I’ve left my island hideaway and I’m in central Athens now. I’ve family here – well, that’s an understatement. This is where all my family live, my three children, their partners and my grandchildren. Plus some cousins and a ninety six year old aunt, who is hanging on to life by a thread, but that’s another story. The one thing, and the only thing, that’s unchanged in terms of my daily routine here in Athens and my routine in the village I’ve just left on the island of Chios, is that when I wake up, I head off on a run.
I’m on the point of calling this a running blog. But I’m still really a beginner runner. It seems to me I’ve been a beginner runner for some years now. I’m not sure, that is, whether I’m in a position to be writing something called a running blog. I don’t think I’m a proper runner yet, not by a long shot.
I should explain that although I now run Parkrun every Saturday when I’m at home (that’s a 5K timed run with a whole bunch of lovely people who encourage you along all the way), that’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve never run a 10K, let alone a half marathon or a marathon. Once I went to an event in Bristol that was billed as an evening to motivate runners on to their next milestone and I thought great! This’ll be just what I need to get me onto doing a 10K. Well, I misjudged that one, big time. This was an event for ultra-runners – those for whom back-to-back marathons are small potatoes and who are looking for something a tad more challenging. There was a guy there who’d run from Los Angeles to New York City – I kid you not! – and his next challenge was Paris-Tokyo. Basically, in other words, I was at an event for incredibly nice running lunatics, but hey, that too is another story.
I just don’t want you to think I’m a real, grown-up runner. I go out for a bit of a pootle around the neighbourhood, that’s all, whatever and wherever the local neighbourhood is. I run for 40 minutes, maybe up to about an hour max, but that’s it, folks. And slowly. I haven’t got a GPS watch or one that measures my heartrate (though I’m starting to think, hmmm, maybe one of those would be nice).
And now I’ve left the island and I’m in the crowded, noisy madness that is central Athens. And my neighbourhood here is the area at the foot of the Acropolis so a circular run for me is one that goes round it. D’you like the sound of that? It’s really fab. I’m staying in a small hotel in a neighbourhood called Makriyianni. It’s right on the edge of all the touristy bits but it’s a genuine neighbourhood too, with corner shops and a school right next door and a real local community. I love it.
So my run-round-the-Acropolis means I hook a right when I come out of the hotel, then right again up two blocks and left, which means I’m now on the pedestrianised roadway called Aeropogitou that runs along the foot of the hill that is the Acropolis, with the Parthenon on top. Then I just follow the road round as it skirts the Acropolis along another pedestrianised road to an area called Thisseon. Then it’s right again past all the restaurants and cafes that face the metro line that goes to Pireaus – there’s a lot of people-dodging for me that takes place here – followed by another right zig-zagging through the narrow streets of Plaka, now dodging cars and motorbikes. And then the circle is complete with another right turn and I’m back to my hotel. And breakfast.
“There the paths had been apparently deserted. And yet every day I met someone. Here the roads were thronging with people. And yet I met no one.”
Funny thing is how different this circuit is on different days and at different times. On Sunday I headed off at about 9.30 and the route on the pedestrianised roads was full of people setting up their stalls for the street market that is a Sunday feature of the area. Plus the buskers who are there every day hoping for coins from the busloads of tourists who head up the Acropolis. I passed a man about my age, I’d say, playing the bouzouki softly (and rather beautifully I thought). I say softly because it wasn’t electrified so the inevitable riffs on Zorba’s dance came over with a rather plaintive sweetness. He smiled and bowed towards me as I passed and said hi. But then I ran on through the crowds and it was the opposite of my experiences on my village runs. There the paths had been apparently deserted. And yet every day I met someone. Here the roads were thronging with people. And yet I met no one.
Things changed when I’d rounded my circle. I decided this was another case of not-enough. The run had taken me not much longer than twenty five minutes and I wanted more. At the end of the first bit of road from my hotel, if you carry on straight ahead, there’s a path up a beautiful hill called Philopappos. At the top there’s a monument dating back to 300AD or so and you have stunning three hundred and sixty degree views right down to the sea and the Saronic islands in one direction and across Athens in every other. I say there’s ‘a’ path but in fact there are myriad paths around the hill and to the top of it, so for a wannabe fell runner (which to my astonishment, I’ve now decided is what I am), well, you’re spoilt for choice.
I headed up the hill. I was going to run along some of the paths that skirt its flanks and make it up as I went along. Just try to do some sort of half-hour circle to my start point. Then I changed my mind. The steep path going to the top seemed to be beckoning, so up I went. Can’t pretend I was running now, it was too steep for that. There were even some steps. But goodness when I got to the top, was it worth it!
“And the blue of the sky was the bluest of blues, the green of the leaves on the trees, the greenest of greens, the white of the marble (everywhere) the sparkliest of whites.”
