Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Gyros and Grape Leaves

Athens is big, way bigger than I realized.

The genial Greek man holding the sign with Himself's name who picked us up from the airport Monday morning assured us that the rain and storms that had dominated the weather for days had finally moved on and there was nothing but blue skies ahead.

Exactly what you want to hear when you set foot in Athens for the first time.

And blue skies here means seriously blue, intensely blue, a blue meant to blur the line between sea and sky and provide the backdrop for the wispiest of clouds. A blue that makes all these whitewashed buildings stand out in high relief against it.

The apartment we're staying in is on the main drag of the Plaka, the old historical neighborhood emanating from northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. Around here, it's called the "neighborhood of the gods," with ancient, crooked, narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants and, seemingly at every corner, a fence surrounding a ruin, column or cluster of capitals.

It took exactly one afternoon to realize that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an antiquity. And not to disparage cats, but this place is positively lousy with them, lounging on window ledges, curled up by tavern doors and strolling down cobblestone streets like they own them.

Which is, according to Himself, a good thing because when you don't se them (say, in China), that means they're being served up somewhere. Already, pigeon is showing up on an awful lot of menus we've seen, if you know what I'm saying.

After getting acquainted with the apartment, we headed out to see what the 'hood was about. Earlier, when our driver had motioned and stopped the car to unload us on the one car-wide street, I'd been amazed that the line of cars and motorbikes behind us had waited patiently as we gathered our belongings. Not a honk was heard or angry face seen.

Civility reigns in Athens.

When we set out on foot a couple of hours later, inching along the foot-wide sidewalk (curb was more like it), next to a line of stopped/slow-moving traffic, we paused to look at the map. Like tourists do. An older Greek man in a Mercedes glanced over a time or two as he sat waiting in traffic and when his car had inched forward so he was a foot from where we stood, he smiled and asked if he could assist.

Considering we'd just barely arrived in his country, I felt no shame in handing over the map and asking the way to the market. After turning the map right side up, he graciously explained that it was barely two turns away before handing it back and inching forward, perhaps to aid more wayward souls.

Our driver had been correct: Greek people are friendly.

After leisurely sipping wine at a bar in the tree-covered square, we decided to have dinner on the apartment balcony and set out in search of grub. Although Himself took issue with Eat at Milton (whether for the directive-sounding name or because Milton sounds so decidedly un-Greek, I really can't say), the Greek salad and gyros were solid and probably extra tasty for being enjoyed next to window boxes of geraniums while looking down on the evening promenade below.

I'm not going to lie, yesterday's sightseeing didn't exactly get off to an early start, but nevertheless we were in line to get tickets to view the wonder of the Acropolis by early afternoon anyway.

Hey, this is vacation, so no schedule police, please.

While I don't recall exactly when I first became aware of the Acropolis, it may have been in an architectural history class my second year of college. Translation: a loooong time ago. What I learned yesterday, besides how pushy and bossy a tour guide can be when she wants to get a photo of her group, was that the renovations of the Acropolis began right around that time, after centuries of misguided restoration attempts.

The sheer height of the columns, the few remaining figures of the pediment and the exquisite beauty of the stone against those blue skies was breathtaking. I had no issue with the extended climb up the hill, the rocky, uneven terrain or the slipperiness of the pavers worn down by time, but man, the humanity you see as part of that is eye-opening.

Selfie sticks should be outlawed, that's all I'm saying. Meanwhile, the staff was kept busy blowing their whistles like lifeguards at a pool every time some idiot sat on a wall or ducked under a rope they weren't supposed to. I overheard an American tourist looking down at the grand amphitheater nearby say with surprise, "Look, they're playing music in the stadium!" and bit my tongue to keep from correcting him. That's a theater, son.

As they used to say at the Byrd Theater, some people need parental guidance.

Afterward, we climbed up to where an enormous Greek flag was planted to admire the view of Athens below and the sea beyond, both the flag and panorama a visual symphony of blue and white.

We found seats on the stone wall and watched as people came up long enough to snap a photo and head back down rather than take in the view. Neither of us would have been at all surprised if someone had demanded our spot (as the tour guide had done to a  British couple with the audacity to sit down on a bench to contemplate the surrounding history) but I'd been ready to tell anyone who tried to get lost.

Since arriving in Athens, I've been called a confident contrarian, but that could be amended to cocky, confident contrarian, too.

Walking back toward the apartment, we stopped at a  crosswalk where a small, paper sign warned pedestrians to pause after the light change because, "Drivers often violate the red light," and then went on to editorialize, "Probably because they're on their cellphones."

You think? I only wish the signs were larger and permanent, not that it would likely make a difference.

Moments after the light changed, we heard a Scottish voice behind us say it was okay to go. "We've been here a week, so we know," said the smiling man as we started across. "Not like in Rome, where you had to protect yourself," said the woman, holding up her scraped elbow. "Rome was tough."

A late lunch was taken at a tree and umbrella-shaded outdoor restaurant where we lingered over two kinds of crusty bread, whipped olive oil with herbs, tzatziki and olives, followed by a house-smoked salmon plate and something labeled "Variety of hot appetizers" that included such things as dolmades, spanakopita, falafel and who knows what else I couldn't identify.

Looking around at the other diners, I spotted the woman behind whom we'd stood in line to get tickets many hours earlier.

How about that? Even in a  city of five million people, it's still a small world here. Even smaller when you want it to be.

The right balcony company, it seems, works wherever you go. And, I might add, never more so than in the neighborhood of the gods,

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