Ah you, Greece, they have been telling me all about you for what seems like forever.
Whether it be walking along the Corniche in Alexandria or exploring ancient Sirkap in the foothills of the Himalaya or racing across the arid plains of Iran it is evident that your legacy spans far.
I have seen you in the playful green eyes of blonde haired Pashtun men staring back at me through rearview mirrors as they drive me through manic cities, I have seen you reflected in Gandharan art, I have seen how you have inspired the great architects of Europe, I have seen the marble statues in many cemeteries that all seem to harper back to you. It was inevitable that I would one day appear on your shores and now it is time.
While sweeping across the Mediterranean I felt a rush of excitement and apprehension. As the desert of North Africa faded behind me I realised I was returning back to the continent of my youth.
It had been four years since I had left. A time when I had promised myself never to return. I had become disillusioned, the last spores of the meteor that was the 20th Century were fading forever, now it was all about scrolling and social media. Europe was dying, the true beauty of the west was like a great star collapsing in on itself. Yves Saint Laurent was dead, his eloquent French expression never again to radiate through our universe, the eccentricity of Diana Vreeland gone, people who really knew about art and style. Paris was full of imposters now and award shows were reduced to nothing more than High School Assemblies. Things previously considered bad taste were now considered beautiful. There was nothing left to hold me in Europe anymore, even those I had loved in my family were all gone and some cherished friends too.
Time does heal I guess you could say or you just forget. I didn’t know what to expect. The world had just gone through the trauma of Covid-19 and even though the engines were starting up again I wondered how much Europe really had changed. Could it have gotten any worse from when I had remembered it last?
I wasn’t coming back because I missed it though but rather to do some shopping. I don’t like to talk about the situation in my new homeland as I love it dearly and until now I have experienced an advanced level of kindness unmatched anywhere else. It has been getting harder to find certain products hence my journey to Greece.
My last trip had been to Pakistan and strangely I didn’t experience any of the culture shock that other travellers do when arriving in Lahore. Lahore is alot like the city I live in now, the same chaos, the same dust and heat, the same cityscapes. If you had told me I would experience culture shock in Europe there is absolutely no way I would ever have believed you but that is exactly what happened after clearing customs in Athens airport.
You have to remember I have been living in a very conservative Islamic society although not a part of it, an outsider looking in, an expatriate so to speak. In all those years I only saw a handful of westerners and even now post Covid I still don’t see that many.
In the airport terminal I went into a bookshop. I know it sounds strange but I noticed Prince Harry’s book “Spare” on sale and at that moment, feeling how odd it was to see that book along with badly dressed sunburnt tourists milling around, naked limbs all over the place and the quietness, the quietness of Europe, I began to feel rather panicked as it all felt just so alien. I felt worried and tearful and had to sit in a café just to compose myself.
Growing up in a time of Gorbachev, Pravda, imminent nuclear strike and the Iron Curtain to me Greece was always that far off satellite, cut off from the rest of us by the East Bloc, a beacon of hope in a region I perceived as hostile.
That is why when driving into Athens I realised the city had probably not been able to hold out from it’s neighbours. Athens visually reminded me alot of Bucharest, hints of Istanbul were there too along with that Fascist architecture seen around the main train station of Milan, all that then covered in a thick coat of graffiti and broken sidewalks.
I had been aware that Athens had a graffiti problem but I was prepared to accept it all, even the tiniest scribble a form of human expression. I had hoped it would be like Copenhagen’s Christania but on a huge scale but sadly it was far from it. Athens feels tough and run down and the graffiti just made it worse.
My days in Athens were spent in utter confusion. How could this city have produced such heavenly works of art? Why did the woman get angry when I told her I wanted a five day metro pass, why was everyone wearing black, why were there riots and strikes every other day, why were four metro stations all closed in a row and the station I was supposed to get out at was in darkness, why did Plaka feel so Disney and out of touch with reality?
At night the Parthenon was lit up as if the goddess Athena was hosting an event up there along with Dionysus and Hermes, a life of luxury while the rest of us scurried around down below dodging tear gas and tripping over discarded spray paint cans.
After getting over my inital shock I began to notice that the Greeks are actually some of the nicest people I have ever met. One became surprised when talking about Cleopatra VII (as you so often do!) that I mentioned how wonderful it is that she was Greek. The woman almost embraced me while telling me I’m the first non Greek she ever met that was aware of this fact. The food too, it was just delicious. There is a neighbourhood called Metaxourgeio, while by no means fashionable it was there I liked Athens the most because it just felt real, the type of place that is not trying to show off.
I feel that although Athens lacks beauty it’s lovely, curious inhabitants really make up for this. I can’t gush about Athens and although the city was at times frustrating all in all I had a nice time and was able to view some of the very best art humankind has to offer.
At times I have forgotten why I live in Africa, it gets easy to complain and compare and to imagine other places as being better. I feel sure now that I’m living in the right place. Athens gave me the boost I needed to return back home and carry on with my life, more secure in this region than I ever was before.
Yves Saint Laurent would often return to the place he had grown up in, North Africa, for inspiration, infact his ashes are scattered in Marrakech. Paul Bowles could never leave Tangiers nor could Isabelle Eberhardt give up on Algeria.
I realise now that having the chance to live here has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Just the other night while lounging in a kaftan on the rooftop of the villa I live in I watched a lazy moon, it’s sharp curve almost as it it was lying in bed and down below heard the faint sound of the call to prayer, still as exotic and as beautiful as it has always been.
Even though Athens was not for me it’s classical art, museums and people enriched my life just that little bit more and reminded me just what I have in the here and now.