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THE JOURNEY BEGINS (cont.)
~ Reporting from Athens, Greece ~
Week of 25Jul - "Welcome home" signs are evident in Athens, recognizing the return of the Olympic Games to their birthplace. Everywhere recent plantings, marble walls and walkways, shades of Mediterranean blue, gold, yellow, and white decorate the construction efforts, still going on just two weeks before the start of the Games. Despite its small size and limited economic resources, Greece is rising to the challenge to host and organize such a great event. 201 countries will participate, making this the highest number of countries represented in Olympic history.
A week ago my journey to Athens and the Games started in the Louisiana airport with the contents of my backpack removed, examined, then stuffed back in due to a concern for a dynamite-like substance detected on the zippers. The cosmetic salesperson seated next to me on the airplane explained, "Glycerin," she said, "as in nitroglycerin." Glycerin is common in hand lotions, soaps, shampoos. Having her bags searched was a common event for her. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Amsterdam airport, my spirits were lifted by the music of two musicians dressed in multi-colored, long-tailed tuxes playing the "Theme from the Pink Panther" on sax and tuba as they wandered through the airport. It was wonderful.
While cooler and dryer in climate than Louisiana, Athens is still hot. My first week has been a stressful time of looking for housing, looking for work, and bouncing from agency to agency trying to get my work permit established (I've just about given up). I was finally able to book a room, pre-paid, at the Athens International Youth Hostel for most of the remaining five week here, with the exception of about eight days for which I didn't have funds. At 22 EUR per night (about $28) during the two weeks of the Games, this non-air conditioned, dormitory-style facility is by far the least expensive accommodations I've found. I am grateful that I have a place, it's clean, has hot water, and is open 24-hours/day. In comparison, one non-air conditioned, 2-bedroom apartment I found that had been renting for 650 EUR/month ($825) is now going for 1500 EUR ($1905) per week! For the 5 EUR to 20 EUR price of a ferry ride, sleeping on an overnight ferry to one of the islands becomes a viable alternative. Official Olympic merchandise is expensive. A T-shirt you might expect to pay 12 EUR ($15) for is selling for 26 EUR ($33). I am concerned that such high prices will keep people away, and that would be a great shame.
The 27Jul rehearsal was postponed until 29Jul, and then postponed again until 3Aug. On a brighter note, thanks to those of you who continue to send donations. I have met several other volunteers at the hostel, my volunteer pass grants me free rides on public transportation, and Thursday I escaped the crush of the city for the day by taking a ferry to the closest island, Aegina. The best part was the fresh air on the ferry ride. The waters of the Mediterranean and the sky are an incredible blue. I felt revived by the experience.
~ AUGUST, 2004 ~
Week of 1Aug - Butterfly City. With the occurrence of the first rehearsal on 3Aug in a huge arena, the thought of performing in front of such a huge worldwide audience was mildly terrifying. What on earth made me thing I could do this??
I am impressed with all that has been accomplished since I was here in February and even in the last week. Just this past week the metro line to the international airport has been completed and the beautiful park at Syntagma Square opened, despite the many comments that this seemed unlikely to occur.
I wasn't initially impressed by the brother and sister mascots for the Olympic Games, but have since learned that they are based on ancient Greek dolls from the 7th century, BC. Phevos, the Greek name for Apollo, is the god of light and music. Athena, goddess of wisdom is, of course, the patron deity of the city of Athens.
After two weeks, my small vocabulary of Greek is improving. Here are a few basic phrases, written phonetically:
Either I've settled into a more laid back Greek lifestyle or with my basic needs for shelter and food mostly taken care of, I'm not nearly as stressed as I was my first week here. I've also learned the accommodation situation from here is not as bad as the perspective I had from afar. There are reasonable accommodations to be found. I've also discovered that my volunteer pass allows me free access to many museums and historical sites. :) (The Acropolis is awesome.)
Curren t statistic regarding Ceremonies is that 1000 will perform in the Opening Ceremony, 2500 will perform in Closing. As far as I can tell, 99% of the performers are Greek, or have Greek heritage and are living outside of Greece. Not having Greek heritage, I am even more amazed that I am in the 1% of non-Greeks taking part in Ceremonies. My big news (drum roll): I am in a small group of one dozen people who will play the part of "Tourists" in the Closing Ceremony. Many in our small group have blonde hair (I don't) so we do look the role of tourists. When you see a small group with cameras flashing, I'll be in that group. Not wanting to spoil it, I can't say more.
