Posts Tagged 'pastitsio'

Pastitsio and Byzantine chant: in which one finds, at the very least, the best pastitsio recipe ever (also the worst)

Some friends the other night made a Moroccan chickpea stew for us. One of them said that he had altered the recipe a little bit with what he’d had on hand; I turned to Flesh of My Flesh and said, “See? He makes stew with what he has.”

Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

I didn’t come here to tell you that.

One of the topics I’m frequently musing about in this venue is, what does it mean to sing “Byzantine chant”, and how best to teach it to a variety of people? Specifically in terms of that variety — what might it mean to have a pedagogical approach that assumes some knowledge of how to do it, an approach that tries to convey best practices to a person knowledgeable about music, just not Byzantine music, and then, what would constitute a misguided approach that throws misunderstood elements together haphazardly? For illumination on this point, I turn to — strange as it may seem during the third week of Lent — pastitsio.

IMG_0359When Anna, Theodore’s nona, was first getting to know us back in fall of 2006, she asked us one day — “Can I come and make Greek food in your kitchen sometime?” Wow, twist our arms. What she made for us, and what she has made for us and others many times since, and what we also have learned how to make ourselves on a fairly regular basis, was pastitsio.

You can call it “Greek lasagna” if you like; many do, including Michael Psilakis. To do so is kind of like calling Syriac “the language of Jesus”, though; there’s a certain sense that it makes, but it’s kind of misleading, and it doesn’t acknowledge the dish on its own terms. Pastitsio has multiple layers of long, hollow noodles (ideally, Misko #2 Pastitsio Noodles) with a flour-based Béchamel-cheese sauce and a meat sauce. It’s a Greek comfort food to be sure; not exactly the dish one is talking about in a conversation about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. All the same, my goodness is it delicious when made right, and a pan of pastitsio on the table is, in my experience, one of the best signs of a hospitable house, Greek or otherwise.

classic pastitsio recipe

Classic Pastitsio

Like all dishes, there are regional, familial, and maybe even political differences. To the right is Anna’s foundational recipe, a pretty basic, classic version that allows for some variation based on what you have on hand and what you prefer. It’s nothing particularly fancy, and it doesn’t take that long to make. You could do this with beef, veal, or lamb; you could do it with whatever cheese you have handy (and it doesn’t make any particular suggestions where that’s concerned); and it’s not picky about pasta. Maybe it’s a recipe that assumes, if you’re a Greek person who already knows how to cook this, you’ll know how to take this and, mutatis mutandis, turn it into “the way YiaYia made it”. And, if you’re not, well, you’ll use what you have handy and you’ll make it work in your own way.

That’s one approach. There’s another way, somewhat more complicated, what we might call the “foodie” approach. Here is how Michael Psilakis frames the recipe in his cookbook, How to Roast a Lamb:

This is a classic Greek dish, which I often refer to as a Greek version of lasagna. You will need a deep, lasagna-style pan, and it may be hard to find the pastitsio noodles called for here. Try a Greek or Middle Eastern market or, of course, the Internet. The crucial thing is that the noodles be both hollow and straight, so you may substitute bucatini, perciatelli, ditali, or long, straight ziti laid end-to-end. This casserole, as with lasagna, must rest before serving to set, or it will be difficult to serve.

Okay, already there’s a different tone here. This is a recipe written for somebody who knows food, but maybe doesn’t know Greek food all that well (and there’s the “Greek version of lasagna” shorthand). He details the essentials, and tells you where you need to find them.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons blended oil (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive)
  • 1 large Spanish or sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 3 fresh bay leaves or 6 dried leaves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground nutmeg (optional)
  • Pinch ground cloves (optional)
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 1/4 quarts water
  • 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, crushed slightly, with all the juices
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1 (500-gram) package Misko Macaroni Pastitsio no. 2 (see above)
  • 1 3/4 quarts Greek Béchamel Sauce (page 274, with eggs)
  • 1 cup coarsely grated graviera cheese

And this is definitely a little different. Oil instead of butter (he goes into his reasons for cutting olive oil with canola oil earlier in the book; basically it’s a cost issue, and you can use all olive oil if you really want to), the seasoning is a little more robust (and more characteristic of a Constantinopolitan approach, perhaps), and he’s more specific about the meat, the noodles, and the cheese. Elsewhere he talks about possible substitutes for cheeses; gruyere is his principal recommendation. This is an ingredients list that wants to show an American cook how to be faithful to the model using the best of what’s available.

