Monday, December 29, 2008


I'm a little out of touch with what's going on in Athens, since I am a bit preoccupied with things like left-over turkey, warm fuzzy socks, and Battlestar Galactica.

But apparently the French Institute got whacked a week or so ago.

See more pics over at PhDiva.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Broken Laptops and Trouble for Bloggers

Blogging is a bit difficult when your laptop looks like this:

This post was intended to act as an explanation for my not posting lately, but I have to say I am struggling, fighting, trying my damnedest not to turn this into the 'Why You Shouldn't Purchase Dell Laptops' Post. It's very hard to resist explaining how 'System Restore' and I became best friends; how the Blue Screen of Death has begun to follow me around like an annoying but plucky sidekick; how 'Delete Partition' has become part of my normal day to day vocabulary, when previously I had no idea what a partition even was. I really don't want to explain how I am now intimately familiar with the music Dell plays when you're on hold. I have no interest in describing how when you relinquish control of your computer through Remote Access, the way your mouse moves on its own accord is spookily reminiscent of PC Poltergeists.

Sure, my laptop is less than a year old. It's just very mature for its age. New hard drives - enh, been there, done that. New operating systems - old hat. My most recent fiasco? Apparently Dell screwed up with its video cards, which are embedded into the motherboard. This means that not only does your computer screen suddenly fragment into happy rainbow lines of many colors, but it can also cause operational know, like making all of your Program Files disappear.

But whatevs.The maintence man who came to bail me out today said that, while Dell is not admitting it out loud, the video cards are failing en masse. It may not sound like a big deal, but it means that Dell has to send techs out to replace not just the video cards in thousands of laptops, but the motherboards and sometimes the actual screens as well.

This scenario is oddly familiar to me, since I formerly owned an Averatec laptop. These had faulty motherboards and the input jack for the electrical cable was totally wonky. This is the type of bad design that not only makes your computer stop working, but starts melting plastic and causing ominous smoke tendrils to rise up out of the side. If the logical step from 'smoke' is to 'fire,' then yes, my last laptop caught on fire. As did those of a kagillion other people, some of whom I knew.

This is not mine.

So perhaps this isn't a rant against Dell, but against laptops. I love them dearly, I would die without them, if they ceased to exist, my life would not be worth living. But sometimes, on the bad days, Old Faithful the Desktop Computer starts to acquire a golden glow that's not just due to nostalgia. That golden glow might rather be related to halos, and heaven, and salvation. Perhaps the Laptop needs some smiting, since recently, in my mind, the Laptop is quickly becoming:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Riots in Athens

Just wanted to post a brief note to apologize for neglecting the blog. We got back from Crete on Sunday morning and things have been a bit hectic since. The last week before break is pretty busy here at the School, and I've been trying to get my AIA paper squared away and finished up before heading back to the States for Christmas goodies. But! I've got some fun post-topics planned for the very near future, so check back soon.

As for the riots here, as many people have commented, this is the worst rioting and violence seen in Greece since the Polytechneion uprising against the Junta in 1973.

Ever since that event (the deaths of some 22 students when the University was stormed by Junta tanks), there has been a long-lasting tradition of student uprisings and violent protests against the government.

All of that anger and love of total destruction has exploded here, following the fatal shooting of a teenager by police this weekend. Last night saw the worst of the violence so far, with urban warfare taking place not only throughout Athens, but all over Greece (Heraklion, Chania, Thessaloniki, Trikala, Patras, Larissa, Corfu, etc).

The rioting here has pretty much spread throughout the city, hitting Syntagma Square, the area of the University (the Polytechneion), Kolonaki, Piraeaus, etc. Who knew a bunch of high school and college kids could employ molotov cocktails to such devastating effect?

