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Posts Tagged 'acropolis'

“Μπορείτε να ετοιμάσετε ένα Manhattan;”: in which the author is faced with the dilemma of what to do when the bookstore that has everything he wants is actually open

There are a couple of housekeeping things I would like to bring to your attention.

First of all, I would like to congratulate my godchildren Subdn. Lucas and Stacey Christensen on the 20 June 2009 arrival of Theodore Lucas Christensen. He was born the day before Father’s Day, so Lucas’ first Father’s Day as a father was in fact within the first 24 hours of his tenure as a father. Life’s not terrible, huh? Many years to Theodore Lucas and parents!

Secondly, I would like to help spread the word about the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas. This effort appears to being spearheaded by Fr. Oliver Herbel, Matthew Namee, and others, and so far as I can tell, it’s a good, honest, scholarly approach to questions that seem to be largely dominated thus far by ideological wishful thinking. I for one am looking forward to reading Fr. Oliver’s dissertation when it is published; I hope that it will serve to balance works that are out there such as The American Orthodox Church: A History of its Beginnings.

Thirdly, I’d ask your prayers for my stepfather, Joe. He is undergoing some pretty major surgery on 1 July, and as my mom put it, he’s tightly wrapped around the axle about it. So, please, if you think about it, that’d be appreciated.

Okay. Where to begin?

I’ve been gone about three weeks. My previous longest trip abroad (of the three) was something like two and a half weeks. I’ve got five weeks to go.

I’d like to tell you that everything is great, that it’s been a really smooth ride so far, and that pretty much all is going as expected.

This would be a lie.

Now, to clarify, what would also be a lie is to say that things are terrible, I’m having a horrible time, I’m getting nothing out of this trip, I want my mommy, etc. I’m saying only that reality, as is often the case, is a bit more complicated under the best and easiest of circumstances, and that adjusting to a more-or-less totally unfamiliar environment where virtually all of one’s instincts about how things work, what to say, to whom to say it, and so on, are wrong, does not exactly represent the easiest of circumstances. This is, of course, part of the education of this kind of trip, and this means that one way or the other, I will be returning to the United States having learned a tremendous amount. Whether or not it is exactly what I thought I would learn is a different question, but never mind that now. The point is, I haven’t just been thrown into the deep end of the pool; rather, it’s at the very least one of the Great Lakes. (Or maybe the Aegean Sea.) Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the most familiar thing I encounter here is the Divine Liturgy (even given ecclesiastical Greek as the liturgical language), which is perhaps the least familiar thing for many Americans who travel here.

To put it one way, I will see foreigners in the States for extended periods with different eyes from here on out.

All that having been said, that photo of the Acropolis at the top of this entry is exactly what I see every day on my way to school, as is the Olympic stadium from the 1896 Summer Games. That’s saying something, isn’t it?

I left off last time just before a trip to a nearby beach for Anna’s goodbye party (this would be two Sundays ago, 21 June). At the beach, I had the, er, amusing experience of trying to explain to the bartender, in Greek, how to make a Manhattan. I did so; they didn’t believe me and looked on some recipe card that told them to add orange juice of all things, and I got to pay 7 Euros for the privilege of drinking what I didn’t order (and with Jack Daniels as the whiskey, no less). It wasn’t horrible; it was actually kind of interesting and potentially worth playing with further. It just wasn’t a Manhattan. The next night, for the after-party of Anna’s goodbye party, I more than happily paid 8 Euros for drinks that I knew were made the way I wanted them. (By the way, I have become a fan of the Pomegranate Splash for fruity drinks that don’t just taste like juice with attitude. There’s a bar here in Halandri that makes a very nice one, but I am blanking on the name. I’ll get back to you on that.)

I decided to change up my route to school; rather than walking 15 minutes to catch a bus all the way into Athens and it taking 45 minutes, I now catch a bus from a block away from the house, take it a short way to a metro station, take the metro into downtown Athens, and then a streetcar (“tram”, and you have to say it with a flipped r) to the bottom of the hill where the Athens Centre is located. It can still take a little over an hour, but there’s also the possibility of it taking closer to 40-45 minutes depending on when the bus comes. The tricky thing is that the bus route goes through two different metro stations; the second is theoretically is closer to the destination, but the traffic bottleneck just before that station is horrible in the morning. The first day I went this way I rode the bus all the way to the second station (Katehaki), and got to school about twenty minutes late thanks to the traffic. The second day, I got off the bus at the stop right before Katehaki, and beat the bus there by about fifteen minutes. From the skybridge going to Katahaki Station:

The third day, I just got off at the first metro station (Ethniki Amina), which has turned out to be the best option all around. I regularly get to school now between 9:00-9:15 instead of 9:20-9:40 — and while, as my teacher told me on the first day, “This is Greece, not Germany,” I still prefer being on the early side.

While I will be very curious to see what the system is like once the three metro stations presently under construction are open and everything is running everywhere, I have to say that it’s not bad. For the international traveler, it’s a heck of a deal; you can buy a weeklong pass for 10 Euros that gets you everywhere, or you can buy a monthlong pass for 35 Euros. Couple of things to note about the monthlong pass: you have to provide a photo (four passport photos typically cost 7 Euros at a photography shop), you have to buy it at the beginning of the calendar month, and if you show a student ID, you’ll get it for 18 Euros. The passes are not like the London Underground where there’s a card you keep and top off and use with a card reading system; these are disposable tickets, and to some extent, the system is “on your honor.” You should be able to produce a validated ticket at any time, but I’ve never actually seen anybody checking.

