The changing of the guard

Rivers of tourists still flow up and down many of the thoroughfares in Athens, even though it’s September. But the city remains pleasant to walk in, with tiny lanes that branch off and often end at a welcoming taverna. We hadn’t visited since the Acropolis Museum opened in 2009, so that topped our agenda. We also took in the Benaki Museum, strolled through the usual areas and did the usual things. We never ventured up to the Parthenon, however, even though it’s easily the most usual thing. There’s only so much time.

The usual thing, from our hotel’s breakfast and dining room, shortly after we arrived.

When the Acropolis Museum first opened, over budget and overdue, it got a lukewarm review from Martin Filler, an architecture critic I’ve been reading for years. But now that I’ve seen the museum, to hell with Martin Filler. I like it a lot. The displays are ingenious, the story is clear, and the polemics are sharp but measured. On the second floor you’ll find blank spaces for the Elgin Marbles, and throughout the museum you’ll find several understated but unmistakable references to the inexcusable. The Marbles should be returned.

Male beauty in the Acropolis Museum.

On our second day, circumnavigating Syntagma Square (syntagma means constitution), we noticed a crowd in front of the Greek Parliament building. Instantly, I knew it had to be changing of the guard. I first saw the ceremony many years ago, but found myself still mesmerized by its strangeness: the slow, stylized choreography; the oddly swivelling joints; the concentrated power; the compression of time and energy. You are watching a Greek folk dance, as reimagined by an avant-garde artist, but also experiencing Japanese Kabuki and Karagiozi shadow puppets and the unmistakeable menace of a Maori Haka. Apollonian in dignity, balance and poise. But with an underlying Dionysian edge. An unmistakable don’t fuck with me.

As the new guards replaced the old ones, a single armed escort, in camo, stood discreetly at the side, monitoring the crowd and holding a walkie talkie. He followed the soldiers as they exited. More soldiers with automatic weapons were stationed just around the corner. For the guards, in their beautiful foustanéles and tsaroúhia, are purely ceremonial. If an outrage were to occur, the polished antique guns would be useless; they cannot fire. It’s all just a display.

A man in Syntagma Square regards the Greek Parliament Building.

The classic taverna chair is too small for the average size ass, never mind the larger ass, so it’s inadequate for the vital business of eating. By contrast, the classic zaharoplastío (pattisserie) chair is broad, easeful and upholstered. Greeks typically don’t have dessert after a meal. Instead, they will stroll for a long while, talking and smoking and gesticulating, before finally sitting at a zaharoplastío for an elaborate confection, a glass of water and a coffee. Here, the chairs are excellent, in a size generous enough to accommodate asses of every dimension. There’s an essay waiting to be written on this subject.

* * *

I thought it would be impossible to run in Athens. It’s polluted, the sidewalks are cracked and crowded, and every driver is an assassin. But it was our final day, so what the hell! When will I ever have this chance again?

And so I set out for the National Gardens, located near our hotel, with a plan to simply zigzag through the straight and winding paths that fill the 38 acres. But soon, the playgrounds and theatres, the formal promenades, strolling families, avid lovers and twisting paths became boring. So I ventured into the street, determined to always keep the Gardens on my left, to avoid getting lost.

Eventually my counter-clockwise orbit took me past the Presidential residence, where one of the ceremonial guards was posted. Then, rounding the corner into Syntagma Square, I was back in front of the Parliament Buildings, where another crowd had gathered.

The ceremonial guards, soldiers in the Greek army, are selected for their size, beauty and physical discipline. When the ceremony is done, they stand immobile, never batting an eye. Their physical training is intensive. Just watch for a moment as a guard stands on one leg, with the other leg outstretched for what seems an eternity. There’s never a tremor; it’s uncanny.

The guards are also selected for their character and intelligence. For what good is beauty if it’s only skin deep? When beauty suffuses the entire being, then we are closer to the ideal. This lack of shame or ambivalence about physical beauty and its moral dimension is pre-Christian. And this, too, is the genius of ancient Greece.

