Date: Thu, 18 Jul 2002
Gott sei dank!
God, I do not believe in you, I do not believe you exist, but thank you anyway, thank you ever so much for getting me here to Berlin where I type on a German keyboard that has the z and the y reversed.
I will admit that underdeveloped countries can have their special attraction, but it's really nice to be back in civilization again. So pleasant to walk up to a streetcorner where the light has just changed to green and see a car who is about to make a right turn stop and wait for me to cross instead of accelerating to make sure that I have no chance at all. (Brune says, ``Some drivers do this, not all of them.'' Well, it depends a little on what part of the city I am in. Things are admittedly a little different in the old Eastern sector, but even there nothing like in Athens.)
I feel so comforted being here. I feel that Berlin is very supportive and people will take the trouble to try and help me out, whereas in Athens (after I left Eugenia's), I felt constantly at war with the city. This is not to deny that there were strangers in Athens who were nice to me, including a number of women (never men) who gave up their seats to me on crowded buses. (One middle-aged woman started making gestures to me the moment I got on the bus. I couldn't understand what she meant and thought that she was trying to tell me that there was something amiss about my clothes, until finally she said, ``Kathiste, kathiste!'' I thanked her very much but declined the offer; I figured that she'd been working hard all day and needed the seat more than I did.) I'm thankful to the many Greeks in shops and restaurants who did their best to put together their limited knowledge of English and my extremely limited knowledge of Greek to find out what is was I wanted.
I lost one of my two pens and then stupidly threw the other in the laundry (i.e. a plastic pail I used to wash my clothes in) with the shirt I was washing. And I had no idea where one goes in A thens to buy a pen. Neither pharmacies nor supermarkets seem to carry them. So I went in one of the many tiny little corner grocery stores (not that they're usually one a corner; there may be two or three or even four on a single block), and looked around to see if I saw any pens, and then started to leave. The man asked me what I needed, and I said, in English, ``I'm looking for a pen,'' and pantomined writing something on the palm of my hand. He offered me some hand cream and things like that, and I waved my hands back and forth in a negative, then picked up one of the newspapers for sale and pantomined writing on the newspaper, but this still made no sense to him. Finally he said, ``What other languages do you know besides English? Do you know German? Italian?'' Since he had mentioned Italian last, I tried to think whether I knew the word for pen in Italian, and finally I said, ``stylo,'' thinking maybe it was the same in Italian as French. And he immediately reached into his display window, found a ball-point ben, and then tried it out to make sure it worked before he sold it to me.
It wasn't really quite what I'd hoped for though (although I was certainly grateful for it), so when I got back to the apartment I looked in the little Greek phrasebook I'd brought with me to see if they had the word for pen. And it turns out that the Greek word for pen is ... stylo!
But on the whole, I felt myself constantly at war with Athens.
I know a lot of people will consider me excessively neurotic because of the extent to which I worried about getting to the airport Tuesday morning. But I'm convinced that if I'd simply and naively followed my original plan and left the apartment at 7:30 and taken my luggage to the nearest metro station, I would never have made my 10:30 flight, because I wouldn't have been able to jam myself with my luggage aboard the incredibly crowded metro.
All I needed was to get about 15 blocks to the heart of downtown, Syntagma Square, where an airport bus left, and I'd already checked several times that there would be plenty of room for me on that airport bus. (Or it not, on the next one. They left quite frequently.)
So I thought about taking a taxi to Syntagma Square. But....
Let me tell you about taxis in Athens. In every other city I've been in, the way taxis work is that you stand in the street and hail one, and lots of cabs go by, but most of them already have passengers. But eventually one comes by which is vacant. It stops and you get in and tell the driver where you want to go, and he takes you there. (In many American cities, once he lets you in the cab he is legally obligated to take you to whatever destination you name, as long as it's within the city, or his juristiction. Admittedly some drivers will violate this rule if a passenger asks to be taken to a really bad neighbood; passengers who want to go to neighborhoods like that aren't the type who will file complaints.)
In normal cities, probably there are also taxi stands where cabs wait, and a phone to call with case no taxis are waiting.
