I have been anticipating this week since the beginning of the summer. One of my best friends, Lisa, was going to be in Greece with the “Wheaton in the Holy Lands” group. We had emailed back and forth for weeks, hoping to coordinate a meeting point and spend some quality time together.
On Tuesday, that idea finally morphed into reality.
The Wheaton crew was going to be in Athens on one of my two days off this week, so I decided to make the trip from Costa Navarino. I had hoped to bum a ride to the city from my friend, but it fell through. So, I began my adventure right away—taking the bus to Kalamata, then to Athens. I arrived in the city at 10:30pm and ran straight to a cab (the bus station is not exactly in the best part of town). The cabbie spoke no English, and did not know the Plaka area at all. He dropped me off right by the Acropolis, but on the very opposite side from Aunt Renee’s apartment. I sped quickly along the dark side streets, until I reached a part of town I was familiar with. I slowed to a stroll and soaked up the feel of the night air and the summer time buzz. So many more people were out eating than when I was here in May, even though it was a Monday night. The summer had begun at last.
I reached the apartment and, after catching up with Stavros at the corner taverna, went upstairs to fix my ‘bed’ (aka a couch with a sheet covering its delicate upholstery). Renee got back late, having attended a Flamenco demonstration. She was full of smiles and crazy stories about getting trapped in a building during one of the protests last week.
At 9am the next morning I checked my email, only to find out that Lisa & co. were headed to the Acropolis Museum. I got dressed and set off up the road. The Museum was just on the other side of the Acropolis from Renee’s apartment, so it wasn’t far. I was so anxious to see my fellow “Wheaties” that I ran almost the whole way.
Bursting through the museum doors, I hardly glanced at the beautiful displays of ancient pottery (rather uncharacteristic of me). The museum layout was open and airy, so I was able to quickly scan for the group of Americans. Not on the first floor. I flew up the steps to the second, and just as I turned the corner, I made eye contact with Lisa.
I squealed rather loudly, apparently, because the entire group turned to look my way. Lisa laughed and we hugged for about five minutes. I said “hi” to all the shocked faces of my colleagues (I knew about half the group and they had no idea I was living in Greece). Their tour guide, Voula, harrumphed and regained the students’ attention. Lisa and I tried to keep our conversation discrete, and I made sure to fill her in on the most important details about the Museum displays we passed.
We finished the Museum, then lunched at Mars Hill. Sitting next to the Acropolis, surrounded by Wheaton students was simply amazing. What really stood out to me was the conversation that immediately started up as we ate our sandwiches. Lisa asked me to clarify what the rioting was about and I started explaining the political and economic situation in Greece. Hardly had I finished a sentence when some of the guys sitting near piped up that they wanted to know more, too. I gave them a brief summary and they then launched into a major discussion on EU policies (like, where does this bailout money actually come from?). One of the boys asked Voula what her opinion on the situation was and she hesitantly gave her Greek perspective.
It was so refreshing to be around Wheaton students again; students who wanted to learn and discuss and understand the world around them. I loved the new ideas and thoughts that they brought to the table (figuratively speaking, as we were eating on the ground at this point).
And it was huge blessing for me spiritually, too. As we sat on Mars Hill, Professor Lauber had us read the passage out of Acts where Paul spoke to the Athenians at the very same place. He then gave a short, theological interpretation of the passage. It was so normal for the group to have their teacher read out of the Bible. In public. Oh how I miss the Wheaton environment.
Voula gave us a quick tour of the Agora before announcing that the students had three hours of free time to roam the streets of Plaka. Lisa and I set off with our friends Bobby, Steven, Erik, and Ryan. The professors had “highly encouraged them to stay away from Syntagma Square”, where all the riots were taking place. So, of course that was topping the list of priorities.
“There’s some nice shops up this way!” I said, pointing up Ermou. Oops—everything on Ermou was closed due to the riots at the top of the street. We came up on a line of policeman, milling around their motorcycles as they waited for the call to come quell the protests. Another street had rows of police, armed with shields and wearing gas masks. A number of Greek citizens were wearing surgical masks. Within a few minutes, we understood why. The wind began to blow against us and we got a full dose of tear gas in our faces.
As it burned our eyes, we decided (in between coughs) that it was probably a good idea to go back. We turned and went back a few blocks, before catching sight of the real protests. Bobby, ever the photographer, took off up the street and climbed onto an iron fence to get a better view. I started taking videos (I’ll post the clips later) and pictures of the intense crowd moments and serious looks from passersby. Parliament was the backdrop, with clouds of smoke and tear gas blotting out the bright blue sky. Hundreds of protestors packed the square, waving signs and chanting. We met a journalist who had painted his face white to keep the tear gas from getting into his pores. He pulled from his pocket a handful of shards from a tear gas grenade. Chunks of asphalt and marble lay sprayed out across the sidewalk and a small fire was burning in the street just ahead.
We were right there.
Eventually, we retreated back down to the market area to shop for souvenirs. The rapid change from chaos to calm was unnerving. We bartered with the shop owners and passed tourists sipping Freddo Cappucinos. Just a few blocks separated the two worlds. I took everyone to my favorite little gelato shop, then it was time to say goodbye. Lisa and I parted mournfully, knowing it would be months until we saw one another again.
I spent the evening with Aunt Renee, snacking on Souvlaki before heading to an outdoor movie theater. I did not realize how close we were to the Acropolis until we climbed up to the rooftop theater and saw the well-lit Parthenon glowing just beyond the giant projector screen. The night air was warm and we settled into the beautiful setting to watch… The Hangover II.
It’s in these moments, where the ancient reaches out to touch the modern, that I find myself truly falling in love with Greece.