Earlier this month, I picked up another country to add to my European card collection. I chewed on the powdery pink bubble-gum and stuck ‘Greece’ into my collector’s album, in its proper place before Slovenia and after Andorra.
In card-collecting terms, I guess ‘Greece’ would be sort of like getting Robin in a set of Batman cards. He’s essential, he’s always been there, and his expressions are known throughout the world: ‘Holy smokes, Batman, a sense is what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter, in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold’. What? That’s a well-known ancient Greek saying, isn’t it? No? Okay, okay. Let’s replace it with: ‘Jiminy Crickets, Batman, the unexamined life is not worth living’.
Athens is slightly more refined than Robin, of course. It’s been wearing the same outfit for centuries, for a start, not experimenting with oversized codpieces in the 90s. Its monuments are peppered across the city map within easy walking distance of one another, and while you plan your route for the day you get that strange, humbling sensation of heading somewhere where eminently more important people than yourself once went. Surely Socrates decided quite frequently, as I did while I was there, to head up to the Acropolis after he’d finished his breakfast. He licked his finger and collected the last few flakes of his croissant from his plate the way I did, put on sandals the way I did, and strolled up through Monastiraki the way I did. Of course when he got there he had slightly weightier matters to discuss than me. I’m also fairly certain he was never asked by someone with a deep Southern American drawl where they might find the restrooms. No, apart from potentially walking the same path that the bearded man himself once walked, the only other connection I can make between myself and Socrates is that I know that I know nothing, too. The croissant for breakfast in ancient Greece comment proves that much…
I wandered from ancient monument to ancient monument, and once again thought about the stark difference between daily life in Australia and Europe. I examined a Corinthian column that had collapsed in the neat way that sliced bread does when you let go of it, and willed someone back home to phone me so that I might say, ‘Oh yes, I’m just poking around the Temple of Olympian Zeus right now. You? What’s that? At Coles buying potatoes?’ (Part of the point in collecting cards in the first place is to brag about it, right?). I also witnessed a slice of Athenian tradition that would never in a million years develop in Australia: that is, the changing of the guard at the National Parliament. In Australia you can actually climb up onto the grassed roof of the Parliament building in Canberra and roll down it. Outside the Parliament of Athens there are guards dressed in red velvet caps and shoes with massive black pompoms on them who perform an intricate, slow-moving dance every couple of hours. This dance consists mainly of two men moving in perfect synchronicity, balancing on one leg, scuffing the floor with their feet like horses do, and generally providing what seems to have been the inspiration for Sir Cleese’s rather famous sketch. You’d almost laugh if it wasn’t for the guns in their arms.
Of course this seriousness and precision is not necessarily the way that modern-day Athenians lives their day-to-day lives. Aris, our couchsurfing host, explained that most Greek people don’t have much respect for law and order, or – at the least – that they ignore it because they know it won’t be enforced. Everyday life can therefore be quite chaotic. Marc and I noticed this ourselves on the boat trip we took from Piraeus to the Greek island of Aegina. When the boat arrived, there seemed to be no disembarking policy of any kind. If there was such a policy, as Aris had pointed out, it definitely wasn’t enforced. Instead, as soon as the ropes were tied it was as if someone picked up the boat like a packet of muesli and shook it violently over the port: cars, grannies, children, motorbikes, dogs, bicycles, caged birds and women carrying bags of pistachios all toppled out at once. They bumped into each other and honked their horns and barked and zig-zagged their way to wherever it was they were in such a hurry to get to. It was enough to make Australia seem like the most orderly and straight-laced place in the world. We may roll down the roof of our Parliament building, but we take turns to do it.
So there’s a bit of a paradox in Athens. The Parthenon is lit up at night and broods over the city like a stately grandfather, while down below the people shout and bustle and protest. Of course it’s not as crazy as all that, but with the social situation in Greece being what it is right now (I would try to summarise this situation for all those who do not know about it, but I fear it would come out as fuzzy as Effie Stephanidis’s bouffant), it is not as staid as its silent relics might suggest.
After throwing my sandals frosted with Acropolis dust back into my London closet, I blow a bubble and flick through the pages of my card collectors’ album. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the whole set, or which country Batman would be in this analogy, but for now I’m happy with this ancient new addition. As Robin would say: life must be lived as play.