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’s That You Say? Language and Travel

Flagging down a cab in Athens is hard work. Driver’s merely slow down as they approach you, lowering their windows to hear what destination you’re yelling out. If they feel like going there, they may stop and let you in. Otherwise they just keep on rolling. So on one of the first days I’d ventured down into the city by myself after I moved to Athens, I was loathe to get out of the cab I was in even though the driver couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand him.

He knew the neighborhood I wanted to go to, but he didn’t know exactly where Athens College was, so he needed me to direct him. He didn’t understand English, and my Greek was still so minimal it didn’t exceed far beyond “thank you” and “Do you speak English”. Signaling wasn’t getting us far, and you could feel the frustration building up in the cab. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the cab driver asked “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Suddenly everything was fine. We both spoke German. I quickly gave him directions, which he easily understood, and then we set to talking about how both of us had come to know German. He reminisced about the years he’d spent there, regaling me with stories all the way to my house. It was a moment of serendipity.

On our upcoming trip, Jeff and I are going to land in many places where our language skills won’t extend far beyond the phrases back in our guidebook. We’ll do our best to learn those, so that while we won’t be able to carry on a conversation in the language of our host nation, we will be able to approach its citizens with at least a greeting in their native tongue. We are fortunate that our mother language is perhaps the one most useful around the world, but we have to realize that there will still be many places where people do not speak it, nor should we expect them to. But if we’re willing to risk bad pronunciation and terrible accents in attempts to speak the language of the country we’re in, we believe that people will be more open to helping us, more willing to find us someone who does speak our language, more likely to try their nonnative-English out on us. This will probably be the best we can do in Southeast Asia and Africa, where we’ll encounter multiple languages in relatively short periods of times.

But since we will be spending five months in the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America (Portuguese-speaking Brazil the lone exception), just the basics isn’t going to cut it. Thus Jeff and I have made the first specific itinerary decision. We’re going to spend the first couple of weeks our trip learning Spanish at an intensive language school in Nicaragua. Jeff, who has a solid knowledge already, will take advanced level classes, while I, my Spanish limited to the few podcasts I’ve been able to get through, will work at a more elementary level.

Why Nicaragua, you ask? Well, Nicaragua has been a hopeful destination on our itinerary for some time. Jeff was able to spend some time there in high school and is eager to return and show me around. Additionally, Nicaragua is very inexpensive, and there are many respected schools in the country. Offered on a weekly basis, the classes are usually 4 hours per day with group size limited to 1-4 people. It’s a total immersion experience with the classes conducted entirely in Spanish. For accommodations, schools offer home stays, which Jeff and I are eager to take advantage of. Not only will a home stay give us an opportunity to practice our Spanish in everyday situations, a home stay will also give us insight into the daily life of Nicaraguans.

While we haven’t yet picked a school, we’re leaning toward Granada as our base. Granada is supposed to be a lovely city, so we’ll have things to do in our off-class hours. It’s also conveniently located near other places we want to visit. We’re also considering doing one week of language classes in one place and one in another, but that’s just an idea we’re tossing around at this point. Here are links to two schools in Granada that have gotten good reviews from other travelers and seem to offer what we’re looking for: One on One Tutoring and Casa Xalteva.

Hopefully after a bit of study at one of these schools, I’ll have the basics down and be better tuned to pick up more of the language as we travel. It’ll certainly be nice to be able to have conversations that are a little more interesting than “Hello. Where is the toilet? Thank you.” Though I can’t say for certain that there’s any more useful conversation than that.