Istanbul

The plane that spirited me away from fair Athens spat me out – sleep-deprived – in the merry city of Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantion/Byzantium.  Baklava here is, empirically better than anywhere else in the world, and the sights are unparalleled. It is, after all, a Roman Greek Turkish European Asian Muslim Christian Jewish Byzantine Ottoman smorgasbord about 2600 years old.

Eh, you know.

I had the privilege of meeting fellow Hope sophomore Kaan in Istanbul, one of the many cities he calls home.  We had excellent pasta, good wine, and I got to meet some of his friends.  Incidentally, Kaan is one of the finer jazz musicians I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in a while, so if you see his name in a concert poster on campus, go see him.

Sultanahmet Mosque at dusk.
Sultanahmet Mosque at dusk.

IMG_20151220_092959 Anywho.  As a good Byzantine major, I decided to hit as many of those sights as I could, but Istanbul is rich enough to be seen from a hundred angles.  I’m afraid I didn’t take too many photos in mosques or churches, largely out of respect, but I have done what I can.  On the tip of the peninsula, the most iconic religious centers of the world all seem to huddle like old men over a backgammon board.  The domes and minarets are splendid.   The Hagia Sofia (the oldest of the lot), is still the largest, and bares the unique position of being both a church, a mosque, and a museum.  Well, officially it is a museum now, but in the mind of all good Byzantinists, its a church, and in the mind of all lovers of Turkish sophistication, it’s a mosque.  I like to think it’s very much all three, no hate.  I’m no fan of Mehmed the Conqueror, but let it stand. God is Great.

The dome was hard to capture in one shot -hence the weird angles. The Arabic script cascading over the ribbed dome were Ottoman implements, added as the cathedral was converted into a Cami (mosque). But the Ottomans also preserved much of the old Christian elements - or at least mercifully covered it over in gentle plaster. Hence, the Winged beas-tlike seraphs on each of the dome's corners. And the little mosaics one spots dating from the 12th century onwards. 'Tis a marvelous place.
The dome was hard to capture in one shot -hence the weird angles. The Arabic script cascading over the ribbed dome were Ottoman implements, added as the cathedral was converted into a Cami (mosque). But the Ottomans also preserved much of the old Christian elements – or at least mercifully covered it over in gentle plaster. Hence, the Winged beas-tlike seraphs on each of the dome’s corners. And the little mosaics one spots dating from the 12th century onwards. ‘Tis a marvelous place.
Mosaic, Agia Sophia. From left: COnstantine, Mama Mary, Jesus the Babe, and Justinian (the Bae). A lot of my favorite people in one picture.
Mosaic, Agia Sophia. From left: Constantine, Mama Mary, Jesus the Babe, and Justinian (the Bae). A lot of my favorite people in one picture.

A brief zip through time:

  • 600sish BC -A Greek Megaran bloke named Byzas goes to Delphi, and asks the Oracle about founding a colony.  Oracle says Yes! Byzas goes to the bridge between Europe and Asia and names his town…Byzantion.
  • 190s AD -Romans decide to upgrade the town a little.
  • 313 AD -Constantine, Roman Christian Emperor, needs a new capital.  In an empire-wide bride hunt, he settles on Byzantium and names it…Constantinople.  Eastern Rome builds out from here, in the mighty empire we now think of as Bzantium.
  • 1453 -After a thousand and a hundred plus years of Byzantine rule, the descendants of Othman the Great (known as, well, the Ottomans), break into the city after a month-long siege.  Byzantine Empire falls, and Mehmed II makes the city officially Turkish.  In a remarkable display of non-egotism, it is not renamed Mehmedşehir, or Mehmedopolis.
  • 1910s -Ottoman Empire dissolves after four hundred years of colors, spices, sounds, intrigue, and excellent coffee.  The new Turkish Republic carries over into the present day.

The point was merely to explain that the history of this city is very, very long, and worth a little contemplation if you visit it.

There was also a remarkable collection of Eastern Antiquities in the archaeological museum -including what I believe are original lions from the Ishtar Gate -the legendary entrance to Babylon.

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Those pecs, though.

And there was the Topkapi Palace, and the Chora monastery, but I really must not out geek myself here.  Suffice to say that I enjoyed my historical bits of the trip very much.  I will give the long-suffering reader a chance to breathe again.

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When your Lawd and Savior be busting moves but the squad don’t wanna dance.

My hostel in Sirkeci, while in a slightly dingier edge of town, was clean and well-maintained by a very international group of friends-cum-hosteliers: a Russian lady from Novosibirsk, a rather cute Syrian guy, several wonderfully informative Turkish folk, and a Turkish grandmother who made excellent apple tea. Also, gorgeous Colombian roommates. Moving on.

I also ate very well. The lira is much more benign to a wallet than the euro, and so I took myself to three course dinners fairly often. Turkish lentil soup (seen below), is absolutely fantastic.

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I also found a Malaysian restaurant in Istanbul, to my delight. Nasi lemak, teh tarik, and rendang.  I regret nothing.

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The sheer diversity of the city was truly excellent. I can’t think of a better way of spending Christmas than in the heart of the Turkish, Byzantine, Eastern Mediterranean world.  It’s so strange, I suppose, leaving Europe. It’s so hard to articulate all the things seen, and the places tasted, and the colors and smells that had stamped themselves in my eye like a bad camera flash. Thank you, Europe, it has been excellent.  With this I end my four-month chronicle, and hand it over to the new bloggers.  😉  Have a blast, David and Taylor.  Eat lots, and write more, and see all the things.  Good night!

