Tag Archives: Athens

And So We Go On

City Botanic Gardens, Brisbane.

The scent of toothpaste took me fleetingly back to Athens.

Let me explain. First, let me wish you a happy new year. I went back to work last week after two weeks off over Christmas. Dusting a shelf at the bottom of my office bookcase, my cloth knicked and got caught on a thick book. The book was from the first international conference I ever attended, which was held in Athens in 2006. The conference boasted an impressive number of individual presentations, symposiums, and posters, and so the abstract booklet was frustratingly heavy as I lugged it around in my backpack after I left Athens and went travelling around Europe with my friend Carlo. Rooming with us for nearly a month, the book often ended up alongside my toiletry bag in my backpack. As a result, it took on a distinct smell of toothpaste that remains to this day. When I started flicking back through that book, I was instantly transported back to sunny Athens and the little newspaper stands that lined the streets around my hotel on Leofóros Vasilissis Sofias. Before you Google that avenue, the hotel was the Hilton Athens. Trust me, the indulgence didn’t last and we then stayed in some decidedly shitty hotels where breakfast was often served cold with a side of surly. While I was on this flight of fancy in my office, memories of Rome, Berlin, and a rainy Amsterdam flashed past.

View from the Hilton Athens in 2006.
Taken before, I believe, a downpour in Amsterdam.

For the last few weeks, I’ve felt surrounded by so many different scents. There was the cut and often sprinkler-soaked grass of the suburban streets we walked over the Christmas break. I also threw myself into amateur chemistry when trying on colognes and perfumes for potential gifts, positioning each atomiser’s nozzle slightly higher up my arm. Just the other day, I unwrapped a gift of a lovely bar of L’Occitane soap to use in the shower. Then there are the smells of Christmas. Some would say Christmas is a delicate bouquet of turkey, port, and the bittersweet spice of simmering family tensions and heated recriminations. For me, Christmas smells like panettone.

The first day back at work is always the hardest. It was made harder still by not having anything in the house for breakfast, except for a single chunk of the panettone Bob and I (ok, mostly I) had been snacking on for much of the holidays. Most people from an Italian background will tell you that they start eating this traditionally Milanese sweet bread/cake (or the similar but different pandoro, originally from Verona) just before Christmas Day and continue to do so until at least February or March. From then, the colomba, an Easter cake shaped like a dove, swoops in to save the day. I always knew it was Christmas when I’d go over to my nonna’s house and the spare room was piled high with panettones for family, friend, and (because we’re Italian) foe alike. Easter was denoted by the colomba and plastic fruit and vegetable bags stuffed with Palm Sunday palms. Looking at these, I’d get the distinct impression that when parishioners went up to get their blessed branches from the priest, Nonna had gone up for seconds. For those who have never partaken, panettone smells like sweet dough and candied fruit, and sometimes chocolate. Panettone smells like Christmas. Christmas doesn’t only have a smell; it also has a shape – and that shape is cupola, octagon, or even frustum, depending on your brand of choice.

What’s your flavour? (Photo: Balocco Facebook Page).

That first morning before my return to work, I boiled water, prepared a towel…no wait, that’s not it. Like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, I’m no midwife. The water was for coffee, the towel for a shower. I found some cream biscuits at the back of the cupboard, and I silently cursed my generosity from a few nights earlier when I’d taken to a party the Balocco Torte in Festa with lemon cream (I won’t explain this one – just know it’s delicious) that I’d gifted myself during a trip to the supermarket.