But fear not, parents and family members of Katie. We are safely hidden away up here. And no, I'm not crazy enough to wander down to the rioting to take pictures; those on my blog are all from the Internet. Besides being confined to the School compound, we haven't had much trouble, although some of our activities have been cancelled. No trips to the Archaeological Museum because it is right next to Exarchia and the Polytechneion (the home base of most of the molotovs) and because there were a bunch of bonfires in front of the Museum last night; don't worry, as of now, the antiquities are still safe and sound. There's a general transportation strike on Wednesday, so our joint seminar with Olga Palagia and her students has had to be postponed. The School is developing a contingency plan for any potential emergencies. We haven't heard much from the US Embassy other than to stay out of trouble:

U.S. Embassy, Athens, Greece
December 8, 2008

The United States Embassy alerts U.S. citizens to the continuing possibility of civil disturbances and demonstrations throughout Greece in the wake of the violent demonstrations that occurred on the weekend of December 6th and 7th. A national day of mourning is planned for Tuesday December 9th. A general strike, to include the transportation sector, is planned for Wednesday December 10th. We remind American citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. American citizens are therefore urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstration. American citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times.
The US Embassy

If you'd like to keep up on the news, stay tuned to Kathimerini (the english edition of Athenian news) and the BBC. I'll post updates if anything noteworthy occurs.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More riot snacks needed

We left Crete last night on the overnight ferry and made it back this morning at about 6am.

'Police Shooting sparks riots in Greece.'
U.S. Embassy Athens, Greece
December 7, 2008

The Embassy has instructed its employees to stay away from downtown Athens today Sunday December 7th due to large and violent demonstrations which started on Saturday night. More demonstrations are planned for today. We urge that Americans avoid not only downtown Athens today but any other areas in which demonstrations may be encountered.
The US Embassy in Athens

Sunday, November 30, 2008

More Graffiti

I've received a few comments in passing about my post on graffiti the other day and it seems that there is a lot more interest in the subject than I thought. So for those with an interest, check out another Classicist's postive view of Athenian street art, over at 'Objects-Building-Situations;' there you'll also find an article about the 'defacement' of archaeological sites in Greece.

Friday, November 28, 2008

American Holidays: Football and Thanksgiving at Loring

Traditions are an important thing at a place like the American School. And one of the major traditions of the year seems to be Thanksgiving dinner. There’s something about being away from home that makes one really, really appreciate those sentimental holidays even more so than usual. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so touched by the Fourth of July until I spent it in Greece the summer after Sept. 11th: never was ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ sung with such fervor. This year, there was a great deal of excitement leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, I found myself doing little tap dances inside whenever I thought about the approaching turkey.

Most of all, though, was the little electrical currents tingling about in anticipation of, you guessed it, football. The dudes kept talking longingly of the NFL (three games!) and how we could swing some Pay-per-view to watch it live overseas. But it wasn’t just the watching of the football that we were looking forward to, but the playing of it. Weeks in advance the Thanksgiving Day game was planned, with intrepid Associate Members exploring the wilds of Greek sporting goods stores in search of the elusive, cherished, and mythical American football. (One was discovered, at the cost of 34 euros. Ouch.)

Luckily, Sherry Fox’s sons had one that we could borrow, so the horde moved out just after noon on Thursday towards the one open space in Kolonaki. Alas, it was already occupied by a soccer game – this resulted in us playing (a little nervously) in an empty lot next to the US Embassy. Here are some highlights:

Hut hut hike. That’s me in the red sweat band.

The girls were team captains. That was a nice change – I seem to recall always getting picked last in elementary school.

Fortunately, there were two girls playing, so I wasn’t totally clobbered by the guys. Of course, witness here the stiff arm I’m receiving from Christina Gieske. Actually, please notice how this is the most awesome action shot ever taken (click to enlarge). Nathan Harper (in the green) is at full tilt, while Sean Jensen sprints toward the action. Note especially Denver Graninger’s enthusiastic pose behind us, with the dedicated exertion of the other players.

And speaking of enthusiastic action, here’s a Hail Mary.
Sean Jenson QBs. He actually played college ball at one time in the past, evident in his spectacular form.

It was a totally awesome two hours. It also resulted in some very sore and cranky people wandering around Loring Hall today, people who thought they were still fit and young but now realize that they’re not 18 anymore.

