Authentic Athens

Athens

Thirteen bricks high, nineteen wide. How many bricks does that make? One hundred and something, sixty-eight is it? Maths has never been my strong point, but there’s nothing much else for me to do as I languish in a stuffy jail cell two hundred yards from the Acropolis. When my boss sent me for a holiday in ‘Authentic Athens’, this is definitely not how authentic I thought things would get.

The day before….

I lugged my heavy luggage from the conveyor belt and set off in search of the exit, grateful the Greek signs were translated into English letters, giving me some chance of working out where I should go in all this chaos. I was hot, sweaty, tired and counting the minutes until I could set up my laptop on a shady balcony and check my emails whilst sipping a cool glass of white wine. After an hour and a half of waiting for my suitcase to show up, my patience was wearing thin.

I emerged into the cacophony of the arrivals hall and flinched as hundreds of handwritten signs were eagerly thrust in my direction, promising transport for Kyrios Rouvas, Mrs Jones, Leanne Kingston. I peered carefully at all the signs but my name didn’t appear anywhere. I double checked the itinerary which my PA had carefully printed out and colour-coded (pink for travel, yellow for accommodation, green for activities.) It definitely stated a guide would await my arrival at Eleftherios Venizelos airport and accompany me to my accommodation in the picturesque Plaka district of Athens. I checked my watch. The flight had landed spot on time, so there was no reason for my guide not to be here. My irritation levels increased. I’d only booked this damn vacation because my boss had threatened to fire me if I didn’t take a break. It was meant to reduce my stress levels, not increase them. I trundled my suitcase over to a quieter area where I could phone the travel company, but as I negotiated my way through the crowds, six foot something of blundering man careered into me, knocking me stumbling backwards into the very angular, very sharp metal seating which formed rows down the length of the building.

“Watch where you’re going, you idiot,” I yelled, my voice all squeaky and shrill with pain.

“Sygnome, Kyria,” he said, briefly taking my hand, then hurrying on his way.

“That better have meant you were sorry,” I muttered, angrily waiting for my phone to connect.

“Kalispera,” a masculine voice answered. “Hello? Can I help you?”

“Yes, hello, this is Lia Stephens. I am trying to get in touch with a Mr Sakis Papadopoulos. He was meant to have met me at the airport an hour ago, but he appears to have been delayed.”

“Ah, Kyria, I am glad you are here safe. I am Sakis. Where are you? I am in the arrivals hall. I am the one speaking on the phone.”

That really didn’t narrow it down. Practically every person in the place had some form of electronic device glued to their skull.

“How about you wave?” he suggested.

Feeling very stupid, I reluctantly wiggled my fingers in the general direction of the ceiling. It garnered quite a few waves back. I felt my face turn pink.

“Look, I’m standing in the corner beneath a bloody great big sign for car hire, surely it won’t be too difficult to find me?” I hissed.

He made some kind of response but the echoing din of the place drowned it out completely. Somebody tapped me on my shoulder.

“Kyria, are you ready to go?”

“I was ready half an hour ago.” I spun round, then bent my head back to see my guide properly. I got a funny sensation in my stomach as I recognised the man. “Oh great, it’s the blundering giant.”

He looked decidedly nonplussed, then grinned. “Yes, I am Sakis. I am sorry for bumping into you, Kyria. I was in a rush and I forgot my glasses. I hope I did not hurt you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well if that’s how short-sighted you are, I hope you’re not driving me to my accommodation.”

“Oh no, we are not driving. It is Authentic Athens holiday. We take the metro.”

My back twinged in protest at the thought of having to lug my bag any further. “The metro?” I repeated weakly.

“Yes of course. It is the best way to travel into the city.” He picked up my suitcase as if it weighed no more than a pillow and gestured to me to follow him. “This is where your experience of the real Athens begins.”

Oh great.

The train trundled us past mile upon mile of motorway, then dived below the surface as we hit a line of identikit apartment blocks in the suburbs. We re-emerged to a different world. I couldn’t help gasping as I clambered the final steps out of the metro and looked up to see the Acropolis looming above me. Hundreds of people streamed past as I gazed upon the ancient buildings of weathered marble perched dramatically on the top of the cliff.

“Welcome to my home city,” beamed Sakis, throwing his arms open expansively. I ducked to avoid being thumped by my suitcase which he was still clutching.

“This way,” he continued, setting a punishing pace through a maze of winding alleyways. The heat was oppressive and I swear my brain was starting to slowly cook inside my skull. I had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other just to keep going. I had no idea Athens was so hilly.

“Here we are. This is where you will be staying.” Sakis wasn’t even perspiring after the climb.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and blinked up at the building in front of me. It was a non-descript apartment block with lines of laundry criss-crossing its balconies, a rambling, over-grown bougainvillea bush its only redeeming feature.

