Strangers no longer

In honor of Christmas we need a story of people at their best: warm, generous, compassionate. Since my friend Martha Frangiadaki is warmth, generosity, and compassion incarnate and a born storyteller to boot, I’m turning it over to her today.

Lunch with Martha and her husband Mark by the sea in Athens.
Lunch with Martha and her husband Mark by the sea in Athens.

If you’re a regular reader (even when I’m not a regular writer) you may remember Martha from the July 29, 2013 Hope in Greece about the remarkable work going on at the Metropolitan Community Clinic at Helleniko. Turning experience into a story is Martha’s best way of processing it, and here’s one I’m fond of about an incident at the clinic last fall. The story is fiction; the central plot is not. Happily,she reports, the situation described in the story is now a bit better, and the clinic—now 240 volunteers strong–just celebrated its third birthday (if celebration is an appropriate term for commemorating an organization that shouldn’t have to exist).

Martha volunteering at the clinic.
Martha volunteering at the clinic.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα, readers. May the spirit of the season be with you. 

 Solidarity      

Martha Frangiadaki

The sun danced with the tinkling strips of painted glass hanging in the kitchen window. This was a small pleasure that would never change; God knows everything else had. Eleni gazed out the window while she did the dishes.

She looked at the garden through the simple wind chime that Dimitri had given her when he was only six. He bought it with his first pocket money at the festival at St. Dimitri’s—his own name day. She had thanked him for it most seriously and hung it over the kitchen sink and enjoyed it ever since. She felt her heart twist inside her to think that his token might out-live the boy who had given it to her.

Despite herself she smiled at Costa crashing out of the garden shed, dragging tools, lining up his weaponry to turn the soil in the garden plot. By sheer force of will they would have fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer—that would be after the peas, runner beans and lettuces of early spring.

“This year, all organic,” he swore. “It could be the goddamn chemicals and pesticides that did it, so this year, nothing but manure.”

And he brought a great sack of the stuff back from the village. Even in the trunk it stank up the car the entire trip.

“Fresh vegetables – real food, and that will do the trick.”

It wasn’t a trick; it was the world crashing in on them.

Four years before, all the talk of austerity measures and belt tightening had nothing to do with them. Costa provided building services to larger construction firms. Like everyone else, he struggled but he made his family a good living but within two years the bottom dropped out of construction. By the time he let the employees go he was hopelessly behind with pension/insurance payments. That forced the close of the business. He got the occasional under-the-table job, but it didn’t fill the gap.

Maria, 19, dashed between university and working in a corner market. Her boss paid her when he could. Dimitri was their fall-back; he had finished university in something incredibly technical, and a master’s as well. He had gotten a job in Germany as a systems engineer as they paid better abroad. Now the young ones emigrated if they wanted to build a career. It reminded Eleni of her grandmother’s time; it wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore.

An air of frenzy and hopefulness pervaded the house throughout the long lovely summer. Dimitri was either cramming German grammar or on Facebook with other Greeks living in Munich.

Late September brought the change. Dimitri was tired, tired all the time. At first they thought he was melancholy at leaving home. Eleni finally dragged him to the hospital. They had done it well, the doctors. They never said, “Your son may die.” They said, “These tests are not conclusive. We’ll see what the next test brings.” And there were always tests. Eleni and Costa had lost their insurance a year before, but Dimitri had access to the health system through December.

“And then what. And then what.” When she wanted to scream, she would cook a large pan of spinach pie or anything that Dimitri might like. She banged pots and pans while Costa wrestled with that idiotic bag of manure in the garden. She cooked for her beautiful boy. He was only 23. In the name of the Virgin, it was all so unfair.

By December the thing had a name – Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia. Eleni didn’t understand. There were phases, it could be controlled but medications were expensive. They worked, but not all the time. Dimitri went into hospital for a final battery of tests and consultations as to the best treatment. They provided him with a box of Glivec. The drug cost €2,000 for a month’s supply and in two weeks he would have no insurance and no way to buy more.

The hospital pharmacist said, “Even if you had insurance, we probably won’t get any more in – we can’t afford it. There is a volunteer clinic in your neighborhood. Go to them; we work with them. If you respond well to the meds, they may be able to assist.”

