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We go to Athens on the thirty-seventh anniversary of the November 17th Uprising, the popular demonstration in 1973 that culminated in a tank ramming through the perimeter gates of the Polytechnic University, twenty-four civilian deaths, and the demise of the nation’s seven-year military junta. We go to Athens blurry with new love. We go to Athens with a borrowed camera, a Nikon D3X, and lens attachments worth more than the cumulative savings in the Greek National Bank. 

We can afford this at 24 and 28, in 2010, as national economies are crumbling around our shoulders, because we are part of a new elite minority, a tiny world order. We are employed by the richest of the oil and gas emirates to teach the daughters and sons of its sheikhs and sheikhas the finer points of life—how to create and how to think. We are professors at an American university in Qatar, a school of art and design.

The camera belongs to the school. The anniversary belongs to the Greeks; they honor it annually with a protest march that begins at the University and ends with a ritual stoning of the US Embassy. The love is our own. It arrived suddenly and without remorse on the heels of Ramadan and before the sacrifices of Eid al Adha (the holiday granting us this four-day freedom from the conservative strictures of Sharia law and our own Human Resource department where public displays of affection and premarital passions are concerned).

Upon discovering our arrival date’s coincidence with the protest, we look online at a map of the city, note our hotel’s proximity to the Polytechneio (very near) and read the Wikipedia article about the uprising. We shrug and agree not to mention it to our parents. If our hearts flutter, it is not out of fear.


My father, an international man of mystery (actually, a marketing executive for a chemical company), tends to have contacts in the cities I travel to. In Athens he knows V, the son of a European captain of industry, who has recently married some young model-type, and who, as a gesture of business congeniality, had invited my parents to his wedding on an idyllic island the summer prior. “Big bucks,” my mom tells me on Skype, with a sigh over their absence on Santorini, “maybe you could get dinner with them. They are beautiful people.” She has evidence of this from Facebook. My father will forward V our travel information post-haste.

Whether Ben and I are beautiful people is another story, how well we can gel with the uber-rich minority of the Hellenic peninsula is not a concern. We are concerned with each other and each other’s genius thoughts and hilarious jokes and that is all. If it works out, we will meet V and his bombshell bride—good or bad, the experience will be a memory. But it is quickly decided that it will not work out when, several days before our departure, an email from Athens ricochets off my father in New Jersey and back to the desert with this to say: I have to politely point out that the location of your daughter’s hotel has had a surge in crime rate during the past year, I will be more than happy to find and book a different hotel, if she so desires. What I would need for that is what amenities she needs close by, what her budget is and her booking info.

No thank you, polite V. We live in the Middle East. We are hard. We have booked a discount package. We can do this ourselves. Worried correspondence from my father begins to flood my inbox.

To add to this were the daily news cycle reverberations regarding a series of parcel bombs addressed to various embassies throughout Athens at the beginning of the month, with weighty targets such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. Though the letter-encased explosives were only strong enough to singe their envelopes upon opening, the act garnered global attention and shut down the post offices and airport for a day. The domestic anarchist group suspected of masterminding the plot called themselves the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire.


It should be said that we chose Greece as a destination—our first destination as a jet-setting couple of excitement—not as much out of intrigue, as out of frugality. Likely due to the protest potential and frequency of parcel bombs, our travel package was as inexpensive as Qatar’s national carrier offered and we joked a little to our co-workers about the time being ripe to take advantage of the country’s economic woes. Cheap Greece—shame of the EU, wonder of the new-moneyed long weekender! A place long imagined as untouchable from our family couches and demanding classrooms on the east coast of the U.S. (homeland, second birthplace of democracy), was now one we had to reach down to, like wing-heeled, wallet-bearing demigods.

