Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #6: Traversing Epirus

From the Peloponnese, I planned to make my way across western Greece, from the Gulf of Corinth to Meteora. The route I had chosen would take me through 2 cities I wanted to visit; Arta and Ioannina. The first intrigued me, as it was the capital of the old Despotate of Epirus, and if the pictures can be believed, chock-full of 13th-century churches. Ioannina looked interesting as well, though its fame came later, during the time of Ali Pasha. In Arta, I particularly wanted to see the Church of St. Theodora and the Paregoretissa, as well as the Panaghia Vlacherna nearby. In Ioannina, my goal was the relics of St. George the New, one of the martyrs of the Ottoman Yoke. Little of these plans actually came to fruition, however, as the day was spent primarily in transit--the simple logistical slog of getting from here to there.

The Despotate of Epirus is one of those fascinating asterisks of history. At the fall of Constantinople (the one in 1204, not 1453), the Byzantine ruling class scattered, establishing several small kingdoms-in-waiting. The Lascarids, and later the Palaeologus established a government-in-exile across the Bosphorus in Nicaea. The Komnenos located in far-away Trebizond. And the Emperor's cousin, Michael I Angelos Komnenos Doukas escaped to Arta.
Each had an eye turned towards Constantinople, to which they hoped to return one day, and another eye towards each other, their kinsmen and potential rivals. Although the family names might change--from Doukas to Komnenos to Angelos to Lascaris to Palaeologus to Cantacuzene--the Emperors of the East were all of one family, from the rise of Alexios I in 1081 to the fall in 1453. Repeated marital alliances with the Nemanjics of Serbia and the Assens of Bulgaria further confused the relationships. By the mid 13th-century, one would be hard pressed to find a member of one of these families who was not descended from all. Although marriage between close cousins was strictly forbidden, this web of connections surpassed even that of the Coburgs in the 19th-century.

The drive through Epirus was much easier than the previous day's endurance run. And I was beginning to need some relief. While one medical problem was addressed back in Mystra, others were beginning to compound, leaving me wearied and tired, when I had really not exerted myself at all. The Pindhos Mountains along its eastern boundary isolates Epirus a bit for the rest of Greece. The mountains within the region itself are not as severe as in other regions, and give way to broad river valleys lush with irrigated crops, rather than olives or orange groves. A new north-south expressway provides swift access through the province. Unfotunately, there is one entrance onto the highway, which I missed, and no more for 75 kilometers or so. It was quite literally a case of "you can't get there from here." While stuck on the old road, twisting and turning through the middle of towns and farmland, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of the expressway which roughly paralleling my course. I would see the cars zipping towards Arta, my destination. Obviously there must be a reason for my being forced onto the back road. I just had to wait and see what it was.

I stopped at a gas station on the edge of a small town to purchase a bottle of water. In Greece, there is no such thing as a self-service station, and your gas is just as liable to be pumped by a little old lady dressed in black, as was the case here. Leaning against my car, drinking my water and resting a bit, I took note of a rather handsome church on the adjoining lot. On top of the dome was one of the largest stork's nests I have ever seen. I love to watch for storks and their enormous nests when traveling in the Balkans. Four young storks occupied the nest, waiting for their lunch, no doubt. They reminded me of four Baby Hueys. And then I realized that perhaps it was this, these "God-protected storks," that I was supposed to see on this back road.

In due course, I arrived in Arta. My image of the city was colored by my having seen pictures of various churches in Arta. I thought it to be an old town, with lots of character. Yes, the churches are still there, but Arta is a thoroughly modern Greek city, and all that that implies. Concrete block buildings predominate, traffic is thick, and there are no places to park. Despite my experience in Patras, I am generally not at all intimidated by driving in foreign cities. Arta was doubly frustrating, however, for I did actually pass some of the churches I wanted to see, but there seemed no way to stop and park...anywhere. Finally, I wedged my car into a wide space in the bend of a road. I was not at all sure it ws legal to park there and was uncomfortable leaving it unattended. The makeshift parking space was only a block from the Paregoretissa.

The Paregoretissa has to be one of the most unusual Orthodox Churches I have visited. The structure is unlike any I have seen in all my travels. The Italianate influence is clearly evident in this design, constructed in the late 13th-century, during the reign of Nikophorus I Angelos Komnenos Doukas. A straight-forward, square 3-story building, the only things that gives it away as a church are the 5 domes atop. From the outside, it is a striking building, yes, but not a beautiful one. Once inside, however, I was a bit awe-struck. Standing in the nave, I looked up to the Pantocrator. The ceiling was a full 3-stories above...and then the dome. Paregoretissa is simply magnificent. The iconography is in a fair state of preseveration, as well.

Leaving the church, I walked across the street to a park, where I could sit and rest--and watch my car. By this time, I was feeling particularly unwell and I made a decision to forego the Church of St. Theodora, as well as the Panaghia Vlacherna, and push on to Ioannina. I now regret not making more of an effort here. Theodora was the long-suffering wife of Despot Michael II Angelos Konemnos Doukas--one of our few married women saints. I learned of her life from Mother Nectaria's Evogleite. Her story is a compelling one. I realize that I gave Arta short shrift. Should I ever return to Greece, I hope to remedy that situation.

I pushed west until I crossed the Louras River. Here, I turned north and paralleled the river. Along the way, I passed by the ruins of the Pantanassa Monastery. The monk Job Melias, in his 13th-century biography of St. Theodora, relates how her husband, the Despot built two monasteries as a gesture of repentance for the shameful way he had treated her. Pantanassa was one of them. The site was completely obscured by overgrowth until 1970.

A few kilometers further up the road, I pulled in at a restaurant, wedged between the river and the road. I chose an outside table near the water, between the trout tank and restaurant. A German couple occupied a spot a few tables down. How do I know they were German? One just knows. This late lunch came just in time, and the fresh trout went a long way towards restoring my spirits. The one problem, however, was the "mountain greens." My waiter suggested this option, a local staple, instead of a traditional salad. I was a bit suspicious, as it sounded very much like turnip greens--something I have never yet been hungry enough to eat. When he brought my food, I quickly saw that turnip greens by any other name are still...turnip greens. Not wanting to disappoint my waiter, I made a valiant effort at eating some of this huge mound of greens. I chewed and chewed and chewed and forced down 3 or 4 mouthfuls. My waiter noted that I had left most of them on the plate and I made the best excuse I could--that they had simply given me way too much to eat. We talked a bit. He had been to the U.S. before--New Jersey, I think. I explained, the best I could, about Texas. He encouraged me to visit the churches in Thessaloniki, and I assured him I had every intention of doing so. I lingered here for quite some time, listening to the rushing water of the Louras River. My German neighbor had stripped down to his Speedos and was splashing around in it. I looked upstream.