On my final lap of the Gardens, I stopped for a moment in front of the Parliament Building to watch the changing of the guard one last time. Unexpectedly, my eyes filled with hot tears.

For that’s when I saw the tragedy unfolding in slow motion. These young boys, with their ineffectual guns and lavish ceremonials, are guarding a big idea: democracy. An idea that is under attack everywhere. Italy just elected a far-right prime minister, and I saw Berlusconi by her side, once more in full clown makeup. They’re sending for the clowns in Turkey and Hungary, in Sweden and Russia and the United States.

Greece has not been a paragon of democracy across history, but the flame was lit here, in this city. So there is a sense of responsibility. Meanwhile the beautiful boys, with their toy weapons and slow majestic dance, continue to stand on guard and march back and forth for all to see. They won’t be enough.

One day, we walked by the stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, in 1896. The stadium is still in use, and in front stands a statue of George Averoff, a Greek of vast wealth who largely funded its construction. Spyridon Louis won the first marathon.

Ritsos’s cat

I passed this staircase on Peseidonas Road during my run. Note the cat. There are cats everywhere, and they are well fed and content.

I went running in Vouliagméni, along the Lemos peninsula, which is where you’ll find the most exclusive beaches, restaurants and tourists and, lording over them all, the Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens resort. Most of my runs here are modest in length: to the end of the peninsula and back. But, since the distance is not that great, I add a bit of mileage along Poseidonas Road.

About halfway up the sloping peninsula stands the entrance to the Four Seasons. I stopped to take a photo and almost instantly a suited man materialized from nowhere to shoo me away. It began with, “Can I help you, sir?” in Greek, and quickly escalated from there.

“No thank you. Just taking a picture.”

“You cannot do that, sir. No photos allowed.”

“Just a photo. Not trying to get in.”

“But our guests…”

Yeah, right. I took the photo and moved on.

I think I am temperamentally unsuited to luxury surroundings. At the slightest provocation, I become belligerent.

A few minutes further up the hill is another, smaller entrance to the compound. But I think of the first, bigger one, as the mouth, where luxury guests are first received. Where they are subsequently marinated and processed for several days in the rarest juices — poolside, in the yoga studio, dining room and spa — before being extruded at higher pressure from the smaller opening up the hill.

The smaller entrance, further up the hill on Lemos Peninsula. I was not challenged when taking this picture, but my photo may already be on file at Interpol.

Ritsos on a pedestal

On the way back to our rented place, I passed by a monument to the poet Yannis Ritsos. The base is inscribed with some lines from his poem Eirini (Peace), topped by a statue of a big-hipped woman writhing like a flame. Ritsos is one of Greece’s greatest modern poets (he died in 1990), and was revered as much for his courageous politics as for his writing.

In Greece, it’s possible to sit down for an ouzo with a car mechanic or an academic, and chances are you can get them to recite a few lines and even entire poems by Ritsos or, for that matter, Seferis, Elytis, Kavafis and the rest of the modern greats. Musicians often set their poems to music, and the songs become hits. People dance to them, hum them at work, blast them from their cars and sing them in the shower. Unthinkable in North America.

Panagía Faneroméni Church, on Poseidonas Road. Apparently the church was built by a shipowner to commemorate a daughter who passed away. The volumes and shapes of a traditional Greek Orthodox church are all there, but shorn of any ornament.
Another view of the church. I spied it from our cab when we arrived, and returned several times.

* * *

Years ago, Shari and I visited Monemvasia, in the Southern Peloponnese, where Ritsos was born. Tourists flock to Monemvasia for its famed Venetian fortress, which dates from the Middle Ages. The fort’s ruins rise at the end of a tiny peninsula, and within the tumbledown walls you’ll find meandering laneways lined with small shops and restaurants, as well as beautiful people who own villas facing the sea.

Greeks from surrounding villages also flock to Monemvasia, but for a different reason. They’re after the town’s famed amigdalotá, or almond cookies. Drivers pull up, buy several boxes for family and friends, and zoom off.

