• Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Oct 12, 2013
  • Location: Athens

It is our second morning in Athens, and I’m sitting at a café with the Acropolis looming over me to the right. Yesterday was our Acropolis day, our climb up the hill in the center of Athens to visit the Parthenon and all the surrounding ruins.


This is the photo you’ve seen a hundred times, the many-columned temple to Athena that overlooks the city. There’s always a satisfaction in seeing for the first time an image that’s been part of your history, to see and to touch the Washington Monument or the Taj Mahal. And I did feel that jolt with the Parthenon, that I’m in Athens in October with my wife and family, and that…that is the Parthenon.


First, some background. Athena won the naming rights to the city because her gift—an olive tree—was better than the salt water from Poseidon. Up went her temple around 500 BC, and for the next thousand years invader after invader chipped away at it, culminating when those ever-violent Christians destroyed many of the marble, pagan images. But enough survived for it to remain the symbol of Athens, and over the last hundred years the entire site has been renovated and restored.


And so we here we are, three Americans in October 2013, trudging up the stony path to this iconic site. Did it overwhelm us? Did it elicit sighs and awe?


Not at all. All three of us shared a similar reaction, a fascination and appreciation but nothing deeper, nothing beyond our eyeballs and deeper into our souls. Why?


Reason #1: The crowds are overwhelming. There is a tipping point in which the tourists becomes the scenery, when the path upward stops like rush-hour traffic and when all views of the temple are obscured by the figures of a hundred others standing in front. This is a holy site, and instead of silence and reverence, the air is filled with “There’s gotta be a toilet up here somewhere.” Yes, it’s fabulous that all the world is on top of the Acropolis, that at any moment you can hear Swedish and Russian and Japanese and California English, that even the old and overweight have heaved their broken bodies up to the top.


And yet. And yet it’s a crowd. Unlike Rome, which has so many sites that the tourists are spread out, the Acropolis is the one and only in Athens.


Reason #2: Because of the volume of humans, the holy has been pushed aside. Like at St. Peter’s in Rome, I didn’t feel my soul engaged here in any way. Instead I was more preoccupied with why that Ukranian woman is wearing high heels, or why that man is sweating so much.


Reason #3:  It was very warm. For the first time in a week the climate changed from a damp coldness to sunny skies. The temperature jumped from the high 60’s to the mid 80’s, and all of a sudden the sun was a force. Liam, wearing black, was miserable.


Reason #4: All of Athens is spread out before you in all directions, and it’s startling. Half the population of Greece is centered right here. Half the population is down there in a jumble of unending white buildings that extend until stopped by the sea or the mountains. Squint your eyes and it’s a vista of broken shards of marble. There are no churches to break the view, no piazzas, no grand avenues that radiate outward from a central monument. It’s humanity far and wide, and with all that humanity comes the smog. Even though the recent rains scrubbed the sky, and even though it was just 10am, a layer of smog hung at eye level across the city.


Reason #5: We bring our past to the experiences of the present, don’t we? And during the past week we’ve seen ruins throughout the Peloponnese that overwhelmed us. There in Corinth, in the ancient theater at Epidovros, at Agamemnon’s tomb, at the original Olympic stadium, at the temple to Apollo at Delphi, at the Byzantine church and village clinging to the mountainside at Mitros—time and again a sentence sprung to my mouth: “This… this is awesome.” I was moved on many levels: on the surface level of my eyes taking in the frescos and columns and statues of Zeus, and far deeper into my blood and soul.


These sites had such an authenticity to them. There was something pleasing about only three of the eighteen columns still standing, as if it pushed my imagination to re-create the original. In the same way that a painted statue is less pleasing than one that is white marble, I don’t want everything handed to me. I want my mind activated, I want the destruction and the ravages of time to be part of the story. At the Parthenon in Athens, too much has been restored, too much intrusion of modern man. Those three figures holding up the roof? They’re copies; the real ones are in the museum. All these columns? They’re a composite of the original and modern bits of marble and steel. That theater with the rows of shiny marble seats? Nothing authentic about it—but it makes for pretty photos.


Reason #6: I’m in a bit of a funk. Nothing severe, but the usual glimmer of my enthusiasm is dimmed these days. Three reasons:


-one, I’ve been sick with some form of bronchitis for about 10 days, and I’m weary of hacking up a lung at 3am.


-Two, nothing is falling into place as I look ahead for the next three weeks. Wait, no ferries are going to that island? Wait, a ferry goes there but then we’re stuck, unable to move eastward to Turkey. Part of me is feeling exhausted from all this planning that so far has worked well to get us from one place to the next and has found us great lodging. But not now. Roadblocks are popping up.


-Three, we’re blowing through money here in Greece. We still have eight months to go and I have to keep my eye constantly on the overall budget in order to pull this whole thing off. But added expenses like renting a car and taking ferries, plus the burden of the euro that costs us Americans 30% more on the exchange, is causing us to dip deeper into our savings.


-Four: I woke up to a rough email. A manuscript I wrote is being considered for publication by the University of Georgia, and part of their decision process is to get the reviews of two outside readers. One of those readers submitted her report. In a word, it’s devastating. In more than a word, it’s the most critical words I’ve ever read about me as a writer and me as a human. I feel like one of those statues on the Parthenon that a Christian climbed up to hack and to topple.


On one level I’m fine. I understand that this is the way of art, that everyone has their own opinion. And maybe the invisible fingers out there see that this story doesn’t belong out in the world, that it’s a good thing to remain dead in a computer file. My life is a full life with one child and one book (Serendib) that most people seem to like and to value. That’s plenty of riches.


And on another level I’m sad. I’m pouting. I don’t want to even write this blog. The Acropolis is a pile of phony stone and the Athens that sprawls out at my feet is sooty and mundane.


And now? Now I’m rising from this table and returning to Dolora and Liam in our apartment. Breakfast awaits. A new day awaits.




I’m back at the apartment waiting for the water to heat up for a shower. So, to complete the account of our yesterday: After the Acropolis we walked through the ruins of the Agora and then left all of that behind us on our walk to Avocado, a vegetarian restaurant here in Athens. In the restaurant we took off our shoes and settled on cushions on the floor around a short table. The menu made us giddy. We said to the waiter when he came to our table, “We’d like to order everything, please.”


He smiled. “That will take us two months, but yes, we will try.”


We luxuriated on the cushions like Egyptians. We shared our meals—Liam’s risotto with mushrooms, Dolora’s veggie burger, my Panini with Greek vegetables, and a Caesar salad for the table—over the course of two hours. Then we stocked up on groceries from the health-food market next door and walked home through the touristy Plaka district to our apartment. We crashed for a couple of hours and then went outside to watch the sunset from a hilltop across from the Acropolis. It was beautiful and quiet and we were all alone in this city of 4 million.


On our walk home we passed the new Acropolis Museum. By chance it was open for two more hours until 10pm, so in we went. A man with a ponytail sold us our ticket. “Do you love Athens?” I asked him, and he said, “No.” Dolora thought he was being sarcastic, but I didn’t.

The museum is fabulous. Its windows face the Acropolis, all lit in golden light at night, and the museum at this hour was entirely ours. I confess that I’m a bit overloaded with museums and antiquity these days, so I strolled through the museum without reading every plaque. In this way I still marveled over the statue of Hermes with his weight on one leg; the sculpture of a woman’s face that appeared to be weeping but was just the metal oozings around her eyes; the carvings in marble to create the wave of hair. The museum is built upon ruins which you can view through the glass floors even as you rise up to the third floor. Magnificent.

And on that positive note, I’ll sign off for now.






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