Athens, and Athena


Stumbling bleary-eyed to the rooftop of the Grand Bretagne Hotel, a stately, Baroque palace of a hotel in the heart of Athens, I squint as the bright sun floods the terrace. And there, as if you could touch it, is the Parthenon on its rocky outcrop. A crane is perched next to the famous palace of Athena, where a new round of restoration is ongoing, and just below, a big square box has risen from the ground, the new Acropolis Museum, where work feverishly continues. More on the Acropolis later, but first: Athens. Hellishly hot, dusty, and, unlike Turkey, organized and English-friendly. Country by country I inch closer to Europe. Am I here? I think so. “Sometimes we’re Europe, sometimes we’re not,” explained Smaro Topoula to me today, a tour guide with a raging interest (also, a degree) in cultural patrimony. Greece, it seems, has a palpable inferiority complex: still nursing their anger at the Turks, who occupied them for hundreds of years and caused them to miss the Renaissance; skeptical of the Americans, whose hegemonic power makes them the modern day equivalent of what ancient Greece once was; and resentful of the Brits, who stole their Parthenon marbles and act as if Greece should thank them for doing so. This complex is not noticeable on the surface, but it is visible in ways large and small. Not least of which is the hulking, new building that will house the friezes and other treasures of the Parthenon. “It’s a disaster,” Smaro told me. “Such a loud thing. We need to prove that we’re the direct descendents of Pericles. That’s what this is about. And that bothers me.”