Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chronicles of the Visit of Dwight and Sylvia, Part 1

Wednesday, June 03, 2009
In Which our Guests from America Arrive

Sylvia and Dwight landed in Athens in mid-morning! We took a train to Athens and met them at our hotel just after 4:00 in the afternoon. Sylvia was waiting for us in the lobby.

“Syb,” I said, “You do turn up in the most far-flung places!” That was a reference to the fact that this is our fifth trip together. Our first trip, with our two daughters (who were classmates for years) was to London and Paris. Our second was to southern England and Cornwall. Our third was to Hawaii. And somewhere in there we also went to the beach together, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. So much traveling together, and we’re still friends!

“I’m in Greece!” she exclaimed. “I’m in Greece, I’m in Greece!”

After half an hour for freshening up, we all went back to the train station to see if we all four could get tickets on the same train home. The difficulty was that very few seats were available. There’s an election campaign in progress, and all the parties’ operatives and candidates had taken up all the seats between Greece’s two major cities. Plus, it’s going to be Pentecost, a 4-day holiday weekend, when many people travel. We spent nearly two hours, I think, at the train station, waiting in a long line. I was a little put off by this. Sylvia said, “You always used to say, ‘It’s all part of the adventure!’” She’s right; that’s what I always did say. So I decided to adopt that attitude this time, too.

When we had bought tickets for the late train, we struck out to explore Athens.

The first thing we encountered was the Parliament Building, all lit up. There were guards in traditional Greek costume, brown skirts and shirts, red hats with long tassels, shoes with curled-up toes. Sylvia snapped some pictures of them, which I will add to this account sometime next month.

We asked our way to the Plaka, an old and quaint but therefore very touristy section of Athens. We had fun exploring the souvenir shops and even bought a thing or two, which cannot be specified here as they are to be gifts.

The Parthenon was lit up, atop the Acropolis, so we admired it from below and made plans to go up there tomorrow.

Sylvia had never seen an olive tree and was eager to see one, so we pointed out several to her and showed her how to recognize one, promising her she’d see thousands of them before she went home.

She was also amazed to note that the grapevines decorating the arbors were real. She had to touch them to be persuaded they were not fake.

We ate in a picturesque little taverna in the *Plaka district and then went back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep, knowing the next day would be very full and very tiring.

Thursday, June 04, 2009
Acropolis Day!

Of course the Acropolis is the first thing most tourists in Athens want to do, including us. Sylvia is forever making me climb high places. It’s all part of the adventure.

On our way to the Acropolis, we stopped at an impressive building with a bronze plaque by the door that said, “Onassis Foundation,” and had a picture of an ancient ship. We were just deciding that it must be THE Onassis, and Sylvia had just said, “And look at that wonderful door!” when a stranger’s voice said, “I have a model of it in my museum.” And that is how we met the most charming Professor Andreas, a Greek-American professor of economics in Pennsylvania and Athens. We had such a wonderful talk with him about economics and politics that within a very few minutes we all felt a deep kinship of hearts and minds. He gave us his card and we fully intend to keep in touch with him.

Then it was on to that big hill or small mountain, depending upon whether you are going down or up. We went up the back side, as it were, stopping periodically to let some of us (not including Sylvia) get our breath.

It isn’t just a hill crowned by the Parthenon. There’s much more up there and along the way: amphitheatres and other temples and assorted ruins that are either unmarked or we were too tired to bother finding out what they actually were.

The top, too, is a complex of buildings, of which the Parthenon itself is only the main one. Of course the marble statues are gone, Lord Elgin having removed them and taken them to England. The gold and ivory statue of Athena, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, is also gone. But the main temple still stands. You can almost, but not quite, go inside. You can certainly see inside very well.

The views of Athens are, of course, spectacular. We discovered, from one angle, that there are people who live literally in the shadow of the Acropolis.