He did respond well; his blood tests were significantly better by Christmas. The hospital pharmacy stamped his prescription with “medicine not available,” a necessary step in obtaining it outside a hospital setting, and they counted down the days.

The four of them argued from the moment the medicines started to work.

“These are volunteers, Costa. They help the uninsured. Dimitri’s going to need help.”

“Don’t! Stop! If you volunteer, you’re a malakas. Rich bitches with nothing else to do but take jobs from the working class. No one is going to help us but us. Family is the only thing that matters. And I don’t mean those good-for-nothing cousins in the village, and I mean you, me, Dimitri and Maria. Those are the only people that matter.”

“Papa,” said Maria, “I’ve heard this from you from the day dot. Taking what jobs? Public health clinics are closing. They’re already closed to the uninsured. This is beyond us.”

Arguing was useless. Maria and Dimitri went to the clinic and had him enrolled. He was quickly seen and his diagnosis confirmed.

“And papa, the people who work there, are like us. Most are unemployed themselves. Everyone, even the doctors are volunteers.”

Dimitri said, “They think the Glivec is my best chance. But if we can’t get it, there are alternatives, all of them with disadvantages. If I stay on the therapy consistently, I might even be able to work.”

“We’ll get it,” said Costa. “I’ll get it.”

But how? The land in the village wouldn’t fetch more than three months worth of the medication and that was before the new taxes. And who had the money to buy it? Could he sell the house, trading in the long term security of the family?

Eleni watched her china-shop bull tearing around the house the next day. He was looking for an old life insurance policy. He found it, long since lapsed; he had nothing to give his boy.

Over lunch, Costa repeated his mantra. “It’s the damn chemicals in the food that did it. No more artificial food. We’ll eat what we grow here.”

Dimitri said, “Papa, we all like junk-food now and then. We’ll find a solution.”

“What, from your Vo-lun-teers? Don’t make me weep; I mustn’t weep. There is no hope in strangers I tell you.”

And then, “I’m going to sell the car.”

“Papa, it’s 14 years old; what will you get for it?”

“And it still smells like manure, that’s got to affect the price, at least a little,” Dimitri said.

And to the surprise of them all, they laughed. After dinner, while Eleni napped, the two men went to the garden. January’s halcyon days were in full glory. Dimitri and Costa set up the stakes for the pea runners that would soon be going in.

“I’m thinking of melons in the summer. You’re fond of them, and your mother is always banging on about how delicious they are when home-grown.”

The Glivec finished in late January. His cell count numbers rose to unwanted levels in a remarkably short period of time. The clinic issued an extraordinary appeal, asking for a donation of the drug and they waited.

The doctors assured Dimitri he wouldn’t feel differently. It was his courage that failed. He stayed in his room longer each day doing God-knows-what on his computer. Eleni worried that he lived in an unreal world with these computers. But who was she to judge. That world had promised him a high salary in Germany before… before.

One Tuesday, over lunch Dimitri said, “We’ll have visitors today.”

“Who, did someone call?”

“No Papa, I received an apparition!! On Facebook. Some guys I’ve been talking to, they’re coming for coffee this afternoon.”

“I’ll be in the garden,” said Costa

“You will not,” Eleni said. “We have guests and you will be here. I wish I’d known. I don’t have time to make anything.”

The door bell rang in the early evening. Eleni had arranged slices of warm lemon cake on the best plates and the candied sour oranges in her mother’s cut glass bowls. A young man barely older than Dimitri and another in his mid-30’s stood at the door. Eleni beckoned them into the parlor. They sat, uncomfortably staring at each other.

“I suppose you must be volunteers at this famous clinic,” said Costa.

“Yes, I volunteer,” said Stavro, the younger of the two. “But that was after I was there as a patient. Like Dimitri here, I lost my insurance after I finished my studies.”

“I don’t have time to volunteer. I have a job, for which I’m grateful,” added Yianni.

“So how do you two know each other?”

“This is the first time we’ve actually met. We’ve texted for some time, decided what we were going to do, and came here to tell you about it.”

“Well that’s decent of you. What have you two do-gooders come up with?”

“Papa, stop it. They are guests; I invited them.”

