Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Loving Lorrie Moore as a short story writer, you can't imagine my delight at seeing a full length novel written by this inimitable writer. Does she succeed in the longer format? Yes, despite one or two reservations, I think she does...

What I love about Lorrie Moore are her delicious descriptions-so fresh and quirky, yet so real and grounding. The story is focused around Tassie, a young woman who grew up on a farm in Dellacrosse and who is attending college in Troy at the time the story takes place. She finds a part-time job as a childminder for a couple, Sarah and Edward, who adopt a colored child Emmie, with whom Tassie forms a deep bond. Tassie, despite her youth, has a deep wisdom and a way of understanding the world far beyond her years. She clings to awkward teenage habits and expressions, 'awesome', 'sounds good', but is so self-aware that she sees these exactly for what they are. Her observations of Sarah, the eccentric, high-maintenance foster mother, and her strained relationship with husband Edward, are often hilarious, but cut right to the truth: by the end, we see what a shambles their marriage is, and the lies and secrets upon which it totters, trying to avoid its inevitable downfall.
Another important element of the book describes Tassie's immediate family: her quirky farmer father, her nonchalant Jewish mother, and her self-doubting, coming-of-age brother, who ends up signing up for the army and shortly after, being killed.

I couldn't help thinking of these two separate elements, her job as a childminder, and her brother's death, as two separate short stories, independent of one another, but for Tassie being the link. This pastiche aspect to the novel, added to the quirkiness of the narrator's voice, but for me, took from the integrity of the novel. Something else that bothered me about the novel was the Sarah's over-the-top revelation about her and Edward's past, which was so absurd and unexpected that I couldn't take that part of the novel seriously anymore.

This said, there were some great juxtapositions, great images, and all presented in straight-forward language, but with vast emotional depth. One such moment was Tassie's 21st birthday at the end of the novel. Tassie's dad uses the cliched expression of how time flies, Tassie muses on this, and her mother jumps in with a marked reference to her dead son:

" 'To our sweet and lovely Tassie' said my dad. 'Twenty-one! Time flies so fast, I have to lie down just thinking about it'.
I'd read once of a French geologist who had confined himself in a dark cave for sixty-one days, though when he emerged, he thought it had only been forty-five.Time flew! No matter what.
'At least we got you out of childhood', added my mother "

Thursday, July 22, 2010

His and Hers

I had heard many positive things about this film / documentary, but was unclear as to what it was about. What a gem it turned out to be!!
Directed by Ken Wardrop, it features numerous women, speaking openly and candidly about the men in their lives, be it fathers, sons, boyfriends, husbands... Not only is much revealed about the said men in each short expose, but much is revealed about the women / girls in question too.
What I loved about it was the fact that nothing was 'dressed-up' as it were...what you see is what you get, and in this respect, it was very natural, very real, and through their sincerity, we could relate to each of these women. And each, had their story to tell, all coming across as remarkable people. I think this was the fundamental point of the film, and certainly the sense that I got from it: Each person, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, has their story to tell. Each person is getting through life in the best way they know how, doing their best to enjoy relationships with family members, but also having to endure universal hardships, such as death, illness and old-age. Some of the most touching features, I found, were those by the old women, and how they must cope with being alone, weakness and their growing dependence on others, these women, who were always the 'caregivers'. One very effective shot showed an old woman sitting on a chair, slowly putting on her shoes, and the difficulty such a seemingly simple task presented. In light of that, I decided to give my grandmother a call.
While parts were certainly sad and very moving, other parts were hilarious: the frankness with which the women spoke was charming, and a testament to Wardrop. A little girl at the beginning describes Fathers' Day cards: "They're like Mother's Day cards, but they're for fathers".
We are really honored, as spectators to get a glimpse into the daily lives of these remarkable people. We are taken into their homes (kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms), and it is the 'ordinariness' yet loveliness of their homes, their space, that makes this so special. These are all 'normal' people, whom we can all relate in some way to.
The men described come across on the whole as a bit useless but yet lovable. The great Irish phrase, 'they'd break your hearts' covers it nicely with both its negative and positive connotations. One women describes her son's aspirations to be a guard when he grows up; "bank robber more like" she retorts, and then adds "I suppose at 5 they wouldn't really know what they want to be"! Another woman praises her husband's curries, but then admonishes his ability to wash up as he goes. What is obvious from all the stories, is the shared affection of these women for the respective others in their lives.
The women were from somewhere around the midlands I figured from the prevailing accents. One of them referred to Athlone, so the women must have been all situated around there.
The music was very sensitively composed and arranged appropriately to fit in with the tone of the scenes.
This is truly a great piece of documentary film-making, funny and touching in equal measure, and I urge anyone who has not yet seen it, to take a look.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ghost Light

