Friday, February 20, 2009

Impromptu Lunch Date in Athens, Greece‏

I was looking for a nearby street that led to the Benaki Museum (they had a Greco painting I desperately wanted to see) and just couldn't seem to find the street in this particularly tangled section of Athens. It was free admission day at the museum and I wanted to get there before it closed. I looked around for someone to ask and this African man was walking towards me. With so few people of color around, I decided to ask him. That would also give me an opportunity to find out where he was from originally. I asked my question in Greek and he responded in English. That was no surprise as I have found most Africans I meet during my travels speak English. He asked me where I was from. I told him the US. He was from Sudan. He pointed me in the right direction. I thanked him and moved on. Darting across the street and looking at my map, it wasn't long before I was lost again. Deciding to start over, I darted back across the street so that I could start at the last known familiar point. Guess who was walking across the street on the other corner? My African friend. He looked up and saw me and headed back. I guess he felt sorry for the poor, lost American lady. I bashfully admitted that I was lost again and he offered to walk with me.

As we walked, we exchanged names. His name was Hasan. He asked me if I would like a soda. I hesitated and said no. He asked again and told me not to worry, it was just a soda. He seemed very nice and it was the middle of the day in busy downtown Athens, so I took him up on his offer. He said he knew a great place along the way. We ended up at Casba. He asked me if I wanted anything to eat. It was a quaint, open deli that served sandwiches, pizzas, juices, and sodas. Hungry from all of my walking, I decided on a slice of pizza. As I was about to pay for my meal, he jumped in and told me it was his treat since he had invited me. I tried to argue, but he wouldn't hear of it. Not wanting to offend, I gave in. He found a spot for us to sit on the crowded corner and I tried not to embarrass myself by wolfing down the best pizza I'd ever eaten. Greek pizza, topped with green and black Greek olives and feta, is on a whole 'nother level. I also ordered soda that was tingly, apple-y and refreshing. We talked while we ate and I found out he currently works in Crete and was on vacation for a week in Athens.

When we were done, I prepared to say my goodbyes and head to the art museum. Hasan offered to walk with me. Great! On our way, we passed by the Parliament building. I'd read about the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and planned to check it out before I left. Hasan told me it was almost time and said I should stop to see it. I really wanted to get to the museum, but this was the perfect opportunity to be there before the crowd began to form. I took pictures of the stoic guards and we stood in the shade of a tree to await the top of the hour. Pretty soon, people began to gather and the ceremony began. It was pretty amazing. The soldiers are called Evzones. The men are extremely precise and regal. Their uniforms consist of kilts that contain 400 pleats, one for each year of Turkish occupation. Even while standing in place for the hour, they don't move or even appear to blink despite the people standing next to them to have their picture taken.

Changing of the Guard
When the ceremony was over, we headed to the museum. At the museum, the staff took my camera (no photos allowed), handed us a brochure, and waved us in. I really wanted to see the Greco, so I went in search of it first. I hate to admit it, but I was a bit disappointed because there were only two small, faded icons. Still, it was a treat to see his work in this medium. After that, we kind of moseyed along looking at the other artwork and finally settled on a bench to just talk. Hasan shared with me stories his life in Crete and how fortunate he was to have such a well-paying job so that he could send money home to his family. After a while, we got up and walked the remaining floors of the museum and returned downstairs to retrieve my belongings.

After the museum, Hasan suggested we visit the National Gardens which was located behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We spent hours wandering the shaded pathways, occasionally running into ruins or sleeping visitors. I told him I was headed down to Cairo in a few days and mentioned I'd had a hard time finding an Arabic phrase book before I left the States. He asked me what I wanted to know and offered to teach me. He knew Arabic because Islam was his religion and he spoke it growing up. He pulled out an Arabic book and attempted to teach me some of the writings. It was quite difficult and he admitted Arabic isn't so easy to learn. Still, he explained some of the mechanics to me which was very interesting. Next, he taught me the words and pronunciations of the phrases I wanted to know, such as hello, goodbye, please, thank you, where is..., can you help me, etc.
Syntagma Square
After the park, Hasan wanted to show me Syntagma Square. Syntagma, also known as Constitution Square, is a popular area in the center of Athens. We were near it earlier at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but there's a different vibe in the evenings. It's festive and lively with crowds of people milling about shopping and eating. By this time it was really late and I needed to get back to my room. I tried to say goodbye, but he insisted on walking me to my room. I told him that was okay. It was only a subway stop away and I would be fine. He wanted to see me when I returned from Egypt, so he gave me his number. We hugged goodbye and I returned to my room.

While I simply set out to view a Greco, I ended up making a new friend over a fabulous lunch in lovely Athens, Greece.