Olympic Dreams at Olympia: And the Crowd Went Wild

Olympic Dreams at Olympia: And the Crowd Went Wild

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We had a day off from pruning and shovelling a few days ago and took ourselves off to Olympia, home of the Olymipic Games (same name: spooky). Keith was up for it and I was a bit ‘rocked out’ from all the stuff in Athens, but we went all the same – and it was quite astonishing.

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I don’t really have access to the kind of clever descriptive words for this sort of thing and I’m not cultured enough to know much detail about history, but I read all the signs and walked all the way round, and even went to the museum, but then I got all ADHD kind of twitchy, overloaded with visually sensoryness and had to leave. But it was all quite incredible. It even made me come over all ‘Olympian’ (the camera is broken so we’ve only got Keith’s phone which is not great for zoom).

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In fact, I used to do athletics when I was young and wasn’t too bad at it; this was in the 1980s when 5’10” was considered exceptionally tall, unlike these days when loads of young women are that height it seems. More protein; less Crispy Pancakes. In the 1980s, being 5’10” just meant that I had longer legs than anyone else and therefore could cover more ground than the others. I’m not convinced I was actually faster. I won my Athletics badge at Brownies by simply stepping over the bar set at the required height. I think it was supposed to be more of a challenge. I got to some County Finals kind of thing with running, nothing special. I had discovered boys, alcohol and a desperate need to be liked at about the time that I might have progressed to be a decent athlete. I told my daughter, Jess, this when she was 5 years old. Unfortunately, she got the wrong of the stick and went to school and told her teacher that I’d been in the Olympics. Well, we did tell Jess that her elderly Scottish teacher rode a motorbike and was often to be seen falling out of a pub (lies) so I supposed her sense of reality was a bit askew. I’d love to have been in the Olympics, but this is as close as I’ll ever get – although if I ever get to the point of needing a new kidney, there is the Transplant Games to aim for. I thought I’d make the most of it and enter the main arena to the roar of the crowd.

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Not a soul. Not one. The tiny pinpoint at the end of the 218m track is me. At the other end, beyond Keith and the camera, is a slightly bemused and suspicious security guard wondering what the hell we were doing. You can’t even see me. It’s a tiny black dot in the centre of the photo at the very far end. Honest, I went all that way. It was a very evocative place, actually. You could imagine what it would be like with 45,000 in that arena.

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The site of Olympia itself is just huge and every structure in it is just huge. The site was a sanctuary for the pursuit of religious and sporting activities from around 8 BC until around 4AD when some fella called Theodorius (or something) decided to ban all pagan sites and knocked the whole lot down. The Greeks have been trying to put it back together ever since.

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All of the bronze statutes were melted and many of the marble frontages of the temples are gone, but a surprising amount remains and is in the museum in pretty good nick. It is incredible to imagine what it would have looked like with all the buildings intact and so very decorative and brightly coloured.

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Anyway, it was good.

We left our work exchange today a couple of day earlier than planned, mainly because I have trapped a nerve in my back and am henceforth both in pain and useless. We changed our flights and headed off back through the mountains. Keith and Rod spent a long day yesterday laying a concrete base for a swimming pool and being the Chuckle Brothers in their matching boiler suits. Keith has been so relaxed and almost (dare I say it) like a normal person. It’s been great to see.

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We really enjoyed our experience and were very fortunate to have hosts that we got on with and that were real genuinely nice people with an incredible interest in others and almost constant contact with their adult children back home. I have tried to contact my son, but his monosyllabic answers and bewilderment as to what I want, make these interactions largely painful for all concerned, so I just text him here and there to remind him I am still alive.

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We couldn’t get a flight home for another day so had to be tourists again and find a hotel for the night en route to Athens. We found the Dias Hotel in Nafplio (£28 for double room including breakfast), a beautiful little town on the coast a couple of hours out of Athens. It was populated by well-dressed Greeks on this Sunday afternoon and is full of shops selling upmarket woven linen, honey and crafts.

