The day I flew into Athens for the first time, it was cold and rainy. Never let anyone tell you that January in Greece is anything except a capricious bitch who leads you into thinking you’ll be able to find some warmth in her arms and then leads you into an icy cold pool and pushes you in. Everything was grey, and the sidewalks were slippery because the Athenians line everything with marble. I mean, everything. Buildings, sidewalks, street planters. Tretorn sneakers do not cut it on such a surface. As someone who has never been known for my grace anyway, winter streets in Athens were treacherous.
In any case, the reputable hotel I had planned to stay in was apparently under renovation and the person at the desk there sent me down the street to another one. Imagine, if you will, planning to stay in an elegant little townhouse of a hotel in a nice neighborhood, and ending up someplace that made me grateful for bug repellant. Despite being in Kolonaki, the swishiest neighborhood in Athens, the hotel was somewhat of a dive. To be fair, it was on a street that led straight down Lykavitos Hill into the heart of Syntagma Square, the hub of all things tourist.
Still, I wanted to make the best of it, and settled in, exhaustion from jet lag overcoming me. I woke soon after when a rhythmic thumping slammed against the wall between me and the room next door. Although a smidgen embarrassed, I figured there was a honeymoon couple next door and that they’d eventually stop. The man spoke rather roughly to the woman, telling her she was a naughty girl and should be spanked, and the woman responded in the affirmative. Some slapping sounds ensued and then the rhythmic thumping again. After what seemed an indeterminable time, he came with a great shout and there was a brief period of silence. Brief, like 30 seconds. To my surprise, she told him to get out. Was this what honeymoons were like? I heard some muttering through the paper thin walls and then the door slammed shut.
Okay, finally, I can go back to sleep. I optimistically thought. But wait! Was she following him? The sound of something being sprayed. Deodorant? Air freshener? High velocity perfume? Then the sound of heels tapping across the floor and the door shutting again.
Ten minutes later, they came back. Wait, was she cheating on her new husband? This was not the same man, as evidenced by the deeper voice slurring amorous German words at her. Same deal, much thumping, something being sprayed, door shutting. The next man was Greek, and I learned some key phrases I would be able to use later in my years there. This continued until about 3 in the morning, at which point I had come to the conclusion that she was not a newlywed. They do tend to only do each other, right? I was fairly sure she was a hooker. I wondered if I should let the hotel know.
The following morning, before I could say anything, my bedroom door opened to admit an Australian girl about my age, struggling with an enormous backpack. I was surprised, having foolishly expected that I was booking a single room. When I tried quite diplomatically to suggest that she had the wrong room, she blithely informed me the rest were being used. It turned out that the hotel was actually a brothel in the “off season”. Light tourism in the winter led the hotel to get more creative in its endeavours to keep the bills paid. Apparently, they received a cut of the business.
Needless to say, I was out of there like a shot and went to a little hotel in the Plaka, the old section of Athens. I was actually quite happy there while I searched for someplace to live. It was run by a perpetually cheerful old man with a magnificent moustache he would curl at the edges with wax. He didn’t speak much English, which was actually quite helpful to me as I struggled with my new Greek. He coached me through phrases each evening at the hotel bar, before I settled in to watch episodes of Grizzly Adams dubbed in Greek.
I found a flat about a month later, a corner one that opened onto two separate streets. It was high up on a hill in Kolonaki, a short walk to the top of Lykavitos Hill, and a longer walk down through Syntagma and the Plaka to get to work at the Agora excavations and museum. That hill kept me fit. My flat had its own little courtyard that nurtured my desire for a garden. I didn’t actually garden, mind you, which was something I would wait ten years to begin learning. But it was a great place to hang my wet laundry to dry, or to sit out and read and sip Nescafe, the only kind of coffee one could drink that wasn’t the native sludge (an acquired taste, I would imagine). The distant sound of Athenian traffic was muffled behind stuccoed concrete walls. Bougainvillea draped over the wall from my neighbor.
My only bad moment was opening up a heating closet and discovering it harboured a large colony of cockroaches that fled the closet, across the floor of my bedroom. This resulted in a panicked call to my friend Roger, who raced up the street from his flat at the British School, armed with a broom. I’m not sure what he meant to do with it, but the memory still makes me laugh. The cockroaches and I eventually came to an arrangement. I didn’t open the closet, and they didn’t appear when I was around.
Each morning I would walk out the front door to the scent of freshly baked bread from the bakery down the street, which was always my first stop for a chunk of warm bread and a yogurt from their refrigerator. I would chomp on the bread as I walked, and then at work I would add some honey to the yogurt and swirl it together as I planned out my day.
Then each evening, I would walk back up. My route always took me along Vas. Sofias, a long avenue that stretched from Syntagma Square along the base of Kolonaki. The street was the site of one of the largest flower markets I have ever seen, and the mass of colour and scent was a glorious gift.
Athens is a shock to the senses with the sheer force of its personality. The nefos hangs over the air like a polluted miasma, and one is assaulted by the sounds of honking horns and loud Greek voices arguing for the pleasure of it. Battered by its sounds and smells, you have to catch your breath.
