Athens in the Summer
Agents at the Athens International Airport should confiscate every Greek travel guide from every American tourist entering the country. Such are my thoughts as I revisit two masterpieces: Zorba the Greek and Henry Miller's Colossus of Maroussi. As I travel through both of these books, old paperbacks faded with past glories, I can visualize customs control removing Fodor's Guides from suitcases and replacing them with Kazantzakis and Miller. These two books should be mandatory for neophytes headed to that part of the world. I fancy airport authorities issuing copies of Zorba and Colossus to every prospective American en route to Greece. There’d be a giant bin behind security, overflowing with those lousy cookie-cutter travel guides, after the authorities had confiscated all of them. There'd also be another few bins of Zorba and Colossus, an endless supply ready for all those who enter the country.
A few recent conversations with a few different friends brought those books back into my consciousness, so that’s what I ranted to them about: how those two masterpieces must be ingested before anyone pops over to Greece. Forget the cookie-cutter travel guides. Nobody should depend on those things or be forced to travel that way, family or not.
Naturally, my vent revitalized a vignette from July of 2000—the last time I traveled to that country and witnessed tourists without their required copies of Miller and Kazantzakis. It was embarrassing.
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. This was right at the end of the era when frequent flyer miles were still usable. And even though I'd just lost a job that allowed me to travel, the miles had piled up, leaving me with enough to do Europe again. As a result, Greece came screaming.
First of all, consider the year 2000. No smartphones and the Athens airport isn’t remodeled for the Olympics yet. It still feels third-world, to a certain degree. Backpackers and their dogs are passed out in every corner of the airport in the heat of summer. Everyone smokes. Pollution seems omnipresent. Miles of taxis are parked outside. One of them, a squat dude drenched in sweat through his dress shirt, asked me what street I was looking for.
“Athinas 29,” I said. “Hotel Attalos.”
The hotel was near the Plaka neighborhood of Athens and that’s where the tourist beers were, so that’s where I wound up. 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 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 dirt-cheap meal on a white paper plate: a slab of tourist Moussaka, plus a native salad and something else buried with 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.
I had studied enough to order a liter of beer—megalo meant large—but since I had finished it, along with the next 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 remotely 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 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 mumuu 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 and 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 drunk, 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 freakin' 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. I closed my eyes and continued sweating.
I never wore white socks in Europe ever again.
© 2001/2013 Gary Singh