Braille Monitor                                                                                                            January 2005

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Another Wonder

by Robert Gardner

Bob Gardner sits on the Acropolis with the Parthenon visible behind him.
Bob Gardner sits on the Acropolis with the Parthenon visible behind him.

From the Editor: Last September my husband Bob and I traveled to London to visit our son for a couple of weeks. We had lived in London, so we knew the city pretty well, but when we made our obligatory visit to the British Museum, we discovered that one important thing had changed since our last visit to the Greek rooms. This is where the friezes and other sculptures from the Parthenon that Lord Elgin carried off from Athens now reside. One never-to-be-forgotten Sunday morning many years ago a museum guard turned his back while I touched the Elgin marbles and tried to make sense of the worn and pitted high reliefs of the combat of the Lapiths and Centaurs.

We returned to the Greek rooms even though visitors are now securely roped off from the art and can't get close to it. I was expecting to have to make do with Bob's description of what he was looking at. But when the official at the information desk saw my white cane, she immediately directed us to a nearby room where a life-size replica of about thirty feet of the frieze was available for tactile examination. Equally interesting was a meter-long model of the Parthenon. The materials used felt like the marble and wood used in the original, and the pillars were slender and perfectly fluted. I found the whole thing breath-takingly beautiful. One could immediately understand the plan and the proportions of the original structure.

I had walked around the Acropolis in 2001 and, like Bob Gardner on his first visit to the Parthenon, had very little conception of what the original structure must have looked like or what the remains are like today. I wish that I had had the gumption to prepare for my visit the way Bob Gardner did. I am now determined to return to Athens and to do my homework first.

Bob Gardner is a member of the Black Hawk Chapter of the NFB of Illinois and its newly elected president. He is a retired engineer, who lost his sight halfway through his working career. He and his wife Nancy have two grown children and obviously enjoy traveling. Here is Bob's story:

 

"Good morning," I said.

"Kalimera," replied the young woman brightly. "Good morning." My wife Nancy and I stood there atop the Acropolis, sweating in the heat and humidity of the September day. We had come to a barrier fence in front of the Parthenon, and the woman had come out of a small building reserved for guards.

At least, I thought we were in front of the Parthenon. I am totally blind, and I had to take my sighted wife's word. This was our second visit to Greece, the first trip having been five years before. On that first trip we had stood in this same spot, and I had been in a similar situation. "There's the Parthenon," Nancy had said five years earlier.

When I found we couldn't enter the Parthenon, that no one was allowed inside, I remember thinking I might as well be in my backyard. I was thrilled to be at the Acropolis there in Athens, a place I thought I would never get to visit, but I had no sense of really being at the Parthenon. Visiting the Parthenon, as organized today, was entirely a visual experience.

Nancy and I made a pledge on that trip. We had become intrigued with Greece and Greek culture, and we promised ourselves we would return in several years. Those several years turned out to be five, and in the interim I had discovered the National Federation of the Blind. After that, when I thought about our future trip to Greece, I began to think in different ways. On that next visit to the Parthenon I wanted things to be different.

About six months before our second trip, I began seriously working on the problem. I drafted a letter requesting what I thought was reasonable and relatively modest. I explained I was blind, and all I wanted was to be allowed to stand on the bottom step of the Parthenon. I knew I could then touch that famous Pentelic marble, that I would stand on those steps that Athenians had climbed 2,500 years ago. I would stand on steps climbed by Romans, Crusaders, those in the Renaissance, and all those down through the ages. I could stand on a step that perhaps Pericles himself had stood upon.

The real problem was where to send the letter. Who could authorize my request? Should I contact the Greek embassy in the U.S. or the U.S. embassy in Greece? Should I contact the several Greek organizations associated with tourism? Maybe I should track down some Greek agency associated with antiquities.

I remember my first contacts. I found a private group on the Internet saying their mission was to promote travel by the handicapped. Maybe they would know where to send my letter. A phone call to them resulted in listening to an answering machine. I left my name and number--and I never heard a word from them. Emails sent to our closest Greek consulate and a Greek tourist organization here in the U.S. again resulted in no response.

Then I hit pay dirt. I sent my letter requesting to touch--just touch--the Parthenon to the U.S. embassy in Athens. I soon found myself corresponding easily, thanks to the miracle of global email, with Ms. Ioanna Houndoumadi, a consular assistant at the embassy. For reference, I learned Ioanna would be the equivalent of Joann or Joanna. Wow! Ioanna said she would work on my request.

So Nancy and I stood there on that September morning in 2002. For the second time we stood next to the little guard house in front of the Parthenon. "My name is Despina Tsolaki," the young female guard said. In good but uncertain English she asked, "May I help you?"

I showed her a copy of the email message from Ioanna of the U.S. Embassy telling me the Archeological Office of the Acropolis had granted my request regarding the Parthenon. I sensed Despina smiling, and I also sensed she might not be able to read English since our language uses a totally different alphabet from her native Greek. When I explained the contents of the message, Despina laughed. "Please come," she said. "Follow me." And I stepped over the wire barrier and walked up the west steps of the Parthenon--into the Parthenon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world--into the Parthenon, where no tourists are allowed to go.

