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Posts Tagged 'greekness'

Week 5 of grad school and all is well

The last couple of times I had a hiatus in blogging, it was because things weren’t altogether well for me.

This time, to be honest, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Things are going really well.

I’m going to repeat that, just for emphasis and the sheer joy of being able to say that truthfully and unreservedly, perhaps for the first time since moving out here over six years ago:

Things are going really well.

The last several weeks have been something of a whirlwind; after getting back from Greece I had two papers to finish, a godson’s wedding to hold crowns for, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it — er, wait. That is to say, two days after the wedding, Orientation Week started, during which I had to take a Latin and a Greek diagnostic exam; then the semester started for real, and it was off to the races.

Im photographing them being photographed. Theres something kind of uncomfortable meta about this, dont you think?

I'm photographing Matthew and Erin being photographed. There's something kind of uncomfortably "meta" about this, don't you think?

Matthew and Erin’s wedding was wonderful; we were in South Bend for the three days leading up to it to help out with various things, and it was a joy to be part of it at every step. Fr. George Konstantopoulos at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend served with Fr. Peter, and this was a lucky match for everybody — Fr. George has decades of experience and knows all of the little things that often get left out in the simplified versions of services that are often done these days. For example, I was a lot busier as the koumvaros at this wedding than I was for another one at All Saints last year — at that wedding, I just stood there. Here, I did the crown exchange and the ring exchange — and let me tell you, I was sweating it during the ring exchange. Oh, I thought. These rings are very small, and my fingers are very big. And all three sets of hands are shaking. If I drop them it will be very bad. Now I remember why I don’t do brain surgery. Fr. George also had the gravity and authority (to say nothing of the beard) that comes from many years of doing this, and it complemented well Fr. Peter’s still-youthful energy (he’s 35, I guess it’s not inappropriate to say that, right?).

The next morning, the newly-crowned Mr. and Mrs. Wells met us at St. Andrew’s for Divine Liturgy, and Fr. George gave them a big ol’ head pat during the announcements — “Matthew and Erin from Bloomington were married here yesterday,” he said, “and this morning they were here for Divine Liturgy. To me, that is an example of what living life as an Orthodox Christian is all about.” His meaning could hardly be plainer had he hoisted a neon sign saying, Please take being here as seriously as they do.

I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan...

"I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan..."

Before driving home, we headed to Chicago to see our friend Tessa Studebaker, an old singing colleague of mine from Seattle whom we hadn’t seen since before we moved to Indiana. When I met her ten and a half years ago, she worked at Barnes and Noble for the discount and was still in high school; now she’s in her upper twenties, is a college graduate, took a job in France for a while, moved back, and is possibly getting serious about somebody. It’s incredible to think that the last ten years have gone by so quickly that all of that could have happened, but there we are. It’s even more incredible that the majority of that ten years has been spent here in Bloomington — it means I’ve spent more time here than I spent in Seattle after dropping out of college the first time. It means that the address I’ve had the longest in my entire life (four years) has been here. It means that by the time I’m done with my PhD, I’ll have spent probably over ten years at a place I thought maybe I’d spend three years at the very most.

But enough with the existential pondering for the moment. I guess seeing old friends has a way of bringing that out of me.

Orientation was more or less a non-event; I’ve been here for six years, I know where the library is, my e-mail account hasn’t changed in all of that time, so there wasn’t really any particular novelty for which I required context. That said, a couple of things stick out for me — one, Ed Watts, the Director of Graduate Studies for the History department here (who also happens to be my PhD advisor), strongly impressed on everybody to find a schedule for working, a rhythm of grad school life, that gets the job done and can be adhered to, and then to stick to it. Coming from a situation where I was trying to fit being a half-time (or more like three-quarter time) student in around having a fulltime 8-5 job, that advice really resonated with me; I’ve done my best to take that to heart, and I think it’s served me well thus far.

Secondly, I observed this kind of thing while students were introducing themselves:

“Hi, I’m Jacob Goldstein, and I’m doing Jewish history with an emphasis on Holocaust education.”

“My name is Sankar Ramasubramanian, and I’m interested in modern Indian history.”

“I’m Ramon Santiago, and I do early modern Latin American history.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? It seems that who one is can’t help but inform their research interests, and the correlation there appears to be entirely natural and predictable. That said, the same correlation appears to be viewed with some amount of suspicion when it comes to Christians doing Christian history. I haven’t directly experienced that among my cohort yet, but I’ve seen it in other contexts, and something I’ve picked up on a bit is a certain point of view, perhaps almost subconsciously held, that can be expressed as, I’m interested in history because I want to prove that everybody has always been as petty, nasty, and not to be trusted as they are now. It’s a fundamental skepticism of humanity bordering on loathing (but ironically, I think its proponents would probably self-identify as humanists), and it seems to cross disciplinary and ideological lines. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.