Another gift from a friend, this comprised the second half of my holiday reading. Though I’m a huge admirer of Joseph O’Conner, and particularly like his radio slots, I’m not sure I’d have bought this book for myself. Having heard a radio interview conducted by Mary Wilson (RTE 1), I felt that I had heard enough, and while the extracts read out were very beautiful, there could be little else remaining for the book. I suppose I felt that the story / content was quite tenuous and that the book must read more like an essay or short story, where the author uses a certain amount of poetic licence in order to have a story, but cannot make it completely fictitious because of the ‘real’ people about whom he was writing.
I did find myself more inspired by the poetry of the language and style of writing than I was by the story, which I found rather stretched and fleshed out. This was quite interesting, especially when the art of good writing was referred to in the book itself: content and form are both crucial must exist equally (idea paraphrased).
O’Conner did well to give a clear picture of the characters involved. Synge, about whom I knew very little up to now, and about whom I merely associated some vaguely-remembered facts from secondary school (association with Yeats, ill-health, premature death…), none of which made him a character of worth in his own right. Of course there was ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, but I somehow took this for granted?! O’Conner brought Synge to life, portraying him as a sensitive and vulnerable human being beneath the rather stiff, aristocratic influence. His relationship with Molly Allgood brought out the best in him, and while such an alliance was generally not approved, his love for her came across very clearly, giving his character humanity and wholeness.
Molly Allgood comes across as a great personality, and the old Irish sayings that pepper the book really add to her character, bringing her to life. There is more focus on her as she outlives Synge by many years. The story swings between her life in old age, as a down-on-her-luck actress, and her years with Synge, during which she exudes personality and life. The lonely life that she lived in London was evoked with touching sensitivity, and describes not only the specific autumn of her life, but calls up the difficult day-to-day of old-age in general. This is a testament to O’Conner.
There is a brilliant scene, whereby Yeats gives Molly and the rest of the cast of actors a most vitriolic ‘dressing-down’, when Molly refuses to comply in the way she speaks her lines. I had heard that Yeats could be rather fiery when provoked, but as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder was this portrayal of him extreme? Or perhaps it was justified. I suppose I’ll never know… And such is the nature of the book, which O’Conner refers to in his afterword.
Such a story must contain imaginings, and while certain events certainly occurred and others, almost certainly, others still, we must give over to the realm of fiction, accepting that the authorial voice, and not true fact, are their source.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Help

'The Help', by Kathryn Stockett, given to me by a friend, was my holiday reading, and though it is not something I would have chosen to read for myself (a bit to 'Mockingbird-esque' for my liking, or so I thought), I was hooked from the beginning. Straight away, we hear the voice of Aibileen, a black maid and nanny, and written in the colloquial style of the Deep South, the character comes to life on the page, each sentence, each expression distinctly hers.
The story focuses around three main characters, Aibileen and Minnie, 2 black maids, and Skeeter a white young lady, who empathises with the plight of the black 'help' despite social convention and pressure of the time, and tries to expose the hardship and injustice they must endure through collaberating with them to write a book-a book, which must of course remain anonymous.
Skeeter, recently returned home to her cotton farm with a degree in English is in some ways an outsider. Her friends, bridge partners and fellow members of the Junior League are married. Most subscribe to the racist attitudes of the era, mistreating and despising the black maids, and while her attitude is clearly more generous, she comes across at times as patronising. This in fact is to her favour, as it gives her character more authenticity, and ultimately makes her more likeable.
Many of the other characters are so unabashedly awful that it's almost funny, except when remember that such 'awfulness' towards 'the help' was very real. Stockett draws the characters very well, and the dialogue is full of ironies and humour that keeps story flowing along. For example, while black maids are underpaid, overworked and are even compelled to use a separate toilet on the one hand, the League is organising a charity fundraiser for 'Poor Starving Children of Africa'. Sometimes, however, I feel Stockett can take humour to excess, compromising the veracity of the story. Examples of this was when Hilly's front lawn was filled with toilet bowls while she was away on holiday, or even the mud-pie saga...ugh!!
The best thing about this book is not the plot itself, but the dialogue, which is excellently done and through which the characters come alive, and some of the descriptions, conjuring up the sweaty, deadening heat, the smells from steaming pots of okra, which really transport you to the Jackson Mississippi in the 1960's.


