The arrival day in any city is daunting, a harrowing test of travel and time zones, security checks, fearing you've lost your passport, wondering where your hotel is, changing...
ATHENS The arrival day in any city is daunting, a harrowing test of travel and time zones, security checks, fearing you’ve lost your passport, wondering where your hotel is, changing money, wondering if you shouldn’t be changing plans.
Then there is Athens, the capital of Greece and site of this summer’s Olympic Games, to make it worse.
I was concerned. The congestion, the concrete, the cigarettes, Athens was seemingly a purgatory for those on their way to the Greek islands. Your frenetic first day in the city begins to ebb but only because there is no place for your cab to go in the noisy afternoon traffic.
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But just about the time you’re ready to go home or straight to the islands, the Acropolis appears, high on a hill, the home of Western civilization, the white columns of the Parthenon in pearly contrast to the rocky red walls supporting it.
After that, there is nowhere you can go in Athens that the Acropolis doesn’t watch and guide you.
The world will watch Athens this summer when ancient Greece is television’s backdrop to the Olympics, the world having no idea how difficult it is to get around town, how ugly much of Athens can be, a concrete jungle of apartment houses and narrow streets.
Until the Games have begun, the spectacle will be Athens trying to drag itself into the 21st century, building an infrastructure that not only brings it abreast of other European cities, but allows it to successfully stage the Olympics.
This spring, traffic was made even worse by piles of rubble and snarls of rebar in the middle of a busy street as a tram line is being built from the center of the city to whisk people south to Olympic events at the site of the old airport, Heilliniko.
There are many concerns: that the new subway station at the main Olympic Stadium will be finished; that the train line from the new airport will make it all the way to the new subway line; that the main stadium will have a roof; that the modern winner of the marathon might be more endangered by asphyxiation than exhaustion.
A couple of guys working here, a couple there. No portable lights installed to work through the night. In Seattle, we’d have had more guys supervising the filling of a pothole than they had working on a stretch of new train line.
And, yet, the Olympics will happen. The Greeks are proud of their past and concerned about their future.
“When it matters,” said one official, “things will be done.”
The Greek penchant for procrastination is at the same time appealing and alarming, a romantic notion of deciding priorities hourly, never allowing somebody else’s schedule to get in the way of a good meal or a good song.
There are concerns, too, that the soul of Athens, and its place as the gateway city to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, will be lost in its modernization and McDonaldization.
At last count, there were six Starbucks in Athens.
“I like Starbucks,” countered Nancy Andriopoulou, who works for the Ministry of Mass Media. “It is the only place in Athens where there is no smoking. The good thing is it smells like coffee, no place else does.”
I like Athens. No matter how many Starbucks it has, it is not Atlanta. Rather than dig at the heart and soul of old Athens, the new metro for the Olympics will simply make the city more accessible, especially to the Athenians.
“The city will no longer be a nightmare for us,” said a cab driver with plenty of time in a traffic jam to be philosophical.
Upon returning to Seattle following a week’s visit in Athens, the first thing I noticed while waiting for a ferry to Bainbridge was a notice on the door to McDonald’s at the Colman Dock.
“No loitering. Please limit your visit to 30 minutes.”
Athens is about loitering, about taking four hours for dinner, about taking time to sit on a rock to sketch a Doric column holding up the Parthenon.
Like cities in the United States, Athens was victimized by unharnessed growth following World War II, developments that were yesterday’s housing and today’s ghettos.
The Olympics have forced 21st-century Greece to get over it, to build a new airport, to surround much of the city with a toll road, to add two new subway lines, all of which should make it easier to enjoy old Athens, especially after the Olympics.
If you’re lucky enough to be stuck in Athens, forget taking a cab, go straight to the subway and get off at the Monastariki station where an old world unfolds, not ancient, but appealingly apathetic, streets without traffic, restaurants without someone reaching for your plate and asking “if you’re still working on it.”
Stray dogs lounge on warm cobblestones. Old men sit on benches. Street musicians move from restaurant to restaurant.
On one side of Monastariki station is Plaka, the old city of modern Athens, where tourists go to shop and eat, unfettered by the traffic, noise and pollution of everyday Athens.
But if Plaka is for the tourists, then nearby Psiri, something like Seattle’s Belltown, is for the city’s younger population, a gentrification that has given relief to everyday Athenian life, where “to go for coffee” may mean a three-hour political discussion.
Put the two areas Plaka and Psiri together and you might have the most delightful social scene in Europe, especially on warm Greek nights when dinner doesn’t get started until midnight.
The Greeks watch movies outdoors. The Roman theater at the foot of the Acropolis is outdoors. Restaurants move outdoors.
We’ve had much of the traditional Greek fare, the olives, the dolmas, the satziki, the spanakopita, the pureed fava beans for appetizers. But somehow they and the lamb and the calamari, grilled and flavored as always with lemon and garlic, are better seasoned and enjoyed in the homeland.
While the city is often noted for its number of automobiles 2 million there are more than 200 theaters in Athens, more than in London. People read and have opinions. They talk politics and, of course, philosophy.
And philosophy can’t take them far from the ancient Greeks. Neither can a walk through Psiri or Plaka. Relics are everywhere, especially in the subway stations, but even in the basement of our hotel, where part of Themistocles Wall 479 B.C. remains standing as it did when it was used to ward off an attack from Sparta.
The streets that wrap around the base of the Acropolis have been turned into walkways, providing archaeological treks through time.
You are a few hundred yards from both the Acropolis and the ancient Agora, the gathering place of Athenians. In Psiri, the intersection of two streets must work its way around a squatty, old church.
Every time the Greeks build a new subway they uncover more of their past, which slows down progress but highlights exactly who they are.
Who knows if Greece can escape a terrorist attack during the Olympic Games? One of the poorest countries in the European Union and the smallest in the world to host an Olympics since Finland did in 1952 Greece will be forced to spend nearly $1 billion on security, concerned about not only its proximity to the Middle East but its border with Albania.
Greeks seem confident nothing will happen.
The government response has been nearly 1,500 surveillance cameras.
The world will be watching as well, to see if Athens cannot only embrace its past, but reclaim its rightful place as one of the world’s great cities, a brick at a time.