Return to Greece

By Evans, James Allan | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Return to Greece

Evans, James Allan, Queen's Quarterly

Classical Greece gave birth to much of what we love best about our world -- notions of ethics and citizenship, love of beauty and all the fine arts, and the search for meaning; this is, after all, the cradle of reason. That so much unreasonable tragedy has befallen this country over the centuries is a sad reality. But even in the shattered stones around the Acropolis, one can find evidence of the precision and genius that made this place the cornerstone of Western civilization.

MORE than forty years on, my first arrival in 1954, I returned to Greece. When I first came, I found a country that had emerged barely four years earlier from civil war. I was a young Canadian graduate student, with a fellowship from the American School of Classical Studies, supplemented by a grant from Yale University to finance a research trip to Egypt. Now I was returning as a visiting professor at the same American School. In the intervening years, Athens had grown into a city teeming with cars and motorcycles, which ruthlessly compete for space with pedestrians: a bustling, restless place, preparing to host the summer Olympics in 2004, and tearing up the city centre to build a modern subway. It is beautiful in its own way, with the flat-topped Acropolis and, beyond, the peak of Lykabettos thrusting up into the haze -- the nefos, as the Athenians call it, the smog that sometimes recedes but never disappears.

The nefos is a creation of the past quarter century: a mixture of vehicle exhaust and discharge from oil-burning furnaces; and in the summer of 1998, one of the hottest on record, arsonists started fires which destroyed the pine forests on Mount Hymettos, south-east of the city, and added wood smoke to the mix.

The Athens of forty years earlier was a city with thin traffic and limpid air possessed of that pellucid Mediterranean light that fades into violet at sunset. Pollution had not yet transformed the winter rain into the dilute acid which now gnaws holes in the city's ancient monuments. In the 1950s, a watcher on the Acropolis might have beheld the blue Aegean as easily as the legendary king Aegeus did, when he spied the ships of his son Theseus sailing back from Crete. Theseus had promised his father that if he was successful in killing the Minotaur in King Minos' labyrinth, his ships would hoist white sails. But Theseus had a convenient memory lapse, and when Aegeus saw that the sails were black, he hurled himself off the Acropolis into the sea known ever after as the Aegean. It is sobering to think that the thick nefos of present-day Athens would prevent any modern Aegeus from making a similar error.

THE Greek Line's Nea Hellas, which brought me to Athens in 1954, had been built for a British shipping company only two years after the Titanic made her fateful voyage. First class was redolent with stuffy grandeur; cabin class was dark with wood panelling; and third class was spartan and utilitarian. But it seemed to me that third class was where all the shipboard life was to be found. Meals in third class were generous, and accompanied by unlimited quantities of retsina, served on long narrow tables by stout, perspiring waiters. Across the table from me sat a Greek-American family, the father a fleshy, red-faced man with a prodigious capacity for retsina; his wife, from behind her horn-rimmed glasses, kept a close watch on her two nubile daughters. Most of my fellow passengers were students or Greeks returning home after long absences in America. There were a number of elderly single men, who looked forward to finding young wives in their native villages and settling down to a retirement financed by Social Security cheques from the USA. A sprinkling of Maltese and Turks made up the rest.

Four days out of New York I found myself in the middle of a dialogue between two Turks, one a young student and the other a 74-year-old returning home for the first time since before the First World War. …

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