The night before we leave, an American woman is bludgeoned (not to death, just to the hospital) in a riot near the central Syntagma Square. This incident leads us to the State Department website which maintains a permanent warning to avoid demonstrations and strikes in the country, yet, we are assured “these activities for the most part are orderly and lawful”. We check online reviews of the hotel—the Melia Athens, off Omonia Square—and they range from “Someone stole my laptop from my room!” to “Great hotel! Perfect for a short visit to Athens!” to “Dodgy area . . . next to drug dealing locations.” It is close to the metro and the Archaeological Museum though.  Even still we shrug, trusting only our guts, which only say go! We pack, we smile, we moon over our good fortune. We practice with the D3X by taking pictures of my cat, who has never looked as perfect and crisp and demure as she does when captured through the camera’s miraculous lens.


It is in such a way—with one huge camera, two small cameras, a duffel bag, backpacker’s pack, an iPod and an iPhone—that we set off for the airport on the 16th of November in the early morning fog, far earlier than our flight necessitates, because promptness does concern us. We devour a plate of French fries and a stale cheese croissant in the food court while we wait, but talk of feta and olives and wine. We are armed with two iPhone apps which will be used to navigate the ancient streets and agoras, and a plastic folder of essential accommodation details, confirmation numbers, and obsessively stapled print outs from TimeOut.com, the New York Times travel section online supplement, and so on. 

We board the plane with an Orthodox priest whose pleated black robes and structured cap look fussy and byzantine compared to the thobes and suits that surround him. A woman has a near panic attack about being assigned a window seat, demands loudly of the flight attendant first adjustments, then apologies. Settled in, we fly—four hours in the air, over Iraq, over the uniform navy of the far eastern Mediterranean. Through the cloud strata of our descent, we watch the city and the coast stitch together. We read our books and debate affectionately our method of transit to the hotel. If what V says about crime surge is true, might it be better to take a cab, to get a protected sense of the neighborhood and its degenerates? It might, but we don’t. We aren’t so fancy, not yet, and in our grounded excitement we head right from the terminal to the metro, my backpack bobbing, Ben clutching the D3X, unsure of the comparative safety of his hands or his duffel bag.

But there is no trouble in Omonia. Rather, we are charmed by the poster propaganda of the metro station. Here is the scrappy Greece we were hoping for all along! A man hands me a flier at street level. On it, we see fonts designed to rally, graphic faces of rebellion and raised fists, but we have no understanding of the Cyrillic that underscores the images. There are people in the square; some are shuffling, bedraggled, but many more are walking with purpose into the perimeter H&M, the corner stores, and McDonald’s. Some people are young and some are not, and some have dogs and some do not, but there is certainly no quick evidence of drugs, dissent or danger. We laugh about how we’ve squirreled away our money and passports in the deepest recesses of our luggage to enter a neighborhood that seems as familiar to us as any shabby street in Manhattan. O dads, o rich sons of millionaires, how do you get so soft and worried and the same the world over? Is it Capitalism?


Our hotel, on the corner of the tongue-twisting Chalkokondili Street and 28 October Street, is fluorescent and fluid on the exterior. Inside, it’s clean and quiet and full of brushed aluminum. Though I was the one to book our reservation in Qatar, the concierge hands all confirmation information directly to Ben in a bright orange envelope with his name printed across it. This is because he is the man of our party and we are traveling from a land where the man is without question the escort, signatory, point of contact, etc. In our good humor, even such blatant sexism induces giggles, begs to be photographed once we reach the room. Ben puts the envelope over his face; his head is completely obscured and the orange paper is loud against the pale oaks and pressed linens of our suite.

We breathe easier now that we weren’t turned away at the door for attempted cohabitation, not tracked by the nanny state that employs us, sent back to Doha and thrown into prison. After weeks of self-control, we can do as we please, unmarried and enthralled, no gods or imams to offend, no students to absorb our bad example and use it to destroy their own traditions.

We undress and lay down. Then get up, get ready, go out into the world.