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There is a castle on the hill which we can see from our room and the place has a Venetian feel to it. I hobbled about in a pained and crooked fashion in the sunshine.

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It’s January and there were three people swimming in the sea in just their trunks. They didn’t look Greek because the Greeks were wearing their coats indoors like sensible people. I’m putting money on this one being German. He had that look about him. Whilst he was in the sea in January in his pants. That look.

Our hotel receptionist told us she is off to London for a 5 day visit in February and grilled us with lots of questions about the Tube, Buckingham Palace and other obvious tourist sights. We told her it would be cold and probably rainy because we are purveyors of absolute truth. She asked how often it would rain. I said maybe 4 times a week, which I thought was breaking it to her gently and was also frankly a potential lie. Her eyes almost popped from her head at the concept of such a place. She was equally visibly dismayed that the temperature was unlikely to rise beyond 10 degrees C. I felt terribly responsible for the British weather and wanted it not to be so. It will be grey, wet cold and miserable. That’s why we’re in bloody Greece, love. She’ll have a great time. I told her to go to Brighton.

My back is so painful and my ability to walk is so limited that for the first time ever in my life, I have requested Special Assistance at the airport for the flight home. My fear now is that I’ll wake up completely fine tomorrow and look like a right malingerer. I’ll have to put on a limp.

So if you happen to see me doing skids in a wheelchair round Gatwick in the early hours of Tuesday morning, please remember that I could have been an Olympian and have some respect. And if you are in Gatwick in the early hours of Tuesday morning for Keith’s sake give us a lift home because I can’t carry my rucksack and we’ve got to get the train back to Worthing in order to be home for precisely 30 hours before we head back to Portugal to open a bank account in order to buy our new house. This life is getting absolutely bloody stupid.

To finish off this trip’s blog post, here is a photo of me that looks like I have an enormous penis. Yasos.

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Olive Tree Pruner Extraordinaire

Olive Tree Pruner Extraordinaire

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We departed Gythio on a beautiful morning and Keith’s birthday. This, of course, warranted Keith to sing ‘Because I’m 46’ repeatedly to the tune of the recent Pharrell Williams smash hit, “Happy”. Pharrell Williams features in our lives a lot these days. I bought Keith a fridge magnet of Gythio, a spoon made out of olive wood and some Greek cakes for his birthday. I didn’t bring them from England with me, although that would have been an amazing coincidence if I had. This is the ‘music’ advertised by the hotel. It doesn’t work. I wonder what would have come out of it if it did. Probably not Pharrell Williams.

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Our journey to our work exchange hosts took us across the Mani Peninsula and up the coast. It was absolutely beautiful. I did many wees in many glorious locations.

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We stopped at Stoupa for a banana and opened the car door to the smell of olive oil. This is a little proper holiday resort, but pretty low key. The fruit and veg stall lady was English and so were her customers. All of the restaurant menus didn’t even bother having Greek versions; just English. The place was deserted today but I imagine it being different in the summer with all those Greeks not being able to understand what to order for their dinner. Nightmare.

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I am generally fascinated by people’s stories and life choices and wonder how the hell you end up selling fruit and veg in a Greek village. I suppose there are worse places to sell fruit and veg, like at a Pharrell Williams gig, perhaps. I’m just guessing here; there might be quite a market for it.

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The landscape along this part of Greece is completely unexpected. I thought it would be flat, scrubby with a goat or two. Not so. Look at this.

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As it was Keith’s birthday, we really pushed the boat out and had a mountain top picnic of day old bread and cream cheese. We can’t believe our luck to be here doing this. Sorry, not ‘luck’: ‘meticulous planning’. Either way, it’s not a bad place to be 46. For 16 days each year Keith and I are the same age before I surge ahead a year and get to have a toyboy again while he gets a cougar. For the next 16 days, however we have to suffer being a weird sort of twins. Happens every year.

