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Posts Tagged 'international travel tips'



Vaptismata and other weekend doings

Frank, my Greek teacher at IU, invited me to the baptism of his nephew, Panagiotis. (Well, Panagiotis Phillipos, but I’ll get to that.) As usual, the complication was me getting from point A to point B, since Frank’s in-laws live in Kifisia; originally the plan (as I understood it) had been to pick me up, then to pick me up at Kifisia Station, and then I wound up taking a taxi all the way to their house.

The baptism was at St. George, a small chapel in Kifisia. Frank explained that for a family that doesn’t really go to church much, it can be difficult to get one of the nicer churches for a baptism or a wedding; you have to plan about a year in advance. Thus, it seems that infants tend to get baptized at around one or two years old rather than at a few weeks or months old.

The service in most of the particulars were very much the same as what I’ve seen in the States, with a few interesting differences. The biggest difference is that the social circle that has the most say in determining the context of the baptism is the family, not the parish. As such, this baptism in particular did not occur in the context of an already scheduled service (at All Saints we often do them during Orthros, for example), but was a more-or-less private family affair.

As an event with familial significance beyond just the practice of the faith, it is a big, rowdy occurrence, with people moving around everywhere and talking and often not paying much attention to the service itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and need not be indicative of much more than the practice of baptism being very tightly woven into the culture. That said, clergy here seem to have less compunction here about telling the congregation that they need to be quiet when it is necessary to do so. Here, part of what contributed to the tenor of the crowd was that it was outside, and when the liturgical action moved into the chapel for First Communion, really only the parents and godparents could go in.

There were a few liturgical differences I saw; for example, as opposed to Antiochian practice where oil is pretty much just dotted in the necessary spots, this kid was absolutely slathered everywhere, like a plucked turkey getting basted. The chrismation portion is done, but no particular emphasis is put on it; in other words, the crowd pretty much stops paying attention at that point. This helps to explain why, sometimes, when cradle Orthodox find out converts get received by chrismation in some circles, they get a quizzical look on their face and ask what that is. It goes by really fast, and can just seem like the last step of the baptism before First Communion. I’d be curious to see a baptism in a country like Lebanon to see if it’s the same way. Finally, since the baptism doesn’t occur in the context of a service, First Communion is part of the baptism. One small difference was that, instead of the hair from the tonsuring being burned, it was thrown into the baptismal font (pictured).

Panagiotis Phillipos is the child’s baptismal name; there was some confusion that made certain people unhappy because the priest only said “Panagiotis” at the actual baptism (“Phillipos” being a family name of significance), but the baptismal certificate will be correct. Panagiotis is the masculine form of “Panagia,” one of the terms for the Virgin Mary (Anna, my Greek teacher at the Athens Centre, is always saying “Panaghia mou!” which is roughly the equivalent of “My God” as an outburst, except referring to the Theotokos).

The reception following the baptism was much like a wedding reception in the States; it was a sit-down meal with wine and a catered buffet lunch, and everything was absolutely delicious. I got to meet many of Frank’s in-laws, although mostly I stuck with him and Vasiliki. He mentioned that down the road, I should think about applying for a Fulbright to come here; as a Byzantinist with facility in Modern Greek, particularly with the American School of Classical Studies here, he thinks it would be very a worthwhile possibility. He himself spent a year here on a Fulbright about thirteen years ago, so he knows something about the process. We’ll see.

After going home, I eventually wandered out to try to go to Vespers. I initially went to St. George nearby; as I walked in, I realized there was a baptism going on rather than Vespers. It was towards the end and the priest was giving a homily in English; I stuck around, thinking that perhaps Vespers might be going on after the baptism. However, as this family left, another family came in for another baptism. So, I struck out for St. Nicholas a few blocks down the road (gotta love being someplace where you can just walk about five minutes to get to another Orthodox parish, as opposed to driving at least an hour). Entering the church, there was — you guessed it — another baptism. It was evidently Baptism Day in Athens; that said, I don’t believe in coincidences, so I’m also musing on what I was supposed to see and what was intended to have been underscored for me by showing it to me three times in one day.

