Ambling Through Athens

Street art in Athens

Street art in Athens

“Every activity in itself is neither right nor wrong. Take our present activity: we could be drinking or singing or discussing. None of these is right in itself; the character of the activity depends on the way it is done. If it is done rightly and properly, it is right; if it is not done properly, it is wrong.” -Plato, The Symposium

A few distinct sensations hit me during the first couple of hours in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, philosophy and everything I think is right with our civilization.

The first was to become an ever-present companion as we trekked around the city for the next 3 days: the slight whiff of cat piss, damp and misty.

After climbing up to the Acropolis, I rest on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city.

After climbing up to the Acropolis, I rest on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city. Typically, a spirit dog is sitting next to me, just out of the shot.

Even upon our return to Athens, after spending a few days on one of the islands, the smell greeted us like an old friend, and we welcomed it; the hundreds of stray cats and dogs inhabiting the city became, well, a spirit guide of sorts.

The other sensation was the feeling of intentional, almost aggressive abandonment. The news of Greece’s economic crisis has been reported on for years, so I expected abandoned shops and graffiti. However, I was surprised by the number of shops that had been shut down – with military-strength apocalypse steel shutters. The message was clear: WE ARE NOT HERE.

It made our wandering slightly questionable, so I made sure to follow the smell of cat piss, avoiding streets where the urine smelled more human.

But despite this, the most dominant sensation I encountered was the indomitable spirit of the Greeks. They know how to welcome a stranger, a conversation, a song, a meal. Upon meeting someone for the first time, they never asked me trivial questions but immediately got to the meat of the matter.

Where do you come from? Why did you leave California to live in England? Your husband is British? Do you want a Greek one? My son is very handsome. Do you want a cigarette? You didn’t finish everything on your plate. Here is some free dessert. You’ve had too much to eat? Relax, take your time. You finish your plate. Ok?

I won’t even attempt to cover the vast history of Athens. This is a blog dedicated to loving the past, but it’s not a historical blog. Instead, I’m going to write about the spirit of the city today that I encountered as I wandered (sometimes aimlessly) through it, and how I see that spirit rooted in the past of the polis.

The art of eating

Finish your plate, ok?

Finish your plate, ok?

As Plato wrote in The Symposium, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things.

When it comes to dining, the right way is to spend 4 or 5 hours with your friends or a companion, nibbling slowly, savoring the flavors and conversation. When all is said and done, you will have consumed vast amounts of food and alcohol, but you will have done it slowly and with intention.

The wrong way is to spend 2 hours on your meal and to leave anything – even the smallest crumb – on your plate.

We learned this the hard way and eventually gave in to the inevitable gout and diabetes we would surely incur during our week in Greece, and simply forced ourselves to eat every last morsel on our plates, for fear of being shamed by the loving waitress who proudly brought out free desserts when we were sure we would explode.

One meal in particular – a lovely whole grilled fish – came with sides. And by sides, I mean two waiters who lovingly spooned a garlic lemon sauce over my fish at two different points as I was eating it.

The Erechtheion, with the Porch of the Caryatids.

The Erechtheion, with the Porch of the Caryatids.

The best thing about this experience was that they could have simply poured the sauce over the fish, but they patiently scooped it out of the serving bowl with the tiniest spoon I have ever seen. One spoonful at a time. This was the right way to do it.

But it wasn’t just about the food, I found. It’s about the hospitality and the presentation. And soft hands, very soft hands. I’m not sure what this was about, but I increasingly discovered that older men – over 60 with comb-overs – who had attained a certain level of success in their lives seemed to have the softest hands I had ever touched. I’m talking softer than a baby’s bottom.

How did they achieve this?

The art of building

To find out, I climbed up to the Acropolis, where the Parthenon, temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion stand. Maybe Athena blessed them with such soft hands, I thought.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Though there isn’t just one acropolis in Greece, the one in Athens is known as the definitive Acropolis. Fused of two Greek words – akron, meaning edge, and polis, meaning city – the Acropolis is appropriately perched on a high outcrop at the edge of the urban sprawl.

It was largely used as a temple and monument, but the spectacular Odeon of Herodes Atticus perched on its side and the placement of the Theatre of Dionysus nearby shows ancient Athenians had their priorities straight.

Politicians would have met in the Agora – or open space – just down the hill. A spirit dog, who greeted me at the gates and guided me through the ruins of Hadrian’s Library nearby, likes to pee on those ruins. They must be attractive territory to a street dog with mange.

As I stood in the middle of the ruins, which were over 2,000 years old, I imagined what life would have been like back then; what the people were wearing, what they were thinking, what was important. I walked over the very tiles they used to traverse, and I thought: what would they think if they could be here today?

Spirit Dog is oh so wise in Hadrian's Library.

Spirit Dog is oh so wise in Hadrian’s Library.

I know it’s going to sound strange, but my spirit dog looked at me in the most peculiar way in that moment – thus earning his name as “Spirit Dog” – with a look in his eye that said: “Yes, I understand how you feel. I feel the spirit of the past as well.”

And then – I kid you not – he lifted his leg and unloaded the longest stream of pee I have ever seen on a 2,000-year-old stone. That was the right way to do it.

The art of gathering

But it’s the way the culture gathers – both then and now – that has stayed with me.

The sense of community, whether it be in an agora, a fish market, a restaurant or a street corner, is of the utmost importance in Athens. Everyone is welcome and everyone belongs.

Indeed, even the street animals, no matter how shabby, were known and cared for by the waiters.

Life happens out in the streets, not just in the home, and experiences are shared. Perhaps this tenet of Greek culture is what gave birth to democracy. Everyone matters, everyone should have their say.

In the world of modern politics and norms, where cutthroat individualism dominates, it was nice to see a sense of community rooted in these customs from the past. It’s the right way to do it, I believe.

Residents of the city mingle in a bustling open market called Monastraki.

Residents of the city mingle in a bustling open market called Monastiraki, perched under the imposing Acropolis in the background.

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