Wednesday, February 11, 2009
I don’t even know where to begin except at the beginning of where I left off, which is difficult because I’ve experienced what could be classified as many, many beginnings since then.
Life at the hotel: I had been long enough that I was treated as temporary family. No one seemed to mind me sneaking into the kitchen at night and make myself tea. A blind eye was turned toward the shrinking supply of olives in the little metal bowl, dependably on the fourth shelf of the refrigerator, intended for the morning’s breakfast.
The breakfast: I’m too cheap to argue myself into skipping a free meal and yet I had come up with every conceivable alteration to oranges, bread, olives and hard boiled eggs imaginable. Some mornings I sliced the egg and folded them into the roll, and sometimes I would put the olives on top of the roll like little eyeballs. One time I mashed the olives into the eggs and convinced myself I had received a hardboiled omlette!
I had so many long talks with Jasmine, the willowy wise Greek/Austrian sybil, and Andreas the almost-professional football player. Now he holds the the afternoon shift and might be the kindest heart in Athens. One afternoon he taught me how to make Greek coffee, something he has been doing since the age of seven for his father. We stood over a tiny counter top stove with a little metal pot held over the flame. You must wait until the coffee starts to rise, forming a nutty brown foam so beautiful you could imagine Aphrodite surfacing in a clam shell.
You drink this out of an espresso cup. For non coffee drinkers, imagine the little easter eggs designed to place a tootsie roll in, and then imagine drinking from it. This tiny little cup of coffee is half potable and half deep, heavy sediment that will put hair on the chest of Paris Hilton. It is intended to last a usual length of sitting time with any Greeks (at least an hour,) and that’s if you have somewhere to be at some point in the day.
There were several other characters that wandered in and out of the hotel, like a South African lady that always wrapped herself in decadant fur coats. She has a Greek restaurant in Johannesburg. One morning we were talking across the table and she inquired as to what I was doing in Athens (and this is a question I’m going to start charging for a response to fund the rest of my days here)
She said that she, too, charted off for Greece when she was a little younger than I. “People ask me here if South Africa is a jungle. I tell you, THIS is the jungle.”
She delicately warned me about Greek men (which I thoughtfully acknowledged to be wise) and told me I would learn much about myself.And if this is the jungle, I’m a butterfly, both vulnerable and yet completely inconsequential from the outside looking in. Then again I’m reminded of a famous short story by Ray Bradbury where time travellers go back to the prehistoric times and are warned by their guides repeatedly, “Don’t so much as leave a single footprint!” But one does and he crushes a little buttefly with their boot, and not to spoil the ending but when he returns to his time the entire world is a devastating place and nothing like what he left behind.
I was certainly the butterfly of the Acropolis House hotel, flitting around, landing on people’s noses and then flying away before a net came over me. This net would often come in the form of too much attention.In one extreme case, I had two Cretans sitting on either side of me in the salon as I tried to work on my little red laptop leaning into the screen and demanding that I go to google map so they could show me their respective Summer homes.
One way I started to dodge the nets was by taking long, aimless walks across the city and throughout the mazy paths of Plaka. I’ve been walking to the Acropolis every day, in part for vanity...(I’m still ironing out how to counter a diet of bread, coffee and souvlaki) and in part because one person has mentioned that, for him, in a time when he needed it, daily trips to the Acropolis brought a message, a direction for life handed to him by Hermes himself.
Each day I’ve gone about getting there a different way because while I may get stuck in ruts, I am nothing but lacking in consistancy. he first, was as mentioned, with Manos and Stamos and the next with Panagiotis, a gloomy guy. He stood on top of the rock where Paul stood and delivered a sermon, where Socrates gave lessons, where Mark Twain sat with his two travelling companions after breaking and entering the port of Piraeus... this guy looked over Athens and said “What an ugly city.”
Since then I’ve started going by myself.
