Greek efficiency

Kieran Egan


"Greek efficiency" are words one doesn't often see yoked together. There is a reason for this. We had marked on a map of the city the location of our hotel, and passed this over to the taxi driver as we headed from the airport towards Athens, at night in rain. He pulled the taxi onto the shoulder of the new highway and examined the map. He seemed to conclude that there was no way to get there from here. Initially we thought that the name and location of the hotel were the problem. Our insistence that it was close to the Parthenon, and the failure of this information to get him back onto the highway, made us wonder whether the obscure ancient site was also unfamiliar. After more minutes, we began to wonder whether his apparent befuddlement was due to some uncertainty about the general location of Athens. We then assumed, knowingly, that we were witnessing the commonest ploy to drive up the fare, as the meter ticked over during his prolonged bewilderment about every suggestion we made that might at least move us in the direction of those lights ahead. But when we finally persuaded him to head for the city, he spent much of the time roaring at high speed along major streets, then lowering his window and calling through the rain to pedestrians, seeking directions. Maps, it seems, were not taken as usefully relating to the real world.


Taxi drivers everywhere, of course, are too easy fodder for travelers' tales. But I don't recall anywhere being driven by so strange a group as in Athens. They were often charming, and invariably talkative, and their common assumption that we would be interested in the more intimate details of their sex lives and marital difficulties (often unconnected) was indeed not misplaced. We had the slightly sordid pleasure of being informed about the astonishing details of a woman driver's married life, including her husband’s flagrant infidelity with that ugly bitch in the apartment downstairs that persuaded her to kick the bastard out, taking over his taxi license. How many people had she told this story to? She continued shouting further details of the story into the car as she herself got out to fill up with gas—about his attempted return when the slut got pregnant––keeping the engine running and the meter ticking over as she did so.


We learned quickly that these ploys were not something to worry about, as the price asked for a trip bore no relationship to the meter anyway. One haggled. Typically, with modern Greek logic, we were told that the price was, say, the equivalent of $15, but, because we had a suitcase in the back, it would be $40. Five suitcases and three more people in the car would be $41.


Our first driver finally got us to our hotel. He smoked all the way, and showed an odd reluctance to put his hands on the steering wheel, especially when exceeding 100 kph. But we parted like old friends whom he could hardly wait to see again. We trundled our bags up the steps of the hotel--a bit weary from the overnight flight to London then a long wait and the red-eye across to Greece--only to be told that there were no reservations for us. But they had heard of us, apparently, and had arranged that we should stay at another hotel—their "sister"—only a few blocks away. We dragged the cases the further few blocks, were of course told that they'd never heard of us at the sister hotel, but they would, at considerable cost and inconvenience, put us up anyway.


The Greek trip was to attend a conference about "Learning" on the island of Spetses. The "we" I will refer to throughout are colleagues from my university, Geoff and Jean, with whom I had prepared a "workshop". This involved each of us presenting a set of principles about forms of children's imaginative lives, and then giving examples of how these principles could be seen to operate in learning, perhaps involving the audience in responding like the students on whom we would be using our infallibly effective techniques. I can't deny, as you are no doubt skeptically surmising, that had this conference been in, say, Pittsburg or Birmingham, we might have been a little less keen to attend. And I had never been to Greece before.


The conference organizers had arranged that when registering one could elect to pay an extra wad of one's own cash and take a four-day pre-conference tour around some of the islands. We had decided to do this, and to stay in Athens for an extra day to get oriented, then a couple of days hence, we'd head down to the harbour at Peireus and try to find our tour boat.


Early next morning, while Jean elected to sleep in, Geoff and I set out to walk up to the Parthenon. Of course we had seen a million pictures of it, admired it in endless movies, had watched documentaries detailing every feature of it, knew it so well I wondered why we should bother almost. But there it stood, massive beyond my expectations, of rich honeyed stone (though its colour might owe something to Athens's grotesque pollution); one of the wonders of humankind.


