A couple of days ago I picked up my old copy of Don DeLillo’s The Names which I read a long time ago, and had only vague (though positive) memories of. I did know that it was set in Athens, and if I’d been forced to guess I’d have assumed the Acropolis featured in there somewhere since it’s pretty hard to write a novel set in Athens that doesn’t mention it. I found this picture of DeLillo, sort of walking, though I'd guess some way from Athens:
In the years since I read The Names I’ve written a book titled Walking in Ruins, and how I wish I’d thought of the DeLillo novel while I was writing it. It would surely have been worth a mention and a quote. And now, as I open it again, I find this on the very first page:
“For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that somber rock. I preferred to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring. The weight and moment of those worked stones promised to make the business of seeing them a complicated one. So much converges there. It's what we've rescued from the madness. Beauty, dignity, order, proportion. There are obligations attached to such a visit.
“Then there was the question of its renown. I saw myself climbing the rough streets of the Plaka, past the discos, the handbag shops, the rows of bamboo chairs. Slowly, out of every bending lane, in waves of color and sound, came tourists in striped sneakers, fanning themselves with postcards, the philhellenes, laboring uphill, vastly unhappy, mingling in one unbroken line up to the monumental gateway.
“What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little.”
Between my first and second years at university I went to Greece for a chunk of the summer. I’m no longer really sure why. I had some vaguely hippie acquaintances who were living on the island of Samos, and they said I should stop by and see them, but I think they were mortified when I actually showed up. This was well over a decade before I read, or DeLillo wrote, The Names.
And while I was in Greece, and particularly in Athens, I did do a lot of walking, and I certainly saw a lot of ruins, and I can’t say I found them utterly gripping at the time. But unlike De Lillo’s hero I did happily walk up to the Acropolis. I think I walked up there more than once: I wasn’t sure what else to do in Athens. The description of handbag shops and discos seems accurate enough, though I definitely didn’t wear striped sneakers.
And on one occasion while I was there at the Acropolis a man came up to me with a fairly serious-looking movie camera, which was not a common thing at the time, and he put it in my hand and asked me, in very broken English, if I would film him walking among the ruins, walking towards the camera.
I said sure. I was thrilled. Unlikely as it now seems, I had some ambitions back then to make movies, though this was the first time I’d actually held a movie camera, and the man showed me the basics of how to operate it, and I asked him if he wanted to me to do anything fancy, panning or zooming or tracking or whatever. And he said, “No. You hold still. I come, I go.” So I did, and he did, and if this were a novel there's be some exciting second act involving ruins and doctored movie film and international men of mystery. But in real life we went on our way without any further contact.
Inspired by rereading Delillo I dug out some old slides taken on that trip (seen above and below), and what do you know, it seems I took a photograph of the man before or after I’d filmed him. I’m left wishing I’d mentioned this in Walking in Ruins, too.