As you may or may not know, the last vacation of my service was to Athens, Greece for a few days. This is somewhere that has been on my radar for a long time and I was excited to finally get to spend some time in a place that I had been dreaming about visiting since I was in elementary school. As a card-carrying nerd, I have always been fascinated by Greek mythology–something that I have passed down to my brother as well–so having the opportunity to see the ancient monuments and grounds that these mythical beings roamed was a geek-out moment for sure.
One of my rules of thumb when I travel to a new place is to take a walking tour on the first day–it orients you to the city and gives you an idea of what to visit during your time there. There are so many free walking tours offered in cities all over Europe that give so much background and information about the place you are visiting that you otherwise might not have known.
Here are some fun facts that I learned during my 3-hour walking tour in Athens:
–Lord Byron, a famous English poet, has statues all over Greece due to his devotion to the country and its people. He became a war-time symbol (much like Uncle Sam in America) for the Greeks and, upon his death, left all of his money to Greece to help them continue funding their war (that they eventually won).
–The stray animals in Athens are taken care of by the government. They tag the animals and take them for bi-annual vet check-ups. They are also fed by the locals, leading to the healthiest looking strays I have ever seen in my life.
–The military guards in front of the Parliament building in Athens have a…unique…march. Long ago, one of the Kings of Greece was originally from Bavaria (Germany) and loved his horses. However, horses are not native to Greece and he could not afford to import them into the country. So, like any reasonable human would, he instructed his military men to march in such a way that they sounded like horses. This led to a march that looks like it is straight from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. There are even horseshoes on the bottom of the shoes that these guards wear to imitate the sound, but making each shoe weigh 1.5 kg (about 3 pounds). There is a video of the changing of guard in the Athens photo album on my Facebook.
–It is obligatory for every Greek man to serve 9 months in the military at some point in their lives. The men that participate in the above ceremony are the cream of the crop, being put through 3 months of intensive training in order to complete their duties accordingly.
–Athens got its name from Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom. She was competing with her uncle, Poseidon, for the city and, in order to appeal to the locals, each of them gave the people of the city a gift. Poseidon struck the ground and created a geyser, spewing beautiful, clean water from it. People were overjoyed until Athena asked them to drink it when they found that it was salt water and would be of no use to them. She gifted the people olive trees because olives can be used for many different reasons and would continue to gift the people for centuries to come. Therefore, Athena became the namesake of the city we know as Athens. #Feminism
–Athena was also the only god born with her weapons. She was born out of the top of Zeus’s head as a full grown woman holding her spear and shield.
–The major religion in Greece is Greek Orthodox. There are little churches all over the city and each of these churches has its own purpose. For example, the church shown below on the left is dedicated to lost items. If a person has lost something, they can enter into the church, light a candle, say a prayer, and the smoke will carry their request to the gods. The church on the left is another church in the center of Athens devoted to sick family members/friends.
–The unemployment rate of Greeks under the age of 30 is almost 60%–this is one of the reasons that the majority of Athens is covered in graffiti.
–A lawyer representing Greece brought a lawsuit against the British Museum asking for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece where they belong. She won the suit in the late 80s, but the marbles have still not been returned. Fast-forward to Brexit and, in order for the UK to withdraw from the EU, all EU member states must sign in accordance. In one of the pettiest and most perfect moves ever, Greece is refusing to sign until their artifacts from the British Museum are returned to them.
–The mountains in Greece are full of marble, which was interesting to me because I am used to mountains being full of coal. Due to this, literally everything in Athens is made of marble–flooring, sidewalks, buildings, etc–which makes getting around difficult sometimes because marble is slippery! In order for someone to show their wealth within their household, they will install wood flooring as lumber has to be imported in and costs significantly more.
–When they were excavating and digging for the Athens metro, they kept running into ancient artifacts and really didn’t know what to do with them. So, instead of closing them up in a private display, they made some of the metro stations de facto museums where people can see them every day during their commute.
–Until Greece joined the EU, there were no zoning laws and, when you stand on a hill overlooking the city, you can see the magnitude of that. People just built whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. Athens is one of the most dense cities I have ever been to and I am so glad I had access to reliable GPS during my time there. All of the white color in the photo below are buildings. See any green space? Yeah, no. Me either.
–The oranges that grow on the trees throughout the city are not meant to be eaten. They aren’t actually oranges–they are a member of the orange family that are significantly more bitter. Their purpose is to help with the pollution by absorbing more of the bad air while emitting more good air. Another benefit of these fruits are that the neighborhood streets smell like oranges and it is heavenly.
–All of the Greek people that I interacted with during my time in Athens were super nice. While this may have been just a stroke of good luck, I will remember the people fondly from my time visiting their country.
All in all, being able to explore Athens as my last Peace Corps vacation was the best decision I could have made. I was able to indulge my inner-nerd with all of the history that the city is steeped in while indulging my “foodie” with top-notch Greek cuisine. This was the perfect way to celebrate my 2 years of living in Europe coming to a close and I look forward to returning to the Greek islands in the future.