It is strange to touch in public at first. Shy and teenaged about it, these gestures take practice, are the work of an afternoon’s walk in Exarcheia. This neighborhood next to our hotel is home to none of the must-see sites on my printouts. No temples, no columns, but shaded lanes and music stores and comic shops and café-bars that aren’t chains. We feel immediately at home here and it’s no wonder­—this is the hive of Athens’ famous youth in revolt. People our age, who look like us, though maybe a bit harder, are gathered in little bars, sitting at tables in sidewalk cafes, drinking beers, eating sandwiches out of greasy wax paper. They seem normal, real, and engaged. We’d like to be their friends, or at least be friendly, but sense that we’ve acquired a distance from them; though we don’t say it to each other, we wonder how much we might look like bourgeois tourist types, and how that could even possible at our age. Relaxing into the scene, we find a table outside, order beers of our own and talk about graduate school, our experiences with poverty and rebellion back in America—the time Ben was arrested for evading arrest, the time I passed out in the driver’s seat of my car after a dinner and didn’t wake till dawn. Meanwhile, across the street, a man with a torch drinks lighter fluid, spits huge flames and asks for nothing in return. Our cheeks are hot and spirits high.


There is a spot in Exarcheia where, in December of 2008, a high school student named Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by a police officer following a hazy altercation and the alleged throwing of some bottles. His death sparked three weeks of riots throughout the capital and a global display of support with demonstrations in cities worldwide. Though Greece had maintained a healthy culture of protest for the past several decades, these were the largest riots since the 1973/74 anti-junta uprisings, and they revealed the youth’s deepening mistrust of both government and law enforcement. Regular witnesses of corruption scandals, they were without jobs or soon would be, and beginning to feel the pangs of austerity. The boy’s death, accident or not, was a reason to rise up against the specter of unrealized futures. So buses burned, buildings burned, rocks and paint and firebombs were thrown. Though we must have walked past the Tzavella Street site of the shooting on our way to and from the hotel, we failed to notice the plaque dedicated to the young victim on the corner. Again, aside from his name and “age 15,” we would have been able to translate nothing from the Greek of this memorial.


Because we are so in love—bright colored, warm-tummied, fever-fast talking love—harsh realities do not readily capture our attention. Yet even through this haze, the next day we cannot help but observe the Greeks looking collectively somber in the subway cars, dressed in black and brown pants and dowdy old coats. The kissing teenaged couples one so often notices on vacation are few and far between. No one looks like how I imagined V or his model wife, with coiffed, clean hair and island-browned skin. These Greeks, the ones we commute with (they to work or wherever, we to the Acropolis), seem dull, beat down, vessels only to the tragic side of their culture, that side we thought belong solely to immigrant grandmothers in movies and novels, those warped old ladies who cook and cry, live in American attics and never remove their headscarves. Here, they are everywhere and every age. They are far less histrionic, and therefore less interesting. Their strange moles and bookless hands bespeak a numbing routine of days and we are on vacation. 

We get off at the Akropoli stop and wind our way through the streets till we reach the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Few tourists are on the temple grounds; admission is 2 euro; we pay and move from pillar to pillar in awe of their age, the size of the footprint. This is where the D3X captures the proportions for which it was created. The site is crumbling but still massive, though there is no Zeus, there had been once and he was Olympian in size, chryselephantine in style, whatever that means. Columns bulge in the frame and we look small and pink in comparison like baby mice, like cartoon ants. Hawkers try to sell us whirly flashing things and soccer balls that squish out of shape when they are thrown against the sidewalk. Sun shines into our eyes when we look up at the scrubby bluffs of the Acropolis from this low lying plain. We are so impressed with our photos that we decide not to make the ascent till sunset. For the light, for the romance. 

