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Nostalgia for Normalcy

Nostalgia: bittersweet longing.  Combining the Greek words: nostos, (homecoming) and algos, (pain), so the word literally means pain associated with longing for home. “Home” is a word loaded with emotion – a time as well as a place. What is the time that most of us are feeling nostalgic for? The recent past! Even though it was just a few months ago, it’s becoming increasingly shadowy.  But when we want to go back to normalcy, such as opening the cafes and restaurants, it’s not really the old “normal.” A few months ago, you certainly didn’t expect to go out for coffee and be served by a waiter in a mask wearing gloves with antiseptic gel on the table.

With our lives taking tentative steps to go back to “normal,” we’ll get a better grip on time. Google reports that there has actually been an increase in searches asking what day of the week it is! The idea that “time is out of joint” is a common feeling.  You wonder “what day did I go to the supermarket?” “how long has that package been sitting outside on the balcony?” “When did I do that virtual tour of Barcelona?”  Individual days drag by but whole months are flying. Time plays tricks on us.

In Greece we’re getting back to life.  On Saturday and Sunday mornings in my neighborhood, again the truck that’s full of old refrigerators, ovens and all sorts of scrap metal rumbles by, with the driver calling out “paliatzis! paliatzis!” (basically junk man), calling you to empty out your warehouse or kitchen and give him any old appliances you might want to get rid of.  The park across from our apartment building is open and parents are watching their kids shouting and  playing again on the swings. There’s gym equipment in the park too, but I haven’t seen anyone use it yet.  The spring evenings are intoxicating with fragrances and colors of bougainvillea and other flowers.

On days when it’s not so hot, we’re still enjoying mountain walks. That little roof peeking up amidst the trees is the American College of Greece chapel.

People are gathering again in the plateias (public squares), with, let’s face it, not too much social distancing. The media have loved to comment with “Unbelievable gathering of people!”  Police were even called in to our neighborhood plateia, with threats that they would close it. After a few days tempers fortunately calmed down.

Another sign that time is indeed moving forward is the end of the 6 pm briefings of the much beloved Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras (see living in lockdown blog), epidemiologist and head of the coronavirus reponse team. From now on, we’re told, there will be written reports concerning covid 19. In closing, Dr. Tsiodras warned against listening to “non-scientific debate.” He said it was easy for “lies to be mixed with truth. For truth to be presented as lies. For paranoia to be presented as logic. Such behaviors did not help, do not help and will not help in the future.”

“We thank you Doctor!”

Still too many hours of screen time — caught up in reading endless articles on the computer. Digital detox, where are you? News has moved from characteristics of the virus which we had all gone around repeating:  72 hours it can exist on plastic!  Symptoms like lack of smell! There are constant new findings, such as danger from speaking — tiny droplets — ‘aerosols’ that remain in the air. I learned that the “th” sound as in “unhealthy” produced many more aerosols than other sounds.  (That doesn’t bode well for English that uses this sound or Greek for that matter!)  Articles with cause for optimism: progress on a vaccine! But just as we’re getting all excited, an article reminds us how long the polio vaccine took to develop (years and years, then it wasn’t safe, it had to be redeveloped). And regarding immunity, even in cities with high rates of infection like New York, Madrid and London, the percentage of those who have “herd immunity” is way below what is needed in order for the disease not to spread.

There are historical articles I always enjoy, maybe trying to make you feel better: just think, if you were in quarantine in 17th c. London, you had to have a red cross painted on your door (shades of the Scarlett Letter) and it was guarded, and remember the only way to talk to friends was to shout through an open window. 

I learn that handshakes originated in ancient Greece (didn’t everything?) as a symbol of peace between two people showing that neither one is carrying a weapon. We need to find other possibilities: shaking your own hand, bowing, nodding and smiling. We’re not used to elbow bumps yet (if ever); that’s why you always see people nervously laughing afterwards.

TV and radio ads have abounded on how to make a mask using an old T-shirt, a bandanna, a cloth bag.  Sewing one. Nonsewing one. How to wear and how to take care of a mask. Contradictory messages: any type of mask will do, but cloth masks are less effective, need more care (washing in hot water, ironing) than surgical masks. In addition to the ones we’ve bought, I make a couple of them but I think I’m with columnist Jane Brody who wrote “I failed maskmaking 101.”

