Archive for January, 2011

Greece #4 – A Ferry Ride

January 30, 2011

Misty with the cliffs of Aegina

In the 1970’s, when I first came to Greece, the only way to get to any of the islands was by ferry.  I first saw Greece from the deck of a ferry, as dawn broke after a long night pitching across from Brindisi, Italy.  Kerkyra (Corfu) lay still in the ‘wine-dark sea’, looking like Zeus lying on his back in the water.  I fell in love with Greece at that moment, and have never forsaken her.  Now we are about to zip to Thera on an airplane (though zip is a funny word for a process that will take less than an hour in the air, but requires six hours – only one hour less than the ferry – to effect, between getting all the way out to the airport, waiting, securitizing, boarding, and getting back in at the other end).

But meanwhile, I wanted Misty to have something of the ferry experience I had back in the day, so we wandered down to the tiny sook-like streets of lower Plaka and booked a 3-island cruise via Manos, the kindly but opinionated agent we found in a messy upstairs office – that, at least, has not changed since my day – smoky offices with inefficient phones and telexes, though now they have upgraded to inefficient computers.

The cruise required turning to early, and walking a cold and echo-y street.  The van that came to waft us to Pireaus was only 8 minutes late, a Greek record.  The port of Pireaus really is amazing, having been a working port steadily for more than 3000 years.  Our boat was not dissimilar to the ferries of my youth, but cleaner, and the whole feeling of being handled was more professional and less chaotic.  Instead of hundreds of European hippies carrying satchels and backpacks, our shipmates were Japanese and Chinese and Spanish tourists, but that was really ok.

The ferry experience, I explained to Mist, was really something different: on the way to Kriti we slept out on the deck, used even more horrible toilets, and could find no food worth eating, and learned to bring what we wanted.  There was a lot of back in forth between the intrepid travelers, and between the travelers and the crew.  In one game, you stood with your back to a semi-circle of players, with your left hand, palm out, against your right ear (try it).  One of the crowd behind you whacks you up side o’ de head, and is back in line before you recover.  If you correctly identify the attacker, he goes into the hot seat.  If not, you stay there for another hit.  Eventually, I ventured a whack or two, and I was duly identified. My first two hits, I couldn’t recover fast enough to identify the striker, but on the third try, I received such a blow that I knew it could only be the sailor with the Popeye arms, and I retired gratefully if not gracefully.

Our ferryboat in Hydra

The crew for this cruise was impressive not for their muscles but for their polyglot talents.  Every announcement came in Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, as well as English.  Our most beautiful stop was the first, Hydra (ee’-dra – apparently the un-named island in John Fowles masterpiece, The Magus), where there was a sea-blessing ceremony that involved incessant ringing of church bells, followed by cannon fire, and a bunch of teenaged boys jumping into the winter sea after a flag and a cross, I believe – it was a little far to see properly.  Mist and I followed a path up to the battlements on a pinnacle above the town with a spectacular view, befriended a burro (not so hard, but it would have been better if we had had more food), and sensed our way through goatpaths back to the town before our boat hooted and left.

The food was not spectacular, we were paired for lunch with a couple of airheads from LA, and we made no new friends on the trip, but we did get to see Greece looking at the land from the sea, which, like Maine, is an essential part of the experience.  All day, as we worked our way upwind from Hydra to Poros, and on to Aegina, the wind blew steadily from the north, sometimes working up some white horses, but mostly a desultory breeze that would have been perfect for sailing.

The island scenery looks like Santa Fe – low pines and chapparal – but they rise from the water with dramatic white cliffs, islands and rocks of every size and shape, with the welcoming arms of the harbors waiting to take you in.  Oh, to have a sailing boat in Thessaloniki, and work your way down through the islands on these boreal winds!  And then ride the Meltemi back north again in the summer – it still would work, after all these years and the Euro and all the development, the islands are still the islands.

