Finding the subway from baggage claim was challenging. Turns out, Greek people almost exclusively speak one language that isn’t English. In spite of my tendency to play the rube on these outings, the truth is, I get a thrill out of putting myself in perilous situations where I don’t know anyone, where I’m going, or the language. As it turns out, I had an ace in the hole. College.
Although it may be unpopular to admit in this day and age, I was in a fraternal organization at a third-tier university. A bunch of lovable country boy knuckleheads, we were. What was helpful though, was, shall we say, the rather aggressive methods by which we had to learn the Greek alphabet. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t commit it to memory. Duress works as a learning mechanism, as both the U.S. military and the film Slumdog Millionaire tell us. The weirdest thing, when you sound out the Greek alphabet, the word is usually similar to the English word.
Signs for the “τρένο” were easily translated to “treno” for train. Now we were cooking with German-funded gas. Since the inception of the EURO as an EU currency, some countries have spent more time electing corrupt officials than they have producing and exporting goods. Greece is one of those countries. After racking up hundreds of billions in debt, Germany has had to bail them out and now technically owns them. Odd observation, most of the countries in debt take naps in the middle of the day…
This was all part of my hasty research, I’d ask around while in Athens, see how much of it was true.
After arriving at ΣΤ.ΣΥΓΓΡΟΥ-ΦΙΞ (St. Syggroy-Fix) station pretty late on a Friday night for most AirBnB hosts’ liking, I made the two-block walk up the hill to my home for the week. Above the drugstore on Dimitrakapoulou, I found Anastasuli (Ana) and Nicos waiting with warm smiles and hugs. After Sicily, I was in the mood for a hug. Bonus, they spoke remarkable English (as a tandem). We decided, as a group that it was time for a late-night beer and get-to-know-you session.
I liked these guys instantly. Nicos’ ex-wife and son own the AirBnB and he stays there when he’s in Athens for work. Ana was fresh out of her mandatory Israeli Army service and looking to open a yoga studio in Athens or on one of the islands. Nicos was 59 and built like a 30-year-old fitness instructor, he worked for Greece’s Human Services Dept., basically auditing the dole. Ana was 24, absolutely striking, wore no makeup and did nude yoga outside my terrace window every morning.
Pause for dramatic effect.
Yes, that’s how each and every day began. I’d pretend not to notice Ana and make my way to the other side of the terrace, with a great view of Athens, and have frappe with Nicos. The conversations were effortless, immediately intense and always fascinating and rewarding. The man led me to believe that every Greek person comes pre-programmed with centuries of philosophical, historical and linguistic knowledge.
Ana was dating Nicos’ son, Philip, the drummer for a rock band. She had his room, Dad had his own space just off the kitchen and I had the big guestroom with a terrace door, near the nude Israeli girl with the perfect body – according to most modern lifestyle magazines… and my eyes. Unfortunately, I don’t believe her relationship with the drummer survived his latest European tour. None of my business. I personally thought he was one of the coolest human beings I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of cool human beings. But anyone that cool, that confident and that good looking probably needs to keep his hands warm when the drumming ends – no matter where he is.
While I was in Barcelona, I had asked an old friend who was then in Athens if he wouldn’t mind participating in a little game. I asked him to hide a note anywhere in Athens, then make me solve clues to get to other notes – all leading to his favorite places. He and I both try to stay away from touristy nonsense, so I would trust his judgement. And he didn’t let me down. When my housemates found out, they insisted on helping.
The first photo was sent to my phone. It was a neon key hanging outside a row of businesses on a nondescript side street. Next to it was a small food stand called the Pink Flamingo. But knowing Craig, the Key was the focal point. Nicos knew exactly where it was. Fifteen minutes later, the three of us were combing that block, feeling around door jams, looking under signage, you name it. Nicos and Ana were kind enough to ask local shop keepers if they knew anything about the buried treasure. No joy. The photo also kind of featured a large potted plant outside a restaurant next to the locksmith, home of the neon key.
I lifted the planter, nothing.
We were kind of bummed but determined. Nicos showed great concern for my finding the damn note, asking me a number of truly intelligent questions not many people would think of. Ana was carefree as always and ready for lunch. We stopped for a frappe and a smoke, Greeks don’t hurry for shit, at least these two didn’t, (Ana being a newly-adopted Greek). Having coffee with Greeks takes about two hours, you sip, you enjoy each and every second, you look up at the sky or corner of a beautifully-designed building and take deep breaths.
