Grashina Gabelmann

Upon Unvolutionarily Disappearing


My arrival in Athens indicated yet another fragmentation of my being as each move of mine had, though, ironically, I always have the wish to piece myself together. I left out of fear of stagnation. How I have come to understand this fear is that we are aquatic beings (Why else are our tears wet and salty?). By not being able to flow, water loses its vitality, and so it is crucial for us to move. Bachelard says that a being dedicated to water is a being in flux who dies every minute, something of its substance falling away.[1]

    I am guilty of having tried to ditch the undesirable parts of myself in the past by heading to new cities, as if placing my feet on foreign concrete would overwrite what had been written elsewhere. These undesirables, parts of our shadow self, will grant you a holiday from them momentarily but they will return, and then you're left with the challenge of reintegration. Suddenly the city is no longer a blank slate but a palimpsest showing you that all you've been you still are. I had experienced this unromantic turn of events between myself and cities many times before and so this time I had the intention of taking all parts with me when I moved to Athens, a town I had briefly lived in a couple of years before.

    The young boy who always played the accordion on the street that covers a river was still there when I returned. He was well on his way to becoming a young man with peachy fuzz and awkward pimples covering his face. I walked past, our eyes met, and we nodded at each other in acknowledgment. He had recognized me just as I had recognized him. I had wholly dedicated myself to this street with my eyes cast downwards to its details when I last spent a considerable amount of time here. Upon returning, I had to admit to myself that I didn't know how to be in other parts of the city and I didn't know what I should be dedicating myself to.

   To be without purpose in a metropolis is alienating, as one layer of the city's energetic make-up consists of the stamina its inhabitants produce as they move from one place to the next with intent. Those without purpose don't contribute to this collective energy, and that makes them both suspicious and invisible. Here I was one of them, and I began to wonder if I hadn't always been. These were the thoughts my random walks were triggering. Once, in a moment of rest, I observed a man filling plastic buckets with water, from an underground pipe that wasn't his to access, so that pigeons had a place to bathe. I didn't know if I was shifting the heaviness I felt into or out of myself by walking. Seeing flyers I couldn't read taped across the walls of the city made me think that if I were paper, I'd be origami: becoming smaller and smaller to take on different shapes. I was being melodramatic, but perhaps that too was an attempt to uncover what was not visible within me.

    The café that was my home on Fokionos Negri, the street of the accordion boy, was named after Apollo, the god of truth and healing. One afternoon a man came in and went straight for my table animately speaking in Greek. Upon noticing that I couldn't understand he switched to Italian (which I couldn't understand either) and grabbed my water bottle as a prop for his story. He placed it so that it was leaning against another object on the table and I understood enough to know that he was speaking about the Leaning Tower of Pisa as he circled his hands around his construction bursting with excitement. Within a minute his whole performance was over, and he disappeared. Another customer translated for me: around the time of the tower's construction those in charge had the wish to make it lean a little less and tried using ropes and levers to straighten it slightly, but it stopped budging before reaching the desired angle. What to do? A little boy in the crowd came up with the idea to soak the ropes in water so as to increase their weight and strength. It worked – the water moved the tower.

    Hearing this story, I remembered a Greek friend telling me: »The Germans destroyed the Acropolis but what is much worse is that the Greeks destroyed their own rivers.« There wasn't just the one, there were many, and I had forgotten this until now. How often must I have crossed waterways on my aimless strolls through Athens? Through the act of covering, the city had forced the waters and those walking on top into a game of hide and seek. I suddenly realized that what made most sense to me, after months of being numbed by the senselessness I felt while walking around, was to spend time navigating the waters as if to participate in a dialogue of solidarity with something that too was there while it wasn't.

    When I first set out to meet the hidden waters I felt an interesting sense of awkwardness. I had never navigated a city in such a constructed way but the comforting feeling of having something to engage with trumped the awkwardness. On my way to seek out the Ilissos river, which in antiquity had been considered the second main river of Athens after the Kifissos, I asked myself: who is choosing to show us what in a city?

    In 1832, after gaining independence from the Turks, the winners replaced the Ottomans with Otto, a king from Bavaria, who decided to replace Nafplion with Athens as the Hellenic capital and reinvent Athens as a modern city enveloped in its past. The young king had a fetish for antiquity, as did the rest of Europe, so that centuries of Byzantine history were quickly erased by his team of architects. Their task was to make the invisible visible again, to construct a glorious past and to fill the new capital with new ruins. This would prove to impede the city's growth, as constructing the new became a tip-toeing around the old. If one thing can't be moved another thing has to budge, and in Athens’ case, it was its rivers – covering rivers is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to gain land.

    I decided to walk down the hidden Ilissos starting from the Goudi Open Air Swimming Pool located about five kilometers east of the center. Ilissos emits from the north-western slopes of Hymettus mountain collecting rainwater from smaller streams, running to the eastern and southern parts of Athens' historical center where it joins the city's third river, Eridanos, in its route towards the Gulf of Faliro. Here the two rivers, now one, empty into the ocean.