Week of 8Aug - If you watched the Ceremony on TV the evening of 13 Aug you already know how spectacular the Opening Ceremony of the XXVIII Olympiad were. The only thing you might have missed was the tremendous emotions in the Olympic Stadium. I was fortunate enough to be able to experience both.
This week was a great shift in energy for myself and all of Athens from early in the week to the first day of the Games, 14Aug. The laid-back, waiting around mode shifted to a quickening of energy, increased activity, and a feeling of excited anticipation. Then suddenly, by 12Aug, the city swelled in size as all the visitors arrived, and by the evening of the 13th we were full blown into the swing of the Olympic Games with the excitement of the Opening Ceremony. What a dramatic difference.
My week started with a quick trip to Crete when I discovered I could book the ferry by using credit, saving on my now meager cash reserves. With only a morning and afternoon in Rethimno and a return on the night ferry it was too quick to see much but I definitely enjoyed the fresh air and quiet of the island. I'd responded to a posting at the Athens International Youth Hostel for "last minute volunteers" and signed up, in part to receive the benefit of a free meal, and the nifty volunteer uniform that I was unlikely to get as a Closing Ceremony volunteer with a costume. I was assigned to help out at the Judo Venue at Ano Liossia Olympic Hall, and started training on Monday.
After waiting for almost three weeks, I was thrilled and elated to attend the dress rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony on Tuesday night, 10Aug. The Olympics were finally here! The audience that night, filling at least two-third of the stadium, was comprised mostly of volunteers. It's hard to describe all the emotions in the stadium that night. Excitement, enthusiasm, great pride...I know I cried, as I'm sure many others did. During the pre-show there was a hilarious video collage of all the construction efforts for the Olympics set to "Zorba the Greek" music. I hope that made it onto TV. It was a delight. My other favorite segment was the parade of Greek history. What a visual feast.
Getting the best of both worlds, five of us last minute Judo Venue volunteers were invited to view on big-screen TV the 13Aug official Opening Ceremony in the home of our supervisor Georgios (George). What a treat it was to eat souvlaki pita, drink homemade wine, share in the experience with our hosts (and the rest of the world!), which ended in a run up five flights to the rooftop to watch the final fireworks from the nearby Olympic Stadium and see the flame of the Olympic Torch.
Week of 15Aug - Rehearsals for performers in the Closing Ceremony began in earnest on 19Aug. The week ended on 21Aug with a 10-hour rehearsal. That's not quite as bad as it sounds. With 2500 performers involved, as you can imagine that is quite a lot of people to coordinate, so we had many long periods of sitting around. We did get our costumes on Saturday. Since we'd all had our measurements taken during the audition many months before, I suppose we'd fantasized costumes would be fitted to us and would be flattering. That was a dream. As "tourists" our costumes are your basic T-shirts, shorts and sandals with a tendency toward the Ellie Mae ("Beverly Hillbillies") look for the women. Some of us made modifications and used some of our own clothes. So, for my debut performance on international TV I won't be in the most flattering clothes. Oh, well! I'm still grateful for the opportunity. After so much waiting, I realize we are now rapidly approaching the end and it will be over all too soon. I'm going to do my best to soak it all in.
I have not personally experience very much anti-American sentiment during my time here, and many people have been wonderful to me. In part I think this is because many people assume I'm Greek (this is not my opinion, but that of many Greeks I've met)-- I look the part with dark hair and olive skin--or they are simply happy that I've made such a effort and commitment to support the Olympics in Greece. With the arrival last week of all the visitors I've been hearing more often that it's not wise to advertise being an American, don't become a "target," America is not popular right now. All around me I see people in the metro, in Syntama Square and other city centers wearing their national flag draped around them like a cape, or wearing other things to proudly proclaim their nationality. Not only is this a time for me to deal with my issues of performance anxiety, appearing before millions, dealing with doubts about my finances, looks, performance ability, yada, yada, yada, but now suddenly I also have to deal with my national identity. I'm happy and proud when any country gets a medal. I like celebrating their victories with them. We're all in this together, we're all one family on planet earth. I've decided in the end that my nationality is part of my identity, despite its foibles, America is where I chose to live, and after all my effort to get here, now is not the time to hide under a rock. In the spirit of the Olympics, may we all treat each other with respect.
Our dress rehearsal and final rehearsal for Closing Ceremony is Tuesday, 24Aug. Then we perform on 29Aug about 8:00 pm in Greece. That should be about noontime Central Standard Time in USA. A big THANK YOU to all of you who are still continuing to send me donations. I'll give a more full accounting and post photos when I get back home.