Like “opening up,” (which most people are in agreement must be done slowly with and with a clear plan, along with contact tracing), masks are not a divisive political issue as they are in the States. The Greek prime minister set an example when he wore one as he walked down Ermou, the main shopping street in Athens several weeks ago and greeted shop owners as they were getting ready to open. In indoor places like supermarkets and banks, personnel must wear masks; for shoppers, it is recommended but not required. Masks are obligatory in doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals and public transport, which I admit I was nervous about taking recently. The Metro was mostly empty. Half of the seats are covered with a sign not to sit there that you can’t miss!

Travel?   Expedia has a great site where you can visit just about any city in the world and dream with a video under 15 minutes. I entered the world of Cuzco and Macchu Picchu recently, along with a tour of Yosemite Park which I visited once many years ago on a warm summer day that turned into a blizzard.  If you like quirky offbeat places (in the states), check out the very entertaining Wild Travels.

In this time of vicarious and nostalgic travel, one of the most refreshing travel shows I’ve seen is a French program that’s aired nightly on Greek TV, reruns of course, with the Greek title given simply “Traveling with a train.” In each episode, Philippe takes trains within a particular country. In every sense, he’s the ideal traveler — low keyed but friendly, interested in talking to people and this is the most admirable part, he really listens to what they have to say about their lives and the country they live in. I’ve never seen him take out his cell phone and do a selfie. He’s open minded to new and different experiences, from good-naturedly eating sheep’s brains in Albania while drinking raki (“that’s a man’s drink! says the proprietor, wine is for women!”) to shivering while ice fishing in the wilds of Canada to dancing with a 100 year old celebrating her birthday in Costa Rica. Keep traveling Philippe! Bon voyage! In the video he discusses the book he wrote on train travel and answers questions on his experiences (in French)

Travel in Greece? The new bromance film ‘Trip to Greece’ the 4th one in the “trip to….” series and now being streamed on Netflix in six episodes, sounds like classic nostalgia: traveling around the country, tracing the steps of Odysseus as the description says, staying in beautiful hotels, eating out at gorgeous places by the sea.

Well, actually we could eat out too. The restaurants have opened but who really feels safe dining out, even if it’s outdoors? (I haven’t made it to the hairdesser either). Results of a survey showed that 50% of Greeks didn’t foresee eating out at all in 2020! I’m in no hurry either. A new Italian restaurant “Bellagio” just opened in my neighborhood and the take out menu looks great! Meanwhile we’re trying out new recipes. Here’s one of Elias’ creations: baby shrimp, carrot, spinach and pepper edging up against a hill of rice.

And our first yemista of the season! Tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice and lots of fresh herbs: dill, parsley, basil and mint, and baked with potato in the crevices:

The “Masterchef” show “continues, but let’s face it, it’s about 40% cooking and 60% reality show — bickering, backstabbing, crying, but also a lot of laughter. Sports news is still laughable == commentators have a lost vacant look when it’s their turn to report – ho, hum, another news clip of Lionel Messi kicking the ball in his back yard with his kids, tennis star Stefanos Tzitzipas hitting balls against the wall in his Monaco villa, Ronaldo “jealous of Michael Jordan” kicking a ball through a basket hoop, and endless shots of the new baby of NBA star Giannis Antetokoumbo (the Greek freak).

The pandemic seems to have awakened the dormant Rolling Stones, who have released a song with the lyrics: “I’m a ghost living in a ghost town, you can look for me but I can’t be found…I’m going nowhere shut up all alone.” Mick Jagger, you can go back to sleep…

Greece’s plan to “open up” in May to revive the much-devastated economy has been very systematic, the idea being that each Monday, different stores would open and the risk factor of each business could be seen:  May 4, hairdressers, book stores & electronic shops, May 11: larger retail stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, TV news explaining how NOT to try on clothes (not over your head), May 18: archaeological sites opened and you could travel outside your area on the mainland with car, train or bus, or boat to Crete (the only island allowed since it’s large and self-sustaining.)  An unusual mid May heat wave (with temperatures of 38 degrees (99 F) temperatures made the organized beaches pressure the government to open early: it was agreed there would be no alcohol sold at the beach bars or music played and there were many discussions on distancing of umbrellas (as long as there are no plexiglass cubicles around them as they’re considering in Italy!)

summer in Italy?

Outside Athens along the south, east and west coasts lie plenty of “unorganized” free beaches. I think they’re better and safer than the organized, not as crowded, you can control more where you go. And where we went swimming, there were no crowds. But it’s still a little like, “hey what’s coronavirus?”  Like you’ve taken ‘nepenthe’ the drug from the Odyssey where you forget your troubles. Truly you have a few hours of bliss. With the waves continually touching the shore, it’s like you’re in a continual present with time not existing.