The Athenians had played a leading role in winning the war against the Persian Empire, and had, as a result, the greatest fleet in the Aegean—deforesting Attica in the process. After the war, they patrolled the Aegean, ready to fight off any further threat from the massive Empire to the east. "Persian" is from the Greek word for "destroyer." The Athenians collected protection money from all the island states. The islanders were supposed to commit soldiers, sailors, or ships to this defensive fleet and war engine. But as the years went by and the threat from Persia faded, the Athenians insisted that they would take on themselves the responsibility for defending the whole of Greece, and so the islanders could donate money. It was a good deal for both sides. The islanders needed their men on the farms or in fishing boats. And the Athenians used the money to make them militarily the dominant force in Greece and the significant amounts of cash left over was spent making ancient Athens one of the most magnificent cities the world has ever seen.


The ancient city was built in much the same time it took the modern city to grow after WW II from a population of a few hundred thousand to its current population of 3,000,000. It is not obvious, nor is it generally believed, that the moderns did as good a job as the ancients. Indeed, modern Athens is—let us say--undistinguished.


Our islands cruise began with massive chaos at the harbour at Peireus. It was not till later than I realized that what I considered chaos was in fact just the way things are done in Greece. We moved from anxious crowd to pushing crowd until by some miracle we located one whose members mostly claimed to be preparing to enter the boat whose name was on our tickets. So we stayed put. A uniformed woman with fraying computer print-outs appeared and everyone shouted out their names, and the lucky ones then moved out of the staging area presumably towards the gangplank. Geoff's and Jean's names were on the list, but mine was not. I decided to go confidently with them even so, assuming that I was less likely to be turfed off the boat once on it than denied entry in the first place. And so it was. At the desk inside the boat, there was much looking at my passport and searching of lists, and then talking on cell phones to the conference organizers or the prime minister’s office. After about half an hour of this, the officials seemed to give up and just wrote my name on a list and I was assigned to share a cabin with Geoff.


The anxieties about finding our boat in time, and being allowed on, and being given cabins faded as we got underway and settled at a small table in the rear of the boat with cool beers and watched the city sink into the twilight and the sea, which was coloured by a spectacular sunset. We agreed, after the bustle of the day, that this was not a bad place to be or a bad thing to be doing. This was the watery route all those ancient Athenians took from Peireus. What remained of what they would have seen? The great walls of the city had been destroyed at the culmination of the Pelopponesian War, which they catastrophically lost; whatever buildings had been around the port were long smothered in the modern tack; the line of the shore was shifted and overbuilt; and the Parthenon on its acropolis was invisible in smog. Even the shapes of the land would have been different. All vegetation had been erased. It seemed that leaving Peireus by boat today we shared nothing with Pericles leaving for a tour with the fleet around the Aegean long ago.


First we were scheduled to go to Mykonos. There was something frantic about the powerful boat's drive through the seas, which mostly happened as we slept. I had imagined taking these waters at a sail's pace, the idle plash against Odysseus's boat, the oars gently slapping the sounding furrows.


In the morning, there ahead was another boat like ours. Arriving in Mykonos, we had to wait while yet another boat like ours left the dock, whose place we took beside two others. As we were disgorged onto the dock, one of the other boats was filling and preparing to leave, and the middle boat's people were buying their bracelets, ear-rings and beers in the village.


Mykonos is one of the world centers of the homosexual rich. The Elton Johns and other gay jet-setters lived in such palaces as those we could see on the hills. We shuffled along the narrow streets, keeping to one side as the returnees to boat two were doggedly shuffling back hugging the other. They were hardly able to pause even to look in the shop windows as they were borne on by the press of the crowd—such vast success at attracting tourists perhaps undermining the ability of the crowds to actually get into a shop.


But everything was cosmetically neat and clean. Even the plaster between the street stones was clean and pastel coloured, the whole place an astonishing confection. It was as though the original village had been given over, along with a huge budget, to the second best interior designers in Saskatoon to go to work on.


At the end of the village, we posed dutifully and took pictures of each other by the great windmills that give the village one of its distinctions. And there were some lovely glimpses along the buildings rising against the sea front. A few old fishermen lounged in the harbour. They no longer fished, of course. Their profligate use of the explosives left after the war had pretty well depleted the fish stocks that had sustained their ancestors for hundreds of generations. The place seemed oddly lifeless, a once pretty village Hollywoodized into a confection whose existence owed nothing to its ancient purposes.


