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Various observations at around the 3/8 mark: in which the author is able to identify his hat and sandals a little too easily

I’ve been trying to post this since Thursday, but I’ve been subject to a very finicky Internet connection. Oh well.

Yesterday was the last day of my first class at the Athens Centre. It’s a bit hard to believe that this particular chapter has closed, but I suppose all those people who told me that the time would go by quickly are right.

The Athens Centre does six different levels in the Immersion category; I started out at level three, which is basically intermediate. We’ve finished the class not having hit quite all of the things which were covered by the fourth semester of the sequence at IU, but since I skipped over the middle two semesters, I’ve been content to have the chance to let things settle a bit. I’ve been very appreciative of Anna, the teacher, who has a grounding in Ancient Greek and Latin and is able to answer a lot of the kinds of questions I have; with her help, I was able to find the textbooks used in the secondary schools here to teach Ancient Greek. (They’re dirt cheap, too — three Euros or so a pop, and in the States books like these would cost around $25 apiece. I asked Anna if Greek linguistic pride was state subsidized; she smiled and said, “Φυσικά!” — “Of course!”) She uses the communicative approach while being able to talk about grammatical and linguistic issues, which is very helpful for me. As I found out yesterday, she’s also teaching Level IV, and I’m happy about that.

(Incidentally, for the last day, she had me make good on an earlier agreement to sing something for the class at some point. I broke out the ending section of “Cielo e mar” from La Gioconda — “Vieni, o donna, qui t’attendo…” — since it’s a reasonably useful party trick with the two sustained Bs flat at the end.)

I’m something of an oddball in the class; as I said earlier, I’m the only one who doesn’t have any Greek heritage, which also means I’m the only one who didn’t grow up hearing the language spoken, I’m the only one who has traveled specifically to take the class, I’m the only one who wasn’t in the previous class as well, and I’m also the only academic besides the teacher. What this all means from a practical standpoint is that grammatical issues aren’t really where I struggle, and I feel reasonably comfortable at least trying to express myself (perhaps a bit more than some of my classmates would prefer — hey, if we’re not at least attempting real conversations, how are we ever going to learn?), but my listening comprehension lags behind that of my fellow students. It’s gotten better; my ear is gradually waking up, but there’s still a good amount that flies past me. From that standpoint alone, I’m glad I still have another five weeks. By the end, we finally had reached the point in class where I had hoped we would start — that is, with Greek being the vast majority of what’s spoken in class — and I hope that means that I’ll feel pushed by Level IV. Alas, I’m the only one in this class going on to IV, so it’ll be a whole new group of people on Monday.

It’s really interesting trying to function in Greek; one very telling experiment was to go into a bunch of different shops starting off in Greek and seeing how long it took before either the shopkeeper switched to English or I had to switch to English to be able to tell them what I wanted. Some people replied in English immediately; one or two spoke English to me before I said anything at all but then looked taken aback, if not downright confused, when I replied in Greek. Cab drivers are great people to try to talk to; I usually take a taxi to and from my chant lesson, and the ones who talk seem to have a lot to say. I’ve gotten the same response from several when I’ve answered their questions about where I’m from and what I’m doing here — “Why? Since when do Americans care about what happens here?” One cabbie, when I assured him that I care very much about what happens here, told me, “Well, maybe you can get other Americans to care, too, then. You guys have all the power, not us.”

I also had to make an interesting mental shift during one cab ride when, after explaining that I was here specifically to learn Modern Greek, the driver asked, “What do you that you’re able to do that?” I started to say, “Well, I’m hoping eventually to be able to…” and then I realized, “Wait. I actually am.” (With apologies to my godson Lucas — for all of my fellow grammar Nazis out there, we might call this the power of the indicative mood.)

(Travel tip regarding hailing cabs here: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Keep trying, and eventually one will stop. Of the ones that stop, eventually one will agree to take you where you want to go. Just be patient and give yourself some extra time.)

My time with Arvanitis is extremely well-spent; I’ve had roughly ten hours or so worth of lessons with him, and we’ve been able to work through learning most, if not all, of the signs used in Byzantine notation; and with tonight’s lesson we started looking at actual chants. I’m still getting the hang of the intervals, but since he sings all of the exercises with me, my ear is gradually getting it. I feel awfully slow and dumb, but he assures me I’m not, telling me that we’ve covered in five lessons what he usually takes a semester to teach in class. He’s been a good person to get to know otherwise; he’s an adept scholar as well as a performer, and is able to speak with authority about why you’re reading those particular squiggles on the page, not just explain how. It’s also clear that what he does is informed by genuine faith; “When I sing, it’s to glorify God, not me,” he told me the other day, and it was refreshing beyond words to hear somebody like him say such a thing totally un-self-consciously. Last night’s lesson was rather unconventional; he met me at Kifissia Station and said, “Problem — I forgot the keys!” So, we had a lesson outside in the park sitting on a bench. I’ll be very interested to hear how the recording comes out.