Thursday evening, Giorgos (Anna’s dad) said to me, “Go get your camera. I’m going to take you someplace you’ll like.” He took me to some spots overlooking Athens, as well as Penteli Monastery in, appropriately enough, New Penteli. From the vantage points above the city with the landscape spread out in front of us, Giorgos talked a lot about how really, even twenty to thirty years ago, almost none of the sprawl was here. What are now the suburbs were really separate villages, and the end result of the buildup of Athens into something they want to be a major European city is that people have emptied out the real villages and small towns of Greece. “We Greeks are eating each other, and the reason why is because people are getting rich off of it,” he said.

The monastery is really lovely; I can’t say I’ve ever seen any place quite like it in the States. While we were there, Giorgos pointed out a priest and identified him as a “left-wing monk” named Fr. Timotheos, saying that he’s quite the publicity hound. He didn’t go into a lot of detail, but what I was able to dig up later suggested that he’s more of a nationalist figure than anything. Not quite certain what the deal there is.

A disquieting moment was when we were standing in front of the gates of the monastery, and Giorgos pointed out the bullet holes in the doors from attacks in decades past. He also showed me the following:

“What do you suppose that slit in the wall next to the mosaic is all about?” he asked me. I had to confess I didn’t know.

“That was where they pointed the guns against intruders,” he said.

(Oh, and paging Rod Dreher: the monastery has chickens.)

One thing that would be really difficult to overstate is how there are churches everywhere. Big churches, little churches, medium-sized churches, tiny village chapels. You’ll turn a corner and just see something like this:

Or this:

As I said the other day, when I walked to one church and found they weren’t having Vespers, I was able to walk ten minutes to another church and see what they were doing. Had I been inclined, another 5-10 minute walk would have gotten me to another church. Coming from a country where I have to drive 15 minutes to get to church, and then my next nearest option is an hour and twenty minutes away, it’s remarkable.

Friday morning, I attended a session of the second annual “Greece in the World” conference, with this year’s theme being Byzantine Studies. This particular session was titled “Byzantine Studies and the Orthodox Tradition”; Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon was the moderator, and the speakers were Dimitrios Balageorgos of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, who gave a talk on Byzantine music in today’s educational system, Giorgos Filias of the University of Athens, who spoke on liturgy and the Byzantine tradition, and Archimandrite Nicholas Ioannides of the University of Athens, who spoke on theology and Byzantine tradition.

Now, I can’t tell you what these gentlemen said in their papers, exactly. There were headsets that allowed English speakers to listen to the talks being translated, but let’s just say that the level of translation wasn’t exactly that of the United Nations. I will acknowledge freely that I would not want to be a translator who had to deal with such a particular and specific vocabulary, so I’m not casting aspersions on anybody — that’s just the way it was. Still, there were three big takeaways for me from attending this session:

  1. Catalogs from a lot of academic publishers in Greece on Byzantine topics. Megan, stop rolling your eyes; this is more useful than it perhaps initially sounds, because it gives me an idea of the sources that are out there in modern Greek, and it gives me a sense of the institutions here who are doing Byzantine Studies in one form or another. It will be useful information in trying to determine what good possibilities might be for academic exchange if I’m ever applying for certain kinds of grants and fellowships, in other words.
  2. I officially see Modern Greek as a basic requirement for Byzantine studies, just as Ancient Greek is. There is so much scholarship over here in this field — and why should this make anybody scratch their head? It is their national heritage, plain and simple, and they really regard church history as their own history. You can walk into the equivalent of a Borders here and find the collected works of St. Romanos the Melodist in one volume, in Ancient Greek and Modern Greek on facing pages. I’ve seen it; it’s freaking huge. I am coming to see it as the same as needing to know modern English if you’re going to do American history. If you can’t read texts in the language, you’re cutting yourself off from a mammoth body of work in the field. My instinct, based on my own experience, is that a native English speaker interested in pursuing this path should probably do Ancient Greek before Modern Greek; I don’t know if there’s a consensus on this one way or the other. I think I would have had a much harder time if I had started out with Modern Greek’s periphrastic forms and then tried to see how they related to their Attic ancestors; the way Ancient Greek works actually forced me to learn the grammatical concepts accurately and precisely, which allowed me to make more sense of why Modern Greek does what it does when I got there.
  3. I know the names of some of the players over here. Knowing who Giorgos Filias is, for example, is a good thing for somebody interested in liturgy.

(Unofficial #4: a native English speaker who knew the terminology well enough to do simultaneous translation of these kinds of talks could potentially do very well for themselves.)

In the evening, Giorgos introduced me to his childhood friend, Giorgos. (“And that’s Nicky, Nicholas, Nick, Nick, Nicky, and Nick.”) Giorgos Secundus (or perhaps I should say Dhefteros) is well-read in history and very adept at ancient Greek; we had a lot to talk about, even if my Greek and his English are about on the same level. I told Giorgos Prime (or Protos, I suppose) later that I very much enjoyed meeting him; he got a bit of a smile on his face and said, “Yes, George always has something to say.” I’m not certain what that meant.

Saturday I spent some time exploring Athens and points south. I found Apostoliki Diakonia, the bookstore of the Church of Greece; well, to be more precise, I had found it the previous Monday, but the hours of operation for smaller shops are governed by rules I’m still not sure I understand, and Saturday was the first day I could get over there when they were open.

I can best describe this store by saying that they carry everything that is virtually impossible to get in the States without mammoth effort and economic expenditure. You want an Ieratikon? Check. A Typikon? No problem. The services, the Menaion, Triodion, and Pentecostarion in Byzantine chant bound into real books? You betcha — how many and which edition? A complete Synaxarion? Right this way, sir.