Stavro said, “We have been communicating with Dimitri for about a month now. I developed CML two years ago. Yianni has been dealing with it for more than five. We’re both still in chronic phase, thanks to the Glivec; we’re both on it and so far we’re responding well.

“Seriously?” asked Costa.

“Deadly,” said Yianni. “Quite a club, we are.

“We know that the clinic is looking for the medicine and they’ll find it. They always do. Maria is a miracle worker. Dimitri knows her. You have to meet her; she works exclusively with us cancer patients.”

There, the word had been uttered in the house for the first time.

“She’ll find it, but not tomorrow, or even this week.”

Yianni continued, “I got a new box from the hospital a few days ago. Since I work, I have insurance. I think I got the last box they had.”

Stavro said, “And I have 30 days worth left before I have to panic.”

“So we decided, Stavro is giving 10 of his pills, and I’m giving 12 of mine. That means that we’re all covered for the next 20 days, by which time Maria had best have worked her miracle.”

They placed the blister packs on the table next to Eleni’s slices of cake. They all just stared at them.

“How can you do this?” said Costa.

“How can we not, Mr. Costa. We’re all facing this together. It’s not a choice.”

“Besides, Maria is a magician. She’s probably arm-twisting some pharmaceutical executive as we speak. She’ll find it.”

The five of them drank coffee and munched on cake in silence. Costa stared at these two strangers in his house and asked Yianni, “Do you really believe that this woman is going to find this medicine in time?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Costa. I try not to think too much about the future these days.”

Eleni rose and hugged the two men, strangers no longer, her boys from now on. Dimitri could not find his voice. The three young men took turns embracing, till they each smiled. They parted with pledges to chat and text. Eleni, at the door insisted that they and their families come to the house for Sunday lunch. “We’ll eat, talk, spend the day together.”

Eleni couldn’t hold back the tears. “Oh my boy, call your sister, call her now.”

Costa didn’t move. Eleni had never seen her husband so still. He wrapped his son in a fierce embrace; tore himself away and then barely said a word the entire evening.

By morning, he’d recovered. Gulping his coffee he bounded out to the garden shed and started crashing about.

On one of his forays into the house she asked, “What are you doing out there?”

“None of your concern, Eleni-mou. I’ll be out most of the day.”

“Out where? Maria took the car.”

“I’ll tell you later. I’ll take the bus.”

She watched him pile the large tool box holding his drills and electrical tools, the smaller one and the extension cable on the hand cart and then wrestle them to the bus stop.

An hour later, he dragged his cart through the door of the free clinic, cut in front of the line and walked up to the receptionist.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I called earlier. I’ve worked 30 years as a builder and I hear you need repairs.”

“Are you any good at electrical work?”

“Make a guess.”

“Then thank God. The pharmacy refrigerators are playing up; the wiring is not up to the load. It’s a long job.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“And there are dozens of other jobs. You’re here to volunteer then? Long-term?”

Did she have to dig it in?

“Yes, ready, for as long as it takes. Enough talk, my girl; I need to get to work.”

Hope in Greece

“People are getting INVOLVED — Folks are DOING something, and that is a magical thing to watch, and even more magical to be involved in,” my dear friend Martha wrote to me this spring from Athens.

The news of Greece, as you know, hasn’t been good. Austerity strategies are a cruel joke, based on false premises. Homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution are on the rise in Athens, as you can see captured in Angelos Tzortzinis’s heartbreaking photos.

Maybe this is all you’ve heard about Greece—one  wave after another of failed bailouts and government infighting. Maybe you’ve tuned out, writing it off as a hopeless cause. Beautiful country, great weather, hopeless politics, nothing to be done. Maybe, then, you need to learn about a remarkable crisis response in Athens: the Metropolitan
Community Clinic at Helliniko
, a free clinic that has sprung up to help the unemployed, uninsured, and/or impoverished Greeks, immigrants, and others who are falling through the widening cracks in the system.

Volunteers bringing medicines to the clinic. Photo from the BBC.
Volunteers bringing medicines to the clinic. Photo from the BBC.

(The space, may I add, is an inspired repurposing of a former American Air Force base.)

