The truth about the markets
Every guide book I read and every recommendation I received from friends and work fellows warned me about the smell and volume of the meat market. And, of course, the skinned lamb carcasses hanging upside down with feet and head still very much attached.
I went anyway, naturally, with my faithful camera slung over my shoulder.
What no one told me – and what someone definitely should have mentioned at some point – was that going alone, as a woman, to a meat market is probably one of the worst ideas of all time, ever.
All of central Athens is loud and slightly uncomfortable to walk through as a human of the female gender, but it’s all safe and I can handle myself.
I could not handle the meat market.
The moment I stepped under the thin roofing of the covered market area, every vendor within ten feet started calling out to me. At first it was stuff like, “Come buy meat. Best meat here.” Then it was stuff like, “You very pretty. Nice face. Where you from? Want dead lamb?”
I did the smile-and-nod routine as I walked past several stalls before stopping to snap a picture of some of the produce. Immediately, the tone changed. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but the camera had caused a stir. At first I thought they didn’t want me taking pictures – that happened more than once in Greece.
Nope. They all wanted pictures of their booths. My camera became a celebrity in 0.2 seconds.
“Take picture! My meat best!”
The increase in energy levels was harrowing. Word spread very, very quickly, because by the time I arrived at the end of the row, someone was literally waiting for me with a huge butcher’s knife asking for a selfie with me, the knife and his stand (of which he was very proud).
It all sounds harmless. Funny, even. And it was, sort of.
But I avoided the meat market for a while after that (though the fish section was worth the walk-through).
It wasn’t until my last week that I returned to the area. Just the fruit stands on the outer rims. I went with some other girls. Harmless, I figured.
WHO HARASSES WOMEN OVER PILES OF VEGETABLES?
It started out innocently enough. One of the guys behind the stand started making fun of our English. In a high pitch, he would mimic whatever we said. It was almost entertaining, so we let it slide. Then I laughed about something (in my unfortunate, ill-tuned cackle that really carries) and the entire row of vegetable dealers started parroting it around their stands.
LISTEN UP, GENTLEMEN. You can objectify my camera all you want and make a mockery of my native language, but making fun of my pitiful, unhelpable laugh is crossing so many lines!
I stared, amazed at their audacity, before stomping away to a distance beyond earshot and just within the line of sight of my friends. My less that charming laugh has been a sensitivity of mine since the bitter years of high school and here were these randos stringing it up a tree for amusement.
Arms crossed, eyes narrowed, I ignored the calls of the other marketers until my posse caught up with me. One of them was holding an orange.
“One of the guys gave this to me for you,” she said.
Begrudgingly, I took it from her. Apology fruit hardly makes up for the emotional damage of having a row full of complete strangers hit you where it really hurts, but it’s better than nothing.
The truth is, the markets weren’t the worst places in Athens. They were fun and the shouting and selling is part of the experience. No one was ever untoward. The same cannot be said for other parts of the city.
I’m finally understanding what so many women have complained about for years. I’ve been lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where you can walk down the street without feeling like people are eating you with their eyes, where you don’t have the distinct impression that to them you may just be a dead lamb hanging by its feet.
The truth is that the U.S. has done an amazing job cultivating an environment where all people are respected and viewed with propriety, regardless of gender. And if there are claims that areas in our country still exist where that is not the case, those should be taken seriously. Because feeling like a piece of meat in a market is not something anyone should have to experience.
The truth about the cats
People complain about the cats here. I don’t know why. So much personality, so much sass, so little concern for literally anyone else in the whole universe. I liked all of them. The mangy ones, the quiet ones, the ones that hissed, the ones that climbed trees, the ones that jumped at their own shadows.
Yes, they smell. Yes, everything else smells because of them. Yes, I’m pretty sure there is a certain amount of rampant sickness in Athens that can be directly tied to the number of homeless cats.
But they enchanted me, and that’s the truth.
The truth about transportation
Driving in Greece is a lot like playing bumper cars, except that magically no one ever seems to actually hit anyone (though maybe not for a lack of trying?). People park in driving lanes, drive on sidewalks (like, if you’re a motorcyclist, the sidewalk is one hundred percent fair game. Ten points if you hit a pedestrian), and cut the occasional red light.
Walking in Greece is possibly worse. Crosswalks are for babies and tourists. If you want to get to the other side of that six-lane street, you just walk yourself across it! The cars won’t hit you (as we’ve already established) and as long as you’re not taking your sweet time, they won’t honk or slow down either. Actually, they’ll never slow down, so don’t take your sweet time. Just go already.
The truth is that Greeks are pretty no-nonsense about getting from A to B, and even though it took me eight days (and several minor panic attacks) to start crossing the street on my own, I feel like it grew me as a person and I respect Greeks so much more for it.