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Our home for the next 12 days is here, just outside the small fishing port of Kyparissia. There is blue sea on one side and high mountains behind. We’re staying with Rod and Bernadette, originally from the UK, who live here all year round. They rent out a cabin in their grounds to holiday guests and also take work exchange helpers like us to give them a hand with jobs around their home and land in exchange for accommodation and meals. These are organised through sites such as Workaway and HelpX where both hosts and helpers pay a subscription to belong to a database and find hosts/helpers all over the world. It is a brilliant system. Helpers review hosts (and vice versa) so it’s easy to see who is fair and good and who is a slave driver and makes you live on plastic cheese. Rod and Bernadette come with glowing reviews of terrible jokes (Rod) and fantastic cooking (Bernadette). It transpires that these reviews are entirely accurate in both cases.

This is not quite our first experience of this type of thing as we went WWOOFing a couple of years ago, but it is our first overseas adventure. Given our natural temperament (being highly intolerant of almost everyone on the planet), this is a stretch of our capabilities over a long period, but I figure it’s good for us to step out of our comfort zone and anyway, we need to learn some useful shit for our new house and land in Portugal.

The view from our room is not bad for a start. Sadly, with temperatures reaching – 3C, we’re not going anywhere near that pool this week.

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Our first job for the first few days is to prune around 40 olive trees. This task has more responsibility than I would usually welcome, given that Rod and Bernadette’s entire annual olive oil supply rests on these trees. Fortunately, their knowledge of olive tree care is marginally smaller than mine – I have pruned Keith’s trees once in the past (this is not a euphemism) and have flicked through a book on the subject, therefore rendering me the resident ‘expert’.

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This photo is not posed at all. This is the required facial expression for olive pruning. I read it in a book.

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Olive pruning may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but these days up trees have been completely fabulous. I am definitely a person not designed to be indoors – fake lighting, heating and screens (TV, computer) just make me feel ill. Outdoors is where I need to be: no headache, no backache, not even needing to wear my tinted lenses for tics and light sensitivity. Burning calories, warding off high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and dwindling kidneys. And we’re not even paying for the privilege (apart from the flight and a hire car), it’s costing us nothing: good food, amazing location and a lovely place to stay – and they let us piss about with their trees. What’s not to like?

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We have also been shovelling stones and mud and Keith has being more manly than at any other time in his life (this is not difficult as he’s been behind a computer and making tea for most of it). I am usually quite manly so not much change for me here. He is so happy. We’re so happy. It’s January and we’re outdoors all day in the (chilly) sunshine.

Bernadette stoking the fire burning all the olive prunings. This is properly ‘The Life’.

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So far so good with our work exchange. Extremely chuffed at our amazing ability to get on with people, even ones who tell terrible jokes. We’re quite the social butterflies you know: pretty and with a very short life-span? It seems that without all of the environmental stressors of normal life; there is enough capacity for the people stuff in the coffers.

Apparently, we live somewhere other than here, but we can’t quite remember where that is, or in fact, why.

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Zen and the Art of Bladder Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Bladder Maintenance

 

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Now, I shall apologise in advance for the contents of this first part of this post: they are about weeing. This is important and useful medical knowledge which may come in handy at some point in your lives (bladders weaken with age, you know). Skip over at your peril.

As a consequence of my kidney disease, it is recommended that I drink 3 litres of water per day. The general recommendation for any person is 2 litres, which is hard enough, but 3 litres is something else. I fail at this task almost everyday. On a good day, I guzzle a litre at a time and then nothing to several hours, because I forget. This is pointless as the body cannot utilise large quantities of water in one go. Today, I introduced a new strategy by setting an alarm on my phone every hour on the hour and when it goes off I drink a cup of water. This is how I shall live my life from now on. If you ever meet me and this happens, please know that this is part of me maintaining the function of my kidneys and not being a freaky, routine-obsessed weirdo – in this instance.

