Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday in Athens...

Sunday in Athens is a little like Sunday back home...most of the local shops are closed and everyone seems to be taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the work week.  I headed into Syntagma Square at the very center of Athens to wander through the Plaka, the central shopping district.  Here the shops were open and it was bustling with tourists, although more people were eating and relaxing at tavernas rather than doing serious shopping.  That was good for me as I did intend to do some shopping (I still need to pick up a few things to take back home to friends and family) and the stores were less busy. 

I should take a moment to say that, as a general rule, I'm not a very good shopper.  It's just not something that I enjoy, and when I do go shopping it's because there is something specific I need to buy.  I'm not one to wander and browse, and I get frustrated if I don't find what I'm looking for pretty quickly.  The only exceptions to this rule are bookstores and food markets, which feed my particular obsessions and are therefore exempt from the browsing rule.  I've now been to 8 different countries and the only things I've bought, aside from the books described in yesterday's post, are a gift for my sister, Susan, and some papal souvenirs for my friend Trez at the Vatican.  I haven't bought a single trinket or souvenir for myself.  I'll bring home memories of interesting people I've met, delicious food I've tasted, and all the amazing things I've over 1000 photographs that I've taken.  That's all I need or want.  But there are a few other people in my life with whom I'd like to share something from this big adventure of mine, so off shopping I went.      

The shopkeepers in the Plaka are eager to sell, and if you even slow down to look at something, it's hard to get away from the salespeople who are standing out front just waiting to tell you all the good deals they have for you.  There are also a gazillion street vendors in the area, hawking everything from tweezers and nail clippers to toys to rip-offs of designer handbags.  You are not immune to them even while dining.  Sitting outside at a cafe yesterday afternoon, guys came by trying to sell me sunglasses (even though I was clearly wearing a pair), watches (until I pulled mine out of my bag and showed him I was already set for pun intended), helium balloons, and even some sort of stitching device that looks like a stapler but creates a stitch in fabric...which the guy continually demonstrated until I convinced him I don't sew and have no intention of starting while on holiday. 

With a distaste for shopping to begin with, I really dislike the hard sales tactics.  Even if I'm a little interested in something, I'm just stubborn enough that I'll walk away if I feel I'm being pushed into it.  And nothing seems to have a set price.  Everything is marked with a price, but if you pick something up and then put it back down, the salespeople automatically begin bargaining..."it's marked 5 euro, but for you I can do 4.  No?  How about 3 euro, or two for 5 euro?"  I'm not good in such situations.  I don't like dickering over prices, but I realize it's very customary here.  I see people all the time haggling with sales staff until an agreed upon price is reached.  I did manage to come away with a few nice souvenirs to share, but I gave up before finding everything I needed.  Unfortunately, that means more shopping tomorrow. 

Just like in other cities I've visited, there are all manner of performers working for tips on the streets of Athens.  Accordion and balalaika players are the most common here.  One thing I've seen only here, however, are children performing on the streets for tips.  Some of them are quite good, but it's sad to see them out on the streets at such a tender age working for tips.  Is that legal here?  I guess it must be because I see them all over the place. 

Which brings up something I don't see a lot of here: police.  In most cities I've visited, there are police in practically every metro station and you see them out in force in touristy areas.  In Italy, they were literally everywhere!  You couldn't turn a corner without running into both of the two kinds of security forces in Italy.  They have local police in each jurisdiction and the Carabinieri.  I had become very curious about the difference, so while in Rome I asked Franka, who sold me the Vatican tour, about it.  After much thought about how to explain it, she told me that the Carabinieri are like our CIA in America.  They are a federal force, rather than a local one.  She said the local police are a bit useless...they will walk right by someone spraying graffiti, for example...but the Carabinieri are very serious.  "If they look at you more than once, you are in trouble," she told me.  People do seem to fear them a bit.  I had become aware of this while in Ravenna.  One afternoon, a Carabinieri car came to a screeching halt in the middle of a street I was walking down, and two officers got out and went into a café.  Every single person on the street froze right where they were standing.  And I don't mean they stopped what they were doing to go over and gawk at the action as we would in the US.  They all froze in place and stood still as a statue until it appeared that nothing was happening except that the Carabinieri were just getting coffees, and then they slowly and cautiously began to move about again.  It was very strange, and that's when I began to notice the differences between the two kinds of police and get curious about it.  The regular local forces always looked a bit more relaxed, often hanging around in groups talking and laughing.  Most did not seem to be carrying any weapons except a nightstick attached to their belts.  The Carabinieri were much more stiff, very well groomed, and dressed in starched blue suits with red stripes, and a wide white belt that went not just around their waist but also over the shoulder and held all manner of weapons, including a gun.  Franka did tell me, however, that if I had a problem I should report it to the Carabinieri and not the local police if I wanted any resolution.  "They're ok with tourists," she said.  Admittedly, I was still a little wary of them. 

I've rarely seen any type of police presence here in Athens.  They aren't stationed in the metros, even at large, busy stations.  I have only seen them in a couple of the large public squares.  When I was in Monastiraki Square yesterday, there was a protest rally of some sort going on.  There was a large group of young people with signs and banners, and various people giving speeches on what looked to be a soapbox type set-up with a crude microphone and speaker system.  They moved off the square and into the streets marching and blocking traffic, but the two officers in the square just watched them.  There was no large police presence as you would see at a similar rally in the US.  It made me wonder if the police had gone the way of the dog-catchers.  Even so, I haven't seen any crime or felt unsafe since moving out of the original apartment I rented.  The metro stations are busy and well lit...even very pretty in some areas. And the streets are filled with all kinds of people; women and men, young and old, single people and families.  Despite the lack of police presence, it feels safe. 

Here are some pictures from today...

You can buy fresh slices of coconut from the street vendors...and they find all kinds of ways to keep them moist.

My lunch of dolmades and Greek yogurt.  Mmmm...they were delicious!

Almost every square has an old, small Greek Orthodox Church.

This is at a spa that offers fish therapy.  I had seen several places offering it and wondered what it could be.  There was a girl outside this shop handing out brochures, so I took one.  Fish therapy is putting your feet down in a vat of water with little fish that suck off the dead skin.  According to the brochure, they secrete an enzyme that rejuvenates your skin.  It also says that it doesn't hurt, feels like a "jacuzzi sensation" and is the "ultimate in luxurious relaxation." thanks!

Children performing for tips on the street.  This little guy could really sing!  Still, very sad.

Here's a street vendor trying to sell watches to people dining in a café. 

Another child performing on the street for tips.  I gave him all the change in my pocket.  A child and a could I not?

These are statues from the Acropolis.  This is not in a museum, but rather at the Akropoli metro station.  Athens has some of the nicest subway stations I've been in on this trip.

This is from the little bakery just down from my hotel.  I've gotten into a bad habit of stopping in there on my way back to the room in the evenings. 

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