The truth is that sometimes caution needs to be thrown to the wind. Roads need to be crossed. You know you can do it and the only thing stopping you is a tiny bit of fear that the massive objects careening your way may actually hit you and a cultural norm you haven’t been able to break away from yet. Like, honestly, doesn’t that sum up so much of life as a twenty-something?
Just cross the road, already.
The truth about the view
Athens is not a pretty city. It’s dirty and smelly and even the nice neighborhoods look a little forced. Someone said to me that Greece is the Mexico of Europe (no offense to either country), and I can see it. It’s poor and run-down. Tourists come to see ruins that are thousands of years old, and walk through ruins from just this last century to get there. In a row of houses, at least one will be completely missing and two more will be missing window shades or balconies.
But if you can find a hill to climb up (and they’re not hard to find), you’ll be treated to an unbelievable view. And I use that word because I literally could not believe what I saw.
The sprawling mass of the city, alone, could take the breath right from your chest. But just where the city ends, the sea begins. Like a lovely lady who is constantly changing evening gowns, she appeared silver one day and indigo the next. The sunrise would dress her in gold and the sunset would change her to pink.
Behind her, the sky would dance to the ever-evolving rhythm resplendent colors brought on by sunshine and starshine and storm clouds.
And the islands. You would never believe islands like this could exist. They rise out of the silky water and run to the horizon, fading with every mountain range until the last visible peaks are only a hazy purple or a foggy blue.
The truth is that you will never see the same view twice. Once you’ve seen the Acropolis, you’ve seen it. But you could stare at the islands of Athens for a thousand years and never grow tired of the sight.
The truth is that Athens is a living testament to the beautiful mind of our Creator. Never has man seemed smaller to me. Never has God seemed so, so grand.
The truth about Greeks
Greeks are all gorgeous. Let’s just start there. No wonder their cultural heritage is built up around gods and goddesses. They’ve got the looks for divinity. And the women are all really good dressers.
The men seem to be on a sweatpants bender right now, which feels to me like a throwback to toga days. And I get that comfort is important, but if you’re going to leave the house, you should put on real pants, bruh.
But let’s talk about them strikes. I was told to be prepared for strikes and riots. I did not realize just how frequent an occurrence those really are in Greece. Like, a country made up of hundreds of islands shut down the entire ferry system for THREE DAYS to make a political statement. Which would be a huge deal except that they do it all the time. National monuments, transportation systems – whatever they feel like striking about, they strike. Is it any wonder that the economy is in the dumps and there are houses that are literally falling apart in the streets?
But the truth is that it’s easy to judge. It’s easy to come in for three weeks and assume you know everything, or that your country or people do it so much better.
The truth is that Greeks have done an amazing job in bringing in the refugees who have fled to their shores despite the intense amount of controversy over the issue within their own borders and throughout the world.
The truth is that they can brew a really good cup of coffee and bake a lot of really good pastries.
The truth is that I’m glad I had a few weeks to get to know a new kind of people and I hope I will be able to understand my own a little better because of it.
The truth about toilets
You can’t flush toilet paper in Greece. At least, that’s what they say. It could just be a huge conspiracy to make foreigners feel as uncomfortable as possible.
How Greece can be considered a first world country and not have the infrastructure to flush sanitary paper is beyond me. Did these people not also build massive marble temples that have lasted for thousands of years? CULTIVATE SOME PLUMBERS. HOW HARD?
I don’t know how I managed to get used to this, but I’m assuming I’ll get unused to it as soon as I get back to literally any other country with regular plumbing.
Okay, I’ll keep this one short.
The truth is that there are worse things than not being able to flush toilet paper, and after these three weeks in Athens, I’m aware of what some of those things are.
The truth about streets
Alright, here it is. What you’ve all been waiting for.
YES, I spent 80 percent of my time wandering around completely and unreasonably lost.
Athens is not built on a grid, it’s built on a bunch of semi-circles and baklava-shaped triangles and if you overshoot by one street, you’ll end up in Macedonia (not that they’ll let you across the border). If you start out heading west, you’ll end up going northwest with a touch of elusive east-ness and a dash of ‘just kidding! you’ve been going in circles!’
Only some of the streets are labeled. They’re all very Greek names that start to sound the same after the dozenth one. And they’re mostly one-way to cap it off, so if you’re driving fo’get about it.
I took two girls from the center to the National Archeological Museum one day. I thought it’d be a nice treat for them. And it would have been if we hadn’t gotten lost for an hour in the middle of Narnia.
The truth is I will probably get lost in every city I ever visit, grid or no grid. Or, as a friend here likes to say, I’ll be creatively displaced. And as aggravating as it was to find myself asking, “Haven’t I been lost here before?” about twice a day, between the cats and the skies and all the lovely people, Athens was a decent enough place to get lost. And that’s the truth.