Posts Tagged 'ioannis arvanitis'

A psalterion is empty

Eleven years ago, when I first started investigating the Byzantine chant repertoire of Orthodox sacred music, my friend Mark Powell gave me some advice — track down the Divine Liturgy recording by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir. Hard to find, he said, but it’s the real deal.

I did indeed track it down — I couldn’t find it on Amazon or on any of the usual CD websites, but I eventually found a Canadian retailer who specialized in Greek things who had it. I remember popping it into my CD player and not having any idea what to expect, and the first “Ἀμήν” just about knocked me out of my chair with its wall of men’s voices.

That CD became my benchmark for what good Byzantine chant sounded like. Other discs became other benchmarks; Cappella Romana’s Divine Liturgy in English became the benchmark for good Byzantine chant in good English, for example. In terms of a general snapshot of the sound of Byzantine chant done well, however, the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy remained the standard.

At some point, the label Opus 3 made new stock available of the Divine Liturgy disc. It became the kind of thing that I would make sure to have extra copies around, and over the span of a few years, I gave away countless of them to people. A couple of years ago, Opus 3 apparently discontinued it, and it’s back to being scarce. Too bad.

I discovered other recordings by the Greek Byzantine Choir — their Koukouzelis disc, their Mother of God disc, their Christmas disc, the Akathistos Hymn, the anthology that alternates their recordings with some by the Serbian Orthodox singer Divna, and so on. I also found my way to Angelopoulos’ recordings with Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. These recordings were all gateways to different corners of the tradition, and each one became both a treasure and a learning tool.

Five years ago, I had the chance to go to Greece for the summer. I wrote Alexander Lingas a note asking, whom can you recommend for Byzantine chant teachers in Athens? His suggestions were Lycourgos Angelopoulos and Ioannis Arvanitis, and essentially, he said, it boiled down to language. They themselves were exemplary students of the same teacher, Simon Karas, but Angelopoulos spoke no English, really, only Greek and French; Arvanitis spoke very good English. Well, I opted for Arvanitis — I speak some French and I was in Greece for an immersion Greek program, but I didn’t really want my chant education to be in a language that was itself still in progress for me. I studied with Arvanitis all summer while attending Agia Irini, the church in Athens where both he and Angelopoulos chanted, so I certainly heard plenty of the psaltic ethos represented on the Divine Liturgy disc in person while I was there.

While I saw and heard him quite a bit in the flesh that summer, I never did actually get the chance to meet Angelopoulos — well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I had chances, but I chose not to introduce myself, I guess because I figured that, as my teacher, if Arvanitis thought it was appropriate to introduce me, he would do so. For the same reason I never went up to chant at Agia Irini that summer; my assumption was that if my teacher thought that was a good idea, he’d tell me. (It wasn’t until later that John Boyer told me, yeah, no, that’s not really how it works — you just go up and tell him you’re Arvanitis’ student and my friend, and he says, great, stand here and sing with us.)

After that experience, I developed other 1-degree-away connections; John Boyer, certainly, who was a student of both Angelopoulos as well as Arvanitis; Alexander Lingas, whom I got to know a bit better at Oxford Patristics in 2011; my friend Taso Nassis, a Chicago psaltis who had also studied with Angelopoulos and Arvanitis for years, was personally very close to both, and had absorbed just about everything both had to offer. Another friend, Brian Whirledge, went to Athens a couple of summers ago to study with Arvanitis, and he sang for Angelopoulos at Agia Irini while he was there as well.

Somewhere along the way, I also developed an awareness that Byzantine chant had its own internal squabbles, and that Angelopoulos and Arvanitis (and, by extension, the friends I had made in connection with them) tended to be seen as on a particular side of those squabbles. I still don’t really understand what that’s all about, and I don’t really need to understand; suffice it to say that I’ve always been grateful for both what I’ve been taught and how I was taught it.

Three days ago, Sunday morning, I had the good fortune to be singing Orthros and Divine Liturgy with Cappella Romana at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. To be joining Cappella as a psaltis for concerts and services of Byzantine music was, in many ways, the closing of the circuit that was started all those years ago when Mark, Cappella’s Executive Director, told me to find the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy disc. Further, we were singing a lot of things that morning that one hears on that recording. Towards the end of Liturgy, one of the psaltes checked his phone, and suddenly he was trying to get Alexander Lingas’ attention. Alex saw the phone, looked dismayed, and made the Sign of the Cross. My colleague showed me the phone — “Lycourgos Angelopoulos has died”, said the headline.

