Greece (an Odyssey)

In September 2015 we travelled to Greece, partly on holiday, but also to see what membership of the European Union was doing to the country. We spent a few days in Athens, then travelled south for a week through the Peloponnese, finally arriving on the island of Kythira days before the snap election. This was occasioned by the resignation the previous month of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras from the Syriza government, the Coalition of the Radical Left that had been elected that January on an anti-austerity programme. In the July referendum over 61 per cent of the Greek electorate had overwhelmingly voted Oxi’ – ‘No’ to the bailout conditions proposed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank to the government’s debt crisis – for all the good it did them. A week later, after his Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, had resigned in protest, Tsipras reached an agreement with the European authorities for a three-year bailout that imposed even harsher austerity conditions than those rejected by voters. Throughout our journey we asked Greek nationals what they thought about the upcoming election, which Tsipras won on a turnout of just 56.6 per cent, the lowest recorded in a Greek legislative election since the restoration of democracy in 1974. With the results of our own referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union coming to a head, I thought I’d share this text and photographs recording what we saw and heard on our odyssey through the modern Greek tragedy.


Book 1. ‘The Lotus Eaters’

What the Guidebook does not say is:

That when she passes under the Prophylaia and sees the Parthenon for the first time through the web of scaffolding, the articulated crane, the flip-flopping crowds and the otherwise blinding noonday sun, tears come into her eyes.

That by the western walls of the Erectheion, a well-dressed Japanese couple take turns posing before their camera as deliberately and unselfconsciously as if they were at a wedding, but do not see the olive tree around which the temple was built, marking the spot where the goddess Athena won her battle with Poseidon for patronage of the city.

That on the steps that descend into the old town, a busker empties tins of cat food onto the paving stones for dozens of skinny, undrowned kittens, among which a pre-established hierarchy determines who eats first.

That a young man walking past Agios Nikolaos Ragavas repeatedly makes the sign of the cross when a black cat crosses his path.

That at sunset on the Temple of Hephaestos on the western edge of the ruins of the Agora, a man proposes to his girlfriend five minutes before closing time.

That the fifth-century black-figure bowl in the National Archaeological Museum, painted with a scene described in the accompanying plaque as ‘erotic’, is placed in unlit shadow at the rear corner of the vitrine.

That in a side room to the Hellenic galleries, a young man enters abruptly, looks at nothing but the screen of his smart-phone, takes photographs of every sculpture, then walks out.

That on the reverse side of the display of the famous, imperious, aquiline, slightly-Asiatic ‘face of Agamemnon’, an alternative candidate for the role wears the death-mask of a moon-faced, gurning, nameless king of Mycenae.


Book 2. ‘Scylla and Charybdis’

What the Guidebook doesn’t tell you is:

That on the balcony door of the flat in which we are staying, the French-speaking owner has stuck a newspaper clipping of an image from May 1968 showing a suited hand offering a ballot paper to a line of clenched fists beneath the words ‘Voting changes NOTHING, the struggle continues’.

That before the fountain in Syntagma Square, a vendor sells balloons in the shape of cartoon animals to the same crowd that two months ago voted ‘Oxi’.

That the shop-fronts of Athens are fly-postered with unreadable images of women holding hungry children in their arms or with raised fists and placards.

That when we ask her to suggest a restaurant, our host replies: ‘There aren’t many places I can recommend to you. I’m sure you’ll understand that after the “crisis” nothing is the same anymore, and many of us no longer have respect for anything’.

That in Mirovolos restaurant after dark, lesbians kiss at the tables set out in Avdi Square.

That the red-painted walls beyond the green doorways of the brothels on Iasonos Street are hung with posters of blonde-haired Aphrodites forever being born from the waves.

That on Odysseos Street at midnight, a hungry female cat stands watch over her newly-born, already starving kitten.

That the beautiful, derelict, listed houses around the neighbourhood of Metaxourgio are graffitied with hundreds of heroes, gods and monsters of the Modern Greek tragedy.

That on the crumbling wall of a vacant lot piled with debris, spray-painted words say ‘Athens is the new Berlin’.


