Ruminations from the Acropolis

(Taken from the Spargel archives: September 12, 2003)

Last night I saw The Shakespeare Theatre from Washington D.C. perform the Oedipus Cycle at Herodes Atticus Odeon, the theatre on the Acropolis. To see an ancient Greek tragedy performed by a modern American company in an ancient Greek theatre was an amazing experience. Almost 34 rows of stone seats remain, rising seemingly straight up from the ground. Behind the stage, there is a row of arched windows, above which is a row of smaller square windows, then another level of bigger arched windows. To the sides, ruins linger, making it clear that at one point the theatre had at least two more levels. While I am sure the theatre is nothing more than a shadow of its former glory, it is unqualifiedly grand.

As I watched the show with one eye and examined the theatre with another, I couldn’t help wondering, “What is the cost of such greatness?” Not the cost in money, but the cost in human lives. While it is certainly worthwhile to marvel at the way these buildings, constructed hundreds of years before Christ, still remain, demanding respect and reminding us of the ancient roots of democracy, it is important, I believe, to think about how these buildings came to be. Structures of stone, they required tremendous labor. Each stone had to be cut from quarry. Each stone had to be transported to the site. Each stone had to be arranged and secured to withstand the change of centuries. “Who did this work?” I wonder. Who gave themselves fully to the task of creating such a monument? Who lost their lives when a rock shifted unexpectedly? It wasn’t the great men of Athens. It wasn’t those we read about in textbooks or see statues of in museums. It was the common man. It was, most likely, men held slaves by other men. Greatness is a strange concept. There are men we consider great, and there are things we consider great. Sometimes we forget that many great things result from the toil of many forgotten people. It is not just true here in Greece, but in the United States and throughout the world. That which we marvel over and hold precious often has a hidden cost. That doesn’t mean that we should quit marveling. We should marvel, but not just over the thing but also over the people who created such marvels.

On a different but related note, have you ever gone somewhere and wondered what it used to be like before it is the way you see it now? For instance, whenever I go on long road trips, I always find myself imagining what our country must have looked like before interstates, or even roads of any sort, crisscrossed it. What must it have been like to have crossed the U.S. by wagon, without roads, interstate signs, fast-food restaurants, billboards, hotels, convenience stores? All you had was yourself and whatever you could fit in your wagon. All your food had to be prepared, found, or hunted. Every need had to be fulfilled by you. You didn’t know what was up ahead. You couldn’t consult Mapquest. You couldn’t call AAA. In one day, you would travel the distance we now travel in one hour. Strange, isn’t it? Could I have done it?

So yes, I’m getting to the part that relates back to my theatre experience. As I sat high above the stage, just as others had done centuries ago, I wondered what it must have been like for them to sit there. What was the same? The glow of the full moon, the pin point light of the stars (multiplied exponentially, I am sure), the trees like rough strokes of black on an illuminated canvas, the shadows dancing wildly on the stone wall, the balmy summer air, the whispers of theatre patrons. So much must have been the same. But as I looked out the arches over the stage, I saw city lights, buildings, restaurants, endless streams of cars. Where there must have been rolling hills and fields, there is now development. While the Acropolis stood stoically, the city around it grew and changed to become a modern metropolis. If the people, who in B.C. sat in the same seats that were filled last night, returned, what would they recognize? Would they even know where they were? While some things remain, so much changes. Bit by bit, the familiar becomes the unfathomable. The world is only ours for a brief moment.

What Skiing Taught Me About Travel

I was a few months shy of 21 the first time I donned a pair of skis, and I think I fell down about five times before I even made it to the lift. I was in the German Alps, near the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host to the 1936 Winter Olympics. Jeff had come to visit me in Germany over his winter break, and we’d decided that a ski trip was just the thing to do.

The Alps are not for weenies. On the edge of the slopes were signs warning about steep drops but there were no barriers to keep you from actually going over the edge. I should have signed up for a class, but the classes were all taught in German and the oldest person in the class was maybe 3.5. As I watched tiny tot after tiny tot come whizzing down the mountain, stopping with a snow flinging turn, I figured that skiing couldn’t be that hard. That was before Jeff struggled to explain to me the exact method for skiing, before I slid down almost the entire mountain on my butt, before I spent the night in the hot tub trying to soothe my aching muscles. By then I was convinced that those kids I had seen flying around on skis must have been born with a special gene that made skiing as easy for them as falling down was for me.

