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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Nikolas and Nikos

Athens, March 2010: The last time I visited Athens was twenty-five years ago. Now I've come back for a short break and discovered that the city I knew I has changed much less than I thought. What’s new includes the crowds on the Akropolis, the ubiquitous graffitti and the challenging street art, the Chinese-operated businesses and the young street merchants from Africa and South Asia who hastily bundle up their cheap sunglasses and handbags when the local police come into view - and who loiter on and around Aghios Constantinos street looking for work, money and hope.

But these are superficial changes and so much is familiar – the stylishly dressed men and women who gossip in the cafes of upmarket Kolonaki; the narrow streets of two-storey houses, small bars and general neglect in poorer neighbourhoods; local shops in place of the chains that litter London; bookshops and small theatres scattered here, there and everywhere (one offered a double bill of Twelfth Night and What the Butler Saw; I was tempted but my stamina was weaker than my Greek); the Plaka - the maze of twisting streets below the Parthenon, middle-aged men flipping worry-beads; restaurants selling moussaka and tzatziki and retsina; and so on and so on. Above all, it was a cloudless day in early spring when the soul is warmed in the sun and shivers in the shade, when orange and lemon trees hang thick with fruit, when unfamiliar scents waft from unfamiliar flowers.

I stood once again on Mount Lycabettus and saw the city sprawl in every direction. But in the distance I also saw the mountains and flashes of green, the port of Piraeus and the island of Aegina. It was as if the Greece of Alexander, of Socrates and distant Homer, had not died, but merely lay sleeping beneath this modern carapace – just as my experience of Greece had not died but merely slept in my memory.

Naked men may no longer court naked youths as they did in the ancient gymnasium and rainbow flags may be rare in modern Athens, but an appreciation of the male form persists. As the pictures right show, a new Apollo stands guard over the modern Academy in all his glory life and statues of comely youths can be found in the National Gardens and Zappeion. Yet it was not these images that struck me most forcibly on this short visit, but a photographs I came across on my last afternoon.

I had taken some mildly interesting photographs in Olympieion and left to follow the busy road down to the Ilissus River. To my left, fenced off, was a patch of hillside where scattered blocks of marble lay half-buried by overgrown grass and shaded by low-hanging trees. Somewhere in there was the spot where, nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates had talked with his pupils.

The road leveled off, became a low, short bridge. I peered over the edge, to see a few disconsolate puddles, all that remained of the Ilissus. Looking up, my eye was caught by a movement further off - a man walking along a path between the trees. The area seemed to be accessible after all. Perhaps I could make my way over there and, if I could not find the plane tree that had offered the philosophers shade millennia ago, I might come across the ancient Kallirrhoe Fountain

I strode down the short road to my left, past a church and a middle-aged woman feeding two large, contented cats and found myself on a small promontory overlooking the overgrown riverbed. From there I could see several men loitering. A new thought struck: that philosophical conversations had given way to more worldly intercourse. I continued to look around, casually inspecting the topography and its inhabitants. All around forty years old. Darker skinned than the average Greek. Not homeless but not well-dressed. Sitting in small groups or walking slowly through the trees. The more I glanced around,

the less it seemed to me that this was a cruising ground. Whatever it was these men were doing, they did not seem to welcome strangers. Out of the group a man - my height, well-built, white polo-neck - started towards me, with a purposeful, almost menacing gait. I began to feel as if were into the middle of a Bond movie with one of the villain's heavies about to attack me.

In most situations I have a strong presence and don't frighten easily; in this situation I was carrying a camera, computer and other tourist paraphernalia that I did not want damaged or lost. Curiosity waning and discretion the better part of valour, I turned and walked casually away, past another man who had begun to approach me, more curious than welcoming. A few paces later and I had regained the safety of the church, its caretaker and the cats.

I walked back up to the main road and crossed it to make my way up to the First Cemetery of Athens, recommended by the 1962 guidebook I was using. I like cemeteries and visit them less frequently than I should. They are only sad places if someone you love is buried there; otherwise they are calm oases that remind us of the transience and beauty of life.

The sky was cloudless and the temperature hovering around 20 degrees when I entered this necropolis. I wandered up and down pathways surrounded by vaults and sepulchres of greater and lesser opulence, all shining white in the afternoon sun. I recognised only two names - Benaki, of the Museum of that name, and Papandreou, the prime minister best known for his opposition to the dictatorship of 1967-74. From time to time I stopped to glance at a memorial, particularly moved by the statue of a boy who had died young and of a grandmother who still sat, imperious, in her chair. Here and there were statues of young men in little or no clothing that I captured with my camera.


I had lost myself somewhere in the upper regions of the cemetery when my eye was caught by two photos half facing each other on a single tomb. Brothers, I thought, seeing
a resemblance. But the family names were different. And unlike the other vaults and sepulchres, this monument had no overarching sign indicating that it belonged to a single family. I looked closer: apart from the names Nikolaos (Nikos) Triandafillokes and Nikolaos (Nikolas) Papanikolas, the only inscription was a poem. I translated it roughly, losing the rhythm of the original:

I love you,
How can I live without you?
Tell me how
How can I spend a whole day without you?
I love you
Remember that I exist but do not live
I will always remember you
I love you

I stood for a moment in contemplation, then walked on, looking for other examples of such devotion. I found none. The sun was moving on and my stomach was unhappy at being ignored. I took a few more pictures and left, spending the rest of my day eating and buying the inevitable souvenirs. The next day saw me on the plane back to London.

So what about gay nightlife in Athens? I can't tell you. I checked the internet and on my first night wandered around Gazi, where most of the clubs appeared to be. But it was mid-evening and I was unwilling to stay out until midnight, to troll or stroll the streets and bars alone. For the rest of my visit, I spent the evenings in my hotel room, content to read and write. But each night, as I sat at my computer or read my Cavafy or The Odyssey, my mind strayed back to my past and I hoped that in the present, somewhere, not far away, a twenty-two year old Brit was entering a bar, as excited and as expectant with life and with Greece as I was those many years ago. By the end of the night, I hoped, he would have found a stranger, someone who offers the magic of the Other, the Unknown. The magic may not last, but that doesn’t matter, as long as he has one night in Athens that he can remember decades, generations, a lifetime later.

More on Greece
Ancient Greece     Cavafy     Sunday Morning (1975)

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