I’m not sure what to say about Athens. I want to be charitable, and I really wanted to like it. I was in the city for three nights, arriving late for the first and departing very early following the third. So, in effect, I had two days. I spent the first day roaming and, feeling a bit deflated, I used the second for writing and reading, which picked up my spirits.
Long-haul travelers will be able to relate to the occasional lapse into despondency. It’s natural, and I have found the solution is to accept that it is the cause of a potentially-bad day and allow it to run its course without piling on any guilt about unmet expectations to make it worse. Bad days happen at home, too – and to everyone – so we ought not to put pressure on ourselves as people living out a dream to never have one while we’re traveling, either. I try to take the Buddhist attitude: observe that the sour feelings are there, and allow them to pass by.
I met the city by way of the Aegean – from the deck of a high-speed ferry from Naxos. Rising from the sea, a blurred mass of white buildings took the place of where on any smaller landmass there’d be land. What came into focus was exciting: ancient ruins atop hills, mountains (a surprise to the uninformed – me) nestling the crowded and massive city. I felt a thrill of welcome granted me by three thousand years of architecture, art, and philosophy. This was a city for me, I thought to myself.
It’s the little things, really, that add up to a generally negative attitude on my part. The weirdly expensive Metro tickets, and the lack of a coherent rail-transit system (to be fair, my comparison point is Berlin or Dresden, both of which have been completely rebuilt in the last century – Athens hasn’t been so unlucky as to require a complete retooling). The prohibitively long lines at the Acropolis (which I didn’t see up close because I was unwilling to stand in the horde of waiting tourists). The falsely friendly desk manager at my hotel. The actual hotel room in which I found myself. The Chicagoan family who rejected my attempt at friendly conversation and traveler-in-kind advice-giving. There was the unmistakable wafting scent of garbage. (There had been a strike by garbage collectors over the week prior to my appearance at the port, and as if in preparation for my arrival, they had just gotten back to work – working double-routes – to clear the accumulated refuse. The smell hadn’t dissipated by the time I left three days later.) The neighborhood in which I settled for the duration was not a good neighborhood. While the hotel/hostel was clean enough, though it is a bit much to call it a gem merely tarnished by its surroundings. (In any decent neighborhood, I think this place would have seemed pretty bad, despite a very nicely apportioned ground floor.) It wasn’t a dangerous part of the city, exactly – at least I don’t think so – but it was run-down and largely vacant in the evenings. The homeless population between my hotel and the metro stop to which I walked on the third morning numbered in the dozens, and the pigeons scanning the streets for food were innumerable. I found myself walking north when I should have been walking south…
And so, a combination of factors contributed to my downturn for my second full day, and despite a mental turnaround for my departure on the third morning, my attitude toward the city solidified all the same. I suppose the real turnaround for my attitude happened when I settled into my seat for my flight to Corfu.
I think of Athens today as a dirtier, stinkier version of Rome, and with numbers of pickpockets similar to or exceeding those of Rome. (The recorded voice on the train warns passengers to keep a close eye on their belongings. I felt more constantly on edge in Athens than in Rome. And honestly, I’d rather never have to worry about pickpockets – and so, of course, in considering this I miss Germany, where I always feel safe.)
Here’s the honest truth: I didn’t give Athens a decent chance, maybe. I get the distinct feeling that staying in a different part of the city – probably south of the Acropolis –, arriving at archaeological sites early in the morning, and not hesitating to spend money where on this occasion I was tight-fisted… all of this would generate a wholly different experience of Athens. I’m just not sure I am interested in returning.
A true bright spot in my visit was found south of the Acropolis – the Little Tree Coffee & Tea cafe and bookshop (sorry, no titles in English so far as I could tell). It was a lovely and grace-saving spot where I settled to catch my traveler’s breath and reassess my attitudes on day one.
Remember that you can follow all of the summer’s adventures by going to the main 2017 travel page. Please, have a look around.