Monday, May 16, 2011

I Remember Pericles!

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”
The Odyssey, Homer, Book I, opening lines

Back in elementary school I was enrolled in something called the “Enhanced Learning Program.”  I can’t remember the precise details surrounding it, but every so often—once per week, maybe—strangers would collect me from my school and take me on a bus to a special house where I would be exposed to interesting subjects not otherwise taught in my regular classes.  One such subject was mythology—both Greek and Roman—and this is where I first learned about Zeus, his wife Hera, and the other gods and goddesses that hung around Mount Olympus.  I remember learning fascinating stories about Prometheus making fire; Pandora opening a box; Poseidon ruling the sea; and so on. 

I suppose all that ancient, mythological stuff had a lasting impact because, in college, I went on to major in something called Interdisciplinary Classics.  This combined the study of Latin and ancient Greek languages with ancient history, culture, philosophy, and mythology.   To that end, I spent a lot of time translating the texts of people like Ovid and Virgil, and generally trying to understand what in the hell Aristotle was talking about.

I also “went Greek” in college; meaning, I joined a sorority.  In that vein, I spent a lot of time preparing for Greek Week, serving on the Panhellenic Council, and playing drinking games with the Sigma Nus.  This last thing is probably why I had such a hard time concentrating in my Aristotle seminar.  That, and it was kind of boring.

Fast forward to 2011, close to twenty years later.  I’m on a bus bound for Athens—my first time going to Greece—and I can barely remember anything I learned in college.  Somewhere on the highway around Ionnina, I tried to recite the Greek alphabet—the knowledge of which was required both for my ancient Greek classes and, for some strange reason, membership in the sorority. 

In fact, we sorority pledges used to have to sing it.  I tried to bring it back, singing under my breath on the bus:  Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, Nu.  After Nu, it got fuzzy.  I knew there was an Omicron coming up soon, but I couldn’t remember if there was something else in between.

I could read the middle part. 
Suffice it to say, I was feeling ignorant as I arrived into Athens.  I used to know a lot of stuff about the place and its surrounds.  Now it all seemed to be gone from my head.

I settled in to my hostel and soon ventured out into Plaka, Athens’ oldest neighborhood, and also tourist-central.   There you can find every kind of Greek kitsch known to man, in shop after shop after shop.  “This Is Sparta!” 300 tees juxtaposed with Parthenons carved in soap; leather sandals; Greek olives; leafy crowns; that sort of thing.

Along the way I saw the name Pericles written somewhere.  I hadn’t thought of him or heard his name in years.  But now I thought, excitedly, I remember Pericles!  I know Pericles!  And that’s when the floodgates opened.  As I walked through these ancient back alleyways, I was swept with a sort of Greek-mania. 

Once it started, I couldn’t turn it off.  Names and places and events drenched my brain:  Xerxes kicking ass at the Battle of Thermopylae; Herodotus and Thucydides telling it like it was; Icarus flying too close to sun; Narcissus admiring himself to death.  Socrates teaching Plato teaching Aristotle.  The Academy.  The Gymnasium. Aeschylus’s tragedies and Aristophanes’ comedies.  (Or was Sophocles the funny guy?)  The hanging Sword of Damocles; Sisyphus and his boulder; Achilles’ wounded heel.  Alexander the Great.  Sparta; Crete; Mycenae; Corinth.  Ionic and Doric columns.  The Peloponnesian War.  The Trojan horse.  And Homer!  How could I forget Odysseus—just trying to get home after a long time out. 

Yes, I did remember Pericles.  He was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city’s Golden Age—specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.  He was descended, through his mother, from the powerful and historically influential Alcmaeonid family.  (Okay, I just ripped that off Wikipedia.  But, at the time, I did remember some of it myself.)

Suddenly, walking down this Adrianou Street, I’d never felt so excited to be somewhere.  After all that studying and learning and admiring the culture from afar, I was now in Greece.  In Athens.  Just around the corner from my hostel I can see the freaking Acropolis. 

I imagined this is how a pig feels in shit.  Immediately I wanted to write my Classics professor a post card and tell him about it.  About the excitement part, that is; I wouldn’t mention the pigs or shit.  That would be disrespectful.

Another thing I wouldn’t tell him—because I’m ashamed to admit it:  I did have to look up the rest of the Greek alphabet on Google.  In my defense, though, I was always better at Latin, seeing it’s the same alphabet we use with the English and all.

Right now I’m sitting in a café, writing this, and thinking about all those ancient people who used to live around here.  Can you imagine a Greek soldier putting a smart phone up to his ear beneath his helmet and plume?  Reliving The Iliad on Kindle? 

Would the ancient Greeks have liked the modern Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover?  He’s pretty popular around here today.  I noticed he’s on the covers of this month’s Greek Esquire and GQ.   Apparently The Hangover 2 will be hitting the cinema here in Athens on June 2.

Also, do you think Plato would have had a blog?  I bet he would have.  And I’d totally follow it too.  Plato, I liked.  Aristotle, not so much.  I received a poor grade in that Aristotle class, and to this day it still burns me up.

Finally—and I hope this doesn’t ruin it for you—but Odysseus did in fact find his way back home after being away far too long.  I hope to follow his lead soon.  God I hope I don’t run into the Cyclops between now and then.