Europe

Athens and Filopappou Hill

Settling In

Adjusting to our arrival in Athens was a bit difficult for several reasons. On the one hand, this was the first time my sister Daisy and I were in Greece as adults and had full control over where we went and what we wanted to do. No longer were we beholden to every relative or family friend with an opinion if we wanted to leave the house. Instead, with my great aunt  and grandmother so old, it felt like we should be taking care of them.

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Endless food and drink means a nap is completely unavoidable.

Of course, though, Ioulia would not hear of it. “If we could make it all this time without you all here, we can make it one more week. Don’t worry about us, sweetie,” she said as she snatched the dirty plates from my hands as I made my way to the sink to wash them (she has arthritis in her hands and knees and yet insists on cooking and cleaning for us). “And leave please leave the dishes in the sink, μανάρι μου.” Her choice of words, first guilt-inducing and then endearing reminded me how unfortunate it was that in 25 years, I have spent maybe a total of 12 months in Greece with my relatives. There are so many things we missed from each others’ lives, and seeing the “grannies” (as we often referred to our grandmother and never-ending supply of great aunts) all well into their late 70’s and 80’s really hit that home.

The other element is that we both brought our partners with us to Greece, and Daisy and I–well, mostly me because I am a ball of stress–struggled to simultaneously manage our expectations as well as theirs. Despite any crazy family drama that was likely to come about, we wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good vacation.

The most striking part about breaking back into Greece and Greek culture were Greek people themselves. I mentioned it in my last post, but this was Daisy’s first visit back in a decade and the first visit back for me after seven years. To compound the experience, Daisy spent the last three years living in upstate New York filled with some of the nicest, milquetoast people on the eastern seaboard, and I had spent the last year living in Taiwan where people are generally quick with a smile and helpful in general. I love Greece, but Greek people can be mean. They are mean even when they are actually being nice, it’s just their default setting. It is as if passive aggression is the standard setting and many people hold a defensive paranoia of being accused of some form of bad manners. In a way, dealing with (especially) blue-collar Greek people is like dealing with the old fashion New Yorker. But Daisy and I adjusted well-enough by Day 3 or 4. We are half Greek after all and from New Jersey.

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Germany gets it.

 

The Americans Visit “Grandpa Hill”

**I am going to skip our actual first trip which was to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Both are wonderful destinations that anyone visiting Greece must see, but after five or six visits to the old pile of stones it’s just not interesting to me anymore.**

The hill is not actually called “Grandpa Hill,” but it’s the English translation I gave it because Φιλοπάππου (Filopappou) sounds similar to the words φίλος (filos, friend) and παππούς (pappous, grandpa). So it’s full English name should actually be “Friendy Grandpa Hill.” We chose to go for a hike this very hot and dry afternoon because it is one of the three “mountains” that you can see from the Acropolis, and a place Daisy and I had never been. It’s one of those nagging things when you go somewhere more than once you start to think, “well maybe one day I’ll go to that other place, just to see it.” Kind of like how one day I’ll go to the Empire State building in NYC, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in DC, or an Outback Steakhouse. You know, just to see what it’s like. The cool thing about Filopappou Hill, though, is that it is one of the last major landmarks between the port city of Piraeus and ancient Athens. Piraeus is still a port town, but Athens is no longer just the Acropolis and is now a vast swath of urban sprawl which includes Piraeus.

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A map of ancient Piraeus (left) and Athens (right) and the walls that lined the treacherous, long route between the two.

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Nowadays we just use the subway (grey line) and it takes like ten minutes to reach Ancient Athens (red pin)

What we didn’t expect was to encounter a totally deserted downtown Athens–that can only be described as one-part urban decay two-parts intense sunshine. Without any data plan in Greece, I pulled up a screenshot I had taken of Google Maps that morning. It’s just as good as actual Google Maps provided you are prepared not to have a zoom feature, can read in Greek, and are fully prepared to encounter roads that no longer exist.

The featured picture up top is actually the back entrance to Filopappou Hill. Other than graffiti, strewn across the ground was an assortment of garbage from every aisle in the grocery store (from condom wrapper to styrofoam). There were also a few (seemingly) abandoned structures with broken shutters, cracks in the plaster, and covered in graffiti and shaded by the errant palm tree. It was like a post-apocalyptic Miami.

