31 May 2012

First Day Adventures

Of course I had to eat something today.  Taking Fotis' advice, I went to his favorite ταβέρνα, which is literally outside the door of my apartment, called Φίλεμα (Filema).  A ταβέρνα or taverna is an outdoor, informal Greek restaurant.

The food was fantastic.  First came bread, then ouzo, then my order, which was fried mussels in a tomato-feta cheese sauce with parsley and onions, and served in a handmade ceramic bowl. I am really going to enjoy the seafood while I'm here, especially with the Apostles Fast coming up here soon. Sometime I'll venture to Piraeus, the port of Athens, to eat some fresh seafood there. The meal was concluded with some kind of dessert, which was almost like custard topped with chocolate. The highlight of dinner (well, besides the fantastic mussels) was a street band that showed up and played a couple of songs. When I figure out how to upload music, I will post a song I recorded from the band.

I'm really enjoying the music here. There are musicians at just about every major pedestrian street corner, including a guitarist who is sitting right below my open window right now as I write.

After dinner, I succumbed to a nap after figuring out how to get back into my apartment.  Just look at the key! Turns out, it takes -144 degrees (that's four turns to the left) to unlock.

There's my Greek key. Yes, it's that big compared to a "normal" key.

Next, I decided to walk around a bit. I went back to Monastiraki Square, and for some reason didn't buy some fresh fruit. I guess I will tomorrow.  Just beyond Monastiraki Square is Hadrian's Library. I don't know anything about that, so I'll have to look it up. Just past Hadrian's Library is another church dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is "quick to hear" our prayers. I'll bet there are a dozen churches within a 5-minute walk of my apartment. The impressive thing about the churches is that they are all open. Not only that, but there is a steady stream of people stopping by to say prayers, light a candle, or kiss an icon. The churches prohibit photography, or else I would share that with you.

Just a block from my apartment is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. It is undergoing substantial renovations and does not appear to be open for services, but people were still there to pray. There are actually two churches in the complex. One is the older building, affectionately called the "Little Metropolis." The newer (19th century) is the larger one in the background, covered in scaffolding.

Two saints have their relics there: the Hieromartyr Gregory, Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Righteous-martyr Philothei of Athens. Both of these saints were martyred by the Turks at different times. St. Gregory was lynched on the gate of the Patriarchate on Pascha 1821, and the door has been sealed to this day.

St. Philotei founded a convent and was tortured to death by the Turks in the 16th century.

In the square outside the Metropolis is an awesome statue of the last Roman Emperor, Constantine IX Paleologos, who died defending his people against the Turks when they conquered Constantinople on 29 May 1453.

Just outside the Metropolis is "church supply row," where for blocks, there are (you guessed it!) nothing but church supply stores. I have the feeling that I will return at some point... and hopefully I don't spend too much money...

I was pretty proud of myself for negotiating the sale of a lamp counter-weight entirely in Greek with the shopkeeper who can't speak English. Side-note to St. Mary's: we won't have to use the ladder anymore to light that lamp above the holy doors.

Since I needed a dose of humility after that, the shopkeeper at the pharmacy greeted me in English and wouldn't speak a word of Greek to me. I didn't think I'd stand out as an American tourist that much...

First Impressions

I've been in Greece four hours now and here are my unedited stream-of-consciousness first impressions:

Half of that time was in the airport (customs, baggage claim, etc.) and riding the metro into town. No notable differences from America, other than the fact that there is actually public transportation.

Alongside the metro were four-lane highways, with on-ramps, road signs, and interchanges essentially identical to America, except that the signs are in Greek first, then English.  A few observations worthy of note:
1. The soil is red.
2. Many "Mediterranean" plants (cypress trees and other shrubs not seen in Indiana)
3. All the houses are stucco with red clay tile roofs (awesome!)
4. Many abandoned industrial/commerical buildings, many with dilapidated billboards on the roofs.
5. Graffiti is a popular and developed art form.

I departed the metro at Monastiraki.  I took many flights of escalators, then I had to lug my 60-pound suitcase up several more flights of stairs. The modern subway station exited into what could easily be a medieval middle-eastern market.

