On Greek Religious Holidays

I was looking through my notes I took observing Greek culture. Here’s one of them, taken down on my iPhone in a furious stream of consciousness—which retrospectively sounds a little like early Richard Powers. Let the nominative phrases unfold.

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In lieu of a tour of ancient Mystra, the stronghold of Turks and Communists, we went to what was sold to me as a church picnic. I thought, “Okay. A church picnic, that should be nice. I can fumble all 20 words in my Greek vocabulary with cute Greek girls. That’s what these things are for, right? Assortative mating: pairing like with like—the only good of college—the one econ term I learned from Sanderson’s class.”

It was so much better than a church picnic. Switchback over switchback, an old Toyota trundled upward—its passengers: myself, a Vlahos, and a Gangas—revving in first, carried by the little engine that refused to say it couldn’t.

If there was a place on earth where one might find spirituality, it’s at the top of Anavreti at the Monastery Paneia. Atop a mountain, behind that which forms the backdrop of Sparta, all signs of modern civilization, apart from cars and a distant radio antenna, are invisible. The environment is harsh and montane, and the air is misty and smells of autumn. In the background, monks chant in liturgical Greek. It is the night of St. Mary, and this will go on all night. Of the three hundred people here, some will sleep in the monastery, but most will hold vigil all night, holding onto candles, the flames warding off the cold wet dark mountain night. The man roasting corn aids in this, too, bushels behind him.

I neglected to bring my “good” camera, but my iPhone captures the scene as it is, reminiscent of grainy Kodachromes, as long extinct in America as gatherings like these.

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I ate with family at a family restaurant five minutes down the mountain, with only a ceiling of grapevines to cover us. Hands were shaken, lamb cooked in a paper bag under coals was served, and eating sections of meaty spine and slowly dismantling the shoulder’s ball and socket I realized then that no American restaurant could offer such barbarian fare on their menus, instead catering to Americans’ chosen ignorance of their meats’ sources. Even the politely symmetrical lamb chops had some gristle, which went down felicitously with the restaurant’s house wine, made inside the house. To each his own for free. Siga siga. Para poli oréo.

The lyre wailed all along, phrases reverberating from subject into predicate, each pluck a nested nominative. Apart from the six-year old Gypsy dancing in front of the band, collecting Euro after Euro, I was the youngest there. The boy’s father pocketed his earnings. Sitting on a capital cushion, fattening for the coming winter of austerity.

A man in a brown textured three-piece walked by, wearing a hat and no tie. Mustachioed, a dead ringer for Daniel Plainview, without his son and partner, H. W., in tow.

On Greece and Mental Health

One marker of a country’s civility is how it treats its criminals and its mentally ill. I realized that Greece is 50+ years behind America in these respects today.

Like something out of Yates, here I was in the inanity of urban quasi-splendor, eating dolmades off china with three old women, while a severely delayed 30-year old watched dubbed Warner Brothers cartoons in the corner. With the brain function of a 3-year old, it was difficult for her to articulate what she wanted. She knew better, yelping occasionally for food or water, and being shushed by her mother, this left her incapable of asking for something more. Having fallen asleep, she was awakened by the volume of one of the Greek woman’s conversation. Round after round of “Eeehhhhhgh Eeehhhhhgh” issued forth, to be met with “Be Quiet Already!” each time. I sat in stunned silence, wide-eyed, as big as two-euro coins.

“Maybe she wants something else to eat? Or maybe she’s bored?” I asked politely after a couple of rounds of this.

“Yaey-sün, she don’t know up from down.”

“I beg to differ. She likely knows exactly what she wants, its just that she doesn’t have the linguistic tools to say it. That’s why toddlers cry so much. They know what they want, but they also know they don’t have the words to say it. You know, tension. Frustration.”

A long deep animal wail came from the woman’s mouth, resonant and earsplitting, like a gurgling human tornado siren.