Before I even write this blog, I know there are things I will leave out, places I will describe inadequately, historical facts I will have misinterpreted, people whose essence I will not capture and landscapes whose power and immensity will be rendered banal through description. Even though I intend to accompany some of this with photos, photos can only give an idea, indeed often an overly subjective idea and can be no match for experience.

London-Day 1.

A day in London…what do two people who’ve both been to London before, do for one day? Well, my only objective was to go to the Tate Modern, having seen it mentioned in Woody Allen’s ‘Match point’ (silly reason, I know, but there you go!) Having checked in to our hotel, Hotel Apollo, (chosen because of its deified name, of course…nothing to do with location or any other factor!), we ate Pret-a-Manger, which I like because even though it’s nice and quick, it’s healthy too.
We then took off in the direction of the Tate, making a detour to the British Museum so that Denis could show me the great and wonderful fragments of the freise of the Parthenon (to educate me to a full and proper appreciation!) To be fair it was very impressive, so much so that I wondered what could possibly be left of it in Athens, if this much of it was appropriated and on display in London? (We since learned that these pieces were looted between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire). While I didn’t, and still don’t understand the stories the pictures tell, and mythology in general doesn’t hold my attention, the beauty of these sculptures was really something. That movement and body language could be portrayed through the folds of a toga, hewn from cold, hard marble is beautiful and can be admired to that end.
We then meandered through the streets of London to the Tate Modern, which we eventually found. Incidentally, the weather was quite hot on that day, preparing us I suspect, for what was to come later. We availed of audio guide as in the Tate, which were quite good…gave general information on the 3 permanent collections, and more specific information on certain paintings on those 3 levels. The four seminal periods represented are Surrealism, Minimalism, post-war innovations in abstraction and figuration. An example of a work better understood with audio information was that of Cubist artist, Georges Braque, Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece, whereby the commetator guides you through the objects ‘hidden’ in the picture leading to an understanding of how Cubists began to bring different views of the object together on the picture surface. On this picture, a clarinet, albeit with a different mouthpiece can be seen horizontally across the middle of the picture, as can various other musical symbols, eg. Bass clefs. Part of the bottle of Rhum can be seen (RHU( at the top, and part of the word valse can be seen underneath reinforcing the idea of music. The brackets of a mantelpiece, though quite obscured, can be made out at the bottom right. What also stood out to me were Andy Warhol’s rooms, obviously in the Pop Art category. The colour and immensity of the display is very powerful and the juxtaposition of various seemingly unrelated elements strikes a chord. On a backdrop of repeated pattern print (pink cow’s heads on yellow) are superimposed on one wall, a large $ sign, on another 6 skulls, on another 6 vertical coloured patterns, and finally on the last 2 pistols. What any of this means, I don’t know. I don’t know if it means anything, but it certainly gets you thinking of how these things might be related, why the artist chose to put them together, which begs the deeper question, how are things related to each other and to us, and do things matter? I guess it’s something like that that’s at the heart of consumerism.
After the Tate, we were both fairly wrecked and in need of a ‘nice-English-cup-of-tea-and-a-sit-down’, which we had in a bar beside the Tate, overlooking the Thames. We then walked along the bank, overlooking the river, where there was a fair amount of street performance. We passed by 10 Downing Street, and Buckingham Palace, but decided to cut both Cameron and Queen from our already busy schedule…next time, perhaps! Through St. James’ park we ambled, towards Picadilly, where we purchased tickets for 39 Steps, a show by Hitchcock. After some reliably good pizza at Pizza Hut, (more anon), and a drink at a nearby Irish pub, we went to the play.
Now I know we were tired at this point, and may have been overly critical, but really…! The plot was weak and the four actors were overstretched, despite using many theatrical techniques, quick costume changes and farcical manoeuvres to deliver the story. The basic theme was that of a man who inadvertently is embroiled in a murder of a ‘femme fatale’ and in his efforts to clear his name, he discovers a secret spy ring trying to smuggle scientific military secrets from Britain, and sets out, single-handedly to stop them. There were some Hitchcockian references, albeit a little brash. The pace was dashed, deliberately so, and the aim was parody and to give the effect of amateur drama, which certainly did come across in my view. I felt the whole show was too ‘loud’ and concentrated more around form than content, resulting in the story getting lost somewhere in the first half. And this, despite, raving reviews elsewhere…!