We dragged ourselves dutifully along the narrow streets. I had heard of tours, of course, but now found myself in the middest. We were packages with money attached, delivered and driven by all the compulsions the tourist industry has come to manage with great skill along this gamut of shopkeepers and bars, whose owners were to relieve us of as much money as possible. It was so ritualized that one could hardly complain, or feel aloof; one had to play one's somewhat weary role.


The many islands we passed—“lily on lily that o’erlace the sea”--were clogged with ancient ghosts. So, no doubt, is everywhere humans have lived, if one but knew about them. It's just that here people have been writing their stories for so long. In the early years of the Roman Republic's rise to power over the Mediterranean and all the lands around it, the Greek monarch, Mithridates, took Mykonos from them, and destroyed the Roman city that had been an extension of the ancient village. He was King of Pontus, to the north, had inherited the throne as a boy, yet was a person of such brilliance and energy that as a young man he had invaded and thrown back the Romans and their Asian levies down through Cappadocia and out onto these islands. He had received a Greek education, at a time when that meant something serious, spoke 22 languages, and had a fabulous collection of paintings and sculptures.


Mithridates lived in tough times, when rulers died easily from poisoning. He intended to make himself immune to this threat by taking small and then, very gradually, increasingly large doses of all the "many-venomed earth." And so, as A. E. Housman put it, when the strychnined drinks and arseniced food went round, "easy, smiling, seasoned sound," he drank and ate to his heart's content: "Mithridates, he died old."
The ancient Greeks, in the writings that have survived, and in their remaining sculptures, had what now seems a genius for directly addressing the serious matters of life with dignity and clarity. No doubt most ancient Greeks were as confused and venal and absorbed with nonsense as we are. But what remains of them is a high seriousness, whose direct clarity is rarely heard elsewhere in all the human voices that makes up the cacophony of our cultures. The Greek voice can be heard still among all those shouts and cries and passions and hopes and fears: a note of calm seriousness in the face of whatever life and death had to throw at them. It's a note that seems to have largely disappeared with their peculiar civilization. And is much derided today, as the tap root of that logo-centric, patriarchal, Eurocentric, etc. etc. culture, by people who seem to know nothing much about it.
After a couple of days of being herded through Rhodes and Patmos and astonishing Ephesus, I realized that I seemed to have made no contact with the idea of Greece I had picked up from those romantic Children's Encyclopaedias long ago. The glory that was Greece was somehow entirely evading me. Where might I see some hint of it? Leaning over the boat rail, I tried to imagine Pericles plowing these waters, and listened for those “deep sea bells.” Or see the flickering light on the water as the eyes of the sea-lady, who continues to search for her lover, “Alexander, Alexander, the king of the world and me,” in Flecker’s poem “Santorin.” But the urgent throb of the tour boat rushing us to the next waiting cluster of tourist shops, slicing waves along the boat's side, washed away any gentle echo of the flapping sail and wooden prow rising and falling with the waves we smashed to frothing spray. In olden days the islands themselves would have looked different, more verdant, richer in trees, with your requisite allotment of nymphs, gods, and fauns.
At Lindos on Rhodes, we stood in the old Greek temple, a group of tired tourists dutifully trying to recognize why we were trudging around this acropolis. The tour guide brought the party to life, and the cameras into fervid action, as he pointed over a far wall and solemnly announced that much of the movie "The Guns of Navarone" had been shot down there on the cliffs.
The islands rise abruptly from the Aegean to sudden peaks and high rounded hills, with snug harbours and white villages trickling up precipitous valleys. In the early 20th. century, a Captain Corry of the British Royal Navy, which ruled these as all other waters of the world, dispatched a junior officer to survey a group of hills on the island of Lemnos. The young man considered this a tiresome and demeaning task, when he would prefer the idleness and pleasure of cruising the sparkling waters and relaxing at island harbours where nymphs or their modern equivalents might be more accommodating than anything on offer in a tent on the cool hilltops. He reported back some days later that the visible peaks were oddly named by the locals Yam, Yrroc, Eb, and Denmad. So they were recorded on British admiralty charts until the 1920s, when someone thought to read the words backwards.
Returning from Rhodes to Athens, we had a long run through the Dodecanese and then into the Cyclades. It was here that I finally took time to lean on the rail and watch the islands, relatively, pass. Trying to feel something other than the impressions of tourist entrapments. And there to the left of the boat was the island of Melos. It was from there that the statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite was found in 1820, now called the Venus de Milo. But that powerful woman's was not the voice one can hear from that island. How far was it from the boat? The people around the Ganges, have a convenient measurement for such a distance—a gaukos, which is the distance from which a cow's bellow can be heard.


