Among second language-learners everyone has a story of their first really known word: of that breakthrough moment when you aren’t translating in your head but are actually reading, instantaneously understanding the word. Such joy that recognition brings, such freedom.
When I began studying Modern Greek, my eyes struggled to adjust themselves to the new alphabet, painstakingly figuring out words, letter by letter. On the first night of class, our Cypriot professor, Soterios, wrote the word ψυχή on the board. Its appearance was wholly alien; pronouncing it was an adventure, as you had to begin with the “ps” sound of the ψ, your lips pushing outward as if you were a balloon releasing air, and then follow it immediately with the back-of-the-throat χ, a guttural “hee” sound. So much work, the out and in of it; what was this mysterious word? In a deft pedagogical move, Soterios revealed its familiarity by transliterating it into the Latin alphabet. Ah, it’s a cognate, one of those words to put in your pocket right away because it doesn’t need to be learned. Ψυχή = “Ps” “y” “chee” = Psyche. Soul.
About a month into my studies I flew to Athens to attend a conference. At that time, 2000, the airport was located on the coast and to get into Athens you would drive up Syngrou Avenue, then as now choked with traffic and lined with car dealerships, “gentlemen’s clubs,” and stores selling έπιπλα. As we drove along, I gazed out at the crass ugliness (Athens doesn’t present its best face straightaway) dazed with love and jetlag, passing one sign after another for έπιπλα. Suddenly, ecstasy: I knew it.
This was my first really known Modern Greek word: έπιπλα. In letters you’ll recognize: epipla.
In those days Greece was growing in wealth and showing it off. Furniture stores were everywhere, all selling high-end designer furniture of the chrome and leather variety that didn’t appeal to me, that didn’t, in my narrow philhellenic vision, seem “Greek” to me. I preferred what I saw in the houses of my friends Rosemary and Keti: furniture of wood and upholstery, artisan-styled and idiosyncratic. I adored their found objects that bespoke Greekness, modernist turns on ancient, Byzantine, or Ottoman objects: broken columns and amphorae serving as plant holders, Karagiozis shadow puppets and old maps that used to hang in schools and showed the changing borders of Greece. But nothing that reeked of “neo-euro” shininess.
In these days of austerity measures many of those epipla stores have On Sale—or For Sale—signs in their windows, or are taped up, or are empty storefronts altogether. It’s this urban ruin that seems uglier and sadder than the ancient or Byzantine ruins, which are all patinaed with sublimity, and makes me wonder whether Greece will be the next destination for what is called ruin porn. (See Paul Mullins’ excellent overview of this phenomenon on his blog Archaeology and Material Culture .)
Last summer my beau and I drove from Athens to Ioannina, an eight hour drive if you wind around as we do. Having passed the metropolitan outskirts of Patras we crossed the Gulf of Patras and headed up the western edge of mainland Greece. In the past ten years since Greece joined the EU, cars—not coincidentally, German cars—flooded the Greek market, and on the highways you would get passed by one Mercedes after another. Gas stations to fill these cars also popped up all along what had been bucolic country roads and smaller highways with just mountains or fields of poppies with the occasional taverna for scenery and sustenance. But in these belt-tightening times, who can afford to go for a joy ride? And who can afford to keep their gas stations supplied with gas? Not many, it appeared to us. We hadn’t thought of topping up in Patras—we had plenty of gas at that point—but as we made our way up to Ioannina, we passed one BP, Shell, or EKO station after another that either read “κλειστό” (closed) or announced that there was no gas available. Some looked wholly abandoned. A little panicky, we finally pulled off into a town, not on our route, to find a place to fill up.
These urban ruins, a reminder of the ruins of capitalism, are such a familiar sight in the United States that they go unremarked—or, if not remarked (because I’m always harping on them; maybe you too), accepted as the marker of how we’ve trashed our country. It’s exceedingly rare for someone to come in to an old strip mall (the ugliest architectural design known to man?) and repurpose it in a new, useful, beautiful way. In fact, has anyone ever done this? Instead, a new strip mall is constructed, after the useless crop of trees or prairie grasses or whatever was in the way is cleared.
Why moan about Greece becoming a destination for ruin-seekers? Wasn’t it the birthplace of the voyeuristic consumption of decay? Why else have travelers been flocking there for centuries but to stand among the ruins of empires, commune with the ghosts and feel the pull of the past, write poems about their own degradation, snap photos and eat ice cream?
But the cycle of decay is so fast now that we’re gazing upon ruins while the inhabitants are still alive. Is it exploitation if your gaze is affectionate? Take a look at this brilliant gone-viral shot by Belgian photographer Nick Hannes of a wedding party at a gas station in Patras. It seems to me to capture, in an admiring, fans-of-Zorba manner, a flipping-off of neo-euro shininess, a dancing on the grave of homogenizing globalization, a refusal of the abandonment narrative.