High atop the Acropolis on his honeymoon, Gabi Schaffzin realizes that now is the time when things begin to matter.
Up until this point in our honeymoon, there hadn’t been much in the way of to-do items. Certainly not much exercise (lounging, mostly). We would wake up, have breakfast, and head to the pool for some much-needed relaxation. Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete had all been very accommodating to this laid-back life, providing scenic views and cold drinks by day, welcoming us into the pubs to catch a World Cup match each evening.
Now we were in Athens, with its hustling city energy and archaic structures amid modern architecture. We happened to land in the Greek capital during a rare June heat wave while the subway and bus systems were on strike. A beer, a gyro, and a book were no longer going to cut it. Fortunately, our hotel was only a short walk from many of the sites. The closest was the Acropolis, the plateau upon which Pericles built a city center in the 400s B.C.
On a normal day, the walk to the top of the Acropolis is not very daunting. But even though it was nearing 5 p.m., the 100-degree heat wasn’t letting up. The 15-minute walk to the base required a pit stop at a kiosk to buy new bottles of water. The entrance to the hike up was crowded with tourists on the way down, exhausted from having already made the trek in the afternoon sun.
We started up the steps to the top, sipping water, trying to stay hydrated while leaving some for the rest of the walk. We stopped for breathers in the brief sections of shade that were often already occupied by large (and seemingly random) dogs living on the side of the hill. As we ascended, the rocks under our feet got larger and smoother—years of wear making itself apparent.
Massive ruins of temples, built thousands of years ago, welcomed us at the top. The stone on which we walked had become rather slippery at this point, so my wife held onto me as we made our way carefully among the buildings. I took a number of photographs, and we marveled at the view of the city from above.
Earlier in the day we had visited the New Acropolis Museum and learned about the ruins and their historical significance. The guys who built these structures knew what they were doing. They put every effort into a palace not only for the gods, but also for the people. The architectural feats required to build it were enhanced by the care that was taken. Every column was painstakingly designed and positioned to fool the naked eye into thinking it was a perfect structure. The statues in the pediments were sculpted in the round. The assumption was that no human would ever see the reverse; the gods, however, would.
Standing beside these things, all I could feel was the size of stones and the precision with which they were placed. All I could notice was my physical insignificance as I stood there.
Maybe it was the 100-degree heat and exhaustion and dehydration. Or maybe it was the fact that I had been wed only 10 days earlier. I couldn’t help but wonder: would Pericles and his crew consider themselves good men? Successful men? Dumbfounded by the stones next to me, coming up to my nose in height, I considered my place in all of this.
The Acropolis was built with community in mind. It was built with commerce in mind. It was built with spirituality and art in mind. And here I was, not even two weeks into marriage, with so many questions still unanswered: those of community (are my wife and I staying in Boston forever?), commerce (did I mention we don’t have a joint checking account yet?), spirituality (where will my Jewish upbringing and her Catholic background come into the most conflict?), and art (how will my upcoming pursuit of my MFA, and the commitments and introspection accompanying it, affect my marriage?).
I can’t say if Pericles would consider himself a successful man. He had a failed marriage and a great deal of familial conflict. His legacy doesn’t necessarily speak to that, and his victories as a statesman and soldier are plenty. He may even consider it a failure on my part to look to his work, and his contemporaries’, for guidance.
“For men can endure to hear others praised,” said Thucydides, “only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity.”
Eventually, antithetically, the structures on the Acropolis were destroyed in the name of war, greed, and oppression. By that time, the architects of the original buildings were long gone, having made a significant mark on modern culture. So, I thought, maybe it’s time to stop looking to those ancient Greeks for guidance. Maybe it’s time to stop staring up at those columns, wondering what they have to do with me.
It was time to focus instead on the foundation, on assembling something significant of my own on top of it. And trying to accept that whatever else fate might have brought the Acropolis, it was built with the right intentions.