This poses its own set of problems, however, as a moment’s thought should make clear.

In other words — where the heck do you begin????

I mean, okay, you could just buy one of everything. Things are reasonably inexpensive, and it would be a lot less to just buy them here rather than have them shipped.

Except… oh, wait. There’s a 50 pound limit on items of luggage before overweight charges are incurred. And you can only check two items of luggage before you start paying per item. And I have other stuff to get home. And… and… and…

Suddenly you realize there’s only so much you can take back with you before you’re not really making it any more cost-effective and just giving yourself a heck of a lot more to carry — because make no mistake, these books are heavy.

I found myself thinking, I could easily spend hundreds of Euros here, and then have to spend hundreds of more Euros toting it all back home… Ultimately, I just bought a couple of small prayerbooks for now. I will go back later and buy some other things, gifts for a few people and then one or two chant books for my own reference. Other stuff… well, this won’t be my last trip here.

Ack. So many books, so little room in the suitcases.

I had lots of time before Vespers at St. Irene, so I took the train down to Piraeus Harbor. This is where one catches the boats to the various islands; for example, I’ll be going to Aegina from here on 18 July, where I’ll get to pay my respects to St. Nectarios.

There wasn’t a tremendous amount to do down here for somebody who was still a few weeks away from embarking, but I walked around for a bit before heading back. Here’s St. Dionysios Church, right next to the harbor:

And from the front:

Gotta love the Constantinopolitan flag, still flying after all these years… (By the way, in case anybody was wondering, yes, you can find an AEK onesie here.)

I returned to Athens and enjoyed a frappé at Singles, the café behind St. Irene Church, jotting down some notes for later before going into the church at 6:30 for 7pm Vespers.

(Did I mention there are a lot of cats and dogs in Athens? Here’s one at a table near where I was sitting at Singles.)

As I entered the church, I clearly heard Lycourgos Angelopoulos intoning the apichima for Tone 2 (or Second Authentic mode, as I think Arvanitis would prefer I say) and then proceeding to sing the Doxastikhon for “O Lord I have cried”. I guess Vespers actually started at 6 this week. Oops. As it worked out, in the morning for Liturgy I didn’t arrive until the very last doxology before the Trisagion. I’ll live.

Monday I was walking home through Halandri after my chant lesson, and as I passed St. George Church, I was aware of a large reception on the lawn with music, a sit-down dinner, and so on. Is this a wedding reception? I wondered. Then it occurred to me that it was a celebration of Ss. Peter and Paul (29 June), which seems to be a big deal over here. Anna told me that she didn’t know what the Apostles’ Fast was before she started going to All Saints in Bloomington, but the Greeks definitely know what 29 June is. I had seen other signs and posters elsewhere indicating festal services for Ss. Peter and Paul, as well.

This brings me pretty much up to today. I still have a lot to say, but since I’m already nearing 3,000 words for this entry, let’s call this the narrative and the next post will be the analysis and reflection. I need your paper topics by tomorrow, the quiz will be Monday, and the final is scheduled for — wait, where are you going?

More for my own organizational needs than anything else, let’s say that the next post will cover the following:

  • My Greek class, colleagues, classmates, etc.
  • Chanting lessons
  • Some more specifics on the adjustment to an unfamiliar environment, including, but not limited to, the linguistic experience
  • Travel tips, to say nothing of unavoidable realities, for heat-sensitive folks
  • Other cultural observations
  • Anything else that comes to mind
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School’s in for the summer: in which the author tries to figure out how to make Nescafé bearable and nearly gets lost during inter-suburban transit

I’ve alluded to my opinions about Nescafé before; alas, it really does seem to be what most people drink here in terms of day-to-day coffee consumption.

When your options are Nescafé, Nescafé, and Nescafé, as they are at the Athens Centre, you start getting creative with how you can make that work. You explore your options. You do things you wouldn’t normally have done with real coffee. You make sacrifices. You lose illusions about purity.

You add ice and cream and sugar, in other words. Anything, and I mean anything, to get rid of that freeze-dried-for-aeons, cigarette-ash-mixed-with-stale-sweat aftertaste. What’s that you say? Sacrificing a goat would make this taste better? Great — is my pencil sharp enough to work, or should I just tear its throat out with my teeth? Do I add the blood to the Nescafé, or do I grind up the bones into powder for use as a non-dairy creamer?

Well, the discovery I have made here in my first week in Greece is one that may have monumental implications — and that is: Add condensed milk. (Along with the ice and sugar, of course.) This may get me through my mornings for the next seven weeks.

I’m through my first week of the Level III Immersion class; it’s going really well, and it is putting together a lot of pieces for me. Skipping from 100 to 250 as I did this last school year made sense on several levels, but it also meant that there are some holes in my vocabulary and in some various little things, and it also means that my ear is behind my brain in terms of comprehension ability. Level III here starts out a bit behind where I was at the end of 250 in terms of grammar, but is also a bit ahead in terms of vocabulary. There is some review and some new stuff to learn, in other words — probably an okay way to go while I’m adjusting to being in a foreign country for the first time. My teachers have said that they think I could have started with IV if I wanted to, but that this is also just fine.

The bus ride from Halandri to the part of town where the Athens Centre is located is a bit long, and hotter than would be entirely comfortable (I have to say, much to my own surprise, that I am finding it to be a lot more pleasant outside than inside as a general rule, even with 100 degrees Fahrenheit as we had Wednesday), but it really could be a lot worse. I left a bit early the first day to allow time for getting lost, and, sure enough, lost I got.