The main event for Thanksgiving here is, of course, the food. The entire School is invited to attend dinner, and this year 98 people decided to show up in their holiday best. We had ten tables, but rumor has it there were 17 turkeys. The event was organized by Shari and Jack Davis, who did a really fantastic job and ensured that I sat at the table with not only John Cherry but Sir John Boardman as well.

My table, with John Cherry and John Boardman at the end; alas, just a little too far down the table for me to be able to talk to either of them over stuffing.
The day was seriously full of food, since dinner (at 3:30) sort of bled into a party in the Saloni with three different series of baked goods made by my football nemesis Christina. Unfortunately there was no NFL to be had, but just to make everyone feel better, a college game from last week went up on the big screen. Then there was a dance party.

So Thanksgiving revolved around overindulging and an overdose of social interaction, which is just as it should be. As Tom Garvey notes, the night devolved into three groups of people: one singing folk songs on the porch, one dancing to ‘Rump Shaker’ in the Saloni, and the last group standing in the kitchen, STILL eating.

And thus ended my first Thanksgiving at the School. Good thing there's a pig roast scheduled for today, to ensure that the fun continues.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Street Art and Graffiti in Athens

In 1971, a young Greek man who lived in New York City was featured in that city’s most famous newspaper. His name was Demetrios, called Demetraki by his friends, and he lived on 183rd St. The reason he merited an entire article in the New York Times was his tag ‘Taki 183,’ which he’d begun scrawling on New York walls and subway cars in the late ‘60s. The article about him was historic, not only because it documented a very early moment in the graffiti art movement blossoming in New York City, but also because the article itself, once it was printed, resulted in an explosion of copy cat taggers and jettisoned graffiti into urban street culture. What else do you expect from a kid who once tagged a Secret Service car?

Thessaloniki street, September 2008. (Click on images to see larger version.)

I came to Athens for the first time in 2000, and I have no recollection whatsoever of coming across any ‘urban culture.’ I was a tourist then, confined to areas created for tourists, the kind of areas where locals tend not to go. Now I live in one of the richest parts of Athens, Kolonaki, called a “wealthy, chic and upmarket district.” 'Real people' don’t come here either. It’s not a place where you see much in the way of alternative street life. It seems, however, that the graffiti art that started with the young delinquent Demetraki has finally come home to roost in Greece.

Greece, land of sheep and goats. Thessaloniki, September 2008.

As we’ve travelled around the country, I’ve kept my eye out for interesting wall art to see if I could observe any cool regional or stylistic trends. Mostly, though, we’ re driving by in the bus so quickly that I can’t really say anything about what I see at all. But now and then I’ve kept my camera handy; here’s some of what I’ve seen.

Athens, November 2008.

First, I’ve been surprised at how much graffiti in Greece is in English. There’s a tension here, I think, between the general anti-American feelings exemplified in the November 17th protests that end at the US Embassy, and the adoption of elements of American culture like breakdancing, hip-hop and American street-art styles. Of course, American urban culture came to Europe some time ago; it’s likely that it’s being funneled to Athens through other European centers, since Continental graffiti artists are known to travel to different cities in order to leave their marks. In other words, graffiti and street culture is so Euro now that there may be few American associations left with it. Granted, I don’t think you can get more American-gangsta than this:

Thessaloniki, September 2008.

A major part of the recent graffiti upsurge in Athens is tagging. Graffiti art and tagging go hand in hand, of course, but most people look down on tagging. I'm generally not a fan of most of it – it’s often uncreative and is the human teenager’s equivalent of a cat marking its territory. Supposedly it’s a step on the Cursus Honorum of becoming a graffiti artist, but I can do without it, since it is usually ugly. At least if you’re going to tag something, make sure it looks cool. For example:

Awesome dude, Thessaloniki 2008.

Ballerina, Athens, November 2008.

