In Search of the Real

pelop_nafplio_011

This is what I thought Greece would look like,” one student’s voice rang out as the bus pulled in to Nafplio. What did she mean by that? Nafplio is a resort town, positively Venetian in style. What’s so Greek about it? But I knew precisely what she meant: it is quaint and picturesque with its layers of pastel-colored houses arranged amphitheatrically around the harbor, cafes lining the walk by the sea, fishing boats bobbing in the water. It’s a film set, a travel brochure come to life—charming, relaxing, a site for romance. “Can we stay here?” was the second question.

nafplio-street

Athens has been chaotic and overwhelming: cars parked on sidewalks, people darting this way and that, street signs you can’t read, graffiti covering every surface. “This is Athens: gritty, gritty, gritty, ruins,” described one (the one who most likes Athens; I think it’s a compliment). Here in Nafplio you can wander down one of a handful of mostly pedestrian lanes, all cute, cup of gelato in hand. No need to learn a metro system, little danger of being felled by a motorcycle as you stop to take a photo of shutters or windowboxes or a posing cat.

nafplio-cat

Here, they tell me, is the authentic Greece. Not cosmopolitan cities but sunset-tinted villages. Not post-World War II apartment blocks but olive groves. Greece is a place you come to get lost in history, where you go back in time.

I’m not criticizing them, by the way. I’m fascinated with this phenomenon, which stretches back centuries, each new traveler to Greece declaring that something in the past, something more befitting of an ideal image, is far more real than the present staring him or her in the face. Heidegger found the Cycladic island of Delos his real Greece because it simultaneously revealed and concealed layers of being:

“Δἠλος, the manifest,” he called it, “the one that reveals and does not hide but, at the same time, the one that conceals and hides.”

ancient_greek_theatre_in_delos_01

Don’t think I’m not pointing to myself. Over the years I’ve grown to love the restless energy and multiple faces of Athens, but when I drive through the Peloponnese there’s something that makes me drop back in time and feel as though I’m witnessing the revelation of an absolute reality, beyond language, out of time, sublime, even as I know when the camera zooms in on the villages I will be seeing the reality of isolation and backbreaking work.

mycenae-hill

What earns the status of most real? The image that satisfyingly slots into the grooves of your expectations? The inescapably material evidence of grit and cigarette smoke and the stoniness of the stone? The breathtaking invisible that shines through the cracks of the visible? All I know is that I have to keep coming back.

nafplio

 

The Kindness of Strangers

The worst and best I’ve seen of Greece are fused in a single event. A long chatty lunch with friends at our favorite seaside taverna is interrupted by the sight of a man running. He is young, dark-skinned, West African in appearance, his arms loaded down with sundresses to sell to lounging beachgoers. A hotel security guard, Greek, also young, is chasing him. He kicks the sundress-selling man to the rough pebbly ground and looms over him brandishing a Taser. Its crackle, startlingly loud, is itself an act of violence. No longer lounging, Greeks leap up from beach towels and from their chairs at the taverna, shouting at the security guard, waving him away, and rush to the injured man to help gather his scattered wares.

I witnessed this three years ago but it has returned to my mind all summer as I’ve followed the news of the refugees arriving daily to the Greek islands. What can you do? Extend the deeply-ingrained Greek hospitality, of course, but while your country is struggling to feed and employ its own? Joanna Kikissis, reporting from Lesvos on the humanitarian crisis for NPR, observed that both the Greeks and the tourists on the island overwhelmingly “want to help, and they don’t want to look away.” Nicolas Niarchos’ excellent story for The New Yorker highlights the generosity of locals and tourists in the Lesvos town of Molyvos (where I was happy to see a favorite taverna, The Captain’s Table, has become the center for volunteer action for Help For Refugees In Molyvos; all the more reason to support it the next time you’re there).

Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey in an inflatable raft. Photo by Andrew McConnell for The New Yorker.
Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey in an inflatable raft. Photo by Andrew McConnell for The New Yorker.

Journalism captures the heat and despair of the moment. Literature has the luxury of distance and reflection to slow down and extend and move inside the moment. Both know the power of the individual story to translate political and economic complexities into a tale the heart can hear.

Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker to Measure Drift is such a work of literature. I first encountered it over a year ago but have returned to it and recommended it many  times this summer.

maksik-mtmd-novelpage_PBIt is the tale of a 24 year old Liberian woman named Jacqueline who fled that war-soaked land and has landed on the island of Santorini. As is true of many refugees around the world, Jacqueline was an educated professional from a prominent family in Liberia. But after the murder of her family and escape along the central Mediterranean route to Spain, she has arrived on Santorini with nothing but a change of clothes and memories she wants to keep at bay.

She is now alone in the world and must make her way. The daily struggle for mere survival takes up much of her time, of course, but Maksik gives Jacqueline a great dignity throughout as she moves from sleeping in a cave to creating a home in an abandoned building, and in some ways, if you decontextualized it, the novel could be categorized with adventure tales of characters who carve out domestic spaces for themselves in the woods or deserted islands.

Santorini. July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.
Santorini. July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.

It is a very interior novel. Maksik isn’t presenting reportage on global migration or critical commentary of the Taylor regime in Liberia. This isn’t travel writing about Santorini, either. The focus stays intimately in Jacqueline’s thoughts. We hardly even see her; beyond a fleeting glance in a bathroom mirror we are never given a description of Jacqueline as she is seen by others. Instead we travel with and within her as she moves both forward around the island and backward in memories that haunt her and in conversations with her dead mother, who is a constant companion.

“It is difficult,” she thinks, “to distinguish between memory and storytelling, between storytelling and experience, between this present life and the other.”

Jacqueline is from a privileged background (“the lucky classes,” as she puts it) and has the education and poise and wherewithal to choose, as travelers have long enjoyed, how to present herself. A Liberian on holiday, spending a leisurely summer strolling the beaches before heading off to graduate school at Columbia University: yes, that will be her persona. That will put people she encounters at ease. They won’t have to worry about her or fear her. But she also knows that she must always be conscious of her presence; she’ll never blend in with either the Greeks or the waves of white tourists. People will always notice her, whether with suspicion or sympathetic curiosity. They will always want to know her story.

In almost every instance she is treated with exquisite kindness by the Greeks and others on the island, especially by Katarina, an immigrant herself, hailing from Macedonia, and a waitress at a taverna in the picture-postcard town of Oia.

Oia, July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.
Oia, July 2010. Photo by Doug Phillips.

Katarina wants to know Jacqueline’s story—and by this time, nearing the end of the novel, we do too—and Maksik shifts from a third person omniscient narration to let Jacqueline tell it via dialogue, one long evening over ouzo in Oia. It is painful and Maksik doesn’t flinch from presenting it; but at the same time he doesn’t sensationalize the killings. It is horrifying; it is also readable. And, for this reader, it made me want to return to the first pages and begin reading again, now with the knowledge of what Jacqueline had been through and what haunted her mind.

For throughout the novel, what affects Jacqueline most deeply is the kindness of others: “It was so often relief that made her cry. Not pain or disappointment or horror or terror, but instead it was relief from those things. Relief and, sometimes still, love.”

11427687_1028493040496784_8263380136343816772_n

We knew war here too once

From the Guardian. Photo by Argiris Mantikos.
From the Guardian. Photo by Argiris Mantikos.

By now you’ve probably seen this story—I like The Guardian’s version, by Helena Smith—of a Greek man who swept in to save Eritrean refugees whose boat capsized, “disintegrated” is how he put it, dissolved as if it were made of paper, off the coast of Rhodes. My friend Martha, who has a house in Rhodes, commented that it was fortunate the refugees were close to shore and that it was morning. Greeks in the cafes took notice quickly, many hopped in small seacraft or swam out to rescue. Wegasi Nebiat, whose parents “paid $10,000 for a voyage that would see her walk, bus, and fly her way to ‘freedom’,” has her sights are set on Sweden, not Greece, and the choice of Greece as an entryway to Europe was likely purely geographical—all those islands one could get a toehold on, then catch a ferry to Athens and be on your way—but this story fits into a longstanding narrative of travelers coming to Greece for a greater freedom than they have at home. In the earlier days of the 18th to 20th centuries the travelers were coming from the West—Britain, the United States—seeking relief from stultifying customs, sexual repressions, gender constraints. Greece, a place less free than their restrictive homes, gave them a comparative sense of liberty and license. Does Greece continue to be seen as a beacon of hope, a land of freedom, for the newcomers, those whose travel, if we can call it that, is forced?

We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli
From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.

