The most horrifying realization for every American college student studying in Greece is that everyone wakes up early — very, very early in the morning — 6 or 7 a.m. For the first time in my college career, I am taking an 8:30 class. While at Cornell, any class before 10:10 is obviously a class I would never take. But unlike in other major world cities, the people of Athens wake up early out of necessity; the morning race to work is only possible because of the cool morning air — going to work anytime later in the day would mean arriving at work sweating and smelling as if you had spent the past three weeks searching for the source of a long African river.
But if an Athenian makes it to work before the sun is too high, he or she is rewarded by knowing that the work “day” extends only to 1 or 2 p.m. (a perk frustratingly imitated by Greek consulates in the U.S.).
And then, 1 or 2 p.m. means lunch time, a sacred daily ritual that must receive its due respect. Because this long lunch is often followed by a long nap, quiet hours in the afternoons are enforced by law, though some people manage to stay awake and chat, play games or just indulge in productive relaxation. After all, they deserve it — Greeks “work” more hours than anyone else in the European Union.
Due to the afternoon sultriness, siestas are a necessity here, not a luxury. But it’s certainly not easy to sleep here: Waves of heat distort the surrounding mountains and cicadas scream incessantly in the palm trees, providing the daytime soundtrack for this bustling city of four million bodies. Not until 5 or 6 p.m. do people begin to emerge. This is when the day really begins. You can recognize Americans in the streets by the hungry look in their eyes at this hour — Athenians only start thinking of dinner at 8 or 9 p.m. and often eat as late as 11 at the local tavernas, providing the energy for the seven hours of marathon drinking each weekend night required of the stylish set of unemployed twenty-somethings who still live at home.
But at least they respect their parents: As they are preparing to go
to bed Sunday mornings, they remember to wave to their mothers, who are on their way out to one of the small yet ornate churches that appear here and there. Or, if they have been partying on a weeknight, those few who are employed get ready for work coming straight from the bars and clubs. What is conspicuously absent from all this early morning maneuvering is the sight of any Americans — the exhausted tourists have stumbled off to bed by 2 or 3 a.m. But a Greek level of productivity is available to everyone: All you really need to do is drink a few cups of the local coffee, since consuming one cup of Greek coffee is equivalent to drinking five cappuccinos, a number that would signal a severe caffeine addiction in other countries.
But I’d like to end this column with a warning: I came to Greece expecting that, if I adopted the habit of being fashionably late, it would help me fit into the local culture. Unfortunately, my first day of classes cast some doubt on my assumption.
It was a hot and sunny day — typical for Athens — and I had been wandering around the Acropolis in the commercial Plaka district looking for a bookstore with guidebooks to help me plan my long weekends. After getting lost in the traffic, I finally made it to class, hot and drenched in sweat, without having found a bookstore and, what is apparently worse, 10 minutes late.
I walked into the small classroom with five students sitting there listening to the professor give some background on the Thucydides we would be reading. He stops speaking, looks at me and says in his theatrical English accent, “Oh, you must be the one from Cornell?” “Uh, yeah, I am,” I say in a neutral tone. He replied: “That still doesn’t excuse the fact that you’re late.”