Leaving Greece

I lied. This is the penultimate post. I assure you, Amy, I did not mean to swindle you.  It’s just that there’s so much to write, and I didn’t know how to summarize my Greek pilgrimage in so few words and…ah.

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Lovingly caressing random lamps in Meteora.

Well! It felt not so long ago that I was rambling about the newness of Athens. And here I am, huddled comfortably in Brumler till I get to move in Wyckoff Hall.  It has been a good four months of travel. Well, seven, if the summer going back to Kuala Lumpur counts.  Seven months, ten countries, and a chance to immersively utilize each of the five languages I study on a day to day basis.  It has been grand.

Thoughts on leaving Greece: I count it a grand privilege to have studied a culture both in its ancient and modern incarnations – or even to study the notion of cultural continuity at all.  Again and again I found myself both pleased and surprised by the great Hellenic affinity with its classical past. Back in September, on a boat trip with a merry, bearded Greek skipper, I had mentioned ever so briefly that I’m ethnically Chinese.

“Yes, yes, Κινεσος…you too have a very…long history.  Like Greek,” Giorgos said, quite matter of factly.  He went on the next day to recount the Battle of Salamis to us, pointing at the Saronic islands was we passed.

And of course, the Chinese lady in Chinatown, Athens, had the same reaction, just the other way round in Mandarin. “Oh yes, Greek history is quite long. Almost like ours.”

And with any association with a classical past, there’s always a desire to either romanticize it (hence the gold-gilded “Spartans” one finds in front of the Acropolis), or to bring it down to our level (in the sort of gritty aesthetic of, say, 300).  It’s not so terribly different from how you get both the gaudy posters of imperial porcelain plastered over the Beijing airport, and the Amy-Tan-esque depictions of the Joy Luck Club.  I guess one of the things I truly liked about being with Greeks, eating Greek food, and learning Attic, Byzantine, and modern Greek simultaneously was the way the many Greeces (Ελλαδες??) collided.  It’s like being in a house full of a friend’s relatives: something important is being discussed, but you don’t know what the purgatory’s going on.

And it’s interesting, how, in the shadow of the marvelous Parthenon, in the local open-air market of Pangrati, in the little taverna at Varnava Square, a lot of the images of Greece you once had fall away.  The desire to romanticize it – to paint lilies, I suppose – evaporates: nothing prepares you for the immaculate regality of old Epidauros. Nothing speaks louder than the drowsing crypts of the church of Osios Loukas.  And there’s no need to make the reality any more mottled and colored and gritty than it is: the graffiti of Thessaloniki defies any pigeonholing. And there’s no human adornment that could ever quite surpass the soaring heights of Meteora of the sea draped over Nafplio.  It’s all too little and too much.

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Thessaloniki, Greece.

I’d like to say I know the real Greece, but I’m afraid four months is simply not enough time to say that.  (Yeah, some of us have Greek blood and are lucky like that.  Looking at you, Emma U.!) But it has been marvelous.  It was a strange, bouncy sort of feeling I had leaving for the airport. It was three a.m. and half of my dorm mates were leaving with me, and the taxi driver was playing some glaringly subtle rebetico as we drove out to Venizelos.  I had Istanbul to see but Greece to leave and it was all so terribly strange. I am grateful.  Χαιρετε, ‘Οι φιλοι.

Poros, a little town in in the Saronic Gulf
Poros, a little town in in the Saronic Gulf
From the citadel of Nafplio. Lawdy.
From the citadel of Nafplio. Lawdy.
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Andros Isla

Germania

Or Fall Break Part II.

As I sat down at the boarding gate in Pisa heading to Frankfurt, I wasn’t terribly worried. After that adventure in Assisi friendhunting, karma would afford me a hitchless ride through to Göttingen, from the airport.

Not so.  You see, Josh had foolishly booked a Ryanair flight to a minor airport on the outskirts of Frankfurt, while he had booked his train to Göttingen from the main airport, about an hour a half away.  Of course, Josh only realized this just as his flight’s boarding call was announced.  Of course, Josh had to scramble from small airport to big airport, to rebook a second train ticket, and hope to goodness his parents wouldn’t inquire after his travels.  It was about 10 pm when I collapsed into the arms of Federica G., Hope alum and German TA from 2014.  When I recounted my misadventures, we quietly watched Fascinating Aida’s charming ballad, “Cheap Flights,” a salty song I probably can’t share on a Hope webpage that I’d recommend to you anyway.  (Yootoob et.)

My friend -a familiar and welcome face if she ever comes back to Hope- is a splendiferous cultural anthropology grad student, working hard in the little college town of Göttingen.  Besides having about a dozen languages under her belt, a great love of scarves, and an excellent taste in international cuisine, she proved to be an excellent host too, with her bf. I am grateful indeed.

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The university.

It’s so interesting studying college towns the world round. Thessaloniki, the Greece university city, was extremely upbeat even in early December.  Göttingen was ever so slightly quieter, but it reminded me a lot of Holland, here and there.  Quiet parks and squares and quads and European markets (*coughs* real European markets). The Christmas Markt had just opened, and Fifi took me the next day to sample the wares.  I’ll let the pictures speak where I cannot.