When I returned to Athens last week the first thing I did, still in the fog of jetlag, was race over to the Athens & Epidaurus Festival to catch the final performance of We are the Persians! A documentary drama that spliced passages from Aeschylus’ Persians and Suppliants into real-life stories of recent refugees and immigrants to Greece from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, it created a stirring and sobering look into their lives, in which the terror of war and daily uncertainty of life in a destruction zone has been replaced with the terror of interrogation, prolonged precarity, and the tedious humiliations of prejudice.

From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.
From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.

Directed by Yolanda Markopoulou, the play was a production of Station Athens, an art therapy organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Athens. Station Athens opens a portal to escape momentarily the relentless fight for mere existence and, using the meaning-making tools of theatre, film, and photography, transform memories into stories to be shared with one another and audiences hungry to know the hidden lives and inner worlds of these invisible men who work the margins of the streets.

From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.
From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.

Packed into the black box space on 260 Pireos, the theatre audience was tangibly sympathetic and, from what I could tell with my limited Greek, fully embracing the plight of the men.

The island of Kos, barely two miles from Turkey.
The island of Kos, barely two miles from Turkey.

This summer the island of Kos is the epicenter of a series of daily stories about the waves of refugees who, having paid large sums for the chance, make their voyage under cover of night, clinging to unseaworthy craft—in the starkest of contrasts to the holidaymakers on Kos making the reverse trip to the coast of Turkey paying very little for a breezy cruise on sturdy ferries.   The Daily Mail has taken the crass road of fearmongering in their stories of the “Holiday from hell” in which your vacation will be ruined by the presence of Syrians paying to sleep in crowded conditions in an abandoned hotel (or, as that paper puts it, “bedding down as they plot their route to Britain”). The Guardian has presented a warmer, more sympathetic vision of the situation. In response to a woman from Germany who complains that tourists “come to get away from the terrible news of wars and whatnot, not to see it” and concludes, “they shouldn’t be allowed to land,” one of the “elderly fish sellers on the harbourside scolds her: ‘Lady, you’d rather have bodies on the beaches? Tsk. We knew war here too once.’”

P.S. Who has the right to live?

 Anthropologist and Fulbright scholar Heath Cabot spent several years working with people “seeking to live tolerable, even ethically engaged, lives in ways that are often undone through forces outside their control.” She shares her discoveries in the book I next need to read, On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. In a lecture last night at the Athens Centre, which drew a crowd hailing from many nations, former asylum seekers alongside privileged expats and mobile travelers, all eager for an answer to Greece’s “other crisis,” she said that this was the central dilemma, the guiding question, of her work. And of our time. Who has the right to live?

It’s gonna take a lotta love to get us through the night

As we walked out of the dark movie theatre we had the same complaint. Why so little depiction of Greece? We need more Greece! The Before Midnight crew set up shop there for some time, filming on location in the southern Peloponnese, giving us glimpses of the Kalamata airport, a drive-by of the ruins of Pylos, some lovely scenes of the late writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house (see more on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog), a great walkabout of the village of Kardamyli, a twinkly-lighted bay backdrop to a café at sunset and nearly midnight.  (Readers in Greece: where is that teeny Byzantine church? I loved it!)

before-midnight poster

Despina Spyrou Sony Pictures Classics
Despina Spyrou Sony Pictures Classics

But so much of the film took place inside a rental car and a hotel room (well-chosen, by the way, for its banal luxury). This lent the scenes an appropriately claustrophobic feel, but I was longing for you, Richard Linklater, to let your director of photography, Christos Voudouris, burst in with a bunch of extraneous scenery for a pure pleasure indulgence.  There are so many fans of Celine and Jesse that Before Midnight will be stimulating the Peloponnesian economy in no time but just think how much more you could have done.

Maybe I wanted to look at the backdrop not just because I’m in love with Greece but because I wanted somewhere else to fix my gaze but on the characters. In Before Sunset we’re watching the faces of two people falling in love, gingerly cautious about giving too much away but in every frame and every facial flicker dazzled with their good fortune of reuniting. The Paris they walk through mirrors that, and the long interior scenes—inside Shakespeare & Company bookstore, the café, Celine’s apartment—are the high rather than low points, charming interior scenes that reflect the longing for love, the hopeful reaching out between the two. Like everyone else in the movie theatre in Chelsea, I sighed with delight at the most-exquisitely-perfect ending of Before Sunset.  And when Before Midnight finally opened in Minneapolis yesterday I was there, front row in the balcony, sharing the loveseat and popcorn bag with my beau, for the very first showing.