This morning, Anna and I went to St. Irene for Divine Liturgy. Arvanitis is also at St. Irene, and we had agreed to set up another lesson time there. What I might say about Divine Liturgy at St. Irene is that if you have heard the Lycourgos Angelopoulos recording The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, then you have an idea of what they do at St. Irene. They follow the Typikon very strictly, according to Arvanitis, and there are certain variations that, while being common practice in many parishes, technically depend on the presence of multiple clergy. For example, this is why “O gladsome light” was not sung at Great Vespers last Saturday — according to the Typikon, it is sung by the clergy, not by the choir, and then only when there are multiple clergy. Along similar lines, the dynamis of the Trisagion is only done when there are multiple priests, according to a strict reading of the Typikon. Besides those differences, they did the Typika instead of the stational antiphons, much like the recording, and in general did most of the same settings as found on that CD. They apparently sing the Trisagion and other hymns in the mode of the day rather than just singing one setting, so we heard a first mode Trisagion instead of the second mode version on the CD — I’d expect to hear that next Sunday. I’ll also note that they have an ambo (along one of the pillars, however, rather than being in the middle of the church), and they use it for the Epistle reading. Anyway, to put it bluntly, the Liturgy was gorgeous, prayerful, contemplative, and was so much of exactly what I wish we Americans were more comfortable with when it comes to liturgical practice, and was so much of exactly what I think many Americans fear when it comes to liturgical practice. It placed itself firmly within the received tradition without feeling the need to add its own tweaks. Say the black, do the red, and do all of both.

Receiving Holy Communion, I’m happy to say, has been more of a non-issue here in Greece than I’ve found it to be in Greek churches outside of Greece. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in Krefeld, Germany, for example, Fr. Irodion was happy to receive us at the chalice, but he was very specific about taking the letters we had brought from Fr. Peter, and there were, um, interesting looks on people’s faces when we actually communed. At St. Nicholas last week and St. Irene today, there was no issue (and I remembered to hold the cloth this time! Yay!). I gave my name as “Rihardhos,” and all was well.

Following Liturgy, Anna and I had coffee with Arvanitis at a café right behind St. Irene. I was tickled to find that the brand of coffee they were serving was “Café Barretti,” which along with the “Rihardhos Mousikos Oikos” makes Athens a city that just has my name all over it.

Arvanitis made a comment about Middle Byzantine notation that caused my ears to perk up — that at least some of the signs appear come from Palestine. Palestine? This is a possible avenue for linking this stuff to what my formal research interests are — we will see.

I am writing this while procrastinating from doing my Greek homework and ironing some shirts for the coming week, but here are a few general thoughts and observations:

I have never seen so many people roll their own cigarettes as I see here in Greece. I am told that it is because it is cheaper, but since when do smokers care about what cigarettes cost? The more compelling explanation that Frank gave me is that everything has to be done with some amount of ritual here in Greece, and rolling one’s own cigarettes lends itself to that very well. As well, there is distrust by many Greeks of American conglomerates, and with cigarettes in particular they don’t trust the additives and whatnot that go into the mass-produced smokes. I smoked one as a gesture of accepting hospitality a few days ago; this had the twofold benefit of a) reminding me that I don’t like cigarettes, handrolled or otherwise, and b) relieving me of the responsibility of having to smoke another one.

A question that has come up a few times — what is Greece? Is it Western Europe? Eastern Europe? The Middle East? In terms of the culture, religion, and geography, it seems to be the center of a Venn diagram where all of those overlap. Technically it is considered Western Europe, but then I’ve been told that “Greece is the end of the West and the beginning of the East.” Still, I could see just the opposite being argued, too.

Travel tip for people with laptops, particularly Macs: you will want a chill pad for your notebook traveling in this part of the world. My MacBook crashed twice before I realized what was wrong. Luckily, they are very readily available in virtually every electronics store here, and a decent one can be had for around 23 Euros. I have the Akasa Gemini, which is USB-powered and also has an additional USB port to replace the one it uses on the notebook itself.

