Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Contemporary Athens

I like the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times for the world, which skews its news to that of interest to the region it is issued in, and includes some local bits and pieces too, as well as a hefty Arts & Culture section.  The Greek pages here are drawn from the local paper 'Kathimerini'  (which means something like 'daily') From it, I have learned that in Greece there is ‘the economy’ and ‘the real economy’. Most Greek news is hand-wringing about their massive debt and the austerity measures being imposed. There has been a big truck ‘strike’ going on lately – we passed several blockades in the bus yesterday, although they weren’t actually blocking anything much, just not delivering what they are supposed to be delivering, I guess. The IHT reports today that the strike is ‘turning ugly’ with shots being fired in the north of Athens. Fortunately our bus to the Peloponnese was going south yesterday.

 Today I also learnt about a new European country called FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia); and that I have missed a performance at the Herod Atticus Theatre (one of the ancient theatres on the slopes of the Acropolis, you’ll remember) which featured a monologue delivered by a Greek actress. Perhaps it is best that I missed that. In other news, a new museum dedicated to ‘the Greek resistance to fascist invader in World War II’ was inaugurated the other day (the Nazi swastika flew over the Parthenon during that time, until a small Greek boy pulled it down).

The IHT, bless it, also includes a section called ‘International Traveler’ which reports on airline mess ups, hotel developments and art shows you may have missed. Today it reported that Brussels airport was closed by a strike yesterday. *Phew*, a lucky miss.

I have also found out why this hotel is called ‘Grande Bretagne’ – it was established in 1872 and was designed ‘to honour the then affluent British clientele travelling on a world tour and including Athens in their itinerary’. I like ‘then affluent’ and its inference that times have changed. I haven’t come across a single Brit amongst either the hotel clientele or the bus tourists, so far. Nor any Germans nor Italians. Lots of Americans, Australians, French and Spanish – many, many Spanish. The hotel name is in French because the original proprietor’s wife was French. He had begun as a ‘poor kitchen aid at the palace’, which is opposite (now the Parliament), went abroad and made his fortune and returned to buy the mansion (built in 1842) and turn it into a hotel. It served as German military headquarters during the occupation (they always chose the best buildings). Lots of heads of state and famous people have stayed here, including....Maria Callas! I skip lightly over the Kennedys, Eisenhower, Indira Gandhi and Aristotelis Onassis.

Monastery of St Nektarios
Despite the pervasiveness of the ancient Greek pantheon of multiple gods, the Byzantine Christian era clearly took strong hold here, and the Greek Orthodox Church is much in evidence. Their churches look like squat mosques without minarets, featuring low domes (often several) and square corner towers, and frequently lots of red brick. The modern versions mimic the old ones. They are quite attractive from the outside; I haven’t yet ventured inside one. On Monday on Aegina we viewed what was said to the ‘the seat of the Greek Orthodox church’ and the largest church in Greece, the Monastery of St Nekt├írios, built 35 years ago (and still missing a few internal frescos and mosaics, but they’re working on it).

Today I am abandoning Ancient Athens for Contemporary Athens, which in this case I am defining as the hotel pool and spa. I am told that the mainstays of the Greek economy are (in order): shipping, tourism, agriculture and industry. Thus, the spending of my money at the Grande Bretagne is obviously vital to helping the Greeks through this rough economic period, and I will do my best to assist. Later, I must transfer down the road to the local interpretation of the Intercontinental (which is unlikely to deviate much from every other interpretation around the world) to kick off for the work conference which will run for the next two days.

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