Winter 1996 Athens
Well, there’s not so much dog poop on the streets of Athens, probably because there aren’t so many dogs. Rachel says it’s because they eat them here, but she’s joking. She’s just upset that the Greeks don’t appear to have the same love affair with food that the Spanish have. However, regardless of the paucity of dogs, I have this knack of finding, and stepping in the ‘doings’. To compound matters, the sandals I wear have really deep patterned soles just begging to be filled up. There are some days (do you have them?) when I can ‘step in it’ two, or even three times – usually when I’m depressed. It doesn’t help my mood, but I rationalise that it is because of the depression. One loses concentration when in that state, and one needs concentration in Europe to avoid the droppings.
You see, all the best scenery is ‘upward’. The wonderful architecture with its fascinating structures, façades and roofs – I kid you not, especially the roofs – and there we are looking down, having to survey all the filth, dirt, dust, rubble and rubbish, the detritus of society that accumulates along footpaths, in order to navigate between these aromatic turds. If you think I’m being obsessive about dog excrement in Europe, here’s a quote from Paul Theroux, a travel writer, in a book I’m currently reading, The Pillars of Hercules. He apparently had the same problem in France:
“What enchantment he (Frances Bacon, the English painter) would have found in Nice, where pavements are so turdous that a special one-man turdmobile trundles along sucking them up its long snout. Even that ceaseless activity hardly makes a dent. The turdmobile is defeated by an unlikely enemy; an older, overdressed French woman, a widow, a retiree, a prosperous landlady, someone precisely like Madam Godefroy. She is the last person you would associate with dogshit, and yet this delicate and dignified woman spends a good part of the day calculating the urgencies of her dog’s bowels. There are thousands of these women and their dogs all over the Riviera. They are forever hurrying their tiny mutts down the sidewalk and looking the other way as the beasts pause to drop a stiff sausage of excrement just where you are about to plant your foot.”
As is our wont, we visited the local meat and fish market. Noticeably, neither travel agents nor tourist information centres mention these markets as a point of interest, yet they are incredibly interesting places to us new world folk. The fish market was disappointing in that most of the fish was frozen. Strange! Spanish markets have an abundance of fresh fish of bewildering variety. The meat market was more up to par: lots of whole, skinned baby lambs, teeth bared, eyeballs boggling; whole skinned rabbits; cows feet; pigs feet; pigs heads, skinned and un-skinned; skinned lambs heads; benches full of kidneys and livers; brains; what looks suspiciously like bulls testicles, slit open to display their quality; stomach linings; intestines hung on nails like long spaghetti loops; and much, much more! I think you get the picture.
The vegetable market is equally fascinating to us. The variety and display of vegetables, fruit, herbs, spices and nuts, many of which are unknown to us, is very entertaining – as is the ambience of these markets. It all takes place in an atmosphere of raucous shouting, bantering, pushing and gesticulating. In the meat market there is the added chopping, slicing, waving of huge prime cuts in people’s faces and slamming them back on benches. In a typical fish market it is frantic filleting, skinning and chopping – all to the customer’s shouted demands. It’s noisy. Busy. A hive of human activity! Perhaps we could organise feature tours of European and North African alimentary markets, vegetarians welcome – if only to affirm their reasons for becoming vegetarians in the first place. This would be a damned sight more interesting than the usual trashy tourist shop stops!
While here in Athens for our brief eight days, we are ranging as far and wide as time allows, including a train journey to Patras, crossing over the dramatic Corinth canal. The city of Athens suffers from the same modernisation process as its other European sisters – resulting in whole street blocks being dug up, areas under demolition, awaiting demolition, buildings half built, newly built, abandoned half built, etc. etc. Dust, grime, dirt, rubbish, traffic pollution – the usual big city stuff.
The beggars here are fascinating: more passive than their Indian counterpart: a big woman with one leg simply lies on the footpath, her ‘stump’ displayed for all to see, one hand upraised for coins; further on, a young boy lies mute on the footpath, his badly disfigured upper torso on display. This is very passive. Various other forms of begging take place on the Metro from Athens to Piraeus. A young man enters at an intermediary station, shouts some totally unintelligible spiel (I don’t know, it’s all Greek to me!), and then walks around the carriage with an open box – which reminds me of collections at church – and limps off at the next station to enter the next carriage. Some Greeks give, most don’t. It is obviously their means of livelihood, working the trains all day.
