Friday, October 26, 2012

Nea Demokratia

I had returned that morning to Athens from an extended stay on a small island and had wandered down to Syntagma Square to check for mail at the Poste Restante.  On the way there I had noticed what appeared to be police or soldiers in riot gear down a side street, something I had not seen before in the city.  After finding a letter waiting for me at the Post Office I took a shaded table in the Square and ordered a Greek coffee and settled in to read my letter and catch up on my journal.  There was scaffolding going up and a good deal of activity, but in Greece there was usually construction going on all the time and, like the men in riot gear, I thought nothing of it until I realized that the scaffolding was for flags and floodlights and banners.  There was going to be some sort of political event.

This was plainly to be no slap-dash, ad hoc affair of anarchists behaving anarchically.  The scaffolding was several stories high with a speakers stand, TV cameras, loudspeakers and floodlights that must have taken some time to put up.  There were large signs arranged so as not to block vision, but to show up in pictures.

People were beginning to gather in the early afternoon, gradually displacing the usual tourists and idlers at the tables around the Square.  The crowd was plainly middle class, with many families, and had a picnic or country social atmosphere.  There were children and old people.  There were grandmothers.  I have a policy against attending foreign political events where there are no grandmothers, believing as I do that the authorities are not going to send in the cossacks to run down grandmothers and grandmothers are not going to go to gatherings where the authorities might send in the cossacks.  I have no doubt that the black-shawled grandmothers have a surer sense of what’s going on than I do.

The music begins.  Loud, but not obtrusive.  Background music to the conversations of families and friends and playing children.  Off to one side is a rattle of firecrackers and a couple of rockets go up. (Easter is a week off and firecrackers are part of the Easter celebration.)  Afternoon lengthens into evening.

The music picks up, with faster and more obviously political songs.  A man and a woman come on the loudspeaker with low-key announcements and slogans and a few of the crowd respond. I have by this time figured out from the signs that this is a rally for the Nea Demokratia Party.

The Square continues to fill and now apparently most everyone there has come for the rally.  Hawkers move through the crowd selling flags and badges and cigaret lighters.  A key chain seller singles me out for a long and animated explanation, in Greek, of what all this means.  While I undoubtedly missed all of his nuances, he told me that Greeks like America and hate socialism, that PASOK (the ruling socialist party) is very bad and that the Prime  Minister is good only for football (at which the crowd around me laughs) while the people go hungry.  I bought a Nea Demokratia key chain from him.

The flood lights have come on, a bright, bluish white light, and there is smoke from flares set up on the scaffolding.  A group in the center of the Square begins to chant slogans and while the music over the loudspeaker becomes faster, it is paced with slower music, and then there are more slogans and announcements and more of the people in the Square are turning their attention to the rally and I learn that at eight o’clock there will be a speech by Kostas Mitsotakis.

As the hour approaches, the pace increases.  First a song, then a short speech, then a rousing, militant-sounding chorus reminiscent of a ‘60s protest song, though distinctively and passionately Greek, then another speaker.  Their messages seem to grow shorter, becoming more like slogans, and more of the crowd responds.

I am struck by one of the women speakers, her voice so full of passion.  It was not strident or abrasive, but strong, committed, passionate.  It may be that women are potentially better political speakers than men, better able to move the emotions, to inspire hope and fire with indignation.  And, yes, shame men into action, for better or worse, as the power to move emotions is unrelated to wisdom and I remembered Bellini’s opera "Norma" and the chilling war cry of the priestess: “Guerra, guerra”.

A pattern emerges: music followed by a chant, then slogans.  The music before the slogan is not as stirring as the music that follows.  The programming is conscious and effective.  There is a cadre in the center of the Square who take up the chants, chorus-like.  “Down with PASOK” and “We demand democracy”.  

Individual conversations become fewer as more and more become involved in waving flags and chanting and booing at the appropriate cues from the speaker.

The music and shouting is loud and physical, seeming to displace the air.  There is a feeling of being part of a large, vital, vigorous organism.  A motherly lady gave me a flag, which I wave when everyone else waves theirs.  It doesn’t feel right not to be waving a flag when everyone else is.  I take up the refrain of their song: “Long live New Democracy”.  The people around me laugh and smile approvingly and I have a feeling of belonging.

The music is loud and fast, with quick cuts between slogans and the rousing music.  There are no missed cues.  Firecrackers, originally going off at random, now seem to be orchestrated, punctuating the slogans.

Everything increases as the time comes for Mitsotakis, the Man of the Hour, to speak.  Everyone in the crowd seems concentrated on the speakers, taken up in the rhythm of the rally, and as he is introduced the crowd is roaring, faces full of joy and hope, and off to the sides a crescendo of firecrackers.

How in the world could any human hope to say anything that could live up to that introduction, though since I could understand only the odd phrase here and there, it is probably not surprising that I was bored by his speech, though the people there, who could actually understand what he said, seemed as enthusiastic after he had spoken as they were before.

Then the crowd began to break up, back into groups and families, some drifting off and others remaining in the Square.  Some people started dancing, young people and adults, spontaneous and exuberant.  Friends yelling to each other and embracing.  There were young girls dancing with a banner.  Everyone was happy.

Afterward, several people, having seen me with the flag, came over to greet me, obvious pleased that even a foreigner like myself had seen through the flimsy deceptions of PASOK and come out to lend them my support. 