I was interested. “You simply sit and breathe and try not to think of anything but beauty and purely enjoy the moment?” Yes. As an American with five electronic devices on me at all times, this was hard to take in. As my dad would say, I was listening all these years but I wasn’t hearing.
We meandered through and past the lowland tourist spot below the Acropolis in the Plaka district, strikingly pretty. We walked through the big Pandrossou street market where you can buy anything, mostly pottery depicting men in sexual acts with one another. Homosexuality plays a large part in Greek history. Nicos explained that the most learned men were taught by the best of the philosophers and scribes then they would have sex to “drive home” the knowledge. It was interesting but I wanted to change the subject. Maybe talk about Telly Savalas or olives or something.
Finally, I approached committing unspeakable crimes due to not having eaten for about 20 hours, we arrived at an ugly alley covered in stray cats. Stray cats in Greece are like cows in a small Indian village. They rule the roost. They’re also a good sign that there’s a great restaurant nearby. There it was 100-feet up the alley, Atlantikos. We got the last small table in the alley and Nicos launched into conversation with our delightful waitress, who reminded me of a young Janeane Garofalo.
Moments later, we had unlabeled, sweaty bottles on our table and a plate of exquisite-looking produce. The best tomatoes I’d ever seen, some cucumber, olives, onions, stuffed peppers and some pita bread with olive oil. Nicos and Ana split a spliff and poured me a small glass from each of the three bottles. One water, thank God, one Raki and one Tsipouro. I’m told Tsipouro is normally for after the meal but Nicos wanted me to try it after our colloquy about the Holy Trinity of Greek spirits, Ouzo, of course, being the Father.
Tsipouro goes right to my head, it’s fantastic, The taste is comparable to Grappa, though there is an anised version – we didn’t have that. We all had the sheen of happy people who’d just walked a couple miles in the Athens heat then sipped on spirits; all was right with the world. Then came the real food, from every direction. Calamari, fried bream, sardines, herring, shrimp, cheeses, more oil-drenched tomatoes, seaweed, humus, more grilled and fried fish, more bread, salted beans, skewered lamb and gigantic prawns in pasta. Olives. There is a God and she gave us Greek olives.
For three hours we sat and nibbled and sipped and laughed and talked, taking timeouts for a cigarette or a spliff for the cool kids. Then we’d dig back in, coat everything in fresh lemon juice, take a few bites then tap out again. Every table there seemed to be doing the same thing… truly, deliberately enjoying each and every morsel and moment. So I asked Nicos once again about enjoying the moment, as this sunny, beautiful Saturday afternoon among new friends, seemed like the perfect time to bring it up.
“Siga Siga,” he told me, “Slowly, slowly.” Breathe, be aware, no need to think, let go and enjoy each and every millisecond of your life. Sounds insane, right? It sounded deranged to me the first time I heard it. But it made sense to try. I come from a culture that rewards the opposite of this notion and I suspect that Greece’s economy has been in the gutter for years because of it – but I was still willing to learn more about this hakuna matada nonsense.
Here came the Ouzo.
We had Raki, Tsipouro, house wine and now Ouzo, but – funny thing is – when your constantly eating incredible food and having a very long and engaging conversation where you’re picking up something you didn’t know every minute – you don’t feel sideways drunk. Nicos picked up the tab and we walked and walked – to the backside of the Acropolis, up the vendor’s hill where musicians played and necklaces were shilled. We strolled, we sang, we enjoyed the moments. It dawned on me, if you’re a person who never stops to really enjoy the moment, then you’re a person who never stops to enjoy the moment. What’s it all for if you don’t make time?
There’s a scene at the end of the movie Parenthood where Jason Robards rips the “No Smoking” sign off the wall in the maternity ward and lights up a stogie. That’s him saying, “f-ck it, I’m surrounded by grandbabies, I’m going to enjoy this.” Siga Siga. Slowly, slowly doesn’t necessarily mean breaking a rule of law but you get the point. Let your heart feel the joy that fuels its beating. Let your breath fuel ecstasy.
After a mini photoshoot at the Acropolis, our small group meandered toward the house, bar hopping along the way. Close to the Terrace of Love, which is what I dubbed the house, is a great little bar called Spirtokouto staffed by a sensational ginger woman and an Adonis of a man. In fact, if you’re a man and men are your thing, chances are, you’re going to very much enjoy Athens.
