Thursday, 2 July 2009

Athens Portraits: Escape to Attica

Every Sunday from June to September, herds of seal-like heads can be seen bobbing up and down in the waters off the beaches around Attica.

But it's not an encouraging sign of a surge in the numbers of the protected Mediterranean Monk Seal. No, it's the legions of Athens shop assistants and other workers who have just one day a week to escape the scorching concrete and merciless steel-and-glass of the capital. They're not lucky enough to have a country base where they can retreat from the shimmering heat of the city and many don't have a car to make their escape easier.

So, bright and early every Sunday morning, Plateia Egyptou (Egypt Square) in downtown Athens sees a gathering of the clans with a difference.

Athenians of all shapes, sizes and nationalities form little groups of friends, families and assorted hangers-on loaded up with swimsuits, mats, parasols, beach balls and packed lunches, waiting for the coaches that represent an escape to the seaside and a few hours respite from the summer's heat.

They usually travel in family groups - sometimes spanning several generations - and they stake their claim on their patch as soon as they set foot on the sea-bleached pebbles. Beach mats are laid, folding chairs erected, towels spread, rubber rings and arm bands inflated for excited toddlers, and the air is filled with the scents of a thousand brands of sun cream (coconut, almond, carrot, fruit - even biscuit) as protection from the fierce sun is a must.

As the kids rush into the sea with a splash of impatience, anxious grandparents keep a wary eye out while many a mum and dad stretch out to work on their tans. Ancient, fragile aunts are led to their beach chairs and ever-so-gently sat down where they can enjoy the sight of their extended family splashing in the shallows for the next eight hours. A helpful uncle makes the trip across the road to the nearest shops to stock up on ridiculously over-priced cheese pies, bottles of water and cans of sugary pop.

By midday, harrassed mothers that have tried to think of everything start carefully unwrapping tin foil packages and opening up Tupperware holding anything from hastily assembled cheese and ham sandwiches to yesterday's left-over meatballs or moussaka. Fathers try (usually in vain) to persuade their offspring to come out of the water to sit in the shade and have a bite to eat.

Lunch over, and the air fills with a medley of sounds including Auntie's gentle snoring as the waves lap her ankles, the wailing of pre-schoolers worn out by too much sun and excitement, the soothing of parents trying to hush them (punctuated by occasional staccato screaches or slaps as they reach the end of their tether), and the tock-tock-tock of teenaged boys' after-lunch bout of beach tennis to show off their sun-kissed bods to any girls that that might be watching surreptiously from beneath their sunhats.

By the time the sun starts sinking towards the horizon and the coaches have arrived for the return trip, parasols and beach mats are gathered up, inflatables delated and rubbish discarded. Kids are dragged from the waves at the last minute to make the two-hour trip back to the sweaty city in their soggy, salty swimwear. And parents heave a sigh of relief that they at least managed to escape for a few brief hours before gathering their strength for the coming week of work.

For those of us lucky enough to have a country refuge - no matter how humble - and the means to escape to it, it's easy to moan and groan at the sight of the coaches arriving on Sunday mornings to spew out the hoardes of city-dwellers onto 'our' beach.

We lament the loss of our companionable solitude. We moan about the flotillas of bubbles floating on the surface of the sea by the end of the day (all that sun screen has to go somewhere). We whine about the noise of the intrusive hoardes that invade our peace and nab 'our' spot on the beach. We whinge about the rubbish overflowing from the bins. And we rant about the general disruption of our priviledged summer routine.

But we do it quietly.

For deep down, we know what it's like to be trapped in the city with only a weekly bus-strip promising any relief. After all, it wasn't so very long ago that most of the owners of seaside homes were themselves part of that breed of day trippers seeking an escape to Attica.

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