Zorba the Greek

Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek (1964)

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

The narrator is much like me in that he has recourse to books whenever he has time to himself. In fact, all he seems to have done is read book after book, focusing on the life of the mind. He grows ashamed at this once it becomes clear to him that he has been avoiding life, has dealt with its shadow and not its substance. For that is all novels can impart to us, a vague recollection a writer has of his or her past which is embellished and transformed into something else entirely. In any case, all we get through reading these stories is a dull likeness of a lived experience. This intellectual becomes tired at the ideas he has been learning, at the time he is spending thinking and imagining at the expense of reality.

Enter Zorba, a greying man in his sixties, who leads a life of action. He has known many people, had many conquests and professions and has even fought in wars. He is guided by his passion to act on his first impulse, to do precisely what he would like to do at the moment it impresses itself on him. He lives according to his feeling, getting the most out of each moment. As such, he lives as if he would die at any minute. When asked what he believes in, he replies that his belief is in himself. That because he sees through his own eyes, thinks through his own mind, his experience is all that matters to him. This is because he only has power over himself and is the only person he can ever truly know. 

His freedom is then tethered to himself whereas others are limited by an idea, a religion or nation which they commit to, lose themselves in. They free themselves from one only to find another nobler one to be chained by, another God to worship. Zorba does what he pleases while they are kept within the confines of their ideal. Happiness in life is to be found simply, by doing what you are passionate about. For him this was playing his santuri, dancing and going after women; living deeply.

The writer loves life but reproaches himself for having had his attention wrapped up in books as he is presently penning a manuscript on the Buddha. He realises that he needs to leave aside metaphysical cares, vain anxieties about what might happen and penetrate through to the heart of man, dealing directly with people so as to live. Zorba is the man he has been searching for, one who lives with feet firmly on the ground, while he in his philosophy has been trying to leave it. He is tied down to mother earth through his experiences and has not been to school, had his mind perverted. He has lived and his mind is open because of the adventures he has had and the primitive boldness which was never undermined. He deals with the problems of life intuitively, cutting right to their heart, while others think them complicated. His aim is steady because his whole body is firmly planted on the ground, always in contact with mother earth. He is true to his nature, while we lie to ourselves and try to soar beyond the material world.

Zorba dances, jumps into water when he feels like it, acts without stopping to think. At no point does it occur to him to doubt himself, to stop doing a thing which suggests itself to him in his moments of happiness, he simply lives. The writer, absorbed by this, feels he has wasted his life. That all he has learned up to that point has prevented him from living. He wishes to learn from Zorba, to keep his five senses trained, and his body strong so it would enjoy and understand, so that he could run and fight, so that the soul and body came together as one. In his companion he sees the right path. Someone who has opened his heart to the world and had it broken over and over, only to keep going back to it. One who must live at all costs.

The narrator was bothered by being labelled a bookworm by an old friend and endeavoured to throw down his pen and paper in order to launch himself into a life of action. Zorba shows him how colourless his life has been, how little he has seen and experienced, and that it is running away from him. A man’s happiness depends on his stature and if he is to be worthy of it this must rise.

When he looks up at the sky at night he sees an indifferent universe. We are born to say a few words, perhaps give rise to an idea, but inevitably destruction comes. Our ‘nations’ and ‘races’ have the same value in that ruin. Yet, having seen the futility of this existence, we may accept our roles in nature and play our parts on earth to the end, coherently, without being discouraged. Man has few true necessities and happiness can be found in the simplest of ways, by embracing the world around us.

Yet, on seeing a Woman he likes he says that he does not want trouble. Zorba replies that life is trouble. That only death brings no trouble, while living means undoing your belt and looking for it. The writer agrees but presently his contact with men has become a soliloquy, something he resolves to do when he is not around anyone only to give it up in their presence. He is so out of touch with life that he would prefer to read a book about love than fall in love with a woman. Zorba sees this and tells him to stop thinking, that now is the time that he is going to save or lose his soul. Paradise for men is women, regardless of what the priests say.

He was wasting his life, the woman and he were only insects that live for a second under the sun, and then die for all eternity. Zorba recounts a story in which a Muslim holy man had told him that he who can sleep with a woman but does not commits a great sin, that his soul will be destroyed and he will be cast into hell regardless of other good deeds. What else are men here for, does a desire for sex not follow from our nature? God will forgive all sins, but that sin he will not forgive.

Zorba lusts for travelling, woman and new adventures, which can be taken up once his ‘wings’ grow, that is, when money comes into his hands. He sees it as a means to the ends that will allow him to live. That, after all, is the only rightful use of money, treating it as paper that needs to be earned in order to do what you want to, to have freedom to go wherever you like, see whatever you hope to see. Though he would like to be somewhere away from the mine, he is nevertheless one with his task of scattering the earth. He leads the men and taken up by his work, completely absorbed by it, he pays no attention to what is going on around him. He is riveted to the pick and by extension the rock he is reshaping. Whatever he does fills his attention and he loses himself in it, lives the experience with his whole being.

The writer, through his manuscript on the Buddha, has come to believe in renunciation, in denying the desires of the flesh in order to further the soul’s development. Yet, he fights against his lust for the woman and finds this battle interminable, he beats his desire back only to find it return just as strong as before. He sees this temptation as inciting him to depravity, to a life of the flesh at the expense of the soul. Zorba, divining this, tells him that life passes in a flash, but that everything is simple in this world, should he not complicate things. He maintains that God would be much more pleased if he went to the woman.

The narrator tells himself that the life he is leading brings him happiness, that living far away from men, doing things in solitude, is what he wants. But he realises he is dissembling, that in his heart of hearts he is unhappy. He feels his life slipping away, another year is passing and he has nothing to show for it. He begins to think over his life, to ask himself what he has done with it. His realisation as the new year comes in is that it is a mortal sin to violate the laws of nature. It should not be rushed or slowed, instead we must obey the eternal rhythm.

He asks himself who the first person he sees in the new year might be. To his surprise it is the woman he likes, who smiles at him and leaves her gate open for him to follow. Yet he hesitates, says to himself that a man would go after her, that his father and sons would, but not him.