Ioannina was only a few kilometers further on. The city sounded inviting, as it lay on the shores of a large natural lake. Many of the historical sites there are associated with the Ali Pasha (1740-1821,) a flamboyant autocrat who ruled the more or less independent of the sultan in Constantinople. McLees tells of the fascinating story of his favorite wife--a Christian--the beautiful Kyria Vasiliki. The Kastro is right on the waterfront, as is the old mosque. Ferries ply the waters across the lake to the island village and monasteries. As interesting as all this would be, I particularly wanted to visit the relics of St. George the New Martyr (thanks to John at Mystagogy for post, here .) In Evlogeite!, Mother Nectaria gave no directions, but suggested to stop and ask for its location. This did not sound good. I asked my waiter, and he had never heard of the church. I left the restaurant and drove on into Ioannina. I stopped for gas and asked again. They had never heard of the church at the service station. I drove into the city and found it to be as beautiful as described. Ioannina was much nicer than Arta, even without considering its prime lake-front location. I drove around a bit, hoping to see the church, but without any success. If it had been earlier in the day, I would have taken a ferry out to the island. As it was, I decided to push on to Thessaly and Meteora and the hopes of a soft bed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #5: Among the Palaeologi

Leaving Evvia, I headed south towards the Peloponnese. I gave Athens a wide berth, skipping the Greek ruins (and crowds) there, just as I was to bypass these sites at Delphi, Thebes, Corinth, Mycenae and Sparta. I have seen my fair share of Greco-Roman ruins (Ephesus, Aphrodisias, the Parthenon, Heriopolis, Ipamea, Baalbek and Jerash,) and now have little interest in seeing yet another broken Corinthian column. What interests me, however, is what came after--the Byzantine Empire, from late antiquity to the late Middle Ages. My fascination goes far beyond the very obvious association with the Orthodox faith. The incredibly rich tapestry of this East Roman civilization remains largely unappreciated and misunderstood, even as recent generations of scholars have sought to correct the mischief done by Gibbon and others. For those travelers similarly possessed, there is one place that will be at the top of our list--the ruins of Mistra, capital of the old Despotate of Morea, deep in the Peloponnese. (I have written earlier of Mistra, as well as the best book on the subject, here.)

Mistra is located in Laconia, and one must first traverse Arcadia. I was curious to see the latter region, as the very word itself has come to signify a simple, pastoral existence in our language. And I had romanticized it a bit--imagining Arcadia to be as Poussin depicted. In my mind, however, I had conflated my small print of his Burial of Phocian," with the better-known Et in Arcadia Ego, and had somehow envisioned Arcadia thusly. I was not disappointed, for the region did look like a Poussin painting--rolling mountains bracketing wide valleys with slender cedars, fields and orchards.

Old Sparta lies on a rolling plain, and the land slopes off to the southeast towards the Aegean. My destination, however, lay 8 kilometers west, where the gentle countryside abruptly ends at a wall of mountains. And is there--improbably, incredibly, wonderfully--that the ruins of Mistra cling to an outlying crag of Mount Taygotes. Though strategically located, the terrain itself would be a limiting factor to its long term growth and viability. And yet for 200 years, roughly from 1260 to 1460, Mistra trailed only Constantinople itself as a center of art, learning and scholarship. And it is here--not Istanbul, Athens or Thessaloniki--that one finds the most substantial witness to the Byzantine world, and where one can most readily envision that society.

The modern village of Mystras, surrounded by orange groves, nestles at the foot of the mountains. I stayed in the appropriately named Hotel Byzantinos--a 3-story establishment in the center of things, with a cafe across the street, the village square to the left, air-conditioning, balcony overlooking the ruins, full buffet breakfast and a real swimming pool in the rear walled-in garden--all for 35 euros a night ($43.40.) This hotel, a souvenir shop, 3 or 4 cafes and a few other establishments cater to the Byzantine-seeking traveler. And they play up the the royal Palaeologus connection. The last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, who died defending Constantinople in 1453, was actually crowned in Mistra. There's a nicely-done statue of him near the center of town, just up from the Cafe Palaeologi. My medical problems were beginning to compound, so I spent the morning of my last day there in the doctor's office. (She was a nice young American lady of Greek extraction, graduate of Rutgers, who returned to Greece so that, as she said, "she could do real medicine," which she could not afford to do in the U.S.) Behind her desk was a very westernized picture of Constantine XI, with portraits of other Byzantine emperors or noblemen flanking each side. Like I say, the Byzantine is still big here.

I started out early for the ruins, before the heat set in. I was a bit discouraged to see that a tour bus had arrived before me. But I discovered that the site is large enough that there is plenty of room to move about and separate yourself from the vicinity of a tour if need be. The lower gates (the Monemvasia Gates) lay 2 kilometers up the mountain from the village. Upon arrival, I stopped for awhile, surveying the lay of the land, and attempting to visualize how the city must have appeared 600 years earlier. The reconstructed Kastro still dominates the peak of the crag. Lower, and to the right, is the palace, currently undergoing reconstruction. Ruins of villas and more ordinary houses, streets, passageways, churches and monasteries tumbled down the hillside. Below the walls, the mountain abruptly drops away to rolling plains. Dotted with orange groves and spread out like a tapestry, this undulating landscape stretches southeasterly, towards Monemvasia and the sea.

More than a few devotees of Tolkein and Lord of the Rings have noted the similarities between his fictional Minas Tirith and Constantinople of old. I would tentatively agree, though I would not push the comparison too far. But as to the specific topography of Tolkein's city, it is nothing at all like the sprawling metropolis on the Bosphorus. Mistra, however, is another matter, being in some ways almost a dead-ringer for Minas Tirith. The site is probably as close to Tolkein's imaginative creation as any place you would find on Earth.

I was particularly interested to see how people lived on this mountain. Houses in Mistra were generally built perpendicular to the hillside, jutting-out, as it were. The lower floor was always for storage, the living quarters always in the upper floors. The outside of the lower floor usually consisted of an open archway. But this was much more than just a porch looking out over the valley below. Space was at a premium on the mountain, and this area served as the very street itself. These "streets" were little more than passageways, and much too steep and narrow for wagons or carts. Many of the homes were relatively spacious, despite the limitations imposed by the topography. Most residences had cisterns for water, and a sophisticated sewage disposal system serviced the in-house facilities of the wealthy as well as those for the public. I enjoyed poking around the ruins of the old houses as much as anything. As often as not, there was a mulberry tree close-by, providing ready-made snacks.

Of course, the main attraction to Mistra is its churches and monasteries--St. Demetrius, St. Theodore, the Church of the Evangelistria, the Church of Hodigitria, the Church of the Pantanassa, the Church of the Peribleptos, St. Nicholas and Haghia Sophia, as well as a few private family chapels. The most impressive is the metropolitan church, St. Demetrius, which along with the Church of the Pantanassa are the only two functioning churches on the site. The tour group was at the church when I arrived--a group of college students who looked as though they had rather be at the beach. I waited for them to move on, and then I had the church to myself. I lit some candles and prayed before the icons. This church is one of the earliest built in Mistra, a 3-aisled basilica transformed into a cross-in-square, with balconies above the side aisles and narthex. The church is approximately 30 ft. wide by 50 long (not counting the altar area.) But it is a soaring sanctuary, which gives the impression of an edifice much larger. In the center of the church, is an inlaid Byzantine double-eagle, marking the spot where Constantine XI Palaeologus was crowned emperor in 1448.

The other churches are not without interest, either. The Church of St. Theodore contains the tomb of a Manuel Palaeologus who died in 1428. Haghia Sophia is believed to contain the tombs of both the Emperor-monk John V Cantacuzenas, as well as that of Cleofa Malatesta, despeona of Theodore II Palaeologus (for more on the beautiful Cleofa, follow the links at the end of post, here.) And finally, the Church of the Pantanassa and its adjoining convent is incredibly beautiful with sublime iconography. From all accounts, the view from the Kastro is something to see. I will have to take every one's word for it. But the time I had explored the upper town, I was completely exhausted and decided not to make the trek to the final summit.

That afternoon--after a swim--I drove down to the Mani, the southernmost extremity of the Peloponnese. This is the most remote region of Greece, and in the past, the isolated Maniots had a reputation for blood feuds and vendettas. They are also noted for their unique defensive stone towers. I was curious to see how theirs compared with those of Svaneti. Patrick Leigh Fermor has written of the region, and in fact has lived there for many decades. Fermor is something of a hero of mine, and had I felt better I might have tried to locate him. But at age 95, his time is better spent finishing-up the long-awaited last third of his trilogy describing his 1933 trek from London to Constantinople, rather than entertaining unannounced visitors. The lower Mani peninsula is supposedly dotted with 11th and 12th-century churches containing quite exceptional frescoes. I set out to find a few.

