A Winter In Athens Half A Century Ago
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Our sitting-room fronted the south (with a view of the Acropolis and the Areopagas), and could be kept warm without more labor or expense than would be required for an entire dwelling at home. Our principal anxiety was, that the supply of fuel, at any price, might become exhausted. We burned the olive and the vine, the cypress and the pine, twigs of rose trees and dead cabbage-stalks, for aught I know, to feed our one little sheet-iron stove. For full two months we were obliged to keep up our fire, from morning until night. Know ye the land of the cypress and myrtle, where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine? Here it is, with almost snow enough in the streets for a sleighing party, with the Ilissus frozen, and with a tolerable idea of Lapland, when you face the gusts which drive across the Cephissian plain.
As the other guests were Greek, our mode of living was similar to that of most Greek families. We had coffee in the morning, a substantial breakfast about noon, and dinner at six in the evening. The dishes were constructed after French and Italian models, but the meat is mostly goat's flesh. beef, when it appears, is a phenomenon of toughness. Vegetables are rather scarce. Cow's milk, and butter or cheese therefrom, are substances unknown in Greece. The milk is from goats or sheep, and the butter generally from the latter. It is a white, cheesy material, with a slight flavor of tallow. The wine, when you get it unmixed with resin, is very palatable. We drank that of Santorin, with the addition of a little water, and found it an excellent beverage.
Except during the severely cold weather, Athens is as lively a town as may be. One-fourth of the inhabitants, I should say, are always in the streets, and many of the mechanics work, as is common in the Orient, in open shops. The coffee-houses are always thronged, and every afternoon crowds may be seen on the Patissia Road—a continuation of Eolus Street—where the King and Queen take their daily exercise on horseback. The national costume, both male and female, is gradually falling into disuse in the cities, altho it is still universal in the country. The islanders adhere to their hideous dress with the greatest persistence. With sunrise the country people begin to appear in the streets with laden donkeys and donkey-carts, bringing wood, grain, vegetables, and milk, which they sell from house to house.
Venders of bread and coffee-rolls go about with circular trays on their heads, calling attention to their wares by loud and long-drawn cries. Later in the day, peddlers make their appearance, with packages of cheap cotton stuffs, cloth, handkerchiefs, and the like, or baskets of pins, needles, buttons, and tape. They proclaim loudly the character and price of their articles, the latter, of course, subject to negotiation. The same custom prevails as in Turkey, of demanding much more than the seller expects to get. Foreigners are generally fleeced a little in the beginning, tho much less so, I believe, than in Italy.
The winter of 1857–58 was the severest in the memory of any inhabitant. For nearly eight weeks, we had an alternation of icy north winds and snow-storms. The thermometer went down to 20 degrees of Fahrenheit—a degree of cold which seriously affected the orange-, if not the olive-trees. Winter is never so dreary as in those southern lands, where you see the palm trees rocking despairingly in the biting gale, and the snow lying thick on the sunny fruit of the orange groves. As for the pepper trees, with their hanging tresses and their loose, misty foliage, which line the broad avenues radiating from the palace, they were touched beyond recovery. The people, who could not afford to purchase wood or char-coal, at treble the usual price, even tho they had hearths, which they have not, suffered greatly. They crouched at home, in cellars and basements, wrapt in rough capotes, or hovering around a mangal, or brazier of coals, the usual substitute for a stove. From Constantinople we had still worse accounts. The snow lay deep everywhere; charcoal sold at twelve piastres the oka (twenty cents a pound), and the famished wolves, descending from the hills, devoured people almost at the gates of the city. In Smyrna, Beyrout, and Alexandria, the winter was equally severe, while in Odessa it was mild and agreeable, and in St. Petersburg there was scarcely snow enough for sleighing. All Northern Europe enjoyed a win-ter as remarkable for warmth as that of the South for its cold. The line of division seemed to be about the parallel of latitude 45 degrees. Whether this singular climatic phenomenon extended further eastward, into Asia, I was not able to ascertain. I was actually less sensitive to the cold in Lapland, during the previous winter, with the mercury frozen, than in Attica, within the belt of semi-tropical productions.