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Today, we went for a walk, which turned out to be over 9 miles. Every hour on the hour, I drank a cup of water. In between every hour, I did at least one wee. I did seven al fresco wees in a five hour period, which works out as 14 wees in a full day. My alfresco wees were mostly next to olive trees. Next time you eat an olive, it may be from a tree that was irrigated by me. Think about that. No need to thank me. I was doing myself a favour.

Managing my fluid intake in this fashion is so much easier in the countryside. It is also cheaper; in major cities it can cost 30p for a wee: that’s £4.20 a day for 14 wees, £1533 per year. That’s the price of a decent holiday (everything in life should be measured in holidays). Taking care of your health is expensive, unless you’re willing to get arrested by squatting next to a hedge in a suburban street.

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Final serious note about water intake: drinking even the recommended two litres of water a day really does make a massive difference to well-being, brain clarity and mood. Give it a try. But make sure you have 30p handy.

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We walked south from Gythio around the coast and up and back in a circle. The sun was out and the temperature was the warmest we have had so far. What a difference a bit of blue sky makes. This coast is just fabulous, another discovery, as we’ve never been here before or even considered it.

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This is the beach at Mavrovouni, 4 km long of sand and, even on a January day, deep blue sea. Coincidentally (or was it?), the only two people we saw on the whole stretch (we walked the entire length), were having a wee. Maybe they too were on a kidney management system. Solidarity, brothers.

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At the back edge of the beach are a row of houses and a few rooms to rent along with the odd bar. This would be an amazing spot to find yourself for a holiday. I can’t imagine it ever gets really busy. The notice board on the beach said that it was a sea turtle nesting beach and that dolphins sometimes pop by. This is a real slice of unspoilt Greece.

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The beach overlooks the Mani Penisula, a wild, mountainous region with ridge-top villages and stunning scenery. That will have to wait until another time.

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The only thing to distract you from your lazy days would be the odd cat in an old, abandoned Mercedes.

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Our walk passed by many prickly pears, ripe and ready to eat on their cactus plants. They are delicious, like a cross between a banana and an apple or pear (duh!). And they are free. Don’t try it though, please. In Morocco, street vendors sell them all smooth and prickle-free for 1 dirham (7p) a piece, so a few years ago on a holiday to Paxos, Greece, I thought that I could benefit from this free food source and pick my own. Despite the surface looking entirely smooth, they are covered in the tiniest spines, hundreds of them which get stuck in your skin and, being virtually invisible, are impossible to remove. I learned this through experience and got covered in them trying to be Ray Mears. It took days to get rid of the spines from my hands and arms.

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So… today, knowing all of this, I had another go. I know, it makes no sense, but I just really wanted one. And I thought these ones might be different. Or something. I don’t think the photograph adequately shows the multiple spines on my finger.

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Now, none of this would have happened if I’d have listened to Baloo. 1.21 in and he tells us exactly how to deal with a prickly pear. Just need to grow my fingernails longer.

We wandered home through miles of olive and orange trees. The olives were being harvested in great sheets on the ground. We later walked past the local press and smelled them all being processed. The trees were loaded with them. I don’t think I did a wee under this tree, although they do all look the same.

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We had a pathetic (by our exacting standards) picnic by the side of the road which comprised of two tiny pieces of French toast stolen from the hotel breakfast room along with some stolen peach jam, some Christmas chocolate (still going strong – the mince pies became extinct in Athens), some almonds from Morocco and some old crisps.

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Whilst sat by the road we talked about the Buddhist meditation book I read in Morocco – I have yet to actually meditate, but I’m thinking about it – and about how Zen the moment was as it felt as though, although we were sat on a deserted country roadside, all manor of life and change was happening around us: birds, crickets, moving leaves, chainsaws in the distance. There was no need to seek entertainment, possession or concern ourselves with the past or the future: now was all that mattered. And now felt perfect. We had a thought that we might never leave that spot and might sit there forever, just ‘being’. Perhaps people would eventually bring us food parcels, which might be an improvement on the French toast. We sat there for quite some time, but then the alarm on my phone went off and I knew that within ten minutes I would need another wee.