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Gänseliesel! (Literally, “Goose Liesel,” because she bears a goose in her basket. Apparently it’s a time honored college tradition to put flowers in her wicker and kiss her, upon finishing one’s doctorate thesis. I suspect the Hope College Icarus statue would be much less snoggable.
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Kartoffelpuffen -potato fritters. Think like a cross between a Japanese potato croquette and a rosti pancake. Served with chives and cream, or else applesauce. One pays 4 euro for the fritters, but also pays a deposit for the plate, to be returned once the eating is done.

 

 

 

 

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It’s quite hard to describe the general merriment. Mead and beer were sold. Yes, sausage was also a thing, but a lot of people come for the gifts and candles and ceramics and vegetarian snacks served on card plates. ‘Tis a merry season. So glad I came for this and not Oktoberfest.

IMG_20151128_154526NeIMG_20151128_160037xt stop? Hannover!  It’s a much larger town than Göttingen, of course, and I had the privilege of drinking fresh mead in a little Medieval fair right by the river side.  Also flamkuchen (flame-bread), with cheese.  Oh, and pseudo-knights in over the top duels (Bad picture -the crowd of pitchforked peasants would not have been pleased with my devilry had I been any less furtive..  And castles!

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Oh yes, Hannover Castle lit up at night was a fair sight indeed.

We also went down to the see old royal gardens, but by 4:30 those were squarely closed. No matter.  I got to snap this shot so I’m not griping: IMG_20151128_163814

It was a very kind and quiet trip, I suppose, after the heights of Italy and Greece. But I didn’t enjoy it any less. It was refreshing to see, well, living Europeans, going along their daily lives, being college folk just like we do at Hope, being a clearly foreign tourist in a small town full of good food (always an adventure).  And of course, many, many excellent hours with Fifi, Sebastian, and good movies.  You won’t believe the classics I’d postponed watching until I found them in her fine collection.  *coughcough* Mean Girls.  *coughcough* Love Actually.

All in all, thanks so much for a luminous trip through the heart of Northwestern Germany.  It was grand. Till our next adventure!

Josh

PS -this is the penultimate post. I’ll do one last shot on Istanbul, and leave this blog to the good hands of my spring successors. 😉

Italia

Pardon my long absence. The CYA has its midterms, its Thanksgiving Break, and its finals all rolled into the same 30 days, so it’s been a whirlwind keeping it all under control. As you may know, I am no longer in happy Athenai, but am posted currently in Istanbul.  But that’s for when I get back to Holland and have time to sort out my journal of thoughts, emotions, and tuppence wisecracks.

So instead I shall speak of my happy fall break days in Bella Italia: Rome, Impromptu Assisi, and Florence. The moment my paper on the Athenian Agora was in the envelope on the third floor I had taken the first Ryanair jet with Michael and Shannon, some excellent travel folk.  Seriously, Blue and Yellow is a dizzying color scheme, and if the ticket prices weren’t hovering around $40 each way, I’d be complaining. All the same, we landed mostly unscathed in Roma, where we proceeded to visit the Vatican, the Colosseum, and to eat too much. I was traveling with one good Catholic, and one other dirty Protestant (like me!), all studying the classics. We passed the train ride into town matching our classmates with deities of the Olympian pantheon, like good nerds.

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An awful picture of some extremely decent pizza in Rome. Thin crust, cold hands, and an impatient photographer. ‘Nuff said.

Rome was a dream -five days of endless museums and monuments. I fear that I simply didn’t know enough Roman history to comprehend all that I saw (I specialize in Greek and Eastern Roman history -that is, Byzantium). But I did get see the famous head of Constantine in the Capitoline Museum.

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And posed in front of the School of Athens with a friend in the Vatican.  (Photo missing, alas. Picture Josh and his Catholic friend gesturing like Aristotle and Plato. It just so happened I had two books in my satchel to complete the look.)

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Reasons not to attempt one-night stands in tents of armed women in enemy territory.

Also, a thoroughly enchanting view of Judith and a decapitated Holofernes in the Barberini Museum.

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IMG_20151124_154249Next stop, Florence. At the Roman train station, I bid farewell to my pilgrim companions and set out for the fair city of the Medici, expecting to spend the rest of my trip solo.  It would be a brief, two day stint, I assured myself.  Day one passed quite well, I daresay, what with a good taste of the Duomo, tripe sandwich, the Statue of David, and an unexpectedly good collection of Mesoamerican Art in an archaeological museum I found in the late evening.

‘Twas a strange place, that.  Discovered it two hours before the museums closed – I was exhausted and simply too far from the Uffizi to bother going. And then I found myself in the creepiest, worst-lit, and non-ICOM museum I’ve ever visited.  After the soaring heights of the Academia and Cathedral, this empty museum full of Incan, Olmec, Zapotec, Etruscan, and Egyptian finery was rather…discombobulating.

IMG_20151124_173314 (1)I suppose the absence of visitors must have compelled them to save electricity, so only a handful of spotlights splattered the bare walls.  75% of the text was in Italian, including a looping documentary of an Italian archaeologist who had dug half the goods up: complete with Third-World Children selfies.  Huge, long passages and corridors brought you past stairwells with glaring “NO ENTRY” signs, and vending machines that had probably not been restocked in a while. Every so often a tremor of a curator’s Italian would reverberate down that hall, but otherwise nothing.  But nothing prepared me for the excellent collection of Etruscan sarcophagi waiting in the penultimate exhibit.  You must imagine great alabaster coffins with human statues reclining on the lids, staring at the viewer -all staring at anyone who dares stand in the center of the empty room.  It was utterly terrifying.

