Five Days in Greece
With Ong Keng Sen I visited Greece from the 26th through the 31st of July, 2016. We spent three days in Attica and two days on the Peloponnesos. Every day revealed different aspects of Greece. These experiences resulted in five separate tales.
Vijf dagen in Griekenland
Van 26 tot 31 juli 2016 bezocht ik met Ong Keng Sen Griekenland. Drie dagen in Attica en twee dagen op de Peloponnesus. Iedere dag bracht andere aspecten van het land naar voren. Dit leidde tot vijf afzonderlijke vertellingen.
The Acropolis and the best museum of Europe
Is it so easy to see the Acropolis? From this shadowy hotel-balcony the temples are inevitable. One sees them all day and night. In their decayed state they are still inspiring.
The ants one observes crawling above the parapets of the citadel are tourists. Since Pausanias they have come. Over the millennia much of the architecture has gone. But what is left: the pillars, the ruins rising against the Hellenic sky, lucid and without a cloud, are like a hoisted flag, a dedication.
We spent the morning at the new (2011) Acropolis Museum, our neighbor just around the corner. It was designed in 2001 by Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss, with the help of Michalis Photiadis, the Greek. I have seen many new museums when they opened, like the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in Stuttgart the wonderful museum by James Stirling or just recently (by Frank Gehry) the Louis Vuitton museum in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris again. Others in London or New York. But this work by Tschumi is perhaps the most successful museum I have visited.
I have never seen a museum where the architecture is more attuned to the civilization it presents.
As a building it is dedicated to the Acropolis in more than one way.
It is in sight of the citadel and can be seen from there. But it also presents a raised platform from where to look over to the Acropolis in meditation. The building constantly refers to the original and reproduces the Parthenon in its orientation and size. It safeguards the original decorations.
The museum sits on a low slope of the mountain and forms a kind of new entrance, a present day propylaeum, in that it ramps upwards – from the museum – to the real thing.
Its defining architectural items are the massive pillars that are so heavy and calm that after a while one does not observe their presence anymore. Around these supporting pillars the majestic floors of marble and glass seem to float lightly.
The spaces are wide; so wide that even in the company of hundreds of visitors one does not feel constricted. A liberating experience, especially in a museum. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid creates a modern supermarket entrance. It has a grand scale, but does not give this sense of freedom.
The light inside is natural. It is filtered in such a way that the fragments and sculptures do not feel isolated. They seem to swim in a common lighthearted ozone. It brings out the optimism of a possible victory over the forces of darkness.
This feeling of liberation is not only created by the architects but also by the curators. They are thoughtfully and helpfully present in laying out the whole story of this mountain, from prehistory to today, with its destruction by the Persians and its plunder by the English, but also with its uncommon rebuilding of the old in even better ways. The Acropolis renews itself in resurrection.
One sees the Greek people massively go there and enjoy their pride in belonging to a recovered and uplifting past. In the evening one notices young people sitting on the stairs opposite the new museum and gazing at it in wonder, as one returns to the hotel.
Athens, 27 VII 2016, Herodian Hotel
We got up at daybreak wanting to arrive at the archeological area when it would open at 8 am. And indeed we found the guard still outside his den and the sun not yet hot. The grey blocks of the house of Agamemnon rose in the shadows above the brilliance of the gold and green valley.
You enter an over-researched territory consecrated by UNESCO, with off-limit zones and an educational museum. It is hard to imagine that this was where Cassandra of Troy died as she foresaw. Where on his return her captor Agamemnon was murdered by his wife and her lover. Where the curse and doom of the royal family spread over generations before and after. This dark hilltop fortress reminds one of Macbeth and his spirits and faraway Scotland more than of Hellas. But one is alone, or nearly, and has the ability to remember.