In light of present news from Greece, this incident, that took place in 1985, seems from a far-off, innocent time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

This Enterprise, explained

Although I call this a travel blog, I realize it doesn’t look much like other travel blogs, so let me explain what I am doing here.  This site is not intended to help the reader plan a trip or save money when he goes.  It is not intended to lead him to hidden wonders off the beaten path.  It is not intended to enable him to follow my journeys and avoid my mistakes.  I am not writing for the reader at all.  I am writing for myself, though if a reader chooses to come along, I will be a good host and try to be amusing.
I have two cartons of travel journals that I have not looked at since I returned home from these trips years ago and I could imagine sand or flattened spiders or small dead animals falling out of some of them when they are opened.  The purpose of this site is to give me an excuse to re-read these old travel journals and discover if there is anything in them worth remembering and writing about and I thought publishing a blog would provide some discipline for the project.  So far, I have been pleased to discover that there seems to be rather more than I had thought.  And I do hope that what I make of these will be of some interest to a reader, whether he travels or not.

These stories, such as they are, are no more than incidents or episodes, when they are even that.  Any story arc is trivial and accidental, and themes rarely show their head, though they are taking shape in my mind as I write these and may emerge if these writings are ever brought together in a longer piece, as I begin to do in the “pages” entries.

In this blog I am writing out these incidents, either as they appear in my journal or as my notes there jog my memory, and the reader will thus be following my journey, not as I took it, but as I rediscover it through re-reading my old journals.

In all of this, I do try to be amusing, or at least interesting, which is not that difficult when you see things with the right attitude.  After all, what is adventure but inconvenience or misfortune rightly understood?  Otherwise, the world might be unbearable.

(I was put in mind of all this by a list of thirty good travel blogs I found at , which had the keen insight to list this site.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

an unwired traveler

I saw mention recently of the venerable Royal Geographical Society and was reminded that it always seemed more romantic than our own National Geographic Society.  Then my thought turned to the Explorers Club in New York City, which always seemed to have more the whiff of the bush jacket and pith helmet to it, so I went to their website to see what game was there afoot and it seemed rather ernest and institutional, though it may be simply that the age of bush jackets and pith helmets is behind us and there are no more white spaces on the map  --  as there yet were on the school room maps of my childhood  --  and exploration must change with the times.  And anyway, it’s a dicey thing to go Elsewhere in hope of finding Elsewhen.

As I read my travel journals it sometimes seems that my own travels are as dated as the ones I read about in the old travel books, even if I might have come most of my miles by plane, as once out of the airport the modern world began to distance itself from me as I willingly distanced myself from it.  

Just those few years ago there was neither Internet nor Global Positioning nor iPhone.  There were paper maps of various scale and helpfulness and guidebooks that always seemed to be written for some other kind of traveler and what I remembered of what I had read and any notes I might have brought with me.  I could ask people around me, to the extent I could understand them, and try to reach people whose name I had been given and who I was assured would be delighted to hear from me.  And try to negotiate the local telephone on which, for some preposterous charge, I could call home, but almost never did and preferred to send letters that might take weeks to reach their recipient and hope some weeks or months into the trip to find a letter waiting for me at the Poste Restante or American Express.  I took photographs, but most of the time would had no idea what I had until I got home and could have them developed.  Credit cards were beginning to be accepted in the cities, but we still relied mainly on the cash and travelers checks we brought with us and wore money belts and sometimes had hundred-dollar bills sewn into our clothing in case things took an untoward turn.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

the Dutch lady's journal

Since my first trip to Greece many years ago, I have kept a travel journal. It began as a small, sketchy affair and has grown over the years, and of course I have been interested in other people’s travel journals, though, alas, none of my friends keep them, despite my frequent urging.  This will explain my piqued interest when, in a little coffee shop on a small Greek island on a rainy morning I saw, at the next table, a lady writing in a small, pocket-sized journal.
She was a woman of about my age, dressed in sensible clothes, accompanied by a quiet young boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen, similarly dressed.  For some reason, I determined that they were Dutch.  They were, I decided, either a widow and her only son, or an aunt and nephew.  In either case, the older woman was determined that the boy ought see something of the world and for that reason had brought him here to the birthplace of western civilization.  That she was writing in her journal indicated that the arts and letters were valued in their home, and in later years the boy would likely write fondly of this time, much as Gerald Durrell had done of his mother’s taking their family to Corfu in the years before the second war.  
Having decided that they spoke Dutch, a singularly opaque language, I had no hope either to speak with them or to appreciate what she was writing in her journal, but thought I might at least get some feel for it by a glimpse of the layout of the pages, her treatment of text and space and perhaps things she might have pasted in or interleaved, or even drawings or watercolour sketches she might have made.  I knew that a travel journal in the hands of an artist could be a thing of beauty.  Feigning a need to cross the room, I passed close behind her chair and stole a glance at the opened pages of her journal.
She had just entered what they had paid for coffee and rolls.  The equivalent of perhaps eighteen cents, US.  Other entries were of a similar import.  That was all there was.  In the land of Hector and Odysseus, of Homer and Leonidas, of Phidias and Jason, of Zeus and Athena, of Aphrodite and Dionysius and Zorba, of fauns and satyrs and wine and wonderful food, of beaches and sunshine and blood feuds and vampires and the Evil Eye, her only notations were of nickels and dimes spent for coffee.  
It is always possible, of course, that the boy may have since grown up and written about their trip, though if he did it might not have been in the wistful spirit that I had been imagining.