On May 25th outdoor cafes, bars & restaurants opened (with many rules) and travel to islands is now allowed on the boats, which like so many systems, must operate at less than half capacity.  For days beforehand, you could see eating places getting ready: painting,  measuring, placing and positioning chairs and tables, Other places still had chairs piled up and didn’t look like they were opening yet. Unfortunately the weather turned cool and rainy which kept clients away.

Rain continues this week. I did manage to meet my dear friend Lia today for coffee before the heavens let loose in a thunderstorm.

Tourism is the big headache. The country desperately needs the revenue and because of its successful dealing with covid, tourists in other countries are expressing interest in visiting Greece, which has a list of 20 countries (or 29? The number keeps changing) that it is encouraging tourism from, countries that have also dealt successfully with the virus, such as Austria, Czech, Denmark, Norway and Israel.  Hotels are opening now for Greek tourists, and from July 1st, foreign tourists will be welcome.  Will there be any testing? How will that work?  Details need to be worked out.  The big issue as always, balancing safety with need to help the economy.  The cartoonist Ilias Makri made fun of the hunger for tourists.

The caption reads “The hotel owners welcome the tourists”

The secondary schools also reopened this past month. First to go back were the 12th graders, who need to write university entrance exams, then the following week, grades 7 to 12. Since many kids are not going the teachers have double work now: in addition to reporting to classes, they have to continue doing online lessons!  In a controversial move, elementary schools were opened today. Time will tell..

Greece continues to get a lot of positive press about its handling of the coronavirus. In a little bit of “left handed” praise, Nobel prize winner and op ed New York times columnist Paul Krugman, in writing about the need to not just flatten but crush the curve, wrote “crushing the curve isn’t easy but it’s very possible. In fact, many other countries, from South Korea to New Zealand to, believe it or not, Greece, have effectively done it.”  There’s a TV and radio spot that plays “ad nauseum” some would say, but I think it’s very good, in that first it looks to the past, then moves to the present and future (“it wasn’t easy but we stayed inside because we understood the reason for the rules… and we showed the best of ourselves… so now with more knowledge, we’re taking our lives forward not backward…we haven’t forgotten the danger but we’re acting united, responsibly and with optimism and what we’re doing now affects our future….the only way to move ahead is if we’re united together to stay safe.” Key words:  united, responsibility, knowledge, optimism, forward!

“Forward not backward!” This has been on my mind thinking about police brutality and the shocking racist murder in Minneapolis last week. And the anger and the protests in over 140 American cities. A clear sign that the painful past is still present today… Marvin Gaye in his 1971 song asks the relevant question: “What’s Going On?”

We were feeling a little nostalgia for the tourist part of Athens. Time now after over two months to take a walk in the city! It was a spring late afternoon with a deep blue sky; we were back to the clear Attic light that had disappeared for several days during the heat wave. We saw few cars as we were driving past the kallimarmaro (the Olympic stadium) and we easily found a place to park next to the Zappeion across from the temple of Olympian Zeus.  We walked past the Roman bath ruins near the National Gardens, that were found while excavating the metro, stopped to look in the Gardens; they were lovely and quiet. There’s usually an ongoing music festival in the Gardens in June, but this year that’s doubtful.

A map put out by the “Indian Chef” restaurant

We crossed over to enter the Plaka from Kydathinaion Street, one of its two main pedestrian streets You could write of course a book on walks in the Plaka, of museums, of bars, restaurants… we’re just going to touch upon it now. The Plaka, the “neighborhood of the gods,” is probably the oldest residential area of Europe, inhabited from antiquity.  It’s fascinating to wander around the streets, full of flowering shrubs, the only area where neoclassical mansions were mostly all kept.

A few tourist shops are open, some with the “pashminas” at their “special price”, olive oil soaps, calendars of Greek cats, models of black & red figure vases, sponges, helmets etc. but most of them remain closed probably until foreign tourists start coming.

Usually along Kydathinaion you’re pressured to sit down at a taverna, but it was so blissfully quiet. Some of the owners were just sitting around talking to each other. Cine Paris is of course closed with its beautiful roof garden cinema. Outdoor cinemas are opening June 1st.

We cross to the street of the Tripods, a very old historic street that in ancient times went from the Agora to the Theatre of Dionysos.  We’re headed for Lyssicrates Square, which faces directly down to the Arch of Hadrian.

