Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Athens - A Gate to Understanding Ourselves


While harbored in Poros, we thought it a perfect opportunity to visit Athens: a one-hour ferry ride across the bay.

We booked a room via airbnb.com, our favorite way of finding wonderful and affordable places to stay. It didn't disappoint. We stayed right in the ancient town, the Plaka, in a one-room loft of a fashion photographer for Vogue whose marble-floored apartment was  a study in black and white, in furniture and photography. Elegant and soothing.

We were in walking distance of the museums, the imposing Acropolis, the fantastical flea market, the hip cafes, the ancient agora, and shopping.

I intentionally didn't take photographs of the ancient sites. For one, you can find so many, so much better on the internet. (We no longer live in the days of relying on travelogues for the facts and photos, but for impressions and insights.)

For another, I didn't take photographs because none (even those you find on the internet) can capture the grandeur and spirit of the Acropolis.

Here is the one shot I decided to take which I felt would capture Athens as fully as possible in one single photograph.

The many ages of Athens: Acropolis on the hill, ancient columns and possibly a mosque.
In the background up on the bluff is the Acropolis. Closer in, you can see columns of the ancient town. To the left is a Byzantine building from when the Turks ruled. And in the foreground is the same commerce being conducted which took place thousands of years earlier in the exact same way as it did amidst the columns if the agora, the marketplace.

About 160 years ago, Alphonse Karr said, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." The more it changes, the more it's the same. About two thousand years before, during the time the agora was just as busy as it is today, it was written in Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun."

More than anything, that is my take-away from Athens.

What does America pride itself on? Democracy? I'm sure some prehistoric tribes had one-person-one-vote systems, but even the modern form of societal democracy was founded by the Greeks several hundred years BC. (Just about the same time that they proposed the idea that the Earth circled the Sun.)

We humans loved, created, traded, ruled, fought, cultivated, homesteaded, sung, created music and art, and wondered about the stars in much the same way as we always have. Always there was the home, the marketplace, the battlefront, the canvass.

The only thing to change have been our tools.

Speaking of tools, we wandered the flea market which blossoms on Sunday. There we came across a small shed with this man selling electronics.

Electronica man selling capacitors in the modern day agora.
I quickly recognized the items out in front: air capacitors. They were used largely in tuning radios in the old days. I searched more of his boxes and, sure enough, I found capacitors with our family name on them.

Air capacitors.
I tried to explain to the man that my family had made them, but he didn't speak nor understand a word of English. I showed him my license with my name. At first, he seemed to have no interest, but when I went through more boxes, something clicked and he wanted to see my license again. He smiled and nodded. I gave him one of our calling cards with my name on it. Who knows, maybe he went home that night and said to his wife, "A most curious thing happened to me at the agora today."

Lest my rantings about America's shortcomings be mistaken for utter disappointment with the country, let me also write about one cultural similarity between Greece and America that I found profoundly moving.

I remember reading a profile of General Colin Powell (who, apropos of nothing, spoke fluent Hebrew.) He was introducing a foreign dignitary to Washington D.C. He took the dignitary on a walk through the mall, that great green space filled with monuments. He explained that each monument was a dedication to an ideal. Even those monuments to people were more reflective of the ideas they represented. This is what America honors, Powell said in so many words: concepts and ideas of democracy and equality.

What I learned in Athens is that the Acropolis, this plateau which was once a fortified village in Neolithic times, had become such a sacred place for Athenians that the only things built there were monuments to gods.

The Acropolis from an angle showing its immensity if not the details.
Do you see the tiny people on the stairs all the way to the right?
Even when the Romans arrived, they were so impressed that Athenians were so devoted to education, the arts and their gods, that they did not destroy the place and rebuild it with their own icons. They left it pretty much as it was. What's left of it today was what was built thousands of years ago: Testaments to our devotion to something greater than us. Call them concepts. Call them Gods. 

Call it our desire to be more than we are.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

for more than 2500 years zen has been teaching that within each of us lies the capacity to be much more than we are. You just have to be willing to work hard for it. But most aren't. They want it "for free".
Now here's the mystery: It's not that they are too lazy. People work 14 hours a day all their life thinking, there's got to be more, there's got to be more. But they are not willing to invest 30 minutes of their day to achieve that "more". I would guess that about 95% of the people that come to our zen center searching for that "more", give up as soon as they realize how much work it is.

abbot said...

still severely lacking in food pics IMO.... already halfway back through the Med and yet to see any olives, cheeses, or fishies

abbot said...

... be 'spectin those ^ foodsies pics, as well as some cool shots from the canal passage in your next entry

Mathias said...

Patience, patience. Food pix are coming. Excellent suggestion. We have had some fantastic meals and always kicked ourselves for not bringing the camera along. We'll start collecting gourmet shots.