The Greece pictured looked worn and sad, like the too-realistic depiction of a romance that’s become mundane, a portrayal  of two people who constantly bicker, harbor suspicions of one another, find ways to avoid intimacy. Yeah, I know. Apologies to Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke. It’s not you, it’s me. The film is beautiful, painful, precisely written, so real it feels voyeuristic. What  I’m frustrated with is the failure of our narrative imagination—that we, culturally speaking, can’t seem to find or create a narrative for romantic partnership other than one that peaks at courtship and falls inexorably into boredom and long-simmering resentment.

What if the film opened to reveal Jesse and Celine, nine years down the road, more intimate with one another, taking more joy in one another’s presence? Not holding hands and skipping through the clover, but using language as a way of growing closer and more open rather than as a way of picking each other apart and donning armor. Multiple choice answers: (a)Too sentimental? (b) Mere fantasy?  (c) Just not possible? (d) OK, maybe  possible, but not with children?

Before Midnight romantic pic

I know it’s a form of pathetic fallacy but that Greek landscape would look brighter, more hopeful, with a little tenderness.

For Charlie: not hopelessness but joy

A few weeks ago I was invited to talk with a group of students on my campus, the kind of students who, I used to think, existed only in nostalgic novels and professorial daydreams: earnest young people searching for meaning, not just job preparation, in college. Evangelists for an expanded and intensified core curriculum at the university.  Seeking vocational guidance and wisdom, they found one another and created this organization that invites professors in for conversation about who we are, what we do, and why we chose our academic discipline. (Readers outside of academia, you may imagine this to be our everyday life at the university but you would be wrong. It’s all too rare.)

Sad to report, then, that far from inspiring them to study English, I’m afraid I’ve bummed them all out.

I’ve been most concerned about Charlie, who was visibly troubled at the end of the session and in need of some kind of reassurance.

Not having been to such a session before, I feared boring these thirsty seekers with a straightforward career narrative of first I did this, then I did that. All of my pursuits have been driven by a longing for presence, as I’ve been exploring with all of you in this oddly intimate-yet-public setting, and I knew these students to be spiritually-minded folk, and thus I decided to engage them in my current research on the subject.

Greece pictures from Maria 041

On, that is, the ironies of travelers who long for personal liberty seeking out Greece, a country associated with freedom but longing for liberty itself.  On my ethical concerns about representing Greece as a vale of soul-making—using another country to make your soul, and how travelers have wanted Greece to stay ruined, imperfect, fragmented, because it’s so much more soulful—and artistically inspiring—that way.

On the painful pleasures of longing, how we actually want to long, rather than to have all things finished, polished, perfected. Think of Martha Graham, I waxed on dramatically, who was never content, even when creating one groundbreaking modern dance work after the next, but always felt “divine dissatisfaction,” the ”blessed unrest” that kept her going and made her feel alive.

Martha Graham in "Letter to the World," her portrait of Emily Dickinson. Classic photograph by Barbara Morgan, 1940.
Martha Graham in “Letter to the World,” her portrait of Emily Dickinson. Classic photograph by Barbara Morgan, 1940.

The problem, though, as you can probably guess (or perhaps not, if you don’t know me personally), is that it’s one thing to present still-evolving thoughts in a worked-over 500 word format, interspersed with pretty pictures, and yet another to passionately fling these half-baked notions to students who were hoping for some inspiration, perhaps a little concrete guidance. They were all polite but I could tell something was wrong.

At the end, Charlie, who already knows me, who had taken my seminar in art and social change a couple years back and is one of the sweetest and most thoughtful students I’ve ever known, bravely ventured the final statement. “But,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “it sounds . . . hopeless.”

That day I didn’t have language within the right framework for my audience. Now I do.

Maria-at-Sounion-cliff

And it’s courtesy of the blog world, which sometimes, by happy chance, comes to our rescue and delivers on its promise to be a conduit for conversation, to create convergences.

This particular convergence was facilitated nicely by WordPress editors, who chose for “Freshly Pressed” honors the February 15, 2013 post on “Zadie Smith, C. S. Lewis, and Joy” from Brett McCracken’s blog entitled The Search: http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/ .