This is my hotel?” A wealth of exhaustion and general pissed off-ness made my question come out rather more forcibly than was maybe polite, but by this stage I was beyond caring.

“No, do not worry. You are not staying in a hotel. This is Authentic Athens. My family will be looking after you.”

Before I could give my honest response to that, a wrinkled whirlwind in black rushed out and took both my hands.

Sakis bent down to kiss her cheek. “Lia, this is my mother Penelope. Mama, this is Lia Stephens.”

“Welcome, welcome to my home. And your home too for the next week.” She was so enthusiastic in her greeting, that my demand to be taken to the nearest hotel died in my mouth.

“Er, hello,” I stammered. I turned to her son. “Can I have a word Sakis?”

“Let me show you to your room,” he countered. “Mama will be busy preparing dinner, and you must be hungry after your journey.”

I pursed my lips, but consented to be led upstairs, my desire to be back in my safe, uncomplicated office increasing at every step.

“Here you are, everything you could want.” Sakis gestured around the room with its single bed, desk, chair and pile of clean towels. “And this is the best bit.” He stepped forward and flung open double doors onto the balcony. “Before you is the real Athens.”

“Can you see the Acropolis?” I asked refusing to look.

“No, but this view is better,” he replied, enthusiastic as a puppy.

“Ensuite bathroom?”

“No but the bathroom is only down the corridor.”

“Wifi?”

He smiled. “Why would you want wifi when there is so much to explore in the real world?”

I nearly choked. “This is ridiculous. How am I meant to relax when I can’t even check my emails?”

His olive eyes sparkled in a way which served only to increase my level of irritation. “You never know, you may find not being able to check them more relaxing. I will leave you to unpack, then come and join the family for our evening meal. You will feel better once you have had something to eat.”

Something to eat would make me feel better? In his dreams. The only thing which would make me feel better right now would be an air conditioned five star room with a fully-stocked mini bar. I pulled my phone out ready to make an angry call to my PA to sort out this debacle when I realised the battery had died. I actually threw my folder of travel documents across the room in frustration. I slumped down on the bed in defeat, a wave of tiredness hitting me. I would lie down for five minutes, then sort out this mess.

The real Athens

The clattering of a two stroke engine in the street below woke me. I sat up, scrabbling around to find out what time it was. 8am. I must have slept straight through. Someone had removed my shoes and placed a light blanket over me. I staggered over to my suitcase, but that had been emptied and thoughtfully unpacked. I hoped it had been Penelope who’d done it and not her son. I didn’t really like to think what he’d make of my collection of boring old M&S underwear and business-like blouses and skirts. Not that his opinion of me mattered one jot of course. I collected the aforementioned items, and padded down the corridor to the bathroom. Shower time, then find a proper hotel I reckoned.

I had heard complaints about Greek bathrooms, but I’d never actually had to confront the reality of not being allowed to flush toilet paper before. Then there was the shower cubicle or rather, non-cubicle, as there was no sign of a curtain to keep the water from escaping into the rest of the room. Maybe if I stood really still whilst showering it wouldn’t matter. I soon discovered my mistake. The moment I turned the tap on, water sprayed everywhere, drenching my clothes, my towel and the toilet paper. It didn’t make for a relaxing bathing experience. I washed as quickly as I could, then wrapped the dripping bath-towel around me and made a hasty dash back to my room. Of course, sod’s law dictated I encountered Sakis on my way back.

“Kalimera, good morning. Did you sleep well?” he asked, having the good grace at least to appear to be ignorant of my state of undress, but I still felt myself blushing like a schoolgirl.

“Fine,” I muttered begrudgingly.

“My mother has prepared breakfast, then we shall go exploring.”

My stomach gurgled in anticipation. Maybe I could put off transferring to a hotel until I’d had some food. And perhaps the exploring would help me find somewhere else to stay, somewhere with that holy grail, internet access. I dreaded to think how many emails would be filling my inbox.

I had expected us to start with a visit to the Acropolis but Sakis seemed reluctant.

“At this time of the day, it is no good. We will go tomorrow, very early. It is better then. Let us explore the Plaka first. It is the neighbourhood of the gods. Let me hold that for you.”

I had been surreptitiously trying to check for wifi, but it seemed we wouldn’t be going anywhere unless I surrendered my phone. I reluctantly handed it over. I felt naked without it but the stern look on Sakis’ face told me there was no point in arguing with him. He took my arm and we set off down a narrow road.

