Athens. Five years later…
So, here I am – in my old rented apartment in the middle of Athens, hiding from the midday heat as the heat wave has arrived with a vengeance. Someone is having their apartment renovated and the whiny sound of the drill brings forth some less-than-pleasant memories of a dentist’s office. There’s no air conditioning here, but the high ceilings and thick walls keep the temperature down – my building was built three years before the Second World War, way before air conditioning found its way here.
Even the nightly blasts of Molotow-cocktails have calmed down. It’s almost strange how easily one gets used to them.
Exarchia is quiet now – most of the students have already left for summer holidays, the ones still here will leave after their exams are done. Even the nightly blasts of Molotow-cocktails have calmed down. It’s almost strange how easily one gets used to them – they become a part of the nightly soundscape together with barking dogs, cats in heat, family quarrels, saxophone practice, breathless orgasms, falling oranges and the engine sound of a moth passing by one’s ear. My windows open into the back yard shared by four buildings, so most of what I hear is simply an echo.
How did I end up here? Who knows. Fate perhaps, if one chooses to believe in such a thing. The plan was always something else. Southern France. Spain. South, anyway. Although I later noticed that Athens was on the list I’d made of the cities I’d have liked to move to. So in autumn 2011 I decided to leave Denmark. For real this time. And to make it happen, I did something I usually don’t do. I told people that I was going to leave. I just didn’t know where yet and I told them that too. I wanted to be held accountable. In a most peculiar way, it worked.
There are differences between “Northern” and “Southern” culture, despite our underlying similarities as human beings. We do the same things, want the same things, but go about getting them in different ways.
I started to prepare, still without knowing where I’m headed. I finished assignments, handed over responsibilities, untied connections, cleaned out unnecessary items… and 8 months after I had made the decision, there came a job offer. From Athens. It wasn’t even for me. A university friend working in the same company asked me to post the ad in the international students’ group. So I did and didn’t think much more about it. However, a few days later it occurred to me that I was, in fact, qualified. The 8 previous months had among other things included major professional changes and expensive failures, so I needed work. I checked the map – Athens was more south than any other place I had considered. I applied for the job and was accepted.
That left two months to prepare, clean out belongings, sort, throw, pack and decide which 30 kg of my items I will need in country I knew nothing about. I liked it that way though. I wanted to be a blank slate.
I didn’t even look up on Google street view how Athens looks like. I didn’t want to know before I got there. The only thing I was curious about was the sound of Greek language. So I decided to find an internet radio. The choice was plentiful and as my only criterion was that it’s not a music station but a broadcasting one, I picked one at random. It was called Radio Aristera. After a few days I had memorized a few words. “Kommunismos”, “stalinismos”, “kappa kappa epsilon”. There had even been a mention of Tallinn. I wondered. As Wikipedia revealed, Kappa Kappa Epsilon (KKE) turned out to be Greek Communist Party and Radio Aristera their official radio station. I wondered no more.
As soon as I had learned a new expression, as if by collective telepathy everyone stopped using it and switched to a different one. Again and again.
My Greek has certainly improved since the “Radio Aristera” days, but it’s still far from fluent. There is a strange phenomenon about it though. As soon as I had learned a new everyday expression, as if by collective telepathy everyone stopped using it and switched to a different one. Again and again. To my great relief, I don’t seem to be the only language learner grappling with this – others have noted this curious occurrence as well.
I expected a culture shock. There are after all differences between “Northern” and “Southern” culture, despite our underlying similarities as human beings. We do the same things, want the same things, but go about getting them in different ways. The culture shock never came. On my second day in Athens I took the tram to the centre to walk around and get to know the city. It was a hot, heavy August day with all-blue sky. The dusty streets were full of potholes. The occasional gusts of air, too mild to be called wind, were warm through and through. I felt I had come home.
So what pearls of wisdom have I amassed from this? Well, in short
- Prepare. Finish things. Close the chapters. Keep in mind that it takes more time than you think.
- Keep expectations to a minimum.
- Trust your inner compass.
Kristel was born in Tartu, Estonia in 1981 and moved to Denmark in 2000. After 12 years there, she finally decided to go with the original plan: to move to Southern Europe and become an artist. Athens has been her home now for 5 years. It has welcomed her kindly and she loves its spirit of freedom, inherent chaos and omnipresent bitter orange trees.