Charlie, I should have quoted C. S. Lewis to you. He’s a voice you’re familiar with and would gravitate toward. This longing, you see, that I was trying to describe is not a matter of hopelessness but of what Lewis would call joy.

In Surprised by Joy he defines the term as an “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”  Like happiness or pleasure “anyone who has experienced [joy] will want it again.” But–in sharp distinction from those two (happiness or pleasure)–joy “might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief.” Yet we’ll seek it out, even though it’s not under our control but comes unbidden. We actually want “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” more than we do pleasure, which is easily tired of.

True, Lewis will write at the end of Surprised by Joy that he no longer gives this intense bittersweetness primary importance following his conversion, but this subjective, still-seeking reader continues to feel the longing.

CS-Lewis

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

P.S. To keep the blog loop and this conversation on joy going, I recommend you read Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books essay “Joy,” which is quoted in The Search: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jan/10/joy/?pagination=false 

I think you’ll like it.

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?

Women who stalk Lord Byron

I’ve become a late-in-life stalker of Lord Byron.  Charlotte Brontë introduced us in 1996 when I gave a presentation on how she became “Byronized” (although I’d accept the answer that I’d long before joined the Byronic cult through my lifelong love of her creation Mr. Rochester), but other than that fleeting glance my graduate education, even though I was studying eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature, his temporal stomping grounds, had no Byron in it. My Romanticist professor was a Wordsworth and Coleridge man—more earnest, less ironic—and I took seminar after seminar on Blake, Shelley, Keats… Every one of the “Big Six” poets except Byron.  

It wasn’t until the year 2000, when I visited Greece for the first time, fell madly in love, and decided right then and there to shift the axis on which my life revolved, orienting it toward Greece, that Byron swam into my ken.

250px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)

 (Are any of my students reading this blog? Here’s your lesson: follow love!)

 Since then I’ve realized I’m not at all unique; many (oh, so many) women have stalked Lord Byron. Caroline Lamb steals all the press as Stalker Number One—cross-dressing as a page, sending him a lock of her pubic hair, furiously recounting their relationship under the novelistic veil of Glenarvon—but she’s far from the only one to pursue him in writing.

Take Dutch novelist Tessa de Loo, for instance.  I’m enamored by In Byron’s Footsteps, which alternates between historical narratives of Byron’s voyage through Albania and letters she writes to him as she travels—on horseback!—along the path he and his bud John Cam Hobhouse took. She hooks me right away with the opening description of Albania.  Like de Loo, I too had stood in Corfu and looked east, “intrigued by the massive grey hulks of the mountains on the other side of the narrow strait.” To her they look like “the backs of patiently waiting elephants.” I was silenced by how barren it all seemed; in Corfu in April everything was green, but across the water, in the same climate zone, all was grey and denuded, stripped of trees that simply had to have been there once. In Corfu Town the evening sky was filled with lights, but across the water I couldn’t see a single one, as if the entire country had turned in early, or was left behind as the rest of us embraced electricity.

De Loo is a beautiful writer (and has an elegant translator in Andy Brown) and she captures the contradictions of her crush precisely: Byron is “engaging yet insufferable, noble yet malicious, a hedonist yet prone to melancholy, sensual yet austere.” But what really draws her to him is the freedom of his being: “I admired you for the naturalness with which you dared, from a young age, to be yourself, to be authentic.”

Australian journalist Julietta Jameson also seeks to emulate Byron more for his derring-do than his way with words. She travels to another Byronic hotspot, Italy, with, she says, a suitcase crammed with his texts, but Me, Myself, and Lord Byron is primarily focused on the Me and Myself of its title; Byron is an occasion for travel and renewal of herself.

My copy of Me, Myself and Lord Byron has a British Rail ticket from Durham to Stirling as bookmark.
My copy of Me, Myself and Lord Byron has a British Rail ticket from Durham to Stirling as bookmark.

In what is essentially a memoir of recovery it is Byron’s vulnerabilities that Jameson identifies with: his damagedness: the clubfoot, the melancholy, the obsession with his weight. Her unabashed openness and chatty prose style—more Eat, Pray, Love than A Romantic Education—are disarming but I didn’t find myself underlining sentences and sinking into reflection over them as I did with Tessa de Loo’s work. Let me read you a lively one, though, a depiction of Byron to compare with de Loo’s: “smart, funny, good looking, troubled, scandalous, sexually comme ci comme ça and a guy who would have been featured in the celebrity diets issue of People magazine, had he been alive today.”

