A very long time ago, still in my teens, I knew a beautiful Athenian girl whose eyes were green and her hair golden blonde, and she was madly in love with a friend of mine. He loved her just as passionately but then he went away to school in Switzerland, and you can guess the rest. It sounds a bit opportunistic, even shabby, but I stood by her, listening to her laments late at night, and then, one evening under a moonlit Acropolis, we kissed. She told me she felt guilty for having done it, but on we went, the moon, the ruins, the Attic breezes all helping me along. It was a case of patience and perfect timing. (The retsina also helped.) Which brings me to the point I wish to make.
Now is the time for all of you to visit Athens. She is down and out, abandoned and feeling sorry for herself, and that means, like the girl on the Acropolis, she will welcome you with open arms and then some. Greek tragedy goes hand in hand with the ever-ready handmaid of fate.
Myth and reality are what the city is all about. The myth that has been filtered through European imagination has let the city reinvent itself time and again. Now more than ever, Athens needs people to visit, shore up her confidence, breathe a bit of life into one of Europe’s oldest and most iconic cities.
My first memory of Athens was 28 October 1940. I was four, and awoke to the sound of sirens. War had been declared that night, premier-cum-dictator John Metaxas and King George II having refused an Italian ultimatum to allow Mussolini’s troops to cross our borders on their way to the Middle East. Athens back then was a magical place, a jasmine-scented city of 350,000, with few cars, green-and-yellow electric trams, hundreds of cafés with marble-topped tables and waiters in fitted white jackets and black bow ties, and with some of the widest boulevards in Europe.
That’s the city I remember from my Kolonaki vantage point, Kolonaki being a chic residential section of Athens in the foothills of Mount Lycabetus lined with embassies, exclusive schools and some grand 18th- and 19th-century houses. Mind you, even working-class sections like Pangrati — next to the 1896 Penteli-marbled Olympic stadium — though they lacked sanitation, were beautiful from the outside, freshly whitewashed with tiled roofs and red and blue painted doors. Inhuman high rises were 30 years away, as were traffic jams, pollution, overcrowding and the lowest quality of life in Europe.
So why visit Athens now, a city of close to six million, with the ugliest modern architecture west of Tehran, a polluted atmosphere that is the equivalent of sticking one’s mouth on the exhaust pipe of a Porsche Targa for at least an hour, and where African, Pakistani and Albanian drug dealers have the run of the place east of Kolonaki and Constitution Square? Well, again, it’s like that girl on the Acropolis. I, too, went off to school soon after that fateful evening, came back and heard she was married, ran into her at parties non-stop, one thing led to — oh well, once a beauty always a beauty, and Athens is still a hell of a charming, half-European, part-Levantine place, as gemutlich at times as old Vienna, and at sundown as sweet as jasmine.
Athens is in one’s imagination, a place where the past counts more than the present. All the great cafés, Iannakis, Zavoritis, Zacharatos, are gone. Zonars’ remains, but with a different clientele. The Colossus of Marousi, Henry Miller’s friend, is long gone, as are all the gay expatriates from America — including Cole Porter — who used to frequent the cafés across from the Grand Bretagne hotel in order to pick up young men. And yet! Late at night, when I return in my cups from some bash at some nouveau riche’s palatial house in the suburbs, I can hear the ghosts ordering ouzo and mezes, watch them argue with their hands, shouting and laughing, their white linen suits freshly pressed, their panama hats lifted every time a lady of the night passes by. The ghosts are for all to see — all one needs is a bit of imagination.
And then there are some magnificent 19th-century buildings which survive and can be seen without illusions. The university buildings on Panepistimiou Avenue, the national library, the National Archeological Museum, some very old churches in Monastiraki, Heinrich Schliemann’s mansion, the Byzantine Museum, and, of course, the new Acropolis museum whose ugly modern exterior betrays the treasures inside. This lies under the Acropolis and is open most days. About three years or so ago I visited it with my friend professor Tom Fleming, a classicist and editor of Chronicles magazine. Tom knew more about the antiquities than the guides, who got uppity until I made it clear to them that he was a friend, and not moonlighting. That’s the modern Greek for you: insecure, feeling hard done by, but reasonable once he has been shown the light.
Mind you, no matter how vivid an imagination, it is hard to glimpse the city’s past. Most of the 19th-century private houses have been torn down to make way for commercial centres and high rises. My maternal grandmother’s house, on Tsakalof Street, now houses Ralph Lauren or some brand like it. I refuse to look the few times I’ve walked by. But if one goes to Plaka, the old city under the Acropolis, one will be quickly charmed by the narrow streets, the shops and restaurants, the old tavernas like Xynou, even some lofty pillars sticking out from classical times. The best hotel to stay in is the Grand Bretagne, but there are others which have more charm for far less money.
Let’s face it. Athens is always present in the hearts and minds of anyone educated in the West who did not choose female or transgender studies. Just as we will never really know what the ancients looked like, classical Athens will always be a mystery. But once you start walking the streets beneath the Acropolis, when you smell the jasmine in the royal gardens, when you see the Attic sky, you start to combine dream and reality, and with a little creative illusion you will see Athens for what she really is. She is not what the crooks in Brussels say: she is a wounded old girl who has lost her looks but can still tell the buggers to sod off.