Postcards from Athens

Having faithfully watched the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad on every available local TV channel, cable network and even high-definition broadcast and the web, from the opening ceremony all the way to the handoff to Beijing, I was just as awestruck as all the journalists who lauded the historic success of these games as a whole. The greatest sporting event of humanity was born near here in 776 BC, was first revived here in 1896, and would likely not return in this lifetime -- it was a privilege to experience the 2004 games in any way, even as a mere television spectator.

For me, these were sixteen Greek holidays of true joy. Though my body rested comfortably at home in California, it left its heart somewhere in the ruins of the Agora many years ago, only to be found this summer via the cameras of the NBC and the BBC.

In appreciation of the Hellenic nation for being such splendid hosts to the world, allow me to write some belated postcards, to be dated sometime in October of 1989. I began my first backpacking tour of continental Europe in Athens, where I spent exactly one day, from the pre-dawn landing to the late train bound for Thessaloniki and Belgrade.

Here is what I remember from that day.

Welcome to the Balkans. More than a decade before 9-11, I had my first memory of walking past police officers toting M16s in an airport terminal. The first road vehicle I saw in Greece was an armored troop transport.

Cyclists competed in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Paolo Bettini of Italy, ahead of the peloton seen here, clinched the gold in the road race. Tyler Hamilton of the United States, having crashed out of the Tour de France this year with a shoulder injury, won the time trial. (BBC photo)
        At a street-side newsstand, I saw a man on a bicycle delivering what would become my breakfast, a basket of freshly-baked rolls. The woman at the kiosk, already quite delighted to have her first customer so early in the morning, was overjoyed to hear the only Greek I knew: eucaristv ("efharisto," or "thank you"). She immediately jumped out to give me a bear hug.

With her directions (our hands gesturing all over a street map), I hiked to the Acropolis in time to witness the autumnal sunrise over the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike. For twenty minutes or so, the only persons present besides myself were two other early birds and the gatekeepers: to this day I can find no words to describe the majesty of this hallow ground, as I stood on the broken marble in near-total solitude and silence.

The moment was fleeting indeed. My cue to leave was the giddy clamoring for snapshots amongst the first busload of tourists to arrive. I offered to take their group pictures -- each was holding a red umbrella to block the sun -- by speaking in our common tongue, Taiwanese.

I spent (too) much of midday trampling along the narrow, congested, loud and polluted streets of downtown Athens. Amid all this chaotic yet prime urban real estate, cafes, law offices and motorcycle repair shops counted themselves as next-door neighbors -- a scene any native of Taipei would find instantly familiar. My destination was the city's second most prominent hilltop monument, the Chapel of St George. Near the Temple of Hephaestus, I noticed signs indicating the path of the Mysteries -- along which the ancient pilgrims made their way to the port of Piraeus.

Exhausted yet exhilarated, I  barely made it before the church would close for the day. From here, the view of the Acropolis and the entire capital was sublime, despite the smog. I bought two votive candles, one I lit during a prayer of thanksgiving, another I unwisely stuffed into my rucksack, where it was quickly pulverized.

After acquiring my provisions at a convenience store -- bottled water, a box of crackers and a tin of stuffed grape leaves -- I collapsed in my train as it sped, or rather crawled, towards Thessaloniki. I was not to be awakened until 02:00 the following morning by the gentle hand tap of someone holding an AK-47. The Yugoslav border guards took their time, using my American passport as an impromptu training tool for the tyros amongst their ranks.

My rail journey across pre-war Yugoslavia -- that's a story for another day.

CW, 30 August 2004

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