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Jevon, chill as ever, rolls a cigarette to beat the heat.

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Not Sparta; Athens.

So here we are, a gaggle of American kids roaming around what is now turning into a combination of desert and a sparse evergreen forest. The sun was so hot and the air so dry that the surface of my skin felt like it was getting crispy, but I didn’t notice thirst or fatigue. It wasn’t until I stepped into the shade of a gnarled evergreen by a graffitied ancient milestone that I could feel the toll the sun and landscape was having on me. There was still more hill to climb, though. At the top of one south-facing bluff, thirsty and climbing to a high point to catch the breeze, my eyes were hit by an infinite blueness that dropped off the point of white-walled Piraeus town. The town opened into the port, which seemed so small from this distance, and the port splayed open to the Mediterranean Sea. The air was so bright and clear that the horizon was a perfect match between the blues of the sky and sea. It’s the blue of the Greek flag, the same shade that you paint tourist hotels’ shutters and roofs. It was a blueness that felt empty and full at the same time. And as I panned from the sea to the direction of the Acropolis, I was stunned at how easy it was to still pick out the shadow of the ancient road, more than 1,900 years ago. It was almost a straight shoot from port to capital, and it must have been a dangerous one. Cliffs, rocky earth, and farmlands meant that not only were we standing above an ancient road, but probably a graveyard, too.

As I dazed I could here the restless footsteps of my friends and sister. “It’s so HOT,” Daisy remarked brusquely from under a giant, black sunhat clad in a matching black romper. Hours of trying to shape and pull the hat’s brim around her face to block the changing angles of the sun had now cast a wavy Funyun-like shadow over her ruddy, rotund cheeks and face. Jevon lit a cigarette nearby. “First off,” I responded, “Jevon, don’t cause a wildfire, please. That shit is real. Secondly, let’s just skip the path winding up the hill and take a shortcut through those trees on this side.”

“Uh…Okay,” Daisy said as we started walking toward the evergreens. “Yeah, just watch out for snakes, okay?” I added as an after thought.

“What the? Are you SERIOUS? Fay, I’m not going in there if there are snakes,” Jevon only sounded half-scared, so I followed up with “I’m sure we will be okay,” and I started hiking ahead of the group. I spent six summers in Greece, but never actually saw a snake before, only tortoises, but for some reason hearing a warning about snakes was common in all my summer memories wandering into the “wilderness.” It was practically a reflex that I just warn everyone about snakes whether or not they existed.

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The sun takes a toll on Warren’s rational decision-making, but enhances his physical abilities.

Almost twenty minutes and two forks in the road later, we make it to the grand and glorious monument at the top of Filopappou Hill.

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Wait, is that it?

Needless to say, it’s pretty disappointing at the top. This was once a monument built to some important ancient-ish mayor or general as part of his funeral services. It was made out of the marble scraps of crumbling, unkempt temples and buildings built hundreds of years earlier. Then, it turned into a pile of unkempt marble scraps. If you look to the back of the monument, you can see how some people tried to “rebuild” and “restore” the original memorial by taking the scraps-of-scraps from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. You can tell by the handwriting and dates.

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Greeks have a long, weird relationship with graffiti. Also, you can see how Greeks gave up on recycling ancient marble and switched restoration practices to plaster and mortar.

We Meet Brimmy

Filopappou Hill was a major disappointment, but at least the view of the Acropolis was fantastic. Among the few tourists who also made the mistake of making a trek to Filopappou Hill, were a few couples, our group, and a lone teenager wearing an American flag tank top and thick-framed, black Rayban sunglasses. This was Brimmy. Actually, his name is Justin (I think), but ever since I added him on Snapchat, I’ve been referring to him by his handle.

Brimmy is a lanky, blond California kid no more than 18 years-old. When we asked him what he was doing in Greece alone he said, “I’m taking a gap year. Who needs college?” Brimmy is a genius. Almost in unison, Daisy, Warren, Jevon and I said “That’s SUCH a good idea.” Brimmy smiled because he felt validated. Greece was just one of his longer European stopovers, and it was for a much more noble reason than I could have imagined. Even though he looked like he belonged at a frat party, he was volunteering in Athens with a charity focused on the refugee crisis. He spent most of his days at a church teaching and playing with with little kids from all over the world. After a brief conversation with Brimmy, and after taking all the pictures we needed, we said our good-byes and headed down the hill back toward the Acropolis and eventually Monostiraki, leaving Brimmy at the top of the hill just where we found him.