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Back to Gythio for a room dinner of Cup-A-Soup, bread and cheese for tea with a Greek yogurt and honey chaser. Off on the road again tomorrow to start to earn our keep.

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The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe)

The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe)

We so nearly left our hotel on New Year’s Eve just before midnight to experience Athens celebrating the start of 2015, but it was cold, and we still had mince pies and we had to get up at 6.30am to try and get back to the airport to pick up our hire car for the rest of our trip. So, staying in the warmth(?) of our hotel room was an easy choice. We’ve seen fireworks before, not over the Acropolis, I grant you, but hey, with tea and mince pies on offer, it was a tough call.

For this trip, we managed to remember our travel kettle. Few European hotels have tea and coffee making facilities and the kettle, teabags and milk save us a load of cash on buying hot drinks and mean we can have our own in bed at night. We steal sugar from hotel dining rooms and cafes where we can. Our piece de resistance for this trip – a trick probably known to more worldly travellers already – is that any old plastic card will do to keep the electricity in the room activated. We got fed up with the heater going off when we went out of the room, meaning we were freezing when we returned. Exchanging the hotel key card for a plastic loyalty card meant the the heater remains on and we return to a toasty, warm room.

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So, fully laden, and in the rain we set off to find that the Metro was running as normal on January 1st even though it was a Bank Holiday (hurray), but that it just didn’t go to the airport (boo), so we had a further walk to find the bus (X95, €5) which started its journey empty and pleasant and ended it’s journey so unbelievably full that we had our rucksacks on our laps and I couldn’t look past mine as I’d knew I’d have a panic attack because the bus was so rammed full of people.

Athens seemed to have cured itself of its traffic problems on New Year’s Day, the only people we saw were making their way home, mostly walking, in that particular manner where it looks like the top half of your body is moving faster than your legs, in a constant stumbling fashion whereby every now and again you have to do a little run to get your legs to catch up. 100% alcohol induced.

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We picked up the hire car at 9am from a bloodshot eyed young man who really must have wanted to still be in bed and headed off in the Peloponese for a 150 mile drive to Gythio on the top edge of the Mani Peninsula in Laconia. It was a spectacular drive, mostly full of snow-topped mountains and endless olive groves. We love it. Keith spoke to the cashier in the petrol station who said that he worked 28 16 hour shifts every month and earned €580 (£450) a month. He said he used to work for a Ducati franchise, but lost his job when it closed down; as did 29 of the 30 vehicle franchises in the area. He was 45 years old, the same age as Keith. We felt sad, fortunate and – for me – cross with myself for how much I moan about my working life. Perspective is necessary at times.

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We have to cross the Corinth Canal which connects the Ionian and Aegean Seas via a 6km long dug trench. It is very narrow and very deep. Quite a feat of engineering, but probably quite claustrophobic in a little yacht sailing along the bottom. Keith is hugely impressed by the canal.

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We arrive in Gythio, picked at random from a map of the Peloponnese, as we had an extra two days to fill before going to our work exchange hosts. Turns out it was a good choice. We are staying in the narrowest hotel in Europe (probably). It is only one room plus a corridor wide, which means every room has a balcony and sea view.

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The Hotel Aktaion (£29 for double room including breakfast) boasts many facilities, however, we did not see any evidence of music apart from an ancient box on the wall of the room which didn’t work. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit in Reception though (English version, not Greek, for goodness sake).The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 08
It does have this view from the balcony, so we’ll forgive them for the music. We saw a kingfisher on this wall and were very excited about that. That’s all it takes. Being a person easily excited by small things makes for a much more interesting life than for the not easily impressed.