To that end, since it is still early afternoon, we take our time over lunch before heading to the Museum of the Acropolis for a preliminary education. Here, we discover that most of what mattered on the buildings in the ancient times is in other parts of Europe for the foreseeable future. The Elgin Marbles are cool and collected in the British Museum, so we are left to wander through a sparse forest of naked kouros, all striding in different directions with blank eyes, placid smiles, absent penises. On the third floor, we watch a movie on the history of the Parthenon, but it doesn’t sink in well; the details and dates make the structure seem less transcendent than we want it to be. We’d rather just see it already and with nods of recognition to our mutual tire, we leave.

But as soon as we get outside, it starts to pour. Stuck under a soggy awning on the road that leads to a world wonder, we stand with a half-dozen Greeks who grimace at the empty toy train used to ferry tourists to the top. Once the weather subsides enough to leave, Ben wraps the camera up in his jacket, and we head back, certain that in our two remaining days we’ll catch it right. The clouds are still heavy over the bowl of the city; our pace is swift.


En route to the Melia, it is eerily quiet. This is something we’ve become used to in a place, but that place is Doha, and it’s to be expected there—we live in the space age empty center with all the other marooned expats. Athens is made for people and watched by gods; the hush is suspect.  On the walls of the buildings in the neighborhood fanning out below the Acropolis, there is graffiti, less than there is in Exarcheia, but we notice it more because of the quiet and the quaint surroundings. It reads schizophrenic. A pocket of geraniums followed by a blue scrawl: “a melancholy town where never smile”; a sleeping mama cat and kittens, “FIRE TO THE PRISONS”; a picturesque church, its shaded cistern, then a peppering of Circle-As shot along the side of a stucco house. 

It is not even dinnertime, but steel screens have been locked down over the storefronts. Windows are opaquely dark, making it hard to tell if a business is closed for the day or for forever. Leaves slip under foot and the occasional taxi flies past on the wet macadam. We see a cluster of cops on the corner and close ranks by holding hands, talk about tomorrow’s sightseeing plan, the evening’s meal. We are thinking mostly about sex. When we get to 28 October Street, we are met with a sight at once both real and not at all real. It is a line of riot police, with full gear and body shields, blocking the intersection next to our hotel, the front of which is also battened down, expectant of chaos. 

I am shaken slightly. Awed more, as if I’d forgotten all about the possibility of such a thing here, on this day. I want a picture. “Don’t take a picture like that!” Ben warns, as I raise a point & shoot to my face. “Be discreet.” So I shoot at hip level as we pass them then trundle through the revolving door, where other tourists-like-us are questioning the front desk with frantic what is happening/what sort of country is this and even the concierge looks rattled. We head to our room and turn on the news, but finding nothing of impending street fights, we are quickly distracted by the bed and the endless possibilities that come with the two of us lying in it.

Later, as Ben sleeps beside me, I listen for anguish through the window we’ve cracked. A crowd on the verge. The first rock pelted against plastic. The air is static and damp and sounds echo through the streets as if through canyons, but all I absorb is the muted chatter of the police below and occasional CB radio beeps. The road makes secret noises. I am happy. I breathe the calm, releasing breath of a woman who has had major life requests satisfied, simple and audacious as they are: she is living. She is having sex in faraway places with the same man, who (though she hasn’t said so to him yet) she’s pretty sure she loves. When she looks at his face, asleep or awake, she wonders if she’s ever seen anything quite as beautiful. It is fortune almost impossible to comprehend, while the world outside seems so unlucky of late.


When we emerge, we don’t know what time it is, just that it is dark and we are hungry. The tunneling streets of Exarcheia host gatekeeper cops at every second or third intersection. After we pass too many of them to say nothing, Ben approaches one. “Do you speak English?” he says into the back of a boxy flak jacket, a perfect augment of Aegean machismo. The officer barely regards us before tossing a gesture and grunt at a figure shadowed beneath a nearby awning. We see him mostly from the rise and fall of his cigarette. The cop swaggers over to us mid-drag.

“Hey-lo,” he nods. We nod back.

“Is something happening tonight?” Ben asks. “Why are there so many police?”