By the way, my days of using cabs as my default mode of transportation from Halandri to Kifissia are, I think, over. I found a way to do it via public transportation that is far more reliable, to say nothing of faster by at least fifteen minutes and potentially half an hour depending on how things go. There are a lot more moving parts, but they go quickly, and they don’t involve me waiting for half an hour for a bus that may or may not come, since all of the buses involved are on major thoroughfares. Basically, I take one bus from home to Halandri Station, an express bus to Doukissis Plakentias Station, pick up the suburban railway there to Neratziotissa Station, and then the train to Kifissia Station. I’m not on any one leg of the trip more than five to ten minutes or so, and I don’t have to wait more than 10-15 minutes for any individual segment, either. (Richard public transportation WIN.)

So, one thing that it is pretty hard to get around when it comes to being in this part of the world:

It’s hot.

Now, it’s nowhere near as humid as Indiana is this time of year, so I’m on the whole more comfortable here than I would be at home, but back home I’d be in an air-conditioned building most of the day. That’s not the case here, generally. Greeks are built for the heat and tend to manage without A/C. Maybe they have it, and maybe they even tell you “Turn it on if you need it,” but there’s something unspoken, something behind the eyes, that says, “Only if it’s life or death, please.” I told Arvanitis that to me, it’s always hot here; he chuckled and said, “To me, when I’m in America, it’s always cold.”

To lay all cards on the table: my heritage is English and Danish. My ancestors, as I’ve noted before, were slaying each other in the ice and snow of northernmost Europe wearing only loinclothes and horned helmets. Some of my classmates have talked about finding their family villages while they’re here in Greece; I think mine is called Rydbjerg and it’s in Denmark. I tell them, only half-joking, that my kinsmen were ice fishing while theirs were raising goats.

In other words, I’m calibrated for about fifty degrees cooler than it is here right now, no getting around it. Trust me, I’m wearing all the linen and breathable fabrics I can; I wear a hat to keep off the sun, I carry water with me everywhere I go (and I even drink it without it being boiled in coffee grounds first), I’ve only worn sandals since I’ve been here. I wear undershirts; there are tradeoffs either way there, because the extra layer definitely heats me more, but it keeps me from sweating directly onto my outer shirt too much.

I still have sweat pouring off of me like I’m a miniature Niagara Falls. All. The. Time. I can be on a bus surrounded by people who are barely glowing, and I leave a puddle where I was standing. I have to carry water with me because I’m losing it faster than I’m able to take it in. Even though it’s light straw, my nice Panama hat still contains heat around my head, and I’ve actually sweated through it, with the band showing a telltale white trail from the salt, and I have to clean it out with rubbing alcohol more or less daily lest the hat be, shall we say, far more trouble than it’s worth. Since my feet sweat like the dickens too, essentially what I have to do when I get home is to take off my sandals, put them outside, and then go wash my feet. The sandals then stay outside until I need to wear them again. I also seem to have developed some heat rash on my legs, meaning I’m not wearing shorts again until it clears up.

I’m not sure that we in the constantly climate-controlled parts of the United States fully appreciate how much the weather has an impact on how people behave, to say nothing of the general rhythm of life, in this part of the world. There’s an extent to which dressing comfortably means something very different here than it usually does in the States, for example; mid-afternoon naps make more sense than working during the hottest part of the day; days tend to extend into the nights because it’s still warm but not too hot, and so on. Knowing that this is what the Mediterranean is like adds an extra dimension to St. Photini drawing her water from the well during the noon hour, and it certainly lends a very concrete, gritty reality to Christ washing the feet of the Disciples.

Anyway, for the heat sensitive traveler, I will say, at the risk of passing on too much information but nonetheless wanting to suggest something practical that might not be obvious, that the single best thing I’ve done (besides all of the above) is be smart about my undergarments. As much walking as I do here, there was a strong possibility of a wrong choice in that department making me miserable for the duration of the trip. Lest I really go down the TMI road, I’ll further add only that the closest you can get to something like Nike Dri-Fit shorts will be well worth it.

Oh, one other possibly useful travel tip: evidently, even with transformers and plug adapters, things like hair clippers and other tonsorial electronics from the States have a tendency to not like the power outlets here. I found this out the hard way at 11pm last night, when two things happened simultaneously: 1) the shield on my clippers slipped, taking a large chunk out of my hair, and 2) the batteries in my clippers died, and I was unable to recharge it at all. I wasn’t left with a lot of options beyond the disposable razor that Air France had given me when it turned out my luggage was still in Newark. As Anna the Greek teacher said to me this morning, “Why??? Your head looks like an egg!”

Can’t really say she’s wrong.

(I actually was thinking about donating my head after I die. To bowling.)

I close with a totally unrelated observation: memorials are big deals over here. Public notices are posted, and people travel to them. Here’s an example of such a notice posted near St. George here in Halandri:

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2 Responses to “Various observations at around the 3/8 mark: in which the author is able to identify his hat and sandals a little <i>too</i> easily”


  1. 1 Fr. James Early 5 July 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Nice hairdo, Kojak! I enjoyed your interview on CRTL.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 7 July 2009 at 8:43 am

      I tend to think of it more as a “hair-don’t”.

      Glad you enjoyed the interview — we’ll see if it catches anybody’s interest.


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