Sunday, February 28, 2010

Disenchanted rants, Kolonaki, Jews/Crosses, and Dog Poop

Today while I was rifling through my Brandeis study abroad packet searching for a form I need to transfer credits, I came across a chart depicting a line graph that predicts the phases of a typical abroad student’s mood over the four month period of study. About a month in, one is expected to hit the lowest point of morale, which Brandeis euphemistically entitles, “The Stage of Disenchantment”. Sounds like an ironic fairy tale to me. Basically, about a month in, everyone is supposed to become extremely crabby, homesick, broke, bogged down with work, and generally dissatisfied and confused by the not-so-charming and exciting foreign culture into which they have thrown themselves. While I have definitely noticed this phase coming to fruition in some respects, I don’t think I am getting the worst of it by any means. Mostly, I am just angry at EasyJet airlines for causing a minor riff in our apartment (we’re over it) and tacking on a ridiculous array of fees to our credit cards (also all under control). By the way, we have just today booked our ferry tickets to island hop on the Greek islands of Naxos and Amorgos over spring break—more on that to come, for sure. But back to our disenchantment woes; I’ll admit I am a bit tired of our disgusting bathroom. Those really are my only complaints, though. Of course I miss certain things about being home, but I am soaking up every minute of Athenian life that I have left! More than feeling disenchanted by the foreign things around me that were new and exciting but a month ago, I find myself simply discovering new facets of this city through my everyday life here. Even after only a month, I can proudly say that I feel like I am in some way infiltrating a foreign and fascinating culture in a non-touristy way. I can navigate to Syntagma Square (not through out it, but who are we kidding here), I know how to order my coffee in Greek, and I recognize locals on my route to school in the mornings—the group of ladies sitting in Vernava Square drinking frappes, the mothers chasing their school-aged children down the slippery Athenian sidewalks (more, much more, on that later), and the old man with the eye patch who frequents the kiosk on the corner of the street with the fruit stand. While these routines do not replace the feeling associated with the newness of a place, they provide a more accomplished sense of gratification. The combination of this comfort with a daily routine and more plans to visit sites and experience cultural adventures is essentially the point of studying abroad. So, instead of feeling homesick or frustrated or “disenchanted”, I choose to focus in this blog entry and in my daily life for this part of the line graph on things in Europe that are so wildly foreign and weird that they simply don’t make any logical sense. This week’s entry will be less about once in a lifetime adventures and more about subtle observations of Greek culture that boggle the curious, American mind.

Rant #1: Life as a Pedestrian

Leaving the streets alone with the obvious recognition that European drivers are clinically insane, let us address the widespread dangers of the sidewalks.

The sidewalks here are nearly impossible to navigate. In addition to the normal bustling traffic of a big city, other eccentric qualities of Athens make asserting yourself as a pedestrian a task requiring the bravery of a Spartan. The first reason for this, I learned, is that municipalities do not regulate the sidewalks here; each household or storefront is responsible for its own maintenance and design of its section of sidewalk. This results in the planting of large poles and/or trees unmistakably rooted in the middle of the sidewalk and jutting staircases whose lowest step starts at sidewalk level and gradually ascends like a ramp (aka you don’t realize you aren’t actually on the sidewalk anymore until you trip off the end of the step--charming). The narrow, grooved rubber strip that runs down the center of the sidewalk provides an additional, albeit colorful, obstacle for the masses. My Contemporary Greek Society professor told us that these strips exist as a path for the visually impaired citizens of Athens to follow. That must be sick joke; I trip over these bumps at least twice a day, and no, it is not a personal problem. In fact, I broke an elderly Greek woman’s fall just this morning. Then I tried to ask her if I could interview her for a class paper and she said no. I think that good old Greek hospitality might have been overshadowed by my growing suspicion that I used the informal tense when addressing her. Oops.

The last comment to add to this category is that motorcycle traffic and the parking of various unidentified vehicles is not restricted to the street. I offer the claim that if you closed your eyes and attempted to traverse an Athenian block, you would probably wander unwelcomed onto someone’s front steps, almost get run over by two motorcycles, and probably purchase a chocolate croissant and 5 student metro tickets from one of the abundant corner kiosks without even trying.

Oh, and one more brief traffic related anecdote: the man who drove the bus for our field trip to Thebes tried to make an absurdly unrealistic turn, hit the curb, fell into a weird pot hole, and managed to shock the back bumper off the bus and into the street. Didn’t seem to faze any of the Athenians. I learned what I expect are Greek curse words from the driver’s ensuing conversation with his boss. Then we got off the bus and observed the largest statue of a lion that I have ever seen. I guess I haven’t seen that many, but it was a hefty animal.

Mini Rant #2: Vegetables growing in the bathtub

This is so disconcerting to me that I don’t think I can write about it too extensively--not that anyone will find a need additional details:

We have mushrooms growing out of the molding (no fungus jokes, please—that ship has sailed) of our shower. Mushrooms. And not the delicious kind. This is disturbing to me on so many levels, including the reverberating horror that I feel simply from being the sister of Richard Lopatin. Some Greek guy came to look at it this morning and gave it a new paint job. Somehow, I feel like this story isn’t over yet. Stay tuned.