Problem number one: I was originally advised to get off at one stop in particular, and then walk up a particular hill. Then a different person advised me to get off at the next stop, that this would likely be quicker. I followed the second person’s advice; they were wrong.

Problem number two: clarity in street signage is not a highly-prized virtue in Athenian municipal government.

Between these two factors, I was walking in the absolutely opposite direction of what I wanted for a good ten minutes. I realized this was the case, and thankfully, the map in the Athens Moleskine notebook got me to where I wanted to be. (I had one of those on our London trip, too, by the way. Can’t recommend those things enough.)

My class is small; four people including myself, and then the teacher. From left to right in the picture is Alexander, who is from Switzerland, with a Greek mother and a Swiss father; Aspasia, a Texan woman with a Greek father; Anna, the teacher, who is as native Greek as the day is long; and Maro, a woman from Wisconsin who lives here now and also is of Greek heritage.

Yep, I’m the only Anglo. So it goes.

After class on Monday, I met with Ioannis Arvanitis at the café of the bookstore Eleftheroudakis. (To give you an idea of the size of this bookstore, I will tell you that their café is on the sixth floor, and there are still a floor to go after that.) We talked for about forty-five minutes — he’s an extraordinarily nice man, and we have a decent amount in common when it comes to academic paths which haven’t been entirely linear, and he told me about the work on Byzantine notation that he’s done for his in-progress dissertation. We set up a meeting for Tuesday, which was not altogether a simple thing to do; he lives an another suburb, doesn’t drive, doesn’t have a studio in the city, and his house is a little off the beaten path. I’m not terribly concerned, I told him; I’ve come this far, after all.

I killed some time amidst the seven floors of books. While I’m here in Greece, I want to see if I can find an Ancient Greek textbook written in Modern Greek; I also need to find an Ieratikon, and there are a couple of other things for which I’m keeping my eyes open. I didn’t find any of these things, but there were double-takes as I realized that this is a store where one can commonly find things like an Irmologion on the shelves.

I also found my inner voice murmuring — Good Lord. I’m in Greece, and I’m being paid to be here before I start my PhD work. I’m going to get to study Byzantine chant with a master. I am getting to do everything I was miserable about not being able to do this time last year. The one thing missing from this picture is my wife, and she’ll be here before the end.

I have no excuses anymore, my inner voice gasped in shock.

To call this a sobering, and not a little bit intimidating, thought is to understate the matter. I remember an interview with “lyric heldentenor” Ben Heppner in which he said that after he won his first major competition he wasn’t quite sure how to feel. He likened the experience to a child who finally ties his shoes on his own, then breaks out into tears when he realizes that means he will always have to tie his shoes on his own from now on.

But then I slapped my inner voice a few times and said, You’re telling me now that you’re nervous because things are going too well????

My inner voice promptly shut up. For the moment.

In the early evening, Stefanos Fafulas, the other IU student who’s here on the FLAS, met me at Syntagma, and Anna also joined us. We met up with Frank Hess, Stefanos’ and my Modern Greek teacher at IU, and his wife Vasiliki, whom I had never met before. We went to a café near the Acropolis for a frappé and caught up some. It was odd seeing all these people whom I know from school suddenly in the context of the Parthenon being visible over Frank’s right shoulder, but there you go.

Tuesday I discovered this view from the roof of the Athens Centre. That’s the Acropolis on the left. You know how in movies set in Seattle, the Space Needle is visible from every point of view in the city, even though it isn’t in real life? Well, in real life, the Acropolis is pretty much visible from any point in Athens. It’s a city that hasn’t really discovered ultra-tall skyscrapers, and while there are a number of smaller buildings that crowd together and make it difficult to see a lot of the surrounding hills, you can catch a glimpse of the former cathedral of Athens virtually everywhere you go.

In the evening I had my first lesson with Arvanitis. Getting there was, as promised, interesting; he texted me in the afternoon to tell me that he and his wife Olga would pick me up at Kifisia Station at 6:15pm and take me back to their house. All well and good, but there was still the matter of getting to Kifisia Station from where I am in Halandri. I am in a somewhat awkward part of Halandri to get to other suburbs; this time next year there will be a metro station a five minute walk from here, and there used to a be a metro station about a fifteen minute walk from here, but construction means that we’re in an in-between period at the moment where that’s concerned. So, I can walk twenty, twenty-five minutes to catch a bus that will take me straight there in about half an hour; alternately, I can take a ten minute bus ride to the nearest metro station, have a ten minute metro ride into downtown Athens, then take a forty minute train ride from downtown Athens to Kifisia Station; another option is to take a half an hour bus ride to its terminus point and then take another half an hour bus ride to Kifisia Station. Particularly when it’s roughly a twenty minute drive, these are not exactly ideal options, but there we are.

I took the option that started closest to where I’m staying. I wasn’t sure exactly where I needed to grab the second bus; I asked, and the driver seemed to not quite know himself, but sent me in a particular direction and said I should see it one way or the other.

After twenty minutes, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. I turned around.

Back where I had gotten off the first bus, I saw the bus that I wanted, but it was nowhere near where I was under the impression I needed to catch it. I verified with the driver that it was going to Kifisia Station, and then on the way out it became clear why there had been confusion — the sign for the stop I had wanted was covered in tree branches. Only somebody looking for it who knew exactly where it was in the first place would have seen it.

