At the start of week seven — catching up, and the beginning of some ends

That centermost white dot is Tom Hanks.

I’ll get back to that.

Obviously, much has happened in the three weeks or so since I was last able to post a chronicle of my time here. It’s also enough time that certain chapters are closing, or have in fact already closed; I have less than two weeks left here in Greece, my second class at the Athens Centre comes to an end tomorrow, Flesh of My Flesh arrives Monday afternoon, at which point my residence will shift for a few days, my IU colleagues have headed back to the States, and Ioannis Arvanitis has gone on vacation until the end of next week, meaning that last Friday’s Byzantine chant lesson was probably my last.

When last I was able to post, my first 3-week class at the Athens Centre was over and the new one had not yet started. This has been a good class, and it has certainly been more of an immersive language learning environment than the first managed to be. There are only two others in the class — Jim, a schoolteacher from Vancouver, B. C. who married a Greek woman and who is hoping to raise bilingual kids (if not just move here altogether), and Jan, the ambassador to Greece from Slovakia. We’ve jelled well. The good thing is that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but they tend to complement each other. Jan is an experienced language learner, but speaks Greek with a thick Slovak accent. Jim has never learned a foreign language before, and as a result grammatical concepts take him some time, but he absorbs vocabulary very quickly, and his listening comprehension is vastly aided by having had Greek in-laws for the last decade. For me, grammar and reading comprehension are things which come quickly, but vocabulary takes me a bit longer than I’d like, and while my listening comprehension is vastly improved from where it was, I’m still sometimes painfully aware of how slow my ear is. With our forces combined, we’ve nonetheless been able to speak predominantly Greek in the class — let’s say between 80-90% on average, but often getting closer to 95%.

A couple of weeks ago, I went with Frank (my Greek teacher at IU), his wife, and my fellow student Stefanos to see Phaedra with Helen Mirren at the ancient theatre of Epidauros. It was a really wonderful day all around; we first went swimming at a beach in Loutraki, a seaside town on the Peleponnesian peninsula — and let me say, swimming in the Gulf of Corinth ain’t bad. I think that’s the first time in probably eight years I’ve been in a body of water of any size, or salt water for that. Following the swim, we drove to the port town, and former Greek capital, of Nafplion. We ate a late lunch at a taverna called Vasillis (hey! That’s “Richard” translated into Greek! Perfect!), walked around the square, and also drove up to Palamidi, the Byzantine/Venetian/Ottoman mountaintop fortress which overlooks the city (“Real cities have medieval castles”).

By that point, it was time to head up to the theatre. After being seated (by the way, bring something soft to sit on — the stone risers are pretty much exactly as they were carved 2500 years ago), I heard an American couple talking behind me — “Seen Tom Hanks yet?” I wasn’t sure if they were joking, but I kept an eye on the entrances, just in case.

Sure enough, he and his wife showed up and were seated in the center of the front row. That picture at the top of this post was the best I could do, with distance, light, and camera all combined.

The play was good; it was a bit weird, seeing a French Baroque playwright’s adaptation of Euripides, translated into English by a modern author, with Modern Greek supertitles, but there we are. It was very nearly a bare stage, with only a few chairs, some sort of small circular platform in the center, and a shell around the back of the stage with ramps leading off and on. Dress was modern, with Hippolytus pacing around the stage in a wifebeater in the first scene. Stanley Townsend was a larger-than-life, aged Theseus; for all of you IU kids reading along at home, think Tim Noble. Helen Mirren, naturally, owned the stage every second she was on it, and was downright creepy for much of the evening. I tend to think that her death scene didn’t have a ton of impact, but that seemed to be a bit of awkward staging more than anything.

I will also note that the acoustics at Epidauros are everything people claim them to be; it takes the ear a second to adjust, but once it does, you hear every word without any difficulty whatsoever.

The very next day, Giorgos took me for a drive along the coastline to Sounio — in myth, the place where Aegeus threw himself into the sea, and where there is a temple to Poseidon which is said to form an equilateral triangle with the Parthenon and the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. The point where Aegeus is said to jumped is very rocky and uneven with a lot of loose stones; to be honest, if there was an Aegeus, I find it more likely that he just tripped and fell, black sails or no black sails. I was wearing Birkenstocks instead of my Merrells — bad idea.

On Sunday, at Divine Liturgy at St. Irene, I saw somebody else in the Communion line who looked remarkably like St. Vladimir Seminary faculty member Dr. Peter Bouteneff. As it turns out, it was, in fact, Dr. Bouteneff, explaining why it looked so much like him.

