The Travelers Get Their Bearings

September 17, 2008 | 1 6 min read

I’m back from my trip to Greece and Turkey. We landed on Saturday night, and I’ve only just recently had a few moments to reflect on where we went and what we saw. (And thanks very much to The Millions contributors for taking care of The Millions while I was gone. It was a treat to read it from afar in un-air-conditioned internet cafes housing computers with unfamiliar keyboards). I’ve never been on a trip like the one I just took, and so I felt compelled to write about it. Thank you for indulging me. Since we stopped in four places in our travels, this brief series will appear in four installments. First up: Athens.

After a day of bleary-eyed wandering, sitting in a crowded bar on a crowded square in Athens, the trip felt like it had finally begun. The waitress presented us with a bottle of ouzo, two slender glasses, and a bowl full of ice, and we sipped the cloudy, anise-flavored spirit.

Much of that day, our first full day in Athens, had been spent at our hotel, the Intercontinental, a big, “luxury” affair on a smoggy boulevard stretching south from the historical center of the city. We had initially been lured there by an impossibly good deal on Priceline, but our thriftiness was tinged with regret at not being closer to the action. That the hotel had become something of a prison thanks to our jetlag wasn’t helping matters.

It’s funny how when you travel – particularly when you’ve left your days unscheduled – you begin to see yourself as a latter day explorer, venturing into parts unknown. Your clothes are sweaty, you are miming to a native for an iced tea, and the next thing you know, you’re Ponce de Leon or something. Any explorer worth his salt has had to turn back before reaching his goal, hampered by shipwreck or angry locals or the freezing over of the Northwest Passage. We had had a similarly aborted mission when sleeplessness combined with the pungent Mediterranean heat of Athens to foment in me a bout of intestinal distress.

Thankfully, Lauren is an extremely understanding traveling companion and supported my decision to spend the day recuperating by the pool.

But, like good explorers we ventured out again (after all Columbus didn’t discover America in his first go) and were rewarded with a terrific meal of mousaka and lamb at a restaurant in one of the labyrinthine side streets of the Psiri neighborhood, after which we followed the swelling crowds to a bustling square ringed with bars and, ultimately, our ouzo.

And, not to reveal myself as too much of a boozehound, but from the moment we started sipping the beverage it was like the trip had clicked into place and we were on our way. More than just the ouzo (which was undeniably tasty), it was that we had found the people. Crowded Athens is of course filled with people, but sitting in the square they were no longer just background. We were among them.

We first entered Athens in a way I’ve never entered another city. Athens’ airport is well outside the city and more or less separated from it by a mountain or at least a tall set of hills, but is nonetheless well connected to the city center by public transportation. On our arrival, I hadn’t really gotten a glimpse of Athens (though after the 10-hour overnight trip, we could have landed atop the Acropolis and it would have taken me a good while to take notice of it), and our train ride into Athens was almost entirely underground.

And so with our first glimpse of the place we were thrust into the middle of it, emerging in a daze from the Monastiraki station at around 10am, surrounded by throngs of people in this bustling shopping district. It’s not unlike arriving in New York City by train and emerging from Penn Station, except you’ve never laid eyes on New York City in your life (and maybe never even seen a picture of it).

Thankfully we traveled light, with just a small backpack each and a pact to do our laundry in hotel sinks as needed over the course of the two-week trip (a pact that was upheld pretty much entirely by my resourceful wife – but of course laundry has never been a strong suit of mine) and were free to wander only lightly encumbered. All the better since we had no clue how to get to our hotel.

Almost right away we discovered a Greek peculiarity, one that appears to be true both in Athens and in the islands. Unlike in America, where restaurant waitstaff tend to keep things on a tight schedule, ushering diners out the door the moment forks hit the table, in Greece, once you have been served you are on your own, and they don’t bug you again. In fact, the ball is then in your court to let them know when you want to pay and leave. Not only that, it seems like they try to avoid your gaze, as though they want you to sit there as long as possible. After we got used to this, we were tempted to test waiters in some establishments to see just how long they would let us sit there, food and coffee long since consumed, but we feared that the Greeks would win that particular game of chicken and we would end up missing a flight or something.

One of the interesting things about emerging from the bowels of Athens upon first arrival was that we hadn’t gotten our bearings on the city’s very visible landmark until our eyes happened to alight upon it. “Is that the Acropolis?” I asked Lauren, catching sight of a colonnaded ruin perched atop an improbably massive stone plinth. It was.

athens

We had been told by many, many people to visit the Acropolis either very early in the morning or at twilight. Only at those hours was there a chance of avoiding the massive crowds and the punishing Athenian sun. We reflected on this advice as we scaled the Acropolis at close to noon and judged it to be right on.

But despite the heat and despite the thousands of tourists, the Acropolis is undoubtedly a sight to behold. A better tourist than I would have done his homework about this archaeological gem, but much as I eschew all reviews before going to see a movie, sometimes it’s useful to see one of the world’s great historical sites without any preconceived notions.

The cab driver dropped us off amid the throngs at the main entrance to the grounds of the Acropolis, and we began our ascent of the steep outcropping, buffeted by tour groups, some of which required their members to don matching t-shirts. Along the path upward, children hawked water and knickknacks, scurrying away when the occasional security guard happened by.

Propylaea

Soon, the Propylaea, the huge gateway to the Acropolis site, came into view. Much of the Acropolis site, and most notably the Parthenon, was badly damaged in 1687, when the gunpowder that the Ottomans, then in control of Athens, were storing there blew up. In their defense, they were under siege by the Venetians, but one wonders if there wasn’t a less historically valuable place available for the storing of combustible materials.

The result is that the Propylaea, the Parthenon, the Porch of the Caryatids, and much of the rest of the site is a mishmash of original structure in various states of ruin and reconstruction, performed at various levels of verisimilitude, that continues up until this day. There was ample scaffolding and dozens of workers scurrying around the site, and we could hear stone being cut and even saw a large block being slid into place on the Parthenon. (Just now, looking at pictures of the Parthenon online, I am amazed to see how much of it has been rebuilt in just the last four years.)

parthenon

I have no insight into any argument about whether the current curation of the Acropolis is in keeping with best archaeological practices or is in fact controversial, but I will say that from the perspective of the North American tourist, used to the locked-down, behind-the-glass, “stay-on-the-marked-path” approach to historical sites, there was something refreshing about the controlled chaos of the Acropolis.

Case in point, with no one keeping us on a path through the grounds and no real path discernible, we eventually scampered down a pebbly track along the side of the big hill, avoiding the tour group herds, and wandered into the Ancient Agora, over a bridge, and into one of Athens’ bustling cobblestone streets, where we sat for iced coffee (Nescafe and milk, shaken to a froth in the Athenian style) and Greek salads at a table outside one of the city’s innumerable restaurants. By then, our last full day in Athens, we had grown accustomed to this haphazard way of traveling, wandering down paths, finding food, and sitting amongst natives and tourists, trying our best to embody some third way – certainly not locals but hopefully not too obviously tourists.

In the end though, it didn’t matter. We were off in the morning, headed somewhere new.

See Also: Part 2, 3, 4

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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