A random snake charmer and one really cool tortoise later, we were back at the Acropolis park, walking along the cobbled bath that encircles the paid, gated part of the park featuring the ruins. We rounded a corner that presented us with a fork in the road: we could hike the Hill of the Nymphs, head toward the tourist traps, or take a side road into another part of downtown. But right in the middle of the fork, there was Brimmy awkwardly holding a pack of yellow American Spirits as if he was thinking about how to smoke them. We called out to him and he turned his head toward us almost instantly, surprised. He waved back and walked up to us. “You’re here, too, huh?” It was the start of a conversation everyone knew was going nowhere with no one in our group interested in extending the conversation. That awkward commentary of describing what is literally happening at the same time. Then Daisy lifted up a hand half-heartedly and saved, “well, bye!” and made the executive decision for the group to walk up the Hill of the Nymphs and leave Brimmy at the bottom of the bath. Brimmy’s face fell noticeably, even from behind the sunglasses and he made for the main path that circled the Arcopolis.

Seeing eager, young Brimmy full of hope, spontaneity, and the desire to make new friends reminded me of 2008-era Fay. It’s cheesy, I know, but after high school graduation, I left for the entire summer to finally escape the confines of parents and suburbia and I was ready to take the world by the horns. With a dejected Brimmy walking away from us, I could see just how dorky, young, and unsubtly needy I was back then. I turned to walk up the hill, but paused and said loud enough only for the group to hear, “I’m going to invite him to hang out with us.”

“What, why?” Daisy said, clearly not interested in an awkward tag-a-long.

“Because why not? He’s by himself. Where’s your spirit of American companionship?” I turned back down the slope and called his name in a half-yell, he was already on the other side of the cobbled path, and waved him over. When he saw that we were waiting for him to catch up, he broke out into a wide smile. It was like watching a puppy perk his ears up and gambol over toward his best friend.

We spent the rest of the evening hiking, talking at random, stopping for ice cream, and just enjoying the tourist experience. Brimmy said to go back to work later that evening, but European summer sunsets are languid and long, so it was hard to tell exactly what time “evening” started. Tired and sunburnt, we sat down at a restaurant at the border of the Acropolis and Monostiraki districts which specialized in μεζές (mezes are like tapas) and cheap beer. As the sun finally began to approach the horizon, Brimmy set his freshly opened beer down to check the time. It was almost 9:00 P.M. “Crap! I have to go home like now.” He chugged his beer, impressive for a kid who only graduated high school a month ago, and left us a 2 euro coin and his cigarettes as a “gift from home,” and took off.

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It’s possible Brimmy enjoyed the tourist experience too much

We Head Home

Realizing the time, I told the group to only eat a little bit because it was a guarantee that dinner was waiting for us at home and we had to some how muster the energy to get back, eat again, drink, chat with the relatives and neighbors, sleep, and wake up early enough to have a day of activities.

Already a few days into the week, we approached the subway station and only made a show of purchasing tickets for the metro. Having heard rumors that all metro transportation was free due to the economic crisis (and witnessing scores of young people not pay), we decided to be on the safe side as tourists that hitting random buttons on the machine for 30 seconds was as good as buying a ticket.

We dragged our bodies through the clean, marbled hall ways of the underground, boarded our train, and returned to our Athens HQ. At home, giagia and Ioulia had left the light on for us outside and were in the process of going to bed (by this time it was about 10:00 P.M.). When they heard us on the veranda Ioulia came rushing out to us. “Τι κάνεις, παιδιά; Είναι τόσο αργά! Πεινάς?” Just as I had expected, Ioulia had made us dinner.

“Daisy,” I called out to her as she and Warren were headed upstairs to shower, “we have to eat first.”

“Noooooooo….I’m so sleepy.”

“We have to, they have arthritis and they still cooked for us!” I knew in my heart that there would be no excuse that would satisfy my aunt. Besides, she was already inside fetching the tablecloth for us.

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**