After the experience of the beggars of Mumbai, I feel I can cope better with this dilemma – and to a traveller that’s what begging is. One raises ones gaze upwards, avoids all eye contact, hums or whistles a little tune to soothe the nagging guilt … ! Another method, which I practise when feeling suitably hardened, is to look hard into their eyes, and try to judge their genuine level of misery. You see desperation, the flat, dull look of total resignation, resentment, happiness (only in children, but rarely), often a tragic dead look, which is probably from a drug problem – but you can never be certain. You can’t give to every one, and it is impossible to know who is worthy of giving to. You can spare the small change and some beggars are incredibly persistent and resilient. Hence the dilemma. It’s subjective. I’m sure I have given to some less needy than others simply because their appearance appealed to some part of me. I know, they all ‘appeal’ don’t they! That’s what beggars do!
Those I won’t give to are the physically whole who approach me for money, with apparent normal intelligence and without the appearance of tragic circumstance. These tend to be young adults with (and without) drug problems. These I consider to be false beggars.
Today on the Metro from Piraeus to Omonia, (the centre of Athens) I noticed with extreme distaste, a group of Americans with guitars who were ‘working’ the carriages, singing/playing between stations. They are actually competing for the limited donations with Greek beggars, whose miserable livelihood depends on this. Surely the indigenous beggars are far more deserving of charity than these travelling American bums, who ipso facto are comparatively wealthy, yet emulate the beggars using crappy music as a medium. It’s very noisy on these trains, and the one who came through our carriage appeared to be tone deaf.
In the countries we have visited, there does not seem to be the same concern about health and fitness, (or is it an obsessive desire for longevity) as appears to be the fashion in Australia and New Zealand. Gym and/or Health Clubs are rarely seen by us: tobacco consumption throughout Europe is endemic, with the popularity of cigar smoking on the rise. Cigarette advertising is pervasive, dominating cityscapes. In Spain there is a tendency towards a high salt diet: delicious, fatty pork cuts and small goods are an integral part of the Spanish diet, and pork fat butter is used more than dairy butter. In spite of the high consumption of red wine and olive oil, we have seen an awful lot of old folk there who look unwell, with advanced arthritis, or huge goitres all too common. But then, our Anglo influenced cultures have never emphasised the actual pleasure of eating, as we find is the case around the Mediterranean and North Africa: almost a love affair with food. Anglo culture has, for the most part, tended to look upon food merely as a necessary fuel.
Television in Greece is an eye opener … half hour advertising breaks! This includes ten or so ads for different alcoholic beverages – none Greek! In Athens, along every street, we find kiosks selling everything from watches and worry beads, to cigarettes, newspapers and magazines, but also, each one of them openly displays a diverse and colourful range of Porn magazines, books and audio tapes. Not only that, but the kiosk vendors are mostly dear little old ladies, dressed from head to toe in black: so you feel as though you are buying off your mother!
There are also shops selling nothing but Porn video tapes; brothels open onto the streets, (the back streets mind you) and as per usual, every other illicit product can be bought. So here you have this deeply religious society pandering to any ‘sinful’ desire you may have. Maybe they are catering to the millions of tourists who flock here every year, or maybe they have just ‘got it right’? One would have to do a comparative study of rape, sexual assault and ‘missing young female’ cases between Greece and OZ/NZ/UK/USA. I don’t think the latter countries have got it right with their high incidences of these cases. Anyway, the comparisons make for interesting travelling.
Well we have finally cracked it, three days in – the source of good Greek food. On the Island of Poros we found a simple Greek Taverna serving good, wholesome traditional meals, which we accompanied with a carafe of some local Retsina. Great Greek fare. Since our arrival in Greece we have had difficulty in sourcing good food. Many bars and cafes are without food at all, and in Athens and Patras, there are lots of American style fast food outlets. Hopefully that is only the influence of tourism, I can’t believe that the Greeks actually like hot dogs and hamburgers! Their own fast food is vastly superior anyway. But now we know: for good, reasonably priced, home style Greek cooking, the Taverna is the place. It isn’t uncommon either, to be invited back into the kitchen to select straight from the tureens, pots or baking trays simmering or steaming away. Great stuff. Spain is a hard act to follow, but I knew the Greeks have a history of great cuisine as well. It’s just not as accessible.
We chose to take a one day, 3-Island sea-borne Island hop aboard the ‘Aegean Glory’ and enjoyed it thoroughly. I derived a certain ghoulish pleasure (having been sea sick on the odd occasion) from witnessing the appalling, deathly pallor that a great deal of our fellow passengers took on at the outset. Apparently two fainted. It was a bit choppy, though not really rough.
