Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hellenic Anarchy

Athens, Greece

The grand and well-known history of Athens is just about the only thing that distinguished it from any other Mediterranean city. Besides an usually large amount of graffiti, the city was clean and orderly. People were friendly and well mannered. Much of the infrastructure was gleamingly new. I saw no direct evidence of the kind of urban crime we are used to the in the US. There was nothing notably bad about the place. The problem was that there was nothing notably different. Most buildings were too new to be distinctive and those that were old enough to be of interest were packed into an area distractingly overrun with tourism. Modern buildings were too low-rise and too spread out to form a skyline and there was really no definite city center. There was some relief to the landscape - two monument capped hills - and Athens is a coastal city, but the waterfront was either too far or too undeveloped to attract the attention of a casual visitor and the land features were unremarkable except as pedestals for ancient sites.

I reckon the old bits wee worth the effort, though. Top of the list was of course The Acropolis - a building so iconic that it seemed certain to disappoint. Once again my anticipation of over-hyping was wrong. I now at last believe that ancient monuments become world famous ancient monuments not because of clever marketing but because of merit. The Acropolis was much bigger than it looks on TV and was very impressive. The ongoing restoration can only make it more so. When we visited, some structures were in the process of being returned to their condition prior to the explosion of a Turkish ammunition store in the 15th century. The collection inside the onsite museum are not nearly as good as the views from along the outer walls of the once-fortified hill. Topping that in turn is the archaeological museum across town. The most interesting parts were those dealing with history well before the Golden Age - especially the exhibits from the Cyladian Islands. It is not every day that you find a refreshingly novel artistic style to admire.

During our time in town, we also took in a few parks, a couple of restaurants, many cafes, and at least one notable bar - the normal background experiences to any urban holiday - but in this case there was a notably unusual addition: sometimes violent political protest. In Europe, there is a traditional festival called May Day spread over the land by the ancient Vikings. To commemorate the exploits of everyone's favorite horned-chapeau clad raiders, university kids from London to Athens and Sicily to Oslo take a break from dialectic this and postmodern that to smash up a few Starbucks outlets. We were extra lucky in that May day fell during the same week that Athens was hosting the European Social Forum. The ESF was superficially a talking shop for bearded but meek vegan-types out to change the world. On the last day, it showed its true colors and became a small but enthusiastic running street battle with the police. We personally witnessed a few "Americans are Nazis"-themed gatherings but preferred to watch the more confrontational bits on TV from the safety of our hotel.

So, Athens did manage to distinguish itself in my memory, but not for anything intrinsic about the city itself - unless enthusiastic protest is a characteristic of local society. That would certainly explain all of the graffiti.


Blogger jason said...

Athens was remarkably forgettable. Even the Acropolis doesn't really stick in my mind.

5/11/2006 11:37 AM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's because Jason has no culture. A fucking manicure over the Empire State?!

5/11/2006 4:50 PM gmt

Blogger jason said...

It wasn't just a manicure; it was a vietnamese manicure. I was bein' international an' shit.

5/12/2006 3:43 PM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps he was expecting Yanni to be there...

5/14/2006 4:23 PM gmt


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