Day 2: London-Thessaloniki

After a breakfast, maybe not quite fit for the gods, in the Apollo, we got the Express to Heathrow, and flew to Athens with Aegean airlines. We got a meal on board, which in itself is a pleasant surprise when used to flying with mean old Irish airlines. And from there we flew to Thessaloniki and, after briefly remarking on the heat, got a bus to somewhere we thought looked like the centre?? Yes…we were lost! And without the language and even an ability to decipher Greek street names, we felt a bit at sea. So we gave up and got a taxi, which only cost 4 euro (and he even returned Denis’ lonely planet book which was left in the taxi…how sound is that?!)
We went out that evening for dinner, to Ruby Tuesdays, (not yet very adventurous with Greek cuisine), and then went for a few drinks in bars along the waterfront, one of which was showing the semi-final between Uruguay and Holland. Nothing too remarkable: nice places, but very high prices for drinks. It seemed we were experiencing a normal city in Greece, not one catering solely for tourists.

Day 3: Thessaloniki-Panteleimonas

After a nice sleep-in, we set out to explore Thessaloniki by day. We got breakfast, and then followed a walking tour outlined in Lonely planet, but spent about half an hour trying to find the starting point. Once we got going, it was easy enough to find our way around, and we went by some old Orthodox churches, old Roman baths, a Roman marketplace, the Galerian arch, the Modiano market, and the White Tower, which had a six floor exhibition of the history of Thessaloniki. There was English audio guides, and the exhibition was remarkably thorough, though impossible to fully take in. The tower was previously called the ’Blood Tower’ as it was the place of execution for janissary prisoners in the nineteenth century, but in 1912, when Thessaloniki was annexed from the Ottoman Empire and became part of Greece, the tower was whitewashed in a symbol of renewal and cleansing, giving it its current name, despite its grey colour. Having our tour completed, and drained from the heat, we chilled out with a coke and frappe in a bar close to the hotel.
We collected the car at the airport that evening at about 6, and with the help of Denis’ trustee sat-nav, and Denis’ trustee driving (which was really well-done!!) we made our way out of Thessaloniki and towards Panteleimonas, our next destination. So easily we seemed to be gliding along, we didn’t have any idea what awaited us that evening!!
We found the village without too much difficulty, but finding the house we were staying in was a whole other ball game. Perched on a high hill, the village could not be accessed by car, which we had to park close by and try to find this elusive place!! The village itself was beautiful, and very quaint, probably even more so on account of a dusky light lending it an air of mystery and a fairytale-like quality. Why was it getting dark this early?! On we went, and with the help of a kind shop assistant, despite the now inclement weather, we found our accommodation, a very charming country house. We went to get our bags from the car. By now it was fairly bucketing down, and we were met with a lady who was despairingly trying to tell us, in Greek, to move the car. (Her husband came to her assistance), and also led us back our accommodation, which was helpful, considering it was now pitch black, only lit up by intermittent streaks of lightening. So, once back in the safety of the house, we had to leave again to move the car, lest it be swept down the hill in the deluge (Heaven forbid!! We later thought it couldn’t be as drastic as all that, but with a rented car, you don’t take chances!) So out we trundled again, with no light to guide us but the lightning and a tiny lighter torch, and you’ll never believe it…yes, we ventured out a third time, with dry clothes this time, which were quickly soaked again, to get dinner in a lovely authentic restaurant close by. The second semi-final (Spain v Germany) was showing, but I was more taken with the drama out of doors-the lightning and thunder had subsided somewhat, but it the rain persisted. The food was lovely, and the setting was old-style, traditional and very homely. We returned after the match, and I was so relieved and grateful to feel safe and snug in bed, that I didn’t care about Mount Olympus, which I feared was becoming less and less of a possibility. Safety was more important, and if sacrificing ‘the dream’ was the price, so be it.

