Athens has been on my mind. Recently I came into possession of a large number of Penguin Classics. Sometimes walking down the halls at a university you’ll find a table piled high with old books. A retiring academic is usually the culprit. Most of the time stopping to look isn’t worth your while. Old copies of textbooks that have long been revised sit alongside proceedings from obscure conferences. But every now and then you hit the mother lode.
My new books are mostly the works of ancient Greeks and Romans: Herodotus’ The Histories; the Old Comedy of Aristophanes; Plato’s Republic (the sole book that was not a Penguin Classic, but a Wordsworth) and two dialogues, Protagoras and Meno; and, for the more sage of you, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. As an aside, there were also Dickens’ Bleak House, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. A reader of film novelizations this person was not.
With the exception of Herodotus, I hadn’t read many of these works. The Histories was the first classic text we studied in Year 12 (senior year) Ancient History. My friend Luke turned his copy into a flip book by drawing a little cartoon on the corner of each page. If memory serves, in his cartoon a football player marks the ball and then takes a run up to kick it for goal; but ends up falling over. Someone may have punched the football player. There was a lot going on. After all, The Histories is more than 600 pages.
When I started re-reading parts of The Histories (our teacher told us it wasn’t the kind of thing you read chronologically), some of it came back fairly immediately. It is a fantastic read. I remembered the Persian invasion of Greece led by Xerxes and, in particular, the Battle of Thermopylae. This is where Leonidas the Spartan, leading the forces of the city-states against the invasion, “fell, having fought most gallantly”. Herodotus claims to have learnt the names of 300 Spartans who perished with him. Our teacher did tell us that Herodotus could be prone to exaggeration. Other parts of The Histories that I came across were, frankly, Greek. It’s sad how much you forget from high school. That last year, in particular, is when you (or at least I) lived and breathed the studied works.
Plutarch, one of my favourite historians, wasn’t amongst the newly-acquired books. Plutarch originally presented his essays on notable Greeks and Romans in pairs: he’d pair a Greek and Roman life, write separate biographies for each, and then compare the two. These days the Greek and Roman lives are usually studied separately and in different volumes. Having a box of works written by Greek historians without Plutarch would be like the time all but one of the original Brady kids appeared in A Very Brady Christmas. In order to make sure I didn’t spend another family Christmas wondering where Cindy was – and why on earth Marcia ended up with Wally Logan – I decided to go buy The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, a translation by Ian Scott-Kilvert that I used in high school. All these years later, the book is sold with the same cover.
Plutarch always held sway with me. This historian’s focus on what his subjects achieved or the ignominy of their time in power struck a chord when I was very interested in the ways that notable people made their mark on the world; for better and for worse. My preoccupation was probably the result of a combination of factors. The first was being in that transitional time at the end of high school when issues of who you want to become as an adult are particularly pertinent. Few things made me think about that as much as literature. Other seminal events of senior year, such as the moment when the Phys Ed teacher shows you how to put on a condom on a banana, didn’t have much of an impact on me. In any event, my English teacher was given that task. I’m just glad he had a banana and not a copy of, say, The Great Gatsby. The second was, through no coincidence of course, the works teachers chose for class texts that dealt with these very issues. In English we started the year with Death of a Salesman. I really liked…actually I’m going to level with you. I know it’s a classic. I know it’s amazing. But fuck, it’s depressing.
I was rummaging a couple of months back through some boxes and found an old story that I had written for a competition from final year high school. I came in second place; first was a poet. It’s interesting how many friends I have this in common with. We’re like the Buzz Aldrin of the spaced-out set. In the piece, I contrast people who seem destined “to ride the pageants or sit at the head of the triumphs through life”, “others [who] act to give meaning to their lives, whether statesman, politician, martyr, civil or religious rights activist” and, finally, “those who stay at the party too long, get too inebriated from it all, and stain a reputation – whether Plutrach’s ‘butchers’ or those whose volts open wide after generations, revealing filed and forgotten atrocities”.
Man, was I laying it on a bit thick. That might make me sound like a very serious young man, probably with a pair of sensible glasses. But truth be told, at that time I still had perfect vision and my expectations for living a moral or impactful life were much more modest. I wanted a Calvin Klein Jeans t-shirt and to find a café where I could make friends with the staff and a core group of regulars. I wanted the regulars to have names like Corrine. I did find such a place and started to get to know the staff. However, that coffee shop didn’t last the turn of the millennium. It’s now a Wok-in-a-Box.
A few days after buying The Rise of Fall of Athens I had the urge to start looking over past holiday photos. I made it to Athens a few years after high school. Greece was my first trip outside of Australia, and Athens the first city I ever visited (at least initially) on my own. I guess it’s my first love. I had been to Sydney, Melbourne, and the Gold Coast before Athens and, by that reasoning, one of those should take that spot. But that was only interstate travel. Not true love. Kind of like kissing a cousin, I’d imagine.
Was Athens so appealing because I had studied it those few years before? Perhaps, but without the Romans Plutarch wouldn’t have had his Parallel Lives. In school, we did a semester each of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. I loved them both. I have fond memories of reading Roman texts like Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and Tacitus’ The Annals of Imperial Rome. Yes, it’s true; I’m admitting that I like Annals. I think that I’ve just regressed to the kind of things we’d say to each other in high school. Indeed, while Athens and Rome were my fist two stops on my European adventure, I hardly could have wanted for historical (and just generally great) cities during that entire trip: Venice, Naples (which kind of scared the shit out of us), Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London.