Week of 22Aug - Excitement and a little sadness. The performance is tomorrow, 29Aug. It will soon be over. Already one of my volunteer friends from the Judo venue has left. A time of transitions. In the last week, some of the mornings have been cool. (I can only hope for the same in Louisiana.)
Other than the Judo venue where I volunteered, I have not been able to see any of the Games. Primarily this is due to lack of funds (no, volunteers don't get free tickets), but also because rehearsals have conflicted. Being a fan of gymnastics, I most wanted to see Carly Patterson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana win her gold medal. (If somebody videotaped this and would share it with me, let me know.) Despite not being present at any Games, during performance rehearsals about 2000 of us sat and watched a huge screen TV showing Olympic events. With 99% of the performers being Greek, imagine if you will the pandemonium with such a crowd anytime a Greek athlete came on. It was a lot like being in the stadium.
I found some very funny Q&As in an "Athens Survival Guide" newspaper that give a good reflection of life in Athens:
Our last performance rehearsal was Tuesday, 24Aug. There were those who would have preferred a more organized, efficient, structured approach to rehearsing, but in the end our final rehearsal was a reflection of Greek values. I wasn't worried about performing; I was just playing and dancing with my friends. Don't miss the Closing Ceremony. It will be great fun!
To recap: I am performing in a group of 12 "tourists." Look for me in the group that is walking up the steps, flashing camera. I will be the only one wearing hiking boots and I look a bit Greek. The actual performance will be about 8 pm, Sunday, 29Aug. That should be about noontime, CST in the USA. Tickets are selling from 100 to 700 EUR ($125 and up) and are in much demand. I'm down to my last 35 EUR, and still need three nights of lodging, so depending on funds, I may post one my time before I leave. With less than a week remaining in Greece (I leave 3Sep), on my wish list is to at least once eat in a Greek restaurant, go to a Game, go to Olympia, participate in a traditional dance in a taverna, and find the American Hospitality Center and get a pin.
Week of 29Aug - From what I was able to see of the Closing Ceremony, it looked awesome. I was surprised that our part as the Tourists was over so fast. Before I knew it we were running off the passerelle (the center stage) and I was trying to remember to wave to the audience that I couldn't much see because of the bright lights. Maybe it was all the anticipation, maybe it was the nervous energy, the dancing and running, but soon after the Ceremony ended and we left the Olympic Stadium I felt really exhausted. I know some other performers shared my feelings. The next day I was in daze, disoriented but amazed at what I'd accomplished and that I was in Athens and the Olympics were over. The greatest gift someone gave me was the program from the Closing Ceremony. It listed all the names of the volunteers (in tiny type; I still haven't found my name). The volunteers from the Judo Venue had a party at the Ano Liossi Stadium on Monday night and I finally got my wish at that party to do traditional dancing.
I hope those of you who watched enjoyed what you saw. Thanks to the Americans who gave me a bunch of American flag pins (which my fellow Tourists promptly snatched up, leaving me just one.) I'll write more when I've had the chance to recover from it all and the long 23-hour flight home on Friday. I'll probably be selling some mementoes on eBay (eBay user id "catdancing05"). Signing off from Athens.
~ Back in the USA ~
~ SEPTEMBER, 2004 ~
Week of 5Sep - Following the ending of the Olympics what I wanted most the next morning was to immediately return home. I felt disoriented being in Athens without the Olympic and didn't know how to respond. Others I later talked to had similar feelings. We were having withdrawal symptoms!
But my flight was not scheduled to leave for four more days, and I'm very glad I did have the chance to stay on. I had a couple of rough nights, but then I checked back into the youth hostel and a shower, sleep, and food made a new person out of me. I felt I could indulge in a few splurges. I took in a performance of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" (in Greek!) at the Odeum of Herodes Atticus Theatre beside the Acropolis. With the last of my Euros, I finally had a dinner at a taverna in the Plaka with an Aussie friend from the hostel. The tomato-cucumber salad was delicious (I love good tomatoes), the free glass of wine was tasty, and all was well with the world.