This street of the Tripods, lined with choragic monuments, was a favorite promenade of Athenians. These monuments honored wealthy sponsors of musical performances that were part of drama festivals at the Theatre of Dionysos nearby. The one to Lyssicrates is the only one that has survived.

Lyssicrates monument and square

Notice the Corinthian style. This was the first time it was used on an outdoor monument. Try to picture this as part of a French Capuchin monastery that was built here in the 17th century. Lord Byron supposedly stayed here in 1810 (I think Lord Byron is the equivalent of “George Washington slept here.” He really got around in the brief period of time he stayed in Greece!) One of the surrounding streets is named for him, as are many streets in Athens, as well as a neighborhood (in Greek Vyronas.) Fun fact:  the first tomato plants in Greece (!) were planted outside in the monastery gardens in 1818. (Remember, tomatoes didn’t come to Europe until they were brought over by Spanish explorers to the new world)  Unfortunately, the convent was burned in 1821 by the Ottomans during the war of independence and Lyssicrates’ monument was left for ruins.  The infamous Lord Elgin negotiated unsuccessfully for it (fortunately!) Fifty years later it was restored.   I’ve heard people here call this the “Lantern of Dimosthenes” or the “Lantern of Diogenes” as one of them (?) is said to have prepared his speeches here.

If the monument looks familiar, chances might be that you’ve seen a replica somewhere.  I kept thinking I’d seen it too  — it turns out one replica, known as the Soldiers & sailors Monument (from 1902) is at 89th Street & Riverside Drive in Manhattan, several blocks from where I lived for a while.

Time to walk up the hill from the square.  The acropolis is on your left.  On the right, some wall murals.

We notice “Ta Spilia” (the cave) a taverna that’s been around for years, with music and dancing outside in summertime, is looking totally abandoned and overrun with cats. Maybe the taverna is waiting until the end of June to open when the foreign tourists come. Ahead of us is the church of St. George of the Rock, the beginning of the area called Anafiotika that makes you feel like you’re on a Cycladic island, with its white cube-like houses and shutters of different colors.


After the war of independence, when a new state needed to be built, builders from the island of Anafi were recruited in the 1830’s. The land under the Acropolis was cheap as it had been settled by slaves and refugees from antiquity, and here the Anafi builders settled and constructed their houses in a way reminding them of home.

Over the years the area has been labeled an “affront to the Acropolis above it” but fortunately, it has withstood efforts to evict residents and demolish houses. A homemade sign leading up to Acropolis was surely there in the late 70’s when I took my first trip to Greece. 

At the end of Anafiotika – you take Theorias, the road that skirts the Acropolis which passes in back of the seat of the 1st university of the Greek state, which is now a historic museum. Cats find the area to their liking.

Wait what’s that lovely melody, it’s a young man with an accordion, playing songs by Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis.  The road is quiet, very few people walking and the sound adds to our feeling of nostalgia, thinking of so many summers and outdoor concerts, listening to musicians playing Hatzidakis.  We wish the accordionist a “good beginning” give him some money and linger a bit to listen.  He’s playing next to one of the little Byzantine churches, historical jewels spread throughout Athens. This one, from the 11th century, (looking restored) is called the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. You can just make out the accordion player to the left.

We’ve reached the Acropolis ticket entrance – a few tiny figures are walking above. When it opened on May 18th, the president of Greece made a visit here in the 95 degree weather to make a statement in support of culture and heritage, and to join the very few others who must have enjoyed the refreshing lack of crowds. I’m thinking of the visit we took here the first Sunday of February when hordes of people showed up, it being a warm and sunny day, not to mention free entrance.  Here are the crowds then at the propylaea, the entrance. 

Crowds at the Acropolis in February

To the right of the Acropolis looms the Aeropagus or Mars hill,   “Are we game?” we said to each other. It’s been years since we climbed it.  Known for its slippery rocks, now there’s a stairway part of the way up.  But you still have to climb a little further up to see the view, so even though I was wearing sneakers, I start to slip, feel a little panic. Going down it’s the “sit down method.”  I vow right then that we must gracefully give up climbing the Aeropagus, along with other feats that I have relegated way to the past, like riding a bicycle in Manhattan or any city for that matter. The view of the Acropolis and of the Ancient Agora below is unbeatable.  As is the sunset, but we‘re a little early for that.

view from Aeropagus hill of ancient agora and beyond

According to mythology, it was here that Ares (Mars) the god of war was tried by the council of the gods for the murder of one of Poseidon’s sons and also where Orestes was put on trial for the murder of Clymtenestra and her lover Aegisthus, to avenge their murder of his father Agamemnon.  Over the years, murder trials, and also trials on corruption and treason were held here before the Council of the Aeropagus.  The spot is also where in 51 A.D. the Apostle Paul preached Christianity. The map shows the road from Anafiotika around the Acropolis on Theorias to Aeropagus and to our next stop, Filopappou Hill and the Pnyx.