As part of our encore that afternoon, Alex gave a brief memorial speech about Angelopoulos, and we sang “Memory eternal” before launching into the medieval melody from Jerusalem for “Χριστὸς ἀνέστη”. Shortly thereafter I got a text from John saying that he was heading out to Greece the next day for the funeral.

While I never met Lycourgos Angelopoulos, it is safe to say that both in terms of his professional as well as his personal output, he had a great deal of influence on my development as a church singer and as an Orthodox Christian, even as I have been but an outlier in that structure. It seems a fair observation that what Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has been for theology — a strong center of pedagogical gravity and  the hub of a far-reaching network of students — Lycourgos Angelopoulos has been for the psaltic art. He has been Libanius for Byzantine chant, perhaps. Lycourgos in antiquity may have been Νομοθέτης, the Lawgiver; perhaps this Lycourgos may be fairly remembered as ψαλλοθέτης.

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place. Καλό ταξίδι, Δάσκαλε. Αιωνία η μνήμη σου. Ζωή σε μας.

I close with two pieces from other people — first, my 2011 translation of an article on the 30th anniversary of the Greek Byzantine Choir; second, a reflection by John Boyer on the death of his personal friend and teacher of so many years:

Αιωνία η μνήμη του Δασκάλου! Ζωή σε μας!
May the memory of our beloved teacher be eternal!

The joy I have experienced these last few days with my classmates, friends and parents during festivities surrounding graduation from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is tempered today with the sad news of the passing of my beloved teacher in the art of Byzantine Chant, Archon Protopsaltis Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I began studies with Mr. Lycourgo in the Summer of 1996 and remained in frequent contact with him over the last 18 years – half of my life. Never have I met a more dedicated teacher in the Psaltic Art; Lycourgo had hundreds of students over the last few decades, many of whom went on to become great cantors in their own right, others who became great scholars in Byzantine Music, others who went on to become clergy, still others who took the knowledge and skill he passed on to them to their ascetic lives in monasteries and convents. The Clan of Angelopoulos students reaches the far corners of the earth, as do the scores of recordings of his groundbreaking choir, Η Ελληνική Βυζαντινή Χορωδία (The Greek Byzantine Choir).

A controversial figure, to be sure, those who know him personally know him to have been a loving yet strict taskmaster, a consummate teacher, a faithful Christian, extraordinarily generous, with a witty sense of humor and a voice that could move mountains. I have had the honor of chanting with my beloved teacher numerous times in many different venues, most recently at his home parish of St. Irene’s in Athens last Summer. I will never forget the sound of his voice, the twinkle in his eye, his inspiring and moving chanting and his profound gift for directing a choir. Who I am today as chanter, teacher and conductor I attribute greatly to the time I was so blessed to spend with the great Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I can only aspire, along with many others of his students, to carry on his torch of Byzantine Music, especially here in the United States, not simply as cantor but as teacher, conductor, composer and promoter of this traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church. Αιωνία η μνήμη αυτού. Ο Θεός να τον αναπαύσει. May his memory be eternal. May God lay him to rest. Χριστός ανέστη! Christ is Risen!!!

With sadness and love in the risen Christ,

John Michael Boyer, MDiv.
Protopsaltis, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco
Lambadarios, Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline, MA

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place.


A word about Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before I review it

“Although there now exist polyphonic choral settings of the Divine Liturgy by composers representing nearly the full cultural spectrum of Eastern Orthodoxy,” writes Cappella Romana‘s Artistic Director Alexander Lingas in the liner notes of their new recording, Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom,

those produced by Greek American composers remain little known. Indeed, Orthodox Christians from Europe or the Middle East visiting Greek Orthodox churches of the United States are frequently surprised or even scandalized to hear the Sunday Divine Liturgy sung not by cantors employing Byzantine chant, but by a mixed choir singing harmonized or polyphonic music that is often accompanied by an organ. Viewed from such an outside perspective, Greek American liturgical choral music would seem to be little more than a peculiar — or, as some critics of polyphony would maintain, an ill-judged and extreme — instance of inculturation. While there can be little doubt that ideologies promoting cultural adaptation (or even assimilation) to prevailing cultural norms have influenced the development of liturgical singing in Greek America, emphasis on these aspects of its history can all to easily lead to facile dismissals that ignore its many complexities of provenance and expression.

Wow, that’s a mouthful for a CD booklet, isn’t it? And yet, there it is. As one tasked with reviewing this particular disc, I feel that I must unpack this a bit to give the recording proper context for people who may not be familiar with the issues to which Lingas refers. This is going to be rather subjective and impressionistic, but I think it all has to be said before I can write my review.

