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Posts Tagged 'athens centre'

Waking up in the middle of the night and not being sure where I am

I’ve been back in the States since about 4:50pm last Wednesday, and back home since about 1:30am Thursday. A wedding, a paper, and some other efforts are now presently occupying me for the remainder of the month.

There’s a lot regarding the last two or three weeks which I’m still processing. Some of it I can talk about, some of it I can’t, and I can’t even really explain why I can’t talk about it because to even do that is to talk about it in a way I really shouldn’t do.

I learned a tremendous amount on this trip. What I learned is not necessarily what I went to Greece thinking I would learn. The principal objective, to improve my Greek, has been accomplished, but there’s so much more I need to do. One year of university classroom instruction and eight weeks in the Mother Country really only gets you so far. Thankfully, I will have another year of classroom instruction, and I find it likely I will apply for the FLAS again for next summer, but it really is a marathon and not a sprint.

My secondary, personal objective, to be able to study Byzantine chant with a “native speaker” as it were, was also accomplished. I can now look at a Byzantine score and at least have some idea what I need to do with it. We’re talking about the basics here, to say the least, and I need to keep up with what Arvanitis taught me in order to not lose it, but that’s a lot better than I was able to do on my own in Bloomington. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be possible for what I learned to have any practical application at the parish level, which troubles me somewhat; if I learned all of this stuff strictly for my own benefit and not for the service of the Church, I’m not sure I see the point. Nonetheless, Arvanitis really was a gem and exactly the kind of person with whom I needed to be studying; he was able to discuss the psaltic art not just from the standpoint of applied performance but also in terms of historical development and paleography, and even more than that, he was a grade-A human being all around. It was a joy to get to know him and his wife Olga, however briefly, and if I go back next summer, I look forward to being able to do more with him.

imam bayaldi... Mmmmmm. on TwitpicI also learned that a well-made Frappé is a decent — and addictive — use of otherwise useless instant coffee. This was an unanticipated, and pleasant, lesson. In other matters relating to food, my newfound appreciation of eggplant and zucchini represents a brand-new chapter in my life.

Unfortunately, something else I learned is that regardless of culture, language, or creed, somebody can be well-meaning, well-intentioned, and earnest and still encounter people who will irrationally decide at first sight that they don’t like you, and nothing you can do will change that. Rules of communicating with normal, rational people just don’t apply, and the best you can do is to try to not have a person like that in a position of power over you. I will re-emphasize that this has nothing to do what one’s nationality or native tongue is; there is neither Jew nor Greek here, as it were. It is a lesson which transcends linguistic, ethnic and cultural barriers — it just happened to be in Greece that this was made manifest to me.

Next year, if I do this again, there are things I will do differently. I will make different living arrangements, and look for a short-term apartment rental (unless Egeria Home Exchange is up and running and comes up with a decent fit). I will also leave more time on either side of the school commitment for traveling — eight weeks really isn’t all that much time for such things when you have someplace to be four hours a day, five days a week.

More specific reflections will have to wait for a bit.

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When the mother country would rather speak to you in your language than have you speak to them in theirs

I started my last week of class today. It’s Immersion Level V. Different teacher, different classmates. Different ballgame, in fact. Why?

Well, here’s the deal. There are two other people in the class — one is Fedelique, a French woman who has been in Greece for thirty years. Thirty, as in 3-0. Her Greek is already nearly flawless. Why is she taking the class? Because she’s spent much of that time in the country, and she wants to sound more like an Athenian.

The other person in the class is Irini, a young Greek American woman (who, incidentally, just graduated from IU and was also a student of Frank Hess’ during her time there) who, you guessed it, has grown up hearing it all of her life, speaks it nearly flawlessly, and is mostly here killing time before she starts law school at University of Chicago. Dimitra, the teacher, is a native speaker, φυσικά.

Oh yeah, I’m there too.

At the break, Dimitra asked me, “Is this going to be okay for you?” She asked this because all three of them were speaking so quickly in class that I clearly had major comprehension difficulties. Even simple sentences I couldn’t follow because of how words were running together; even when they slowed down, words were compressed together in a way that I couldn’t even break out the individual words properly the way they were talking, let alone parse them correctly.

