My attempts to write about my four-day trip to Athens in the middle of last month have been disrupted by a pretty bad bout of flu that left me mostly stuck in my room (apart from some very desperate and difficult trips to the local pharmacy and supermarket), weak and suffering from nasty migraines, for about five days — a day longer than even the trip itself. Thankfully, however, I’m finally feeling myself again, and can finally get back to writing about Athens.
WEDNESDAY, 13 MAY 2015
We found ourselves amidst the ruins of Hadrian’s Library on the morning of our third day in Athens.
The library belongs to just one of the many marks left on Athens by the Romans. Of the original structure, all that’s left today is the west wall, lined by a row of massive Corinthian columns towering over the visitor. A series of churches were, unsurprisingly, built on the site after the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, and in a corner of the west wall, one can still make out the faint image of a late-antique fresco that has since almost entirely faded out of existence.
Again, it’s difficult not to see this wall as a metaphor for modern Athens. Although, of course, the church in Greece hasn’t started fading out of existence at all: in fact, it is now deeply engraved into the fabric of Greek culture and tradition.
The weather in London’s predictably unpredictable during the transition between spring and summer, and us being in Athens on the cusp of meteorological summer was definitely intentional. We wanted to catch ourselves an early bit of summer in the form of the toasty Mediterranean climate, and we knew there was no better way to do it than to spend some time on one of the countless beaches that line the coast of the Argo-Saronic Gulf no further than thirty to forty minutes away from the centre of Athens by tram. For some reason I’d envisioned going to one of those slightly more upscale beaches that have paid entry and private lockers along with a fancy cocktail bar, but S had a completely different idea in mind. When she said she simply wanted to go to the beach, she meant pretty much any beach; we ended up just going to one of the nearest public beaches to the tram station where we dropped off. I’d probably best describe that particular beach we ended up at as a lovely sandy strip along the lovely blue sea … and that would pretty much be it. No facilities (apart from a slightly rusty shower), nothing: just a beach, a handful of locals fishing and enjoying the sun, and the sparkling blue Aegean Sea.
Still, not exactly what I’d expected, so it definitely took some adjusting to. We did end up on the beach for most of the morning and the early afternoon, however, and I managed to get through a fair bit of Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: A Family Story (which I’ve since finished and will hopefully review in a later post). Being able to just be on the beach and to be safely away from all of the sources of stress that were waiting for me in London … that was definitely quite a treat.
This being beach day, I’d decided to wear the contact lenses that I’d obtained as part of my free trial from SpecSavers. I’ve never really enjoyed wearing lenses much, but it turns out, after some checks by the optometrist, that regular lenses are incredibly uncomfortable for me to wear because my eyelids are relatively tighter than usual in relation to my eyes. I was prescribed some thinner lenses and the difference was, to say the least, revelatory: I’m definitely far more willing to wear them now, even if they do get a bit dry from time to time. In any case, I knew that I wanted to wear them for beach day because it would allow me to wear a proper pair of sunglasses, or at least a pair that didn’t break the bank (as prescription sunglasses or decent clip-ons most likely would). I ended up with tan-lines around my eyes, but to be honest, those are the sort of tan-lines that you wear with pride back in London to show that you’ve been away toasting under the beautiful Mediterranean sunlight while they’ve been subject to the mercy of the bitter whims of the North Atlantic storm track.
The scorching sun aside, however, I don’t think anything left a much stronger impression than the chills I got from listening to Florence + the Machine’s What Kind of Man while watching the endless azure surface of the Mediterranean under a swirling turquoise sky. Some songs are definitely made for certain kinds of moments.
After a couple of hours at the beach, S and I decided to head towards the port city of Piraeus. Strictly speaking, Piraeus is part of Athens (rather like how some parts that have traditionally been part of Surrey or Essex are now technically part of London, or at least Greater London), but historically it’s always been a unique locality of its own. S was particularly excited because she has an expressed fascination with boats and marinas; there was no lack of that as we passed by a huge marina on our way (by foot) there, and Piraeus itself contains two primary marinas, both of which are lined with yachts and private boats of virtually every shape, size, and colour. I myself have less of a passion for maritime matters — although, given that I was born on a tiny island off the coast of Hong Kong, seaside settlements do hold a certain amount of nostalgia and meaning for me as well. Still, I can’t say I’m always excited about them, even if the buildings here in Piraeus looked uncannily similar to those that populate Cheung Chau. I’m afraid it’s impossible to explain how starkly my quiet interest contrasted with S’s brimming enthusiasm, but then and again, everyone’s excited by different things, and the reasons for these passions aren’t always explicable, possibly even arbitrary.
