Sunday, October 14, 2007

Filoxenia

The contrast was startling. Enough to cause an uprising… an outright revolt against democracy. I had not seen such blatant inequality since my childhood years (the 1950s) in Mississippi.

We were traveling to Greece on Northwest/KLM with our dear friends, Father Paul and Sissy Yerger, from Clinton, Mississippi on October 12/13. Our tourist class seats cost almost 200,000 World Perks miles. An upgrade to Business Class would have been double that, so we chose the “cheap seats” and the company of our friends, who were spending hard-earned American money for their seats.

It wasn’t so bad at the beginning… a new plane with individual TV monitors and movie selections for each passenger. But we soon discovered how uncomfortable the seats actually were. So, as others slept, I got up to walk “laps” around the plane… up one aisle and down the other. But when I attempted to walk through the business class section on my laps, entering the sacred space beyond the curtain, the stewardess jumped up quickly from her seat, blocking my way and announcing gruffly, “Your washroom is in the back, dear.” Instantly I felt like a child who had been reprimanded. Or worse… it brought up the image of my black neighbors in the 1950s South being sent to the back of the bus.

“I’m sorry. I can’t sleep and I’m walking laps. I wasn’t trying to use the restroom.”

“You may not walk through here.” Her voice became firmer.

I looked around at the first class customers, all sleeping soundly in the new, spacious, horizontal seats. Is she afraid I will accost them or what?

Obediently I returned to the back of the plane. Three more hours ‘til breakfast. Sigh. I watched yet another movie from the in flight selection, tried to sleep again, opened my window shade and watched the sunrise… from above the clouds. Calming. But I dreaded the next leg of the trip and the nausea that would undoubtedly come with jet lag. And my knees and back were hurting.

As we were about to board our connecting flight in Amsterdam, we heard ourselves being paged to the counter at the gate. We had been upgraded to first class! After settling down, enjoying complimentary cocktails and a little more wiggle room (not the flat seats for sleeping that were available on the flight from Memphis to Amsterdam) I got up to use the washroom … in the first class section. While I was there, a gentleman from the tourist section came up to use “our” restroom. The stewardess, a warm, friendly lady from eastern Europe, asked his forgiveness, explaining humbly that it was a small plane with only one forward restroom, to be shared by 24 first class patrons and the cock pit crew. When the man retreated, she told me how embarrassing and difficult it was when she had to explain that, but she could get in trouble if she didn’t enforce it. She said her supervisor had told her, during training, to think about the business side of it: you don’t get a Mercedez for the same price as a Toyota. That helps… but her approach was so different than the stewardess in the previous plane… it was a lesson in human relations I hope not to soon forget. (The Bailey’s Irish Cream Liquor which I poured over Ben and Jerry’s Vanilla Crunch ice cream won’t be forgotten soon, either… not your typical airplane food!)

Our hotel room in Athens, on the 3rd floor of The Phillipos on Mitseon, has a balcony with a partial view of the Acropolis. But more interesting to me is the street scene. Across the narrow street are the balconies of private apartments, with dogs barking and babies crying (not excessively, on either account) and birds chirping in the tall mimosa-like trees that seem to grow out of the sidewalks into the sides of the six-to-seven-story buildings up and down the street. At 6 pm we hear bells ringing, and the four of us walk one block south and as we look to our left, there’s an Orthodox Church (St. John the Baptist). We approach it and smell incense, then hear chanting. Vespers is in progress, so we stop in and join the prayers of the faithful who live nearby. There are Orthodox Churches all over Athens. We meet the priest afterwards and decide to come back in the morning for Divine Liturgy.

Off to dinner nearby… we find “Smile,” a casual restaurant run by a Greek woman who lived in Chicago for a while. Calamari and lamb and a cool night breeze work their magic. Walking back to our hotel we stop into an open art gallery/studio, where the artist works with natural powders to create works that remind us of Chagall. Sissy and I were showing too much interest, so our hubbies reminded us that we had collectively had only about an hour of sleep on the combined 12 hours of flying time, so we meandered back to our hotel. We were asleep by 9:30!

Waking to the bells again (this time for Orthros, which Fathers Basil and Paul went to) I sit on the balcony to read and write and take in the morning sites, sounds and smells. Finally reading my third “trip book,” Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff, various phrases come to me during the day and evening, as we are given several opportunities to observe what Zinovieff calls the Greek people’s respect for politismos – a word meaning both culture and civilization.

