With one giant step from Maleny to Lausanne on the Lake Geneva shoreline, my view of life was changed forever.
Most of the important lessons that I learned came via my asylum seeker family at EVAM Crissier.
Now, sitting back in the land of plenty, it is time to put into practice what I have learned.
The Poet Gardener of Maleny Meets The Poet Sandal-Maker of Athens
Sitting on the John Lennon chair with Pantelis
On the descent into Athens airport I thought about the three Greek kids that were in my kindergarten class in Murwillumbah back in 1957. Spiro Varela, Phillip Stomou and Elenie Vlismas, as new arrivals to Australia, could barely speak a word of English when I first met them. And at that age I had no understanding of where or what Greece was or even that my three classmates spoke a foreign language.
Spiro was my next door neighbour and friend for many years (His mother still has a house across the road from my mother) but as a student he was also the bane of my life. I can remember my mother and father continuously comparing my school reports to Spiros. My parents couldn’t understand how Spiro who could barely understand or speak our language when he started school yet he somehow manage to come in top of the class from about Grade 2 until Grade 12. Spiro’s aptitude for homework and study made my daydreaming and spending all my spare time playing life a nightmare come report card time. Besides I figured that with my grades there was always room for improvement but when you come first in everything where do you go from there? But we have always maintained a friendship and even caught up last Xmas when Jo and I were back home.
So here I was fifty five years after first meeting Spiro visiting his old home town with my beautiful wife on a stop over to a ten day sailing holiday in the Greek Islands. I must admit this is something that I (we) never thought we would be doing but now I reckon, just maybe, all that daydreaming out the window at school has finally paid dividends.
With the quickest walk through an airport we’ve ever done (no x-rays, no customs) we caught a train then a metro to our accommodation in downtown Athens. And I must say we were both totally blown away when we emerged into the streets above Thissio station to be greeted by the Acropolis buildings blazing high above us in full sunshine.
Immediately I remembered drawing the Parthenon in a geography lesson in my first year of high school and here and now those two and a half thousand year old pieces of art were right in front of my eyes and looking so much more awesome than the black and white photos in my geography text book. And I knew that my geography teacher, Mrs Butt would have been especially proud of me (I did come first in Geography in my first year in high school because Spiro was in another class) because I could still remember the three types of columns used in the buildings located in the Acropolis. Doric, Ionian and Corinthian. And I was pretty sure my old mate Spiro wouldn’t even have remembered that. (And if you did Spiro I don’t want you outscoring me on MY blog!!)
On a Saturday afternoon the streets and cafes were bustling and alive with the sounds of a healthy Greek culture. Their economy may have been taking a pounding in recent months but it looked and sounded like their spirit was alive and thriving. The O & B Hotel was a five minute walk from the station, just off Ermou Street which is one of the main drags in downtown Athens. In minutes our bags were deposited in our room and we quickly submerged ourselves into the enthusiasm of the local punters and tourists following the trails through the myriad of back street traders and eating houses. The smells from Spiro’s mother’s kitchen all those years ago were immediately recognisable and I was pretty sure this would be a calorie upload vacation, which is not always a bad thing.
One of the first places we tracked down was ‘The Poet Sandal Maker of Athens’, Pantelis Melissinos (www.melissinos-art.com and www.melissinos-art.blogspot.com). I had come across him in a Google search under the ‘ten must do things in Athens’ which is always a good start to planning a short stop over anywhere. His shop was just off Ermou Street and easy to find. And I found Pantelis to be as friendly and open as the online article of Matt Baret’s had described him. A poet, artist and playwright by trade he came back to Athens from New York about twenty years ago to help out in his father’s sandal shop. His father Stavros, now eighty three years old, was the original poet/ sandal maker known world wide to the stars as the ‘Athenian Rubaiyat’. Stavros even personally fitted all the Beatles in his little shop back in the late sixties which really put him on the global map.
After a bit of a ‘where are you from and welcome to Athens chat’ and receiving a copy of the sandal catalogue and some of Pantelis’s poetry, we arranged to call the next morning and get personally fitted (sitting on the same chair John Lennon sat on) by Pantelis for our own Athenian poet sandals.
With a bit more wandering of the retail laneways Jo met a beautiful young Greek woman who had owned and operated her own clothing store since she was nineteen. As Jo tried on some sweet Italian tops Vasilis told us her personal story and how her hard work has helped her to be recession proof in these hard times. She also expressed the difficulty the people of Greece are now feeling, especially business owners, who are forced to pay a fifty percent flat tax on their profits and how personnel are the first cost to be cut under these restrictive conditions.
