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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 17 of 18: 10/6/06 Athens

photo by

Gianni Schicchi practice

Everything the subway system is, clean, quiet, and fast, the streets are not. They are filthy, deafening, and choked with both pedestrians and cars. But they are alive! And the depths of the subway system are not. We surfaced in the district called Monasteriki, on the fringe of the Plaka named for the famous red-tiled roofs.

Our hotel, Attalos, was only about two blocks away and had the appearance of a box of spaghetti standing on end. It was probably seven stories tall and had maybe 40 or 50 feet of frontage on the street. But like Dr. Who’s Tardis or Snoopy’s doghouse it was much larger inside than it was on the outside. Over the centuries they must have obtained the property behind the stores facing the road because once you climbed the flight of circular stairs immediately past the miniscule front desk you were lost in a maze of hallways and stairs and public rooms and rooftop gardens. Amazing, and our room was very comfortable, though the bathrooms still claimed you weren’t supposed to put any paper in the toilet, just this weird little diaper pail beside the potty. Ick.

Because I thought it was threatening rain I wanted us to head for the Acropolis right away. Though pooped, Georgia gamely agreed. The streets, especially the Plaka, were essentially at a standstill as the throng of people surged in both directions at once. It was an artery where the blood was trying to flow in both directions simultaneously. Tiny little stores crammed to bursting with trinkets and restaurants spilling tables out onto a street about the size of a normal sidewalk. Shilling entrepreneurs everywhere, each trying to herd tourists into their restaurant or store. Absolute bedlam, but bedlam in the most picturesque setting imaginable. Cobblestone streets, pastel (adobe?) walls, red-tiled roofs, exotic smells and sounds, huge dogs lazing on street corners oblivious to the crowds, occasional car trying to force themselves through the crowds, and presiding above it all was the serene Acropolis, ancient home of the Parthenon.

Ancient before Christ was born when Alexander offered the philosopher Diogenes anything his heart could desire. Ancient even hundred of years earlier when Socrates cross-questioned his fellow citizens in the futile attempt to disprove the oracle who thought that no one was wiser than he was. He knew that he was not wise and thought that the oracle must surely be wrong. But oracles are never wrong. They may be ambiguous. They may be hard to understand or easily misunderstood, but they are not ever wrong. And my oracle told me we needed to climb today, not wait for tomorrow. So up we went. Oh, my God, what a climb. Like Patmos again, but this time at least the path was smooth asphalt. The Greeks, it would seem, were even more insistent than the Italians that all the really important places on earth needed to be at the tops of the mountains, above the clamor of our petty, mundane, comings and goings, and red-roofed shopping centers.

It turns out we needn’t have worried about rain but here in Athens we were given another of those presents that made this entire trip a trip of gifts. As we rounded one of the many corners on the path we found ourselves overlooking an ancient amphitheater, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. It had been partially refurbished with new marble and a symphony orchestra appeared to be going through a dress-rehearsal of O Mio Babbino Caro, “O my dear Daddy,” by far the most famous and most beautiful melody from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. There must have been two dozen of us standing silently at the flimsy chain link fence looking almost straight down at the stage. And I saw not just a few tears coursing down cheeks, Greek cheeks, German cheeks, Chinese cheeks, Korean cheeks, African cheeks, Georgia’s cheeks.

Diogenes, the philosopher who went about with a lantern “looking for an honest man” sought simplicity and gave away all his possessions except one pot and a wine barrel. He figured he could cook with the pot and also use it to scoop up his water, and the wine barrel would make a perfectly good home. His fellow Athenians ridiculed this “The Temple of Diogenes” and he took the ridicule to heart. One night out under the stars he realized that raw food was delicious and his hands made a perfectly good “cup.” His skin, he said, was waterproof, so he gave away the barrel as well. When his fellow citizens asked him where his temple was he would sweep his arms above his head and indicate the vaults of heaven. “You are standing in my temple!” he exclaimed. And Alexander, conqueror of the world, stopped by on horseback to offer him anything his heart could desire. Looking up from the dust at the thirty-year-old conqueror of the world Diogenes replied that in that case he’d like for him to get out of his sunlight. In only two or three years he was. And his eternal empire didn’t last much longer.

And here I was, standing in the temple of Diogenes, soaking up precious sunlight, walking paths that Socrates certainly knew, and listening to truly eternal music that has captured the hearts of all people without ever firing a shot. It was all so lovely my eyes filled with tears and then I turned and saw the Parthenon behind and above me overlooking everything. It was too many glories for me all at once, Puccini, the Parthenon, Socrates’ pathways, a city ancient when the streets of Rome were first laid out, and a wife hugging me who loved it all as much as I did.

It’s said that being pure disembodied intelligence the angels cannot understand what it’s like to be a human being. Without bodies the innocent pleasures that come through sense experience are lost on them. I’m so thankful to have been born with eyes to see and ears to hear and I’m glad to serve a Lord who also knows the joys and sorrows of having a body.