I did this once, sailed among the islands – twice actually, but on the same boat.  In 1979, I was playing guitar in a restaurant in Bodrum, Turkey, for a meal and tips.  A European foursome came in, clearly off a boat.  The restaurant was nearly empty – the tourist season was over – so I naturally played for them.  I didn’t get much of a tip, but I sailed with them the next morning, and for the next few days we plied desultorily around Patmos (where John crawled into a cave and came out with Revelations, and the captain, Alexander, and I climbed the hill to the church over the cave to have a mass said for his Uncle John, a Greek orthodox priest who had essentially given him his boat).

We also had a helluva storm to contend with trying to get to Mykonos, and ended up being blown to Ikaria (where Icarus fell from the sky when his wax wings melted – history is everywhere here).  The next summer, I and a few friends chartered Alex’s boat again, and we sailed back and forth between Turkey and the Greek isles.  It was idyllic – the Anatolian coast was as yet undeveloped.  The Turkish fishermen would see us sailing in, come over in their caiques and hold up their catch.  We would point to one, and they would give their characteristic nod, and spin away.  At first I turned to Alex, puzzled, but I soon learned: He brought our fish to the only restaurant in the harbor where we were heading.  The restauranteur watched the boat to see when we climbed into the dinghy, and put the fish on the grill then.  It wasn’t a matter of ordering; he served what he had, and man, it was good.

Sunset at Aegina

We never met anyone on our paths with whom we could share our food, so we ended up on Aegina having salami and feta rolled in pita as the sun sank into the sea on a little beach under the remains of a temple to Zeus that we couldn’t find a way into.  It served as dinner, as we the day on the boat was strangely tiring, and we never made it out of the hotel that night.

Ferries in the 70’s, sailboats in the 80’s, but in the 21st century the planes have invaded, and the ferries are pretty much left for the poor, the nostalgic, and – as with us today – the Asian tourists seeking a ‘genuine’ experience.  Of course, Lord Byron, fighting with the Greek war of independence in the 1820’s, would have said I already missed it.  Byron – a roué in England but a fully fledged hero in Greece – has my vote when he can write this about a friend:

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG.

(That’s pronounced ‘bosun’, you landlubbers.)

Parallel Lines

January 26, 2011

I find it impossible to run on icy roads in the successive waves of storm that have gripped the Northeast this real January.  But every day at about 2, if I possibly can, I disappear into this wonderful winterland of white. I might get a more thorough workout at the gym, and my mom tries to get me to explore the local snowmobile trails, and sweet as they may be, I love dropping my skis by my own shed door, pressing the toes of my old boots into the locks, and plunging off into my own familiar woods and fields, made unfamiliar by the continuing snows, shaped by the wind.  No driving in a tin can involved, so it feels like drinking our own well water, or felling our own firewood.  Independent, organic, right livelihood – never mind that the rest of my working day depends on the internet, the jet engine, and the telephone.

In this weather, wind is the chief determinant of my choice of route.  With the temperature hovering around 0F (-20C), skiing into the wind is the claws of a wolverine tearing away at your cheeks.  Usually the route out or back involves the pond, a fast half-mile compared to the woods or fields, but it’s better downwind.  The upwind component I do as much as I can in the woods, where the wind is muted.

Breaking trails like this is usually a job for snowshoes (or snowmobiles, those hateful, noisy things), but I like picking my way with the tips of the skis; even in the close woods, there’s a seam, a thread, a way to move forward.  I rarely take the same path twice.   Everything is frozen in deep – no streams stop me, no bugs to bite me – the occasional track of a deer or a rabbit or a coyote and rarely a bobcat cross my trail, but all in silence except for the clacking teeth of the trees, plaintive in the wind.  Yesterday, a partridge shot up with a beating of wings like a machine gun, startling us both.  How do they fly so fast in such thick branches without hitting anything?