I explained. I had a good chunk of Ancient Greek before I started Modern Greek; this gave me enough of a grammatical foundation for Modern Greek that Frank thought it appropriate to bump me from first semester to fourth semester; this had the benefit of keeping me from being bored out of my mind for three semesters, and keeping up with the grammar was no problem, but the university classes unfortunately did nothing for my listening ability. In first semester, people spoke slowly and made a lot of mistakes; in the fourth semester, they were speaking really fast but still making the same mistakes. My ear had nothing to latch onto, and when Frank spoke I didn’t have any idea what to listen for, because while he was speaking correctly, he was also speaking quickly. So, I’ve been hearing it spoken for less than a year, and mostly by non-native speakers. Reading comprehension isn’t a problem, grasp of grammatical concepts isn’t a problem, I just need everything repeated five times in order for me to get half of it.

Here, my problem has been that Greek people don’t want to speak Greek to me once they find out I’m an American or hear any hint of an American accent. Remember what I said about the guy at the bakery on Aegina? That was the other dynamic to that encounter. I asked, in Greek, what a particular pastry was; “Cheese pie,” he said in English. “Τυρόπιτα;” I repeated in Greek, to try to emphasize that he should talk to me in Greek, at which point he just nodded and put one in a bag for me. I asked again, in Greek, what something else was, and exactly the same thing happened. I have to be honest and say that I don’t understand at all what happened there; if it really was a way for him to hard-sell me or if it was just that confusing to him that I was trying to speak to him in Greek. At a café yesterday, I told the waiter, in Greek, I was ready to pay, and he replied in English, “You want the check?”

Then there was the guy who played a song for me and said, “It’s in Greek. Listen and see if you can understand.” The first line of the song wasn’t even over when he just started translating, making it impossible for me to hear the Greek words at all.

The other frustrating part is that there are times when I get hung up on a particular part of something somebody says, and I’m trying to parse it in my head, and the other person just assumes I didn’t understand any part of it and repeats the whole thing in English. Or, perhaps the person repeats in Greek, explaining the meaning of every Greek word in English as they go.

“Yeah, that’s very common,” Dimitra said, nodding. It’s difficult because I could really slow down the flow of the class for the other two, but grammatically it’s the most appropriate section for me to be in. She’s not sure what to tell me except that when I don’t understand something, I need to insist on having it explained, and that she’ll give me as much advance warning on readings and whatnot as she can so that I have time to prepare. The bottom line is that I’m only there for the first week, so it won’t be too disruptive. It’ll be a good closing windsprint for me, I suppose, then I’ll be gone and they can do what they need to do.

I mean, fine, I get that if you’re not a language pedagogue, and your English is better than my Greek, it’s probably just going to be faster to speak in English. However, that can come across sometimes as “You’re really wasting your time, to say nothing of mine, by trying.”

The part that I wonder about is this. Since I was thirteen or so, my musical tastes have, in one form or another, included material to which I cannot listen for content. Cocteau Twins was the first dip of the toe into this kind of thing; that plus the years and years I listened to opera (to say nothing of sacred music) before I was ever able to study the languages meant that I had to ignore the meanings of words and simply listen to sounds. This means I have spent God only knows how many hours over the last twenty years or so with that part of my brain deliberately disengaged when I listen to a large chunk of my music collection. Might this be an issue? I really don’t know — I want to say I didn’t exactly have this problem with German, French, or Italian, but I also never tried to do quite as much with those three.

Maybe the bottom line is just this — a lot’s been crammed into my head in the last year and it needs time to settle and take root. I am, to be sure, hearing better now than I was six weeks ago, it’s just not as dramatic of an improvement as I would have liked. As well, in the last class and in this class, I’ve started to get used to new words being explained to me in Greek, and Anna, the teacher from levels III and IV, said that she thought I was probably ready to start using a Greek-Greek dictionary. That’ll help with vocabulary, sure — but I’m not sure what it will do for my listening comprehension.

Guess it’ll be interesting to see how the week goes.

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?

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:

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.


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