People often talk about one glance being all it took. In my own modest experience a second glance was usually necessary, this one at the girl’s face.
No such dawdling with Athens: I instantly loved what I saw. And instantly regretted I had been reluctant to come here all these years.
Too many people told me Athens was dirty, chaotic, smelly and rather Third World. Actually it’s no dirtier or smellier than any major city, although chaotic it undeniably is. As to being Third World, perhaps. So much the better.
The First World has been neutered by modernity, dragged into uniformity, denatured and deodorised into vapid commercialised mediocrity, its formerly great cities turned into lifeless pictures drawn by numbers for the delectation of tourists.
Athens must depend on tourists for its sustenance, but it’s refreshingly contemptuous of them, as if saying, “Fine, I’ll take your money. But don’t expect special privileges in return.”
Now I don’t suffer from the journalistic hubris of claiming gnostic insights on the basis of a flying visit. Hence I can only offer one smitten man’s fleeting, dishevelled observations.
The first thing I loved about Athens is its palette. None of the dark, heavy grimness of some northern cities: Athens never moves too far from white, and then only in the direction of either pink or custard.
Endearing signs of third-worldliness are everywhere. One immediately realises that no evaluation of Athens can be squeezed into the framework built on the experience of other Mediterranean cities. It’s unlike any of them.
For one thing, one would look in vain for the demarcation between the right and wrong sides of the track: it doesn’t exist. Compared to, say, Barcelona or Genoa, all of Athens is the wrong side of the tracks.
Oh, to be sure, one finds the odd pocket of carefully combed gentility here and there – but invariably in the vicinity of government buildings, such as the President’s residence or immediately to the southeast of the Acropolis.
The rest of it is densely covered in graffiti, resembling in style and spread those adorning the N train on the New York subway of my youth. Some convey cogent messages, usually those of sexual intercourse with either police or the EU; most are purely decorative.
Crossing the street in Athens is all one’s life is worth. Pedestrians are given no more than 10 seconds to cross even the widest avenues and, if you lose a precious second to indecision, it’s your hard luck. Cars will rush in at twice the posted speed limit, and woe betide the ditherer.
This is another reminder that one is in the Third World: drivers assume social ascendancy over walkers, for until recently only the very few could afford cars. However, provided one survives the first encounter with a pedestrian crossing, survival skills don’t take long to develop.
One detects that feminism hasn’t quite reached Athens, which is another appealing sign of third-worldliness. Cafés are full of men well below pensionable age playing cards or backgammon, with no women any nearer than the old lady bringing them another litre of house red (typically €5).
Some of these chaps must be married, so what are their wives doing while they deal the next hand? Well, the usual things: working, looking after the house and children, carrying heavy bags. I mean, if women don’t do those things, they won’t get done, will they?
Wine and food are functionally different in Athens, compared to, say, France or Italy. The French build their meals around great wines. Italians cook great food and find wines to match. Both strive for perfection, while Athenians are just out to have a good time and shout ‘opa!’ to the sound of ubiquitous Sirtaki music.
On the first night, I ordered a pricey bottle and then, old hand that I am, a glass of house red for comparison. Tasting no appreciable difference, I’ve since stuck to the cheap stuff.
And the food? Well, I’ll give you a hint: they don’t call the country Greece for nothing. Combined with the rotgut, Greek fare is instant heartburn for a neophyte and, one suspects, even for those who consume it every day. But no one minds: Athenian men, ideally stag, are out to enjoy one another’s company: the food and drink are just there to oil the wheels.
Yes, Athens is chaotic, but so is life. The city used to be considerably less chaotic than life, a long time ago. Some 2,500 years ago rigorous intellectual discipline came to Greece, but has since left.
That it was there is evident not just from their philosophy but also the surviving architecture. No extemporising, no deviation from strictly enforced norms: straight lines, right angles, all capitals on every column in the same building exactly identical. Not for the ancient Greeks the playful licence afforded Gothic builders: just look at the capitals in any French cathedral and see if you find two identical ones.
The discipline of ancient Greece didn’t outlive ancient Greece. First the Christians took over with their accent on the individual, alien to the public-spirited Hellenes. Then the Muslims bossed the country for 400 years. Then modernity smashed its way in, now fronted by the EU (whose sick mind decided that Athens and Berlin belong in the same state?).
As a result, the Greeks have lost a sense of direction. They no longer know what the purpose of life is, but so much more are they determined to enjoy its process. The architecture of Athens says all this loud and clear.
By the looks of it, no construction happened in the city between 200 BC and the nineteenth century AD. When it resumed, chaos prevailed, but it’s a delightful chaos.
No two houses are the same, but somehow they all look similar. The joyous palette pulls them together, and little variation of height. The streets convey the message of modern free-for-all, but not without hinting at classicist uniformity, long since gone.
Life is bustling everywhere, with women hurrying about their business without seeming to mind being shunned by the men. Actually, looking at Athenian womankind, one can’t really blame the men for their androcentricity.
One doesn’t see too many graces about, and today’s Helens mostly have faces that could sink a thousand ships. But the sexes must come together at some point, for one sees a lot of prams pushed along by women whose husbands attend to the serious business of backgammon.
Another form of life that’s in abundance is stray cats, millions of them – those toms definitely don’t shun their females. Now I’ve seen stray cats before, but never in such numbers, nor so well-fed. These creatures are all the size of overfed cocker spaniels, which spells bad news for the pigeon population.
Somehow the contrast between the old and the new isn’t as annoying as it is in other places. Possibly that’s because the old and the new are in Athens separated by so many centuries, indeed so many civilisations, that they don’t really clash. Or else the gushing life of Athens is so appealing that one is reluctant to judge.
A few yards from the Agora, still majestic in its ruinous state, there’s a shop called JIMMYS TATTOOS. I was appalled: the people who invented the word apostrophe have forgotten how to use it. But then the sign wasn’t in their mother tongue.
There are mercifully few signs in English anywhere, some quite comic. For example, a rip-off restaurant in the main square strikes a blow for truth in advertising by calling itself TRAP, while a bar next door to my hotel honestly refers to itself as DIVE.
Whenever I return from my travels, my friend Tony asks a lapidary question: Could you live there? Anticipating the same enquiry about Athens, the answer is, probably not. But I wish I could.