Sounding Athens

Acropolis

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece

I heard the sound of a flute.

The flutist played a light and airy tune, making me think of manicured forests wherein a boisterous Pan might dance and revel. I looked around, trying to locate the source. To my left, somewhere.

As it was my first day in Athens, my goal was to find my way up to the Acropolis. That twenty-five-hundred-year-old citadel with its pillars and statues and steps was still the centerpiece of the city. No longer did the great citizens go to the Parthenon to give honor to the goddess Athena, but the hill the Acropolis stood on served as a pilgrimage site for who-knew-how-many tourists and travelers each year.

But I had neither map nor guide and my Greek was nonexistent, so I wandered the maze of streets below the cliffs, trying to find the one that would lead me out onto slopes where I might be able to eventually make my way to the ‘official’ path.

In Athens, though, it seems there aren’t very many straight roads. The ones I chose circled the great hill, every path up dead-ending at walls or more roads running in the wrong directions — until at last I found myself on a wide pedestrian street paved with chunks of pale, smooth stone. To my left was an irregular outcropping of rock that rose out of trees and scrub, beyond that was the Acropolis — closer, but still farther away than I had been hoping.

The flute began to play just as I was about to turn back and settle for having a cup of hot chocolate in the warmth of a patio heater at one of the outdoor restaurants I had passed, because the waning afternoon was turning chill.

The sound came from the outcropping. I followed it, letting the light tune draw me up winding paths until I could see the piper perched upon a stone. He was a round-faced fellow with a grey stubble of beard and a thinning hairline, and he smiled as he played. So it was that on my first day in Athens I watched the sunset from the top of Mars Hill while a flute warbled out a strain fit for an enchanted glade.

Mars Hill Sunset

Looking out over Athens from Mars Hill at sunset.

Over the next several days, music came to define Athens for me. There was the flute at Mars Hill, of course. There was also the drum circle near the Thissio metro stop, near the ruins of the Agora, Athens’ ancient downtown. Before I saw the drummers — gypsies and street youth pounding with palms on hide-covered drums — I heard the beat thudding across the lamp-lit streets, mingling with the smell of sizzling foods, the blacks and somber winter clothing colors of tourists and locals, the laughter from within restaurants and bars.

To the trails I hiked on the side of Philosopher’s Hill came the notes of a saxophonist; there were the plucked strings of a mandolin heard in the distance as I sat and watched rays from a sinking sun strike the high pillars of the Parthenon from a perch on the Hill of Nymphs; and someone sang a cappella as I walked past chambers carved out of cliffs which had once been homes or crypts or both.

It seemed that everywhere I went in Athens, there was music nearby.
Bells rang out from the cupolas of Greek Orthodox churches. A girl and her boyfriend performed rock and roll hits from the 70s on a street just up from the Acropolis Museum. Two locals played traditional Greek music on guitar and mandolin from the stage while I ate mousaka in a stone-walled restaurant in the Plaka district. Two guys with a generator and a couple of speakers wailed out tunes among the necklaces, carvings, paintings, and other street vender fare on a pedestrian walk.

Agora Musicians

Musicians near the Agora in Athens, Greece.

And more: A dirty-faced young boy wearing unlaced tennis shoes played an accordion for euros on top of Mars Hill. A trio bearing a bass, a fiddle, and an upturned hat played for the same between metro stops on the inner city rail. Another accordion made its appearance in the hands of a gypsy woman on a separate metro line; a tiny girl followed her, hand clinging to skirt.

Music everywhere, and when there wasn’t, there was birdsong. Even at the beginning of winter, even in the heart of Athens. When the flute began to sing, so to did the birds.

So did we all.

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The Ebullience of Yuon

“Would you take my picture?” the girl asked. “You look like a professional.”

I could only guess she gave me credit for this last because I was shooting pictures of ruins with my ‘big’ camera — an aging six megapixel Canon EOS — rather than with my iPhone. Perhaps also because I wasn’t actually shooting the ruins, but a daffodil that was defiantly growing from the crack in what had been, at some point in history, an ancient block of stone in an Athenian building.

It was my third day in Athens and I was still doing what I could to catalogue the trip on film. There was always another ruin to visit, always another road that had been walked on by Romans, Greeks, and a thousand other nationalities over the course of, not centuries, but millennia.

So I said sure, of course I’d take her picture. What else should travelers do but be kind to one another?

Yuon, as it turned out her name was, was Chinese, but had lived in Hamburg, Germany for half her life. She worked there for Airbus (“You know Boeing?” she asked. “Yes, of course,” was my answer. “Well, I work for their competitor”) and was happy to get out of Germany for a while, where it was apparently rainy and cold for three hundred days of the year. She was positively giddy about the sunshine and relative warmth (60 degrees Fahrenheit) of Athens. In fact, she was giddy about nearly everything Greece related. It was her birthday, you see, and every year she chose a different place to travel to for her personal celebration. Greece was a favorite.

Yuon

Yuon taking pictures of the author taking pictures.

When the round of photos were done, she said, “After this, I’m going up there.” She pointed to the heights behind us, where the columns and walls of the Acropolis rose up in pinks and whites.

