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.


Sue Reid Sexton said...

This is so atmospheric. I like places where the ancient and the modern collide or where, as in the wilderness, there is no sense of time at all.

Try Thai cities for insanely fumy traffic with no concern for human life.

dritanje said...

Thanks Sue. Can't wait to try these Thai cities while I'm still agile enough to duck and run and dodge traffic. I heard from a friend in Saigon recently that there are several lane roads, no traffic lights, no places for pedestrians to cross - you run and pray or pray and run or both, quickly at the same time!