Aeropagus and the Sacred Rock (Acropolis) are not the only hills in the area. Across the way is Filopappou Hill, known in antiquity as the Hill of the (nine) Muses. It was renamed in Roman times in honor of a Roman consul, Julius Antiochus Filopappos. and the highest point (147 meters or 482 feet) has a well known monument to his honor.

Filopappou hill is a popular walking spot, especially delightful in hot weather where it’s shaded by pine and cypress trees. We see more people than in the Plaka, but still not too many. One of the paths has a sign pointing to “Socrates’ Prison” and leads to where possibly (maybe) (not likely) Socrates was put into prison.

Looks pretty forbidding anyway

Much of the area had fortification walls of the 4th century b.c. Apparently, inside Filopappou, there were several neighborhoods of Athenians living here. The Dora Stratou theatre, where tourists have gone for years to watch folk dances performed, is also in Filopappou. (Are there still performances?) As you walk toward the Pnyx hill, you can see down to the sea. The building sticking up on the left is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.

The Pnycha (the Pnyx hill) is sometimes known as the birthplace of democracy. From 508 B.C. on, citizens gathered here – at one time there was seating for 13,500 — to hear debates and orators like Pericles, Demosthenes and Themistocles. At the end of the 4th century B.C. the Democratic assembly moved to the Theater of Dionysos, under the Acropolis, and the Pnyx started losing its importance. The hill to the left is Lycabettus in the area of Kolonaki. To be visited another time…

If you were visiting Athens before 20 years ago, you would probably climb up to the Pnyx to watch the “son et lumiere” show.  It was pretty impressive visually — they had hundreds of floodlights directed at the Acropolis – and you heard a commentary on Athens history.  I always wondered why they stopped it; one reason given I read is that the lights were harming the marble. Who knows, I think that sound & light shows basically just became out of fashion.  We stayed to see the sun falling behind the hill ahead of us. Even though Filopappou is open all day, it’s a place to definitely avoid at night. As the Lonely planet guide says “unsavory characters walk around at night.”  That says it well.

From the Pnyx you get a good view of the hill of the nymphs, where the Asteroscopio, the observatory, was built here in 1842. It’s one of those places that you keep saying you’re going to visit and never do. Maybe if it’s open this summer, this’ll be the year!  They even have concerts sometimes. This year who knows…

As we exit Filopappou, the sun setting, the sky darkening, we’re not prepared for the crowds of all ages strolling along the pedestrian walkway Dionysiou Aeropagitou. From rembetika to jazz, it seems that all the street musicians are back!

The steps of the Irodion theatre are full.  Is everyone under “nepenthe” again?  Coronavirus, what’s that? Nostalgia is lurking at every corner wanting back the past. After pressure from various artists and performers, the government is allowing the Athens Festival of music, dance and theatre to operate at the Irodion beginning July 15th but less than half full.

We can’t have the past back now exactly the way we used to know it, but with patience, wisdom, responsibility and optimism, (and oh yes a vaccine would help) we might get it back siga siga, slowly slowly. As the overplayed ad here says, “what we’re doing now affects our future.” So, menoume asfalis. Stay safe.  And this movie marquee has a hopeful message for us:

4 thoughts on “Nostalgia for Normalcy

  1. Nancy Ann Parkes 15 Jun 2020 — 20:00

    Hi Sherri! Loved the pictures! Made me very “nostalgic” for Athens and home and friends.


    1. Hi Nancy, thanks! Hope to see you soon and help you cure some of your nostalgia!


  2. Hi Sherri,
    You took me on another wonderful journey to numerous places, packed with interesting bits of historical and descriptive facts that were sprinkled throughout. Nice pictures, including food too (of course!). As you eagerly explored the paths and streets your eyes absorbed so many great details, which you shared in such en enjoyable way. Bravo!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sue!
      Thanks for your comment and I’m really glad you enjoyed the “journey.” So good to see you yesterday, even for such a short time —


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