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Ancient Greece or Modern Greece? > Part I August 13, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Athens 2004 Olympics.

As the world’s spotlight tilts toward Greece, let’s explore a country of contrasts, from its scorching capital to its smallest, windblown island. Here, subway digs uncover thousands of artifacts. An island community is reborn on the web. And polytheists worship the gods of Olympus while billboards feature athletes flogging credit cards and colas.

“Would we moderns, I wondered, ever in our turn achieve the balance and the serene, heroic vision of the ancient Greeks? Every pilgrim, after he disengages himself from this Olympic dream, after he emerges through the museum door and faces the sun of our own day, surely, and with anguish, must pose this basic question to himself.”

Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

It’s almost midnight, and the breeze is gone. It’s five flights of stairs to the rooftop, out into the soft glow of Athens, where Christos has spent two hours doing the meat. The charcoal from the end of the bag won’t catch. Christos, a filmmaker, is lost in a dream. He is stripped to his waist, sitting on the ledge, the Acropolis lit over his shoulder.

Back in April, he wasn’t planning to be anywhere near Athens come August. But as preparations for the Olympics peaked, and despite the exorbitant rent he was told he could squeeze from his apartment next week, the filmmaker in Christos developed a fascination with the stage he’d seen so frantically constructed.

What intrigued him most was the idea that people might actually be in loud, dusty, scorching Athens, in August.

“We’re supposed to be known for our hospitality,” he says, “but you wouldn’t inflict an Athens August on your worst enemy. “In August, we go to the islands.”

This week, as athletes, media and tourists take over the capital in advance of next Friday’s opening ceremonies, they will find a country attempting to sell the world two dreams: 1) the Old Greece, birthplace of the Games, with its iconic ruins and faraway islands, and 2) a jazzed-up 21st-century European player.

Incorporating what “was” into what “is” has long been the country’s great challenge. After the International Olympic Committee’s threat to move the Games elsewhere four years ago, mistaking Greek idleness for indifference, stadiums, highways, trams and an international airport were flung together in the equivalent of one day in Greek years. But the old Greece clings stubbornly to its modern incarnation at every step.

Take the new Syntagma Metro station in Athens’ heart: It plunges three storeys into the earth, every step an homage to its own apotheosis; layers representing the 5,000 years of history unearthed in the dig have been left exposed through gigantic glass windows; artifacts ranging from vases to tombstones to the clay remnants of a sixth-century BC water pipe are woven with unusual elegance around the platforms and escalators. The Athens Metro turned out to be the biggest excavation in history with approximately 32,000 finds registered over four years. “Not another bloody fresco!” Christos would shout, imitating the public’s reaction to yet another delay in construction. “We already have temples.”

But there’s an excitement about what the Olympics are bringing too. “The first week the Metro was running, none of us could take our eyes off our watches,” he says as the subway expanded beyond a solitary line. The advertisements were true. You could suddenly make it from Syntagma to the new Syngrou-Fix station in less than six minutes.

With this excitement, however, there is a Trojan horse-like sense that something hideous is returning, hiding inside what was once among the most important religious festivals of the ancient world. There are still 100,000 or more polytheists sprinkled throughout Greece, who covertly worship the 12 gods of Olympus. But more prominently are the six-storey billboards that tower over Athens, featuring sprinters in blocks and swimmers at the edge of pools, flogging credit cards, colas and cars. The daily Kathimerini reports the latest drug scandal. Soldiers and police drill at all hours in the streets, for every situation that can be dreamed.

Ticket sales were initially slow in Greece. Over coffee, a professional ballerina named Ava struggles to find the words between Greek and English. “These Olympics make me sad. There’s no . . . purity. It’s only about selling now. In August, I will be on my island.”

“What’s your island?” She smiles, as if she is already there. “Karpathos.”

But even going to the islands, the oldest, purest, most untouchable of Greek dreams, has become complicated, fret with the realities of August, 2004. And as travellers who venture into Greece beyond Olympic-riddled Attica this month will find, it is not so seamless as the Syntagma Metro station.

In the islands, it is difficult to find the Greece of Odysseus or Henry Miller or Leonard Cohen who foretold the changes in Bird on a Wire, a ballad about the power lines being erected outside his home in 1960s Hydra. Around that time, John Stathatos sat down and composed a list of islands he felt least likely to succumb to the fate of Mykonos, his home, which even then was being erased by concrete. Kythera won. It is a 30-kilometre-long speck where the Aegean, Mediterranean and Ionian seas converge.

In its kafeneio (small village cafés), they debate the population, which ranges from 1,800 to 3,000. “The population in February,” Stathatos, who curates international exhibitions of Greek photography, likes to remind me, “that’s what counts.” And even though he tells me this as we drink Belgian beer in a crêperie in Kythera, his choice has been good otherwise.

Kythera is Greece at its most withered; lashed by winds that are known under a hundred different local names, its harsh ravines, once terraced with olives and almonds and grape vines, are derelict. Villages are described as “haunted,” crumbling houses are made from the ruins of crumbled houses. The earth is a cracked mirror of its inhabitants’ faces. I shout “Na ta ekatostisees” (may you live to be 100) to a 92 year-old lady. Her eyes flash with the anger of decades of island life, then fill with tears, and she cries “Oh-he, oh-he, oh-he” (no, no, no).

