Athens, Greece • August 2018 • Length of Read: 9 Minutes
I took a sip of wine and a warm smile broke out across my face. The muffled sounds of Athens on a Saturday night rose up from the street below, hot young millennials decked in their finest wears making their way across the plaza to the trendiest bars and clubs where overzealous bartenders awaited to pour hastily-made cocktails and slip in a couple of pick-up lines in the hope of stealing a phone number. From our rooftop restaurant, we had an unrestricted view of the Acropolis; the ancient citadel sat in all its glory atop the rocky outcrop and lighting up the metropolis that it has proudly lorded over for centuries. It was a stunning setting, but I really only had eyes for the girl sitting opposite me. We’d been together for four sweet months and she’d invited me to Greece so that we could explore her homeland together. As she blew me a kiss from across the table I melted a little inside; the luckiest man in the world.
Eva’s friend had kindly given us the keys to her apartment whilst she was out of town, and after a back-breaking night’s sleep on the fold-out sofa, the place so small that it didn’t even have a bedroom, we casually woke up the next morning, hopped in our rental car, and set the sat-nav for the city centre. Air-conditioning at full-blast and the sun hanging high in the hazy blue sky, a day of history and culture lay head.
Now, I’m a nervous driver as it is; the pressure of having to park outside my school gates under the watchful gaze of my peers just hours after the L-plates had been ripped off my car only the first in long line of moments that I’ve found myself sweating behind the wheel. Put me on the opposite side of the road, however, with a pounding headache, unfamiliar Highway Code, and the navigation of Stevie Wonder, and I’ll begin to panic. As the weather approached mid-thirties, I started to get very hot and bothered indeed.
“You want to take a right here, then go left,” said Eva as we approached a roundabout, having turned off Google’s perfectly adequate automated driving assistant and taken it upon herself to dictate the directions. As I flicked the indicator and pulled out into the junction, however, narrowly avoiding a rampant local and getting an earful of aggressive honking for my troubles, Eva began to question my ability to understand basic instructions.
“I said to go over there,” she pointed, no help at all for someone with their sight set firmly on the chaos of capital city traffic. “Right, then left.”
“You mean straight ahead?” I corrected her, somewhat bemused, but more irritated. “Even, ‘take the second exit’ would have been suitable.”
“Whatever,” she dismissively scowled before returning to her duties. “It’s re-routed us so you’ll need to turn left in 200m.”
As the narrow streets passed by I tried to calculate based on sight and sense when 200m might be, not bothering to question why Eva couldn’t have just told me that it was the fourth on the left. Having to project distances in my head really wasn’t helping the migraine going on inside my skull but considering that she didn’t even have a license I was willing to concede to ignorance. All things considered, Eva had the patience of a saint, and as I pulled into the parking garage at our destination she even hopped out to get me some painkillers and water from a nearby pharmacy. We’re such a great match.
Of all the buildings in the Acropolis of Athens, the most famous and iconic is The Parthenon, a former temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of the city that bears her name. With Eva taking on the role of personal tour guide, we made our way hand-in-hand around the heritage site as she mustered up stories and facts from Greek history that she’d been taught in school. Off the back of my visit, I read Stephen Fry’s quite-brilliant book Mythos, an accessible re-telling of the Greek myths for a wider audience. If you wish to learn a bit more about Greek history, it’s an ideal starting point.
Steering our way through the selfie stick-waving crowds, dozens of photos stored in our own camera phones, we came down the winding hill from the citadel and got lost in the bustling cobbled streets before re-appearing at Eva’s favourite restaurant. I let my moro mou order away, proud to be the privileged guest of a local among throngs of confused faces. The feast that duly turned up was fit for a king and queen and we tucked into the tzatziki, kebabs, salad and grilled cheese with the appetite of famine-struck villagers; the captivating conversation put on pause as the chewing began.