Who gets the final say of what constitutes what something “should” sound like? What is “authenticity”? What’s “authentically” American? What’s “authentically” Orthodox? What’s “authentically” “authentic tradition” or, more specifically, “authentic sacred music”? Can something be “authentic” to the “lived experience” of some Orthodox but not others? How do you work out the question of the authority to resolve such questions? We can appeal to Tradition — but interpreted by whom? Is it up to bishops? Bishops can be wrong. Is it up to musicians? Musicians can be wrong. Is it up to “the people”, whatever we mean by that? “The people” can be wrong. How do you deal with change within a rubric of Tradition so that you are neither unnecessarily reactionary nor unnecessarily innovative?

These questions are vexing for Orthodox Christians in this country. I didn’t really understand just how vexing when I first started attending services; I had initially thought that Orthodox musical issues were largely free of strife. (Stop laughing. Seriously.) I came from a high church, or at least sacramental and liturgical, Protestant setting where the jockeying was over pride of place in the  schedule between the spoken service, the “contemporary” service, and the organ-and-choir service. The church where I was going had had the music-free service at 8:30am, the praise band service at 10am, and then the organ-and-choir service at 11:15, and the demographics basically amounted to the blue-hairs (and the Barretts) going to the 11:15 service and all the young/youngish middle/upper-class families going to the 10am service. (All of the really old people went to the quiet service.) The priest really favored the 10am service, and the musicians who played for that service were the ones who had his ear; the organist and the choir were rather treated as a necessary evil at best by most of the 10am crowd (I remember that the guy who led the praise band wouldn’t even say “hi” to people in the choir if our paths were to cross), and in all fairness, the organist tended to act like the praise band people were in the way. (Which, again in all fairness, from her perspective, they kind of were, with amplifiers and instruments obstructing traffic patterns for the choir if they were left out.) It really meant that there were two different church communities, and you were defined by which service you attended. (Ironically, as much as the 10am people thought the 11:15am people were snooty dinosaurs, the 11:15am service was really pretty “contemporary”-feeling in retrospect, or at least pretty low-church. As somebody who had been confirmed in more of a high-church context, my Anglo-Catholic instincts tended to be smiled at but ignored.)

In 2004, my second year in the School of Music at IU, I was asked to write a set of program notes for a choral performance I was singing in of Gretchianinoff’s setting of the All-Night Vigil, outlining the liturgical context of the service. I did the best I could with what I thought I knew at the time, and I included the following discussion of the a cappella tradition within Orthodoxy:

Historically, instruments have no place in Orthodox worship; organs are a recent development in some Greek parish churches in the United States, but those are generally examples of communities that have moved into pre-existing buildings that already had organs, and then simply adapted to what was there.

My first glimpse into just what disagreements there could be over Orthodox church music was when Vicki Pappas, the then-National Chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, came to the Gretchianinoff concert. She talked to me about the notes afterward and said, “Very good on the whole, Richard, but that’s just not true about organs. Greeks love their organs, and have built many churches with the intent of having them.” That seemed quite contrary to what I had been told up to that point about a cappella singing being normative, and I wasn’t clear on where the disconnect was. Little did I know.

Last year, the Saint John of Damascus Society was asked to write a script for an hourlong special on Orthodox Christmas music that would have been aired on NPR. I wrote the script, but for various reasons the full program shrunk down to a segment on Harmonia instead. Anyway, as I was writing the segment and assembling the program for it, one of the people I was consulting with objected to Cappella Romana‘s recordings being used for some of the contemporary Greek-American polyphonic composers like Tikey Zes. “They sing Tikey’s music like it’s Palestrina,” this person told me. “Real Greek Orthodox choirs don’t sound like that. Let me get you some more representative recordings.” The problem, though, was that the recordings this person preferred weren’t really up to broadcast quality. They were more “authentic” to this person’s experience of how the music is used in church, but they were problematic to use in a setting where one needed to put the best foot forward.

Coming from an Anglican background, this struck me as an odd criticism, and it still does. My church choir in Bellevue didn’t sound anything like the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge, but I would certainly rather give somebody a King’s CD if I wanted them to get an idea of what Anglican music sounds like rather than get an ambient recording of a service of my old choir. Is it representative of what it “really” sounds like? Is it representative of what it should sound like? I can’t definitively answer either question, but it’s the ideal of sound I have in my ear for that repertoire. Whether or not the average parish choir sounds like that isn’t really the point. Still, that’s an argument that doesn’t satisfy the “lived experience” criterion.