We didn’t do much over the break. It had been a busy year and we (or I, but Bob kindly obliged) wanted some quiet time. I had put a lot of energy into preparing for a conference I was involved in, which was held in Brisbane in late November. Brisbane is one Australian capital city that is less familiar to me than others. I had only been there once before; funnily enough, it was for the same conference. I think that I mentally categorised Brisbane early on with the Gold Coast from a trip my family took to the latter when I was 15. Geography has never been my strong point, and somewhere along the way I started to equate the two as if they were suburbs apart (try an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive). I also don’t seem to have retained any memories of the sightseeing or theme park visits from that first trip. Instead, I have four memories. The first is of a little notepad I’d brought along to write down my thoughts (I’d briefly taken up journaling), but ended up using to jot down the cast lists of any films that were on the TV while we were there. I can’t really tell you anything about the plot of Wild America starring Devon Sawa, but I can tell you who the director of photography was. My second memory is of having dinner on a marina and being allowed to sneak a few sips of my mother’s piña colada. The third is of buying a copy of Lauren Bacall’s Now. For some reason, it had very coarse pages that made them difficult to turn. I didn’t even take off the dust jacket like people do when reading something in public that could get you looks. Finally, I remember the smell of chlorine and beach in the elevators, reception areas, and hallways of hotels and apartment complexes. That probably sticks with me the most. Later my memories of the Gold Coast would be of weddings on houseboats, Bundaberg Rum, and those little circular hotel soaps, but they are stories about another me in another time.

When the taxi pulled up outside of the Royal on the Park on Alice Street, I knew I’d made the right choice of conference hotel. I’d chosen it largely because it was a couple of minutes’ stroll from the conference venue. However, the late ‘60s or early ‘70s front of the building appealed to me. I mean that in the best way. It seems that ‘60s architecture is widely lauded, but often the images conjured up when mentioning ‘70’s architecture are of wood panelling and burnt orange tones. I happen to love burnt orange, not that there was any in sight. The hotel had a warm, inviting lobby, the elevators a level of bygone charm, and my room was spacious and contemporary after a recent new fit out. The hotel is also across from the City Botanic Gardens. It was a treat to walk to and from the conference passing through those gardens. My stay in Brisbane was a short three days because I had to jet straight back for my friend Tristan’s wedding. That was a lovely, lovely day.

A well-lit path. City Botanic Gardens.
At the fountainhead. City Botanic Gardens.

I was very pleased a month before the conference to be asked back to Sonya Feldhoff’s Afternoons program on 891 ABC Adelaide, which as of 2017 is known as ABC Adelaide. Last time I was on, we discussed empathy. This time, we spoke about social psychology topics I’ve always enjoyed teaching: first impressions (and the errors made in forming them, because we psychologists always accentuate the negatives), schemas, attributions, and self-fulfilling prophecies. We got to cover a lot of ground. I enjoyed mentioning some of the names psychologists gave to their discoveries. Terms like the fundamental attribution error, the primacy effect, and the what is beautiful is good stereotype. I spoke about Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s work investigating what happens when teachers are led to believe certain students will “bloom” in the coming year. I only wish I’d mentioned the name of their book, Pygmalion in the Classroom. Aren’t psychologists the best with titles? If you’d like to listen, the recording can be found here. Just a couple of weeks later, I was a guest by phone to discuss whether empathy should be taught in schools. These are all topics I want to address more this year in my blog. For now, suffice to say that I believe more empathy is always a good thing.

In 2017, I look forward to completing and publishing more interviews. I’ve been researching in depth a long-term project, which has meant lots of interviews but not for this blog. However, I have also been researching interview subjects whom I hope to chat with early in the year for this space. My research has involved lots of reading; as well as watching of movies and TV shows that span 30 years (and this is for one interviewee), and even getting some old VHS transferred to DVD for the process. I actually bought a VCR for my grandfather for Christmas. On that topic, I’d like to write about videos and my love affair with them, too.

Most of all, I want to continue to write about the light and the heavy. It is a changing world. Of course, it always has been (you mean, they didn’t have the Prius during the Enlightenment?). But so many people seem disheartened, disillusioned, and in despair. For me, I want to write about what psychology can tell us about, and how perhaps it can help us navigate, such times. Recently, I was chatting a little with Sherilyn Fenn on Twitter (how cool is Twitter that it allows me to do that – and months before the new Twin Peaks?). We mentioned the “noise” that can come from online interaction. I want to write about that. In particular, I’d like to address something I’ve grappled with regarding online communication: whether we should “fight” with those we don’t know, but who have such diametrically opposed attitudes to our own. For some fun, I’m also thinking of a piece that takes a developmental psychology focus to young people’s adoring online fans.