2 A.M., I wake up to the sound of my Dutch hostel-mate snogging.  Very loudly.  I check my phone and lo and behold – my friend’s mother back in New York has sent my a rather desperate message. Yes, Martin is missing.  No texts, no calls, no emails for the past 24 hours.  Yes, he was headed to Assisi.  No, I haven’t heard anything either.  Do you want me to take a look…? If you’re sure it’s really necessary…

The next thing I know, I find myself bound for the next train to Assisi, hunting for a friend in the wilds of Tuscany and Umbria. I meet an old woman who asked if I was Catholic. I got off at a wrong station and was given wrong directions by a man who desperately wanted a lighter for a smoke.  I also spent two hours knocking on the doors of monasteries, duck-talking with two police stations to file a missing persons report in a mix of English, Greek, Spanish, and Italian. Pseudo-Polyglot level up.  The good officer spoke no Anglo-Saexe.

“Hablo Espanol?” he asks.

I shake my head. I can only explain that an amigo of mine is missing.  He seems to nod.

“Μιλατε Ελληνικα?” I ask at last , without much hope. (Do you, sir, speak Greek?)

“EH?!” bellows the guard, followed by a mutter that sounded rather like a: “Que cazzo?”

The conversation, you can imagine, went swimmingly. I finally found an officer who spoke enough English to file the report. Blessed be the bilinguals.

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Assisi, as you might recall, was the famed town of St. Francis, a holy man known for renouncing business, starting an order of monks, and tweeting with birds, as loners are wont to do.  Well, he only talked about loving animals once, but that doesn’t stop wishful neophytes from inundating his iconography with critters of fur and feather. In short, he was a very devout man from a very devout town now full of monasteries, splendid views, and St. Francis bobble-heads.  Kyrie Eleison. You can thus imagine the incongruity of a bewildered and exhausted Josh muttering mild imprecations as he hunts for his MIA friend in this wonderful little Italian town with godawful lasagna, for about four hours.

It’s only when I’m about to leave, with no sign of my friend, and very little wi-fi, that I receive the news that my friend had finally found wi-fi and contacted his dear, distraught parents. On the other side of Assisi.  Of course, by then my time is up and I needed to get to the train, exhausted, but vaguely relieved. At least he’s not dead or something.  But how anticlimactic!  I return to Florence, glad to have seen one more city than I’d intended otherwise.  The flight to Germany comes next!

Giant Trails

Of those at the table in the café
where on winter noons a garden of frost glittered on windowpanes
I alone survived. -Czeslaw Milosz, Warsaw 1944.

Everyone was a little puzzled by my utilization of last week’s long weekend.  Why Poland, of all places?  Besides a smattering of kielbasa jokes, the average global citizen knows fairly little of this misty, grassland nation of Eastern Europe.  I didn’t really know how to respond. I’d mention something about the tickets being cheap, and that I had a passing interest in Polish history, and that I liked good soup.

MIloszBut I really came here on the trail of Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish-Lithuanian poet who survived the Second World War and the Warsaw Uprising only to see a Soviet satellite imposed over the city his friends had died defending. Heartbroken, he defected quickly to the west, and ended up teaching at Berkeley. A devout Catholic with an abiding love for earthly delight, he wrote a lot about his childhood in Poland, and about the Second and Cold Wars, and the meaning of faith in world full of evil.I came across his books in sophomore year (High school), in a busy bookstore in Kuala Lumpur.  He never really answered his own questions, I found, about human evil and divine meaning and antiquated liturgies. His poems, of which I shall geek little more, remained firmly in the tension between belief and doubt, between pain and delight.  And so I’d come with my neon blue backpack and a baggy shawl-neck to visit his grave, and his cities.

The airport was thrown into pitch-black darkness by five pm. Three months of Athenian sun has softened me, I think to myself as I take the bus into Warsaw.
The hostel sits on a quiet street in a quiet city, full of very  well-dressed, very polite Poles who keep to themselves.

Warsaw at Night
Warsaw at Night

The thing about Warsaw, however, is that much of its Neoclassical architecture was rebuilt – almost everything was demolished after the Second World War.  Mind you, this was the heroic city where an army of Jews in the local ghetto opened fire on Nazi storm troopers -and held out for several days. The drama was repeated in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, where the whole city exploded against the crumbling German front.  And they would have succeeded, had they not been betrayed by the Russians.  But suffice to say, this city has survived a lot, and it’s remarkable how little that’s betrayed by the serene, white streets of Poland’s capital.

On a lighter note:  excellent Zurek soup. And kielbasa.

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I also visited Krakow, the historic capital of the Polish Empire in the Renaissance world. Center of what was Europe’s largest land empire, and the home of the famed winged hussars (who, by the way, probably saved western civilization in the Siege of Vienna), Krakow kept its older churches and castles miraculously saved.  Apparently a slightly more decent Nazi officer had decided not to level the city with bombs at the last moment. And all the art history majors of the world breathe a sigh of repugnant relief.