The moment the chance passes he feels he has committed a mortal sin. He is angry at himself and when Zorba jokingly asks him what the books tell him about woman he blasts them. Perhaps he recognises that he has avoided direct contact with woman through books, has grown to fear what he has never tried to understand in reality. That he is afraid of them and can only bring himself to deal with their likeness in stories. But he is disillusioned by this and reproaches himself for not having had the courage to take that step, to wordlessly jump into action, without weighing things up.

In Zorba he sees one with everything he needs in life, who has his fill of food, drink and woman. This man is at one with the universe, never for a moment out of touch with life. He adapts to the world around him and his soul and body form a harmonious whole, while everything blends into his flesh. Indeed, the older he grows the younger he feels and he even complains that the world has grown too small for him. 

The narrator picks up a book of poetry which he enjoys, having read it many times before, but throws it down in disgust. He now finds it bloodless, tasteless, devoid of any human substance, without life. He asks himself how it could have been so interesting to him previously, this game of words without even a drop of blood. The human element is impure and sublimating it into an abstract idea, putting it into words, can only mean that it rarefies and evaporates.

Buddha is the last man who had a ‘pure’ soul, empty of illusions and fear, reduced to spirit. He preached renunciation of the body and heart, emptied himself so that within him there remained only a void. There is no blood left and no seed within him, only his spirit remains, denying the body freedom to throw itself into the world. He is conscious of a life and death struggle against this great NO that was consuming his heart, a battle upon which the salvation of his soul depended. Meanwhile he had never lived, had not loved enough. He was at the beginning and Buddha had come to him too soon. There was nothing to renounce, he had never paid his body any heed.

On the other hand, he notices that his companion sees everything as if for the first time. He is mindful of his experience and is never thinking of anything else when something attracts his attention. Everyday, he sees a new world before his eyes, an intense vision breaking upon him. He lived the earth, water and animals without the distorting intervention of reason. The writer is being consumed by the desire to touch as much of the world as possible but has not done so precisely because he is reasonable, he thinks too much while Zorba acts. He is passive when only action will mean he is alive, there is no other salvation.

While away Zorba writes a letter in which he talks about his reflections on life. He realises that he is not in this world to be like an animal that only lives to eat, so to rise above them he works day and night in order to be a man. Yet, even as a man he is uninterested by what other people hold sacred. Other people reflect hard on the vanity of things, but he does not care to reflect. The events of his time are of no consequence, news and gossip bore him, it is all the same to him what happens.

Whether the Greeks sack Constantinople or the Turks conquer Athens amount to the same thing. If he ends up in heaven or hell, whether God or the Devil take him, is a matter of indifference. It does not matter what his work is, or if he has a woman, the only thing that makes any difference is whether he is alive or dead. After all, he is going to die, become nothing, but until he does there remain opportunities for adventure.

 It is for this reason that he fears old age, has dissembled in order to avoid feeling it closing on him. He would like to carry on in freedom and hates the idea that he may in the future no longer be able to do what he would like to. He would prefer a swift death at the exact time that he lost his freedom, at the moment his body began to lose its strength for good.  He has a devil inside him which does not want to grow old, that never will, which he calls Zorba. The writer is like him, he says, he has his own devil but does not know his name yet.

While most people live life with brakes on Zorba has thrown his aside and careers in whichever direction it takes him. He is not afraid of a jolt, or of crashing at full speed.  What does he have to lose? Nothing. Even if he takes it easy like everyone else he will end up just the same. Another lost soul that forgot to live. Onward then, come what may. Adventures are good for him, he feels younger and is revived through his exertions so that he becomes 20 again. A girl calls him ‘Grandad’ and he is bothered by it but does not let her see it. He buys her a drink and is burning up with passion but remains cold on the outside. She responds to this and he wakes up the next day with the ‘female of the species’ beside him in bed, which is for him what paradise will be like.

The writer paints a picture of the man writing the letter, who goes straight to the substance of life and is urged on irresistibly by a desire he cannot satisfy. He lives deeply because he must. Like the great philosophers he is dominated by the problems of mankind. He lives them like they were necessities and is filled with wonder at the world around him so that, like a child, he is seeing everything for the first time. It all seems miraculous to him, the sea, the earth, trees, people and animals.

Zorba is fascinated by the world around him and is devoted to it, while the writer fails to appreciate what surrounds him. Leave your books alone, he says, man is a wild beast and wild beasts don’t read books. Aren’t you ashamed? In his turn the writer sees in Zorba the embodiment of the abstract ideas that have been impinging on his consciousness, which incite him to live. In this man, this warm body teeming with life, is the answer to his call for an understanding of a life of action. A life lived.

The narrator’s exorcism of Buddha grows calmer and he becomes sure of deliverance. All the same, he feels that he is not warmly involved in human interaction. Others feel their neighbours happiness and suffering deeply while he alone is impotent and rational, does not love or hate with passion. He feels apart from them because his blood does not boil, so far he has pathetically left things to fate, has reasoned while others have allowed themselves to feel what they will and express it. He admires their passion, the rage they have when something bad happens, the sorrow they drown out, the sadness expressed silently. Life is hard. Even the luckiest life is hard. But troubles are made for young men.

The eternal vain, stupid questions; Why? What for? come to poison your heart. To pay them attention at the cost of acting will fill you with bitterness. The terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here, sounds within him. In eternity no other chance will be given to us. A mind hearing this pitiless warning would decide to conquer its weaknesses, its laziness and cling with all its power to every second that flies away for ever. Great examples come to mind and you see clearly that you are a lost soul, that your life is being frittered away on petty pleasures and pain, on trifling talk.

Religion fills him with aesthetic pleasure rather than mystic fervour, it has become art for him. In his youth he had rebelled against the child in him that seeked the mysterious, the divine. Once he had been told a story about a child that had fallen into a well and had seen a marvellous city, filled with all the riches that could be desired, the result of magic. He went home to look into his own well and imagined that he could see it there too. With his feet off the ground he readied himself to jump into the water only to be saved by his mother at the last minute.