The ghosts of Melos speak in the voice of the historian, Thucydides. There, just over there, in 416 BC, the Athenians put the all the men to death and sold the women and children into slavery, because the islanders declared themselves neutral in the Pelopponesian war between Athens and Sparta. Not because the islanders sided with the Spartans. No, this mega-death was the punishment for neutrality. Thucydides gives us the reasons why, on the one side, the islanders believed Athens should accept their neutrality, and on the other, the reasons why the Athenian commanders believed that only their capitulation was to Athens' advantage. The Melians said that, despite the overwhelming power of the Athenians, they might reasonably resist and trust that the gods would favour their just cause—"because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong."
The Athenian commanders, Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes, and Tisias, son of Tisimachus, gave the chilling response:
"Our aims and our actions are perfectly consistent with the beliefs men hold about the gods and with the principles that govern their own conduct. Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule wherever one can. This is not a law we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us." With the most stark and unremitting logic of power, the Athenians point out that the strong always take what they can and the weak yield what they must. In this case, what was yielded by the weaker Melians, in the vain hope that the Spartans would help them, was the lives of all males of fighting age, and all the women and children sold into slavery.


Sorry to go on about it, but my Ph.D. dissertation was on the development of historical consciousness, in cultural history and in people today. I became closely familiar with Herodotus, who told the romantic story of Athens that culminated in those unequalled shining buildings on the cliffs above the city, and with Thucydides, who told the tragic story of Athens' decline that culminated in the destruction of its army in a stone quarry in Syracuse. Thucydides' history is told as a straightforward tragedy, in which a noble character—Athens––achieves great success by good fortune; they take the success as due to their own virtue and power rather than as due to fortune, and so become deluded about the extent of their virtue and power; in this state of delusion they take on more than they can achieve, and are consequently and inexoribly destroyed.


It remains a book of immense force—Thucydides’ not my thesis, in case you were wondering--a refresher in sanity, for those who might still feel a need for that rare condition. And we carry away his message that the strong take what they can, the weak yield what they must. "Those who really deserve praise are the people who, while human enough to enjoy power, nevertheless pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to by their situation". It was this principle that the Athenians upheld under Pericles' leadership, and, after Pericles' death, betrayed.


A couple of days later, on the way from Pireus to Spetses we stopped in the harbour of Hydra, which was shockingly beautiful. The high arms of the bay almost encircled us as we approached the dock, the hydrofoil churning the waters into curdling foam, creating mixes of brilliant milky white and swirling streams of light and darker blue.


As we roared on the final stretch to Spetses, Geoff said that there was a Japanese guy on the other side of him who was reading one of my books. Every writer, I suspect, even of mere education books, longs to see someone reading their work: to watch the reader's face, hoping to see . . . what?--surprised enlightenment, waves of joy, intense engagement?--almost anything but boredom. There was indeed a young Japanese man on the other side of Geoff by the window, and he was reading a book, but I just assumed it was one of Geoff's less successful jokes and got on with reading my own paper. A few days later at the conference I met the young man, who asked me to autograph the book. It had been true! I had missed the golden moment! I might never again serendipitously see someone reading one of my books, especially a Japanese on a hydrofoil in Greece.
But I should say something about the conference, our ostensible reason for being there. It was to have been held at a college supposedly based on Eton and enshrining the spirit of Byron. The Anargyrios and Korgialenios College had been built and founded in 1927. The novelist John Fowles had taught there in the 1950s, and it features in his novel “The Magus”. He felt it must have been organized by someone who had no knowledge of Eton and less of the spirit of Byron. He described it as it was in the 1950s:


