Greece Day 3: Street Markets

I’m a little bit behind on chronicling my travels. Looking back on my pictures, it’s hard for me to believe how short a time it’s been. I had a mild sense of disorientation when I realized a few days ago that I had completely lost track of what day of the week it was. I love how when I travel I measure time in days instead of weeks. Everything happens so quickly, but I get to live so in the moment that it all feels so wonderfully slow.

Today was our last day in Athens. We all woke up pretty late and didn’t get out until after noon. There wasn’t really much of a plan for the day. Sure, there were probably other sights to see, but we chose to spend the bulk of our day wandering the streets of Athens getting (just a little) purposefully lost in the sea of street vendors. The streets were thin and the crowds thick, but just like always there were so many things to see, and so many things to experience even without our explicitly trying to.

They sell all kinds of interesting things here: chess boards with colored Greek or Roman pieces; helmets, breastplates, shields, and daggers made in Spartan style; bronze figurines of different kinds of ancient Greek warriors; miniature statues of the old Greek gods and goddesses; pots painted in the ancient Greek style; cutting boards, spoons, and other cookware hand-cut from olive wood (I admit I was rather tempted by some of these). One store had a Satyros alcohol brand that came in a little glass container of a satyr with a giant penis (I believe the satyrs are mythical mischief and trouble makers?). I briefly considered bringing one of these home as a gag souvenir-gift for a friend, but reconsidered when I realized the satyr would likely be dismembered in transit. There were also a few stores that had some fun T-shirts that caught my eye like one that said, “Oedipus the ORIGINAL Mother Fucker.” However, since being flooded by free startup T-shirts while studying computer science at Stanford, I’m still trying to phase T-shirts out of my typical wardrobe.

Yet just as in any area heavily visited by tourists, many of the shops even two or three doors down from each other seem to sell the exact same things. I’ve always wondered how such stores expect to make money—if nobody differentiates their products, do they all just throw caution to the wind and hope for the best? Doesn’t seem like a particularly smart business plan, but I suppose most Greek street vendors don’t have MBA’s and are just doing what they know how to eke out a living.

When we stopped for lunch, I, still determined to try the most authentic or most outlandish foods possible, ordered a glass of ouzo (yes, day drinking… when in Greece?), some Greek-style coffee, and some beef souvlaki from a quaint little restaurant in the middle of the street market. Similar to the souvenir shops that line the streets, most of the restaurants don’t seem to do a particularly good job of differentiating themselves either.

Ouzo is a traditional Greek drink that is somehow made from licorice. It’s definitely a hard alcohol, likely sitting between 40% and 50% alcohol by volume. Those who know me well know that licorice is among the few foods that I don’t generally put in my mouth willingly. Suffice to say I found ouzo thoroughly disgusting and declined to finish the glass. Still happy to have experienced it though.

Someone explained Greek-style coffee to me at some point, and I’ve unfortunately forgotten the details but it has to do with adding the coffee grounds back into the coffee. Consequently, the coffee has a gritty texture and a bit of an earthy taste. This drink I actually quite like!

The beef souvlaki was not so impressive. It was basically steak bits seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little bit of thyme cooked on a skewer until well done (!). Then they served it to me on a plate without the skewer and on a bed of french fries of all things. I think I could have cooked better beef for myself in my sleep and, believe it or not, could probably have done a better job with presenting the food (the current joke is that, while I’m a halfway decent chef, my food rarely looks as appetizing as it ends up tasting).

As we roamed the markets, we came across a place called Doctor Fish where patrons pay 10€ to put their feet in tanks full of little fish that massage feet by nipping at them. Kristen had heard of such places and was very vocal about wanting to try it so we all bought 10 minutes. I think I can safely say even on day 3 that this will be the most unorthodox experience I will have during my entire time in Greece (though I fully expect this to be topped when I get to Asia). Having little fish nipping at your feet is a tad creepy at first, then it tickles, then, if you let yourself relax, it’s kind of interesting. My mother did not let herself relax. I’m pretty sure she spent the entire 10 minutes shrieking and squealing about how much it tickled, how strange it was, and how she’d be pretty happy to be done now.

As the sun started dipping beneath the clouds, we attempted to follow it westward searching for a good place to watch it as it set. We failed to find such a place amidst the densely clustered buildings, but we did pass by an interesting set of ruins (the origins of which I have no clue) and through a sort of town square where one vendor was selling, of all things, bottle openers attached to giant wooden… dildos? Strange things are sold in strange places. I have no more words for this.

As we continued walking, many of the shops began closing as if after sundown they would all turn back into pumpkins. Or, rather, after sundown they all turned back into sketchy graffiti-riddled alleyways and cramped corridors. I’ve so far been surprised by the amount of graffiti I’ve encountered in Greece, but I was even more surprised by how quickly a quaint, almost picturesque, street market turned itself into a setting from a murder mystery once the vendors retreated, lowering graffiti shields over their shops.

But Greece is the kind of place where something somewhere is always open, so we quickly found ourselves back in a nice part of town. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Athens called Kotili and I had the best meal I’ve had in Greece so far. The ambience was nice, there was live Greek music, and the food was marvelous. I was going to try my hand at souvlaki again when the server pointed me towards a different lamb dish on the menu. I have no idea what it was called, but it seemed to be some sort of braised lamb with a Greek cheese on top (the same cheese they use for saganaki?). The meat was super tender and almost melted off the bones and I felt bad for eating gelato before dinner because as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t finish the lamb if I had tried.

After dinner, we wandered around a little bit trying to find a good view of the Acropolis since we knew it would be lit up at night. Once we found one, we journeyed home early since we’ll have to be awake early tomorrow to catch a long train ride to Meteora.

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