The clinic’s been catching some much-deserved media attention: this BBC News Magazine story, a visit from Naomi Klein (scroll down to 29 May 2013). But I know about it from Martha and her husband Mark, who have been volunteering there since its inception (read her quoted in the BBC story). Not the type of folks who sit soliloquizing while something is rotten in the state, they have been translating materials for the clinic’s website, sorting medicines for the storeroom, listening to patients’ stories, chipping in to pay for medicines to keep people going, providing good will and hope.

An authentic hope, as my colleague Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer puts it—one which “pays attention to problems as they actually are to the best of our understanding, even if problems are grave and solutions are demanding or uncertain.” Not the feeble wishful thinking, the “optimism disconnected from reality” that passes for hope in most of our public discourse (and private conversations, for that matter).

Outside of Greece we’re always reading about the high unemployment rate, especially for young people, who are depicted as futureless. In contrast, Martha sees their vibrant creativity at work: “The young people will save us.  There are so many new ideas, initiatives – young folks coming up with wonderful things – ranging from apps that can be used by free clinics to track medications to fun ads for Greek tourism.  Wonderful stuff.”

One of my writing idols Rebecca Solnit profiles the ways communities can rise up in crisis situations: the generosity that individuals show to one another, the calm they find together at the center of the storm. Instead of complaining about how the situation will never be ideal, we could be heroes  building on hope, knowing that “to be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”

A logo photo from the clinic website.
A logo photo from the clinic website.

In 1822 Byron wrote to his friend and banker Douglas Kinnaird, “the longer I live – the more I perceive that Money (honestly come by) is the Philosopher’s Stone. . . . I want to get a sum together to go amongst the Greeks or Americans [he meant South Americans] – and do some good.” He did just that: got a sum together and spent the last 100 days of his life trying to do some good in Greece.

I’ve recently returned from the International Byron Conference  at King’s College London.

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/chs/events/Byron-Conference/index.aspx International Byron Conference, King's College London
http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/chs/events/Byron-Conference/index.aspx
International Byron Conference, King’s College London
At the home/office of John Murray, Byron's publisher.
At the home/office of John Murray, Byron’s publisher.

The conference theme was the politics of poetry (and poetry of politics), highlighted by a keynote address by Professor Roderick Beaton, whose new book Byron’s War narrates the trajectory of Byron’s life that led him from romantic young traveler and Romantic poet to statesman working for the Greek cause.

Byron's War cover

Much of what Byron faced in 1824 he would in 2013: petty bickering and mutual undermining between factions who should be working together for a common solution, economically-interested meddling from European leaders who wanted their own piece of Greece, quiet indifference from the many. The venture, then as now, was fraught with uncertainty: are you funding the right people, is your money being used effectively? Will any lasting good come from this? And what precisely do the words “right” and “effectively” and “good” in this situation mean?

It’s easiest to do nothing. But Byron, and Martha and Mark, and countless unsung volunteers, put their philosophers’ stones to good use and sprang into action. Byron’s death in Greece galvanized a movement, and a mythology. Martha is more sanguine: “we will survive and will come out of this different, utterly changed, and pretty much the same.”

Χριστός Ανέστη: Working on the Nerves

Last night—early this morning—I visited my neighborhood Greek Orthodox church for the best worship experience of the year:  Easter. I am not Greek Orthodox. But I love the Greek Easter service, its intense theatricality, the three-act play that runs from 11:00 p.m. till 2:30 a.m. as we move from mourning into celebration into communion.

Act II: 12:00-1:00, the ανάσταση, or resurrection, is my favorite part. Right before the stroke of midnight the entire church is darkened, then the priest emerges with a candle nearly his own height and lights the candles of waiting altar boys, who disperse into the crowd to pass the light to the rest of us. If you’re picturing tiny white pencil-style candles with little circular paper drip-guards, such as we always used for the singing of “Silent Night” in Christmas Eve services growing up, let me adjust that image for you. These are fat gold tapers of real beeswax; you can get a full handgrip on them, they barely drip, they smell sacred. You’re going to need such a big honker because you will be holding that candle and swinging it about for a good two and a half hours—the length of a director’s-cut-version film.

Hoisting our candles, making the sign of the cross, we chant the Χριστός Ανέστη (Christos Anesti: Christ is Risen) song over and over. And over and over. And over and over. Into an ecstasy.