Going on:

Make the kima sauce: in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and the onion with the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown thoroughly. Add all the spices and the tomato paste and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer for 65 to 75 minutes. Skim off the fat once or twice. Reduce until the sauce is almost completely dry. Proceed with the recipe, or cool and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large pot of generously salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until almost tender, a minute or so before the al dente stage. Drain well. Spread 1 cup of the Greek Béchamel Sauce on the bottom of a deep roasting pan or lasagna pan, and sprinkle with 1/3 cup graviera. Lay half of the noodles out on top of the béchamel. You should have 2 to 3 layers of noodles. Spread another cup of the béchamel over the noodles, without disturbing the direction of the noodles, to bind them. Scatter with 1/3 cup of the graviera. Spoon all of the kima sauce over the top and smooth flat. Spread 1 more cup of the béchamel over the kima sauce, scatter with 1/3 cup graviera.

Layer remaining pasta noodles over the béchamel. Spoon on the remaining béchamel and scatter with the remaining 1/3 cup of graviera. Bake uncovered until crusty, golden, and set, about 1 hour. If you don’t have a convection oven, you may want to increase the heat to 400 degrees F at the end, to brown the top. Cool for at least 40 minutes, to allow the custard to set so that the squares will remain intact when you cut them. Or, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

And since he gives it its own recipe, here’s the Béchamel sauce:

Greek béchamel differs from French béchamel or Italian besciamella due to the inclusion of whole eggs. When a dish is baked, the eggs in the sauce create a custard. This basic ingredient is what makes many Greek dishes so special. Because of the large quantity of flour and the resulting thickness of the roux, you really can’t step away from the stove while you are preparing the sauce. Plus, you’ll need muscle to stir it thoroughly.

Ingredients:

  • 5 ounces unsalted butter
  • 10 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 quarts whole milk, warm
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Large pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 5 large eggs, lightly beaten

In a large heavy pot, melt the butter over low heat, whisking with a large balloon whisk. Add the flour and whisk to a very crumbly roux, not a smooth paste. Whisk constantly and energetically or about 5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste, but do not allow to brown (slide the pot off and on the heat every now and then if you sense it is getting too hot).

Still whisking constantly, drizzle in the warm milk until smooth. Continue cooking, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the mixture at a very low simmer, until very thick. Whisk in the cinnamon, nutmeg, kosher salt to taste, and a generous amount of pepper.

Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the warm sauce. In a bowl, whisk the sauce into the eggs to temper them. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk all the egg mixture back into the béchamel.

Dude. I’m hungry. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this during Lent. Dang it all.

Anyway, some observations — first and foremost, this is not the quick ‘n dirty way to make pastitsio. The meat sauce, I can tell you from experience, takes more like 2-3 hours to reduce than the 65-75 minutes advertised, at least on the stoves I’ve used. At the same time — oh my goodness is the end result amazing and flavorful (such that Anna now uses Psilakis’ meat sauce in combination with her foundational recipe). Now, if you want to shave off time, just skip adding the water. With the basic recipe, if you know what you’re doing you might elaborate the bare bones instructions somewhat; by contrast, here, if you’re familiar with the dish, then you might simplify this version a bit. Both recipes, in the end, faithfully (I hate the word “authentically”) reproduce what is understood as “pastitsio”; one does so by presenting a basic, easy to reproduce (and vary) method, and the other does so by breaking the dish down and building it back up using the language and ingredients of American foodie culture.

Now, you can have an argument over just how “Greek” pastitsio is. Real Greeks didn’t use Béchamel sauce until a hundred, hundred and fifty years ago, one argument might go. There’s something there with the meat sauce and the cheese and the noodles, maybe, but Béchamel? That’s an Italian or French corruption, not Greek.

You might also have a conversation about some of the details. There are pastitsio recipes you can find that are adamant that no real pastitsio ever has had any kind of cinnamon or nutmeg or anything else in the meat sauce, because it doesn’t need it, period, and that’s not how YiaYia did it, dammit.

However, what you’re probably not going to have much of a disagreement about is whether or not this recipe is pastitsio:

  • 1 lb.  lean ground beef
  • 1 small  onion, chopped
  • 1 jar  (24 oz.) spaghetti sauce
  • 2 Tbsp.  red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp.  butter
  • 1-1/2 cups  milk
  • 1 cup  plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt
  • 1/4 tsp.  ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups  elbow macaroni, cooked
  • 1/4 cup  DI GIORNO Grated Parmesan Cheese

BROWN meat with onions in large skillet; drain. Stir in spaghetti sauce and vinegar; simmer on low heat 15 min., stirring occasionally.