But in Athens..... In Athens, cabs are very cheap, and the streets are full of them, but, as the Lonely Planet guidebook puts it, ``Despite all this, it can be incredibly hard to get a cab, especially in rush hour.''
To make up for fares being so cheap, taxis in Athens can pick up several passengers going to more or less the same place and charge them all full fare.
So when you hold up your hand for a cab in Athens, the cab slows down or perhaps even stops, and whether or not the taxi already has passengers, you yell through the window on the passenger side (which is always rolled down) the destination you want to go to. If this is compatible with where he's taking his other passengers, or, in case the cab is empty, if it's a destination he wants to go to, he stops and you get in. But if he doesn't like the destination you yelled out, he just steps on the accelerator and drives on by.
From watching this process a lot, my conclusion was that it can take an awful lot of arm waving to actually get a taxi who is willing to take you where you need to go.
So maybe a taxi would have worked fine for me, and I considered doing a couple of trial runs going to Syntagma during rush hour without the luggage, but I just wasn't willing to use a method this chancy.
So I finally realized that the way to get somewhere during rush hour is simply to start a lot earlier than you would normally expect to. And I realized that I'd stand a lot better chance on trying to get on a bus than on the metro, although after getting up early and watching busses and 8:00 and 7:30 AM, I realized that they were also very crowded. But there was more variability, and I noticed that occasionally one would come along that seemed to have enough space for me to jam both myself and my luggage on. (Getting up earlier and earlier, on successive days, I discovered that busses were already jam packed at 6:30, but there seemed a little more space at 7:00. Apparently there are a lot of people who need to be at work at 7:00, but not so many who start work at 7:30. By 8:00, though, the situation was hopeless.)
Also, I finally thought of the strategy that I've used so many times in other cities, being a long-time bus rider. Namely, backtracking. By getting on a bus going in the contra-flow direction, which was no problem, I could move back to a stop where I'd have a better chance. And in fact, I realized that one of the busses that came by the stop I was working from started its run only about four stops previously. First of all, this made it much more likely to have free space when I got to my stop, but, even better, I could ride it backwards to the end of the line and then have my space already claimed when it started in the direction I needed.
I tried this Friday and Monday, (the weekend not being a good test) without the luggage, and it worked just fine. As soon as the bus got to the end of the line, everybody but me got off, and a group of new passangers got on, and the driver took a break which was not more than five minutes (the problem with backtracking, of course, is that it does take more time), and we were off.
On Tuesday though, with all my luggage, the driver complained. ``This is the end of the line,'' he said. ``This is as far as I go.'' ``But I need to go to Syntagma,'' I said. And he went into a long tirade, saying, ``Syntagma is in the other direction from the way you were going. If you want to go to Syntagma, you have to know what direction it's in.'' I didn't know enough Greek to answer this, and I didn't really consider it important to give him an answer anyway. In any case, he didn't kick me off the bus. If he had, I would have had an easy time getting on the next one anyway, since I was at the begnning of the line and I was plenty early, so I had time to wait.
Well, maybe this an excessive amount of effort and planning just to catch a bus. But by my last week, I was bored with the city and didn't have much better to spend my time on. And I knew that I was at war with this damned city and wasn't going to get what I needed without fighting for it.
There were two different Athens, actually three, that I got to know. The Athens I knew when I was with Eugenia was a wonderful place that I'd have been happy to have spent more time in. The one I was in alone was completely different, and not only because in the first case I was living in an upper (very upper, actually) middle-class neighborhood and in the second I was in a working class neighborhood. (Actually, as I eventually realized, it was also somthing of a red-right district. I mean, one doesn't want to make snap judgements, but when I see a sexily dressed young women leaning over with a certain attitude and talking into the driver's side window of a stopped car, I know what I'm seeing.) A couple of blocks up from my street was apparently the neighborhood where all the Africans in Athens live.
And then there was the Athens that I just got a quick glance of, the one that C inhabits. Hollywood in Greece. Well, he's doing really good things there, making movies, television, commercials, videos.