Anyway, I pulled into Kifisia Station right at 6:15. The Arvantises pulled in exactly as I was getting off the bus; then we had another twenty minute drive to their house. He was not kidding when he said it was not going to be easy to get to him.

The good news, on the other hand, is that he and his wife are genuinely warm and friendly people, and spent a lot of time just talking to me and giving me coffee and ice cream before we worked. And work we did; he gave a thorough exposition on his approach to explaining what Byzantine notation is, where it came from, what it does, and why it does what it does; in short, it is notation that developed to serve the text. You couldn’t really use this notation for instruments, because the signs themselves assume a relationship to syllables in a word. We spent a bit of time starting to read very simple, stepwise exercises, and then it was time to call it a night. It was time well spent, and there is no doubt there is much I will be able to learn from him. He said that there was a place within walking distance of Kifisia Station where we could meet in the future, and that this would be a lot easier on everybody.

Wednesday, I went with Anna, Stefanos, and Liana to a concert at Theatro Vrahon, one of what I’m told are several picturesque outdoor venues in the area. The show was an Athens-based pop singer named Monika, a very young (early twenties, I think) performer who reminded me of what Tori Amos songs might sound like if reinterpreted by Chrissie Hynde. She’s very engaging as a performer, has a really nice natural voice, and the songs show a lot of interesting musical instincts. I think she needs to work with a native English speaker when it comes to writing her lyrics, and she doesn’t quite yet know how to end a song all the time, but there’s a lot there to like. The only place I have found where somebody in the United States might buy her music is here, and at $1.17 for the album that’s a steal. Let me recommend “Bloody sth” and “Over the hill” as places to start to see if it’s your thing. For a 100% cost-free inquiry, here is the video for “Over the hill,” which is evidently the radio-friendly favorite off the album, given that she played it twice during the concert.

Thursday, I made an important discovery: Greek uses the same verb, κλίνω “klino” to describe both the conjugation of a verb and the declension of a noun. This explains why my inner grammar nazi has been scratching his head for the last year hearing people talking about nouns conjugating.

Also, Coraline (subtitled “The house in the fog” in Greek) was a lot better with Greek subtitles than Angels and Demons was. (Not, mind you, that we should be surprised by this.)

Friday I was an hour late to my lesson with Arvanitis. Bottom line is that the second bus just never came; I wound up taking a taxi to Kifisia Station. He hung around and waited for me, God bless him, and still worked with me for an hour and forty-five minutes, but it was nonetheless frustrating. The useful discovery that came out of it, however, is that door to door, the cab ride between where we’re meeting and my front door here is a tick less than six Euros and it takes twenty minutes. I think that’s a much more economical use of time, all things considered.

Dinner was with Stefanos and Liana; Liana made pastitsio (sort of Greek lasagna, although I don’t think they would describe it that way), which nobody ever has to twist my arm to eat, but also melitzanopita, eggplant (melitzana) baked in filo dough. I never thought I’d develop any kind of taste for eggplant, but slowly but surely, I’m making my peace with it, and melitzanopita is quite tasty. The pastitsio was different from how I’ve eaten it before, having been made with a more Turkish array of spices. (As I said, food will probably justify its own post at some point.)

Then I went home and crashed. It was a very full week.

And so it was that I survived my first week of school here, Nescafé and all.

Hello from Athens — er, rather, “Γεια σας”: in which the author just learns to process the thought, “Hey! I’m in Greece!

(That’s pronounced “Ya sas” for those of you who can’t read Greek letters.)

I checked in online on Tuesday; I was flying Indianapolis to Newark, with a nonstop from Newark to Athens. I had a window seat, and the plane was empty enough that I had two empty seats between me and the aisle. I thought I’d probably only need to check one bag, but I indicated two just to be on the safe side — I had packed an empty carry-on suitcase in my big suitcase, both to keep myself from overpacking as well as to have a carry-on for side trips, and to give myself room to pack gifts on the way back. I had an empty duffel bag in which to pack overflow if it actually turned out the suitcase was over.

Wednesday morning, when I actually checked in at the airport, I was told that they were a bit concerned about me not having enough time in Newark to make my connection, but not to worry — they would reroute me through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris if there was a problem. Still, everything looked good for the Indianapolis flight to be on time, so looked like everything would be all right. I wound up having to move a few things into the duffel bag after weighing the suitcase, and I checked both bags.

Saying goodbye to Flesh of My Flesh at the airport with me being the one taking off for the summer was very strange feeling. She’s gone away four summers in a row; now it was my turn to go off and have an international adventure and for her to stay home. How would this time be different, with our roles reversed? Ask me again in two months.

The plane boarded, we pushed off from the gate only slightly late, taxied off… and parked on the tarmac for an hour and fifteen minutes. Air Traffic Control had issued a new wheels-up time just as we closed up the plane for an hour and a half later, so there we sat. It was a tiny aircraft, and even with nobody in the seat next to me it was cramped. Air travel FAIL.

My flight to Athens was at 5:30pm; perhaps it would be delayed as well and it would be no big deal. Arriving in Newark at 5:26pm, the gate agent looked up my flight — “It’s still listed as on time,” she told me. “But who knows — you might still make it.” Of course, the gate for the Athens flight was all the way on the other side of the airport. Even with a shuttle bus, it took twenty minutes to get over there, by which time the flight was long gone. Air travel FAIL.

I was rebooked for the Paris connection; that meant waiting in Newark for another four hours, and it would also mean arriving in Athens at 4:30pm rather than 10:30am. Air travel FAIL.