Stomach’s bulging, we headed in the opposite direction of the Acropolis Museum for approximately half-an-hour before the chief navigator of this disoriented operation discovered that we were actually walking in the completely wrong direction. Had Eva been the captain of a historic fleet setting sail to discover a new world there would have been a mutiny on-board before the lead vessel had even disappeared from view of the port.
Once eventually in the air-conditioned paradise of the museum, an impromptu subway journey required to get us back on track, we took a journey through the ages, three floors of meticulously restored artefacts, paintings and sculptures bringing to life the ancient civilisation that gifted the world so much in terms of language, science, philosophy, and religion.
“Hey, look at that,” said Eva, pointing upwards to the Perspex walkway of the second floor that ran above. I had no clue what she was indicating towards, but it couldn’t have been the view that immediately caught my attention.
“Are you looking up that woman’s skirt?” she gasped, noticeably and hypocritically holding her gaze for a moment too long.
“You told me to,” I argued in a rock-solid defence as strong as the columns holding up the classical order.
“At the statue, yes,” she laughed. “Maybe I should get you out of here before you cause any more trouble.”
“The statues are all naked anyway,” I persisted as we stopped to throw pennies in the wishing well at the museum entrance. “At least that person had clothes on.”
“Very good, very good. Come on, I want us to be on time for dinner with my parents. Feeling nervous yet?”
Eva grew up in Nea Artaki, a small port town on the island of Evia, the country’s second-largest after the better-known Crete. Connected to the mainland by a bridge, we made the journey in just over an hour, my palms getting sweatier each mile we drew closer to our destination. I love this girl and really wanted to make a good impression with her mother and father. Thankfully, we weren’t actually going to be staying with them, just popping round for dinner. Instead, we’d been given access to Eva’s countryside summer home twenty minutes further north. A shower, a pressed shirt, and a dash of cologne later, I was as ready as I ever would be to face the music. As the doorbell went, I took a big gulp.
“Hello Crobs,” beamed her dad as I crossed the threshold and handed him the bottle of mass-produced Johnnie Walker whisky I’d picked up in the airport. Not quite the Hebridean malt he would have preferred, but at the bargain price of €18, I couldn’t complain. I wanted to see how our initial meeting went before introducing him to the good stuff. A kiss on each cheek was the traditional welcome, and that’s all I had for Eva’s mum after Eva had realised too late that the flower shop I was going to pick up a bouquet from had shut down months prior.
“Thank you very much for inviting me,” I smiled before pausing to take in the manic around me. Far from meeting just her parents, Eva’s sister, uncle, grandmother, sister’s boyfriend, and sister’s boyfriend’s brother had all made themselves present for the occasion. You wouldn’t be seeing so many of my family members together outside of Christmas Day. My arrival was seemingly quite the event.
“It’s our pleasure,” answered Eva’s dad, who was slightly more apt in the English language. “Would you like a beer? Greek beer is much better than Scottish beer.”
“I won’t argue with that,” I laughed, perhaps a bit too loudly for the situation. “Yes, please.”
Handing me a Heineken, a symbol of everything Dutch, I was more than a little confused as I took a seat at the dinner table. ‘It must be the language barrier,’ I pondered to myself as my eyes and nose took in the succulent buffet spread out before us. Eva had encouraged me that all I needed to do was nod and say ‘yes’ whenever food was offered my way and everything would be ola kala, OK.
And it was. Eva’s extended family were welcoming in such a homely and generous way that I immediately felt ingrained as a new member of the clan. Every ounce of dread and apprehension quickly left my body as I tucked into the mountain of food in front of me. Eva switched from tour guide to translator, and we laughed and joked away for the rest of the evening. A delicious homemade dessert was accompanied by a trip down memory lane as we peered through albums of old family photos, and, in return, I told silly anecdotes about growing up in Scotland. They could see how much I meant to their youngest daughter… and how much she meant to me.
“Thanks so much for inviting me here,” I whispered to Eva as we lay in bed that night.
“Thanks so much for agreeing to come,” she whispered back, a warm smile breaking out across her face.