Okay — homework beckons. More later.

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School’s in for the summer: in which the author tries to figure out how to make Nescafé bearable and nearly gets lost during inter-suburban transit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, I’m the only Anglo. So it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My inner voice promptly shut up. For the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

On Bright Friday: Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

This is the time of year, the last week before dead week, when I typically find myself scratching my head, thinking, “Where the heck did the school year go?”

Heck — where did April go?

Tomorrow will be the first Saturday here at home when I haven’t had to set an alarm since February. Note to self: next year, when you’re asked if you’re up to 8am Saturday Liturgies all throughout Great Lent, say “no”.

Anyway… getting home after the trip to Seattle, I was ragged to say the least, but I was nonetheless returned to your regularly-scheduled Byzantine Holy Week, already in progress. To say it was bizarre I’m not sure really covers it; being in the midst of a death in the family (and recovering from bronchitis before we left), and having missed, more or less, Palm Sunday, plus all of the Bridegroom Matins services, as well as having broken the fast while traveling, during Western Easter no less, to just drop in with Unction on Wednesday and return to fasting for all of five days just felt weird. Also, since my experience of Orthodox Christianity has been very much in the context of my marriage, having my wife gone made it even weirder. By the time people were yelling “CHRIST IS RISEN!” late Saturday night, I just had to admit — “Sorry, not feeling it this year.”

Which makes it a good thing that the Resurrection of Christ does not particularly depend on my feelings, I suppose.

Agape Vespers Sunday morning found me missing a perfect fifth at the top of my voice and in possession of an extra major third at the bottom. Such was the case for much of my choir. Folks, I will write a separate blog post about this later, but let me beseech, implore, plead with, beg you — for the health, sanity, and vocal longevity of your choir and cantors, when you decide upon a mission space or build a church, however temporary you plan for it to be, acoustics and an intentional, non-negotiable place for your choir and cantors are not a “nice to have”. They are a “need to have”. Low drop ceilings with acoustic tiles and carpets cannot be considered a reasonable option, because then your choir and cantors, who likely won’t be trained singers in the first place and who won’t have any way of adjusting for how an acoustically dead space messes with your hearing or your singing — to say nothing of your priest, particularly during Holy Week — will have really no option in the long haul but to yell through services against the room or just not be heard — and frankly, you probably won’t be heard terribly well anyway. As well, to haphazardly jam the choir into a corner they were never meant to occupy, where they are walled in by, well, a wall, the congregation, the solea, and the plane of a deacon’s door, particularly on Pascha when you’ve got extra choristers as well as people’s baskets encroaching on what is already too little space — well, it just doesn’t work very well, from any standpoint. Do not tell yourself, “Well, the space is temporary, so we’ll just make do while we have to,” either — temporary is a guest with a habit of staying late.

But I’ll come back to that another time.

After Agape Vespers, I was prepared to go home, make my Paschal nachos, bottle beer, catch up on some homework, and then go pick up my wife at the Indianapolis airport at 10:30pm.

Did you hear that? That was God elbowing me in the ribs, saying, “Gotcha good, didn’t I?”

At 3:30pm, I got a phone call from Megan at the Seattle airport. The short version is that, thanks to weather, the Chicago-to-Indy leg of her flight had been cancelled, and because it was a FAA-imposed delay which caused the cancellation, there really wasn’t much United Airlines was willing to do beyond to say, “Have a nice night at O’Hare and we’ll get you on standby the next day… at some point.”

“All you have is carry-on luggage, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“OK. I’ll see you in Chicago.”

I quickly called friends to let them know that nachos would have to wait, and I left at 4:30pm (EST) to try to intercept the 8pm (CST) flight.

Thanks to an eight-mile backup on northbound highway I-65 (the left lane was closed for construction, although no actual construction was occurring that I could see), I finally got there about 9:30pm (CST), or 10:30EST — the time I was supposed to pick her up in Indianapolis in the first place.

