There are two kinds of people in the world: those who spend 27 hours traveling and conk out the second they arrive at their hotel, and those who only become more energized by a hectic travel experience. I fall in the latter category.
When my entire choir (minus a few stragglers whose flight was to arrive at 3 in the morning) was finally safely in Athens, the majority of the group dragged their tired feet off to their rooms in relief and immediately keeled over onto their respective beds. In contrast, a few friends and I were that group of night owls awaiting the arrival of the luggage and remainder of our crew by sitting in the hotel lobby having the types of silly conversations only extremely over-tired people can manage. When the bags finally arrived, we energetically delivered them to their respective half-asleep owners before going off to bed ourselves.
Bright and early the following day, we woke up and groggily boarded our bus to go see the Parthenon, at the sight of which everybody became much more awake and alert. This excitement did not waver when we left the acropolis to wander around the Plaka (old city), one of the trip’s most memorable moments for me. A friend and I came across a fruit stand with the most divine looking berries and thus followed an afternoon of eating fresh cherries out of a large paper bag while wandering aimlessly through small streets and parks of Athens, crossing the border between the city’s touristy areas and some truly beautiful parts of the city we never would have come across on our guided tour. On our way back to the hotel, we were able to catch our first glimpse of the anti-austerity protests and demonstrations taking place outside of Athens’ parliament building.
Over the course of the next couple days, we sang in a concert with two older Greek choirs, explored some more of Athens and its surrounding area, and traveled to the gigantic outdoor Epidaurus theatre. While at the aforementioned amphitheater, our Greek tour guide taught us a traditional Greek square dance, we watched a man get scolded by a park security officer for breakdancing to loud boom-box music on the theater’s “stage”, and on that same “stage”, we sang some of our repertoire for a crowd of multi-cultural onlookers before quickly dashing back to our tour bus as a menacing thunderstorm approached from the distant hills. On our way to our second hotel that afternoon, we listened to our tour guide tell us about how unusual it was for it to rain in Greece as we watched the small streets start to flood outside our bus windows.
That evening, we received unfortunate news that the director of the choir we were supposed to be singing with a couple days later had passed away earlier that afternoon and our second concert had to be canceled. Our tour manager booked us a spot to sing at a Balkan Choral Festival the following evening, where we’d be the last of nine groups to perform at the event. This left us with one rehearsal day less than we’d anticipated and a newfound nervousness on top of our excitement. We were able to see many of the other performances at the festival, ranging from a talented all-female Greek choir with a truly impressive blend to an older Greek choir singing Amazing Grace in English – truly an eye-opener as to how we must have sounded to them when singing in their native language. The next group came on stage and we all immediately recognized the choir as one we had sung after at our concert a few nights prior! After their set, they began to approach all of us individually backstage and say hello, give us hugs and kisses on the cheeks, and tell us how lovely it was to see us again and how much they had enjoyed our singing at the concert days before. They were truly the warmest and most welcoming group of strangers I have ever encountered. When it was our turn to sing, they enthusiastically ushered us onto the stage with motivational cheers and “break-a-leg” hugs. We got on stage and sang our set better than we had ever sung it before. We finished the concert with a rendition of the Greek National Anthem, during which the audience excitedly joined us in song.
We moved to our third and final hotel, a hotel right near the center of Athens, where we would be staying for the following three nights. Over the next few days, we observed growing crowds in Syntagma Square on our way to and from various outings. Whereas on our first day in Athens, there were just a few protesters, the square was now packed with dedicated sign-holders, tent-pitchers and the like. Our nightly activities included not going out to bars but making trips to the square to check up on the progress of the demonstrations. My friends and I were quite surprised to see multiple sets of parents and their stroller-bound babies and toddlers among the faces in the crowd. At the time it seemed only like a poor choice of activity to subject a child to. Little did we know the area would become genuinely dangerous not one day after we would leave to return home. I later found myself hoping those mothers and their children had the sense to be far away from where we’d seen them nights earlier.
When I ruminate on my time in Greece, what I remember most fondly aren’t the museums, but the small hidden streets; not the scheduled concerts in professional spaces, but our impromptu bursts of song in historical sites, under dark clouds, in busy airports; not a utopia of white houses and blue skies, but a real place that people call home and gather to defend. In short, what I miss most about Greece isn’t what I’d expected to miss, but the things that were so unexpected that they became unbelievably memorable and truly unforgettable.
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