Thursday, 3 June 2010

Athens Portraits: Culture Vultures

They’re easy to spot as they step out of the Metro at Monastiraki, blinking like owls in the bright sunshine as they consult their academic guidebooks and check their maps.

In baggy shorts, cotton socks and comfortable sandals, they stand out from the usual tourist crowd. They’re dressed for comfort not style. After all, it’s the siren’s call of culture and not a package holiday of the hoi polloi that has brought them to Greece.

For years they have dreamed of walking in the footsteps of Pericles, standing on the very same spot in the Agora where Socrates once proclaimed on the meaning of life, or climbing the rock from where St Peter addressed the Athenians a couple of millennium ago. And now that they’re here, they’re determined to soak up every drop of Greek atmosphere.

Unlike ‘Touristas Gormless’, those more gaudy and garrilous visitors that flock to Greece every summer, Culture Vultures have little interest in sun, sea and gallons of ouzo. They know that they won’t find fish ‘n’ chips in the narrow streets of Plaka, and they’re glad of it.

They have studied hard for their visit to the city that gave birth to democracy, having greedily absorbed every book and documentary about Ancient Athens that they could get their hands on. They may even have taken night classes in Greek (though they’re unlikely to be ready for the blank stares they’ll get from the locals when they ask in heavily-accented Ancient Greek how to get to Hadrian’s Gate).

Modern Athens can come as a bit of a shock to their system. Where they have imagined civilised debate in the leafy foothills of the Acropolis, they are more likely to find a noisy crush of humanity (half of which keep trying to sell them plastic novelties as they study their phrase books and sip their coffee at the pavement cafeteria). The cars, the fumes, the cement, the litter – it’s not quite what they had in mind.

But they don’t care. The glory that once was Athens is the reason they’re here. And although they may need to scratch the surface of the dirty, bustling, modern city to see, it is still there – for the Greeks are just as much in love with that ancient glory as they are.