
My stay in Athens was salvaged thanks to an old friend who I had met in Beirut, but was now living in the Greek capital. “I’ll show you around,” he said to me on two occasions. Both times, I asked: Where are we going? “Uh… I don’t know.” So, the last day of my brief trip was spent driving across Greece in a silver matte Audi, listing to heavy metal on the highest possible volume, and making conversation with three lovely Greeks whose answers to “What do you do for fun?” was “Smoking shisha.”
In Ancient Corinth, I was awestruck. “Look at this!” I exclaimed to my new friends, point at the vast and impressive Temple of Apollo. “This is where history was made!”
I grew up in a small suburb of Chicago, Illinois, thousands of miles away from the ancient seaside city, and the only thought I could manage was: wow. Greek mythology has penetrated the whole of humanity – most individuals, across continents, languages, cultures, have learned about Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and Hercules at one point in their lives. Hundreds of blockbusters have been made about ancient Greece, perhaps the most ubiquitous of which (at least in the childhoods of my peers) is Disney’s Hercules. And I was standing in the exact spot where it all began, thousands of years ago.
Three pairs of eyes blinked at me, unmoved. “So?” my friend said. I sighed, snapped a grainy photo with my phone that I would likely Google a better version of later, and moved along.
We drove another two hours to the Temple of Poseidon, which was perched on top of a hill, right at the edge of the Mediterranean sea. I have lived six years on the opposite coast of that sea, in a war-torn country of traffic violations, burning tires and Arak. That country has become my home, although I have no blood-ties to it. And, over time, I have come to see its flaws and dangers as endearing.
But standing on the beach underneath the mighty Poseidon’s temple, feeling the silky sand between my toes and gazing at the sun setting over the Greek islands, I felt renewed, exotic and full of a bliss that I thought I had long forgotten. I was somewhere new, somewhere different, and the experience was every bit as cliché and beautiful as I thought it would be, insufferable taxi drivers and all. In this instant, I couldn’t see a McDonalds or Starbucks, and there were no tour buses line up at the edge of the highway. Everything around me was Greek and, because I could not understand it, the churning gears in my mind had slowed to simply appreciate the glow of the setting sun around me.
Then came a voice, my friend’s, puncturing through the reverie.
“Wanna go to The Waffle House?”