Why do I love to chant Χριστός Ανέστη but find its English counterpart clunky, freighted, even wincingly banal? My native language is a burden to me here. As poet Christian Wiman writes in his beautiful memoir, My Bright Abyss, the words are “sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn.” Those of us who “nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves” need a “poetics of belief,” he writes, “a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.”

Being relieved of the burden of my own language allows the chanting to work on my nerves, not my intellect—as was said about Samuel Beckett’s writing, particularly the seemingly absurd play Not I, in which the audience sees just a mouth onstage, a mouth that is speaking so rapidly you cannot even make out what she’s saying. You’re stymied visually and aurally yet the piece works on you. It only seems meaningless if you’re trying to follow a plot or character development or the other dogmas of theatre. Beckett is instead inviting you into an experience.

Chanting, too, works on the nerves, and chanting in a language that isn’t one’s own everyday language, the language used for grocery shopping, heightens the experience and lifts you out of the literalness of things far beyond literal understanding, like, say, resurrection.

That’s why I like to do my worshipping in Greek.

And, preferably, in Greece. Here’s a photo from Easter 2010, shot from the balcony of my apartment in Athens. The Panagitsa church is already packed inside. People are just beginning to gather outside. In another few minutes all of Achilleos Street will be filled with people and the air with candle flame.

Easter in Greece--street scene

And because Minnesota is stubbornly resisting rebirth this year, some photos suffused with my longing for another spring in Greece: for poppies in the Peloponnese and the dearest freshness deep down things in Hydra. And Greek salad for lunch!

Peloponnese poppies

houses in Hydra

Greek salad lunch in Hydra

Henry Miller was right

To know Greece thoroughly, Henry Miller said, is impossible; to understand it requires genius. To fall in love with it, however? That is the easiest thing in the world.

He was right.

houses in Hydra

Peloponnese poppies

And thus the besotted who wants to write about her love is faced with this difficulty: what can you say about it that hasn’t already been said so many times, over so many years, by so many writers, that it has deadened into cliché?

That worry itself makes me strange bedfellows with Miller, who in 1939 thought Byron had already said it all about Greece. Still, he managed to write The Colossus of Maroussi in 1941. What’s the matter with me?

My strange bedfellow Henry Miller in Hydra, 1939.
My strange bedfellow Henry Miller in Hydra, 1939.

The thing to do, it seems, is to visit Greece briefly and then go home and write about it, quickly and confidently, while it all makes sense to you. Once you’ve spent more time there you’ll get caught up in the paradoxes, the enigmas, and, too, the banalities that make “enigma” seem a ludicrously exotic, Orientalizing term of description, even though to you it still feels apt, it does feel enigmatic, these tiresome bureaucratic routines exoticized by you into something byzantine instead of numbingly dull and predictable.

While living—walking about, observing, filing away images in your head—you take pleasure in the variegated swirl of sensation you experience and can’t wait to get it captured on the page. Then you sit down and the war begins with the very first sentence, for by the time you’re composing the second half of the sentence you realize that you’re contradicting what you said in the first half. And off you go, one contradiction after another, binary after binary, when what you want to convey is the liveness of it all, not romanticized into a gauzy literary haze but not deflated into a flat prosaic hopelessness, either. And not universalized—it is different there. Is there anything you can just out and out state without needing to qualify it? Or apologize for its being one more echo of Byron, of Miller, of Durrell? Or, more immediately, the contemporary paragons, one more echo of David Roessel, of Sofka Zinovieff? Is there anything they haven’t said, and better?

Since I’ve been back from the January study abroad course concerned friends, colleagues, and family members have asked how Greece is doing. Great! I say to some—you included. The entrepreneurial spirit and family glue that have kept Greece going for millennia under this or that occupying power are on full display; neighborhood tavernas and cafes are filled to bursting, everyone eating and drinking and smoking (smoking ban? what smoking ban?) with live-for-today gusto and bred-in-the-bone generosity. Yet homeless people sleep on cardboard boxes in downtown Athens; Americans may have become inured to this phenomenon in our own country but until recently it was almost unheard of in Greece. A 60 year-old man and his 90 year-old mother, holding hands, chose a swifter, more independent death, a leap from the top of their apartment building, than the slow death impending from the economic distress. My former student at the University of Athens writes to me of the humiliation of digging through all her purses and pockets for spare coins as wages have been slashed but taxes and expenses multiplied; she plans to relocate to Canada and knows she’s lucky to have this choice.