I knew I would be impressed with Athens but the Parthenon meant more to me than I expected. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate age more. What a cliché, but then something seldom becomes a cliché if it’s false. The unimaginable age of Greek civilization wedded to the even more ancient insights of the Hebrews have guided Western Civilization for many thousands of years. Sometimes I’m afraid for the future. The attempt to divorce reason from “the Divine” can only lead to disaster. Rationality is ultimately just the adjustment of means to ends. It’s a tool; and tools, as we know, can be used for both good or evil ends. Nietzsche even went so far as to divorce good and evil itself from the Divine. We seem to be working out the consequences of a philosophy of radical individualism and separation. As each little piece of “civilization” drops away it must even make the angels weep. They do not know sense experience, but they know God. We have eyes and ears and human reason. We can therefore know the world and the Divine (through a glass darkly) because we bear the image of each in our very selves. Denying either will lead us to be less than we could be. That’s what we seem to be doing. What lies ahead worries me but I know it doesn’t worry God, so I guess if He isn’t worried I shouldn’t worry. And I know that the Parthenon has seen any number of “civilizations” come and go. It doesn’t look worried either.

Had wine that evening up on the rooftop garden of the Attalos, where there was a beautiful view of the Acropolis by moonlight.

Saturday, 10/7/06

Finally found directions to Notis Art Glass in Athens. It was off the bus line and the first time we visited Rome we were completely intimidated at the prospect of visiting anywhere that required navigating local streets, but being old world travelers now we set off without a care in the world. Well, one of us was careless. One of us was much more careful. Between us we make a good traveling pair. The hotel had a free Internet connection and we were able to print off a map. It looked like Notis was within walking distance. They had a phone number too, but there was no way I was going to try to call anyone on the phone. Phones in foreign countries require actually being able to converse without pointing and gesturing and pantomiming. I’m just not up to that yet.

The walk was a piece of cake. Athens’ city streets are just like those of any really large city. That is to say they were filthy. The walls of the buildings were all tagged with graffiti. There were occasional knots of homeless people and beggars. There were mysterious little alleyways, and tiny little gardens tucked into impossibly small spaces. There were window boxes on the windows, chewing gum on the sidewalks, birds twittering in trees, parks with monuments to people I’ve never heard of, and horns beeping on the major thoroughfares. But we were on one of the much more quiet side streets. We passed charming little bakeries and had to stop for samples. The display cases were filled with delicious-looking and beautiful pastries. The smells were heavenly. We had no idea what we were pointing at, but everything we sampled was scrumptious. Have I ever told you how much I love wandering in the places where the people actually live, away from the tourist areas? I really love wandering in the places where people actually live, away from the tourist areas.

Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, with no hint of rain. We walked through an enormous park that seemed more like a botanical garden, stopped at a garden café for a little bit of something, then emerged across the street from the Government House. Saw a wonderful changing of the guard, with very macho military guards wearing little tutus and red shoes with tassels the size of fuzzy car dice. They stood immobile, like the guards outside Buckingham Palace, and like the guards outside Buckingham Palace they were constantly annoyed by tourists wanting to be in photographs with them. Whenever one would become too pesky they would slam the metal-jacketed butt of their rifle on the sidewalk, much like a horse will use its tail to shoo away bothersome flies. This “bam” would also summon the captain of the guard who would lead the offenders away. A bus full of Japanese tourists reminded me of the clouds of gnats that used to worry us almost to death in Savannah. The poor guards would disappear in a swarm until an occasional “bam” would temporarily send them scattering.

The sidewalk cafes were populated by the early morning sidewalk superintendents, who passed judgment on all the women walking by. They used whistles and appreciative catcalls as impromptu score cards. I was very proud to be walking with a definite “10.”

Notis was down a short flight of stairs in what would have been a brownstone basement in New York City. Here it was a chalky color. The owner was chain-smoking in front of very modern, very powerful computer. I introduced myself, showed him a brochure, and we talked shop as best we could with his limited English and my Greek limited to “Good day.” We looked over each other’s websites for 15 or 20 minutes. He doesn’t do very much traditional glass, preferring installations where the pieces of glass are laminated together with modern polymers. That lets him have panels with colors touching each other with no intervening dark line of lead or mortar. It gives you opportunities you can’t have with traditional glass and you can make some truly monumental glass sculptures. We saw a gigantic man striding down one of the main boulevards. He must have been 60 or 70 feet tall and made entirely of huge sheets of plate glass glued together to make an enormous transparent lamination. It was, unfortunately, very dirty and not really transparent any more. Huge pieces of dirty glass don’t look any better than small pieces of dirty glass do. Gargantua badly needs a shower. Maybe a fire-fighting helicopter could bomb him with Windex?

Anyway, one of Notis’ major installations was located at the President’s Hotel, a few miles down the road. Georgia was not thrilled at the prospect of taking a bus even farther outside the little tourist enclave but Greek bus schedules and times are no more confusing than Roman ones, so we survived, though we did get off the bus two or three stops too soon and had to walk a long stretch in the hot Greek sun. We did, however, find the President’s Hotel and the bar where the glass was installed in the ceiling. The lights were not turned on and you really couldn’t see the design well. I asked the bartender if he could turn them on for us. He said he couldn’t, as he didn’t know how to. I showed him one of my business cards, explained that we’d come a very long way to see this particular piece, and gave him a sizeable tip. He somehow found the light switch, figured out how to work it, and we sipped our cocktails under the light of a very modern variation of Van Gogh’s Starry-Starry Night accomplished in laminated glass. Very lovely.

Our European trip was definitely beginning to wind down. Tomorrow we would leave for Milan where we’d catch the plane home to Kentucky, but we’d seen all the things we’d really wanted to see and decided to just ease ourselves gently through our last day of sight-seeing. I had no idea that there was one last gift waiting for us.

(to be continued)

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