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

 

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.

What am I longing for? Presence

What ties all the disparate strands of your life together? When you look back upon all that you’ve loved, obsessed over, sought out, what do those things have in common? What were you longing for?

Take a bird’s-eye look at my life, for instance: from sitting upon hallowed grounds, whether the foot of the Little Buddha in Afghanistan or John Keats’s grave in Rome; from apprenticing myself to the craft of acting to rooting through archives of eighteenth-century performances of Hamlet; to walking through the lower site of ancient Delphi in the misty morning with only stray cats for company, what underlies these experiences? What have I been seeking, been longing for?

This: presence.

Not fame, certainly not fortune, and not sites to check off some bucket list. No, it’s been presence I long for–those moments of feeling stopped in time and yet swept into an all-time; of being, it seems, present to the past; of having a suddenly vastly expanded inner space, or, perhaps more accurately, of feeling a breaking down of the walls between interiority and exteriority.

Let me tell you about one of these times. It takes place when I’m in college, twenty years old, and is one of those so-called “momentous events” that my cognitive psych pals like to study, the events that stick in our minds because they’re coated (and coded) with rich detail. It haunts me so vividly, all these years later, because it is, I think, the first time I was conscious of such an experience of presence and was moved to actively seek them out, however I could, whatever it took, for the rest of my life.

After several weeks in the outskirts of London, studying The English Novel in its Environment, we were given a 10-day break. Ditched by my school chums, who decided to hang out with some blokes they’d just met, I decided to follow through on my own with our plan to check out Scotland.

Somewhere down in the vault I must have photos of this journey but I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine me: clad in a pale-green Pringle men’s sweater that I’d just bought (oversized; it was 1985) atop peg-legged stonewashed jeans and white Keds sneakers. I carried a backpack with clean underwear, white t-shirts, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but otherwise needed little for my adventure.

Scotland in 2011, not 1985, but still moody and atmospheric.

From Edinburgh I headed west on a somewhat arbitrary circuit of Scotland, taking the next train or bus in the station, looking for a room when I arrived in a town. I’ve never traveled so lightly. Oban, Mull, Inverness, Perth (for reasons that escape me) and back to Edinburgh. Glasgow I was scared of; in 2005 I would spend a glorious semester teaching there and cluck at my former self.

Oban is the port city where you board the ferry for the Isle of Mull. On the boat I was visited by a flock of seagulls. They swooped so near, their fat oil-slicked bellies close enough to touch, their wings beating hard against the wind. Have I always loved seagulls or was it this moment that I became entranced? (Note to self: ask your mother. As a child you did have a Jonathan Livingston Seagull t-shirt that you wore to shreds.) You see, they seemed to be calling to me. They seemed to be saying, We see you, we know you’re traveling alone, you’re all right.

And that afternoon as I explored Mull it was as if I saw myself from the seagulls’ point of view while simultaneously feeling a part of all. As if I saw through two different sets of eyes at once. Probably I didn’t speak a word to anyone–my silence not a desire for monasticism but a consequence of shyness and reserve. I walked around a castle–it was for sale, I remember, which struck me as odd–and drank a cup of tea on its lawn.

Not Mull but Stirling, Scotland, but it stirs up similar feelings.

That experience never returned during the rest of my little jaunt around Scotland, however much I longed for it to. It’s remained a Wordsworthian “spot of time,” a charged moment in the history of my imagination that can be conjured up for inspiration and that returns unbidden, from time to time…

Whitby, England, July 2011.

Especially when I see seagulls.

The Landscapes of our Souls

Hello dear readers, new and old. Wow: so many more of you now. Getting Freshly Pressed (thanks, WordPress editors!) really throws a writer for a loop, audience-wise. What lovely, thoughtful responses you’ve left, occasionally asking for more stories about Afghanistan. As I was discussing with Read Stuff with Me (http://readstuffwithme.wordpress.com/) my depictions are admittedly very romanticized, rosy portraits from memory, as subjective as they come, bearing little to no resemblance with the Afghanistan you’d find today. (See Xenogirl for more up-to-date reflections: http://xenogirl.com/2012/07/30/culture-shock/ .)

