Trip Start Sep 02, 2007
Trip End Dec 25, 2007

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Flag of Greece  ,
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Sorry everyone, no pictures yet, the bandwidth of the connection on the ship is too small to support sending pictures. I'd use up all my free minutes in the first afternoon while the computer tried to shove the pics across such a tiny connection. Look for them from Portugal!

Greetings! I was gonna put that in Greek but can't figure out how to spell it...
             When we arrived in the airport it was a breeze through customs and baggage claim. Both bags were there, thank the Olympian Gods, and I was able to find my group without much trouble. Lucia showed up there too, which surprised me since she had planned on arriving the night before. She said her planes had been delayed and her luggage was lost somewhere between her Houston connection flight and Athens. I felt awful for her. As it turned out many students were in her situation including Alaine and some other people I met later. Needless to say I'm feeling very lucky everything of mine came on time and in one piece.
             It took us over two hours to get everyone together and get to the hotel, so I never did have time to get to the Temple of Poseidon. I got into my room, called my parents, and sat down to write for a little while just before Alaine got there. Then a bunch of us went into town to find some food and do a little shopping. Nothing better to get people acquainted than throwing them into a foreign city with none of the language and nothing to do. We walked around the city all afternoon and evening, finding the Natural History Museum and later a flea market for those of us that didn't want to stay at the Museum. It was quite an experience being essentially lost in Athens with 6 other students, none of whom know a word of Greek.
             I had been right about the buildings; everything is shorter and more compact and built to squish. Just as modern Americans are keen to expand their living spaces and have room to breathe, modern Athenians seem bent on cramming as much life as possible into as little space as possible, never mind not being able to breathe at all. In our hotel bathroom, the door clears the sink by no more than ¾ of an inch and then hits the toilet, leaving only about an 8 inch gap to squeeze through to get into the bathroom.
             We could see the Acropolis from the square, which was beautiful, and took a lot of pictures right out of the chute. We shopped for a while, found some food at a little café on the street - not really very Greek, but food all the same. It was a late night and a long walk but a fun evening; we took the metro back, exhausted, and I for one went right to bed.
             The next morning we met in the breakfast lobby at 7 for an 8:30 meeting in Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), four stations away on the metro. We had breakfast and all walked to the station together, quite a feat for a few dozen people that hadn't known one another until the night before. The metro was something in itself, especially for one who has never ridden a subway, let alone one in which all the maps are in Greek. We met our guide, Lydia, at Constitution Square and walked a little ways to the House of Parliament, an old palace and the home of the political world of Greece.
             The House of Parliament is guarded by two soldiers at a time, young men under the age of 25 and above a certain height in centimeters I couldn't convert in my head who chose or were chosen to serve their military service in such fashion. And fashion it was, too, in the traditional costume of the Greek military and clearly only for show. In kilts and elaborate hats and shoes, the soldiers looked more like they might start dancing than fight. But of course they did neither of those things; their job is to stand perfectly still, not moving anything but their eyes (if they're lucky) for one hour, three times every 48 hours. Apparently their barracks are nicer than most and they are better cared for, which leads me to believe that their position as a guard of the House of Parliament, and the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier that stands there, is one of high honor.
             It was hard for me to watch the changing of the guard; all that ceremony and marching and parading would have stripped the dignity of most American men, notwithstanding the gawking and picture taking of a hundred curious tourists. I felt guilty taking pictures and tried to remember that this was honorable for them as it would be for one of our soldiers to appear in their uniform. As they marched around the square, making a fair spectacle with all their strange footwork and stomping and clicking the butts of their guns to the pavement, one of the other students whispered, "How can they go home and feel like men after all this?" I admittedly did not know. But they must be honored to have such a position, right? I don't know the answer to that either of course but I want to believe it. Of course the men's faces were expressionless and there was nothing in their eyes to betray either emotion, but I imagine, honored or not, that the soldiers did not enjoy being gawked at by us.
             After that we went back into the metro station, which turned out to be something of a museum in its own right. Lydia explained that while the tunnels were being dug, more and more ancient findings were discovered and construction had to be halted. Finally, approaching the Olympic Games of 2004, the city teamed up with the Architectural Society to find a way to build the subway that would not sacrifice the important ruins. Now each station has its own collection of ruins, including homes and shops and even graves that have been built into the station walls, pots and jars and other artifacts, and replicas of statues and reliefs that have been found elsewhere. There are even some pieces of ancient aquaduct piping.
             We hopped on the metro and rode it to Acropoli Station and hiked to the Acropolis. There's really no other word for it. We did walk through the most expensive street in Athens, as far as living is concerned, and it is beautiful and, in contrast to the rest of the city, very clean. At the Acropolis, there was confusion with our student IDs; as it turned out, students under 19 and students in the European Union are free, and all other students are half price. So I used up my last Eurocents to scrape together the six Euros to see the Acropolis.
             It was amazing, of course, and well worth the walk. It was under construction, unfortunately, so everything is covered with scaffolding, and seeing all of that modern influence on such an influential ancient building was a mixed blessing. It needs to be protected and preserved, but I half expected Xena to come flying out from behind a column at any moment and start fighting tourists while Gabrielle tried to convince the guides and the staff and the police that there was a better way for us all to share the ancient place.
