Vignettes from Greece

The footbridge outside of Piraeus Metro station
Image via Wikipedia

It’s nearly noon but the Athens subway is surprisingly crowded – all ages, all colours, most either carrying something or attached to their cell phones/MP3 players by a bud in the ear. The heavy-lidded dude perched on the edge of the seat diagonal to mine is wearing cheap Chinese fabric shoes. His face is creased into a permanent frown as he fingers his prayer beads – it’s as if he smells something foul. He’s giving me the once-over – I’m wearing shades, man, but I’m not blind! A red and green striped awning of a shirt stretches over his belly like an apron. His haunches are spread over a seat and a half but his inadequate junk doesn’t make more than a suggestion of bulge. A young woman sits across from me and under caterpillar brows, those bloodshot eyes probe her body like fingers.

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A tanned older man in blue workers overalls sways to the rhythm by the Metro doors. When he turns his head and glances out the window at the blurring scenery, I see a most magnificent fleshy parrot-beak nose jutting from his muscular face. He’s sporting a forest green wool sweater tied nattily around his neck and he juggles a bright blue plaid plastic shoulder bag in his hand as he stares into the middle distance, a smile tugging at his lips.

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A dumpy woman dressed in black, her handbag strapped across her chest, stands at the front of the subway, declaiming loudly in a harsh voice. The morning commuters around her wince as they edge away, leaving her in a narrow DMZ. They grab for their cell phones, dialing someone, anyone, trying to look busy, shaking the pages of their Metro newspapers and darting glances everywhere but at her. Ah, she’s begging – I recognize parakalos, please.  A path opens as she sways down the length of the car, muttering her useless mantra – parakalos, parakalos, parakalos.

Outside the Syntagma Square stop on the grimy marble-curbed sidewalk, a rough-skinned woman in a flowered dress positions a plastic crate in front of the sliver of a hardware storefront. There’s a bundle under her other arm. She sits down in the morning sun, modestly spreading out her skirts over splayed knees. She arranges the bundle – a limp dark-haired child of about four – and droops against the store window, the child lolling in her arms. She’s perfected pitiable, murmuring to passersby for change, shaking a handful of bait-coins around the bottom of a brown paper cup that says Coffee Time on the side. In the afternoon, a dark-skinned man takes her place after a brief conversation. In his arms is another flaccid child that he drapes against his shoulder. His voice is more strident; the cup he waves is empty.

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The Marlborough Man may be dead as the dust at the Acropolis, but his legacy lives on strong in Greece. In almost every pocket or handbag is a red and white deck of the iconic American brand of smokes. The men saunter down Athlion Street thumbing their stone komboloi with one hand, their lighters with the other as they check out the female real estate. Women yak on the phone, holding their purses to their shoulders with a pinkie, turning their heads to snatch a drag from the cigarette held between two fingers.

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On the boat from Aegina town, an earnest looking dyke with middle-aged ankles and feet shod in Soft-Mocs flips through a guidebook for Gay Athens, trying to keep the sides of her unzipped turquoise windbreaker closed with her elbows pressed tight to her sides. Her eyes slide over me for an instant, then they’re gone. My honey’s having a coffee at the snack bar. He could be a she. I’m wearing sensible shoes and my Tilley hat and snapping photos of the shoreline.  How does she know that I’m not? One of the sistren, I mean. Perhaps I could be?

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We disembark from the ferry to Piraeus in front of a heavily laden yellow transport truck, a window frame delivery van and a fleet of stinking motorbikes and lurch towards the intersection. The grimy squares of sidewalk are so cracked and disarranged it’s like a moonscape. From the port to the Metro station with our hardshells, it’s more like wrangling dead cows than suitcases with big wheels. Our light turns green and the walk signal glows a vague yellow. At eleven in the morning, the air is thick with traffic haze and the clinging veil of ferry smoke, but it’s surprisingly odorless. Navigating six lanes of traffic should be a breeze, we think – there’s four policemen standing at the crosswalk, but they’re smoking and talking to one another.

The noise is tremendous – honking, shouting, klaxons, music. We draft in the wake of an old lady with a bundle buggy and finally get across. Our pace is slow and we hear the impatient clucking of pedestrian tongues behind us before they trot out into the street and brush by. We navigate around the vendor booths on every corner, tripping up on street cart flotsam and cigarette butts. Curb cuts, sometimes, where they’ve been broken down by decades of car tires. Even the curbs in the old port are marble – crumbling and filthy, but marble, nevertheless. Whose were the hands that made these thousands of years ago? In Greece, marble is as ubiquitous as concrete is in North America.

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