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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