   I walked past a house on Ilision street that looked like a big front tooth mid-way through its decaying process – but a very systematic decaying process as everything from the first to the third floor was perfectly intact while the next three stories were just gaping big holes. The owner must have run out of money. I passed black and white billboards bleached out by the sun and shredded canvases on balconies that had once functioned to keep out the light. The torn bits were being flapped around by the wind reminding me of a weather-worn flag stuck into the ice at the top of a mountain.

    The gradual covering of Ilissos and Kifissos began in the late 19th century after a devastating storm in 1897 had led to the flooding of both rivers causing death and severe damages to the city's transportation and telecommunication systems. But the floods were not a random event – they were the direct result of the municipality of Athens having exploited the river banks for several decades by collecting sand and gravel for roads which the new capital needed to fulfill its desperate urge for expansion. The rivers that had known how to be for millennia had been bugged through the disregard of humans and so a storm, which the rivers most likely could have handled if they had been left untampered, lead to floods and fatalities.

    The covering of Ilissos began three years after the flood, and so the rivers were being unjustly punished by those who had caused the trouble. They began to be regarded as foreign enemies that had to be eradicated. After Metaxas became Prime Minister of Greece in 1936, he declared a state of emergency and promised he would hold »all the power I need for saving Greece from the catastrophes which threaten her«. He ordered the further covering of Ilissos, up to the Panathenaic Stadium, declaring, to a cheering crowd: »Today we bury Ilissos!« It was as if by getting rid of this ›external danger‹the authoritarian ruler reached the status of a hero. Simultaneously, Metaxas began to ban political parties (including his own) and strikes and to restrict freedom of speech.

    The smaller streets had turned into the vast avenue of Leoforos Vasileos Konstantinou. As I walked, I felt how overwritten my interiors were. One narrative, before it is entirely played out, is covered up by another one. I move too quickly from one place to the next to keep up with myself and though this is exhausting, staying put is even more terrifying. I am aware of the luxury that comes with being able to move freely, so there's also a portion of guilt involved. I walked past a »Truth Will Arise« graffito, the Panathenaic Stadium on Ardittou Street, a shut banana themed tavern, a waterless swimming pool and an archeological site hidden behind a fence. I realized later that this had been the Basilica of Ilissos. A bit further on, the street slivered around a small bend where a large boulder suddenly appeared, interrupting the sidewalk in such a stark manner that pedestrians were forced to step onto the street and balance on the tram tracks awkwardly before being able to get back to the safety of the sidewalk. Steps led down a small two-storied church topped with four copper bells. Visible beyond the roof of the church were the tall remains of Zeus' temple.

    I walked down to the church and saw that it was surrounded by a type of wilderness I had not yet seen in this city. In front of the church were five benches and behind the seats and around the church was a little ravine – the dry riverbed of Ilissos. Instead of water, there were palm trees, oleanders, willows, plane trees and olive trees. I found a half barren piece of land behind the church covered in yellow and brown grasses. I saw movement in the bushes and caught sight of the thing disappearing in time enough to realize it was a man and not an animal. I inched closer to the edge of the riverbed with the naive hope of catching a glimpse of water, but the only thing I saw was another man, or possibly the same one, scurrying through the bushes. Perhaps this was someone's shelter. I went back to the church where I sat on a bench facing the church with the river bed behind me. Two benches to my right was a middle-aged man with a thick brown beard and a turban, typing on his phone but acknowledging my presence. Two benches to my left sat an old man with a flowing white beard holding a bottle of alcohol, staring at the floor in front of him.

    There was something potent about the energy here: sitting with my back to the riverbed that was dry yet full of life, I heard men rustling through its bushes. And then there was the sight of this huge boulder next to the church that had apparently been left there for archaeological reasons. It was the only place in which I had felt the urge to stay during my walk to meet the river. Arriving here made me feel as though I had held my breath for the entirety of the walk and only now was I able to exhale. Though both men next to me expelled a gentle sort of energy I still felt as if I was somehow in their territory. The air felt thick of a narrative I wanted to pick up on.

    I eventually felt the urge to get up and walked over to the huge boulder that was blocking the sidewalk. In front of it was a sign informing me that it had been a temple for Pan, the god with goat horns and legs, associated with the wild, music, fertility and often displayed with a phallus. I found out later that while building the road in the 1960s, dynamite had been placed on all the rocks that were in its way. An archeologist was so confident that this rock was the remains of a temple that she tied herself to it and was able to save it. You can still see the little pockets carved into the rock that were meant to keep the dynamite in place. The temple was saved, but the road was built nonetheless forcing the pedestrians to awkwardly navigate their way around.

