October 09, 2003

The noise from Kolonaki Square

My boss was not in the apartment when I got up late this morning. I sleep in the living room, she sleeps in the den opposite. I had been lying awake for some time. In fact, it had been the sort of night when one wonders if one has slept at all.

Athens is always noisy, even in the chic neighbourhood surrounding Kolonaki Square. With the exception of the eerie hours between three and five, when the nocturnal noisemakers who are the reason why Nescafé is the so-called Taste of Greece! finally click their way home; until those brief two hours, by which time real sleep is out of the question, the streets six floors below send up a countless number of squeals, thumps and chirps from the mopeds and the Euro-pop and those Mediterranean conversationalists who struggle and succeed to be heard over all the noise. The first encore is at five o’clock, when the city’s antiquated garbage trucks begin their rounds (there is a dumpster on every block here); and the second, destined to last until mid-afternoon, begins at seven, when the racket of electric saws and jackhammers rises with the sun, the sounds of Athens’s ceaseless construction work, the terrible curse of cities built entirely of concrete.

There are roughly five million people in Athens, half the population of Greece. There is no opportunity anywhere else; Greeks like it that way and have done for a hundred years. Yet, to them Athens is not The City, not like New York is for the New Yorkers or San Francisco for the San Franciscans. No, for the Greeks—even the common Greek who is hardly aware of what he means when he says η Πόλη—the City above all cities will always be the city of St. Constantine the Great, Emperor of the Romans: Constantinople, New Rome, their city, their destiny. Its modern name does not undermine their claim. As the Turks marched slowly westwards, all those centuries ago, they came across sign after sign reading To the City, Εις την Πόλη, Is-tan-bul. And tell a Turk you come from Greece and he will exclaim, ‘Ah! Rum!’ which means, ‘Ah! A Roman!’

In the Author’s Note at the beginning of his novel Julian, Gore Vidal writes in reference to the times of Constantine and his immediate successors, ‘For better or for worse, we are today very much the result of what they were then.’ In a time when a cinematic action hero can use bread and circuses to convince the mob to give him control over the world’s seventh-largest economy; and when war and famine are overshadowed in people's minds by the mauling of a homosexual magician by a white tiger; well, in times like these, Vidal’s statement seems very near the mark.

In Washington D.C., a sign celebrating the city’s two-hundredth anniversary reveals what George Washington wrote to its French designer, the same man who would go on to design Napoleon’s imperial Paris (and I paraphrase): ‘It should be a majestic city with wide avenues and grand buildings, as befits the capitol of a Great Empire.’ A mile away a glimmering statue of Thomas Jefferson stands thirty feet tall, surrounded by Corinthian columns and gold inscriptions that eulogize the hand of God so clearly at work in America’s destiny. Constantine stole the famous statue of Apollo from the temple at Delphi and set it atop a pillar at the center of Constantinople’s forum, though not before knocking off its head and replacing it with his own bust in marble. The statue fell down one stormy night just before the Turks launched their final successful siege of The City, but the pillar can still be seen, covered in black from air pollution, a landmark that now reminds veiled window shoppers to turn right for the Grand Bazaar.

The Romans of Constantine’s time licked their lips over Mesopotamia, its golden waves of grain as irresistible a temptation for them as its black gold is for the Romans of our day. Constantine died before he could overthrow the Great King of Persia. Though his nephew Julian the Apostate was able to bring Persia to its knees, nevertheless he was in the end too greedy and ambitious to accept the Great King’s generous peace-terms. His overwhelming military advantage slowly deteriorated as his soldiers starved before the gates of Ctesiphon, picked off one by one by Persian guerilla fighters. Without an exit strategy, and unable to keep the troops interested in his moralistic revivalist religion, Julian was speared through by his own bodyguard, and his incredible territorial gains were soon lost by his successor, the drunkard Jovian. Our own emperor is not the philosopher Julian was, not by a long shot, but still he follows in his predecessor's footsteps.

The Romans never conquered Mesopotamia. That job was left to the newly Islamicized Arabs who burst from the desert and conquered the world in something like five decades. They razed Ctesiphon to the ground, and built a new city called Baghdad nearby. When their conquests reached Spain, they imported palm trees from Egypt and built as enlightened a civilization as probably ever has been, one of such brilliance that even the Christians, intoxicated with the new language from the oases, turned their backs on Latin and translated their liturgies and their church fathers into Arabic. Eventually, northern barbarians used gunpowder to impose the Pope on them, and erected the first modern police state. Arabic was outlawed along with Jews and Muslims, and knighted lovers of books and learning madly pined for the old days and its glories; they jousted with windmills and wrote fantasy novels about an imaginary utopia they called California. Some of the victims of forced conversion went to a newly discovered India across the sea, where they found the California they’d been reading about. They brought their palm trees with them, and their courtyards, and their aristocratic yearning, and settled down to stay; unfortunately so did the barbarian Jesuits with their secret service ways; and then came other barbarians, of the Washington variety, and the last vestiges of old Cordoba disappeared. The palm trees remained, and the longing for utopia, but not much else.

Posted by djsmall at October 9, 2003 01:13 AM

Although I can't quite believe that you have a blog, I must concede its beauty.

Posted by: michele at October 14, 2003 10:54 AM

Thank you kindly. I can't quite believe it myself. I always though I was above all this foolishness. Then I had the humbling realization that it is actually a rather wonderful way of organizing one's thoughts and digesting one's experiences. At the very least, it allows for creativity, and that is a great blessing in this concrete world. Gene is owed a great deal of gratitude for giving us this, I think.

Posted by: djsmall at October 14, 2003 06:43 PM

I agree. And I think we don't thank him nearly enough. So thank you, Gene, Mr. Cement Giver in this concrete world. (Now that sounds sarcastic, but really I am just punning.)

Posted by: michele at October 15, 2003 02:33 AM

I can't believe I just now discovered you had a blog. Your writing has always fascinated me because you change voices depending on whom you're addressing. I like that.

Posted by: robyn at October 15, 2003 07:53 AM

I always thought my style stank of duplicity for that very reason. But thank you. The idea behind these entries is that I hope they are food for thought leading to some sort of discussion. But maybe since they have so far been about things only I care/know about, that will be difficult to achieve. At the very least, though, I hope they are not boring or, what is worse, come across as pompous.

Posted by: djsmall at October 15, 2003 10:34 AM

Gorgeous. And informative too.

Posted by: didofoot at October 15, 2003 06:13 PM