In outer space, it is often said, nobody can hear you scream, on account of the vacuum. In the deep inner space of this woman, screams reverberated, echoing within some chamber, though remained unheard not because of vacuum but enormous crushing pressure. Her wail decayed to sobs, one after another. She threw her hands out and flexed their tiny muscles. Fingers spread wide and stiff. She started talking in Greek, and the room fell silent. Her mother dropped her fork.

“Take me God! Help. Help. Help.”

“She never said that before,” the woman’s mother said between her own sobs. “I never knew she knew the word ‘God’.”

On Unplugging, Flypaper, and Facebook

I realized that I have a love-hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, I love it that my iPad allows me to compose on the fly, or on the bus, or something like that. That finding wifi connections in Athens and Sparta has been so difficult has been something of a blessing, as has the totally onerous transatlantic cell phone rates—which have precluded me from using my data plan to check my email and Facebook page.

People talk about “unplugging” themselves—not using cell phones, email, etc.—as the occasional weekend affair, or something undertaken on long trips that logistically necessitate such lack of electronic activity. Having gone almost 5 days without obsessively checking Facebook, my email, or the dozen blogs I follow, I don’t really know how I did it, nor how I kept sane doing so. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t totally sane; separated from my Internet activities, I see how absurd they are.

How reasonable is it to check every fifteen minutes an entity whose sole duty is to aggregate the random noise of people’s chaotic social lives? What value do such “updates” of “what’s on [my] mind” have when they are crafted for public consumption? The reasons why anyone would post photos of parties or weekends out of town are still, to me, somewhat murky. “To share!” I ask in return, “To what end?”

I know that the following is going to make me sound like a jaded, crotchety old man, but here it goes anyway. There was a time when social lives were carried out privately. Although there may have been parties of dozens, what went on was remembered and discussed with fellow attendees and perhaps immediate acquaintances. Social lives lived in the public eye were something of a curiosity, a comedy of manners and errors reported for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the masses. Think Evelyn Waugh on this one. Now, we are each our own local celebrity, if not actually, at least in our minds.

I call the current mode of social life the “Flypaper Model”. In this model, each individual produces data packets that “fly” in regulated algorithmic chaos about the various media on which they are created. The hope is that one of these flies gets stuck on “feeds”, which prove to be nothing more than “paper” programmed to be “sticky” and insatiable. Flies on flypaper are in themselves not that interesting, and are in fact kind of disgusting. The first goal—getting stuck—complete, most linked data packets languish and fall into temporally irrelevant oblivion with the hit of “Refresh”. The flies that get noticed are the ones that still buzz, and at this point buzzing is futile. Even if this buzzing fly communicated something important or was particularly beautiful, it’s still going into the trash.

The Flypaper Model is a passive way to carry out a social life. As new flies show themselves to be particularly relevant, new paper is unspooled to trap them. How one interacts with trapped data packets is also passive. We poke at, give superficial thumbs-up to, and comment on data we find interesting, entertaining, and incline us to lol. In so doing, we are “keeping in touch”. But if you think about it, this “keeping in touch” is only done with those with whom we actually talk in the “real world”. Some get Facebook accounts under the auspices of “keeping in touch”; this highlights a common logical fallacy. Just because Facebook allows people to see what acquaintances are doing, the social partitions that preclude someone from talking to another still exist. That one knows the day to day activities of someone who refuses to acknowledge them only widens the gulf between the two.

If Facebook were actually a tool for keeping in touch, one wouldn’t preface messages to long-lost friends with, “Hey! I know this is suuuuper randomz but…” because such attempts at contact would be expected. Furthermore, if it were socially acceptable to see what’s going on on other peoples’ profiles, one wouldn’t lead into a conversation, “So I was doing some Facebook stalking the other day…”.

It strikes me as odd that people take a perverse pleasure in acknowledging their prying into others’ private lives, behavior that was verboten pre-Facebook. Even when gossiping, people sheepishly admit that they were spying on somebody when acknowledging sources of information.

