Unfortunately, my flight landed half an hour too early. Dawn was breaking as we descended, but the islands of the Aegean were only visible as dark blobs speckled with the occasional lighthouse, and before I knew it we had touched down at Eleftherios Venizelos International, Athens.
Investments in airports are often justified by the importance of making a good impression on visitors, and no expense had been spared in constructing this modern edifice in time for the Olympics, which explains why lots of expenses were in the process of being spared afterwards. On this Monday morning, bright and early at 6:30 AM, my Singapore Airlines 777, a Thai 777 and an Air Canada 767 had landed near-simultaneously, disgorging in the region of eight hundred (800) passengers into passport control, which was staffed by two (2) people. As the hall filled with a random jostle of people, the queue soon backed up the escalator from the gate area, without so much as a line divider or any indication of which of the four lit-up booths were actually staffed. Did I mention that there were no toilets in the entire area? Nearly two hours of waiting later I had my passport cursorily glanced at and thrown back to me, and I dashed for the toilets, sadistically positioned right behind the passport control booths. I picked up a local SIM card plus the first of many deep-fried feta-laden pastries to come, and then emerged into the cool morning air, blinking in the strong Aegean sun, and proceeded to queue a little more for a taxi. Welcome to Greece!
It’s been well over 20 years since I last set foot in the country (although surely a visit to Cyprus some five years back almost counts?) and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I suspect most Europeans harbor the same somewhat paradoxical (παράδοξος paradoxos, “aside thought”) attitude to Greece that I did. On one hand, nobody can dispute the country’s role as the cradle of European civilization, and anybody who’s had an even remotely technical education already has a grasp on the intricacies of the Greek alphabet (αλφάβητος alfabetos) and a fairly firm grounding on Greek etymology (ἐτυμολογία etymologia, “true word”). On the other hand, it’s been several thousand years since those glory days, and Greece was until recently the poorest country in the EU, best known for goat cheese, women with luxuriant moustaches and a vast capacity for absorbing EU money.
Needless to say, reality was somewhere between those two extremes. For one thing, all the women in Greece seem to have blonde hair these days, and instead of moustaches I couldn’t help noticing that “callipygian” is still a Greek word. (Living for five years in Flatland will do that to you.) Most taxi drivers still looked like they pulled double shifts as sheep herders or seamen, with stubble, ratty sweaters and cigarettes permanently suspended from their mouths, but the taxis themselves would have qualified as “limousines” in Singapore and came equipped with GPS pathfinders that the cabbies deftly operated with one hand while swerving through Athens traffic. The Athens metro is also positively spiffy-keen, although the Proastiakos suburban trains, which I’ve been taking every day to get to work, seem to exhibit a disturbing tendency of arriving at any time except that specified in the schedule and always departing to Athens from the platform marked “To Airport” or vica versa.
Early fall, though, is a great time to be in Greece. The air is dry and breezy, nights are cool, days are warm, making both mornings and evenings just perfect. On a balmy Tuesday evening, I headed to Monastiraki with two colleagues, opted for an outdoor seat at a taverna without views of the floodlit Parthenon (this instantly halves the price) and dug into a gigantic (Γίγαντες gigantes) platter of meze, complete with some of the best octopus I’ve had anywhere, with a bottle of ouzo to lubricate it all. Total price here in the heart of the tourist zone? €30 for three. I could get used to this.