In Athens we experienced the ultimate Sherry World Academy field trip to learn about ancient Greece. We visited the National Museum where hundreds of marble statues demonstrated the evolution of the art. It is really amazing what the Greek artists did with marble to create the illusion of dramatic movement. Alex and Patrick were kind of grossed out by all the nudity – but after a couple of hours they got used to it. Did you know that the Greeks often painted and clothed the statues of gods when on display? Kind of like very expensive mannequins of deities. The exhibit I liked most was the display of the oldest computer ever discovered. It was a mechanical device that calculated the dates of eclipses of the sun. It is evidence of the sophistication of the Greeks of Athens and Alexandria a couple hundred years BCE.
From my limited reading, it is my understanding that the Greeks were heavy into academic research – tying abstract knowledge and research to religion in Alexandria. When the Romans came along they picked up the Greek knowledge useful to conquer and rule an empire, but weren’t much interested in knowledge for its own sake. The Romans were all about implementation and results. When the Roman power receded in the West – so did most of the knowledge – leading to the infamous dark ages. In the East the empire remained viable for about 1,000 years longer than the West – and while some of the original knowledge was preserved – much of it was lost. For example, many of the techniques used to design and assemble the old computer were unknown to modern-day watchmakers. While I geeked out on this stuff, Alexandra and Patrick found a statue of a dog and reminded me once again that they want a dog when we get home from our travels. I told them that I’m OK with a Marble Dog (or an Imaginary Dog), but I think they are leaning toward a Rat Terrier.
Patrick turned 12 while we were in Athens. In the morning Suzanne rose early and headed to the pastry shop for a fresh doughnut to start the day. As she walked up the street she noticed a large number of people hanging out; then she noticed a large number of police in riot gear hanging out too. Oops, Suzanne seemed to have stumbled on an early morning demonstration. If you haven’t been following the news much, you many not have picked up that some of the folks in Athens are upset with the way the economics have gone recently. The key complaints according to our taxi drivers are significant unemployment and high prices. Anyway, Suzanne, the intrepid explorer, wound her way through the crowd to claim her birthday boy’s sweet treat. No problem, until she returned and realized that she had only purchased one doughnut, and there were two hungry kids craving sweets in the hotel room. I volunteered to go get the riot police to restore peace between the siblings, but we managed to negotiate a settlement (without tear gas) by promising more sweets later in the day. Diplomacy and bribery – when in Greece….
Patrick chose the activities for his birthday. He picked the War Museum and a night of traditional Greek music, dance, and food. At the war museum we spent a couple of hours learning about the different Greek armed conflicts from Alexander The Great, the Ottomans, and the world wars.
Alex picked out her favorite uniforms (I had to correct her from calling them costumes) and she thought I should grow a mustache like the Greek soldiers in the late 1800’s. She also found a great story about a Greek woman commando on whom she may do a research report. Patrick checked out all the different, swords, axes, muskets, machine guns, tanks, bombs, jets, etc… Unfortunately they didn’t have any place there to try out all this cool stuff.
Later that night we went to a show to try some traditional Greek experiences. The show was not our favorite event, but Alex and I gave belly dancing a try, and Patrick was serenaded by the singers, the band, and the entire restaurant for about 6 or 7 verses of “Happy Birthday”. Now you may ask me “What are the verses to Happy Birthday?” As far as I know there is only 1 verse, but it appears in Greece they sing it over and over and over. Every time the one verse came to an end, Patrick would start to sit down, then it would start-up again. At first he was embarrassed, then it just got funny. I have no idea how they decided to eventually stop the song, but eventually they did. We came to realize that there is a different sense of appropriate time for things here – and it is always longer.
We also visited the big sites during our stay. The Olympic Stadium, Zeus’ Temple, and the Parthenon.
We had the Olympic Stadium virtually to ourselves when we got there. The place seats over 60,000 and is the only all-marble stadium in the world. Thousands of years ago it was the site of public games and events (Christian/Lion type events as well as sporting); it was renovated and used as the original site for the first modern Olympics. Patrick and Alex took the opportunity to run a victory lap around the stadium, the crowd cheering in their imagination. The stadium is built using the side of a mountain on one side, and there is a very interesting rough carved cave from the stadium to the preparation rooms on the other side of the hill. This is the same cave that was used by ancient competitors and combatants – it is a great way to enter the stadium.
A short walk from the Olympic stadium is the ruins of the Temple of Zeus with its huge columns. Only a few columns remain standing but with a little imagination one can picture how the completed building must have created the sense of awe for the power of the gods. After lunch at a restaurant in the Plaka we made our way up the acropolis to see the theater where drama was invented when an ancient Athenian producer named Thespis innovated the idea of two actors speaking to each other on stage. It must have been pretty boring before dialog was invented. The classic Greek plays of Euripides and Sophocles were first performed in these theaters.
Of course the big kahuna of the Athenian ruins is the Parthenon, which has kept watch over the old city for thousands of years. The Parthenon is showing its age these days, but given that it was burnt by the Persians, subjected to a gun powder explosion in the 1800’s, plundered by British collectors, repairs in the 1940’s that created more damage, and air pollution that sped up the erosion of the marble – it still makes for an impressive sight.