A woman brings in several colorful garments from her rooftop clothesline at the end of the street. A dark grey cat meanders around the corner. A blonde lady in a bright pink blouse walks a small white poodle. The smell of strong Greek coffee wafts up to our balcony, tempting me to break the liturgical fast my first Sunday morning in Greece. Strands of brownish gray clouds foretell a morning shower, so I toss my umbrella into my bag before heading downstairs for my short walk to the 8:30 a.m. church service. (Sissy went earlier.) Gently, tentatively, the sun tries to break through the clouds, creating a mottled look, like the skin of a peach. The scene from my balcony is so serene, it’s hard to tear myself away….

But when I do, the magic continues… walking up the steps of the church I am approached by one of four beggars… the only word she says that I can understand is “Yugoslavia.” But even if she spoke English, explanations aren’t required when an opportunity for alms is present. As I place the money in her hands, she weeps and kisses me. The man with only one leg and the woman with a patch over her eye and the fourth beggar look on with sad smiles. It was my only cash.

Entering the church a few minutes into the service, I find a place close enough to the front to see the priests through the royal doors. Father Nicholas, the young priest, comes out first. Later it’s Father Panagiotos (sp?) who has been at this church for 45 years. The icons are wonderful… so much like the work of Photios Kontoglou, my favorite contemporary Greek iconography. They fill the temple up into the dome towards the sky. The chanting is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Although it’s in Greek, the Liturgy is part of my heart, so I can follow the service and join the line for communion, and later for the blessing at the end. A woman enters my row after me and finds a place on my left, introducing a new element to the aroma of the incense… now what is that? Oh – moth balls! It’s the first chilly day and she has undoubtedly just retrieved her wool jacket from the closet.

A young woman with a three-year-old invites us to join her for coffee afterwards, so we follow her to a nearby outdoor coffee shop, where she treats us all to Greek coffee, cappuccinos, and “toast,” which is really grilled cheese and thin meat sandwiches. Her name is Sophia Soubasi. She tells us that she teaches physical education at a high school and her husband is in public relations. Her son, Charalambos, is adorable… and very active and anxious for the promised outing with his mother after church. So, she invites us to dinner the following evening. Her husband will join us, at a nice restaurant in the Plaka area. We are overwhelmed and thank her over and over. Her response reminds me of a concept in my book about Athens: “Hospitality is the most important thing.” The book says:

Known as “filoxenia” (literally love of the stranger or guest), hospitality is still considered a national characteristic by Greeks.

And we thought we knew something about hospitality in the South!

Saying goodbye to Sophia and Charalambos, we spend the afternoon walking around the Acropolis, through a flea market, and into the Plaka area for lunch and a little souvenir shopping. Stopping into several small churches as we walk along, I am again struck with the depth to which Orthodoxy permeates the everyday life of the Greek people. But also with their love of life, like these girls singing on the street.

We opt for a short rest back at our hotel before heading out at 8:30 for dinner, considered early by Greek standards. We find a nice restaurant nearby, this one with live music. We are their first customers for the evening, and we enjoy delicious traditional Greek food and drink, and complimentary Brandy from the owner. Sissy and I try to follow along with our waiter in a traditional Greek dance, with our husbands and the other couples in the restaurant clapping along. I apologize for my clumsiness, explaining that I was raised on rock and roll. “Rock and Roll? Ah, yes!” And they break out with “Shake It Up, Baby,” and we’re doing the bop and the twist and whatever else we can remember from SO LONG AGO… (no photos here!!!)

Again, the words from Eurydice Street come back to me:

We Greeks have… a particular relation to rhythm and language…. folk music runs deep inside us. In Greece, we live with our emotions.

A girl dancing is described as “excluding everything outside her personal space at that moment.” Exactly. That’s how I feel when I’m dancing!

The Greeks have a name for this, too: kefi – high spirits and an ease that comes from “knowing the rules and respecting the alchemy of music and wine.”

You can’t even start to understand anything about Greece if you don’t realize that everything is expressed through poetry and song.

I feel such a kindred spirit with these wonderful people. It’s after midnight on Sunday night, so I’ll get some sleep so I can get up and enjoy another day of filoxenia… and maybe another evening of kefi!

2 comments:

Mimi said...

Wow. It sounds wonderful! Continued good travels to you!

Kathy said...

Enjoying your blog! I was at the Creative Nonfiction Institute in Oxford, as well. Happy travels!