As you near the main entrance of the castle you suddenly look at old black and white photographs of schoolbooks. Yes, this high triangular and relatively narrow gate has been with you since schooldays. The two climbing lions rising up towards one central pillar capped by four circles, like a four-wheeled device. Faded but familiar. One recollects that all this was started by somebody called Perseus. And indeed the association with eastern images of lions and kings is strong. Somewhere in Anatolia or even farther East one has been imposed on by powerful images like this.
This is the first gate and a few others will follow. At the very opposite end of the fortress, just above the steep Schlucht that connects the valley with the sea there is a narrow gate of immense stones. No doubt there began the path along which the thugs of the king could descend into the gully or the thugs of other kings could attempt to enter. Perhaps it was the path along which value came in.
Nearby is a third gate which leads you down into darkness, ninety slippery but well constructed steps towards the water which made the fortress sustainable in times of siege. It reminds you of the permanent feature of the well at the centre of each Etruscan city, the axis around which the town turns. The Etruscans also lead back East, to the regions above Troy.
Near this water-well and a cistern, a few steps above them, the round foundations of some pillars can be seen. They seem to have supported heavy columns like those in the palace of Knossos. My mind wished them to have once opened up the palace to the morning sun and a view of the sea. After all, Crete with its red pillars was not that far away. Surely a civilized way of life could have come from this radiant island.
There is a fourth gate leading down from the side into the valley, a more simple affair. It is composed of three enormous slabs of stone, that do not associate so much with Pharaonic slave labor, but with an outsize determination and skill. It is this prehistoric, nearly animal will to conquer difficulties, which makes modern technical triumphs feel effete beside these buildings. Even the Greeks were impressed and supposed giants had been involved. For all its defensive weight, the purpose of this gate might also have been to bring in the products of agriculture, which had by then transformed the landscape.
The counterpart of the rapacious nest above the more peaceful alleys of commerce is the area of the tombs. They are nearly all outside the cyclopean palace walls and burrow into the foundations of the acropolis. Thousands of years ago Pausanias reported that these tombs were treasuries and so perpetuated the myth that robbers could strike it rich there. And indeed against all odds Schliemann did. But one has to forget about this gold.
You imagine the extraordinary efforts to dig deep into the hill to create a passageway secured by tight-fitted stone walls, to open up a circular space inside for the dead ruler, and create a beehive-like vault above it by artfully narrowing the circles of stones till they meet at the centre. This effort too reminds one of the East, and especially of Egypt and its underground tombs in the Valley of Kings. The more I visited this place I doubted the tradition of opposing its Western originality to the influences of the East. It was simply part of it. Only towards Pericles one enters a different world of citizens.
The fact that the most sumptuous of the tombs lie outside the imposing walls reminded me of my well-known surroundings in Italy. The Etruscans also built their cities for the dead outside the walls of the living. But again the Etruscans were linked by strong traditions to this side of the world and moreover did (not unlike the Egyptians) create a whole and separate world for the dead.
Therefore the question why one of the round tombs had been constructed directly inside the city gate remains a puzzle. It is not natural to invite the dead into the city. Was there a defensive reason, this ruler no longer trusting his dominance over the surroundings? Or were Agamemnon and his companions buried there after their murderous banquet? On my return I will test my fantasies against the facts of science.
These underground beehives of stone are immense and of an impersonal grandeur. They are echo-chambers. When I stood at the centre of one of them and heard the sonorous response to my remarks from the walls I felt the first text of Homer I read in 1950 come back to me. I think it is the opening of the 9th book of the Odyssey when Ulysses addresses the King of Crete. “And thus spoke intelligent Odysseus in answer”.
As the first Greek lines stepped from my mouth I felt courageous and verily increased my volume till I chanted in response to the echo’s boom. Then I stumbled over the fourth line and fell silent.
Sophocles in Epidauros
It is only at home, reading Oidipous Tyrannos in the Loeb translation by F. Storr and trying to make sense of the Greek text on the left-hand page, that I realized I had missed much looking at the play in the ancient circular theatre of Epidauros. When we sat down the day had been hot and the sun was still caressing the pine-trees, handing them to the crickets for the night.
