Happily, not everything is toxic in Greece at the moment.
There are still lots of fun things to do, and quite a few of them are free: walks in the sunshine, music and art.
Even if you don’t have a car, the sea is a bus ride away; you can swim or just walk on the beach. There are lovely hikes in the mountains: only the other day, we walked to the ancient quarry on Pendeli, a magical place which has been turned into an ‘Open air museum’. The views were stunning, and there was no one there but us. And should you feel like more company, Greeks are always out in the streets, especially at night. For the price of a coffee, you can dawdle at a sidewalk café for hours, people-watching. There are also free concerts, talks on any subject under the sun, as well as art exhibitions.
A few days ago, I wandered into the lush gardens of the French School at Athens, a research institute of archaeology and classical studies founded in 1846. The sun shone and clouds scudded above the beautifully groomed, mature gardens which I’d never seen before, since they’re not usually open to the public. Ancient cypresses, tall palm trees, rose bushes covered in blooms.
The cheerful stare of a large silvery monster greeted me. This jaunty totem by Ugo Rondinone – an artist I love – was the perfect opener.
The gardens are the setting for the open air project Terrapolis, and a variety of sculptures dotted the lawns or hid in the undergrowth. Many were of animals, the theme of the exhibition being the combination of Terra (earth) and Polis (city): could animals be seen as citizens?
A self-absorbed gorilla (by British artist Angus Fairhurst) bent over a mirror looked particularly human: Narcissus admiring himself in his pond? I liked the contrast between his rough bronze coat and the glassy stillness of the ‘water’ which reflected his face as well as the leaves of the trees above.
On a terrace I came upon an old favorite: an Allora & Calzadilla life-sized hippo. Made of mud, sand and polystyrene, its sheer volume and mournful expression is captivating. I’d met one before, years ago, in Venice. This one had a girl on his back, reading the daily paper. Just as some children were about to climb on as well, one of the young volunteers who wandered around, happy to answer any questions, explained that she was a part of the installation. Whenever she read about some social injustice in the day’s news, she’d blow sharply on a whistle, shattering the afternoon’s quiet, provoking a reaction.
I entered a wing of the lovely neoclassical building. Delicate, translucent blown-glass jellyfish shared the space with a mobile of stuffed birds – not really my taste. But amongst a number of video installations I adored the one of a fox let loose in a museum at night. Captured by the security cameras, the animal trots about, very much at home amongst the framed portraits on the walls.
Other artists have explored myth and metamorphosis, creating monsters out of ceramic or recycled materials. Totem poles lurk amongst the agapanthus, and a Pharaoh-like figure sits upon a throne. Their eerie, almost supernatural appearance contrasted with Yayoi Kusama’s enormous pumpkin, sitting fat and earthy on the lawn. There is something inherently satisfying about its dot-speckled plumpness.
As I walked out, I turned to get a last glimpse of the silver totem appearing to smile at me. I decided it was my favorite work in the exhibition. I took the opportunity to walk in a relatively prosperous part of town. Despite the graffiti and the dusty windows of closed shops, the cafés were full of people relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. Little pleasures. What could be better than forgetting your troubles for a moment and drowning your sorrows in a chilled fredo (iced cappuccino) or a soft-scoop ice cream?
We have a saying in Greek: Η φτώχεια θέλει καλοπέραση. (I ftohia theli kaloperasi). Essentially, it means you have to make the best of things.
Or, freely translated: ‘When you’re poor, you have to party!’
For those in Athens or visiting, do not miss TERRAPOLIS. It was curated by the non-profit organization NEON. Check out their site; they always have lots of cool things going on. (neon.org.gr) (#terrapolis)