Back at the Terrace of Love, we played music on the computer and Nicos prepared another feast, not that we needed another bite to eat. It was getting close to 9:30 P.M. and he was just beginning supper…
Nicos had made a stew from every bean, lentil and vegetable in his pantry. Though it was delicious, we barely touched it after that massive lunch some seven or eight hours earlier. Instead we danced a little, sang a lot and enjoyed Nicos’ private stash of Tsipouro.
Sunday morning, like clockwork, there was a young, naked woman on my balcony in downward dog. Nicos, his balding ponytail pulled back in a band, sat in nothing but a wrap on the same terrace just chatting with Ana like it was nothing. He enjoyed making me a Frappe so off he went, he’d already been to the bakery for sweet rolls so they were laid out with honey, yogurt and jam, the Greeks are also good at the honey. And, as you well know, the yogurt. We sat and talked for an hour or two and I told them the planter outside the restaurant was bothering me.
The Neon Key
If I could remember my way through the labyrinth that led to the neon key, I had a sneaking suspicion the planter or planter area was the focus of the photo my friend had sent. After 20-minutes or so, I managed to find neon key street again – no one was out on Sunday morning so it felt okay to start feeling this street up a bit more intensely. Not like an awkward prom date, no, with intention and vigor and new-found Greek confidence. No note in the door, above the entry way of any of the shops, taped to the back of any signage. I lifted the planter once again and realized it had been watered or maybe it rained semi-recently.
Stuck to the bottom of the planter was a Ziplock bag. (Craig, the friend in question and I both know you never travel without them). In the Ziplock bag was a 5-Euro note and a piece of legal pad paper. His handwriting told me to find a place called Makalo and tell the bartender that I hail from the Isle of Nadia Comăneci (story for another time). The establishment he’d pointed me toward in the note wasn’t open on Sundays so I zig-zagged back to the Terrace of Love.
The crew was pretty excited that I’d found the note and quickly helped me decipher the code, as it was simply the name of the actual bar in Greek. I’d tackle the next mission on Monday.
It was late August, very warm and very gorgeous in Athens, so the three of us got ready and set off to see what we could get into. Turns out an older gentleman who knows everyone and a beautiful yoga instructor can get you into quite a bit. We waltzed through the crowds near the restaurants that have sidewalk carnival barkers, advertising “menus in English!” (never eat at these places), while Nicos and Ana were nice enough to facilitate some photos I took for relatives’ birthdays.
As the sun set, we once again swam through Germans and found an incredible rooftop dive bar overlooking the Acropolis, now lit up for night viewing. The beer was cold and the Ouzo delicious. That evening as we walked around the hill again, we stopped to enjoy a busker playing heavy metal songs on a helicon in ancient Greek style. It was humid and beautiful, the lights surrounding the main feature didn’t drown out the stars above. The cool kids enjoyed another spliff.
[For the uninitiated, a spliff is a rolled cigarette, half marijuana/half tobacco.]
[A helicon, or Pythagorean, is an ancient stringed instrument that emits a sound only Frank Zappa or Marlee Matlin could enjoy.]
Monday morning, I woke to an empty house. Nicos was off to work so I made my own, not-as-good frappe. Out the kitchen terrace door I went to find Ana yogaing in the buff. I sat at the table and started looking at news articles and catching up on foreign affairs. After stating that I seemed tense and offering to teach me a few simple stretches, I found myself in a sort of Twister position with half nude 24-year-old (don’t fret your imagination, I was clothed). That’s how all Mondays should begin.
After our session, I left for town in one hell of a great mood.
Once more unto the breach I strolled – through the ancient stone maze of Central Athens. About 500-feet north of the locksmith shop with the neon key, I found Makalo, the restaurant Craig referred to in his note. A cool, quiet nook semi-filled with patrons. I used the 5-Euro note Craig donated as part of the game to get a local brew. Then I looked the bartender square in the eye and told him, “I hail from the Isle of Nadia Comăneci.” He smiled and shrugged and walked away.
Most Greeks are attractive, several of them are extremely attractive and they’re all laid-back – the kind of laid-back that’s actually shocking when you first experience it. “All” is a word you should never use to describe an entire population of any sort. But I’m using it here. I’m sure they exist but – I didn’t encounter a single human being from Athens that was all wound up about something or yelling or appeared to be distressed. Then again, I was in the nice part of town. Poverty seems to provide the energy and urgency it takes to yell and act out.