So a lot of graffiti is ridiculously bad, what some would term vandalism. But its opposite is what some would call high graffiti art, which reflects artistic sensibilities and creative thought. Here in Athens (as in many other cities) there’s a movement towards collage – rather than applying only spray paint to the flat surface, other materials (e.g. paper) are used. I guess graffiti art is finally catching up with Pablo Picasso, thought to have originated the form when he attached bit of oil cloth to a canvas in 1912. After all, Katherine Hoffman once said, “Collage may be seen as a quintessential twentieth-century art form with multiple layers and signposts pointing to the possibility or suggestion of countless new realities.” Whatever may be going on, I find graffiti collage interesting because it plays with those elements of urban visual culture that usually act as background noise to the eyes – trash, scrawled-over walls and the ubiquitous plastered, peeling poster.
'Bonfires for Nobody,' pasted paper, Athens, November 2008.

Yesterday I saw an interesting example that was actually a tarp hung from the fence in front of the National Archaeological Museum. It’s located on a major street in Athens, and will therefore be seen by an enormous number of people. Kleos is, after all, what graffiti is all about; by displaying the tarp on a major thoroughfare in a spot lacking any visual competition, the kleos of the painter is prolonged, as well as the kleos of the dead graffiti artist this piece commemorates.
'Barnes, rest in peace, graffiti is never going to be the same without you...' Athens, National Museum, 2008.

Incidentally, I haven’t quite figured out why the medium is a plastic tarp. Does it still count as graffiti art if it’s on a moveable surface, probably painted at home, safe from the danger of getting caught?

Another thing I wonder about graffiti art is its evolutionary relationship to the other figurative arts. More specifically, American graffiti art supposedly began as text, words, letters. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s when it started in earnest, it constituted names and numbers; elaborate and colorful versions of those names and numbers followed as the calligraphic designs morphed into ever more exotic and stylized letters. Norman Mailer once said about the new art of writing, “What a quintessential marriage of cool and style to write your name in giant separate living letters, large as animals, lythe as snakes, mysterious as Arabic and Chinese curls of alphabet.”

Now, however, graffiti is often entirely figurative, almost completely abandoning its textual origins. (The eternal battle between art historians and philologists continues!)
'Argh!,' Athens, November 2008.

Since it seems to reflect trends occurring in almost all the figurative arts, often adopting fantastical, cartoon or comic book elements, does this mean graffiti has lost its unique characteristics that separated it from the other arts? Or is the illegal, subversive element that last defining trait?
Reclining lady, Athens, November 2008.

Again, a majority of people would claim that graffiti is not an art at all, but vandalism.
'We are artists not vandals,' Nafplio, November 2008.

It’s true that half of the people tagging the streets and defacing property may have no higher aspirations. But that doesn't mean it isn’t essential to study it, especially since graffiti is visual evidence of small anonymous revolutions of an infinite variety (whether they be by spoiled brat teenagers or talented artists). Mostly, while graffiti brashly draws the eye to what is important (the painting/tag), it is also a commentary on what is NOT important. Thus when we visited the rubble of the Temple of Zeus Stratos, the foundation blocks of the ancient temple were marked by modern graffiti. Whoever painted the text made it very clear that the ancient remains were not worth a scrap more than a modern ruin, perhaps a valid comment in a country where more money is spent on digging up trash from 2000 years ago then on providing certain social services for its current citizens. Whether you can agree or not is besides the point – whoever defaced the temple believed that it was worthy of being defaced, that the cultural pedestal upon which we have placed it was invalid.

One of my favorite examples of the tagger’s dialogue with the ‘culturally worthwhile’ is this one from Thessaloniki. The soccer fans who tagged this statue made it very clear what they thought of this type of art. Whether the nude marble female makes one think of Classical Greek masterpieces or kitchy garden sculpture, the AEK fans gave us their own commentary:

Dry fountain, Thessaloniki, September 2008.

Anyways. For some great documentation of Athens’ graffiti, check this out. Otherwise, here are some shots of things I liked.
A great deal of Athenian graffiti takes the form of political slogans and symbols. Here's a rather beautiful revolutionary. Athens, November 2008.