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Church on the Rock

Incidentally, Czeslaw Milosz lived in both these cities -Warsaw during the uprising, and in Krakow in his last years after the Curtains of the Cold War fell.  But the city was gorgeous. I also managed to visit his tomb, quietly drowsing in the the Church on the Rock, by the river.  It was terribly moving, standing in that beautiful crypt under the narthex, on the morning after a Bombing had snatched away 120 lives in a distant capital.  Facebook had been exploding with comments and posts and messages, but here i was, literally at the feet of a man who had survived a world war and another, who had weathered revolts and terrorism and totalitarianism. It was good to be reminded of my own frailty, I think.

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The final resting place of a great poet

As much as I could, I stuck to the gorgeous Polish parks when not on Milosz’s trail.  THe trees spread over you like hands and shoulders and it was so eerie, walking through these perfectly still, perfectly safe gardens in the middle a European capital

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IMG_20151113_091638‘Twas a good weekend.  I’ll end this with no words of my own -just the Poet’s, perhaps all the more apt after the atrocities at Paris.

Café -Czeslaw Milosz

Of those at the table in the café
where on winter noons a garden of frost glittered on windowpanes
I alone survived.
I could go in there if I wanted to
and drumming my fingers in a chilly void
convoke shadows.

With disbelief I touch the cold marble,
with disbelief I touch my own hand.
It—is, and I—am in ever novel becoming,
while they are locked forever and ever
in their last word, their last glance,
and as remote as Emperor Valentinian
or the chiefs of the Massagetes, about whom I know nothing,
though hardly one year has passed, or two or three.

I may still cut trees in the woods of the far north,
I may speak from a platform or shoot a film
using techniques they never heard of.
I may learn the taste of fruits from ocean islands
and be photographed in attire from the second half of the century.
But they are forever like busts in frock coats and jabotsin some monstrous encyclopedia.

Sometimes when the evening aurora paints the roofs in a poor street
and I contemplate the sky, I see in the white clouds
a table wobbling. The waiter whirls with his tray
and they look at me with a burst of laughter
for I still don’t know what it is to die at the hand of man,
they know – they know it well.

Warsaw, 1944

Normal Days

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As seen in the National Gardens, Athens.

It must not be thought, dear reader, that Josh the blogger has been careening from classical ruin to classical ruin, beach to beach, with hardly a paper in between.  In fact, I’m devoting a whole post to demolish this myth, and I lay it here at your feet.  I’ve decided to record my weekday schedule, along with pictures I could find of my lovely little campus building in Athens.

7:20 AM –Wake up because I live in room with a translucent slide connecting me to my most excellent housemate.. He’s quite the lark -he wakes up, turns on his lights, and swings out of his room. He’s in the army, so this makes sense. “It’s been historically proven that the best time to attack an enemy is just before dawn.  That’s why they train you for it,” he tells once, biting in a tiropita. “Back in training they used to get us up at four or five some days, just to take positions outside camp, and then carry on with the rest of the day. Now, seven’s sleeping in.”

7:45 –With the desperate recollection that I’ve not ironed my clothes, or eaten breakfast, or utilized the lavatory. So begins twenty minutes of frenzied preparation for the day. All in all, a good day’s work before cornflakes and Greek milk. I think I do a decent job of eating cheap. Half my roommates are asleep -the other half is talking a lot about music and delightfully absurdest YouTube channels that I try not to watch when I have a test to revise for.

8:30 –Classes begins. I trundle out the door with my non-leather messenger bag, my doodling sketchbook, and my actual notebooks. I walk down Eratosthenes Street to get the academic center, which stands right next to the Pan-Athenaic Stadium they built for the very first Olympics.  It’s always busy in the morning. There’s a bakery that sells Greek pies and cakes and the owners, Katerina and Katerina, have a small plate of free butter cookies at the counter. I like their spinach pies.IMG_20151029_141447

8:45 –Dr. Diamant’s Art and Archaeology in the Aegean.  “Diamond is the American pronunciation. If you wanna say it like my father when he moved from Austria it’s just as well. Dee-ah-mahnt. However you like,” he’d say, waving his vein riddled hand and batting his fedora out of his hair with his unlit cigar. Then he’d knock a knuckle on the board to his chronology chart. Excellent professor.  He does assign us four well, well, written papers a semester, so it certainly keeps me busy.

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Three flights of spirally steps to the top floor. Daily exercise, check.

“Typical Mycenaean art.  Not much psychology behind a war chief who wears a boar’s tusk helmet…who’s he trying to impress?” -Dr. Diamant.

11:00 am –Dr. Karavas and Hellenistic history -basically the world after Alexander the Great.  Sardonic, abrasive, and often downright hilarious.  Makes lots of Game of Thrones references about Queen Arsinoe, and sweeps you away in a story until you forget to take notes and realize you still don’t know much about Hellenistic history.  Generally fun class.

Noon –Lunch. I live for early lunches.  I have made friends with Meni, the lovely lady from Lesvos who runs the counter.  I practice very bad Greek and eat her pasta and apple pies. They do very good cream desserts, very decent moussaka, but not particularly good Tex-Mex. Derek and Phil are still discussing Herodotus and YouTube links about Bread fish – always fun conversation.

3:30 –On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Attic Prose.  Dr. Kritsotakis is a wonderful guy –very droll, very Greek, and rather adverse to the cold. We huddle around our table and try to translate Lysias’ Against Eratosthenes,” a 2400-year-old lawsuit. Positively scintillating stuff, as you can imagine.

