Dancing in Decay

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.

Furniture.

epipla zakar

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.

Aesthetics I love: the Athens Centre courtyard.
Aesthetics I love: the Athens Centre courtyard.

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 .)

Photo taken by my beau. Monastiraki, July 2012.
Photo taken by my beau. Monastiraki, July 2012.

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?

Photo taken by my beau. Side street of Plaka, July 2012.
Another beau-shot photo. Plaka, July 2012.

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.

big fat greek gas station

47 thoughts on “Dancing in Decay

  1. If it makes you feel any better, I live in a building that used to be a used car dealership. It was repurposed about 8 years ago, and when it was designed then, the ground floor was made up of commercial space. When that turned out to be unprofitable, much of that floor was turned into residences as well. (They have been working on that for about a year, and about half the units are finished and filled.) My whole city is being repurposed, one abandoned and burnt-out building after another.

  2. Reblogged this on rainbucket11 and commented:
    unparalleled felicity is motivation. motivation to embrace and ‘stop to smell the flowers’ at any moment, even at the gas station, where most people can’t manage any such strain of merriment at all.

  3. a very interesting post. Imagine no gas. would we go back to the horse and buggy. At $5 per gallon the horse is looking better than my car. One I can pet it and it shows me it likes it. I do not have to fix a water pump or new tires. Just feed it and get a good vet. I wonder which is cheaper?

  4. learning new things is always wonderful, and it must be even more exciting when you have to learn to translate the letters first! I hope you found the gas station at last 😉

    1. We did find the gas station–luckily.

      Having to translate the letters is a fascinating extra layer to learning Greek. It’s very hard but also really, really beautiful and rewarding.

      Thanks for commenting on my blog! I’m quite fascinated by yours as well.

  5. I love the gas station wedding photo. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

    Your post made me think back to learning Arabic as a kid and finally getting to take a trip from the States, where I was born and raised, to see my relatives in Lebanon. Recognizing the language, even if you’re nowhere near fluent in it, really helps take the edge off of the culture shock. Thanks for this fascinating post.

    1. Yes, isn’t that gas station photo fabulous? I wish I could take credit for it; it so captures a Greek spirit I’ve seen so often.

      Your blog’s photographs are wonderful!

  6. Geia sou, Or I should say Kalispera. My father is from Mani, Greece, and I use to live in Greece, and actually Ioannina. I am a chef and a hairstylist in Sacramento, Ca but I miss living in Greece. I use to work as a chef on the island of Skiathos, and I miss the summers there. That is awesome that you learned to speak Greek. I have a few friends who actually moved to Greece to be with their husband, and one lives in Zitsa. She is working at her husband’s bakery and learning the Greek language. I really enjoyed your post and please check out my Greek food blog at http://www.kouzounaskitchen.com

    Cheers-

    1. Kalispera! I love Ioannina and have been wanting to visit Mani for the longest time. Perhaps this next winter. Thank you for your kind comments on my writing about Greece. I love your blog and am now following it; it makes me hungry!

      1. Geia sou,

        You are welcome. I hope my boyfriend and I will be visiting Greece again soon. I am missing Kalokari, but we have to work here. My boyfriend’s family is from Karpenisi. Have you been? Have a good Morning and thank you for following my blog!!!!

  7. A beautifully written post, almost wistful and poetic in tone and deeply thought provoking. That photo in the abandoned gas station made me laugh…as there is an abandoned gas station on the high street of the town where I live and I’ve been wondering what could be done with it. Open air theatre? A small, weekly arts and crafts market?!

  8. In fact, ruins grow out from a civilization which is still in full strenght, but the ruins are the reason why it starts to fade.

  9. I love that feeling when your brain just clicks and you suddenly understand a new language! When I lived in Korea felt like a kid learning to read- anytime I could understand a sign or a billboard I just had to tell someone!

  10. Χαίρετε, μένω στην Αθήνα και πραγματικά δεν θα μπορόυσα να συμφωνήσω περισσότερο με την περιγραφή που έκανες για την πόλη και την κατάσταση στην Ελλάδα τότε και τώρα…
    (English follows)
    Hello, i live in Athens and i couldn’t agree more with the way that you describe the situation at Greece at this very moment, in conjunction with the passed years…

  11. Lovely! I just visited Greece for the first time and your language description especially resonates with me. As a scientist, I regularly use Greek letters in calculations, so I know their names and Roman analogs. The mind-trip of sounding-out was incredible, cool, and hard! Sounding out, somehow that phrase works on another level for your post. Thank you for giving me more perspective on your visions of Greece before/after austerity.

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