THURSDAY, 14 MAY 2015
S and I decided that for our last day in Athens, we would visit the Ancient Agora together in the morning and then go off separately to follow up on anything that we individually wanted to see or do. For me that was a fine plan, because it meant that the holiday would ultimately strike a good balance between our similarities and our differences, and give us both a chance to experience Athens on our own unique terms. S made the decision to spend some more time on the beach, and then return to Piraeus to watch the colossal cruise ships rumbling into the harbour. I decided that I would head up to the National Archaeological Museum (Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο) and then perhaps visit a local bookshop. Afterwards, we would meet back at the hotel and have a quick spot of dinner before heading to the airport.
Our plans for our last day settled, we made our way to the Ancient Agora. The Agora was traditionally the heart of every city-state in the Hellenic world, the centre of everyday life in the Greek urban landscape. It was the place where citizens would gather to discuss politics, where affairs of the state were debated and discussed, where the ordinary people shopped and bought their daily goods — the one place where almost all of the different levels of Athenian society, from the bottom to the top, were represented. Today, most of the site has been overtaken by flora and fauna. To me, this was beautiful rather than pitiful; over the course of the past few days I’d found myself thinking, as I walked among the crumbling ruins of ancient temples, that surely in this place at least, the old gods were dead. Seeing these sites overwhelmed by the pulsing, heaving life-force of nature, I felt almost certain that this — the trees, the flowers, the birds, the animals — all of these were testament to a different sort of energy that was rippling through the ancient centres of the city, vitalising these sites of worship and mysticism with a power that only Nature can emanate. This, to me, is the spiritual life of these parts of the ancient city today.
The most stirring vistas of the ancient Agora arguably are those that include the Temple of Hephaestus (or the Hephaisteion) sitting self-assuredly on the north-west side of the site. It’s one of the few ancient buildings that still stand in their entirety, surviving in a state almost exactly as they were built, undestroyed by the tides of man and time that have swept over the city. You can still make out the friezes that lined the top of the temple’s naos (or inner building), a clear model of what the Parthenon frieze that now sits in the British Museum must have looked before Lord Elgin laid his itchy hands on them.
On the south side of the ancient Agora stands a reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos, now a museum displaying archaeological finds uncovered from all over the site. The function of the stoa in the ancient world would’ve been equivalent to that of a modern-day shopping mall: it was essentially a building in which all the stores and offices for public services might be found. The ancient world can often be far less alien to us than we might sometimes imagine.
I made the hearty trek towards the National Archaeological Museum shortly before noon. I’d made a detour to the area around Monastiraki in search of an icon shop that I’d read about on the Internet, but I failed to find it — possibly because the shop no longer exists. I was slightly disappointed by the fact that I wasn’t able to be able to procure any hand-painted icons from Athens after all, but I suppose, in retrospect, that it was all for the better (where was I going to put the icons after all?). As I proceeded along Οδός 28 Οκτοβρίου (it still boggles my mind that there are streets in the city named after dates) I found myself passing by the National Technical University of Athens campus, an impressive neo-classical building that, for some reason, looked somewhat dilapidated and abandoned that particular day. The political posters and graffiti over the gates and walls surrounding the university felt very much like scars from the university’s pivotal role in the tumultuous political history of the city.
I finally arrived at the museum after about half an hour on foot from Plaka. The building itself is pretty damn impressive, painted with a bold shade of red and guarded over its entrance by the silhouettes of four statues, two on each side of the roof over the portico. In an attempt to practise my Greek I entered the building and asked the ticket assistant behind the counter whether I might find a café or something in the museum. She was duly impressed, though as usually happens, she started releasing a relentless flow of Greek that I started failing to understand and had to stop her mid-way in order to speak to her in English.
It became clear that she was more than duly impressed because after I’d had lunch at the café outside and returned to buy my admission ticket, she turned to her colleague and started telling her about me and my command of Greek. To be honest it was a very nice feeling to have one’s efforts welcomed to such an extent, and it definitely encouraged me to keep up the work I do in learning languages in general. After that lovely interaction I received my ticket and made my way through into the galleries.
The National Archaeological Museum in Athens isn’t a place for the weak. Unfortunately, I imagine I fall into that category: after about two hours trying to look at every statue on the ground floor of the museum, I found myself nursing a throbbing headache and somewhat spinning from information overdose. There are two floors of galleries: those on the ground floor consist largely of sculpture and statuary, while the ones on the upper floor contain primarily pottery. Some of the exhibits are incredibly beautiful, and many are iconic: among these include, no less, a bronze statue of a god with his arms positioned as if launching a thunderbolt or a trident (hence its alternate identification as either Zeus or Poseidon, although judging from other figurines and statues of a similar configuration, the former is far, far more probable, even if uncertain), and the famous Mask of Agamemnon. Still, one can only take in so many kouroi, and it’s far less taxing on one’s concentration to take in the vase and amphora exhibits as a series of collections corresponding to specific periods of development in the aesthetics of pottery as opposed to trying to look at every single piece of pottery and to read the descriptions on every single corresponding placard.