Each time has been completely unique. One day I went THREE times; once in the morning, once because it was on my way home, and once more late at night because it seemed the right place to drink my hot chocolate, but my favorite:
I started the walk without intention or destination... I was just talking to my father getting his advice on a matter that fathers are good for, and realized upon hanging up that I was still in my neighborhood but everything looked so different. I could see down into abandoned houses that looked well over a hundred years old. Overgrown gardens, discarded chairs that are typical to the ones used in traditional tavernas, peeling and broken on top of piles of other sorts of debris
Everything, everything looked magical. The way the storm clouds were suspended over the city, the way the lights looked in the windows, the way the cats were interacting with each other, surreptitiously darting away in twos and threes as if convening for an assemly where they would discuss a new plan in urban domination. (I think they’re winning.) And somehow as I settled into the eerie quiet of the afternoon and let my feet fall where they would I found my way back to the edge of Plaka that butts against the base of the Acropolis. I started down the usual path that leads me to the main gate where you can find your way up to the rock and something in me said “The other way today.” Again, habit is not my habit.
So I headed up instead of down and just as I thought I had reached a dead end I spied a little handpainted sign that, from everything I know about Greek, said something about a patio. I wandered back and around and sure enough there was a little school where a teacher was organizing papers through the window, and some handsome grafitti of course and a large courtyard with artfully decorated benches. A group of drawing students and a pointer leading the class, all observing their own perspectives of the square. And as I wandered even further back, steps! Steps? Yes, up we go, up the steps because that is more magical then a set of whitewashed stone steps that look as if they were worn down straight from the mountain by the great number of ancients who used them every day. And then I got to a beautiful gate with a tiny house, tiny windows, tiny kitchen rack stuffed with jars and dried herbs and I assumed that this was the end of the path but then just tot he right I saw, no! More steps! So up I went and I find more little houses! All lined with colorful pots and small noises of life coming fromw within, those noises that let you know there is gentle, loving life behind the doors. A soft conversation, dishes, the hum of a television. And to the right this path jogged and then to the left, ever upward and then, handpainted signs that read “Aropolis, this way” (Only that was indicated by an arrow not by distinctive English lettering in friendly, familiar latin characters. ) And then I quite literally “followed the signs.”
With each turn, as the sky grew darker and a storm was rolling in brining winds that picked up branches and laid them against each other and moved chimes and sang in such a way you are sure there is a spell being cast. I just kept taking pictures, thinking to myself “This is surely the most beautiful sight of Athens.” And the next corner “Except for this one” and then the next “or this one.”
I sat and just felt that wind against my face for what could have been five minutes of five hours, I will never be perfectly clear. I did eventually reach a dead end and by the way the cats were disassembling, scrambling under cars and doorways, and the ferocity that the wind had reached, I was pretty sure it was time to make my way home to my little Acropolis House, where I found Jasmine and Andreas having tea in the salon. I joined them and we discussed how, just as Athens took on a new magical light by the filter of the storm and the quiet, so too can facts and imagined realities change in our own mind.
One of these mornings with the breakfast I was getting so tired of, a particularly arrogant Greek guy with a British accent was sitting across the table from me. (Rula, as queen of the breakfast room, never missed an opporunity to seat a single male guest at my table.)
I was reading over my notes of the Greek language and he said off the cuff...
“Maybe in six years, you’ll know it.”
It took me ten minutes to get away from him, ten minutes of fuming on my bed, and two seconds to call a place called “The Athens Centre” where they teach English speakers how to tell off arrogant Greek guys with British accents. (Well okay, we haven’t actually gotten to that lesson yet, but I think very soon.)
“Well you’ve missed the first class but if you already know a little, the second class in going on right now.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
And what proceeded was essentially me brushing my teeth and trying to apply mascara at the same time and running down to Panos at the reception desk to ask him which direction exactly was it that I was in such a hurry to go. It took four maps and between him, myself, and two of the cleaning crew we determined that I was to head past the Russian Orthodox Church, cut through the National Gardens, past the temple of Zeus (oh my God, the city I live in!!)