 As a child he almost fell into a well. When grown up, he nearly falls into the word ‘eternity’. He had thought about it with closed eyes and arms apart, wanting to throw himself into it. Now he realises that, far from a mystery, eternity is each minute that passes. He had conquered many words, ‘God’, ‘Country’, ‘Love’ and ‘Hope’ and each time he felt he had escaped danger and made some progress. But he was only changing words and calling it deliverance. For the last two years he had been hanging over the edge of the word ‘Buddha’. Yet he is sure that this will be the last well of all, the last word-precipice, after which he will be delivered for ever, Zorba be praised. All that life offers him is met with passion and eternity is confined to its limits.

Zorba returns and the narrator hides his excitement at the reunion marked by the playing of his santuri and a song that had changed his life, or showed he was right. ‘Once you’ve made up your mind, no use lagging behind, go ahead and no relenting. Let your youth have free rein, it won’t come again, so be bold and no repenting. Courage! In God’s name! Venture, Come what may! If you don’t lose you’re bound to win the day!’. Their cares were scattered, petty troubles vanished, big and small worries faded into the air. The workers hear the song and dance around the fire into the night.

The narrator reads about a great ascetic who trains his students in his way of life by teaching them to forego attachment to the body. They submerge themselves in cold water seven times in succession. Following this, they climb a mountain peak in the cold, naked to their waist. The master tells them that their happiness should be found in themselves, that they should have no interest in pleasing others, that this life and the next are but one. Woe to all those who think otherwise.  He thinks he must free himself of all these phantoms, Buddhas, Gods, Motherlands, Ideas. Woe to he who cannot.

Having once imagined an intellectual community where talented artists, poets, writers and musicians all came together to exchange ideas and bring forward progress, he now feels the naivety of the desire of his youth, for they would all be buried there, passing the time writing away day and night, neglecting the world. In Zorba’s words, he would be frittering away his life with a whole lot of nonsense. Life is about enjoying yourself and it must be lived to the fullest.

They travel to a monastery in order to have papers signed for the work they are doing in the mine. The monks there ask for news of the world they have never returned to, some are interested in king and country, others in women. Zorba dislikes them, if they wanted to know about what was happening they should go back. If they wanted something they had to go after it, not deny that to themselves. That is how men free themselves, by stuffing themselves till they burst and no longer want it, not by turning ascetic.  To get the better of a devil we have to turn into a devil and a half. To overcome our desire for something we have to consume it till we no longer want it.

The bishop offers a theory about eternity in which it is possible to experience it in our ephemeral lives. However, our worries lead us astray. A select few, the flower of humanity, find eternity in their transitory lives. Those who do not are saved by God through religion. His mercy gave the crowd a chance to find eternity in the next life. Zorba finds the monks insufferable, seeing in them an empty resignation which they regret. They all want something but do not come down into the world to purge themselves.

Zorba cares deeply for the female of the species, a tear from a woman could drown him. His experiences with them have taught him much and he wishes to help them to be happy, or to console those who cannot be. He has reverence for the rascally God whose conquests were far and wide because he appeared to women in whichever guise they wanted and made love to them for their own sake. Zeus is for him a great martyr who was sorry for them, who sacrificed himself for women because he understood them. Meanwhile, the narrator swallowed everything he read in books without thinking about the people writing them. What do they know about women? Not the first thing. What could they possibly know about life? All those who actually live the mysteries of life have no time to write and all those who have the time don’t live them.

He had fought in wars for his country, plundered the Turks and killed the Bulgars. He bears cuts and bullet wounds all over the front of his body while his back remains unmarked, he had always faced danger head on. Presently, he is ashamed of having cared for nations, and sees no difference between Greeks and the rest of the world. Now he asks whether they are good and bad but no, this is inconsequential too, he has pity for both. Each man has his own devil and God, and will end up worm food just the same as everyone else. We’re all brothers. Poor devils destined to lie six foot deep. So long as there are countries, races and religions, man will stay like a ferocious animal.

At the sight of spring he rises up half-naked and runs out onto the beach to look for the signs that betray the season. He dances and rolls around in the grass as if he is seeing it all for the first time. That miracle, that moving blue, what do they call it? That green apron enveloping the land, what is its name? Who is the artist that did it? ‘There’s magic behind all that, boss.’ Basking in the sun’s warmth and the calm of nature, they feel that the body and soul are kneaded from the same material. The need to live life to the fullest is again expressed, doing things by halves is the reason the world is in the mess it is in today. God hates a half-devil ten times more than he hates an arch-devil. Zorba throws himself into life and is completely absorbed by his work, by whatever it is he resolves to do. He is happy because his life is full.

The narrator is impressed by the power of nature and notices how carefree  animals and humans like Zorba, who simply live by its dictates, doing what it compels them to do, are. That’s the road to take, find the eternal rhythm and follow it with absolute trust. The resurrection of Christ means little to Zorba. Nevertheless, he sees food as being resurrected as Zorba and channelled into dancing, sex or work. If he eats an animal he feels sorry for it, that he must do something to account for its sacrifice so that, through him, it becomes energy and is not wasted so that it fizzles into nothing. The food becomes Zorba so he cannot sit around or sleep, because it would then be lost on him and he would show himself to be ungrateful. Therefore, he goes out after the sound of music and dancing and tries to persuade the narrator to join him. If he were young he would throw himself headlong into everything, work, love, and he would fear neither God nor Devil. That is what youth is for.

He then goes off into the village. The narrator watches him go and his own body persuades him to go somewhere himself, without his mind coming to a decision. He finds himself at the woman’s house and repeats his companions words to gain courage and stays with her for the night. The next day his body is relaxed and his mind is at ease, as if he has solved the problems it has posed. He felt like an animal after the hunt that had caught and eaten its prey and now licked its lips with satisfaction. He became sure that the soul was the body and vice versa,  that caring for the one nourishes the other. He does not allow his mind to take control of this carnal joy, to make thoughts of it, but lets his body rejoice like an animal. He gazes around and within himself at the miracle of life, at the way our bodies perfectly fit within nature.

