[ Philhellenic Perspective
[ September 1996 Issue ]

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Welcome to the Journal

Hello. Welcome to the second issue of an internet journal about Greece, written by one who is a philhellene (a lover of Greece). Thanks to those who e-mailed me, it was instructive talking to you.

Last month's editorial about Greek-Turkish relations caused one correspondent to point out to me that the reason for the date on the ban on military maneuvers in the Aegean in July and August was probably due to it being prime maneuvering season rather than tourism - calm seas being necessary for both. [ Top of the Page ]

In Defense of Athens
In guidebooks and on the net, you regularly hear a round of attacks on Athens. Oh, its Acropolis, Agora and national museum are regarded as must see items, but the city receives only contempt. "Polluted", "architectural disaster", "crowded", "too hot", "bad traffic", "decaying", these are the cries. Everyone is advised to "spend a day or two there, see the sites and shove off to the islands."

While I would not call the city itself the most beautiful in the world, or even the most beautiful in Greece, the attacks surprise me because they don't correspond to the city I've visited twice. No, I wouldn't compare it to Venice or Florence, and wouldn't tell you to spend a week of your two week vacation there, but let's put a bit of reality into the equation.

What about those specific attacks? Let's take them up one by one. POLLUTION. Compared to what? I lived in Los Angeles, and when you come over the mountain passes into the LA basin you can literally see a wall of smog towering up at the pass. On a bad day in LA you just know your lungs are being eaten away (to say nothing of the paint on your car) by the smog. Athens has its "nefos" as well, but as "Unfair to Athens: About Pollution" explains, Athens is no standout when it comes to top polluters. Yes, its polluted. But on a par with any modern, large city. It can have very bad days due to geography and climate, but the average is like a large, modern city.

What about the TRAFFIC? Sorry, but Athens doesn't even take first place among the places I've lived. For pure speed, see the LA freeways; for unadulterated "I'm going to kill you!" see Boston; for extravagant safety violations, see Nairobi. Yes, drivers are fast and aggressive in Greece.

CROWDED? Compared to Bombay? To Cairo? This one I don't get at all - its a big city - of course its got lots of people in it. Just like all the other big cities. What do you expect? You can ignore the people - just hide in the Plaka section and avoid July and August.

Athens is attacked as UGLY - an architectural disaster. This is in reference to the rapid building of the city in this century which features an epidemic of unpainted concrete buildings. Well, ugly compared to what? I agree, it won't compare to the waterfront in any other Greek town or to the skyline of New York (at a distance). But the impression is left that the place looks like the city in "Blade Runner" or something - and its not the case. First, unlike the riot of individual styles in an American city, the similarity of construction does give a unity that can be a relief for the eyes. There certainly are trees, and 19th century Italianate buildings as well.

If you want ugly, look at any American strip development area. Between the shopping mall chaos of my own Waterloo, Iowa and Athens, there is no comparison: Athens is better.

DECAYED? Well, it is, somewhat. But I think something else is going on here. We see "decay" as a moral failing, but in Athens, much of it is a reflection of the lower level of wealth in Greece. Athens, and Greece itself, while certainly no third world outfit, are not as wealthy as most of Western Europe and America. Things aren't as plush. The air conditioning isn't as cold; the cars aren't as new, the walls aren't as freshly painted; the faucets aren't gold. To many Americans, whose idea of adventure is a new ride at Disneyland, Athens can look bare and bleak. While acknowledging the fact that decay exists, there is also a pleasure in the simplicity produced by relative poverty. Its can be refreshing, because the opulence of American tourist spots is so bloating.

More than just putting its admitted, considerable problems in proper perspective, Athens has considerable charms, and we must turn our attention to those now.

If having the foundation sites of Western Civilization (the Acropolis, the Agora, the Pnyx, the Areopagus) all within walking distance of each other and of decent hotels at $50-60 a night and dozens of restaurants just doesn't do it for you, I'm not sure what will, but let me try. Athens has significant museums both large and small that offer considerable art, history and politics for view. There are concerts and revivals of ancient plays; monasteries with amazing icons and frescoes. Admittedly, to fully enjoy those things you have to dig a bit, because they aren't always well documented, and some of the museums in particular have only the most minimal explanation, so some advance study, or a good guide will pay benefits.

