Seeing the Old Things

I made it to the Archeological Museum today – finally.  No strike today.  Lots of the things there I have seen many times in pictures.  It is interesting to see them in real life.  The museum is very well organized. Each of the exhibits has explanations and descriptions in Greek and English.  The English is very good, obviously written by an educated native speaker.  Many of the sculptures are grave monuments and they can be very poignant.  As the descriptions explain, they often show the deceased saying goodbye to his/her family and the joys of life.  The artists capture the expressions very well so that we can feel the grief across the millennia.

 I also saw the gold mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae. This is the real one. The one in Mycenae is just a copy.  There are also lots of pots.  Pots are some of the most important clues to archeologists because they are so common and cheap.  When they break, people don’t bother to retrieve the all pieces.  They just sweep them outside.  Ancient cities tended to rise in layers of dirt, refuse and pottery shards, with each layer representing a different time period, so everything lays around in distinct layers and archeologists can use pieces of pottery to identify and date cultures. 

Nothing Too Much

This is the kind of place I always find, a little stream in a quiet park.  I am sitting again in the garden park near the Parliament.  I put the kids on the plane at 0655.  My plane doesn’t go until 1805, so I figured that I would go to the Archeology Museum, the one I missed because of the strike.   I will write about that later.

I sat at this very spot before the kids came a few days ago.  The feeling was different.  That day the sun was shinning; today it is overcast and drizzly.  My moods reflected the weather on both occasions.  Then I was about to get on the Metro to go and get them at the airport so that we could see Greece together.  Today I am getting ready to get on the Metro to go back to Iraq.  The kids have left.

The excitement of Iraq wore off with the first step I took in that dusty desert. Now I just want to finish my job.  Some people think it is a bad idea to go on R&R, especially the short ones I have chosen.  The received wisdom is that getting out for a short time just makes you want to stay out.  Of course that is right, but most people still want to take the R&R. 

Above is a very from a hill in Aegina, an island near Athens.  Maybe because I am in Greece, I remember the classical debate about having and not having.  Some thought that you should not have anything you could lose, so as to avoid the pain of loss.  Most Greek thinkers were moderates, however,  who didn’t believe in excess – nothing too much. They understood that an excess of pleasure seeking would lead to unhappiness, but they also knew that an excess of denial would produce the same result. 

I enjoyed being with the kids and finally seeing this place and adding Greece to our shared landscape of memory.  The joy of having done these things greatly outweighs the pain of losing it and the memory will brighten up my time left in Iraq.  It is not that long anyway.  I have half done and since I have saved my R&Rs for the second half of my tour, I have lots of time out coming.

Below are cats in Poros sharing the catch.

Iraq has been a fantastic experience, but it is less attractive prospectively than retrospectively.  This is a great thing to HAVE done, less fun to be doing.

Island Hopping

Much of Greece consists of islands.  The Aegean is really a drowned mountain range with the peaks protruding above the water and the valleys sunk below.  And the islands are very close together.  You can usually see the next island from the one you are on.  This invited exploration even by sailors who didn’t like to be out of sight of land. 

Below is the Orthodox church on Aegina. Aegina is a big island, as you can see from the background.

We took a cruise to three islands: Poros, Hydra and Aegina.  Poros was not very attractive.  Well, the island was pretty but the houses were that 1960 socialist style.  It was worth seeing, but not worth going to see.  Hydra was beautiful.  The natural setting was spectacular and the buildings were well constructed and good looking.  There are no cars on Hydra, which makes it an exceptionally good place to walk. Aegina is the biggest of the three and it was an important center in ancient and medieval times. There is an ancient temple and a Greek Orthodox monastery.  This island is fertile and is a paradise, with olive & pasticcio groves mixed with citrus framed by pine forests all overlooking the blue sea.   The pictures do not do it justice, but look at them anyway.

Above is the Temple of Athesis on Aegina.    

Cruising itself is not much fun. A cruise boat is like a big floating bus.  But being there among the islands is great.

Below, Espen deals with the early wake time and the slow boat syndrome.

The Theatre

The amphitheatre at Epidarus supposedly has nearly perfect acoustics.  We walked up to the top and indeed we could hear people speaking down in the center.  Evidently the sound waves flow up the hill and then some bounce off the stone seats in back of each audience member.  Given the speed of sound, this is not enough to produce a discernible echo, but prolongs the sound.  This is not perceivable and our brains make the necessary corrections so the whole thing enhances our senses.  At least that is what I heard.  This is one of the birthplaces of drama.  It started out as story telling and gradually developed into the kinds of things we would recognize as a play. 

This theater is still intact because it was isolated and people didn’t have as much incenitive to steal the stones.   Many ruins are not wrecked by time, but rather by salvage.

