Athens, visited

Changing of the guard

Changing of the guard

Providence, better known among the secular world as serendipity, placed me in touch with the Lawson family only about 4 hours before I left on my trip to Greece.  Brent Lawson is the pastor of an international (a.k.a. English-speaking) Baptist church in Athens.  I generally try to find a local church when I’m away on vacation, so I contacted the Lawsons to inquire about their services on Sunday.  By the end of our phone conversation, he and his wife, Vanessa, had invited me to stay with them in their home for the duration of my visit to Greece.  This came as a tremendous blessing for a number of reasons, but the most immediate was that it solved a lingering detail of preparation for my trip: lodging.  I’ve been so busy leading up to this trip, that I’ve failed to make any preparations beyond booking my flight.  My 700 page guide book lay unopened on my desk for weeks until the weekend before my departure.  So as I packed my bags in the remaining hour before heading for JFK, I was relieved to know that my immediate needs upon arrival were taken care of.

In fact, Brent and his family met me at the airport and brought me straight to their Wednesday evening service at church.  Brent and Vanessa have two children, Andrew who just turned 8 and Cassandra who is 6.  Their home is nestled north of Athens in some beautiful countryside.  Potted plants, ivy-covered walls, and a sprawling back yard adds to the charm of their scenic setting.  From their house it is only about a half-mile walk to a quintessentially sleepy train station under the shade of some tall cypress trees.

Thursday was my day to visit Athens itself, and Brent offered to come along as my tour guide for the day.  We left after he walked his kids to the bus stop, catching the 9 a.m. train into the city.  A couple of metro stops later, we started our day with a walk through the sprawling, R-rated meat markets.  Now I’ve been to the markets on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, and I’ve seen plenty of mildly disturbing things for sale, such as kidneys, cow tongue, ox tail, and pigs feet; but the meat markets in Athens gave my innocent eyes a whole new education.  It wasn’t so much the whole, skinned rabbits with their fuzzy little tails still attached or the gore of random entrails hanging from hooks.  It was the table full of skinned sheep heads, animals bisected straight down the spine, and decapitated calf heads with their eyes staring blankly and their teeth exposed in a permanent grimace.  Oh, and nothing was refrigerated.

From there we made our way through busy lanes with street vendors and pedestrian streets where you still have to dodge mopeds.  Eventually we drew closer to the imposing promontory of the Acropolis.  Our approach brought us through rather inauspicious streets and overgrown alleys in need of a good week whacking.  As we got closer, we encountered lots of guys nervously selling bottles of water.  Brent explained that they didn’t have licenses and were most-likely illegal aliens, so their eyes were constantly darting about in search of police.  Soon we came to Mars Hill, where the apostle Paul preached about the unknown God to the Athenians.

The entrance to the Acropolis brought us up a series of steep steps and ramped switchbacks.  Even in its 2,500-year-old state of decay, the massive stone columns and imposing walls make an impressive presentation.  I can only imagine how impressive it must have appeared millennia ago.  Through the gates of the Acropolis is the immediate view of the famous Parthenon, temple to Athena.  This massive, columned structure held up pretty well over the millennia until its roof and part of its southern wall were blown off in 1687 when a store of the occupying Turks’ gunpowder was ignited by Venetians.  It’s been only over the past couple of hundred years or so that the area has decayed to the ruins that it is today.  The area used to be brightly painted and lavishly decorated with classical sculptures.  Today, though still visually arresting, it is just a crumbling edifice of sand-colored stone.  Since the year I was born, the Parthenon has been closed to visitors for fear of an imminent collapse.  For decades, though the building has been ensconced in scaffolding in an endless effort to restore the structure.  Work was supposed to be done in time for the recent Olympics, but now some are guessing it will still take another 40 years to complete.  The Parthenon is really a remarkable building.  The building’s proportions maintain a universal 9:4 ratio throughout, including the distances between columns and even their diameter.  To me, the most amazing thing is that the architect used precise mathematical calculations to compensate for entasis, an optical illusion that causes straight lines to appear curved.  So, the columns are actually bowed slightly to compensate for appearing concave and are slanted inwards by 6 cm to appear level and straight.  Not bad for a guy who lived 2,500 years ago!

After leaving the Acropolis, we made our way down through the vast ruins of the ancient Agora (marketplace) to the scenically-situated Temple of Hephaistos.  I noticed lots of brilliantly red poppies growing among the ruins.  I came to realize that this flower is quite common in this part of Greece.

We stopped for lunch on a busy sidewalk, dining on delicious pork souvlaki, tzatziki, and a wonderful Greek salad.  Both the feta and the tzatziki here are magnitudes better than what I’ve had back in the states!  While we ate, an endless stream of gypsy children came through, either hawking cheap trinkets or playing small guitars or accordions.   I became rather fascinated with them.  I’d read about gypsies in books, but I had never encountered them before.  Brent explained that they were basically a completely independent people, not necessarily citizens of any country.  They lived in tents and hovels on the outskirts of town, trained their children to beg or steal, and in general eked out a subsistence living.  I kept my belongings a bit closer to me, with thoughts of Fagin’s gang of homeless boys.

After lunch we made our way to Parliament building to watch Greece’s entirely unique changing of the guards.  With odd skirted uniforms featuring long tassels and colorful shoes with pompoms, the guards’ equally odd motions elicit thoughts of a Monty Python episode.

We stopped for ice cream before catching the train home.  The evening was pleasant and we all lingered outdoors for a while.  Andrew and I played a bit of soccer while Cassandra bounced on a trampoline.  We took another trip out for some ice cream before the kids went to bed.  I caught up on some work and eventually went to bed, sadly low on sleep.  I had only about 3 hours to sleep before I’d get up for an early train in the morning.  Tomorrow would be an all-day cruise to three islands in the Aegean Sea.

For photos, visit my last entry, where I already posted all my photos from Athens.

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