By the end of the first few minutes, I am perfectly warm for the trip, though if I am out for a couple of hours one limb or another begins to lose warmth, telling me its time to turn an eye for home.  But while I am out there, it’s perfect exercise for my lines, lifting the front line to place the ski on the snow’s surface, pushing off with the back line to motivate.  When going up banks or over rocks, the push down is more vertical, and the lateral lines carry the bulk of stabilizing tension from the poles to my shoulders to the trunk to the alternating legs.  Get on the level and the spirals move to the fore, leaning forward into their double-helix embrace – by the time I return I have expanded into all my creaks and crevices, and am comfy in myself.  Keep going, keep going, keep going – the idea is to move with the terrain – slow parcour, maybe.

But this was to be about colour: the closer to noon I get started, the whiter the whites – dazzling, color-enhanced like your wash after Tide, too much glare for the eye. With each tree coated until the wind whips the branches free in swirls, the world is a frosted wedding cake, wild with confetti. A Mardi Gras of light; dark is banished.

The last snows have been very cold and therefore fluffy, and wind braids the snow as it tears it off the fields or out of the tracks behind me, the patterns in the air made visible, as they never are in a sailboat.  Until Force 8 when the spume appears, you are always guessing at the shape of the air from the pattern on the water, but here its plain for all to see.

But here no one else is looking; I am utterly alone.  I have been lost (but not for long); I have fallen through and gotten wet, and have headed home with a stiffening shoe and pantleg; I suppose I could suffer a heart-attack or break a bone; even a sprained ankle could leave me vulnerable – but I feel so safe and embraced by a silent nature.

As the horizon lifts toward the sun (which happens so early these days), the light becomes more yellow, then orange as it lights up the trunks for a few tequila moments.  Forsaking the trees, the light burns more red and purple, and pools of ooblek begin to gather around the base of the pines, spreading across the snow and snuffing out its shine.  By the time I get home the color is drained from the landscape, my way in lit by the fading yellow in the western sky.  Tea, a cup of tea sounds good, feed the fire and the cats, share a hug and review our different days.

Greece #3 – The Achaean Peninsula

January 25, 2011

We have discovered a little café around the corner that makes a decent latté (a recent addition to the Greek menu) and serves avgi with mpeixon (transliteration of ‘bacon’).

The Corinth canal - begun by Nero, and so soon out of date

Thus fortified we picked up a car – they upgraded us to one of the new Mini-Coopers, Misty seems to bring such luck – and put our lives into my hands to drive out of Athens in rush hour.

But it was so easy that we are free of the city in no time, and arrive at the dramatic (but too thin for modern tankers) Corinth Canal in time for a little something.

 

We are retracing the tale of Theseus in reverse – from Athens of his triumphant kingship to Eleusis to Megara where he adventured – now all suburbs of Athenian sprawl – to the isthmus of Corinth where he killed the bandits like Prokrustes, and finally across the Gulf of Salamis to Troizen of his birth, a land of plunging cliffs into the dramatic sea.

A bit of aquaculture on the Achaean peninsula

 

 

My goal for this year, my place of pilgrimage, is the temple of Asklepios, the father of holistic medicine.  I have never been here in the winter, and it is cold. Mist and I burned through the place, making some video blogs at the theatre, the gymnasium, the baths, and the sleeping barrows.  It is a place of great power.  The whole story has been written out elsewhere (and I am putting video blogs up on the Anatomy Trains blog), but this time we were a bit

2500 years ago - sure looks like structural work to me!

hurried through, both by the cold and the fact that everything closes at 3, so we had not too long anyway.  We got to see it all, though, and there was no desire to linger in the sharp wind and scudding clouds – not like the other times I have been here, with a need for shade and the constant sawing of the cicadas to sing you into a nap.

 

Peckish and cold, we stopped at the first taverna we saw on the road to

Misty at the theater of Epidaurus

Nauplion.  Out of season, out of mealtime, we were nevertheless welcomed.  At one end of the large and empty dining room, family dynamics were in easy evidence in front of the little olive wood fire around which everyone was huddled: the old father, the owner, deferentially offering us menus – but really what was on offer was chicken and fries, so that’s what we ordered.  He gave the order to his grey-haired, black dressed, and bent wife, who put some chicken breasts and wings in a hand grill and set them over the fire.