It's cheap. Try getting a hotel with air conditioning and breakfast in New York for $50 a night for a double. Try eating dinner al fresco someplace else for $12 including the wine. Try getting to the airport direct from the center of the tourist sites someplace else for $1.50 on the bus.

But I would be lying if I sold you Athens on the basis of a list of "look-em-up-in-the-guidebook-and-check-em-off" attractions. Athens' charms lie in its people, its human, walkable scale, and its culture of conversation. There is an energy to the place and the people, evident in the speed of the language (they slow down in English) and the pace of life. >From the Plaka you can walk to a week's worth of tourist sites. But mostly its the culture of conversation. The famous kafenions and restaurants are not famous for food or decor but for the human culture.

The book "Athens" in the series "The Great Cities" by William Davenport (Time-Life, 1978, at p. 73) recounts a paradigm evening: gathering with friends at 7; conversation and food till 9; a decision to go to the wine festival implemented after more conversation and food at 10:30; at the wine festival till 1 a.m.; hitch hiking back into town; rescue by a random motorist who (of course) invites them to join him for more food, drink and conversation - while he does business with another person - at 2 a.m.! All of it a great swirl of old friends and instant friends, food, drink (but no drunkenness) and conversation. One of the great charms of Athens is to take three hours for dinner at an outdoor cafe. In our hurried, eat on the run culture, I have found that this idea of leisure and conversation is enormously attractive to my friends.

And then there is the cultural fact that to a Greek hospitality is not just a duty, but a point of honor. True, their politics is factionalized and verbally violent, but they aren't that way to you as a tourist. Learn about five words of Greek, spend a minute or two treating the Greeks you encounter like human beings, and be prepared for an onslaught of hospitality. Athens has other, subtle, ordinary, charms.

It has balconies - tens of thousands of balconies. Surely the balcony must rank among the top twenty of humanity's most civilized ways of living. With the balcony comes awnings in deep green or blue and the afternoon ritual of deploying them. The architecture and ritual make sense only if one is to sit outdoors, a pleasant prospect.

Athens does not have skyscrapers. I don't know how they managed this, but there are no skyscrapers. The Acropolis still stands above the city, and you are spared the disaster of staring down on it from some observation balcony, or watching it overwhelmed by a forest of steel. As a result, you catch glimpses of the Acropolis from around the city, and you seem to be subtly aware of it, even when you can't see it.

Again, let me be clear. If you're spending two weeks in Europe, I'm not telling you to spend a week of it in Athens. Even if you're spending two weeks in Greece, I'm not telling you to give a week of it to Athens. I'm just saying don't avoid the place or dread your visit there because you hear its a hell hole. It's not. If you prefer reality over Disneyland, if you stay in the Plaka and avoid July and August, you can enjoy it. I'd love to live there.

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Patmos: Religion, Beauty, Computers & the ATM Machine

Patmos, an island in the Dodecanese islands of the eastern Aegean needs no defense. An official "5 star island" according to the 1995 edition of "Greek Island Hopping" by Thomas Cook, (an honor it shares with Mykonos, Santorini, among others) it has a well deserved reputation. A minor puff first: if you look at the latest "Frommers: Greece on $45 a day" entry for Patmos, you will find a story told about the Blue Bay hotel with reference to a "Mr. Smith and friends." My wife and I were two of the "friends" that Robert Smith introduced to Patmos in 1994, and I want to introduce you to it now.

Why not start with a hotel? The Blue Bay will do nicely. Located 100-200m to the east of the main harbor landing along the waterfront road, it is isolated from the noise of the harbor, yet is within walking distance of everything. For $40-50 a double you get accommodation in a new hotel, balcony views of the ocean, breakfast al fresco 20 feet from the sea, and the services of the archetypal hotel owners, Vasiles and Maria Karantane. Spending the winters in Australia, they have a fluent English with an Australian accent. They are wonderful hosts. There are plenty of rooms in the harbor town as well, some other friends paid $20 a double a night for roomy, comfy, large accommodations.

As the guidebooks tell you, Patmos is beautiful, and has two principal sites: the cave of the Revelation and the monastery of St. John. The cave is where John is reputed to have written the book of Revelation. The cave is now surrounded by a church, but certainly is cave like. We attended Sunday morning worship there, hearing a great choir. Up the hill is the monastery with a true 'working' chapel some 900 years of age (that is, it hasn't been "restored" into unrecognizableness).

