Friday, September 14, 2007


Don't they check passports at borders anymore? I breezed straight out of the Athens airport without anyone giving a damn who I was, what I was doing in Greece, or if the luggage I had grabbed from the carousel was even mine. So far I have one stamp in my passport, from London. Where, by the way, I got totally, yet politely, grilled by an immigration officer. Why are you traveling, for how long, where are you staying, how do you know the person you're staying with, is she British or American, please show me your ticket to Rome, will you be coming back to Britain, and, since I wrote Coordinator as my profession, what do you coordinate? Nerds. I coordinate nerds.

Arriving in Athens in the early evening, I didn't do any street excursions, except to find food - a gyros and sour cherry soda, which could have been way more sour to suit my tastes. My hotel has wireless in the lounge, so I park myself there for a couple of hours, updating Italy blogs. By now I'm sure you've noticed that my postings are a couple of weeks behind. I'm a slow writer and can only post as wireless is available. It'll all be there eventually, but in all likelihood, long after I've left. I'm staying at the same hotel that Ling stayed at when she was here. The Acropolis is still there, in plain view from the rooftop bar, all lit up at night and looking majestic. I'm not much of a drinker, being able to count the drinks I have during one year on one hand, usually on one finger, but I can't pass up the chance to have a gin fizz, just because I like the way it sounds. The last time I had a drink was at San Francisco's Absinthe, and the main reason I ordered it was because it was called a Ginger Rogers. Total girly drink, and I couldn't even finish it. My friend Xandy is clearly more of girl than I because she was able to finish it off, as well as her own. I managed to finish this one, though.

I'm not staying in Athens for long, so the next day I lace up my shoes tight, apply sunscreen, and head out to take in as much antiquity as I possibly can. Athens is another sprawling city, but all the ancient sites I went to are within walking distance from one another. I'm saving the Acropolis for the evening, so I first head to the Ancient Agora. Snuffling deeply in case any of Socrates' cells are still floating around, I prowl the grounds. It's not quite as hot here as Italy was, but it's super sunny. The ancient outdoor sites can be slightly jarring, because they are staffed by people wearing whistles to get the attention of anyone who is touching or walking on something they shouldn't be; unfortunately it gets the attention of everyone else in the area, who immediately think they're the ones doing something wrong. If there's one thing here that I need to see, it's the Temple of Hephaestus, god of the forge. I haven't forged anything in several years, but if welding existed back then, he'd probably be the god of that as well.

The Stoa of Attalos is restored, and if you can say one thing about the ancient Greeks, it's that they really knew how to make a long, tidy building. Classical, in every sense of the word. I really like lettering and letter forms, so anything that has inscriptions will also catch my attention, and lots of antiquities have inscribed writing. I think this contributes greatly to their being able to withstand time and the ages. I can read something written more than two millennia ago, clear as day, but I can't read something written twenty years ago on software and hardware now outdated. Modern society produces a profusion of documentation and information, yet so much of it is fleeting in the digital aether. I don't think modernity will have the same lasting power as the ancient civilizations, and perhaps it's better that a lot of what we do is forgotten. But I digress. This would have been a good debate for the stoa!

One of the things I like about Europe is that it's old, and the old stuff is still around. America is young, monumentally speaking. We don't have too much that goes back more than a few centuries, and I imagine most of that is in the northeast. In Europe, the old is right there next to the new, and it imbues the place with a sense of history that I find lacking in America. Or maybe I don't notice it because I live there. By the way, did you know that Oakland has lots of really cool art deco buildings? I only found that out when I started doing some research on art deco, and noticed the books had tons of pics from Oakland. Worth seeking them out if you like the style. It might be more evident if downtown Oakland weren't so neglected. Oops, I digress again.

