I didn’t know this until I left Greece, but both Athens and Austin, Texas are known as the City of the Violet Crown. Athens earns the namesake from the lyric poet Pindar, while Austin earns it from an 1890 article on its sunsets. When I discovered this, my stomach dropped. My experience in Athens was so unusual. It felt like I had lived there for years. And somehow, I feel like there was this unnerving parallelism between these two very distant places.
I don’t really know what to say when people ask me about Athens. It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been, and one of the strangest trips I’ve experienced. It’s hard for me to put a finger on it and I think it might just be due to my own personal experiences here. I saw people being cut up on operating tables. Watched patients screaming in the dilapidated ER. And I think I even (kind of maybe) fell in love here.
For me, Athens was a place of opposites. It was filled with so much beauty: the breath-taking white of the looming Acropolis, ancient Greek pillars like standing ghosts from a different time. But the dirty pot-holed streets and rampant graffiti told another story: a city hurting economically and burdened with refugees. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get from Athens in the winter. I could never tell a good side of town from a bad side of town. Everything looked, well, old. Not like Parisian old, where ancient buildings with intricate facades look over quaint streets. It’s a dilapidated old filled with peeling paint and pot-holes. The people, usually as friendly as ever, also seemed a little rough around the edges. Men with gel in their hair and decked in leather jackets roamed the streets, cat-calling me when I went running. I thought the macho Greek male stereotype was just that, a stereotype. But I saw too many leather jackets to pass it off as coincidence.
Don’t get me wrong. Athens is a beautiful place. And I was only there for a limited amount of time so I can’t speak for the city in its entirety. I don’t quite know what I expected but I was nevertheless surprised. In the winter, with hardly a tourist in sight, everything felt real and I’m glad I got to see the city without the falsity of intense tourism.
A large majority of my time here was spent in the hospital. I had an amazing time shadowing surgeons. I was literally at their elbows as they were wrist deep in a patient’s intestines. The surgeons would pause in their surgeries to point out parts of anatomy or a procedure. One thing I had never known was the smell of burning flesh as they cauterized people’s insides.
It was amazing. But also heart-breaking. I will never forget watching a Wilm’s tumor removal, something that usually appears in children 3-4 years old. In this case, it appeared in the kidney of a 17-year old boy. He was small and skinny and I can’t get the image of his tiny naked body on the surgical table out of my mind, watching as the anesthesiologist placed an epidural in his spine. He had been put to sleep but I swear I saw him flinch and squirm slightly when they shoved the needle through his vertebrae. Kidney surgery is deep. So deep that I watched them cut from his stomach to the very back of his thoracic cavity, shuffling through the boy’s organs to remove the tumor. Often, it’s hard to connect a surgery to an actual living breathing person with a family and a future and a life outside of the OR. It’s easier to just see a kidney as a kidney. But sometimes it makes my heart heavy to think about the person beneath the green sterilized sheet.
I met a lot of people in Athens. Some that I will probably never forget. I didn’t have a problem finding a place to stay my last few days because I met someone that kind of defined the second half of my experience in Greece. I stayed in his apartment my last days in Athens. I’ve stayed with a lot of people. But I don’t think I’ve felt so comfortable with someone so quickly. It was strange how well our bodies fit perfectly together when we slept, even on the tiny twin bed that I first looked at with skepticism. It ended up being perfect.
Everything felt so strange. It was as though I’d been in Athens for years. I had a gym. I went to the hospital five days a week. I had an apartment to come home to. Someone to cuddle me when I got back. But in reality, I was only there for a couple of weeks. My past experiences with being abroad were slow processes where it took a couple of weeks for me to feel at home in the country, the culture, with the people. Athens was a blur and my time went by too fast. Maybe I am getting travel-hardened or maybe Athens is just a special place for me. And I don’t think I will ever be able to describe the haunting feeling I get when I think about it. While my time there was short, it felt like an eternity. And whether I ever make it back to this other City of the Violet Crown or not, I will never forget my experience here.
Who knows what would have happened had I stayed there longer? But that’s the thing about traveling. Everything is beautiful and fun and I’m happiest when I’m seeing new things and meeting new people. I am happiest when I’m falling in love with strangers and foreign places. Certainly, I always imagine what it would be like to just stop somewhere and live there permanently. But that’s also the saddest part of being a traveler: constantly having to say goodbye to the people and the places I am always falling in love with. Because in the end, I’m always just passing through.