Saturday, 17 September 2011

Athens and Acharnon Street

(Because the cover of John Lucas's book is in splendid black and white, I decided as an experiment, to make all the images in this post monochrome. Is it my imagination or does this give the feeling of going back in time?)

When I picked up John Lucas's 92 Acharnon street, A Year in Athens I first read it as Acheron and I think immediately of passing the Acheron when I was on the bus from Igoumenitza to Athens, or at least there was a sign pointing to it though I didn't actually see the river. Seeing this sign reminded me that the geographical landscape of Greece is also the home of the gods on Olympus and the home too of Hades, with the river Acheron leading to the underworld.

The ancient world is still right here, mingling with the modern one and nowhere is it more apparent than in the Plaka district of Athens, city still of light, with its narrow cobbled streets around the Acropolis. The evening we arrived I went with S and her family, taking the gleaming new metro from Neos Cosmos to Akropoli and walking through the warm streets, ending up in the Bajraktari restaurant.

The following day R and I took the metro again, and I went to the new Acropolis museum, a shiny and spacious building, full of partial and complete statues or koroi – Athena, with her snake-hemmed robes, many centaurs, often fighting with men - lions and bulls in conflict and elegant horses with trimmed manes.

I later set out to go up to the Parthenon but it was closed, there was a strike that day. So I walked around the acropolis in the sunshine, under a clear blue sky. Climbed some rocks where there was a view of the creamy city, bordered by straight cypresses, unmoving in the still air.

I've only read a few pages of 92 Acharnon Street so far, but it is difficult to put down. To read about other places is for me, second only to actually being in other places.

Take his description of his apartment block

Acrid fumes of cheap petrol and diesel, the hot smells of abraded rubber and brake shoes slammed against wheel rims, all drifted up from the traffic-clogged road on which my apartment block stood.”

and of Acharnon Street -

A six lane highway heading straight into the city centre, it was as busy at three am as at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. All night long queues of nose-to-tail cars, lorries, coaches, taxis and motorbikes filled Acharnon Street, howling to a sudden halt (there was a set of traffic lights almost outside my window) blurting horns when red turned to green......and then they'd career towards the next set of lights under a haze of exhaust fumes, tyres screeching...... “

This reminds me of stepping out of the bus station at Athens after travelling all day from Corfu. It was dark by the time we arrived and I went out of the bus station by the same exit that we had come in, weeks earlier, when we'd been given a lift there by friends of S. But this was clearly only a dropping off point, for there was only a narrow pavement, no sign of any buses stopping here, and a huge multi-lane highway was covered in roaring fast-moving traffic.

If heaven is a place where you experience a feeling of belonging, then this roaring mechanical stream of traffic with bright headlights and red tail lights, sweeping past you, not just oblivious to your existence but something that would quickly put an end to it and not even notice, were you to step out into its lethal current – this surely had to be the underworld. Not a river of water but a grinding roar which, while the cars were driven by human beings, took no account of the fragility of human existence. I went back into the bus station, wondering how other people managed

to find a way out, and that was when I discovered another exit. Which meant I managed to escape into the more human friendly metro from Omonia to Neos Cosmos, and walked from there to E's apartment.

Because the author, John Lucas, is in Athens to teach a course in English literature, the book is also full of references to some of my favourites, Cavafy, Byron, Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, and even gossip from people who had met her, her husband and some of the other people from whom the characters depicted in her books are derived. Already in the first two chapters, the amazing hospitality of the Greeks, their love of life, their ways of adapting to a tortuous bureaucratic system, all has been revealed, with moving and humorous precision. I can't wait to read more.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Path to Morges - Part 2

The first part of my journey is downhill, towards the village of Etoy. This feeling of assisted movement, assisted by the downward slope towards the lakeside, supports the delightful illusion that I am going somewhere, I am doing something, even though it's clear I'm doing very little and much less than I will do later, puffing and pedalling up the hill. Nevertheless, gradient is a powerful creator of illusion and as I speed downhill, the air rushing past me donates a joyous lightness, a magical sensation of near-flight, a feathery experience, where it is clear that air is a very solid and muscular medium which if we could only see it, contains eddies and whirlpools, curves and plumes and fantastic spiral and torus patterns.