Behind him, I up-speak, “a riot?” and giggle out my nerves. I immediately hate myself for this.

In clear-enough English the officer says, “It is not safe for you to walk here now.” He flicks his butt to the curb and walks back to his cohorts. His statement has an air of annoyed gravity. It doesn’t sound like lip service or captain’s orders for annoying tourists. It sounds serious. We obediently turn away from them and toward the city center, which feels like that of a safe haven, but as these things go in Athens, typically is not.

Our conversation veers towards civil unrest. Ben has been to a demonstration before, he tells me. There is some discussion between us over what qualifies as a “riot”, but he was at the 2005 protests in DC when George W. Bush was inaugurated for a second term. As the motorcade approached the White House, the flanking protesters used eggs, cops used pepper spray. I have only seen a demonstration from a five-story remove through the tinted windows of the Minskoff Theatre lobby in 2000 where my family was intermissing Saturday Night Fever: The Musical anda crowd was protesting the WTO below us on Seventh Avenue. I vaguely recall people dressed as papier-mâché sea mammals, but this might be a crossover memory from the performance.


Passing safely through an empty Syntagma Square, we eventually find ourselves at Brettos (self-proclaimed “oldest distillery in Athens”) in a library of booze, bottles of every color backlit on fluorescent bar shelves. It is is vibrant scene, almost pulsing, when paired with pine-flavored wine that clears our sinuses and makes us drunk all at once. We have chunks of sharp cheese, a dish of olives and little toasts and if this isn’t happiness I don’t know what is. I spin on my bar stool; kick my legs like a kid. The few other patrons are hunkered down in groups drinking brandy from little cordial glasses so foppish they make a mockery of their glum expressions. Our wine glasses are very fine and elegant. We can’t stop, won’t stop, drinking this retsina, and eventually have enough confidence to ask the quiet bartender his take on the city’s strange chemistry this evening.

“A boy was killed . . .” he trails off and heads to the back room, as though he’s remembered props necessary for his explanation. He doesn’t come back for a while. When he does, he refills our glasses, puts down more bread, cheese, olives. “People are angry,” is how he finishes his thought, then adds “People here are very tough.” It’s hard to say whether this means thick-skinned, aggressive, or what. We shake our heads like we know exactly what he’s talking about. He walks away and we keep on gnawing rusks, trying to get as many colored bottles as we can into the frame of the camera. 

“If he’s talking about the boy who was killed in 2008, whose death started all the riots, he’s wrong about his anniversaries,” I whisper tipsily to Ben. “Because he was killed in December, and this is the anti-junta anniversary. This is November. We read about it online! When they march on the embassy do you think they bring their own stones or pick them up off the street?”

“Who are you?” he laughs at me. “How do you remember this stuff?” He lives in hushed terror of mind atrophy, his family’s Alzheimer genetics. I have the most embarrassing memory. I forget nothing, so much so that I believe I can remember the future, like Cassandra, and those misfortunes that befell me once are bound to befall me again and again.  I’ve had boyfriends with bad memories before. Might Ben forget this trip one day? It is the best trip two people have taken together, ever. In the history of the world.

Maybe he intuits my descent into doubt because he leans over to kiss me and squeezes my side and it’s like Christmas with all the lights everywhere and the wine and it’s cold outside—a perfect little breeze flicks in through the door whenever another patron leaves for home.


When we finally leave Brettos we are thoroughly drunk, thoroughly unsure of our route back, but where I am better at instinctual directions sober, it’s a relief to find that Ben is better under the influence. With a little maneuvering, he gets us on the road that passes by the Polytechneio. We ignore the surrounding silence; fill it in with chatter of our own. We eventually encounter signs of life closer to Omonia Square, in the form of a sizeable cadre of drug addicts, crouched against the side of a building like grasshoppers, inner elbows pale and exposed. Without discussing it, we cross the street to avoid them. We steal long glances. Our bags switch shoulders or are wedged under armpits.