Well, why Athens then? It’s not really hard to pinpoint it when I remember opening my hotel window and seeing clear to the Acropolis. Athens was exactly what I needed at the time. I had experienced some losses shortly before leaving for Greece. The sun did me good, I could talk with my friend Claire into the late hours (not that early, all the walking made me tired), and being in an ancient city gave me a different perspective. The whole time I had Gustave Flaubert in my head, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”.
My time in Athens was also much longer than those subsequent cities on the itinerary. I’m usually at my best traveling when I’ve got time to get used to a place. I like the feeling when you return to your hotel room in the afternoon and it feels a little like home. The whole reason I was in Europe in the first place was an international psychology conference in Athens. They even put me up in the Hilton Athens. I realized within the first couple of days that time at a conference is often incidental to the world travel of its delegates. My main memories of the conference sessions are when the person who chaired a session decided he’d be the best person to answer any questions from the audience, even if they were directed at the speakers. I also saw Charles D. Spielberger – the creator of perhaps the most-utilized anger scales in psychology – in an elevator at the Divani Caravel Hotel. I didn’t stop to introduce myself because I’d heard they were serving drinks on the rooftop bar; a wasted opportunity of my youth. Luckily, it was the best (and only) Chios Mastiha I’d ever tasted.
The schedule of the conference did leave me with time to explore the city with Claire, who is the daughter of two of my (now former) work colleagues and who tagged along with her parents. The days involved lots of walking in the hot July summer of Athens. The pace, however, was leisurely. One morning we visited the Athens War Museum, sat in the National Gardens of Athens and watched the goats and quails, and then ogled the guards outside the Greek Parliament. I should mention that these are all on the same avenue: Vasilissis Sofias.
An afternoon was spent walking the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis must have been a day all to itself. Usually when I see a relic, tall building, or even a Columbine lolly wrapper on the floor while traveling I just assume that it must be important. In Greece, that relic was Hadrian’s Arch, the tall building Athens Towers, and that Columbine wrapper because you’re an uncouth tourist with a hole in his pocket. Athens really is that city that has the right to say, “I’m kind of a big deal”.
Walks back to the hotel usually involved stopping for a soft drink at one of the many newspaper stands that lined the streets. Dinners were in the open-air restaurants of the Plaka or restaurants lining a public park where children played soccer and street hawkers placed religious icons on your table, leaving them there for a minute to see if you’d touch and, therefore, buy them.
Maybe my love of Athens also had something to do with the fact that sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know. I was pretty naïve. I’d sit at a café almost every morning called Gush with my phone and wallet sitting in full view on the table while I read a paper and had a frappé and a sandwich with potato chips on the side. Nothing happened to me, so maybe my complete nonchalance deterred pickpockets and subway grinders. Or maybe I had a guardian angel in a gruff, smoking doorman named Baslikike. One night I asked him how I could get to the nightclubs in Piraeus that I’d heard about. He told me to go to a restaurant, get myself an ouzo, and then to go back to my room.
After my time in Athens, arriving in Rome was a bit of a rude awakening. No sooner had Carlo (my travel buddy for the rest of the trip) and I disembarked from a flight where I was sure we’d have to stick our jumpers out of the windows to help the plane land, a rather strapping Spanish man approached us. He told us the train to the city was not running and we’d have to take a taxi. Mr. Spanish Man sounded legit and, being a social psychologist, I subscribed to the heuristic, “what is beautiful is good”. Somewhere along the way to his big black van we realized that this wasn’t a good idea, and I wrestled my Samsonite (let’s just take some poetic licence here) from his bronzed hand. On our first day of sightseeing, Carlo and I lost each other in Termini Station. Looking around for my friend, I tripped over my feet and fell to floor exclaiming at the top of my lungs, “Faaaark!” Not that I didn’t love Rome. Rome just brings out the expressive Italian in me.
Now I am determined to reacquaint myself with Plutarch and (at least initially) his nine lives. I remember Themistocles, Pericles, and Lysander well. Other Athenians, like Nicias and Alchibiades, ring a bell. And then there are some like poor Cimon (pronounced Ki-Mon), whom I mostly remember because of a class exercise where we had to give a speech as an Athenian. A classmate named Simon got up in front of the class and said, “Hello, I’m Si-Mon”. We all laughed. I had better start with Cimon’s life to make up for being an uncouth Columbine-eating tourist who remembers humorous wordplay instead of important Athenian strategoi.
One day I would like to return to Athens. I was there in 2006. Since then the city has been hit hard by the debt crisis. I imagine Athens is quite different to what I remember even from only those few years ago. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley translation) a speech Pericles gave to his countrymen in the first year of the War is recounted: “In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian”. I hope for her return.
I’m also determined to get my Italian up to scratch. This was something else I studied in high school. I was a fluent speaker after final exams and would proudly call a great uncle in Calabria to have conversations. So good that words were dropped into the conversation that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, like “meraviglia” (wonder) and “barbocino” (poodle). My friend Andrew was much smarter about maintaining the momentum of his studies and would speak in Italian to almost everyone when we all went away for Schoolies Week (holidays following final exams for my non-Australian readers). He did this even if the other person had never uttered a word of it before. At least I think he was speaking Italian. We all did drink a lot. I have decided to remedy that and bought a copy of Schaum’s Italian Grammar, a book I used in high school. Right now I’m on the imperfect subjunctive tense. One of the examples is Cercavo una segretaria che parlasse Italiano. That means I was looking for a secretary who spoke Italian. After high school, I guess I could have easily related my needs to a recruitment agency in Rome.