World Collide in Old Athens
Tonight we walked the entire circle around the Acropolis. Throughout its history the Acropolis marked the centered of Athens. It was a fortress, a kingly palace and a temple. Around its slopes stretched the marketplaces and the homes of town folk. During the last century Athens sprawled out across the plain in all directions. The administrative and economic activity is now centered elsewhere, but the slopes around the Acropolis remain the heart of the city. Tourist flock him from the far corners of the earth. Street vendors from Africa and Southeast Asia scratch out a living, joined by beggars from Eastern Europe. The native Greeks are here as well, enjoying the night air as the shadows lengthen.
Tonight we had set out after dinner to find ice cream and look for souvenirs. It was supposed to be a short walk, but our youngest child mutinied. After Chrissie escorted her back to the confines of our house the remaining four of us were set free to roam without constraint.
We walked through the streets of Plaka, a high end tourist destination. The buildings here are some of the oldest still in use and the government subsidizes their renovation. Restaurants and souvenir shops line narrow cobblestone streets. (See picture above.) High end leather, silver, and pottery are displayed next to tacky t-shirt shops. Tables on the sidewalk and terracotta roofs make this look like a scene from the Discovery channel. A glance down a side street reveals the towering cliffs of the Acropolis and the soft hues of sunset. The kids have stopped in front of me, staring into a t-shirt shop. They were surprised to read a t-shirt that was display. Twenty five centuries prior Sophocles shocked theater audiences with a play about murder and incest. Today Oedipus and his mother are a coarse joke on a t-shirt for tourists. Worlds collide, the ancient and the modern, the timeless and the vulgar. I offered a brief word of explanation and we keep moving.
The trendy shops of Plaka give way to the grittier buildings of Monastiraki Square. there are still tourists here, but the square is full of young Greeks out with their friends. We skirt the edge of an ancient ruins and walk past the entrance to a subway. We must stand out as tourists and the busy square is a place where the vendors are more agressive. An African man rushes to greet us and welcome us to Greece. "You must stay for the music", he says as he drops to a knee and shakes the hands of my kids. He is holding bracelets and it is clear that he wants to sell one. I smile and tell him that we are not interested. He ignores my completely and begins to attach a bracelet to Norah's hand.
"We don't want one, thank you."
"You are from America, that's great."
(He begins to tie the bracelet on Norah's hand.)
"We don't want one one, thank you."
"But we have drums tonight, she will need a rasta bracelet."
"We don't want one, thank you."
"I love America, I am glad that you are here."
I reach down and untie the bracelet on Norah's hand.
"Oh no, I want her to have it."
(He implies it is a gift, but I know that the price tag will follow if I leave it on her hand.)
"We don't want one, thank you."
(I have untied it now, and hand it back. I persist longer than he does and he takes the bracelet back and moves on.)
I pull the kids a little tighter and we press on down a side street, past musicians who play the electric guitar through small amplifiers. This part of the walk feels more like Atlantic City. We buy slushies from Ben and Jerry's and eat them at cafe tables in the twilight.
We are now half way around the Acropolis and we could take the subway home, but the kids vote to press onward and complete the loop. I have never walked through this section at night and don't know what to expect. We skirt the edge of an ancient temple and begin to climb the hill on the Western flank of the Acropolis. Between this main road and the cliffs of the Acropolis lies the ancient agora, the ruined foundations of a marketplace from the first century. It is now a public park and can be accessed for a small fee. The streets are now lined with small tables where tinkers and merchants sell their wares. Shoes from China are laid out on blankets. LED lights cast shadows on handcrafted trinkets. The street is wide and made of cobblestones. Young people and families with children stroll through the early evening enjoying a break from the oppressive heat. It seems to me that this section of the walk has more locals. I hear more Greek being spoken and few people seem interested in souvenirs.
Music again permeates the air, this time from a trio of folks musicians playing classical Greek folk songs. The accordion, guitar and flute weave together sounds that have echoed in these hills for many years. The lead vocalist sings with conviction and I wish I knew what he was saying. A crowd has gathered to listen in respect. Dozens of people sit on a wall by the side of the street with their backs to the ancient marketplace. Between the audience and the performers the crowds lurch by. Motorcycles and bicycles occasionally meandering through the people. Two young women gather near them and start to dance. At the close of the song an old man limps over and begins to talk to them. I am too far to hear and I am sure I would not understand if they did. As the next song starts, the man begins to shift his feet from side and side, then he lifts his arms to dance. I think they are playing his request. A young boy rushes forward and jumps up and down. I imagine that this is a song the old man has been hearing since his the day his own young legs bounced along the hills of Greece.
We continue to climb and the drums grow louder. Ten men are sitting in the middle of the street, drumming and chanting. The sound is repetitive, but invigorating. At the top of the hill we reach familiar terrain and begin a slight descent back towards our apartment. We are less then ten minutes from home and have been out for nearly two hours, but when the kids asked to detour to Mars Hill I agreed. It is nice to be outside and not roasting in the sun, so I don't want to hurry home. Also, they seldom ask to extend a walk, so I don't want to let the moment slip. And... no matter how often we go to the Areopagus (Mars Hill) it never gets old. It requires a short climb into the shadow of the Acropolis. As we walk up the ancient marble steps we pass by the Herodian Theater. This stone Ampitheater was built in the second century and is nearly as famous as the Parthenon. But unlike the Parthenon it is still functional. Tonight there is a live performance and I remember from the a subway poster that it is the classic opera "Carmen." I was hoping to hear the staccato notes of "Habanera" as we passed by, but a song had just finished and the applause rises above the ancient stone walls. In this historic Greek theater, opera singers belt out French lyrics, mourning the ill fated love affair of a naive Spanish soldier and a zesty Gypsy woman.
Just as we reach the steps to the Areopagus a voice calls out a greeting. Under a nearby street lamp our friends have gathered. The other four members of our current SGI team and two young Syrian families are lounging around a park bench, drinking sodas and eating sunflower seeds. There is a festive note in the gathering, in part because our Syrian friends have received good news about job options. But there is a somber side to is as well. Two of the team members will return to America tomorrow evening, and the other two will follow next week. Although we still have two and a half weeks here, our time is drawing to an end.
In this corner of the world the nations gather and the pulsating rhythms of modern life echo over the same stones walked by Pericles, Plato, and St. Paul. Near and far, new and old, our stories weave together for a for moments and we laugh and smile. And then our courses shift and we are launched back into our prior path of life. We hope and pray that the time we have spent has a lasting impact. (Matt)
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.