Climb to the monastery, at least once, by taking the walkway and turn around to see the staggering vista that comes into view. On a clear day you can see Samos and Ikaria. While on top, wander aimlessly around Chora, the little village that clusters about the monastery's stone walls, exploring its tiny alleys.

Our friend, Robert Smith, knew several of the monks and so we got into the libraries and even into a monk's cell. Brother Ignacio had quite a computer setup, to say nothing of his fax machine.

We rented motor bikes and spent the better part of two days poking around the island - driving to the extreme northeastern end, and finally feeling a bit of what exile there must have been like for John. The island is dotted with little picturesque towns, friendly small tavernas and riotous collections of flowers. Take a bag of film. And while the guidebooks all solemnly intone that motorcycle helmets cannot be rented in Greece, we had no problems renting them in Patmos.

Its not totally isolated, tours and cruse ships find it, but not too many. In fact, one of the island pleasures is sitting at a quayside restaurant, savoring the swordfish souvalki, and taking the undeniable satisfaction of watching the tour groups leave, while you are staying.

Oh, yes, the ATM machine. There is one on the island of the Revelation. Right by the harbor landing. Takes your local bank cards just fine.

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Entangled Allies: A Book Review

"Entangled Allies: U. S. Policy Toward Greece, Turkey and Cyprus"
by Monteagle Stearns,
Council on Foreign Relations,
New York, 1992.

Mr. Stearns, a former U. S. Ambassador to Greece has written a good summary book for those wanting some background on the entanglements of Greece and Turkey. With clarity and sometimes bluntness, he describes not only the history of the conflict since WW II but also U.S. policy (or lack of policy) toward the area.

He presents the fears of both Turkey and Greece of being slighted by NATO and the west, gives some insight into why the conflict is overlooked by the U. S., and offers some (fairly realistic) views toward a solution.

For me he helped explain why the situation between Greece and Turkey is stable in such a seemingly unstable way: the countries poised at the brink of war, but never tumbling over. Stearns makes a case for what both sides could gain by the negotiation of a comprehensive settlement, and that such a settlement would have to be guaranteed by an outside party, probably the United States.

However, that will require a change from the usual U. S. inattention that only cares about the region during a crisis and responds to that by dispatching officials who must be briefed on the plane flight over and can only see the two countries in terms of their geopolitical value for the U. S.

Hypernationalists won't enjoy his even handed approach, but Greece's friends shouldn't be afraid of his conclusions.

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Finding Greece: A Web Site With Content

The Hellenic Resources Institute (HRI)

Many, many web sites are just lists of pointers to other web site list of pointers, but here is one with some content. HRI is based in Cambridge, MA and its site offers several significant bodies of information.

1. News about Greece. Several news agencies offer daily subscriptions to news reports on Greece. I should review those separately at some point, but they are all listed here. Archives of back issues are here also.

2. Documents about Greece. Actually these are rather focused on documents defending Greece's territory against Turkey - I'd like to see a wider set of stuff here, but hey - where else on the net can you actually download a map that shows Imia (the island disputed by Turkey). Not even my highly detailed printed map of the region shows Imia.

3. The Hellenic Literature Society. These folks publish a bi-weekly journal about Greek books, offer a big catalog, etc.

4. American Hellenic Media Project. These folks look out for anti-Greece propaganda in the media and fire off responses. You can find quotes from the worse offenders and AHMP's replies. Wandering through their site is somewhat sad, if only because writers you admired have said some rather stupid things about Greece. Perhaps some day, AHMP can expand into taking on the Afro-centrist nonsense that is about today.

5. The Greek Institute. Check out the film reviews which offer capsule summaries of a number of Greek films.

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Coming-up Next Time

Later this month I'm off to the "Greece in Print" book show in New York City. I'll have reports on that and some more resources. See you.

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Philhellenic Perspective

is published once a month to the newsgroups soc.culture.greece and rec.travel.europe as well as appearing on the web. It is published by John P. Nordin who is solely responsible for its contents. You may reproduce this material, in whole or in part provided you provide proper acknowledgement of the source, and you don't distort the content.

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