An American in Greece: 'both museums and Mykonos suddenly seem very far off'
As I'm writing this, I am listening to my favorite Athenian radio station play everybody's favorite Donna Summer single, the synthesized grooves between every 'I feel love' peppered with the DJ's running commentary in Greek that's characteristically incomprehensible to me but still comes as a little ray of light at a time of strange and jarring darkness. It may sound a bit loopy and I haven't had my daily hit of tsippouro yet but—hear me out—you might say that disco is America's audio equivalent to the Acropolis. Each one is the product of another era and each is still standing, the former as the vestige of a rare nationwide exuberance and the latter a symbol of one civilization's triumph over a litany of scheming gods and ruthless opponents. As an American in Athens, it's almost reflexive that where some only see columns you look for parallels, too.
Like most travelers, Americans are drawn to destinations to explore things that they don't have at home, to suss out how the reality stacks up to the stereotypes: is the Eiffel Tower really that tall? Is the Parthenon really that cool? (Yes.) For the time being and maybe for the foreseeable future these are rhetorical questions, because both are closed. When circumstances step in and freeze daily life as you know it, no one is ever prepared because no one can be. Like New Yorkers, Athenians tend to live in the moment and the instinct is to go out and graze rather than stay home and stockpile.
The speed with which daily life has ground to a halt in Athens is breathtaking. A couple days before the closure of archaeological sites around the country, I found myself just northwest of the Acropolis at Kerameikos, which I had mistakenly thought of as "only" the site of the ancient ceramic workshops and cemetery. It was indeed both and rather spectacularly at that, but Kerameikos was something in addition to those things and I when I realized what that was it (as well as pair of really badly-fitting shoes) made me stop in my tracks: it was the site of the Dipylon Gate, the chief entrance to the city in times gone by.
I found myself staring at the wide stone foundation of one the four original towers that made up what was at one time the largest city gate the world had ever seen. Walking along the edges of the ancient Athenian fortifications, where Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, it was hard to assess what was more sublime: the now sylvan setting itself or the silence that embraced it like a sweet urban perfume, broken only by the occasional honking of a horn from busy Pireos Avenue beyond the perimeter. Maybe it's a dichotomy Athenians take for granted, ancient ruins and traffic jams, but for a Californian whose idea of ancient culture is 1962 that kind of new-ancient mashup is really kind of extraordinary.
Now of course, as the lights dim on Broadway and the canals of Venice return to their original blue for lack of gondolas plying the surface, and as much as the world falls into a great and uneasy hush, there are no horns honking. There are no people in the cafes because all the cafes and tavernas are shut. It may not have happened like this before but indeed it has happened, in Athens as it almost every great city. The ruins in Kerameikos, in the Agora and elsewhere around the city as throughout Greece and so much of the Mediterranean world are a testament to this, evoking a contrast as one J. Paul Getty Museum curator has said "between what is lost and what is retained, and between civilization and nature."
It may be as good a time as any to ruminate about things like ruins, which at the end of the day, along with visions of beachside bliss in islands like Mykonos are big drivers of tourism to Greece. Visits to both suddenly seem far off, but "what is retained" is already, in a way, instructive. Thucydides records that in his oration Pericles praised not only the Athenian soldier (naturally) but also commended the Athenian citizens themselves for recognizing the need, when it arose, to follow orders for the greater cause. This was an evocation of a resilience within the framework of a democratic system, he said back around 432 B.C., that had already set Athens apart from its neighbors. Along with values like open-mindedness and tolerance, that made it worthwhile going to battle for. Athens had already developed as the most prosperous city-state, with all the sites that are now the ruins of postcard fame and poetic pauses reflecting that. It's s something pretty glorious and Pericles didn't fail to mention that in his speech, either. And all of this, when you think about it, was very modern.
One thing that has impressed me so much as a foreigner in this great capital is how Athenians have recognized the present danger and are doing their best to adapt accordingly. Joylessly to be sure—nobody loves wearing a mask just to enter a grocery store—but resolutely. At anxious moments like this, something pretty epic like the swearing in of Greece's first woman president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, happens with a minimum of fanfare.
From invisible invaders to a serially pesky next-door neighbor called Turkey, Greece like many another country has its hands full right now, and it's all hands on deck—even if it just means skipping all things social and staying home. There's no question this is a crisis. But I also have an unshakable admiration for this nation. I'm proud of what I'm seeing. And while not typically one to wear his heart on his sleeve, I (gulp) feel love.
Are you an American in Greece now? Please heed all relevant directives and check the U.S. Embassy in Athens website for updates and advisories.