Only a few streets from the main tourist areas, it was like stepping back in time. The alleyways in this area of the Plaka were too narrow for cars and so the locals had set up tables and chairs and were sitting in the sunshine, chatting back and forth across the passageways. I felt like we were walking through their front rooms, but everyone we went past had a smile and a greeting for us. The friendly atmosphere was catching and gradually I realised the unfamiliar feeling creeping over me was actually a sense of relaxation.

“This is Adrianou Street,” said Sakis as we turned another corner. “It is the oldest street in the city. My friend is an archaeologist and he says the road has the same layout as it did in the times of the ancient city.”

“So we are literally walking in the footsteps of people like Socrates?” I asked, with a frisson of excitement.

He laughed. “Yes, and breathing the same air as he did.”

“Thank you for showing me this,” I said sincerely. “I would never have thought of coming down here.”

“That is the beauty of an Authentic Athens holiday,” he smiled.

“What is with all the English graffiti though?” I asked as I spotted yet another spray mural exhorting the authorities to “Free the people from hunger.”

A shadow crossed his face. “That is another part of authentic Athens, but not one I normally mention to my visitors.”

That piqued my curiosity. “Well you have to tell me about it now,” I insisted.

He stared at me intently as if he was trying to read in my face whether I meant it or not. Whatever he saw there must have satisfied him because he took my hand and led me in a different direction. We hurried past Syntagma Square with its guards dressed in their uniform of funny mini-skirts and pom-pommed shoes and dived once more into a maze of streets. These lacked the quaint charm of the Plaka district and instead looked tired and rundown. Occasionally we passed a shop which was open, but most of them were boarded up with more of the graffiti sprayed across their doorways. Finally we came to a halt at a café which had a queue of customers snaking out down the street.

“This is ‘Trophe gia olous’. It means ‘Food for All.’ It is a soup kitchen for those who cannot afford to feed themselves.”

“But there are so many people. And they look…” The words died in my mouth. They looked so normal is what I wanted to say, but I knew it would sound rude. Sakis seemed to understand what I was getting at though.

“Yes, they are. They are former government employees, business people, doctors. The financial crisis has caused hardship for many people.”

“And is this what all the graffiti is about?”

“Yes. They want the world to know about the difficulties we are facing. I am a qualified teacher, but I work as a tour guide on the side so I have money to help my mother,” he confessed. My admiration for him grew. “There is another vote in parliament tonight. We expect the politicians will decide upon more cuts and the queues here will grow longer.” He hesitated. “A group of us were planning to go down to Syntagma Square and wait for the result of the vote. You are welcome to join us, but I should warn you that things can get a little lively.”

Penelope didn’t look pleased when Sakis informed her of our plans, but she didn’t say anything and instead thrust a packet of sandwiches and a scarf at me as we set off that evening.

“It’s not going to get that cold is it?” I smiled at Sakis as he tied an identical scarf round his throat. He tweaked the jaunty bow I’d constructed around my neck.

“It’s in case there is any tear gas. It will protect you from the worst of it.”

What was I getting myself into? The sensible voice in my head told me to turn back now, pack up my belongings and move to a hotel to continue my holiday in comfortable ignorance, but the memory of the quiet resignation on the faces of those in the soup kitchen queue stirred my conscience. I wanted to stand in solidarity with the people who had so generously welcomed me to their home and their city.

Syntagma Square shone with the light of thousands of candles held aloft by a peaceful crowd. People of all ages stood together, their gaze focussed on the parliament building in front of them where their fates were being decided. I shivered, more from the atmosphere of nervous anticipation than from the cold, but didn’t object when Sakis wrapped his arms round me.

Suddenly a policeman stumbled into me, knocking me flying.

Sakis unleashed a torrent of Greek, the gist of which was clearly warning the man to watch where he was going. My assailant looked like he was about to square up to Sakis. I didn’t stop to think. I threw my packet of sandwiches at him, hitting him squarely in the face. I reckon I would have got away with it if I hadn’t started laughing at how ridiculous he looked with tzatziki dripping down onto his pristine uniform. Soon the whole crowd were laughing along with me. They cheered as my ‘victim’ arrested me and led me off into the police van. I felt like a folk heroine. I may even have shouted something along the lines of “Vive la revolution”, not exactly the correct lingo I know, but the crowd appreciated the sentiment.

So that’s how I ended up in this sweat box, experiencing an authentic Athenian jail cell. No wifi, no ensuite, no problem.

“168 bricks,” I call across the corridor to my fellow jail bird. He looks pretty good, even in the dim light of the cell block.

“Close, it’s 169,” Sakis corrects me.

A guard walks down the corridor.

“Lia Stephens? Sakis Papadopoulos?” He lets us out, indicating bail has been posted.

Sakis takes my hand and we walk out of the police station together.

“I’m afraid you’re about to experience something else authentically Athenian. My mother is going to kill us.”

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