5:30 –Back home. If it’s Monday, then I need to cook, so IMG_20151101_204244pasta, cheese, and onions it is. Drew draws on his massive knowledge of smart pop culture again and this time I have time to watch whatever’s online. Phil talks about some terrifying encounter he had last week with a Greek farmer who thought he was an archaeologist named Chris, who apparently has been destroying the old site of Old Corinth. Or the roadside dogs that tried to chase him for twenty minutes. Derek suggests Phil lives in a Wes Anderson film.  “You’re not the first to say that,” he says.  Of this no more may be said.

7:30 -We attend a traditional Greek performance of folk music.  In a little cafe-bar called Aliko, down
Monastiraki, a few of us grabbed a table and sipped
tea while the jam was underway.  They had pretty table-lights

IMG_20151101_21144512:24 –It always seems I’m heading to bed at 12:24. Huh. Good Horror Movie premise.

 

 

 

Mystra in the Mist

Ahoy again!

Josh the Wandering Hedgehog has just returned from his field trip in the Peloponnese.  He has been very good at buying postcards, but very bad at budgeting.  I’m very tempted to speak about the Stadium at Olympia -site of the eponymous games, or of my recent trip to Mycenae.  Perhaps I’ll do that for next week, but instead I’ll just talk about things Byzantine, as the Hedgehog Bard is wont to do.

The town of New Sparta is, as an old Victorian traveler wrote, full of neat streets crossing at “right angles.” Built right after the war of Greek Indepence in the 1800s, it straddles the lush Eurotas Valley, site of Ancient Sparta. It’s a strange town; “This Is Sparta” shirts rub shoulders with lamp stores, stationery shops, and hotels named after Homeric heroes. Ours was, unsurprisingly the “Hotel Menelaion.”* My professor guided us through the ruins of the old acropolis outside of town, but as might be expected of the terse Spartans, we’ve got nothing. Mind you, they weren’t big on infrastructure, or writing, or civil liberties, so we saw very little above ground. The ruins, however, were situated quite neatly in an olive grove. Pretty things.

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Think of it; Leonidas probably walked on these stones, shield and pralines in hand.

The Eurotas Valley, needless to say, has been inhabited for a while.  And it’s not hard to see why -flanked by massive mountains, and home to one of the most fertile river vales in fair Greece, it’s hard to find something not lovely about the place.  Which brings us to Mystra, the Byzantine city we visited the next morning.

The first thing a visitor notices are the oranges. Rows and rows of green orange trees rustle against the side of your bus as you wind up into the foothills of the Taygetus Mountains.  The mist has begun to clear out from the cliff tops, and the first red tiles of Mystra appear to their eye.**

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Professor Despina Iosef, our peppy Byzantine historian and guide, meets us at the gate.  I’m virtually palpitating in glee -I’ve been waiting for years to visit these sights: to, as Despina says, “to walk where emperors walked.”  Truly, it’s a treat.  Built in the thirteenth century, Mystras was a town that blossomed at the twilight of the Byzantine Empire, the Greekified Eastern Roman Empire that lasted a thousand years after Western Rome fell.  Down the years it became a regional capital and a hangout place for Neo-Platonist philosophers.  As the empire slowly declined, the literary treasures of Classical Greece trickled in, eventually arriving in Italy, and sparking the Western Renaissance.  In the scheme of things, Mystra’s a remarkable town, in a gorgeous valley, and a Byzantinist like me is one happy camper.

Aleppo pines and grass have grown over the terrace slope leading up to the seasonal palace. Literally carved on top of a hill, the streets wind in ziggerzags, turning into chapel and after church after chapel. It’s incredibly well preserved -icons still adorn these grass-strewn churches- some remain in use today. It’s quite the fairy tale. Mental note: wedding photos would be fantastic here.

IMG_20151016_095218It’s a solemn place -the very last Byzantine Emperor was crowned here, before hurrying off to defend Constantinople in 1453.  As befitting of an empire in its last age of art and glory, the figures are solemn and heavy, full of dark colors and deep frowns. Take the Christos Pantokrator below.  THe photo’s not immaculate, I confess, but take the dome as a sample of Byzantine art.  This is the interior of a Byzantine church -the round dome ceiling acts as a kind of symbolism of the world -with Christ at the center, clutching a book. His tunic is red (for his blood is human and red), but his cloak is blue (for He’s God and Spirit).  All around Him in this dome are saints, flanked by other saints, and quite literally the icons tumble down on the viewer, story after story.  The idea behind this one aspect of a church -the Pantokrator -is that Christ is quite truly sustaining all things, the heart of the party and the duke of the disco. Or All Ruler, as it translates more solemnly from Greek.

Unlike the more Protestant layout familiar to our Dutch Hope-lites, the Eastern Orthodox Tradition places great pride on adorning the interior of their churches, with gold, wood, and paintings of the saints. From what I’ve heard of Orthodox Christians, the point is that God is now both flesh and spirit, both physical and metaphysical. To emphasize one over the other borders on heresy -and they had seven feisty councils to prove it.  How can liturgy and theology be refined and polished, while the house of God remains empty?  How can a church declare both the carnality and the eternity of its King?  The Byzantine answer lies in the icons here.

