Returning to Athens: Back in Pangrati
Arriving in Athens after 6 years away, I listened sleepily to the taxi driver take an extra moment to ask the woman operating the toll booth how her night is going. He listened to her response and wished her well before starting off down the freeway again. Almost a year ago exactly I came up with the plan to leave San Francisco and move abroad. My job at Cloudbeds offers a perk of working entirely remote — a philosophy that companies don’t need offices. Anywhere there’s wifi can be an office. As I watched the darkened city go by I felt a small twinkle of accomplishment at a long-anticipated adventure finally realize itself.
The cab dropped me off and Katerina, the airbnb host, buzzed me in. She toured me around the apartment and let me know the rooftop terrace was available. A marble staircase winds its way to the top of the building — I poured myself a glass of ouzo and took it up to take in the view.
There was a wonderful and clear view of the Acropolis, with the Parthenon fully lit up in gold and the walls’ dramatic shadows. Nestled in between my neighborhood and it is the Panathenaic Stadium, which is entirely made of marble and was built in the year 330BC by Herodes Atticus.
The neighborhood is called Pangrati and sits about 2 miles east of the acropolis. It’s the neighborhood I lived in back in 2013 when I was a student at The Athens Center. When I finished my ouzo I walked out to to explore the area. To my surprise, many of the same shops in Varnava Square were still operating — the bookshop, the gyro stand, a bakery. The same woman who use to sell me Mars bars in the kiosk was still there, smoking cigarettes in her little booth. I noticed one of the corner bars had changed names. I ordered a chicken gyro and ate it in the cafe seating as I tried to orient myself and piece together my location from memory.
Up the hill is where Audrey and I lived for those two months in Athens. Three days per week we’d descend the other side of the hill on steep — sometimes slippery— stone sidewalks. The labyrinthine streets all wend and cut in every which way. After finishing my meal I walked the route just to see if I could still remember where to go.
The stray cats wandered in and out of the alleys, slinking beneath the cars parked in the tight road. Beyond the school I remember there being a few shops and cafes. I walked into a bakery and found a strawberry puff pastry thing that looked good. When I tried to pay the woman working wouldn’t charge me. I protested and she said it wouldn’t keep til morning. This perplexed me — at several points throughout my trip shop operators have just given away things for free. At the gyro place I just ate, they didn’t charge me for the can of Mythos I put on the counter.
Across the street was a cafe-bar I used to frequent all the time as a student. I’d bring my notebook down and work out poems as I pounded cup after cup of coffee— this is Greece, where an 8oz cup of coffee suffices. There is no “Venti,” much to my chagrin.
A young man and woman were working the bar when I sat down and ordered a Hendrick’s martini. Apparently that was too flashy. The man making my martini scoffed when I told him I was coming from San Francisco: “That makes sense.” In contrast to the complimentary treats some servers were happy to offer, other younger Greeks, who came of age in the financial crisis, I think are a little more reticent towards privileged travelers. I stopped at one more bar before going home. All night I ordered in Greek, but still it’s easy to detect I’m not from here. The server gave me a poutiri of red wine and asked me what brings me to Athens. I told him I used to live in the neighborhood, that I would visit this bar all the time under its old name “Klik”. It turns out he and his brother own the new bar and have been operating for three years. I congratulated him and he asked where I was living now. I said I’d been living in San Francisco and watched as his eyes rolled to the back of his head. He could barely contain his contempt. He held his breath a moment: “Ah, so now you come on vacation.” He walked away and I scolded myself for saying what I said.