 

The son, a large, round-bellied oily-haired man who spent most of our stay there on his cellphone, obviously could not wait for the old folks to pass the establishment over to him so he could make the changes he’s been itching to make for years.  The old couple was so courtly, the food so delicious, and the young man so obvious, that we left wishing a heartfelt Xronia Polla (Many Years! – a traditional New Year greeting), that the youth’s naked ambition be redirected away from his long-suffering parents.

This bridge was built in the time of the Iliad - still good to go

 

 

Along the road to Nauplion, we came across a Mycenean bridge, a hint of the castle to come.  I wonder how many of our bridges will still be standing 2500 years from now?

Tonight we are in Nauplion (naff’-plea-on), which has a fortress (but everything closes at 3pm) and a waterfront (but we are cold and tired, and are staying inside to watch CNN until we fall asleep).  Before we dropped off, though, we went for a brief walk around the ramparts and wandering up and down through the walking part of town reveals such a number of hotels above the Grand Bretagne, where we overpaid but what the hell, and really interesting craft shops.

Nauplion

 

 

We will leave early in the morning, so the joys of shopping in Nauplion will have to wait for another trip, but the commercial town I have seen on previous trips has given way to a more benevolent image.  We also got a great view of the little castle island in the harbour, which served as a prison and the home for the hangmen of Nauplion during the Venetian empire.  Nauplion is the Greek rendition of Napoli.

In the early morning, while Mist slept in, I walked up on the battlements above the town in the morning sun, listening to a recording of my old mentor, Bucky Fuller.  Only integrity will count, he says, in the coming storm, in humanity’s final exam.

After a hotel breakfast worthy of any Courtyard Marriott, we reboarded our little MiniCooper and tootled up to Mycenae.  Again, so much has been written about Agamemnon’s palace, but to stand on a real place that reaches back into the Iliad and beyond, a place where the weight of history is palpably felt in the gloomy stones.  Misty and I went down into the cistern, a hundred steps down into utter darkness – though no one is in utter darkness if they have an iPhone.

Tom in the Lion Gate of Agamemnon's Palace

Misty next to the wall of Cyclopean rocks

down into the cistern

The beehive tombs

 

 

After a while, the weight of Clytemnestra and Electra and Iphigenia and Orestes and Aigisthos wears off and we start going silly.  Misty wants to jump off the cliffs in a squirrel suit, and I feel simultaneously the youthful desire to make such a leap, and the parental wince of ‘Do you have to?’. What could be more fun than to leap of a cliff and fly at great speed? – but the guy who invented it just lost it into a cliff, so, o my precious daughter, do you have to what I did to my parents?  I suppose you do.

It has been so good to see all these tourist attractions in the off-season, with almost no one there, and the heat not oppressive.  In the beehive tombs, we are solo, so I can do my weird Tibetan chanting with the tones resounding, as in the Kamakura Buddha, but this time there is no one to gather up their children in fear, only a couple of American boys who ask us to take their picture as they lie as if dead in the centre of the gravel floor.

On the way back to Athens, we stopped at Akrokorinth, a huge rock rising out of modern Korinth, a place of great luxury, sailors’ treasure and famous courtesans in the time of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  (“Faith, hope, and charity, and the greatest of these is charity” – except the proper translation of ‘caritas’ is not what we mean by ‘charity’ but rather ‘caring’.  The needs or so great these days that it is easy to become numb and not care any more.)

Thank God we could motor most of the way up, because it would have been a rough climb up this huge mound of solid rock poking out above the gulf. As it was, from the end of the dirt road (where for some reason there were three pickup trucks with dogs in cages – poor souls, sticking their noses through the holes at us), it was quite a sharp climb through successive fortifications – Venetian, Byzantine, Turkish, and finally to the ancient Greek foundations of a temple at the very top.  No where else could successive layers of history be so clearly read.