We got home around 3:30am (EST), making it an impromptu eleven hour round trip. Thankfully, Megan was up to driving most of the way home so I could sleep, since I had to go to work the next morning.

It was a great start to the week.

I am, however, finally caught up with all of the Greek homework that I missed while I was sick and subsequently out of town, as well as ready, more or less, for the conference paper-style presentation of my research project for the history seminar I’ve been in this semester. It will be a work in progress, and I’ve already said I’ll need an incomplete for the full paper given all the surrounding circumstances, but I at least have something to show people, and I think it’s reasonably interesting. I think. In short, it has to do with how Coptic and Byzantine liturgical texts show us how each Church builds its communal identity relating to, and institutional memory of, the Council of Chalcedon with the rhetoric employed in the relevant hymnody, synaxarion readings, and even in fixed portions of the Liturgy such as the Commemoration of the Saints in the Coptic rite, and so on.

We’ll see how it plays in Peoria. I don’t think I can assume any liturgical knowledge whatsoever, so a good chunk of my time is having to be taken explaining various segments of the different services. Hopefully eyes won’t glaze over too much.

So, besides not having gotten enough sleep in two months and coming up on the end of my part-time status as a student, I can say that I appear to have a chant teacher while I’m in Greece, I have my renewed passport, and we have Megan booked to come out to Greece for the last 9 days or so that I am there.

I had received some suggestions about chant teachers, but held off acting on any of them until a particular individual got back to me. This person finally did, saying, “Well, here’s how you get in touch with Lycourgos Angelopoulos as well as Ioannis Arvanitis.” The catch with Πρωτοψάλτης Λυκούργος, alas, is that he speaks Greek and is “able to communicate in French”; I’m not sure I want to depend on languages which are works in progress for this kind of instruction, so I sent an introductory e-mail to Arvanitis in Greek (proofread by my friend Anna Pougas, so that I wasn’t inadvertently telling him “έχω τρία αρχίδια” or anything like that) and in English. He wrote back in English, saying yes, I’ll be here, here’s my number, call me when you get to Athens. We’ll see what can actually be done in seven weeks, but I’m looking forward to actually getting to learn even the most basic of basics from somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and who has had the real thing in his ear and his blood for his whole life.

Anyway — life is slowly returning to manageable levels. At least until it’s time to leave my job and go to Greece for the summer.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull of once, part VII

Monday was our last day in England. We had an early flight out of Heathrow on Tuesday, so we had to make the day count as much as possible.

First order of business was food and real coffee. (Did I say that I don’t understand this Nescafé nonsense?) Megan wanted to try a full English breakfast, so off we went. Several restaurants within a few blocks of our hotel advertised a full English breakfast, but upon closer inspection of menus all were missing a vital ingredient — that being, of course, black pudding. In fact, black pudding seemed to be nowhere to be found anywhere, with it being replaced wholesale by tomatoes. That being the case, we finally settled on a café in Leicester Square called Fiori Corner. It was good food despite a lack of blood sausage, and I can recommend it, but do be aware that they are cash only, and they will charge for coffee refills.

Following breakfast, we headed for the British Museum. Let me tell you, if you’ve never seen it before, the British Museum is huge — so huge that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might very well assume that what you’re looking at isn’t the British Museum, because no museum would ever be that big. (By the way, the British Museum is right across from a thoroughfare called Coptic Street, and about the history of which I would be fascinated to learn more.) Oh, and by the way, while the entrance is free, everything else is not. You’ll pay, I think, £6 or so for a reasonably basic guidebook and map, and more depending on how detailed and complete you want it.

Hey -- eyes up here, pal.

Hey -- eyes up here, pal.

The British Museum is also so big that there’s just no way you’re going to see everything in a day, or even in a week, maybe. You really have to pick a specific area of interest and spend time there. We decided on Anglo-Saxon England and Medieval Europe, while quickly walking through some other areas on our way to find the Rosetta Stone. Among other things, we saw the Sutton Hoo exhibit, which while having a rather high percentage of replicas and reconstructions is still fascinating — particularly since I took a class a few years ago where the professor had worked on the site in her grad school days and incorporate the material into her lectures.

