At the age of 18, the first trip I ever took on my own began with a map of Amsterdam spread out on my table and an Excel chart on the screen of my laptop. Although it would only be for four days, I took the planning of this trip very seriously, all the way from a to-do list to budget planning for each day.
As I sat in a café in central Athens years later, drinking Salep on a windy day, powered by the last remains of my willpower to leave comfort zones and finish this mixture of milk, orchid powder, and cinnamon, it hit me that few if any of the trips I have been on have actually followed the itinerary I set up weeks before. There I sat, thinking back to how I actually spend my travel days.
On my first day in a new place, I wake up nervous. The adrenaline gives me the push I need to wake up and get going before 9 a.m. I catch myself as I skip breakfast and head to the Acropolis, hoping to get there before anyone else does, yet taking my time as my surroundings get brighter with the rising sun. I look for photo compositions while my eyes follow the cats of the Acropolis to their secret hideouts. In the background, I listen to guides talk at schoolchildren in French and Greek as I walk up the hill.
At the very top, I admire how the marble of the Parthenon shines in the morning sun. The crowds around me get bigger, the noises louder. I watch as the Greek flag occasionally gets caught up by the wind and think of someone who may have enjoyed the sight. Back down I am figuring out the streets in search of Greek yogurt before I make my way to Hadrian’s arch, a historical figure I remember quite well from history class without knowing who he actually is or what he did.
Arch of Hadrian and ancient temples
I make my way around the site for free, enjoying the perks of being a college student in Europe. A few minutes in, my mother sends me a picture of a college rejection letter that had just come in. I feel something inside me crash, falling into even pieces like the ancient column in front of me. Nothing a Greek yogurt smoothie can’t fix, I say to myself, walking back to the yogurt place.
Eventually, I end up at the National Garden and take a break around nature, tired from misreading my digital map all the time, walking in the opposite directions. In Plaka, I decide that I can get that mountain tea cheaper and in larger quantities at the supermarket around the corner from my apartment. The streets are alive with colors and indistinct conversations as I look for curious things to catch with the lens of my phone.
Passing through narrow streets around Plaka and the Acropolis, I decide to see the sunset from somewhere high up by the time I reach the Monastiraki flea market, squeezing through masses of people and tea vendors with gold-colored samovars. The old mosque in the square makes me think of the streets of Pristina. I take out my phone as I wait for the metro to take me to Evangelismos metro station where I would take the cable car up to Mount Lycabettus. Eight hours by car lie between me and my old home. It seems so close and yet so far.
Sunset from above
At the top of Mount Lycabettus I watch the last rays of sunlight disappear behind the mountains. The more often blogs and Pinterest boards identify a place as non-touristy, the more touristy it becomes. As I sit there and watch the sky go from soft, warm pink to cold blue, I note that the best moment to see a sunset is not the time of the sunset itself but just some 10-20 minutes prior to whatever it is Google spits out. This is when the colors start shifting.
Not a word of English is spoken at the taverna around the corner from the apartment. Contrary to other travelers, I take it as a good sign and start with a greek salad, just like the night before. The family at the table behind me begins a game of backgammon as the waiter brings me my stuffed tomatoes. I decide to make up for the calories not eaten during the whole day and go for gyros, listening to the rolling of dice and the turning of book pages. By now Greeks probably think that Belarus has run out of food ages ago. “Who cares?”, I ask myself and let a piece of baklava mark the end of the day.
-to be continued –