A Meeting of Compatriots in a foreign land, rich in cultural allusions


Dear me, that I have to recount my traveling adventures in Italy, along with my erstwhile friend Mr. Nikolaou (un ami de rencontre). With whom we traversed the Italian peninsula by bus, stopping in cafes and eateries, eating ice-creams and drinking coffee, while invoking ancient Roman culture(of the Republican period preferably).

Being of Greek nationality we were supposed to be custodians of another ancient civilization of international renown and by visiting the Keats-Shelly Memorial in Rome, we added British credentials to our Greco-Roman armature.

One may wonder, how visitors of cafes are deemed to be carriers of so profound a cultural baggage, but I have to object, mentioning that in my home country, cafes and their native equivalents were regarded as small parliaments and to take the French etymology of the word, as talkshops, that is places of verbal argumentation. Now, as we all know, from our schooldays, verbal argumentation was all that classical civilization was about. There were also more dynamic forms of argumentation, like wars between city-states and gladiatorial combats but for the moment lets forget those details and concentrate on the essentials.

As I have said before, with Mr. Nikolaou we visited Italian cities, notably Venice, Florence and Rome. In Venice we were in a café in former times graced by the presence of the American painter Whistler, that is café Florian, and while eating gellati, we were mentally transposed to the glory days of the expansive Venetian Republic, aptly though reminding ourselves, as befits Greeks and Orthodox Christians, that the Venetian Doge, was the instigator of the change of direction of the fourth Crusade, that resulted in the first sack of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul(a second sack ensued in the meantime). Alas our happiest thoughts with pain are fraught, to quote Shelley, of whom more latter.

Moving to Florence, where gellati in the café Gilli, were less expensive than those in Venice we thought about Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent (despite the Uffizi Gallery been closed to the public that particular day). We were also lost-unable to navigate our way through the city despite our map, trying to find a certain restaurant, by asking other restaurant owners for its location and getting answers that we thought might be intentionally misleading, thus confirming the Florentine political philosopher’s bleak view on human nature.

The culmination was Rome, were gellati, in the appropriately named café Greco were even cheaper, confirming the division of Italy in North and South.

Our ponderous thoughts of modern Italian politics and ancient Roman slendour were made even more deep by our visit to the Keats-Shelley memorial, where despite the name, a lot of material concerning Byron was kept, therefore acquiring an additional interest for us. Greek author Theotokas, in a novel about Athenian student life in the first half of the 20nth century has his heroes traveling in Rome and visiting the graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant cemetery along with those of their less famous but much more long-lived friends John Severn and Edward Trelawny.

Immersed thus in cultural and historical associations we watched those people that wearing plastic imitations of what were supposed to be ancient Roman uniforms, were touting tourists to be photographed with them for money. Our vision of the Eternal City crumbled.

The journey to Italy ended and we returned unceremoniously to Athens, were I never again Mr. Nikolaou, preferring to behold the image of a compatriot in a foreign land, than dilute it with the triteness of everyday familiarity.

G Karpouzas

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