My Greek and Latin exams evidently went well enough; for each language, I had three passages, a dictionary, and an hour. In each case I got through more or less the first passage and the first third to the first half of the second. I don’t remember what the passages were, but they didn’t generate any particular concern. I was worried, when I next saw Watts, that he’d get a concerned look on his face and say, “We need to talk,” but that didn’t happen. He just said I did very well with the Greek, and while the Latin wasn’t as good, it was still pretty good. I figured the Latin would be the weaker of the two anyway.

Then it was time to actually start classes.

So, I’m taking three classes for real, sitting in on two, and then doing some individual reading with Watts for one credit. I’m taking third year Modern Greek, a mandatory “Welcome to the History Department” course called “Introduction to the Professional Study of History,” and then a course in Classical Studies where we’re reading Ancient Greek judicial oratory — Antiphon, Lysias, and Demosthenes, namely. Modern Greek I have to take for my funding (and I should be doing as much with it as I can, anyway), and then Watts wanted me to take some upper-level Classical Studies courses so I could have a chance to sharpen my Greek a bit. The one credit of individual reading we’re doing finds us reading St. Jerome’s Life of St. Hilarion, so I’m also getting some Latin in this semester. Since I’m ahead of the game a bit in terms of my coursework, Watts thought it was important to give my languages some extra time, and he’s right — it’s been a good thing.

(Watts and I have had a couple of simpatico moments with our iPhones — today, for example, we were reading Jerome and needed to look up a word. I pulled out my sketchy little pocket dictionary, and he said, “I’ll one-up you there.” With a gleam in the eye only recognizable by the fellow geek, he pulled out his iPhone and asked, “Do you know about the Latin Dictionary app?” I didn’t, but within two minutes I had it along with its companion Greek Lexicon by the same developer.)

I’m also sitting in on an undergraduate survey Watts is teaching on the Late Antique Roman Empire, as well as a seminar in Art History called Problems in Early Christian Art. The former is really useful background, and I’m doing it instead of taking Watts’ actual graduate seminar on the same material (since I’m actually at a point where it’s vital I take seminars from people other than him). The latter is a result of recognizing a) that my interests, the way I want to talk about them, are interdisciplinary, and b) given certain realities, I will be best served doing some of the interdisciplinary work on my own time. The course is basically dealing with Christian art up to Iconoclasm; the reading is actually highly useful stuff for me, and I’m learning a lot, with certain things I can already talk about being discussed in a very different context than that to which I’m accustomed.

Anyway, it’s a lot, but it’s not a back-breaker of a schedule by any means. Yes, it’s a good amount of work, but I’m finding it easier to manage now than I found it to manage less work while having to juggle a fulltime job. It means I’ve had less time for blogging, yes, but it’s been for a good reason. I think I’m at a point where I understand the rhythm well enough that I can post a bit again.

So, in brief, that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. Coming up, there’s another wedding this weekend, that of a certain Daniel Maximus Greeson and Chelsea Coil, plus I’m also supposed to run a book review for these folks by 10 November. Plus there are any number of other things for me to talk about regarding what I’ve been reading and what I’m thinking about — it’s more “Where the heck do I begin?” than “What do I have to say?” Let me tell you, these are all problems I am thrilled to have.

I will close this post in the manner which I think I may start closing for the time being — that is, with a rundown of what I’ve recently finished reading and what I’m currently reading.

Recently finished:

Currently reading:

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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.

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.

Listening at the reliquary and taking Pentecostals by surprise: in which the author visits the island of Aegina

Fr. Nicholas Samaras, of Ss. Constantine and Helen Church in West Nyack, New York, told me when he found out I was going to Greece, “You need to go to an island called Aegina. St. Nectarios is there.”

When you buy tickets online to go to an island, you’re e-mailed a confirmation number. This is not a ticket, as the e-mail rather forcefully reminds you; you have to redeem the confirmation number for your ticket at the boating line’s office no later than an hour and a half before the boat pushes off. As my boat was leaving at 8:50am, this meant needing to pick up my ticket no later than 7:20am; furthermore, this meant needing to be at the Ethniki Amyna metro station by roughly 6:30am, which, the 404 bus being what it is on the weekends, meant waiting for it starting around 6am, which meant being up by 5-5:30am.

(Of course, the Halandri metro station reopens shortly after I leave. Sigh. I’m going to have to come back just to develop an impression of the public transportation system when a good chunk of it isn’t closed.)