At the same time, the presence of robed choirs and organs means that there’s some jostling that happens with people for whom the Orthodox Church’s traditional repertoire is chant, period, with opinions strongly held on both sides. There’s the issue that the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued an edict in 1846 forbidding the liturgical use of polyphonic music, and I don’t think that anybody denies that this exists, but it seems to me that there’s a good deal of disagreement about just what it means for American congregations in 2013. In any event, the fact that Orthodoxy still usually follows the one-Eucharist-per-altar-per-day canon means that you can’t split a church community along musical lines exactly, but nonetheless the solution in a lot of places is to institute aesthetic fault lines between services. Generally, what this looks like is that that Matins/Orthros is the domain of a lone cantor (or two or three) up until perhaps the Great Doxology, at which point it’s taken over by the choir. This interrupts the intrinsic unity of the services as they are intended to be served according to present-day service books, but it’s a solution. Speaking personally, I have put a good deal of time and effort over the last several years trying to become at least a competent cantor, and I’ve experienced the glory that is Orthros and Divine Liturgy being treated as a seamless garment sung in one musical idiom by the same people throughout, but I’m also not fundamentally thrown off by the presence of a polyphonic choir singing polyphonic repertoire.

While I’m thinking about it — I was surprised to discover that there is not, exactly, agreement over what exactly constitutes “Byzantine chant”. As I was taught, “Byzantine chant” indicates a particular process of composition of monophonic melodies for Orthodox liturgical text, employing a particular musical idiom with its own relationship to the text, theoretical characteristics, notational system, vocal style, and practice of ornamentation, informed by oral tradition (or, to use words perhaps more familiar to Western musicians, “performance practice”). In other words, it is not a fixed, bounded repertoire, but rather a living tradition; you can compose “Byzantine chant” for English texts by following the compositional process and sing the result with the proper style and performance practice. For English, this perspective probably prefers the work of Ioannis Arvanitis, Basil Crow, Papa Ephraim at St. Anthony’s Monastery, John Michael Boyer, and the like. This is also essentially the point of view presently taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology by Dr. Grammenos Karanos (more about them here).

At the same time, I’ve encountered the point of view — from both cradles and converts, people who are theoretically knowledgeable and people who aren’t — that that’s not Byzantine chant at all. Byzantine chant, according to some, actually is a fixed, bounded repertoire for Greek and Arabic; for one reason or another, so this point of view goes, a fresh setting for an English text might be a number of things, but it isn’t Byzantine chant anymore. (Either because the compositional process is imperfect for English, doesn’t work at all for English, or is irrelevant in the first place, depending on to whom one speaks.) The whole idea of formulaic composition here is set aside; it’s the melody that already exists that’s important, not the relationship of the melody to the text by way of those melodic formulae, and that melody needs to be preserved for it to still be “Byzantine chant”, even at the expense of proper formulae or orthography. This perspective would find, for example, Fr. Charles Baz’s transcriptions of the Basil Kazan Byzantine Project into Byzantine notation not just acceptable, but preferable to the work of the composers mentioned above.

And then there are still other “sides” within what I’ve outlined above. The bottom line is, there is more than plenty to argue about where music is concerned. For my own part, I try to be a specialist but not a partisan, and I think context matters. I don’t think that means “anything goes”, but to the extent that traditions of liturgical crafts have historical contexts (even Byzantine chant!), I’m not sure how much it accomplishes to pick fights. Part of the problem, as I’ve experienced myself, is that there aren’t a lot of people who are sufficiently well-trained Western musicians and Byzantine cantors, such that they can adequately participate in, or even comprehend or relate to, both contexts. There are some, but not many, and there’s generally not a lot of interest on the part of one “side” in learning about how the other “side” does things. I am able to go back and forth between the psalterion and the choir loft to some extent — I suppose I’d say I’m equally clumsy in both contexts — and I’m interested in what goes on in both, but I have my own opinions that I bring with me, certainly. (You don’t say, you’re both thinking.) I don’t like the hodgepodge of whatever random music might be thrown together that it seems to me that the choir loft can become. I don’t like a structure of liturgical responsibility that effectively tells a cantor, “We want you to cover all of the services that nobody comes to” (let’s be honest here). At the same time, if “Byzantine chant” is understood principally as “what the old guy whose voice is nasal and can’t stabilize on a single pitch, and who should have stepped down 25 years ago but didn’t because there wasn’t anybody to take his place, does before Divine Liturgy”, then that’s its own problem, one that we cantors need to be proactive about fixing. In general, we church musicians, cantors and choristers alike, need to be a lot more proactive about, shall we say, reaching across the nave and educating ourselves about our own musical heritage and where the stuff we might individually prefer actually fits in.

