Athens doesn't have to be terrorized to be terrifying. Signs on most toilets--at the airport, in hotels, at the Olympic Stadium--warn, do not flush paper. (And you think wondering where to put your gum is stressful.) Drivers treat stop signs as an invitation to accelerate. ("Isn't this a one-way street?" you ask a cabbie as he flies against the painted arrow, and he barks back, "Eez one way. My way!") Every other sign in the city is unreadable, at least to an American, whose rudimentary acquaintance with Greek is limited to a few unhelpful fragments: Alpha-Bits, Delta Burke, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
As the Olympics arrived, Athens was--as many feared it would be--a smoldering ruin. But the plume came from the 44.9% of Greeks over age 15 who smoke, the highest rate in the European Union. (You half expected the Olympic flame, at the end of the Opening Ceremonies, to be lit by a single cigarette butt, casually flicked into the cauldron.)
And the ruins, in their defense, are the most beautiful on Earth, which is why, late on any given weeknight during the Olympics, you'll find 150 or so people unwinding on the Acropolis. From way up there, Athens becomes a layer cake of lights: The stars twinkling above, city lights winking back below and, in between, the glowing constellation of ten dozen lit cigarettes.
So: smoke, ruins, terror? Yes. But terrorism? Those fears diminish even before arrival--while flying in from Frankfurt, with half the German Olympic team--when you notice that all the life vests on Lufthansa are jauntily labeled schwimmweste (swimming vest), as if a crash into the Mediterranean might be a welcome recreational diversion for these impossibly healthy Teutons: a chance to indulge in a bracing backstroke.
And anyway, Olympic visitors oughtto feel secure, as Greece has spent, famously, more than $1 billion on ... security. Though the security guards who refused, for the better part of an hour, to let spectators out of the Olympic Stadium on Friday night seemed to have momentarily lost the plot. But $1.5 billion worth of security aside, Athenians aren't easily frightened under any circumstances. Which may be why there are at least two of them on every speeding motorcycle. Little surprise that the alibi concocted for sprinters Konstantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou--Greece's greatest Olympians, who skipped their mandatory drug test in Athens last week--was a mysterious and unwitnessed tandem motorcycle crash, involving no other vehicles. But these tandem motorcycles areeverywhere, abruptly appearing around corners, scattering pedestrians like pigeons. Beware of Greeks sharing lifts.
Still, the notion that the nation's two most celebrated athletes, after missing their drug test, sustained minor injuries on the same motorcycle and had to be hospitalized--quarantined from the media--set a new standard in Olympic silliness. Citius, altius, ludicrous.
But the Greeks are sticking to their story. It's an oddly endearing quality, this denial of the obvious. Directed by a Greek volunteer down a dirt path outside the Olympic Stadium, a smartly dressed woman asked, "Do we have to walk on the dirt?" To which the volunteer replied, with wounded national pride, "That's not dirt." He pointed to the brown, granular, dusty substance found on American ballpark base paths and added, "That's compressed tarmac." Riiight. And all Greek buses are unwinged jets, conveying passengers to Candy Land.
All of which is to say that the only terrors experienced by ticket holders on the Olympics' opening weekend were relatively happy, minor ones. At a concession stand (or bus stop or takeaway souvlaki stall) attracting the citizens of a dozen Non-Queuing Nations, a lack of line discipline turns the smallest transaction--boarding a tram, buying a hot dog--into what resembles a bidding frenzy at the Bulgarian Board of Trade. Sartre wrote, "Hell is other people," and, as a Kyrgyzstani sportswriter attempts to filch your Opening Ceremonies souvenir press packet, you are tempted to modify that slightly: Hellas other people.
But then, after passing an evening in a sidewalk café--"You want a view of the Thing?" sighs a weary hostess, seating you beneath the 2,481-year-old Parthenon--your only fear, come 4 a.m., is telling euros (legal tender) from gyros (meat in a cone), and having enough of the former to buy the latter.
But don't let anyone in on this secret. Friends and family told many of us traveling to the Olympics that we were crazy or brave or both to go to Athens. And so the few of us in attendance at Olympic events last weekend--and many venues were virtually empty, quiet as a junior high school gymnasium--could imagine ourselves intrepid, as if watching the women's air pistol final were a heroic act.
Of course, the most life-threatening menace to that point was secondhand smoke, the guy next to you exhaling twin streams of it through his nostrils, like angry bulls do in cartoons. The streets were harrowing, but only because cabbies speed through them in reverse. There was a series of explosions above Athens, but they were glorious fireworks.
Still, we courageous tourists felt good about ourselves, boldly--one might say recklessly--braving beach volleyball by day, sipping ouzo under the Acropolis by night. In the war on terrorism, it is, quite literally, the least we can do.
We courageous tourists in Athens felt good about ourselves, braving beach volleyball by day, sipping ouzo by night.