from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Athens Dispatch

November 21, 2006

When it's November and the weather is 73 degrees and sunny in Athens (and it was freezing there the prior weekend), you feel like you're really getting away with something: seeing Athens at its best with fewer tourists, perhaps? Our approaching airplane offered gorgeous views already, but no Acropolis on our side of the plane. Our hotel room was pretty high up in one of the few tall buildings in the city, but our view did not include the Acropolis. I caught a subway, changed trains, and emerged from the station, my heart stopping: there it was! I last saw the Acropolis at age 17, when one could wander around the Parthenon and catch views of the building that revealed its unfathomable grace - feeling light and rooted all at once. But the side I could see from the station was not the Parthenon side. I started up, loving the low, white sprawl of Athens below, embraced by the three hills and the sea.

I felt some disappointment upon arriving at the Parthenon because they are restoring it and have one side and one end covered with scaffolding. I am also convinced that the ancients knew more about beauty than we know today (as a young native physicist later agreed). I suspect that those miraculous columns, after the patching and re-stacking, may not breathe again as they did in the 5th century BC. Most of the fragile statues, bas reliefs and caryatids have been replaced by copies, while the remaining originals are on display in the museum next to the Parthenon. Inside, I walked among the early kore and kouros figures with their sweet smiles; among the robust, writhing later Hellenistic figures, but my heart stopped once more when I beheld the classical torsos from the Parthenon frieze. The mathematical perfection of nature is all there in the subtle torque of diaphanous drapery over breathing marble flesh, in proportions that define timelessness. It was almost too much beauty to contain.

I considered the day a perfect gem, and did not try to surpass it with sightseeing the next day. Instead, Newt got me all situated at the hotel lobby computer to do some dispatch writing. He said he would hook up with his pre-paid internet card that evening when he came back and e-mail the dispatch. I spent 1 hour and 45 minutes writing, and then tried to log off so that the file was not just sitting there available to the next person. Because I know so little about these things, I requested help for this. A young whippersnapper came over and said it was not possible to save anything on these computers, as the sign says, and immediately pushed the button to turn the computer off. He was not being mean; he just didn't understand my confusion. I could have hooked up quickly with Newton's special password and e-mailed the work with his help, but he thought I wanted to remove it and happened to be a bit hasty. I wanted to cry, because every word was lost. I went up to our room and spent the next hour trying to recall as much as possible in longhand. Then I went to a beautiful plaza for an outdoor lunch, even though the day was greyer and chillier than the previous one.

Athens has a beautiful subway system, complete with translation in Roman letters, as a part of the improvements made for the 2004 Olympics. I tried in vain to come up with the pronunciations by applying my limited acquaintance with the Greek alphabet, but later learned that there are several combinations that can make one sound. Verbally, I stuck to the "kalispero" - 'good evening' - that I had learned at 17.

We had the double pleasure of two nights out with the natives - a group of young, sharp, adorable Greek geeks who comprise a great partner company. The first night was a rowdier, more casual place with many plates of everything Greek and delicious wine. The second night we went to a restaurant on top of one of the other two hills in Athens, to which you must take a cable car. One would expect such a place to be hopelessly touristy, which means there is no obligation to have great food, but this place, with its glass-surrounded views of the Acropolis and the city, was entertaining some government ministers and other wealthy locals besides our techy group. The meal was elegant and sumptuous, the company ideal.

The next day Newton, his two partners and I were off for one night at a Stansted Airport hotel in London for another cheap flight connection to Montpellier, France the next day.


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