A very long time ago, 2001 to be precise, I visited Athens (was attending an academic conference). I did not plan to reminscene about the trip but reading Kent E St. John’s post ‘Female in Jordon’ did the trick. He writes about the expeiences of Shari Caudron’s visit to Jordan. You have to read her article. Here is a short quote (it is the most vapid one in the entire article probably).
Afterward, I insist that Adam take a photo. I stand between the four men – two on my right, two on my left, and forgetting everything I’ve read, place my two American arms behind the backs of the two Jordanians next to me. They tense and scoot sideways. Adam takes the photo. In it, the men and I are standing so far apart we look like a string of paper dolls.
But enough said about how I got the insperation and now back to the actual story I intend to tell, which in some sense is the exact opposite of what Shari experienced. Being new to any culture makes for a good learning experience!
Athens was my second visit abroad. I had been to Singapore before but I stayed with Indian friends and they always escorted me any place I went, right from the moment I set foot, till the time I went back. So, Athens was my first unescorted visit abroad.
For my Athens trip, I thought I had read enough on the internet (an excellent site www.greecetravel.com was the most helpful resource). I knew that taxies would be out of question, because of their high fare and not so fair reputation.
I was also aware that if I exited from gates no 4 or 5 from the airport I could take buses E 94 and E 95 (old information, not aware if it is still true in 2006) into the heart of the city. I took E 95 and it took me to Syntagama Square (charged me 1000 Drachmas, these were the pre Euro days). There I stood blinking, as to what to do next. I had to go to Omonia Square where my hotel was.
Being dog tired, I took a trap… I mean a taxi and sure enough I was charged nearly $ 30 for a 10 minutes ride (15,000 Drachmas), whereas the people at the hotel told me later it should not have been more than 1500. But that is the only time I took a taxi in Athens, rest of it was on foot, by bus or by metro.
So, after finding my hotel, I decided to take a late evening nap and then look for something to eat. Being a vegetarian, finding food in itself becomes a task. I slept for many hours and when I got up it was dark outside.
I inquired the hotel people if they had any dish without meat in it. I was willing to pay the slightly higher price they would charge but they replied in negative. I had to change money too, so I decided to venture out.
As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, I saw three young guys (they didn’t looked stoned or drunk) and I asked them if they knew where could I change money. They said yes. I was waiting for the directions. They told me they are going that way. So, I walk a few steps when they asked something (I have forgotten what, I really have) that made me slightly uneasy and I told them I would find the place myself and I started walking in the opposite direction. I brushed it aside as a one off incident.
The next day, I decided to explore the Acropolis and the Plaka region. I took the metro to reach the Plaka area. I was walking on the sidewalk (I am sure with a lot of awe on my face, a dead giveaway that I am a tourist) trying to locate an exit to the Acropolis. A tall gentleman told me, “I have met you before.” I said “no” in a quiet and sure voice.
500 meter ahead, another gentleman asked, “Are you alright?” Now his question got me really anxious, I wondered if I had torn my dress or what? I asked back, “Why do you ask?” He says, “You are frowning.” And before I could realize what was happening, he held my shoulders, and kissed both my cheeks (now I am from India, where apart from my family and a few very close friends, no one would dare to do such a thing). I stood stunned looking and feeling like a complete fool. He brought me back from my stupor and asked, “Can I buy you a drink?” I recollected my wits and said no. It took me some time to reassure him that I really was fine. I walked in a dazed state for a while, for if anyone had tried to pull the same stunt with me in Delhi, I would surely have slapped the person. Such is the culture out here. But somehow apart from being shocked, I was not offended by that unknown gentleman.
Finally, I got to Plaka and decided to eat something, I was really feeling tired. It was a roadside café with lovely grape vines hanging all around. They had a vegetable and rice dish. I ordered it and tried to take in the atmosphere. A gentleman standing near my table commented on the weather. I said something polite in reply and out of nowhere a conversation started.
Now to my Indian sensibilities it felt rude to keep him standing. He said something like “mind if I take a seat” and I said yes not knowing what else to say. That was my undoing. It took me more than two hours to get rid of his company. After my meal, he volunteered to take me around the Acropolis, which was just a short walk away. I saw the grand monument from a distance and he told me it would be a waste to go inside for the fee they charge. I didn’t get into an argument thinking I would come back later, which never happened. So can you imagine, I get this once in a lifetime kind of a trip to Athens and turn back without seeing the Acropolis at the close quarters.
At some point I told this gentleman, I am married (and I was speaking the truth) and he immediately responded, knowing that I am from India, “So, your parents forced you into marriage!” However much I tried to convince him that I married out of choice to a person after knowing him for four years, he would not listen. Anyway, I somehow said bye to him, and by now I was completely drained. I went back to my hotel room.
I was racking my head as to what was I doing wrong. After all, anything even remotely like this never happened to me back home in India. When something strange happens my first instinct is to blame myself. I know for sure that people consider me quite unapproachable and when among strangers, I can wear a giant size frown that can deter anyone from talking to me. It was of no use in Athens. Then I realized, I was not doing anything wrong and it must be a done thing, a different culture. From the next day, I decided to behave less like a clueless tourist and appear more confident about the things I was doing. I also would ask for directions from people sitting behind a booth! Things became quite manageable after that.
But even now my husband teases me about not seeing the Acropolis and everything else.