The Mani is a region of wide vistas. The mountains are barren and towering, with scattered villages huddled at their base. A wide, flat shelf stretches west to the Adriatic. The bluff gives way here and there to allow for the occasional harbor, but by and large, the coastline is ringed with high cliffs. The Maniots live on the shelf of land between the mountains and the sea. The peninsula has traditionally been poor and undeveloped. Some signs of gentrification--summer homes and condos--are beginning to dot the landscape. And I suspect tourism is on the rise. I was not particularly impressed with the stone towers, but then the towers of the Svans, deep in the Caucasus Mountains, had set the bar pretty high. I was able to locate several of the historic churches. They were all in the style that one would have seen in Constantinople or anywhere else in Greece during that time period--except that they were all quite small. The two I remember in particular were the old church in the village of Gardenitza, and then the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, far-removed from any settlement. Both were securely locked, so their treasures remained hidden from me. But that is fine. I was satisfied just being there. By the time, I had worked my way back to Mystras, it was 8:00 PM or so. I stepped across to the Castle Cafe and got a table where I could watch the World Cup on the screen they had set up under the arbor. The baked spaghetti, the Amstel, and Paraguay's defeat of Italy capped off a good day.

Before I left Mystras, I checked out the souvenir shop, Porfyra,around the corner. Maria Tsiboka is the personable owner of the shop. She carried much of the usual tourist fare (such as the guide books I am always collecting,) but interestingly, she carried a number of specialty items she had designed herself. She had some beautiful coffee mugs (clearly designed for the American traveler, as no one in Greece, or Europe, for that matter, drinks coffee from mugs as we do.) But no matter, there was no way I was walking out of there without the coffee mug emblazoned with the Byzantine double eagle she had designed. Then I noticed an artist's easel at the back of the shop, and on closer inspection, saw that it was a partially completed icon. Maria herself was the iconographer. She showed me an icon of St. Cosmas she had finished and was going to donate to her church. I am nearly rendered speechless when I encounter someone with this gift. But eventually, I found my voice, and we talked of church things. Counter intuitively, she did not seem particularly surprised to learn that there were non-Greek Orthodox Christians in the U.S. She told me she was going to get her son to work on her website this summer and make improvements there. In the meantime, check out her site. She does excellent work.

With the doctor's visit behind me, and antibiotics in hand, I left the pleasant little village of Mystras. My goal was Patras, on the Gulf of Corinth. There, I would cross the Rio-Andirio Bridge back onto the Greek mainland proper. The main road skirted the mountains, from Sparti to Tripoli, to Korinthios, and then down the south shore of the gulf to Patras. The map also showed a much more direct route, though the lines were squigglier. Anyone who knows me knows which path I took. Much of Greece is mountainous, but by far the most severe mountain driving I encountered was on this shortcut to Patras. Progress was slow all the way, either from the hairpin curves, or from being stuck behind an 18-wheeler. In a number of places, the road had to be cut-out underneath a rock overhang. At one such site, I passed two truck drivers measuring the height of the passageway to see if their semi would squeeze underneath. Other than letting air out of their tires, I have no idea what they could do if it would not fit. There was no backing up and no place to turn around. Although the mountain driving wears on one after a while, nearly each bend in the road offered up one more incredible vista.

I planned to stop in Dimitsana. Mother Nectaria McNees wrote of two monasteries there in Evlogeite! Dimitsana also receives notice in most detailed guidebooks of Greece. The town is picturesque, to be sure, but no more so than those on either side. I could not find the page I had copied from McNees' book detailing the directions to the monasteries. So, I attempted to find them from memory. I remembered that they were on either side of a gorge, south of the town. I took a road leading off the mountain and followed it as it twisted and hugged the side of the gorge. Pavement gave way to dirt track, which soon gave way to just 2 muddy ruts. I was beginning to doubt my wisdom in all this, when I abruptly came out on a paved road from the other direction. By this time, I wasn't sure where I was, but the pavement was a good sign. A few miles further on found me at the parking lot for the Monastery of Podromou. A new chapel clung to the face of the cliff nearby. The monastery itself was about 2,000 ft. down the gorge from this lot. A sign near the trail stated, however, that the monastery was closed to visitors in the afternoon. Perhaps this was just as well, as it was getting late in the day, and I was nowhere near out of the mountains. Attending to my medical situation had thrown me at least 3 or 4 hours late in leaving Mystra. I walked over to the chapel and looked back up the gorge towards Dimitsana. On a rock shelf, on the right side of the gorge, I could see the Monastery of Podromou. On a promontory, on the left side of the gorge, I could see the Monastery of Philosophou. This would have to do, and I was fine with that.

In due time, I eventually reached Patras. The only thing I planned to do there was visit the Cathedral of St. Andrew, and venerate the relics of the Apostle. Patras is a large, modern Greek city, and all that that implies. I knew the general vicinity of the cathedral, so I did not doubt I could find it. But the traffic was horrendous. I felt as if I was being sucked into some sort of vehicular vortex from which there could be no escape. With frustration mounting, I turned east, away from the cathedral, and determined to just get out of the city. This in and of itself was no easy matter. Nor was finding a place to stay. By dark, I had finally stumbled upon a hotel in the far eastern suburbs of the Patras. I bedded down for the night in a cheap room, resolved to get across the gulf as quickly as possible in the morning.

If I ever return to mainland Greece, the Peloponesse is one of two places I would definitely want to revisit (Thessaloniki being the other.) But just as assuredly, I would give Patras a pass.

Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #4: At the Church of St. John the Russian

My first day in Greece was planned to a tee: arrive at the airport shortly after noon, make a quick exit in the rental car and get as far away from Athens as soon as possible. I planned to head north, visit the Monastery of St. Ephraim the New in Nea Makri, then make my way to the close-by island of Evvia, where I would visit the Church of St. John the Russian in Prokopi, as well as the more remote Monastery of St. David--these saints and martyrs of the Turkish yoke being of particular interest to me. As it turned out, I was ultimately able to visit only one of these three, but that turned out to be more than enough.

I was keen to visit the relics of St. Ephraim the New, martyred by the Turks about 1425. Mother Nectaria McLees' Evogleite! A Pilgrim's Guide to Greece served as an excellent guidebook. Her work is well worth a read, whether you ever travel to Greece or not. Mother Nectaria's directions to some of the sites were, however, sometimes a bit sketchy. Being relatively close to Athens, the traffic was thick around Nea Makri. The Greeks also had the effrontery to not post an English-language sign at the turn-off road. Seriously though, our American laziness when it comes to anything other than English is sometimes just incredible. My struggling waiter in Istanbul can speak 6 languages, but I cannot even take the time to brush-up on the bare basics of the Greek alphabet. Being frustrated in my attempt to find the first monastery, I decided to push on to Evvia and perhaps try for this one again later on.

The largest Greek island after Crete, Evvia is so close to the mainland that one just drives across a bridge instead of taking a ferry. Prokopi, home of the relics of St. John the Russian, is towards the upper end of the island. The Monastery of St. David was located even further away. Evvia is quite mountainous and I quickly determined that reaching, and returning from the latter would take far longer than anticipated. In the end, I did not visit St. David's.