By the third and final day of our trip, I could make it down a hill without falling, but it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t fast. We then didn’t go skiing again for five years, until a spring wedding took us to Denver in time for the last ski weekend of the season. This time I took a class, and I began to understand why people might consider skiing fun.

But then, we got caught up in writing guidebooks and finishing PhDs and traveling around the world, and it wasn’t until this past weekend, that we were able to go skiing again, my third time. I had received assurances that skiing was like riding a bike, and it would all come back to me easily. I’d say that’s a partially true statement. I didn’t feel like I did the first time I clicked my boots into my skis—I certainly didn’t flail around as much—but I still wasn’t entirely comfortable.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a worrier with an overactive imagination, so every time I got going at a decent pace, all I could imagine was what it would be like to wipe out at that speed. And so, I made lots and lots of turns. I gave my glutes a workout through overuse of the snowplow. Essentially, any time I got up to speed, I made myself slow down. By the end of the first day, my knees were killing me. On the second day, they began to bug me as soon as we started down the first slope. I mentioned this to those we were skiing with and no one could quite figure out why. I played around. I experimented. And then I realized what the problem was. I was going too slow. Essentially I was taking every turn without much in the way of momentum, meaning my knees were having to do all the work of turning my skis. What I had to do was let go.

It wasn’t easy. I hesitated a few times. I pulled up on the steeper parts. But eventually, I let go. I trusted in my ability. I knew that I knew how to ski, that I knew how to turn, that I knew how to slow down, that I knew how to stop, and so I let myself go. My knees quit hurting. Skiing became much more fun and much less work. I tried bigger hills, tougher slopes. I fell a few times, but I popped right back up each time. I didn’t throw caution to the wind so much, as I trusted in my knowledge, skills, and abilities and then went for it.

As I see it, this is exactly the same thing you have to do with travel. Whether it’s deciding to take a major trip, opting to travel without a detailed itinerary, or choosing to travel to a challenging destination or simply somewhere outside your comfort zone, eventually you simply have to let go. You have to trust in your knowledge, your instincts, your experience, and whatever planning you have done, and then you simply have to make the leap. And that’s when the adventure begins.

One Day in Paris

(Editor’s Note: This is a post from Theresa and Jeff’s one day in Paris.  Their flight from Santiago, Chile to Johannesburg, South Africa had a stop in Paris.  The “invisible hand” has not received anymore stories for posting but will post them as soon as they do arrive.)

11:00 AM: Arrive at Charles de Gaulle, ride a bus from the airplane to the gate and then walk endlessly through immigration and customs. This requires an hour.

12:00 PM: Head into town on the RER, reaching Gard de Nord. Find a luggage locker. It sure wouldn’t be fun to have to haul that everywhere.

1:00 PM: From Gare du Nord, hike up the hill to Sacre-Coeur for a beautiful view of the city … a nice overview to get your bearings. Enjoy the beautiful church.

2:00 PM: Walk back to the Metro through the artsy neighborhood of Montmartre, full of cafes and galleries and numerous street vendors and artists. Grab a crepe and keep walking.

2:30 PM: Hop the metro to the Pere-Lachaise cemetary and pay your respects to Jim Morrison. And I’m sure lots of important French people too.

3:15 PM: Back on the metro for more, around to the south to the Catacombs.

3:30 PM: Get lost looking for the Catacombs because the map placed them two metro stops away.

3:55 PM: Discover the Catacombs. Discover that last entry is at 4:00 PM. Hustle in! Walk in eerie amazement through what must be millions of bones.

4:45 PM: Emerge from the Catacombs and feel completely lost. Amble until a metro appears.

5:30 PM: Gawk at Notre Dame, the facade, the gargoyles, the stained glass, the history. Judging by the crowd, a few people have heard of this church.

6:00 PM: After a loop around Notre Dame, walk along (Whats the island called?) till the end and (what bridge?). Marvel at the opulent hotels, towers and monuments along the way.

6:30 PM: Arrive at the Louvre. It’s closed anyway, but enjoy the plaza, then head down the Champs-Elysees toward the distant Arc de Triomphe, watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. Grab a French baguette at a deli along the Champs-Elysees. But don’t eat it yet!

