Friday, July 03, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 3 of 10

Day One: Arrival in Athens

Airplanes always look like fish to me, swimming themselves up to the gates, vomiting out beleaguered passengers, hundreds of Jonahs with rolling suitcases. There should be a better way to arrive in a new place—one airport gate looks like the next, no matter where you are in the world, the same refrigerated air, the same shiny bottles of liquor for sale at duty-free shops, the same gaudy perfume, boxes and boxes of cigarettes. There should be a way to shrink the distance between the traveling self and the experience. Couldn’t we arrive on the beach directly, without customs and baggage and bureaucracy? Couldn’t we reform—magically, molecularly—at a pre-determined rooftop happy hour? Outside the airport, through the layers of tinted glass, is the bright, empty sky.

Here’s how you hail a taxi in Athens: You stand on the street corner, and when a yellow cab pulls up slowly near you, not exactly stopping, you yell your destination out at them, as loud as possible, into their open window. Except that I don’t know this at the time. So, Kip and I are sitting in the back of the cab, dizzy on no sleep and warm air, and suddenly, Greek women in their work get-ups are screaming into our window. Larisis! Syntagma! It’s like that perfume commercial, with all the models bursting through the French doors to their balconies—Egoiste! I wonder: Are the citizens of Athens welcoming us? Are they hurling abuse? Why are the drivers pulling away so quickly, not even responding? If they can’t get a taxi to stop, how are we going to? I later learn that the taxis will generally pick up other riders, if you’re both going in the same direction. Thus the slowing down, the speeding away. This would never work in New York. Can you imagine if suddenly you were veering toward 1st Avenue because someone else got into the cab?

The Divani Palace Hotel is modern, clean and unhurried. The woman at the desk wears bright purple eye shadow, and lipstick in a darker shade of the same color. She installs us in a tidy, fifth floor room with a balcony that overlooks the pool, and has a splendid, unobstructed view of the Acropolis. Finally, despite what everyone says you should do to combat jetlag, after being awake for almost thirty hours, with all the lights on, I sleep.

A few hours later, we walk through the neighborhood. Everywhere are the trinkets and tchotchkes of tourism: tiny Parthenons, tiny statues of Athena, reproductions of vases and amphorae in every color, in terrible and wonderful colors, the white and blue trademark of the islands in shirts, hats, coffee mugs, ashtrays, toothpick holders, shot glasses, Zeus playing cards, Athena notepads, Apollo serving dishes. Postcards and postcards and postcards, aisles of them, like a library.

We land in a tiny corner coffee shop, eating flaky dandelion and feta pastries—rich, fatty and sharp. The street dogs lay wherever they can find shade, looking dead. A German woman sits at the table next to us. “I am café,” she says to the waitress, pantomiming a tiny cup of espresso.

We return to the hotel, and another nap follows. The air conditioning is turned up too high in the room, and after an hour, I slide open the doors to the balcony, to let in some warmth, some light. We get up, wander through the blocks again, and take the tiny elevator to the roof of an apartment building, for dinner at Attikus Restaurant. We eat tzatziki, tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice and pine nuts, lamb meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, saganaki, more lamb, this time stewed with lemon and potatoes. We order a bottle of Retsina, piney and green, and I get the feeling that the servers there wouldn’t dare drink it—but I like it. We talk and laugh, a bit drunk, overfed. The olives, dark spots on every plate, are spectacular. The Parthenon is perched on the rocky hilltop behind me, golden light shining out from the inside, white spotlights hitting the columns. We take a few pictures as the sky fades from blue to darker, until the waiter brings candles to our table.

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