Turned out I wasn’t alone; I met an IU undergrad named Alex Edwards who was on her way to participate in an archaeological dig on the island of Aevia, and for whom this was her first major international trip. “Well,” I said as we stood in line to get our flights rebooked, “the good news about this kind of rough start is that there’s someplace for the rest of the trip to go.”

The good people at the Archives of Traditional Music had gotten me a rather hefty iTunes gift card as a parting gift, so I decided to buy a pair of video glasses for my iPod and download some movies to watch on the flight to Paris. I bought Burn After Reading, Star Trek the Motion Picture, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, it turned out that, at the speed of the Boingo hotspot at Newark, it would take about three hours to download the movies, and by this point I had less than an hour. I’d have to finish downloading them once I got to Greece. Also, the goggles themselves would require charging overnight before I could use them. Finally, I discovered in horror that my iPod power/sync cable had managed to be left at home, so I had to buy one of those too. Wi-Fi FAIL; Inflight entertainment options FAIL; Richard packing FAIL.

The flight to Paris boarded late; it was also jam packed. I still had my window, but boy oh boy was I crammed right up against it for the duration of the trip. Flying Northwest I’ve become accustomed to international flights being noticeably better and more comfortable than domestic flights; this is not the case with Continental Airlines, it would seem — word to the wise. Rather than any additional legroom, with the couple sitting next to me I had exactly one inch short of enough room to extend my leg at all comfortably; as a result I had a bad cramp in my knee two hours into the flight about which I could do exactly nothing. A good number of people on that flight seemed to be there because they had missed another plane, and were all in the resulting absolutely sunny mood. Even when I went to the bathroom, within two minutes there were angry pounds on the door. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. Air travel FAIL.

Flying in over Paris really is lovely, I will say that; the countryside is green and open and seems like a place I’d be very interested to explore. On the other hand, Charles de Gaulle Airport is nothing I really needed to see under the circumstances. The best thing I can say is that between getting a coffee and croissant and navigating through the barely-organized chaos that was boarding the flight to Athens, I got to use un petit peu of my French. I will also say that I got to see the humorous sight of a group of nuns going through security and having to take out laptops.

The Paris-to-Athens leg of the trip had me, once again, packed in with the rest of the sardines, meaning I didn’t sleep — or rather, I did sleep for a bit until the flight attendant dropped a can of tomato juice into my lap. Air travel FAIL. (That said, we did get real food on the Air France flight.)

Landing at Athens International Airport, I noticed with some amusement that I could see a very large IKEA from the air, with an Orthodox church at the end of the parking lot. Yep, I thought, this is Greece.

My big suitcase was the first bag off the conveyor belt; after twenty minutes, though, it became clear that the duffel bag hadn’t made it (and neither had any of Alex’s luggage). After another twenty minutes in line at customer service, I found out the bag was still in Newark (Air travel FAIL FAIL FAIL) and would be delivered to me the next day.

So it was that at long last, my friend Anna Pougas and her dad Giorgos found me, a bedraggled, sweaty, tired Anglo in a Panama hat, ultimately about seven hours later than originally planned. Nonetheless, when Giorgos asked if I wanted to see anything before we went home, I said yes, absolutely.

We walked around Porto-Rafti, a lovely bay with beaches and swimming, as well as old trenches from World War II. We also drove by the temple of Artemis where Iphigenia is said to have been buried, and then had very decent seafood in a restaurant by the harbor. Interestingly enough, there’s a music store in the area called “Ριχάρδος Μουσικός Οίκος” (Ριχάρδος being a Hellenicization of Richard — “Rihardhos”). If I had been sharp enough at the time, I would have taken a picture. Perhaps later.

By the way — if you ever plan on coming to Greece, be aware that the culture of driving is much different from what it is in the States. Chalk Athens up as another European city in which I would never want to drive (so far, that’s just about all of them in which I’ve travelled), and here it’s because drivers here are simply much more aggressive by custom. I suppose we could say that here the rules of the road really are guidelines at best. The other side of this is that, when you’re talking about people who have driven this way all their lives, it’s not really a problem — they know what they’re doing. For me, however, I think my inexperience with that kind of driving would just make me a hazard on the road.

When we got to the Pougas’ house in Halandri, I immediately jumped in the shower and subsequently collapsed in bed. Jet lag? What jet lag?

The next day I woke up around noon. After my bag was delivered, around 3pm, Anna and I walked into the downtown part of Halandri to see if I we could get my cell phone situation straightened out. (Side note: there are pomegranate and orange trees just growing in people’s yards and on the sidewalks.) I’m an AT&T customer so my phone — a Samsung SGH-A437 — is quad-band, and they had given me an unlock code so I could replace the SIM card overseas. We went into a Vodafone store, I unlocked the phone, put in the card they gave me, and… “Wrong card,” the phone’s display told me, even after entering the PIN for the card. I tried again. “Wrong card,” the phone’s display stubbornly repeated. “It’s difficult with Samsung phones,” they told me. Cell phone FAIL. Anna said that they had an old unused phone at home that I could use for the time being; ironically, it turned out to be the same Nokia phone that Megan has loathed for the last two years.

One thing I discovered really quickly: much like London, where Anglican churches are virtually around every corner, so it is here with Orthodox churches. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a church. It’s also clear that, in most instances, the churches were here first, and people built around them (with one case in particular being a remarkable demonstration of this, but I’ll get to that later). The central church in Halandri is St. Nicholas Church, and we attended Vespers there. There’s a lot of restoration of the frescoes going on inside; on the north wall are very bright icons which have clearly been cleaned up, and scaffolds are around indicating that work is being done. From the darkness hanging over a lot of the iconography, it’s apparent that a lot of work is needed — I don’t know if it’s particulate from incense or just what happens to egg tempera after a century or so.