Following the British Museum, we went to the Royal Academy of Arts for their Byzantium exhibit with a stop at a place called Rendezvous in Leicester Square for gelato. It was good and hit the spot, but it was definitely expensive. I’ll also point out that the sign they had posted to let people know they can’t sleep in doorways is a bit odd. It looks like the caption should be, “No sensual reclining in doorways.”

From Leicester Square, it’s maybe a ten minute walk tops to RAA; it looks a lot farther on the map than it actually is. Piccadilly Circus, by the way, is somewhat Blade Runner-esque; if I had been there at night it would have seemed even moreso.

RAA, unlike the British Museum, is not free; bring a student ID if you have one — it’ll save you a few pounds on the entrance fee. You also pay for a specific exhibit, not general admission to the museum. Also, unlike the British Museum, there is no photography allowed.

The Byzantium exhibit is stunning; the examples of iconography are really breathtaking  and leave you wanting to venerate them, even though there are ropes that quite handily keep you from doing so. There was also a 13th-century Syriac Gospel lectionary on display; that was pretty darn cool. Something that rankled a bit was the caption on the wall about church life that talked about how the iconostasis was to keep the unholy masses from even being able to see the altar and how the chanting was done by all-male voices, words that seemed specifically chosen to play up how backwards these Byzantines with their alien form of Christianity were, but I suppose the real question is, what should I have expected?

A humorous moment was at an icon depicting St. Thomas with the Risen Christ; while looking at it, I heard a woman’s voice say, “There’s Thomas, doubting away.” I glanced at the person who said this, and it was a woman who looked to be of Indian descent, prompting me to think, “Hey, he’s your patron saint, lady.”

One of the big takeaways for me from the Byzantium exhibit was how Orthodox Christianity didn’t engage Byzantine culture; it was the culture, in a way that I don’t know Christianity can ever be again, anywhere. I’m not sure what that means in the long run; that may be a blog post for another time.

A leisurely walk from RAA to Westminster Cathedral for Sung Mass took us through Green Park and past Buckingham Palace. We bought some tea and some other gifts from one of the many Buckingham Palace gift shops; Megan hoped to find a tea cozy, but those turned out to be as hard to find as black pudding, for some reason. Finally we had coffee at the Costa across the street from the Cathedral, and then it was time for Mass.

The boys, alas, were not in residence, and neither was Martin Baker, so it was just the lay clerks serving as the choir. Nonetheless, it was quite beautiful, as beautiful as I’ve ever seen a Mass in the Ordinary Form. Very much worthwhile.

We walked back to the hotel afterwards, with me pausing to be amused by a sign from the Considerate Builders Scheme, and started packing things up. We decided to go to the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant for dinner; please let me caution you against making the same mistake. It is a tourist trap with a capital T, capital TR. The food is expensive and not good enough to merit the price (although now I know what “Toad in the Hole” is, and it would be curious to try it again someplace better), and overall it is just not worth it at all.

The next morning, breakfast was at one of the Starbucks locations in Heathrow; seemed like it was time to start re-acclimating to the American world. At long last, around 10:30pm, reluctant to wake from the dream, we stumbled across the threshhold of our little house in Bloomington, with our once-in-a-lifetime long Valentine’s Day weekend adventure completed, and the real world now calling us back.

Having the story to tell, and the memories we have of there with each other, is worth it.

Pictures can be found here.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part VI

oxford-ticket-2Back to happier things.

My initial thought had been that we could go to Hagia Sophia Cathedral in London for Liturgy on Sunday; I had only been able to quickly walk through there back in ’07, and thought it would be awesome to actually go for a service and perhaps see the folks I had met who attended there.