So anyway, last Saturday I stumbled, still half-asleep, out of the Piraeus train station at a little past 7am. To say the least, it was a bit of a zoo; this is the time of year when everybody in Athens flees for the islands. Hellenic Seaways was where I needed to pick up my ticket, and I realized I didn’t know where that was. I headed for the nearest big sign that said “Hellenic Seaways,” which actually led me into the office of a travel line bearing a different name.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t think this is the right spot, but where do I need to go to pick up tickets for Hellenic Seaways?”

“Here,” they told me, and gave me my ticket. Um, okay.

Now, your ticket bears a gate number and the name of your boat. You would think, as I did, going off of the system in use in most airports, that gate numbers would be unique to individual boats. So, I merrily headed for gate E-8, thinking it would be obvious as soon as I got there where I needed to go.

So, the reality is, there are something like 10-20 boats per gate. It is good that I realized this, because I was sitting at a café being robbed blind sipping a mediocre at best double espresso for which I had paid 5 Euros at gate E-8 (word to the wise: don’t bother with the gate café, just get something at one of the many other cafés around the harbor) until 8:30, wondering why the heck I wasn’t seeing the 8:50 boat for Aegina anywhere. I realized, getting up and looking around some, that gate E-8 stretched quite far away from where I was sitting. Jogging over to the far side of gate E-8, there were multiple signs, kiosks, and offices telling me I was in Hellenic Seaways country, and while it hadn’t arrived yet, they showed the Flying Dolphin XV as being on their schedule to depart for Aegina at 8:50. It arrived shortly thereafter, and off we went. It’s only about 40 minutes there (Aegina is the closest island to Athens, I believe) — no time at all.

The marina in the town of Aegina is very charming; pistachio nut stands are everywhere (these evidently being one of the island’s big exports), there is no shortage of restaurants and cafés on the water, and plenty of bakeries and shops and so on and so forth.

There’s also a butcher shop right on the water that shows you exactly what you’re buying. From left to right, I believe we have a rabbit, a lamb, and a chicken:

Plus an outdoor public market:

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that Greeks are excellent at the hard sell; there were a couple of examples of that in particular I ran into on Aegina. One involved me going into a bakery where they had nothing posted on any of the pastries to tell you what they were; I would ask what a certain item was, and the game the person behind the counter played was that he would tell me, I repeated to make sure I understood, and he would take that as an order. It took me a tiropita and a zambontiropita before I realized what he was doing, at which point I stopped asking. Well, okay, to be honest, there was another factor at work here that I may have misunderstood, but I really don’t think so. I’ll explain what I mean in another post.

The other example I’ll get to shortly.

There’s also a beautiful church along the water, the Cathedral of the Dormition (also called Panagitsa). It evidently dates from 1806; one very distinctive characteristic of this church is that, in addition to the 2+ centuries of incense permeating the walls, there is a very strong smell of honey as you walk in from the beeswax candles. Like many churches here, there is an ambo, but curiously enough they have removed the steps leading up to it, leaving only the pulpit portion in what is a clear state of disuse.

On the other hand, this is what’s called a chandelier:

I walked around the harbor for a good couple of hours, simply taking things in (and unsuccessfully trying to engage an old man in a backgammon game). At that point, it seemed like a good plan to try to find St. Nectarios.

By the way, it is difficult to overstate the level of local devotion there is to St. Nectarios on Aegina; he is everywhere. Icons of him, to say nothing of other memorabilia, are in virtually every shop (as well as prominently displayed in the churches). The island of Aegina is very insistent that you know that it is St. Nectarios’ home. But you don’t know the half of it until you see the monastery.

I had originally looked at a map of the island and thought to myself, “Oh, the island isn’t all that wide; I can probably walk it.” It is an extremely good thing that I disposed of that folly and got on a bus. It was hot, it’s a lot farther than it looks, and the terrain is not exactly even. As it was, the bus was almost too hot.

The buses, by the way, are easy to find on the harbor and cheap — about a Euro and a half each way — and they take you right to the doorstep of the monastery. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll be standing on the bus, thinking to yourself that you wonder how you’ll know when you’ve reached the monastery, and then suddenly the bus is right in front of this:

And then you’re thinking to yourself, Oh. Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?

You can go to my Flickr page and peruse the pictures all you want; one of the main things I want to point out is that they’ve built two levels of galleries in the church, and the church is already freaking huge — as in, bigger than Holy Trinity in Indianapolis huge. This suggests that on 9 November, St. Nectarios’ feast day, they expect it to be packed to the rafters.

