On the Sublime Poetry of Greek Food, and Some Other Stuff
Friday, September 2, 2011 11:11:56 PM
I'm going to do something unprecedented in the history of this blog and dedicate an entry to someone. Our host in Athens, a 60-year-old retired Greek journalist named Konstantinos Pappas Papanikolaou (aka Kostas), deserves more than this and our small gift from Montana, but the nature of frugal travel means that the highest honors we can bestow are intangible and online. All the same, we want to thank Kostas for three terrific days in and around Athens and say, in the hopes he one days reads this, that he's still welcome to come to Montana. Here we are:
Before landing in the apartment of our gracious CouchSurfing host (that is where we found Kostas, lucky us), we entered Greece through the Albanian border in the north on the morning of the 28th. Our primary destination was Meteora, the site of six cliff-hanging monasteries, with the secondary goal being a bureau de change that would take Casey's 30,000 Albanian leke ($300) and turn it into useful euros. That dilemma would not be resolved until Athens. But in Meteora we managed ourselves nicely:
As you can see, the landscape did its best to awe, even engendering some hands-up-and-out worship from time to time. We nattered on about the origins of religion and Casey obliged for this shot:
Inside the monasteries was no less jaw-dropping, but more on account of its comparative lack of serenity. You can't really see it in this shot...
...but the walls were painted top to bottom with graphic scenes of early Christian martyrdom. The names of the martyrs in question were less memorable than the methods, so forgive me if I forgot exactly who got his head nailed through the middle, who was broken over a wheel and dragged over knives, who got de-limbed by a hammer and ax, and who was drowned with an anchor around her neck. Early Christians had it rough and now modern Christians get to check it out. Great.
We did not prepare terribly well for our stay in Meteora and ended up sleeping on the ground in a campsite for the hilarious price of nine euros (should've just slept in a monastery for free). It was cold and stupid and cold, though not nearly my worst night on earth (see blog from Nepal, a long time ago), and we were happy to get a move on. At this point we scarcely realized, however, the treat we were in for in Athens.
This is our view from Kostas' place in Gazi, a suburb of Athens about ten minutes from the Acropolis (top left). And by "Kostas' place," I mean the apartment he lent us for free for three days, from which he gladly shuttled us in his Jaguar S-type to some of the best restaurants in the city for scrumptious excursions into plates and plates of stuffed tomatoes, wine-boiled pork, and homemade cherry yogurt. More on that in a second.
On our first morning we skipped off to perform our obligatory staring rituals at the centerpiece of Western civilization...
...but I was not knocked over. It was crowded and hot, but it's the Parthenon, so whatever. More likely I was reminded of the obvious irony that an enormous temple was standing in at the supposed birthplace of democracy. The citizens' assembly building (forgot the Greek name), where most of the only-Greek, only-male, only-rich experiments in democracy took place was way down the hill where nobody went. I've seen stupidly huge temples before and I don't see how Athena can't be freely substituted for Ra, Vishnu, or the Judeo-Islamo-Christian honcho, the only result being a slight increase or decrease in tourist flow. But I took a couple pictures...
...and quit bitching. Then, in an attempt at contextualization, I sat down in the shade of the Parthenon, pulled out my new Kindle and started reading Aristotle's Ethics, but succeeded only in looking like a douche. Moving on...
...at the Museum of Greek Musical Instruments, we listened to old recordings of bouzouki players...
...and out in the protest-free streets (even anarchists get a summer break), we saw some great art. The next day, Kostas bought us tickets to a concert put on by big-time Greek guitarist and folk singer Sokratos Malamas, who lasted--to our fatigue--at least four hours and fifty songs. Greeks go hard...
...but we got some time to sleep in the Jaguar on today's daytrip to Delphi:
In desperate need of a question for the oracle, I forewent the deep stuff about professional success, my love life, and Western civilization and instead asked if I was going to have a good lunch. This is the best way to avoid oracular enigma. Because in Greece, food is life and when Kostas is paying, life is good.
I don't have pictures of the food and I don't have a reliable way of making food pictures not look stupid. What I do have is a plate of tender beef smothered in eggplant right next to me, and a fertile vocabulary. With no tastebud memory to speak of, I can't in good faith put my last few meals above the near-spiritual dinner I had in Istanbul last summer (see the blog from then, duh). But both the Turkish and Greek cuisines put me on new planes, where writing free verse and kissing chefs seemed not only sensible, but pitifully underappreciative. The bite of local fried cheese and wild boar sausage I had today could have made me settle in Greece and enter into a contract of long-term indentured servitude to Kostas on the condition that he pay for just one bite a day. The sip of homegrown red wine I took afterwards made me seriously consider naming a child Dionysos. I also did a lot of unbound groaning, sighing, and doing that thing where you kiss your forefinger and thumb with a flourish.
The red wine takes me to now, sitting and sipping in my underwear on Kostas' back porch. The Acropolis is still lit up and at 2 a.m., the clubs are just getting started. For my last view of "Western culture," (we fly to Cairo tomorrow and then I'm back in Palestine), I suppose I couldn't have picked better. The problem is Lil' Jon and the Parthenon don't mix at all and I still don't have a clear idea, even in its cradle, of where the West is. Our time in Greece has been wonderful for its museum content, no doubt, and its wealth of transhistorical visions ("This is what Pericles SAW!" I must have once exclaimed); the stories I became familiar with as a myth and history geek came to life and their power flooded me. What I did not see, and still doubt, is the thickness of the root that supposedly connects the pederastic Sacred Band of Thebes with the nebulae of ideas, places, and people known today as "the West."
The generosity and eccentricity of our host Kostas (he never drinks water, only Coke Zero) was never in doubt, thank goodness. Again we want to thank him for his hospitality. For the rest of you louts, keep up with us and I'll put up another blog from Cairo.