June 1, 2009

Athens, Day 67: Brief cultural interruptions

I meant to update when we came back from Thessaloniki (sometimes called Salonica), but then I became very busy with my relaxing. It was about an 8-hour drive to Thessaloniki, and we stopped once at Thermopylae (where there is a monument and not much else – the coastline has silted in and is now a completely un-strategic place for a battle), once for lunch, and once for a bathroom. Thessaloniki is a really interesting city: it’s much smaller than Athens, and much younger (both the town and the people). There are a lot of communists there, remnants of the civil war. They also love food a lot more.

CULTURAL INTERRUPTION #1: A conversation with an old woman related by Paul.

Paul: Is there anywhere in Athens to get Chinese food?

OW: Why do you want Chinese food?

Paul: Because it’s different, and I like it. I’ve had so much Greek food already.

OW: But Chinese food is bad.

Paul: Have you ever had Chinese food?

OW: No.

Paul: Then how do you know it’s bad?

OW: Because it’s not Greek.

This explains why there are so many tavernas and so few of anything else. I’ve only seen two Italian restaurants here. You can walk down a street where every restaurant has the same 20 dishes – mostly delicious, to be sure, but all the same. They like to fry things, and they think the only acceptable spices are salt, pepper, and oregano. Put a little too much oregano in something and they think it’s spicy.

Back to Thessaloniki: back in the 20s, Greece and Turkey decided to do an “exchange of populations” to get the Christians in western Turkey and the Muslims in eastern Greece back to the countries where they wouldn’t be causing minority problems. The northern Greeks resented the newcomers, many of whom spoke Turkish or the Pontic dialect of Greek (which is apparently not mutually intelligible with modern Greek). According to our textbook, they were called “giaortovaptismi” or baptized in yoghurt, a snide reference to their (much better) cuisine. [Parentheses added by the textbook’s author.] Anyway, a lot of these people ended up in Thessaloniki and thus it has much more adventurous and wide-ranging cuisine, what one might call “contemporary Greek”. The first night we ate at a restaurant that practically drowned things in cream, and the second we went to a decent Chinese restaurant.

The first full day in Thessaloniki we saw a monastery with a Byzantine mosaic and an equally ancient tour guide, the city walls (where Christina tried to sneak us into a tower, with some success), the churches of Aghios Dimitrios (patron saint of the city), Aghia Sofia (a much smaller version of the one in Istanbul), and all things related to Galerius, the Roman ruler of the city in (I believe) the 3rd century CE. He had a huge palace with awesome mosaics and a weird octagonal room, and he also built himself an arch and a round mausoleum that now causes cultural confusion. Right near the arch was a delicious bakery (Thessaloniki also has more Turkish-style baked goods), the spoils of which we ate on the way to the archaeological museum (an optional trip). The museum’s prized artifact is the Derveni krater, which depicts four different states of drunkenness. They also had lots of gold things. After the museum we walked back towards the hotel via the port, where we got to see the White Tower and a statue of Phillip II, complete with only one eye. I split from the group and went to the Jewish Museum, which was much smaller than I expected considering the huge Jewish population that was once there (50,000 before the war). They did have a pamphlet in Ladino, though. I also tried to go to the Museum of Greek Folk Instruments, but it had apparently moved across town.


Christina gets decapitated by modern art in Thessaloniki

Thursday we took the bus to Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia when it was ruled by Phillip II. It had a gigantic agora that apparently causes confusion to anyone studying agoras, as it was used as a workspace as well as a market. It also had some palatial houses bordering the agora. These were pretty impressive. When I see residential complexes at archaeological sites, they usually have rooms no more than ten feet by six feet; these had 30×30 courtyards surrounded by rooms just as big with intricate pebble mosaics. These were the mansions of ancient times. After that we went to Vergina, a tumulus that houses three tombs, one of which may belong to Phillip II and one of which may belong to Roxane and the young Alexander IV. The tombs were absolutely magnificent. They had turned the interior of the tumulus into a museum to house all the grave goods, which included massive amounts of gold, armor, and even the trappings of the funeral pyre. I think Pella and Vergina were the best two sites we’ve seen thus far.


Greece has trouble with its neighbors. Of course everyone knows it has problems with Turkey, but it also has problems with Albania, Bulgaria, and a place called Fyrom. The EU doesn’t really care that much, apparently, because why would Greece start a war with a country so insignificant and virtually powerless? But still. Fyrom is the “Former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia”, and Greece doesn’t take it lightly that they are claiming the name Macedonia. Greece already has a region called Macedonia – it’s the homeland of Alexander, right? And it’s in Greece, right? And Phillip had his capital at Pella, and it’s all here, it’s all in Greece, right? SO STOP TAKING OUR NAME. Vergina is a big deal for the Greeks because it’s showing that the great line of Macedonian kings were from northern Greece and not Yugoslavia. It’s the tomb of Phillip β Makedonon, and of Roxane and little Alexander, wife and child of Alexander Phillipou Makedonon, Alexandros Magnos. Except that the forensic data isn’t quite so clear. We know Phillip II had an eye injury, but it’s unclear if the middle-aged male in Tomb 2 actually has one, or why he would be buried with a woman outside his burial chamber when wives typically shared the chamber. There’s a lot of debate, and, at the bottom of it all, it’s inconclusive. Just don’t tell the Fyroms; they’ll have a field day.