On this trip, we had lunch inside the fortress, behind the great fortified gates, whose weathered grey wood still bears rusty traces of the original iron cladding. At that time, the restaurant was still owned by Yannis Ritsos’s sister and, as everywhere in Greece, cats prowled the small square where we sat. I don’t remember what we ate, except that at some point Shari took pity on one of the cats, meowing and rubbing against her leg, and fed it a morsel of fish from her plate. A moment later the cat pissed on Shari’s sandaled foot.

We will be going to Athens tomorrow.

The end of Lemos Peninsula, looking back. The cranes are busily building something new: either an extension to the Four Seasons resort with the longest name in the world, or an entirely new resort.

Beached in Greece

At the beach in Vouliagmeni, with the slap of backgammon and the thwock of paddleball filling the air.

A guy ahead of me in line looks like he spent the previous night pouring gallons of Rioja down his throat, without the benefit of tapas. He’s wearing soiled beige pants and a black and grey leopard-skin patterned nylon shirt. It’s too tight, though. Pale flesh oozes between his pants and shirt like a pouty lower lip. His hair sticks out at all angles, and his unshaven face is pocked with zits. By the looks of him, he ended up on some stranger’s floor just two hours previously, when a chute opened up and he went hurtling along its length, landing in the security area of Barcelona International Airport like a sack of laundry.

He looks bewildered, as if in mid-nightmare, with a where-the-hell-am-I, who-are-all-these-people look.

A security officer glares at him, and since he’s not budging, I take his spot. As I load up my trays, I glance back. The security officer, still glaring, says something — maybe, are you carrying any liquids? The guy reaches into his bag and pulls out a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of something carbonated, that might be Coke but isn’t. As travelers swirl around, he unscrews the top, tilts back his head and guzzles, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a kid on a pogo stick.

* * *

A splash of rooftop colour.


I offer the above as a palate cleanser, before our flight to Athens. We land late in the evening and meet our cab driver, who will take us to Vouliagmeni, a beachy suburb of Athens 25 minutes south of the airport. With its posh resorts and restaurants, Vouliagmeni is often called the Riviera of Greece, which is hardly a recommendation for me. But it did host the triathlon during the Athens Olympics. There’s a nearby ruin. Lots of expensive real estate. And oligarch-scale yachts prowling off the beach at the Four Seasons resort.

Apart from that, our place is perfect: A ten-minute walk from an excellent taverna and bakery. We have fresh figs, grapes, tomatoes and olive oil on our lunch table. And we’ve discovered a peppercorn-studded graviera cheese from Crete. I’ve never seen this cheese in Canada, and it’s so good that, if that slippery rat, Pierre Poilievre, stood up in the House of Commons and made peppercorn-studded graviera a central plank in his trade policy, I would vote for him.

You know where you are, in Vouliagmeni.

* * *


I had two grandmothers, whom I got to know when I went to grade school for a year in Greece. They represented two sides of my family; two sides of the Greek character, too.

One grandmother was plump and kind-hearted, and always quick to shed tears, whether in sorrow or joy. She lived in a small whitewashed house adjacent to the church, whose bronze voice would announce the hour and half hour, and burst into song each Sunday morning. I remember a few things from her house. Such as a bench by the fireplace where my mother had sat as a girl. Or the tiny screened cages hanging from the rafters, that would hold saucers of leftover stew or scraps of cheese, so the flies and mice couldn’t get at them. Or an ancient treadle Singer, whose gold decorations had faded after decades of use, and on which my mother had learned to sew.

When I visited again as a young man, I took her portrait with my camera. Later during that visit, she brought out a tape measure and held it to my arms and across my shoulders, around my waist and chest. She brought out her shears and, only by eye, cut pieces from a blue-striped raw cotton sheet, and then sat at her Singer to make a collarless peasant shirt, which I wore for years until it fell apart.