It was a Friday evening, and much like the States, weekday services are clearly expected to have, er, light attendance — the priest did it entirely as a reader’s service, and I mean as a reader’s service. Nothing was sung at all except for the apolytikion for Pentecost — everything else was simply read, and quickly. We were out in less than half an hour.

We walked around afterwards — Anna showed me the new church which is being built in Halandri, St. George, which she said has been under construction all of her life (her brother was baptized in the basement, where they’ve held services up until a few years ago when the nave was finally ready) and for which Giorgos later said he remembered helping to dig the foundations as a boy. Only (“only,” I say as an American who worships presently in a church that’s just trying to figure out how to not look like an office building) the apse and dome are frescoed at this point, and the bell tower is still being finished; “That’s still a lot farther ahead than many churches in America,” I said.

After our little walking tour of Halandri, we headed back to the house to find Giorgos. We were meeting Anna’s brother, Stephen, and his girlfriend Liana to go out to a movie — and I mean out. As in outdoors. Drive-in without the cars. The movie? Well, it was Angels and Demons (Dan Brown FAIL), but never mind that now. Beyond the novelty of watching it in the open air with a concession stand where I could have ordered a martini if I had wanted one, it was also a useful exercise to listen to the English soundtrack while trying to follow along with the Greek subtitles.

Saturday, Anna and I decided to head into downtown Athens and attend Vespers at St. Irene, which is Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ church. (Gavin Shearer, this paragraph is for you.) Athens’ gradually expanding metro system is really nice; on the whole, I have to give a big thumbs-up to the public transportation system here, which seems to be very useful and quite economical. I’m paying 35 Euros for a monthly pass that gives me access to everything — buses, the metro, streetcars, even some of the regional rail I think — as opposed to the 30 pounds we paid apiece for the weekly Tube pass in London. As I said, the system is new (I think it opened in 2001) and thus is still expanding, so there is no metro station near where I’m staying (but there will be one a five minute walk away in a year or so!), but the buses also aren’t too bad. (And hey, the Athens metro even has its own version of “Mind the gap”.) As it is, we made it to Syndagma Station, in central Athens right by the National Gardens, without a whole heck of a lot of muss or fuss. Real cities have trains.

Here’s some useful advice about walking around downtown Athens: there is no such thing as a soft sell there. If you’re walking around the tourist-heavy areas, everybody will be trying to get you to come into their shop or sit down at one of their tables; if you go into a shop, they will do everything they can to get you to leave some of your money there. I was more-or-less prepared for this and only went into a shop because there was something specific I wanted (a little triptych in this case), and only discussed with the saleslady the exact item I was buying, no matter what else she tried putting in front of me. Interestingly enough, she assumed I was Russian; this is not the first time Greeks have jumped to this particular conclusion about me (such as when I visited the Greek cathedral in London a couple of years ago). I’m not sure what that’s all about, but never mind. “Ευχαριστώ, όχι” (Efharisto, ohi “Thank you, no”) coming from the lips of an Anglo raised more than a few eyebrows, and not all of them with respect; I got more than one snarky “Μιλάς καλά Ελληνικά!” (Milas kala Ellinika “You speak Greek well!”) After a couple of those I wanted to reply, “Όχι, δεν μιλώ καλά και το ξέρω!” (Ohi, dhen milo kala ke to xero “No, I don’t speak well and I know it!”)

We got much-needed coffee from Χατζή (“Chatzi’s”), and soon found a rather stark example of a church being there first and people building around it. Here is the chapel of the Holy Power of the Virgin, a chapel of the monastery of the Dormition at Pendeli. In the United States, obviously developers would do everything they could to buy and demolish the property; that they don’t do that here may lead to what look like awkward solutions, but they are definitely conversation starters.

Just a little further down is the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the cathedral of Athens. Services are not being held right now while renovations are happening, but it is still open to the public. Among other things, they have the relics of Patriarch St. Grigorios V (the icon over his reliquary even depicts him hanging in front of the Phanar) and Athenian St. Philothei.

By the way — even the phone booths here are with LEMON!

And how much do you have to love being able to stand on one street corner and see a centuries-old church (foreground), a centuries-old mosque (right), and the Acropolis (hill in background)?

After walking around a bit, we ate a late lunch at Thanasis, a souvlaki place a few blocks from the Cathedral. There I developed a new love: tirokaftiri. ‘Nuff said.

As might be expected, Vespers at St. Irene Church with Lycourgos Angelopoulos as the protopsaltis was a much different experience from the Friday night Vespers at St. Nicholas, to say the least. All I can say is that was the fullest Great Vespers I have ever experienced, in every sense of the word. The church is beautiful, it was celebrated reverently without a single thing cut (although, curiously, “Gladsome light” was read, not sung — as was the Nunc dimittis, for that matter, but I already knew that to be read in Byzantine practice), and it was sung by left and right Byzantine choirs. All told, it was about an hour and a half.

Observations about churches in Greece: all but one I’ve been in so far have a left/right choir setup in front of the iconostasis in the part of the church which would actually have the architectural term of “choir” — that is, between the altar (the iconostasis in this case) and the nave, with a rail in front of the nave. This has the positive effect, particularly when one sees how the two choirs interact with each other, the clergy, and the congregation during a service, of making the two choirs integral parts of the church architecture in a way that reflects the basic cruciform structure of the building. This also strongly emphasizes that the clergy, left choir, right choir, and congregation all have distinct roles in a given service, very much unlike how in many American churches the two choirs have been collapsed into one, which is then for all intents and purposes collapsed into the congregation.