Prokopi has a unique history. The village was settled with refugees from a Cappadocian village of the same name in the great population exchange of 1923. With what belongings they could gather, the Anatolian Christians were shipped to Greece, a country their forebears had left perhaps 2,000 years earlier. And with them, they brought the precious relics of St. John the Russian. This young man was a soldier in service to Tsar Peter I, captured by the Ottomans in the early 1700s in one of their conflicts. Sold to a wealthy Turk, John spent the rest of his life in servitude--and exemplary holiness. Many miracles are attributed to him, both in his lifetime and after his death. The old church in Cappadocia was demolished and the town's name changed to Urgup. I visited there in 2007, enjoyed a leisurely meal on the town square, all with no knowledge of its rich Orthodox history. Maybe I was determined to visit the "new" Prokopi partially to compensate a bit for my earlier ignorance.

Winding higher and higher into the steep mountains of Evvia, I was beginning to believe that the Anatolian refugees had received a poor recompense for their old homes. But the island is deceptive--the ring of mountains conceal a narrow valley in its core. And there lies Prokopi, in a region of clear-running streams, orchards, small fields and beehives--in short, a secluded haven for the old Cappadocians. The town itself is pleasant enough, a few businesses on the main road, with the main village strung out along an elongated loop to the left. At the far end lay the town's anchor, the Church of St. John the Russian, with a large plaza between. Along the outside of the loop lay small shops, taverns (tabepnas), cafes and stores of various sorts. There was no shortage of souvenir displays where one could buy their St. John the Russian coffee mugs, or St. John the Russian vases, or St. John the Russian pot-holders. Thank you, no.

I found an establishment on the main road advertising "Rooms to let, 20 euro." This seemed like just the ticket, so I locked-in my bed for the night, and made plans to explore the town a bit. I strolled up to the church and was glad to discover that Vespers had just started. A good crowd was in attendance, though this was partially due to two tour buses parked nearby. Now is as good a time as any to comment on the pilgrimage tours I witnessed in Greece and Bulgaria. At first glance, one is inclined to view it as something of a sideshow. At the popular tour sites, vendors and shops will line the road leading to the church and monastery. And a busload of fellow visitors may not be what you had imaged for your time at the monastery. My first reaction was to cringe, just a little, when I would pull up and see the buses already there. But I was wrong in my snobbish assumptions--for while they might chatter like tourists out around the buses, when these pilgrims entered the churches, they were invariably solemn and reverent. The only place I found this not to be the case was in Meteora, whose topography is dramatic enough that it attracts visitors in and of itself, regardless of the monasteries. The uncorrupted relics of St. John the Russian--a small man--are enclosed within a glass-topped case at the back left side of the nave. His face, of course, is covered. Worshippers and pilgrims would venerate his relics and icon as one first entered the nave. The church itself itself is about 50 years old, a cross-in-square design, with twin bell-towers in front. The interior was completely covered in iconography, which is not always the case in Greece.

After Vespers, I strolled back down towards my room. I stopped at a cafe for a beer, and took a table next to the street. I noticed my taverna started to fill with townspeople, all dressed a little nicer than you might expect. Others, particularly the women, just strolled up and down the street, conversing with those in the outdoor cafes as they went along. I was beginning to wonder if this was a local tradition, and by this I mean the dressing-up and public socializing on Saturday nights. Soon, all was made clear.

A shiny, new semi-truck (without the rig) moved slowly up the street, honking its horn all the way. The owner's name--J. Foptakis--was proudly displayed on a panel above the cab. A large wreath graced the front of the truck, with streamers tied to the sides as well. The passenger--a young man in a silver suit--was grinning and waving to the crowds in the cafes as they passed by. The driver made a long, slow circle around the town loop, and then to my surprise, I heard him coming up the street for the second time. And then it hit me--a wedding was in the offing! I noticed that the other customers in the cafe were beginning to finish up their frappes and cigarettes and making arrangements to pay. The crowd in the streets began to slowly move toward the church. And you did not have to tell me how many times the semi-truck would circle the town. At the end of the third loop, it stopped in front of the church I had left a while earlier. I paid my bill and ambled back up the street to see something of this "Big Fat Greek Wedding." Along with other onlookers, I staked out an observation point directly across from the church and watched the guests arrived. Some of the women looked as if they were attending a disco circa 1986, but no matter. It was all great fun. The groom stood in the doorway to the narthex grinning broadly, handsome as only a shaven-headed man can be. Ahem. The photographer snapped pictures of what I assumed to be the groom's family, while the milling crowd grew ever larger. At that point, a large black sedan, itself festooned with flowers and streamers, pulled in front of the church and started honking. No doubt what this was all about, for in the back seat was the bride, engulfed in the overflowing mound of her wedding gown. The sedan slowly circled the town three times, honking all the way. When they finally stopped, the beautiful young bride emerged to the cheers of the crowd gathered outside. Greek women seem to love henna hair coloring. Some, as this bride, take it to such an extreme that it takes on a decidedly purplish hue. She wore as much of a wedding dress as could possibly be crammed into the back seat of a Volkswagen sedan. She joined her prospective husband briefly in the door way and acknowledged the well-wishes of the guests, before entering the church for her wedding. While standing outside, I noticed a young woman, in her early 20s, riding by on her bicycle. Dressed casually, she was clearly not coming to partake in the wedding festivities. But as she passed in front of the church, I noticed that she crossed herself. This was not new to me, having seen it in spades in Georgia. From my view, this was no calculated, self-conscious show of outward piety. Rather, it was as if she would no more pass a church without crossing herself as we would change lanes without using our turn signal--instinctive and natural.

I had seen enough of the lead-up to the wedding, so I decided to walk back down to my room and get some sleep. I stopped by a small church near my room. One finds such chapels all over Greece. The church itself was locked, but there were icons on the exonarthex, along with a candle tray and stand. Someone had been before me, as several candles were already burning. I had found a perfect place of my prayers, and so I lit a couple of candles and stood outside this little chapel for a while. My simple mattress-on-the-floor (almost) sure felt good a little later on. At about 10:30, I half awakened to the air-horn and honking of the newlywed's semi-truck as it pulled out onto the main road. I suspected that they would probably be late for Liturgy tomorrow.

I was in no hurry to get up the next morning, and consequently lay in bed, wondering what time I needed to head for church. In a few minutes, the ringing of church bells alerted me to the fact that that time was right then. I quickly dressed, and made my way to St. John's. I was in time for the Hours (a fact that may justifiably astound my priest and fellow parishioners,) and a sizable crowd was already in place. The numbers grew steadily, so that by the time Liturgy was well underway, the church was packed, the narthex was full, and many were hanging about outside the entryway--and this with no input from the tour buses which only arrived after Liturgy. Loudspeakers broadcast the service into the town itself.

At the end of the Hours and the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the lights on the chandeliers were suddenly illuminated (which I expected,) but at the same time, the bells in both towers started ringing loudly (which I did not expect.) My heart caught in my throat. It was as if the Gates of Heaven were opening before me. And of course, they were.

A line formed quickly to venerate the relics of St. John the Russian. One older Greek lady lingered long at the glass case, repeatedly kissing the glass and mouthing her prayers and supplications. No one in the line showed any sign of impatience, or of trying to push her along. We each were allowed our time there, however long that needed to me. I noticed one Greek lady in black, hobbling in with a cane and clearly old enough to have been born in Anatolia, prior to the great uprooting of 1923. But the crowd was far from dominated by little old Greek ladies. The crowd was about equally divided between men and women of all ages. For those keeping score, I do not recall seeing any headscarves. I was a bit surprised to see some in swimsuits or beach clothes and flip-flops. Those thus attired (and they were not all young people) made their way up to venerate the relics, and then clung to the back of the nave. Early in the Liturgy, I stepped out briefly for some air. While there, I noticed a Greek lady (younger than myself) coming down the street on her hands and knees. She rounded the corner and made her way up the steps into the nave before ever arising. I had heard of this, but had never seen it before. Her actions attracted no attention, her devotion being seen as perfectly commonplace and normal.