My other grandmother lived on the coast, and she was in many ways the opposite. Thin, severe, undemonstrative. She had been widowed young, when my grandfather was killed in the Balkan wars, leaving her to raise four children during times of war and hardship. Perhaps this had narrowed her. During the year I lived with her and my uncle’s family, my grandmother and I slept in the same room, with a chamber pot in the corner, herds of goats and sheep clattering by just outside, swallows swooping every evening, and dewy white roses wafting their morning scent just outside our open window.

Lying in our respective beds during the afternoon siesta, we would sometimes wake up together and she would read aloud from the newspaper, pausing to make comments laced with sarcasm. I didn’t understand a word of the formal Greek, nor anything about the political actors, but took her reading aloud as an invitation join her in bed. One afternoon, she began reading a letter from my mother in Montreal, asking after my health and progress in school. My father’s business in Montreal had failed, and my father had been obliged to find work on a troky.

My grandmother paused her reading. “What’s a troky?” she asked.

“A truck,” I translated. “My father is now working on a truck.” I thought this was an exciting development, and a fresh gust of homesickness engulfed me.

“Good luck to him, then,” she harumphed, before continuing the letter.

* * *

At the corner of Ermou and Agios Panteleimonos Streets, a few minutes from our rental place in Vouliagmeni, stands an ancient olive tree wearing a sign that suggests she’s 1,200 years old.

The yiayiá is gnarled and twisted with age, but her head is crowned with a lively thatch of twigs and silvery leaves. Elevated a few feet above the road, she stands behind a fringe of grass, honoured and remembered, as I remember my own yiayiádes and honour them with these words.

Officers of the law, steps from the ancient olive tree. They chatted and smoked for about an hour, before zooming off.

Lost in Barcelona

We are in Barcelona, threading our way through the crowds in a tiny square near the Gothic Quarter, and a plaque catches my eye. Plaça de George Orwell. After too many years of education, I’ve managed to memorize almost nothing of value, except this:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

These are the opening words to a 1940 essay Orwell wrote as the Luftwaffe began their nightly pounding of London. I first read these words in my early twenties, and I’ve never forgotten their simple, revelatory power. As usual with Orwell, his plain words cut through the shit, capturing the strange and paradoxical chaos and cruelty our species chooses to live with.

Six years before, after journeying to Spain to fight the fascists — one of the greatest lost causes of the twentieth century — Orwell had written Homage to Catalonia. It initially sold only a few hundred copies, and is the chief reason Orwell’s name is today affixed to a Plaça in the capital of Catalonia. It’s a good book to read.

The Spanish Civil War, often called a rehearsal for WWII, pitted the usual suspects against each other, with infighting and betrayals and the cynical manipulation of trusting ordinary people. Orwell went there to join the fight, and instead wound up writing about it. Homage to Catalonia was the result.

* * *

The first time we visited Barcelona, nine years ago, I set out for a run and, as usual, got hopelessly lost. I’ve been lost before — in fact it’s habitual with me, and a source of strange pride. I’ve gotten lost on runs in Singapore, Seattle, Galway, Cambodia, and in plenty of other places. But this was different. I knew roughly where our apartments was, somewhere down that lane in the Gothic Quarter. But our door had simply vanished. I had no address, map, phone or phone number.

Tired and aching from my long morning run, as an implacable burning sun inched higher every minute, I began to succumb to dehydration. I know the symptoms well: fuzzy brain, crankiness, and a need to immediately lie down on a cool bed in a dark room. I was desperate for a bottle of water, but of course had no money. I felt a rising sense of panic. I wanted to cry, but that would further dry me out. Then I considered begging.

But how do you beg for directions?

Closure in Calella de Palafrugell

That was nine years ago. On this trip, I did not run in Barcelona. Instead, I’ve taken a few tentative runs and hikes around Calella de Palafrugell, the village on the Costa Brava where we’re now staying for a week. A smiling giant lies down and stretches his rocky arms out to the sea, enclosing a sun-washed crescent of small sandy coves lined with hotels, restaurants and bars that nestle in the giant’s chest. Repeat that image several times, and you have a good idea of the Costa Brava.