Greeks are also pretty open minded. Sappho, after all, is Greek. She’s mostly responsible for the term “lesbian.” Sappho, a poet around 600BC, ran a school for girls on the island of Lesbos. Let’s just say, she went the extra mile for them. Taught them the mother tongue. They had sex.
This day and age, Athens is super gay-friendly and you’ll find couples of all kinds enjoying the streets and shops and restaurants, unrestrained by under-educated oafs and their ideology. It’s refreshing. At any rate, the bartender I approached with my code from Craig walked directly over to the Sappho-inspired manager of the restaurant and asked her to come over and translate.
A month had gone by since Craig hid the clue. The bartender on duty when Craig was there was now on holiday and though they knew of the next clue or the password or whatever it was supposed to be, that information was with the man on vacation. Siga siga, life goes on. I finished my beer while we all laughed about the predicament and the staff told me about another place I’d probably like.
The notebook I’d been traveling with was full, time for a replacement. The roads narrowed and twisted toward a strange, modern-ish, outdoor mall thing. The courtyard hallway held a school supply store, how lucky was that? Once the notebook was purchased, the notebook, pen and I made a b-line for the bar across the hall – filled with photographs and paintings of Mr. Thomas Alan Waits.
The owner, a bold, terrifying-yet-sexy woman of age peppered me with questions, she spoke excellent English. “Why the notebook?” “I’m a writer, a forgetful one.” “Why the Tom Waits bar in the middle of Athens?” “I’m a huge fan.” It went on and on, she bought me a whiskey and we compared favorite songs and lyrics. It’s impossible to talk about Tom Waits without quoting his lyrics, he’s an American treasure and should be made Poet Laureate.
Had I not left after two drinks, I’d still be there – hand to God. Too much of a good thing.
Around the corner was the bar the kids at Makalo told me about. Seven Jokers is a shotgun dive that’s open until way too damn late. The manager was opening up when I got there and, luckily, also spoke English. She set me up with her finest beverages and let me light up a smoke inside, though it wasn’t technically allowed. The place was covered top to bottom in rare photos of Mick Jagger. Although I’m a quasi Rolling Stones expert, and am friends with one of the planet’s actual experts, neither of us could connect “Seven Jokers” to a Stones lyric (via text). So I asked the manager what “7 Jokers” meant and she simply didn’t know.
Feel free to look it up, all you’ll find is in reference to the bar itself.
If you enjoy a quiet day-drinking session with or without friends, I highly recommend the Low Profile (Tom Waits) bar and 7 Jokers, which has some cool, one-of-a-kind as I said (to my knowledge) Jagger photos. There’s also a Sinatra bar nearby, thank God I didn’t know that at the time.
So it wasn’t the exciting scavenger hunt I’d expected but I was later able to set up a more expansive and rewarding experience for friends of mine visiting Paris. At least I got to confuse the hell out of some Greeks while they were on the clock, my minor contribution to the robust Greek economy.
The last night in Athens, Ana and Nicos cooked a ridiculous meal, an absolute feast. We played music and talked quietly, it felt horrible to be leaving the next morning – I wish I hadn’t. Athens is definitely somewhere I could live. These are people I could live with and around. They enjoy life itself. As Nicos said many times, they work to live they don’t live to work. His philosophies made their way into just about everything we discussed. I’ll never forget his insights.
I was noticing a trend. A man named Red in Florence had introduced me to the Italian version of Siga Siga, now in Greece I was drawn to a similar man. Breathe and enjoy the moment, it seemed impossible before my trip – like some sort of hippie nonsense – now I do my best to make it part of every day.
“Never trust anyone who says they’re honest, they’ve just told their first lie.” No matter the subject, Nicos had a beautiful response, no doubt the result of decades of intake and observation… and spliffs. Nicos and I debated whether or not the world is currently run by cowards, people with no moral compass who will say or do anything for power or money – some are people who sit in the shadows and attempt to corrupt systems from a laptop. “It’s always been this way, in some shape or form,” I told him. “Of course,” he said, “and if we are being run by cowards, you and I have nothing to fear. “
It went on and on, each of his replies were Zen and rooted in optimism. I enjoyed my time with Nicos and Ana immensely and still talk to them on occasion. I can’t imagine I’d have fallen in love with Athens as hard as I did without having met them. It was kismet. More aptly – πεπρωμένο or “peproméno” = Destiny.
I travel with the handwritten note Nicos left for me near the frappe maker.
[I learned absolutely nothing about the EU/Germany/Greek debt situation. Siga Siga!]