I’m back in Athens — a feel-good city.
ATHENS, Greece- “We have three hundred passengers on this flight,” the pilot informed us over the PA as we taxied to the arrivals gate. “There is a certain movie about Sparta that had three hundred people. So when you see the grounds crew you can look at them and say, ‘This is Sparta!'”
He then notified us that he had just told a joke.
Rising up over the baggage claim belt there was an advertisement for Mythos beer. The green bottle had condensation beading up on its surface like sweat, its cap was flying off in glee.
There may have really been a reason why I came back to Greece.
Athens is probably the only major international airport in the world where you can’t buy a local sim card. Nobody is selling them. All the shop vendors tell you that you have to go into the city center.
No, that is not completely correct: you can buy a local sim card in the transit area of the international terminal — like when you’re getting ready to leave the country. But why anyone would need a local sim card when on their way out of Greece is something that I don’t have an answer for.
The last time I flew into Athens airport security was allowing recently arrived passengers to be escorted back into the transit area to buy sim cards, but I was told that this was no longer possible.
If I knew more about the reasons behind the lack of SIM cards at the airport this could probably be used as an example of the dysfunctional aspects of this country…
In Greece, Uber works a little differently than it does elsewhere. Rather than having independent drivers operating their own cars, all of the drivers are formal employees of a rental car company, who pay them a salary and provide them with a vehicle. Basically, they are a call taxi service.
However, from the perspective of the rider it’s the same show: you book with the app and the driver shows up. The price that you pay is determined by Uber, and it’s significantly less than a what the local taxis charge — and, in terms of getting three paying passengers from the Athens airport into the city, it’s also as cheap as the metro.
But the taxi drivers are still pissed off about it. They fear they are losing business — they are — and rather than adapting and providing a true competing service they kick and scream and make Uber drivers make their riders fill out special forms when they pick them up from the airport.
“The taxi drivers wouldn’t need to worry about losing customers if they provided good service,” our Uber driver bellowed with a laugh.
He was right.
I looked over at him. He looked a little funny. Not funny as in strange but funny as in strange for an Uber driver. Most Uber drivers that I have had are either young 20-somethings working a second job or older, retired or semi-retired people. This guy was maybe 4o years old or so and dressed sharp — as though he was accustomed to working in the high profile, professional arena. He also had this air of success and class about him that did not quite match his current profession.
“What did you do before driving for Uber?” I had to ask.
He just laughed and looked straight ahead for a while — a gesture which pretty much said it all.
“I was an architect,” he eventually replied.
“Why did you start being an Uber driver?”
“In Greece, nobody is building anything anymore, and when nobody is building anything there is not any work for architects,” he responded simply.
I asked if he missed it.
He said that he did but didn’t mind driving for Uber — or for whatever Greek company he was actually employed by.
“At least I have a job.”
We pulled through a toll booth that led to the main highway from the airport. The architect passed over a wad of Euro.
“That went straight to the Germans,” he said with a laugh. “The highways are owned by the Germans, the railways are Italian, and the port is Chinese.”
This could have been the Greece’s new national slogan.
In the economic crisis that Greece is still riding out, vultures from east and west swarmed in and have been gobbling up the economic carcasses that were strewn about everywhere — resurrecting them and cashing in big time. In one sense they saved the country from complete economic collapse; on the other hand they laid down the foundations for a long-term dependency state, setting up infrastructure deals and loans that Greece won’t be able to get out from for decades — and perhaps not ever in this era.
“But as long as we have the olive and the vine we’ll be alright,” the architect said while pointing off to an olive orchard that rolled off from the side of the highway to the hills beyond.
“What was the accomplishment that you’re most proud of as an architect,” I changed the subject.
He just laughed … and then laughed some more.
“It’s funny …” he began.
He then told me the tale of how he designed and built this massive, opulent 60,000 square meter five-star hotel in Lebanon. He oversaw the project to completion, all of the linen was on the beds and everything, and then, with just a month before opening, two Israeli cruise missiles took it out.
“So I did build this hotel but it’s not there anymore soI can’t show it to anybody!” he roared in laughter.
Greeks have this way of laughing jollily in the face of fate that is overwhelmingly charming.
We entered Athens, and I took advantage of having an architect driving me around. I began pointing out buildings and bridges and just about anything else and asking for their backstories.
We stopped at a traffic light next to a three story housing complex that didn’t seem to fit in with everything else. It was shot to shit. Bullet holes and most of its outer plaster had all broken off. Graffiti covered it. There were people hanging out on the balconies, clothes were drying on the railings. It looked like a squat.
“What’s the story behind that building?”
“It’s a good example of Bauhaus style,” he began. “It was made as housing for workers but it was damaged in the war. Now some people in the government want to tear it down but other people want it preserved as a monument. But nobody can decide so it just sits there.”
As we drove by I could see that it stretched back almost half a city block. It was a little compound of something else in the core of the city. I was drawn to it, and made a note to go back there to film something.
“Us Greeks, everybody likes to argue but nobody wants to ever decide anything,” the architect summed up with another bellowing laugh.
We checked into our Airbnb. It was an issue because we couldn’t get sim cards for our phones at the airport. So we were left standing outside the building in the cold like dumbasses until a little old lady took pity on us and let us in. Eventually, some random guy who happened to have the key let us in to the apartment. The actual host showed up later.
We settled in and then went to a restaurant around the corner. We ate soulvaki. I drank my first Mythos of this stretch of Greek travels.
We walked through Athens’ Skid Row — I like that area — on our way to the city center.
I bought Hannah a leather jacket — it’s still a little cold here.
We then sat at a sidewalk cafe that overlooked some ruins to admire the blue hour while sipping on glasses of wine.
I don’t know why I decided to leave Asia and come back to Greece, but I realized in that moment that I’m happy I did.
I like this country. I like the people, I like the beer, I like the olives, I like the cities, the countryside, and the coastlines. It’s the place where I come when I want to disappear for a while.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
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