Taking a break from the ancient, I walk to Parliament to see the evzones guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The evzones are the guards who wear the berets, pleated kilts (is that redundant? aren't all kilts pleated?), and funny pompom shoes. Two are in front, and spend their guard hour tracing out a path around the patio with rather complex choreography - slow, high steps, ankle kicks, about faces, arms lifts, all the while maintaining an inscrutable face. I need to research this a bit, because it seems the furthest thing from practical. More ritual. Not that the Buckingham Palace guard baking their brains in bear hats seems more practical, but at least they are presumably watching out for things from under those low furry brims. The evzones had pauses in their beat, but during the short time that I watched, and they didn't seem to repeat any of their steps, so I'm not sure how long the cycle lasts. No idea how they remember what to do. I tried to catch the changing of the guard the next day, but arrived a bit too late and only saw the new guard assume their position, and get their kit straightened out by a modern-dress guard (whose job is was to shoo spectators off the steps).

Parliament is near the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian's Gate. Not much remains of the Temple, but what does is towering. Given how little still stands, it's a wonder that the columns are still upright. One did topple in the 19th century, and still manages to look distinguished, lying in pieces on the ground.

Hadrian's Gate could do with a scrubbing. It's caked with the infamous Athenian pollution, which is obscuring interesting inscriptions on each side, one of which reads, "This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus," and the other reads, "This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus." You can only just make out that some words are there, but I'm not even sure that a Greek reader could tell you what they said. The gate is mere meters from the street, so the only way to get a full view of one side, without craning your neck up, is to cross the street; and then it's not much of a view. It's odd to see how some monuments are protected to a greater degree than others. I'm sure funding and staffing plays some role in that, but it's too bad to see some things neglected and left to endure millions of cars spewing exhaust driving by, where others don't even endure the soft touch of a tourist who maybe just want to lay a innocent hand on something so historic. Nope, the antiquity guard will blow a whistle on you. Inconsistently, there's a fence around the Gate, so pollution can touch it, but you can't.

It's late afternoon, and time to see the Acropolis. I'm coming up the south slope, which is full of interesting things, most of which I'm not taking in because my brain is full, and I'm a little bit tired. It's still sunny out. But there is a theater, and I'll always stop to look at a theater. Backstage at modern theaters, with the trap doors, catwalks, flys, and velvety curtains will always be one of my favorite places to be. This theater has none of those things, but does have really beautiful seats carved from marble. Even modern theater seating is rarely this refined.

Walking through the Propylaia and seeing the Parthenon for the first time is a pretty gulp-worthy moment. Sure you've seen pictures of it, but nothing really prepares you for how immense it is. Even as an exploded and pillaged ruin it makes your eyes twirl a bit. It would have been fearsome back in the day. It's being restored very slowly (a good thing), but as a result is covered in scaffolding (a bad thing). It's difficult to take any picture that doesn't capture something of the restoration work surrounding it. It's also obscuring any good look at the architecture of the columns, which involves some nifty tricks that deceive the human eye into thinking that all the columns are identical and placed exactly straight up and down. They aren't.

I don't care at all for most of the religions practiced today, especially the monotheistic ones, but the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods has always appealed to me. And I especially like Athena. Clever, strong, independent, gave her dad at least one massive headache. Not only goddess of wisdom and warfare (I'm not so into the warfare), but also of craft. Has a pet owl. I probably would have worshipped her if I lived in ancient Greece. She did have the best temple, after all.

I spend a couple hours at the Acropolis, some of just sitting on a bench and looking. There's a few other things up here. Marble and stone strewn around everywhere. The Erechtheion, with its pretty lady pillars. Tourists. Dogs napping, as they do everywhere in the Mediterranean (only big dogs, though; no small dogs. Umm). This dog was handsome and friendly, left a puddle of drool on the pavement where he was napping, and his left eye was milky blue blind. And he gave me a great photo opportunity.

