I stepped into a taxi on my arrival in Athens and mentioned the name of one of the city’s most central five-star hotels. The driver was thrown into a frenzy, and not only because he seemed to speak no English. As we zigzagged at high speed through the jampacked streets, he tapped frantically on his smartphone and started calling friends, none of whom were any help at all. When, finally, we pulled up at the entrance, I was greeted by a wild-haired, gesticulating front-desk man who said, “We’re so sorry, sir. We have a problem, a big problem, today. So we have made a reservation for you in our other hotel. Half a block away.”
The problem, the taxi driver conveyed, was that every toilet in the hotel had flooded.
In the fancy new place where I ended up — it took us 20 minutes to go around the corner thanks to narrow, one-way streets — I walked into an elevator to be confronted by two thickly bearded Orthodox priests in full clerical dress crammed into the same small space, cellphones protruding from their pockets as they wished me, in easy English, “Good evening.” The mayhem of the little lanes I’d just come through, the sunlit dishevelment of the buildings, which seemed to be collapsing as much as rising up, the graves in the middle of the city: I felt, quite happily, as if I were not in Europe but in Beirut or Amman.
The real antiquity in Greece, I thought — and this is its enduring blessing, for a visitor — is its daily life; on this return trip, retracing a course I’d followed 35 years before, from the classical sites of the Peloponnese (ill-starred Mycenae and healing Epidaurus) all the way to Odysseus’ storied home on Ithaca, I was noticing that it’s precisely the slow, human-scaled, somewhat ramshackle nature of arrangements here that gives the country much of its human charm. Yes, you can still see Caravaggio faces around the Colosseum in Rome; along the ghats in Varanasi, India, you’re among the clamor and piety of the Vedas. But in Greece, it’s the absence of modern developments — of high-rises and high-speed technologies — that can make you feel as if you’re walking among the ancient philosophers and tragedians who gave us our sense of hubris and catharsis.
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