A Man's Guide to Greece: Part I of III
Athens was dead when I arrived. It was a Sunday. The only people on the street were a few sorry souls showing the tell-tale signs of heroin addiction: emaciation, glassy eyes, arms decorated with constellations of scabs. One would feel threatened were one not sure these poor bastards would be ancient history with one shove.
Wandering the streets in search of my hotel, I felt the city to be economically and emotionally depressed—a far cry from the grand, vital polis of Socrates and Pericles. But maybe not such a far cry from the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who used to sleep outside, masturbate in public, and bark contrarieties at anyone within range (hence “Cynic,” which means “dog-like”). Diogenes probably would have fit right in in modern Athens, I thought.
But the next day my opinion of Athens changed. It was Monday, and commerce was revived and non-addicts had reclaimed the streets. I was also not unaware that lack of sleep may have had something to do with my previous negative view of the city.
Made my way to the ancient agora and the Acropolis. As you get nearer, the Acropolis becomes less and less impressive (as most things do). Having been obsessed with Greek history and literature and myth for some time, I felt that otherworldly feeling one gets when one finally sees one’s hero in the flesh—and I also felt the inevitable disappointment.
I was especially eager to see the Theater of Dionysus—the place where Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides all first staged their tragedies. If you haven’t read any of their plays, do yourself a favor and read them. Medea, Oedipus Rex, Prometheus Bound—such basic, powerful stories cutting to the heart of human existence. Love, death, madness, murder, jealousy, duty, fate—it’s all in these plays.
And so there in the shadow of the Acropolis I saw the theater, and I was disappointed to find out that what I was looking at was a Hellenistic reconstruction later improved on by the Romans. The original stage that the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were enacted on was made of wood, and in a slightly different spot.
This is something to keep in mind when visiting Greece: if you’re looking to find the original ruins, the exact spot, the pure experience, you’re bound to have your bubble burst. You can always go back, you just can’t go back all the way.
I’d known this, of course, before I left—nonetheless it’s still hard to repress the fanatical thirst for the “authentic,” even though we all know twenty-five hundred odd years is a long time to stay pristine.
No, I didn’t come to Greece to re-live ancient history—I simply came to Greece to put faces to the names I’d read about and to at least get a whiff of some kind of lingering scent of the spirit of the past. But at the same time I wanted to be a tourist without being a “tourist.” How is this possible? Here are a few guidelines on HOW TO BE A TOURIST WITHOUT BEING A TOURIST:
1. Don’t buy a guidebook. If you already know what to expect and know exactly how to get there, the actual experience is just a hollow regurgitation of something you’ve been spoon-fed.
2. Don’t make reservations or any concrete itinerary. A little spontaneity and danger are necessary components of a real odyssey.
3. Take alternative forms of transportation—like bike or boat or sled dog or something—so you feel like you’ve earned your presence at a famous place rather than just stepping off a tour bus. Plus, you get a taste of the countryside.
4. Learn some of the language—at least enough to set you apart from all the other goobers.
5. Don’t take too many pictures. A camera can be a crutch. Give yourself a little time to absorb what you’re seeing with your own eyes and mind.
Heeding Number 3 of the above guidelines, I bought a bike in Athens and headed southwest to Elefsina (also known as Eleusis), the destination of pagan pilgrims for centuries. It’s the place where the harvest goddess Demeter discovered that her daughter Persephone had been abducted by the ruler of hell, Hades. If you don’t know the myth, it’s beautifully told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—another work you have to read before you read anything else (this article included).
Elefsina, too, was absolutely dead when I arrived. It was eerie—shuttered stores, litter-strewn streets, vestiges of what must have once been a thriving local economy. Not a soul walking around. And it wasn’t even a Sunday.
I found a hotel. A startlingly beautiful woman with flawless English checked me in. I made every attempt to ask her questions, to which she made to-the-point, all-business replies.
This is as good a place as any to tell you about Greek beauty. Perhaps there are fewer beautiful women per capita in Greece than in many other countries, but every once in a while you see a woman so ridiculously beautiful that you can scarcely believe your eyes. No doubt Pisistratus—an early tyrant in Athens who had been deposed and was trying to regain power—dressed up one of these selfsame beauties in armor and paraded her in front of his army on his way into Athens, audaciously claiming that it was Athena herself leading him back. This early political use of religion to manipulate the masses is told by Herodotus in his Histories.
But lest you playboys out there get your hopes up about Greece, I have to warn you that there seems to be a strong conservative streak in the country. I’m not the suavest dude on the face of the planet, but I’m reasonably attractive and friendly, and I must tell you that the art of flirting does not seem to be actively practiced by Greek females. This may be because of the heavy influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church, or maybe this modesty has always been a part of the Greek character, I don’t know. But I do know that the Mediterranean lustiness I was expecting was notably absent.
I visited the ruins the next day. Very few people there. Saw the area where the Eleusinian mysteries were performed—whatever they were. In ancient times, select people were here initiated into religious rites now lost to time. No one knows exactly what they saw or did in the heart of the temple. Was it sexual congress or just a symbolic ritual? Were hallucinogenic drugs involved? Some say it was something as simple as the priest revealing an ear of wheat. Like a lot of other things, it’s better left unknown.