A distant view of Calella de Palafrugell, from a hiking path.

Calella de Palafrugell is an old holiday town, with sparkling seas and strolling tourists happy to be away from home. To the right and below our balcony, a large stone house with a clay-tiled roof sits right on the beach, with a dramatic patio on the second floor and a private sandy beach below. Apart from its prominent location, the building is not luxurious and looks as though it has stood here for centuries. But, by Old World standards, it’s relatively new, built by the son of the fabulously rich Mr. Velcro. Whether the family still owns Velcro Manor isn’t clear. But the origin story is this: Mr. Velcro, at that time a Swiss electrical engineer with a different name, returned from a hike in his native Alps one day and noticed that his dog was covered with burrs. That’s when…

Mr. Velcro’s famous Alpine walk occurred in 1941, with his first patent filed in 1954.

At the other end of Calella de Palafrugell, imposingly large houses snuggle against the giant’s left arm. These were built by former fishermen who discovered there was more money to be made harvesting cork trees than risking their lives with nets and hooks.

If you hike south from Calella de Palafrugell, over the giant’s right shoulder and along the sea, the path takes you to the sumptuous Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. I didn’t get lost on my way there, but did lose my way in the garden itself, looking for the cacti — always my favourites.

The garden was founded in 1927 by a married couple, the Woevodskys. Nikolai Woevodsky was a former Russian colonel, and Dorothy Webster an English aristocrat. Today, the garden isn’t as well-known as its summer music festival. Apart from Christina Aguilera and Sting, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know any of the other acts in this year’s edition, as they’re all Spanish performers. But pre-Covid lineups included Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, Peppa Pig and Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan has played Cap Roig Music Festival several times.

In the formal part of the Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. Did I mention I got lost in the gardens, looking for cacti?

* * *

The first day in Calella de Palafrugell, I went for a run, carefully noting landmarks at every turn. Left at the first roundabout; straight at the next three roundabout; then left at the stone building with the FUNKY TOWN sign.

I wear a running watch, but it’s not a fancy model, the kind that tells you where to go and when you heart will explode. But it does keep track of the basics: time, pace and distance. I tell myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going.

Running down to the sea.

Begging for directions

Soon after we arrived in Calella de Palafrugell, I located a book of Orwell’s essays and read “Marrakech.” Like many of his essays from that period, it’s a devastating indictment of racism and colonialism — subjects he knew first-hand, as a former colonial policeman in Burma (now Myanmar). He writes about the invisibility of the subject races, those with brown skin. A bundle of sticks moving down the road is just that, until one day you squint and see the ancient shrunken woman beneath the load. After that, you can never “unsee” her.

In Barcelona, where nine years ago I had been hopelessly lost, the beggars have adopted a new posture. They now prostrate themselves, knees on the pavement, arms outstretched on the ground, fingers balancing a paper cup — and always, always face down. The posture is the thing, you see, for now it’s easier to give. No need to engage, to see the beggar’s eyes. Nor to think about the transaction and what it means, why it’s necessary. Drop a coin into the cup, move on.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a run to the San Sebastià lighthouse, just over the giant’s left shoulder. The distance is short, but the paths are steep and the slanting sun was still burning hot and soon I was drenched in sweat and my pulse was climbing with dangerous insistence. So I kept reminding myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going and, above all, listen to my heart.

Tomorrow we fly on to Greece.

Sa Sebastià lighthouse, and a friend. Worth the climb.

Day three in Barcelona

Columbus sailed from Barcelona to “discover” the New World. But as I learned from my last visit, nine years ago, the keen-eyed explorer is pointing in the wrong direction. Art always trumps fact.

If you like the oldest parts of Barcelona — the Gothic Quarter (El Born), Barcelonetta, and the city’s extraordinary market, then you’re out of luck. Everyone else likes these places too. With every step, you’re surrounded by a vast and flowing shoal of humanity every hour of the day and night.

