Wish you were here.
No, really – I do. I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that the best way to understand the Greek landscape is to go and explore it. I’m not saying we all have to go hug a megalith, live in a mud hut, build a boat and call ourselves phenomenologists. But it is useful every now and again to take a deep breath of olive-scented air. The worlds of classical Greece may be millennia gone by now, but the physical landscape which they once inhabited lives on. Or at least that’s as good an excuse as any to go and hang out in Greece again for a week.
I’m in Athens at the moment principally for two reasons. First of all, I’m attending the workshop ‘Ex Ionia Scientia’, to try and understand a bit clearer the cultural and intellectual traditions which inhabited one of my main case study regions; second of all, I am trawling through as many post-medieval travel accounts of the Cyclades as I can, most of which live in the rare books vault of the British School. These accounts are proving really very fascinating, and I am sure I’ll have more to write about them anon…But I also think that it’s very important to spend a week of winter away in Athens. Let me explain.
I would guess that a good majority (90% of us? [everything from the feet up?]) try and arrange travel to Greece throughout the spring and summer months. Prime tourist season, package holidays galore, obnoxious sunburnt-Brits-in-Panamas-and-tank-tops everywhere. Want a quick look at that inscription up close, or a detailed photograph of the architectural moulding on the Erectheion roof? No chance. Denise is in the way, flailing everywhere like a jellyfish, and Snapchatting back to the girls ‘OMG soooo excited to finally see the Pantheon!!! #nofiltergyros’.
Ok, perhaps a slight exaggeration. Years of bobbing in and out of photos in front of the Corpus Clock clearly makes a man bitter about all manner of tourism. But the point still stands that out of the major holiday season, Athens has a bit of a chance to breathe – or as much as a major capital city ever can. When I set off earlier in the week, this is one of the things I was most excited about…that and my new RyanAir app – have you tried paperless boarding?! I was excited to be in a city I knew, but also to be in a new city, if you see what I mean. I was excited to experience what Athens was like in the bleak mid-winter, working at a completely different pace.
And so, dear reader, a postcard from me to you. A series of rather tongue-in-cheek observations on what one could expect on a December jaunt to the Big Olive – or at least what I found without really looking that hard.
i) All of the colours of winter
The first thing to notice when walking around even an urban area like Athens is how much greener it is than in the parched months of summer. Sounds obvious, I know, but it does just lift the place and give it a completely different va-va-voom from dusty old June. Far clearer when flying over stretches of agricultural fields on the ‘plane, but the man next to me looked rather alarmed when I got my phone out to snap a picture, even though I’d settled my phone in for a long winter’s flight-mode-nap…
ii) All of the colours of Christmas
Christmas lights have all been hung up across all of the main streets here. Saying that, Athens isn’t exactly devoid of its nightly neon at the best of times, and you’ve actually got to look quite hard to notice the additional Christmas ornamentation. Since I learnt the other week that it’s traditional in Greece to put up a Christmas boat rather than / in addition to a tree, still on the look out!
iii) Too many colours, cover your eyes
The sky’s as much the same as it is in summer – cloudless, brilliant blue, nothing to shade you from Helios’ fires. Wish I’d brought my sunglasses, and I think I make myself look particularly non-local by squinting around everywhere (that and the pasty pale skin). Don’t let that fool you, though – it gets very cold at night.
iv) While we’re on the subject of the sun…
Another obvious and trivial point, but the sun rises later in winter (mais non!). If you’re staying somewhere where the hot water tank is solar powered, it probably won’t have had time to heat by the time you get up. Plan showers accordingly. Because you’re worth it.
Spinach pie, my favourite Greek mealtime treat (actually, no, that would be souvlaki pita – spanakopita comes in at a close second). I thought that the best way to eat these goodies was with a gloopy dollop of Greek yogurt and a fresh tomato. I was wrong. Instead, wait until about six/seven o’clock when the chill starts drawing in, and a warm spanakopita eaten straight out of the paper bag will just take the edge off it. Champion.
vi) συγγνώμη, είμαι από την Αγγλία
Perhaps it’s because there aren’t as many tourists around now and so Greeks aren’t as used to switching into English all the time. But I’ve had much more chance on this trip to practise speaking the Greek language. Usually my colouring betrays me instantly as a foreigner, and after an initial sentence in Greek, I get a patronising ‘bravo!’ and we’re back to English. But not this time. This week I’ve given directions (I looked local?!), described to a friendly lady how much further she could reverse before smashing into a parked motorcycle, and I’ve also seen the vocabulary in action for calling out a lock-smith and dealing with a jammed bedroom door in the hostel…yes, that happened. Moving on…
vii) Oh yes, the tourists…
Yes, that was the whole point of this excursus, wasn’t it? Well, as very much expected, there aren’t nearly as many tourists around out of tourist season. I had the entire Archaic sculpture floor of the Acropolis Museum to myself (mixed emotions, come away from that Classical and Hellenistic rubbish and enjoy my beautiful Archaic stuff!!) Wanted to take a picture of the empty floor for you, as it’s much easier to appreciate the artistry of the gallery layout without bodies everywhere. Except I couldn’t. Because ‘no photo, no video, please, sir.’
viii) Er…I’ll let you do the math on this one
Well, I warned you they were rather banal observations. I’m not exactly sure what point I’m trying to make here, but then again is there ever really enough space on a postcard to make any sort of profound conclusion beyond ‘food great, weather foul, waiter a bit handsy’?
So there you go, you’ve actually got to dig quite deep to feel many differences between summer and winter time Athens. In a sense, Athens is as much the ‘eternal city’ as Rome is. We spend days and days on end in the library poring over the myths, the history, the culture from Ancient Greece – a place which we consider timeless. Athens is still timeless – and all year around, too. Yes, there are fewer tourists here at the moment but the city is as alive and bustling as ever. The spirit of the city – its κέφι – and of course the Athenian people keep alive the allure of the place, whether it’s December, August, February, or September. I can well list a few daft points about the weather or the coffee, but the heart of the city keeps beating on, rain or shine.*
And if that’s not a good enough reason to keep studying Classics, I don’t know what is.
tl;dr – I thought it was going to be cold and relatively quiet in Athens at this time of year. It wasn’t particularly.