One of my favorites. A cat in the window, a nude study of a bird-faced thing, a dude in the window with an orange background. Note the crucified robot in the top right corner, also of applied paper and documented at other locations.

Boy, girl and fantastical creatures. Creepy and awesome. Athens, November 2008.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The School's Secret Stash of Science Fiction and Fantasy

When people travel a lot, they tend to leave a trail of discarded books behind them. Once the books have been read, it’s rather pointless to let them weigh down your luggage; even better, most hostels and small hotels tend to have small collections through which you can rifle, leaving your book and taking a new one. The American School, like ex-pat places the world over, also has a collection. But I’d wager that ours is quite a bit bigger than most places, given the School's long history.

One of the more significant assortments to be found in Loring Hall was acquired from the Blegen/Hill estate. I’ve mentioned the Blegen’s and the Hill’s on repeated occasions, but it’s also good to know that not only did they leave an imprint on the political and social history of the School, but they also left behind quite a bit of material culture that has been absorbed into the School's physical landscape. Part of that material culture includes an enormous collection of mystery novels, dating from the 1930s to 1940s.

The Blegen’s and the Hill’s were best friends: Carl and his wife Elizabeth, Bert and his wife Ida. They shared a house in Athens at 9 Plutarch St. and when Blegen died in 1971, he left the house and everything in it to the School. The papers within it now form a large part of the School’s Archives, and bits of their furniture and other material culture spread out from there. The mystery books made it over to Loring Hall, where they are now in the TV Room.

It’s quite a collection. I asked Bob Bridges about it last night at Ouzo, and he told me that the books were mostly collected by Elizabeth and Ida, who actually had formed a little Crime club of sorts! The titles are in themselves amazing:

But it was not until two days ago that I actually discovered the School’s really secret stash of genre books. I was across the street in the Blegen Library and stopped in the lounge on the lowest floor. A small book shelf stood in the corner, and it was to here, I discovered, that the SF books of the School had been making their way. (NB: SF = Speculative Fiction = Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror/Comics/Etc.)

I’d been wondering about them, actually. With all the books that are collected here, why were there so few science-fiction and fantasy novels? People make jokes about nerdy sci-fi fans lurking at society’s margins, but in fact these marginal people are actually quite numerous (and in today’s comic book culture, nearly the majority of those under 30). So where were the books? Again, Bob Bridge’s held the key. Apparently, there were a fair number of not only speculative fiction titles floating around, but also harlequin romances. Bob was aware that there are certain types of books that certain people do NOT like to see; it was safer, then, to move those books elsewhere, to a place where they would not offend certain sensibilities. He was right to do so: it seems the harlequin romances were thrown out a few years back. But the speculative fiction books are still there, and are in fact quite impressive, very old school, with lots of Daw Books titles. Bob says he’s been grouping them together for as long as he’s been back at the School, since about 1982. Have a look:

The Secret Stash Discovery has been a highlight for me. Perhaps I’ll see how many 1930s mysteries and 1980s SF I can get through before Christmas. And let's hope the Secret Stash, no longer secret since I've revealed it on the Internet, survives and prospers. I'll make sure to add to it as much as I can.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nafplio and Corinth, Oral History and Excavation Photos

Now that I’m back in Athens, it seems that I must give a brief report on Trip 4, and do it soon, since our seminars (i.e. ‘course work’) start tomorrow, bright and early. The last trip, which ended on Friday, took us to the Argolid and the Corinthia. Since we were staying mostly in two regions, we stayed in only two hotels; the impact this stability had on our happiness and enthusiasm was, I think, palpable.

Nafplio was, as per usual, fantastic. I’d spent six weeks there a few summers back working at the Argive Heraion, and when I was there, appreciating the view of the bay from my balcony, I had no inkling of how fortunate I really was. Now I’ve been around Greece just a bit, and Nafplio has risen in my esteem to a glowing shiny height equivalent to the Palamidi at night.

The Palamidi fortress, from Nafplio's main square.

It is also the birthplace of Beast Cat, who emigrated back to America with me 3 ½ years ago.

Beast Cat's jealously guarded territory: the terrace of Rooms Bekas.

