I’ve fallen for Athens because it is so like the cities I’ve already loved.
The prevalence of coffee houses, the laid back way of lingering over a meal or drink, the New York attitude of ‘do your thing, no one gives a shit’.
Mountain ranges, craggy and welcoming in the distance, circle Athens. Dusty trails wind up hills on which are perched tiny churches, tables and chairs precariously balanced on cobblestones damp from the morning’s cleaning. In the distance, there is the gleam of the sea. It is a city that orchestrates a perfect blend of indoor/outdoor living. I’ve always loved places where you can sit and read or write outside, where the weather is not so drastic that you’re forced to contain your activities to the indignity of closed doors.
To be fair, the weather isn’t perfect. I was in the middle of a run the other day when thunder began to groan in the distance and the wind picked up. I took refuge in a fancy cafe in Kolonaki, an area of Athens comparable to New York’s 5th Ave. Out of place in my soaked running attire, I sat among well-do-to men and women in expensive suits and dresses, watching the lightning through the edge of damp eyelashes. Later, I splashed home through flooding streets.
The next day, sunrise revealed the clearest sky, the rain having washed away the city’s dust, if only for a moment.
There are bookstores everywhere in Athens, sometimes three or four on a single block. I wish I could read Greek. I walk three miles alongside a highway to find a bookstore called Euripides, tucked into a hidden corner of a shopping district. I circle the entrance six times, eliciting looks from passerby, before I realize I’ve arrived.
It’s a beautiful space with several floors of books, but the highlight is the coffee shop on the main level, where I sit with Milan Kundera’s Infinity and sip espresso, glancing up every so often through the glass ceiling at the surrounding trees. I like the tradition of being served small cookies or pieces of cake with a coffee, something I haven’t seen done with such consistency since I frequented Euro-centric cafes in Singapore.
I stumble into a few other bookstores on the walk home, browsing the foreign sections in the hope of something interesting, but the selection of books in each shop that are in English are the same. Murakami, Jodi Picoult, Sarah Dessen. A few classics, many copies of Pride and Prejudice. I think the things we read while traveling infuse the way we see the city we’re in. Along with the new Milan Kundera, my thoughts on this trip are on occasion informed by Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules. It’s comforting, while traveling solo, to read the accounts of someone else who knows what it feels like.
My hair has absorbed the scent of cigarette smoke and dark roast. The coffee I sip at a cafe I’ve begun to frequent tastes bitter and dark, the hot drink infused with the smoke that catches on the wind blowing through open windows.
It’s weird to be overseas for a marathon. Things feel muffled, somehow, I am distanced from ordinary life and the routine of training. Though, this round, training didn’t go as I wanted from the beginning. I messed up my calf for a bit, my arch, my back. I struggled with extreme fatigue for a lot of my training, brought on by some combination of Houston heat, sleep deprivation and my endless desire to fill my schedule with the things I want to do. I was constantly adjusting my workout schedule in order to maximize my workouts and minimize exhaustion.
Training for Athens has been a lesson in intuition, listening to my body and figuring out how to adapt to circumstances on any given day- which is funny, because now that I’m here I anticipate that’s what this race is going to be about. I know my workouts have been solid, if not as frequent as I’d have liked. A few weeks ago I ran a 20 miler averaging 7:52 pace, then hit the trails at Ragnar averaging 7:30 pace on dead legs. My Yassos (10x800m repeats with equal rest) landed within a steady 2:50-2:55 range, with the odd sub 2:50 outlier. On paper, these are good statistics.
Yet… I don’t know what to expect, on race day. I love hills, but… as our friend Wikipedia explains, “[the Athens Marathon] is perhaps the most difficult major marathon race: the course is uphill from the 10 km mark to the 31 km mark – the toughest uphill climb of any major marathon. ” For those who don’t speak kilometer, that’s a little over 10 miles uphill. I’m not concerned about doing it-not only do I love hills, I’m also good at them. But I’m not sure how to pace it. I know it’s going to mean not looking at my watch, and running on effort- and that’s tough, because it means pushing even when you don’t know if you can. It means not relying on an even pace, estimating effort from splits you can easily calculate. It means running hard for the thrill of it, for a love of competition and seeing what you can do measured against yourself on a given course.