Book 3. ‘The Cyclops’

What it doesn’t say in the Guidebook is:

That the Peloponnese is a land of spiked scrub and parched rocks clinging to steep-sided ranges, plummeting valleys and sheer gorges, of dry yellow grasses and crown-of-thorns bushes, red and yellow earth and a grey dust that covers everything, of stunted trees with daggers for leaves, where even the stones are split by the hammer of the sun, a hard-boned, harsh-voiced land, where nothing is soft, not even the anvil of the sea, where mountain villages perch on ridges and small, yellow, run-down towns straddle the few river plains, with little or no agriculture beyond the chequered fields of ancient olive groves and knotted, shrunken vines, and a population as skeletal as the flesh-stripped landscape.

That on the steps of the amphitheatre at Epidavros, Chinese girls in pink, blue and yellow silk dresses pose under matching parasols while their sweating fiancées run before them, their heavy, zoom-lensed cameras a whirr of freshly-sliced apertures.

That in the Cafe Rosso in Nafplio, a waitress with a smile like a croupier lifts a new and larger bowl of snacks onto the bar with each new round of Metaxa that you order.


Book 4. ‘The Kingdom of the Dead’

What the Guidebook won’t tell you is:

That on the road out of Argos, the silver leaves of olive trees ripple like green fish swimming through the heat.

That the clay tablets inscribed with a pre-Doric Greek script from around 1,300 B.C., found preserved forever in the houses and storerooms at Mycenae following its destruction by fire, contain lists of women’s or men’s names, cereal rations, wheat distribution, and records of barley, wine and olive stores – writing here being in the service, not of poetry, but of the administration of the palaces of Mycenaean civilisation.

That in the beehive-shaped Treasury of Atreus built into the hillside below the citadel three thousand, five hundred years ago, the echoing dark is disturbed by groups of Croatian students, who pose for selfies under the immense, impossible-to-move, 9-metre long, 118-tonne stone lintel over the entrance, then return to their waiting coaches.

That in even the smallest rural towns, the trees lining the roads are hung with posters bearing the reassuringly-ugly and already-fading mugshots of local candidates in the approaching national election.

That on the road to Argos, the owner of the Electra Restaurant has a son who studied economics at Athens University and is now living in Leyton, East London, where he works in Westfield shopping-centre.

That the hands of the man who sits in the corner of the only taverna open in the village of Stemnitsa are enlarged to the size, colour and usefulness of small spades by a life labouring on Arcadia’s mountains.

That in Greece (or so it appears) no female foot displays an unpainted toenail.


Book 5. ‘The Cattle of the Sun’

What it won’t say in the Guidebook is:

That U.S.-made F16 fighter jets of the Hellenic Air Force fly low through the Lousios gorge where the Prodromon monastery is built high into the eastern cliff face of the ravine, shattering the silence that returns with the wind in the cypresses, the distant rush of the river below, and the ring of a single, clear, heavy bell tied round the neck of a priapic mule in some modern approximation of a medieval torture apparently designed to drive this, the largest eared of God’s creatures, insane.

That on a dirt track that winds slowly off the Arcadian plateau, where a herd of golden-haired goats block the road, a black dog establishes exactly who is in charge before continuing on their way.

That the pristine, newly-tarmaced roads and tunnels that run the length of the Peloponnese are far wider, better-marked, better-laid, and many times more expensive than its scattered inhabitants could possibly need or afford to pay whatever construction company bought the contract from the government.

That beside every outdoor dining table from the squares of Athens to the gardens of Kardamyli, a cat or a dog with a patient stare waits to be thrown food from your plate, then moves on to the next table.


Book 6. ‘The Clashing Rocks’

What the Guidebook will not tell you is:

That on the grid-plan of central Sparta, no roads are marked with lines indicating right-of-way, and every crossroads an occasion for masculine self-assertion.

That in the Peribleptos Monastery at Mystras, a Greek man with a white moustache speaks softly, reverently and expressively, his hands as eloquent as his voice, to a group of mostly elderly Russian women who question him closely about the frescos, while their guide translates simultaneously, undisturbed by the ring-tones of the mobile phones that drag them out into the sunlight.