This is where I realized I was not in America anymore.

Monastiraki Square is bustling with merchants and shoppers, complete with an old church (you know it's old when it is 6 feet below the current street level) and a mosque (now defunct...it appeared to be full of shops). At this point, I was just trying to book it to meet up with Fotis, my host who owns the apartment I am staying in, so I am not investigating anything... just hurrying past.

Again, all the buildings are old and stuccoed, tile roof where the roof is sloped. The streets are very narrow, with room for only one lane of traffic (which is dominated first by mopeds and second by taxis). I walk down Ermou street towards the church of Panagia Kapnikarea (a thousand-year old church below my apartment).

Panagia Kapnikarea

I turn just before it on Ailou street to meet Fotis at his shop. I pass Agia Eirini, where my teacher, Ioannis Arvanitis chants, as well as many other big names in Byzantine music, such as Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I keep walking, crossing a few narrow streets, dodging mopeds (keep in mind I have a 20+ pound backpack and a 60 pound suitcase). I arrive at the shop. Fotis is extremely hospitable, and gives me a warm welcome. We introduce ourselves over a glass of water (that's all I really wanted at that point). "Have you seen the Acropolis?" he asked.  "No, I just booked it here." "Well, just turn around." So I turned around and saw the bell towers of Agia Eirini framing the Acropolis:

Fotis took me through a few narrow, winding streets, into a square behind a tiny hole-in-the-wall church.

This is the entrance to my apartment.

The apartment is beautiful, newly renovated, modern, and furnished with Ikea (which we flew over, by the way... it is right beside the airport with "Όλες για το σπίτι" on the side). The apartment can be seen (with much better photos than I could take) on: www.airbnb.com/rooms/28186

One thing I'll have to get used to is not flushing the toilet paper. I guess the plumbing here just isn't made for it.

The apartment faces lively Ermou Street.  I opened the windows to hear the live music and the crowds shopping.

I should probably take a nap (I've only slept 3 hours since I left home 22 hours ago), but I feel like there is so much to take in!

The Holy Mountain

Mount Athos as I flew over it this morning.

It is always comforting to know that at any time, a thousand holy men on that mountain are praying for the salvation of the world.  What a welcome to Greece!  The Holy Mountain is the furthest peninsula with high mountain at the end.

30 May 2012

Αντίο Indiana

My last glimpse of Indiana for a while. 

The day has finally arrived. I bid farewell to my wonderful wife and I've embarked and the experience of a lifetime. 
Sigur Rόs has become the soundtrack for my journey thus far. Their latest album Valtari cannot receive enough praise. It is absolutely fantastic, as is to be expected.
As I wait in the airport for my next flight, listening to the cathartic music of Sigur Rόs, I can't help thinking about leaving behind my wife, family, and friends. I'll be missing summer altogether...canoeing, swimming, campfires...
I'm excited to be sure, but also melancholic about what I'm leaving behind and unsure of what to expect in the days ahead. Maybe Sigur Rόs is  the right music for this moment. Maybe not.  Perhaps Regina Spektor will lift my spirits....

21 May 2012

Gifts for Greece

Happy birthday to me! Saturday was the anniversary of my birth. As such, my wonderful and thoughtful wife gave me lots of helpful loot for my trip, including a collapsible water bottle, adapter plugs, a packable backpack, zip up ear buds, and the comprehensive blue guide.   I am especially looking forward to recording my thoughts in my Athina-edition moleskine (of course I'll share the good ones here with you).

16 May 2012

Icons and Echoes

I have been drawing and making music longer than I can remember.  The visual and performing arts have always been an integral part of my life.  Whether sculpting, singing, drawing, playing, or painting, the arts have consumed and defined my life. I have found no more appropriate or profound way to share the human experience than the fine arts.

When I first encountered the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, I was awestruck by the unapologetically prominent roles of the fine arts.  Orthodox Christians see the fine arts as essential avenues for proclaiming of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Every service is sung in its entirety and every square inch of an Orthodox Church building is traditionally covered with icons.   Sound and sight play prominent and parallel roles as theological doxology is expressed by blending text with melody to create music, while it is also expressed with line and color to create images.  This is, after all, the Church that produced Dostoevsky, who famously proclaimed, “Beauty will save the world.”