But no mind. We were only here for three nights, and on our last night we arrived early at La Cañeta and scored seats at the bar. There are booths and dining rooms at the back and upstairs, but the bar gives you front-row seats to the show. La Cañeta is a celebrated tapas place: noisy, packed and operating like a well-oiled machine. You can watch chefs in toques prepare tapas, while waiters in white jackets and epaulets dash back and forth, fetching and clearing plates, and making and pouring drinks. To a man — and they’re all men — they’re irresistibly charming and helpful and funny. You want to bring one home.

Our waiter sized us up and produced an English menu that may as well have been written in Catalan. But, with his help, and furtive glances at what our neighbours were eating, we ordered glasses of Cava and five plates. They were all exquisite to look at and delicious.

There was a reason for our bewilderment. The menu at La Cañeta lists some 50 dishes, under three categories: Appetizers, Snacks, and Specials. But there’s no discernible reason for these divisions. Each dish, in every category, could just as easily be in another category. And they’re all sized so you need several, to enjoy individually or share. Among those dishes was Laminated iberian prey with fine herbs (13.65€).

Walking back from dinner with a friend, we encountered La Pedrera, one of Gaudi’s famous houses, which we’d seen on a previous trip in the daytime. Ghostly and imposing at night, with some of the playfulness gone.

The entrance to La Pedrera.

Crypto in the kitchen

Back in the 90s, Spanish chefs popularized deconstructed dishes, foams, spherification and other culinary cons. It was only the beginning, before cooking spawned reality shows and dedicated channels. You can now watch competing chefs sweating, hating and crying. Always in pursuit of the next big thing.

It’s morning and a celebrity chef stares bleary-eyed at a mirror. A half-shaven face stares back. Business is down. Customers are fleeing. There’s a new place across town where they’ve developed a technique for laminating comestibles. They pioneered laminated Algerian snippets. Now they’ve turned their sights on iberian prey — with fine herbs, no less! The chef’s eyes suddenly widen. Of course! The answer’s been under his nose this entire time! He dabs at the Gillette Foamy on his cheek. Touches it with his tongue. Immediately picks up his phone and barks: “Loic! In the test kitchen in an hour!”

Jagger at the cathedral

The Cathedral of Barcelona.

In Pla de la Seu, there were long low benches crowded with tourists, such as ourselves, where you can rest your tired feet and admire the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona. The topmost part of the cathedral was obscured by a Samsung ad for a Galaxy Z Fold4. Questions crowded the mind.

The 15th-century cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulália, one of the city’s patron saints. According to tradition, the young virgin suffered martyrdom during ancient times, when the Romans stripped her naked and exposed her in the public square. But a miraculous snowfall in mid-spring covered her nudity, to confound the Romans — but only for a while. Because the Romans then put her into a barrel with knives stuck into it and rolled it down a street — an early form of Cuisinart, if you will. The body of Saint Eulalia, or what was left of it, is entombed in the cathedral.

We sat and marvelled at the elegant tracery over the cathedral entrance, every loop rendered in stone. Over the sound of children playing and parents shouting and hawkers selling, an old man with a guitar was singing love songs in a warbly old-man’s vibrato. I watched a boy of about six bouncing a soccer ball with his feet and knees, the ball never once touching the ground. It was a thing to behold. After a full three minutes of this, the boy tapped a pass sideways with his heel. His little sister, all of four, muffed the pass. He glared at her with disdain. But then dad, with a cigarette clamped to his mouth and wearing a vintage Stones t-shirt, stepped in to play with both and keep the peace.

On the second day in Barcelona, we saw a green-painted recycling truck stop in a narrow street to pick up piles of clear bags and stacks of cardboard. One of the green-suited sanitary workers was a young woman with a thick blonde braid halfway down her back. She wore designer glasses, lipstick and pearl earrings. She would have turned heads anywhere, except in Europe.

A fancy hotel near La Pedrera.

On the second day here, at breakfast in this aggressivelyh British-themed restaurant, we learned the queen had died.