A quick set up:
I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.
“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.
Yugo to Slavia
Half past Armenia
Down and towards the Med
Left side of Turkey
Nowhere near Fiji
You will find Greece
Greece – George Harrison
Today we visit Athens, a city that’s over 6000 years old. Stop and think about that for a second, six thousand years old. Incredible. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, with about four million people living there, and it’s named after Athena, the goddess of education and wisdom.
Unfortunately, while parts of the day were among the best of the trip, overall, I found myself incredibly disappointed with the current state of this historic city. Granted, this is an outsider’s opinion based on very few hours in the city, but it struck me as very poor and very crowded. Most larger cities have a rough area of town, but it seemed that the rough area of Athens was…well, all of Athens.
Of course, Greece is going through a terrible time economically, and that likely is where much of this comes from, but it was heartbreaking to see such beautiful buildings and monuments covered with abandoned scaffolding from failed reconstructions, and graffiti, and overall, a patina of dirt and disrepair.
The graffiti was the most disconcerting. Apparently the day before, there had been a massive demonstration in the streets, so much of the graffiti was fresh, and much of it was in the native Greek language, but what I saw was unsettling. “Wake up!” and “Capitalism is killing you. Fascism is not the answer”, and, perhaps most disturbing, “Devil will come.”
However, if you looked past all that, you still saw smiling faces and beauty underneath the dirty, despoiled facades.
The other thing that becomes immediately apparent is the insanity of the drivers. I swear, they were either the most skilled drivers in the world, or the most crazy, though, to be honest, I’m leaning toward the latter. And this includes the bus driver that took us where we needed to go. And I don’t think there are any parking laws that are actually enforced. We saw No Parking signs everywhere, but we also saw cars parked under every one of them, in the most inconvenient of places. In one case, we saw a narrow street lined both with No Parking signs, and parked cars up and down both sides. Then, because all the (non)parking spots were taken, two or three more cars simply parked right in the middle of the street, rendering it virtually impassable from either direction. We could only shake our heads in wonder.
Right in the middle of Athens, high on a hill, was our destination. The Acropolis, literally Akro, the highest place, and Polis, the place of rule. When the bus offloaded us and we were preparing to climb to the top, I can’t tell you how excited I was. I was bubbling, I was vibrating. This was a once in a lifetime thrill for me. I’m not sure if Karen was more excited to see the Parthenon, or to see my reactions as we climbed.
The path to the top was all rough-hewn stone, very uneven, yet very smooth from the thousands of years and millions of feet that crossed them. I can’t stress how uneven the stone was. We literally had to watch each step along the way, and hold each others’ hands to prevent a fall. We saw one man step sideways, hit a calf-high wall, and tumble over it. The worst part was the area that he fell to was at least three feet lower. He hit hard. I can’t believe he didn’t break a bone or two, but he got up, brushed himself off and kept on going.
All of it was incredible, all the way up, but I can say with all honestly, the first close-up viewing of the Parthenon, as we got to the top, was absolutely, literally breath-taking. I felt the air leave my lungs and it was like I forgot to breathe again. It was that powerful. No picture will ever do it justice. This was the first time I’d ever stood in a spot of historical significance and felt its weight and power. It was a living thing, and it was something I could only stop and allow to pass through me.
Studying the ancient architecture, seeing those massive blocks of stone, so intricately carved, and understanding that this place was designed and carved and built, not by labourers, but by Artists. And I don’t mean artists. I mean Artists.
And then it struck me that it was also built on the backs of sheer manpower. No throbbing engines driving cranes. No glass and steel. Men and stone.
Then, finally, to consider that, more than three thousand years after it was built, surviving all that time, and here were Karen and I, visiting it. They built something thousands of years ago that we could still experience.
It was a humbling experience.
Now, sections of the Parthenon are being restored and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’m happy with that. Yes, they are taking pains to match it, but still… I understand it’s to save it for future generations, but much of its power comes from what it is, not what it is from restoration.
Anyway, there are massive sections of stone that have been carefully removed and set aside to be eventually returned and placed in their original spots. Stone is everywhere. Scaffolding is everywhere. People are everywhere.
And dogs are everywhere.
Apparently Athens looks after its stray dogs, spaying and neutering them as well as feeding them. There’s a lot, and every one of them seems to absolutely crave attention. So, as incredible as the Acropolis was, I couldn’t resist making friends. There was one dog, big, white and fluffy, that just melted my heart. I pet her and made all those stupid noises I make when I converse with canines. Karen looked at me and said, “Seriously? We travel 4000 miles, climb the Acropolis, and you’re playing with a dog?”
