Ten random observations about Greece

GreeceWhile researching my travel series on Greece I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with Greece, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. Flying low over the Aegean as we made our descent into Athens airport, I swear I saw dolphins playing in the blue waters. We were still high enough that they were only visible as dots, but there was a whole group of these dots appearing and reappearing in the water, as if they were coming up and diving. Has anyone else seen this?

2. Like many countries, Greece has a smoking ban in public buildings. It’s often ignored, especially in bars and cafes. Some places even have ash trays on the tables.

3. I always like hearing the local music, in my hotel I tuned into MAD TV, a music video station. I discovered lots of Greek stars I’d never heard of (is DEMY hot or what!?) and noticed a strange thing–cans of Red Bull appear in almost all their music videos. Even the lovely DEMY knocks one back in her latest video. Did Red Bull buy up Greek music or just MAD TV?

4. Greece is very visitor-friendly by having bilingual signs in all the touristy areas. This is a bit of a trap, however, because as soon as you get used to them and go someplace a bit out of the way, you’ll be staring at Greek-only signs.

5. Have no fear, you can always learn the Greek alphabet. Many of the letters are the same as our alphabet and you’re already familiar with some of the others. Learning the Greek alphabet takes less than an hour and you’ll discover so many words that are the same or close enough to English that the hour will be well spent.

6. Greek can still throw you some curve balls. For a while I thought “ne” meant “no” since it’s similar to so many other “no” words (nein, nyet, non). In fact it means yes.

7. Athens has a large and active Couchsurfing community. Get in touch before you go and they’ll show you some awesome nightlife!

8. Small Orthodox Christian shrines can be found everywhere. Some are the size of a mailbox with only room enough for a little icon and a candle. These are often found beside roads. Others are little buildings that can fit a dozen or so people. They’re tucked away wherever there’s room. Dealerships for these these ready-made churches look like mobile home lots.

9. I saw a lot of graffiti, especially in the smaller towns, that was actually advertising for local businesses. I’m not sure if the businesses themselves are tagging concrete bridges and blank walls or if it’s their loyal customers, but I suppose it’s a cheap way to advertise during times of financial cutbacks.

10. Speaking of graffiti, my neighborhood in Madrid is covered with the tag “farlopa”, which is slang for cocaine in Spanish. Walking through the Exarchia neighborhood in Athens one night I saw the “farlopa” tag. Same word, same style. I guess the tagger went on a road trip!

For something a bit more adventurous, check out my ten random observations about Ethiopia!

Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle

Athens nightlifeGiorgis looked like he didn’t have long to live.

Aged about 70, he was a tall man who appeared shorter because he stooped so much that his head hung almost below his shoulders. He was thin and walked with a limp that showed he suffered from sciatica. His clothes–yellow sweater, gray trousers, and brown dress shoes–were old and faded but immaculately clean. His gray hair was neatly combed over watery blue eyes that scrunched up when he coughed, which he did often.

“It’s this cold weather,” he told me. “People my age always cough like this when it gets cold.”

Giorgis was in denial. I know plenty of old people who don’t cough like that. There was death in that cough.

I met him on my first night in Athens while standing in front of the Parliament building watching the Evzone Guards. A few other tourists gazed at the guards’ famous uniforms of a white skirt, white hose, and shoes with big pompoms. Their costumes may look odd but there was no mistaking that these were real soldiers. I’m six feet tall and every one of them towered over me. They looked in the prime of health.

Giorgis did not.

“I’m an oil engineer,” he said. “I work in Saudi Arabia for a big company.”

Looking at his clothes I doubted that. I acted interested, though, and answered the usual questions about where I was from and what I was going to see in Greece. He made some hints about knowing some good spots for Athens nightlife. I doubted that too. After a time I was thinking of saying goodbye and moving on. Giorgis must have seen something in my body language.

“What, you don’t like talking to Greek people? We don’t have to talk.”

Ah, The Line! I’ve heard it from La Paz to Damascus. It’s a guilt trip. You go wherever they want just to prove you don’t hate their people. Well, as usual I wasn’t fooled but went along anyway. I’m too curious for my own good. Falling for The Line has never gotten me into serious trouble and has led to some interesting stories. Giorgis didn’t look dangerous. I wouldn’t follow him down any dark alleys, but other than that I’d let him take the lead.

“We’ll go to a bar,” he announced. “I know a good one.”

He limped off at a remarkable pace. I hurried to keep up as he coughed his way down the street. I figured him for an alcoholic. He sure looked in a hurry to get to that bar.I decided I’d get Giorgis a couple of drinks and then say goodbye. He was a nice enough guy and the elderly in Greece are having a hard time of it. Pensions have been slashed. Some people who were earning 800 euros a month, a decent amount, are now receiving 400. That’s almost impossible to live on. Even worse, properties they worked so hard to pay off are now subject to steep property taxes. What was supposed to be a bit of security has now turned into a liability. I’d be hurrying to a bar too.

After a few blocks we made it to a nice-looking place. Dim lighting and plush couches. A giant oil painting of Marylin Monroe took up an entire wall. She was licking a set of lips longer than my arm. I’ve always liked Marylin.

The bar was empty except for the bartender and two Eastern European girls. They looked about twenty. They both gave me seductive glances as I passed them.

Oh so THAT’s your game, Giorgis, I thought. Well, I don’t play that game. One drink and I’m out of here.

We sat and ordered. I got a beer. He got a double ouzo. So at least I was partially right. A minute later the girls came up to us.

“May we join you?” the cuter one asked me. She was blonde and had remarkably blue eyes.

“Um, OK.”

She sat down next to me on the couch and introduced herself. She said she was from Poland and told me her name. Her friend started talking to Giorgis in Greek.

“So you like living in Athens?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but it’s been pretty hard lately,” she replied.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“Here in the bar.”

“How has business been with the crisis?”

She shrugged.

“Pretty bad. Will you buy me a drink?”

“I’m not looking for business,” I said.

“Oh come on,” she gave me a smile that wouldn’t look out of place on a high school cheerleader being asked out by the star quarterback. “Just one drink. It’s for companionship.”

“No, sorry.”

“OK. Well, enjoy Athens.”

She shook my hand.

“Good luck,” I said. “And take care of yourself.”

I meant it.

She smiled like she was touched.

“Bye.”

After they left, Giorgis pulled a sports paper out of his back pocket and started reading. I finished my drink and left.

Giorgis hasn’t been the only pensioner to try hustling me here. Some want to give me a tour. Others want to take me to bars. Many simply beg. They’re the people hit hardest by the crisis, and when they aren’t protesting angrily and sometimes violently against the government, some look to make quick cash off the people who have the most to spare–tourists.

I find it impossible to judge them.

Two days later I passed through Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building and saw a group of farmers handing out free produce. They were from a village near Athens and wanted to show solidarity to their city cousins. A long line of pensioners stood waiting to get a few bags of vegetables.

I didn’t see Giorgis there but I hope he got his share. Maybe that will keep him going for another couple of days and save him, at least for a little while, from pimping girls young enough to be his granddaughters.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Greek museums face the economic crisis!

Pole dancing image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.