Turned out that the Sunday we were going to be in England was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, however, and given the role of that day in preparing for Great Lent, it seemed preferable to attend a service in English. The Cathedral does a Divine Liturgy in English on the first and third Saturdays of the month; otherwise, they do everything in Greek. (“We’re the patriarchal cathedral for the Greeks in London,” the choir director there told me when I met him. “Our services are in Greek or else.”) Alas, we were there for the second Saturday.

Plus, as Dr. Lingas had told us on Friday, it was a Sunday for Byzantine chant in English up in Oxford.

Liturgy started at 10:30; the earliest train to Oxford we could catch was at approximately 8:30am, and that got us up there around 9:50. It was about a twenty minute walk from the Oxford train station to the Holy Octagon, and I remembered where it was easily enough.

This was the first time I had seen the interior of the Oxford church; while humble in a lot of respects — it is a very simple brick building — they have done a lot with what they have. Also, while somewhat smaller than All Saints, I’d say they packed in about 30-40 more people than we typically do — it was filled to the gills. On the other hand, it was 2 February on the Old Calendar (the Meeting of the Lord, or Candlemas as doubtless some of the English converts might call it), so it being a major feast might well have accounted for the attendance.

The celebrant was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware); the homilist Fr. Ian Graham; the cantor Dr. Lingas. Talk about a delightful treat of a morning. Metropolitan Kallistos served with a great deal of enthusiasm and verve; I’ve said before that recordings really do not capture how animated he is, and I would like to reiterate that point. Fr. Ian’s homiletics are very different from what we were used to, but not in a bad way, and it was very valuable to hear on this particular Sunday. Dr. Lingas — with one other person — sang essentially a stripped down version of The Divine Liturgy in English; what was interesting was that many of the same, shall we say, pastoral realities were present as I run into at All Saints. For example, the “Dynamis” of the Trisagion was, as is the case for us, merely a repeat of the first iteration rather than a separate, longer, melismatic comp0sition. Also, as with Bloomington, as soon as the Liturgy was over — time to start chatting! In all fairness, they actually have to go to a separate building entirely for their coffee hour, so there’s no hallway into which they may just quietly slip. It was nonetheless comforting to see that such issues are not geographically limited, shall we say. One fascinating difference is that at All Saints, more or less everybody in the congregation tries to sing everything; in Oxford, the people were largely silent.

The Oxford church is on the property of something called Ss. Gregory and Macrina House; it’s a house that exists as a center for non-liturgical Orthodox activity at Oxford, including some accommodations for students and the occasional visitor. It also appears to be where the offices for the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius are presently located, and is also where the coffee hour occurs. I hope to have some occasion to spend more time there in the future.

Following Liturgy, we ate lunch at the Eagle and Child; alas, it was full enough that the Rabbit Room was inaccessible, but the bangers and mash — and the fish and chips, and the beer — were still quite tasty regardless.

The rest of the day was spent strolling around the town and the campus, and it was a gorgeous, if chilly, day for it. In some respects, it was good we were there on a Sunday — most places where we might have been tempted to spend lots of money were closed. That said, Blackwell’s is an exceedingly pleasant place to spend several hours (and perhaps hundreds of pounds). They have shelves and shelves of things which have to be special ordered here — Greek New Testaments and Septuagints, English-Norwegian dictionaries, and so on. On the other hand, Oxford is certainly a place where people with those kinds of interests are concentrated, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. One more reason to contrive a reason to move there someday. Alternately, it’s a great reason to have a little notebook in which one can write down ISBN numbers and look online for better deals in US dollars.

We attended Evensong at Queen’s College; it was almost entirely at the other end of the spectrum of liturgical practice and singing from Metropolitan Kallistos and Dr. Lingas, but it was a nice reminder of what good liturgical singing can sound like in the Western tradition. I forget how much I like a pointed psalm sung antiphonally.

Finally, it was time to go back into the city. We got good sausage rolls from a bakery called La Croissanterie, and boarded the train.

