Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Return to Greece - At Home in Athens

The temperature outside was hot. Over 100 degrees. Aboard the high-speed ferry boat skimming across the Aegean Sea, we were cool and comfortable. The five-hour passage from Santorini to Athens was also peaceful. My family spent it reveling in the relaxation accrued during the previous ten days hopping around the Greek islands of Samos, Mykonos, Naxos, and Santorini. When the boat throttled down its engines to begin its approach into Athens’ port city of Piraeus, we breathed in a final respite. We were ready to embrace the whirlwind culmination of our Greek vacation.

Athens can be an overwhelming city for many first-time visitors. Urban sprawl, pollution, sweltering summer heat, and nerve-rattling noise are all hallmarks of this metropolis that historically has been a marriage of East and West. But this was not our first visit. Being of Greek descent, my husband had been in Athens several times while growing up. As well, he and I lived in an Athens suburb for the first three years of our marriage, during one of his military assignments with the U.S. Air Force. So for us, a return to Athens was akin to a homecoming, with full knowledge of the sights and sounds that would greet us.

The kickoff to our experience was typical – a taxi driver careening us at speeds up to 80 mph from the port, through city streets, to our downtown hotel. White knuckled upon arrival, I knew at least we hadn’t been taken for a ride. Known to be churlish con-artists with countless ways of extracting money from inexperienced western travelers, our taxi driver had been contracted and paid by the travel agency through which we had booked our hotel. The only money that left our pockets was a few Euro coins for a tip.

After quickly settling into our hotel, we began our tour of Athens by walking three blocks to Syntagma Square. This is the heart of the city, the place where modern-day Greece was born when a crowd gathered in 1843 to demand a constitutional government. On one side of the square are the National Garden and the Greek Parliament. Every hour on the hour, evzones, an elite unit of the Greek army, change guard in front of the parliament building at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. They wear traditional pleated kilts, tights, and pom-pom shoes. On another side of the square are Athens’ most exclusive hotels, the Grand Bretagne and King George II, both former palaces from the days of Greece’s monarchy. Shops line a third side, while extending behind the square on the fourth side are the areas where most tourists head – the Acropolis, Plaka, and Monastiraki Square. To take it all in, we plunked ourselves down at one of the numerous café tables lining the square, and ordered a round of drinks.

The most popular café drink in Greece is the frappe. It’s a shaken concoction of instant coffee (the most popular brand, Nescafe Classic Instant Greek Coffee, is 100% coffee), cold water, sugar, milk, and ice. It’s proper to slowly sip it for at least an hour. Traditional Greek coffee is also taken in slowly, but mostly to avoid the mouthful of grounds waiting at the bottom of the cup.

While sipping our frosty frappes, we observed the Syntagma Square stop of Athens’ new subway (Metro) system. Efficient, clean, and cheap, the Metro has alleviated some of the city’s notorious traffic congestion, which in turn has assisted in the battle against air pollution. We used the Metro on several occasions during our stay: to travel within the city for sightseeing, to go to a neighboring town to visit some of my husband’s relatives, and also on the day of our departure to get to the airport. Generally, though, we found walking to be the best way to explore Athens, and it was from the square that we began a self-guided walk of the Plaka and Monastiraki areas.

The first things we saw on our walk were a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, and numerous international clothing store chains. We weren’t really prepared for this, and it was impossible for us not to recall the bygone days when businesses such as these did not exist in Greece. A member of the European Union since 1981, a push to integrate more fully with the rest of Europe didn’t occur until 2000. The Euro was adopted as the currency in 2002. Another change we immediately noticed was that several of the streets in Athens’ historic area had been turned into pedestrian zones. Also part of the city’s plan to fight pollution, these zones had the added benefit of allowing shoppers to stroll without fear of being run over by some Athenian parking his car on the sidewalk. Motorcyclists still bypassed the barriers built to keep vehicles off the roads and the sidewalks, but absent the cars and trucks, the whole experience was more relaxing and peaceful.

Still, walking through Plaka and Monastiraki was not a walk in the park. Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, resides at the base of the Acropolis. It’s a maze of narrow streets crammed with restaurants, jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and tourists. Monastiraki Square, adjacent to Plaka, also buzzes with activity - from the cafes, metro station, flea market, and hucksters of all nationalities. These were the areas where we did our souvenir shopping, purchasing soccer jerseys, chess pieces, and olive oil bath and beauty products. We also bought inexpensive art replicas, postcards, and samples of traditional Greek food and drink, such as pistachios, sesame seed candy, ouzo flavored hard candy, loukoumi (a chewy candy made with potato starch and sugar, and flavored with rose water or lemon), and ouzo. They were all gluten free.

