Stealing The Marbles – Chapter 1
His eyes narrowed. His dark skin flushed darker. From under his breath came a Greek word having something to do with immorality, someone’s mother and a donkey.
“Pasty faced, uptight bastards,” he said aloud. “Sheep! Passive sheep, he called us. The great Athenian general Pericles commissioned the architects Iktinus and Kallicrates and the sculptor Phidias to construct the Parthenon four hundred and forty-seven years before the birth of Christ. Where were the British at this time? I’ll tell you. They were scurrying about in loin cloths and animal skins, worshiping trees and howling like rabid dogs at the moon, that is where they were!”
I sipped my beer in silence as Gerasimos went off on the rant, as I knew he would. There had been a debate earlier in the week at the Zappeion in Athens over whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in the British Museum. From what I’d heard, the debate hadn’t gone well, ending in a riot that saw hundreds arrested, including Gerasimos himself.
Diplomatic salvos were now being fired across the European continent between England and Greece. All the newspapers were carrying the story, most staying neutral, others falling on one side of the controversy or another. Because the discussion had been televised, news clips of the melee were featured on every newscast for three days running.
“That bad, huh?” I said.
“Worse,” he said, finishing the dregs of his beer and removing another from the bucket. “The Committee for the Return of the Marbles is in complete disarray. Those in England who seemed in favor of discussing the issue will no longer talk to us. And the damn reporters. I live in fear of any stranger who approaches me.”
He uncapped the bottle, lifted it to his mouth and drained half of it.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“Now? Nothing happens now. A hundred and fifty years we’ve sought the return of our antiquities and this fiasco has set us back to square one. Not that I’ve ever believed the Brits would return what rightfully belongs to Greece in the first place.”
I sipped my beer, letting the comment hang in the air. We were sitting at an outside table of the small taverna where we often ate, the air redolent with the scent of grilled lamb and oregano. The faint strains of a Haris Alexiu tune drifted from the kitchen.
“Can’t you just, you know, go over and take them back?” I asked.
The look on his face was one you would give a child who insisted that space aliens lived beneath its bed. “Take them back?” he asked.
“Yeah. You know, go up there and just tell them to give them back or else.”
“You Americans” he said, shaking his head. “Force is the only thing you know. He who has the biggest gun wins, is that it? Well, it doesn’t work that way. In case you hadn’t noticed, Greece and Britain are on the same team. Even if we had the military strength to challenge Britain, we would not. Issues of this nature are handled diplomatically, not militarily.”
“Well, your diplomacy doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere,” I said. I tore a chunk of bread from the basket and dipped it into a bowl of tzatziki. The yogurt was tart, the garlic strong. Gerasimos uncapped another beer. “Maybe you could just hire somebody to steal them or something,” I continued.
“Steal them!” he shouted, nearly dropping the just opened bottle in his lap. Several people at other tables glanced over at us. “Steal them,” he said again, leaning toward me, his voice lowered. “Are you taking drugs? Do you have any idea what the Parthenon Marbles comprise?”
I sighed. I’d heard an accounting of the marbles so often over the last year that I knew the inventory by heart. “The British Museum has fifteen metopes, fifty-six panels from the frieze, and seventeen pedimental statues,” I recited. “They have one of the columns from the Erechtheion and one of the ladies from the Porch of the Maidens.”
“The Caryatid,” he whispered, staring past my shoulder into some distant place where the Maidens were once again united. His eyes refocused and he said, “and you think someone could just walk in there and haul all that away? You’ve been reading too much science fiction. Even if they could get past the security, how would they do it? Beam it aboard the Enterprise?”
“Okay, okay, I admit it would be almost impossible …”
“Not almost, my friend. Totally!”
“Okay. But what if, just for the sake of argument, mind you … what if they, you know … just sort of showed up one day?”
“Showed up?” He took a sip of beer and set the bottle on the table.
“Yeah,” I continued. “Like, someone goes to open up the Acropolis one morning and there are a couple of trucks out there and, inside, are the marbles. What do you think would happen? Would you just give them back?”
“The idea is preposterous,” he said, waving his hand in the air as though brushing away a mosquito.
“Okay. Preposterous. But go with me here. I’m just curious. What would the government do? Would there be a fight? Or would the Greeks just capitulate and return them to the British?”
“Over my dead body,” he roared and once again disturbed the patrons at the other tables.
“So you would fight to keep them?” I asked.
He leaned back in his chair and began to rub his lower lip with his finger.
“They, the marbles, show up at the Acropolis,” he said.
“Or somewhere in Athens,” I said. “Back in Greece, anyway.”
He thought a moment longer; the tip of his finger moved to the dimple in his chin. “I suppose,” he said at last, “there would be those who would want, or feel threatened enough, to give them back. The diplomatic pressure would be intense.”
“Would there be those who would fight to keep them here?” I asked.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes. Yes there would be. I, for one. If the marbles were to find their way home again … yes … I would fight to keep them here. To hell with the British, the marbles belong to Greece!”
This was the moment. What would be the point of stealing the marbles if it was a sure bet they’d be returned in the end? Gerasimos was the key to that question. I had learned early on in our friendship that he had a real hard-on for them. His great-great grandfather had been conscripted by the Turks who had ‘sold’ the Parthenon Marbles to Lord Elgin at the turn of the nineteenth century. Gerasimos had been weaned on the stories of the sacred shrine’s desecration, passed down from one generation to the next. He had a passion for the marbles that rivaled Melina Mercouri’s and, though not the Minister himself – as she was – he did hold an elevated position in the Ministry of Culture. If the marbles were to suddenly appear outside the Acropolis, the Ministry of Culture would surely be one of the government agencies involved in what to do with them. I was hoping that Gerasimos had enough power and influence, that he could persuade the powers that be to keep them in Greece.
I leaned forward, hesitant to voice the all-important question. “Do you have that kind of power, Gerasimos? To keep them here?”
“I don’t know,” Gerasimos said after a long silence. “There are many who think as I do. That the marbles belong here. I believe I carry enough influence in the government to pull together a coalition. One at least as strong as any coalition in a position to send them back. It would be a fight, to be sure. The British would not be happy … and they are a powerful neighbor to provoke.”
“So, you would fight to keep them,” I said.
“Yes. I would do everything in my power to keep the marbles in Greece. But,” he said, reaching for his Spaten, “this is all quite hypothetical. A fascinating mind game, perhaps. Surely a gratifying thought. But nevertheless, impossible.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right. Still, it sure would be entertaining to watch.”
“You are bored my friend,” he said with a wry smile. He tipped his beer back and took a long drink. “I think you need a woman to share your bed.”