Monday, October 15
Monday morning we rode the metro into the Plaka area rather than walking the whole way. The cleanest metro station I’ve ever seen! Evidently they did lots of renovations around the city for the 2004 Olympic Games, and it still shows. The Men in Black were on a mission this morning, and we wove in and out of the numerous church supply stores until we found just the right place. While they were trying on new cassocks, kontos (vests) and skoufi (hats) I wandered up and down the street until I found the iconography studio of “George” (Evangelos Tsaprounis). He was working on a large icon (egg tempera) of St. Basil the Great, but also had samples done in fresco… “things I just play with while drinking coffee” so I bought one that illustrates the strong Greek Byzantine features of the eyes and nose, especially. There was a large wall piece of Archangel Michael taking the soul from a dead person (represented by the small body wrapped in a funeral shroud which he appears to be taking to heaven.) I had never seen this image before, but George assured me it was “traditional.”
Walking around central Athens we continually saw priests and monks in their skoufi and black cassocks… icons in most of the store fronts. How interesting it felt to be in this country where all the trappings of Orthodox Christianity are so common.
We continued to experience much filoxenia … like from Christos, our waiter at Ithaka, a sidewalk café named for a famous novel by a Russian poet. Christos went several blocks out of his way to show me an internet café so I could post my last blog, as I have having difficulty getting online at our hotel.
I had read in Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, the explanation about how the detached houses were torn down after WWII and replaced with apartment buildings, creating narrow dark street passageways where neighbors who once visiting on each other’s yards and porches now waved across from their balconies… but also how this did not disturb the wonderful sense of community… of belonging which is still evident, as school children walk to neighborhood schools together and everyone speaks to everyone on the streets. (Sofka Zinoieff, the author of Eurydice Street, is an English anthropologist who married a Greek man and moved to Athens. Her observations about life here are insightful and helped me interpret the life around us each day.)
Our greatest challenge came as we walked UP and UP and UP hundreds of steps to catch the lift up to the tiny church of St. George, which sits at the highest peak in Athens. Sissy loved the dogs, which seem to roam free all over Athens. (Again, Zinoieff says that there are over 70,000 of them in Athens!)
Monday night we met Sophia and Demetrios and their lively three-year-old Charalambos for a memorable evening at Acropol Café on the Plaka. As we walked in, I realized I had left my camera in the taxi! Sophia and the restaurant owners went into action, calling our hotel, getting in touch with a taxi company, and within thirty 30 minutes the driver returned the camera to us at the Plaka! More incredible filoxenia. Later we discovered that Sophia was a member of the Athens City Council and joked about making a run for Mayor some day. We believe she can do anything … as evidenced also by the three Greek dancers who had been trained at her dance classes, which she teaches after she finishes her day teaching physical education at a high school! Demetrios was charming, also… he does public relations for a company in Athens, and they choose to live in the inner city rather than out in the ‘burbs. Of course they wouldn’t let us pay for our meal, and Sophia gave us gift bags full of special items, including an icon of St. Luke the new physician for Father Basil and one of Saint Charalambos, patron saint of their son, for Sissy, who had become so attached to him… missing her grandson, James, who is also three and a half. She had only met us the day before, but seemed to know just the right personal gifts. Sophia for Mayor!
Tueday, October 16
We rode the Metro to the port of Pireus to catch our boat to the island of Aegina. More random filoxenia in Pireus… a lovely man saw the confusion on our faces as we exited the Metro, and walked with us several blocks to the pier! As I turned to thank him, he smiled, waved and was off.
As we boarded our boat the sun was shining and it was 66 degrees… gulls flew along with us, searching our wake for fish. We drank cappuccinos and soaked up the sun and sites… perhaps my favorite part of our trip so far. The deep azure water turned a brilliant turquoise as we neared the port at Aegina, our destination. A few steps off the boat we found a tiny white church of St. Nicholas, patron saint of, among other things, sailors. Along the docks are rows of sidewalk cafes, so we stopped for more coffee and delicious flat omelets with cheese, ham and tomatoes. And for a cowboy hat for my collection (my other two are from Seaside, Florida and Chicago.)
We took a taxi up to the monastery of Saint Nektarios. Sissy and I planned ahead, wearing skirts and taking head coverings with us. Then we laughed at this sign (below) just outside the chapel where St. Nektarios’ relics are kept. We felt a sad contrast at the monastery, compared with the filoxenia of the people who had helped us in Athens. No one invited us to visit with the nuns or meet the abbess or have a cup of coffee or anything. In fact, the woman who seemed in charge of the small chapel (she’s not a monastic) hurried us through, as though we were tourists in Disney Land… but finally Father Paul asked her if he could pray a short service of healing in the chapel, and she reluctantly agreed, but told us to “be quick about it.”
So we prayed, the four of us, and a visitor who seemed glad for the prayers joined us. Afterwards we were allowed to go into the cell where St. Nektarios lived… a tiny apartment full of icons, a very small bed, and a receiving room, where I imagined the life-changing conversations people were blessed to have with him. The grounds of the monastery were beautiful… immaculate, colorful, full of flowers in bloom and views towards craggy cliffs with small hermitages on them. It was hard to leave. We stopped in the monastery bookstore to purchase some holy oil before taking a tax back down the mountain. We had an hour or more before our boat would leave. Walking along the docks, I purchased some huge, sweet fresh figs and we found another café for coffee and drinks. Then I briefly explored a few “back streets” and found a wonderful little shop called IZA where I bought this bracelet, perfect with the blues and browns which I have chosen as my wardrobe staples this fall.
The boat ride back to Athens from Aegina was magical… we were filled with the joy of Saint Nektarios and the beauty of the islands… and watched the sun begin to set just before we arrived at Pireus. Back in Athens, we found a quiet restaurant, Diogenes, and enjoyed the best whole grilled bream and “cream Diogenes”… the chef’s own special recipe for Crème Brulee. Returning to our hotel I found myself thinking about Urania in this land of her ancestors. Surely she would feel, walking around here, as I do when I return to Mississippi…. “these are my people!”
(Tomorrow is our last day in Athens before we fly to Leros and take a boat to Patmos for there days. I’ll post again the next time I’ve got internet access.)