After I had received, and the service ended, I joined everyone else out on the plaza surrounding the church. The first of the tour buses for the day was just pulling up. By the time I had eaten a bite of lunch at the cafe directly across, there would be 4 buses parked around. The church would be full all afternoon.

In the U.S., we often praise certain civic institutions as being an integral "part" of their communities. We use this terminology when talking of schools, libraries, parks, and yes, churches. Make no mistake--the Church of St. John the Russian is no "part" of Prokopi. Rather, it is the very living, breathing, throbbing heart of this town. Yes, there are homes, cafes, shops and stores clustered around--but these are incidental. The church is Prokopi.

In American Orthodoxy, we bandy around terms like authentic, and organic, and un-selfconscious in our vigorous in-house dialogue addressing the evolving form of our faith in this land. If one wonders what these concepts would actually look like on the ground, Prokopi might be a good place to start.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #3: My Cousin, the Istanbulli

I have been to Istanbul so many times, I am a bit ashamed to mention that I tagged it once more. I have been there for extended stays every year since 2003, save 2005 and 2009. My excuse this year is as follows: A young parishioner in our mission teaches history at a local private college. He initiated the study-abroad program there, and this was the year he carried his students to Greece. After shipping his students back home, his intention was to remain there a bit longer and visit Thessaloniki and Mount Athos. His younger brother, also a parishioner, was along for the ride. These two siblings also form a web of connectiveness with my family. One is my godson, and my son is the godson of the other. I told them that they couldn't get that close to Istanbul without seeing the city. So, they tacked-on another 4 days to their trip, providing me with an opportunity to play tour guide.

We Orthodox Christians tend to romanticize "Constantinople." I like to consider myself an amateur Byzantinist and am guilty of half-believing that history more or less stopped in 1453. But I've seen enough of the city to temper this tendency with a strong dose of reality. For Constantinople is long gone. I never refer to it as such, unless making an historical reference or speaking specifically of the Patriarchate. And much of our posturing about the EP itself is often nothing more than a polite fiction. What one finds, on the ground, is a vibrant Turkish metropolis approaching 15 million. A good friend sent me a link reviewing what appears to be an excellent book on the city, Streets of Memory, found here. I agree wholeheartedly with the book's premise--the city is no longer the cosmopolitan melting pot it always was before. Istanbul has not been such since the anti-Greek riots of 1955, and any pretense otherwise is just so much nostalgic posturing. The presence of the old minorities--Greeks, Armenians, Jews, etc.--is now so infinitesimally small as to have no discernible influence (and of course, until the formation of the Turkish Republic, they were not minorities in the city.) Istanbul is thoroughly Turkish, not necessarily a bad thing. But Orthodox travelers need to come to terms with this, for if they arrive here seeking a scent of old Constantinople they are apt to be disappointed. As much as I love the city, my stays are always bittersweet, and even a bit melancholy at times.

Originally, I was to arrive a day before Zach and Taylor, and they were to meet me at my friend Hakan's hotel in Sultanhamet. As things turned out, we all arrived the same day, and I immediately saw I would have to revise my itinerary. Greece had not been an altogether good experience for them, and they were exhausted, coming off Mount Athos and a 10-hour bus ride from Thessaloniki. I had anticipated as much, as their study-abroad itinerary (of which they had no control) spent too much time in and around Athens, and the following week on Mount Athos might have been a little too much, too soon. I mentally discarded about a third of what I intended to show them, focusing on a more relaxed experience of what the city had to offer. As it turned out, this was by far the best plan. Both brothers enjoyed Istanbul, and much preferred it to Athens (with which there is no real comparison.) They remarked in particular about how courteous everyone is here, which I also find to be a hallmark of the city.

I will not go into any great detail about Istanbul. I have written at length in years past of my experiences, found here, here, here, here, here, and here for starters. Suffice to say, we tagged the must-sees in Sultanhamet. Haghia Sophia never fails to impress, and every time I visit, it seems yet another fresco has been uncovered. We tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak into Haghia Eirene. No one was terribly interested in being jostled by Turkish tourists from the hinterland straining to see a strand of Muhammed's beard, or his footprint, and so we skipped Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque should be seen so one can say they've been to a mosque. The site of the Hippodrome was close by, and I explained its lay-out, monuments and connection with the Great Palace. The cool and quiet of the Basilica Cistern, followed by a relaxing glass of apple cay in the underground cafe there was a big hit. We walked from the Milion down the Divanyolu Caddesi, past the Monument of Constantine to the Grand Bazaar. As long as one realizes that this has long been a totally touristic enterprise, and in no way resembling a traditional Middle Eastern souq, then it can be great fun, particularly if you like to play the game with the touts. We did not linger long here, as Zach purchased some trinkets for his young sons, and we were on our way out.

Walking back, I introduced them to one of the great joys of the city, a nargile cafe. The place was packed with men and women, as it had been every time I had been there before. The waiter ushered us to a couch in the back, and in short order, we each were fitted with nargile and a cup of cay. The late afternoon drifted by slowly, and we must have spent 2 hours thus occupied. And along the way, I think each realized the wonderful thing about being in any great city--and is, in effect what defines a "great" city--and that involves not rushing to this museum or that site, but the mere being there itself (think Central Park in NYC, any cafe in Buenos Aires, standing on a bridge over the Seine in Paris, etc.) In my reckoning, if a city cannot evoke this sentiment (think Dallas for example,) then it cannot make no claim on greatness.

The younger of the brothers is preparing to embark upon matrimony, so this relaxed setting provided me ample opportunity to pass along my best "relationship" advice. This wisdom centers around two items: First, I recounted the scene from Shenandoah when Lt. Sam (Doug McClure) was asking for the hand of Charlie Anderson's (Jimmy Stewart) daughter. The nervous suitor was proclaiming his ardent love for the young lady, but her father was having none of it. He asked the young man if he liked his daughter. McClure adamantly reasserted his love for the young lady. Then Stewart told him that that was not what he asked him. He went on the explain what he meant by talking of his late wife Martha, and how they came to love one another, over time, but what got them through was the fact that they liked one another. I think that advice is valid. And as "Shenandoah" is the only movie that can still make me tear-up, I place great store by it. The other bit of advice was for Taylor to take a clear-eyed appraisal of his future mother-in-law. For chances are, that is very much who he will find himself married to in 25 to 30 years. The advice seemed well-received--of course, having a captive audience who depend on you to lead then home always helps.

The next day I carried them to the far side of the old city. The Chora church, out by the old Theodosian walls, contains the most exquisite frescoes surviving from the Byzantine world. Too far out to walk, and far away from the tram line, the only option is to put yourself at the mercy of Istanbul taxi system. The trek out there was well worth the effort. From Chora, we walked southeast, paralleling the Golden Horn. This takes us through a portion of the city seldom visited by tourists. This area is home to immigrants from some very conservative areas of Anatolia. It is in this part of the city that one will see bearded men in skull caps, women completely covered in black burquas, and medrassas. Our destination was the Church of the Pammakaristos. Actually it has been a mosque for the last 500 years or so, but in recent years they have opened the old south chapel as a tourist attraction. The frescoes here are as exquisite as those in Chora, just not as extensive. One wonders what treasures lie underneath the whitewash in the main part of the old church. From there, we walked down the hill into the old Greek Phanar.