This is the mountain the Sysiphos, a king of old, was condemned for his sins of hubris to roll a large rock up the hill, only to have it roll down again just before he reached the top.  Knowing this myth since I was a child, I always envisioned a small grassy hill, not this mountain with multiple ways up.  How he must have enjoyed those hours between tasks, when the rock had rolled down, and he could descend unencumbered to find and begin to roll it up again!

On the way down, we pick up a likely-looking hitch-hiker who turns out to have been a student at St John, Misty’s alma mater.  Leaving him in town for his bus gets us lost, and we end up cross the Corinth canal at its end, giving us a unique view that we could not capture, as the locals were bearing down on their horns behind us on the bridge. Nero started this canal, but it took the 20th century to finish it.

I had the idea to go through Athens to Sounion, but we hit Athens at rush hour, and after an hour of stop and go in the Athens sprawl – there was no freeway – I gave up, and we headed into town gratefully gave the car back to Avis, glad to have avoided an accident in the millimeter clearance of Greek traffic.

Greek sprawl has spread the city - ugly and clacking - over the whole Attic plain

We went out to eat early, determined to get to bed before midnight, as we have an early start.  Thus we landed in a taverna just behind the hotel.  It was like being transported back thirty years: the owner didn’t even ask us what we wanted, he just started bringing things – all excellent.

Early in the evening a guitarist and a bouzouki player showed up, and there we were, back in Plaka of the 70’s, singing, dancing, clapping.  The bouzouki player, much better than the one from a few days ago, nevertheless still had very bad hair: a combover over a lugubrious rubber face.  The guitarist, a large-headed family man with a white military haircut and a terrific voice, held the melody while the bouzouki player laid down the harmonies between puffs on his cigarette.  Between ouzo and red wine, we were definitely the worse for wear as we wove our way down the cobbled street (feeding our leftover meat – they always over-serve the meat – to the street dogs on the way) and fell into bed.

I am so glad that Misty got to experience this, not in a touristic way, but with a genuine feel.  The Greeks, upon meeting you, seek where you are connected to them (“Boston – ooh, Celtics! – basketball is now big over here). Too many Europeans – the French especially, the Germans, even the Italians – are looking to separate themselves from you, especially, and understandably, if you are an American.  But whatever the Greek’s politics, they seek connection, and it is an endearing and imitable trait.

Bucky’s One-Man Show

January 22, 2011

The other night I was taken, by some friends and some of my teachers, to the one-man show on Buckminster Fuller now happening at the Loeb Theater in Boston.

This was double nostalgia for me, as the Loeb was my home-away-from-dorm when I was an undergraduate at Harvard.  The Ex (experimental theater) was open, and I walked in to that same black room 40 years later to a rush of memories – this is where we staged the mystery plays (I played God, among other roles), and where I staged my own multi-media show at the end of my sophomore year.  Sophomoric it was – a mix of Beyond the Fringe satire, drug-induced and Living Theater-influenced silent dance bits, and a break in the middle where we distributed Popsicles to everyone.  Revolutionary theater – just like all the rest of that revolutionary theater in those days.  Such conformity in our non-conformity.

I couldn’t get upstairs to the rehearsal rooms where we did ensemble work with Dan Seltzer, my first guru.  Dan was a troubled man with bulbous eyes, sensuous lips, and a toad’s body – big head, thick neck, large torso, small limbs – but boy, could he act, and boy, could he bring it out in us.  We did wonderful warm-ups, Viola Spolin / peter Brook / Jerzy Grotowski style, and then did scene work – three nights a week and no credit; quite a commitment for us overburdened undergrads.  After I left, Dan switched to Princeton and then, so I hear, took his own life, which was a waste of good talent.  But he was a gay man in a culture that – even then, in the 60’s, with liberation flowing from every vein – kept him closeted.

