Greece… et ailleurs

This is the third week without running. I miss it. Whatever ruptured, inflamed, broke, fissured, fractured, disjointed, cracked… (whatever it was – I am not fond of seeing doctors) looks like it is about to get better. I took my running shoes with me to Greece for the weekend we spent there but never felt good enough to put them on and go exploring. I fantasized about coursing along the shore, taking in the salty smell of the air and the chilling wind. I thought about the flowering almond trees and about the waves of green grass – a view which I hardly ever experienced in this country. I confess, I have completely forgotten about the stray dogs fiercely defending their vagrancy, about the paths coming to an abrupt end in the middle of nowhere, and about the cars dashing on the small streets, fleetingly reminding those around how well Greek drivers can handle their vehicles.

Often I would try to imagine how would it be like to be in Greece in the winter, without the torpid heat. I can never get farther than a few black and white scenes from Zorba (how pathetically stereotypical, I know) or Eternity and a day – those mountain scenes, foggy and cold. I indulged in creating languorous images of warm indoors, a fire monologuing on the futility of life, cuddling up in a room overlooking the sea, bursting with inspiration, churning one page after another, squeezing in all the holiness the gods raffishly left behind.

Well, it’s damn cold in winter. Those houses are not meant to keep the heat inside. The rain pours down as mercilessly as it does here, the wind slashes your cheeks as thoroughly as back home. I concluded that I should do without. For Rachel Kushner it was a ferry ride (“My aspiration to spend time at sea as requisite literary training died long ago, as a teenager, on a white-knuckled ferry ride to Elba during a torrential rainstorm.”). As for myself… I gave up (too quickly, perhaps) that long weekend in February, walking barefoot on icy marble floors, shoving my hands in the jeans pockets when out for cold walks along the beach, trying not to step on dog shit and trying not to trip over protruding pieces of metal encased in masses of concrete.

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Murakami had ran a marathon from Athens to, well… Marathon, following the ancient route in reverse. I drove a couple of times along that road and I think I would still not be able to do it. OK, he was escorted by a whole crew, he had a car driving by his side the whole time, protecting him from the maddening traffic and whatever dangerous animals, people or cars were lurking in the heat. It was not the happiest run in his life, it was definitely one of his hottest (he ran in a morning in July), and it was one where he counted the highest number of flattened, scorched remains of dogs, cats and other roadkill paving the street.

Greece! Why do I like spending my summers there? Why do I engage in endless discussions with our Greek friends about how to change this country, about how to make it prosper, about how to get its people to see it for what it is, to find its place in the world today and stop dwelling in a past that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago?

Greece is like the man on the wire now: holding its balance while walking between the two World Trade towers. Down on the street people stare in disbelief. Should they rush away in case the moving speck will come down with a silent thud? Should they stay and watch the show (after all, how often would you have the chance to see something like this)? While Pettit seems to be stepping on very thin air so high up, nobody knows how it will go on. Not even him. Talking about creative ambiguity!

Help, Tennyson! You’re my only hope!
“Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”
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Roma

On Sunday there was a derby game – Roma vs. Lazio. Did not take too much notice of it. And I would’ve forgotten about it completely were it not for the ride back to the hotel. But first things first. Ambasciata di Abruzzo. Excellent aperitifs, good dinner. And the wine! A Cagiolo – Montepulciano di Abruzzo, thick and dark.

As the restaurant was not exactly close to our hotel we had to take a taxi. This time it happened to be a small Fiesta. Four people managed to get in and then we started our ride. The driver was in his fifties, I think, with a long white beard (à la Nitsch) and with a blue woolen cap on his head. He needed a couple of seconds to figure out where we want to go. He turned the radio a bit louder as he was following the football game and excused himself but said he cannot help it. It’s a derby! He has to know what was happening. A minute later his phone started ringing and he fumbled with it, not really answering but also not having a conversation. And then another phone started and then, since I thought he was so maladroit with the portable devices because he was following the traffic (which was already cause for a couple of gasps) I realized he was actually concentrating on the radio and suddenly he turned it as loud as possible and almost stopped the car in the middle of the street. His phones landed on the floor, his cap flew away and he almost jump to his feet. Goal, goal, goal, goal… he’d yell his mantra and, hitting the steering wheel, would toot like crazy. At every crossing he’d repeat this and would try to engage the drivers of the other cars in his exhilarating happiness. He excused himself every now and then but mentioned he cannot help it. We almost flew with 90 km/h along the Tiber, under the small tunnels, between other cars and mopeds, quickly building up enough adrenaline to chase away whatever alcohol we had and sober us up almost completely.

What else?

Dora Pamphilj – with Velasquez’s Innocent X in a small room, almost like a shrine. I would’ve liked to get closer… Two young Caravaggio, Breughel the Older, etc. etc. The whole palace is stuffed with paintings and some of them quite good. Doors were open to the apartments where (apparently) the offspring of the Pamphilj family still live today. A bit uncanny to see the old furniture and carpets, marble tables and, almost provocative, here and there, a book or a cd. Do they really live there?