Epidarus started out as a healing center dedicated to the god of healing, Aesclepius.  People would come here to make offerings to the gods.   After a while the priests developed a modicum of physician skills and you can trace the origins of medicine to these places.  Of course most of what they did had little more effect on actual sickness, other than the value of the rest and psychosomatic benefits.  The ancient Greeks were profoundly superstitious people.  All pre-modern people were/are superstitious because they don’t have any scientific alternatives.  Even those of us who should know better still fall for faith healers, shamans and other charlatans.

The natural setting is beautiful and if you got to hang around here watching plays and not having to work, I bet many people did recover their health, so I suppose it worked.  The proximate cause is not always the apparent one, or that one advertised.  I remember reading that in the 18th & 19th Centuries many of the very young women who married old rich guys were evidently barren.  Their husbands sent them off to “take the waters” at some spa, where lots of young men worked and the miracle of the spa restored their fertility.  

The Workers – United – Will Close All Museums

I would have to tell the story of today by telling what we didn’t do.  We didn’t go to the Archeological Museum.  We didn’t go any other museums.  We didn’t even go to the park.  All these places were shut because of a strike/demonstration by government unions.  We DID see them marching and chanting.  It was very 1930s except the banners are more colorful: less red, brighter pastels. 

Demonstrations are always the same.  You get the big march and the chanting in simple words and cadences that the cognitively challenged can repeat w/o too much trouble, something like “The workers – united – will never be defeated.”  We saw on the news that some fire bombs and tear gas were used after the main demonstration.  The protestors looked peaceful enough when we saw them.  I think most were just ordinary people, but there are always some of the violent guys who take any opportunity to make trouble.  

We walked a lot, since the Marriott shuttle couldn’t drop us or pick us up in town. I had a good time being with Mariza & Espen.   Above is one of the steep paths we climbed.  Since I didn’t get to go to the museums, I have rationalized it away.  It is true that actually seeing the real thing is sometimes less satisfying than seeing a really good photo, since you can usually see more detail in the photo and there is more explanation.  That is what I am telling myself anyway.  It is not entirely wrong.  I recall when Chrissy and I saw the Mona Lisa in Paris.  It is smaller than you think and farther away than you would want.  The same went for Stonehenge.  On the other hand, even on this short trip the Acropolis and Mycenae were more than I expected.

Anyway tomorrow we have an island cruise day and then the kids go back to America and I go back to Iraq.  They rhythm of that reminds me of Davy Crockett’s campaign slogan.  I will recall as best I can.  “If you reelect me, I will serve you well and honestly; if you do not, you can go to hell and I shall go to Texas.”  I felt funny not being in Iraq for a few hours, but I came to my senses.  Still I have to go back so I may as well make the most of it. 

Espen has decided he will look angry (and tough) at all the photo sessions from now on, so whenever he notices the camera…well you see.  Who knows why?  But I will post in any case.

I did get him when he wasn’t looking, however.

Cyclops’ Wall

The ancient Greeks thought that giant Cyclops built the walls of Mycenae, since they could not understand how such big rocks could be brought to the site and stacked.  When I looked at the place, I could see how they were astonished.  The rocks are big and the hill is high, but with simple tools and a lot of persistence the ancient Mycenaeans did not need the help of Cyclops. Nevertheless, despite all the monumental precautions their civilization was destroyed and Mycenae abandoned.  These Bronze Age warriors were no match for Iron Age weapons of invaders.

BTW – it is not true that a man armed with iron weapons was so much superior to one armed with bronze, but iron is more common and so more men could be well armed. Of course the most famous representatives of Mycenaean culture were Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus & Odysseus.  The Iliad makes it sound like these sorts of heroes were the only guys who counted on the battlefield and they were.  With bronze weapons and kit, only a few can have complete armor, horses and chariots AND even fewer have the talent and time to develop the skills of an expert fighting man.  The Homeric heroes were a lot like tanks on a battlefield.  They could mow down the opposing infantry until they ran into a hero from the other side, hence the importance of single combat.  Besides, it makes a better story.  The later Greeks developed the phalanx, where they all stood in lines with spears and shields and pushed the other side until somebody broke.  Individual valour was merged with the larger group. It was an excellent war machine, but not as cool as Achilles v Hector. 

The 19th Century amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann used the Iliad to find both Agamemnon’s Mycenae and Helen’s Troy.  When he found a body in a tomb and took off the death mask, he thought he had looked on the face of Agamemnon and the gold death mask is still often associated with the face of Agamemnon, but modern historians think that the king with the golden mask predated the Trojan War period by a couple centuries.