And after all of this, I bound up some little stone steps with the accompaniment of a street accordian player who I believe was proposing marriage to me, into the courtyard of a little set of old buildings and then a small classroom with large windows where I sat down, breathless, next to a curly haired girl named “Leah” who is from, where? Austin, Texas.
I’ve been attending Greek class three times a week for three hours a day and it still intimidates the hell out of me, but I am holding fast to the knowledge that I am an experienced late bloomer. In the mean time I have a fantastic incentive to improve: a job.
The Georges of Greece could form their own government. One of them was a standing figure at the hotel because of some work he does with a parking lot down the street, but his main job is a travel company that takes tourists around Athens and beyond. One night I was sitting in the salon with Panos watching the natural battlefield of hippopotami and crocadiles in the African wilds when George’s tall frame popped in the doorway.
“I have a job for you. We will have a meeting in an hour. I’m not bullshitting you.”
And that was that! Okay, not exactly that, but essentially he informed me that on his team there was room for someone with a lot of creativity and fresh ideas, fresh from the United States with stars in her eyes and as of yet untainted by Balkanian despondancy. So for the past three weeks I have been immersing myself in the history of Athens, learning the language, thinking of creative approaches on how to tell the story of the city... in other words everything I was already doing only now I will be paid. And of course expected to deliver on demand, but these are the two differences.
This new stability gave me the strength I needed to put it into the universe I was ready for a new nest, and the universe provided. No questions, please, ladies and gentlemen, for I have been sworn to secrecy. I live in a mystical bubble under a veil of olive branches and a protective veil made of the steam from instant coffee. It is a little vortex somewhere underneath Syngrou, a major thourghfare that runs from the city center to the port of Piraeus. It’s quiet and private and my room is covered in brown wallpaper covered with poppies. I have a view of the mountains and of two pigeons that live in a junk shed, one floor up. I watch them every morning and have named them "Porgy" and "Bess," respectively.
With the tourism season approaching I am feeling the heat of trying to catch up on roughly five thousand years of history in a foreign country and a culture that is a thousand times more so. One late afternoon I was going from the neighborhood of Plaka to the bus station and decided to take one of those paths that is in no way in the proper direction of my destination, but it was so shady and pleasant with old walls and peeling paint and trees sighing, all of the usual traps to distract me. Up I went and passed an interesting point that leads to Analfiki, the place I wrote about before. Two Japanese boys were standing beneath a monument looking puzzled, as the monument marked a momentous story in Athens and was written in plain Greek. I went up to them and pointed up the stairs.
“You should go there. It’s incredible, really.”
They stared at me.
“No, really, it’s my favorite place in Athens, because... well, come on, I’ll just show you!”
And I bounded up the path and stopped to look behind me. They hesitated, but only for a second because let’s face it. We’re sheep! If someone seems to know what they’re doing don’t we all want in on that action?
And up we went through the little paths, past the pots of basil and the hum of televisions, the two boys following at a cautious distance but close enough to listen as I babbled about the story of Analfiki. The story of it’s creation is my favorite so far, and if any of you lot want to come visit me or my magnificent city you will likely hear it again:
In the nineteenth century, an entire island’s population more or less moved itself to Athens to find work building the city up. They became homesick for their island, and decided to build little houses in the style of their village by the sea. You know the ones; the romantic little quartz white cottages with rounded corners and tiled roofs. By way of a beautiful loophole in Greek buildling codes which states that anything built at night is exempt from the usual restrictions, this was all done under the cover of darkness.
From the top, I heard from my own mouth a cheery suggestion to take a picture. Four thousand shots later, a dark man and a beautiful woman with a purple scarf approached me and cautiously asked if I knew the way to the Acropolis Museum. My group of two became four with me in the lead.
I do not know so much of a shadow of the history and lack the nationalism, mannerisms, and language that might make me a more qualified guide, but I offer everything I have: genuine, infectious enthusiasm for a country, a love of adventure, and a smattering of great stories.
at 5:22 PM