But then you walk into a quiet courtyard in the old section of Plaka, and bougainvillea brushes against your face and the city seems to hush. Or you step carefully among the rocks in the ruins of the Agora, where time has stopped and wildflowers grow delicately along the paths that once felt the feet of Socrates and Plato and the day to day business of running a city. I remember as I write this the curse tablets and the amphorae that held wines and oils. And the tiny glass bottles brought by the Romans, that I once held in my hand to repair in the sunlit halls of our labs.
Friends and I would sit in a taverna each afternoon before it was time to go back to work, nibbling olives and grape leaves, and sticking chunks of crusty bread into bowls of tzatziki, a dip made with goat yogurt and mint and garlic. The staple of my diet was a simple Greek salad of cucumbers, cut ripe tomatoes, and olives, sprinkled with oregano and splashed with oil and vinegar. There is an exquisite pleasure to sitting in one of the open air tavernas, picking at a salad and lifting one’s face to the sun. Cats would wind around our legs waiting for handouts. The city is much like those cats, scrappy and old with patches of missing fur, but charming nonetheless. A cat wanting to be petted before it bites you and runs off with the last piece of your souvlaki.
A few years of Athens, which I adored, and then I started to come to the conclusion that I was probably going to barely keep myself in rent and salads working as an archaeologist. (It’s really a labour of love, or a rich man’s field. Hey, see what I did there?)
Never mind paying for regular trips to the islands or the occasional ski trip to Mount Olympos, or Parnassos to the south. So by the way, I can say I’ve skied with the gods. Okay, well, not skied exactly. More like slid gracefully down the bunny slopes in heavy fog, and wondered whether I oughtn’t to go back to my friend’s house and warm up at the fireplace with a blanket and a hot toddy. Okay, maybe not so gracefully. On my ass sliding down the icy slope, okay? Happy? But I’d bought skis, dammit, and I was going to learn how to wedel and shusse with the best of them, or σκι , the Greek equivalent. Seriously, they just say “ski”. And the gods, while they might have once roamed the hallowed mountainside, had given over to rich-ish Athenians who didn’t have the energy to fly to a “real” ski resort in say, Chamonix or Zermatt (bonus: enough après skiing drinking to drown out any muscle pangs from the day’s exertions).
The last time I was at Parnassos, a heavy fog descended from the mountain top. I was sliding around the bunny slope attempting to look as if I knew what I was doing, but the wet cold was seeping under my ski suit and I was seriously questioning why on earth I had ever thought that an activity involving moving around in snow was a good idea. I am a creature of the sun. Growing up in the tropical weather of South East Asia, I was never meant for cold.
But there I was, the cold and fog creeping over the mountain like a Stephen King novel. A complete non sequitur here, I have a phobia about werewolves. On that mountain, I briefly considered that I might end up having my throat torn out and be found on the snow the following morning, my blood dark red against the white. I blame the cold.
I did make it down to Arachova, the village in which my friend had a house, after hours of creeping down winding mountain roads with other cars. Picture, if you will, that mountain roads in Greece inevitably have one thing in common: there are rarely guard rails. The Greeks think guard rails are for the weak. Instead, they have straight drop offs from the roads that disappear into clouds and valleys below. Often you will see icons of the Virgin Mary in a small raised housing on the edge of such roads, where drivers plunged to their deaths. I took a bus once in the mountains of northern Greece, and on this particular ride, every time the driver swerved around a bend in the road, the passengers would yell Opa!as if applauding his successful navigation of yet another opportunity to die.
This illustrates, I think, one of the things I adore about the Greeks. They have an indefatigable spirit, a joie de vivre that defies anything life or war can throw at them. They are a passionate people, and to a young woman who had grown up with English restraint, the experience of living among Greeks was liberating. The concept of shouting at someone was alien to me. To the Greeks, one shouted in anger; with love; to order another retsina; whatever the reason. Voices rose from the street through one’s windows. Conversation assaulted one from the next table over. Taxi drivers would shout back to you about the weather or politics or the damn archaologists (as soon as they found out I was one) who kept interfering in the building of a metro. This would be over the inevitable tinny sound of bouzouki music blaring from the radio. Everything seemed to be decibel levels higher than I was used to, and sometimes I had to wander out far into our excavations at the Agora to sit among the rocks and the wildflowers and allow my mind to settle, as if metaphorically transporting myself to the English countryside with mist on my face and the quiet broken only by a light wind.
But with the noise and drama, also came a quieter pride in being Greek, a sense of honour and decency that I was to see again and again. I loved Greece and its people, with a love that to me spanned centuries. I was convinced that I had been there before, in ancient times. As a teenager I had had a recurring dream of being in a temple with other young women, playing a game with small pegs in a board. Our game was interrupted by the screams of women, and then blood spreading across a mosaic floor. The dream was one of the things, I think, that directed me to specialize in Minoan archaeology. Regardless of whether it was a memory or a flight of fancy, I felt at home in Greece in a way that I only ever felt in England. As if my heart has found a place of solace.