Greece - The Land of Cats
by Terry Hogan
You take a thousand different people to a foreign country and you get a thousand different perceptions about that country, each reflecting the observerŐs filter of personal interests. That is the good and the bad of it.
In October, I had the opportunity to travel to Athens, Greece for a week. It was on business, but I did have one day to play tourist. My wife came along on the trip and was able to see more of the city and thus was able to show me the highlights - a best of Athens tour on my one day. Statistically, Athens is about 5 million souls trying to make a living in a crowded city that is largely contained by a ring of mountains and the sea. Space is at a premium, both for housing and for cars. Driving is a little like chaos on wheels. Parking is no better. Despite all this, the people are amazingly friendly, kind, and helpful.
Our view of Greece was also influenced a bit because my boss, who accompanied us on the trip, is a native-born Greek from Athens and owns a home there. So we stayed in a residential neighborhood and met some of her kin and neighbors. This was far better than staying in a hotel in terms of getting a feel for the place.
One of my first impressions of Athens, beyond the space issue, was the cats. Cats were everywhere and were of every size, shape, and color. Most had free roam and lived off of handouts and "dumpster diving". Trash is picked up daily in Greece (actually nightly), from communal dumpsters sitting along the streets. Some of the cats were fairly tame and would allow themselves to be petted, others were more cautious and stayed just beyond reach, hoping for a handout. On our first night in Athens, we went to an outside restaurant with a spectacular view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. At night the ruins, perched high on the hill above Athens, are bathed in lights, allowing them to be seen from miles away. The restaurant site was cut out of the side of a hill so behind the eating area was higher vegetated ground, held back by a stone wall. While we ate dinner, cats sat on the top of the stone wall, looking down at our table, while other cats patrolled about our feet, looking for the occasional tidbit of fresh grilled salmon. Waiters would make them scatter and they would return as soon as the waiters left.
Walking in the residential area, there were cats on porches, cats on window sills, cats on chairs. It added a charm and friendly feeling. Any culture that gets along so well with so many cats, has to be civilized. And what would you expect from the site of so much of our early western culture?
Athens is a great place for American tourists who want to be away from tourist buses and other Americans. Nearly all Greeks speak English very well and enjoy practicing the language. They also enjoy helping tourists find their city's highlights. It was our impression that the Greeks enjoyed being good hosts to foreigners. In the downtown area, most of the street signs were in both Greek and English. In residential areas, signs were only in Greek, but if you stopped on a street corner and pulled out a map, it wasn't long before someone would address you in English, show you where you were on the map, and point you in the right direction. Athens is also a pretty easy town to get around in. It has an electric tram system that you can ride for less than a dollar. There is also a good subway system. So there is no need for a rental car, which would likely drive you crazy between the driving and parking conditions.
I'm not going to bore you with dates and a lot of history. But, I will tell you a pretty good secret. The Parthenon sits high over Athens on the Acropolis. But on the steep hillside below the Parthenon is a community that had its origin with stonecutters who came to Athens from the islands, long ago. They cut small houses into the side of the rock. Houses are above houses, tucked side by side in tiers. There are no roads, only rock walkways, narrow enough that you can touch house walls simultaneously on either side. At first, you feel like you are walking into someone's yard, but you soon realize that this is the way to come and go. The little houses are whitewashed and sport brightly colored wood doors and shutters. Vines and potted plants add more color. Jaded Americans might think this is a product for touristsŐ eyes, but it isn't. It is not a Disney creation. It is home. And the aroma of Greek cooking prowls along the path like a feline cousin.
Greek cooking is something to behold. Olive oil, lemon, vinegar and who knows what else is mixed with Fetta cheese to make salads or mixed with grilled meats to make the main course. Frequently I didn't know quite what I was eating, but it was never less than excellent. There are also bakeries everywhere with daily fresh breads and pastries that had Greek names I couldn't begin to pronounce. But the pastries were cheap, tasty, and always fresh.
Of course we went to the Acropolis and the Parthenon. You feel obliged. If you didn't, it would be like going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids, or China and not seeing the Great Wall. It is just something you are expected to do. It was fine and had a great view of 5 million people spread across the low broad valley that is Athens. But I will remember the old stone cutter homes, rich in the maximum use of space: rich in the abundance of cats; and rich in the splash of bright colors against the whitewash.
If somebody says that Athens is just another big city, don't pay any attention to them. They probably didn't wander very far from the American-filled tourist bus. That is no way to see Athens and there is no need for it. Go out and meet the people, sample the food in local restaurants, and get to know a few cats. That's the Athens we saw.