MEANWHILE, melt butter in large saucepan on low heat. Add milk; bring to boil on medium heat, stirring constantly. Simmer on low heat 3 to 5 min. or until thickened, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in yogurt and nutmeg. Add macaroni; mix lightly.

HEAT oven to 350ºF. Spread meat sauce onto bottom of 13×9-inch baking dish; top with macaroni mixture and cheese.

BAKE 45 to 50 min. or until macaroni mixture is heated through and top is lightly browned.

Um, no. No, no, no, no, no. You want to insult a Greek person? Put this in front of them and call it “pastitsio”. This is beyond parody, really. This is macaroni and spaghetti sauce layered with yogurt and had some cheese sprinkled on it; no Béchamel, no attention to cheese, no nothing. This is a clueless American who vaguely remembers that there was a dish he had at a Greek festival or something that had noodles, meat sauce, some white stuff, and maybe a pinch of spice in it, making something up that sort of fits the general description, and adding “Greek yogurt” (nonfat? That’s not Greek yogurt, folks) and nutmeg to justify claiming that it’s “Greek food”.

And, here’s the thing — by this point, pastitsio has been made at Chez Barrett a sufficient number of times that it isn’t really “Greek food”. It’s just “food you’re likely to eat when you’re a guest of the Barretts”. Or, for that matter, when we’re your guests; I made Psilakis’ recipe for Christmas Eve dinner one year at my mom’s house. Call it trying to pass on the tradition.

Okay, back to the question raised at the outset about Byzantine chant. How might the analogy of pastitsio be applicable here? What’s the equivalent of Anna’s foundational recipe, what’s the equivalent of Michael Psilakis’ recipe, and what’s the equivalent of the Kraft recipe?

Well, what are the fundamental ingredients of Byzantine chant, and what’s variable for, shall we say, ingredients that one has on hand? For present purposes, maybe we’ll say that the fundamental ingredients of Byzantine chant are:

  • it is a cappella,
  • it is monophonic (that is, not harmonized by multiple voices),
  • it employs drone that does not function as a harmonic bass line,
  • it employs a sacred text, drawn predominantly from the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church,
  • it employs the system of Byzantine modes, a centuries-old musical system with which the modern theoretical understanding as described by Chrysanthos of Madytos and clarified/affirmed by the 1881 Musical Committee of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in continuity,
  • the melodies are composed formulaically — that is, there is a vocabulary of musical phrases (theses) proper to each mode, and the composer formulates compositions according to this vocabulary of phrases so as to fit the accentuation and rhetoric of the sacred text appropriately and in the intended musical texture (fast, slow, syllabic, melismatic, etc.),
  • and the melodies are notated using psaltic, or Byzantine, notation, and the notation is meant to be interpreted via a layer of oral tradition absorbed from one’s teacher.

Now, I’ve phrased much of that carefully. Not all Byzantine chant necessarily employs a liturgical text; there are examples that set paraliturgical poetic texts. The description of Byzantine modes allows for some leeway depending on local tradition; Lebanese and Syrian cantors might do certain things differently, as might some Romanian cantors. It also allows for a way of talking about medieval repertoire that was composed before Chrysanthos or the 1881 Committee. The point about notation might perhaps be controversial to some, but I would leave it there, simply because, as a prosodic and musical system intended specifically for that purpose, psaltic notation is the symbolic system that best expresses the musical and hymnographic repertoire we call “Byzantine chant”.

So what are ingredients that might be variable? Language, certainly; there’s nothing in that list that says that anything has to be in Greek or Arabic. It might be a lone man’s voice singing; it might be a choir of women. The point about oral tradition suggests that there is some level of acceptable variation of interpretation in some cases. There are different genres of hymns you can compose and sing within this framework; anything from quick, short, declamatory, syllabic hymns to long, slow, drawn-out compositions.

And, certainly, there are lots of arguments about some of the details. This, that, or the other musical development in the repertoire isn’t “really” Byzantine music, but rather a corruption arising from Turkish influence. No cantor who knows what they’re doing would ever sing this phrase the way you just did it. Some would argue that language actually isn’t an acceptable variable, at least not the way described above; it either has to be in Greek, or it has to adapt a Greek original in a way that favors the Greek version over the target language of the translated text at every point. Alternately, language may be generally variable to an extent, but there’s no way no how English is an acceptable language for this music. That kind of thing.

