Wednesday, August 3, 2011

August 3 - Athens (written by Andy)

We began our day getting to know the seemingly always crowded Athens metro system, vectoring a path to a park where, according to some historians, Plato's Academy was founded 387 BCE. As is our custom, we emerged from the station thoroughly disoriented - only to spend about 20 minutes just figuring out our cardinal directions. At first I'd exclaim with confidence, "Look, there's the sun in the east; so we should go in that direction.” I'd be right too. Only, after two or three turns I'd discover, "Damn it! We're walking toward the sun again!" Eventually we found the right path and commenced a trudging march past buildings that seem to be held up by graffiti. Athens had recently suffered bouts of urban unrest, and the signs portended of more violence to come.

The park itself was a disappointment. In the sweltering heat we found a basketball court and some playground equipment. Kids were laughing nearby and old men were keeping cool in small cafes across the street. Behind a rusting fence we spotted some barely unearthed stone and a sign for the "ancient road to Plato's Academy." Somewhere among these blocks, I'd read, more of the original site was being excavated. Yet the pictures didn't look much more impressive. I guess that's what you'd expect when searching for material evidence of a life of the mind.

Feeling a bit guilty about our initially underwhelming destination, I turned the day over to Jenny who was determined to use up each of our tickets that came from yesterday’s Acropolis visit. That's how we found ourselves meandering alongside the quiet columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus near Hadrian's Arch. Afterward we returned to the Plaka for some lunch, allowing ourselves to be drawn off the road by a fellow promising that his restaurant serves the best food in Athens. Actually it was pretty good, though Jenny and I stuck with our typical diet of pita, moussaka, and kebabs. The wandering accordion player was a nice touch.

Ever keen on using our Acropolis tickets, Jenny pointed us toward the Theater of Dionysus. I savored the opportunity to imagine myself exhorting the Greek masses toward some grand vision of democracy, stretching my arms outward to the invisibly assembled company and wishing I'd committed some of Pericles' funeral oration to memory. At that point we both had enjoyed our fill of walking the dusty streets and planned to nap a while in our hotel. But when our metro passed by a cluster of folks walking among ruins outside our window, I knew we had to check this place out.

Happily, this site turned out to be the Greek agora. Our first stop was the Temple of Hephaistos, patron of metal-working. As with the other temples, we found that location is protected by pleasant but stern women who carry walkie-talkies and keep a careful watch against anyone who would remove so much as a stone from the ground. Jenny and I took turns taking pictures, using hand gestures and smiles to navigate a United Nations of touristic shutterbugs. Then we surveyed the expanse of the agora.

Naturally I found myself remembering stories of Socrates and his interlocutors discussing justice, debating the meaning of "the good," and debating the value of rhetoric. Could it have been here, in this place, that these conversations took place? We may never know. Socrates himself is more of a collection of second-hand reports than an actual person. And the agora has been built up and torn down so many times by so many invading armies and self-aggrandizing politicians that only the most dogged historians could claim to know what layer of patina one sees here. Fortunately a nearby museum offers some context, along with an amazing collection of ordinary stuff: wine vessels, children's toys, cooking utensils, and even a complex device built to select citizens for jury duty.

For dinner we returned to the restaurant we enjoyed last night, sharing handshakes with our waiter and negotiating with his entreaties that we try new things. It's always such a treat when someone at a business seems to express genuine interest in a customer, and that has been our general experience with folks we've met thus far. This country is undergoing dramatic fiscal and social upheaval. The tense conversations of men playing cards and the dazed expressions of people riding the metro express the feeling that things have changed. At the same time, the warmth of smiles encountered during our visit convinced us that things may work out for Greece after all.

Day 11 | Day 13

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