Most of the readers of this blog are over the age of 18, and like it or not, you probably agree with me on many points. You agree with me because you are over eighteen, and herein lies the rub. This 18+ age cohort are non-native social networkers. We were alive to know a time when socializing was done the old-fashioned way, over the phone, face to face, or even over text message. We also felt our social lives slowly fall into Facebook, to the point where they are now selfsame. Deep down, we all feel a little guilty for letting this happen. We let ourselves go, and we are addicts.

Like babies born to drug users, there is no notion of addiction among the 13-17 year old crop of Facebookers. They don’t even know they are. For us old codgers, we felt our social lives become our Facebook; for these young native users, social life is Facebook. They never knew anything different. Discussing issues of privacy and social decency with them is impossible. We are hopelessly outdated, our advice from a different epoch altogether. “What is privacy?” For them it is a question asked in earnest, not philosophically. They are the trash where flies spawn.

Technology has a similar neurochemical behavior to heavy amphetamine use. Buzzes and whizzes and pops from our devices piqué our interest, shifting activity from frontal cortices to our limbic system and deep, “reptilian brains” with a squirt of dopamine and norepinephrine, the same mechanism that shifted our focus from building a shelter to running from a lion ten thousand years ago. With enough whizzes and pops, we acclimate ourselves to the state of high dopamine and norepinephrine levels. These two chemicals are the ones released in response to drugs in the amphetamine group, used to treat ADHD and ADD. When abruptly taken away, either because the psych refuses to write another prescription or because cell phone data service is inaccessible, the brain, acclimated to the “new-normal”, stagnates in a vicious withdrawal.

The single-mindedness of sending a text message is astonishing. The focus required tunnels our vision from school-work, work-work, and driving. But the brains of heavy users can only harness this hyperfocus in 5-20 second chunks. Their brains, awash in focusing neurotransmitters, maintain these levels by checking in for a fix. That’s why every 20 minutes or so, most college students check into Facebook. It’s stimulating. All other mental activities suffer for it. Houses weren’t built next to lions’ dens.

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So, five days clean and sober, how do I feel? For one, I’m writing a lot more, not only for public consumption here but in a Moleskine notebook I keep on me at all times. I’m beginning to regain paragraphic thought, and am able to enjoy the Greek countryside without the distraction of Facebook, email, and the rest. Paradoxically, I’m using smaller words because I’m not focused on the punch of each sentence, but lucidity of the paragraph as a whole. I’m reading more too, and feel like I have more time in my day.

Stepping back allowed me to see the ridiculousness of my online existence, of keeping up an online social presence. We do so at the expense of our offline ones. It’s made me realize how hyper-analytical I’ve gotten about my social life, about quantifying it, about constant maximization of it, ultimately for its consumption by others. I implore you to step back and critically analyze your own online habits, whether you are skittering from one link to another, or maintaining a caricature, prostituting yourself for perusal of your bored stultifying 782 “friends”. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you maintain your Facebook for yourself, admit that you are like a monkey dancing for approbation alone, if you’re lucky. Remember that street performers can be watched for free.

Day 3, A Visit to Ancient Sparta and Leonidas

What I didn’t get photos of was being hit up for money by a group of Gypsies. We were in a car, and weren’t allowed past until we paid their requested €25 toll. This was avoided by driving very slowly through their human roadblock, and they easily dispersed at 5 miles per hour.

Day 3, Tripi: On the Food of the Gods

I came to Greece to see my family’s roots. And if that old platitude is correct, and we are indeed what we eat, I believe I come from pretty good stock.

I’ve been amazed at how different Greek food is from Americanized “Greek” food. It’s really “clean” feeling, and I have yet to discern whether it is from the lemons or the grass-fed lamb or oregano or the purity of the water on which all is raised, but I can say without a doubt that I’ve never eaten better. For example, lunch consisted of a grilled chicken breast, some feta cheese, and fasolakia, a green bean and tomato dish. To drink, there was water bubbling from the spring less than 25 meters away and available on tap for those not up for the walk.

