Some old travel writing from my most recent year abroad.
It should have been a sign.
I sat in the minibus speeding along the shore of the glittering Bosphorous, tears in my eyes for leaving Istanbul, this pulsing city, the glow and shimmer of which I had never seen before. On arrival to the airport, I found that my flight to Athens had been delayed by 45 minutes. Actually 90 minutes. Actually two and a half hours. In the plane my fellow passengers and I sat, staring blankly ahead at the seats in front, not speaking, not smiling, not eating, because there was no cabin service.
It was the strikes. The air traffic controllers in Athens were reducing airspace. Throughout the week, almost everybody else would strike, too. Even the public broadcasters and garbage collectors. Even doctors. I had been under no illusion as to what I might find in Athens, this mythical centre of the Ancient World, now the epicentre of crisis in the modern one. I had heard of the riots and the tear gas. What I hadn’t heard about was the “circus”. This comical translation from Greek of the concept of chaos, of something being crazy or going wrong, but in a good way, was fairly relevant to the whole trip.
I was welcomed by a group of international friends who had all, for some reason or another, chosen Athens as a reunion spot. First stop was for souvlaki. It’s never a bad time for souvlaki, and every Athenian has their favourite. It’s also never a bad time for a frappe, a grilled corn cob from a street stand, or some salad swimming in olive oil. Or a drink, in one of the hundreds of intriguing bars, all decorated lovingly like movie sets, and not closing until 4am.
But it is, perhaps, a bad time right now to be in Athens. I first stayed in a hostel, where the strikes scheduled for that day were written on the whiteboard in the morning. Upon check-in I received a phrase brochure, including the translations of “you’re cute” and “are there riots?” I moved to the apartment of a friend, which was convenient timing, considering that the next day was the day when both the public transport and the taxis were on strike.
The sprawling concrete of the suburbs and the sunshine on the cobblestones in the centre might always look the same. But the exasperation of Athens belongs to the here and now. My hostess told me that her parents had advised her to get out of the country again, not to give up on Greece but just to give herself a chance of success for the next few years. We walked through the city, past policemen on ever corner, and she expressed unease at being around them. I wondered aloud how painful it might be to be hit by the tear gas. “It hurts,” she said. “I know.”
I took a ferry to Hydra, an island close to the city but far enough away to clear one’s head. Here, donkeys are the only transport and I felt that maybe nothing had changed in the last hundred years. I jumped into the salty, luminescent Aegean and bobbed around for a while, wondering what was to become of Greece.
On the summit of the Acropolis, it was hard not to feel the sadness of it all again. But hopefully the stone columns will outlive these troubles, too. In any case, even in these times it isn’t hard in Athens to come by a big smile, a good story and something delicious to eat. It is always worth seeing something for oneself.