Day 4: Mount Olympus

Obviously it was not meant to be sacrificed! We woke up to bird-song and sunshine, and we breakfasted outdoors, looking onto the sea, with 3 remarkably thin tabby cats circling our legs for food. It was perfect. The man made us his special brew of ‘mountain tea’ to set us on our way.
We drove to Lithochoro and made enquiries regarding weather and about climbing as far as Refuge A, which we were told was ‘easy’, with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. ‘Oh, well in that case, what’s stopping us?!’, I thought, ‘let’s go. We might even get to the top top’ Innocent, na├»ve us!! We soon saw ‘easy’!
After buying a map and torch, we drove as far as Priunya, where we had lunch. I had a lovely Greek salad, which was to become my staple meal for the rest of the holiday…mmm!! Off we set along the alpine path, passing mules, a waterfall and following a very clear trail. It was not too warm, and we were sheltered well in the shade of the trees. Our pace was fairly good, but we took frequent short stops to rehydrate, take photos, tie laces (and whatever other acceptable pretexts I could devise!). After a while the landscape was more stony than wooded, and while the ascent wasn’t steep, we were climbing all the time. We chatted to a New Zealand couple, who had left that morning from Priunya, climbed all the way to the top (well Skolio, which is only 14m less than Mytikas, the actual summit), and were on their way back down again. It wasn’t until the next day that I fully appreciated their feat! Soon, after about two-and-a-half hours of climbing, we reached Refuge A, where we were very glad to sit and relax with a can of coke and some chocolate! This was where we would stay that night. The refuge was a lovely, very well-run resting place, with a fire in the dining room area, and warm, nourishing meals served up with remarkable efficiency. The showers there were cold, and the dormitories were cold to the point of dampness, but at that altitude (2100m), one has to make some allowances. We had a very pleasant evening chatting to two couples, a Scottish couple who were in Greece for a week, and who had actually hiked from Lithochoro to the refuge (how?!), and a German couple, Peter and Olga (Olga’s family were Greek). Peter was a travel writer and was doing an article on the refuge which was a long running family enterprise, with German connections. They were a very interesting couple, both writers, and while Peter was more affable, with probably more fluent English, Olga had a very strong individual presence. We dined with them, spaghetti all the way, and conversed, about travel, languages, jobs, Greece, the World Cup, and we went to bed at about 9pm, before lights out at 10pm.

Day 5: Mount Olympus-Meteora

Up we roused ourselves at 6am, after a cold night, had ourselves some bread and tea for breakfast, and headed off for the peak (we weren’t sure at that point which peak we’d opt for).
‘Which way?’ I asked Denis, who drolly replied ‘Up’. How right he was. Up and up and up and up!! It was unrelenting, the whole way! A scrub of trees marks the first section which zigzags upwards to a ridge with a map, which shows how much more is left to do!! From there follows a steep and stony path to the next main ridge, Skala, from where Skolio and Mytikas can be viewed. Mytikas looked ghastly, with treacherous furrows of rock protruding like the rucking of a failed seamstress. Besides, it was covered with a cloud of mist, so we opted for Skolio. Skolio was easily reached in about 15-20 minutes, and at the top, you’re looking down over the clouds giving an exceptional feeling of space and peace. Nothing else seems important, but the right here, now, this moment we’re breathing and the beauty of that-simple but magnificent!
Going down was less arduous, though the knees felt the constant pressure, and at this point the surface underfoot was quite loose, so care and concentration had to be given to each placing of the foot. We arrived at the refuge at about noon, and had our lunch and rested there for about half an hour. We parted ways with Peter and Olga and made our way down towards Priunya. This was quite hard work, and while we kept a steady pace, our legs were now jelly-like, and for the last half an hour or so, of that section, we were plodding along like two drunkards desperate for their next drop. Finally, we arrived at the car, changed our clothes and drove to Lithochoro. (Denis drove while I struggled to stay awake). There, we got an ice-cream, and continued to Meteora, the land of monastries on rocks. We found the acccomodation, (I’d better give credit to Denis for that one…!), showered and freshened up and trudged down to the village, footsore, but satisfied, and found someplace for dinner, which was eaten with relish. We slept very soundly that night to the sounds of crickets and whisper of leaves outside our window.