(And now we interrupt our programming for a word of advertisement for beloved London bookshops.  Me, Myself and Lord Byron: purchased at Daunt Books, June 2011. [Thanks, Sarah, for pointing it out to me as I was paying for another book, an academic one on Byron in the Greek War of Independence. Had to buy both.] In Byron’s Footsteps:  discovered in the secondhand section of Waterstones on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, during that same trip, June 2011.)

My 2008 group of students loved to strike Byronic poses. They adopted the motto What Would Byron Do? W.W.B.D. bracelets would surely be next.
My 2008 group of students loved to strike Byronic poses. They adopted the motto What Would Byron Do? W.W.B.D. bracelets would surely be next.

What both de Loo and Jameson really love is the freedom they find in Byron: the freedom not to be nice, not be constrained. Stalking him becomes a way of pursuing and claiming your own life. I can identify with that, and especially with the longing de Loo expresses in this contrast between herself and Byron: “In everything you did, you jumped in at the deep end. I am more the type who lies down flat on the diving board and spends a long time starting into the depths.”

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.

I love to watch them rapt

My friend Nancy collects images of women reading. I think of her every time I see a painting of a woman engrossed in a book or those postcard compilations and calendars titled Reading Women that museums produce.

I fully understand the delight these images bring her, for my own nerdy confession is that I love to watch students writing.

Jeff gazing at Gysis’ “Behold the Celestial Bridegroom.” National Gallery, Athens.

There’s just about nothing that gives me more pleasure as a teacher than strolling about a classical site or through a museum gallery and seeing a student gazing at an object, deeply absorbed in the moment, and then quietly writing.

I love to catch them in moments of rapt attention.

Do you think it’s because I long in vain for these moments at home? It occurs to me that these cherished instances of absorption are far more common—are perhaps entirely—when I’m teaching abroad. Now, to be true, it’s only in this situation that I actually walk about and photograph the students, so I may be overlooking, for lack of documentation and memory, instances at home when students are rapt. Then, too, at the university I am not with them all the time and am not present for possible glorious moments. Although we do a lot of writing in class, what’s all too frequent is to see students unable to sink into the moment, distracted by their phones, their classmates’ inattention, their own restlessness or self-consciousness. Instead of making them feel mentally expansive, the quiet classroom feels constraining, coercive. They grow restive. Absent is the sense of wonder, and nowhere to be found the physical impetus to inspiration (and perhaps the permission or license to become enraptured?) that we have when studying abroad.

The texts in front of them, I realize, when studying abroad or in the classroom, are not what captures them. (Which makes me sad.) When we are on site in Greece, the spaces we are in and the objects we see are the very ones described in our texts, which ramps up the urgency to observe through the observer and to compare notes with Herodotus, Byron, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, and to be present in this moment, to give it  full-on attention—finally—and to feel the enormous rush of energy that comes from that deep attention.

Micki writing on the rocky terrain of Sounio.

Greece is beautiful, complexly layered, demanding of all your senses: who wouldn’t gaze spellbound in its presence? But the research shows that it’s the mere getting away—and, more, immersing ourselves in intellectual practice when we’re away—that has such enormous cognitive benefits to my students. If you are already a fan of study abroad (and I know many of you are), you know how powerfully it improves your cross-cultural understanding: hones your awareness, broadens your reach on global issues, matures your perception of your home country, increases your self-reliance. The latest research tells us that studying abroad even improves our ability to be creative. What’s being discovered supports a lot of anecdotal, on-the-ground evidence: you learn to think outside of your ‘cultural script,’ how to combine intellectual resources from various cultural frameworks, how to generate and apply new, culturally-appropriate ideas–all capabilities that are so vital to seeing, comprehending, and solving complex, open-ended problems. (See Christine S. Lee, David J. Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm. “On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship Between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology (2012).)

But for me it comes down, again and always, to witnessing students in those rare moments of rapt attention, of presence. When their faces don’t look anxious or impassive but instead focused, alert, engrossed, with a play of ideas behind their eyes. I collect these images; they are beautiful to me. I like to think that these are moments they too will mull over in years to come; these will be their own spots of time.

More writing on the turf of Poseidon.

Such moments also tend to produce some writing worth reading.