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We like our accidental finding of Gythio. It has an amphitheatre not quite of the scale of Athens, but interesting nevertheless. The amphitheatre is next to some kind of military establishment, which are not permitted to be photographed by law. Our solitary presence at the amphitheatre with a camera caused a man with a gun to come and ‘clarify the situation’. They might want to move themselves or the amphitheatre if they’re going to get the willies every time someone comes to look at it. It’s been there for some time and there is a sign directing people towards it. Maybe no one ever comes to look at it. I like to think we made all that training worthwhile.

No military personnel were harmed in the taking of this photograph.

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There are numerous restaurants, bars and rooms to rent for a probably busy summer season. Not today though; we sit alone in a restaurant – an early treat for Keith’s birthday in a couple of day’s time.

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It’s lovely to be out of Athens and to be somewhere with more open countryside and quiet streets. If we hadn’t already decided to move to Portugal, I think we’d be in danger of wanting to live here. Sadly, for my special interest, there are no estate agents in sight, so we’re safe for now. But that one with the roof and windows looks quite nice…

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis

Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis

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Today was cold, windy and rainy here and there. It was our last day in the city and so visiting the Acropolis had to be done (€12 ticket lasts 4 days and gets you access to several other ancient sites and museums – keep your ticket once you’ve gone in as you will need it to access different areas. Keith failed to do so and we had to pay for another ticket. He went without food for the remainder of the day in order for us to stick to our budget). We never pay for anything cultural, we just look from the outside, so this was a rare event. Even on a freezing and wet day like today there were plenty of people braving the elements to get in the way of every other person’s photo opportunity. Sometimes, its nice to just enjoy stuff without having to take a photo of yourself stood next to it (although we did that a couple of times too). Some people seem to do nothing else but record their present to look at some time in the future. How about just living it now? Must be hellish up there in the summer. All those selfies vying for space.

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Renovation and re-assembling of the buildings has been happening for decades, but more recent technological developments are allowing the buildings to be re-built using identical materials – although they are whiter due to less weathering. We were not sure whether they should be left as they are or turned into perfect replicas, which seems to be the plan. Either way, the sheer skill and scale of the structures in such an imposing setting cannot fail to impress. The views across the city to the port at Piraeus show the size of the place. Shame about all the people though. We should have got up earlier in order to see it on our own. Notice how we skillfully manage to take photographs of buildings which almost always have no other people in them at all, apart from each other.

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It’s mind-blowing to think that these were all carved by hand over 2000 years ago.

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It was very windy on top of the Acropolis. I almost lost my hat. Such an event could be described as a Greek Tragedy. I only have one hat, unlike one man with Asperger Syndrome I met who would wear three hats at the same time. He would have no such concerns on a windy day; always prepared.

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Our other wanderings were round the most visceral meat market I have ever been to. It was full of more dead meat than I have ever seen, presented in the most gruesome fashion. I felt quite anxious and overwhelmed by the place, which was not helped by the loud, shouting butchers approaching every passer-by to insist that their whole skinned sheep complete with head including eyeballs was the best. It felt like being in a horror film surrounded by carcasses.

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Plenty of other stuff on offer, including a huge range of fish – look at that pile of squid – and vast stacks of smoked sausages of all sizes. I didn’t know that Greek cuisine involved such things, but judging by the multiple stalls and multiple sausages, this is very much the case.

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Why don’t we have markets like this in the UK anymore as a daily event? All we get are poncy over-priced ‘Farmer’s Markets’ rather than the real thing in most towns. This place was busy, noisy and very much a part of everyday life here.

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But we didn’t eat any of this stuff. We went for cooked feta with chillis and oil, which is far better than cold feta in my humble opinion. Easy to cook at home – just wrap a block of feta in foil with dash if olive oil and chillis and cook in oven or under grill for 15 mins or so. Mop up with pita bread. You’re welcome.

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Later, we had spit roast chicken and chips for €4.90 for two. Now, this place had the kind of ambience we love: empty and us sat in a corner all on our tod. Lovely. Keith is actually happy. Honest. He did have two Greek coffees in a row earlier so may have been still away with the caffeine fairies at this point. He was just happy that he was allowed to eat anything after losing his Acropolis ticket.