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Courtesy of redlist.com. I failed to get a decent shot of this one, alas. But it is a glorious depiction of the Nativity.

The descent is a tricky one -the moss has grown over the cobblestones, but slowly we make our way back to the bus. Pass the arches and pillars and cypresses, the red brick hums to itself as we make our way back to New Sparta.  In antiquity, the roar of Lacedaemonians, the chants of monks; in the present, the whisper of motorbikes, the sweet press of oranges.

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* Menelaus was the husband of Helen in the Trojan War, and King of Sparta. He’s a very decent wimp, and if it weren’t for his Republi-  warhawk brother Agamemnon, the Trojan War would not have been such a thing.

**As a devout Strunkist, I would say “him and her,” referring to an obviative fourth person.  But this seems a little gender-binary, and so “them/their” is the best I can do, given the limitations of English.  Forgive my ingrammaticality.

Estuaries

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The picture’s terrible, but I’m afraid it’s hard to take appetizing pictures in a cramped corner of an Athenian restaurant. It’s chili-fried tofu, by the way.
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Trilingual menus!

Not much in a way of pictorial evidence for this one, friends.  My apologies. I ate too quickly. As Caldwell says, I regret nothing.

So I visited a tiny Chinese restaurant in the middle of Syntagma Square, Athens. Tucked away to the left of the hipsterville Ermou Street, was a little pan-Asian enclave of sushi joints, Korean barbecues, and the ubiquitous noodle shops for gullible tourists. About as far west as the Silk Road goes, the bashless “East Pearl Restaurant” plies its trade feeding hungry Athenians, and the Chinese tourists who come to Greece…to order takeout.

It was really not something I expected to find.  Here I was in the heart of modern Athens, a stone’s throw from the Parliament and a spit away from the plateia where 19th century Greeks rallied for their constitution.  And here I was, a Malaysian-Chinese American Classics major studying Byzantine Greek.  And still, swirling in the middle of everything, a little shop sells tofu, fried rice, and stir-fried pak choy.

It’s about as Overseas Chinese as it gets in here. A vast Golden buddha pats his paunch in a corner of the room. Mirrors, calligraphy, bamboo, check. So much for ostensibility. Oh, and a little potted plant with the Greek and Communist flags crossed over each other.  It’s shamelessly tacky but frankly I don’t mind.  The window dressing is for tourists; I’m here for food.

Walking in, however, it’s a pony-tailed, middled-age Greek guy manning the counter.  I ask for the menu in Greek, but ask if I can use my credit card in Mandarin, rather by mistake. There are three languages running in my head and the mixed signals are confuzzling everything.  It turns out he also speaks Mandarin, evidently taught by his wife, who owns the establishment. A brief conversation with her lets me know she’s lived here for four years.  She’s from Wenzhou, a city two provinces south of Shanghai.

“Oh, me? I’m a student,” I say, the hilt of my once-decent Chinese rusting away like a Mycenaean burial spear, “studying Greek history.”

“Oh yes,” she nods. “They’ve a very long history, don’t they. You’re studying here for how long? Four months? Only four?  Well! And after that you’re going back to…”

“America,” I say, rather hastily.  “But my family lives in Malaysia.”

“Ah! Yes, you’re Malaysian Chinese, then?”

It’s incomplete but close enough, so I nod. We smile. I order tofu, which I’ve been sorely missing, among other things.  “Your Mandarin’s not bad,” she adds, not unkindly.  Then she tosses her waves of hair and strides over the French lady at the next table.

Don’t get me wrong, Amy in the Study Abroad Office.  Greek food is gobsmackingly stupendous. I can’t begin to describe the joy of Northern Greek cheese, or Epirot-styled sausage, or souvlaki with fries wrapped inside the pita, or cheese-baked egglant, or apple pie gelatos. I’m intending to post something about all those fantastic things in a jiffy. 😉 But there is something remarkable about eating home-food in a place one didn’t expect to find home-food. And it’s so bizarre when very interesting, very separate parts of my identity meet physically, in a restaurant, or a book, or anything.  I’m not going to spoil with triteness, of course, so I best drop the pen soon. I had a splendid lunch. I paid.  Then I gathered my books on Byzantine poetry, swept them into my satchel, and stepped out into Syntagma Square. The street was buzzing with a dozen languages and the trolleys were surging on their way past Ermou to Omonoia, and the tour guides were swatting at buildings with their placards; couples were sipping frappés, Germans were pushing their strollers, and I was in Greece again, jostling my way to Pangrati district.

Κρητη!

My alarm springs to life at 6:30 AM in our windowless cabin.  Our modest cruise ship of sleep-ridden Americans has swept into the ancient harbor of Heraklion, Crete. Κρητη, as it’s known in Greek (Kree-tee).  We have good butter and bad coffee at the little breakfast bar, and tumble into the waiting buses for the semester’s very first field trip.

The CYA has organized several five-day long field trips scouting the historical bits of Greece. Crete was first on the list. Of course, virtually every roadside village in Greece has an archaeological museum, a hidden Byzantine church, and a gift shop full of Parthenons, so finding ancient things is not hard. More difficult is the task of hoisting a hundred boorish Yanks of dubious sobriety up the slopes of Mount Ida –a task the CYA has performed admirably.  They’ve done this for forty years, after all.