The Phanar is not one of my favorite parts of the city. The derelict old Greek houses have some interest, and there is a bit of gentrification underway, but by and large, this is a depressing area--again, perhaps for knowing what it once was. We made our way down to the lower regions of the district, and located the Armenian cathedral,
Surp Hirestagabet (Holy Archangels.) The large church is completely hidden behind compound walls, as is the norm in Turkey. A Divine Liturgy was underway, so we stayed for part of it. My companions were a bit surprised at how Roman Catholic it all seemed--the altar, pews, statues, no real iconography, etc. I had been to Armenian churches before, so was more accustomed to it. I will say, however, that the full-throated chanting was pretty impressive. We left there and wandered back up to the hill and around the gargantuan old 1885 Greek School, where now about 45 students remain. We were searching for the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, the only pre-1453 church in Constantinople that was never closed or turned into a mosque. I remembered it being behind a red-walled compound somewhere in the neighborhood, but we still had trouble locating it. In Istanbul, churches do not call attention to themselves. We rang the doorbell, and in time, a Greek woman allowed us entrance into the compound. We motioned to the church and she unlocked it and turned on the lights for us. The church itself was rather small, historical to be sure, but not particularly impressive in the way of some. Two gi-normous and gaudy electric candle stands dominated the front of the iconostasis (for some reason, Greeks seem to love these things.) I noticed a copy of the charter on the back wall where Sultan Mehmet II guaranteed protection to this church whose patroness, the Byzantine princess Mary, had once been married-off to a Khan to placate the advancing Mongol army. The narthex boasted a framed portrait of the Ecumenical Patriarch and Kemal Ataturk. The lady barked at us in Greek the entire time we were inside, clearly anxious for us to move on. My traveling companions said this reminded them of their time in Greece (which was not at all my experience, to be recounted in following posts.) I saved the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself as our last stop in the Phanar. There is less here than one would expect--perhaps a 1/4 block, a narrow compound hemming in the 18th-century Church of St. George. My friends, no great admirers of the EP, found the church overly "westernized." I suppose it is, but I always like to pray here. And the bishop's throne which predates the Fall (1453) always takes my attention. After eating a bite and hailing a taxi thief, we make our way back to our headquarters in Sultanhamet.

On their last day, I took the boys out to Buyukada (formerly Pricipe), the last island in the Prince's island chain. Getting there is half the fun--a ferry ride out into the Sea of Marmara with spectacular views of the city on both shores, as well as dolphins leaping alongside ship. Back in the Byzantine era these islands served as places of banishment for out-of-favor nobility where they could cause no mischief, but still be kept close at hand (hence the moniker "Princes" Islands.) Later, the island filled with the summer homes of wealthy Constantinopolitan Greeks. They are largely gone now, and the residents are, oddly enough, mainly Jewish, with some wealthy Turks thrown in as well. While the harbor side town and the lush villas are of some interest, our main attraction was the Monastery of St. George, atop the island's highest peak. Several monasteries continue on the island, but this one is the most visited--by Christian, Muslim and tourist alike. We rented bicycles and began our journey out to the far end of the island. Upon reaching the base of the hill, the bicycles become useless.. Climbing this peak took everything I had, and I repeatedly vowed that this was my last trudge up. My traveling companions were all rested by the time I finally joined them at the top. As the picture clearly shows, I was, as they say, dog-tired.

In time, I regained my strength and entered the church, lit a few candles and venerated the icons. A small outdoor cafe adjoins the monastery grounds. I savored a meal of french fries, watermelon and an Efes and enjoyed the view out over Asiatic Istanbul. This was enough of an outing for us, so by the time we made it back to shore, we took the tram straight back to our hotel.

That night, we had opportunity to visit with Hakan, the owner of the hotel. I look forward to visiting with him every time. He is, as I see it, as good a face of modern Turkey as any I know. Not at all religious, funny as all get-out, a bit profane and secular to a fault, he nevertheless votes AKP and takes pride in the recent circumcism of his 6-year old son. I find no contradiction in all this. He is also a classic entrepreneur, always looking for an opportunity to get-ahead, so to speak. And I will say, that he has done quite well for himself. His latest venture involves becoming the American distributor for a stone quarry outside of Istanbul. This quarry supplied the material for the construction of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and other Ottoman monuments. He is seeking to introduce this product in very select American venues. This led to a very speculative conversation about our church building program back home. Hakan said that the stone could be shipped in containers and cut to size over here and that any building could be built with these stone blocks themselves, not a stick-building with stone veneer. While fascinating to contemplate, there are obviously hurdles to overcome, of which cost would probably be the most substantial. Nevertheless, it made for an invigorating late-nigh bull session.

Of the four nights, we ate twice nearby in Sultanhamet, and twice off Istikllal Caddesi over in Beyoglu. The first night there, we dined on turbot and aubergines and watermelon in a little cafe on Nevizade Street. Two young Turks, accompanied by two older German women, sat down at an adjoining table (one can make some conjectures, here.) Later, a group of musicians came by and started playing traditional Turkish melodies. One of the Turks pulled one of the German women to her feet and they started dancing in the aisle. His was something similar to what we might term a belly dance, and she just tried to keep up. It was great fun to watch and a good example of the sort of thing that seems to just happen sometimes in this place.

But it was the second night we ate in Beyoglu that finally brings me around to the title of this post, and my most meaningful experience in Istanbul. A younger cousin of mine (the son of my first cousin) now lives in Istanbul where he is studying Turkish and teaching English. Earlier this year, I wrote a little of my immediate maternal family, entitled Ruth's House. This cousin springs from that side of my family, and the things I alluded to there apply to his family as much as any--abuse, suicide, alcoholism, death by alcoholism, serial divorce, and since this is that side of my family, the hint of mental instability always lurking just in the background. I saw him last over 20 years ago, when he was living for a while with his dad and granddad, who had set up house-keeping in a vacant house on my mother's property. It was not a good situation. In fairly quick succession, the boy had left and his father simply disappeared. We handled the arrangements when his grandfather soon after succumbed to the cancer he had been denying for years. From the boy's aunts--my first cousins that I had not previously seen in over 30 years--I learned that their nephew was now in Arizona. Then not long afterwards, I received a call from the coroner's office in Fort Worth. His dad had been found dead, and they discovered my phone number in his wallet. I had no way to contact the son. From very occasional contacts with two of the sisters in the last fifteen years, I would inquire about him, and would hear nothing more than that he was fine, living in Arizona. Then last year, with the magic of Facebook, I reconnected with the young man who was now in his mid 30s. I visit Facebook perhaps once a week, and just happened to notice in mid April that he was making plans to leave for Istanbul. Needless to say, this was something of a shocker, and we immediately made plans to meet when I arrived.

My cousin met us at Taksim Square, and we walked and reminisced as we strolled down Istikllal. He led us down a side street just past Galatasaray, and we made our way down twisting passageways to a secluded restaurant that only a local would know. My friends were great sports, as my cousin and I caught up on 20 years of family stories. It seems he has lived in Tucson for many years, worked and attended college when he could. He graduated with a major in History and a minor in Near Eastern Studies. While contemplating which graduate school route to take, he decided to relocate to Istanbul and learn Turkish. He has taken to the city like a duck to water, and has quickly qualified to teach English to Turkish professionals (in which he makes very good money, by the way.) In a year's time, he may be back in the States, or he may remain in Istanbul. The presence of a Turkish girlfriend may factor into the equation as well. The lesson here for me is an important one. Yes, blood will tell, as the old saying goes. But one should not be too quick to judge another's prospects. Life has a way of surprising one and confounding our smug assumptions. Knowing this family story all too well, I was simply amazed at this young man. In a roundabout way, he seems to be redeeming something from the wreckage of our family. Needless to say, I am inordinately proud of my newly-reconnected cousin.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #2: Of Minoans and Mormons

The need for flexibility on my recent trip became all too apparent before I ever even left Texas. My flight plan was to fly from DFW to JFK, with an easy 2-hour layover before going on to Istanbul. Bad weather that morning in New York caused the air traffic controllers to delay incoming flights from all over the county. Under clear blue skies, my flight out of Dallas was delayed 2 hours. Inexplicably, my out-going flight from JFK left right on time. And so, my arrival in Istanbul had to be delayed a day. This turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events.

