I get the impression I would really like Athens if I got to know it. It’s hot, chaotic and a bit rough around the edges, not immediately charming or easy in the way Paris or Rome are. It doesn’t seem to want to convince you to like it, it’s really not trying very hard. It’s got its own life. Athens feels like a person you see in a bar who is scruffy and short with the waiters, but after a few drinks you discover they actually have hidden depths and are a fascinating conversationalist.
Anyway, the heat must be getting to me. And boy is it hot. 37 degrees, humid and no wind at all yesterday, only slightly less today.
We arrived easily from Patras, despite the train being replaced by a bus for most of the journey. I had planned to organize onward travel to [the republic of] Macedonia when we arrived, but the ‘international’ counter at the station closed at 3pm so we had to return the next day.
When we did, promptly at the 8am opening time, there was already a long queue of confused and anxious foreigners, including a couple of German backpackers who needed tickets for a train leaving fairly soon who were doing their nut at the glacial movement in the queue, and a couple of very confused Chinese ladies who kept saying ‘we don’t understand Greece’ to me.
For once my Mozambique training paid off – we had all the time in the world to wait, Lauren stuck her nose in her book, and when I did eventually get to the front, I was ever so patient with the endless phone calls and intense consultation of heavy ring binders that booking a ticket to Skopje seemed to require.
After much debate, and nearly an hour just dealing with me, the guy behind the counter asked if I could go another day, as he had already sold his quota of seats for the proposed date of travel. There would be seats available, but he could only ‘unofficially’ reserve them for me. This did not mean what it would in Mozambique (!), but rather that he would allocate some seats under the jurisdiction of Serbian railways, and then send an email to Serbian railways asking if they could please not allocate them to anyone, so that we could have them. I wasn’t keen to change the dates, so I now have a handwritten ticket with some seat reservations written in, and have to confirm these with Serbian railway representatives in Northern Greece, when due to it being a major transit route for refugees, the train will be replaced between Thessaloniki and the border with Macedonia by a bus. Let’s see what happens.
By the time we had finished with booking tickets and got downtown, on Athens’s modern and efficient (and air conditioned!) metro, it was way too hot to consider climbing the acropolis, so we spent a very pleasant few hours in the acropolis museum, learning about ancient Greece, the construction of the Parthenon and other temples, and having an ethical debate about the Elgin marbles. Lauren declared herself ashamed to be British due to the initial looting and current refusal of the UK to return them, and I had to agree, although I did point out the majority of Brits also believe they should be returned (well, according to the Guardian anyway…).
We had dinner at a place recommended by our Airbnb host, in our local neighbourhood and I must say the prices are a relief after Italy. We both had Chicken gyros (chicken in pitta with salad and chips) for just over 6 euros. Another nice thing in Greece has been that every cafe or restaurant immediately plonks a glass bottle of chilled filtered water down on the table, for free, as soon as you arrive.
This morning we were up super early to be at the gates of the Acropolis for 8am, in order to get up there in the cool and ahead of the tours. This was such a good decision. It wasn’t a terribly hard climb, but it is fairly steep and would have been hard going in the heat. We raced up, so that we could be some of the first on top, knowing we could take our time exploring the slopes on the way down. It was good having been to the museum first, as it meant we knew what we were looking at, as there is precious little in terms of information up there. The views were amazing, with Athens spread out below us and the sea in the distance. The Parthenon and other remains are impressive, but somehow much less evocative than Pompeii, Ostia and Rome. Of course, there is less preserved and it’s all temples, with less focus on ‘everyday life’ which might be more relatable. So, while I am glad we did it (and having brought breakfast, it was a lovely setting for a picnic), for me, it was less moving and less interesting overall than Italy. The early start paid off though, as on our way down we could barely move for tours.
We walked back down through backstreets all the way to our accommodation, about an hour’s walk through streets lined with cafes and small shops, and full of cats. We stopped off for a delicious iced coffee (everyone drinks them, all day and night here, it seems) and a late morning snack.
This afternoon was dedicated to schooling. We still haven’t got the French materials but Lauren has been doing an hour or two a day from the British curriculum, or from my head or things that come up in conversation. It gives me a great excuse to dodge her endless questions and make things into “research projects”.
Yesterday she had made a comment about how she would love to have a shop as she could help herself to whatever she wanted. I countered that actually she couldn’t, at least not without paying, due to the need to keep business and personal income separate, for tax reasons, which led to a whole discussion on taxation (and tax avoidance and why its wrong), so this afternoon I taught her the basics of profit and loss statements. This is what I love about “homeschooling” – it came from a real-life example, and I managed to personalize it (you own a steak restaurant, you have to pay waiters, buy food, pay electricity etc – work out your revenue, gross profit, profit after tax etc.) and she loved looking at the different impacts of different ‘business decisions’ (including nicking some of her own produce and the impact on tax).
Ancient Greece in the morning, Profit and Loss statements in the afternoon. A good day.
Next: A 13-hour (we hope!) journey to Skopje.