The following Monday, I went to an event called the Athens Grand Prix Tsiklitiria, a big international track and field competition. It was a chance to see the 2004 Olympic Stadium in action; I got to see the men’s steeplechase, some of the men’s javelin, men’s high jump, and some of the women’s sprinting events. One very interesting thing is the pit of razor wire between the seats and the field; they are evidently are various serious about not wanting fans to rush the pitch — not surprising, since it’s also used for soccer.

Throughout the week, I did some gift shopping; I discovered that there are a couple of city blocks right off of Annunciation Cathedral where there is nothing but ecclesiastical supply shops. I spent some time browsing through these establishments; as with Apostoliki Diakonia, the answer to just about any question beginning with “Do you have…” is “Yes, what kind are you looking for?” It’s quite something to see such places with your own eyes when you’re accustomed to there being only one or two places in the United States which carry these things at all, and then they usually have to import them. I will be going back for a few gifts; there is a bookstore (which I decline to name) which will not be among the places to which I return, however. When I walked in to browse, somebody was immediately following me, asked if they could help me, and when I said I was just looking, they didn’t leave me alone. It was clear they didn’t want me in there (and I’m not altogether certain why), so I won’t burden them again.

By the way: a useful phrase in Greek is, “Μήπως μπορείτε να μου κάνετε μία καλύτερα τιμή;” (Mipos boreite na mou kanete mia kalitera timi?), which means, “Maybe you can give me a better price?” People will haggle, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Also — engraving is quite inexpensive here. I had bought a brass cigarette lighter as a gift, and I wanted to have the person’s name on it. There is an engraver at 9 Havriou Street who does beautiful work; it took less than an hour and cost all of 5 Euros.

This last Saturday I went to the island of Aegina — this will be its own post.

Sunday, I met Joshua Robinson, the Byzantine Greek student I was supposed to go to Petraki with a couple of nights ago. We had e-mailed a bit the week previous, and he met me at St. Irene. He joined Arvanitis and me for what has become our customary coffee after Liturgy, after which we went to Thanassis for lunch and traded stories. Very sharp and nice guy, and it’s good to know that he’s only a short drive north once I’m home — I hope to get to know him better on the other side of the ocean.

Monday of this week, Stefanos (Anna’s brother, not my IU colleague) and Liana took me to a play at the public theatre here in Halandri called Babylonia, by the 19th century Greek playwright Demetrios Byzantinou. The key conceit of the play is that each character is speaking a different dialect of Greek and they have trouble understanding each other; I actually understood more than I thought I would, and perhaps what I understood would be different from what everyday Greeks might understand. Of the two characters I understood most, one speaks katharevousa or the “purifying” speech, which is an elevated dialect quite close to Ancient Greek, and another speaks a dialect with a good amount of Italian mixed in. Even if I didn’t understand everything, I found it fascinating and highly entertaining, and had some unexpected laughs at moments when nobody else was laughing. For example, the scholar who speaks katharevousa has a speech where he walks a verb from the Attic form through the sound changes to what it looks like in “the Italian dialect”. I understood exactly what was going on, and I thought it was hysterical. There’s also an exchange where the Anatolian is dictating a letter to the katharevousa speaker, and in asking what the letter should say, the scholar uses a verbal adjective form, something rare which I’ve only ever seen a handful of times and would have trouble constructing if somebody held a gun to my head, but to my own surprise I got it, and immediately thought to myself, “Hey! That was a gerundive and I understood!” Shortly thereafter, the Anatolian, after hearing what the scholar has written, tells him, “You’ve written a troparion.”

Anyway, I was inspired enough to seek out a copy of the play, and I found one easily enough. It seems a worthy exercise for the person taking old and new Greek seriously to try to read some of it — we’ll see how it goes.

My chant lessons have been extraordinarily valuable; Arvanitis told me this last Sunday that we’ve worked through in a month and a half what he usually takes a year to teach. I am going back to the States with a decent grasp of the basics, close to twenty hours of lesson recordings for reference, and some books of repertoire that are difficult to get on that side of the water. We’ll see what I’m able to do with all of it once I’m home — I definitely have some ideas.

Okay — on the whole, this catches us up in terms of the travel narrative, save for Aegina, which will come later. Other thoughts and reflections to come.

Less than two weeks. Sheesh. Where does the time go?

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