He then finishes his manuscript so he can be rid of the Buddha within him, so that the exorcising power of words overcome his torment and free him from his service to the life of the mind and the ideas that prevent him living. Nevertheless, he still has a long way to go. A tragedy befalls the woman and the narrator inhumanly transposes reality, removing the blood, flesh and bones to reduce it to the abstract. He cannot allow himself to feel it deeply so anything about what happened that enters his mind is met with philosophy, surrounded with artifices that make it harmless. He is coldly rational because he is out of touch with life, beyond feeling and afraid of emotion, because the suffering would prove too much for him, so he dissembles and resigns himself to fate because he has no passion with which to oppose it. Zorba curses luck and rages against God for allowing the young to die and the old to live on. In his pain, he says that he will never forgive God. That he would be ashamed to stand before him if he was a true God because everything that happens in the world is unjust.

Zorba’s sorrow makes him ashamed. That is what a real man is like. One with warm blood who lets real tears stream down his cheeks when he is suffering, who when happy does not ruin his joy with metaphysics. He allows himself to feel whatever it is deeply, with passion that cannot be extinguished until it expresses itself fully. He is a real human being with a heart who will fight for those he cares for and suffer with them out of love. His happiness and his suffering are experienced passionately with his whole being. He cannot help but feel everything deeply because he opens himself to life, allows it in without resistance, so that whatever happens affects him greatly. Life then reaches its fullest expression in him, it flows into him effortlessly and he responds to it passionately.

After his own mistress dies Zorba is grief stricken and asks the narrator why people die, but he replies that he does not know. This exasperates him, ‘what’s the point of all those books you read, if they don’t tell you that what do they tell you.’ The perplexity of mankind? ‘Damn their perplexity. I want you to tell me where we came from, where we’re going. You must have read 50 tons of paper over the years, what did you get out of them?’ He cannot answer him.

All he can proffer him is a new thought occasioned by the sombre presence of death. Humans feel sacred awe at our place in the universe, the earth is a small leaf on a tremendous tree whose other leaves are the stars. Some men reach the edge of the leaf and look out over its precipice, gazing into chaos. We imagine the frightening abyss before us and tremble. The great danger comes after this realisation that we are insignificant, some grow dizzy, others grow afraid and try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say ‘God’. Others look at the void calmly and welcome it, resigning themselves to necessity. Zorba cannot agree to this, he is unafraid of death but does not welcome it, will never offer his neck to Charon like a sheep ready for slaughter.

Silence reigns between them because of their grief and the eternal, vain questions force themselves on the narrator again. What is this world, what is it aiming at? The aim of man and matter is to create joy according to Zorba. But with what? Is there a soul that remains after the body, or is this desire for immortality born not from the fact that we are immortal but that during the short span of our lives we are in the service of something immortal, subject to nature itself.

Zorba finally breaks the silence, saying that every time he suffers it cracks his heart in two, that it is all scarred and riddled with wounds already, but sticks togetherso they can’t be seen. He can stand so much only because he is covered in healed wounds. Now, he has stopped thinking all the time about what happened yesterday and no longer asks himself what is going to happen tomorrow. What’s happening today, this minute, is all he cares about. What is he doing at the moment? If he’s sleeping, he should sleep well. If working, he works well. If kissing a woman, he kisses her well. He forgets everything while he is doing it, the rest of the world falls away and nothing else matters, it is only him and her. So he gets on with it.

Without the devil in us we would be empty so Zorba lets his demons do whatever they like such that some call him honest and others dishonest, some think him wise while others are convinced he’s crazy. Yet he’s all those things and more because he listens to his desires and follows them with passion, because living is for him an impulse. The narrator thinks about Zorba’s words which are rich in meaning and had a warm earthy smell. They came from the depths of his being and had a human warmth. Meanwhile, his words were made of paper. They came down from his head and were scarcely splashed with a spot of blood. If they had any value at all it was to that mere spot of blood that they owed it.

Luck is blind, it can’t see where it’s going and runs into the people who we call lucky.  Zorba doesn’t want it if it’s like that. He’ll take his own chances. This is his response to the pulley from the mine failing catastrophically. The narrator ends up losing everything, his money, his workers, but he still has what he sees as an unjustifiable happiness. In the labyrinth of necessity he had found liberty playing in the corner, and had played with her. When everything goes wrong, it can be a joy to test your soul to see if it has courage. An invisible enemy which some call the Devil, others God seems to rush upon us to destroy us, but we are not destroyed. Each time that we master ourselves though we remain externally defeated, we feel outward calamity turn into an unshakeable felicity. Men should behave toward blind but powerful necessity with boldness, addressing it with defiance ‘You won’t put my fire out, you won’t tip me over!’. After all, we should not wish for an easy life but the courage to endure a hard one.

Whatever the circumstances, however dire they may be, happiness is doing your duty and the harder the duty the greater the happiness. That duty is to live. Indeed, the soul of the first men on earth, before it became detached from the universe, felt the truth directly, without the distorting influence of reason. That is, our instincts have been finely tuned to respond appropriately to certain experiences, to understand signs around us and react to them in ways that will benefit us. Consequently, what we immediately feel inclined to do, our first impulse, is usually the right course. If we see a girl and would like to talk to her it is our nature that is telling us to, for we are social animals wired for human interaction. Reason comes in the way of this truth.

With reason we think we are fortifying ourselves against the unknown, erecting an impassable barrier around our existence. We imagine we can give security and order to our lives. This second line of defence holds in check the great certainty of our deaths which now and then penetrates the outer walls of our soul. Yet calming ourselves in this way means that our petty certainties go unchallenged. That we go from day to day as normal, doing the same things again and again, following a routine so that we become comfortable with everyday reality. But only by confronting the great certainty without the help of reason, feeling it coming toward us every moment, can we be struck by how our life is running away from us every second, never to return. Only then will we take it seriously and throw ourselves into living life to the fullest. Only when we feel deeply that death is coming for us all will we be convinced of the necessity to do everything we want to do before it finds us.