    I ascended the stairs and continued walking the road for a few meters before I found a little dirt path winding right off it, going slightly downhill with the river bed now to my right. I continued walking deeper into the riverbed and was met by the man wearing the turban who had sat next to me earlier. Our eyes met briefly, but he glanced away guiltily. As I continued walking the river bed made a turn where two basins had once been. I bumped into another man emerging from the depths of the river bed and saw yet another further on lounging on the trunk of a tree. I began to feel that I was not meant to navigate these grounds. My inkling, having perhaps arrived rather late, was proven right when a fourth man passing by asked me, not rudely but defiantly, what I was looking for. By searching for something hidden I was lead to a place where people were hiding things: I had stumbled into a cruising spot, a place for consensually exchanging fluids, in a dry space that should be wet.

    The charge of energy I had felt when first approaching the church and the intensity that invited me to stay started to make sense. Men came here, next to phallic Pan's temple, to give space to a part of themselves which they perhaps couldn't or didn't want to integrate into their daily lives. The river bed, in the center of the city but hidden away from the masses of tourists heading to Zeus' Temple just meters away, had unconsciously been asked to act as the carrier of man's shadow.

  Na to pari to potami is Greek for ›Let the river take it‹. It once meant asking the river to take what one does not need, it was asking the river to assist in the act of letting go or in taking a secret that one has been told but does not want to carry. During antiquity sacrifices were made to the river gods as the survival of the people depended on them, and youths heading towards adulthood threw bits of their hair into the flowing waters as a rite of passage and to ensure their fertility. At some point, a rupture occurred, leading people to play gods themselves. When man's greed for growth polluted the rivers and made them reek, man covered the waters as not to be discomforted by the stench. These rivers contain the collective shadow. They house everything the city does not want to see. Jung believed that the notion of ›out-thereness‹, of projecting one's shadow onto something else, is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche. The shadow will claim its dues in some form or another.

    I left the river to sit in a café across the street where I could see men lingering on top of the bridge before they either mustered up the courage or made eye contact with someone, thus slipping away into the riverbed and out of my sight. It hadn't been my intention to spy on cruising men, and I wasn't really, but something about this place had captivated me, and I couldn't leave it. It started raining after I entered the café and so the rain also gave me a valid excuse to stay put.

    Being in a rented apartment is to be in a structure that has housed many bodies and souls before one's arrival. Cities are spaces full of stories, information, memories but we don't know how to receive these stories, so we don't know which narratives we have joined, to which stories we might be making a sequel. I believe that we somewhat understand on this a subconscious level and that is why we are drawn to some places more than others.

    The Romans believed in the genius loci, the spirit that maintains the tradition of an area by revealing enough of itself so that people continue its energetic traditions subconsciously. This spirit doesn't fade but just like water remembers everything that occurs in it or in its environment. With Ilissos' dry riverbed gay men had chosen a spot that was not only sexually charged because of Pan but had been host to many homosexual activities during antiquity when men would train in gymnasiums along the river banks, would learn from each other and love each other. Just meters from the bridge that now gives men the ability to be invisible for a moment is said to be where Phaedrus and Socrates chose to sit and cool off after meandering the river. It's there that they probably not only spoke about love but also made love.

    In The Faraway Nearby Rebecca Solnit writes that to feel for somebody enlarges the self. As I left the river in the rain, I felt larger as in ›more present‹. I had gained ground on myself. I had stepped out of myself and into the river, creating a purpose for myself in the form of just being with it. This purpose enabled me to participate with my surroundings – the tangible and the invisible – as if my consideration for the river was my contribution to the place allowing me to finally land.

   A few days later news arrived my way that a part of a parking lot had cracked open and swallowed three cars. The parking lot was built in 1987 on top of the Ilissos river. The river too had expanded and gained ground on itself. There is a group of people in Athens who want to reveal the river and bring it back into existence. Its unexpected appearance through 30-year-old asphalt lets us know that it is very much in existence already, able to daylight itself when it wants to be seen.

   Where I walked, the asphalt was hollow.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams:An Essay on the Imagination of Matter,Dallas 1999.



Grashina Gabelmann

Grashina Gabelmann is founding member and editor-in-chief of Flaneur Magazine; a nomadic, multi-disciplinary and psychogeographic endeavour. Also a freelance writer, her methodology currently involves the osmosis of specific bodies of water, their relationship to their environment and how humans actively/passively play into this. As a Kundalini Yoga teacher-in-training, she is also fascinated by the effects sound and movement have on the ten bodies. She is based in Berlin.

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葛拉斯納 格伯曼

葛拉斯納 格伯曼是Flaneur雜誌的創始成員兼主編;漫遊的、跨領域的、涉及心理地理學的項目;一位自由寫作家,目前創作脈絡涉及滲透的水域與周圍環境的關係,以及人類是如何主動/被動地參與此過程其中。 作為昆達里尼瑜伽的培訓老師,她著迷於聲音和動作對十身的影響。 格伯曼居住柏林。