Posts Tagged 'st. nectarios'

More on the division of disciplines

"Whether or not the subject of a painting actually existed has no bearing on the painting itself." Really?

Tuesday’s meeting of “Problems in Early Christian Art” led to two fascinating developments. One was a classmate making the baldest, most militant statement I could imagine about enforcing the separation of Art History from History as a whole: “Whether or not the subject of a painting actually existed has no bearing on the painting itself.” I find that to be a truly remarkable statement on all sorts of levels.

Incidentally, this was the same person who told me, “You can’t do that,” when I attempted to relate what we were reading to St. Nectarios’ monastery, which makes the second development even more notable: after having told me last week that it was dangerous and problematic to try to apply Cormack’s line of questioning to a contemporary example, because “we cannot assume they are the same”, this student asked the professor at the end of this week’s class, “So, why is St. Nectarios’ monastery the same as everything else we’ve looked at?”



The division of disciplines and the implications for people like me

Registration time is upon us, and next semester, I’ll be diving into the deep end of the actual History pool, taking a colloquium titled “Essential Readings in Early Medieval History,” and a seminar called “Greek Democracies: Athens and Beyond.” The former is with one Prof. Deborah Deliyannis, from whom I took an undergraduate course in medieval history four years ago and who has been a great source of encouragement and help every step of the way ever since. I’m looking forward to finally getting to take a graduate course from her (and also reading some Latin under her supervision).

As we start to enter the last few laps of this semester, I’m starting to see some interesting challenges relating to the notion of interdisciplinarity. My academic interests center around the interaction of liturgy and history; the way I’m approaching the matter is necessarily interdisciplinary, so I’m doing things like sitting in on art history and ethnomusicology courses. I’m also pretty much having to go through yet another department — Classical Studies — to work on my languages, so there’s an interdisciplinary component there, too. The issues I’m starting to see appear to have to do with differing methodologies, different kinds of evidence producing different results, and different departments being protective of what they see as their own intellectual territory.

For example, in Art History’s “Problems in Early Christian Art” course for which I’ve been attending the lectures and discussions, I have been somewhat taken aback at how some of the students appear to be totally disinterested in textual sources. Now, I state that as somebody who is not an art historian, so I assume that what we’re talking about here is a methodological difference between disciplines, except that both the professor (as well as one of the other candidates whom I heard do a job talk for the position last spring) seem completely comfortable dealing with textual sources and actual historical context. This has manifested itself in a couple of different scenarios; a couple of weeks ago, when students were doing initial presentations on their paper topics, what seemed to be the common methodological approach was first to pick an image or set of images, track down as much secondary literature about the image as possible, and then construct an argument on that basis. In other words, the only relevant primary source is the image with which you are working. I asked one or two of the presenting students if they planned on tracking down any contemporary literary sources related to their topic, and all I got was a shrug, with an answer amounting to, “Sure, I could see how that might be useful. Maybe if I have time I’ll look into that.”

This week, our readings dealt primarily with literary sources. I was part of the group that was “leading the discussion” (what seems to be a euphemism for “doing the reading so that the rest of the class doesn’t have to,” given how involved in the discussion the rest of the class seemed willing to be), and the reading I was discussing was the an excerpt from Robin Cormack‘s book Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons. Cormack examines how images function in the Byzantine world of Late Antiquity, using as evidence the Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon and then the Miracles of St. Demetrios of Thessalonica. I also put together a small slide deck about St. Nectarios’ monastery on Aegina as a contemporary example of what Cormack talks about.

