My fingers hugged the mug with the hot tea tightly, welcoming its warmth and, at the same time, protecting it from the frosty kiss of the winter air. The November weather in Athens had changed dramatically over the past few hours, and the mellow romancing of the late-autumn sun had been scared away by leaden clouds, thunders, and winds; yet, once the morning storm had quieted down, my visiting friend and I refused the solace of the café’s closed walls, and preferred to sit outside, by the iron tables that were dotting the narrow, wind-proof alley in Plaka. Reminiscences of the recent rain were lingering idly on the surfaces, and we joined along, reflecting our thoughts on the temporary liquid designs.
The streets were silent, almost deserted. Instead of the usual crowds, there were only piles of soggy leaves and soaked flowers which, imitating human behavior, preferred to huddle together at the corners and nooks of the sidewalks, as if keen to dry up against each other. Above our heads, two entangled bougainvilleas – a white and a fuchsia – connected the ochre walls of the opposed houses, offering shelter in case the intensity of the present drizzle would increase.
I closed my eyes. The image changed when explored with a silenced vision. Suddenly, there was a heavy rustling, and I stretched my hand outside our sheltered area to check whether the rain had already picked up – but it was just the wind messing ferociously with the leaves of a lone plane tree. The perceived quiescence faded away, and I realized the streets were actually quite loquacious, with rain drops dripping from tin gutters and tile roofs, or sliding through the verdant ramps of our canopy, playing a hang drum tune on the stones of the lane.
The day dragged sluggishly its steps next to ours, as we got up to continue our brief walk around the historical center of Athens. For a moment, it felt as if we were strolling through the stagnation of a still-life painting. Aged doors remained closed, shutters firmly shut, bronze knockers untouched; the heat of the human breath had been trapped into an opaque wet solitude crammed at the corners of the windows, and reticence was perpetually preserved behind once-white-now-ivory laced curtains. The heads of the few
isolated pedestrians, covered in dull-colored hoods, were kept bent, gaze steadily nailed on the ground, arms occasionally hugging the body against the slithering knives of the gale. There was submission, resignation, withdrawal, and a certain level of desolation as if hope had been entombed under the imposing weight of the clouds, buried into oblivion by the gravity of the darkness. The still recent summer smiles had turned into a blurred smudge, quickly wiped away by the oscillating movement of the cypresses against the gusts. The olive, pine, and plane trees lining along the pedestrian road in front of the Acropolis seemed to stoop under an unseen burden. Even the island-like alleys of the Anafiotika neighborhood, usually friendly and playful, were now bleak and forlorn. I wondered whether these were the true colors of my homeland, a country currently floundering in unknown currents which had been for years arrogantly ignored.
The rain had acquired a heavier-than-mist status, floating in the air but never touching the ground. We continued our stroll unhindered, monitored only by the numerous street cats that emerged slowly after the storm and now nestled up on benches, parked motorbikes, chairs and steps, musing at the temporary challenges of the world with royal calmness and ancient wisdom.
I reached out and mechanically snapped a small branch of rosemary from a bush nearby. I brought it close to my nostrils, inhaling the spicy aroma enhanced now by the hovering moisture. And, as I raised my head – which, like everybody else’s had been kept low all this time – I saw the Parthenon: a white jewel bestowed on the crown of the Acropolis hill, glowing bright against the tenebrous sky. I looked around for scattered sun rays that might have escaped the clouds and were reflecting now on the time-honored marbles. I found none. Yet, the monument was enclosed in a holy halo, glowing with a luminosity that, as I looked closer, seemed to be coming from within, as if the stones had absorbed the light over thousands of years and could eternally radiate its warmth against all the odds and trials. There was beauty in this sight – beauty beyond the magnificence of the construction. There was compassion. And hope – the same hope we recognize in the face of youth, the eyes of a person in love, and the smile of a woman carrying a new life.
I kept playing for a while with the rosemary, crushing its leaves among my fingers, transferring its essence onto my skin, before tossing it away. I took a few more steps, and, slowly but steadily, the memory of the sacredness of the ground traveled from my feet to my soul. Had I truly forgotten? There, in the heart of the city, my own heart had been beating for centuries, finding solace and inspiration in the holiness of the earth and the healing spirit of the rocks.
A thick raindrop landed heavily on my forehead, taking me by surprise with its heft. Another one kissed my lips. I licked it thirstily, sucking life out of the celestial nipple. The sky above seemed to have lowered even more aggressively towards the earth. But I didn’t crouch. I lifted up my chin and kept my gaze steady on the mountain line, with the calmness of the cats and the glare of the temple rooted deeply into the dilated pupils. And I smiled. Because, no matter how gloomy the weather, or how dark the stains and smears of the charcoal study of our existence, there is always hope in the beauty of human creations. It transcends time, borders, and nations. It is eternal, and, hence, can never fade away.
(All photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou)