Athens in the Summer
Some recent conversations with a few different friends triggered me to re-examine a tattered paperback on my shelf, Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. I said it should be required reading for any American visiting Greece. To hell the cookie-cutter travel guides. Nobody should depend on those things or force themselves to travel that way, family or not.
In the conversation, I went a step further. Agents at the Athens International Airport should confiscate every travel guidebook from every American tourist entering the country and instead issue them copies of Henry Miller. I fancied a giant bin sitting behind security and overflowing with Lonely Planet guides after the authorities had confiscated them. Another bin would sit right next to it, this one filled with copies of The Colossus of Maroussi, an endless supply ready for all those who enter the country.
Naturally, my blathering revitalized a vignette from July of 2000 — the last time I traveled to Greece and witnessed tourists without their required copies of Henry Miller. It was an embarrassment.
First of all, at that time, I had no job except for a few cobbled-together freelance writing assignments. I held two degrees from the university down the street, but I had drank away any possible academic career and was living on a friend's floor above a supermarket.
My solution to this predicament: go to Greece for a friend’s wedding. This was near the end of the era when frequent flyer miles could still land free trips rather easily. And even though I'd just lost a job that allowed me to travel, the miles had piled up, leaving me with enough to visit Europe again. As a result, Greece came screaming. On the way to Crete, I stopped in Athens for a day.
Consider the year 2000. No smartphones. No GPS. Most people didn’t even travel with digital cameras yet. Hell, most tourists still used travelers checks. Most cheap hotels didn’t have websites yet, so you had to fax in your request and hope they received it.
And also consider the Athens airport in 2000, which isn’t remodeled for the Olympics yet, so it still feels rather dated. And faded. And backwater. Hippie backpacker couples and their dogs are passed out in every corner of the airport in the 105-degree summer. Everyone smokes. Pollution is omnipresent.
I drag my suitcase outside to an endless line of yellow taxis. The driver first in line, a short squat dude literally drenched in sweat through his dress shirt, said one word to me:
“Street?” He asked, putting my suitcase into the trunk, chain smoking all the while.
“Athinas 29,” I said. “Hotel Attalos.”
I had a day to kill before my buddy showed up to join me en route to the wedding in Crete. A day in Athens. In July.
The hotel was near the Plaka district and the large tourist beers, so that’s where I wound up after I threw my luggage on the bed. A squawking battery of American tourist families surrounded me. In a roped-off taverna courtyard with potted plants and dust, hazed by pollution, I occupied one of a hundred tiny formica tables, faded orange in color. A bouzouki player, older than dirt and sporting a colorful sequined vest, plopped himself on a chair by the counter and jammed like there was no tomorrow. With a plastic fork I powered through a cheap meal on a white paper plate: a slab of tourist Moussaka, plus a native salad and something else buried under an avalanche of garlic. I found it hysterical that the Greeks would bastardize their shtick to the point of force-cramming a “Greek Salad” on throngs of tourists. And like an idiot I actually bought one.
I had studied enough to order a liter of beer — megalo meant large — but since I had finished it, along with the second one, a bountiful carafe of cold retsina now sat in front of me. As I ingested concrete fumes from nearby sewer construction and god knows what other flavors of pollution, the bone-cold retsina provided a sandy, resin-flavored counterpoint. Retsina is the Greek chilled wine, intended to accompany native food, lift the spirits and kill the pain of a grotesquely hot summer. And that pain just needed to go away, so the retsina became necessary.
None of this pain, however, seemed as miserable as one particular American tourist family that paraded right in front of me. The husband wore a t-shirt and shorts, plus glaring white socks and white athletic shoes that would have looked way oversaturated in Photoshop. This is usually how you can spot an American tourist in Europe, because no one else on the continent wears white socks. At least that was the case in 2000.
The wife's outfit included a washed-out paisley muumuu and a flimsy sunhat almost as big as a sombrero. Under her arm she carried a three-inch-thick Lonely Planet book, a pompous tome dedicated to the entire country of Greece. Already engrossed in a clamorous argument and drenched in sweat, the couple dragged their two distracted kids in, around and between the folks eating at the tables. They almost collided with several patrons in the process.
The husband complained over and over that it was too hot. Way too hot. The kids didn't seem to mind. Their faces were filled with introverted curiosity, like they were continuously trying to figure out something in their heads. I knew that feeling because in my case it never went away as I got older.
I was somewhat drunk — not completely, just somewhat drunk — and the conventional pace of time was lost, as often happens in Greece anyway. I could not stop staring at the American family, as the husband and wife complained about the unbearable Athens heat. “It's too hot,” they kept saying. “Let's find a place that isn't so hot. Why is it so hot here?” And strained variations thereof.
Luckily, they didn’t look my direction. Last thing I wanted was for them to find out I was American and start talking to me.
Instead, after the beers and retsina, I was turning Greek. I wanted to howl and break plates. But I also wanted to throw a tantrum and yell at the family, out loud. I wanted to wring them out like soaked bar rags, all while lecturing them: Well, you're in Athens in July. Of course it's hot. What the hell's the matter with you? You paid thousands of dollars to bring your whole family across oceans and continents to be here. In Athens. In the summer. Sheesh. Take that nine-hundred-page travel guide you've been lugging around the whole country, and flip it open to page three, where it probably talks about the weather and where it probably indicates that July in Athens is HOT.
But I felt indecisive and distant, so I said nothing. For once, I didn't feel like proving that I knew more about a subject than someone else. Instead, I just watched them leave the courtyard and disappear into a labyrinth of cobblestone walkways, the children still trying to figure out something in their heads. Meanwhile, the dust lingered and the retsina was a glory to behold. The bouzouki player broke out a chromatic gypsy ballad, something with a non-Western tuning system, I guessed. I closed my eyes and continued sweating.
I never wore white socks in Europe ever again.
© 2001/2013 Gary Singh