8. Lunch with the Strays of Athens

(So many Greek men love cats. This surprised me. I guess I’m used to gruff, apathetic men.)

I came to Greece to find my chosen patron goddess, Artemis. Instead, after I get to Athens, I am enamored by the strays more than anything else—cats, mostly.

I chose Artemis as part of my magical name when I was a teenager. My reason was because she hated men. This is the goddess who, when she caught a hunter shamelessly watching her bathe in a lake, turned him into a stag and sent his hounds after him to tear him apart. I liked the idea of giving a guy what he deserves.

In a way, Artemis’s dismissive attitude towards men is what some Americans think about cats. Some think that cats are too independent to show affection and that they’re passive aggressive and mean. I’m no longer friends with many of these people. If one can hate an entire animal species, it often means they have little ability to love either animal or human.

When I reach Athens, Greece, it’s been weeks since I’ve had physical contact with anyone. At home are my boyfriend and his two cats: one long-furred and sweet, and the other short-furred and skittish. I miss human touch, but more than that, I miss petting dogs and cats. I miss animal interaction.

Some of the Athens cats are feral and frightened, but most of them are sweet as kittens, and I can see why: I watch old men kneel on the sidewalk and feed felines canned food from one hand while petting them with the other.

I grew up rescuing injured birds and writing stories about wolves living in the backyard. My family has a strange, aggressive kind of way of showing affection (criticism, sarcasm, and food), so the only way to get the affection I really craved was from animals, whom I felt like I could care for, even when I really couldn’t. My mom had a black cat named Roxanne who had litter after litter of kittens; and when we kept one of her daughters, she eventually had litters of her own. I never felt alone in our house of cats.

Freeny is a sweet dinner companion, if a little too forward.

I’m in a part of Athens that doesn’t feel stuffy: the main walking areas are made of slated stones and the paths are wide. Nearby is the Acropolis with green bushes and olive trees and off-white ancient temples and theaters. The air is somewhat moist, but we aren’t close enough to the ocean for it to feel humid. Although it’s cool enough to need a sweater in the shade, it’s just warm enough to walk about in a t-shirt in the sun.

I order a Greek salad for lunch. This restaurant is a white-tablecloth affair, and each table down the line has its own unlit propane-heating tower. Trees surround the courtyard, their gnarly limbs forming a canopy above. I’m the only person in the patio-seating area (which should tell me that this is tourist food, since it’s empty and I’m here during the off-season). A white kitty with orange markings struts over, hops onto my lap, and kneads my thighs with sharp claws. “His name is Freeny,” the hostess informs me, and I pet him happily. The black cat napping on a chair is Pompei, she adds. After lunch, I spot four more cats gathered near the host stand, sitting on chairs, winding around table legs, and giving one another the I-don’t-like-you hiss.

There’s a group in town that takes care of the cats. They catch them and get them spayed or neutered and they also castrate and collar the dogs.

The cats are allowed to hang out basically wherever they want. This is a loving culture.

On a main street of scattered garbage and overwhelming exhaust fumes, are lot after lot of cars for sale, parked so close that the only way they could have gotten there is if someone parked and then crawled out the trunk. Most buildings on this side of town are five or more stories high. Dozens of sex shops advertise posters of women in thigh-high fishnets and latex underwear in massive windows. An Eastern Orthodox Church hides in a back alley. Everyone in this area of town is trying to sell something, be it transportation, sex, or God.

Things aren’t always what they seem. Although Artemis seems to hate men, her reasoning is sound: she cares for girls and women, and wants to protect them, and men get away with a lot of shit even in the 21st century, never mind ancient Greece. The reason I hated boys so much growing up was because they treated me like an orphan or a sex object, and hardly ever like a person. If a girl pledges herself to Artemis, the goddess will take her in and watch out for her. Nearly fifteen years later, this is the reason I cling to for why I still admire this goddess. She is also a patron of animals.

On the selling street, out back near the church is an abandoned building with metal wire blocking the stairway. Part of the fencing has been cut away, probably with wire cutters. It’s a perfect cat-sized hole. Bowls of cat food have been placed inside, and three cats are just hanging out: one chowing down, a second watching him, and a third high up on the stairs, safe and out of the streets and well cared for.

It might not be the Taj Mahal, but these cats are well cared for.

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