We still take much of our understanding of the period from Homer, who wrote centuries after the events based on oral tradition, which tends to be corrupted.  The Mycenaeans had a written language.  There was great excitement when it was deciphered, about 50 years ago now, but all they wrote about were lists of who owned what and where things were stored.  It did prove that they were indeed Greeks (or proto-Greeks) but there is no literature or sense of history.   Knowing that Agamemnon owned a dozen sheep &  three cows in a particular local valley was probably really important back then, but fails to capture our imaginations today.  Mycenaean civilization remains pre-historic in the practical sense of the term.

Nevertheless, Mycenae is impressive even today in its ruined state.  The Lion Gate you see in the picture is sort of a reverse arch, with the triangle in the middle bearing and spreading the load. 

The natural setting is beautiful.  Most of the scenery we saw as we drove past Corinth into the Peloponnesus was beautiful.  The mountains in Greece go right down into the sea giving the country an unusually indented coast and long coastline.  Greece has more miles of coastline than all of Africa and no place in Greece is very far from both the mountains and the sea.  Little fertile valleys sit next to barren rocks and all have access to the sea.  It is a unique combination and scenery is not the most important consequence.  Geography helps explain much of Greek history and achievement.  

The picuture is a fish farm, BTW. Sorry for the blurr. I took it from the moving bus.

It has been really great to see the geography of the places and people I studied since I was a kid.  I realize how little I understand.   It is possible to know lots of facts and understand little.   When you put your feet on the ground, it is easier to understand the history.

Things Are Getting Better

I talked to an English guy named Joe, who evidently made a lot of money selling prosthetic and orthopedic devices.  Exciting as that business was, he preferred history and knew a lot about it.  He said that he had been coming to Athens for more than 20 years and had seen a lot of improvements.  That is why I didn’t find the smoggy, dingy Athens I had expected, he explained.  He pointed out that 20 years ago you couldn’t look out from the Acropolis and expect to see the mountains because they were usually obscured by smog.  The green space had been much less green and was filled with garbage back then.  The Greeks had made significant progress.  He also confirmed that much of the forest I had seen coming in was a recent improvement. 

Contrary to what you might think watching the news, things have generally been getting better, especially in Europe and North America, where forest cover has increased and water and air quality has improved remarkably.  As a teenage environmentalist, I recall reading all those books that predicted mass famines by 1985, resource depletion and general collapse of the environment by now.  Instead we get this (see below).

What a beautiful place.   That is not to say our problems are all finished.  China is already making our pitiful attempts are planet wrecking look like a junior varsity effort of a class C team, but if we in the West can make such progress, I suppose they can too.  If they work really hard, maybe the athletes at this year’s Olympics in Beijing will be able to breathe deeply as they compete and that temporary improvement might be the start of something bigger.

Below is a parade next to the Greek parliament.  I just happened on it.

Kids Arrive in Athens

Mariza & Espen arrived about an hour & a half late. They were tired, which was good since they arrived late and could go to bed soon.  We had supper at a place called “Goody’s” a fast food place.  Even with all the money I get for being in Iraq, we cannot afford (or at least I cannot tolerate) to eat at the restaurants in Marriott.  It would be costing around $50 a person.  It is expensive around here in general and it is not only the strong Euro.

I let the kids sleep late and we had the Euro tourist breakfast of bread & cheese and then headed down to see the Acropolis.  Marriott runs a shuttle bus to the downtown.  We walked up the steep path to the Acropolis.  This place is not handicapped friendly and the rocks are worn smooth, shinny and slippery but it is worth the trip.  Actually, there is not much left of the monuments on the Acropolis, but standing amid all this history and at the origins of our civilization is a special experience.  Espen and Mariza enjoyed it too and that made it a much better day for me than yesterday when I scouted it out alone – and yesterday was a good day. 

I have grown old and softer especially my feet.  I walked all day yesterday and most of the day before and on the third day my feet hurt.  Tomorrow we plan to go to Mycenae.  It is a bus trip, so I figure I will walk a bit less and the old feet will recover. 

Mariza got sick.  We don’t know why.  She ate all the same things we all did, but she threw up a little.  As I write now, she is feeling better and I hope she will be in shape tomorrow.  

The irony of trying to eat in Athens is that the gyros are not good or not available.  They just don’t have those rotating meat things I saw in Turkey or that I remember from the Greek restaurants in Madison.  I had a poor imitation of the legendary Zorba’s of Madison gyros. It was actually just little pieces of meat with the bread and sauce.  I may never again enjoy the total experience.  Last time I went to Madison, I found only one gyros place and it was run by Mexicans.  Evidently there are not enough Greek immigrants anymore and these guys were way too polite.  I recall the Zorba’s experience as something like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld.  YOU! They would say and if you didn’t answer quick enough “no gyros for you.”  Well, not quite that, but the feeling was the same.  