The other thing I want to point about the interior has to do with the chapel off to the south end of the nave, where some of the relics are. Particularly, the iconography — for example, here at the dome of the apse in the chapel (and I would look at the pictures of other frescoes in the chapel, too — time and space simply do not allow for a full discussion here). Does that look familiar? It should. The point is, here’s a holy man who died less than a century ago — for all I know, there is still a living memory of him somewhere. Despite being contemporary, he is still “discussed” iconographically in the same language as saints of antiquity. I suppose what I’m getting at is something I’ve said before — saints do not belong to a fixed time period. Someone is, or able to be, no more or less holy based on when they lived. In fact, we desperately need contemporary saints and to have such people in living memory presented to us in this way. It is one of the ways we are reminded of how to be Christlike, to have these models of holiness in our midst and thought of us as in continuity with (or in the tradition of, if you prefer) all of our other saints. It tells us that miracles still happen, that the Holy Spirit still moves among us, that Christ is still in our midst. Our saints need not, in fact must not, be limited to accounts from antiquity which we’re starting to talk ourselves out of believing. And local veneration is incredibly powerful — to look at an icon and to realize, “Hey, I’m standing right where that happened and where those people lived and breathed and did what they did,” is humbling beyond belief.

Speaking of humbling beyond belief, I will now tell you of the second hard sell I encountered.

I spent probably an hour or so in the church. After leaving, I started walking up the hill to the monastery proper. An old woman in what looked like a nun’s habit appeared out of nowhere, walked right towards me, and thrust an icon of St. Nectarios in my hands. “You need this,” she said in Greek. “You need St. Nectarios’ prayers for you. Fifty Euros.”

I had absolutely no idea what to do. This woman had two teeth. She had lines in her face like the Grand Canyon. Her voice had been sanded down with a lot of age. Worst yet, and what I never know how to deal with in such situations, was that there was an edge of desperation to her entire presentation that would slice through cement. I started to hand it back to her, saying gently in Greek, “Thank you, mother, but I need to think about it.”

She pushed it back towards me. “What’s there to think about?” she said. “The money doesn’t matter! What matters is that you have the prayers of this holy man blessing you and your life!” She made the Sign of the Cross in my direction, and then threw a prayer rope on top of the icon. “There, take that too.”

“No, really,” I said. “I should think about it.”

She tossed an icon of St. Marina and another prayer rope on top. “I’m telling you, the money doesn’t matter! What’s money when you have the prayers of these holy people in your life?” She hesitated a half-second, and then said, “Thirty Euros.”

“Thirty Euros?” I repeated.

“Thirty Euros.”

I gave in. It was clearly very, very important to her that I take these icons off her hands, and ultimately the thought which I couldn’t escape was, “What’s thirty Euros to me compared with what it would be to her?” I gave her the money, thanked her, and as I walked away I muttered to myself, “I just got hustled by a nun.”

Only about half of the monastery proper is open to the public; this includes two (much) smaller churches, the chapel where St. Nectarios’ body is , two bookstores, and then his cell is open as an exhibit. The main thing I want to talk about here is seeing the veneration of his body, and (to some extent) participating in it myself; this is something that up to this point was rather foreign to me as an Orthodox Christian in the United States, given that, of the three analogous examples I can think of, only two are actual glorified saints (Ss. Herman of Alaska and John Maximovitch) and all are in California or Alaska (the third is Fr. Seraphim Rose), meaning that they’re rather remote for somebody whose Orthodox Christian life has been spent in the Midwest thus far.

People knelt and prayed at the casket which held his bones; I saw pilgrims weeping; and strangest of all, I saw people pressing their ears to the reliquary, as though they were listening for some sound from within. I really didn’t know exactly where to put myself in all of this, to be honest; I lit a candle, and I prayed at the reliquary, but my emotional response wasn’t quite that demonstrative — which isn’t to say that I didn’t have one, I did, it was just rather internalized — and since I didn’t know what was going on with the listening thing, I didn’t do it.

I went into the bookstore and asked the woman behind the counter, “I’m Orthodox, but I’m American, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Why do people listen at the body?” She wasn’t sure how to answer; she said that it was a way of honoring St. Nectarios with another sense, but she couldn’t quite articulate exactly how.

All told, I spent about four hours at the monastery; I had originally hoped to be able to stay for Vespers, but my boat back to Athens was leaving at 8pm, and the bus schedule didn’t quite line up to make things work. That’s okay; as I’ve had to tell myself a number of times, this won’t be the only time I come to this part of the world.

Let’s say that there was a lot about the monastery that was spiritually overwhelming, even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything I saw. Part of why I spent so much time there is that I kept returning to the body and to the other reliquaries — there was something pulling me back to them, something that I was supposed to learn from being there. I’m still figuring out exactly what that is.