This also has a couple of effects which no doubt many Americans would immediately find distasteful: it means that the altar is farther away from the congregation than it would be without the choir, and it also means that the congregation’s role, generally, does not involve singing — at least nowhere near as much as one finds in many American parishes. While acknowledging that I say this as a church musician who has the role of singing during services one way or the other, I would like to stress that, in context, these are not the Very Bad Things that some might already be thinking they are. When it is working, there is not only no confusion, but there is really no particular reason for the congregation to sing along. The choirs are leading the worship in a different way, and to a very real extent it would seem arrogant in this context for a member of the congregation to try to sing along — the piety of the congregation is largely silent and inwardly-focused, and these are people who would be scandalized by it going any other way. Seen thus in action, I would be hard-pressed to describe the members of the congregation as not participating — it is only that participation means something else than what we often mean as Westerners. It will perhaps be no surprise to find out that I think there’s something there we Americans learning to be Orthodox can draw from this manner of piety — certainly something more than we’ve convinced ourselves is worth taking from it.

The churches also all have galleries (i.e., upper levels in which to stand in the nave), there is a tendency (but by no means a rule) to have the women standing on the left and the men on the right, they all use amplification, they all have rows of chairs, and there’s a good bit of Western-style iconography in most of the older churches. I asked Anna about the chairs; she said that as long as she can remember, churches have had rows of chairs in Greece. (Notice I didn’t say “pews”.) I am curious to find out if this a recent, urban development, or if the simple truth is that, quite frankly, the churches I’ve been in so far have been populated mostly by people over sixty. Yes, it’s true; Orthodox Christianity in Greece seems to be pretty much the faith of the elderly. God bless their steadfastness, but somewhere along the way the faith didn’t get passed on to their children or grandchildren except in a handful of instances.

The poor also tend to congregate outside of churches here. This makes sense; the churches are in population centers, and there is reason to believe that people going into the churches might be willing to be instruments of charity. This is convicting to me, accustomed as I am to the local church being well away from the rest of the world and inaccessible to the poor and being culturally accustomed to ignoring the people we deem “panhandlers”. Can I go into a church and in good conscience worship the God-man who told me to clothe the naked and feed the hungry while ignoring those very people at the door? How do I know that they are truly in need? Do I have the right to judge? What do I do? I do what I can at any given moment, I suppose, whatever that is, make the Sign of the Cross, and pray I’ve done the right thing, whatever that is.

Sunday morning, we attended Divine Liturgy at a little church in downtown Athens, St. Nicholas (there are just a few of those in the area). It was quite different from St. Irene; it was very small — perhaps seventy or eighty people would fit in there total — small enough so that they didn’t have sufficient space for left and right choirs, nor the extended choir area in front of the iconostasis. There was a very different character of service here than I found at St. Irene; there were liberal cuts all over the place (during Orthros they jumped from the Gospel reading to “More honorable than the cherubim…”, the Great Doxology was trimmed down significantly, there were only two iterations of the Trisagion instead of three, only the Resurrectional apolytikion was sung followed by the kontakion and all the festal apolytikia were omitted, etc.), and while the choir was all men, they sang almost entirely four-part music. It was somewhat disconcerting; the sound approximated that of a barbershop ensemble singing Russian music in Greek. That said, they sang with as much gusto and enthusiasm as they could muster, and it was beautiful even if it left me scratching my head a bit. The priest did not question my coming up to the chalice at all, although I did not realize unil after I had received that, with no servers, it was up to me to hold the napkin to my chin. Richard taking Holy Communion FAIL (although, thankfully, knowing the ins and outs of local parish practice are not a general requirement for partaking so far as I know).

Following Liturgy, we went across the street to the Byzantine Museum. Reading their brochure, it said that students of non-EU universities who were doing Classical Studies or Fine Arts could get in for free with a student ID; I showed my ID at the door and was told I would have to pay because I was a non-EU student. Right, I explained, having anticipated the misunderstanding; your brochure says that’s fine, given my area of study (which I didn’t think was too much of a stretch of the truth). The woman’s brow furrowed and she picked up a Greek version of the brochure. Finally she nodded, but still had a confused look on her face. “I guess that’s what it says,” she told me, and waved me in. Glad I read the fine print more closely than she did.

The exhibit there is decidedly more modest than that at the Royal Academy of Arts back in February, but it had the advantage of not presenting it as “Look at how these crazy, backwards, superstitious Byzantines did things”. It is far more matter-of-fact with less editorializing. The exhibit guide was going at far more leisurely a pace at each section than I had patience for, however, so I worked my way through it on my own. Definitely worth the visit for the iconography portion; it’s also fun to see prosphora seals from Late Antiquity.

Lunch was in an Athenian suburb a little bit north of Halandri called Kifisia; for those of you with a point of reference in the Pacific Northwest, this would be the Attiki Bellevue. We went to a souvlaki place (“Dear Lord, thank you for our daily souvlaki,” Giorgos said) called Gourounakia Kifisias (“The Little Pigs of Kifisia”), and I once again swooned over my latest crush, tirokafteri. (Food here will be an entirely separate posting, as will, I think, travel tips for the heat sensitive.)

Back at home, I called Ioannis Arvanitis and set up a meeting for Monday; shortly thereafter, I started to fall asleep while e-mailing somebody, and I decided retreat was the wiser part of valor, particularly since the next day would be my first day of school.

More to come.


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