As a doctor manqué and an actor manqué, I think I arrived in about the right spot, career-wise.

Back to the Bucky show: It was a weird parallel disconnect.  I knew the man, and attended many of his talks.  The script was nearly verbatim Bucky, though drawn from many sources – and it was great to have a quick tour of his best ideas.  Of course, it also had to tell the story of his life, and had to be understandable.  Bucky could talk non-stop for seven hours or so, and could be incomprehensible to the untrained ear.  So, of course, as the director D W. Jacobs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADUGXWs7uZs) said to me, “It is not an impersonation, it’s an interpretation.”  Granted, and not an easy note to hit pitch perfect.

Understood, but there was still something wrong about it, something where I would have to tell my daughter, “This wasn’t quite it.”  Thinking about it after, here’s a part of what I wrote to the director:

“I know you have had five actors doing this over the years, and that each one will be different, and I have only seen the current one, Tom.  But I have a ‘note’ for you and him: Tom has put on a simple pair of glasses, and he connects with us as an audience.  He thus comes across as your smart and engaging Uncle Bill.  Essential to the experience Bucky had in these situations was that he could neither see nor hear you.  His glasses – and I don’t understand why you don’t include this essential piece of Bucky’s costumery – were black-rimmed with thick lenses, and the bows ended in hearing aids.  Even with these aids, when Bucky was up on stage, he could hardly see and barely hear the audience, so he did not engage the way you have him engaging.

“Now the Bucky you portray may be the younger Bucky, or Bucky more at home, but the Bucky whose thought we sought to understand was more removed than yours.  Add the glasses, and keep Tom from engaging the audience so much, especially when he is in lecturing, as opposed to biographical, mode.  Bucky, when lecturing, did indeed start out looking up with his fingers together, but then he maintained his inner eye on that vision, which gave his lecturing almost an angelic feel.

“I do not mean that Bucky himself was an angel – you have done a very good job of humanizing him with his defeats, delights, excesses and successes – but that he spoke from, or to, this angelic space that did not engage the audience directly but rather drew them along indirectly – if they were willing to work – toward the space he had achieved.

I think you can achieve this by the simple act of changing Tom’s glasses, not for mere versimilitude, but to force Tom away from checking that we got his jokes, toward a connection with the divine whatever-it-is which was always the radiating center of Bucky’s communication to the children of earth.”

Athens and Sculpture

January 21, 2011

Our first full day in Athens, and I am trying to open the box of Greece for my daughter Misty.  Showing someone else a place with which you are familiar makes for two different experiences. We know our little Plaka neighbourhood very well now, having been many times up and down the little cobbled street to Monesteraki (little monastery – ‘aki’ is the Greek diminutive, like ‘-ette’ for French).

Monasteraki

 

 

Tom at the 'Internet Taverna'

 

 

We have been already to a taverna (and looked in the kitchen to see what we wanted, as you do in the old Greek restaurants) and to that modern but ever so welcome addition, the internet café. This morning we needed a bank and breakfast and travel arrangements, and all these we found without trouble.

We kept on going, though, and went to a place I had never been, the Temple of Hephestus, the crippled blacksmith who blesses all craft and creativity, which makes him one of my favorites.  But then, I like most of them – Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon, Athena as well as Hephestus, and even though I don’t like Saturn very much, but I often seem to be described as saturnine, so I partake of his turned-down mouth as well.

Very well-preserved, overloooking the huge Agora, the temple is like a small Acropolis, with marbles on the pediments, and a remaining inner temple. On the way out we passed through a park with a lot of men sleeping rough – glad I wasn’t there after dark, and the number of homeless on the street is definitely higher despite the reassurances of the taxi driver we met later.