My very last day in Greece, 2Sept, was blissful. Most things in the city of Athens had returned to normal. Shops in Monastiraki were not open constantly and the crush of the crowd in the area was gone, the pedestrian walkway around the Acropolis had a much lighter flow of people. Some of the Olympic souvenirs were gone and Paralympic souvenirs were appearing (unfortunately, no reduction in price on the expensive Olympic souvenirs). For a change, I had finished all my packing the night before. I had a full day on my last day--until midnight--to walk around the city, revisit some of my favorite spots like the Ancient Agora (thankfully my volunteer pass still got me in for free), discover some new sites like the musical instrument museum, shop for last minute gifts for myself and others, write last minute postcards, and just amble. It was a beautiful day. The weather had been cooling off, and the day was sunny, pleasant, a little breeze had picked up--a glorious day to walk around and enjoy Athens in its calmer state. I felt at peace.
Thirty hours after I left the youth hostel at midnight, I was back in my home in Louisiana. The climate change, time zone change, shift from the very social structure of the youth hostel to "home alone," the contrast of the simple life on the road with just a backpack to a full household of belongings and responsibilities, and, inevitably, a large stack of mail and bills to deal with...was too much for me. In short order, I came down with a cold. I spent the first couple of days in a funk. Then I got a delightful surprise. A friend gave me four videotapes of the Olympics as broadcast by NBC. With most media coverage in Athens focused on Greek athletes (no surprise there) and often in a language I didn't understand, these videotapes were like seeing the Olympics for the first time. I was thrilled to be back in Greece with the Olympics. I got to see Carly Patterson win her gold medal in Gymnastics, a variety of sports, interesting coverage, funny coverage, and the Men's Marathon...and finally the Closing Ceremony. It was a little hard to pick me out, but there I was. With all the commercial interruptions, the full glory of the Closing as I knew it was not there, but I was so happy to see it, nevertheless. I look forward to the official video or DVD of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and especially the music CD. I can still hear the music in my head.
Greece was good for me. It took about a week to move away from trying to make things happen to just going with the flow in the Greek way. I call it the "Zorba" rhythm. Things will work out, things will get done...but often at the very last minute. It isn't suited to all circumstances, but most of the time I found it made a lot of sense. I found it endearing the way the Greeks often preferred to sit and just visit with each other, rather than rush off to get something done. The cats and dogs in Athens are a great reflection of the Greek way. Not excessive in number, and some are owned as evidenced by their collars, but many are strays. Maybe a little scruffy, but they don 't look mangy, they don't beg for food, they wander freely, even around the tavernas, they may chose to escort you for a while, they're not fearful, they're friendly, they look very secure, and they are world-class snoozers. I've seen dogs just plop down anywhere--at metros, at historic sites, at tavernas--and doze off. Nobody bothers them. It's a big contrast to the dogs and cats I've seen other places.
I knew I might have some tough times in Athens, and I did. This wasn't going to be a trip in which I could eat out, party a lot, visit many places, and buy a lot of things. There were some days I had only one meal, a few nights where I camped out in the dining room of the youth hostel due to lack of funds. But I knew it would be worth it, and it was. Directly after the Closing Ceremony were two night in a row that I thought I had free room lined up, but it didn't work out. So, I stayed out late, and then hung around the dining room, napped in the park during the day. By the time the rates at the hostel had dropped and I checked backed in I longed for a shower and rest, which I got. Revived, I woke up from a pleasant dream in which I'd auditioned for a part as a dancer. The director said that I wasn't right for the part, didn't have the right look, yada, yada, yada. He had me try out for a role as a talk show host, primarily just using my voice. I accepted that part, with the thought in mind that I'd use it as a stepping stone for the dancer's role, which I was burning to do. I told the director that the definition of beauty was far too narrow, that indeed I was really perfect for the part, I was the wave of the future. I felt up beat and positive, because throughout the dream I had been dancing, dancing, dancing.
The very first stirring of wanting to be a performer in the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics came when I watched Lionel Ritchie at the Closing of the Olympics in Los Angeles. He sang "Well my friends the time has come to raise the roof and have some fun. Throw away the work to be done. Let the music play on...Everybody sing, everybody dance." I was captivated. Something dormant awakened; the yearning to perform in the Closing of the Olympics was born. I never forgot that feeling. I was surprised to discover the Los Angeles Olympics was in 1984, twenty years ago. And, of all things, I've gone ahead and done that very thing...performed in the Closing Ceremony of one of the greatest Olympics of all time.
There is ever so much more that I could say about all my observations and experiences, but I think I might just save that for a book.
What's this all about? Click here to read about the dream. Click here if you would like to make a donation or help in some other way. Click here to see where the money is going. Contact me by email. I will continue to add updates to this journal during the six weeks I'm in Athens, usually the end of each week.
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