That in the valley of the Evrotas River, the sun setting behind the Taÿgetos Mountains throws a rim of gold on the blue clouds running down their peaks.

That whether in a city restaurant, small-town taverna or a cafe by the side of the road, the table is spread with a diamond of rough paper, a bottle of water placed on it, and the wine served in narrow tumblers little larger than a shot glass.


Book 7. ‘The Song of the Sirens’

What no Guidebook will ever say is:

That high above Limeni Bay, amid the ruins of the Ottoman castle of Kelefa, on the floor of a cistern illuminated by a crumbling hole in the barrel-vault roof, a large, bright-yellow millipede lies in a pool of green, sun-lit water.

That on the small streets of Areopolis, the capital of the Mani, every cafe, taverna, restaurant and hotel seems to have been waiting for you to arrive every day of its existence.

That on the road north out of Gythio, in the derelict resort of Lakonis, in front of the drained swimming pool, below the bird-shit encrusted stage of the dance hall, across from the cabin blocks named after the Greek gods, where a resort guide for 1998-99 lies on the concrete floor, and the marble steps of the central rotunda are all broken, where seagull feathers have piled up outside the empty well-shafts of the lifts, armrests from the vanished chairs of the conference room lie in the hallway, and the ovens of the orange-flower tiled kitchens sit open and rusted like crematoria, where every floor is covered with the shattered glass of every broken window, where the helicopter-pad looks down on a mile-long beach of turquoise-blue sea and white sand, and the hill-top wind still turns the turbine in the stairwell to the roof, a graffito reads ‘After laughter comes tears’.

That on the northern shore of the Gulf of Lakonikos a shipwrecked fishing boat lies rusting and marooned on the sands.

That on the road travelling south into the town of Molaoi, a goatherd leans on his crook to speak into a mobile phone.

That in the tiny village of Elliniko at dusk, on the highest point on the pass over the ridge of the Lakonia peninsula, old men with white moustaches sit on chairs looking out across the sea 700 metres below.

That from the chic restaurants of Athens to the tavernas on the seafront at Neapoli, the waiters hold their right hand to their heart and incline their head in a bow when you add a tip to the bill.


Book 8. ‘Calypso’

What no Guidebook will tell you is:

That before he shows us around, the man with the keys to our home for the next week offers us a breakfast of doughnuts in cinnamon and honey.

That the vet in Livadi snips the top off the ear of every male cat that passes through his surgery to indicate they’ve been castrated.

That the length of the Peloponnese and the isles beyond, the roads outside the towns are lined with silent factories, deserted warehouses, empty office blocks, and the abandoned holiday homes of half-built resorts for a future that never came.

That each of the 10.7 million Greek nationals’ share of the country’s €376 billion debt is 35,000 Euros, payable by every man, woman, child, infant, grandmother, grandfather, disabled, sick, unemployed and bankrupt member of the European Union that was supposed to make them so wealthy.

That as night falls in the front garden of a seaside home in Agia Pelagia, an Athenian man who has been coming to the island all his life says the election this weekend will change nothing, and the important thing is to learn how to live well – to eat good food, swim in the sea every day, and surround yourself with friends.

That the next morning, a brown spotted lizard has fallen into a glass on the kitchen shelf, and cannot get out.

That in an arched niche in the ruins of a Byzantine church in Agios Dimitrios (the inhabitants of which, attacked by the Turkish pirate Khayrad’din Barbarossa, threw themselves from the city’s walls rather than be sold into slavery) a young, handsome, unbearded, curly-haired, swan-winged, golden-haloed, radiant-faced angel still glows in an Assumption of the Virgin painted onto the wet plaster walls between five and eight hundred years ago.

That on a clear night under the stars of Kythira, the after-glow of the Milky Way recedes across the sky from the north to the south horizons.

That the exits on Greek motorways are signposted ‘Exodus’.

Appendices: The Modern Greek Tragedy

Athens Graffiti

Lakonis Resort

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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