Zen, motorbikes and ashes

While still in school, many years before I rode a motorcycle myself, I was impressed by an observation in Robert M. Pirsig’s cult novel, «Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.» There, the philosopher (an uneasy rider if ever there was one) notes that riding a motorcycle brings you much closer to the place you are traveling through. You smell it, you feel it on your skin, in your lungs, something that passengers in a car, stuck behind the windscreen, will never understand. Although I have been riding a bike for many years now, these words came back to me with great force in recent days. Being on two wheels, exposed to the sun, the rain, and the hard surfaces of other vehicles and the road is self-evident and we need not ponder it too much. What is dramatic is when something changes. And this happened in the early hours of last Friday, when, driving home late after work, with Mount Parnitha burning, I saw white flakes drifting across the road, dropping gently into the path of my headlight as if lost in the dark. The white flakes were not snow. They were ashes from the fire, ashes from the massive cloud we had seen stretching thick and dark over Athens on Thursday afternoon. This cloud, which covered the city with the smell of burning wood and the sorrow of lost beauty, reminded me of another cloud of smoke which I had ridden through after leaving work late on the night of June 19, when garbage at a refuse collection center on the coastal suburb of Glyfada had caught fire. On that night, the air across Athens was filled with the choking stench that cannot be mistaken for anything else, that of poison on the wing. My headlight was smothered in a thick fog of toxins and, together with the lights of the street, the cars and the shops this created a murky, eerie scene – something like the post-apocalyptic world of the wild, dark and threatening future of Ridley Scott’s «Blade Runner.» On that night and last Friday, I wondered if we have already arrived at that terrifying future. Every day we hear more about the problems that burden the environment of our planet and our country. Even though citizens are becoming increasingly interested in the environment, we don’t see much being done to save it. It’s easy for everyone to criticize the United States and George W. Bush for not following the constraints of the Kyoto Treaty for the curbing of greenhouse gases, but, as a recent opinion poll showed, and as we see every day, in Greece neither the citizens nor the state are doing enough to clean up the country or to prevent further damage to the environment. We live as if surrendered to our fate, as if we are condemned to see a large part of our forests destroyed every year, landfills (illegal or not) consuming more and more land, and almost every corner on our country’s roads and every ravine filled with rubble and garbage. We live in a most beautiful country and it is as if we are addicted to the ugliness that we produce and not to the beauty that we inherited. The new houses that are springing up everywhere and the shiny new cars which jam every street and highway may give the impression of affluence and social development. But, together with the fires and the garbage, all these consumer habits do is declare that we are sinking further and further into debt and environmental degradation. The past, however, shows that people always had to fight their vanities. On Crete, on the lintel of a ruined mansion from the Venetian era, there stood the motto, Omnia mundi fumus et umbra. All of this world is smoke and shadow. Or, as the barber Zorz (Georges) comments after the rise and fall of Madame Sousou in Dimitris Psathas’s great modern Greek tale of overreaching, «Everything is hot air.» What our own future holds in store is ashes and garbage.

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