Our host’s cousin picked us up from the airport last night at 1am. He was quite the character: passionate about the NBA, his kids, and gave great advice to avoid traveler’s mistakes while in Athens. Normally, I am an early bird and wake up at the crack of dawn while Hannah sleeps in until 9am or even 10am. When we travel to Europe, I can hardly open my eyes for the first few days, while she excitedly maps out plans and tries to shake me from my first several groggy hours of discontent mumblings. Today was no exception. We traveled a total of 30 hours from Houston to Athens, and it took its toll. Athens is jam packed full of people, vehicles, and the noise that come with it. Tack on the less than accessible water at Heathrow and a fairly stringent budget for out diet to boot. We were ready for bed and a warm shower (which proved less comfortable and harder to have than we thought).
We rectified that hunger this morning with what was the equivalent of a Greek calzone for breakfast. It made for perfect sustenance as we walked to the main sites in Athens. They are all roughly 1 to 1.5 miles from our Airbnb. We walked quite a bit every day, we never realized it was such a small city in that regard.
When Hannah and I took our honeymoon to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we often speculated how many buildings were up to US “code” or even structurally sound. Many were half built or fallen into disrepair. My first impression of Athens was much the same. By no means am I critiquing it, but it is an impression nonetheless. Greek people have an affinity for making things last.
We walked into a flea market, called Monastiraki Flea Market on day 1 with many old items and knick-knacks for sale. Many were obviously decades old and made with real steal, brass, or silver. The vehicles and homes all showed handiwork This was common in the neighborhoods we passed and sights that we took in. Every train car and building seems to have some sort of colorful graffiti painted across its walls. In 2019, Athens posted an 18% current unemployment rate. It reached an all time high in July 2013 of 27.90%. Its walls narrate the stories of a population mired in struggle and bereft of hope.
The Grecian people have seen their fair share of strife from foreign occupation or war by the Persians, Romans, Ottomans, and Germans to name a few. They have reconstructed numerous times and shown massive turnarounds in their history. Greece has also encountered numerous issues with its economy and choice to stay in the Eurozone. Everything here is priced in euro, and it is the primary currency of choice. We did find goods at grocery stores to be expensive. Finally, Athens itself grew at an incredible rate. In its metro area, it roughly has 3.75 million people, which is about 19,000 people per square mile. It is incredibly dense and new construction here is not a reality. In fact, there were many times that we noticed stilts holding up falling walls, even in tourist zones.
Nevertheless, Athens’ oldest buildings in the Acropolis were still breathtaking and incredibly detailed. Athens had a major issue with pollution in the last 20 years, too. Some of the major buildings and monuments began to show staining from pollution and car exhaust from the massive influx of people. Realizing this, the city instituted interesting measures to curb the damage. Cars with even license plates are only allowed in particular areas of the city on certain days, and odd cars on the others. Wealthy Athenians just purchase two vehicles to circumvent the rule. Could you imagine that in a city like Houston!?
When our host’s cousin picked us up, he gave us several warnings to heed, mostly about pickpockets. He also told us not to fear the refugees, and that they are harmless. The media paints a crusading mass of people living off the good will of the state. We saw gypsies and Nigerians handing out roses and bracelets. One tried to tie a bracelet around my hand by extending his for a hand shake an introduction. Thankfully, my smart wife immediately declined and pulled my naive, friendly self along. Aside from this, I think the world has good people, with good intentions, who are trying their best. In this case, tourists in Athens are travelling pilgrims on a mission to reach deeper into history and embrace a culture, and instead are confronted with less attractive side of cultural diversity in the Balkans where the recipients of tithing and goodwill are also relying on it for survival.
We ran into a surprising number of Americans on the 3rd day in Athens. The first was a family from Washington, DC at a restaurant near a tourist area. The second was a young man from Minnesota at another restaurant with his German girlfriend. Lastly, after reading a description placard in English, a travelling duo asked where we were from in the States, as they were from Michigan. Later in the trip, we met Caleb and Zorran at soulvaki restaurant for lunch. Both of these guys were 18/19 and traveling alone abroad, with neither knowing the language. I was very impressed by their adventure, ambition, and self awareness. For lunch we had gyro wraps are delicious, and so are these sesame bread knots that taste vaguely like peanut butter. And also these sweet almonds with sesame seeds.
One of the most impressionable moments has been our morning breakfast routine. There is a small bakery near our Airbnb. One of the employees noticed we didn’t speak Greek and came out to help describe some of the pastries and assist us in choosing. She did this all 3 days we have been by there on our way into downtown.
Personal Note: The Lifestyle
Hannah and I both wake up each morning and realize the blessing it is to be undertaking such a long and diverse trip. We appreciate the comments, questions, and check-ins from our family and friends. Some have asked about lifestyle and accommodation. Living life as a nomad is exhausting. Each day we have essentially walked from 10am-7pm, covering about approximately 7+ miles each day. We both can tell some clothes have gotten looser and overall we’ve probably lost weight, though who knows how much. Also, maintaining a balanced diet while traveling can be difficult. Many local foods here are heavy on the meat, cheese, and bread spectrum. While we only share an entree when we eat, we have had to make sure we are getting proper nutrition through fruits and vegetables, too. To keep the budget slim, we buy grocery good and make sandwiches.
Our current Airbnb is simple, the bed is very thin and we both wake up a little achy each morning (my back doesn’t like soft or old beds apparently). Our shower is approximately 3 feet long by 2 feet wide and we have to flip an electric breaker for 20 minutes to let the hot water warm up, and that only lasts about 5 minutes if we are lucky. Athens is VERY noisy. We hear cars, motorcylces, and four wheelers outside the window all night long. We both sleep with ear plugs as a result. Despite all this, we look at each other and smile each morning, because this is our dream and we are living it.