Gods, Heroes, and Cats

February 23

Athens is a city of Gods, Heroes, and Cats. The Gods and Heroes are seldom home so I befriend the cats. They are the only creatures allowed to climb the steps of the Temple of Hephaestus. They are the only ones who can slip between the bars of Socrates’s Prison. They are the only ones who know the secret paths through the columns of the Parthenon.

I meet them strolling past the ruins of Hadrian’s Library. They loll in empty window boxes, shaded by shutters painted lapis-blue. In the strangling alleys of the Anafiotika neighborhood, they straggle up the trunks of lemon trees to look out over the contorted lanes. Down the hill, they seat themselves at outdoor café tables and wink at the waitresses.

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In the afternoon, the cats promenade beneath a bower of orange trees along Evripidou Street. On this citrus-studded lane, you can buy anything by the kilo, box, or bundle. Under jungles of wrought-iron balconies and shutters of Aegean-blue, shopkeepers hawk incense, Turkish delight, homemade halva, candied lime peel, lychees in syrup, ropes of chili and nutmeg, sea sponges and dried flowers, bird cages of woven cane, silver knobbed walking sticks, linen scarves and lingerie, peppercorns and chains of garlic.

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At the Temple of Olympian Zeus, I meet a prancing cinnamon cat who wears a pelt of eiderdown. He unscrolls in the shadow of Hadrian’s Arch and I name him after Athens’s generous emperor. As afternoon paints the arch in sepia, Hadrian and I look out across the ruins of Zeus’s Temple. The late light plates the marble columns in rose-gold glory. Wearing carved fronds like dancers’ plumes, they wait for dusk, when the ball will begin.

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Leaving Hadrian to his revels, I climb the hill towards Anafiotika. The olive oil light spills silken and yellow, slow-pressed through the long afternoon, filtered through intricate iron balconies and orange trees. In Lysikratous Square, the rays drip from the crest of Athena’s helmet. I look up and see the Acropolis drizzled in extra virgin light.

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The streets are perfumed with jonquil and narcissus. Spring sprouts in the gutters, from buckets and terracotta pots, where old men sell bouquets. In a shop narrow as a boxcar, I finger worry-beads. ‘Onyx, from the island of Milos,’ the woman tells me as I lift the bone-colored beads from their nail. Her hair is the same tone as the stone: white shot through with sunlight. I spill my coins into her vein-knotted hand and she teaches me my first Greek word: Efkharistó. Thank you.

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