How can I fully convey this?

kitty cats in Metsme in streets of Athens

Athens--sunset photographer

I suspect you sympathize, readers.  What are the subjects that you are dying to write about but continue to elude you, the ones you want to capture precisely because you love them and need to do right by them?

My Life, I Love You

For all of Byron’s breaking of ground in the realm of poetry—the intimate epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the verse-novel Don Juan—a charming little lyric tends to be remembered and loved: “Maid of Athens, Ere We Part.”

Perhaps that’s because there’s a sweet tale connected to it. In 1809 when Byron was in Athens on his Grand Tour, enjoying sexual tourism and drafting Childe Harold, he rented a room in the house of the widow of Prokopis Makris, who had been consul of England to Athens.

Mrs. Makri had three daughters but it was the youngest, 12 year old Teresa, who most delighted Byron, and he wrote “Maid of Athens” for her.  It’s a bit of a ditty, feather-weight stuff for a major poet, with its teenagey exclamation points and sing-songy rhymes. Here are the opening lines:

Maid of Athens, ere we part,

Give, oh, give me back my heart!

Or, since that has left my breast,

Keep it now, and take the rest!

It goes on to sing praises to her “tresses unconfined / Woo’d by each Aegean wind” as well as her “soft cheeks’ blooming tinge” and “wild eyes like the roe.”

Each stanza ends with a line in Greek: Ζώη μου, σας αγαπώ (Zoe mou, sas agapo).Translated: My life, I love you. My Modern Greek language professor and his American wife, when breathless young wooers, English literature students both, had Ζώη μου, σας αγαπώ engraved on the inside of their wedding bands. That’s the lasting charm this poem has had.

I love that story.

The story of Teresa Makri doesn’t unfold quite as R/romantically as we might expect, given this early intimation of immortality. Poor thing, she found herself on the circuit, desired viewing by hordes of travelers to Greece when the success of the Greek War of Independence opened the country for tourism. A nineteenth-century traveler’s account describes going to visit her in 1836, when she is married to a Scotsman, one Mr. Black (variously said to be a professor and a consul from Britain), and living on the island of Aegina. The visitor remarks on her “liquid hazel” eyes (the “wild eyes like the roe”) and annoying Scottish terrier who barks and snaps at their heels. (Other Scottie lovers out there: it’s nothing new; they’ve always been that way.) Here is a portrait of the former maid of Athens in 1870:

Teresa Makri

On the second floor of the Benaki Museum is displayed an 1829 painting, “Greek Maiden” by Henry Pickersgill, that’s tempting to think of as the Maid of Athens, grouped as it is with paintings of Byron and of early nineteenth-century Greece, all cast in an idealizing golden light.

450px-Henry_Pickersgill_-_Greek_maiden_-_1829

The Makris house no longer stands. You’ll find in its place, in the neighborhood of Psyrri, a parking lot. (Which happens to be right next door to my friend Pandelis’ leather workshop). I’m sorry not to be able to show you the group shot of my In Byron’s Shadow students there (scroll down to the previous post if you don’t know why), but thanks to Wikipedia images, here’s an image of the lot (with outline of the demolished house?)

Demolished_house_of_Teresa_Makri_in_Athens

Invariably the students read “The Maid of Athens” symbolically, with the maid as a figure for the city of Athens itself. It gets inside your heart, beating as your life. As you walk down the street you may feel an overwhelming urge to cry out, My life, I love you!

You can wave goodbye with the closing of the poem, in which Byron is leaving for Istanbul but pledging his love and loyalty to the maid of Athens:

Though I fly to Istambol  [just substitute “cold St. Paul” for approximate rhyme & meter]

Athens holds my heart and soul:

Can I cease to love thee? No!

Zoe mou, sas agapo.

The view from the Athens Centre, guaranteed to induce swooning.
The view from the Athens Centre, guaranteed to induce swooning.

