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Posts Tagged 'my inner grammar nazi'

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:

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“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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, I’m the only Anglo. So it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My inner voice promptly shut up. For the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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