Day 6: Meteora-Delphi

We awoke, our minds refreshed but our bodies, especially our legs, begging for more rest. Steps, either up or down were particularly arduous, something we knew the monasteries had no shortage of. We breakfasted outdoors again which was lovely and then headed off for Great Meteoran, the biggest of the Meteorite monasteries, erected in the 14th century on a huge pillar of sandstone rock. It now serves as a museum for tourists, with a traditional dress-code policy, ie skirts to be worn by females. The monastery was established by St. Athanasios Meteorites, a scholarly monk from Mount Athos and dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. As well as the church itself is a large refectory, kitchen, carpenter’s workshop, wine cellar and sacristy, all giving a good idea of the way life life was lived as a hermetic monk. The kitchen maintained smoke-stains, and all the original cooking utensils and ovens: one could almost smell the fresh bread and soup that must have provided their daily lunch! What struck me was the beautiful and detailed art of the iconographers, depicting various saints, including military saints (?), and ancient sages. Slightly disconcerting is a roomful of skulls staring out at you, skulls of previous residents. There was a basket pulley-system, which can still be seen to carry up provisions and monks too! While the museum was interesting to visit, I felt it would really benefit from some audio, or audio-visual guides, as it is difficult to take in information by reading alone, especially when there is already so much to see in terms of art, architecture and artefacts.
We then took off to visit a nunnery, a word I haven’t heard used since studying Hamlet, but this was one particular hamlet we could not find!! We went on a bit of a ‘wild goose chase’ around the hilly countryside of Meteora, and eventually gave up and had lunch in Kalampaka, before setting off for Delphi. I took over at the wheel, and actually found driving on the opposite side easy, I think because of the fact that the pedals are the same, something I was not expecting.
I drove for a good distance, but on approach to the windy roads towards Delfon, I let Denis take over. The area was extremely hilly, passing through a few rural villages, and an understandably deserted ski resort, which I’m sure throbs with life in winter (though, who’d have equated Greece with skiing?!)
Finally, we came to the town of Delphi, overlooking an immense valley, once accessed by water and believed, I’m reliably informed, to have been the centre of the earth. After checking into the hotel, and walking towards the site of the great temple of Apollo, we freshened up and went out for dinner to a restaurant with a view overlooking the great plain. We followed this with a drink in a local pub where we were bestowed with multiple offerings of fruit, nuts, drinks…just the two of us with three people to serve us! We took our opportunity to escape when another punter appeared.

Day 7: Delphi-Athens

After breakfast, we set out for the museum and archeological site, located ten minutes walk from the hotel. The museum was cool, which in itself was a relief from the already melting heat. It was clearly laid out, with artefacts from the temple and grounds on display and information accompanying them. I liked that Apollo was the god of music, and there are multiple depictions of him with lyre (cithara), and that the stadium in Delphi hosted music competitions. I was also impressed with the statues of twins, Kleobis and Biton, who dragged their mother, Cydippe, a priestess of Hera a distance of 8.5 km to a festival honouring Hera. So impressed was the mother with her sons’ dedication that she requested that Hera would grant for them the best gift a mortal could receive. That night, both sons lay down and died, and their statues were donated to the sanctuary of Apollo. Whether the ‘best thing’ is to die, or to have a statue dedicated in your honour wasn’t clear to me, but neither of these sound like particularly good rewards? Maybe I’m missing something.
The archeological site was well maintained, not very clearly marked out for non-Greek readers, but easy enough to piece together. It’s located on a great height and was where all the oracles took place, with the remains of Apollo’s temple clearly visible and numerous treasuries and dedications. It was interesting to imagine the country’s leaders consulting the oracle regarding important political, spoken through priestesses. Women were chosen to speak the oracles, entering a trance-like state to reveal the secrets of the gods. ‘Why women?’ I thought… We followed the path upwards, eventually coming to the stadium at the very top of the site, which hosted the Pythian games.
We left Delphi, and set out for Athens, via the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, which turned out to consist merely of motorway, with no apparent historical reference at all. Me, being indifferent to Greek battle grounds generally still found it strange not to have any sign of past bloodshed, so I can only imagine how such an omission must have confounded Denis.
We stopped for lunch at a coastal village outside Athens and then hightailed it to the airport to return the car to Hertz, which to access we ended up circling the airport about 4 times! (Make better signs, people!)
We got a train to Athens, and from Syntagma Square, got a taxi to our hotel, hotel Areos, a lovely hotel in a questionable location. We later went in search of somewhere to get dinner, and after a walk along a road practically devoid of street lighting, we turned back, and settled on a place closer to the hotel. The match (World Cup final, Spain v Holland) was showing, and we watched the first half there, and fell asleep in front of the second half (speaking for myself!) in the hotel room.