             After the Acropolis we took back streets back down to the market square for a quick lunch break. Having spent my last Euro at the Acropolis, I was desperately thirsty and went to an ATM so that I could buy water. I had a nectarine for lunch from one of the street farmers and had a bracelet made with my name in Greek letters made of wire. After our lunch break we took the metro as far as we could toward our next visit, the highest point in Athens. 192 stairs later - believe me, I counted - we got on the "funicular," an elevator to the top of this hill in the center of the city. The view was spectacular; we could see Athens in every direction and even all the way out to the port of Piraeus where we would board the ship the next morning, ten kilometers away.
             We learned some interesting history about the city, some of it mythical, some of it factual, all of it documented and hard to tell apart. But as it is all history, it all matters and it is all important to the city and the people in it. The "creation story" for the city, for instance, varies depending on who you ask. In one story, the God Poseidon and the Goddess Athena were fighting over possession of the city. The Gods of Mount Olympus decided on a contest to settle the dispute, ruling that whichever God could give the city the greatest gift that would benefit the city and its people most would win possession and protection of the city. Poseidon struck his triton against a boulder, and a beautiful salt water spring came forth from the rock. Athena saw this and was not to be outdone; she planted a single olive tree, the first of such trees in the area, near the center of the city. The tree bore fruit and the spring gurgled and the Gods of Mount Olympus looked down upon the city and, realizing that it was surrounded by salt water, granted the city to the Goddess Athena, thus naming it her city, Athens, and Athena became the Goddess Protector of the City.
             In another story, the people were set to a vote on the subject of who was to protect them, Poseidon or Athena. Women could vote at the time as well and when it came time to vote, both men and women turned out for the ballots en masse. Well, when it came all the way down to the count, Athena had won the contest by a single vote, said to be that of a woman. Personally, I'm fond of the olive tree story.
             After the long hot ride down the funicular (the "fun" in the title is not an intentional pun, I assure you.) We went back down all 192 stairs plus a few more and on and on until we reached the first of three Neoclassical buildings left in Athens. One is the University, one the Academy, and the last the public Library. Which they wouldn't let us go into or take pictures in. But the buildings were incredible, all decked out in marble with columns and reliefs and statues and gardens. The University was the most decorated but the Library the most beautiful by far.
             Lydia left us in the center of the city, giving basic directions on how to get to the metro. Free time lost in Athens seemed to be the theme for the weekend. Unfortunately, by the end of the tour I had to use the toilet so badly that I was not thinking straight and put us on the metro going in the wrong direction. We realized this after one stop but in trying to get to the train going back the other way, we ended up on another rail line going to a different part of the city altogether. While the other girls asked directions and tracked down a map while I left the station to track down a bathroom. Finding nothing, I went back inside desperate to get home and couldn't find my friends anywhere. I couldn't stand around waiting for them feeling like I did so I went out again, finally found a bathroom, and went back to the station to find them missing again. I waited a few minutes and knew they had left, so I bought another ticket and headed for the platforms alone. Now that I was a rational, thinking human being again, I found my way just fine, hopping one train, changing trains successfully at the next station, and finding the correct train back to the station near the hotel. Then I promptly fell asleep.
             That evening we met again as a group for dinner, being escorted by a Greek guide several blocks away to a small restaurant the program had rented out for the evening. It was wonderful, lots of traditional Greek cuisine that I tried and found I liked. It was several courses, starting with a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, onions, and feta that was beautiful and tasted so as well (guess what Mom? Even the tomatoes. Yeah, I ate them. Don't laugh like that I'm serious). Next was some bread and very odd little meat and rice things wrapped in grape leaves. Yeah, I ate those too. And they were really good. Then some shredded meat, pork I think, and warm pita bread. Then some weird hamburger sausage looking things and French fries. Yep, French fries, no lie. Weird I know. And then dessert was yogurt - the plain sort of sour kind - covered in honey. And it was actually really good. Everything but dessert was served community style, with each of us having our own plates and passing the food around the table. Another good way to meet people, I found out, when you have to ask a stranger if they would please pass the Greek French fries.
             After dinner I stuck around for a little while until the beer started flowing more freely and the party started to get a little loud. I met a staff member from New Zealand who would be on board and made an instant contact. Then one other girl and I walked home through the crowded Athens night scene and I went straight to bed. I had plans to get up early the next day to find that market one more time to buy stamps for my postcards.
             I did get up early, and make it to the metro by 8:15, but I couldn't remember the name of the station nearest the flea market, so I guessed. Turns out it was the wrong one and I got a very good taste of downtown Athens at pedestrian rush our. That was interesting. It always seems to be rush our here as far as drivers are concerned; they pull out into the street into the slightest break in traffic - including pedestrian traffic - and any sounds of the day are lost in the sounds of honking. They'll park anywhere, including half on and half off the sidewalk, turning a two-lane road into a one-lane down the middle of two rows of bad parking jobs. But then it's amazing how a one-lane road can somehow fit two cars and that crazy yahoo on the motorbike that keeps dodging between them. There are cars parallel parked all the way around corners in intersections, and the lights at those intersections seem to be for pedestrians only; there are no lights over the street. For the life of me I could not see how they know when to stop and when to go. Let alone what street they are on.
             I abandoned the idea of the flea market and got back on the metro, thankfully at the correct station and in the correct direction, and was soon back in the hotel packing my stuff back up to board the ship. And seeing as how much I've written about Athens... that is definitely another entry.
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