Misty in the dodgy park - the Greeks looked askance at her scarf

Look up in to see the marbles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one thing I was sure of was the location of the National Museum, which was today’s must-see.  Halfway between Syntagma (the home of the recent riotous anti-government cutback demonstrations) and Omonia squares we came to the huge columned buildings.  In the courtyard were many tents covered in plastic and Arabic writing, and a group of Afghani refugees protesting the war and their right of asylum, which I guess must be under threat in Greece.  We had a great encounter, combining French, English, and Greek; we signed their petition, and commiserated over the sad state of politics in all countries.  The pictures of the blown up people and girls with their noses cut off for crimes of honour were heart-rending, as was the little Afghani boy on his tricycle, banished from his homeland and wheeling among the tents, not welcome in this one, but probably materially better off than many of his compatriots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Hangry' Strikers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This kouros represents my body ideal

from the side, they are slightly in motion

A good chance encounter, but it wasn’t the museum; my memory was faulty.  On our way to the real museum, the heavens opened, and we arrived soaked.  I gave Misty the lecture on core length and neutral support, going from the very most ancient through the pre-classical, the classical, the Minoan, and the Roman (to be reproduced here later).  Wet shoes gave us ‘museum feet’ sooner than usual, but we saw Agamemnon’s mask, the Cycladic statuary, and the bronze toddler jockey on that thin and manic horse.  The only one out on loan was the blue-eyed bronze of The Charioteer.  Next time.

An odd view of the Zeus in my book - how's his core support?

 

With museum feet and the rain still spitting, we took a cab back to Plaka.  I get my best news from taxi drivers, and this mustachioed old hippie was no exception.  Dismissive of the recent riots as about par for the course, he assessed Greece as full of problems, but it always is, he averred, and it will survive the latest belt tightening, despite the demonstrations of the socialists and labour unions.

Some signs of political unrest remain - these in English!

After a nap, it is back out to find some bouzouki music.  In 1970, the music so infused Plaka that you could not move in the streets without hearing it, and one mournful plunkety song blended into another as you strolled through the summer night.  In 1980, when I returned, Donna Summer outshone the bouzoukis, but you could still find them.  Now, we weren’t scouring the whole area, but we’ve done a lot of walking, and we found one place.  One place.  I insisted to Misty that we go in, regardless of the food.  Turned out to be funny – the food was fantastic, but the bouzouki player, backed by a synthesizer, was awful.  The sharp concussive sound of a bouzouki is unique and exhilarating, and Greek music changes time signatures often as well as keys, so it must by played with clarity and exactitude.  With the best will in the world, this player – another old hippie with the fraying grey ponytail down his back, played with verve, heart, and a technique so muddy that even ‘Never On Sunday’ – a non-Greek song from the musical, but nonetheless a staple of the tourist areas – .  And nary a dancer.

Greek dancers – real Greek dancers, not those lines of tourists doing the Sirtaki with a hankie at the end – are amazing, passionate, and unique.  To be in a taverna when the music is on fire and a table is placed in the middle to dance upon – it’s a heart-pulling draw.  Men or women – both do it.  I have seen such dancers, drawn, wasted, burned out at 30, because it requires so much of their soul that none is left.  Several I knew were fed and given liquor by the local taverna owners, just in memory of their period of dancing.  But no mas, at least not that we could find.  Tipote. Nothing.

Greece #1 – Athens

January 19, 2011

A trip without purpose or plan is a rare indulgence for me, but somehow that’s what my spirit required. My daughter Misty and I arrived in Athens with no hotel for Sunday night, and no plan for Monday morning. Of course there is an uber-purpose: for bonding, to introduce Misty to the country of my soul, to revisit the source of what I feel to be my healing tradition, and to scope the Greek islands as a possible bolt-hole if the America we know and love starts becoming unlivable, rather than just annoying. I love my country, but not ‘right or wrong’, and I love where I live, but not if it becomes physically or socially poisoned.

