Travel funnies 2014 – Athens
June 29, 2014
I wasn’t really looking forward to Athens, just as I hadn’t been to Istanbul two years ago and Budapest one. Istanbul was a great experience and Budapest instructive, so how could anything fail?! Athens certainly didn’t, and for the same reasons as the other two. I had a lot of history with it and a lot I didn’t know that the visit amplified powerfully.
The city of hills, to my surprise…
The first striking thing about Athens is that it sits in a valley surround on four sides by mountains of 1000 metres or so, with a vaguely Australian look to them – sparsely clothed in greenery of fading intensities. This similarity of flora has been recently intensified by bush fire damage. The streets of Athens carry a fair load of imported Australian trees, including some pollarded and responding with dense pompoms of new growth up and down the trunks.
The second is that Athens looks mostly to have been built in the last 100 years or so, to the European standard of six stories height with an appropriate allowance of balconies for a Mediterranean setting. I sort of knew what the building style was coming from guidebooks and such, but the promotional photos of down town archaeological wonders missed the large scale surroundings as photos mostly due, unless they are doing surroundings in which case the focus on highlights declines…you can’t see the birds for the trees and so on. But eyes can see both, just not at the same moment.
Over it, at a nearer height looms four hills (I’m told by a reliable Greek source that for the Greek army anything under 1000 metres is a hill and over that is a mountain) of great and minor renown: the Filopappos, Areopagos (site of Acropolis), Lykivittos (site of one small Orthodox church) and Strefi hills. The first three came imposingly into view as the light of midsummer faded into a pinkish afterglow on the back dropping mountains and the lights were turned on each of them. All this looking was conducted from a setting too Istanbul to not remark: the top floor drinks and dining establishment with open terraces to three quarters of the view provided by the eponymously named “New Hotel”, recent progeny of the New Athens Hotel collaboration with a focus on making new out of old without offending either. Not a bad effort in my view. A similar set of stage offerings is available on the edge of the plaza holding the Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque at a distance from each other in Istanbul.
Sprinkled among the recognisably modern Athens is a guidebook’s load of historical interests, but often invisible without the book, unlike Rome, or Paris, or London, or choose your preferred great city. There the history is almost always present, dominating that present. In this sense Athens is neither great nor grand, though it sustains the physical remnants of one of the great grandeurs of humanity – classical Greek civilization. New York in this sense is more like Athens than it is anything European. It has mostly been built in the last 100-150 years, with the last 125 (?) pre-dominant. And it expresses the great though the disputably grand essence of the American contribution to civilisation, whose physical derivatives now lurk in all sorts of newer places: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chicago, Singapore, Dubai, KL…
The Agora and now…resilience for lunch and dinner
We ‘did’ the Agora briefly a day ago…long enough to have it clearly established that the place has spent more time in the hands of marauders and mongrels than Greek ones, and that it often in its hay days 2000 years ago and especially the 500 before that was beset by destructive assaults including from within Greek ranks themselves as the Spartans and Athenians tested their respective mettles from near distances. And the Macedonians loomed in the near horizon (remember Philip, father of Alexander). Only standing in the middle of the repeatedly destroyed, rebuilt and re-destroyed foundations of classical Greek civilisation did I notice how uncertain the unintended project of democratisation (founded in theatre and philosophy, strangely to us now) actually was at the time. It would have been prime ground for the fear and trembling driven by conflict, but instead it was ground for starting again out of cultural foundations much stronger than trembling could set back. The cultural fundament was proven perhaps by the fires which threatened it.
It might be useful to figure this relationship out – the one between deeply conflicted, fear inducing socio-political environments and successful psycho-social building. We are in the grip of such times now it seems with a number of shared characteristics, notably the conflicted cultural/political models on offer. The Classical Greek period was characterised by two highly opposed models: the Athenian and the Spartan. The contest between them was eventually ironed out in Athens favour for a while, and then the Romans arrived changing the game for everyone as we now say. That couldn’t have been predicted, any more than the arrival of the BRICs on the world stage could have been predicted 20 years ago??
While the socio-political outcomes of the Classical Greek era were fragmented, the underpinning effects of the Greek dominance is still with us. This is the definition of resilience, not some act of individual struggle to move on or over or something usually involving a high level of denial of what’s actually happening. The fact that Athens did not exist as a substantial human habitation as recently as 150 years ago, at least, gives me some idea of how far off being Greek was from its famous history. The fact that the Greeks have been multiply invaded and subsumed in other’s dominion over the subsequent 1800 years means that they have spent most of their ethnic existence as a non-state.