Tapering has been weird, too. Jet lag cracked down on me harder than I expected. The first few days in Athens I was up all night. I would step outside to watch the sunrise, then explore till I crashed hard in the afternoon, only to have sleep evade me for another 24 hours. But I’ve walked a lot- six to ten miles a day, fast, up and down hills and stairs and mountains. I found a 4 mile run that carried me about 800 feet up, then didn’t run for a few days, choosing to explore Athens instead.
This is probably not the ideal way to train, or to taper. We’ll see come race day. I’m getting taper crazies, anyway, which I hate but at least it means I’ve done something right because I am ITCHING to run. Fellow marathoners, you know what I’m talking about. I sat in bed last night in my little Airbnb (with the most GORGEOUS view of the city, I’m obsessed) and watched videos of the Athens Marathon online and just sat there drying my tears and wishing it were Sunday already so the freaky taper emotions would be gone and I could just do the damn thing.
I’m ready for it.
While all these race nerves hover in the back of my head, there are moments of pure, unadulterated joy in life it’s important to acknowledge.
I love life in Athens.
The beauty of sipping coffee under the sun in a coffee shop halfway around the world is never lost on me. There are moments that immediately cement into memories, like greeting the vendors who don’t mind if you try every color of olive as long as you buy a half kilo of something. I go back to my balcony after the bustle of the market and sit with grapes, olives and wine. The wine I pour from a plastic bottle, sketchy-looking, but I bought it from an old man with an organic shop down the road. I’d hesitated outside the unmarked doorway for a moment before he beckoned me in and said something in Greek. “Hi,” I said to him, my new default. The day prior a cashier spoke at length to me in Greek while I smiled and nodded along until he paused, obviously having asked some sort of question. I hadn’t spoken until then so I just said, “sorry!”- for not understanding, I don’t know- and he went, “oh, you’re speaking English! I did not guess!”
All of this to say that now I’m making sure to announce my ignorance of the Greek language with an intentional “hi” wherever I go. Anyway, I was searching for a bottle of wine to sip while I wrote or studied in my Airbnb (tapering marathoners with writing habits: we are not the partying type). I try to ask the guy if he has any recommendations for wine and we are clearly not on the same page with English, because he says, “yes, we have wine” and gives me a you-dimwit stare. I look around for a second, then he elaborates. “We have an organic, local white wine, 3 euro for a liter?” A little at a loss because I can’t actually see any wine, I nod and he grabs a plastic water bottle, turns to what appears to be a box of wine, which I missed because I was looking for bottles, and twists the spigot until the plastic is full. I hand over a few coins and am on my way with what admittedly looks like a bottle of piss- but is actually a crisp, delicious white wine.
I went looking for a ring too, a wearable souvenir, in the crowded corridors of shops that color the shadow of the Acropolis. Alongside the painted-gold olive leaf headbands and Turkish bath towels, the bottles of olive oil and soap made of the same, are little amulets and keychains depicting blue or green eyes. I can only find these around the more tourist-y areas, so I ask one of the shopkeepers what they mean. Her eyes grow wide and earnest as she grabs my arm. “To protect you!” she exclaims, shocked at my ignorance. She lets go and hands me a golden ring with a green eye in its center. “Silver is no color for you,” she scolds. “Take gold, for your skin.” I’ve taken to wearing it around, but I feel like I’m missing some part of the whole “evil eye” thing- I saw a man glance at the ring on the subway today. We made eye contact, then he made the sign of the cross over his chest.
I twisted the ring around so the eye was facing inwards after that.
I love watching the sky here. Each sunset I spend gazing into the sun as it sinks into a pastel box of oranges, pinks and golds. Like so many kids I grew up on Greek mythology, and can’t help but think of the gods and goddess whose portraits and temples are so much closer here. There were once whole civilizations before us with their own worlds, so drastically different than ours… and yet the jewelry they wore, now on display in museums of art and culture, is so similar to the things you’d see any woman adorned with today. Athens is history and present at the same time. It reminds me of tracing paper, as though modern Athens was the sketch on top of the stack, but one could clearly pick out the outline of each drawing that came before.
Travel makes you appreciate solitude, anywhere. The space to think, and breathe, and bear witness to a society that does not care at all what becomes of you. Or, maybe it does, but just for a moment it allows you to exist as passerby, as photographer, as an untraceable face. Solitude reminds you to be comfortable alone, to be grateful for the self that contains you and the world you are graced to bear witness to. Solitude, I think, reminds us of our responsibility to be conscious of our lives, of the time we have here, and to make the best of each opportunity, each moment we’re given.
Athens is glorious.
I cannot wait to embrace the marathon this weekend.