My second day exploring Athens was a busy one as well, but there was one thing that made my day: encountering George.
The first thing I did after I got breakfast was to visit the Olympieion – I had definitely learned my lesson from yesterday. As I was walking there, I noticed a man who was wearing an ankle length leather jacket (like Neo from the Matrix!), kneeling in the grass to cut some leather. I registered him but kept walking because I’m not usually one to approach strangers.
After I walked back the same path a little while later, he was still kneeling there. My curiosity took over and I approached him with the question: “What are you working on?”
He replied with: “I’m cutting this leather using the knife that I made myself”.
He showed me the knife. It was silver and shiny, had a little trident looking part at the bottom, and was covered with a carved pattern. You could tell that it was made with love: he had tied a little leather string to the bottom as decoration, and the scrapings of long and heavy usage were clearly visible.
For the next two hours, George told me about many things.
He told about working for the Ministry of Culture, as the last metalsmith to use ancient methods for reconstructing monuments and creating tools. He used to work at the ancient theater of Epidavros, before transferring to help reconstruct the Parthenon. His current project is an ancient marble water fountain that will be finished just in time for summer.
I asked him why he chose to come here to work, and not in a studio.
“I like it here. I don’t need many things, and what I need I make myself or find it here. This place has peace”.
I asked him if it was difficult being the last person to utilize traditional construction methods.
He said yes, and went on to talk about how the Ministry of Culture is only interested in getting things done as efficiently and quickly as possible. Quantity over quality.
“My work is slower, but it’s more natural and accurate. Machines do not understand the history behind these buildings.”
He hates what modern technology is doing to these buildings. They are so focused on making everything look perfect, that they forget that these buildings are not meant to be perfect. He took me over to a wall and told me to look at the stones.
“See? It’s not straight. It has many holes and cracks. But it’s still beautiful, and strong”.
He talks about how difficult it is to refurbish these stones. People vandalize and tag them with graffiti all the time, and it requires a special kind of chemical to clean it off. He says it makes him sad that Greek people are not as respectful of the monuments and Gods as they used to be. He told me that he is not religious but respects the God Hephaestus, the patron of his field. He tells me that he gets a sense of comfort and peace from working with the marble and stone.
Whenever he couldn’t get his point across in English, he would take my notebook and draw in it. He tried to explain his working method to me, as opposed to the modern working method. He tried to explain the whole process to me, but it was far too complex to comprehend without a demonstration.
He also drew other things in my notebook: a pretty flower, three different swords crossing each other and a Spartan helmet. He seemed to be a perfectionist – always going back to add or take away details and ornaments. He was serious and dedicated the whole time as well and did not talk, as if I was paying him to draw these things for me.
He told me a story about King Leonidas of Sparta, who encountered the Persian army of King Xerxes at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Xerxes demanded that the (outnumbered) Greeks lay down their weapons and surrender. Leonidas paused and simply said: “molon lave” (come and take). Even though the Greeks ultimately lost that battle, it was still a (moral) victory because they managed to stall the Persians long enough for the citizens of Athens to evacuate to the island of Salamis. Today, there is a statue of Leonidas in Thermopylae, with that phrase written underneath him.
George said that this story exemplifies the power of few words. “Sometimes” he says, “it is better to not use too many words. Then the words you use are more important”. I found myself agreeing with him.
The last thing that George did for me was to make me a necklace. He took a sandstone and scrubbed it to make it into the shape of a bead. He then proceeded to carve little lines and shapes into the stone to make it look pretty. After he strung the leather string through the bead and presented it to me, he apologized and said that it was not very beautiful. I gently reminded him that it didn’t have to be beautiful: it was real and it was special, that’s all that mattered.
He decided to bestow an olive wreath and pine tree branches on me as well, just to make me even more Greek.
I almost started crying when he said: “this is the real Greece that I am giving to you. Please don’t forget it”.
I learned a lot of things during those two hours.
People are so kind and willing to share, you just need to give them a chance.
This necklace is better than any souvenir I could ever buy.
Going up and talking to strangers is one of the best ways of gaining a deeper understanding of a foreign country.
The ideals and values of ancient Greece live on, through people like George.
His dedication towards his work and generosity to strangers inspire me, and I want to be more like him in those aspects.
There was one particular moment that made me smile: George took out his phone and commented “I am a metalsmith but I use a modern phone” and started laughing. I guess even a metalsmith has to concede sometimes 🙂