From the monastery, I took the bus to to the Temple of Aphaia which, as I noted earlier, is said to form an equilateral triangle with the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio. There really is something very cool about being able to walk around structures from antiquity like this; that said, I think I would have rather come here first and then gone to the monastery. My head was simply too occupied by what I had witnessed there to really be able to appreciate what all I was seeing at the ruin. The Temple of Aphaia is certainly fascinating intellectually, but I was very much someplace else spiritually, so it left me a little cold.

Even if that was the case, however, I have to say that there were some really beautiful views from the top of the hill. It is nice being someplace where one can see water and hills and mountains, I can’t deny that.

Something that was really bizarre: there was a father and son walking around the ruin, and I heard them speaking German. I addressed them in German, and we talked a bit. They were just in Greece for the weekend(!), and I found out that the boy would be going to high school in Boston. No, that’s not the weird part. The weird part was that I started sentences in German but kept finishing them in Greek. My mouth really, really, really wanted to default to Greek, and I had very real trouble staying in German. I kept having to apologize — luckily, they just laughed and took it in stride.

Anyway — I didn’t spent four hours at the Temple. More like one and a half.

I got on the bus back to the harbor. I had a Frappé (I am going to have to get a handheld mixer when I get back to the States so I can make these blasted things myself), and then settled down for a grilled fish dinner at Inomagirion, one of the waterfront restaurants. The fish was very good, as a local resident assured me (pictured left), and I had to agree with him, although he kept wanting to verify that it really was as good as he remembered. Being thankful for his help, I obliged a reasonable amount. (Best meal he’s had in weeks, I would have to guess.)

I tried to go to Vespers at Panagitsa before taking the boat back to Athens, but as it started at 7pm and was combined with 9th Hour, so I had to duck out at 7:30, when they had just begun “Lord I have cried…” Alas.

On the boat back to Athens, I became aware that the young (mid-20s, maybe) couple sitting next to me was American. Their names were Erin and Jeremy. We got to talking, and it turned out that they were Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God variety. Erin has been working for some time in the Dominican Republic for a ministry that deals with troubled youth called New Horizons; “If you’ve heard of us, it’s probably from bad publicity,” she said. “We get that a lot.” Well, there came a point in the conversation where I was asked point blank what I was, and I was obliged to tell them I was Orthodox (“Greek Orthodox,” I said, for purposes of convenience) — not that I had been hiding it, mind you. I brought up the St. Innocent Academy after she talked about New Horizons, for example.

Anyway, the point is, after I told them I was Orthodox, she got a funny look on her face. “Really?” she said. “I’m sorry — from the way you were talking, I would have thought you were Christian.”

Let’s not even go into what my inner monologue was doing at this stage of the game. I just smiled and said, “I am.”

“Really? I thought Greek Orthodox were like Catholics. Well, okay, so Greek Orthodox think of themselves as Christians?”

“Yes, we do.”

The funny look became an intensely puzzled look. “Like, do you guys have a personal relationship with Christ and all of that?”

“Absolutely,” I said, although the inner monologue continued without me — just not exactly in the same way you mean that…

“Well, okay, then what’s a basic summary of what you guys believe?”

“That’s the easiest question you could have possibly asked me,” I said. “It’s very simple, and it goes like this: ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…'” and I proceeded to recite the entire Creed for her.

The puzzled look got even moreso. “Okay, so then what’s the difference between Greek Orthodox and Pentecostal?”

Keep in mind we only had a forty minute boat ride.

I chose to explain, broadly, that we see a continuity, rather than a disconnection, of Christian history over the last 2,000 years, placing ourselves in line with that, and as such believe we are in continuity with the Church of the Apostles. And just today, I saw one of the latest heroes in that history, I thought to myself.

“Huh,” she said. It was clear she had never heard anybody talk this way before.

I don’t know what they will do with that, if anything; I spent a little bit more time with them after we got off the boat, helping them find a bus stop that would get them back to their hotel. (Boy, I sure hope it did. Some of the streets around Piraeus at night are a little sketchy.) They were nice folks, even if it still amazes me that… well, maybe it shouldn’t.

By the way, I asked Fr. Samaras about the whole business of pilgrams listening at St. Nectarios’ body. He said this:

People have reported, for years now, that they’ve heard the Saint tapping back, or have heard some kind of music, or the sound of a Bishop’s staff knocking. So, people continue to listen. […] This tradition only happens with Saint Nektarios, the people listening. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.

So, there you have it. Next time I’ll be preapred.

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:

“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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