Athens: protests, good food, and a whole lot of marble.

I know what you want to know, so let’s cut to the chase: 38 minutes. That’s the amount of time between the moment I left my hotel after arriving in Athens, and the moment I ran into a protest. Of course, the fact that I was heading for Parliament helped. For my French speaking friends, I accidentally emailed someone with the typo: “Je suis en Grève”. Only one letter away on the keyboard, but instead of “I’m in Greece” (Grèce), it means “I’m on strike”!

I don’t know what it was about, it was all Greek to me.

Truth be told, the idea of protesting in the street is not really my cup of tea. In fact, I see my hypothetical future as a union leader as equally probable as becoming a successful hip hop artist, and I’m not even sure what exactly hip hop is. So, as I was uncomfortably walking around my slogan chanting friends, I saw this guy, and I instantly understood what he was doing. I’m sure he couldn’t care less about what the crowd was up to, but he saw the opportunity.

And success! I didn’t stay long enough to see how well he did, but there was at least one man in that crowd I could relate to.

I had gone to Parliament to witness the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a little awkward for the protesters to be protesting there, but it’s not out of disrespect. The Tomb happens to be the front facade of Parliament, so if you want to protest the Government, that’s unfortunately where you have to go.

Military fashion doesn’t change nearly as fast as civilian fashion. But, over the course of decades and centuries, you can compare the uniforms of different armies and realize that international trends do occur, both in dress and, to a lesser extent, in drill. I will admit that the bear skin hats that the Canadian and British Guards wear are a little extravagant, but these Greek guards are way out there in terms of doing it their own way! I have never seen such strange drill. Worth checking out on Youtube.

And Asian girls, doing their thing under the watchful eye of the Guard supervisor. Actually, maybe those were people disguised as Asian girls, because real ones would have posed properly, with their heads tilted and doing a V sign with their fingers. I was puzzled.

After a few months in South-East Asia, I really enjoyed landing in Athens. When I get tired of a place, I start missing the silly little things: restaurant napkins that are not toilet paper, washroom towels that are not toilet paper, toilets that have toilet paper, etc. I also missed not having to walk in traffic (Singapore and Brunei excluded, of course). Not only were there sidewalks in Athens, there were entire pedestrian streets, such as this major one (Parliament in the background). It also gave me the chance to look for things I craved.

Hahhh, no rice in sight. Pita bread? Yogurt? Such exotic ingredients! From the central location, I assumed this would be a tourist restaurant, but as it turns out, everyone but me and another patron spoke Greek. This massive lunch was quite delicious. Lesson learned; next time I want to make something look appetizing in a photo, maybe I’ll move the ashtray first.

It was great to see all the products and food stuff, just like in the wonderful markets of South-East Asia, but so different. Look at the Greek man walking by. I don’t think he could have looked at me with more suspicion if I had been wearing a Turkish Army uniform. Now that I think of it, I did lie to villagers in Yemen about being Turkish and it worked. Maybe I do look Turkish?

The meat section at the central market was surprising. I could describe it in words that would make it look like an insalubrious horror: “Carcasses hanging at room temperature”, “no gloves being worn”, “meat on wooden blocks”. However, it was absolutely impeccably clean. I walked all around it (about 8 times bigger than what you see), and it was spotless. I was just surprised some European standards would not impose more storage and display restrictions. And, although in reality it’s not a problem in March, I wonder how they display it in August. It just shows how in some countries we go totally overboard with hygiene rules. “Meat at room temperature: throw it out after 20 minutes”? When I was a kid, the pork roast  sandwich stayed in the brown bag, at 25 degrees, for 5 hours, and it was fine.

This caught my attention. The family of George Trezos probably started selling ropes to hang Ottomans with, but it is funny, and impressive that such a business can survive nowadays. In Canada, this kind of specialization in common household items has long died at the hands of big surface hardware stores.

What can you do with 85.1 million metric tons of marble? A 60,000 seat stadium, the only one in the world made entirely of marble. I’m sure it’s not cheap, but you do save a bundle on fire extinguishers.

There is a bit of history to the place. The first gig to perform was Great Panathenaia, 329 BC edition. Much work was later done on the stadium in the second Century AD, but the advent of Christianity posed a problem, with its Holy Commandment: “Thou Shall Not Have Fun”. Since gladiators, lions and guys running around naked obviously all fell in the category “fun”, they were banned. At least the Greeks could get drunk until they forgot about all the fun they were missing out on, something the Arabs would be deprived of 300 years later. This ended up giving some of them a rather explosive temperament.

Even though parts of the stadium were demolished and the marble was used to build churches, when the modern Olympics were created, it was decided the stadium would be re-built. It was done at great expense, and in the end, the 1896 Olympics were held in there. Sadly, the 2004 Olympics were moved to a new stadium, probably due to EU rules on fire extinguishers.

The nice thing about the stadium visit is that you can go anywhere you want, and the small entrance fee includes an audio guide. This is the tunnel from which athletes, gladiators and the like would enter the stadium. Easy to get lost in day dreaming and imagine incredible moments of the past, as you walk down and exit into the light and immensity of the stadium. Well, easy in low season, perhaps not as much with 17 busloads of people on organized tours. That afternoon, I almost had the entire stadium to myself.

The tunnel is linked to a building which presumably would have had an administrative function of some kind, but now hosts a small exhibit on the official posters and torches of the different Olympiads. I couldn’t help notice the 1936 torch, with the German eagle holding the Olympic rings in its claws.

And of course, who can visit Athens without going to the Acropolis? The Parthenon can be seen from all over the city, sometimes from better vantage points than others. This one, from the top of the Olympic Stadium (the old one), seemed quite fitting.

This one, from downtown, I still like in a twisted way.

Not so much anymore. As you saw on Mr. Trezos’ store, Athens is covered in graffiti, and not nice murals or any such thing, the kind of gang garbage you see here. I did not see one intact subway train.

I’m not going to tell you about the Parthenon, that’s what Wikipedia is for. But I will admit that I was a little disappointed. I think it’s because I had seen so many beautiful pictures of it that my experience, on a cloudy day, full of tour groups, with the structure undergoing massive repairs, just didn’t have the same magic.

The other side, with the Great Crane of Apollo in the foreground. This reconstruction project is a multi-decade endeavour, so don’t expect to see it scaffold-free anytime soon.

Others structures on the Acropolis are much better preserved, such as the Amphitheatre. The whole area offers nice views of sprawling Athens.

The Temple of Hephaistos impressed me more than the Parthenon. While much smaller, it is in good condition, and coming upon it while strolling in the quiet gardens of the old Greek Agora was magical.

And finally, the last thing I thought I would see in Athens; turtles playing King of the Hill, in the National Gardens of Athens.

PS: I flew to Athens through Cairo and realized the Egyptians are liars. First, not a single one of them walked like an Egyptian. Second, judging from the skyline, I would say that less than 1% actually live in pyramids! In Canada we stick to our heritage and all live in igloos. In fact, thanks to our oil wealth and advanced technology, we can now live in igloos all year. Really sad.


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