With five thousand places filled, the rounds of seats still looked half empty. As the audience was mainly Greek the cause of this absence probably lay with the fact that most of the text would be spoken in Russian. This would be a coproduction with Moscow.
I agreed with Kengsen that the Russians had misunderstood the idea of coproducing. They had taken over Greece and its most precious heritage. They colonized the play instead of submitting to it. They Russified all the main roles. Even the leader of the Greek chorus was Russian. As Kengsen formulated it, it would have been enough if Moscow had donated Oedipus, who was excellent, and Jocasta, who was regal.
Moreover the costumes were bad. The chorus looked like a black-hatted Eastern European synagogue from the thirties, while the rustics and Teresias the soothsayer, looked like they came in from the Russian steppes. Though I appreciated the sound of the Slavonic declamation, it folded one into a monotone singsong instead of bringing out the individual voices, so clear and simple, of the original text.
Yet the actuality of the text, its links to the present situation could not have been clearer. Sophocles wrote the play in circumstances of great uncertainty. He himself had been a general in Pericles’ army. He had seen the great plague sap the confidence of the Athenians. He had seen the disastrous mistakes of ambitious politicians leading their armies into ill-begotten wars. He understood the temptation of the electorate to look for one cause to explain their difficulties. And for a savior in their uncertainties about the leadership. It was not difficult to feel associations with for instance Putin as a savior or the Iraq War as our Sicily. But all this should have come out of the tragedy itself.
And moreover the play should have been staged simply, not overlaid with unnecessary conundrums like a steel tube in guise of fate being pushed back and forth.
Rereading the play one realizes the extreme simplicity of it. Let’s call it a detective-story in which the murderer is the detective. The sleuth Is also the culprit of the crime. He early on begins to suspect himself, as he has some memories after all. But together with his surroundings he clings to excuses. His brother-in-law Creon might have been plotting, the prophesies misunderstood, competing narratives are possible. After all he has always been a good man, which means avoiding a major crime.
Everybody he has built his life on, his parents, his wife, in the end will shift to opposite identities. He is the only one not to avoid looking at this new reality as it is. To remain sane he decides to blind himself. But only after Jocasta, his mother and his murderess and the mother of his daughters too, has hanged herself, not being able to cope.
The strength of the play (which while reading I found gripping) comes for a large part from a very modern insight. Basically nobody is guilty. There are no truly bad characters. All are remarkably honest. Even when they disguise the truth they know, it is for trying not to worsen the situation. They are good persons given a bad deal. That makes the play very democratic. Everybody – king and herdsman, the seer and the people – is basically equal. They are living voices, responding in earnest to direct questions and in a basic sense in a fearless manner. This gives everyone of them not so much a dramatic typicality, but a believable role as human beings.
Therefore at the end of the play, when the truth is out and Oedipus takes leave of his surroundings, his kingdom, he is alone in his dark blindness. Imprisoned forever but still a human being. One empathizes with his loneliness. When he asks permission to touch his children whom he can no longer protect, the emotion becomes nearly unbearable.
So Sophocles is modern because there is no modernity in him. With him, we moderns have the chance to tap our drinking water from the pure well of his times.
The Mediterranean Sea
It is hard to justify writing about a small moment of happiness. Yet I will try to tell about a short dip we made into the sea.
As privileged tourists we had been looking from our room over the bay of Nauplion. Straight across to the Venetian fortress that in the past had blocked entry into the harbor with canon and the help of a heavy chain. Every evening the weather was different, and the dark silhouette of the sea-castle would stand out against a screen of water colored deep blue or pale green or slate-grey or a mesmerizing mixture of these with pink and silver. The sky would cloud over the shimmering mountains of the Peloponnesus or the outward sea as if a curtain was drawn from the right or the left. The sea would be flat without any waves except for those made by passing ships, but could suddenly turn agitated and frowning. Yet the scene never came to a conclusion with a climax and the curtains would withdraw and only a sharp sickle of the moon remain in the dark heavens.