Whatever details one might argue about, however, here’s an indisputable example of a composition that is identifies itself as “Byzantine chant” but is, by any definition, the equivalent of the Kraft pastitsio recipe:

thy martyrs o lord, bad version

That’s from the pen of yours truly, written about ten years ago (do note that I do not credit a composer in the score, partially because even then I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to be blamed later). I cringe to show it to anybody because there is so much that it gets wrong, but in the spirit of being the chief of sinners, I’d rather hold up my own mistakes than point fingers at those of other people.

First, it’s the wrong mode. Yes, fine, fourth mode is the mode appointed for this apolytikion, but this is the wrong version of fourth mode — it is diatonic (legetos) rather than soft chromatic, because apolytikia in fourth mode use soft chromatic.

The second and third things wrong are related — this text actually is supposed to be metered for a model melody, usually known in English as “Be quick to anticipate”, which the melody I wrote doesn’t follow; alas, the text is not in fact metered, and the service book from which I got this translation doesn’t include a rubric for a model melody. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Fourth, if you look at the model melody (Byz notation version in English here, staff notation here, or get them from 27 September here if those links don’t work) it really is one note per syllable for the vast majority of the hymn. What I wrote isn’t obnoxiously melismatic, but neither is it sufficiently consistent in being syllabic.

Fifth, it’s not a terribly sensitive setting of the text. I have no idea what I was thinking on “our God”, for example.

Sixth, the use of drone is all over the place. It’s clear that this is by someone who has no idea what they’re doing on this point.

Seventh, my use of the theses bears basically no resemblance to the reality of how classical scores use them, and since at that point I was almost entirely influenced by Kazan, it is probably is more Sakellarides-esque (if we can even aim that high) than anything. You can sort of see what I thought I was doing, but I may as well be using yogurt instead of Béchamel.

Eighth, I made a deliberate choice to eliminate measures, partially because I felt that the “tyranny of the bar line” actually made Kazan much harder to use. This wound up obscuring the rhythmic structure that the piece should have had, and it had the technical effect, due to how Sibelius works, of obscuring how the accidentals function.

Ninth, because I was just writing note to note in staff notation, with no understanding of how the rhetoric of the theses was constructed in psaltic notation, it’s made an even lesser effort than it otherwise was. If I had had even some knowledge of the notation and the orthography, a few of the problems could have been minimized a bit.

In all of this, I was doing the best I could with what I knew, and I was doing so with foundational materials that were less than ideal but were what was available to me, to be sure, but that’s just the point — by way of comparison, I had had a taste of pastitsio at a Greek festival and thought, hey, I’m a good enough cook that I can replicate that — and I came up with a random combination of pasta, meat, cheese, and yogurt based on ingredients I had on hand. Yes, sometimes one makes stew with what one has (you knew I’d get back to that eventually), and one might argue that it’s not that bad on its on merits (if one were being maximally charitable), but you can’t really call it pastitsio, at least with no disclaimers or scare quotes.

Thankfully, these days there are more resources that allow one to go a route that is more along the lines of Michael Psilakis, taking apart the tradition and putting it back together for an Anglophone Orthodox audience that perhaps has decent musical sense but needs detailed help for Byzantine music. What is still needed is greater access to teachers who can provide enough of a living connection to the material, such that that one can manage with a more bare-bones set of resources, like the basic pastitsio recipe, but we’re getting there. In taking advantage of such resources, ideally we would produce a body of Anglophone repertoire that is both composed and sung knowledgeably and faithfully, and as a result, Byzantine chant would eventually become something that is no longer perceived as “Greek” or “Arab” or foreign in general, but simply “what we sing”.

We can apply this, really, to any Orthodox musical idiom, and even any element of Orthodox tradition; a confused jumble of ingredients put together out of a lack of understanding doesn’t actually cultivate a real “American” expression of anything. It’s exactly that — a confused jumble of ingredients. We’re far better off putting in the time and the humility to learn from people who know what they’re doing and have a living connection to the tradition. Yes, it will take longer, yes, it may take trying some things that don’t work the first time, yes, you may have to un-learn and re-learn some things.

Be that as it may — certainly, in the case of pastitsio, the end result tastes a heck of a lot better.

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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