MY FIANCÉE AND I STAY UP LATE INTO THE NIGHT, ruminating. A plan begins to form. Give up everything. It’s that simple. Mad. Easy. Exciting. Quit the job. Give up the apartment. Leave the country. Fuck it.
Unfortunately, it still takes time to prepare. One is only ever as free as their purchasing power allows, and after nearly a year of saving, we manage to buy ourselves a good chunk of freedom this time around — if we play our cards right. We set out in the first week of May, having successfully shed the cumbersome skins of our former lives and reducing all of our possessions to a size small enough to fit into two backpacks and a guitar case.
We land in Athens, Greece, after dark, where over a third of the country’s population have crammed themselves in a last-ditch attempt at surviving the economic turmoil that has rocked them so recently – a turmoil so strong that the tremors can still be felt reverberating within other parts of the greater EU. We knew this going in, but our desire to see the remains of classical Athens overrode our trepidation. Now it seems too real.
The hostel we’ve chosen is far from the nice part of town, and the reality hits hard. Already suffering the first stages of a serious jet-lag due to a drunken eight hour layover in Brussels, culture shock begins to set in, and my girlfriend succumbs in a bad way. We have nothing. No home, no income, no plans for the future. This IS the future, this IS the plan.
Outside is a pool of foreign madness. You can smell it. The city is hot, and dirty, thriving with the profound deviance of the same system we thought we were escaping. Only steps away lies the heart of the whole thing, Omonia Square, where you can stand for no more than three minutes on any given night and watch someone fix. Prostitutes roam the area, milling with the junkies, dealers, and thieves, and every step you take, you are being watched. Needless to say, this wasn’t quite what we had imagined.
But then, what HAD we imagined?
True to form, I myself had failed, nearly completely, in putting together anything but the most rudimentary form of itinerary, comfortable in the wonderful and most assured knowledge that we were going to be free. Free, at last. Well, guess what? Aside from one volunteer spot on an Italian farm in June, and a vague notion that we were heading south to the islands after Athens, we had no solid plans. It seemed now, leaning over the old railing of our tiny second floor balcony and peering down at the slow, seedy commotion below, that all of it had been some kind of strange quixotic vision that neither of us had expected to come to fruition.
Well, we’ve called our own bluff, I thought. I head back inside and spend a while talking with my fiancee, trying not to let her inhibitions overwhelm me. Finally I convince her to accompany me, briefly, to find something to eat. As usual, good food mends most ails. We find a small local hole-in-the-wall directly across the street from the hostel that’s hawking gyros, souvlaki and massive bottles of Amstel and Heineken for mere pocket change.
Our spoken Greek is pitiful — barely present at all — but the food is ample and fantastic. The feeling of being watched continues, but seems significantly subdued. We are still well aware of our glaring presence as tourist foreigners in this part of town — and thus fresh meat – but ostensibly we’re ignored by the locals. The absence of back-pocket wallets, fanny packs or any of the other typical fare touted by traditional target tourists seems to cast a growing feeling of safety over us as we sit and eat, and we begin to feel a little more secure in the fact that we are well prepared in at least one sense.
It takes nearly two days of over-sleeping, midnight meals, and midday cat-naps to get our internal clocks on the road to adjusting to the seven-hour time difference, but eventually we get there. During that time, we also begin to familiarize ourselves with the city, and, from our limited perspective, come to find a place of beautiful and profound contradictions. Athens is the cradle of modern western civilization. Ages ago, in that space between legend and myth, the Goddess Athena climbed from a throbbing axe wound in Zeus’s forehead, armed, bloody and screaming her war cry to the heavens.
From this violent birth came many things — the first working version of democracy, western philosophy, the science of slavery, Classical Architecture and most importantly, some would argue, the Renaissance and the birth of perspective.
Over the next week we stand witness to it all, the beginnings of everything we know — The Acropolis, Ancient Agora, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, all of the treasures inside the National Archaeological Museum — and come to see how the nature of art and architecture does indeed both reflect and shape our collective history, as well as our current lives. We also discover Greece’s caffeine saturated coffee culture — particularly the delectable and severely addictive frappes — spend a little time sampling the ample cheap eats across the city centre, climb Lycavitos Hill and visit Athens First Graveyard.
We buy beers from kiosks after dark and smoke far too much. Through it all — particularly at the N.A.M. and the Acropolis — there is an overriding sense of surrealism, bordering on the sardonic. The birth of perspective — so profoundly evident in all of the artwork of the Early Renaissance – reflected humankind’s newfound and uncanny ability to perceive the external world. It perfectly spelled out, in chiseled and polished stone, the birth of self-awareness and our collective movement from ancient tribal consciousness into individuality and separateness. In short, the birth of the modern ego.
Making our way through the dirty, sprawling streets of urban Athens to seek out the evidence of such a profound step in the evolution of the human species’ consciousness, along with hordes of other camera-touting tourists — wearing brand name clothing, talking too loud in English and passing the endless parade of begging homeless without so much as a thought — one finds the deep juxtaposition truly saddening. Here we are, the very descendants of that great flowering of mind and culture, taking snapshots of all that remains — ancient, broken ruins — whilst wondrously ignorant to all of the current degradation, unhappiness and strife that surrounds us in its birthplace.
In the beginning the ego, like any newborn, is largely fascinated with the world and its place in it. Freshly self-aware, amazed by its ability to control and shape matter, everything is play and exploration. Soon, however, that fascination gives way to obsession with that space, and then finally, possession by it. Through the scientific revolution and into the industrial, we come finally to find ourselves here, in the age of ever-accelerating information, outpaced only by the acceleration of our own wanton ignorance, our shameful unwillingness to look within.
Carl Jung once said that whatever inner situations we fail to face will appear outside of us as fate. At no time is this more clearly noticeable than when one is travelling – truly travelling, not vacationing – the ego in many ways being naturally subdued by the continuous experience of cultures it previously had no understanding of. It cannot help but take a backseat to the grand spectacle of life when it finds itself immersed within it in such a way. Add to it the witnessing of all of the beauty and ruin our species has wrought — and continues to — over thousands of years, and it is only amplified that much more. Out of this experience comes an indelible, almost transpersonal clarity, an overwhelming sense of both our self-imposed limitations and our true nature as limitless beings.
Something indeed is coming. It is the New World, and it is already well on its way. The birth pangs are all around us. Remove the filter of culture from your eyes and this is undeniable, terrifying, exciting. As the old systems that have shaped us continue to crumble, the question inevitably turns inward – will you cling to the forms that no longer serve us, including the terribly burdensome spectacle of self, and all of its heavy baggage, or are you able to let go, witness, and take part in the process of this labour as it is now unfolding? Are you enslaved by the old world, or in service of the new? We have seen what the ego has wrought — the evidence is all around us — yet we remain forever at the point of choice, as we will up to the very end.
Once the pain of birth is over, a great celebration commences, and a new life begins. It is time to ask yourself if you’d like to be a part of it.