We end up doing this a lot, helping guests from abroad to discover their “favorite” Athens, especially when they have to make the most of a short visit. It’s especially difficult to pick and suggest places and things to do since, let’s be honest, Mr President, you’re not really planning on a lot of sightseeing, at least not during this trip.
Speaking of short official visits, one of your predecessors, George Bush Sr, also came here, restricted by the ironclad protocol that the secret services lay down for such occasions. Later, when he had completed his term, it seemed he just could not get enough of us. Scarcely a summer passed without him and his family making at least a couple of appearances around the Aegean. As the myth goes, Marika Mitsotaki, the legendary grande dame and late wife of former prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, could not keep him away from her country home on the island of Crete and her homemade local delicacies.
Still, as a self-respecting Greek travel publication and website, we feel obliged to provide a short list of things you can see, do, taste and maybe actually enjoy, during your intense schedule here. It’s also is going to be hard for us, Athenians, who will be pretty much grounded for the duration of your visit. No big deal; we know the drill. We did it for Mr Putin. We did it for the Pope. We did it for President Clinton, and even for Madonna and her entourage. Most of us like you, though, so here it goes:
1. LOOK AROUND, LOOK UP!
The blue sky of Attica produces a unique light. There is a pleasant freshness in the air now, as the summer just past lingers on and it’s still too early for those grey winter skies. Cities have their own particular aroma and Athens is no exception: Amid the omnipresent car exhaust fumes, you can feel the sea breeze (you’re never too far away from a perfect swimming spot). You can sense the buzz of a tired, confused but still peaceful and charming city with its inhabitants going about their daily business, as they cross the same roads their ancestors used to, under the same sky, for the last three millennia.
2. SNACK, DON’T DINE
Our chefs (or yours) must be very quietly having a stroke trying to put up the perfect dinner for a POTUS who is by far the dearest to our blasé Greek hearts in a very, very long time. By all means sit through the lunches and dinners, but here is a tip: Go for the small portions. Whatever is presented on miniscule plates before, after and around the Grand Serve is usually the most interesting: Eggplant dips, olives, baby zucchini, tiny filo spinach and cheese pies. Oh, all means, do dip your bread in the olive oil bowl: You are supposed to and, besides, it is considered a great gesture of friendship.
3. HAVE A SIESTA LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD NEVER REST.
Still, if it is considered bad protocol to declare that you are having a power nap, I believe your people are extremely efficient in creating some non-time during a hectic schedule. Preferably between 2 and 4.30 in the afternoon. You most certainly have a nice place to stay, with a gorgeous view to complement it. Ignore the view, shut the blinds, and sleep, for at least an hour. It’s the Greekiest thing you can do under the present circumstances. It has to be a full hour, though (power naps are for sissies). Take your time having your afternoon coffee. While Greek hotel suites are strictly non-smoking, they are notoriously flexible on this particular rule. (Sir, I really don’t know why I’m sharing this last piece of intel, but I may I have noticed a photograph or two in the past.)
4. DRINK RESPONSIBLY
That means almost not at all, I’m afraid. This is the season our stills start to ooze the holy bittersweet moonshine called tsipouro, raki or tsikoudia. Think of a peppery arak with a Mediterranean tenderness. One shot is permissible by any standard. Than you can decide which you want to ship home. Personally, I would go for easy Tinos raki or a mature, no-nonsense, golden-brown liquid miracle from Central Greece. You can have all the tsikoudia you want in a few years when you visit Crete for a proper vacation.
5. HAVE A LAUGH
At some point, even the severest of discussions call for a short break. You might – or might not – want to know that the term Amerikanaki (endearing for an American) means “gullible, easy to trick” in Greek slang. It’s far from being a derogatory expression. We coined the term after World War II, when the US military based in Greece were hailed as true friends, supporters and protectors. Still, they believed (or pretended to believe, out of compassion) any sad or crazy story for two cigarettes and a half-eaten piece of chocolate. Coming from an American, the expression “Do you guys think I’m an Amerikanaki?” is guaranteed to generate some good-hearted laughter among the Greeks in the room.
During the formal speeches, you will be obviously addressed as “Mr President.” In Greek, this is “Kyrie Proedre.” By the time you have the intonation right, should you enter a room and exclaim “Kyrie Proedre” you’ll be surprised at how many heads will automatically turn in your direction. Our self-deprecating joke is that in Greece everybody is a “Kyrie Proedre” of something. Last year, at a function held in the Presidential Mansion, I heard our own head of state half-jokingly remark that he always has to wait a few seconds upon hearing the honorific to make sure it’s actually addressed to him.
6. DO THE REAL THING
Yes, the Acropolis Museum is a magnificent experience. Chances are you’ll be invited for an exclusive tour par excellence. However, after having heard one too many visitors from the US explaining innocently “we did the Museum, but we skipped the Rock,” allow me to respectfully remind you, sir, that today will be the second night of a ridiculously large and bright Supermoon, one that will only rise over the Acropolis again at 2034. There are not many things a POTUS can do on a full official visit in Athens, what with discussing matters of utmost importance, saving the world, and lamenting over recent what ifs that are almost too painful to mention. The necessary but sky-high security all around complicates things even more. But forget all that and return to the inspirational slogan that paved your path to power: “Yes, we can!”
You can have this. You can walk the shadows of the Parthenon tonight under the supermoon, which will only be a fraction smaller than on Monday.
It’s not a bad idea, even for a man who has seen it all.
The rest will be history. Literally.