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.
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.
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.
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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.