As a consequence, I spent the first night away from home in a Comfort Inn on edge of the Ozone Park area of Queens, NY. My only exposure to this borough has been from the backseat of a cab while riding from one of the airports into Manhattan, so I looked forward to doing a bit of exploring.

But more importantly, this provided opportunity to become acquainted with 2 other stranded travelers being shuttled out to the Comfort Inn. One was a Mr. Chi, a 70ish Chinese-American from Buffalo, returning from a 12-day European trip. His wife was now mobility-impaired, and so his occasional trips were now made solo. Although Mr. Chi was anxious to return home to her, he seemed nonplussed by this delay in his final leg of the journey. The other traveler was a fellow Texan, an easy-going lady a few years older than myself that I will call Deb. She had already experienced her second missed flight, being delayed a day flying out of Texas. Deb was on her way to Greece, where she planned to pursue research on the ancient Minoan civilization. She and her husband operated a bed-and-breakfast in a popular Texas watering hole. Having no consuming interest in the Minoans, he was more than happy to stay home and mind the store. I was struck by our similarities--3 married travelers, all journeying alone. But more to the point, none of us were complaining, or seemed the least bit put-out by our predicament. Those who submit to being transported in metal tubes hurtling 500+ miles per hour over 6 miles above the earth's surface must ultimately realize how really not in control they are of any part of the process. Delays and diversions are to be expected. Complaining about it seems juvenile. The manner in which this is dealt with, as much as anything, separates a traveler from a tourist. I saw a prayer and cross myself whenever the wheels leave or touch the tarmac, and do not worry about any of the rest of it.

There were still a couple of hours of daylight after I checked into the motel, so I set out to explore a bit of Ozone Park. A major thoroughfare cut through the district, with convenience stores, pawn shops, Italian deli/groceries, lotto stores, pizza joints and car-repair establishments strung-out along either side. But a half a block off the busy street, the area quickly resorted to solidly residential on each side. Neighborhoods, and by this I mean real ones, fascinate me. This was an Italian-American enclave right out of central casting. The homes were high and narrow--one-room wide, 2 floors above a basement, with dormers hinting at something of an attic. The lots themselves were no wider than 25', with room for one car to maneuver between the homes before angling into a rear garage. Each house had a little spit of a yard in front. With some, this area was completely concreted-in, with table and chairs. Others covered this area in plantings--hydrangeas, roses, peonies and day lillies. Many had statues of the Virgin or of St. Joseph. Others were more creative--plastic geese in luau gear, complete with an Italian flag.

What was readily apparent was that these front stoops allowed for an expression of individuality in what is an otherwise uniform block of homes. More importantly, this was where families gathered in the late afternoon after work, and where neighbors interacted with one another. A local corner grocery lay on the next block, as did the barbershop, and Aldo's Pizzeria transitioned into the larger business district. The streets were not crammed with automobiles, but with people actually walking here and there. It would be easy for me to romanticize this scenario. Deb told of her conversation with a sales clerk in the local Verizon store. He talked of how hard it was to make a living there, and how he could only dream of living in a place like Texas. My nephew lives in a ranch-style brick home in a leafy 1970s subdivision in Tyler, Texas. His is a wide lot with a board fence enclosing the back yard and pool area. He has lived there almost 2 years now, and does not know a single one of his neighbors. I could live here (Ozone Park.) I could not live there, like that. I am fortunate to live in one of those real neighborhoods, with a mix of housing and a web of connectiveness extending 3 blocks (There are exceptions, of course, even in old neighborhoods like ours....

Passage removed by author 9/20/2010

) The goal for many in my part of the world is to buy 5 or 10 acres of land and build on the back side of the acreage so has to have as little contact with neighbors as possible. I could have don this on our farm, but have never been tempted to do so. I love my neighborhood.

But enough of that, and back to Queens. For supper, I checked out Aldo's joint. And this is as good a place as any to comment on my faithfulness to the Apostle's Fast during the course of my travels. One might charitably characterize it as "sporadic." Enough said. Aldo's was a local Italian eatery with a clientele that looked straight out of Mickey Blue Eyes, the Sopranos, or even worse, Jersey Shore ( As our President likes to say, let me be clear--I have never watched an episode of Jersey Shore. But I am an aficionado of Morning Joe, in which Willie Geist occasionally teases prissy co-host Mika Brzezinski with clips from this, the most godawful of reality shows.) Sitting back in Aldo's, listening to the locals was a delight, far better than anything I would have experienced had I made my flight.

The next day, we all arrived at JFK hours in advance, just in case. Deb and I left from nearby gates, which gave us considerable time to talk beforehand. While I knew the general outlines of the Minoan civilization, my knowledge scarcely extended beyond the superficial. I remembered them to be a trading and sea-faring people, and if their artistry is to be believed, an incredibly beautiful race. Deb enlightened me beyond that, in that there was no great disparity in living standards among the Minoans, that they were probably a matrilineal society, and were not at all warlike. After their sudden disappeance (either from volcanic activity or Mycenean attack), Greek civilization did not reach their levels for nearly a 1,000 years.

The discovery of the ruins of a Minoan ship (3 times the size of Columbus') led to a wide-ranging discussion about the extent of their trading forays. Before long we were talking about inscriptions found in the Indian mounds of Illinois, the ancient copper mines of Kitchi-Gummi, and (thanks to Milton), the transition from Minoan bull-jumping to eastern Iberian bull-jumping to bull blood-drinking cults of northern Mexico as described in J. Frank Dobie's classic Tongues of the Monte. Typical conversational fare, I would say, for a couple of shade tree historians. Deb is writing an historical novel about the Minoans. While she has the historical back story down pat, she was a little concerned about character and plot development, etc. I suggested she contact the aforementioned Milton, who knows about such things.

An off-handed comment by me, led our conversation into a completely different area. I was asking about any DNA studies that might suggest their connection to other, and later Mediterranean populations. Even though it is one of those "science things," and I try to avoid science at all costs, I do know a bit about DNA. (I have contributed samples to our family DNA group. In doing so, I have discovered that, despite all the Scottish clan hype and marketing, I am no more related to most others of my relatively uncommon Scots surname than any other person one might happen to meet on the street. And "our" group can be pinpointed to southeastern Scotland, on the border between Berwickshire and Northumbria, which side of the border probably depending upon which county they were not wanted in at the time.) I made the comment that advances in DNA science had demolished the old Mormon claim of American Indians being descended from the Israelites of old. Of course, the church hierarchy is changing the narrative now, claiming that only some of the American Indians were so-descended--the ones that are now conveniently extinct. Deb then confided to me that she had been a faithful Mormon wife for 19 years. She had not been raised such, but her first husband was something like 5th-generation. They had 4 children together, all raised in that religion. Deb reached a point where she could not take it anymore, and simply left the Mormons. Divorce, shunning, ostracism and estrangement from her family followed in quick suite. Over the years, however, each of her children has also left Mormonism and has returned to her. The first was her youngest son. She met him right after his 2-year compulsory missionary service. Deb maintained that many of these young missionaries came back severely emotionally damaged. She went away with her son for 2 weeks and, in effect, deprogrammed him. The last of her children finally left last year, in wake of revelations coming out of the Warren Jeffs debacle. She wrote a book about her experience, but never published it out of deference to this last remaining son in Mormonism. I encouraged her to publish, and she may do so, if only online. All of her scattered children and 10 grandchildren were home with her for the Christmas holidays, and she expressed great thankfulness that not one of the grandchildren will grow up in the cult (her words, not mine.)

