There’s this moment when I popped out of the metro and looked up at the hill. The Hill. The one with the Pantheon on top. I’m looking at it and not a photo or a movie but At It. The beautiful broken temple – right there where its been for a while now. It’s big and yet its inviting, benevolently watchful. This is the moment where I laugh with delight. We’re in Greece! Who knew that my life’s journey could take me here. How unlikely it was that one day I could stand at the base of this cliff and look up at that persistently enduring structures?
It was awesome flying into Greece, once the clouds cleared. We could see the Adriatic sea and we could see it displaying the warm green color of Mediterranean waters. It was awesome looking out the window at a landscape worthy of driving into Los Angeles over the grapevine or wondering around Central Mexico or coming out of Lakewood and cutting over to the Sacramento Valley. Scrub brush – and – warmer then the pre-snow cold southern Germany we’d just left.
Later, after dark, Bill and I just took off and walked toward the hill. But that was later. First we had to find our temporary landlady and our temporary apartment. She met us at the station and told us that a huge storm was coming in. “Really?” we asked and then made finding a store and dinner supplies our first priority. Its one thing to be caught in a big storm when are at home and near all your gear. Its another to be tourists with just our luggage.
Khaos is a Greek Goddess
We’re in a neighborhood just north of the Acropolis – Psyrri. Its a mess. Motorcycles and dogs everywhere. Stores with supplies like ropes, bottles, chain saws, work cloths cascade out of doorway and flow up from the basement step to cover yards and yards of the pavement. Everyone walks fast and no one waits for the light. No need to paint any of the buildings for graffiti covers all surfaces in exuberant colors. The streets are narrow and twisting which confesses their pre-automobile creation. Cars have to creep forward and then back up several times just to get around a corner.
Even so, these pedestrian sized streets are lined with six and seven store concrete buildings that have seen better times about twenty years ago. In between the the towers are decaying remains of 19th century houses, floors falling in and charred window frames on the floor above the front door.
Its overwhelming. Its chaotic. Its almost joyful but there is something else in that energy. From shop keepers to restaurant barkers to little sidewalk stands, men watch us walk by with heartbreak in their eyes. “How long can I keep this store going,” they seem to be asking themselves, “How long before I too am sleeping out in the square?”
We walked four blocks on the threat heavy sky till we came to the meat market building. I love market buildings. I love the small shop after small shop each vying to have the best vegetable display or the best meat cuts or sausages. I love the energy and friends and competition. But every market I’ve been to so far from Mexico to Budapest has at least covered up the sheer rawness of converting a living animal to dinner meats. This market is real and pulls no punches. Yes, this meat is fresh, the butcher cry out as they slam their butcher knives onto the chopping block. The carcasses of what used to be a goat or a lamb hang from hooks with, oddly yet practical, a plastic baggie tied around their skulls to catch the bright red blood still draining. Several times I almost slip on the slickness of the water washed floor. Op-pah! the nearby venders call out and I laugh, grateful I’m still on my feet.
We find our dinner and we check our smart phone weather apps. All four of them as its sometimes difficult to find a dependable single source in Europe. We compare their answers and then shrug our shoulders and look at the sky. No rain yet so we set out for the big walk. We always take a big walk when we first arrive. Its not planned or mapped. Its just a striding out the door to see where we are.
In the falling twilight we walk across the square, up the hill, up the neighborhood streets, up the road way till we come out near the gate to the Acropolis. We’re in a bit of a valley and to our right is a crest of a hill. We see a plaque, and carved and metal steps. “Mars Hill,” I think recalling the Rick Steves Guidebook description of this location. Because it is November and because it is a week night and because it is night, there’s but a handful of lovers, stoners, and tourists at the top of this hill. Its work coming here because the city glitters in the night. The street lights and apartment lights fill the bowl of the valley around this rock for miles in all directions. Up above is the entrance to the Pantheon, lit in ways the builders could only dream of. For a moment we sit and look at everything.
Mars Hill is named in the Book of Acts. I look at the rocks I am sitting on and back up at the ancient building still above us. I think about the Apostle Paul, who also stood and sat here on top of this hill. This is the first time I have good at a place named in my Bible. Here, this place a tourist came long long before me and stood and tried to name the Unnamed God. How many of us have now climbed this hill to stand here since then? Every place on earth is ancient because earth is ancient but some places we know the story better then others. Some places have a story like this place, but we’ve forgotten it. Some places has a story like this place, a story that we keep telling the next generation so we can remember. Once people came to this place and said it was good to live here. Then they said, we need to build here and honor that which has brought us the good fortune to live here. And its all still here.
Impressions Arriving like Rain Storms
The first two days we walked everywhere and the weather was warm and pleasant. Back home, back in Munich, the temperatures were moving toward the inevitable snow but here, for a moment, we were in California again. My last full day, a storm came in and drenched everything while we walked the National Gallery of Antiquities. We indulged in a late lunch atop the ritziest hotel in town and discovered we were dining with the last king of Greece. The full length windows along the west wall that open up were all closed with piles of towels soaking up the water that the wind had driven in. The staff apologized for “the mess” and we laughed. We found our own puddles of water underneath the west facing windows of our vacation apartment a few hours later. We grabbed the mop and laughed again.
There are signs everywhere that Athens is in trouble. Empty stores, entry ways blocked off with blankets to form a sleeping cave, dogs in the street who hang out in front of apartment doors.Wild cats that softly patrol their home bases. At the same time there is energy of the young as well as the persistence of the old. On our street a new bicycle store, a hip yet inexpensive bar, and a storefront with three young adults vigorously stripping off old paint and tiles as they make way for their new enterprise. When we walked past them at the end of the day we would see them, standing together a beer in their hands, surveying what they had accomplished and measuring in their mind’s eye what would come next.
And again, at the same time, every morning on the next street over an old man would open up the gate of his one room store and set out a few boxes of fruits and vegetables like he’s been doing this, exactly like this, for decades.
And everywhere, men sit with each other at a few chairs set out along the sidewalk, men and women sit together at tables outside a cafe and they talk. Of what? Their children? Their work? The weather? They sit, smoke their cigarettes, and talk. That’s texting old school. That’s slow time.
And the food? oh… the food was as intense and exuberant and so very much of this particular and specific place as any traveling sensualist might hope for. I’ve always loved Greek food but now I understand that what I have eaten is transplanted food. This is Greek food built up from Greek Terra prepared by cooks who have learned from their mothers and fathers since… yes, that long. Spanakopita for breakfast and baklava at the end of dinner. Calamari (is that a Greek word?) and lamb and orzo in-between.
Athens is a survivor, but clearly is in the middle of needing to survive. Athens is worth coming to see at least once in our lives and not just to see what once was. Athens is also creating what will be.