Most everyone is familiar with the Greece of history and legend.
A land of great philosophers and playwrights, here were born Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Sophocles and more. They laid the foundation for Western democracy, art and science.
From history and literature we’ve become acquainted with the gods who inspired their everyday lives. Zeus, the king of the gods and the ruler of Mt. Olympus. Apollo, the god of music, arts and knowledge. And the lovely Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, love and pleasure.
Most people are also familiar with the monuments and artifacts those ancient Greeks left behind. The mighty Acropolis which rises from the heart of ancient Athens and is topped by the Parthenon, perhaps the most famous temple in the world. Mars Hill. The Theater of Dionysus. The Temple of Poseidon. Delphi.
But there’s another Athens that if you’ve never visited this place, you’d hardly know exists. That was the Athens I began meeting today strolling the streets of my neighborhood in Kalithea, a sprawling suburb southwest of downtown.
I arrived last night, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged after an overnight trip that took me from Jacksonville to New York to Istanbul and finally to Athens. The owner of the apartment I’d rented had agreed to pick me up at the airport and it was my first exposure to the warmth and hospitality of the people who live here.
Like an expert travel guide, Marie, a 35-year-old Greek of Armenian descent, introduced me to some of the ancient and recent history of this place on the 20-minute ride to the three-bedroom apartment I’d rented. Within the next two days I’ll be joined here by my two sons, Tyler and Bridger, and a third “son,” Alex Miles, who’s been my sons’ best friend since childhood.
In the darkness, I could see the streets are narrow and lined with cars. Four-story buildings crowd up against the sidewalk, most with covered balconies that provide the residents access to the beautiful weather during the warm summer months.
But it’s not summer here now. Coats, boots and scarfs are de rigueur in this weather as the latitude here is approximately that of Maryland.
After a night of much-needed sleep I arose to an Athens that is noisy, hectic and at times even chaotic. The streets, lined with cars at night, were still lined with cars during the daylight but now bustling people choked the sidewalks. Cars and motorbikes rushed everywhere, only stopping when a sufficient crowd of people pushed their way across an intersection.
It’s not the storied city of old, but a bustling and very much alive European capital. Unlike Paris or London, the newer parts of Athens might not be a city you’d fall in love with a first sight, but it is a comfortably gritty metropolis.
Today in Kalithea was the weekly outdoor market, where block upon block of city street are closed down to be resurrected for five hours as a pedestrian freeway of sorts lined with carts and tables of fresh fruits, vegetables and fish.
The colors were amazing and the sounds kaleidoscopic as sellers hawked their wares and argued with customers all while traditional Greek music (interspersed with some hip-hop) played on many radios.
Bright red tomatoes cut in half or delicately carved to resemble fleshy flowers advertised the produce’s freshness. Bunches of herbs tied with strings and delicately entwined strings of garlic enticed buyers as did ice-packed trays of silvery fish and the pink tentacles of octopus.
Most fascinating, perhaps, were the olive sellers. Basket upon basket of different types of olives filled their tables and 6 Euros would buy four large cups or so of the glistening black and green spheres.
I made three trips to and from the market and various small stores carrying enough food to stock our larder. My refrigerator and shelves are full. I spent about $60 in American bills.
That’s the upside of the current fiscal problems here for travelers to Greece. Hotel and food prices are down and the unusually warm Greek hospitality is on display in abundance.
My three-bedroom apartment, for example, is $60 per night and that includes a kitchen and all necessities such as cookware, towels, soaps and so on. In fact, the website where I rented this apartment, Home Away, has dozens of such apartments for rent as people find new ways to make a living.
Unfortunately, the economic crisis in Greece has resulted in difficult times for those who live here. As the government has hiked taxes and enacted austerity measures to pay for the country’s debt, many people have gone bankrupt and others are struggling.
Numerous empty shops line the narrow streets. Exorbitant taxes on utilities force residents to ration their heat and water. Many are forced to sell their residences to stay afloat.
But as Marie, my apartment owner, said, Greeks are resilient. A former interior designer whose services are no longer needed during this economic downturn, Marie does what she can to get by and provide for her mother.
She rents the apartments her family owns to tourists. She makes soap and candles to sell. She’s busily engaged in upgrading the apartment little by little with paint, style and her own effort.
I’m an optimist, she says and laughs.
And it seems so far at least, that many residents share her values.