On the continuing wander through overflowing streets and squares we came across a really cute Byzantine church called Kapnikarea near Sindagma Square in the mall area of Ermou Street. It was so interesting to see something a thousand years old sitting so peacefully in pristine condition amidst the retail hubbub of the twenty-first century. Back towards our hotel we were beckoned by a cozy looking sidewalk cafe where I was able to order and savour the reminiscent flavours of ridgy-didge Souvlaki that once oozed from Spiro’s, mother’s kitchen to this culturally innocent Aussie kid’s nostrils more than half a century ago. And I’ve got to say it was worth the wait.
The next morning we were up early, broke the fast and had the Nikes (And as it turns out Nike was the Goddess of Victory and the daughter of Styx from ancient Greek mythology) laced up and were headed up the hill to the Acropolis, in the brilliant blue sunshine of a perfect Greek spring morning. An added bonus to the beauty of the weather and the cultural adventure that lay ahead was that all the admissions were free for the whole day (first Sunday in the month is free admission day everyone somake sure you put that in your Athen’s visit diary).
And what an amazing day it was for both Jo and I, walking through the hulking, marble bones of the homes and birth places of some of the most profound beginnings of theatre, philosophy, politics, religion and the arts for much of our western model of civilisation.
The first treasure was the Odeom of Herrodes Atticus. Built in 161 AD, as a 5000 seat open air music and concert venue, it has been used by artists such as Sting and Elton John in recent times and I could imagine the experience of seeing you favourite artist perform here would be something you would never forget.
Jo’s highlight of the Acroplolis was the Theatre of Dionysus, the spiritual and physical birthplace of modern theatre, and a place that had figured strongly in her university studies, teaching and performance. Dionysus was the God of Wine and the Patron of Drama. The construction now wasn’t quite up to the original of the 4th and 5th century when Athenian playwrights did battle for recognition performing the Greek tragedy style, but I can honestly say
you could still feel the beating heart.
Of course I loved the Parthenon with its simple order of Doric columns taking all the attention of the crowds as they streamed onto the summit of the Acropolis. It was definitely much bigger in real life than my geography book portrayed and the surrounding views of Athens, the perfect blue sky and the darker blue form of the sea in the distance was well worth the price of admission (and that’s a joke okay).
On the way back down the slope we scrambled up onto Mars Hill where Paul preached to ‘ye men of Mars Hill’ in Acts from The Holy Bible, for a few moments of quiet reflection and gratitude, then ambled back to town. By the time we got back to the city centre the Sunday Flea Markets were in full swing. These markets make the Eumundi markets look like a private garage sale. Anything you could imagine was for sale at a price. There were also lots of things that you would not like to imagine for sale.
We met up with Pantelis and picked our sandal styles from his catalogue. Jo went for the Aristotle Onassis and I swayed from the John Lennon to the Doric. He fitted our size, marked the adjustments and then he and his assistant spent the next hour adjusting and refitting before permanently tacking everything into place.
Two hours later our poet-sandals were ready to go. In the meantime Pantelis had filled us in on many things about his life in New York along with his life in Greece. He told us of the political corruption that is rife in this country and the control big banks such as Goldman-Sachs have over the economy. He said that if he didn’t have to pay fifty percent tax on his profits he could employ two people and grow his business on line and then employ more people. We also knew a little more about the Doric, Ionians and the Corinth people (after whom the columns are named) and also met three young students from Arkansas USA who were doing a semester at a University near Athens. Jo also secured a signed copy of the play ‘Bacchus’ that Pantelis wrote and directed. A new pair of hand made sandals and a two hour cultural exchange all for 29 Euro.
We followed this up with some excellent seafoods, haloumi (yes they know what it is here) and salads then a two hour walk to and from the site of the original olympic games. After dinner I wanted to go for another walk around the city but my legs (and Jo’s) refused the request (otherwise this blog would not have been written).
Thirty Six hours in Athens (a short story title for when I finally retire) was as good a time as I can remember having. Today we fly to the island of Kos to meet up with kerrie and begin the sailing part of our Greek adventure. All of the Atenians we met here spoke fluent English and they were really interesting and warm people. It was great to be immersed in a creative and and expressive culture again. Must be the food they eat... and the love they sow.