The narrator claims he is free and Zorba tells him he is not, that he is tied to a string that he must cut in two first. His string is perhaps longer than others and he can come and go but until he severs it he will never be free. To cut it means risking everything but because he has such a strong mind this is difficult for him. It always keeps account, never risks it all, but keeps something in reserve. It hangs on tight to the string, if it lets go, the head is finished. But if a man fails to break the string, there is no flavour in life. Any potential action is pre-empted by the mind, barred for fear of risking anything at all so that nothing is allowed to happen.

Reason will never break the string. A man can lack nothing but he needs folly to cut the string, to free himself. Otherwise, being reasonable, he sets limits on his impulses and desires, grows calmer, loses his passion for fear of opening himself up to the world. He cannot obey the savage clamour within him, does no insensate, noble act in keeping with his nature, if he listens to the moderating voice of logic.

Zorba, in his own words, has done heaps and heaps of things in his life, but still did not do enough. Men like him ought to live a thousand years. One cannot help but agree. His mindfulness of life is never affected by the restrictive powers of reason because it goes beyond him into the world. He focuses all his attention on what surrounds him and consequently has no time to stop and think. He devours life like it is a feast, never putting off until tomorrow what he could do today. Rather, he is filled with a zest for life that compels him to act without delay, to passionately go on living so that he can experience as much as is humanly possible before the great certainty.


The Belvedere

The ‘World’s Most Livable City’ was as one would expect; the striking architecture, regal palaces and amenities lend a beauty to Vienna that few other cities could hope even to compete with. Marry this with the compact proximity of the most notable monuments, almost all of which are clustered around the city centre, and it also becomes one whose defining features are within reach.

The first night there I visited Stephansdom, the church that is arguably the most famous monument throughout Austria. St. Stephen’s cathedral is a beloved landmark that has been around since the 12th century, and it represents one of the finest examples of the gothic mode of architecture. Though it was damaged by bombing in WW2, its restoration was successful, and presently it has become a symbol of hope, a testament to the country’s ability to come back from the ruins of conflict.


The next day I sought out the Belvedere, a baroque palace built for a Prince with ties to the Habsburg monarchy, the rulers of Austria. Eugene of Savoy had recently completed a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign which ended successfully. The proceeds from his victories were channeled into the development of the complex, which has been around since the start of the 18th century, and is now open for public view. As such, housed in lower Belvedere is a musuem whose chief attraction is ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt, the artist at the head of the secessionist movement, but more about that later. I am not overly fond of art, but I appreciate masterworks all the same. If only for what it represents, the expression of an emotion present in us all, this is one.

‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt

As for the palace itself it was divided into upper and lower Belvedere, in their time the former had been the orangery while the latter had constituted the palace stables. These were on either side of the well kept gardens lined with shrubs and fountains among other things. The extent of the garden verged on superfluity and led one to question what you could actually do with it all. Tourists walked about in their droves, caps and hats on under the sun, and yet all of them still failed to take up any meaningful amount of space in the expanse of that path. It was unnecessary, but definitely a nice problem to have. In truth, I found it charming and it must have seemed that way to many over the centuries. I suppose it appealed to me so much I wanted it for myself but no matter, as with everything we want it would have bored me after a while. It must have been the same to those that lived here, it likely became commonplace to them. We lust over it only because it is beyond our experience to live in a place like it and human nature wants what it can’t have. It’s all a matter of what you’re used to.

View of the garden from the terrace of Upper Belvedere

Karschirche, St. Charles church, was built in the wake of the plague epidemic by those who survived to show gratitude toward providence. While many lives had been lost, they felt they had been shown mercy. As such, they named it after the patron saint of the fight against the plague who they felt had interceded on their behalf. After a competition between architects that wanted to build it was won by Johann Fischer von Erlach, the man who set forth the inital plans for Schonbrunn Palace, construction was completed over two decades later, though the finishing touches were applied by his son after his death. The baroque masterpiece complete with a dome and roman columns, which apparently represented the saints qualities of steadfastness and courage, was finished in 1737. Outside were statues of angels while inside various paintings were placed across the walls and a cupola with frescoes was above.


The Secession building was built by artists that rebelled against the fine art institutions of Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. Gustav Klimt was at their helm and sought to encourage artistic independence in a time when he saw mediocrity on display. ‘Radicalism’ was then to champion only the very best and most worthy artworks, rather than the ones painted by those best known. Artistic freedom was for him necessary in the creation of masterpieces, but the critics in place placed constraints on what could be done and preferred certain styles over others. As a result, Klimt broke from the recognised institutions and set up his own exhibit, where art could find free expression. As such, inscripted on the prologue to an exhibition here were the words ‘To each era its art, To art its freedom’.

Secession Building

The National history museum of Austria, called the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was the last item on the itinerary for the day. Perhaps as a result, there was less time to take it all in than I would have liked. In the end I managed to see just about everything, but so briefly that I could almost be said not to have seen anything at all. I was in such a rush walking around the many exhibitions that I rarely stopped in one place for more than a few minutes. When I did I quickly read the descriptions of whatever it was I was neglecting to really look at. I took pictures though and I suppose that accounts for my inability to remember what I never saw. The relics of the past surrounding me reminded me that no matter how long ago they were made the course of history extends far beyond our experience as a race, so that all our memories cover no space of time in the grand scheme of existence. That’s what I like most about museums; they set into perspective how insignificant we really are and leave us in awe of the fact so that, realising nothing matters, that therefore nothing is in our way, we can begin to make our marks on history, if only our own.

Schloss Schonbrunn was built as a summer residence for the Habsburg family and is among the most historic monuments in the country, having consistently been a popular attraction for tourists since it was opened to the public in the 1950s. At the cafe I treated myself to some red wine whose effects wore off too quickly for my liking. While the various rooms of the palace were crowded with people on guided tours, and therefore oppressive, the interior was easy on the eye. Despite this, the rooms themselves were relatively dull when held up to the palace gardens, which were brimming with life that was variegated and in bloom. A great deal of plants and flowers populated the lawns and the red and white ones were arranged in such a way that various streaks across the grass were made to resemble the Austrian flag.