“Me, too.”

“You should come with me. And then I’m going to go to that big hill.”

“The Church of St. George?”

“Yes! My friends told me there is a cafe. That’s where I want to have birthday cake! Come with me there, too.”

“Um…”

My plan for the day had actually been to read while sitting on one of the curving, tiered seats in the stone amphitheater of Dionysus, where we were currently, and then to finish off with a tour of the Acropolis and watch sunset from Mars Hill, a stony outcrop just to the north of the Acropolis’ heights. Said plan had not included much hiking about, since I’d spent the previous two days doing nothing, it seemed, but walking.

But Yuon was already skipping off to the next bit of ruins to examine. It was evident that I had said yes even though I’d said nothing at all, assuming ‘um’ doesn’t count.

So we finished wandering about the Theater of Dionysus and then we made our way up to the Acropolis, where we joined several dozen other tourists and travelers taking selfies and pointing at things. Luckily, we didn’t have to use the ubiquitous selfie sticks: Youn was happy to take pictures of me in front of masonry; and for her pics she now had her ‘professional’.

After the Acropolis we did spend a few moments clambering around the slick stones of Mars Hill, polished to glass-like smoothness from the thousands upon thousands of visitors who had walked and sat upon them, but Yuon’s eye was on the Church of St George, high high high upon its dome-like hill to the east.

“How do we get there?”

“I think there’s a road.”

One stop at a yogurt shop in town later and we had our answer: two metro stations, a short walk, and then there was supposed to be a ‘train’ — a funicular, such as I’d seen in Naples at Mount Vesuvius and in Hong Kong clanking its way up the side of Mount Victoria.
Well, that’d be cool.

Except that the walk turned out to be much longer than anything I’d describe as ‘short’, and included a number of steep staircases carved out of the road and the hill. And at the top of these there was no funicular, no train, no bus, no taxi, no nuthin’ but, it seemed, underbrush.

We met another group trying for the same goal, but they were just as lost as we were. Yuon, who had hurt her ankle before coming to Greece, had been trooping along with fewer complaints than me, but even her enthusiasm was waning at this point.

But she persevered. Accosting a pedestrian who turned out to be a Swiss tourist, she discovered that there was at least one more set of steps at the end of the road we were on. Follow those to get to the Church of St George? “Maybe,” he told her, not breaking his long, purposeful strides.

That was good enough. We were off. More steps, then some more, and then we were found ourselves at a scenic overlook. The city at sunset was spread out below us, glittering. The Acropolis stood on its hill, seemingly far below and away, glowing with sunset and from the lights that illuminate it at night.

Yuon bounced up and down, ignoring her injured leg. “I’m so happy!” she said.

The rest of us couldn’t help but be, too.

And, yes, the path did eventually lead up to the Church of St George and to a cafe. No cake, though, but that didn’t bother Yuon. She still brimmed with happiness from seeing the city laid out like a toy.

Me, I needed a glass of wine to prepare me for the hike back down the mountain. I was a professional, after all.

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The List of Top 10 Things to Make Top 10 Lists About

Well, another new year is almost upon us. You know what that means. That’s right: it’s time for Lists of Top 10 Things! Yup, that dead zone between Christmas and New Year’s Eve could be filled with mindless TV watching, but it’s even better to fill it with mindless lists of Top 10 Things. I know, I know, you don’t maybe have time to figure out what to make a list of your Top 10 things about. Well, that’s okay. I’m here to save you the trouble. Below is my Top 10 List of Things to Make Top 10 Lists About!

#10: The Top 10 Best Holiday Meals OF ALL TIME that can be Cooked Over a Trashcan Fire

#9: The Top 10 Favorite Holiday Gifts this Year that Weren’t Apple Products

#8: The Top 10 Commercials of the Year even though the Super Bowl is about to Happen and You Know There are Going to be Even Better Commercials Then

#7: The Top 10 Songs of the Year that Don’t Sound Like Six Cats Fighting over a Leprechaun in a Sack

#6: Your Top 10 Favorite Scenes from Star Wars Movies, but without Giving Away Spoilers Even for Episode V, Which Came Out, Like, Thirty Years Ago (Darth Vader is Luke’s Father <– Spoiler)

#5: The Top 10 Wacky Tricks YOU Can Use at Home to Save Money even though #3-8 are Illegal

#4: The Top 10 Celebrity Scandals of the Year, because this is Important, Dammit

#3: The Top 10 Books of the Year that No One Else Will Pay Attention to Because Books are Too Long to Read on Twitter

#2: The Top 10 Movies of the Year that No One Else Will Agree with and Will Almost Certainly Unfriend You for on Your Top 10 Favorite Social Media Networks

#1: The Top 10 Things That Made You Despair For the Future of Humanity But Which Will Probably Turn out Okay or at Least We’ll Have Forgotten About Them by the Time the New Season of Game of Thrones Starts

Feel free to actually give us your Top 10s in these categories in the comments, below. Super Holidays, Happy Christmas, and Merry New Year, everyone* (*replace these with the holiday of your choice if you are in any way disturbed by these choices).

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