|So I met these three women and...wait, no. That's my fantasy perfect day. This was real, even if there is always an element of the super-real in an Athens summer day; the light is so much brighter here than anywhere I've ever been, and everything stands out so much more clearly, shadow and substance.
Past and present entwine here in far more ways than the obvious mixing of artifact and tourist kiosk. There are many pasts, of course, even if one is thinking generally and chronologically in the western manner, and the present is constantly betraying hints of these pasts. If you see a dent in the earth on a hill here you are tempted to look for other dents, and finding them, for more evidence that this pattern of dents once was a set of columns for a bath house or a market. If the grass suddenly stops on the side of a slope there is an irresistible feeling that something that was once there is requiring you to acknowledge the continuation of its presence; a semi-circle that held spectators for theatre, or a crowd listening to orators during the first flourishing of democracy. Where the rock is slick and the cliff seems sheer you can feel the history of many feet, among them the pairs that came and listened to Paul the evangelist when he spoke atop Areopagus to the literate, logical, sceptical masses about this religion he had come to promote. On the back side of a rocky hill, around sunset amidst the olive trees, marked with natural depressions in the rock which shelter against the sun and wind, you can hear the discussions of the followers of Plato and Socrates which took place there. It could have been just the other day.
One of life's great ironies is that we seldom inherit the qualities we would choose to from our ancestors. Modern day Greeks (who are a hybrid race, at any rate) are not known for their cool logic or long range vision; at least not the taxi drivers. That's OK. I would have liked to have been Cuchulain. If I stay outside in the sun at least I have an outside chance of ending up looking like Sammy Beckett.
So to this perfect day. I have no template for a perfect day, and unlike some of my sadder friends, my life is not beholden to expectations, which is a long-winded way of saying I rose with no idea of what to do on a Sunday in Athens. With an off-day from physical training, I had all the time I needed...to do what? So I began with a retreat. I went back to the bed, turned on the fan and read a chapter of my newest read, The History of the Blues. A great way to start the day, filling one's mind with images of the rural south, of the juke joints, cotton farms and odd characters who populated what's called the Mississippi Delta.
A cold shower, followed by some hand washing to make me feel useful and I was on my way out the door. It was going on noon and the sun was coming down in waves of heat on the streets. Athens on a summer Sunday is much emptier than usual on the main thoroughfares, and most of the cafes around Syntagma Square, my usual haunt, are closed. So as I wandered in that direction to buy a copy of the Guardian--the absolute, no-disputing-it number 1 newspaper in the English-speaking world--I pondered laconically where to go for my first freddo cappuccino of the day. You know if this is your chief concern that it's going to be a very good day indeed.
Sensing things would be more lively around the Plaka district, which lies under Acropolis, I headed in that direction and soon found a side-street cafe where I could watch phalanxes of tourists go by in large groups, led by little red-faced women waving flags. I swear these groups looked as if they were connected with memory-mittens. My chocolatine safely ingested along with said iced coffee, I started to meander down a street which leads through Monastiraki and which houses the Flea Market. It's a tourist trap, of course; but I was feeling like a tourist in need of some shopping therapy. It's shameful to admit it but I even had a particular agenda; a bust of my idols Aristotle and Aeschlyus. An alabaster bust of the great thinker was soon to be had, but even though I encountered busts of various sizes of Euripides and Sophokles, the true Olympian of the ancient poets was not to be found. The stores are a hoot, though, selling everything from T-shirts which say "Ouzo--bringing drunks together for two thousand years" to quite lovely clothes, mixing cheap and posh in such a high-temperature amalgam that there's always a wee danger of being overwhelmed into buying one of those "He's Gay" (with an arrow) T-shirts when you really had intended to buy the bronze replica of Zeus giving birth to Athena through the top of his head.
I even managed what might be my first-ever successful barter. At a jeweler's I was dickering over a bracelet and a chain (it started with a pretty girl in the store, but never mind), and as I checked the tags the prop quickly said "No, no--don't look, I give you better price". Well, as some of my friends know I am, if possible, a worse negotiator than Saddam Hussein was when he decided to represent himself at the War Crimes Tribunal. But I resolved to strike a deal. So (having looked at the tags anyway) I said, "how much for both, together" (as if "both" and "together" were not synonyms but heralds of some complex strategy worthy of Wall Street). Budopolis says "one hundred ten euros". I say, "how about one hundred?". His eyebrows rise theatrically and with the hint of a small sigh he says "Cash?". I nod. He wraps, I pull out my billfold and hold on to its contents dramatically until the wrapping is Absolutely Complete and a Pouch Has been Included, then I give him a pair of fifties. And it's done. I've successfully managed the bartering dance! Except of course for completely forgetting, in the midst of my elation, to take my winnings from the store, a fact of which I'm gently reminded by aforementioned good-looking girl.
