I arrived on a Sunday afternoon. For all the European travels I had done thus far – getting the right train from the airport into the city in Athens was confusing. Tickets need to be bought and then validated but at the airport there is no clear platform indicated. By fluke I ended up on the right train. I arrived at the hostel address to be told that my hostel was in fact their sister one a few blocks away and to head there. I found it eventually.
For the first time in months, when I stepped out into the sunshine, it actually felt warm on my skin. I didn’t realise how much you could miss that sensation until it was taken away. Even in the depths of our winters at home, standing in the midday sun will give you the sensation of warmth, where as during my travels, standing in the midday sun you still felt the chill in the air and that was something you had to get used to all over Europe. It was refreshing and comforting to have natural warmth on my skin.
After I arrived, I was in touch with a local friend of a friend from Aus, named Nikolas. While he usually signs Greek Sign Language, he did live in Australia for a while so he knew a little Auslan. We met up and he showed me around the town- the main town square, the oldest Greek Orthodox Church in Athens (and still in use I might add!), where to get good coffee on a rooftop, the shopping strip and most importantly, where to eat an amazing Greek food dinner! He showed me his workplace (an art studio with amazing views of the Acropolis hill) that he shares will other artists. One woman there was his friend, Maria. She only knew Greek sign and a little of the international basics, and I knew Auslan with a little of the international basics, so Nikolas helped to interpret between the two as we fumbled to construct meaning in our dialogue across 2.5 languages. They were lovely and welcoming and while I had intended on meeting up with them again on the weekend for drinks, I got distracted and tired and didn’t see them again. Perhaps if I come again I will! 😊
In the main square of the town (Syntagma square) that night, there was some kind of charity give away to the refugees. There were people handing out supplies such as toilet paper and food at one end, a few hundred – 700 refugees in the middle of the square, and another 50-100 or so on the outskirts of the square, rummaging through the garbage bags of clothes/items to try and find something useful for them and their children. Some had set up tents to camp out there for the night. Nikolas said it has made things very hard in Greece economically and employment wise. With Greece already in an economic crisis, many Greeks are out of work and very poor, and yet they are still finding a way to give to the refugees. He doesn’t understand why other countries, richer countries with better means to help them don’t take them in, and help take some of the burden off Greece. It’s a good question. The next morning, they were all gone with no trace of them being there.
My hostel was one of the less desirable hostels I have stayed in. The beds were squeaky and uncomfortable, the one shower/toilet for 18 people constantly had a wet and then dirty (muddy from people’s shoes) floor. After one sleep I contemplated upgrading to another hostel or hotel, but decided to give it a chance. The location was great and hostels are the best way to meet people!
I went on a guided walking tour that morning open to our hostel and its sister apartments down the road, and met some lovely people! 2 of whom are living in London, so we may catch up for a drink at some point. I learned a bit about a number of old ruins sites that I otherwise would not have known (Zeus’s temple, Hadrians arch and library, the stadium of the first modern Olympics, Zappillion, Roman Agora, Roman baths). I also wandered some of Athens and enjoyed the food!
I met two new girls in my dorm room, and they came with me and the two I had met the day before on the walking tour to make our way up Acropolis hill (the long way around for some stunning views) to see the sites on the Acropolis. The Parthenon, Athenas temple and Dionysis theatre were the highlights up there but overall it was amazing. Such rich culture and history atop the hill overlooking the city. We wandered down and around the park and saw the temple of Hephaestus.
I found an amazing place to eat breakfast called Arcadis. The same man, whose name I learned a few days in is Yanas, took care of us/me as we kept coming back. He cooked me food that was not on the menu and have me free coffee. He was warm and friendly and would go out of his way to make sure we were happy. My food choices (just some fried veg) looked good to him and also happened to be vegan – which is a dietary requirement he had struggled to be creative with (Greeks in general don’t really know what to do with you if you don’t eat meat or bread)! The next day a vegan came to eat at his restaurant and he offered him my dish- which the customer loved, so Yanas is putting it on his new menu for the spring. He is so excited.
Groups of us in the hostel met, laughed, drank, told random stories, went on 2am walks to find 24hour food joints, and generally had a good time.
Every day there are people who have placed anti Coca Cola signs on their cars and strapped speakers to the roof. They drive around telling people (in Greek of course) to stop drinking Coke, because some time ago Coca Cola shut their factory and moved it to Bulgaria where it is cheaper and put a lot of Greeks out of work. Therefore their corporation does not care about people, or Greece, but only money and are not worthy of support.