I've seen enough grand antiquity for one day. I'm hot and covered in dust. On the way back down I sit on Mars Hill to rest and scribble some notes in my journal. A family of three asks me to take a picture of them. I get asked to photograph people a lot, from singles to families, and many of them are still using film cameras. This family doesn't speak much English, so I make a gesture to see if they want me to include the Acropolis in the background, and they nod. I move them a little out of center to accommodate the Acropolis. I always wonder in these cases if whomever it is gets home, gets their film developed, and totally hates the picture I've taken of them. If anyone is using a digital camera, I always ask them to check and make sure they like what I've done.

Since I'm on my own again, I'm back to eating fast and cheap. Gyros are everywhere here, and with another bottle of sour cherry soda, make a good dinner for blogging.

I know I asked for chicken, but there's a slight chance that those weren't actually chicken, and were in fact something else that hasn't been in my diet for years. I ate them anyway. Experiencing global travel isn't the time to be self-righteous about one's voluntary dietary restrictions. I'm sure I'll draw some line at some point, but this wasn't one of those times. Trying new things is one of the joys of travel, and I don't have enough convictions anymore to say no to something based on ethics alone. At least, most of the time. I won't be eating any endangered or baby animals.

The next day I go to the Archeological Museum. The Archeological Museum contains every object that could possibly come to mind when thinking of ancient Greece. Red figure vases, helmets with cheek and nose guards, coins, swords and chariot bits, marbles and bronzes, amphorae, jewelry, and the Antikythera Mechanism, the ancient computer that was fished out of the ocean early last century. For being over 2000 years old, and having spent however long underwater, I suppose it's in pretty good shape, but not at first glance. Inconceivably, people have managed to reconstruct this, although I think its true function is still a matter of some debate.

I'm not sure if it was the sunniness of the day or the overload of information, but I'm having a lot of trouble staying awake in the museum. I keep sitting on benches and wondering if anyone would notice if I take a short nap. Fortunately I find the cafe, and get a Greek coffee. Greek coffee is entirely unlike an Italian cappuccino. It's served black in a tiny cup, but in a volume somewhat greater than a standard espresso shot. It has grounds in it, which makes it sludgy at the bottom. Sugar is added while it is being made, not after. One of the first times I ordered one I was asked, "Medium?" Ummm...I just nodded. She was asking if I wanted sugar. I think you're supposed to down it all in one shot, but I always downed mine in three or four big sips. Maybe if you do it all at once the grounds don't have time to settle at the bottom, but they arrive fairly scalding hot. Coffee in the Mediterranean is also frequently served with a glass of water, which is a good and proper thing. If you order a second cup of coffee, you'll get a new glass of water, even if you haven't finished the first. In Greece, you may even get ice. I don't think any ice existed in Italy, although it sure could have used it.

The one thing I missed taking pictures of in Athens was a crazy fish and meat market near my hotel. The first time I went through I was too scared to whip out my camera in case one of the butchers took offense and came after me with a cleaver. They use enormous trapezoidal cleavers, which mimic the shape of japanese saws; except they are a lot bigger, a lot heavier, and made for hacking instead of sawing. And when I decided to go back and chance it, my battery had run out. Curses for taking all those pictures the previous day of classical antiquity. The meat section had all sorts of internal organs that I couldn't identify, and a skinned cow's head. I'm pretty sure the eyeballs were still in it. When I cruised through a second time the cow's head was gone, and had been replaced with part of a pig's head, one ear still attached. Kinda made me want to eat a salad.


ling said...

i think it's the air in the archaeological museum - i nearly fainted there this last time. by the way, the steps of the parthenon look totally flat but they're not (they slope up, just slightly, towards the center).

ps - i spent about an hour trying to read the inscription on hadrian's gate but could also only make out a few words. :)

and now i'm craving a gyros with an amita cherry juice. sigh.

Heidi said...

my brother and his wife just had a baby and named her Athena after the goddess for the sole fact that she is the head mistress of craft.

cheese skipper said...

john and nef are enlightened people. i know that kid is going to learn how to knit before she learns how to write.