We can see these only in the visible forms caught up in the air's playful game – like the dried leaves in the yard which suddenly swirl into patterns, with some of them rising upwards, still circling, forming a cone, with one or two escaping out of the top of the cone, then drifting like birds, floating, moving neither up nor down, before slipping downwards, the animating hand in the glove that spun them round, abruptly withdrawn.

Swept on and almost upwards by this illusion I follow a road to St Prex then explore a path that soon leads away from the road. First it runs parallel to the motorway, close enough to hear the traffic and glimpse the flashing vehicles from time to time. Then the trail turns off and twists among vineyards with clumps of tender green and purple grapes nestling modestly between the wide and flashy fingers of the leaves. All the rows of vines are trimmed to a precise height, so that they look like thin lanes of topiary, pale green and lustrous corn-rows, immaculately braided. Some of them have rose-bushes at the end of rows, like guardian or stopping posts, with flashes of pink and yellow blooms.

I follow this unknown trail as it skirts a river then sidles round a mansion, with outhouses. An invisible dog barks. A few kilometres and turnings later the path passes underneath a railway bridge, then comes out onto a main road. I cross the road and only about 200 metres further on, there's the sign saying vin et fruits à vendre.

I know exactly where I am now, know I can slip off the road and follow a path that winds through the wood beside the lake, whose waves splash rhythmically against the shore. I feel triumphant. I've avoided the small towns of Bouchillon and St Prex, avoided the main road almost entirely, shortened the journey and made it much more pleasant, riding through the fields and woods and the feeling of success is as heady as the scented air. I am one of the topmost leaves, swirled upwards by the wind, wafted in scents of roses, pine resin and lake water.

The track continues through the woods then passes near the parking area on the outskirts of Morges, finally going through a park where a river sidles towards the lake and ducks sail, like squat brown unhurried leaves. Pedestrian bridges cross the river and there are paths and grassy areas, trimmed bushes and swept walkways and a tranquil atmosphere. The lane continues beside the castle and so we enter the town of Morges.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Path to Morges - Part 1

The Path to Morges

(written at Lavigny, Switzerland)

I press the button that opens the garage door. It always surprises me that this sheet-metal, lethal as an executioner, should be so obedient. First of all it moves outwards, just a little, towards me, as if to remind me of just what it could do, should it choose to. But it does not. It slides up and back with a monotonous grating sound. I'm always nervous at first but by the time it's about half way up I begin to trust that it will not lunge suddenly at me, with its metal edge, sharpened in the night to a razor alertness, and inflict damage before I can back away. Like a trained lion it goes through its paces.

Inside the garage, I kick the bike-stand, so that it lies smoothly against the wheel-side, push the bike out into the courtyard. The garage roof has mostly brick-red tiles, though a few have speckles of grey and beige lichen on them. Whether these are genuine lichen or some of those modern, pre-weathered tiles you can buy ready-stained at Monsieur Bricolage, I really do not know. I have not been able to examine them closely enough. But I imagine they've been bought, pre-aged and pre-stained, rather than allowing moss or lichen to grow between the cracks in tiles, spread and cover them unevenly with their curving, crusting delicate patterns bleaching and discolouring the tiles in their typical and rather graceful – so I think – fashion.

The other day I saw the daughter of the store-owners, standing with a long-handled implement some kind of hoe, I imagine, pushing its blade down between the carefully-laid zig-zag paving, to eradicate the non-existent weeds. This kind of vigilance I feel, could not allow stray lichen to create its segments of frilled mandala patterns to spread across roof tiles.

On the other side of the garage there is a tree, whose name I do not know, but who I converse with, every time I look from the balcony across the courtyard, to the garage roof. The tree soars above the roof, its glossy leaves a deep, plum-red colour, the shade of near-maroon, before the plums turn purple. Next to it is one of these bronze-leafed trees, between dark copper and green – a kind of burnished green, as if its leaves have been dipped in clear caramel, then allowed to dry into a matt varnish.

A few dry leaves make prickly scuttling sounds on windy days, when the broom-wind chases them around in circles, like naughty, untidy children. But actually, it is a game I feel, for once the leaves have huddled into a tidy heap, they break loose again and scatter across the yard.

The first part of my journey is downhill......