Also, I'm up to page 14 of my paper diary and that's even before getting off the plane here. There will be much more content to type up when I get home but for now this is just a few first impressions.
I had a little scare in Heathrow - 45 min layover and 1 hour security checkpoint line. O_O Fortunately, I hooked up with a couple on the same SFO-Greece trip I was, and the guy fast-talked security into fast-tracking us, so we got to the gate with about three minutes to spare. Other than that, the trip has been fairly intimidating but simple at every turn.
Dad gave me 80 euros for a taxi from the airport. I talked with some tourism bureau people, got some maps, and took a subway (the brochure calls it "the metro," but a rider informed me nobody calls it that) for e6. Damn glad I did. It was approximately an hour and a half trip -- left the airport at sundown at 1900 (everything here uses 24-hour time), and finally managed to uncollapse, shower, change, shave, and hit the streets shortly before 2200. Had I relied on a taxi, that would have undoubtedly been something ludicrous like, well, 80 euros. Plus the Lonely Planet guide -- which is unfuckingbelievably informative, by the way; I recommend the publisher should you want a travel book, and I understand they have a Web site of that name too -- says that the hazards of Athens are mainly pickpockets and taxi scams. I have no desire to experience either.
Instead, I got to ride two trains and walk ten blocks. I feel like I'm starting to get the lay of the area.
I'm in the Omonia district of Athens. The hotel is catticorner from the back of the National Archaeological Museum and next to the Technical University of the School of Fine Arts.
The Lonely Planet guide understatedly said this about the Omonia district: "'Chic' is not a word that comes to mind." Apparently it's the Wrong Part of Town. I was prepared for the worst when I got off the metro ... err, subway. And I can confirm it. On my trip to the hotel, I walked past (on the other side of the street, fortunately!) two black men in a shouting match that escalated into shoving. Thought better of crossing the street to take my turn, and instead went on a little "I'm going to keep walking now" detour. So, a block later, what do I see but what, as far as I can tell, was a Greek riot squad, mobilized from their little armored bus, doing something in Areos Park to the north. I nodded politely at the armed officer standing guard and Went That Way Now.
This is all after dark in a foreign city, mind you. With a new language. I've been reading Greek most of the afternoon and I'm getting the hang of the alphabet again, but most streets and shops and whatnot are marked in a script I still have to sound out to read.
So I have to admit I was wondering what the hell I had gotten into when I started wandering down the street to the hotel and realized that the narrow streets are inconsistently lit; and I was starting to pass dumpsters that were overflowing out into the street. Headline: "Stupid fucking tourist robbed, mangled in Omonia Deathtrap. Again." Plus I was (I found out a little later) a street too far over due to the "keep walking now" incident and feeling a little lost. That was the low point.
But! Contrary to all of the above, I have NOT, in fact, decided that I must never let my father choose the hotel again. ("Museum Hotel? You say it's in the Omonia district and right next to the big tourist museum? Super! What could happen in a place named 'Omonia,' anyway?")
Because after reorienting by finding the museum; getting checked in to the hotel without incident; showering; and hitting the streets again, I've been looking at some of the streets I didn't go down earlier -- and briefly followed the concierge's directions over a few blocks to Exarhia Square, to the east. And what I've found is that, to make an analogy probably only my Bay Area friends will understand, is that this isn't Oakland. It's Berkeley.
Well past 10:00 at night. Did I mention that? And it's not just that the place is a hive of activity. Everything is open. EVERYTHING. The OUTDOOR MARKET BOOTHS are open. People are hawking jewelry and newspapers and snacks out in the open air at approaching midnight. The square was a buzzing hive of activity -- a lot of fresh-faced college kids and middle-aged Greeks hanging out in the comfortable weather at indoor cafes and their outdoor patios. Restaurants, bars, cafes, a few places playing music, people walking and driving everywhere.
It has the feel of a thriving college town.
I'm beginning to think that Omonia is not just a red-light district, it's a red-light district that segues into a student district halfway -- poor and graffiti-ridden (some of which is even in English), but bright and vibrant and hell even open at crazy o'clock. It's beginning to really cozy up to me. If I felt less intimidated about the language I'd be settling right in.
Speaking of the language barrier. There kind of is one ... but it's a lot more psychological than actual. Everyone speaks English here. EVERYONE. I am given to understand that they teach it in schools. I've been staying totally silent because of some sort of lingering tourist paranoia that I am inferior for making people speak my language ... but there hasn't been any issue yet once folks figure out that I'm a tourist (which ... it might just be self-consciousness, but I think I'm standing out like a sore thumb) and switch to English. I haven't even been using "ya sou" for hello; actually, saying "hello" seems to work better, because then people switch gears into English immediately.
This is so not a problem. Once I get over myself, anyway. This is how not a problem it is: Signs and stops on the metro, and apparently on most major Greek streets (though not the ones I was taking), are written both in Greek and English. I have picked up here several travel brochures and maps that are similarly multilingual. And, as mentioned above, even some of the graffiti here is in English. Including, bizarrely, the word (in Romanic letters) "DRAGO". Hell, the Internet cafe I'm in is labeled, verbatim, "Museum Internet cafe".
Few photo opportunities so far but I hope that changes.