It was seductive to be lazy and sit on the balcony with a glass of surprisingly good Greek rosé and watch the slight changes of nature and the promenade of humans seeking coolness develop. But this was the last of our two days and I had promised myself and my friend a final swim in the Mediterranean. So we grabbed a few towels with the Lion of Venice stitched on them and set out on foot in search of a beach.
This quickly brought us on an elevated but well kept marble walkway halfway up the face of the cliff. Vicious waves were attacking the rocks beneath us and above us avalanches of cactus presented their yellow fruits. I knew from experience that trying to eat these prickly Figues de Barbarie might turn the stroll into a nightmare. They have been colonizing the Mediterranean coast without any hesitation since having been discovered in America.
Some joggers and cyclists passed and on the rocks above the waves sturdy Greek men were enjoying the salt air. But nobody swam. I told my partner the horror story of just such an afternoon swim in the sea (nearly half a century ago) which had gone well for us, but how half an hour after our departure an American swimmer had been killed there by a shark. Today we needed a safe and protected place for a swim.
This presented itself in an armpit of the bay. Mainly Greek registered cars were parked along the road and steps led to a small pebble beach beneath. There a few hundred people were sitting on their towels in groups, more or less ignoring each other. Most were energetic and tanned. We occupied a small space left open with our feet nearly touching the frontline of the attacking waves that shattered on the pebbles. In the sea a handful of intrepid swimmers were rising and falling with the waters.
My friend disrobed but I felt doubtful. Not only because of the crowd and the unknown condition of the sea, but because I felt old. I would have to unveil my aging body among all these children and make my way over these rolling stones into the heavy sea. I could lose my equilibrium and topple over as I had seen some youngsters do. I was not so much afraid of falling as afraid of losing my honor. For the first time I understood the American expression “physically challenged”.
So we sat and hesitated. It was getting late and people were leaving for home. Soon dusk would come. A wiry local man of a certain age went into the water with care but dived into an incoming mass of water and crawled a few strokes.
I suddenly remembered I had done the same a week before in open water in Holland. I plugged my ears and gingerly made my way into the water. The waves lifted me up like a mother bathing her baby. I swam a few strokes and turned towards the beach and waved at my friend who was guarding our particulars. His face was light among the sunburned others and looked earnest. I waved and he waved back. There was no side tug as on the North Sea beaches, just the constant flow of the water towards the beach and then the suck backwards. The image of Odysseus drifting towards the beach of Nausicaa passed my mind. I struggled back towards the beach, passed the test of the rolling stones without losing face and sat down with my friend urging him to repeat my experience. He now went into the surge and waved while swimming. I waited for him to come out again.
I became aware of my body. It felt like it was still drifting, weightless and contented, freed of any thought and anxiety, just being there. My friend came out of the water and I told him of this feeling. He said he felt the same.
A walk to and from the Agora
The market where Old Athens met was our principal goal. It was within walking distance from the south side of the Acropolis where we stayed. Our side had both ancient theatres, the Old Greek one of Dionysos and the Roman one of Herodes Atticus, friend of the Emperor Hadrian. We only had to walk along the comfortable pathway still called the Areopagus towards the West to reach the Agora. I mention these old names with some relish. Athens is a town where you can still walk towards the Agora, the Old Market, after the vicissitudes of two thousand years.
Somehow this Old Market spoke more to my memory than the Acropolis. I had visited it while young, a different person with a different friend, and now I was reconnecting. The spring-like quality of then had given way to ripe summer. I wondered if I would still feel connected to the philosophical bustle of the past down there. My main memory had been of the Stoa of Attalos, a vigorous reconstruction by the Americans of the old place where all these famous names had walked and discussed, looking out over the commercial and political hub of the city.