That is, I think, in fact a pretty good tip for visiting the museum: it’s a method that allows you to see exactly what thematically and physically unifies the works of each period and/or workshop without subjecting yourself to extreme mental fatigue, and in any case the ability to fully appreciate single pieces of ancient Greek pottery individually is, arguably, largely limited to those who possess the appropriate background in a relevant field. I’d say that no visitor should ever castigate themselves for failing to enjoy or even understand such museums fully; at least one has made the effort and given oneself the chance to be exposed to and to determine how one responds to such artefacts.
But still, I think I’m done with vases for a while.
I did end up finding a bookshop in the area, just along Οδός Πανεπιστίμιου (or the thoroughfare now marked on road signs as Ελευθέριος Βενιζέλος, or Eleftherios Venizelos Avenue, its name since the 1980’s, even though locals still know it by its old name). I’d been trying to find a particular one that was listed in my Marco Polo guide, but it turns out that the bookshop I was searching for had been reduced in its size to well under the five storeys I was promised in the guide. I wound up trawling up and down the street for signs of a larger bookshop and eventually found one that had three floors and contained a healthy selection of both Greek and English books. Unsurprisingly, I ended up buying Learn Greek Without A Teacher — I’ve seen it in Foyles before, but the price difference, of course, is substantially more expensive in London.
This definitely was like the time I went to Cardiff and bought myself a book on the Welsh language. I see that there’s a pattern to how I do things when I travel …
In fact, it’s probably of no shame to admit that I have this massive fascination for local languages wherever I may be when I’m travelling. I’m known to constantly be reading signs on the streets out loud to myself, just to get a feel of what the language is like — I wouldn’t surprised that it utterly confuses and maybe annoys some of my friends, but it’s almost like a compulsive thing that I seriously enjoy doing when I’m in the presence of a language other than good ol’ English. I’m seriously blatantly unashamed about it sometimes.
But hey, why not?
Getting back home after we arrived at London was about as much trouble as it was getting to the airport four days before. There was a slight delay to the flight schedule and we wound up reaching London well after 11pm. We ended up taking pretty much the first train that we could catch from Gatwick — which was a Gatwick Express train and which wasn’t covered by the return train ticket we’d bought before the start of the trip. There was a bit of a kerfuffle over getting our original train ticket refunded and paying for the Gatwick Express ticket instead — unfortunately, I don’t think that ever got settled. In any case, we’d missed the last Underground train by then, and wound up having to trudge out into the midnight rain in order to find some way of getting back. I ended up having to take a bus on the 24 route over to Tottenham Court Road, where I had to change over to a bus headed towards Archway. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for, however, it’s 24-hour bus services, one of which neatly goes to one of the bus stops just five minutes away from my flat. Needless to say, I was immensely, immensely relieved to be home at last.
If I were to reflect on the whole four days and summarise what I learnt in a single sentence, I’m afraid I’d find myself hard-pressed to give you a satisfactory answer. But if I were to venture with an answer anyway, I’d say it was this: travel at least once in your life with someone else. It’s an exercise in how to do friendships right, and it’s a great way of learning not just about other people but also about yourself. Our identities and notions of who we are and what we are about often derive from what we perceive other people to be like and subsequently comparing and contrasting ourselves with them based on the quality of our responses to them. Our observations shouldn’t to any extent involve judging or criticising others, but should instead be built on a recognition of how the different choices that different people make are based on potentially different sets of assumptions about the world and prior experiences that colour the way we rationalise and construct our decisions. It’s an insightful way of discovering what makes people tick, and by using those insights as a mirror into our own selves we can, even though we are looking into a glass darkly, get a glimpse of what we’re like at the core of our thoughts, our anxieties, our joys.
And if you’re a massive introvert (like me) and need to balance it out with a journey made entirely by yourself, do it. It’s an excellent way of consolidating what you’ve learnt on your other trips by spending some time with yourself and seeing how you function on your own as you journey physically somewhere new or different or special.
In that sense, then, if there’s one more thing I’ve learnt about travelling, it’s this: travelling is ultimately always about journeying back towards yourself, whether you travel alone or with others, and you can never get away from yourself no matter how far you go. Because, of course, as the old cliché goes, wherever you journey, there you are as well.
So, I suppose then, one might as well just suck it up and learn to be comfortable with oneself.
END OF TRAVELOGUE (ATHENS, MAY 2015)