Typically, in pilgrimage, it is the destination that seems the constant. Space has a permanence that outlasts us. But place is another matter. Place is a confluence of time and space, and in time resides memory. Place conveys when we were where.
We expect places to be where we remember them to be. I expected the Taverna Pente Adelphoi (Tavern of the Five Brothers) to be right where my memory had so indelibly recorded it that I homed in on Eolu Street with only one wrong turn after more than a decade.
Over the years of visiting Athens Eolu Street and the taverna had become very special to me. If there was one place in Athens, with its Acropolis, National Museum, and other attractions, that I had to see this time, it was the taverna.
[Several years ago, in The Stranger is Me, I had written about it]
If the temperature is high, and the air humid; if the light has mellowed to a creamy custard; if the traffic noise has softened from its late afternoon fury; and especially, if there is a zephyr that turns the sweaty glaze on my neck and forehead to a soothing unction; if all these atmospherics are present and, if I shut my eyes, I can almost, almost, be back there.
Behind my eyelids I can raise my sight upward and there it will be, a building as stately and as glorious as the goddess for whom it was built. Time and circumstances may have re-defined, but not diminished, the essence of its beauty. The Parthenon is, after all, the virginal Athena’s abode.
In my mind’s lens I can pull back the focus, widening the frame, drawing back down from the Acropolis, across the scattered ruins in the ancient Agora, right back to my table opposite the Taverna Pente Adelphoi. In wide-angle I can now see my fellow travelers, pulling open their collars and sleeves to accept a zephyr’s blessing. I can almost reconstruct the aroma of the Greek salad, feel the texture of the coarse bread, and hear one of my companions remark with surprise and equivocation at her first taste of retsina wine.
And I can’t help myself remarking at the coincidence that this street, Eolou St., should be named for the ancient Greek god, Aeolus, whose harp strummed up the earth’s winds. Perhaps it received that name because, nearby, just a few metres from our table stands the Temple of the Four Winds; as though from here, in this area of Athens called The Plaka, a little octagonal temple issues forth all the world’s air currents.
In this particular location, more than any other that I can bring to mind, and experience the supreme enjoyment of the nexus of time, place and people. For me, foreign travel just doesn’t get much better than such conjunctions. There are other ‘coordinates’ that might qualify nearly as well, and each traveler has his or her own particular and special mnemonic souvenirs; but this surely is one of mine. Here I feel just that little bit more both “alive” and yet humbled by the sense that my personal existence is an historical hiccup. It is, paradoxically, a pleasurable memento mori.
I have been at these tables in The Plaka many times, with many friends, family members and fellow travelers. It has seemed in those times, as it does in my reverie, that for brief moments our secular existence is transformed by that ancient Greek sense of an immediate and proximate divine dimension. That breeze that lifted the tablecloth, rustled the vines hanging over the wall and cooled our humidity-glazed skin, was it the strum of some long ago Olympian harp? Who can say.
Somehow the memory strives to connect this bustling, smoggy, noisy and commercialized quarter of Athens with the Greece of Homer, of Plato. Or, Philhellenes like Byron, or Kitto, or Mary Renault. But even they can only help prepare one for what must be our own encounter, our personal discoveries, with a place and its times.
The essence of travel memory is not composed of the iconic, of what is consensual, or what is the distilled imagery of the National Tourist Office. To the contrary, the personal discovery may stand for the general, but it is a particular, an aide-memoire, that assists the senses in re-calling the flavors, aromas, and textures of the place, and to situate that memory at a particular point, not just ‘in time,’ but in our ‘lifetime’.
Perhaps it is fitting to situate these thoughts on travel and memory in Greece. It is from here that our knowledge of the Classical world was handed down by tradition, by the spoken and chanted histories that only later were taken down in writing.
The 5th C B.C. poet Simonides of Ceos was a chanter of lyric poems, as well as a practitioner of the art of memory. Much later Cicero wrote that Simonides “. . . inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things . . . and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it.”
It was also a fellow Greek of the same age, the historian Herodotus, often referred to as “the father of history,” who, through his accounts of the places as well as the events he observed throughout much of the known world of his time, can legitimately claim to be the first “travel writer”.
This author’s “wax writing tablet” attempts to bring together these fundaments—places, images, circumstances, and the people in them—as a personal recollection of the often tandem discoveries of place and self.
We exist, always, at some intersection of the two coordinate dimensions of existence: Time and Space. We are, always, somewhere, at sometime. And nothing heightens the sense of circumstance and place, of existence itself, for me, as does travel.
But as I got within 50 metres of tavern I sensed something was wrong. There were cars parked where my table used to be across from the tavern, and no tables in front of the tavern, and finally, as I neared, like a punch in the solar plexus, no tavern. Then entire building had been turned into some sort of exhibition space. OK, it wasn’t a Wal Mart, or even a Starbuck’s, but they took my tavern, my place . . . my memory! No, not my memory; that they can’t have.
I’m an urbanist. I know that land uses change. Cities are not static entities. But some change is hard to bear. The tavern is gone now, maybe relocated elsewhere, but there is no place for it for me other than here. With it have gone the tables with their exquisite view of the Temple of the Four Winds, and above the incomparable Parthenon. They remain for now, having preceded and outlasted the tavern, a testament to Pentellic endurance if not to respect for beauty. But the winds of change that issue from the Aeolian harp do not relent. The winds hold no respect for our love of place.
But my memory Aeolus may not have. If the temperature is high, and the air humid; if the light has mellowed to a creamy custard; if the traffic noise has softened from its late afternoon fury; and especially, if there is a zephyr that turns the sweaty glaze on my neck and forehead to a soothing unction; if all these atmospherics are present and, if I shut my eyes, I can almost, almost, be back there.
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.29.2011)