As important as gyros is to human happiness, there is much more to the country.  I expected to enjoy Greece, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far. My disappointments are that I will not see it all.  For example, I will not go to Thermopylae.  It is not on the beaten track, even after the success of “The 300”.  As I understand it, silt and erosion has widened the pass since the time of Leonidas, so it is hard to picture the battle anyway.  Maybe it is best to keep it in the imagination.  I saw the old movie “The 300 Spartans” when I was in 5th grade and that is what started me reading about the ancient Greeks.  Forty years later I know that movie was not accurate in most details and the real Greeks were much more interesting than those in the movie, but I still acknowledge what started me down the path.  After so many changes, I guess we sort of stay the same, or more correctly I think we circle around the same places.  

I was worried that the kids would get sunburned.  I am a little tan from living in Iraq – and I have a hat – but they are still pale.  Sunblock is expensive and harder to find around here than I thought but we got some.  It cost 20 Euro or around $30.  Note to self – bring sunblock.

Travels in Kuwait & Greece

Blue Collar Expeditionary Force 

A guy called Wayne helped get me from the Ali Al Salem to the Kuwait International airport.  He was an American from Georgia who had owned a construction company of his own, drove trucks in the U.S. and Iraq and now worked for KBR taking care of State Department people transiting Kuwait.   

When he drove truck, he was headquartered in Al Asad.  He was in Anbar when the heavy fighting was still going on and it was very dangerous to drive around.  He told me that for security reasons they would not stop when things fell off the trucks.  Sometimes they were just little things like pallets of water, but often the were higher value items such as building supplies.  Local Iraqis could make a good living scavenging.  It is a variation of that old “it fell off the back of a truck” saying.

Wayne moved to Kuwait from Al Asad because he was beguiled by the idea of getting back to “civilization”.  He regretted the move and missed the Marines at Al Asad.  He was less fond of the Kuwaitis. With the immense oil wealth, few of them actually do any useful work, at least not much of it.  They are also largely nocturnal.  This makes sense because of the heat during the day.  This package of traits formed the basis of Wayne’s grievances.  Muslims fast during Ramadan form sun up to sun down.  This is really no hardship for most Kuwaitis since they can sleep during the day and enjoy life al night.  But the law in Kuwait enforces Ramadan rules on non- Muslims too, so outsiders like Wayne, who work during the day, are the ones who pay the big price.

A couple of Bosnians actually gave me the ride to the airport.  Their outlook was similar to Wayne’s.  They had worked in Iraq and liked it better than working in Kuwait.  I guess I can understand.  As I am writing this from Athens, I am feeling a little anxious about not being at Al Asad.  It is a totally unexpected feeling.  You know what is what at Al Asad.  There are no real options.  You eat at the chow hall, go to work and sleep in your can.  Outside you have to plan a lot more AND things all cost money.   Don’t get me wrong, Athens is great so far and I will write about that too.  But I do have to acknowledge the anxiety that others have told me about and I never understood.

I think it is harder for Wayne and the Bosnians.  From my short exposure, I think I would hate to live in Kuwait. On to a physical environment no better than Iraq’s is grafted a society that is simultaneously decadent and puritanical.  When I drove through the place at night, it looked like it had snowed.  A dust storm covered the ground and the trees.  In the light of the moon and the street lamps, it looked like snow, but snow is clean and new fallen snow is fresh. There is nothing pleasant about a layer of dust.


My flight to Athens was scheduled to leave at 0310.  In fact it left a bit later.  I got into Athens at around 0700 local time w/o having slept more than a couple minutes on the plane.  Athens is nicer, cleaner and greener than I imagined and the mountain relief is higher.  The mountains on the way from the airport are covered with pine.  I think it is a new forest, however.  Most of it looks young, less than 50 years old, although since I am unfamiliar with the local species and growing conditions I may be wrong.  My guess is that the trees are recently established and before that time goats and sheep prevented forest regeneration.  When you look at old pictures, you see that the hills of Greece were a lot more barren a in the past.  I was looking at some prints from the Ottoman times in the late 18th Century.  They usually feature shepherds with their flocks picturesquely denuding the landscape.

I was a lot less tired than I thought I would be, so I used the morning to scout out some of the places I might take Mariza and Espen.  It was good I did.  I followed a path that said “to Acropolis.”  It wound through closely packed houses and through what looked like people’s backyards.  After following the serpentine path up the hill, I ran into a fence.  This was probably a back way up to the summit.  It was an interesting walk.  A couple of steps behind me was a group of old ladies in comfortable shoes.  I had passed them on the way up and when I passed them on the way down, I told them about the fence.  They seemed less amused that I had been and grumbled loudly in their British accents about ancient civilization being unable to handle simple contemporary tasks.

This is a picture from the path and below is part of the path.  All in all, it was worth the trip.