By: Emmett Baumgarten, Contributor
Last spring, I had the pleasure to spend a semester abroad in Athens, Greece. It was an opportunity I did not dare forgo — to study in one of the ancient world’s greatest hearths of knowledge (even as it declined from bustling city to famed college town under Roman rule) is a dream to any Classicist, such as myself. I envisioned a city littered with ancient sites and charm; as Rome was to Italy, so too was Athens to Greece in my mind. Then I flew in. From on high I gazed down not on the picturesque ruins and general charm I had envisioned, but upon a homogenous, white mass, discolored by the daily cigarette smoke of its millions of inhabitants. A surge of disillusionment dragged me down like Charybdis was said to do to many fated ships. The cab from the airport provided little relief: he tried to charge us double and then drove with that patently bad and fear inducing driving Mediterranean cabs are known for. The drive was not lacking for excitement, however, as it provided a crash course on Greek insults and rude gestures. Were I to stop here, Athens might seem a terrible destination. I will assure you my disillusionment was not long-winded. A quick turnaround began as I first moved into my apartment, which, given the homogeneity of Athens, is quite similar to every apartment there. Two features stand out and constitute points of pride among the Greeks. The first is the thick, marble countertop in the kitchen. Modern Athenians seize every opportunity to connect themselves with their ancient counterparts and the land around them; the presence of Pentelic marble, with which the Athenians constructed all their major landmarks, in the home on a surface interacted with daily amply satisfies this desire. Second, an open-air balcony with a perilously short rail meant “not to protect you from falling” but rather to “remind you that you can fall,” as my Greek instructor, Angeliki, would say. This, more so even than the marble counter, is the pride and joy of an Athenian home. This is where you display your gracious hospitality — a custom rooted as far back as the bronze age — this is where you take back souvlaki to eat in the open air as far away from the din of the city as you can get from within, this is where you enjoy late nights with a glass, or few, of wine and good company. From there on, I met the people, indulged in the food night and night again, and visited those ancient sites engulfed by the concrete jungle. It was all superb; though, for the sake of brevity, which I am already endangering, I will spare you the details of my experiences and, instead, provide you with advice so you can rejoice in Athens the same.