CULTURE

What the guidebooks don’t say

Athens is often described as a very large village, where people know or know of, everyone else, their past and their family secrets. These three books are not classic guidebooks but a loose collection of local lore and tales, not only from the time when Athens was the capital of a major civilization but from the long centuries when it really was nothing more than a village. Particularly interesting are the tales from areas that now lie under a forest of look-alike apartment blocks and shopping centers, tales that are being swallowed up along with the natural habitat by the uniformity of a relentlessly spreading suburbia. ‘Athens – The City’ The first book begins, appropriately, with the goddess Athena, and an analysis of the origins of male chauvinism in ancient Athens, then goes on to describe the «special effects» used to create the illusion of perfection in the Parthenon. As with the other two books, «Athens – The City» has a fund of historical detail from antiquity among stories of caves and goddesses, heroes and villains. The author, John L. Tomkinson, also delves deeply into more recent times, particularly in the section on the World War I and the struggle between the royalists and Venizelists. Tomkinson describes a «ritual from the Dark Ages» which the then-archbishop of Athens used to excommunicate Venizelos, represented by a bull’s head. «…the archbishop led the way in stoning ‘the man who plotted against the King’. Well-dressed society ladies joined in, leaving the bull’s head… buried under a cairn of rubble,» writes Tomkinson. The book on Athens concludes with its newest, subterranean museums – its metro stations where some of the antiquities found during excavations for the new urban rail network are displayed. ‘Athens – The Suburbs’ Tomkinson sums up beautifully the character of Athens’s new suburbs that display a «very wide spectrum of social privilege and deprivation… from the fortified villas of the northern and south-eastern garden suburbs… to the earthquake victims living in prefabricated cabins and the wooden box and corrugated iron shanties of the Roma encampments of the western foothills.» «Despite the environmental devastation wrought by urban development, driven exclusively by the desire for immediate profit… in the interests of the public good… traces of a less hideously ugly age still remain… Stories are to be found in the midst of, and some of them even help to explain, the unsightliness all around,» he says in his preface. No one will be surprised to learn that land in Kifissia has always been prime real estate. Herodes Atticus had a country estate there, a «unique atmosphere of intellectual ferment and aristocratic leisure in an idyllic setting.» In 1667 a Turkish traveler described it as a small country town «of paradisiac beauty.» The story behind the names of the green-belt suburbs of Psychico and Filothei are told in «An Unhappy Rich Girl» who ended up, as unhappy rich girls sometimes tended to in those days, founding a convent and doing charitable work. At the other end of the scale, another woman widowed at an early age was sent to a monastery to become a nun, but fell from grace when «some time later, after a brigand had been entertained here, she was found to be pregnant.» The child, which she bore in a cave so as not to sully the sanctity of the monastery, became George Karaiskakis, the future hero of the War of Independence. The large cast of characters also includes Spyros Louis from Maroussi, who won the marathon in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896; the eccentric Duchess of Plaisance, whose palace at Pendeli is now used for summer evening concerts; a murderous nereid disguised as a lost child in the Podonifti riverbed that flows down from Pendeli; and countless victims of invasion, occupation and war. Tomkinson is damning in his treatment of another resident, albeit temporary, of Maroussi, Henry Miller, for his «pretentious, and almost unreadable book,» written after a sojourn at a villa in Ano Pefki, then part of Maroussi. Tomkinson said the real purpose of «The Colossus of Maroussi» was to «present Miller as a bohemian exile in a holy land, communing with heroes and discovering truths hidden from lesser mortals.» ‘Attica’ The veneer of civilization that the newly emerging metropolis acquired after becoming capital of the new Greek republic after centuries as a backwater of the Ottoman Empire quickly evaporated as soon as one left the city limits, even until the mid-20th century. The harsh, unforgiving countryside and rugged mountains still bear the traces of a violent past and the passage of many armies – the Persians at Marathon, the Venetians and Turks, Saracen pirates and more recent invaders. Tomkinson does not gloss over the hardships inflicted on Attica’s residents, particularly the brutality of many of the brigands left over from the pre-revolutionary period and tolerated by the government until public outrage led to more serious attempts to outlaw them, particularly after the «Marathon murders» of a party of English aristocrats in a botched abduction in 1870. Then there are the supernatural horrors – gods and nereids, vampires and evil spirits lying in wait for the unwary. Tomkinson also refers to some of the more modern «paranormal» occurrences in Attica, such as the phenomenon of the «road which seems to defy gravity.» «On one particular stretch of the road leading across Mount Pendeli from Palaio Pendeli to Nea Makri… a car placed out of gear with the brakes removed will appear to roll uphill.» Tomkinson dismisses the «wild theories» such as magnetic or gravitational anomalies resulting from secret «goings-on at the nearby US base» at Nea Makri, saying the phenomenon is an optical illusion occurring where the level of the horizon is obscured, making objects that normally provide visual clues to the true vertical, lean slightly. John L. Tomkinson, who teaches history at a major private school in Athens, has lived in Greece for some 17 years. He has just finished compiling a new book, «Travelers’ Greece.» «It’s a compilation of interesting passages in books dating back to 1590, books that might be otherwise uninteresting but which contain a striking description of Greece, or an intriguing incident,» he told Kathimerini English Edition yesterday. «Athens – The City,» «Athens – The Suburbs» and «Attica» by John L. Tomkinson in the «Greece Beyond the Guidebooks» series,Anagnosis, Athens 2002. «Athens – The Suburbs» and «Attica» by John L. Tomkinson in the «Greece Beyond the Guidebooks» series,