The day is just getting started, I'm already more than a hundred quid down and feeling like a king. There's a strip of nice joints along the edge of the Ancient Agora, and I remember from an earlier tour with my host K that one of them was particularly good; I find it and bed down with a tabbouleh salad to die for. Renourished (bartering being hard work), I now knew what my day was going to be about. It was going to be about walking through Ancient Things. I'd been through the Agora before, but, as is typical of Michaelness, I had basically run through it and not absorbed much the first time round. This, I resolved, was going to be different. I paid my ticket and entered the huge grounds of Athens' twenty-six hundred year-old market under a sun that was like a huge over-friendly dog, all over you everywhere you go. There was a bounce in my step as I skipped past a ruby-red American women gesticulating angrily at her lagging husband. One of the reasons I train so diligently is so I can skip around when it's 41 degrees.
I'll let the photos do most of the talking, but suffice to say that the Agora is, at ground level, what the Acropolis is in the sky. By this I mean that everyday life of the ancients is all around you at the Agora, from worship at various temples to civic administration where weights and measures were kept. I love old stone, especially marble. It has a quality that I can only describe as holding its experiences within it.
There is a thorny question in archaeology and museology about whether artifacts should be left in their original habitat or whether they should be kept in buildings which protect them from further erosion. There is no easy answer to this question. In the case of the Agora, much of the findings have been left outdoors. There is simply no substituting the real-life effect of looking up at the imposing remains of the temple of Hephaistus. It would be diminished by being brought indoors, and its friezes and facings were not of the quality of those which adorned the Parthenon. Smaller and more delicate work has been interned, though, in the modern Museum of the Agora, housed in a building which mimics the Doric design of the Agora's best-known period. It's a long rectangular space with exhibits on both sides. One hundred metres and you're done. You have to love it...especially the two thousand year + children's commode. And the jar with the child's skull inside it. Different parents, one assumes.
I wound around the hills of the Agora for almost three hours without losing a beat. It's possible to go on for hours when you're inspired. Here I was, in the middle of a huge, modern urban city, and I couldn't see or hear traffic. Swaths of yellow dried grass stretched out in front of me, ending in a giant doric column, a piled set of rocks marking an altar, or the simple line of an ancient street along which Athenians passed every day two thousand years ago.
The day was about to get better.
Reaching the opposite end of the Agora, I decided to head out in search of Mt. Areopagus, another site I had seen previously but which I thirsted to see again, knowing, as only an expert on Michaelness knows, that the second time brings the revelations. And while it's Baptism Johnny who is called the "Revelator" in blues lyrics, I was out to stand on the rock that the Apostle Paul had stood on when he first decided to do some evangelising, stuck his finger on a map, suspiciously avoiding Libya, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and settling on Athens. I am naive, I suppose, but I get a thrill that is almost electrical when I stand on or near the spots where the ancients who so influence me stood. Or where they lay upright on a crucifix, for that matter. I suppose religion, that mass-deluding opiate, was concocted for rubes like me, the ones who just Believe, who can't imagine life without belief in a Creator, a belief that rests in other people, too. Anyway, it's a thrill standing atop Areopagus, first because the Acropolis stretches out behind it in all its majesty; second, because the hill of Areopagus reminds me so much of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem that I felt I could understand Paul's reasons for wanting to preach there; and third, because the wind is so strong that if you wait long enough, you can see small, waif-like Japanese tourists, intent on focusing their Nikons, sail off toward the Aegean with nothing more than a silently mouthed "AIEEEE!!!".
The day was not over yet.
I'd been walking for five or six hours at this point, minus the pit stops for food and coffee, and I felt like I had one more little trek in me. I had never been to Mount Pnyx before...or even dared to try and pronounce its name. It seems like it should be followed by "gesundheit!" and a hearty slap on the back. What it is, though, is one of the famous hills of Athens, located as one of the triumvirate of the Acropolis, the Areopagus, and Kachoo, er, Pnyx. Pnyx doesn't get the press of the more popular destinations. Entrance to the archaeology site, which is basically the entire hill, is free, and even then you don't find many tourists making the time for it. It's a pity, but it's understandable. It's not as high as Lycabettus, it doesn't have an Acropolis on top of it, or even a decent church, and Paul might have walked through there but the cameras weren't rolling.
What it does have, though, is utterly memorable. At the foot of a small wall of rock one finds what seems like an unremarkable space, clearly modelled by human hands into a kind of public venue, but which just as clearly is not a theatre. In fact, it's the first home of the Athenian senate, the Demos, during the first, brilliant period of Athenian democracy in the early fifth century BCE. Democracy; what a concept. For better or worse--and if you're a humanist, you're embarrassing yourself if you are not an ardent democrat--democracy, western style, was birthed here. People came to listen to orators who had to face the public to make their case. I noticed a lot of loose rocks lying about; it couldn't have been easy.
Pnyx also houses what is reputed to be the prison where Socrates was held before his Hemlock episode, but this is still mostly conjectural. There is a remnant of a classical house, and on the back side of the hill are little nooks where the philosophical sects are said to have met of a summer's night. I walked around unimpeded by the minders who are so necessarily present in the Agora. It's an amazing place to be on a Sunday in Athens, when the temperature is well into what Americans call the hundreds; acres of softly sloping hills, olive and pomegranate trees, and silence.
That's all. Nothing special, really. I could have ended the day by seeing an outdoor cinema presentation of Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and some ex-model, but instead I decided to walk back into the centre while the light died. Peaceful.