Friday, February 17, 2012

Damien Hirst Spot Challenge: Rome to Athens (10 down, 1 to go!)


I popped out of the subway at Syntagma to a warm welcome
Today I headed for Athens, my penultimate stop in the Spot Challenge. A 9am Easyjet flight means I had my butt on the 6.10am airport bus at Roma Termini. This was a bargain flight: just 60 Euro or $US75.77.



On the way to the airport I spotted ... at least three Damien Hirst Spot billboards! Am I the only one who saw them? Unfortunately, my compact Canon S100 wasn't fast enough to capture them for posterity as we whizzed by; my less compact Sony DSX-HX9V would have grabbed it in a flash.

This was my first ever visit to Greece. The Gagosian Athens gallery was right around the corner from the subway interchange at Syntagma Square, the scene of ongoing skirmishes between students and police. I popped out of the subway to face a phalanx of riot shields. A few people - and a lot of teens wagging school - were milling around in the square. I got the feeling some event had passed, or was about to happen. I asked three youths, aged about 17, what was going on.

"It's more important to be here than in school."


"This morning they pushed people - and little children - all the way back there." The boys pointed to the end of the square. Shouldn't they be in school?

"Yes, but we feel it is more important to be here."

In the streets flanking the square, platoons of police in dark blue uniforms were spilling out of dark colored vans.

On top of the steps, directly facing the riot police, sat two teenage girls who weren't at all fazed by authority. They were screaming something at the officers in Greek, thrusting open palms, and I wish I knew what they were saying. The police seemed unfazed, and suddenly, backed away across the street to the forecourt of Parliament House.

A very vocal pair of teens with no fear of authority. 
Men in blue back up the men in green
By this time I'd backed away myself and headed up the street - a mere three blocks away, to the Gagosian Gallery in Merlin Street.

Artsy tree lined streets a couple of blocks from the confrontations

The Gagosian Gallery Athens
Christina and Katerina not only stamped my card ...
... they pointed me to a decent souvlaki around the corner!
I was acutely aware of the irony of my visit; outside, people were rioting over government corruption and the resultant financial levies imposed on the ordinary worker. Inside this gallery, I was looking at spots daubed with household paint on canvases, valued at ridiculous amounts of money, on which I'd spent a month's modest month's salary coming here to ogle. It harked back to my time in Cuba when I had $2000 strapped to my thigh - 100 times a professional Cuban's monthly salary - yet I felt it was my last paycheck. "We have something you don't have," said a Cuban. "It's called the quiet - something money can't buy," she said. Or as my ex use to say, "Money can't buy happiness, but it can get you into a lot of places looking for it." Check out my book The Handsomest Man in Cuba

Reunited with an adventurous friend

I met Colleen McGuire years ago while working as the card-carrying Customer Evangelist of Bike Friday. She owns and runs a successful tour company called Aegea Adventures, with a cycling arm called CycleGreece. It was voted one of the top ten bicycle tour companies on the planet by National Geographic Adventure.

Meeting Colleen at the Benaki Art Museum
Adventurous Colleen was recovering from a particularly nasty fall in Turkey, where she broke both ankles and a couple of ribs. She insisted on meeting me and with the help of her stellar partner Yannis, showed up undaunted with a walking frame. She also insisted we wait 30 minutes to see the hourly changing of the guard in front of Parliament House. This is a sober, three-man ritual which is repeated every hour, rain hail or shine. It looks a little like a slo-mo Can-Can from the Ministry of Silly Walks, but you'd better not laugh. I couldn't imagine it taking place in the dead of winter at 3am ... but indeed it does.



The changing of the guard - every hour, on the hour, 24/7, rain, hail and cosmic dust 
Greek men must all do one year of national service, "a dark time in every man's life," said a policeman watching over the square.

After, we hopped a cab to the Athens Backpacker hostel (about 25 Euro), superbly located a block from the Acropolis and the mega-modern Acropolis museum. My only regret in scheduling my itinerary was not allowing a second day in Athens. The hostel and Colleen both concurred that the hysterical media coverage of the riots in Greece were hurting local businesses badly, by keeping tourists away.

"It's only on certain days and only in Syntagma Square," they insisted.

Plenty of room at the inn, no thanks to the media hysteria about the Athens riots
The Acropolis, night and day

Tomorrow ... Hong Kong, the final stop on my Spot Challenge.

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