Columns in Mercurial Moonlight

TYPICAL of Greece, it seemed, was that one minute humanity was so pressing and noisy that you wondered how such an apparently chaotic country could survive its overpopulation - and the next you were in a place devoid of any people whatsoever. A cat or three maybe. Otherwise - just us and the night air.

By now we had climbed so far from the pedestrian street below bursting with light and life, that it seemed to belong to another world. Its cafes, nut-sellers, puppeteers, and souvenir shops existed in a different time even; its mayhem of people like a fury of summer bees desperately searching for hives.

High in the silence loomed the gigantic wall - a dark, sheer masonry towering above us, that claimed our puzzled attention. What on earth could it surround? Barracks? A prison?

"Could it be the Acropolis?" my wife hazarded.

"Oh, no, no," (Why do people like me, in places they have never before visited, speak with such authority?) "No, that's over on the other side of the city," I said, gesturing with sweeping emphasis. "I looked at the map."

But the fact is, though, that David Livingstone and I are not like two peas in a pod. His burning dedication to mapping a continent, to comprehending vast river systems, is not exactly my scene. Well, I get lost. This could have to do with my confusion about the difference between east and west (north and south I just about manage).

That first evening in Athens was only to underline, yet again, my usual geographical incompetence.

We strolled on. After a while we found - peeping over the deep brown silhouette of the curving wall-cliff - a line of classical columns and part of a pediment, standing floodlit in gold. There was something magical about them, as if they had been conjured out of an empty top hat.

More columns appeared as we walked. The floodlight flickered, went out and on again, then finally out. But we could still see the columns, though now everything was reduced to dark grays, soft deep blacks, and that strangely potent but just-perceptible commodity - mercurial moonlight. Suddenly we were deeply enclosed in the stuff of memory.

It was - of course - the Acropolis. Though I was still slow to admit it. After all, the world is encircled with classical columns from Washington to Delhi. The classical column is everywhere. It survives all change, resurfaces in all periods, dignifies churches, town halls, colleges, and fish-and-chip shops. It adapts with rectitude even to the most crass architectural misuse. And it was the Greeks who started it - or at least refined mere tree trunks to claim them as architectural archetypes forever the irs. Only when you are actually in Greece it takes a while for it to sink in that here - in this very land - are classical columns as they were originally conceived. That night I just stared at the columns above the wall and thought - columns.

Then, at last, surprise dawned. We (or I, in my complete conviction that it was elsewhere) had managed to come upon the Acropolis by mistake. Even Livingstone knew when he was approaching Victoria Falls. He set out deliberately to see them. He was the first white man to see them - but not the first man. He wasn't disappointed, of course; he lay face downward, overwhelmed. It was a sight to be seen "by angels in their flight." But just suppose he had come upon them unexpectedly....

Our difficulty today is familiarity. I recall an English friend taken to see Niagara Falls and other remarkable places in America on her first visit. She enjoyed it. But she kept saying: "It's just like Johnny Morris. I saw that on Johnny Morris." This British TV personality had recently made a documentary about travel in the States. To a degree, he had preempted this visitor's experiences. @BODYTEXT =

T happens too much. If only we could sidle up to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and catch her off her guard. Or suddenly glimpse the Leaning Tower of Pisa from a passing bus. If only we could not know about everything before we see it....

That first encounter of ours with the Acropolis (later to be seen conventionally in broad daylight with a million other tourists) was of this order. There we were, treading, in increasing awe, the large shiny stones of the pathways below the Acropolis. These stones have been smoothed by countless touristic feet. Yet that night there wasn't another tourist anywhere near. The mobile shop, which was set up in an open space and in daylight did a rattling trade in fresh orange juice, looked as if it had been abandoned for centuries.

Up the glistening stones we meandered, careful not to slip - can you slip on moonlight? - and above us the Parthenon, grandly in view, and then quite suddenly below us, dropping away from our feet, the great scoop of a stone amphitheater.... I breathed in. It was like being the first people on earth to be here.

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