That this sight is more of a shock than the line of police officers we saw earlier in the afternoon is confusing. Have I never seen someone shoot heroin before? I have not. I have seen it in movies, but seeing it in reality, breathing the same air as people who are doing it is so different it’s stupefying. Under the gold glare of the streetlamps, the movements of the junkies are strange and unearthly, wobbles that catch on fields of gravity unknown to me. Lurches and slumps that come a moment too soon or too late to seem human. How bad are things in Greece? Bad enough not to hide your vices. Or maybe this is the new world, where back alleys are as safe as avenues and nowhere is really that safe when there is not enough good to go around. And good is money? And good is self-respect? This is what V was warning us of. Trying to protect us from or hide from us. But this seems real. It seems warranted. 

Here is where it occurs to me. We are the unreal. We are the outer limits. We are on vacation and the world’s economies are crumbling around our shoulders. We are 24 and 28 and toting around the most expensive Nikon on the market as though it is a common travel accessory. We are so in love that we can now french kiss in public without a second thought and we can buy as many packs of cigarettes and glasses of wine as we want. We can laugh at the absurdity of our luck, but what is happening? Where is the order? Where is the other foot that has dropped on these drug users, those ancient democrats? And when does it come for us?


When I was younger I read a magazine article in my father’s Scientific American that debunked the verity of the Oracle of Delphi. I was researching a middle school project. According to this article, the site of the inner sanctum was set on top of a rift in the earth’s crust and this rift emitted ethylene fumes that rendered the virgin medium ecstatic and caused her to hallucinate in poetic verse. Thus her prophecies, while bewitching and convincing as the earthly voice of the heavenly Apollo, were entirely chemical and entirely false. She could not see the future, no one ever could.  

I read this while sitting on the toilet. I still believe it was the right place to be disappointed about that sort of thing.

The Oracle, which at the height of its power attracted endless lines of beseeching pilgrims, fell into disrepair after the barbarian invasion of the peninsula, and finally went defunct when there were not enough willing people in the surrounding town to staff it. Its magic had died and thus it was subject to a twelve year old’s shoddy reconstruction of its wonder in diorama form using sugar cubes and superglue one continent and many centuries away.

Now it exists as a pile of foundation stones with new lines of pilgrims on modern missions to see it, but Ben and I are too short on time to visit the ruins of Delphi.


The next day, we follow a dog to the Parthenon. Unlike Qatar, and the vast majority of the Middle East, where stray cats have a napping and lounging monopoly on public thoroughfares, Greece belongs to dogs, and as we walk up the stone path through the olive trees, we pass a retriever who lifts his head in our direction and decides that it’s as good a time as any to have a stretch and survey the scene. 

Always a meter or so in front of us, turning back on occasion to make sure we’re keeping pace, he grins and pants in the afternoon sunshine. He brings us right up through the columned vestibule of complex, pauses to appreciate what is before him, then makes his exit, back down the path as if in a hurry to meet the next set of visitors. I snap a picture of Ben petting him before he leaves us, and in it they look like they belong together, and that Ben is the odd kind of someone who brings a pet along on holiday. Or like they are the stars of a live action Disney movie.

We have only ten minutes to explore though, because we’ve waited for sunset and closing time is just after dark. We are alone except for a few stragglers and a group of middle-aged Indian women draped in jewel-toned saris who shriek and laugh as their heels slip over the centuries’ smoothed rock crags. Ben and I part ways to cover more photographic ground after some posterity shots front of the temple. It proves difficult to know what pose to affect before this most hallowed of buildings, so I shield my eyes with my hands like the sun’s too bright (it’s not) and Ben decides to raise his arms above his head as if trying to scare off a large land predator. While odd, somehow both feel harmonious with the façade’s vertical lines. We ask a lone man wearing eyeglasses to take a picture of the two of us embracing, for parental review, and we look uncharacteristically relaxed and photogenic in the first attempt. We give him the little camera for this task, so the D3X is a third party in the photo, cradled under Ben’s elbow. Having witnessed, prior to our request, this volunteer craning his neck to frame himself and the Parthenon with his own point-and-shoot, I offer to return the favor, and Ben takes a picture of him looking somber—arms crossed, feet planted firmly on the ground—with all the columns in the background accounted for. He was there.


