On a scorching overcast afternoon in the summer
of 2000 the Parthenon
looks down on Athens
Athens in the
Story and Photographs by Gary Singh
have Greece on my mind these days. I am revisiting both Zorba the
Greek and Henry Miller's Colossus of Maroussi. A few recent
conversations with a few different friends, brought those books back
into my consciousness and how they should be required reading for the
herds of tourists who invade the country on a regular basis. Hence,
the conversations also brought back a scene from July of 2000 the last
time I traveled to that country.
At that time, I had no job except for a few cobbled-together
freelance writing assignments. I held two degrees from the university
down the street, but I had drank away any possible academic career and
was living on a friend's floor above a supermarket.
My solution to this predicament: go to Greece.
Somewhere in Athens, on a hot summer day in
July of 2000
So there I was, a pre-smartphone summer, and it was
way over 100 degrees in the Plaka neighbhorhood of Athens.
A squawking battery of American tourist families surrounded me. In a
roped-off taverna courtyard with potted plants and dust, hazed with
pollution, I occupied one of a hundred tiny square formica-looking tables.
A bouzouki player, older than dirt and wearing a sequined vest, plopped
himself on a chair by the counter and jammed like there was no tomorrow.
With a plastic fork I powered through a dirt-cheap meal on a white paper
plate: a slab of tourist Moussaka, plus a native salad and something
else buried with an avalanche of garlic. I found it hysterical that
the Greeks would bastardize their shtick to the point of force-cramming
a "Greek Salad" on throngs of tourists.
I had studied enough to order a litre of beer
megalo meant large but since I had finished it, along
with the next one, a bountiful carafe of retsina now sat in front of
me on the faded orange table. While I ingested concrete fumes from nearby
sewer construction and god knows what other flavors of pollution, the
bone-cold retsina provided a sandy, resin-flavored counterpoint. It
is the Greek chilled wine, intended to accompany native food,
lift the spirits and ease the pain of a grotesquely hot summer.
A street vendor near the
Plaka neighborhood of Athens
None of that pain, however, was even remotely as miserable
as one particular American tourist family that paraded right in front
of me. The husband wore a t-shirt and shorts, plus glaring white socks
and athletic shoes that would have come out oversaturated in Photoshop.
The wife's outfit included a faded paisley mumuu and a flimsy sunhat
almost as big as a sombrero. Under her arm she carried a three-inch-thick
Lonely Planet book, a pompous tome dedicated to the entire country of
Greece. Already engrossed in a clamorous argument and drenched in sweat,
the couple dragged their two distracted kids between and around the
folks eating at the tables. The husband complained over and over that
it was too hot, way too hot. The kids didn't seem to mind. Their faces
were filled with introverted curiosity, like they were continuously
trying to figure out something in their heads.
I was somewhat drunk, the conventional pace of time
was lost, and I could not stop staring at the American family, as the
husband and wife complained about the unbearable Athens heat. "It's
too hot," they kept saying. "Let's find a place that isn't
so hot. Why is it so hot here?" And strained variations thereof.
Taking in the heat near
the Plaka neighborhood of Athens
I wanted to howl and break plates, throw a tantrum,
and wring them out like soaked bar rags, all while barking: Well, you're
in Athens in July. Of course it's freakin' hot. What the hell's the
matter with you? You paid thousands of dollars to bring your whole family
across oceans and continents to be here. In Athens. In the summer. Sheesh.
Take that nine-hundred-page travel guide you've been lugging around
the whole country, and flip it open to page three, where it probably
mentions the weather and where it probably indicates that July in Athens
But I felt indecisive, distant and cowardly, so I said
nothing. I just watched them leave the courtyard and disappear into
a labyrinth of cobblestone walkways, the children still trying to figure
out something in their heads. Meanwhile, the dust lingered and the retsina
was a glory to behold. The bouzouki player broke out a chromatic gypsy
ballad. I closed my eyes and continued sweating. I don't think I ever
wore white socks to Europe after that.
Henry Miller would have been proud. And now I must go
back to Greece, tourists be damned.
Working Off the Farmer's Tan; Athens,
Corinth, Mycenae & Delphi; In
the Footsetps of Hippocrates; Appolonia
Bakery, Rhodes; An
Eastern Mediterranean Odyssey