On Longing for a Better Ending

If there’s a lesson in the cautionary tale I’m about to tell, perhaps it’s this: beware of happy absorption.

This isn’t the post I want to write, but something’s been blocking me from writing to you about the productive and pleasurable experiences of my last month teaching abroad in Greece. The students were my best batch yet, full of all the best traits: they were curious, industrious, good writers, agreeable travelers. Greece, even under economic distress, showed its legendary creative resilience: volunteers were running free medical clinics and chefs tiny neighborhood tavernas, and tucked away in corners of Athens were cafes overflowing with conversation. I have the loveliest memories of all of these things, but I can’t show them to you because my phone was stolen.

I have hesitated to tell anyone this, however, because well, I find it humiliating that it happened to me, the savvy professor, after I so carefully groomed my young charges in the art of avoiding pickpockets, and I also don’t want to  perpetuate fears that Athens is a dangerous place to which one shouldn’t travel.

But try as I might to write to you about other adventures, I keep coming back to this. So bear with me, please, as I put into practice a bit of my preaching and write this out of my system.

It was on the last day of the course. The day was perfect Athens in January: sunny, bright, about 60 degrees, beckoning all of us to walk about and enjoy it before boarding the plane back to the frozen tundra. I spent the morning walking around the ancient Agora with one of the students who’d alienated herself a bit. I wanted to help her have a good ending to the course and offered to show her one of my special places, a tiny Byzantine church within the agora that has some kind of amazing acoustic set-up; when you stand in front of the altar, right under the dome with the Pantocrator (the picture of Christ on the ceiling), and hum or sing, the sound swirls through the chapel—and through you; you feel the vibration in your cheekbones and down your spine—in the most otherworldly, sublime way.

I think she liked it.

Then, after some gift-shopping, we went our separate ways. With the students’ final essays in my bag, I headed to my favorite pub. (I’m not going to mention its name here for fear that this story will turn up during a Google search for the pub and dissuade people from going there.) I ventured into the cozy interior, settled onto a bench, ordered a haloumi and roasted vegetable salad, spread the essays out in front of me, and placed the phone on the table to serve as a timekeeper and to take advantage of the pub’s free Wifi to text my beau. This part is crucial: yes, the phone was on the table, but it was right in front of me, brushing my sweater.

It was mid-day. The pub was quiet, the only other patron an Englishwoman sitting several tables away. The bartender/server, also a woman, was busy. I was enjoying the essays, underlining the most delightfully precise images, and didn’t even notice when the thief entered the room; I just knew that all of a sudden this young man was standing over me, much too close, aggressively thrusting a piece of paper in my face. I pushed him away with an “Oxi!” (No!) and he left. For a split- second I felt embarrassed at my reaction; I assumed he was a beggar and I’d pushed him away and I was the rude one. Then I realized my phone was gone. I ran out of the pub and saw him turning the corner, yelled, “Stop that man! He stole my phone!” (In English; couldn’t think quickly enough in Greek.) Two men helped me pursue him but he melted into the crowd at the next corner. I hadn’t even really seen his face.

Such a classic scenario, to be caught unawares, vulnerable because happily absorbed in a place I consider safe.

(Let me defend again the utter safety of Athens in general. The only other time I was pickpocketed—seems to be the closest word for this kind of burglary—I was also happily absorbed in a safe place: the University of Minnesota library!)

I would have preferred a better ending to my visit.

Well, I think this post was for me, folks. Thanks for reading, if you’ve gotten this far. And let me treat you to a few photos, for I know the pleasures of our blogs are in the photographs, and thanks to my friend Isabella at the Athens Centre, I’ve got some to share.

Gorgeous shot of ancient Corinth. Thanks, Isabella!
Gorgeous shot of ancient Corinth. Thanks, Isabella!
Wouldn't you love to be a dog living at an ancient ruin? Sweet dog at Corinth.
Wouldn’t you love to be a dog living at an ancient ruin? Sweet dog at Corinth.
Sublime day at Mycenae.
Sublime day at Mycenae.
And here we all are--my good group--at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.
And here we all are–my good group–at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.