We hear nothing more of the protests of the night before, though we’ve stopped asking.  I keep going on about the riot police, explaining again and again to Ben how I was kinda scared actually, philosophizing on the strangeness of fear in modern life. I am only really afraid on planes, and all the low level fears and existential tremors I suffer daily go unnoticed, until their build-up breaks me down at unexpected moments and apropos of nothing.  In short, I’m like everyone else, but to him I want to sound unique and thoughtful so it must be discussed. While he was not scared, the scene made an impression on him too. And maybe it’s because we live in the Middle East that we dwell on it more, because people back home often ask “how it is ‘over there’” and they are referring, of course, to our register of the danger, the likelihood of our being kidnapped/beheaded, and the frequency with which we witness sectarian violence. While far-removed fomenters of such events might be our next-door neighbors in Doha, there is no obvious threat of any of this. But the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty is something we are learning to read by regional proxy and reading it on vacation is an unexpected twist in our already rapidly twisting lives.


When we pass by the 11th-century church ground of St. Nicholas Ragava, we peer in through the courtyard gates at the pretty garden and its resident cats. We’re just about to walk on when we hear a voice calling to us from inside. An old man comes out onto the sidewalk. Thin and neat, dressed in an oxford shirt, he has a white mustache and warm eyes. He says, “Come in, please” and raises an arm to show us the path that leads to the door at the end of the nave. We follow it and step through. Though we are not soul or heartsick, the dark of the interior is curative and we move carefully, breathing in the surroundings. Our host asks where we are from and apologizes for his poor English, then tries to tell us something about the Turks. We ask if the church is still in use. He proudly smiles and tells us it is the favorite place of the Athenians for Easter services, which is clearly an honor, but also difficult to envision, because it’s so intimate inside, there seems hardly enough room for a hundred people. And it’s so populated with fragile looking icons and reliquary—low-hung chandeliers coated with dust, skeletal flower wreaths hung on the altars. Sunshine slips through panes a story up and in this light, even the few scaffolding towers set up for restoration, but empty of restorers, seem to be a part of the space’s greater sanctity. We aren’t taking any pictures here and we don’t notice this change in ourselves until the man says, “Please take pictures, no problem. Just no . . .” and mimics a flash by making a tiny explosion with his fingertips, the perfect mime.

We take a few, so we don’t seem rude, but the light is too low and full of particulate and we are too distracted by the side altarpiece panel of St. Nicholas surrounded by hanging ex-votos. These tin offerings are stamped with symbols of common prayer: hearts on fire, marriage garlands, evil eyes, naked babies, men in suits, women in skirts, disembodied arms, and Volkswagen Beetles. They line the altar like birthday cards, sacred and comical at the same time. Newly minted, their reflections are bright, showing people still want here, have always wanted; still love here, have always loved.

“Thank you for being so nice,” the man says to us as we finally make our way out. We haven’t even left money in the offering box. We thank him too. “Not so many visit,” he says, searching the air above his head. “It’s beautiful,” we tell him, because it really is true, and say goodbye.


We are on the most famous street for souvlaki in the world; it’s all we want, and apparently all any tourist in the city wants at that moment. With some lucky timing, we manage to grab a patio table at Bairaktaris, which (according to one app anyway) is the most famous restaurant for souvlaki in the world. Being at a global bread-wrapped-meat epicenter feels like a big deal. We order too much food then drink big beers as we wait for it and people watch. 

