Friday, January 01, 2016

Despatches from Athens

We are spending a few days in Athens, Greece before going on to spend Christmas and New Year with family in the UK. So, I thought I would pass on a few thoughts and observations on Greece and Greek life, as perceived by a first-time  tourist.
For a country that is supposedly deeply mired in a financial crisis, life here seems to be tootling along quite nicely, thank you. The restaurants are full (mainly with Greeks at this time of year), and the young people are well-dressed and conspicuously brandishing their cellphones and other electronica. We are certainly not seeing any price slashing, at least not in the tourist areas. In fact, the shopping streets and markets are absolutely thronging with people: it has been a long time since I experienced quite such a crush of people in one place as downtown Athens on the Sunday before Christmas.
It is relatively rare for us to be in a place where we have quite such a poor grasp of the local language, but I have found Greek to be all but impenetrable. This is exacerbated by the strange alphabet, so that just deciphering a signpost, character by character, becomes a challenge in itself. My feeble attempts at basic Greek have been met with pitying looks and replies in idiomatic English. All kind of embarrassing. Luckily, almost everyone in the old town, from shopkeepers to the proprietors of the smallest café, speak at least basic English, to make up for our lack. We soon settled into an American-style "I-only-speak-English-and-just-assume-you do-too" approach.
The Athens Metro system is very nice - apparently, like so many things, a legacy of the 2004 Olympics, which almost bankrupted the city, and which the residents are still paying for - although it still has its idiosyncrasies. On our first day we managed to get ourselves well and truly lost for a while, and we ended up in deepest Athenian suburbia (the suburban trains share tracks and platforms with the Metro in places, and signposting is not always what it might be).
The Greek people are pleasant and friendly, almost to a fault, from the little old lady on the subway who was fascinated by my daughter's knitting project, to the unfailingly cheerful restaurant cooks and waiters. Obviously, competition is fierce on a street with 20 restaurants, all of which sport more or less identical menus, so they try to distinguish themselves by their service and their attentiveness, which can be a bit much at times. The cook from one such restaurant came out to explain to us how he had lived in Toronto for a while, and had personally taught "all the best cooks" in Toronto's Greek Town. He maintained he could never go back to Toronto, because he would not be able to find a restaurant big enough for all the people who would be desperate to taste his cooking again.
Incongruities and contradictions abound in Athens. The smart new EU-funded Acropolis Museum co-exists side-by-side with dilapidated houses and pot-holed sidewalks. The tat and clutter of Monastiraki flea market is right next door to two-and-a-half thousand year old temples and the favourite haunts of Socrates. The pomp and circumstance of the Parliament's military guards (with their pleated white skirts, pom-pom adorned hobnailed boots and silly walks) are right across the road from lively-but-slightly-seedy Syntagma Square, which was featuring an urban breakdancing demonstration while we were there. There are solar hot water heaters on roofs of a good proportion of the houses and apartments (and many wind farms and solar power installations out in the countryside), but at the same time there is so much gas wasted in the heated outdoor terraces of most restaurants.
But, all in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our few days in Athens (and particularly the day-trip to Delphi), even if it didn't turn out to be as cheap as we had hoped. And the contradictions and incongruities are all part and parcel of the experience.

A few more short observations, while the experience is still reasonably fresh in my mind:
  • Athens has a serious car problem. Despite gas prices of nearly $2/litre, the streets in the centre of town can be gridlocked at any time of day or night, particularly at the weekend, when a good proportion of suburbia appears to exercise their right to drive into town and parp their horns at each other. Even emergency vehicles have to take their chances in the crush of traffic, because opportunist cars are clogging up the roads and the emergency hard shoulders.
  • Parking has also been developed into an art form, and the locals are able to squeeze their small cars into the tiniest of spaces on the steepest of streets. Even street corners are fair game, with cars jigsawed together at crazy angles. 
  • There is a refreshing absence of Christmas-ness in Athens. Other than a few decorations and lights, and a church-based bazaar we had to walk past several times a day that insisted on belting out karaoke-quality American Christmas songs, one might almost forget all about it. Even the weather seems far from Christmassy, despite a certain nip in the air at night.
  • Greece is one of the last hold-outs in the civilized world of smokers' rights. It still seems slightly shocking and transgressive to encounter people smoking in cafes and other public spaces.

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