Adventures Abroad: Athens, Greece

This blog has been a bit of a downer lately. With Halloween a month away–eep!—I thought we could all use a good snicker.

In the spring of 2009 I did a semester abroad in London, England. While I have so many amazing memories and wonderful experiences and a lasting love for Europe there is one trip in particular that always comes to mind when people ask about those three months.

Spring Break. I and one of my flat mates are going to Athens, Greece and Rome, Italy for three and four days respectively. That morning, we’re up earlier than usual and bustling around doing final checks on passports and cash and itineraries. Running only a few minutes late, the infamous tube system was in full jack-up-you-plans swing that day and those ten minutes turned into almost half an hour.

We missed our flight check-in.

By five minutes.

Thankfully, the wonderful woman working the ticket desk managed to transfer us to a red eye flight to Athens at no charge. So we had eight hours to piddle around the airport before our flight was scheduled to leave at eight-thirty that night.

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in an airport for more than an hour or two? I can still feel the boredom making my eyes roll back.

Anyway, our red eye had ten passengers on it and once we were at cruising altitude we were allowed to move to different seats.

A window seat while descending towards Athens, Greece at midnight isn’t something I will ever forget. Cities look like cities no matter where you go. Tall buildings of steel and concrete, streetlights, power lines, cars; but then you see the Acropolis. This huge hill with landscape lights just bright enough you have to squint your eyes and do a double take before thinking, “Holy shit, there it is.” It’s kind of like seeing the Eiffel Tower when you take the chunnel to Paris.

Now, things to know about Greece that we didn’t think of when we booked our trip; A) There are grad students with more money than the Greek government, and B) Because they are broke as hell people have been going on strikes and walk outs demanding better wages.

After a long day of sitting in an airport, we get to Athens and find out their public transportation closes down at midnight—it’s now one—and their taxi cab drivers are on strike. Our hostel is on the other side of Athens, a quick twenty minute ride on the subway, but not something either of us wants to navigate at one in the morning in a country we’ve never been to.

After some debating, we opt to get a hotel for the night. Yet another wonderful woman gave us some options ranging from the $300 a night Hilton across the street to a small $80 hotel that would pick us up and then bring us back to the airport in the morning so we could hop the train to our hostel.

Half an hour later, an older gentleman, maybe mid-forties, finds us playing checkers with change and asks if we’re the ones going to the hotel. He smiles a lot and his accent is heavy but he speaks English well enough we strike up a conversation on why we’re in Athens.

I want to take a moment to tell you, if you ever go to a foreign country the odds of you doing things you couldn’t be coerced into doing in the states goes up dramatically.

Walking out of the airport with the man excitedly telling us how much we’re going to love Athens, I did pause when I saw the beat-to-hell, rusted out, tinted window van but that was about it.

Tossing our bags in the back we got in and set off on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. As friends and family can attest, I’m a road raging speed demon but this man was a master of his craft. I don’t know if the brakes were broken or if he didn’t know where they were. All the while he’s still chatting away almost as fast as he was driving telling us about his son who was planning to do a study abroad program in New York City in a year or two. My traveling buddy carried the conversation while I watched the dark landscape pass. We were heading out of town, away from the Acropolis, and the street lights were becoming fewer and farther apart.

I don’t know how we got there, but one moment we were on a highway and the next we were on a Hollywood set. I don’t know what to call it. A suburb? It wasn’t a town, there was a cluster four and five story apartment buildings that looked like they had been crafted from the dusty earth itself. There were no discernible streets, no cars parked. Black windows stared back at us with a few with gauzy curtains blowing gently in the wind. It was a clear night and without any streetlights we could have gone through a time warp to five hundred years ago and I don’t think we would have known.

I’ve been keeping track of turns and direction of travel because I’m a little paranoid like that. But now we’re in this…suburb or complex, whatever, the driver starts turning down all these narrow alleys and now I can’t remember if we’ve taken two lefts and three rights or if we’ve gone in a circle. My friend is also starting to slow down on her answers to the man’s animated conversation as the van whips around corners and down alleys I didn’t think a bicycle could fit through. If the driver noticed our quiet he didn’t let on. I think he was telling us about his sister or his niece or cousin that visited America in the eighties.

From out of nowhere he makes a turn and suddenly we’re not on a road anymore. The buildings are gone and we are in the middle of a field.

An open, grassy field circled by trees probably as old as the continent.

There’s a full moon out and it’s the only light we have as we bounce through this field in the middle of nowhere in a strange country.

It was like a movie scene. My friend and I looked at each other with matching expressions of open mouthed horror and incredulity. The driver is still motoring away, telling us about the different foods we have to try, which, honestly, I wish I could remember what he told us so we could have tried it all.

But I digress

Here we are, bouncing through a field, not a soul in sight, I’m primed and ready to go over the seat and put him in a choke hold if I even think the van is starting to slow and just like that, we’re out of the field. Now we are in a suburb of sorts; the houses have driveways with cars in them, there are fences, and a few streetlights, and the beat to hell van pulls up in front of the hotel; a converted two story house with a well lit sign out front and two cars in the driveway. The driver booked us and put us in a small room with a two locks on the door, we used a chair as well, and told us with a sunny smile breakfast would be served at nine.

I went to three different countries by myself, wandered the streets of London at night and to this day that moment when we hit that field can still get my adrenaline going. Athens was an amazing experience all around and I will certainly never forget that city or our crazy driver.