This street is packed with vendor kids of the Oliver Twist variety—filthy, smart, and persistent. They offer us yo-yos and pirated cartoon DVDs and hip hop albums on a steady thirty-second rotation, wrapping up their pitches with dry uncovered coughs at the end of the table. We tell them “no” and “thank you” after our small change supply has run out, and they shuffle off, dejected. A big kid wallops a smaller one off stage for an infraction, and then jumps into an impromptu breakdance for the crowd, employing a transitional genius I cannot imagine possessing.

One of the people we end up watching looks familiar to us. He looks familiar because he was on our plane, and on the plane he was traveling with a group of staff from one of our sister universities in Doha. We could ascertain this from the logos on their hats and their general Midwestern scholars-of-engineering air. Now, he is alone at a table across the way, and seems agitated—he stands up, sits down, adjusts his sporty sunglasses, fusses at the pull-tab on his baseball cap. After sitting for several minutes, not ordering, not eating, he gets up and walks away in a huff, dodging the street kids, pushing past mobs of sightseers. He did not look like he was having fun in Greece and we pity him for it, assume it is the fault of his narrow perspective, the sort that comes part-and-parcel with anyone from that xenophobic region of America teaching that kind of dull, money-grubbing science. Or maybe it’s just that his absent friends are uninteresting and he is not in love.


It’s true that people in love are real jerks. The Greek gods themselves have entire sections of their family tree branching out from this fact. How many women did Zeus impregnate by morphing himself into the shape of a cow, or swan or rain cloud? Most of the minor deities were created by selfish transfigural rape or selfish consensual coupling. The world be damned. The heart wants what it wants and sees how it needs to. 

If, prior to meeting, Ben and I were people with a natural empathy for and tendency toward misery, now, transformed, we cannot comprehend it; in fact, we shun it, for it doesn’t make sense within our current, collective view of things. On our last night in Greece, we walk through the desolate shipping district of Piraeus and it seems like a bad joke or a movie set. The decay is contemporary—garbage bins overflow, and the air reeks of fuel and fish, neither in their prime. Such dingy vagueness couldn’t possibly mark the launch site of ancient fleets, but our apps tell us otherwise. We agree it must look better in daylight. This doesn’t help us not get lost. We are off the map, scrolling around haplessly on my touch screen for our location; till there is nothing to do except retrace our steps by remembering what we’d seen, which is the long way back, to say the least. If we were not in love, a fight would occur here, and as we are both faultless, it would be unsatisfying. Instead, we both apologize effusively for the failure of this last excursion afield—a prelude to metro nuzzles and song lyric thoughts like “in time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble...”. We are insane. The look on the face of the old lady staring up at us from her seat on the train, surrounded by plastic bags, says it all too clearly.


On the plane back to Doha, we watch a buddy cop comedy in coach and I drink off my anxiety with a bottle of screw-top airplane wine. I lean against Ben, savoring the remnants of our free time for public affection. He laughs the way I love at jokes, like a little kid, and I follow suit. High above some country or other, we are laughing together.

When the meal cart gets to our section, a man several rows in front of us starts blasting a line of expletives at the blank, beautiful flight attendant accompanying it. She wrings her hands, employs manic, futile smiles to placate him. It is clear she is new. No chicken dish left, is the problem, and this man has had enough. Fucking unbelievable! Criminal shit. It goes on and on and on in such a steady, heaving stream, that we give up not only on our chances of being served before landing, but also on humanity. What petty wretches people are, how difficult perspective is for them. There are things that will happen to you. This, we have learned from the phantom mob, the empty pediments, the needles in the street, the aging cross, the room for four days, three nights.


We step into the desert night. We can’t hold hands, so fingers squeeze where the others’ used to be, and hold onto the railing that leads down to the tarmac. The camera’s LCD screen fogs in the aquatic heat. The foreground blurs. There is no love, no danger in Doha, none that can be seen.  


Lauren Maas is a writer and editor currently living in Austin, Texas.