7:45 PM: Metro to the Eiffel Tower, and be sure to look for it all lit up on your left from the train. Find a bench to sit on, avoid the plastic Eiffel Tower hawkers, and enjoy your dinner and the view. Snap the classic romantic picture!

8:30 PM: Hightail it back to the Gare du Nord, grab the bags and get to the airport to catch the next flight!

There you have it … all of Paris in a day! (ok, maybe not all, as I hear it has a few more things to offer, but a damn good amount for one day)

Russia in Review

UPDATE: You can now link to our photos from the Russia page. Check them out!

If you take a look at the navigation bar at the top of the page, you’ll see we’ve added a new section: Country Summaries. We’ll be creating a page in this section for every country we visit. You’ll get a quick link to our posts and photos related to that country, along with a summary of our experience in that country. I’ve got the Russia summary up and ready so please go check it out.

But before you get too excited, let me disappoint you and say that I don’t have photos up yet. I really, really wanted to get that done tonight, but remember that part about me not being a night person? Yeah, still true, and as it’s now less than an hour until midnight, it just isn’t going to happen. I hope to get to it tomorrow, and I will update this post to let you know when I do. But please don’t hold your breath—tomorrow is our last day in Stockholm (can you believe it?) and I have a ton to do.

Also, we’re still uncertain about where/how we want to host our photos. Is Flikr the best option? If you have any insight into this, please comment and let us know. And please go ahead and check out the written part of the Country Summary and let us know what you think. All comments and suggestions are welcome!

Observed in St. Petersburg

*Street sweepers use birch branch brooms, though they use them very efficiently. By mid-morning, the streets were always clean and tidy. But they definitely had their work cut out for them, since Russians leave their beer and vodka bottles absolutely everywhere, most times broken.

*Garbage cans apparently set fire often, because we passed one near a busy bus stop and everyone acted completely unsurprised.

*A communist era holdover, three people commonly occupy the job of one. Every museum we went to had a person who’s job was to direct you to his/her left, where the lady in the ticket office would sell you a ticket, then another lady next to her to take your ticket and allow you in the museum. Literally. All in a row.

*Russians must have phlegm issues because loogies were all over the sidewalks.

*Though the temperature outside consistently stayed around 50 degrees Farenheit, ice cream was the most popular street food. Go figure.

*Brides were all over the city. We ran into multiple large wedding parties drinking champagne and taking pictures at every iconic place we visited, as weddings commonly parade around to city landmarks and party all day long. It was inspiring to see so many joyous people out and about.

*Its tragic to see Russian soldiers who lost limbs simply ambling around without them. Its shameful that the government gives them no aid with it. Of course, the US gov’t cannot be said to treat their veterans much better.

*Why do people who look very unstable and unsure of themselves on roller blades feel the need to roll right down the sidewalk of Nevsky Prospekt? The sidewalks are jammed with walkers, the roads are jammed with crazy cars, and here are people who do not seem to know how to turn or stop trying to navigate it causing disaster at every step.

St. Petersburg by Moonlight

I am not a night person. When midnight strikes, I like to be in my pajamas (well, okay, let’s be honest—I’d live in my pajamas if that were socially acceptable) and on my way to bed. I’ve always been a person who requires a good night’s sleep, and I seem to have been born without the ability to truly sleep in, so this generally means that I don’t party into the wee hours of the morning. Jeff, much more of a night owl than me, has learned not to expect much out of me once the moon rises, so I guess it’s only reasonable that he thought I was joking when on our first night in St. Petersburg I suggested that we stay up to watch St. Petersburg raise the bridges.

But I wasn’t. I did in fact want to go out at 1:30 a.m. to look at bridges.

With 42 islands and 60 rivers and canals, St. Petersburg is a city of islands connected by bridges. These bridges are all rather lovely, coming in a variety of shapes and sizes with all types of statues and lamp poles and other such decoration adorning them but sharing one main feature—they’re not high enough for serious river traffic to pass under. Thus every night beginning at 1:25 a.m. the bridges are raised drawbridge-style in successive order from the Gulf of Finland inwards, so that large barges and other necessary boat traffic can pass through the city. They then stay open until 4:30 a.m., allowing all the boats through (and trapping all the cars).

I’d heard that watching the bridges be raised was a popular event, and I decided that we should see it. And being the thinker that I am, I decided we really needed to see it the first night because the two-hour time difference between Stockholm and St. Petersburg meant that it didn’t really feel that late to me. (I hadn’t miraculously become a late night lover.) Though Jeff laughed and refused to believe I was serious at first, he eventually got with the program, and we went out.