Schloss Schonbrunn

Hundertwasserhaus was created by the artist to celebrate nature and encourage us to live in line with it, rather than ignore our roots. The aim of the house is then to help us rediscover the longing we have for a life in harmony with nature, of which we are inextricably part. Though we have evolved and gradually mastered our environment so that we can live away from nature, it is still important for our wellbeing. Merely seeing a plant can calm us down because of what the same sight had meant to our ancestors; signs of life and therefore sustenance. When it comes down to it we remain animals, and no amount of metropolitan living will undo our attachment to nature. Returning to it then keeps us from dissembling, from lying to ourselves about that need. The concrete jungles we live in, filled with moving metal, are alien to our primitive consciousness and absurd in the light of our species experiences till now, while nature will forever make sense. Perhaps that is why we are so depressed, we run away from what we are used to in order to surround ourselves with lifeless objects that do nothing for us, corporate jobs that keep us in debt, and grey buildings in which we while away the best part of our lives. Ironically, we reject our needs for green paper whose origin is the very thing we are missing.


The Hofburg was the main imperial palace in Vienna when the Habsburgs had been in rule and is now the workplace and residence of the President of Austria. It was first opened in 1279 and has since undergone many developments and expansions. Consequently, the grand complex of buildings presently takes up a substantial area of the city centre. The growth of the dynasty had meant successive emperors added to their content. Swiss gates near the entrance are a nod to the guards employed by the monarchs in the 18th century. The Austrian national library housed here possesses historic manuscripts of inestimable worth. The parks surrounding the palace, called the Burggarten and Volksgarten, are now where parts of the palace had previously stood before Napoleonic troops blew them to pieces. Though malice had been intended and enacted, that destruction nevertheless led to beautiful public gardens now.

The Hofburg

The hidden gem in this lively city was Prater, a colourful fairground that could satisfy any adrenaline junkie. One of the more extreme rides teased you by slowly rising to the top and coming to a standstill for a while when it reached there, in order to make the sudden dramatic drop that much more pronounced. The feeling as it plummeted was almost beyond expression; your body just does not have the time to adjust, it is filled with so much adrenaline that you are robbed of the time to think and understand what is happening over those few seconds of intense sensory experience. It is fear in its purest form so why the feeling of excitement? We detest fear, yet run toward it when we see pretty lights. Predictably, this contradiction has explanation in nature. Our primal selves are unused to a peaceful environment in which we are rarely at risk. We then seek out thrilling experiences precisely because these rides offer us controlled fear, an adrenaline rush without our being in danger, which puts us in mind of our past. Paradoxically, these metal cages spiralling around steel beams, which if we are being logical it makes no sense to strap ourselves into, are loved by us because our natures are still used to a more chaotic life, where the physical sensations of fear were familiar. As such we look to regulate it so that we can fully live out the emotion of fear, which we experience in a less obvious way in modern society. Unsuprisingly, this thrill-seeking is a uniquely human phenomenon. Perhaps facing our fear satisfies us because that sense of control, though illusory, gives us a hold on an emotion prone to running riot in a world that has changed rapidly, while in a biological sense we have lagged behind.


Vienna deserves its reputation as one of the most affluent and livable cities. The transport in general presented no problems and once you got to the centre of the city there was no shortage of things to do. The vast expenditure of those in power in the past has meant that the city is the epitome of decadence. The grandeur of the capital and the opulence betrayed by its many regal buildings make it unforgettable. You would do well to imagine a place more beautiful.


Brandenburg Gate

It was to be my first time in Germany and the only reasonable place to start was Berlin, the capital where so much had come to pass, where history had been made time and again. Symbols of this illustrious past were scattered across the place and one felt the significance of each in the life of this great city. Chief among these was the Brandenburg gate, which stood to represent peace and unity not just in this city but throughout Germany itself. During the cold war it had represented disunity and was closed with east and west either side of it, allowing none to pass. Once Germany had reunified it took on a new meaning and came instead to symbolise this union.

Another building synonymous with Germany is the Reichstag, the national parliament where the decree to wage WW2 was passed. Perhaps as a result, this iconic edifice has been the target of bombing and arson across the last century. A dome overlooking the city has been built into it but viewing this had required booking in advance so I elected to visit other notable monuments instead.


Among these was the Berliner Dom, a cathedral church that assumes a baroque style and is the largest of any kind across Berlin, easily towering above 100m. It is located on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island, where many world famous Museums can be found. Of these the Altes, Neues and Pergamon museums most stand out. The Altes showcases Ancient Greek and Roman culture, the Neues sheds light on Prehistoric and Protohistoric life, while the Pergamon displays Persian and Babylonian exhibits. Of these the Ishtar Gate, which used to lead into the city of Babylon, is perhaps the most striking. Here it leads into the Persian exhibit but many had passed through it into that famous city.

Berliner Dom
Ishtar Gate

The Zoologister Garten claims to have the most species of any zoo throughout Europe. It was easily one of the largest I have been to though it was perhaps more impressive for its design than for the animals themselves, half of which were inside and out of sight. Nonetheless it was interesting to see those that were on display, though the thought that people controlled the lives of these creatures bothered me a little, if only for the contradiction. Our cousins especially made me think, those apes that are unfathomably stronger than us yet remain subjugated to our intellect. What power are we really justified in holding over them? Put us in the enclosure with one and that would be it for us. Our intelligence only helps because it shows us how to avoid them, to keep them at a distance. Thinking on this and having walked around the path to my content, I went to the aquarium but only succeeded in reaching it a minute past closing time.

I left shortly after to go back to my hotel by the river, and strolled along it, taking in the view. Situated at intervals across the river were bridges under which boats were travelling intermittently. Around the river bed were foliage and trees populated the other side of the river, obscuring the city beyond. Near my hotel was a building the precise purpose of which I remain ignorant. An indication as to what it was may have been provided by the unfurled flags stood up outside. Besides the German flag was the familiar symbol of the European union that has become even more pertinent in recent times, especially for those of us from the UK, of which I am numbered.

