Easter in Athens
The gods willed otherwise . . .
In a year in which Greek and Roman Easter fell upon the same day, I resolved to spend Easter on the small, remote island of Karpathos, which I had read about in an old National Geographic.
By this time I fancied myself an old hand at Greek travel and made the trip with the casual indifference of a commuter. Once arrived at the terminal in Athens I strolled through the empty customs lane for returning nationals, announcing in practiced Demotiki that I had nothing to declare, and caught a 35-cent bus downtown, where I intended to walk across Syntagma Square and pick up a schedule at the boat office, then off to Pireaus to catch the next sailing to Karpathos. But the gods willed otherwise.
The boats were on strike.
And it was not one of your typical Greek strikes, not one of those worker-declared holidays that they tolerate there, and everyone knows they will go back to work next Monday. It was a real strike, with much head-shaking and upturned palms, baffling even the usually authoritative old fellows in black suits who sip thick coffee from tiny cups at the coffee shop to Neon on Omonia Square.
I was stranded in Athens. Miles away, across the wine dark sea, in the charming mountain villages of Karpathos, the sturdy Romoi were observing Holy Week with their ancient rites and processions while I was stranded in the dirty cement canyons of Athens, listening to unmufflered traffic and breathing the same air that was dissolving the marble off the Parthenon. Odysseus on his journey to Ithaka had been frustrated by the wrath of Poseidon Earthshaker; I was put upon by the ill humor of the seafarers union. The Age of Heroes was indeed passed.
Omonia Square lies about a mile or so north and west of Syntagma Square where Parliament sits and blond and slender Scandinavians take their iced coffee in a sea of outdoor tables in the cool shade of trees and awnings across the street from the King George Hotel.
Omonia is not shade and graciousness, but commerce and traffic. All distances in Greece, I am told, are measured from Omonia Square, and it is on Omonia Square that sits Kafenion to Neon, the New Coffee Shop. New perhaps in Ali Pasha’s time, or when Otho the Bavarian was made King of the Greeks in 1833, but new by no other standard. It is a great, cavernous, high-ceilinged room on the corner of an ancient building fronting on the Square, strewn thick with small tables where old men sit in rumpled black suits drinking thick Greek coffee and reading newspapers and smoking continually. The waiters, in white jackets as venerable as their customers, bring coffee and water and empty ashtrays onto the floor, and the old men can sit as long as they like over a 15-cent cup of coffee.
“I will tell you what is wrong with America,” said an old fellow in a worn black suit at the next table, without my ever asking. “Everyone works too hard. You don’t have time to live life. I have a cousin in America, and I know it is so.”
What could I say? He was right. A Greek man gets married and has children and works hard taking care of his wife and kids and parents, and as soon as his sons are big enough to take over, he gives them the farm or the shop and they take care of him and he spends the rest of his life drinking coffee and playing cards with his old friends down at the coffee shop.
Middle-aged Greek men wear old, comfortable clothes and hang out with their buddies. They do not chase girls. In fact, they have as little to do with women as possible.
“Women are no good,” my source at the next table volunteered. “A woman of good character is almost impossible to find. You are not married? Good. You are better off.”
There are few women in Kafenion to Neon. By Orthodox practice, a man may marry three times, but I doubt that many use up their quota. I do not think Greek men have mid-life crises. I think I might learn something from Greek men.
(My story finds its way back to Greek Easter in the next installment . . .)