Okay, so then there’s the question of how an ensemble like Cappella Romana fits into this picture. As a professional choral ensemble that specializes in a particular kind of repertoire — Orthodox liturgical music in all of its variety — but one that is also led by a Greek Orthodox Christian and that has a substantial, though not exclusive, Orthodox membership on its roster, what is their role? Do they have a responsibility to follow a particular ecclesiastical agenda, even though they’re not an ecclesiastical organization? To put it one way, is their job descriptive or prescriptive? Are they a de facto liturgical choir that is only to record and perform in concerts the music that “should” be done in churches? Or, as a performing ensemble first and foremost, are they perhaps the kind of ensemble that should be exploring repertoire like Peter Michaelides, medieval Byzantine chant, Fr. Ivan Moody, and so on? Maybe they get to be the King’s College Choir, as it were, that records and performs things that would likely never be used liturgically, nor be appropriate to be used liturgically. But then, just as the Choir of King’s still sings daily services, Cappella has its “pastoral” projects, like The Divine Liturgy in English, where they are most definitely trying to disseminate an ideal of sound for churches to emulate. Alas, in some circles this argument of a two-sphere approach generates the the rather grumpy insistence that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, or at the very least that art is a luxury that Orthodoxy cannot afford in in its current context in the New World. To me, that’s absurd, but as I have my own Orthodox artistic music project in the works, perhaps I’m not the most objective of critics where that point of view is concerned. At the very least, even if one is to ultimately dismiss liturgical use of the repertoire, I might suggest that Greek-American choral repertoire, not unlike the Greek idiom of vernacular music known as rebetiko, is worth understanding on its own terms at a musical and sociological level. (If you’re wondering what I mean by that, a full discussion is perhaps beyond our present scope, but I might submit that Greek American choral music, like what I understand is the case with rebetiko, can be seen as essentially a folk repertoire born in a context of emigration.) At any rate, thank God that it’s an ensemble like Cappella Romana taking it on, where the leadership and at least some of the membership have an intimate understanding themselves of the various elements at play.

And finally to the CD itself, which, because of the reasons mentioned by Lingas in the essay and what I discuss above, is in the unenviable position of not being able simply to be a recording of sacred music, but rather a recording that must be interpreted as a statement of something by people who don’t want the music contained therein legitimized, AND by people for whom this is the right music, but the wrong way to sing it. Jeffers Engelhardt, can you help me out here?

Well, to give you a capsule review (full review will be in the next post, now that I’ve got all of this stuff off my chest), if you come to the disc without needing it to be a statement of anything in particular, you will find that it is a beautifully-sung recording of some gorgeous music. The essay in the booklet about the music’s historical context is fascinating, both for what it says as well as what it doesn’t say. And yes, Cappella sings Tikey’s music like it’s Palestrina, and you know what? It sounds glorious. So, “authentic” or not, works for me.

Be right back.

Hey, I know that guy…

This is a very recently posted video I found on YouTube featuring the man kind enough to let me call him my teacher for a couple of months last summer:

In March of 2008, Ioannis Arvanitis directed the Hagiopolites Choir at a conference focusing on Dom Lorenzo Tardo, an Italian musicologist who was evidently interested in the reception and transmission of Byzantine chant in Sicily’s Greco-Albanian colonies. K. Arvanitis also delivered a paper called “Towards a Modern Interpration of Grottaferrata’s Musical Manuscripts” (seems to me I heard somewhere he knew something about those). The concert was in the Cathedral of St. Demetrius.

The location of the conference was a place called Piana degli Albanesi, one of the Greco-Albanian colonies that interested Tardo so much, dating back to the end of the fifteenth century. Like the abbey in Grottaferrata, they are Byzantine Catholics who are Italian by geography and communion but Greek and/or Albanian by culture and liturgy.

The “Arvanites,” of course, are Greeks whose heritage is Albanian*; K. Arvanitis’ involvement certainly seems fitting.

* Annotation added, 29 October 2010: I have been asked to clarify that the Arvanites are not Albanian in the strict anthropological, ethnosocial and cultural sense but are in fact Greek-speaking and Hellenic-Orthodox-accultured people who populated and expanded as a group in the geographic region that today is Albania. See here and here for more information.

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.

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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