Even the Metro has ruins

We join the morning commuters on the Metro, and find our first archeology in the Monasteraki station as we surface. It took them forever to build the Metro, as they were running into valuable ruins every few meters. As we emerge into the square, it’s pouring a Greek winter rain, such as I experienced in the winter of ’84, when I lived in a ramshackle stone house in the Peloponnese. Might seem funny to be cold after leaving a Maine winter, but it is. We hasten to a café to get out of the rain and into some warm drinks. There are so few tourists compared to usual that finding a table is no problem.

Like NY, there are touts selling €3 umbrellas, and we negotiate 2 for €5, clacketing our suitcases up the cobbled tile street and ducking the other umbrellas. The little hotel Phaedra, tucked between the Akropolis and Syntagma seems to meet our needs and we use the hand shower to slough off the travel grime. I always forget something and this time it was a razor, and my hair gel leaked all over my suitcase, so I am right mess.

Our first walk is down through Plaka for a snack, but then right on up the Akropolis, just in time for it to close. By clever maneuvering, you can stay up there a while after the close, so we got to see the whole thing. Although we missed it in white sunny grandeur – I don’t know that I have ever been up there in the rain – nothing can dim the wonder of Periclean Athens.

Plaka – the old village below the Akropolis – has internationalized and gentrified almost beyond recognition – I didn’t see Rive Gauche or MacDonalds, but it is only a matter of time. There are only a few of the old kiosks left that spill out onto the street with their cheap icons, T-shirts, prayer beads, and rough reproductions. We saw a natural sponge – a decent size but still just a sponge – for 80€. Gone are the laughing whores and the bouzouki music, enter outlet stores with stainless steel and halogen lighting.

When I was first here in the 70’s, the music from one taverna spilled into the next, it was a little rough but friendly. By 1980, when I returned, it was more Donna Summer and disco. We went looking for some corner where they had the old music, and finally found a bar with some decent bouzouki playing, but backed up by a synthesiser with disco lights playing over the stage. Maybe tomorrow, jet lag overcomes us.

I suppose these stories will keep coming up, but in 1970, my first trip to Greece, I first landed on Corfu (Kerkyra), in a spot called Paleokastritsa – the “little old castle”. You can no longer go where we went, as the two little beaches near the end of the winding road to the monastery are now lined with hotels, the hills behind thick with houses. In those days there was a tiny pension on one beach, where we took one of the two rooms, and spent a few days nearly alone on the curve of the susurrating Adriatic.

We were joined at each lunch first by the wasps (eat around them) and Baudoin, a Dutch engineer who was the first telecommuter I ever met. He designed electronic circuits for Phillips, and in those pre-computer days must have done his work and posted it to the Netherlands by mail, with the unreliable Greek post. (For an hilarious view of life on Corfu leading up to it’s gentrification, read any of the early work of Gerald Durrell – start with My Family and Other Animals.)

On about our third day, a man was pulling his caique (that’ll be near as dammit to a dory for you Mainers) up onto the beach. A tall man with a barrel chest, broad shoulders, and a shock of oddly light-brown hair for a Greek, maybe late 40’s, dressed in an old T-shirt and a brief bathing suit, he was white with salt rime and fish scales. Baudoin asked if he could join us for lunch and we said of course, expecting to have an injection of local colour. Boy, were we surprised – he spoke cultured if accented English, and turned out to be a 2-star general.

This was time of the junta (see the movie Z for a harrowing account), and things were very repressed with a lot of people disappearing. This guy – I think I can name him as Stavros by now – had said something mildly against the regime – of course he never said what it was -and had escaped execution, instead he had been banished to his home village on Corfu, where he was reduced to making his living as a fisherman.

For some reason he took a liking to us – I was in those days a raging pacifist – and for three days he came to lunch. Though the conversation flowed, it was essentially his discourse on the art of war. He started with Hannibal, as I remember, not Xerxes and Xenophon or the 300, working his way up through WWII. His knowledge was comprehensive and his tale was riveting, and except to keep the krasi and narrative flowing, we did nothing to interrupt Stavros. I hope he was restored to power when the junta fell a few years later.