Monday, July 18, 2011

Athens July 17-18

Its a short one hour flight from Istanbul to Athens but the two places feel totally different. Athens on arrival was hot, with a big full moon looming. We convoyed to Clinton's hotel, and then on to our less fancy hotel -- but still nice enough, sitting across the street from a beach.

Whereas in Istanbul I woke up to the sound of the muzzein, here it was church bells. Right across the street in this very touristy neighborhood is a tiny little orthodox church, with an old man who came out to slowly ring the bell by pulling a rope on the clapper. There were a small group of people gathered outside..I thought they might be tourists, but then they all crossed themselves orthodox-style. Sunday morning in Athens!

It was a good day. Clinton had a meeting with the Greek foreign minister, at which she pledged full U.S. support for Greece's painful austerity measures (she compared it to chemotherapy). Then she had closed door meetings with the PM and the president, and we were taken to the Acropolis Museum in downtown Athens at the foot of the Acropolis itself. Its a beautiful, modern museum -- and the inside seemed so clean, all marble statues and bright light. The museum people were incredibly kind to us, setting us up in their VIP suite and bringing coffee and eventually meatballs and fruit. These days always seem to go by so fast -- we were there for a couple of hours and then Clinton came to sign a new cultural MOU with Greece aimed at putting new barriers to trafficking in cultural artifacts.

It was a funny event -- Clinton standing in the main gallery of the museum with the Parthenon in the background, a few members of Athenian cultural glitterati around, and then lots of tourists gawping from behind barrier ropes. This lady's shoes struck me as sort of peculiar..on the back they had a big IZOD alligator.

We didn't get to see much of Athens itself, but it seemed a smaller and grittier city than Istanbul. Lots of graffiti, lots of closed shops. The main square looked to have a permanent encampment of protesters angry over the austerity drive. The whole place feels terribly hot and dry...I wonder how they provide the city with water.

But hey, it's ATHENS! Something spooky about being in a place where "it all started". Flying over from Istanbul, I was looking at the in-flight map on the airplane videoscreen and the Aegean, with all of its islands, looked like a sort of mini-galaxy ... a world unto itself, until the larger world was revealed. I'd love to see more of it.

After Clinton left we made our way to a restaurant for an early dinner...and what a restaurant! It was recommended by the brother of one of Clinton's aides, and it was a spectacular place on a terrace with a full view of the Acropolis in the background. Gorgeous late afternoon light, not too hot, and just the right kind of food: Greek salad, octopus, some kind fried Haloumi cheese, stuffed eggplant...perfect!

After that -- long day !! -- we went back and watched the U.S. lose to Japan in the women's World Cup soccer. Too bad because it would have been nice to win, but you figure Japan might need a boost right now after everything its been through in the last few months.

Up early this morning for "bag drag" to deposit luggage. Then, since it early, sunny, and we are about 30 yards from the Aegean..I went swimming with my AFP colleague Christophe. Perfect water, big white cruise boat in the distance, a few islands dotted around......sometimes you just have to kick yourself to remind you its all actually real.

Seven hours or so to Delhi, where it is apparently 110 degrees.....