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We’ve very much enjoyed Athens but I’ve had enough now. I’ve realised that about 36 hours in a city is about my capacity and it’s time to leave. It’s nothing personal, Athens; it’s not you, it’s me. It is a more laid-back and easy-going place than I expected; more modern; more friendly. The Acropolis is worth the trip alone, but the rest of the city is certainly an easy place to spend some time with a load of interesting junk shops, art galleries and a billion fridge magnets in the shape of a Greek God. And if you come at the right time of year, you might just be lucky enough to see Santa outside a ‘Love Shop’. So that’s what he does for the rest of the year…Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 17

Mince Pies in Athens

Mince Pies in Athens

 

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We’re on a two week work exchange trip to Greece just after Christmas, spending a couple of days in Athens, a couple of days on the coast and then staying with some people we haven’t met yet to do some work at their home in exchange for bed and food. This is our first go at this type of travel and being the odd couple of sods that we are, we have some trepidation, but we’re up for giving it a shot having made the experience as Keith and Sarah friendly as we can – choosing carefully where we go, what is expected of us and having a car to jump in and drive away quickly if it all gets too much. We’ve got our own teabags; we’ll be fine.

We’ve been away loads lately what with Christmas and all – a bit too much if I’m honest. I’m feeling a bit disorientated and overwhelmed most of the time with not enough time for my brain to process all of the differing environments that we are putting ourselves in. Keith manages to take it all in his stride. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t expect sympathy for my plight as it perhaps looks like we lead an easy and idle life. It’s not quite as it seems, although we do get to do some good stuff. I work every day while I’m away keeping on top of admin and course preparation so it’s not ever entirely a holiday. I should explain that this is only possible due to the way I have constructed my business which means it largely fits within the academic year and means that I have no face to face work in school holidays. This is part of a decade’s worth of planning to move towards this point and this ability to manage my work time in this way. Keith’s redundancy and my PKD only quickened our pace; this was a route we were heading towards anyway. Having regular blocks of time off is the only way I can (half) functionally work. When I am at work, I’m usually in some form of physical or mental distress (migraines, backache, anxiety etc), so the free time in some way compensates. It’s a full-on job standing up in front of people for up to 6 hours at a time; like stand-up comedy but for a whole day. It’s not an ideal state of affairs but it’s the best situation I’ve found during a chequered (to say the least) employment history. I’m not very employable for a number of reasons, most associated with the autism I have latterly come to understand.

I think similar set-ups can be achieved by many people if they put their mind to it. I don’t much believe in luck; more in meticulous planning and long-term strategic thinking. It takes patience, time and a willingness to move slowly towards the desired set-up, rather than expect to get what you want instantly. It also requires that you know exactly what the desired set-up for you looks like. If you don’t have a goal, how do you know when you’ve got there (said someone famous at some point)? I have found Paul McKenna’s books fantastically useful for helping define thoughts about these things. Titter ye not, I’m serious, his stuff has genuinely changed my life for the better.

It’s flipping freezing in Athens. Snow on the hills and an icy chill in the air along with some serious downpours of rain. The hotel doesn’t have any heating as such, only a lukewarm air con unit more accustomed to drying up the sweat of the room’s occupants in the blistering summer heat, not drying out the socks of the room’s occupants sodden feet.

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We’re trying to keep to a budget on this trip. Hence, we have carried all of the left-over Christmas food in our hefty rucksacks (steel toe-capped boots included) in order to save money. This may well be an economically viable thing to do, we have created mince pies with 1293 food miles which is surely environmentally questionable. A box of well-travelled (and slightly crushed) Mr Kipling’s in the cold hotel room it is, then. Spot of Leonard Cohen to wash it down and all is well in the world. We arrived late, stepped out of the Metro from the airport (Line 3, €8 each, extremely and unexpectedly simple to work out) to this:

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Pretty cool. The Acropolis is the name of the rock and there are various temples on top of it. I’ve wanted to come to Athens for years and could never work out how it all fitted together with that big rock smack in the centre of the city, and now it all makes sense: there’s this big rock smack in the centre of the city. Keith and I have minimal interest in cultural things and I am more likely to be found in a supermarket wanting to know what local people eat rather than the marvels of 2000 year old construction, but even we are somewhat impressed with Athens. I’m sure Athens is delighted.