I’m glad we did.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, but by night, it is an enchanted city. The tsarist buildings that define St. Petersburg are lit, glowing ethereally under a dark sky. The ever-crowded daytime sidewalks have been mercifully thinned to just a smattering of people. The winds have all died, and the September air, while crisp, is not cold.

In the Palace Square outside the Hermitage a musician played haunting songs that lingered in the air before being swallowed by the river. On the river, crowds did congregate. A few rowdy souls swigged beer and vodka, but most people were quiet, almost reverential as the bridges broke in the middle and slowly lifted until each half stood at attention. Large barges, apparently waiting for this moment, chugged through minutes later, one followed closely by another, and small cruise boats maneuvered in-between shuttling tourists down the river to witness the spectacle at bridge after bridge. It’s a bit funny to think about or try to relate—literally hundreds of people gathering to watch a bridge go up seems a bit odd at face value—but it really was a neat experience, and as we walked down the magical streets back towards our hotel well after 2 a.m., the tourist propaganda claiming this to be a “romantic” experience seemed somehow to be a little bit true (even to a girl who could very well claim the least romantic person in the world award…if Jeff didn’t beat me out of it).

Looking Up

St. Petersburg is perhaps best known for the Hermitage, its amazing collection of art spanning 3000 years of human civilization and an entire globe. What I found more impressive than this, though, was the building it was housed in, the Winter Palace. Built in the 1750’s by Italian architects, it was the winter residence of the Russian Tsars. The sheer opulence and grandeur of so many of the room was simply astounding. The intricacy and detail in the ceilings impressed me most (my dad was more impressed with the detail work of the floor … also incredible). Since the visuals really defy words, I’ll let the photo collection below of the ceilings tell the story. (For the record, this is a temporary arrangement as for tonight, I give up on trying to integrate photos in nicely … picasa plugins are not playing nice so far).

First Impressions of St. Petersburg

At the Russian embassy in Stockholm: Wow, this is easy. And she’s actually nice and helpful. I thought that this was supposed to be so difficult that you threw your hands up in despair and just gave up. Am I missing something? Am I going to show back up to get my visa only to find out that I didn’t do some obscure task and now I can’t have one?

Upon arrival at the St. Petersburg airport: I think that soldier is wearing the same uniform in the same ugly green and the same scratchy material as WWII soldiers wore. In fact, he looks like he could have walked straight out of some film based on a Stephen Ambrose book.

On the drive from the airport to the Grand Nevsky Hotel: Whoa he drives fast. Oh shit, we’re totally going to hit that car. Look at that ginormous statue (Monument to the Historic Defenders of Leningrad ). It’s soooo Soviet. Did you see that church? It was gorgeous. Oh this one’s even better. Damn, traffic is terrible. Holy crap, I think that trolley car could be classified as an artifact. Oh shit, it almost hit that Hummer limo. Oh look, a Zara is about to open in that huge old communist looking building.

On a first walk around the city: This place doesn’t feel very Russian, not that I know exactly what Russian feels like. It feels more like Europe…a bit Scandinavia, a bit Berlin, maybe even a little Amsterdam with all these canals. Brrr, that’s a cold wind blowing off the Neva. I totally need one of those Russian fur hats. Or maybe a bunch of vodka shots. Seriously, this is all still the Hermitage? Where does it end? Woohoo, I can totally read Russian. It’s just like Greek…oh except what the hell is that letter, that’s a new one. So yeah maybe I can sort of kind of read it.

On a visit to Peterhof: This looks like Versailles. The fountains are awesome. The palace, eh, it’s a palace. Aren’t they all the same…opulent and overdone. Gold and gold and oh yeah, more gold. That ticket lady is totally a holdover from the communist days. Is that scowl permanent? I love the way the Russian tourists strike a pose for every photo as if they’re supermodels. And the fact that they are walking around these giant gardens in insane high heels as if it’s no big deal if just freaking insane.

As you can see, I’ve had a wide array of reactions to St. Petersburg in my first 24 hours here, and I have not found an easy way to sum it up. Established by Peter the Great as a window to the west, it still is a strange mix of east and west, Russia and Europe. So far the most prominent impression I have is of St. Petersburg as a city of new money.

