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Athens: It's all Greek and there are job offers if you can dance

click here to view a slideshow of images from Athens

March, 2010

My arrival in Athens was not the majestic Greek experience I had anticipated. It was confusing. For one thing, everything is in Greek, no pun intended. The airport is outside the city and the train into town chugs through poor neighborhoods with a multitude of run-down buildings.

I had booked a small hotel that was less than ordinary. I wasn’t familiar with the districts of Athens and I had unknowingly reserved in a scummy area. I was so shaken up by the walk from the train station that I hid in my room for the rest of the evening searching for a lone English TV show in a sea of Greek on a tiny set that must have been 25 years old. I was in despair. What had I done?! Why was I here? Then I remembered: I was meeting my group in a couple of days and embarking on a cruise of the Greek Islands.

I had just come from Norway, with the most peaceful and soft-spoken people. I was jolted upon my arrival in Greece. The Greeks don’t talk – they yell. It took a bit of time for me to get used to being continually yelled at but I came to enjoy it.

Athens is named after the Greek goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus. She is the goddess of civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, craft, justice and skill. She is the incarnation of wisdom, reason and purity. Athens is built around a number of hills on the central plain of Attica along the Aegean Sea. This glorious ancient city has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years. With a population of about 750,000, Athens boasts many ancient Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments.

The next morning, I gathered my courage and ventured outside. A 20-minute walk led me to the centre of town, where I found a bustling cosmopolitan city with no shortage of olives or feta cheese. My impressions went from scummy to yummy. Athens cleaned up for the 2004 summer Olympics and the contrast between the outskirts of the city and the centre was clearly noticeable. I walked to the Plaka, which is the oldest section of Athens and closed to cars. The maze of beautiful narrow white cobblestone streets was filled with souvenir shops selling white dresses, olive soaps and jewelry and restaurants with endless tables lined the streets.

I suddenly saw the Acropolis! It rises above the city and is visible from everywhere in Athens.

The word “Acropolis” means “upper city.” Acropolises were built in several ancient cities. The acropolis of Athens, built more than 2,000 years ago by the world’s most advanced civilization is the enduring symbol of ancient Greece. It is the city’s crown jewel, on a flat-topped rock 150 metres above sea level and holds its most sacred buildings.

Athena’s temple, the Parthenon is the most prominent building in Athens. It was constructed between 447BC and 432BC. Throughout the centuries, it was used as a treasury, a Christian church and as a mosque after the Ottoman Turk conquest. Other notable buildings of the Acropolis are the monumental entrance – the Propylaia, the temple Erechtheion at the north end, and the Temple of Athena Nike. Just below the Acropolis is the theatre of Herod Atticus, built by the Romans in 161 A.D. Concerts, ballets and other performances are held there.

After my scorching hot exploration of the Acropolis, I made my way back along the narrow streets looking for the perfect place to sit, relax, eat a Greek salad, reflect and watch the Greeks go by.

Many of the cafés and restaurants had guys trying to lure me in, but I found a quiet place where I wasn’t hassled. As soon as my salad had arrived, so did a boy of about 7 or 8 years with an accordion. He couldn’t play. He went from table to table trying to make a buck while tourists gave him money because he was cute.

I spent the late afternoon walking around the National Garden. It is a 15.5-hectare garden directly behind the Greek parliament building. It houses a duck pond, a small zoo, a café, a small library, a playground, ancient ruins and several young couples making out on benches.

I spent my second day exploring Greek Jewish history. I found a small Jewish museum not far from the Acropolis. The welcoming, multi-level museum is filled with old Jewish artifacts, many of which depict life before the Second World War. I bought a map with directions to the synagogue, but got caught in the maze of narrow streets. What should have taken 20 minutes to walk took me about two hours. All the street signs were in Greek, of course, and when I stopped the locals to ask for directions, I only got more confused. I turned down a quiet street and saw a group of people walking out of the synagogue. I had forgotten it was Yom Kippur and they had just finished their services. Was it a coincidence that I spent the whole day looking for my Jewish roots on the holiest day of the year?

That night, I met up with my tour group. We took a short evening tour of Athens, hiking up a small hill to see the alluring Acropolis lit at night, then to the monumental Arch of Hadrian, which separates the ancient city from the new Athens, and then the towering Temple of Olympian Zeus, which once had 104 Corinthian columns (15 remain standing today).

We had our welcome dinner at a traditional restaurant with live Greek music and dancers in traditional costumes. We were having such a grand time with the music, food and performances – not to mention the unlimited wine being served to us – that by the time the owner of the restaurant, a very large Greek man, dragged me and another girl up to the stage to dance in front of the packed restaurant, I wasn’t so embarrassed.

Every time I tried to sneak back to my table, he dragged me back to the stage. We didn’t know any Greek dances, but he showed us some moves.

At the end of the night, he offered me a job as a Greek dancer.

My tour group was leaving to Mykonos first thing the next morning. Otherwise, I would have accepted the position.

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