I remember our five days in Nafplio as peaceful, content ones, although I also logically recall being cranky and annoyed on multiple occasions. But all those moments seem to leech away in the happy haze of long dinners outside, charming streets and nightly gelato. I believe there might have been some Bronze Age stuff, too, probably?

The welcoming committee at the Corinth Dig House.

The second part of our trip was based in Corinth; our guide on Trip 4 was Guy Sanders, the director of the Corinth excavations, tall, rangy, constantly smoking. His trip was marked by long morning hikes, inexplicable British slang, and a general feeling of laid-back-ed-ness.

Guy Sanders, an enthusiastic fan of geology. We definitely heard a great deal about marl, and jurassic limestone, and even on one occasion about what happens when a married super-continent decides to get a divorce. Here, it's volcanic rock from Melos.

When he showed us around Corinth, I had the distinct feeling that he was showing us around his backyard. Of course, he literally did show us his backyard, where he had built an experimental kiln; his two dogs even welcomed us and watched us go (mournfully) each day at the dig house. Corinth had a home-y and historical feel, perhaps because of Guy’s long experience with the area and his reminiscences, as well as the tight connection between ancient Corinth and the American School.

The homemade kiln, firing clay at 700 degrees since, well, since I don't remember.

In fact, the School began excavating at Corinth in 1896 and has been doing so ever since, minus breaks during the World Wars. The work there is intimately tied to the Regular Year Program, since in the Spring Quarter, Regular Members excavate there for a number of weeks and have been doing so for decades. The staff working in Corinth was fantastic to us: every day we ate lunch until bursting at the Corinth dig house, we took long tours in the excavation storerooms, and were treated to lectures in the living room.

In the dig house, Nancy Bookidis lectures on the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore.

As I said, history is strong at the Corinth excavations, more so, I think, than in Athens at the School. I didn’t have to ask quite so many questions to get quite so many good stories. Nancy Bookidis, Assistant Director Emerita, had some great ones about her time as a Regular Member, told with Ron Stroud over double helpings of pastichio in the dig house. Apparently, our whining about the necessity of lunch breaks is the whining of the spoiled; in Nancy’s year, as in all the years before, every lunch was a picnic lunch, and the acquisition of food was handed out to a handful of Members (the women). Nancy described getting up at 5am to search for a central market that would supply enough food for 30 people, and then, at lunch, having to deal with the guys complaining that she wasn’t slicing bread fast enough. She also described not being able to wear pants in deference to Greek custom, and hiking through the absolutely deadly Greek underbrush wearing a skirt and socks pulled up as high as they could go, yet unable to protect against the thorns.

Ron Stroud and the wall of photos, just after pointing out a picture of his wife from the 1960s.

One of my favorite parts about Corinth was the wall of photos, packed with pictures going back to the turn of the 20th century. The Peirene Fountain in the city of Corinth, for example, was prominent in the photographs, excavated back under Bert Hodge Hill in the early 1900s.

Framed photo of Bert Hodge Hill's excavations at the Peirene Fountain.

There is also a picture of one of the School’s archaeological superstars, Carl Blegen, just after having climbed out of the subterranean tunnels of the Fountain, utterly covered in mud, beaming.
Swift and Blegen, mud besplattered. Make sure to note what a looker Carl Blegen was.

For years the young man next to him was unidentified until rumor got round and the man sent a letter to clear up the mystery: Emerson Swift.
Swift's letter from 1971, describing their experience, taped to the back of the picture frame.

Since then, others have searched the tunnels as well, better equipped, I think, then Swift and Blegen, who described tunnels so full of water and mud that they had to hold their mouths right up to the very tunnel roof in order to get oxygen.

It’s a bit cleaner in our day, but at least we can add another photo to the Peirene palimpsest accumulating at Corinth; I’ll make sure to tell the story of my first visit to all the little snot-nosed Regular Members when I’m 80, in Loring, over pastichio.

Us at the Peirene Fountain, following in the footsteps of 113 years worth of ASCSA members.