It is regrettable that imaginary lines should be drawn between places so that walls can be taken to exist. For my part, I see no point in divorcing from the EU beyond the satiation of the fragile egos of nationalists, who are fundamentally the same as racists in their us-versus-them mentality. Of course, pride in a nation is the only recourse for those without their own achievements, who need to identify with something without to overcome this inward lack. Their insistence on defending the faults of their country, to vote for an independence that is empty, is all that is left to them. Taken to the extreme this feeling of being the better group leads to genocide, a lesson that has seemingly not been learned from this country’s past. Thinking about the needless division that was to come, I realised the mistake had not been made yet. That, for now, the whole of Europe remained open to me without my being an ‘outsider’. This bittersweet revelation was my consolation.

The next day I visited Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque palace commisioned to be built by the wife of the elector of the district around the 18th Century, and after whom it was named. Beyond it was the palace gardens and an even more extensive park with rivers. There was also a lake by the way, with a path one could walk alongside it by. The views I was afforded across the lake were striking and walking around the place I found even better vantage points on bridges over the rivers intersecting the park. I explored the palaces garden as far as I could and was impressed by the many imperious buildings dotted about the place. To think this used to be someone’s summer residence seemed absurd, but reality often is.

Schloss Charlottenburg

Soon, I found myself walking down Unter den Linden, the main road of Berlin, which literally translates as ‘under the linden trees’. Along it were many notable monuments and buildings worth seeing. Among these was a sculpture of Frederick the Great, the king that had overseen the development of this boulevard so that it became what it is today. Also along the road was Humboldt University, named after Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher that specialised in linguistics. It is the oldest and most highly regarded university in all of Germany. A war memorial to all the victims of war also stood out and, though it was erected as far back as 1816, it nevertheless foreshadowed what came in the last century.

Though the world wars will always put people in mind of Germany, more recently the division within the country was a topic of great interest to the rest of the world. The separation of East and West Germany finally came to an end in 1990, though not without struggle. The Berlin Wall then stands as a reminder of a unity that was hard to come by. The public were invited to paint across it with the result being a variety of murals relating to ideas of freedom, solidarity and peace. There is such a wide range of these, some more meaningful than others, that you are compelled to recognise that this is a city that is now united, and which will continue to have influence in the future, now that they have understood their past. With this in mind I thought seeking out the new Germany would be a suitable note on which to end the trip.

Postdamer Platz is known for the architectural marvels. The skyscrapers are perhaps the best example of what modern Berlin is like. The Sony centre, a massive, spiralling dome has one of the most celebrated and unique designs of any building in all of Germany. By day it is filled with people visiting its many restaurants and cafes. At night it lights up in a range of colours, becoming visible from a distance in its luminence.

Skyscrapers on Postdamer Platz

Berlin continues to hold a lasting fascination for many people, by some for its history, but more and more for what it presently conveys. Being the capital and the location of the country’s parliament it represents a hotseat of discourse for wider Germany and even Europe. It is then a major and lively city filled with affable people seemingly obsessed with cycling, some of the best beer around, and museums that celebrate the history of the world.



The first thing that struck me as I walked down the steps from my plane and looked around was the sheer beauty of the place. From the ground you could see an idyllic landscape teaming with hills surrounded by a vast expanse of greenery. As yet the city itself was not in sight. The sun was beating down and I already felt lighter in the fresh air. As I made my way through the airport I was quite disappointed not to have my passport stamped; it seemed to make my trip less official. The lack of ink would seem trivial to most but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. I wanted to fill up my new passport and this wasn’t a great start; in fact it wasn’t one – it remains empty. Sometimes having been to a place isn’t enough and we need proof of our experience to really feel it was meaningful, in order to look back on it with some sense of achievement. We feel each stamp adds value to a passport, that they give weight to it. Nevertheless, I made my way to the hotel, asking locals for directions when I was unsure about how to navigate my way through the city. Annoyingly, I usually asked when I was at the place I was trying to reach or near enough to it that they could point and perhaps wonder whether I was joking. This happened more times than I care to admit over my stay in Greece. All the same, it was one of the best experiences of my life. If ever my sense of direction failed me I found myself down some charming street or in view of a monument I hadn’t planned on seeing. In the end I walked a greater distance than I normally would over a month and did so gladly.

My first evening there was spent at the national museum where historically significant sculptures were housed. The most striking of these were the kourai, idealised youths with superhuman musculature and size. Some were armless or heavily damaged but they remained imposing. The statues of the Greek pantheon were scattered around the place and helped to give life to the myths that are so deeply entwined with the country’s culture.

That night I went to a restaurant recommended to me by the hotel. It overlooked a church, lit up from each angle by street-lamps. I was sat down at the table I chose and the waiter genially wrapped an arm around me and asked me what I wanted. Once I had decided I was surprised I didn’t need to produce my wallet. In Greece it is customary for diners to pay after eating. Call me cynical but in London I imagine this trust would be betrayed more often, though it was once exploited here. On that occasion a man that was unwell was sat on a table next to me. He had a nervous tic and from time to time he would get up and walk over to the nearby wall which he perched himself on, looking about as if talking to an invisible man. You could tell he would neglect to pay, not out of ill-will, but simply because he was out of touch with what was around him. He ate with almost childlike attentiveness, bending all the way down to his plate and slowly, carefully, cutting apart his meal. After finishing, he wandered over to the till to pay, correctly sensing that this was the place he had to go, but finding himself in a line he looked around awkwardly. A waiter saw him and gestured that he would get to him soon but not seeing this the man left, leaving the waiter frustrated he couldn’t go after him; he was otherwise occupied. The waiters then angrily cleared his table, complaining to each other about the man, their frustration in part due to their own feeling he would not pay, which they had failed to explore in time.

This brought to mind the economic crisis in Greece which had meant it remained in recession for nearly a decade, with many unemployed. Though this man perhaps could have paid for the meal, others could barely afford shelter. The influx of migrants could also not really be accommodated and many came here to be homeless. Poverty can be found in any major city but here it was less concealed. I once saw a man foraging through rubbish and he didn’t seem to notice me; it was of no consequence if anyone should see, but rather a matter of necessity for him. I understood perfectly well, survival took precedence over what people might say.