The Stoa was still there and much the same. In the glare of the sun on the Acropolis one is not reminded of the calming effect of being inside a row of pillars on cool marble floors. This is like entering an old-fashioned library away from the noise of the street. Two and a half thousand years ago, despite the carnavalesque coloring of statues and frontons of the past, and the more harmonious coloring of the ancient viewing rooms inside the Stoa Poikile, the single feel of being in the shade and leaving the raucous sun behind would have been liberating.
In the shadowed Stoa my partner and I carefully walked past the statues dug up by the American School and I again found the old Silenus there who at my first visit I had mistaken for Socrates. The arrangement now seemed somewhat more orderly and therefore museum-like. But still this feeling, that these Greek and Roman busts were receiving the same reflected daylight as before, gave them a naturalness that is priceless. Our clothes and languages had changed, but they were still there, to be seen again in the same way by different eyes in the future.
The thing I had not noticed so strongly on my first visit was the visual presence of the Temple of Hephaistos as a collateral to the Stoa. We were in the shadows of the morning sun but the compact form of the white Doric temple received the full attention of sunlight on the other side of the Agora. It is lifted on a small hill above the market and I suppose even when the buildings of the past were there, the image of this best preserved Athenian temple must have been answering the gaze of the visitors of the Stoa. Walking on the second floor one was constantly aware of this beacon of light and strength, which had survived so many invasions, even the backbreaking one of the Herulians.
From the Stoa one looks down on the Panathenaic Way that leads up the hill towards the Acropolis. It is broad enough to imagine the throngs filling it every four years for their ritual festivities up the mountain. One can see its horses and riders on the frieze of the Parthenon, either here or in London. The present location of the Way seems sure, after an earlier misattribution. It finally gave me the spine to walk up to the shining place too.
But one is diverted frequently, not in the least by our Roman lovers of Athens. The Emperors had strategically inserted themselves between the market and the temple mount with a new Roman Forum. So we first walked up the road (appropriately called the Adrianou) towards the library of Hadrian. It was big enough to shelter a whole Byzantine Church in its courtyard centuries later. The over-impressive imperial entrance leads at the end to a neat university institution, where in Hadrian’s time 16,000 manuscripts were kept. With convenient reading rooms and two symmetrical lecture halls.
While quarrelling about the road to take, my friend motivated by hunger and I by my magnetic field, of which the centre was the top, we happened on the Roman Forum and the Tower of the Winds and other marvels (if we would have been there for a month). Now we kept zigzagging up along staircases and stone paths more pleasant to mountaineers. With his usual luck my friend struck gold in settling for two rows of tables under vines, with the path going in between. One cannot describe the relaxation of a simple restaurant halfway the Acropolis.
The seafood was fresh, the wine good, the water sparkling and the few Greek and foreign students present were only interested in their own generation. Though, when a fat adult woman toppled first her food then herself down the incline without major harm, they sang “happy birthday to you” for her, as that was her reason for being out.
This is not more than a description of a walk. What prompted the writing was the search for a reason why being in Greece seemed so pleasurable. The newspapers back home had been painting a different picture. Now we found old-fashioned hospitality. People would not serve you just for money. People were pleased when you enjoyed their country. Drivers got up at crazy times to take you to your destination and if they liked you, gave you a rebate. People would engage in straightforward discussions. Talking to a Greek would always seem personal. I am trying to summarize, not to prove anything.
Apart from the antiquities and the Greek natural there might be another explanation. Greece had not been modernized or Americanized in a fundamental way – not yet. Greece was still part of the European past. Going back to Greece for a European like me was not only retrieving some sense of the origins of European values, but also going back half a century or even more. It was a world, more stable, more dependable, more humanly rooted than our present.
On the last full day we skipped self-serving breakfast in our several-stars-hotel and went across the street. My friend had noticed a bookshop that was also serving coffee under a few plane-trees. We had breakfast there. I walked around the selection of literature chosen by the owner himself. I saw the names of poets I had met in the past and asked for new names. He gave a few names of friends, but of course (he said) not of the weight of Elytis or Seferis. His child wandered quietly around among the books and his Australian wife prepared coffee and I felt perfectly at home.