Upon my confirmation into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I quickly found myself immersed in both chant and iconography.  As a visual artist, it was only natural to explore iconography.  As a musician, singing was an organic way for me to serve in the church.

Through independent study, I have achieved a practical competency in both iconography and chant.  I have chanted in my home parish, St. Mary Orthodox Church in Goshen, Indiana for almost five years and in August 2010, I was ordained a cantor and assumed the role of choir director. During a 2007 one-week workshop at Holy Dormition Orthodox Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, I first experienced icon painting.  Since then, I have painted many icons. Several icons adorn my local parish, including two processional icons for major feasts and a 5-foot-diameter “Christ  Pantocrator,” on the ceiling of the nave.

In order to further my proficiency beyond independent study, I need to learn under a master who is able to teach techniques and practices only transmitted through interpersonal experience and oral tradition. Although each art form originates in antiquity, both are very much alive today – having more than 1,700 years of unbroken tradition of pedagogical transmission from master to student.  Those seeking masters in these arts need not only time and interest, but also to travel, as these teachers are few and far between. This project will immerse me in these arts so fully that I can breach my creative plateau.

On 30 May, I will travel to Athens, Greece on a generous Teacher Creativity Fellowship from the Lilly Endowment.  My project will immerse me in this living tradition by studying under a master of each liturgical art: iconography and chant. For five weeks, I will study privately and chant under Ioannis Arvanitis – a master cantor at the Church of St. Irene in Athens.

Arvanitis is a world-renowned Byzantine musicologist, a researcher in music at the University of Athens, and is completing his doctoral thesis for the University of Copenhagen on rhythm in medieval Byzantine music.  He is considered to be among the foremost teachers of Byzantine chant in the world.  He has worked with such international musical groups as Cappella Romana and Romeiko Ensemble.  He studied under the famous Greek ethnomusicologist Simon Karas.

Athens is an ideal place to undertake this project.  Besides being the home of some of the greatest living masters in Byzantine chant and iconography, Athens is the ancient hub of philosophy, intellect, and the arts, the birthplace of democracy, and the crucible of western civilization.  I would like to spend one day each week visiting relevant religious, historical, and cultural sites in the vicinity of Athens.  The Christian history of Athens dates to the Apostle Paul himself, whose feast will be celebrated during my stay.  There are many early Christian and Byzantine churches and monasteries in and around Athens that still function, allowing me to experience ancient iconography and sacred chant in their original context.

I will return stateside on 4 July to study icon-painting with Tom Athanasius Clark – a Greek-American master iconographer who lives in Athens, but will be completing a large-scale commission for Archagel Michael Greek Orthodox Church in Port Washington New York.  Clark’s large-scale iconography adorns dozens of churches across Greece and America.  His panel icons can be found in countless homes, including the personal collection of the late Pope John Paul II.  His work appears in many official books and publications of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.  He studied under the master iconographer Kostas Tsilsavides of Thessaloniki, Greece.

The goal of this project is not only personal artistic growth, but to enable me to become a better teacher to my own students – by becoming a student myself in two pedagogical traditions, a style of teaching both personal and experiential. As a visual arts educator, gaining knowledge of Byzantine iconography will be beneficial from the technical aspect of the painting process to the historical aspect of Byzantine iconography being the foundation of western art.

Upon completion of this project, I will share this newfound knowledge with my church’s parishioners as well as the community-at-large by holding iconography and chant workshops at my parish. A number of young singers in the congregation desire to learn to chant, while others have expressed interest in learning iconography – but there is not currently a regional teacher for either art form. 

Follow my journey this summer as I post photos, audio, and reflections on this blog.

Please pray for me that our Lord and God Jesus Christ will grant me successful studies and a safe journey, through the prayers and protection of the Panagia, St. Nicholas, the Archangel Michael, St. Luke the Apostle and Evangelist, St. John of Damascus, St. Romanos, St. John Koukouzelis and all the saints.