Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 4 of 10

Day Two: Athens

By accident, we sleep until two o’clock in the afternoon. I wake up once or twice in the night, my usual amount of insomnia, currently stuck on level five out of ten. I don’t check the clock, for fear that it might be earlier than I can bear. Every time I turn over, fussing with the pillows, I worry that it might be three, four, five in the morning, and I will have to lay there, bored and anxious until a reasonable waking hour. It never occurs to me that it could be noon.

At the same corner coffee shop we buy “Greek salad sandwiches” from the same blonde woman. Is she the owner? The waiter? The fill-in? She seems not to recognize us, and I wonder if perhaps we look like every other set of American tourists that stroll through to buy a cup of coffee, or drink a beer and smoke a cigarette. Something about her seems so shy, and she seems to understand so little, despite all the hand-written signs in English, that even my rudimentary (or just rude?) pointing is met with a stare. But she takes our money, wraps the sandwiches in wax paper, and smiles. “Enjoy,” she says, and then I wonder if I’ve misunderstood the entire interaction. The sandwich is a floury baguette with olives, feta and tomato. It makes a perfect breakfast.

Clearly, the architects and designers involved in building the Parthenon wanted the reveal to be a spectacular event. You hike through the scrubby trees and brush along the pathways up the west side of the Acropolis, emerge from the narrow width of the dramatic Propylaia, to find the Parthenon set back in three-quarter view. Imagine the structure untarnished, elaborately colored, incredibly rich—most importantly, complete. Stories of wars and celebrations were depicted in sculptures along the roofline, some life-size, in stunning detail. For the Greek people, the visit must have been a deeply satisfying, transformative experience.

All around the Parthenon there are huge chunks of marble, as if the entire structure had exploded—at one point it did, under the Ottomans, who were using it as a gunpowder magazine. The area looks like my five year-old nephew’s playroom, building blocks in every configuration of stacked, toppled, and forgotten. There is new marble waiting to be matched and assembled as part of the current restoration efforts, and there is ancient marble—all of it from the famous quarry at Mount Pentelikos—cracked and worn by 2,500 years of wind, rain, pollution, fire, earthquakes, canons, restless infantry, the Christians, the Muslims, the Turks, the Venetians, and the British. Finally, the 20th Century American and Italian tourists wearing high heels are carving divots into the walkways.

On the southern slope of the Acropolis, there is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still in modern use, seating about 5,000. “Memorable performances,” according to some on-site literature, include the return of Nana Mouskouri after a two-decade absence, and Yanni’s “landmark” 1993 performance. During our visit, the stage is being prepped for a production of Aida, with huge Egyptian obelisks being moved through a deep red proscenium.

Everywhere there are structures, and the remains of structures. There is the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Odeum of Pericles, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Stoa of Eumene—all bearing the enormous crushing weight of layers and layers of history, revised and repaired, rethought and repurposed. We hear this story over and over again in Greece—the Romans replacing the marble or stealing the marble, the Christians dedicating the Parthenon to the Virgin Mary, the Greeks themselves moving statues and buildings, the frescoes buried underground during the war, more fakes on display. I keep wondering what remains of a culture that has re-imagined itself for more than 2,000 years.

On the northern side of the Acropolis, there is the Erechtheum, with its striking Porch of the Caryatids: six women, draped in fabric, holding up the roof with their heads. Some of the original statues are displayed in—so I’m told—helium-filled glass cases, in the not-yet-open-to-the-public Acropolis Museum; the ones on the actual Acropolis are replicas. Lord Elgin, perhaps the most famous looter of Greek artwork, had one of the original Caryatids removed and later displayed at his sprawling estate. At night, they say you can hear the statues crying out, wailing for their missing sister.

But we don’t hear any crying.

Do the replicas cry out? Or the originals, now drowning in helium? I try to get a sense of how the ancient mythology might interact with daily life today—but no one wants to talk about that. They only want to talk about how polytheism is crazy, about what the ancients did and didn’t do on the most basic behavioral level, nothing about what it meant to them, how it felt to be them. Tourism, or maybe plain old capitalism, has co-opted the culture, dimmed it, and arguably destroyed it. Contemporary Greece seems to say, about the past, only: “Here, buy this plastic toy Parthenon for two Euros.” When I visit the Lincoln Memorial—a structure that owes so much to the Parthenon in look and feel and use—I get a small sense of a living idea at work, a striving. In Athens, I can’t figure out why everything around me feels dead.

For dinner, we end up at Estia, a lively modern café in the heart of the Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, full of restaurants and souvenir shops. I try to order the local sheep cheese, which, as the menu states, comes with honey and sesame seeds. The waiter promises that we won’t like it, and bullies us into the saganaki: fried cheese, not a horrible choice. We eat more grilled lamb, a delicious mousaka, various dips and garlicky things, and finally end with a warm chunk of walnut pie, and shots of cinnamon schnapps.

Across from our table is the entrance to an open-air movie theater, on the roof of what appears to be an art gallery. There is one 11:15pm showing of the Ron Howard-directed “Angels & Demons,” which, in Greece, has been renamed “Something something something Illuminati.” The movie is horrendously bad, a grotesque insult to the intelligence of the audience. (Or maybe I am mistaking the film’s audience.) At one point, Ewan McGregor flies a helicopter straight up into the night, above the Vatican, so that when the anti-matter explodes it doesn’t kill everyone—no, really. It was a marvelous experience: a rooftop in Athens, the glowing Parthenon set back on the hill, the cooling night air, street cats slinking through the holes in the fence, cold beer.

Back at the hotel, we watch an episode of “America’s Next Top Model,” with sections dubbed into Greek, and CNN, with Anderson Cooper interviewing Ani Difranco about her visit to Myanmar. There are advertisements for cream-filled croissants in various flavors, which are made, it seems, by cartoon bumble bees with giant eyes. There is “Scandal” brand ice cream in square boxes that old ladies eat with wooden spoons. There are 6:00am morning shows with goofy hosts, dressed ready for a nightclub. There are cheap exercise machines sold along side cellulite creams, with manicured hands massaging thick, pasty thighs. Then there is Jessica Alba selling some kind of watch, or was it just a piece of jewelry? This, I think—advertising—is the language that I will never understand.

When I’m awake at 4:40am—insomnia on 6 out of 10—I wonder if maybe it’s the jetlag, just my confused internal clock. William Gibson wrote that jetlag was the slow-moving soul trying to catch up to the body, which had crossed the globe at higher speeds. This sounds about right. I entertain myself by trying to remember each item in the minibar from left to right: milk chocolate Toblerone, that purple-wrapped candy bar with the white goop inside, two cans of Coca-Cola, one can of Coke Light, one box of orange juice, one bottle white wine, one bottle champagne. The door is filled with tiny bottles of liquor, amber and clear and one that looks like pale blue antifreeze. There seemed to be one more thing. What was it?

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