Saturday, April 13, 2013

A literary post for a literary day...

I think calling today a literary day is quite appropriate.  My planned itinerary for the day included going to an English language bookstore to pick up another novel for the road and seeking out Stavros Melissinos, the poet/sandal-maker of Athens.  In my wanderings, I just happened upon the ruins of Hadrian's Library, capping off a day of literary-themed excursions.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader.  I have had a lifelong love affair with the written word.  That doesn't ever cease, not even during an adventure as big and exciting as the one I'm on now.  I've been on the road for 33 days now and have read 5 novels (one of them a 700-page epic) and part of a 6th.  I use the Internet to search out English language bookstores, preferably with a used-books section, everywhere I go.  I can't carry anything extra with me, so I pass off the novel I've just finished to a used bookseller and grab a new one.  I have a lot of time for reading in trains, planes, buses, etc...and in stations waiting for trains, planes, buses, etc.  Since I am alone, I always carry my book and read in cafes and restaurants while I'm having meals.  And, just as I do at home, I read almost every night before falling asleep.

On this trip I have been reading mostly non-American authors and, in some cases, novels that take place in locations to which I am traveling.  I started by reading Alexander McCall Smith's The World According to Bertie, which takes place in Edinburgh.  It's part of his 44 Scotland Street series and while in Edinburgh, Tanya and I visited the locales predominant in every book of the The Cumberland Bar and Dundas Street.  We even tried to find #44 on Scotland Street, but the buildings end at #43.  One kind of funny thing to note: the series takes place in Edinburgh's new town...which we were surprised to find looks just like, and I mean exactly, Edinburgh's old town. 

Here are the books I've read on the trip, in order of reading:
  • The World According to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon - one of her detective Guido Brunetti novels that takes place in Venice and is a very popular series in Italy.
  • The Snowman by Jo Nesbo - this one takes place in Norway, not a place I'm traveling to, but it came highly recommended by a bookseller in Amsterdam.  I had never heard of Nesbo and thought the main character's name, Harry Hole, was a bit laughable.  But, I liked that it was 438 pages long (thus keeping me busy for a while) so I bought it...and, boy, am I glad I did.  Nesbo is being hailed as the next Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and, indeed, the novel was a page-turning thriller.  I could hardly put it down and will be reading more Nesbo when I return home.  
  • House by Tracy Kidder - I picked this up at the same Amsterdam used bookstore because I had loved Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains.  But, I just couldn't get into this one.  It's literally about the building of a house...the architect's story, the builder's story, the owners' story.  I read about 100 pages and then donated it to a street vendor in Krakow.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - this one takes place in America and Pakistan (another country to which I am not traveling).  I was interested in it, however, because it's recently been made into a film directed by Mira Nair.  I really like Nair's work...her film Monsoon Wedding is one of my all time favorite movies.  The book was really interesting, and I'm now anxious to see how she's adapted the first-person narrative into film.
  • Empire by Steven Saylor - this is the 700-page epic I mentioned earlier.  It's historical fiction that follows 5 generations of the Pinarius family in ancient Rome from 14AD to 141AD.  It was a fascinating novel, made all the more interesting for me because I was reading it while in Rome visiting ruins of the very places mentioned in the novel.  Although it's a work of fiction, Saylor has tried to stay true to history and includes lots of interesting notes in the back of the novel.  If you enjoy reading about the crazy escapades of Roman Emperors, this one is for you!
I just finished Empire, and today I bought The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Samoza, which takes place right here in Athens.  It's a Gold Dagger award winner, so I'm hoping it will be a good read.   

After leaving the Compendium bookstore, I hopped on the metro and began my quest to search out Melissinos Sandal Shop near Monastiraki Square.  It's owned by Stavros Melissinos, a world renowned poet...and sandal-maker.  His works of poetry have been translated into many languages and his most famous poem, Athenian Rubaiyat, is part of the curriculum at universities such as Oxford and Harvard.  Yet, he still works in his little shop, inherited from his father, as a sandal-maker.  When asked why in an interview, he said "A writer who does nothing but write is like the moon, which gives off some light, but borrowed from the sun. A writer needs first-hand experience, which only working in another field can give him. Otherwise he is rewriting what he has read in other books."  He is as famous for his hand-made sandals as he is for his poetry.  His former clientele includes the Beatles, Jackie Onassis, and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few.  On the day the Beatles visited his shop, his children asked him that evening why he didn't ask for their autographs.  He replied "Why did they not ask for mine?  I will be around long after the Beatles."  He sure was right about that one! 
I did find the shop, but Stavros wasn't there today.  His son, who is now running the shop and also an artist and sandal-maker, told me that at the age of 85, his father rarely comes to the shop anymore.  He said his father does still write everyday, however, and still has a very sharp mind.  So that you can get an idea of the beauty of his poetry, here is a short passage from the Rubaiyat:

Take away the Glories and the Honours
The granite palaces of this vain world
And only give me the smile of Pain the tear of Joy
And I will erect a thousand palaces in me in which to live.

I love that.  I sure wish I had gotten to meet him.

And now, a few pictures from today...

This flea market near Monastiraki Square was hopping.  I wandered in for a bit, but it got too claustrophobic for me and I had to bail out down a side street.

This is the sandal shop of Stavros Melissinos.  Since this is the literary post, I should also mention that this street is where Lord Byron lived during his time in Athens.  Try to ignore the graffiti...sadly, it's everywhere.  Trying to get photos without it is almost impossible.

The whole area was packed with people and activity, as you can see from this picture I took from my table at lunch.

These drummers were awesome!  You could hear their rhythms from blocks away.  The dog lying there must not be a stray, but rather a pet, because he had a collar and tags. 

The ruins of Hadrian's Library.  This picture is a little off-center, but again, I was trying to avoid including the graffiti on the building right behind it.

Strawberries are definitely in season, both here and in Italy.  All the fruit and produce vendors have big displays of huge, succulent berries.  You can smell the sweet strawberry scent in the air before you even get to them.
See what I mean?  This is an otherwise lovely building with wooden shutters, archways, and a Spanish-tiled roof in a nice neighborhood just below the Acropolis.  It is such a shame that everything here has been vandalized by graffiti.  



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