When we see others running away in fear, we are likely to run with them, even if we aren’t sure of the presence of danger. This is a good thing and has served us well in our evolution. It was better to run away, be wrong about a danger, and laugh about it with your buddies than to hesitate and possibly be eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. If you were eaten by a tiger, your genes wouldn’t be passed on to future generations. So evolution favoured the cautious.
I was thinking about this as I slowly twirled my spaghetti Mediterranean around my fork at an outdoor restaurant near the National Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece. It was raining, and under the dripping canopy of interlinked table umbrellas, a hundred or more pigeons searched the ground, chairs, and table tops for morsels of food. One particularly pesky bird kept jumping on top of my table while I was eating and trying to read a book on Greek Mythology. I shooed him away a few times and he finally stationed himself on the top of a chair at the adjacent table.
Something spooked the pigeons, and in a flash all one hundred of them flew across the museum courtyard. All of them, that is, except for one – the pesky bird sitting on the chair near me. I watched him in contemplation, wondering if he was a courageous bird, or a stupid one. Will his genes carry on to future generations? I doubted it. I finished my spaghetti, ordered a Greek coffee, and opened my journal to write.
I’ve been in Athens now for a few days and it’s hard to imagine what has happened to this city. Athens is the oldest European city, with a 4,000-year history. This is the birthplace of philosophy, poetry, theatre, literature, music, and even democracy. I expected that Athens would have evolved as a leader in the arts, with beautiful city parks, public art, and street theatre. But it seems that Athens is lost in its past glory. Even the tourist pamphlet states, “Walking through the sites and museums of Athens is the only way to feel the essence of all the wonderful ideas and ideals the western civilization is based on.” Yes, it is the only way; you won’t get it by walking around the present-day city.
Esthetically, the city is in poor condition. Despite the wonderful work the city has done to reduce smog and pollution over the last 30 years, the air still frequently becomes foul. The graffiti artists have completely taken over Athens; a one-hour walk through the downtown core produced not a single building that wasn’t a victim of graffiti vandalism. At the metro stations, every single train was completely covered in graffiti.
I could see that a couple of hotels had tried to remove the graffiti from their outer walls, but the faint images after scrubbing were still there. I understand that some people might think of graffiti as art – indeed, one native Athenian told me she liked it – but nearly all of the graffiti is simply scribbles, political messages, and bubble letters. If the city truly embraced the graffiti art as meaningful, it would show it in its brochures and tourist guides. But the photos in these adverts ensure that not a single bit of graffiti is seen. Even the photos of the metro show clean trains, but there aren’t any of those left in reality. I can’t imagine how much it would cost to clean up the mess in this big city, but it would be many millions of Euros for sure.
I was excited to visit the Pedion Areos, a large public garden just a half-hour walk from my hostel. I was craving nature and a reprieve from the incessant traffic noise. Ah, but what a disappointment when I arrived. The entrance was ‘protected’ by a guard who sat smoking and reading something on his phone, and while I initially thought he might have been on a break, it seems that this was his permanent position. And who could blame him? The park is completely uninspiring. Statues and monuments have been vandalized with graffiti, nearly all of the public benches have been broken or have slats missing, and there is dog shit and garbage everywhere. The guard was probably wondering what exactly he was protecting.
At the central port of Piraeus, in a cubby-hole beside a shack that protected me from the cold wind, I sat on a concrete block, looking agog at the size of the island ferries, and trying to get into the spirit of Greek chocolate, a difficult task in the wake of weeks of eating Swiss brands. A man poked his head around the corner. He had a bad vibe and I realized I was trapped in a corner. He opened his jacket to show me a Samsung Galaxy 7 box. “Do you want to buy a phone?” (I shook my head no.) “Where are you from?” (I ignored him.) “It’s expensive here,” he said. “Let me give you some money.” (Offering me money? I think he was waiting for me to say I don’t need money because I have money. I shook my head no.) “Do you understand? I want to give you some money.” (I shook my head. No thanks.) “Where are you from?” (I ignored him again.) He became frustrated with me – I could tell from his tone – and he started fidgeting, glancing around the port, perhaps, I imagined, gauging his chances of being seen if he entered my little alcove. I set my chocolate aside and stood up. I was ready to fight my way out of this trap if I had to. The man looked at me a moment and then walked away. I haven’t been trying to avoid the cold wind here since.
The local master orator, Kostas Varnalis, in a poetic moment said of Athens, “The sun embraces the land, the mountains, and the sea.” But then Varnalis follows up with “The few pines left suffice to preserve the particular landscape.” Yes, there are only a few pines left. From the viewpoint at the Acropolis, you can see that most of the landscape, as far as the eye can see, has been covered in concrete and dreary architecture. Athens has grown dramatically over the last century, sitting now with a municipal population of over 3 million people. And the beauty of the landscape that once inspired Greek poets has suffered for it.
It’s not all bad, of course. There is an undertone of energy and excitement here, carrying an exoticness in which you feel that anything could happen. Romance or danger or both could be lurking around the next corner. Thousands of people roam the downtown streets in the late evening. There is noise, action, laughter, music, and lovely aromas emanating from the numerous restaurants. The city is a smorgasbord for the senses. Athens also has a reliable metro system, a good airport, and a decent night life. And if people-watching is your thing, sitting along a concrete wall near the Syntagma Station will provide hours of entertainment. I found the ride on the tram along the beaches of the Saronic Gulf to be quite pleasant as well. I was particularly impressed, however, with the National Gardens, which house the Parliament Building and the Zappion Exhibition and Congress Hall on 15.5 hectares of land in the middle of the city. It was completed in 1840. Every turn along its paths is a delight of rare flowers, trees, ruins, and monuments. Little ponds scattered around the gardens are home to turtles and waterfowl. And while it might not be the ‘lush paradise’ as advertised, it certainly was energizing, and was my favourite place to embrace nature and to escape the constant drone of the city traffic. Is there anything more soothing than sitting on a bench and watching turtles swim by and bask in the sun?
If you are interested in Greek gastronomy and Mediterranean cuisine, Athens is a great place to be, with its numerous restaurants, cooking classes, and food and wine tours. And if you have a passion for ancient Greek mythology, philosophy, and the arts, then the temples, historical sites, and museums will satisfy. As for me, I came here primarily because I wanted to renew my interest in Greek mythology. Years ago, I pored through The Iliad and The Odyssey, epic poems attributed to Homer, and while I suffered through those books at the time, I remember that I loved the stories about the gods and heroes. When I was a boy, I borrowed a book from the library and read the stories of the twelve labours of Hercules, and although I now dislike the character of Hercules – he really was just a big bully, after all, and, by the way, accidentally killed two men in separate instances while being too rambunctious while partying – I’m still fascinated by the narrative.
The rain stopped and the sun poked through a sliver in the clouds. The foul air was cleansed. I closed my journal and ordered another Greek coffee. The single pigeon remained nearby; he had hopped to the ground and back up onto the adjacent table, and then back onto the chair. He remained close to me, the last afternoon customer under the canopy, and with all the other tables having been cleared, I was his last hope for an easy meal. Truth be told, I was enjoying his company. When my coffee arrived, I raised my tiny cup to the pigeon. “And what are your thoughts about this city of Athens?” But he didn’t have anything to say.
I finished my coffee, tossed my new friend some bits of bread I had saved from my meal as a reward for his patience and tenacity, and headed up the stairs into the National Archeological Museum.