“The school is in a park by the sea, which one can hear on the shingle. The garden is full of cypresses and olive-trees. There are hibiscus in bloom. A well-equipped gymnasium, a football-pitch, tennis-courts, even two fives courts! A school which is a dream, superbly situated and equipped for 400 boys. But there are only 150, and they are dwindling in numbers.” Not longer after this the school closed. It is used these days for occasional conferences. The conferences are occasional rather than frequent, one can only guess because the Greeks who run it try too frequently the trick they tried on the Australian organizers of our conference. A week or so before everything was due to get underway, they announced that the prices had tripled, and the conference could not go ahead unless the new fees were paid. On the assumption that too much was committed for the organizers to change their plans.


The Aussies, however, found a school in the village nearby, had it painted and cleaned, and scheduled everything there, involving themselves with bitter battles with the outraged Greeks and the local police who seemed similarly shocked at this perfidious Australian behaviour of failing to happily shell out three times the agreed amount for renting the college. I expressed astonishment at this seeming crookery to a jaded conference-goer, who said did I not reflect on why Greece, the perfect place for international conferences, was host to so few of them. They always pulled some similar crooked trick to get more money, I was told. Who knows—not me, but my jaded colleague seemed confident in his knowledge.


I had booked a hotel close the the Fowles college, and now found myself facing a 20 minute walk each morning. Or I could get the bus, which turned up intermittently and unreliably. The walk along a small road became a morning enchantment, passing the front of the college, seeing and hearing the sea as Fowles described it, vivified by the bright air and the fragrant breeze. Well into middle age, this pleasant walk occasioned some melancholy moments as I reflected that this warmth, these smells, the bright air, and great beauty had been here when I was a young man in Nottingham and London’s grey suburbs in mean times. Had I known, wouldn’t I have walked across Europe and swum the Aegean to these islands? No, trapped by the smallness of what was possible and by such ignorance of what was really possible.


In Greece if you have a problem that needs urgent fixing you try to find the appropriate official’s “other office.” The “office” is the place that delays decisions. The “other office” is the place where money can change hands and decisions are made.

Jean was sick one day, and we went about the conference business without her. Listening to papers, stealing a dull patch with some colleagues to catch up on what they were doing, discovering new acquaintances, doing related work. When we went to commiserate with Jean over dinner, we discovered that she was in fine form. She had got bored in the hotel, and feeling a bit disoriented, decided to take the ferry to Hydra. She had found a cafe on one of the high arms of the snug harbour, with a table out on the point, and had sat and read and drunk a few Mythos beers, and generally felt no pain by the late afternoon when she caught the hydrofoil back to Spetses.


The next day the conference quit at noon, so we went with her back to her table in the shade looking down at the perfect small harbour. For some time it was perfect. Then each of us had to reckon with a possible regret that somewhere in the course of life we had made choices among whose unanticipated and not entirely satisfactory consequences was that we were now looking down at people on their yachts coming into the harbour rather than looking up from our yachts at tourists having a beer.


My hotel, close to the Korgialenios College where the conference was to be, but a brisk 15 minute walk into Spetses where the conference actually was. The Lefka Palace hotel was so new they were still installing the last marble tiles in the spacious lobby. I was in a chalet on the hillside, from which one walked down to breakfast—past cicadas that sounded like industrial strength tinnitus—onto a wide balcony open to the morning breeze, took one's table facing the light blue sea, over the olive trees, and simulated an English milord looking to the mainland hills above Epidauros in the distance.


But buying a ticket, for anywhere, in Greece, was fraught with anxiety, especially as we prepared to leave Spetses for the mainland, and after threats that the police-chief would not let anyone leave until the bill was paid to the original conference organizer. As one shuffled impatiently in the slowly moving, pushing lines to get to the distracted and hostile person giving out the tickets, rumours were passed back that there were no more buses, trains, hydrofoils, or that there would be a change in the schedule, or that the schedule was reversed that day, or, sometimes after long waits, that the ticket lady had felt tired and gone home. Why did Odysseus take so long getting home from Troy? Constantly having to deal with Greek travel agents.


