Athens

The first hint that something might have gone awry was when the attendant on my flight to Athens began handing out candles to the passengers. She explained that it was an Easter custom even as she snatched mine back and made me delete the photograph in true Aegean Airlines style. Easter is celebrated a week later in the Orthodox calendar and everything in Athens was going to be shut.

My budget hotel wasn’t just next to a sex shop, it was right inside the red light district up by the station and I practically had to shoulder my way through the “girls” to get to my destination because I’d decided to walk the last bit from the bus garage rather than have anything to do with the suspiciously sleek looking taxi drivers. The next morning, I popped out to the station to discover that not coming to Athens by train was probably one of the best decisions of my trip. The Greek railway system is pretty much broken and any dream I might have had of popping down to see Mycenae before getting the train to Patras died right there. There is no train to Patras. If I want to get the boat to see Alex’s family in Naples, then I’m going by bus.

The Metro, however, was obviously thoroughly overhauled in better days and I bought an all-day ticket intending to have a bit of a walkabout in the city centre. Since ancient times, few people can have had the opportunity to climb both the Acropolis and the neighbouring hill of the Pnix in the Spring sunshine undisturbed by anything but the sound of birdsong. Later, a few miserable tourists began to emerge; the ones who’s tour companies had obviously taken a lot of money from them to bring them to Athens without telling them that nothing would be open.

“When will the museum be open?” asked one couple beneath the Parthenon. “It doesn’t open today, it’s Easter”, “but we were told it might open this afternoon”. I’m afraid the whiny voices got on my nerves a bit so I responded: “you will never have see Athens like this again so just enjoy it – the best museum exhibits are all in London anyway”. And enjoy it I did. Around every corner of the old city I found more temples and excavations, mingled with picturesque scenes of crumbling neglect.

For, with the exception of a few stylish tourist venues (and the taxi drivers, of course), Greece is on its knees. Nowhere more than at the impromptu flea market beneath the shadow of the temple of Zeus, where ordinary Greeks joined the North African itinerants to sell their old clothing and household belongings in an atmosphere of quiet desperation. I even saw one man sell the shirt off his back. It was denim and a passing dealer obviously took a fancy to it. The transaction completed, this hapless man picked up a filthy tee shirt from a nearby pile with which to clothe himself and I made my way off for another district as fast as my feet would carry me.

I made the very best of the rest of the day and was surprised to find myself getting hungry and footsore when I realised that I had been walking for seven hours so I made my way back for a wash and a rest. On the way I back from the station to the hotel, quite unexpectedly, I turned a corner and saw a family of Roma (real Gypsies) picnicking in a little square. I had snapped a quick couple of pictures before the confrontation began. A toothless crone, so traditionally attired she might have been selling abortifacients in a Roman Polanski movie, shook her finger angrily and the big hat who was obviously in charge asked me, in almost perfect English, why I wanted their picture.

Fortunately, the truth protected me from getting my camera smashed, or even my pictures deleted because they were obviously savvy enough to know how. I stuttered out my explanation of how badly I was missing my own family, especially the grandchildren, and how happy everyone looked in the sunshine and just about escaped the rapidly increasing atmosphere of hostility to get around the corner with a sigh of relief. Only in some of the more popular type of travel “literature” would I have been offered refreshment and invited to share in some sort of picturesque ritual of hospitality.

I haven’t mentioned the Roma in my travels in Eastern Europe. The name has nothing especially to do with Romania and these nomadic people are just as likely to be found travelling across the neighbouring countries, as they have done for a thousand years. I didn’t expect to encounter them and, frankly, I had more than enough of their quaint little ways during my professional life. Vikki, the child social worker and friend of Zoltan’s that I met up with in Nyiregyhaza, confirmed my suspicions that not much has changed. When it comes to trying to forge meaningful communication links, rather her than me: she’s still young enough to cope.

In spite of being a police officer, I didn’t ever have too much of a problem with the traveller’s different understanding of the concept of personal property. That was just a game to be played and one that, as tradition decrees, the Gypsies usually won. It was the unrelenting atmosphere of misogyny, illiteracy, in-breeding and child abuse that got me down in the end. If someone wants to tell me that I’ve got some of it wrong then I’d love to hear it but please don’t tell me that I imagined it all. I was just trying to do my job.

Anyway, back to Athens. This sojourn was originally planned to give me a chance to visit Epidaurus, Mycenae and Cape Sounion: a sort of tidying up of the Peloponnese, a chance to visit some of the ancient sites still on the “list”. Fat chance. Even if it hadn’t been Easter, I doubt that the transport system would have got me around in the time available and Shank’s pony took me to see more ruins than I could have possibly imagined. In fact, by the end of the day I was just about “ruined out”. I now have a lot of study to do before I can return to see the rest.

Categories: Europe, Mediterranean

7 Comments

  • Chris says:

    Too many ruins? I don’t think so!

  • Bea Underwood says:

    How atmospheric to see the ruins with so few people around and what fantastic photographs.

  • Arzu says:

    It would be nice if you try to get to know the Gypsies a bit more I believe. Some of them might be very difficult sometimes that’s true, but they have a very interesting culture that is worth to be known. The photos are amazing by the way!

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    You are quite right, I have kept too many bad experiences from my work with the criminal gangs, I’m sure that most travellers are not like that at all and I need to have a better understanding. We could go to the Gypsy Arts Festival In Suffolk on the 9th and 10th July?
    http://www.gypsyartsfestival.co.uk/

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    I think that one may be last year’s. I’ll see what I can find out

  • Sandy says:

    The Gypsy culture is very interesting as we have learned watching The Learning Channel (TLC) on the cable network. Their culture is very unique and very little known. We get just a small snapshot of it on the series, but it is entitled “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”. They show daily life in both the UK and US Gypsy cultures.

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    Sandy

    Thanks for sending all the links to reading material. I’m really opening my eyes, I had no idea about the Roma diaspora in the USA and thought that the academic interest in Austin was just another example of Americans looking back at their European roots.

    I really did show myself up as fearfully ignorant with my remarks about Gypsies in this post but the social deprivation I mentioned turns out to be horribly widespread, although of course not necessarily voluntary. But at least I was less ignorant than the film makers who had Johnny Depp’s Carmargue Gypsy in the film Chocolat going hatless and speaking with an “Oirish” accent.

    There’s so much more for me to learn. On both sides of the pond.

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