Of course, in its earliest history, St. Petersburg had money. This is obvious in the palaces and churches, fortresses and bridges…the centuries-old structures built during the heyday of the Romanovs. But in the past century, St. Petersburg has seen hard times. As Leningrad, it suffered terribly during the German siege of the Second World War, with millions of people starving to death and the ravages of war becoming everyday reality. Later, communism did the city no favors. Construction was utilitarian, depressing, gray. The city’s magnificent churches were gutted and used to store potatoes or converted to swimming pools. Even if you had money, there was little to buy.

Now, it seems to me, that St. Petersburg is trying to shove that recent history from memory. Cranes criss-cross the skyline. Stores and shops and malls are opening everywhere, and everything stays open 24 hours a day. Western franchises are prospering. (We even saw a Carl’s Jr.!) Fancy cars race down the street. And fashion is at the forefront (even if it’s not what I’d call fashionable). St. Petersburg is a city on the rise…again. Yet at the same time it’s a city heavy with history and so long as there’s a bubushka on the street, a minibus pulling up at the corner, and a monolithic Soviet statue in the square, I think it will remain a city torn…between East and West, between Russia and Europe, between history and future. And in my opinion, that’s at least half the reason why it’s such an amazingly interesting place.

(We’re here through Monday, so expect to hear more about St. Petersburg in the following days. And if you have any suggestions for St. Petersburg, let us know!)

Places that Fit and Places that Don’t

Sometimes a place fits. And sometimes it doesn’t. But you never really know for sure until you try it on.

Countries are, apparently, a lot like shoes. Sometimes they’re cute and loved by everyone you know, yet when you give them a go, you find yourself just a bit uncomfortable in them. Other times they can seem pretty average on first glance, but before you know it they’re the only ones for you and you can’t believe you ever found them anything but amazing.

I’ve had both experiences. I love Greece. I love the beauty of the islands. I love the spirit of the people. I even came to embrace the chaos. But as much as I long to go back there—to stuff gyros into my face all day long, to sit for hours at a cafe in the heart of Athen’s messiness, to hop the next ferry to whatever island—Greece doesn’t really fit me. We’re not opposites that attract in a pleasant, lifelong way. We’re opposites that find each other startlingly attractive, rush into a crazy affair, and then crash and burn in a fiery display. We never live up to each others’ expectations. We’re both forever trying to change the other. We are star-crossed.

Germany, I also love. It’s not nearly as showy as Greece, not as striking in its beauty, not as tempting in its offerings. It’s the land of fairy tales…but the Grimm brother versions, not the Disney versions. When you tell people you’re going to Germany, you don’t get the same sighs of longing as you get when you say you’re going to Greece. But Germany, well, it gets me. It’s solid and reliable. I know what to expect from it, I know how to behave with it. And every so often, it surprises me with some small delight, nothing big, nothing flashy for sure, but just a little something to keep me satisfied. I could grow old with Germany.

Yes, yes, I know…shoes, romantic partners…I’m mixing all kinds of metaphors in here. So I guess I’ll just go ahead and get to my point, which is that Sweden fits me.

From the moment I’ve arrived—and I commented on this to Jeff after my first day here—it’s felt surprisingly normal. It’s as if I’ve been here before (which, indeed, I have but it was for just a quick couple of days of being a tourist). I slipped in easily, a strange kind of familiarity surrounding me. Perhaps it’s the fact that our apartment reminds me of my dorm room in Germany. Or maybe it’s because in its weather patterns and its location on the water it feels like Seattle, which I’ve gotten used to over the past years. Or maybe it’s because I can recognize enough of the language, thanks to the similarities with German, to know what everything is at the grocery store, to read menus and store signs, to check bus schedules, to apologize to someone for not speaking the language when they assume that I can. I’m sure it’s a combination of factors, but the fact is that Sweden just works for me. I feel at home walking its streets, stopping in its cafes, shopping in its stores, and just moving through the simple ordinary acts of living. It’s a place that I’d feel comfortable adding to my “List of Places I can Live When Hell Truly Freezes Over and John McCain Wins the Election.” (Although I think I’d have to run off and have a torrid affair with Greece every winter…but, really, I think that wouldn’t be so terrible.)

Anyhow, what about you? What places feel like a natural fit to you and what places never fit right no matter how hard you try to make them? What countries would be on your own personal version of the hell freezing over list?