The weather had been bad for two consecutive days. Ymittos mountain remained mantled with steamy mist, the world seemed permanently concealed behind hefty liquid veils, and a frosty void silently penetrated objects and life alike. At nights, my house creaked and groaned like a sailing boat in a storm. The veranda tents banged against their metal supports, the window glasses crepitated, and the trees in the yard twisted and wiggled like possessed creatures in a trance.
Sleep was short and disturbed, dominated by a repeated dream: an old, pirate-like chest levitating in shapeless darkness. Invariably, the lid would pop open by itself; I could even hear the jingling sound of the lock underlining the acuteness of the vision. Bending over to look inside, expecting some treasure to be revealed, I would consistently be greeted by emptiness – an intangible presence which, I felt, was scoffing me for my ongoing inability to see any trail ahead. It was true: I was still groping my way forward, clarity being so limited and constrained it felt non-existent.
For two days, I receded like a bear in my cave, cocooning in the snugness of my home. On the third day, though, I had to go downtown on errands I could not postpone. Equipped with the fitting clothes I use on the mountains – the best investment I have ever made – I ventured outside. Thankfully, the vehemence of the wind had quieted down, and the torrential rain had been reduced to a soft shower.
Once finished, I found myself sauntering along Patission street. My gaze was fixed on the sidewalk as I had to slalom around illegally parked cars and motorbikes, trying not to slip on the rickety pavers, fall into the water-full holes around the trees, or trip over the cracks caused by the surfacing roots. Mud everywhere, dirt, and gloom. Cars were dashing by in a cacophony of screeches, murky wakes foamed at the corners, layers of soaked posters peeled off, crudely written political slogans screamed from the walls, and sludge oozed through fissures. Pedestrians, as colorless as their old-fashioned, shabby coats, slithered around me like shadows. The bright-red of my windbreaker was the only color I could see in the proximity.
Although historically and culturally, this area of Athens hides many gems, it is rarely visited by tourists who, at best, reach in a bus the doors of the main attraction – the National Archaeological Museum – and leave similarly sheltered and protected, impressed only by our glorious past. The character of the adjusting neighborhoods, once vibrant in arts and sciences, has been altered over the years either by anarchist activities or waves of immigrants from the Subcontinent and Africa who have settled down in small, friendly, yet foreign-looking convenience stores. The city looks wrinkled and tired, often unfamiliar; dust amalgamates with memories in the creases of buildings that date back to the interwar period or the developmental fever of the 60s, and life passes by unseen.
The tapping sound on my umbrella slowed down and finally stopped. I pulled my hood off, turning my face to the sky, the last few raindrops falling on my cheeks. The leaves of the fatigued trees that crouch along the pavements swished like crumbled paper tossed away by a frustrated writer who has still not managed to capture his feelings in words and needs to start anew.
I raised my gaze and, with a revived confidence, I looked straight ahead. At the far end of the avenue, the sacred rock of Acropolis emerged through the burrow of buildings, like a treasured destination finally seen through the nautical spyglass of a voyager who longs for the shore. The ancient marbles emanated a hypnotizing energy, and, as always, I felt an irresistible pull towards them. The clouds parted as if caressed by the dallying fingertips of a woman, and melancholy was spirited away. Light glided through, bestowing sheer reflections on the sun-kissed stones, roofs, and facades, leaving a laced trace on the circumscription of the clouds, rolling like a child in the streets, and turning the gray of the city into lavender.
In just a few moments, I found myself enveloped in a new aura: fresh, crisp, and flirtatious. I looked around: everything was the same – soaked and murky; yet, everything was profoundly different. The clamor had ebbed into white noise, and I saw this city of mine spreading her tatty clothes to dry, transforming, like Cinderella, under the incantation of the celestial smile.
Spring was already wafting in the air. Winter, harsh as he had been, was about to end, and the almond trees would soon succumb – like a maiden tasting her first kiss – to the charms of the alluring sun, blooming into happiness. The desolation that had spread like mourning ashes on the head of the city would shortly be washed off, and all – buildings and streets, people and gods – would be fondled, embraced, and cuddled by the legendary golden light of Attica.
I could feel the palpitation of the city in my veins: like a woman about to be loved for the first time, she was shy and mystical, shivering in anticipation of the first sensual touch, still covered in the peplos that virgin girls used to weave every year to dress the ivory-golden statue of Goddess Athena in the Parthenon. But the garment would soon get unbuckled falling in heaps to the ground, and, in the process of rediscovering and redefining herself, the city would permit to be conquered by those ardent suitors who would prove worthy enough.
There was a familiar taste in the air tickling my memory, hyphening the past with the present; and I felt an urge to hug the city myself, kiss the corners of the dilapidated buildings, touch her intimate nooks, explore the unappreciated secrets that lie bare waiting to be discovered, adore this land that hosts in her breasts not the humbling grandeur of nature but a mere sample of human creativity, and appreciate her for what she has been and, above all, for what she is now.
There, amid the busy streets, the lid of the pirate-like chest of my dreams popped open for the last time, and the vacuum inside was not mocking me anymore. On this third day, I could finally understand that the battered wooden box was hiding the holiest treasure of all, which, like most real treasures, could only be felt, not seen. Bathed in the lavender afternoon light of my hometown, consumed by the illumination emanating from the eyes of the patron Goddess, I realized that I was holding the key to everything, and lack of clarity became, even temporarily, an illusion. For I had fallen in love once again. Initially with the city that holds the roots of my existence. But, in the depths of my soul, I had, for the first time, fallen in love with Life itself, and I knew I had finally opened a long-elusive gate, stepping onto a path that, for ages, has been calling my name.
Photo credits: unknown