And so, we wished each other safe travels and boarded our respective flights. I am confident our paths will cross again. My wife and I enjoy visiting to bed-and-breakfasts, and I am sure I will have additional questions about the Minoans by then.

Monday, July 05, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #1: In Defense of Travel (while there is yet time)

With the economy in the doldrums, and my own business struggling, there seemed only one thing to do. That's right--it was time to take a trip. From a strictly financial statement point of view, I had less business going anywhere this June than I ever had before. But in some ways, the timing was right: since last year, I had paid off my credit cards, my business partner was more than able to watch over things in my absence, and I had been squirreling-away a little money here and there for this very possibility. So, I jumped at the opportunity.

My itinerary involved meeting friends in Istanbul for a few days, then flying to Athens where I would rent a car and drive through Greece and the Balkans. I chose this region particularly. As Orthodoxy seeks to find its footing on this continent, I wanted to travel among lands where the Faith is long-established. I had no pre-conceived notions as to what I would learn, and no plan other than to stand back, be quiet, observe and listen.

Along the way, I was reminded of a number of truths. First, I realized how incredibly out of shape I am. For a brief period of time--from about 2004 through 2006--I was in excellent physical condition. Surgery on my ankle late in 2006, followed by cancer surgery early in 2007, followed by 39 rounds of radiation, put the breaks on all that. I have never regained my stamina since. As an Orthodox Christian, I realize that we are to live each day with a vision of the day of our death before us. On at least 3 occasions during this trip, that day was all too real for me. Also, a series of bothersome physical ailments dogged me throughout the trip, adding to a sense of general weariness. Second, I was reminded of the need for flexibility when traveling. The logistics of what I hoped to accomplish were simply not practical, particularly when added to my physical complaints. And so, I quickly resolved to take things as they came and not fret about what I was unable to do. Third, I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive travel can still be, that is, if you go places where tourists are not. Except for the last few nights in Thessaloniki, where I splurged at bit, I only paid between $24 and $50 a night for a room--and this always included breakfast. The rental car and fuel were my largest expenditures. Fourth, I learned that I was wrong in my former smug assertion that "everybody speaks a little English." Most assuredly, they do not. Finally, despite the slim backpack pictured in the previous post, I still packed too much. The dress shoes and belt and socks went totally unused, and I could have made it just fine with one less pair of pants and two fewer shirts.

Travel for travel's sake is very much a product of the modern age. Certainly the wealthy elite have always gone where they wished, but for the rest of us, travel was an unobtainable luxury until recent times. Perhaps it was different elsewhere, but I have the very real sense of mass recreational travel becoming commonplace only after World War II. Before then, any "vacations" were generally confined to visiting relatives.

I recall my dad telling the story of his family's 150-mile trek in 1927. Traveling all day on dirt track, in a 1924 Model A, my grandad, grandmother and their then 5 children journeyed to the Fort Worth area. My granddad's two sisters lived side by side in two-story houses out on Lake Worth, west of the city. The sisters were college-educated, prim and proper ladies, so this was something of a trip "uptown" for my family. But there were cousins to play with, a lake to swim in, and a parrot that spoke in Portuguese, so my dad and his siblings viewed the outing with considerable excitement. My grandmother spent most of the journey there exacting promises from her boys that they would not fight with their twin cousins--promises broken within 5 minutes of their arrival. My point is that this "vacation" was such a novelty that it entered the annals of our family lore.

During my youth, my family took one vacation trip. The post-World War II years were profitable ones for my dad. He built a nice home, and in 1963 he bought a white Coupe de Ville. Neither he nor my mother ever felt comfortable in this role, however, for they still kept a milk cow, raised chickens, and my dad insisted on plowing his garden with a mule. But in that summer of 1963, for some reason my dad thought taking a "vacation" was something we were supposed to do. My mother had recently suffered through a near complete physical and mental breakdown, so perhaps this entered into the equation, as well. I was still a young child, and my siblings were already grown and away. So, the three of us loaded up in the new car and headed to Colorado. I can still remember that I spent most of the trip leaning over the front seat, asking questions of my dad. We did the whole Colorado thing--Pike's Peak, Garden of the Gods, Royal Gorge, and a cabin in Estes Park. We even ventured as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming. If I were ever to construct an idealized mythology of my childhood, I think it would be centered around the 4 or 5 snapshots of my parents and myself in Estes Park. As my dad was anxious to return to work, the return trip was something of a blur. The "vacation" was never repeated. My dad had just bought a large farm, and the cattle and haying took all of his spare time for the rest of his life. Any trips we took were quick jaunts to visit some of his family here and there (my mother's family never left us alone long enough that there was ever any need to go and see them.)

So, I did not grow up traveling much at all, which may in part explain my fascination with it now. But I do not take it for granted. It is no "right," but rather a option available to our time. As the Age of Cheap Fuel sputters to a close, I am not at all sure how available this option will be for future generations.

I have always made a great distinction between being a tourist and a traveler. Sometimes this is a distinction without a difference, an exercise in my own vanity. But I do try to be engaged--interested and observant of whatever culture I find myself in. I am not journeying to be "entertained" or to relax, which are the sole goals of tourism. In fact, my travels can sometimes be quite arduous. William T. Cavanaugh, in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, identifies tourism as just one more manifestation of our culture's quest for the new.

The tourist stands detached from all particular times and places and surveys them all from above, as it were. The tourist craves what is different and authentic, but when particular locations make themselves available to the tourist, authenticity and difference are lost. Particularities, especially from the past, are invented for the tourist, but the tourist cannot participate in them. The tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere.

The tourist is a type of consumer, a consumer of places. Consumerism is marked by desire with not telos other than consumption itself....rather than being drawn ecstatically into a larger drama, the consumer empties things into the self. Both the tourist and the consumer try to transcend their own limits and particularities by adopting a universal stance detached from and consuming particularities. But when they do so, the self becomes a kind of empty shell, itself dependent on the constant novelty of the particularity for its being, yet itself simultaneously destroying the particularity of the many, and thus negating its own being.

I would have to agree with Cavanaugh, and certainly what he describes is that which I try to avoid. Perhaps this explains why I have had trouble talking about the trip to those who have been kind enough to enquire. There was no entertainment or "fun," as understood in the touristic sense. How do I describe a trip where my most vivid memories were of things like a young Bulgarian father lifting each of his three children up so that they could light their candles and kiss the icon; or of visiting with the Serbian monk who described the beheading of one of their priests a mere 10 years ago; or of praying over the relics of my patron saint; or of standing at the Byzantine double eagle in the center of the Church of St. Demetrius in Mistra, the very spot where in 1449 the last emperor, Constantine XI, was crowned; or of the Macedonian woman who stood at the doorway of the narthex of the Church of St. Panteleimon, so that she could look in to observe the wedding, but still puff on her cigarette and blow her smoke rings outside; or of the old Greek lady in black, hobbling into the Church of St. John the Russian in Prokopio, knowing that she was old enough to have been born before her people were ripped from Cappadocia in 1923?

Such things defy any quick, easy or flippant retelling. I do plan to start posting soon. There may be as many as 20 posts before I finish. And at the rate I am going, that will take me the better part of the summer to do so.