Rants over.

So, culturally sophisticated life is back in swing despite the constant looming threat of shower fungus. Yesterday I went with Maria on a Jewish-themed walk around different areas of the city to fulfill an “independent walk” component of my Greek Key Seminar. We managed to get insanely lost of course, but I blame that almost exclusively on the fact that the museum is not a labeled building and in no way beholds any characteristics of a museum from the outside. It looks like a typical apartment building (which, I assume it once was) and one must walk through the gate and then ring the doorbell before a taciturn Greek Jew will grant you entrance. We were the only ones in the museum except for one other wandering man, so it was nice and quiet. Although Jewish history here does not echo through daily life as much say, Israel, I found it intriguing to hear about the quieter past of Greek Jews. The museum housed relics from different Jewish quarters through out the mainland of Greece and some of the islands. Personal details of families interspersed with the greater picture of community life gave this museum a distinct vibe. I spent a while reading about the Jewish history of Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, a location I look forward to visiting on a weekend class trip.

From there we took a leisurely walk back in the direction of Pagrati to visit a massive Athenian cemetery. I have never seen anything like this place; with its picturesque pastoral scenes and brilliantly sculpted statues and altars, it reminded me more of a garden or a museum than a cemetery. Colorful flower arrangements (included this detail for you, Mom) and overgrown vines lined the rows and the soft mid-afternoon sunshine fell perfectly on the thousands of sculpted statues. Candles, photographs, and fresh flowers made the place look alive and well tended to, and possibly offered a comment on the Greek’s frequent visits. I noticed more than a handful of visitors as we walked around taking pictures, including a woman who seemed to be doing shots of whiskey off of a grave. Not sure if this was Greek tradition, a personal tribute to a loved one, or if she was psychotic. I probably have to accept that I will never know for sure. But anyway, this cemetery is a must see in my opinion whether the whiskey woman decides to show up or not.

Now onto a slightly different perspective on Greek culture—protests and demonstrations! The Greeks really do capitalize on their human right to protest. The state of their economic crisis, the need to work two jobs because of the ridiculously low salaries, and the fact that some claim that Greece is single-handedly shattering the value of the euro probably propel this desire. The protests here are always extremely organized, creating a weird combination of control and chaos. The news always mentions the protests in advance, including what times the various types of public transportation will close down. We stopped by Syntagma square to observe the latest demonstration, a public sector strike protesting a myriad of proposed changes to the rules around payment and bonuses. The paradoxical nature of these protests was extremely visible as we watched a large mob of enthusiastic Greek public sector workers march through the square as the riot police (armed with shields and gasmasks) drank their coffee and texted on their cell phones. One of the cops mentioned that he liked his job because it pays OK and he doesn’t have to do much. What? Also, tear gas is disgusting. The picture below is from some unidentifiable hubbub on our street the next day.

I headed back to Syntagma later that night to meet my “Greek Literature as Culture” class for an evening of gallery hopping and a stop at a cafĂ© in the posh Athenian neighborhood of Kolonaki. My professor explains to us the diversity of the over one hundred galleries sprinkled through out Athens’ neighborhoods in terms of their wealth and style. We visited two galleries, one spacious and presumably wealthier, and the other more cramped and underground. Both were very cool and gave us all free books detailing the artists’ work. The richer of the two galleries houses a new collection every three weeks. That’s a lot of art. Kolonaki seems like the neighborhood that everyone visits to be seen sitting at its fashionable cafes and shops.

My final anecdote for now came out of my Byzantine History class and our visit to the Islamic museum. We woke up early on Thursday morning to meet Stavros, clad in his buttery leather jacket, at the metro stop near the museum. After a couple blocks of zombie-like pre nine AM trudging, we situated ourselves in the museum’s lovely courtyard to hear Stavros’ lecture before we entered the museum. As we listened to Stavros regale us with the delights of Islamic culture in centuries past, a small and energetic dog proceeded to cover the surface area of the courtyard with its own shit. I swear, the amount of droppings that came out of this dog surpassed its body weight. We all tried to ignore this ridiculous distraction until the little “skilo” (dog) began to bark incessantly. Stavros continued to lecture, inserting a strategic “boo boo, boo boo”—which is apparently what people say to dogs here. But then, a member of the museum’s maintenance crew came out to join us, giant shovel in hand, and loudly started to scrap the dog’s large mess off the concrete. I lifted my feet up to allow to cleaning process to continue while Stavros compared and contrasted Islamic and Jewish traditions in the 7th century. Unbelievable. When the dog once again began to bark wildly, Stavros offered, “I think it is about time that we now go inside”.

Today our apartment will head over to school to check out hostels and such for our spring break island hop. I’m going to try to get a head start on work also so that I don’t have to study any verb conjugations in Santorini next weekend!

No comments:

Post a Comment