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THE RUINS OF VASSAE
The small car came bumping down the narrow cobblestone road. Suddenly it stopped, confronted by an imposing gray taxi advancing in its path. The irate cabbie's horn sounded savagely and he unleashed a series of oaths. Three more cabs lined up behind him and the passengers of the offending car tumbled out, laughing and chatting nervously in French. I watched in silence as the driver of their car, accompanied by a chorus of horns, backed up his small vehicle to a point narrow enough for the other cars to pass. They'did so, in great relief and evident disgust; they were in a hurry and had no time for misguided tourists.
The scene was not a street in New York during rush hour, but actually one in Plaka, the small, island-like section of Athens that is located under Greece's most famous site, the Acropolis. The traffic jam seemed incongruous in that classical setting; but the mixture is sadly not an uncommon one in Greece today.
"Progress" is slowly intruding on the land of Homer, and it is not unusual to see an old taverna existing side by side with the Grecian equivalent of an A & P. In Athens on a recent trip, such changes were very noticeable. Coca-Cola billboards littered the surrounding countryside. Down one street, a dough-brick house, which might have been a century old, was marred by a large sign over the 20th century storefront imposed on its main floor; "Union Chloride," said the English letters under the 17th century Venetian archway. And elsewhere, "Coke! It's the real thing." New skyscrapers, once a rare sight because of strict zoning ordinances, are now going up every day. And since the destruction of churches is forbidden in Greece, one such skyscraper has a small, decades-old church located in its lobby. Like the Venetian building with the Chloride sign and the blaring horns under the Acropolis, it, too, is a curious reminder of what was, amidst what will be. There is also talk of replacing the Parthenon's columns with plaster substitutes; the ever-increasing pollution is destroying the spiritual past as slowly and subtlely as Coke and high rises are destroying the physical one.
It's a sobering feeling that almost disappears as you drive through the Peloponnesus, the southern peninsula of Greece. There, you can find many small villages that recall another time when warmth, friendliness and simplicity were pervasive. Not, much happens, or, at least, not much that we'd think about. Mr. Kouriklas worries about his chickens and Mrs. Nikolopolous frets about her goats; Madame Taki wonders when it will rain, and Papou Nikos tells stories to his nephew's son. To them, strangers are a novelty, to be treated hospitably. In Marathea, my mother's village, many of the villagers remembered when I had been there last, as a small boy, 15 years before. They were pleased that I had come back.
These people, in their small hamlets, are mostly old men and women caring for their grandchildren. The youth have left for Athens; they have forsaken the two-story castle-like homes that their great-great grandfathers built for them. Many of these structures have collapsed from neglect; others are inhabited by pigs and goats. For the young, excitement is in the city. And that city is now enroaching here as well. Television antennas and telephone poles dot the landscape almost as frequently as do the tall, thin cyprus trees that one writer compared to "exclamation points in a laconic landscape."
The Peloponnesus is laconic, but it is also striking for its contrasts and beauty. Lush mountains often give way to arid, rocky, uninhabitable land; smooth, sandy beaches alternate with rough, rocky ones; and blue skies fade into romantic mists. Here, it is not hard to see where Homer and even Haliburton received their inspiration. And the people. The villagers – especially the old men – are as striking as the countryside: they have a proud, rough beauty that is poised against gentle – almost humble – manners. They are in no hurry and are nothing if they are not kind. Lost on the road, I stopped and asked an old man on a donkey which way to go. His reply was apologetic, a bit angry at himself not me: "You made the wrong turn up there," he said, indicating the hilltop. "I saw you doing it. If only I had been there, I would have told you." Foolishly, touchingly, he felt responsible. This kindlness is a common trait here and contrasts noticeably with the unconcern and impatience of the residents in New York or Athens. The pace here is easy and friendly and the people can afford to look at themselves humorously, unruffled by the growing trickle of tourists that signals the beginning of the end to their their way of life. I thought of that later, when lost again, I asked a group of old villagers where the ruins of Vassae were. "We are they," was their straightfaced reply. And so they were, in a way more real than any temple could ever be. from COLUMBIA DAILY SPECTATOR, 1978; slightly revised in 2009
A LOOK BACK This was the first published personal essay I wrote, a form I would not try my hand at again for over three decades. I remember at the time – I was only 21 – I was very nervous about the piece and I showed it to my father for his input. He was pleased with the article and made a number of useful suggestions, the only one that I remember being his saying I should insert the word "even" before the reference to Haliburton. Richard Haliburton was a long-forgotten writer of my father's youth (he had written a memoir of Greece called The Glorious Adventure), and my father thought that my original alliterative phrase, "Homer and Halliburton" was assuming the reader knew more than he probably did. I've made some minor stylistic edits, but the story is more or less as it first appeared (although I always hated the title my editor gave it, "Greece: The City Approacheth," as though the "city" were some comic book monster out of a bad Marvel comic).