Publisher’s note: This is the seventh installment of Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown’s travels to Greece. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here , part 5 here and part 6 here.
At the end of my last travelogue, on leaving Crete, I promised to try readers’ patience with one more chapter on the most life-affirming trip I have ever made. The idea was to finish the travel report and Hobbit-like, “fill in the corners” after the feast this trip turned out to be. In any event, I was unable to do so as soon as I wished, owing to reasons I’ll come to in a bit – but here it is. Sharing the trip has been a source of much pleasure, and it has helped to clarify memories by gathering thoughts and experiences together on paper.
The flight out of Heraklion in Crete was uneventful, as was arrival in Athens. I figured I needed a day between that flight and the flight to London to rest a bit, go for a last stroll, and visit the Acropolis Museum one more time – not the last time, though; I need to go back to Athens, where I have been enthralled, educated and delighted, and because of that, as thoroughly alive as I can remember being in many years.
So that last morning, after a double espresso and a spanakopita (feta and spinach in a flaky pastry) at my favorite street kiosk, I walked back up the broad pedestrian avenue of the Dionysiou Areopagitou, named after Dionysius the Areopagite, the first Athenian convert to Christianity after Apostle Paul’s sermon, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles:
“ Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul’s words seem to be as fine a description and tribute to the spirit of Athens since the Golden Age of Pericles as you can find – and not far off today, though these days there is as much interest in the past as the present, as demonstrated over and over by my various drivers and waiters.
In the Acropolis Museum, a large marble architectural fragment caught my eye: the unmistakable shape of a rain gutter, dug out of the post-Persian rubble pit. So much of what we see here is monumental, that this rather humble, everyday detail stood out; maybe a bit too solid for Edmonds, but… However, the rain gutter was in the part of the museum where photography (a word with solid Greek roots!) is banned, and there are museum personnel everywhere keeping an eye on things and reminding people not to take pictures. I pled with the very nice young lady guarding the area where I stood. “Please, I just want a quick picture of an architectural detail!”
“Well,” she said with obvious reluctance, ”I’m not supposed to allow photography… “ “But look over there,” I said, pointing to the other side of the room, “an elephant! It’s going to knock over a statue!”
“I’ll go check,” she said, with a smile, and walked away. I got the picture, and she was back in about 20 seconds. “I scared it away,” she said, “but now I have to ask you to put your phone away.” I met so many friendly and helpful people in Greece, yet one more reason I must go back.
My main goal in going back to the museum was to buy a statue replica in the museum shop, the famous Blond Ephebe, or Boy, a head in the Severe Style, also found among the rubble. When first excavated, there were traces of yellow in the hair, hence the name. No body was found, leading some to think — considering the very clean line of the neck, which shows no trace of having been broken — that the head may have simply been a bust. It was possibly created by one of the teachers of Phidias, who was responsible for the statuary in the Parthenon, including the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athene, as well as the statue of Zeus at Olympia, counted as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.
At the airport the following day, sore from all the walking, I requested a wheelchair. The man pushing my wheelchair asked what was in the bag I was carrying, and I showed him the Blond Boy in his box. When we got to the security check-in and they asked about the bag, he said “Oh, it’s just a head.” I had to take it out and show it to them – and typically Greek, they all had a good laugh.
Athens… where the past is so present and everywhere around you.
As long as we’re speaking of the hotel and the inescapable Athenian past – as if one would want to escape it! – the view from my hotel balcony was of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, begun in the 6th century BC, but rebuilt and finished by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 2nd century AD. “During the Roman period the temple, which included 104 colossal columns, was renowned as the largest temple in Greece… The temple’s glory was short-lived, as it fell into disuse after being pillaged during a barbarian invasion in 267 AD, just about a century after its completion.” (Wikipedia)
The evening before departure, I had one last, long dinner out on the rooftop terrace at the hotel, breathing in the heady scent of the mint hedge they grow around the railings, one last Greek salad, one last, long gaze at the Parthenon, farewell and thanks to the lovely waitress who brought me the free glass of wine on the first night, and to bed. In the morning I was allowed to keep the room till noon, as my flight was in the late afternoon, and I spent my time in the lobby correcting Travelogue Six and drinking iced coffee frappé, possibly the drink the Olympian gods enjoyed on a hot day, and a treat always afterwards to be longed for.
The rest of the trip was a whirl – a ghastly, delayed flight to London where we sat for half an hour out on the runway, pouring rain thundering on the fuselage and violent gusts of wind rocking the plane – no parking space was available! Taxi to London when the ride I had booked failed to show up, to bed at 2 a.m.