But a little background on Crete.  If you google a map of Greece, you might see a long, flat french fry sticking out in the south Mediterranean.  It’s a big island, as Greek isles go, and remains remarkably fertile and resource rich.  Which is perhaps why the first European civilization sprang up on these shores: the Minoans.  Isolated by lots of sea, it was still in sailing distance of mainland Greece, Egypt, and Canaan -ideal for trade. Which may also explain why the Minoans were evicted by the Mycenaean Greeks, who were succeeded by the Classical Greeks, then Pirates, then Romans, then Byzantine Romans, then Arabs, then more Byzantines, then Venetians, then Ottomans, then British, then Nazis, and then, of course, Syriza. This is an island where excavations have excavations under those excavations, wIMG_20150916_081845here towns have towns under them, and yes, labyrinths are found under labyrinths.

You might dimly recall the Greek myth of the Minotaur.  Born of a bull and a queen with rather feral tastes, the cow-headed, man-bodied Minotaur was locked away in a labyrinth under the Cretan king’s palace. The legend speaks of its notoriously treacherous corridors, incomprehensible to the symmetric Greek eye. Myth though it be, it’s not hard to see its resemblance in the mazelike complex of Knossos.

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Rebuilt several times of the third and second centuries BCE, the palace of Knossos stands remarkably intact for a complex almost three thousand years old. Reconstructed in part by Sir Arthur Evans, we’re not quite sure if this was a palace… or a city court, or a temple, or a storage complex, or a bit of everything.  All the same, this was one of the great reasons I came in the spring, and I’ll let the pictures of ancient things speak for themselves.

It’s so surreal standing in places you’ve spent your life reading about.  To have your shoes communicating with stones that have known feet before the first letters of the Bible were scratched on parchment. Lord a’mercy.
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Doors into more doors at Knossos.
Doors into more doors at Knossos.
A reconstructed bit of Knossos. Pretty, all the same.
A reconstructed bit of Knossos. Pretty, all the same.
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This was from Phaistos, another palace, but I’ll trouble you with no more geekery.

Other highlights: the positively majestic mountains, cinnamon juice (canelada, in the Greek), wine tasting in central Crete, and a Venetian fort on an island with…cacti.

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From the edge of the Venetian fort of Spina Longa, complete with cacti.

We took a hike down the splendiferous Imbros Gorge, a five-mile hike down massive rock formations, donkeys, and goats.  We returned to our hotel at Chania that evening, and ate a lot of gelato by the sea.  One more photo of the gorge and I’m done.  Thanks for listening!IMG_20150919_102206[1]

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A door found in the hills.

 

Common Courtesy

Once again I resurface like a beluga from beneath the arctic circle, and almost as graceful.

Athens has treated me well. The Greeks are, in truth, a remarkably kind and courteous people. Among the elderly there is the slightest suspicion of foreigners, but among the vast majority of folk on the street, I’ve been treated with uncommon charity. Bakeries offer you cookies on the house -particularly if you happen to be an American trying to speak Greek. Many, many folk speak English. People want to converse with you. I was a little apprehensive about what it was to be a rather queenly person of color in Athens, but so far it appears my premonitions are unfounded. Indeed, the only remarks of prejudice I’ve experienced here have bubbled out of American acquaintances. “Naturally!” As King Mongkut says.

MongkutThere is, of course, a great pride in the long, long history of the city, and it helps to know bits of Greek myth and history to help you see where they’re coming from. Start talking about Venizelos or Byzantium, or maybe the Turkish Republic across the narrow sea.

The Greeks also seem a remarkably peaceable company -the Golden Dawn Fascists are a thing, but the vast majority of Greece is so unified in hating them that I think the balance of power remains, however tenuous.  It’s election season, but no one has taken to the streets.  Heavens, there weren’t even riots when the banks were choking the cash flow this summer.  I can’t imagine that happening in Malaysia, or Michigan.  I also can’t remotely foresee any nation that would host and sustain tens of thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants in the midst of an economic depression.  The spirit of Xenia -that is, guest-love- remains strong in Hellas, and I respect that infinitely.

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I’ve also been touring the fair isle of Andros, in the north end of the Cyclades. ‘Tis a fair and marvelous place.  It’s an island thrust straight of the sea -with massive cliffs and steep peaks, ankle deep in extremely clear water. Our guide and chaperon, a CYA professor named Lida, took us into incredibly remote beaches for swimming -often hidden behind the bumcracks of hills. It’s an island that remains sparsely populated, and well maintained by the wealth ship owners who’ve opened little stores on Highstreet.  I even got into conversation with a few in a pidgin of English and Greek.

An elderly man we met in an ice cream parlor, surrounded by his friends, had spent his life in the merchant navy, incidentally.  He turned to my Hispanic friend and began greeting her in what seemed very decent Spanish. He’d learned English in New York, Spanish in Venezuela, plus Italian, in well, Italia. He showed us pictures of his great-granddaughter.  Another chap I’d met offered me coffee and explains how he met and married his bride in the Big Apple.  Well traveled folk, as it were.

What else shall I say? I’ve been in Byzantine museum(s), down cliffs that plunge into the sea, and eaten a great deal of Mediterranean food -post forthcoming.  I’ve met a great deal of interesting folk, and spent mornings under the bells of immaculate orthodox churches.  I is happy.  Very happy.  Also, scroll down to the end for the Dog-headed Saint I met in the Byzantine Museum.

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