My booky sanctuary

I’ve missed you, small band of blog followers. During my time in cold and rainy Dublin I longed for Greece: bought Theo Dorgan’s poetry collection Greek, bored my friends with constant references to “my” place in the world, sought out Mediterranean food at the Temple Bar street market. Then I landed in a scorchingly hot and chaotic Athens that I felt unexpectedly alienated from. Has Athens changed that much? Objectively, no: summer is always hot and chaotic; if anything, it’s less chaotic here in terms of dodging tourist crowds. So it must be me. My beau has dubbed it my postpartum experience, perhaps inevitable after the life-changing sabbatical I enjoyed here in 2010. (Cue “Tintern Abbey.” I’ll return to this subject later.)

So I sought refuge in the sanctuary of books at the Gennadius Library—which, if anything, has just gotten better. This repository for documents and artifacts on modern Greece, the modern library of the American School for Classical Studies, is filled with my people. All these early travelers, all these other romantics articulating for posterity their own complicated love affairs with Greece.

On these mornings that are already stiflingly hot and loud, I flash my reader’s ticket to the guard at the gate, slip into the aesthetic coolness of the neoclassical courtyard, and then the literal coolness of the air-conditioned library. It’s a small reading room—space for about 36 scholars, but only half a dozen of us are here today—and plain in style, especially after the delightfully rococo ceilings at the National Library of Ireland. Unlike many research libraries, where the rare books are all hidden away deep in the vaults of the stacks, the Gennadius houses many of their rare books in glass cabinets around the reading room. You feel that you’re in a generous friend’s study. The cabinets are locked, of course (probably unlike those in your friend’s study), but the kind and helpful Gennadius librarians pull out rare volumes, remembering my research, down to specific books I’m consulting.

Don’t you find that libraries stimulate and calm at the same time? (Favorite spot in Dublin: Marsh’s Library. I want to live in it. My cat would love it, too.)

Athens as a vale of soul-making

We should call the world “a vale of Soul-making,” John Keats writes to his brother and sister in law in one of those many dazzling letters. For what is the purpose of the world? he asks. Don’t think of it as we’ve been taught, as a vale of tears, after which you escape to a better life in heaven, but instead as a school for forming us into Souls. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”

Keats knew about suffering, to be sure. He comes to mind while I’m in Greece—yes, you’d think it would be Byron—so I decided to borrow his brilliant term to christen my blog.

For what if Keats had visited Athens today: a place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. The World of Pains and troubles, from the daily grind of economics, overcrowding, traffic, protests, the strikes that always seem to occur just as you need to get to a particular public office or use a specific form of public transportation (and these are merely the mundane inconveniences) either cause a person to implode and head to the islands, or to become present to the making of a soul.

Melina Mercouri said in an interview some years ago that Greeks “don’t walk well,” they don’t walk with the utter confidence of Americans. While I know she was describing a state of mind more than literal foot-trodding, one is tempted to blame the infrastructure. Sidewalks aren’t just neglected: they seem perversely designed, so ragged and slippery, most of them narrow, the wider ones halved with a block of what looks like the speed-bump mechanism on American highways—very uncomfortable to walk on, yet precisely where you would want to walk, right in the middle—that they defy your attempts to stride confidently with your mind elsewhere, as on a treadmill. As a result, it is nearly impossible to walk in a half-conscious state in Athens.

There’s an ugliness to this chaotic tumble of off-white buildings piled upon one another and creeping up the slopes of the three mountains that embrace Athens—especially when compared to, say, the city center of Paris, all neoclassical harmony and consistently gray monumental order. But you’re also constantly turning a corner and being surprised by beauty: a secret garden, a ruined cottage, a lovingly restored 1930s house tucked between apartment blocks. There’s a stunning, pulsating life deep down things that is intoxicating.

Life is hard here but people stay for the Soul. (I’m speaking, of course, of those with the luxury to choose. There are many people here in Athens who are fleeing a worse situation and would probably scoff at the idea that this is soul-making for them.) Greeks go away to make money, but so many return home as soon as they can. Visitors fall in love with Greece and find ways to stay; I’ve met countless people from the US, UK, Australia, Germany, Norway who came to Greece for two weeks or six months and stayed 7, 19, 40 years because here they feel alive.