Sunday here in Athens was a gleaming, glinty day, weather-wise. There’s often a haze over the city. I don’t think it’s pollution (though it may be). I think it’s more moisture in the air. Okay, and some dust. But on Sunday it was clear and bright and you could see to over the rainbow (had there been a rainbow). You could see forever. And the blue of the sky was the bluest of blues, the green of the leaves on the trees, the greenest of greens, the white of the marble (everywhere) the sparkliest of whites. Good thing I was wearing my sunglasses.
So I blinked in the sunshine up there at the top and took it all in. Athens lay sprawled all around me, right down to the sea in one direction and the port of Piraeus and up to the mountains to the sides. Ahead of me gleamed the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis hill. I could hardly breathe, and not simply because I was puffed out. It was just so beautiful.
I started to walk down the slope. There are steps on the path and both the steps and the path are made out of slabs of ancient marble, together with other rocks and stones, all cobbled together, literally. You pass Socrates’ prison on the way down too, where he allegedly saw the world in shadows as they played out in front, but beyond reach, of him. I say ‘allegedly’ not because he didn’t see and write about the world in shadows but because no one can be really sure that these caves in the rock were indeed his prison. But over the centuries, they’re the place people have come to believe he was held.
And then, when I reached the main path at the bottom, the one that would take me back to the road round the Acropolis, I passed a small church hidden away under some trees. And because it was Sunday, the morning service was taking place. As I ran past, I could hear the sermon. There were obviously discreet microphones being used. And I caught the words “we are so quick to
judge…” and they resonated with me, as yes indeedy, I am extremely quick to judge, and I thought I’d stop awhile and listen in. The church is tiny and there was an overspill of people under the overhanging porch outside its doors as well as one or two others sitting quietly and attentively in the shade of the garden in front. I found a slab of marble seating (yes, a bit of ancient loveliness, happily in everyday use today) and sat on it. The sun was low in the sky but directly ahead of me and it was beating on my face, bathing me in its warmth. I was wearing my (bright pink) running leggings so I wasn’t dressed for church by any stretch of the imagination, but I certainly felt welcome and included sitting there on the outer perimeter of the little tree-enclosed courtyard.
Now I’m not a church-goer, I need to make that clear. And I’m very definitely not a Greek church-goer, despite having been baptised into its membership many decades ago. Growing up in London, my Greek father used to drag us unwilling kids to the Greek church in Bayswater as often as he could. But we none of us spoke a word of Greek and going was a nightmare for us. Plus I had to wear a skirt, something I liked then as little as I like now. So the Greek church and I are not friends. I wince when I see the enormous and, to my eyes, kitchy edifices that dominate impoverished Greek villages, all gold bling inside. But this little church was different. I’d peeked in through the crowded door and it was dark and simple within. A few icons and some candles, that’s all. And the cadences of its liturgy were very familiar to me, I ‘knew’ them almost in my blood, or so I was surprised to find it seemed, and I discovered I was anticipating the singing and the chanting that now interspersed the sermon.
“And he talked of how we in turn need to take a step back and think about how we can’t always be right, it’s just not possible by the law of averages, and maybe it’s our turn now to practice forgiving someone else.”
So I listened to what the priest had to say. And he was talking about how quick we are to criticise others and to feel blameless ourselves. How hard it is for us to forgive anyone else when we feel wronged, and how satisfied we feel as we settle into our cosy sense of self-righteousness, up there on the moral high ground. But if God forgives us, he argued, then we should learn from God and take his example. And he talked of how we in turn need to take a step back and think about how we can’t always be right, it’s just not possible by the law of averages, and maybe it’s our turn now to practice forgiving someone else.
And I thought how his words, the priest’s that is, were words you couldn’t take issue with. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or indeed an atheist. We could all do with being a bit more forgiving – to others and to ourselves, for that matter.
So I sat there in the sunshine on the ancient marble stone and I wondered how many others had rested on its smooth, cool surface too over the centuries. And I listened to words that were kind and wise, and I thought about Socrates too, incarcerated as he was somewhere within a few metres of this lovely place, and I thought how lucky I was to be able to run, because it was my unambitious little morning run that had led me here at just the right moment to be stopped in my tracks by words that were timeless and good and true.
When I left I ran past the bouzouki player and he bowed and smiled at me again. And I ran on down the road now and back into my nice welcoming hotel. And I felt blessed on so many levels – to be in the city where my children and their children live, to be staying somewhere safe and comfortable, to be fit enough to run and to have been led by some happy stroke of synchronicity, into the quiet courtyard of a little church, right smack-bang in the centre of this crazy, hectic, noisy city. A place where I heard words that made me forgive my father just a little for all those tedious Sundays of my childhood and that made me celebrate the curious and totally unexpected sense of coming home that, to my astonishment, I found myself feeling now.