14. August 2004 · Comments Off on Attic Marathon · Categories: European Disunion

So it is that the Athens Olympics opened last night, and Oh, I am so glad that I am not there. I hope for the best for everyone involved, but am prepared for the worst; bombs and gunmen and terrorists oh my. I have thin hopes for the Greek law enforcement authorities keeping a lock on any planned mayhem for the next fortnight; after, all I have seen them direct traffic. I also saw them in action in the early 1980ies, when the N-17 gang seemingly operated at will, and various Palestinian terrorists had the run of the country and no hesitation— as the saying goes— about crapping in their own mess-kit. Greece to me is a schizophrenic country, a place that I loved beyond all rational reasoning, and a place that I looked every day over my shoulder and checked the underside of my car for explosive devices; my daughter insists that that is one of her earliest memories. She waits on the stoop of the door to the apartment building at the corner of Knossou and Delphon, Ano Glyphada, and watches me solemnly kneel down and look underneath the chassis of the VEV, looking for trailing wires and strange and unexplained devices.

If I could, though, there are places I would go back to; a time before genocide against Americans was only enforced against those few of us who wore a uniform, or worked for the State Department, the places that I frequented when I lived in Athens, and thought myself lucky to have the opportunity to do so.
Of course, I would not go to any of the Olympic events, were I magically transferred to Greece this weekend; the unatheletic nerd that I am automatically forbids any interest in that sort of thing; besides, I don’t like crowds, especially hot, sweaty crowds, driven into a tightly controlled venue.

Given unfettered freedom of movement this weekend, I would go to the Kassiriani Monastery, first, a Byzantine monument high on the piney mountaintop overlooking Athens— from there the Akropolis looks like a miniature carved from ivory, the hillside below the monastic complex is thick with rosemary and lavender, delirious with bees. On a higher peak above the Kassiriani is a concrete platform, a brutally modern bit of infrastructure left over from the Second World War, an emplacement for German anti-aircraft guns. Not visible is a cave in the slope of the hill, dedicated to the Greek pantheon, but with evidence of pre-historic occupation; the entire sweep of human history, visible and manifest in a small space.
Penny and Georgios, my neighbors, take a collection of plastic jugs with them, when they visit the Kassiriani; there is a spring-fed fountain on the grounds— the water is pure and sweet-tasting; they fill their motley collection of jugs and bring it back to their house in Ano Glyphada. Water from the mountains, uncorrupted by such things as pipes, pumps and faucets. (There is another such spring above the shrine of Apollo at Delphi; clear spring water flowing out of the mountain into a crumbling stone basin, half sheltered by gnarled little trees; to drink of this fountain is to acquire the gift of poetry, or so it is believed. Or at least, remarked a skeptical Danish tourist when I was there, a howling case of dysentery.)

Having gone in that direction, roughly north-east from metropolitan Athens, I would head over the mountain backbone of the Attic peninsula towards Nea Makri and Marathon, first on a modern highway that looked eerily familiar; deep cuts into chaparral covered hillsides. We took a picnic lunch the first time we ventured in that direction, but half our sandwiches only made as far as a scenic pull-out on the mountainside, with a view of the folded dark-green hills for miles. There was no one else at the overlook but us, and the VEV on a weekday midmorning, only a pathetically skinny dog. The dog came up and looked at us, cringing at any sudden move, but begging in that silent way that dogs have. We could not see a house anywhere near, so we laid two ham on brown bread sandwiches on the dusty ground and drove away as the dog devoured them avidly. We ate the rest of our lunch—the remaining sandwiches and a small bag of fresh cherries, sitting on a marble bench under the tall monuments and cypress trees at the site of the Marathon battle, listening to the spring birdsong. We were the only people in the place; incredible to think there had ever been a battle here, from which fleet-footed Phedippides had run all the way to Athens bearing the news of Miltiades’ victory over the Persians—all along the route we had come by car— to bring news of victory. Greece was so stiff with history, cheek by jowl and elbow to elbow with it, thirty centuries worth. To the west of Athens, in the other direction, Leonides and his 300 Spartans made a last stand against Xerxes and the Persians again in the narrow pass at Thermopylae. The Persian envoy had given Leonides a chance to surrender, and threatened so many arrows that their volleys would block out the sun, and Leonides was reported in the histories to have defiantly replied, “Very well, then, we’ll fight in the shade.”

Almost too much history; sometimes the only way to live with it is to take a break and go to the beach. The long white-sand beach curved in a gentle arc between Marathon and Nea Makri, and the water was clear and green, and on this early summer day the light breeze hardly kicked up any surf at all. The beach sloped so gently, it was as shallow as a swimming pool for a long way out, perfect for babies and small children— who in Greece (and Europe generally) did not have to wear swimsuits, and frolicked like pink tadpoles in the mild shallows.

Oh, where we would go, if we were in Athens this weekend, and wanted to avoid the crowds: perhaps down the coast road to the temple to Posidon at Sunion, at the very tip of the peninsula; another place almost always nearly deserted when we went there; the worn marble colonnade on a high scrub-brush covered knoll overlooking the sea— which really is as dark as wine. In classical times, sailors rounding the peninsula and coming up into the Saronic Gulf on a clear day, could see the bright gold glint that was the sun on the spear of the statue of Athena that stood outside her shrine on the Parthenon hill. Dark red corn poppies grew among the tumbled stones and between the cracks of the paving around the temple: until quite recent times sailors and travelers could bribe the attendant to look the other way and carve their name onto the stones. Lord Byron was supposed to have done so, at any rate: I have a picture still of some names on the foot of one of the crumbling columns: “Geo. Longden” “J.S. Barton, London” “R. Laing, Aberdeen 1885” “ C.J. Young, NYC 1885” “ J. Davis —-pool, 1893″
”, a jumble of intials, names pecked out in Cyrillic, dates, 1902, and some long scratches that may merely be wear and tear.

We had a splendid salad, in a little one-room restaurant, near Sunion, nothing but the plain village salad; chopped tomatoes oozing their own sweet juice, cucumber slices, topped with a creamy-salt slab of feta, and a dribble of rich green olive oil over all… but the tomato, ah, that luscious perfect tomato. I had friends there that swore they had never liked tomatoes, but that was before they came to Greece and tasted real tomatoes. The tomato in this salad was fresh, straight off the vine and still warm from the sunshine; I suspect the waitress took our order, ran out the back door to pick it, and there it was… a perfect tomato.

(to be continued)

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