Epic Greece

We’ve been to other places that were hard to read–the Germans’ extensive use of the umlaut and the scharfes S (ß, the “spicy S”), the at-first-bewildering-but-then-totally-sensible use of diacritical marks in Slavic languages (seriously, why do we use “ch” or “sh” for sounds in words like “cheese” and “sheet?” Wouldn’t a little mark on the affected letter, like č or š, be clearer for everyone?), or even the dual signage of Montenegro, written often in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets–but Greek was especially, well, Greek to us. We were already unfamiliar with their words, except for the easy and life-saving ones like retsina and baklava, so the addition of the Greek alphabet only complicated things further. It made all of their text look like algebra: as far as I could tell, Αθήνα might as well have been the formula for the volume of a sphere (4/3πr³, which I had to look up just now).

Still, we managed to navigate the streets of Athens, a city that our excellent AirBNB hosts admitted has little for visitors beyond the ancient stuff in and around the Acropolis (literally, “top of the city,” per a tour guide I overheard). Which, really, was more than plenty for us; as this recovering English major can attest, the various ruins on the site of the Acropolis–the inspiration for (or at least the referents of) thousands of poems and novels–and, tucked away in a nearby corner like a shy child, the birthplace of all Western drama as we know it (the Theater of Dionysus) comprised an improbably rich concentration of Important Things to See.

Similarly, the new and excellent Acropolis Museum provided a comprehensive but still comprehensible narrative for all of that historical stuff, giving us a clear sense of Ancient Greek culture and how the Acropolis’ fixtures–the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, etc.–fit into it. If a museum is measured by the increase in its visitors’ understanding of history or art or whatever else the museum features, then the Acropolis Museum may be the best we’ve been to, in or out of Europe. For the first time, I began to intuitively grasp how the apparent contradictions in Ancient Greek religion could make sense, how the various gods interacted like a sprawling, dysfunctional family and how a single one, such as Athena, could be the goddess of so many things and have several aspects–Athena Nike (Athena of Victory), Athena Polias (Athena of the City), Athena Ergane (Athena of Artists and Craftsmen), Athena Promachos (Athena who Fights in the Front Line), etc., as if she were a prototypical Barbie, with a different outfit always ready for the mall, the beach, or, y’know, the moon–yet remain a distinct, recognizable goddess, smiling upon the city that incubated democracy and Western philosophy.

I used to think this conception of the universe must have been grim and unsettling; I expected it would be little solace to be told, if you were an Ancient Greek, that the vanity of these capricious gods could have a profound impact on your daily life–influencing whether you ate enough or starved, won in battle or lost, lived to be old or not–even if you didn’t knowingly do anything wrong. (Though, now that I think about it, how different is this, really, from the relationship most of us today have with the financial Masters of the Universe?) But at least these Greeks recognized their limits as mortals and that, often, the paths we take in life are shaped by forces beyond our control and, sometimes, our perception. If nothing else, they made good stories out of otherwise chaotic events.

Seeing the Acropolis also concluded a narrative we’d begun earlier in the trip when we visited the British Museum, the home, for the past two-hundred-odd years, of several major pieces of the Parthenon, the crown jewel of the Acropolis site. Lord Elgin took these items to London in the early 1800s, presumably with good intentions: Athens, at the time, was not an especially stable place, and the ruling Ottomans had allowed the Acropolis to decay for a few centuries, so housing these important relics in England, one of the world’s then-strongest empires and a country that valued the work of the ancients, probably seemed like a sensible move. The Greeks, of course, view the gesture as considerably less than generous and want the pieces back, seeing as they still have the majority of the ruins and have undertaken a painstaking, decades-long process of restoring the buildings on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, reassembling it like a jigsaw puzzle. Britain has, in response, stuck its fingers in its ears and pretended not to hear anything.

Outside the British Museum a few months ago, we met a Greek grad student named Antonia who very kindly asked us if we’d respond to a survey she was conducting as part of her thesis. She wanted to know how we felt about seeing the museum’s Greek spoils and whether we had a cohesive experience, if we really grasped the pieces’ significance without seeing them in their home, and she was (I think) making the case that, regardless of the political implications for the Greeks or the English, visitors would have a better experience if they could see the Parthenon as a complete and unified artifact, with everything in place more or less as it was 2300 years ago. She’s probably right. But I can’t deny there’s also value in the mystery of a fragment, of having to imagine how it might have looked originally and adjusting that image as you learn more (for example, it turns out that the Greeks painted their sculpture, so over the stark, white marble that survives in museums today were riotous patches of blue, red, yellow, etc.) and, eventually, assembling the puzzle yourself.

I mean, I recognize the privilege we’ve had–we’ve visited both London and Athens, plus many points in between, and seen most of the pieces of the Acropolis in one journey–and that most people in most situations couldn’t or wouldn’t even want to go to the trouble of going to separate museums to see different pieces of essentially the same building. Nobody should have to take, like the 18th century nobility, a Grand Tour through the European cultural capitols just to see this stuff. But the story of an artifact is as important as the artifact itself, and I hope that, if the British and the Greeks do ever work this out, they incorporate these pieces into the Parthenon in a way that highlights, rather than obscures, their cracks and breaks, casting Elgin as a sympathetic, if perhaps misguided, character and situating this episode in the overall story of the Parthenon’s shifting fortunes over the centuries. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt twice, converted into a church and then a mosque, looted repeatedly, and blown up by an unfortunately located gunpowder stockpile. The addition of a Prodigal Son chapter would only make the tale more epic and its resolution more triumphant.