Greece’s national drink, ouzo, is an 80-proof anise-flavored alcohol. We sampled some at an ouzeri, which is a traditional place to drink ouzo and eat mezedes, or appetizers. Sholarhio Ouzeri Kouklis, where we ate, even made its own liquor, which it served alongside plates full of salad, beans, stuffed peppers, grilled vegetables, and stewed meat.

From Plaka, it’s an uphill climb to the Acropolis, the number one sightseeing destination in Greece. To avoid the inevitable crush of the crowd, we arrived early one morning, just as Greek military members prepared to raise the nation’s flag for the day. The air was cool and fresh; nothing like an Athens afternoon, when many Greek businesses close, and it is said the only things stirring are mad dogs and tourists.

The Acropolis’ major monuments – the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaia, and Temple of Athena Nike (currently dismantled for restorative work) – are best viewed with some knowledge of the historic and artistic significance of the structures. We let the self-guided tour in Rick Steves’ Best of Europe 2006 lead us around the temples that were built and dedicated to the gods during Greece’s Golden Age in the 5th-century B.C. Notable as they were, it was the story behind the Acropolis flag that we saw so honorably hoisted in the morning that left the greatest impression on me. During the Nazi occupation of WWII, the evzone who guarded the Greek flag was ordered to remove it. Upon doing so, he proceeded to wrap himself in the flag, and then jumped to his death. In an act of resistance a few weeks later, two teenage boys removed the Nazi flag, replacing it again with the Greek flag. A plaque near the base of the flag honors these patriots.

Wandering around Athens without sensing its past was near impossible to do. Ruins of the Agora, or ancient market, gave testament to a 6th-century BC economy. The Arch of Hadrian, from A.D. 132, was built to commemorate the completion of the temple next-door, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. With 15 of its original 104 56-foot columns remaining, it was the largest temple in ancient Greece. More modern was the Panathenaic (Olympic) Stadium. Originally built in the 4th-century B.C., it was updated in the 2nd-century A.D and then restored for the first modern Olympics in 1896. The National Archaeological Museum, home to many of Greece’s antiquities, was where we viewed 12th-century B.C. Mycenaean art, Cycladic statues, Minoan frescoes, and a 450 B.C. bronze statue of Poseidon. My husband’s favorite piece was the 7th-century clay doll used as the model for the Athens 2004 Olympic mascots, Athena and Phoebos.

Athens has a bevy of museums to choose from; we selected only one other to visit – the Museum of Greek Popular Instruments. Appreciating music of all styles, my family had fun viewing the 1,200 traditional instruments, and listening through headphones to their unique sounds. To hear a performance of some of these instruments, and to watch traditional folk dance, we attended a show at the open-air Dora Stratou Theater. Founded in 1953, the theater’s mission is to preserve the dances, music, and costumes of the Greek people. It was easy to get caught up in the mood as traditionally attired dancers swirled across the stage, representing the music and dance of regions such as Macedonia, Cyclades Islands, and Asia Minor.

As for the traditional snack food of Athens, it was souvlaki - cubes of skewered and grilled meat that were served either wrapped in pita bread with onions, tomatoes, and tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber sauce), or atop a piece of pita with salad on the side. I had no problem getting my souvlaki served without the pita, but there was one misunderstanding at a place where the specialty was kebabs rather than souvlaki. My husband and I each ordered a plate, explaining mine was to be without pita. When the meals arrived, my husband immediately tucked into his, and then just as quickly blurted out, “Don’t eat the meat.” We had not realized a kebab was ground up meat seasoned with breadcrumbs, and our waiter had not equated “bread crumbs” as “bread.” After a little more clarification, I ate grilled chicken souvlaki that night.

My husband and I ate a lot of souvlaki when we lived in Greece many years ago as newlyweds. Back then, it was one of the cheapest meals available, and we had our favorite places to get it. Many of those places no longer exist, but we did revisit our old home in the suburb of Ano Glyfada. Standing outside the house, I could still visualize the marble floors, tiny closets, and distant view of the Aegean Sea we had from the rooftop patio where I used to hang up laundry to dry. I could also remember the friends we’d known in Greece, and the times we’d shared together.

Later, after returning from Greece, I looked in The American Heritage Dictionary for the definition of “home,” and found this entry: an environment or haven of shelter, of happiness and love; a place of emotional attachment. I guess Greece will always be a “home” to me. (July 2006).

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