I’ve seen the ‘cats of Hydra’! They’re prolific. It’s curious, the Spanish also have this laissez faire attitude to feral cats, with liberal amounts of cat food provided daily by unseen persons. My own, unsubstantiated theory is that they are encouraged for the purpose of keeping mice and rats at bay. But then, why feed them? I will find out one day.
On this our second Island, after again pausing to watch the ritual of the name tagged Japanese tourists rushing ashore to board the inevitable sightseeing bus, Rachel and I did a quick climb up ancient, narrow streets where to this day donkeys are the means of transport. We climbed to the top of a steep ridge, where an ancient fortress overlooked the whole harbour and surrounding sea ways. What a view. Our ship looked like a big, white toy boat tied up right alongside the main street of a white painted toy town: and all along the water front of this intense deep blue harbour, rode a host of other colourful fishing and merchant craft.
By now, ancient fortresses are becoming a bit ho hum. So, so much antiquity. Our first day in Athens, we had our lunch with our backs up against some fabulously ancient Greek columns by the ruins of some equally ancient building (all about 2 – 400 BC): and there, in front of us, the faded remains of an Anc. Gk. Mural! It’s all so … old, yet real, but by now we both find it difficult to get excited. There is an initial thrill, an awe one feels from touching or simply being in such close proximity to such ancient things. One can’t deny the beauty, grandeur and splendour of many of these architectural gems: castles, fortresses, palaces, temples, monasteries, cathedrals, ancient aqueducts, viaducts and bridges – or simply be awed by the sheer audacity of the builders of those times. Like, how did they do it? But, we found we have a saturation threshold.
And finally, our ship nosed its way between some more rugged Greek Islands, heading for our last and longest stopover, the Island of Aegina; home to the Pistachio nut … I’d often wondered! After a thorough reconnaissance of the port and environs, we again indulged ourselves: grilled octopus, retsina, pistachio nuts, people-watching, more retsina – until at last we were forced to run to catch our ship.
So, as we cruise back to the port city of Piraeus, replete with retsina, beer, Greek food and stored visions of picture postcard Greek Islands, we feel once more that we have packed more into one day than mere mortals should be allowed: and for me, there will always be something magical about heading into a harbour leaning on a ship’s rail. Arrival by air palls in comparison. Departing by ship will always be special for me too. My first was on my sixth birthday. Travels best moments are often comprised of arrivals and departures.
And so, as the sun sets over the rugged Peloponnese, we say good-bye to …
We had a bit of a hiccough on our flight back from Athens. On the leg from Barcelona to Madrid, I said to Rachel, “Well this is all going like clockwork, good organisation eh!” (Iberojet Tours), and found at Madrid (at 0030hrs) that we were supposed to have changed planes in Barcelona when we landed there, to fly direct to Malaga! Of course, there was no flight until the next day (that morning). But I know when to be humble, and Iberia Airlines gave us free tickets for the morning flight. They also booked us into a 5-Star Hotel near the airport at their expense, including transfers to and from the hotel, and it included the most sumptuous buffet breakfast I have ever seen! Incredible. There was even champagne! God, do some travellers live like this all the time? Very grateful we were. It was very gracious of them. It was an oversight on our part. We hardly made a dent in their buffet (we didn’t feel like champagne after 4 hours sleep at 0700hrs, but were very impressed). All in all, it wasn’t such a bad hiccough.
I envy the Greek men the magnificent, full, drooping moustaches they are able to grow. They are so … well … so handsome! The women’s ones aren’t quite so appealing. (I’m joking. I haven’t seen a moustachioed woman since we left Australia!)
The Byzantine churches are fascinating to visit, the amazing interiors like some mad art gallery. Religious imagery, across the various denominations, can be quite entertaining. The graven images in His likeness and in the likeness of so many others of those religious big-players can be amazingly life-like, and often tragically comic. People certainly do worship idols! There is no questioning the fervent religiosity of the Greeks: even trendy young men, in smart leather jackets and jeans enter the churches through the day to genuflect and kiss the images. On the local Metro one day Rachel directed my attention to a young man gazing openly and adoringly at an attractive young woman strap hanging near him. After getting a good eyeful, he made the sign of the cross over his chest – feeling guilty for his lustful thoughts perhaps.
There is a heavy, armed police presence in Athens. One day, outside the local police station, we watched as a large group of young to middle aged males were hauled out, two at a time by their collars – literally, and loaded onto two waiting police buses. I don’t think they were being taken to a concert. Curious.
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009