My brothers and I inherited a love for Greece when we were teens, even though we recognized the country itself to be a bit of a throwback back then for some basic conveniences — like TV and air conditioning. We loved the light, the aromas, the gushing love of our relatives, and, of course, the food. The only Greek we had heard spoken before that was our parents holding secret conversations or the constant buzz and laughter at loud family gatherings. Adults attacked us with sloppy kisses while we stuffed our faces with spicy meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves, tasty bits of roast lamb and all manner of food topped by paper-thin pastry dough.
After waking up feeling sleep-drugged the morning after my arrival, I venture out from my little apartment wearing my usual chunky heeled shoes. I know. I am such a creature of fashion habit and realize now it’s a big mistake. Athens sidewalks are a patchwork quilt of uneven, unmatched tile and lumpy concrete, ripe for an ankle roll. My brothers are staying for free in a posh hotel in the heart of Athens (one of them is a travel agent) and I am determined to figure out where I am on my way to see them.
Using a street map, I make my way to the tail end of Ermou Street without incident, asking a few folks along the way to confirm I am going in the right direction. That brings me to my ability to speak Greek. By rights, the college year I spent in Athens should have made me fluent in the language. As it was, I arrived here not being able to say more than “nice to meet you” and “thank you”…. As the year progressed I learned some phrases and was able to name a few things, but I was never truly forced to converse in Greek very much except for visits with relatives, where I usually had a bi-lingual cousin somewhere around to rescue me. The reason my fluency sucks? I lived in a dormitory full of Americans, Brits and English-speaking Greek girls. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college and moved in with an immigrant woman in San Francisco that I began learning to converse. She feigned lacking fluency in English, but I found out months into my tenure with her that she got along quite well in the language when one of my friends visited. She had me fooled. Since then, I picked up more ability to speak the ancient tongue, but I have never been able to do so at a level of pride. I make up for my lack of vocabulary with my creative ability to paint pictures with the words I already know. This may work every time, but it makes me patently lazy…
Ermou Street is part of a fashionable shopping district that becomes closed off to traffic as it nears Constitution Square. Also called Syntagma, the huge plaza holds a lot of memories for me. It is here that I walked arm-in-arm with my girlfriends. This is where I visited the American Express office to pick up packages from home. And here is where I used to sit at open-air cafes with my friends and flirt with handsome foreign strangers or backpacking American hunks. My familiarity with it is also colored by the fact that every hotel my family has ever stayed at in Athens was located nearby. The most tourist-y parts of Athens are within walking distance – the Plaka, the Acropolis, the Parliament Building, St. George’s (Lycabettus), the King’s Garden, and a host of museums. It is a bustling, car-packed, exciting hub that locals try to avoid and tourists are drawn to like flies.
Walking up the far end of Ermou Street means filing down streets selling junk. Flea markets hold treasures for some and look like garbage heaps to others. I am a member of the latter group, never having been one to sift through dirty artifacts of the past to find gems. As this part of the street ends, small cafes begin to populate the hardscape, followed by department stores and chain stores like H& M, Sephora, etc. Along the way, the famous byzantine Monastiraki church sits like a relic amidst commercial buildings and bag-laden shoppers.
When I reach the square itself and look up, I am 18 again. Did I really live here for an entire year, taking buses and drinking watery orangeade? American Express is long gone, as is Papaspyrou’s, the mega-café that once spread from one side of the huge street to the interior of the square by way of an endless sea of tables, chairs and umbrellas. Waiters stood with trays as traffic lights changed just to get across to serve their patrons. Huge buses unloaded an endless supply of tourists craning their necks to find the Acropolis in the background or watching the “evzones” (soldiers dressed in traditional garb) changing guard in front of the Parliament building. Back in the ’70s, few Greek men were more than 5’8” tall. So these 6 ft.+ tall soldiers were practically freaks. Strangers were dressed in Bermuda shorts, while no Athenian would be caught dead in the downtown area wearing anything but suits, white shirts, or their best dresses.
Today this part of Athens is somewhat stripped of its color while remaining stately — unless riots or demonstrations are the mood of the day. A Metro station’s escalator now carves a hole into the square, diving hundreds of feet into the foundation of an ancient European capital. So many artifacts were found as the transit system went in prior to the 2004 Olympics that entire glassed-in displays grace several of the metro stations. And gone is the aroma of fresh flowers from the dozen or so flower shops that bordered the square – the most special part of my walk from the bus to the square I will forever miss.
Horns blare and teeming crowds begin to surge across the street as I find my brothers’ marble-clad hotel, with its huge rotating door and uniformed bellmen. The lobby is elegant, air conditioned and wifi-enabled. I sink into a leather chair waiting for a sibling to emerge from a diminutive elevator, but I am not in my Athens any more.