I just said, “Well…yeah.”
She was waving me on. By this time, the dog had dropped to the ground and let me scratch her head and back. A crowd of about fifteen Asian tourists had encircled the two of us and were smiling, pointing and taking pictures. Somehow, I had become a tourist attraction at the top of the Acropolis. Me and my adopted dog. “Okay, pooch,” I said. “I gotta go now.” At which point, she broke out the heavy artillery. She promptly flipped over to her back and looked at me with her head upside down on the ground.
Seriously, how can you not go back and rub that belly?
Eventually I tore myself away. We made our way back down the hill and got back on the bus and waited for further driving shenanigans. We were not disappointed. Several times, I knew we were within a few microns of another vehicle, because Karen would reach over, grab my leg, and dig her fingers in to the meat of my thigh. When I looked over, her eyes would be wide and her mouth would be dragged down in a we ain’t gettin’ out of this alive frown.
At one point, the bus driver decided we were going in the wrong direction (I’m assuming) because he decided to block at least six lanes of traffic by pulling a U-turn on a rush hour-busy street. All we could do was laugh. Nervously.
On the way back to the ship, it again saddened and frustrated me to see the graffiti, even at the base of the Acropolis, but thankfully, none at the top. I guess it’s the disrespect for those who came before and created something that would last. Not something to be spray painted on, a canvas for political messages and dire warnings.
Then again, seeing the city and hearing some of what’s going on, it seems there is a growing and almost disdainful disregard for most of their history. Glass and steel boxes shine while stunning old buildings fall to disrepair, victims for the paint of the youth with their vacuous and impertinent messages. Yes, it’s the job of the youth to question what came before, to push against it, but there’s also a time to respect it.
The tour guide spoke of the new upgrades to the subway system, now in its 17th year because they run into artifacts of archeological importance. Apparently, even with these findings, they’ve decided in the interest of expedience, to ignore the finds and press on. And yet, every stop we made was the city trading on its history. It’s pushing into the future and forgetting its past, turning it into a cheap commodity to be sold to the masses.
Athens, to me, though beautiful in spots, is a sad place. I can’t see how this city, historically one of the most important in the world, can ever find that balance between past and present and find its way to greatness again.
But I digress. Our bus driver has to be credited. With all the insanity that is Athens, he accomplished nothing short of a miracle: at no point did the metal of our bus contact the metal of any other vehicle. I don’t exactly know how he achieved this, but he did. We made it back to the ship unscathed.
Later, as our ship left Athens, our ship and another Royal Caribbean ship, the Grandeur of the Seas traded foghorn blasts like two otherworldly monsters, perhaps H. G. Wells’ Martian invaders, or one of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoomian beasts.
And I think, this has truly been a day of wonder.
Later that evening, that sense of wonder continued. I wrote something that I’ll simply recreate word for word here. I had sat out on the balcony, watching a lightning storm a little way off. Then I saw something magical. Anyway, here it is.
The storm birds
It’s night, and it’s raining. Clouds brighten with flashes of lightning, illuminating the shapes and contours normally hidden within their mass.
From the darkness, I slowly become aware of a flitting movement from the corner of my eye. A small, bright arc against the dark sky. I think it’s a shooting star, but it’s far too overcast for one to be visible. Then I see another, but this one changes direction. Then I see more, above the ship, level with it.
They’re birds, dipping and soaring, gliding and diving all around the ship.
Then I see a mass of them heading toward the rear of the ship. I look to that direction and see an even larger mass heading in the opposite direction, directly toward the first. The two groups appear to crash together, but they instead seemingly blend to one great flock and head back to the ship’s bow.
Occasionally, these battalions fly by, like the ship’s honour guard. Others, in singles and small groups of two and three continue to wheel against the light-painted sky.
I see a small, single white shape against the black backdrop. Then the sky brightens to stark white and that small white shape turns black and I actually gasp. For less than a second, the scene was the exact negative of itself, then it popped back to normal, white bird against black velvet sky.
These birds feel like protectors…from the storm, from the rain, the lightning and thunder, the sound and the fury. They hold vigil for us, the protectors against earth and sky and water.
They’re the storm birds.
See part seven here.