These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
Sometimes the historical treasures of Athens can be found - quite literally - in people’s basements.
During a regular history class with my professor, we were taken on a tour around Athens to see artifacts from antiquity. Some were out in the open and easy to see- like Hadrian’s arch and the Acropolis. You couldn’t miss them even if you tried.
Then my professor took us into the middle of downtown Athens. It’s a bustling, modern European city. I looked out for some kind of ancient column but couldn’t see anything. Just when I had hoped he was taking us on a surprise shopping trip of some sort, he took a sharp left into a deserted sort of shopping mall. No stores were open; all looked like they had been closed for months if not years. He spoke with a guard in Greek, and led us down some cement stairs into the basement of this deserted place.
What I learned was that here, in the most unlikely of places, was one of the largest remaining pieces of the original city wall of Athens. This wall dates back to at least 400 BC. It’s this crazy, cool historical artifact, and it’s sitting underneath a deserted shopping center.
The city of Athens in antiquity was eventually built over, because it was easier to use existing building foundations than to create new ones. These buildings were then built over. Then, these buildings were built over. What happens, then, is that a city of layers is created. The ancient artifacts, the stuff of the 5th, 6th centuries BC is found at a much lower level than the modern city. According to my professor, an archaeologist, several houses here have visible ruins in their basements that one can request in writing to visit if they desire to.
But this is a city of history. You don’t have to look in people’s basements to see some; it is ubiquitous. Every day while walking to class, I can look up and see the Parthenon. And in modern history, my school here is next to the stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
Yet, some sites we visit have little to no remains. Just this week, we visited the Pnyx for history class. For those unfamiliar, it is quite literally the seat of democracy; it is here that Athenians first gathered to vote in a direct democracy for different issues. It’s on top of a hill, with a fantastic view of Athens and the Acropolis. All that remains is a stone elevated platform where the speaker stood, as well as a stone retaining wall. Other than that, one can only imagine the scene that must’ve happened, with over 8,000 citizens sitting right here voting over 2500 years ago.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned academically so far on this trip, it’s that much of history (and archeology) is visualization. The Athenians themselves who lived in these places so many years ago are the true cool part about any historical artifact. The buildings that remain? Simply an aid in imagining how these people once lived.
“You’ll love it there. The Greeks are so nice.”
A friend who had just left Athens told me this before my arrival in Greece. I was skeptical at first.
My first interaction with a Greek person happened as soon as I had gotten off of the connecting train from the airport into town. My suitcase is big (I’m abroad for four months, after all), but I normally have no problem navigating it through a European city.
This time was no different. Upon leaving a train station, there are sometimes small gates you need to pass through in order to exit. These gates are small and not meant to fit a suitcase. I usually try to fit my suitcase through, and then have to pause and turn it to the side so I can lift it through the gates.
However, right as my suitcase was caught in the gate, I paused to lift it up when I noticed someone behind me. At these moments in time I usually go into anti-pickpocket mode. This time it wasn’t necessary. The man behind me had seen that my luggage didn’t fit, so he gestured to my suitcase, and helped me lift it through the gate.
After he had gotten through the gate, he dropped my luggage and smiled, while I said thank you, and he walked away. It was such a casual but kind thing for a stranger to do. Although I could’ve lifted the suitcase myself, the gesture was such a nice one.
It seems like nothing big, to have a stranger help you with your suitcase. But I’ve been traveling for over two months now, and it’s something that doesn’t happen often. People have busy lives, and not enough time to stop to help a stranger.
I have now been in Athens for a few days, and I’ve noticed that in general, most Athenians seem to have this same kind disposition. When you walk down the street or enter a store, people smile at you. That hasn’t been the case in a lot of other European cities in my experience. Here, bakeries will give you free pastries with your coffee. Restaurants will give you wine on the house. This is because they value their customers and want you to keep coming back.
One other time in particular when I was exploring my new neighborhood here with a few of my classmates, trying to find the nearest school supply store, we ended up having to ask several people for directions along the way. Each time the person was sincere and kind, pointing us in the right direction. In contrast, in Rome we had some bad experiences asking the locals for directions.
This isn’t to say that the people of Rome or any other urban European city are mean. It’s simply to say that my first impression of the Greeks is that they are very kind people. In a few weeks, I may have a very different impression of Athenians and the city. Recognizing these first impressions, and every other impression a city leaves on you throughout your time there, is one of the most important things about travel for me. The great thing is, I have six weeks left here to gather even more impressions of Athens.
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