The reactions all around were fascinating; they ranged from indifference towards using literary sources to what seemed to be active hostility towards what Cormack was trying to accomplish. “It’s really dangerous to be relying on these kinds of sources for what we do,” I heard more than once. The argument seems to have been that literary sources can only interpret the image for you, and art historians need to be able to see them with their own eyes. Historical context is a nice-to-have, maybe, but ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant compared to actually being able to see what you’re dealing with and to do one’s own analysis of the visual material. Never mind the open criticism I got from one student for trying to relate what we were talking about to a contemporary example, saying point blank, “You can’t do that” — even though Cormack, in the body of the text, invited exactly such an application of his analysis to other scenarios. The professor appeared to understand what I was doing, and tried to bridge the gap between the concerns and what I was actually saying, but my colleague seemed unimpressed and, curiously, quite upset. It was a very odd class session, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it. Is Art History, at least as taught here, just adamant about wanting to be Art History, rather than “History of Other Things Where We Occasionally Use Pieces of Art as Evidence”? Like I said, it not being my field, I don’t know exactly what to think, particularly since the professor herself seems to be somebody who is more than adequately conversant with matters of historical context.

Another example I’ve run into has to do with the relationship of Classical Studies to other departments that routinely refer to texts that are in the languages they teach. In History, for example, I have to prepare a reading list with a decent number of texts in both Greek and Latin for my exams; the trouble is that there is not a fantastically economical way of preparing these lists in the context of coursework. Readings courses are difficult for professors to make time for on the History side, and there just isn’t anybody in Classical Studies who is interested in much later than 100 B. C. The forensic oratory and rhetoric course I’m taking this semester starts to approach relevance (and I will be able to include all of these texts on my reading list), but that’s about it. I am reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a faculty member on the Greek side; I told him my interests and asked if there would be a way of pursuing them in Classical Studies, and he just said, “You’re outta luck, kid. The last person here who was anywhere close to your interests retired ten years ago.” Along the same lines, I am told that the instructor for 2nd year Greek had originally included St. John Chrysostom in the curriculum for this semester, but dropped it almost as soon as the term began. Now, just as was the case when I took the same class from the same instructor two years ago, all they’re reading is Plato’s Ion.

Even if it the History faculty did have the bandwidth to do readings courses, so I am told, Classical Studies would oppose such offerings; they are very protective of Greek and Latin and don’t want anybody else going near them in a classroom setting. The only reason Religious Studies is able to teach Syriac and Coptic is because they have a course number coded as “Readings in Early Christian History” that can be used. It theoretically could be used for reading Greek texts, but not, it seems, without drawing the ire of Classical Studies, so it just isn’t done. Students can do individual readings if a faculty member has time, but good luck with that.

Now, on the one hand, I think I can understand some of where Classical Studies might be coming from. If I had to guess, I’d say that, not dissimilar to Art History, they want to remain distinct as Classical Studies, not “The Guys Who Teach Greek and Latin to Other Departments.” Thing is, they still make everybody else come to them to learn Greek and Latin anyway — and then they make it clear they don’t take the texts other people want to deal with seriously. There was the snarky remark I heard from one of their faculty once about “undergraduates who enroll in first-year Greek because they want to read a certain famous text that is decidedly not part of the Classical corpus”, and then there was the whole way said text was treated when I took second year Greek — we spent all of two or three weeks on it, the instructor was sightreading, they clearly weren’t familiar with the text at all, and constantly made remarks like, “Yeah, that’s not real Greek” and “Why is is this guy making comments about bridegrooms and all that? I tell you, you can’t make this stuff up.” (Frighteningly enough, this person went to a Catholic university for undergrad.) One solution might be to make people in History or Religious Studies adjunct Classical Studies faculty, but it sounds like that’s a way they don’t want to go. They don’t want to teach the texts we’re interested in, but they don’t want anybody else to teach them, either.

I’m told that right now, there just aren’t enough History students who need Greek to be able to influence Classical Studies’ thinking on the matter, but we’re close — sufficiently close that if we have the same rate of growth over the next couple of years we’ve had over the last two (that is, from zero to close to ten or so) the game could easily change.

Interdisciplinarity — it’s a nice buzz word, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself to make it work, it seems. I assume that will be part of my education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus an outdoor public market:

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

The other example I’ll get to shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty Euros?” I repeated.

“Thirty Euros.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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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