In Tripi, the air was cool and breezy and the dinging of bells around goats’ necks provided entertainment. Situated up the road about 200 meters is the cave, according to myth, into which the defective babies of Sparta were hurled.

I ate my first fig yesterday, and I proceeded to eat half a dozen today. I sat on the balcony and looked out at the mountains. Feeling a bit like Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, I said to myself “This Is SPARTA!” as I pinched, tore in half, and sucked at the last of the figs while its red sticky flesh glistened in the sun.

Day 3, Sparta: Jason Goes to Church

This morning I went to the church my grandparents went to when they were kids. According to my grandmother, it hasn’t changed a bit. Excepting the lighting and the primitive sound system, I believe her. A stuccoed building with the traditional church-y front entrance and little bell tower on top, its exterior belies the intricate painting and woodwork within. Ancient pews, the floor, and some wall ornamentations were uncovered by gold leaf. The narthex and nave was a testament to staunch conservative Belief, for no other would call for an entryway such as that. The altar and the bits behind it were covered in gold and Byzantine renderings of saints, who looked—in the way of such portraits—to be either respectful or grumpy depending on interpretation.

An old woman, a ninety-year old version of the rugged feminine grace captured in that photo from the Great Depression of a mother squinting into the distance, as iconic as The Grapes of Wrath, lifted her chair up and out to me. Not just lifting but feeling and supporting its weight. She indicated where I should put it, the matriarch granting a pale out-of-towner the right to sit next to her daughter’s daughter’s daughter. Realizing this was something of a test, I in turn ceded my newfound seat to my grandmother, who sat down obligingly. “Who knew the Americanii could respect their elders?” The eye contact between mother and daughter was telling. Crows’ feet mingled with crows’ feet, staring at the priest or the dusty hot middle distance.

In the Orthodox church it is believed that when somebody dies, their soul resides on earth for forty days, whereupon it ascends to heaven. Today was the forty days service for one of the village’s deceased. The bereaved family sat toward the front of the church, and at the completion of the liturgy and the beginning of the memorial, the vast majority of the church—those with even the most tangential relations—stood and formed a tight semicircle around the front. The priest came down and held the hands of the family, and the cantor reached a glowing resonant crescendo, a deep bass tone of another supported this. A sudden silence, and it began again. The air buzzed with the sounds of dutiful men, and the church bells began to ring. The assembled crowd kissed and smiled, glad the case is closed, and that they can sleep easy knowing that the soul has risen.

We, the entire contents of the church, went over to a nearby cafe where waiting for us was coffee and cookies and cognac. The same bonhomie perfused the crowd. Stories were told, and the women gossiped. Smiling and laughing from the cognac, an older man who spoke English cajoled me into having another. I reasoned that at 10:30 in the morning, two were plenty for me for now.

The girl with delicate features and an avian frame whose great-grandmother offered me a seat smiled at me. Eighteen, unlikely to go to college, and therefore nearing marriageable age, she seemed like she got by by living in the moment and avoiding thoughts of life’s eventualities. The air carried notes of figs and oranges, and the harsh timbre of exhaust. A somewhat lumpy man my age took her hand and looked across the church’s square at me. She blinked twice. “If only,” rendered in minimal semaphore.

Day 2, Athens: Lessons From Athenian Nightlife

1.) Young Greek people adhere to the “Jersey Shore” school of sartorialism.

1a.) See also: obscene sunglasses, tight white pants on both sexes, greasy hair, impeccably well-landscaped eyebrows, and hideous paisley “going out” shirts.

1b.) However, the scruffiness and rectilinearity of men’s faces peg them as European, as opposed to vulgar Italian-American faces still bearing the copious subcutaneous fat of infancy.

1c.) Greeks don’t know what “fake tanner” means. Although, some women might meet diagnostic criteria for “tanorexia”.

2.) A culture of intraday napping means “evening” starts around midnight.

