I arrived in Athens late at night and as usual struck up a conversation with my cab driver. I’ve come to believe they are the universal philosopher kings and provide a much needed service beyond their sometimes crazy driving skills. They are ambassadors for their city and listening to them always gives me a new and quite often surprising perspective. This ride was no exception! With the refugee crisis in the headlines, bankruptcy looming and seemingly constant election cycles for the parliament, I expected a dour response when I asked Dimitri how things were going in Greece. His answer began just as we crested a hill and the stunning night-lit Acropolis could be seen in the distance.
“Look at the Acropolis,” he said, “it has been here for thousands of years and yet it still stands. We’ve been broke before as a country and we came back from that. We’ve been invaded and we fought for our freedom. We’ve learned what its like to live with the long view of history. So don’t feel bad for us. We know things will get better and we know to enjoy each day as it comes. So our attitude is ‘we’ll see’. Now you, you’re from America, yes?”
When I affirmed my citizenship he said with great sympathy, “Now I really feel sorry for you!”
“Why?” I responded.
I kid you not. He felt sorry for me because the majority opinion in Athens and elsewhere in Europe is that he is a clown and a joke, an embarrassment to our democratic system. And if anyone has authority to talk about the democratic system, it’s the Athenians. Their parliament may have continual change but at least they participate as citizens in the change and while they can’t always agree, they love the debate…and then they go drink ouzo and dance. Because history has taught them that things will change with time and patience. So I thanked Dimitri for his insight along with his disco and restaurant recommendations and entered the lobby of my hotel. Now for anyone that has seen The Birdcage, the lovely, warm and very expressive night clerk was exactly like Hank Azaria’s character Agador. Okay, not Guatemalan but just like him in every other way. This was turning out to be great fun.
The next morning I joined a tour of the Acropolis and while it threatened to rain, it held off until we got to the museum! Lesson learned- wear good solid walking shoes and always bring an umbrella. The view was spectacular regardless of the weather. While crowded, it was manageable and the tour guide provided a wealth of background and insight.
There is great debate and a lot of contention because today more than half of the Parthenon sculptures are in the British Museum in London and their return to Athens, for their display in the Acropolis Museum, is a cultural issue awaiting to be settled. Ask any Athenian and they will tell you flat out “they were stolen”. Ever the rebellious people, there was also an incredible story about their flag at this site.
In April 1941, the Nazi’s invaded Athens and commanded a Greek soldier to raise the swastika in place of the Greek flag. He took it down, wrapped himself in it and threw himself off the edge of the cliff in revolt. Despite this act of rebellion, the flag was raised (by the Germans this time around). However, one month later in one of the first acts of the Greek Resistance two 19 year old students went through a secret tunnel, climbed the northwest face of the Acropolis and tore down the swastika banner. Those two students were Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas and they became renown anti-Nazi heroes with Manolis continuing to this day as an active leftist politician and writer.
A dramatic story like that shouldn’t surprise anyone when you realize this is the birthplace of the theater. In fact the beautiful Odeon is still in use today, although I had to question what my backstage friends would think of their lighting set up and safety regulations! At least they provide seat cushions (the black boxes) when there is a performance.
Coming down from the Acropolis, I wandered through the smaller and more intimate Theater of Dionysus dating from the sixth century BC. To think this is where Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus presented their plays gave me chills. Sitting here, imagining opening night for Electra or envisioning actors warming up back stage for the first performance of Oedipus the King, had my mind reeling. For a theater gypsy like me, this was heaven. The original “deus ex machina” was used here, the three act structure of writing began here, the creation of masks, costumes, props and set designs started here and so much more. Did they know the impact they would have for centuries to come? Where would Shakespeare have been without these first writers? And they are still relevant today, just look at Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, an adaptation of Lysistrata.
So the Acropolis, the theaters and the museum were great. But there was more to see, so I headed for Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus.
This gives you perspective of the Acropolis from Hadrian’s Arch. As luck would have (yet another happy accident), it was a free culture day so no admission was needed for any of the sites in Athens! The weather was warm, the pace relaxed and the views spectacular.
Next step was to refer to my trusty map, looking to walk back through the Plaka area for dinner and shopping. What did I see? Yet another example of malapropism that had me laughing.
Now “plottery” is certainly a theme throughout Greek mythology, stories and plays but I doubted they had a whole museum dedicated to it! Yes, it was supposed to be “pottery”, which I found in abundance in the Plaka shopping area. I made a mental note to stay in that area of town next time I visit. It was charming and full of character.
Next up? A trip to Delphi and Mount Parnassus…