October 09, 2003

Careening through Kabul, dreaming of Chalkida

Athens wasn’t always like this, with the noise and the smog and, above all, the concrete. The walls of nearby tavernas are adorned with pictures showing Athens as it used to look. One of them, my favorite, is a photograph from the 1920s. It shows Singrou Street, which runs from the Temple of the Olympian Zeus to the sea: palm trees one after the other trace what was then a modest dirt road. In the distant background one can just make out the Acropolis and a few large houses here and there surrounded by olive groves. Now the street is a concrete canyon, loud and nightmarish, the trees long since cut down, its seaside destination devastated by pollution.

To prepare for the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens has decided to try its best to clean up the Saronic Gulf, which is nestled between the southwest coast of Attica and the northeast arm of the Peloponnese. Greek ship owners have had their way with the Saronic Gulf since Pericles’ Athenian navy controlled the eastern Mediterranean seaways as far away as Egypt. The harbour of Piraeus is a sight to behold—it would be difficult to find a greater number of massive sea vessels gathered in one place. During the years of Pericles’ rule, the Golden Age of Athens, a limited democracy at home controlled a growing fragile empire abroad. The Persians had tried to conquer Greece, and to defeat them the Greeks united for the first time by forming the Delian League, tacitly authorizing Athens and its navy to assume the leadership. Tribute money poured in, but when the Evil Empire was defeated and Athens sued for peace, the system was not dismantled, and the other city-states, especially Sparta, grew uneasy with the status quo. The monuments of Athens, its leisure and its democratic sophistry, made the rest of the country turn green, then red, and finally, after many decades of trying, Sparta smashed the Athenians and burned its navy, to the last ship. Athens never recovered its political power, not until 1821, when the Greeks rose the standard of revolt against the Ottomans and, in a fit of confused nationalist zeal stirred up by Napoleonic France, made it their new capital. Greek ship owners still rule the merchant waves, only now they fly flags of convenience, their masts pledging allegiance to Panama or the Ivory Coast.

The government in Athens can do little to help the Saronic Gulf, though they are desperate for their Olympic visitors to be able to swim without getting cancer. The best they’ve been able to do is reroute most of the sources of land-based pollution eastwards around the tip of Attica, where a strong northerly current drives it all into the Euboian Gulf. Dolphins use this current on their long road to the Black Sea. I have witnessed what must have been thirty or forty them, follow boats up the Euboian coastline, flitting back and forth before the prow, turning on their sides to sneak a one-eyed peak at the euphoric faces hovering in the air above them. When I am not sharing a flat with my boss off Kolonaki Square, I live on that coastline, and swim in its water—though they say that in seven years it won’t be fit for swimming, not even for dolphins.

The dolphins’ watery road, before it passes into the northern Euboian Gulf, squeezes through a narrow channel between the mainland and the island of Euboia at a city called Chalkida. A number of wooden drawbridges have spanned that channel, and the current below it is called the Mad Waters, and if the local auto mechanic is to be believed, who traveled the world seven times over as a Greek merchant marine, every six hours, from time immemorial, the water’s flow inexplicably changes direction, first flowing north, and then south, and then north again. Many a Greek graduate student has tried to decipher this mystery, from Aristotle onwards, who is said to have thrown himself off the bridge into the sea below, in despair over his inability to solve its riddle. A massive gray suspension bridge now ferries travelers across his peripatetic deathbed, but they do not look down for fear they might set their eyes on the largest cement factory in the Balkans, which sits snug and gruesome on a man-made island close by. Titan Cement has built concrete apartment blocks for its employees, downwind of the factory, but the green of thumb are advised to apply elsewhere: nothing grows there.

In the mid-1800s, an Englishman wrote that travelers to Greece need see only two places: the Acropolis of Athens and Chalkida. Chalkida today is a dump; nobody goes to Chalkida. Its turreted Ottoman stone walls are torn down, its 1920s-era bungalows replaced with, like everywhere else, six-story apartment blocks. I’ve been told that in the quiet of the early morning, a coffee at a seaside café can inspire tears, so beautiful the water there can be. But an architect friend of mine, who comes from Chalkida and has for years struggled in vain to convince his colleagues in Greece of the importance of natural materials and aesthetics in architecture, threw up his hands in disgust last Spring and moved to Finland, where he says the people are more sensitive to these things.

They are also the world’s heaviest drinkers. During a visit to Helsinki in June, I visited a local sauna, where they beat me with birch sticks, and where women in white smocks walked nonchalant amongst the golden bodies of naked men and boys. Like the waitresses in American diners, these women are strong and fast-talking, and no doubt, in their sing-song Finnish way, they call the men hon’ as they massage them, and let ring a “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” as the men make their way home, clad only in loin-cloths, back to their wives with the many-voweled names. After the sauna, I accompanied some journalists on their rounds of Helsinki’s nightlife hotspots. We went to a penthouse bar in the city’s tallest building, where the balcony is surrounded by a plastic barrier taller than a man—Finland has the highest suicide rate in the world, not surprising considering it is plunged into darkness seventy percent of the year. Afterwards, we went dancing in a club that looked as if it had been furnished by Ikea, to music without even a trace of melody, just thumps and boinks and the other two sounds that make up Scandinavian pop. Twenty-somethings in suits moved awkwardly on the dance floor, not having bothered to put down their drinks. Two in particular honed in on one of the girls in my party, and approached her zombie-like before pointing, rotating and collapsing to the floor dead drunk.

Finnish is considered the world’s most difficult language to learn by many linguists, and is a member of the Finno-Ugritic language family, related directly to Hungarian and less directly to the Turkic languages. It has something like thirty-eight cases or declensions: something absurd like that. I know an Englishman who can speak twelve languages fluently, but after spending three years in Turkey can still only just follow a basic conversation. He returned to Greece yesterday after six weeks in Afghanistan working as an English teacher. He is one of those rare types who are only themselves whilst outside their homeland. I’ve watched him amongst true Brits, and the rapid transformation he undergoes in response to them is remarkable. Everything changes: he sits up straighter, begins to drop his alma mater. But in Afghanistan he went native, like a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. He threw off the western garb of the U.N. peacekeepers and World Bank economic strategists, went to a local tailor and got a full Afghani set, turban and all. He then bought a bike and careened happy and free through Kabul, glad to be British, always glad to be British as long as he's outside Britain.

Posted by djsmall at October 9, 2003 08:10 PM


Posted by: kt at October 15, 2003 08:42 AM

Is that a yawn, a sarcastic exclamation, or the sound of a woman's heart melting? Or none of the above?

Andrew has asked about you. He sends greetings. You might tell us both what you are up to.

Posted by: djsmall at October 15, 2003 10:04 AM

I plead the fifth. And I will. Presently I am editing prison statistics and considering taking up smoking.

Thanks and two mammoth hugs to my favorite Katounian beanstalks.

Posted by: kt at October 16, 2003 02:55 AM

Oops, didn't finish that: "for the extraordinary assortment of words."

Posted by: kt at October 16, 2003 03:05 AM