Our cabbie barked the tongue of the ancients on his cell phone as we left the airport. Something felt off as soon as we landed – it wasn’t Europe anymore. It wasn’t Western.
The landscape looked Californian (“looks and feels like California, but with more debt,” I’d joked) and the air had the same golden quality about it. Our hostel was up an ancient cobbled corridor with crumbling hovels and stray dogs. The dogs and cats had learned to use crosswalks to avoid getting hit by cars. Darwinian. They still smelled like shit.
Much of it was built during the brief communist regime back in the 1970’s. It was clinical brutalism piled high over ancient walls and crumbling ruins. The paint on the buildings had been vibrant once, but by the time we got there eons later the walls blended into the cobblestones. You could see the Mediterranean in the distance.
The moment we got to our hostel (littlebighouse.gr) we were greeted with frappés and escorted up to a gorgeous Ikea catalogue room. There was a 1,700 year-old wall in the backyard and you could see (past the tangles of alarmingly improvised power lines) down the hill to the Mediterranean sea.
We went to a cafe down the road and had a Greek feast under grapevines for a hilariously manageable 8€.
I tried my damnedest to ignore the fact that my body was rebelling with a severe head cold and I ventured into the city anyway with a group of travelers we’d met at the hostel. We found a hookah bar, and the staff lavished us with more than we’d asked and more than we were expected to pay for – tapas with everything, free hookahs, cheap drinks, and barbed corrections when we were overheard speaking of Istanbul rather than Constantinople.
I wanted so badly to join the rest of the party on the booze cruise around the bay, on which my good friend John would, by the end of the night, sacrifice his nipple on a bathroom fixture. But my body needed to lay supine, and while the rest of the Mediterranean was sipping in the first of the night’s libations, I found myself staring at the pine slats of the upper bunk, my phone snuggled between them and broadcasting the absurd Red Bull leap from the stratosphere.
I practically waterboarded myself with free tea and my health seemed to be on the upswing the next day. John was considerably worse off, having only just begun the arduous trek to relative sobriety at around noon, by which time we were amidst 4th century ruins – the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda. The ruins demarcated the beginning of organized religion. Commissioned by the Roman Emperor Galerius to celebrate some bloody victory, it was used first as a polytheist temple, then converted to a Christian church by order of Constantine the Great himself, seized by the Ottomans in 1590 and turned into a mosque, then finally restored to a Christian church in 1912.
In spite of these crises of faith, and withstanding the tremors of the Earth, the fossils of ancient empires lived in stark contrast alongside the pathetic constructs of modern Greece. The communist-era buildings looked like they’d been conceived in a cubist fever dream and constructed out of recycled milk cartons. These architectural abortions sat just steps away from the masonry and marble that housed our embryonic civilization.
And there was the haze of the financial crisis hovering over everything. The emblems of the Golden Dawn Party (a fascist fringe group that was growing at an alarming rate) littered the city and the hammer and sickle were everpresent. Every block was half vacant with shuttered storefronts stippled with graffiti, much of it political, and all of it left in aimless posterity by disgruntled millennials – a demographic of which almost half suffer unemployment.
The whole place was built up over the ruins of an almost mythical antiquity and was just nipping at the heels of modernity. It was as though everything had been stuck fifteen years in the past – dated color schemes, advertising done entirely in WordArt, gaudy printed tile. Sometimes I would walk into a store and feel like I was in a Florida tourist trap in the late 90s.
One afternoon we banded together with a group from the hostel in search of a family-owned restaurant that had been highly recommended in the tourist literature. We walked up the street on which it was alleged to have been and found nothing. Not a trace of this restaurant; no silhouette of signage, not even a ghostly storefront. No ruins. Just the unrecognizable skeleton of something great. Deflated promise.