On Athens: a lone adventurer
At approximately 10 p.m. Sept. 13, I found myself trapped on an Athens street corner surrounded by three large Greek men, and the locked gates of closed businesses. At every turn, signs stared back at me in Greek letters, illegible and unmatchable to the words I found on the torn map in my hands.
Originally, my backing out of the main street and into an alley was to lose the men that had been following me for the past 10 blocks. Unfortunately, they followed even as I moved further away from the bright lights of the foreign city and into the puddles that filled the broken side streets.
My visibility of the main streetlights and the vehicles in it was reduced to reflections and echoes. This was not the Athens I had dreamed of seeing.
As part of the study abroad semester I am spending in Cyprus this fall, the week before the start of classes is for trips to cities in the Mediterranean that contributed greatly to the development of Western art and culture – those being Athens, Rome, Pisa, Venice and Florence. While it may be exciting to visit these cities, the fact that a majority of our days in these cities would be on guided tours reduced my excitement.
However, my frustration disappeared when I saw the words "free day" written on our weekend agenda. I would be able to explore Athens on my own terms.
I began with the map of Attica, termed for the area of Athens and its surrounding neighborhoods, and immediately caught my interest – the Pynx, the Ancient Agora, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the First Cemetery of Athens. I wanted to see every possible corner of the city, so while the other 12 members of my study abroad group chose to visit one of the islands closest to the city by ferry, I was armed with a liter of water, snacks and my highlighted map. I was set to attack Athens on foot.
I began my journey from the northern-most portion of the city. Streets lined with buildings and construction gave way to shrubs, then trees, then tangled masses of gardens interspersed with a monument or two dedicated to someone pivotal in the development of Athens. At one point, having erroneously taken a right instead of a left, I stopped a woman in her ’40s for some help. She smiled as I greeted her in Greek and pointed to my map, switching from her native Greek to English to aid in my directional calamity.
By 7 p.m., I had one item remaining on my list: the First Cemetery of Athens. Both the famous – and infamous – Athenians were buried at the cemetery, and their families could be found picnicking in grassy areas of the cemetery.
Fact: people are buried in the First Cemetery for only three years unless their family has purchased a mausoleum as their final resting place; otherwise, the bones of the person are collected once their three years are complete and stored in a jar kept in the local ossuary.
Thus, I found myself on the aforementioned street corner, waiting the few minutes before I would surely be attacked and calmly remembering my self-defense moves. I grabbed my pocketknife from my backpack.
"Where you go?" the gruffly accented first man said, as a second’s hands came toward my shoulder. My head shook violently and I inhaled sharply.
No. Wait. His hand reached for my… map? Ah, they were going to take my map and then proceed to kidnap me!
"Metro?" I managed to utter, still in shock that I would not be getting kidnapped at that point, after all. They each smiled and traced directions on the map that would get me to the nearest train station. I quickly thanked them – in Greek, of course – and cautiously walked to the station.
I had been so eager to submerge myself into the local culture and lose my appearance as an American tourist that I fell into thinking like one. While some Europeans have an image embedded in their brains of the American tourist – loud, insensitive, pushy and rude – we must remember that as Americans, we have images of foreigners ingrained into our minds as well.
While attempting to avoid the tourist traps of Athens, I nearly forgot my primary intention of exploring the city and of studying abroad in the first place. I wanted to learn of another way of life, of another culture removed far from my comfort zone, of another tongue that I would have to study as a beginner. I did not want to ruin it all by resorting to the outsider mentality of assuming the worst.
It has been two days since we departed from Athens, and I have become far more cautious in my exploration of Rome and Pisa. When I close my eyes and think of Athens, I can still hear the chatter of protestors and police on the street, smell the raw meat hanging in the Athens Central Market, taste the sweet and tangy apples from the corner grocery stand and feel the cool evening breezes as the sun sets behind the Greek mountains.
This is the Athens I found.