Day 8: Athens

After breakfast, we did walked to Syntagma and did a bus tour of the city. The heat was deadening on the top of the bus, and while the tour gave quite a good overview, I didn’t take in much of what was being said. I was more interested in pedestrians nearly being run-down by mad drivers, mopeds weaving through impossibly narrow spaces and taking all sorts of liberties at traffic lights and how the bus negotiated through absurdly narrow streets, avoiding, often by a whisper, cars parked on the roadside.
In the afternoon, we decided to take a trip outside of Athens, to the Temple of Poseidon, a temple majestically overlooking the sea. To get there, we had to take a bus journey which lasted over 2 hours. The coastal suburbs areas were prevailingly white, but my anticipation to get to the sea was heightened seeing swimmers bathing in the water which looked so blue and inviting. The bus conductor was lovely, a small man with a tendency to confer a sense of magic and awe on everything he speaks, even mundane old ticket fares. He reminded me of the Bilbo Baggins.
On arrival, we went to the restaurant and had dinner, looking out onto the temple on the height. We then went to the site of the temple itself, and took some photos. Poseidon, the god of the sea, is second only in importance to the city of Athens, who have Athena as their goddess. This was decided after a competition between the two, whereby Poseidon provided salty sea water, which was deemed less useful than the food, oil and wood of Athena’s olive tree.
We returned to Athens and went to a Creperie near Victoria metro station for supper and a drink in the bar of the hotel before calling it a day.

Day 9: Athens

After breakfast, we set out to explore the market area, which from the top of the bus looked very interesting-stalls and shops selling completely random, unrelated items, and an area open for trade twenty-four hours. (I wouldn’t particularly like to be wandering around it at 3am, mind…) Well, on foot it didn’t seem quite so interesting, just a narrow street with sellers touting their goods, but then we sought out the indoor food market, which must be more interesting. Well, I can safely say my vegetarianism, if ever wavering, was newly reinforced. Ugh!! Bawdy butchers bearing bloodied blades, proudly displaying their rancid cuts of meat from purplish kidneys to bow-shaped ribs. And the smell!! It brought back memories of the vile and penetrating kitchen smells of the Belarussian orphanage where I worked some summers. And that’s doing no disfavour to either.
On we went to the Acropolis museum, which again was a welcome reprieve from the heat. This museum, as the name suggests, is the keeper of the great treasures of the Acropolis (with the exception, of course, of the aforementioned sections of the frieze residing in the British Museum) The museum itself is a modern and creative building with lots of glass looking onto the Acropolis itself, and even a glass floor on the ground floor to reveal a historic settlement below. The museum houses the numerous treasures of the Acropolis and offers detailed explanations with each exhibit. Some of these are supplemented with other audio-visual devices, providing a very rounded education to facilitate everyone. For example, a large floor-to-ceiling screen tells the story of the Golden Age of Perikles, and the statue of Athena in comic-strip format, making it much more memorable for me, and I’m sure many others. Also, accompanying the floor with the Parthenon is a documentary explaining clearly the architectural features of the building and its significance to Athens and its demise through the years. In terms of the hundreds of sculpted figures and reliefs on display, I can only comment on their aesthetic qualities which are profound, and perhaps is the greatest legacy of the Ancient Greeks.
After lunch al fresco in a nearby restaurant, we went to the Acropolis, and took in the ancient site in the heat of the evening sun. The Parthenon was clearly the most imposing part of it, and was impressive still, despite being surrounded by scaffolding. Seeing the sheer volume of the rock and yet the precision with which the individual pieces fitted together to form the columns gave an appreciation of why this building has endured as a study and subject of awe. Atop the hill afforded a very good view of the city of Athens and how it stretches for miles in each direction. We walked down the around the Agora, (the Greek equivalent of the forum), and visited the Stoa of Attalos, containing a klepsidra, to mention just one artefact, which was a type of water clock to time the speeches of the orators. Finally, we visited the theatre of Dionysus, where the plays of ‘the Greats’, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes… were performed. We sat on the steps awhile and imagined how it must have been.
We returned to the restaurant where we ate the first night for something before heading to bed.