Although my original request said I wasn't asking for any special guides, Nancy and I found ourselves following an enthusiastic Despina around the interior of the Parthenon. I soon found a crew was working on restoration inside the temple. There I was, following Despina, walking through what seemed like a chaos of workmen, wooden ramps, and marble pieces of all shapes and sizes.

And there I was with my recently acquired white cane: beautiful, telescoping, long white cane bought earlier in the year during a training seminar at the NFB national center in Baltimore. Five years before, on my first visit to the Acropolis, before I had joined the NFB, I had no white cane.

I asked Despina, "How long has it been since tourists were allowed to walk in here?" I was wondering when someone had last walked through the Parthenon with a long white cane.

"No tourists have been in here for about thirty years," she answered.

Gee, I thought. Maybe no one with a long white cane had ever walked in there before.

I found the size of the Parthenon astounding. Over two-hundred feet long, the temple is about two-thirds the size of a football field. The famous columns, eight on the ends and seventeen on the sides, are thirty-four feet tall--as high as a three-story building.

The massiveness of those columns was surprising. I stretched my arms around one in a bear hug. At six feet in diameter, they were too large for me to get my arms even halfway around. And I was surprised at the roughness of the marble. Centuries of exposure had changed the original smooth surface to more like the unfinished concrete surface of a highway.

Pericles, the leader of the city-state of Athens, started construction on the Parthenon in 447 B.C. He was determined to make a statement about the wealth and power of Athens by building a temple like none seen before in Greece. While temples at that time were fabricated usually of wood, commonly using columns of limestone coated with white plaster, Pericles declared his Parthenon would be made totally of marble. Even the roof tiles were to be of marble. It took fifteen years to complete, and the marble was quarried at the nearby Mt. Pentelis, while builders and artisans from all over Athens were employed to carve the columns, the myriad sculptures, and the countless structural pieces that made up the final temple. I've read that in today's dollars the Parthenon cost a billion dollars to build. I was introduced to Nikos Toganidis, the foreman of the crew working on restoration. He was a big man with big hands. "Do you have any questions?" he asked in soft English.

Feeling even hotter than before, I struggled to think of something intelligent to say. "Uh, how long do you think the restoration will take?"

"Only God knows," replied Mr. Toganidis. He went on to talk of his worries about earthquakes, a relatively common occurrence in that part of the world, and what such an event would do to the Parthenon.

We continued to wander around, and I was given permission to touch the marble pieces on which the restorers worked. We talked with Despina, finding out she was a single parent with a nine-year-old son. She talked of her life, how she lived with her mother, how her job as an Acropolis guard was a good one, but how she really wanted to become a singer. How different our lives were, I thought, yet how similar. How we all worry about our jobs and our children, how we struggle to improve our future. How in the end we all have to laugh and make the best of this world we live in. Despina apologized many times for her English, saying her Italian was better. I could only marvel at anyone who could speak anything more than one language.

Nancy and I later worked our way down the steps of the Acropolis, an exercise in caution. The stairs meander, are worn and uneven, and look like they might be the original steps from fourth-century B.C. "Despina was nice," Nancy said as we walked, broiling in the humid heat, down the narrow streets toward our nearby hotel.

"Yeah, I said. I thought of the pictures taken by Nancy of Despina and me in the Parthenon. The young guide and I had posed together, our arms around each other's shoulders.

Nancy and I continued toward our hotel, threading our way through the crowds, passing the many little cafes with their delicious aromas of grilling lamb, souvlaki, or maybe moussaka. The tables were usually outside, out in the open air. A great way to eat or relax, Nancy and I had discovered. I could picture those at the tables chattering away as they sipped at their miniature cups of thick, sweet Greek coffee while still managing to survey the pedestrians parading by.

"You got her address?" asked Nancy, referring to Despina.

"Yeah. She wrote it on a card, and it's here in my shirt pocket."

"We should send her a thank-you card."

"Maybe we could send her and her son a Christmas card," I said. We made our turn into Rovertou Galli, the street for our hotel.

"That really turned out good there on the Acropolis," Nancy said.

"Yeah," I said.

"All because you wrote that letter, because you had a dream."

"I'm no Martin Luther King," I quipped. "All I can say is I thought outside the box, then acted on it."

"You made it happen."

"A lot of nice people helped," I said.

"Just imagine," Nancy said. "We were actually inside the Parthenon, one of the seven wonders."

"You know," I said, "I'm not sure now that the Parthenon was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world."

"Well, anyway, we were there."

"And it was a wonder we were there at all."

"So it was a wonder after all," teased Nancy.

"Yeah," I said, holding my white cane, "it was another wonder."

 

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Did you know that you can make a gift to the National Federation of the Blind and save taxes three ways? Well, you can! With a gift of appreciated stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. For more information, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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