Athens was my first travel love. You could even say I yearned for it.
Growing up in Romania under communism, sunny Athens seemed like a dream to me. Although Athens is less than 500 miles from the Romanian capital of Bucharest, it might as well have been 5,000 miles away. It seemed impossible that I, an ordinary girl without connections to the long-running regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, would ever see Athens, or leave the country at all for that matter.
So I consoled myself by seeing the world through books. Reading Greek mythology allowed me to enter a universe governed by the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. I was completely fascinated. My favorite god/goddess was Artemis, twin sister to Apollo and the fearless goddess of the hunt. She was as strong and commanding as I wanted to be.
Just after I turned 18, the Ceausescu regime finally crumbled. Romania was the last of the Eastern Bloc countries to fall. My family did not have the means to immediately travel, but the world came to us, in the form of outside companies setting up businesses in our new, open society.
I got a job at a Greek-owned import/export company, owned by an extremely kind Greek man. I worked very hard and was as aggressive as Artemis about doing a good job. Before long, I was promoted from doing invoices and inventories, to processing important bank documents. Chocolates, fine liquor, coffee, oranges and bananas passed through the company. All the luxuries of the West came to Romania via Greece, increasing my curiosity about the country even more.
My day came when my boss, recognizing my ambition, rewarded me with a trip to Greece, with him and other executives over Easter. We’d go for 10 days, first to Athens then on to Porto Hydra, to stay at his family villa.
Imagine the good fortune—my first trip outside of Romania was to be to Athens, my dream destination. I’d grown up in a conservative religious family and had a sheltered childhood, but I was not afraid— and I couldn’t wait to go.
Taking my first flight, I suffered not a second of anxiety. Finally arriving, I felt that Greece was more than another country, it was another planet. It was disorienting in the sense that their culture was similar to my own (sharing a region, like we did), but at the same time it was completely different.
People seemed livelier, brighter and happier. I reminded myself that they had grown up with microwave ovens, unlimited access to tropical fruits, and TVs that got 20 channels—no wonder they were different.
That first day, my colleagues made sure to take me to the Acropolis, the ancient site on a hill overlooking greater Athens. As it was spring, the hillside was ablaze with a breathtaking abundance of wildflowers.
Visiting the Acropolis was like a flashback to my mythology days—so many buildings and temples dedicated to the gods, who were like old friends to me. There was a connection between the books I loved and this place—all the intrigues and politics of ancient mythology reverberated 25 centuries later.
The Acropolis, particularly the Parthenon, with its parade of Doric columns, still towers over greater Athens. Although the Acropolis dates back many centuries before the 5th Century BCE, most of the buildings that survive in this mythical compound date from that time. That was the Golden Age of Athens, the age of the ruler Pericles, who rebuilt the major temples, including the Parthenon, after invading Persians had sacked it.
Going to Athens can only bring to mind the great contributions of the ancient Greeks. During the era of Pericles alone, great strides were made in architecture, art, literature and democracy. These ideas and art forms still shape the world today. The Acropolis and adjoining ancient Athens Agora, a market or meeting place, made evident how dynamic and sophisticated the ancient Greeks were.
I was just as amazed by the vibrant street life of modern Athens.
My boss took me to a bouzouki restaurant, it was truly overwhelming. I couldn’t believe that you were supposed to buy plates and crash them on the ground. I was quite shy at the time and wanted to be on my best behavior, so I had a hard time doing that. The bouzouki is a stringed instrument, so there was music, singing and dancing and of course, very good food. The atmosphere was fun and vibrant.
At the bouzouki place, I saw something gorgeous: my first gardenia. It’s one of the flowers of Greece and the audience threw gardenias on the stage for the singers. What a joyful and glorious gesture.
The food in Greece is delicious. The fish, chicken and vegetables are simply prepared with olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon, making it some of the healthiest food on earth. The sweets were beautiful to look at and taste, with their use of nuts and honey very different from what I was used to. I also remember the alcohol. I wasn’t drinking any, but my hosts made me try ouzo…it was much too strong!
While in Athens, I visited the Plaka area in central Athens, an old part of town with walking streets, cafes, shops and more. We passed by Hadrian’s Arch, erected to honor the Roman emperor around 131 CE, an important historical site and just one of so many that reminds you how a walk in Athens is a walk through early civilization.
We also walked along a boulevard with all the expensive, modern-day shops: Gucci, Chanel and Valentino. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, seeing all these extraordinary goods, but I was not as adventurous as her. I was too hesitant to actually enter the stores, but I did admire them nonetheless.
The thing that impressed me the most was how the people on the street were smiling, relaxed and laughing. The street life felt like a big party or carnival, which was very strange to me. The Greeks seemed to treat each other with such lightness and nonchalance.
While I was there, Athens was preparing for Easter, which meant the streets were decorated for the holiday in a way that reminded me of Romania. There were brightly colored eggs in the stores and ceremonial candles and baked goods—of hard-boiled eggs and bread—all similar to what I knew from home. Another similarity was the level of hospitality. If you are a guest of a Greek or a Romanian, they’ll treat you like a king and give you the very best they have to offer.
I stayed at a hotel in Athens, but after a few days, we took a quick ferry to Porto Hydra, the seaside area outside of Athens. I spent the next eight days as a guest at my boss’s villa on the beach enjoying the crystalline blue waters, unlike anything in Romania. The Black Sea of home is a deep, dark navy blue, due to the dense amount of seaweed, while the Mediterranean sparkled with light and levity by contrast.
I went back to Romania a different person. I had a motivation to want more of life. It definitely led me toward a career in tourism. After growing up in a communist country, Greece showed me the wonders of life outside the so-called Iron Curtain. I saw that life could be a celebration. But I have to admit, I would never trade my Romanian roots. I think I am able to appreciate this facet of life more than most because of where I grew up.
In the years since, I have been back to Athens many times for work and also as a tourist. Every time, I discover something new and experience new feelings of fascination and wonder. Athens was my first travel love and it’s one that has definitely endured.