Greek Diary I

Greek Diary I by • January 31, 2010 • Printer-friendly

Greece is an ancient land but a young country, younger even than the United States, whose citizens have grown old, generation after generation, bragging about the youthfulness of their democracy.   Here in Greece, as Toynbee pointed out in one of his last books, the multiple burdens of the past weigh down on every generation.  Archaic and classical Greeks were as haunted by Homer’s Mycenaean warriors as later Greeks were haunted by Euripides and Plato, and Greeks, under Ottoman oppression or  the usually less severe Venetian rule, were obsessed with the glories of Constantinople, an obsession that gave birth to the “Great Idea” that emboldened Greece to attempt to take back Ionia.  Uneducated Greeks—and their educational system is in a race to the American bottom with other EU state systems—still have some intuition that once upon a time there were great men like Miltiades, the victor at Marathon, or Constantine Dragases, the last East-Roman emperor, who is commemorated in a  statue in front of the garish new cathedral in Athens.

The flights—United to Munich, Aegean Air/Lufthansa to Athens—were uneventful, though inevitably unpleasant.  Our son the chief had made us Panini, which liberated us from airline food, though we still had to purchase the rotten and overpriced wine United Airlines inflicts on it is passengers.   We have called him “the chief,” ever since a waitress in Quebec, who found out he had just graduated from the good CIA, said: “Then like my boss Jan, you are a chief.”  We almost missed our connection:  We made our reservation long before  an incompetent Nigerian failed to blow up an airplane over Detroit, and the new procedures ate up all the time allotted for the transfer, and the misinformation give us by Lufthansa information cost us another 10 minutes, as we waited in the baggage check-in line instead of proceeding directly  to the G gates transfer desk. I don’t blame the Germans or even entirely unqualified tough girl who heads up homeland security.  I blame Nigeria, both its  Muslims and its government that will never stand up to the Islamic terrorists who dominate much of the country.

I always forget how much I hate to travel.  Even before a nasty convergence  of government and terrorism conspired to make international travel revolting to the sensibilities of any decent person not ready to don a hairshirt,  the rigmarole of getting from here to there-no matter how lovely the there and how Rockfordian the here—has been, at least for me, a dreadful experience.  The annoyances are as petty as the cramped seats in an airplane’s steerage section or the insulting  behavior of TSA flunkeys or the more aggravated grievances of missed planes or seat companions with cats in tow or a cabin filled with subcontinental passengers who refuse to shut their spoiled children up.  Whatever happens, say and do nothing.  You are a prisoner.

But if I can endure these annoyances for the pleasure of roaming carefree through pleasant places, I cannot imagine anyone enduring the ultimate horror of mass travel: the Princess cruise or the group tour.  How in the world did a man with such a temperament decide to take groups to Europe?

The simple explanation is that I have the fatal weakness of many former teachers: Not content with understanding something or having a good time, I am haunted by the knowledge that there are many people, more or less like me, who have not happened to go where I have gone or learned what I have learned along the way.  So the Convivium was born, some ten years ago, when I decided to put together a program in northern Italy, a tour for anti-tourists, a group program for people who refuse to be herd animals.

Oh well, we landed in Athens on time and took the taxi to the Acropolis Select, not a great hotel but one that familiarity has made convenient.  We have an unspectacular first dinner at nearby Vitro, fried kephtedes, Choriatike salata, and souvlaki with a decent though uninteresting Moschophilerou (a not very dry but fruity and spicey white from the Peloponnese).  We could have ordered from the same menu in Chicago, but Chicago is not Athens.  Vitro is, admittedly, aimed at tourists, but the people are nice, and they vaguely remember me from time to time.  The lady playing the piano is pleasant-looking, with a sweet smile, and plays Chopin if you ask her.  We accuse her of making goo-goo eyes at the chief, a charge he hotly denies.

Next morning I discover that my plan to check out the Kerameikos Cemetry is impossible—closed on Monday—and we walk to the Stadium of Herodes Atticus and up to Kolonaki.  It is not terribly exciting, but it is good to get our feet on the ground and begin recovering a sense of where things are.  That evening, we go out at 9 to “Ideal” to have dinner with friends.  Nikos picked the place because it is a favorite haunt of out-of-town politicians.  It is good Greek food of the kind that is not served in Chicago’s Greek Town or in the tourist-ridden tavernas of  the Plaka.  Chief gets the last lavraki (bass), and I settle for tsipoura (gilthead brim), which I am enjoying until I taste the lavraki.  Greece is finished, my friends tell me, but Greeks are a skeptical lot, who can have a good time on the road to ruin.

The first afternoon of the program begins with an initial “orientation walk” up through the Plaka to the Tower of the Winds and Hadrian’s Library, followed by an uninspiring group meal at “Vitro” near our hotel.  When our friend Angela Box requests (demands?) some words on Greek religion, I sketch out my theory of the two poles of ancient life in the polis.  These poles are symbolized by the Acropolis and the Agora.  In the Acropolis, Athenians come together with few distinctions to worship the Athena who protects the entire commonwealth.  The Athenians were, as St. Paul noted on his famous visit to Athens, a deeply religious, not to say superstitious people.  Religion informed every aspect of their lives including their plays and their philosophy.  Far from being the enlightened liberals portrayed by historians since George Grote, they were religious to a point we can scarcely conceive.  In the Panathenaic procession, knights and hoplites, merchants and great landowners, men and women walked together, in the presence of their gods, in an expression of community solidarity, while down below in the Agora, they bought and sold, competed for prizes in games, and exchanged political ideas.

Persia’s Great King did not understand the institutions of a free people and he sarcastically commented on the agoras of Greeks who dared to help the Ionians when they rose up against his empire: “‘I have never feared men who have a place set apart in the middle of their city where they lie and deceive each other. If I keep my health, the Hellenes will have their own sufferings to worry about, not those of the Ionians.’ This threat he uttered against all Hellenes because they have agoras and buy and sell there; for the Persians themselves do not use agoras, nor do they have any.”

The polis is the product of a tension between these two poles, which respectively can be described as “community” and “society”—society being an association of competing comrades like an army or football team.  So long as their separate spheres are maintained, all is well.  But if the pole of community and love invades too much the sphere of society, the result is theocracy or communism, and when the pole of competition takes over community, the result is libertarian capitalism.  Sophocles hints at this in the Antigone’s “Ode on Man,” where the chorus tells us that we and our city will thrive so long as the divine laws are interwoven with human justice.  (This is a monstrous paraphrase.)  And Aeschylus is on the same tack when the Erinyues/Furies are not expelled from Athens but, instead, made resident aliens marching in the Panathenaia.

Nearly every, perhaps every misguided political revolution makes one or the other mistake, elevating the communal, familial, and religious above the competitive and political or vice versa.  But that is too big a topic for this diary.  More to come.

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