Days 10, 11 and 12.
We were bound for San Torini early next morning, so took a taxi to the port of Piraeus, and got the fast boat over, which had us there by 11.30am. Once there, we were met by numerous hotel and hostel owners advertising their accomodations. Not knowing the geography of the island, we just opted for the hostel, which we were informed was very close to the beach. While it seemed at first to be very cut off from the hub of the island, it turned out to be a very good location, as the beach is where we spent most of our time.
The beach was lovely, clear blue water and grey pebbles, (not golden sand, which was just as well as some of the time there was very windy and sand would be a right nuisance!) The water was very salty but lovely to swim in…it took no effort to get in, and while this eliminated the ‘buzz’ factor that the waters of the Atlantic never fails to deliver, it was nice to lounge about decadently and give the body a break for a while. What San Torini provided us with was rest, and plenty of it, because on an island where there is nothing to do but swim, eat and drink, one is compelled to relax, even if it goes against a person’s nature. It was good for us to have this time, as we had a very active holiday previously, and gave us a chance to breathe, process what we saw and did, and enjoy the stillness.
The restaurants / bars were nice for the most part, though I got a horrendous pizza on my first night there for which I had to wait 40 minutes. The top had a yellow, heavily-salted, rubbery unguent. I’m still wondering was it cheese? But on the whole, food and drink was fine.
We visited Fira, the island’s capital on the second night and travelled there on a local bus packed with Australians, Americans and English tourists, and a fiery and impatient conductor, the antithesis of our former Bilbo! Firo was grand…but exists solely, it seems, for tourists, and is completely assailed by mopeds and quads (in fact the whole island is). There was a beautiful sunset that we got to see from a rooftop restaurant, but on the whole I was not disappointed we were staying far away from it in the quieter area of Santa Irini. Waiting for the bus to return that night was reminiscent of Hillbillies on the Grand Parade, Cork, any Saturday at 2am.
Three days on the island was perfect for both of us…any longer and we would be bored, shorter and perhaps we would not feel quite so rested.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery's recent bestseller, 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' caught my attention for two reasons. The first is the very title, a paradox in itself. Or is it? And the second was the row of Parisian apartment buildings on the bottom of the book's cover, some of whose rooms were lit up, bespeaking the lives therein. This very image has always struck me as romantic, ie the multiple lives and untold secrets within a defined space. Added to its Parisian setting...need I say any more?! And they say one should not judge the book by its cover!

So how does this book hold up to that maxim? Well, despite taking a while to get into this book (and that was probably due to the pace set by my previous read, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'), I did come to really enjoy this book and appreciate its beauty, quirky narrative and philosophical digressions.

The two main characters, each with their own alternating narratives, are Renee, a seeming humble concierge of a Parisian apartment, but who has a clandestine love of arts and culture in all its forms, and Paloma, the twelve year old child of a snobbish, bourgeois family, who feels trapped and angry within such an expectant and boringly pretentious model. Paloma frames her narratives around her 'Profound thoughts' which she endeavours to collect before committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday, as these, she believes, will give her life meaning. The other characters in the novel are the members of Paloma's family, Manuela, a Portuguese cleaner and Renee's best friend, and Kakuro, a new Japanese resident, whose appearance brings healing and connection to Renee and Paloma, who ultimately become soul friends by the end.

Now, while I realise that this summary makes it sound cheesier than the most mature, fermented and smelly 'fromage Francais', its much more more sophisticated, and underneath the sugary surface, lies a rich and profound narrative, much like the sentiments of the book itself, in fact: art, philosophy and human connection are what make life meaningful within the trappings of wealth and materialism.

At times, I felt the translation may have betrayed the original text, as can be quite understandable considering the subtle sytanctical differences. An example of this was with 'can you bring .... to the cleaners?' instead of 'can you the cleaners?' While there is no obvious difference in meaning in English (unless I'm missing something?), this is clearly quite a linguistic 'faux-pas' in French. Probably subtle enough also though, as this is the point of Renee's irritation at the misuse of language, especially at the hands (mouths) of supposedly well-educated people.

This book is charming, intelligent and the main characters have a way of encroaching on your soul, so that by the end you feel a sense of loss: you have lost some more of fictions friends and only the memory of their wise words remain, and hopefully we will 'see' with a little more clarity, and 'love' with a little more humanity.