Greece #1 – Athens

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.

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One Response to “Greece #1 – Athens”

  1. Joe Lubow Says:

    Both Paleokastritsa and Plaka are special to me. I am saddened that they have changed, though I guess they always have. Plaka is built on the ruins of the ancient agora, and has been continuously occupied since Pericles and before (probably since Mycenaean times!). It is silly perhaps, but it seems more authentic to me if the buildings are even 50 years old rather than renovated. It’s somehow easier for me to imagine Plato following Socrates around the neighborhood if it doesn’t look like it was built this morning.

    Still, how wonderful to share Greece with your daughter! The last time I left Greece, on a boat from Crete bound for Alexandria, I kissed the ground and vowed to return. That was far too long ago. But I will return, and one day bring my son.

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