Friday we went to the Museum of Byzantine Civilization, which was very well-organized and allowed me to take lots of pictures for my paper. Afterwards we left Thessaloniki and drove two hours south to Dion, which had some great Roman buildings and a bath with the biggest hypocaust I’ve ever seen. It also had a palatial residence with something like 8 fountains inside the house. The city must’ve been huge, but most of it was left unexcavated as an “archaeological park”. It also had the only squat toilets I’ve encountered so far. Then we continued our drive back to Athens.

CULTURAL INTERRUPTION #3: “I could write an essay called ‘Where’s the Flusher?’”

I’ve already discussed Greece’s plumbing problems, and how once every couple of days Anna and I have to take out the bathroom trash that contains not Q-tips and tissues but used toilet paper. Additionally, some places think it’s acceptable to not put a seat on their toilets; I have no idea how small children avoid falling in. I have a hard enough time with it, but at least now I’ve realized why my quads are so built up. There is another problem with Greek toilets we’ve been discussing recently: the wily Greek toilet designers like to hide the flushers. Often they’re on top of the toilet console, like some American toilets. But occasionally the console is above the toilet. In this case, there is often some kind of spring-loaded button underneath it. But sometimes you have to pull it, not push. And sometimes the button is on top, making it difficult for short people, especially when you have to reach up and then pull, grasping the toilet as you do so. And, in the case of the Athens Centre computer center’s bathroom, the console is across the (albeit small) room, and you have to yank a chain. But first you have to find it. Every bathroom stop is a new game of hide and seek.

Saturday I went shopping with Paige and bought some shirts and more books, then cooked dinner (the final curry). We went out at 9 to see “My Life in Ruins” at the Zappeion’s outdoor theatre (the movie would have been cute and funny if we were at home, but here, knowing Greece the way we do now, it was just hilarious.) Sunday I went to more museums than should be physically possible, taking pictures and notes for my paper (on Greek identity as represented through fashion). I started off at the War Museum, then as I was heading to the Benaki, noticed that the big Syntagma changing-of-the-guard was going on. There were maybe 30 soldiers in formal military dress with wind instruments leading a contingent of 50 evzones (the guards with skirts and pom-pom shoes). They did their funny little pom-pom shaking march, and I followed them down to Syntagma, but the crowd was too big to see the ceremony. I went back to the Benaki, which turned out to be free for students, then the Folk Arts Museum and Jewish Museum (both for the second time). I tried to go to the Centre for Folk Arts, but it was closed on weekends. On the way to my next stop, I discovered the oldest Turkish bathhouse in Athens (the Bathhouse of the Winds) and took a tour of it, then proceeded to the Museum of Popular Instruments, where I learned about Greek bagpipes and drums and oboes et cetera. I tried to go to the central market to get a lamb to roast for dinner, but it was closed on Sunday but, since I was in the area, I decided to go to the City of Athens Museum. It was in some sort of palace and was mostly paintings and drawings of Athens from the 1830s and 40s, when all there was was the Acropolis, Syntagma, and some buildings in between the two. I think one featured some goats grazing on the hill that is now our apartment.

Tired and hungry, I trudged back to our former goat path, heated up the leftover curry, and spent the rest of the day reading a novel on the sun porch. Later at night I worked on my paper and I now have five pages.

Today I went to the Museum of Greek History and Costume, which was interesting but unhelpful for the paper, and then the ticket office where I found out the Franz Ferdinand concert had been canceled. Again, I trudged (well, ran so I could at least get some exercise) back here, grabbed a gyros, then sat outside reading again. And that was the weekend.


Sarah is writing her paper about culture shock. We got that packet before we left, the one that has a handy little graph of arrival in the country, a happy “honeymoon phase” followed by “irritation and alienation” before adapting and then leaving, only to experience reverse culture shock. Apparently this has been a difficult experience for many people here. But let me tell you, I have not experienced this. I don’t even think it’s because I’ve traveled so much before, or that this is my third time spending more than a month out of the country (and yes, I know I’m very lucky in that respect). I think there are two reasons: first, that I know I’m going to be satisfied and happy and enjoy everything no matter where I go, and that fundamentally, my goal in life is to learn anything and everything, and I can’t do that if I’m busy judging and having cultural mood swings. I understand that Greek culture and American culture are different, but I’m not disenchanted with the Greeks after living here, nor am I overly enchanted. I’m learning, that’s all; each culture has benefits and drawbacks, and each must be evaluated for its own merit. I mean, yes, I think America is a pretty sweet place and I can’t imagine spending significant portions of my life anywhere else, but that’s because I’m used to it. I know its ins and outs, what makes it tick, where to find things. And now I’m getting to know that about Greece too. I can’t say I’m not excited to get home to a place that has air conditioning, proper plumbing, fat-free milk, pedestrian crossings, and runs on time, but it doesn’t have gyros stands on every corner, it doesn’t have such pride in its cuisine that it refuses anything else, it doesn’t have siestas, or good feta, or fresh vegetables all the time (organic tomatoes the size of grapefruits!). Maybe I was just born to be an anthropologist.

Currency: 1.42 dollars/euro

Weather: 80s but breezy


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