The Parthenon

The beauty of the Parthenon is a deception. Its columns might look perfectly straight, but in the middle they actually bow outward. The graceful lines are an optical illusion. Ictinus, the very clever architect of the Parthenon, planned it that way. The perfection of the temple is based on imperfection, and no human eye can detect the trick. That’s the point.

It does not stop some tourists from claiming to see the discrepancy. Even though they come in all nationalities, the ones easiest to detect are American, since they all patronize Orvis for the same $400 matching set of wide-brimmed safari hat and travel vest with enough hidden pockets to defy the grubby fingers of the most determined brown-skinned urchin. The Orvis-clad tourists are almost uniformly male, advanced middle-aged, and insist on repeating everything they read from their Fodor’s to their long-suffering wives, who themselves memorized the book months before the cruise ship left the dock. Once through the Greek and Roman gates guarding the plateau of the Acropolis (which they have not stopped to admire), these fellows make a beeline for the Parthenon, and after a few moments of squinting and head-bending they shout,

Yep, I see it! These Greeks aren’t fooling me! It’s the same tone they’ll use to challenge every single item on a dinner bill, even if they are in some far flung developing country where a multi-course dinner costs just a buck thirty-eight, local fire water included.

You will need to be wary of this species while you are admiring the world’s treasures, especially if you are traveling alone. Thinking you are cut from a herd, they will pounce, like a lion on a lame zebra. They will first insist on taking a picture of you, with your camera, in front of the Parthenon, or whatever monument you are trying to enjoy. This, however, is just a pretext; they really want to repeat to you everything they just read in their Fodor’s. If you are unfortunate enough to fall prey to such aggression, back away slowly, flail both arms in front of you wildly, and keep repeating, No Ingleeeesh! No Ingleeeesh!

The very notion that someone, anyone, on the planet doesn’t speak English will so startle them that they will immediately scuttle back to the shadows to wait for a less confusing victim.

Unfortunately, on a bright October day, one woman wasn’t fast enough. After the perfunctory picture taking, followed by a less than perfunctory lecture on the Parthenon, an American, perhaps a veteran of at least one business trip to Bangkok (while there most likely escorted by a native of indeterminate age and gender) bent his head, squinted his eyes and asked,

You are from Thailand?

No. China.

But from southern China, right, close to Thailand?

No. The north of China. Beijing.

Are you sure?

About the author

Mark Lewandowski has been a Fulbright Scholar in Lithuania, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland. He's also taught summer courses in…

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Issue 17 · March 2013

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