This is the problem with a small island. Nobody wants to live to be 100. I spent a month in Kythera, where I used to go walking with one of those mad Swedish ladies who adore such places, four kilometres up and down each way from Agia Pelagia to a Karavas spring to fill a water bottle. She used to photograph old people in the north, widows in black ankle-length wool dresses, black stockings, black shoes, black scarves, and on the hottest day no less than three layers of (black) sweater. The men have a squareness to their movements. Walking is painful. Working painful. Unless there’s a backgammon board and coffee, nothing looks comfortable. And, in fact, most have died, or gone to Australia, so now she photographs donkeys.

Kythera’s population has fallen steadily since the civil war. (Aphrodite herself had long since left for Cyprus.) “It’s one of the few places on Earth where the diaspora outnumber the resident population by some 40 to one,” James Prineas writes me in an e-mail. Prineas, who now lives in Berlin, spent his 20s, his “second childhood,” on the island, after his first in Sydney, and was devastated by what was vanishing. Last year, he organized a virtual island; part oral history, part scrapbook, part postmodern atlas, all community. It is one of the most extraordinary sites on the Web, inhabited almost entirely by digital neophytes. In many cases, kythera-family.net is its descendants’ first exposure to the Internet, and the only contact they have with their island. In other words, as Kythera dwindles to pseudo-extinction, Kythera is simultaneously being born from its own memories.

I stay with Prineas on my way through Berlin (such is the Greek hospitality that a stranger who stumbles onto your virtual island is invited to your physical home). One night, he comes out of the kitchen after a frustrating day with the same dreamy look I’d seen on Christos’s face. “If I’m sad, I start imagining individual houses in the village. I go from house to house in my mind, and picture the wonderful people who live in them,” he tells me.

“When you are there it is hard to imagine a Greek island being any other way. But then you go to Crete or Chios, 30,000 inhabitants, a university, rich, thriving . . . you realize that Kythera has been left behind.”

In the stiff afternoon heat, when everyone is on siesta, a sledgehammer is being swung relentlessly against the asphalt in Athens. It’s a classic swing, from the back of the thigh all the way to the front; it’s how Hercules would swing a sledgehammer. Neos Kosmos means “new world.” It is the name of the growing “Russian” quarter of Athens where Christos lives, the stop after Syngrou-Fix on the new Metro. On the weekend, you can peruse the Russian street market. Dine at Bulgarian cafés. Watch Polish buskers. Listen to Romanian gypsy music.

The man who swings the sledgehammer with the Herculean force is Albanian. It’s estimated that 1.5 million Albanians now live in Greece. They arrived to untended fields, empty stone houses and an endless need for the type of hard labour Greeks are no longer willing to perform. Without this new working class, the Olympics would probably be in Sydney this month.

My friend Armando came to Greece after the Communist government’s fall, and is still scrambling to get papers. “I work more than 60 hours a week, plus spend hundreds of [euros] trying to keep my papers in order. Now that all the work for the Olympics is done, they’re going to start sending us back.”

As Greece absorbs Eastern Europe’s overflow, it is simultaneously being devoured by the European Union. Despite a history seeking independence from one empire after another, Greeks are astonishingly proud to “be European.” The euro, which replaced the drachma in 2002, has been a catastrophe. Overnight, for a nation that invented island-hopping, travelling within the country became prohibitively expensive and prices for modest accommodation has increased.

“We never used to think about prices when we went out to the islands,” Christos says, “but in the last two years, it seems like all the places that were 35 are now 55. There’s something about 55.”

The British can still afford to go to the islands. The arrival boards in Iraklion and Hania are filled with charter flights from odd English-sounding airports. Buses wait to take them to places like Malia on the island of Crete, where Irish bartenders pour cheap booze down their throats, they vomit, they shag, they engage in vague acts of hooliganism. (I’m not sure if this qualifies as Dionysian.)

In Malia, the Cretan resistance to the latest occupation has long black hair and beautiful olive skin, her every gesture a certainty. “You would not believe the things, the things! they do.” There is a poster in every room. Under the heading “useful information for your accommodation” is a list of 25 items, a broken door costs 400 euros, for example; chairs are 75 each, 50 for a lost key, 45 a toilet seat. Discharging play foam runs from 100 to 400.

“They sell these packages in Britain, and tell them they can do anything in Malia. This is my village,” she says. Until she says this, I had not realized that Malia had ever been a village.

I watch a man watching Greece, a 100-to-1 shot, play Russia on TV in a taverna in Rhodes Town. They lose; he is dejected. But minutes later, the street erupts outside, Spain has lost! In the convoluted rules of round-robins, Greece is into the next round. Eventually, and nobody is more shocked by this than Greeks, they are the European champions. Only in a medieval city where the Colossus once existed do you win by losing.

People keep telling me that “it’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to us.” Rediscovering national pride weeks before your coming out party could work in several ways. I imagine Christos, dreamy one moment, larger than life the next, draped in a flag, leading the Athens crowd, Nikos Kazantzakis’s serene heroic vision incarnate.

Kazantzakis, Greece’s great writer, carried a clump of dirt in his pocket, which he squeezed for comfort on his many travels. If you visit the Kazantzakis museum in Myrtia, you will learn that this dirt from his island Crete was moulded by blood, tears, sweat and, likely, some lint. The crucible of all Greece is in this pocket, it is in the dreamy look on the roof, the island on-line, a kitchen in Berlin, the eyes of a wild woman from Malia. It is an evolving shape composed of old matter.

For good or bad, the Games they don’t even want next week will be theirs. There will be surly widows in black and taxi drivers on the gouge. Lamb burnt on rooftops. Old men in kafeneia oblivious to their existence. There will be an Albanian putting the finishing touches on a podium moments before a national anthem is played. And afterward, some of them will go to the islands.

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