Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Athenium

We landed in Athens at five in the afternoon. The weather was turning typically Greek - that is to say, bloody hot. In a city like Athens, such heat, which is tolerable in Australia, becomes so oppressive that the Athenians begin to stalk the streets purposively, with glints in their eyes that suggest madness is just around the corner.

As usual, the Titanium Princess, in her never-ending quest to do Europe on five dollars a day (she still had all those dog-eared paperbacks from the seventies stashed away in our bags) had booked us into a hostel in the Omonoia district, which turned out to be the sleaziest part of town by a long chalk. Rubbish was piled ten feet high along the footpaths; drunks and ice-addicts hurled abuse at each other across rat-infested alleyways, and everywhere was the overpowering aroma of a sewerage system that had not been updated since the Romans left town.

"Jesus, TP," I complained, "if I'd known I was going back-packing with Tom Waites in a skirt I would have stayed home!"

"Ah, suck it up, Nancy Boy," was her considered response - a reply which, on reflection, was about as close as I was going to get to marital compassion.

We found our room, six gruelling stories above the reception area of the "Athens Lucky Hostel" (I suppose one must give the proprietors of such establishments a few brownie points for eponymic optimism), and collapsed in puddles of sweat on the bed. At least we had our own shower at this place, unlike some of the communal cess-pits I'd been forced to bathe in previously, and I spent ten vigorous minutes under a cold shower until life had returned. It was way past beer o'clock, so I sauntered out into the city while the TP took a short beauty sleep, on a mission for Heineken.

Omonoia, as it turned out, happened to be just my kind of place. In the Dark Ages, I used to work six nights a week in Kings Cross, Sydney - and this part of Athens took me back to those heady days of dodging puddles of urine and beating off the kinds of women who assure you they want you more than any man in history until you explain that you're rather short of cash, in which event they drop you faster than Phil Tufnell under a screamer (and if you don't know cricket, that one's going straight through to the keeper). 

I pulled up at a little roadside kiosk - the sort of joint that sells everything the modern bloke could wish for, from condoms to hair-gel, with beer in between. The shopkeeper, a young guy with a crooked nose and some serious tattoos, produced two half-litre bottles of Heineken from a little fridge, and asked me where I was from. When I told him, he became all enthusiastic, and told me he'd just seen AC/DC when they'd performed in Athens a week or so ago. Apparently AC/DC was the greatest Australian export of all time, at least according to their number one fan in Greece, who gushed on for a while before turning around and showing me the back of his head, which had "AC/DC" artfully tattoed across a shaven skull. I thought about baring my chest and showing him my "Joan Sutherland" tatt for a moment, but he side-tracked me with an offer of a "genuine shrunken head", which he pointed out to me, hanging from the top of his kiosk. It was a most unusual piece, and from the couple of flies buzzing around it, could well have been for real (and relatively fresh). It was time to move on.

I took off from the kiosk at a rather fast clip, and, rounding a corner, belted straight into a bloke coming the other way. We both bounced back and hit the ground on our backsides, rocking backwards and forwards like a couple of those blow-up clowns with sand in the bottom you used to get from the local variety store. He bounded straight back up, and let forth what I assumed was a torrent of abuse (I don't know, it was all Greek to me). I, meanwhile, was assuring myself that the Heineken was still intact (it was, fortunately), and when I finally looked at him I realised with a start that I'd bumped into the wrong bloke. He was emaciated, with a filthy shirt that was probably white, once, and a pair of grubby jeans from which protruded two bare and dirty feet. His sleeves were rolled up, and as he continued his invective he scratched one arm, and then the other, both of which were covered in evil-looking, bloody scabs. And when I looked at his face I understood that it was probably only the scabs that were preventing his entire body from dissolving and leaking down the gutters into the already overloaded Athenian sewerage network. He was an ice addict. I offered him a beer.

He looked at me strangely, then smiled, and grabbed the Heineken and poured half of it down his throat in one go. He smiled again, then his eyes glazed over, and he continued staggering away from me, up the road, occasionally stopping for another swig. I watched him until he was out of sight, and wondered how long it would be until he was cured or dead.

After wandering the streets (carefully) for another hour, sipping away at my remaining beer, I returned to the hostel to find the TP rested, refreshed and ravenous. We decided on the cafeteria at the hostel, and made our way downstairs, where a big, happy, noisy group of youngsters from all over the world, different accents plying for dominance, was devouring pizza and drinking ouzo and retsina and beer. A young woman came over to us and deposited two complementary glasses of ouzo on our table, and asked if we were ready to order. Her accent was unmistakenly Australian, and so was her body. She was aboriginal, from Byron Bay, in fact, and she sat down and we chatted away for twenty minutes until she decided to do a bit of work. A reasonably edible pizza arrived a few minutes later, washed down with a couple of bottles of Pilsner Urquell (or four - I can't remember now). I was starting to feel rather fond of the world, in inverse proportion to how the TP was feeling about me, no doubt. After all, at three Euros a go, I was blowing the next two weeks' travel budget. She's a tough cookie, my wife.

The following day dawned hot and dry, and we wasted no time in getting out and into it. It was a short hike to one of the places I'd been busting to see for over thirty years - the Academy. It was not Plato's original of course (that had gone long ago, and there is still some dispute as to whether the modern structure even sits on the site of the ancient one), but a neo-classical building designed by the Dane, Theophil Hansen, in the 1850s, as part of a beautiful trilogy of structures next door to each other (the others are the National Library and the University). As I stood in front of it, a tear or two sprang to my eyes. Here, after all, was a monument to the founding of modern thought, and its power. The moment was poignant, imbued with warmth and beauty. Even the Titanium Princess was captured by it. "Can we go now?" she asked solicitously. "And use a hanky, you sentimental fool." I like it when she's kind to me.

...to be continued.


Caudimordax said...

Flashback! I lived about a block from Omonoia Square for a month about 30 years ago. I don't think I knew what "sleazy" was back then, but people did raise their eyebrows when I told them where I was staying.

Looking forward to the rest of the story...

phil said...

It's hard to get around Athens without running either into Greeks with Aussie rellos or other Aussies. And it does get f'n hot.

In what could pass for coincidence, the WV is logio.

Oh, nice writing, too.

Jonathan said...

Excellent stories as always, Laurie. Lookin forward to what you write about Dublin!