We also spotted a tall rock where a number of people were gathered, that we thought would make a nice picnic spot. Turns out to have been Mars Hill, where St. Paul stood when he preached to the Athenians. That was the soap-box provided by nature. The Athenians were very interested in what the Apostle had to say, until he got to the part about the Resurrection. That was too, too absurd; they practically laughed him out of town. (And after all the considerable trouble he had taken to get there, too! If you ever see the mountains he had to traverse, you will marvel at the love that prompted his trip.)

Demetrios and Sylvia went back there to stand on the actual spot; Dwight and I, exhausted, were content to have laid eyes upon it. (Anyway, Dwight only learned who St. Paul was a few days later, so naturally his interest was limited.) We sat and waited for them on a little stone wall, beside an English gentleman who had arrived that morning on a cruise ship. He was from “40 miles north of London,” and he taught me how to pronounce “Scousers.” That’s the nickname for the people in the Liverpool area, where we are headed in three weeks. It rhymes with “trousers,” except the middle “s” is pronounced like an “s” and not a “z”.

What else can one say about the Acropolis? It’s all been said a thousand times. Sylvia took bunches of pictures and we came down, which was the only part she found difficult.

We found a taverna and had lunch, making sure our guests got to taste different Greek food each meal.

After lunch, we went looking for the archaeological museum, but it was our good fortune to find the Benaki Museum instead. It didn’t look interesting from the foyer. There were paintings of prominent figures from Greek history on the walls and I really didn’t feel like spending my afternoon looking at paintings, and said so. Sylvia wasn’t keen, either. Dwight, as usual, said nothing, but I don’t think he had any use for the place. Only Demetrios was keen to see it. Finally I said we could at least find out how much it cost and then decide. It was free. So we thought okay, let’s see what’s here, and if it isn’t interesting, we’ll leave and no harm done.

Well, the Benaki is room after room after room of treasures, dating all the way back to more than 6,000 years ago! It’s billed as an art museum, so what you see are figurines, decorated pottery, carved marble statues and bas-reliefs, carved wood, costumes, jewelry, icons, books, fabrics, beadwork, glass, anything decorative. And the word I kept using over and over was “fabulous,” because that was the most apt word. A close second was, “magnificent!”, followed by “awesome”. Every single item was of inestimable value, priceless, a fabulous treasure. I caqn hardly wait to show you pictures from it, but that will have to wait until mid-July.

The stone-age statuettes drove it home to me that those prehistoric people may not have had as much information as we have and never walked on the moon, but they were the same sort of people we are, even all those thousands of years ago.

The gold jewelry was beyond imagining, so intricate, so extravagant. There were filigree diadems and necklaces and earrings and belt buckles, huge and glistening with gems. There were crowns of laurel or oak leaves, with flowers, fashioned from gold beaten as thin as paper, and centuries old.

There were several rooms of Greek costumes, wedding apparel and court dress, with astonishingly elaborate handmade lace, embroidery, needlepoint. Each costume must have taken years to complete, or else have been worked on by several women at once, still for a very long time. Sylvia took two pictures before she was asked not to use the flash, so had to stop.

There were two complete 18th Century reception rooms on display, with amazingly detailed wood carvings and gilt and frescoes and tray ceilings with 5 layers of depth, stuff to rival any castle or palace in Europe.

The sculpture of Greece’s Golden Age (circa 500 BC) also rivals any in the world at any time. It even rivals Michaelangelo. It’s beautiful. It’s minutely detailed. It’s astonishingly lifelike. It is intended to display the beauty of the human form, and does. The ones most fun to look at were the portraits of real people, because they were clearly individuals, with real instead of idealized features.

Sylvia was the only one who saw it all. Demetrios and I never got off the first floor, the Stone Age and Iron Age and Bronze Age and Classical period items; the rest we only heard about from her. She came down the stairs jaw agape, and said, “All I could think was, ‘We almost missed this! Demetrios had to MAKE US see this!’”

We promised ourselves to come back before we left Athens, and then went out for supper and finally back to our hotel rooms to collapse for the night.