Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Temple of Hephaestus

For all you who are interested in some of the sites of Athens, I'd like to share a special photograph with you (Abi, this counts as your "Picture of the Week").

So far, it's one of my favorites. Leandra Lisa Lambert (a friend who I met here; Wellesley '11) and I were walking around the Agora, the ancient marketplace and the location of many ancient civic buildings. In the picture you can see the Temple of Hephaestus set against the backdrop of modern buildings. The beautiful mountains toward the back are shrouded in dim clouds.

Later this evening I will be attending with my class one of the largest social demonstrations on behalf of immigrants who are urging the government to sign into law the proposed reforms regarding acquisition of citizenship. Thousands will be there, including people from immigrant organizations, political parties from both the right and the left, and the extremists! I'll let you know more about that later, though.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Caffeination Station

The life of a Greek is that of living a coffee culture. A notable expression of the Grecian lifestyle is coffee-drinking, sitting, contemplating, and (much to the dismay of my lungs) smoking. Time here passes slowly, and in a relaxing manner. The siesta is an institution just as much as the rush of the nine-to-five day is back at home.

If the way this culture spends its energies in coffee shops is any reflection of the Golden Age of Athens more than two thousand years ago, then it is no surprise to me that the beginning of the West started here. For it is my belief that the most brilliant of thinking requires time and coffee, both of which are available in abundance everywhere in Greece.

So yesterday I thought I’d try it out. You know, “Be a Greek.” After several days of roaming the city with newfound friends, and spending late nights at coffee-bars, I thought I’d try the most authentic looking place and give it my best shot alone. I entered a genuine, native coffee shop (See picture; note how innocent it appears) and quickly walked over to the food display. Awkwardly, I peered into the glass case packed with baked goods, wearing an expression of intense curiosity so that at least I could appear to know what I’m doing. Of course, though, I didn’t. So when the elderly man dressed in formal clothes greeted me and uttered something I didn’t understand, I responded in my best Greek, “Sorry, I do not speak Greek. Do you understand English or Spanish?” At this he gave me a look of frustration and incredulity; apparently I was a disappointment, so he referred me to a couple of baristas who, after exchanging numerous gestures and speaking broken Greek-English-Spanish-Italian with me, showed me my seat and brought to me a Kaphé Ellinikó” (Greek coffee).

I set my notebooks, textbooks, planner, and pen carefully on the table and took a sweeping glance of the coffee shop before me. Demographics of the room:

Number of Men: 50+

Number of Women: 3 (approx.)

Diversity: None

Average Age: 57

Number of Lighted Cigarettes at any Given Moment: 40+

After just 15 minutes my lungs were on fire and my vision became cloudy. Never before had I been in the presence of so much tobacco in so small a space. This place blew out of the water every other smoking-filled venue I’ve ever seen in the United States, and this was normal for a Greek coffee shop. However, I did enjoy what I was then witnessing. The room was a crowded sea of old Greek men dressed in slacks, sweaters, ties, and dark coats. My light blue collared shirt was conspicuous against their very traditional, rather formal apparel. Every one of the 40 tables was occupied. At some were men who were reading their newspapers and sipping their beverages. At others were pairs, trios, or larger groups bickering, discussing, laughing, and gesticulating wildly in the air above them. The volume in the room was a permanent loud, and the second-hand smoke haze was a permanent fog. But this was what Greeks do: if they’re not at their jobs, if they’re not at school, they sit at the coffee shop passing the time. Though I was in attendance at my table for over three hours, others were there for perhaps twice as long.

Later that day I took a run in shorts and a t-shirt, and because of that I received stares. People here bundle up at an easy 50 degrees. After that, the rather late evening was spent at two more coffee shops with friends. The caffeination (a positive note at the very least) never seems to cease.

Other items of note:

My Kitchen

The Bedroom

South Asian Man Feeding the Birds in Syntagma Square

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Welcome to Athens: Warm Weather, Insane Drivers, and Toilet Paper You Can't Flush

A warm greeting from Athens, Greece! After a fairly relaxing flight on Lufthansa over the Atlantic, I arrived here on Monday exhausted, excited, and quite confused. In a moment I will recapitulate the happenings of the previous few days, however I must first explain my flight experience.

Apparently I am five years old. On the flight from Detroit to Frankfurt, before I could entertain myself by opening up a good book, the flight attendants came rumbling to a stop next to my seat with their cart of drinks. Enthusiastically (and quite naively), I requested a chocolate milk. I smiled with anticipation. The rather attractive young hostess giggled because she thought I was joking. A few moments of awkward silence followed, and when it became clear that I in fact was serious, she responded in her most delicate and light-hearted of German accents: "Vell, I cood look in za kiddie box?" Using my problem-solving skills, I managed to cover up my frightfully embarrassed face by asking for water instead. I received my water and she left. But then she returned five minutes later bearing these items:

This was the best she could do: a glass of white milk (a buttery, thick, German 2%), and a chocolate bar on whose wrapper looking at me were whimsically-drawn cartoon characters. Good. Just the image I want to portray: naive Asian-American boy who asks for chocolate milk on a German airline known for its hospitality and precision. Within an hour I decided to move onto adulthood by ordering red wine to accompany my dinner. I can at least feel half respectable.

My arrival in Athens was warm. Literally, the temperature was a mostly-humid 60 degrees at night. I arrived at my room in the Pangrati neighborhood to find my roommates' luggage scattered throughout, but without their owners. Sadly, and a little lonely, I walked the brief five minutes to the CYA Academic Center to check in (I met them further into the night just before we all passed out from each our long travels). I walked along streets for a small while, only to be amazed that Europeans manage to drive their impossibly small cars at impossibly fast speeds, fitting six vehicles side-by-side while darting from point to point on streets which, if placed in any other part of the world, would be marked for only three lanes because it's the only safe thing to do. In downtown Athens, rational driving is only as rational as the street layout. Both reflect no sort of intellect-driven planning. There is good reason that one of our program administrators advised us to be vigilant as pedestrians, for Athens wins some sort of prize for favoring one of the most dangerous pedestrian environments in Europe. The vehicular-pedestrian fatality rate was something like 1,000+ in 2007 alone. I like to think that while some people use cars for driving, others use them for driving recklessly.

Other places I've visited: Syntagma Square (i.e., Constitution Square, the site of the latest
politically-driven bomb demonstration, the unfolding of which preceded my arrival by only days), Parliament, the National Gardens, the Marble Stadium (i.e., Panathinaiko Stadium, site in 1896 of the first modern Olympics), and a number of other smaller neighborhoods that smell of the freshly-baked goods and ripe fruits set on the sidewalk by grocers. This is not to mention that everything looks simply so lush. The trees are a deep, jungle green, and the citrus trees that line every sidewalk are crowned with clusters of attractive oranges. By the looks of it, things appear more or less friendly.

That is, except for the toilets. While I had been using toilets the "American" way for quite some time here, it was not until my orientation during the second day that one of the administrators jokingly mentioned the garbage cans that accompany every toilet in Greece. Piecing together the facts, I discovered that you're not actually supposed to flush your used toilet paper with your excrement, lest you desire a brown, wet mess on your hands. Rather, you throw your used paper away. Let's hope swine flu doesn't prosper among feces in bathroom garbage cans.

Enough of my talking; the following demonstrate a few of the sites for which I had enough patience to take pictures.

Me in front of the Greek Parliament

View of our backyard from one of the apartment balconies

A typical Athenian neighborhood

An art deco apartment juxtaposed with the architecture of the Greek Orthodox Church