Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Athens Happy Train

Poseidon was the god of earthquakes...and other things I learned over the past two days.

Riding the hop on/hop off bus, we were apprised of the fact that the god of the sea and his trident had other responsibilities beyond water. Disney doesn't tell you that. Also news to me: that New York College has an Athens campus, a fact I can confirm because I saw it with my own two eyes.

Not particularly impressive by Athens standards, I have to say.

Fortunately, we also saw the University of Athens, a far handsomer building, even if it was designed in the neo-classical  style and built in the 1830s. I'm realizing that there are far more grand 19th century buildings that I'd expected in such an ancient city.

One thing that makes me smile every time we see it is the Athens Happy Train, which, despite the name, drives on the narrow roads but resembles nothing so much as a bright red locomotive straight out of "Thomas, the Tank Engine." Pulling a string of open-air carts behind it, the train provides entertainment doing nothing more than navigating hairpin turns on busy streets, somehow without swiping pedestrians or cars.

Also gleaned: traipsing around Athens, even when it's only 80 degrees, sometimes necessitates a heat nap. The noises and voices below may not stop, but we do.

It was dark and the Plaka was alive with lights, people strolling and vendors calling to passersby when we finally hit the streets in search of dinner. After considering a variety of menus, we chose a corner table on the shrub-lined patio of a modern-looking restaurant, close to the hustle and bustle of the street, but secluded enough for easy conversation.

Samaropetra Sauvignon Blanc eased us into the night post-nap and a plate of fried pita chips riding shotgun with hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip) and fish dip made up for the hours since lunch.

Dipping and sipping, I regaled Himself with news from home: Beau thinks "Himself" is not nearly descriptive enough a name for my main squeeze, coincidentally, a name he and Pru embraced. When I pointed out it was a bit cumbersome, they shortened it to MS. Meh.

Beau liked "the architect," but it came across a tad dry to me, so Pru came up with Lovin' Spoonful. Please. Finally, one or both of them suggested Mr. Right, which, when presented to Himself, was immediately reworked into Mr. Wright, thus covering two bases and hopefully satisfying everyone, reader and participant alike.

Could it be the blog needs a suggestion box?

My sea bass with tagliatelle, celery veloute and caviar not only spoke to my unladylike appetite but also to how fresh tasting fish is here. Mr. Wright tried to convince me that his grilled salmon over vegetable ratatouille surpassed mine, but it was a hard sell.

Tables around us filled and emptied as we took our time with our meal and watched as the middle-aged tourists milling the street were replaced by younger people and bands playing a block or street away. Our server had assessed us early on as not the dine and dash types and encouraged our lingering, taking her cues from us as she refreshed water and wine.

Big topics were on the table, namely future trips and how to best negotiate them without losing our shared love of new experiences in new places. No formal resolutions were reached by the time dessert arrived, so the conversation was tabled.

After sharing a lidded mason jar full of dark chocolate pudding with sea salt caramel, a crown of heavy cream and croutons (I loved how un-American that was), we were fuller than we'd been since coming to Athens and our brilliant server noticed and reacted. Delivering two glasses of Mastika, a Greek liqueur made from an evergreen called the Mastic tree, she observed that we might need a digestif.

Unlike Underberg with its heavier, more alcoholic taste, Mastika was a breath of fresh air after a lot of food and hours sitting talking. The kind of spirit that, we decided, needs to find its way home with us.

See: dinner as learning experience.

Today's ruins were Hadrian's Gate, built so long ago that it was part of a wall meant to separate the old and new city, complete with inscriptions making sure everyone knew which was which. Behind it stood the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, or at least the remaining fluted columns and their Corinthian capitals. One of the columns came down in a long ago storm and continues to lay where it fell in  pieces, offering a unique look at column construction.

All around the perimeter of the site are roped off areas of - surprise! - bits and pieces of antiquity, although none of them are labeled or given any context for the archeologically curious. The little signage that existed was for the Roman baths (and latrine), which was enough to get the attention of an American group of three bros and one babe.

Walking by the ruins, clearly intent on leaving, one of the guys noticed the sign and called out to the others, "Hey, this is where the Romans took a bath!" That was enough for the other three to halt and make a U-turn to admire something they could identify with.

After a cursory look, they continued toward the exit, one of them with his thinking cap on. "What if this is what Cleveland is like in 100 years?"

Safe to say that Athens affects each of us in different ways.

What if Richmond had leek hand pies as good as the ones we snagged on the way home from Zeus' temple? It boggles the mind.

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