Tips: It is reasonably common to encounter cash-only locations in Oxford. The bakery was cash-only, a coffee chain called Caffè Nero, and admission to the Saxon tower of St. Michael’s at the North Gate (“the oldest building in Oxford”) was cash only. (Megan went up; I didn’t. Again, something about paying to see part of a church just doesn’t sit well.)

Evidently, if the Orthodox visitor to Oxford were to contact the Ss. Gregory and Macrina House well enough in advance, they might find that they would be able to stay there. I don’t have any other details, and they don’t have a website or an e-mail address I am able to find, so the easiest way to contact them appears to be by phone — 01865 513117.

Yeah, Oxford is still my favorite place in the universe. What can I say?

Coming soon: how we actually got to bum around, y’know, London for day, and why the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant should be avoided at all costs.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part V

magic-flute-ticket1Word to the wise: programs are £4 apiece at ENO, and cash only.

Thus it was that all I had for Emily to sign at the end of the evening was my considerably-large ticket stub.

Thus it was, too, that I kept thinking to myself throughout the production, “Man, I wonder who that Sarastro is? It sounds a lot like Robert Lloyd,” and had to ask Emily afterward, “Who was Sarastro?”

“Robert Lloyd,” she answered.

“Oh. Well, that explains everything.”

Flute was, well, Flute. I’ve seen it probably more than any other opera, and as a piece of theatre, it just doesn’t wear terribly well for me. The dramatic impetus is silly, the reversal in terms of who the bad guys are is extraordinarily abstract, and the more people try to explain how deep it actually is the more it sounds like Wolfie and Manny just pouring a bunch of pretentious nonsense onto the page. I’ve never seen a great staging of it; because it is so ridiculous, there’s not really staging so much as there is performers moving around whatever the director’s concept is. This concept involved Tamino fighting off a bear attack with the flute.

Let me say that again: there was a bear attack, which Tamino fought off with the flute.

As Frank put it, “I was not prepared for the bear attack.”

That said, as a piece of music, it is incontrovertibly wonderful. When it’s well-sung, you don’t worry too much about the ridiculousness, and luckily, this production was well-sung. It was a reasonably young cast, save for Lloyd, and everybody brought a lot of energy and musicality to the table. Emily held her own very well and sounded like a million bucks; she has always been a perfectionist in the five years I’ve known her, so I expected no less. Her overall approach struck me as being very similar to that of Kurt Streit‘s; there’s a very similar slender, shimmery, laser-pointer-accurate approach that blossoms when she’s darn good and ready for it to blossom. Like Streit, it’s a bit early music-y in that regard, and it allows a lot of musical artistry to be displayed that might otherwise get lost in the blast of a vocal firehose.

Following the show, Megan, I, Frank, Emily, and Ayla, an old schoolfriend of hers, and her boyfriend went to a bar called The Marquis for a drink. (“I’d like a Booker’s Manhattan and some nachos.” “I’m sorry sir, but we aren’t serving cocktails or food any longer this evening.” “So what can I order?” “Beer.”) Just about the entire cast and the conductor were there, too. You know, in high school, we went to Denny’s after shows for coffee and cheesesticks. In Seattle, a place called McMenamin’s provided the post-performance libation and nourishment. It’s nice to know that, even amongst seasoned professionals at a very high professional level in a different country, the initial impulse after a performance is to go out and drink something bad for you.

Afterward, it was becoming imperative that we Feed the Megan, so there was a Parting of the Couples. Frank and Emily had an early morning trip to Scotland for an audition and also needed to eat something; we hugged goodbye, affirmed that we hoped it wouldn’t be three and a half years before we saw them again, and that was that. Thanks for making time to see us, guys — it was awesome.

We had a light dinner at a restaurant called Browns. Good pasta, good wine, decent service, not obnoxiously expensive. At the request of Megan’s father and mother-in-law, we toasted them in absentia; I managed to get the cuff of my brand new white shirt in the marinara sauce.

It was Valentine’s Day, we were together, we were in England, we had seen friends, we had seen one of those friends in an opera, and Megan had given me daisies.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Then it was off to bed; we had to get up early to make it up to Oxford in the morning.


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