Many of the streets and gardens are lined with fruit trees, mostly oranges, and the freshly squeezed orange juice from the restaurants is totally worth it.
A cloudier / rainier day saw 3 of us go to the Acropoli museum, and a sunnier day saw me head out to Aegina island. The two girls in my hostel and I became pretty good friends over our 4 of so days together and they were planning a few months of travel ahead. They will stop by me in London if they come through while I am there.
The day I went out to Aegina, I had to head over to Piraeus port (the outskirts of Athens at the seaside). Piraeus is where many of the refugees had taken camp in Athens. They were everywhere. Tents were in parks, next to (ferry) passenger terminals, and the terminals themselves were packed to the brim with people and their belongings. Ferry customers did not wait here anymore as they were virtually residences of the refugees. Most people had a large bag of clothing etc and slept or sat around it. Children were on the floor on blankets, teenagers huddled together around the corner trying to charge their phones in the few available sockets, and parents sat, or spoke to one another much more calmly than the children. The mood was sombre and many were in silence. There was a sense of dis-ease and uncertainty that lingered in the air. Outside the terminal, mothers chatted while their kids ran around playing a game of tag. I have hope that these children do not remember the terrors of where they have come from and have an honest chance at an enriching future. I wish I could do more for all of these people. I wish that the stigma around refugees diminishes or at the very least that politicians and the media stop perpetuating negativity that is simply uncalled for. I wish we could all just see each other as human beings, worthy of love, respect, and safety. It saddens me that I have to wish for this instead of it being a reality.
Making my way out to Aegina took a bit over an hour on the ferry. Again the food was delicious and the scenery was amazing. It was a quaint little town by the seaside who has made its prosperity through pistachio farms. I found the best chocolate gelato I’ve ever eaten in my life – which had what I can only assume are pistachios in it (or possibly almonds). Either way it was amazing and before I left for the day I went and got one more for the road! I wandered the town of Aegina and got “lost” in the side streets and it was beautiful. Finding the tourist info office closed, and the locals unaware of the guided bus tours that apparently existed with the broken English that they spoke, I hired a taxi to take me out to the temple of Aphaia. The taxi driver was a local man who had lived his whole life on the island. He knew most people as we drove past them, beeping and waving happily. He enjoys his life. It was refreshing to see that. Many people in Greece are struggling and overworked or unemployed. There is no in between. I saw the temple and some amazing views from atop that hill. I also saw the big local church on the way back down. The Greeks are very spiritual and churches and their religion often hold a big part in their lives.
On other days in Athens I had a closer look at the temple of Zeus and the Zappillion which had been closed earlier in the week on our walking tour, and watched the changing of the guard in Syntagma square. This was the most peculiar changing of the guard that I had seen with the guards dressed extravagantly with pom-poms on their shoes and a ceremonious change-over that saw them kick, flick, slide and stamp their feet for quite some time.
I sat in the national gardens for a few hours, contemplating life and felt the rain on my skin as I questioned my purpose and path ahead of me. I was unsure if London was the right decision, I was still heart broken, and I was questioning it all. It was somewhat of an existential crisis as I pondered the meaning of life in general. Why I was here and where I was supposed to go next. I often follow my heart, or at the very least my intuition but I had no feelings about what was right, and where I belong next. I had money in the bank, no job, no where to go, and only 10 days of accommodation left booked in. I felt lost. I felt alone. My heart still hurt. I had no idea what to do. For a brief moment in time, as I sat with both tears and rain on my face there was an older Greek man who came and sat on a park bench perpendicular to me. He wore brown shoes, grey pants, a suspender belt and a hat, and was smoking. He sat for a while, placed his head in his hands and he cried too. This was an incredible poignant moment I have shared with a stranger from across the globe. No words were said between us. It wasn’t necessary. Some time later, he left. I stayed for a while longer and came more to terms with my decision and faith that everything happens for a reason. I walked home to the hostel (which I decided to stay in after all) as the rain drizzled on.
I was asked by a few different Greeks if I would like to have a coffee date with them, the most unusual of which was an older gentleman of at least 70, whom I crossed paths with in the park. Another was a younger gentleman at a train station as I was waiting for my train who was a little more persistent but also younger and so he would have presumed I may have accepted. He was wrong.
Overall I enjoyed Greece. I met some lovely people, but at times also felt quite lonely as they left. This is my last stop before London where it’s all about finding work and a house to live in (which I’ve been looking for online in my downtime). There has been smiling faces, poverty, friends, time to think, beauty that makes you stop thinking, history, culture, sunshine and food. Thank you Greece. You are beautiful.