William Chapman took me to a fascinating exhibition of Lucien Freud paintings at the national gallery the next day, and after a nap, I enjoyed a superb dinner with Robert Gage at the Athenaeum Club. The second night I had dinner at Clos Maggiore with Robert and another friend, Stephen Tucker, then the last night Robert and I cocktails at a little place across the street from the hotel, or so I described it to Robert the day before, to keep it as a surprise: the American Bar at the Savoy, and then the a superb Beef Wellington at the Savoy Grill. Be it here noted that my friend Stan Fowler, here in Edmonds, makes a better Sazerac than the one at the American Bar!
The flight home was marred by mind-boggling inefficiency at Heathrow, where I had to stand in line for half an hour to get a wheelchair (leg still bad). A good flight home on British Airways ensued – my first flight in a 787 Dreamliner, which is as wonderful as they say, with big windows that dim to let you sleep. And then came the Black Hole of Calcutta, better known as the all-new SeaTac international arrivals wing, featuring long walks, up and down three escalators, then the vast customs and immigration hall for a long wait for baggage. Several large planes had arrived at the same time, so there were perhaps 700 people to pass through customs. A screaming young person with a sign held aloft shouting “the line starts here,” frantically forming a chaotic line half the length of the hall, which was in turn funneling into the official, roped-off line, which then fed into the zig-zag section with all the roped-in lanes. There were five customs agents doing their best, but only five stations open out of 16, and none of those kiosks where you insert your passport and have your picture taken – the sort they used to have, and have everywhere in Europe.
It took around 90 minutes, even in the disabled line, even for some very old people in wheelchairs. What a dreadful introduction to the United States.
I believe it was here that I picked up a violent bug, which hit me two days later: sore throat, hacking cough, no temp. I’m still recovering, with a cough and sore throat – which is why this travelogue has been so delayed.
But enough about a bad end to a wonderful trip. Let me instead offer some parting ruminations about Greece. I wrote in an earlier travelogue that the ancient Greeks in many ways look and seem just like us. William Chapman pointed out that while this may appear to be so, the cultural gap, the day-to-day expectations and personal experience would be utterly foreign. Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out in his book Philosophical Investigations, that “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” I suspect some of that might be true if we were to speak with an ancient Athenian. We would be lost there, as he or she would be here – how do you dress? What is the food like? Where is the toilet? Water? How do I bathe? (And what is that electricity and those lights in the modern world??) And those are just the immediate practical questions.
Another difference from us today would be the Greek habit of being constantly at war with each other, and the tendency to plot not just against other cities/states, but also to intrigue, bribe, propagandize and backstab both within and between what we today might describe as parties — though in Greece these were far from the organized and disciplined parties which so gently shed their clear and benign light on us today.
Irony aside, the fundamental differences lie much more in terms of unconsciously accepted cultural experience and expectation. One hint, I think, is in the utterly foreign shape of things.
Or the shape of a funerary vase:
Yet, behind the vase, there stands a funerary stele showing an aged father mourning the death of his son, probably in battle, given his age (19th century excavations in the Athenian burial mound at Marathon turned up skeletons of young men in their early 20s). Grief remains constant, though not often as starkly and movingly depicted as this, I think:
These are the tangible remnants of that far-away culture which contained the seeds of so much of our life today. The inner cultural differences remain more elusive, so we must remember that these were people who cherished a deep respect for honor, and an experienced equally deep religiosity, aware of deity and numinosity in the everyday things about them, a feeling which we have largely lost today. Shakespeare expressed something like this, if not in detail, then in the feel, in As You Like It when he has the Duke say,
…And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything
And there it is. I have been, I have learned, seen and been engulphed and embraced by a whole vanished world I have long dreamed of. I have left so much unseen, given the limits of time and stamina, things for a later trip – Mycenae, Olympia, Delos, Marathon and Chaeronea… It has been a labor and a joy to share these experiences. I plan to work hard to absorb as much Greek as I can before returning to Athens next year, and then I cherish a plan to turn to ancient Greek and pick up where I left off years ago. There’s a whole, intriguing and wonderful world to be explored — the complex, cruel, beautiful and challenging world of Ancient Greece. It’s all there, waiting.
In Part 3 I spoke of the marble used at Delphi. While some of the surviving sculpture is marble, probably from Paros, the Temple of Apollo was built with limestone faced with marble, or in some cases plastered to resemble marble, a process reminiscent of the Scagliola used to resemble marble in Baroque architecture.
In Part 5 I said that the construction marble for the Parthenon came from the island of Paros. In fact the construction marble was pentelic, from Mount Pentelicus, about 14 km from Athens (still a long haul, with blocks weighing several tons!). The restoration work presently going on takes its marble from the same ancient quarry. However, much of the sculpture on the Parthenon is from Paros; Parian marble being softer and easier to carve, though less suited for building.
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement.