I had once been to Greece many years ago, with my parents. Nevertheless, the immense fascination for Greek mythology and philosophy persuaded me to revisit this ancient land and explore the similarities between India and Alexander the Great’s nation.
We flew directly from Israel into Greece, in the wee hours of the morning. Unlike Tel Aviv airport, Athens was calm, friendly, and zen-like. To a history loving, philosophy craving, culture analyzing, mythological story seeking, yoga-meditation devotee like me, the energy at Athens airport felt right.
We got to our hotel a little before 10 a.m. too early for check in; however, the hotel staff graciously checked us in and gave us a non-smoking room with a balcony. Our hotel was within five to ten minutes walking distance from all the must-see sights: Acropolis, Plaka, Syntagma Square, The Temple of Zeus, and the National Gardens.
As soon as the receptionist found out we were of Indian ancestry, he started to discuss Bollywood with me. He showed off a few dance moves, proclaimed his love for Indian actresses, and confessed that his wife and daughter never missed any Hindi movies.
Just as we headed out of the hotel, the manager’s eyes fell on my husband’s camera, the size of a telescope. In an animated tone she said, “Be careful. Christmas and New Year are good for pickpockets in Athens. Tourists are like Santa Claus to them.” I was partly amused and partly bewildered by the lady’s declaration. She continued, “But these people aren’t criminals.
They just take your stuff and you don’t even feel it.” Of course, I contemplated telling her about the “chor-pockets” that every Indian girl is taught to create just to con the conmen.
We visited the Acropolis, the most famous site in all of Athens, almost every day. It’s a large hill in the center of the city containing a cluster of ancient ruins. The view from atop the hill was magnificent, especially during sunset. The Acropolis Museum, a modern, up-to-date building at the foot of the Acropolis, houses important ancient Greek statues and much more. Near the entrance, the floor is all glass, which allows visitors to see the buried remains inside.
Aside from the Acropolis, we walked to The Temple of the Olympian Zeus, also known as the Temple of Zeus Olympios. What was once the largest temple in Greece, today only has 15 columns that remain standing. The National Gardens or Vassilikos Kipos (formerly known as the Royal Gardens), a peaceful, green15.5 hectares in the center of Athens, was like a sanctuary. I went there to write poetry. The National Gardens is located directly behind the Greek Parliament building (The Old Palace). And it isn’t too far from Panathenaiko or Kalimarmaro Olympic Stadium of the 1896 Olympic Games—another historically significant place.
The first night we went out to dinner in the Plaka area, one of the oldest, chic neighborhoods of Athens located at the base of the hill topped by the Acropolis. It was a two minute walk from our hotel. One could tell that the continuity of the Greek and Indian civilizations could be attributed to their ability to adapt to invaders and their ideas. We ordered saganaki, fried Graviera cheese, as an appetizer. It was heavenly and tasted like shallow fried paneer pakoda. We then ordered a Greek salad and clay-baked chicken pasta—the best I have ever eaten. It took time to cook the food, but it was fresh. For dessert, the manager served us semolina pudding. Though shaped in the form of a cube, it tasted nothing different from the suji halwaa Indians make. It came garnished with lots of nuts.
Over the days, our meals comprised of more saganaki and delicious tzatziki—cucumber and yoghurt sauce—with Greek pita bread as appetizers; salad, gyros, stews, fresh fish, often accompanied by live music and definitely tasteful wine. Spanakopita (spinach pie) or tiropita (cheese pie) along with cappuccino (hot chocolate for my husband) became our favorite lunch. And Greek yoghurt with their fruit toppings, our on-the-go snack. Greeks eat yoghurt like Indians—at any hour of the day with the choicest garnish: fruits, honey, sugar, nuts, or just plain. We liked light lunches and lavish dinners. We tried different restaurants in Piraeus, Plaka, and Syntagma Square. I don’t enjoy red meat, but my husband fell in love with all the lamb entrees in Greece. They were fresh, light, and served in small-portions.
