I’m sitting on the balcony of best friend Julie’s apartment in Athens. She’s almost done with her semester here, and she’s gotten to know this city, its people, and its language incredibly well. (She already speaks four languages – Greek is quickly becoming her fifth!) A dog is barking at us from a balcony or rooftop (I can’t quite tell) not too far away; plant-adorned balconies surround us, even up this high. We’re sitting on a red couch in the warm sun. It’s jeans and tank top weather.
I found a great deal on a flight from Stuttgart to Athens back in February, and so, just a few days after leaving Ghana, here I am in Athens visiting Julie. Jules and I set out soon after I arrived to give me my first taste of the city, and not an hour into our first afternoon of exploring, we found ourselves being ushered into a neighborhood café/bar owned by Jules’ friend Manos, a very friendly Greek man. Manos engaged us in conversation for a good hour and a half, pouring us shots of traditional raki and serving us plates of salted tomatoes, cucumbers, and a delicious white bean salad. This is the heart; this is the culture, Manos said somewhere along the way, no doubt explaining a bit about the Greek way of life to me in response to my many questions. Do you like Europe? I LOVE the Europe, Manos replied with sweeping arms. The rest of the week confirmed what I picked up in my first two hours in Athens – the people of Greece are, for the most part, so friendly and open. I picked up on the Mediterranean feel of Greece right away and it immediately reminded me of Italy. The only time I had previously spent in Greece was on the island of Rhodos (Rhodes) for my senior class graduation trip, and while wonderful, I think the Greek islands have a very different feel compared to Athens.
Enjoying good food is such a pure and unparalleled pleasure. During one dinner out, Jules and I enjoyed baked feta cheese with arugula and hot peppers, vegetable rolls with yogurt sauce, crusty bread with olive oil, and a half liter of red wine. We ate and talked and listened to two guitarists sitting on stools nearby strum and sing for hours in the warm outdoors. For most of the week, we cooked on our own in the apartment. At the Friday morning market, we loaded up on fresh tomatoes, onions, peaches, lemons, avocados and arugula, stopped at the grocery store for pasta, cheese, and wine right after, then came home and started cooking!
One sunny afternoon took us to a secluded beach a tram ride away from the center of the city. Like so much else in this city (for students, at least) the beach was free, free, free! It was a wonderful day that ended with ice cream in chocolate-covered waffle cones.
Athens is an endless stream of perfect summer nights, of small balconies and big moons, of ancient history juxtaposed with efficient modernity (think Bronze Age Acropolis alongside a Contemporary Art Museum). It’s a city that sleeps for a bit during the afternoon but comes alive at night, with young people filling the streets, bars, and cafés. Athens is full of life, life in the way people walk with a purpose here, life in the way young people make out all over Syntagma Square, life in the way angry Greeks protest outside Parliament, life in the numerous stray dogs. I realize that a struggling economy and discord over bailout plans don’t shatter the normalcy of life in a country like Greece overnight. There are still coffees to nurse over the course of an afternoon, still bookstores for locals to peruse through…
Man, do I love Europe.
At first, it was almost surreal walking around the Acropolis and laying eyes on the Parthenon. We all study Ancient Greece in elementary school, but I find that, like many of the most famous places on Earth, the Acropolis is hard to conceptualize as actually existing before one goes to see it. My dad spent his 21st birthday in Athens, and not too much later, my parents spent their honeymoon here. Back then, Mom and Dad told me, Athens was dirtier and more crowded than it seems today. They both hardly believed me when I said the metro system in Athens was easily on par with Germany’s – but it’s true!
But I digress. At first, the Parthenon looks almost fake, its imperfect pillars toy-like. The pillars bow out in the middle, which makes them look straight from very far away. But because each stone is just the tiniest bit bowed, each one is unique – making it a masterpiece under which restoration has proved extremely difficult. I really love this city, Julie says as we sit up high, Athens below us to the right, the Parthenon just to our left. It’s hard not to, I think.
Later in the week, our afternoons were ones of museums and inspiration, of bookstores and strolling. At The Image Gallery, I found a photograph of the Louvre I would have immediately bought if I had 400 Euro to spare. For a gal who isn’t really into window shopping because of how money burns a hole in her pocket, ambling through galleries and museums knowing I’m there only to look and never buy is enjoyable and relaxing. Sometimes, though, I find it hard to appreciate without taking, to marvel without using my hands and words to grasp and understand and hold onto.
Ducking into the Museum of Contemporary Art, we found an exhibit by Chinese artist Yang Fudong. In his seminal five-part film “Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest”, “…seven wise men withdraw in a private space in order to think, discuss about Taoism, compose music and poetry and live unburdened by social conventions, drunk, inside their own bamboo utopia.” It was an incredible installation.
On my last morning, Julie took me to Athens’ revered National Archaeological Museum. I really enjoy museums, and I think it’s because it’s impossible to fully understand all that any one contains. Compared to my Art/Art History major friends, I know very little about art – but it’s fun being surrounded by things you have yet to learn about, things that leave you curious and wanting more. (And it’s fun being around people who have the same effect.) My knowledge about ancient Greek artifacts is minimal, at best, but that’s what those little plaques are for, right? And it’s not hard to find a person or two who doesn’t mind pointing and explaining to you exactly what Aphrodite is doing with Pan, or why only scribes were allowed to write in ancient Egypt.
And, so, I left Athens full, revitalized, and wanting more. It’s a city that’s impossible to conquer in eight days (or, in just a few short years of war, as the Spartans learned). But I got a taste of some of its best parts, and I got to do so alongside a dear friend I only get to see about twice a year. It was a perfect way to start the summer, and made me realize just how much I had missed Europe while I was in Ghana. Being in Athens helped me leave Ghana (the best friend and cheese part really helped), and it’s nice to be back.