3.) Yum Brands (an American fast-food conglomerate) did a killer job of creating a hip image.

3a.) KFC and Pizza Hut are sit-down affairs, and some of the most attractive Athenians could be found chowing down on foods for which Americans’ enjoyment/craving is usually closeted, or excusable only in the presence of one’s own children.

3b.) McDonald’s, like North Korea, is viewed as a vaguely-hostile pariah state.

4.) Heineken tastes orders of magnitude better in Europe and is best served at 33 degrees Fahrenheit by the €2.75 500 ml bottle.

4a.) Heineken + {Horiatiki salad: tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, feta cheese, oregano, olive oil} + lamb chops eaten with hands + sitting down for dinner at 0030h = cheap dinner + free watermelon => Victory.

Day 1, Athens: A Homeric Epic, Reified—Redux

I inadvertently copy-pasted the last post from Pages and absent-mindedly posted it. Here follows the intended “Homeric Epic, Reified”.

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Out in the Greek countryside, I can see how old this place is. If I had to come up with a visual expression of the word “ancient” it’d be the craggy volcanic mountains here. On the bus ride to Delphi, my grandmother told me about her father’s odyssey home. In a tragic twist of Homer’s version: her father, after victory in Albania against the Italians, walked home from the front to Sparta.

I imagined him walking over mountains and hostile forests of cypress, looking as craggy and mossy as they.

Flea-bitten, bleeding feet, clothes gone to rags, hair and beard to his shoulders, and crusted in weeks’ accumulation of sweat and dust he came home.

Clutching and wiping with his thumb the harmonica he planned to give to his young son as a spoil of war; I imagined him smiling sadly, with yellowing teeth peeking through a scraggly mustache. I imagined the look of relief on his face as he approached the edge of his hometown. A triumphal Odysseus. And his face slackening and losing color before he fainted, notified of the death of the son for whom he carried the harmonica.

Day 1, Delphi: On Missed Opportunities

Traveling with my grandmother has been interesting so far. Already one who unabashedly makes small talk with total strangers in America. In Greece, it’s as if everybody’s family here. She talks with everyone, and squeezes at least 90 seconds of conversation out of everyone: waitstaff, the concierge at the hotel, cab drivers, a childhood schoolmate encountered in the Athens bus terminal, and two very pretty girls my age in a cafè in Delphi.

I was finishing up a couple of work-related things and my grandmother wandered off to the bar area at the front of this outdoor cafè. I walked around to the end, book and sheathed iPad in hand, wearing chunky tortoiseshell glasses—the consummate American quasi-intellectual—and they and my grandmother pause. She introduces me, and I shake hands and politely recuse myself to the squat stone wall outside (extemporaneous small-talk and I don’t get along). They continue chatting and I read peacefully until my grandmother came out and said, “The pretty one is studying economics at the university in Petra… and she said you were pretty good looking.”

I’d immediately regretted my decision to go out and read. For a while, I pretended to know something about economics; my woeful mathematical skills incline me toward something where my vocabulary can occlude my ignorance: political science. With economics, I couldn’t fool the exam graders into believing I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t need to tell them the emperor has no clothes. It was plain as day. But I can still talk up a storm about this-and-that Curve and shift factors and the kertosis of certain distributions of likely outcomes spat out by a bootstrapped Monte Carlo.

I imagined sitting over iced coffees with Miss Petra U. discussing economics. Realizing that I didn’t speak any Greek, and her English constrained to names of theories divined by Harvard and Yale and UChicago economists, she’d draw out an X-Y scale and a curve and a line and label them. We’d bond over the international language of mathematics. This is where they intersect. Equilibrium. But things get shaky here. Curves left- and right-shift obviating any shift at all: a maintenance of the status quo at higher volume and lower prices. She’d write an equation, and I’d take a long sip from my nearly empty coffee—the European equivalent of Chewing It Over With A Twix. Evasively, I imagined myself smiling coyly: “It’s all Greek to me.”