We returned to Athens after the conference for a couple of days. I wanted to meet a publisher, who had expressed interest in maybe translating one of my books into Greek, and I wanted to interest him in another as well. Then a final two or three day of holiday at our own expense. Delphi the second day. Tour bus, around the city to other hotels, finally change to another bus, then, over an hour later we head out of the city, passing the front door on my hotel on the way.


Agamemnon's palace. We had been impressed on the islands at the number of stunningly overweight Americans, gamely determined to see the sights. Just the number of calories required to move such bulk up the steep entrance to the palace, suggested that considerable calorific intake would be required to make up for losses. One large lady, giving up at the corner under the lion gate, said "Honey, tell me about it. I'll buy the postcards when we get down." 39° we learned later.


I arrived back at the hotel in the late afternoon, and took tea in the dining area. It was the day on which they cleaned the angled glass roof above. Four feet by ten feet sheets of glass, with metal struts between them. A man climbed up a ladder at the end, and cautiously eased himself onto the glass, spreading his weight. As he lay spread across the glass, a colleague passed up a hose that poured a small stream of water, which he following with long-handled brush and squeegee. At best risky, at normal inviting catastrophe, and at worst seeming likely to lead to a shattering death with multiple glass shards severing arteries, taking out whatever tourists were sitting below. As he advanced towards me, I felt distinctly uneasy. Made worse by a dribble of water finding its way between the panes of glass. Perhaps a weakness, through which he would shortly be joining me. Have you tried reading your TLS calmly while an overweight man is spread-eagled above you, moving jerkily on sheets of groaning glass? Slowly, casually, in moves I had learnt from James Bond, I gathered up my paper and tea and moved out to a table in the lobby.


On our last day, Geoff and I sat for a while in the cool of the evening on the hotel roof looking up at the Parthenon. In the seats in front of us, snapping flashlit pictures of the ruined temple, and chatting rather loudly and a tiny bit inanely, there were three young women from Cleveland. It was their first time abroad. This was their fifth European country. They turned to engage us in conversation, hearing us quietly speak English, particularly to help them "process" their hurt and upset, having for the first time experienced consistent anti-Americanism, "even here in Greece". They couldn't understand why Americans were not universally loved, and clearly expected us to commiserate and explain the inexplicable.
I am ashamed of how we behaved, and should perhaps censor it in the hope that you might despise us less. But . . . Geoff asked the girls, as though puzzled, "Why come to Greece when you could be in Cleveland?" They gave it some serious thought, and one explained to him that they thought "Europe was just so culturally . . . you know." Cleveland's new city motto, Geoff claimed he had heard, was "Well, you've got to live somewhere." This didn't help, and I fear we became just further examples of the awfulness of foreigners, and part, from their perspective, of what Philip Larkin described as "the general bloodiness of abroad."


On the islands it had been sometimes easy to feel coolness from some islanders towards tourists. Not from merchants, who did the usual variations on artificial friendliness to relieve us of our money, but from those who lived there. It was hard to forget that the older folk on these islands had almost all seen terrible things during the war. The incompetent Italians, the brutal Germans, the imperial British whose empire seemed to be leaving and they weren't quite sure what to do about it, and, worst perhaps, the home-grown terrorizing communists. The islands had suffered too much bloodshed and brutality, much at neighbours' hands. And after reading Thucydides, it was clear that nothing much had changed. The cheerful, dancing Greeks seemed to specialize in grotesque brutality to one another when given half an excuse. It was perhaps far ago but not so long away.
Unnoticed and only as I was leaving did I recognize how I had been quietly seduced by the beauty of olive trees. Perhaps it was the Greek light and perhaps something to do with the heat and dust. I stood, already nostalgic, across from Agamemnon's palace, enchanted by the leaves of a large olive, as they flicked from silver to green in the breeze. It is in such unexpected moments, standing around waiting for the bus to load, that we finally notice everyday miracles. No wonder there were gods of olive groves. The trees are dotted throughout the country. But this tree, here, below the palace, stood, like so many, at the end of a rank of well-dressed vines in a stony field.



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