Before I sign off, I’d like to remember here Francine York. She helped me with a project I am currently working on, and in 2014 she participated in a post for the blog where I asked some special people, “What three items would you want to have with you if you were stuck on a desert island?” Read her response – it’s all Francine! Francine loved being a part of Hollywood, worked for over 50 years, was always glamorous and picture perfect, and was such a force of nature. I think that’s why I was shocked to find out she had passed away. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.

Francine York (Photo: Facebook Profile Page).

Tonight, I’m staying in. I might watch a film. Or maybe I’ll finally sit down to a BBC Bette Midler documentary I’ve been meaning to watch. I’ve been so busy since returning to work that the last thing I watched was President Obama’s farewell speech streamed live from Chicago. I want to write a little about that later. I will say that I loved that the applause from the crowd sounded and felt like it would shatter my headphones.

Until then, I want to leave you with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, which is verified as coming from his work. You must check these things. After all, based on all the quotes attributed to her, you get the impression Marilyn Monroe never shut up.

“Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man”.

The Franklin tome in which it appeared was titled Poor Richard improved: Being an almanack and ephemeris of the motions of the sun and moon; the true places and aspects of the planets; the rising and setting of the sun; and the rising, setting and southing of the moon, for the year of our Lord 1758… it goes on. Wow, that’s quite a title. Franklin was many things, but a psychologist he was not. I like that title though because it does say something about change, continuity, and the eternal nature of things even in an uncertain world.

As an aside, I’ve read that a version of panettone may have existed at the time of the Roman Empire. Now that’s Eternal.

You know where I was.

Attica! Attica!

Europe 043

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.

Herodotus and I at the Met, NYC in 2011. Only one of us ate a cupcake on the entrance steps to the museum afterward.
Herodotus and I at the Met, NYC in 2011. Only one of us ate a cupcake on the entrance steps to the museum afterward.

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.

"Oh, my girls … They function as a Greek chorus. These girls don't know shit about Euripides, but they know plenty about Trojans." (Photo: Bette Midler "Divine Madness" promotional photo. Adam Gerace private collection)
“Oh, my girls … They function as a Greek chorus. These girls don’t know shit about Euripides, but they know plenty about Trojans.” (Photo: Bette Midler “Divine Madness” promotional photo. Adam Gerace private collection)

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.

I had to photograph Plutarch's work next to something ancient looking. The best available thing I could find at such short notice.
I had to photograph Plutarch’s work next to something ancient looking. The best available thing I could find at such short notice.

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.

Europe 001

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”.

I'm used to staying in hotels with a view of a brick wall.
I’m used to staying in hotels with a view of a brick wall.

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.

A friend in the National Gardens of Athens.
A friend in the National Gardens of Athens.

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.

National Gardens. The pigeons were less "swoopy" than what was to come in Venice.
National Gardens of Athens. The pigeons were less “swoopy” than what was to come in Venice.
A pond to sit by in the National Gardens.
A pond to sit by in the National Gardens.

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”.

Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Temple of Olympian Zeus.
View of the Acropolis from Temple of Olympian Zeus.
View of the Acropolis from Temple of Olympian Zeus.
I do love legitimate theatre.
I do love legitimate theatre.
The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion, Acropolis.
The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion, Acropolis.

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.

Claire and I at a restaurant (not from the classical period) after a day of sightseeing.
Claire and I at a restaurant (not from the classical period) after a day of sightseeing.

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.

Being particularly perplexed by Plutarch on a Sunday afternoon.
Being particularly perplexed by Plutarch on a Sunday afternoon.

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.