National Gallery of Modern Art – I think a visit to a foreign country has to include a visit to the national gallery. The way the paintings are displayed, the kind of paintings hanged on the walls, the kind of paintings being made by the artists of this country, the play with the light and colors – all of this should be enjoyed and sought after as one enjoys and seeks the local food and wine. Anyhow, there could’ve been ten times more paintings there. There is enough art in Italy!

Ripa12 – amazing fish food (from fish Carpaccio to tuna Carbonara).

Da Gino – very small and almost hidden (thank you S.!) with great food, kitschy decorations and perfect atmosphere.

The list could go on and on… espresso, Aperol spritz, running after buses, parading on the streets, pizza alla romana, more Aperol spritz, an occasional Campari, Castroni, carciofi, swarms of starlings, bresaola, Trastevere, eating chestnuts on the Spanish steps, Tiber at night, St. Peter’s square with perfect evening light, foggy view of the city from Gianicolo hill, etc. etc.

Greece

And Greece it was! Athens, Santorini, Sunio and Pelion. Quite a line-up! Overall impression – not too crowded this year. I guess the economic crisis has something to do with it. I’ve been told, in Greece it is common to get a loan from the bank in order to go on vacation (that is mostly true about families with a couple of kids, but I suspect, it should not be limited to them). It seems this year many cannot afford it. I should consider myself lucky.

Athens – the new Acropolis museum. I still remember now the philosophical shaking and trembling as I first walked up and down the paths on the Acropolis hill. Five years ago. The heat, the white stones, the droning of the cicadas. I tried to imagine scenes from Plato’s dialogue taking place there. Socrates sweating and talking about love, geometry or truth. It has been pretty much the same now, seeing the stuff in the new museum again. However, the heat was missing. And the cicadas. But the beautiful statues of the Kori, the reliefs, the frescos, they all still impress.

On a different note, I should not forget that one should not be too involved with feasting at a dinner table while in his proximity a whole relationship drama unveils. Always keep an eye open!

Santorini should be The Island in Greece. And, of course, it was impressive. Dramatic scenery, good wine and gorgeous sunsets. But there are no beautiful beaches really and when the Meltemi (north wind) blows (which was the case this summer) you almost cannot go swimming. The sun disappearing behind Folegandros every evening gave way to cheers and clapping. Thousands of blitzes going off, masses of people clustering on the ruins in Kastro, on fences or houses’ roofs in Oia just to see the same thing over and over again. Well, let me give you the news: the sun will always go down that way. No surprises! (But, somehow, one is caught up with it and goes along – although I made more pictures of people taking pictures and of the moon – glimmering shyly in the sky –  than of the sunset). And then, hurry up for dinner! Which was mostly good but rather on the expensive side. Oh, that is another thing! It happened to me only twice that I had to pay 18€ for two beers – once it was in Paris (and I thought they still had the bills in francs; I was mistaken) and now, on Santorini. In Paris it was the club (though I cannot remember the name right now but it was supposed to be an ‘in’ club. I only know it was in Le Marais). On Santorini it was the sunset – a red horizon, a windmill on the right, and two Chinese martial arts champions who had the good idea to strip to the waist – right in front of us. That cannot go without a rise in price!

Anyway, since swimming wasn’t on the list, I read. I finished Poisson d’or (LeClezio), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon), The Selfish Gene (Dawkins). But more on this later.

What else was on the list? Drinking frappe, smoking (a habit I take every year as soon as I put foot on Greek soil – it cannot be otherwise – and it only lasts two weeks!), living on watermelon and feta cheese and yoghurt with honey and nuts till dinner, taking photos, riding the bus up and down the island (why bother renting a car?), eavesdropping at discussions being lead at nearby tables (it could be a funny enterprise sometimes), etc. etc. Oh, and did I mention the sunset? And the stunning views? And the people clapping? Nice…

Sounio, Cap Sounion (perhaps better) lies at the southern end of the Attica peninsula (and, I’ve been told, the sunsets there are the most wonderful in the world – figure that!). A Poseidon temple overlooks the sea and I can imagine the spectacle the sun would put up every evening there. I wonder if there is anyone clapping too.

Pelion, is still a hidden treasure. The only drawback is the driving. First, a bit more than 4 hours from Athens and then, once there, you have to go by car everywhere. There is no other way. But you’re rewarded: nice beaches (certainly on top of a possible list of Greek beaches I’ve been to), luxuriant vegetation, good food. It was the second time I was there and, again, it did not fail to impress. In Fakistra I swam for almost an hour continuously, to make up for the reading days in Santorini. The good, little, red Barbuni fishes we had in a fish tavern, the fried anchovies, the calamari, horta, horta… The music in the Mylopotamos bar (run by two old brothers – my fantasy, I confess, but they looked alike), the beach there as well… The huge capers growing on the path to the car park.

I think it will keep being a destination for the future. A few days at a time would be perfect.

But now I’m back…