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Our hotel is the Best Western Pythargorion which (apart from the lack of significant heater) is a blooming bargainous treat – £22 for a double room including breakfast. Breakfast is perfectly fine and I would like to reassure the world that the Spam industry is alive and well and living in a hotel dining room in Athens. Best thing about breakfast has been watching Japanese people eating strange combinations of food. This morning saw a woman with an omelette, sausage and a pile of dried muesli all together on the same plate. Is that a thing in Japan? Or anywhere?

It’s so cold here that I sat in a restaurant with my gloves on my feet. They look a bit freaky.

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The thing that has struck us both about Athens, which may be obvious to some, is quite how much historical stuff there is here. It is literally everywhere. You can barely turn a corner without coming across piles of stones, excavations, buildings and museums. The place is absolutely full of history spanning several eras, civilisations and millennia. There is so much of it it is easy to be blase about wandering past yet another astonishingly impressive structure, huge in scale and skill.

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The Lego version of Classical Greek building. There’s so much of this stuff, they don’t know where to put it.

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I think we were expecting more obvious poverty and deprivation in the light of Greece’s economic problems, but did not witness anything much different than any other major European city on the surface at least, although I’m sure people have undoubtedly been hit hard. The main notable feature of modern Athens is the vast amount of graffiti on almost every available surface, even people’s homes and front doors. I don’t recall seeing anywhere else on this scale. This photo shows a train passing the Agora (ancient marketplace).

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Athens is a huge urban sprawl reaching the sea and to the edge of the mountains with distinct districts like any other city. Green parks and hills are doted about, so there are always places to escape to. We didn’t venture beyond the few central areas and the obvious attractions, partly due to the weather and partly due to not knowing if we would ever find our way back: Greece having the additional complication of an alphabet and therefore street names that are utterly indecipherable to us both. If we got a bus into the suburbs, we may never be seen again.

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This is a city with a legendary traffic and parking problem. It didn’t seem any worse than Worthing during the school run.

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Again, as in other countries we have visited, we are shamed by Greek people’s ability and willingness to speak English. They can spot our Englishness a mile off and don’t even attempt to speak Greek to us; a damning indictment on expectations that we will have bothered to learn their language. Proudly, I report that I learned to ask for’ two stamps to Great Britain please’ in Greek from my phrase book (I have a phrase book for every country I have ever visited) and after delivering my phrase both Keith and I were visibly shocked when the cashier at the Post Office neither laughed, said: ‘Eh?’ (or it’s Greek equivalent) or replied in English, but instead replied in Greek and gave us the two stamps. Fluent, I tell you. A natural. We were chuffed for quite some time about that minor success.

My kidney disease means that I am frequently in need of a loo due to the large amounts of water I need to drink to help combat the growth of the cysts. I eat a lot of food from M&S because I spend a lot of time in motorway service stations to and from working across the UK. Many now have an M&S (hurray) which means I can eat something other than a Ginster’s and avoid falling asleep whilst driving from the big carb crash that such food gives me. Sadly, the Athens M&S has a food hall but it only sells digestives and marmalade and none of that nice giant couscous and goat’s cheese salad that I really like. Disappointing, but at least the whole place had adequate heating. And a very pleasant loo.

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In between rain showers, we played a little game of statue imitation, Athens being quite the Mecca for such activities, although many of them are missing limbs and Keith wasn’t willing to go that far for the sake of art.

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The great philosophers, including Needham: ‘I think, therefore it’s time for a cup of tea’. And that, sounds like a marvelous idea.

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