At our hotel, desserts were always laid out in the main reception area.Kourabiedes—a christmas cookie made with butter, flour, and crushed roasted almonds, and then dusted with powdered sugar tasted a bit like shakkar padhe while loukoumades, honey puffs, reminded me of gulab jamuns, at least in appearance.
It was invigorating meeting people with a generous attitude. We liked the folks at the hotel so much that we canceled the rest of our travel plans within Greece and stayed put in Athens.
A Shopping Mecca
The Plaka is lined with restaurants, cafes, jewelry stores, and souvenir shops. And just like busy markets in India, storeowners and restaurant managers called out to tourists, offering them bargain values like wine or dessert on the house. While my husband was quoted high prices in Euros, I always got the “real price 25 Euros. But for you, I make five Euros.” I felt gratified. Even the Greeks could sense an Indian woman’s bargaining power.
My mother had told me that embroidered pieces and handicrafts in Greece were unparalleled. She wasn’t exaggerating. Most of the tablecloths and cushion covers looked like they were made in India—the handicrafts are another thing that is common between the two old countries.
I hunted and looked for the great philosopher, Socrates’ bust at souvenir stores, but it was sold out at most places. Romina, one of the storeowners, said, “You can buy Alexander the Great’s bust instead.” I looked at her, “No way. He plundered India.” We both laughed. It was refreshing to know that politically incorrect humor wasn’t judged in Greece. We continued to discuss how our countries were politically united by foreign conquerors.
Althought, I am not into jewelry, I wanted to pick up some sterling silver jewelry—something symbolic of Greek mythology, especially Athena. Romina showed me serpent rings. Like in Hindu mythology, Greeks, too, consider snakes sacred.
Five star hotels surround Syntagma Square, the main square in Athens. It is in front of the parliament building and boasts stores & nice restaurants. Like Times Square in New York City, Syntagma Square is where many people like to welcome the New Year on December 31.
An Admirable Outlook
Despite their terrible economy and debt crisis, we never feared for our personal safety in Athens. With money stashed safely inside our “chor pockets,” we frequently went on hikes and long walks. Storeowners often left their businesses unattended to chat with tourists and friendly neighbors. I met many people in Athens, locals who believed that ultimately it would all work out. Despite being disenchanted with their government and having had to move to other countries in search of opportunities, no one seemed scared or crazy—be it the people at the marina in Piraeus—the main port of Athens and the biggest port in Greece—cleaning their boats, eating fresh seafood, to the small deli owner in Syntagma Square, to the mom and pop souvenir stores in the Plaka. Opinionated, sure. But not in a threatening sort of way.
That said, I sensed callousness when it came to preserving their own history. In spite of the push to promote tourism in Greece to increase revenues, most government run places, including museums, closed at 2 p.m. Many historical sites looked neglected. We chanced upon Socrates’ prison, where there were hardly any signs leading to the place. It was hidden behind trees and accompanied by a small descriptive board. As if the great philosopher and his controversial end had ceased to matter. Coincidentally, during the summer of 2011, I visited Nalanda, India—home to one of the oldest universities in the world—for some research work. I cringed at the decrepit state of the place. Is it that the government in both India and Greece take their monuments and artifacts for granted?
Ever since we have returned, people have been asking me, “What was it like being in Greece, especially during the financial crisis? How were the people there?” I say to them, “It was like being in India during bad times—the Greek people show remarkable resilience and an admirable optimistic attitude.”
For the Indian in us, it was gratifying to be in a country that’s been as important to human civilization as India. Reading about places dating back to B.C. is one thing; experiencing it in person was indescribable. I guess old world has its unique charm. I can’t wait to be back!
Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com) is an award-winning author of six chapbooks of poetry and one novel. Her nonfiction book, Mouth full, will be published in October 2012. Sweta lives in New York City with her husband.