The theme of my tale of Afghanistan–the great theme, if I might call it that, of this entire blog–is longing. In my scholarly life I’m researching longing for liberty in Greece. (Pop quiz: Let’s see a show of hands: how many knew that the nation of modern Greece is younger than the United States?) Greeks may have won their war of independence in 1830 but they’re still longing for political and economic liberty. Yet to travelers Greece has long been seen as a place to go to find freedom. So I’m also exploring that longing for liberty (personal, political, spiritual) that drives people to travel there.

Do you travel because you long for liberty?

Why do some places seem to promise it more than others?

There’s clearly a political answer to that second question, but I’m curious about the geographical or topographical answer. The answer, that is, of landscape.

I love a wild landscape. This is Band-e amir, Afghanistan. The fadedness of the 1975 photo, though, is preventing you from seeing the brilliant depth of color of both lake and mountain–those stark juxtapositions of color that appeal to my imagination. (Go Google the images!)

How many of you are drawn to wild landscapes? Do they make you feel free? Scotland and Greece capture my freedom-loving spirit more than England and Italy (two other beloved and somewhat related places) for the raw wildness of the landscapes, I think, in contrast to the domesticated, agricultured, groomed. Similarly, among my many childhood homes (I had a peripatetic upbringing), Boone, North Carolina is remembered as most freeing because of imprinted images of breathtaking mountain passes, while Omaha, Nebraska conjures the homey security of well-groomed old homes and elm trees.  Cue Burke: let’s launch into a debate of the sublime over the beautiful. Why is Alaska the most stunning of the states? Why, more scope for sublimity.

What are the landscapes you long for, and why? Are they different from the landscapes you grew up in?

There it is again, my ideal landscape: craggy mountain (here, technically, cliff) cheek by jowl with sea. Sounio, Greece.
Ah, the stormy sea at Sounio.

I am who I am because of Afghanistan

During the summer of my tenth year my family lived in Afghanistan and it stole into my heart. I am convinced that my fashion sense for scarves and bangles was born there, as was a love for eggplant, chickpeas, and dramatic landscapes made up of stark craggy mountains that end in startlingly blue lakes. If we want to get mystical, I’d argue that I was even drawn to meditative practice from sitting on the foot (not at the foot, mind you, but on it) of the Buddha–the Little Buddha of Bamiyan, that is.

No Instagram here. This is the real thing: an honestly faded photo of me on the foot of the Little Buddha.

How do we become who we are? How does a place, an aesthetic, a spiritual geography, get into our being?

It’s easy to romanticize Afghanistan in 1975 (pre-Soviet invasion, pre-Taliban), especially through the nostalgic eyes of a 10 year old who saw it all from a distance: from a modern house shielded from the street by a wall, from a compound where we swam, took tennis lessons, and watched American movies. My uncle Dave is there right now, in a much more precarious situation, and would probably give you a mighty different take on the scene.

As Alain de Botton defines it in The Art of Travel, I find Afghanistan–and the self I wanted to become because of Afghanistan–exotic.

Now, before the accusations of Orientalism come hurtling toward me (I already know; why do you think I study it? Aren’t our subjects always ourselves?), let me express my love, even if it seems absurd or boringly conventional. As de Botton writes, we find ourselves “anchoring emotions of love to the way a person butters bread or turning against them because of their taste in shoes,” but we cannot ignore “how rich in meaning details may be.”

It could be that what I found exotic about Afghanistan arose from mere novelty and change (there were no camels on Izard Street in Omaha), but what de Botton gets at is this more precise understanding: that we may find pleasure in exotic locales because “they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland could provide.”

“What we find exotic abroad,” he writes, “may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”

Am I craving the sight of camels walking down the street? Or the interplay of ancient and modern, rural and urban, layers of time and place in my everyday life?

I’ve “wrestled my story”  (as Kathleen Norris puts it in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography) out of my formative experiences in Afghanistan. This is in part pure: aesthetic joy in ornament, righteous hunger for a homeland that won’t wantonly pave over and render invisible signs of the past. But this story is also very complicated, for I want the imagined–the imaginary?–Afghanistan of my youth, to be wrapped up in my own private Afghanistan.

I feel like I’m peering over the shoulder of that ten year old self, looking through her eyes as the Bamiyan valley imprints itself in her soul.

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.)