I couldn’t identify what it is, precisely (genau, in German), that makes Germany eerily similar to the Midwest. Perhaps it was the rolling fields of grain punctuated by forests, or the food–carbs and sausages, all of it dense and satisfying–or something more ethereal in the air or the light (perhaps, I wondered, Germany has roughly the same latitude as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa and, therefore, receives the sun at the same angle). Perhaps it was none of these things, or all of them. Perhaps the Germans who settled in the United States were drawn by their intuition, like migratory birds, to land that just felt right, land they knew how to work and that would accept their transplanted practices.

All of Germany, of course, was lovely–I want to make that clear. But every so often its loveliness was followed by a kind of deja vu. In a small town outside Munich, we walked down a gravel road along which, I was for a brief moment all but certain, a high-school friend of mine lived. We ate fried things that could’ve been–and, really, should be–served on sticks at the MN State Fair. Their dirndls and lederhosen aside (which are almost worth a post of their own; suffice to say, traditional German dress is a great uniter, bringing together young hipsters wearing it with irony and older folks for whom ornate leather shorts are as essential in the summertime as sandals), the people at biergartens making industrious progress toward the bottoms of their steins had the same faces, the same bodies, the same rhythms of nods, glances, and laughs as my neighbors when I was a kid in Southeastern MN.

Germany was a kind of parallel universe, like a lost chapter from Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which past events occurred a bit differently, resulting in a present that mirrors our own with a few jarring distortions. Picture the Midwest as you know it, with its terrain, its weather, and its people. Now tweak that vision: make the beer better, for starters. Instead of an unsustainable reliance on cars and fossil fuels, connect nearly every town and city with a reliable train network, and install solar panels on every fourth roof. Hear people speaking German and see them inch beyond the shadow of oppression and genocide–on this, the difference between our universes is only a matter of specifics–by recreating, every day, a society that respects its inhabitants. If not for a few quirks of history, we could be them, and they could be us.

Photo: a crucifix in the chapel used by members of the German Parliament in the Reichstag, Berlin


London Calling, to the Faraway Towns

We arrived in England like waking from a good rest, when the coffee is fresh and the day unfolds before you, even and civilized, a parade of activities and rewards. Refreshingly, the people spoke our language, and we spoke theirs, more or less, and London, one of the most cosmopolitan, dynamic, overwhelming, but still charming cities in the world, offered up its sights to us (along with several thousand other tourists). We navigated the tube to visit my old neighborhood (more on that in a bit); the British Museum, the Indiana Jonesiest museum ever (i.e., containing powerful relics that Indy might be rescuing, bullwhip in hand, from the clutches of a Nazi and shouting “It belongs in a museum!”); Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII, William and Mary, and all the architecture and history between them; the improbable abundance of landmarks in and around central London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Leicester and Trafalgar Squares; and Hyde Park, where we had a picnic one especially pleasant evening. We saw The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play starring Daniel Radcliffe, who seems to have avoided the typical fate of famous child actors and has instead chosen to, y’know, act. We went to Bath, where the ruins of ancient spas remain from the time when the Romans ruled England–a reminder that nearly 2,000 years ago they had already figured out most of the things (save for the Internet) we tend to think of as being uniquely modern, from plumbing and HVAC to colonialism. We also went to Nottinghamshire to visit my English cousins, some of the warmest and best-hearted people I know, and they showed us Sherwood Forest, lawn bowling, and cricket, which remains incomprehensible.
All of this was lovely and enriching and, should you get the chance to come here if you haven’t already, well worth your time. But I admit I have a complicated relationship with England, London in particular, one I had a sense of before but couldn’t quite identify until now. This is my seventh trip to England, and in college I spent a semester in London, living in an absurdly posh neighborhood just off of Hyde Park. I love England, and I love English life. I love that they have pubs on nearly every other corner–yes, for the convenience of grabbing a pint whenever your fancy strikes but moreover for the function the pub performs, serving as a sort of community living room where people can drink and gossip with coworkers, take a date or have a night out with a spouse, or wear comfy pants and play Words with Friends on their phones over fish and chips; it is truly a public house, an institution America sorely lacks. I love that the English understand themselves in several ways, with a person’s occupation being just one facet in an overall jeweled life. If we had a good reason to live here–if Bri or I got a job here, one that paid well enough for frequent trips to the states to visit our friends and family–we could live well.
Which is kind of the problem: at this point, I may have gotten everything I can from England as a tourist destination (well, I haven’t seen Madame Tussaud’s, but I’m content to live the rest of my life without seeing a creepy waxy simulacrum of a creepy waxy king of pop). I’m in an in-between state, in which I know England like a home, yet it has little bearing on my regular life. It’s been a magical place I can enter periodically through a rabbit hole or a portal that, for some reason, has manifested inside a dusty old wardrobe, but, as with Alice and the Pevensie kids in their sequels, the terrain on the other side is no longer all that fantastical for me–its strangeness has become familiar, but sooner or later we must leave it, as we are not talking animals or anthropomorphized playing cards.
I suppose this may be a necessary consequence of travel: a blurring of the line between foreign and domestic and the realization that home itself can travel, locating wherever, along with your heart, your ties are. (We’ll see how well this theory holds up in a few months.) I’ll miss England, but–here’s a silver lining–I’ve already grown used to missing it and should, with any luck, be able to cope.