In fact, two guides in our experience of Athens independently made the point that ‘Greek’ is not a Greek name; it’s Roman, with an insulting implication. Preferred by locals of certain prideful sorts is Hellas for the ethnicity and Hellenic Republic for the political entity. Strangely, the Chinese have for long called Greece by a name very close to the preferred one!!
Finally, on these ethnic integrity matters, one consistent feature of the Athenian offering to humanity was education. Schools of philosophy, governance and so on were available up into the pre-Christian era, and people came from all around to be schooled, as they latter hung out in the palaces of Islam when the light of Greco-Roman civilisation had faded and the renaissance was not yet a word.
Churches nowhere to be seen…
Having just come from three weeks in France it should have been hard to miss that the skyline of Athens is almost totally absent any religious architecture. No village in France fails to be announced from afar by its church tower, even the most modest Romanesque relics. In Athens the Byzantine relics and their more modern replicas are here but very quietly so, their reddish domes just peeking out here and there, and never above the average 6 story roofline mentioned earlier. Another contributor, by their absence, to the strange timeless modernity of the visual landscape of the city. I did not notice this startling fact until a couple of days on the ground here.
A sea of housing, or is it a carpet?
One effect of this visual uniformity when viewing the city from even the small 7th floor height of our hotel roof, is the sense of the city rolling smoothly up the surrounding hills, the distinctive whitish builtness of the view slowly transforming into an undifferentiated carpet of white, or surge of shore-side foam as the distance of the view increases. The only place I can recall a similar but not remotely equal sensation is some parts of San Francisco where thousands of standard issue two story wood frame houses (the ones in the Pete Seeger song?) have been built on hillsides…can’t remember the district, but can see the impression. Uniformity folds the individuation of the components (each house a family) into something else shaped by the site.
There has to be a loo story here or it won’t be funnies
And there is: the New Hotel has the biggest loos I’ve ever seen or sat on, giving concrete sense to Montaigne’s claim that the highest throne most of us will ever occupy is when we are sitting on our asses (or was it: we all sit on the throne of our asses, no matter our elevation in the world?).
And while I’m at it, the shower here is a face-to-face double act: two large overhead bronzed roses fired by the same feed we initially struggled with in Mont Dore three weeks ago. Now mastered!! The shower act is separated from the loo by opaque glass doors and the whole is separated from the hand basin by another opaque divider leaving that part of the bathroom actually in the bed room with a sort of peek a boo access to each other and shared lighting. Weird.
Finally, I had a phone call on the loo experience after all these years (going back to the Friendship Hotel in Guangzhou at the end of our first China visit in 1979 where I first encountered a loo with a phone extension in it!). The wakeup call we had asked for arrived as I was on the throne.
Another MacaBucks’ invasion…saccharining the world
Everywhere in our trip – that is France and Greece – we’ve been mildly but persistently surrounded by unbroken covers of American pop classics from the last 50 years, performed mostly by unknown artists with arrangements that take the energy and punch out of the originals, and all in English. What’s happening here? My second thought was that it’s another version of the American commercial practice of persistently feed them shit and make it taste like sugar and salt and they’ll soon only recognise that as food – as people do in the US thanks to decades of precisely that marketing strategy. My first thought was that somebody’s done a sales job of packaged background (remember Muzak?) noise which captured a key distributor and the rest is history, like Big Mac and Starbucks and other coals to Newcastle stories that constitute business success en large, leading right back to my second thought above.
A place in trouble…the empty shops test
On Bridge Road, Richmond, I count with indifferent precision the number of shops empty of retail adventure. These seem quite numerous and the fact fits the underlying sense of unease in our market. In Piraeus, the port of Athens since its martial peak, long since declined, the empty shops on the main drag between the ferry port and the appurtenances of the rich at Marina Zea, seemed more numerous than the active ones. This fact was amplified by the general sense of disrepair in the streets…broken curbs, failing surfaces…normal infrastructure maintenance failings. Much of this impression was within 2 minutes and eyesight distance of the mega-rich yacht parking lots of Marina Zea and its larger neighbour Pasalimani, and just a hundred metres up the hill from them shops of standard issue luxury goods occupy well-tended street scapes briefly, running down in less than a block into shopfronts whose decorative style can safely be called distressed.
A cab driver who took us on a short sightseeing trip ending in lunch back in Piraeus, but at a truly seaside, and truly Greek, spot noted that he is now working 15 hours a day for what he made in 9 before the economy imploded 7 years ago, and that his three tertiary educated children cannot find jobs in their respective specialisations (or anything else for that matter).