On my first full day there I thought it best to seek out the main sites, so that I could later explore as many places as I could without feeling like there was something important I had left undone. This meant a walk to the centre of Athens, where the Agora and Acropolis were to be found. In the city I was sometimes mistaken for a local and spoken to in Greek, with the only possible result being my saying ‘I don’t understand’ more times than I felt was respectable. I was slightly ashamed at this. Many of us go to other countries expecting the people to speak our language, not because it’s right that they should but because its convenient. Then when foreigners come to our country we look at them uncomprehendingly when they dare to ask us something in their native tongue. I realised I was part of that problem and looked up how to say ‘Hello’ so that I knew at least one word. I forgot it within an hour.

Arriving at the foot of the path toward the Acropolis I began to make my way up and soon enough I had reached the Propylaia, the grand entrance to the archaic temples at the hill’s summit. Once there I could understand why the Parthenon had been championed as one of the greatest feats of architecture of all time. It stood high and impressive, having remained virtually intact in all the intervening years since. Even today there is nothing comparable to it. It was bittersweet to consider that there may never be.

Theatre of Dionysus

Later walking through the Agora I couldn’t help but imagine what the marketplace would have been like during the golden age of Athens. The streets would have been filled with a lively bustle and at certain points in history will have been populated by some of the greatest minds to have wandered the earth. Here Socrates had debated with locals, St Paul made his speeches and democracy was born. Thinking about that public rushing around what was their home I wondered whether they could have anticipated that milennia later people would be roaming around for leisure. Having envisioned the agora alive with people presently I regarded it with vague unease. What had remained of them? The finds collected at the Stoa of Attalos cast some light on their lives but much was left to conjecture and they themselves had faded into obscurity, forever lost to their time.

Those that escaped oblivion to be remembered as heroes were buried at the edge of the ancient city, at Kerameikos. The outer walls that had surrounded Athens were now long gone, but they had ran through here. At Dipylon, the largest entrance to Athens in Ancient Greece, many arrivals and departures were marked. This was where warriors had returned to Athens and received a hero’s welcome, though some were not so lucky; many warrior’s tombs lie here alongside other notable people. The presence of death lent a sombre air to the place but this was not so oppressive as one might expect. Some tombs depicted those perished as being alive and with their families, with others celebrated by monuments.

After a day of almost uninterrupted walking I allowed myself a drink at a charming rooftop bar overseeing the Acropolis, whose crowning jewel the Parthenon assumed a golden hue in the city lights. The cocktail cost more than any of the meals I had but in truth I would have paid for the view itself.

View from rooftop bar

I started the next day at the roman forum, to which the marketplace was moved under their occupation of the city. The edges of the courtyard were punctuated by roman columns and the tower of the winds, an octagonal tower whose sides each apparently represented a type of wind, stood highest. A mosque, erected during the ottoman rule of Athens, drew the eye. This in part because it cast light on the number of times that the city had changed hands.

Following this I soon found myself at philopappos hill, known as the ‘hill of muses’ and named after a syrian prince. Socrates prison, where he was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of his day, was easily recognisable and I made it my focal point. The pnyka further up had held the first democratic congress, with an area for the public cut into the hill. A monument for the hill’s namesake stood at the very top. Having explored and taken in the hilltop view I made my way back down and through the national garden.

In a short time I had another hill in my sights that I recognised. I had seen it from the Acropolis the day before. This was no suprise, the summit of lycabettus hill was the highest point of the city and was visible from anywhere in Athens. The hill itself had paths spiralling around it and I began to climb my way up, taking in the view as I did and quickening my pace out of impatience at reaching the peak in this roundabout fashion. I was suprised to have to negotiate my way through a restaurant near the top but soon after I had reached it and from here I could see the whole city in all its glory. I was on top of Athens.

Lycabettus Hilltop view

Having conquered Athens I made my way to syntagma square, the hub of the city’s transport, in order to find my way back. Along the way I saw armoured police vans and wondered whether anything was amiss, but soon found my worries were misplaced. With the task of protecting the citizens of Athens stationed at each of the metros were heavily armed police, dubbed the ‘black panthers’. This was a common occurence and thinking about my experience so far I questioned the point of it. But perhaps my reservations were even simpler; I doubt the assault rifles helped people to feel safe.

I strolled through Plaka, which was apparently the place to get souvenirs. I went to two shops and took my time in both, if only because I wanted to be certain I liked what I was getting. I didn’t know when I would come back here. At either place, the shopkeepers began to walk around me in order to rush me but this only increased my hesitation in picking things out and lengthened their wait. The old man in one shouted a lower price whenever someone expressed an interest in something, discounting it further if they were still unsure. Sensing this pattern when I picked up something I wanted I feigned suprise at the price and moved to put it back and he always gave a much lower price right before I let go, with my reaction always the same disinterested nod as I handed it to him to later wrap. In this way, I saved a considerable amount on what I thought were reasonably priced souvenirs.

On my last day I went to Glyfada beach an hour or so away from the centre of the city. First I took the metro to syntagama and from there I initially went the wrong way on the tram but quickly realised my error. Once I had reached the beach I was taken by the picturesque view of the ionian sea from its shores. The horizon was almost entirely aquamarine save for a ship in the distance. The beach itself was stunning and I strolled up and down the shoreline while the sun shone high above me, watching the waves crashing in at intervals.

Glyfada Beach

Athens is a great city in the history of the world, that no one can deny. Even today the influence it exerted in its prime is still felt. We still marvel at the works of architecture and think over the writings that were set forth from here. In fact, it is the cities intellectual history that is especially important. Plato and Aristotle have between them influenced centuries of thought. The formers Republic continues to inform politics while the latter contributed to practically every subject we now study, so that even today they are looked to for guidance. Our buildings are now much more advanced, our lives last much longer and yet we haven’t really thought up anything new to solve the problems they contended with, those of justice, morality and truth. There is nothing new under the sun. In all the centuries since we have grasped with the same age old questions they did, and have not fared much better. As a result I arrive at a sobering truth; we haven’t come as far as we tend to think.