Inside Outside

I have asked the group’s members to write what they find exciting about coming to Greece and I also feel like writing what it is that I find exciting about this trip of which I have been the local coordinator twice already and tried to help students experience the Greek way!

Russell in his post said that my question is a reference to the future, and I suppose it is; but it so happens that references to the future cannot be evoked without some reference to a past, both of which are imagined because of my present interests.

I can’t help but think of the good times I had with the first group of students that visited Greece three years ago: Chris, Jaci, Keke, Sean, and not to forget of course Professor Willi Braun’s contribution to that first trip! and a year later: Chris, John and Madison. Lots of good memories I have and lots of questions about the places we were visiting and the things we were seeing and tasting. Questions that made me see things all over again (which reminds me of Sophocles tragedy “Oedipus Rex” when Teiresias answers to Oedipus’s insults over his blindness “you have your eyesight, and you do not see ); things that I was taking for granted; things that in my day-to-day living in Thessaloniki have become so ordinary that I wasn’t even paying attention to them anymore (taking the boat, for example, that makes a few rounds in front of Thessaloniki’s seashore or having Greek [ok Turkish] coffee or eating souvlaki or going to Mount Olympus or visiting a church, etc., etc., etc…. ).

Russell T. McCutcheon

I owe to the curiosity of these students my ability to see the ordinary as extraordinary because with their questions they were able, as Pierre Bourdieu said, “to evoke ordinariness in such a way that people (I) will see just how extra-ordinary it is.” Thus, having “outsiders” with the eagerness to learn and explore something new makes the “insider” actually to see his (and her!) own world all over again…! But, hmmm…, is the “insider” inside of anything anymore?

So what is exciting about the trip? I’m looking forward to discovering this once the co-directors of the program (Russell and Merinda) and the students (Alyssa, Andie, Emma, Susanna) are here to point to things I’m unable to see now!

Sometimes I wonder who is doing the experiencing and what they’re experiencing…But it is exciting anyways….

Reading Watching

Horse-people and Wine Gods

I want to be the blue one, she’s beautiful!
“No, I’m the one with flowers in her tail…”

“…but why, Emma, I called it first…”
“How ‘bout I be the blue horse-woman, and you can be the wine-guy on the donkey?”

“I’m not playing, then.”

“Fine, fine…why don’t you be the horse-girl, and I’ll be the beautiful flying horse mommy who’s taking care of all those baby colts!”

“No wait…I want to be the flying horse…”

And on and on my sister and I would debate, all through the fantastical musical sequence. This little argument would take place every single time we would watch the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940):

Fantasia, Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”

At a time when anything and everything colorful and sparkly caught our eye, it’s easy to see why a sequence involving baby cherubs, flying horses, lightning-hurling gods, and centaurs would demand our rapt attention (who am I kidding…colorful and sparkly things still catch my eye). Though I may not have recognized it for what it was(I didn’t know the drunk guy on the donkey represented the wine god Dionysus, didn’t know that the “horse people” were actually mythological creatures called centaurs, didn’t know that they “flying horses” were spinoffs of Pegasus), this Disney-commandeered version of Greek and Roman mythology may very well have been my first exposure to Greece and Greek culture.

Soon after, my best friends, sister and I were captivated by another Disney version of a Greek classic: HER-CU-LES!!! Here’s one of my favorite songs:

Hercules, The Gospel Truth

Granted, the religious hybridizations in the movie Hercules could be the topic of whole other conversations…so I’m just going to table that analysis in my post for now. But I know you all remember the movie; don’t be afraid to sing along 😉

I feel like there is something about learning in the form of stories that enables kids to become (and to stay!) enthralled with culture. Similar to Alyssa, my “Greek exposures” were almost always through the lens of mythology, which I think helped me to develop a sustained interest in culture in the long run.

In summation: my first exposure to Greece? The stories…those ancient stories that are still represented and held dear by so much of the world. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to go and tangibly experience the place where these mythologies originated. And that’s the “Gospel Truth!” haaa.


Exhibiting Reading Visiting

Memorials to an Absent Past

After the group’s members published their first post (telling how each of us recalls first learning about a place called Greece, whether ancient or modern), our local coordinator, Vaia, sent us a message and proposed the topic of our second post. She wrote:

“I was wondering what are you expecting to learn these three weeks, what do you think you’ll learn? … [O]f course visiting a new place is always exciting but what is exciting about visiting Greece?”

Good question. Whereas the first post was looking to the past, the second anticipates the future, though both are inevitably written from our positions in the present. Past perfect and future perfect, all rolled into the same moment–after all, even in grammar, whether you’re saying you had done something or that you will have done something, the saying of both is always, inevitably, in the present.

Although I’m returning to Greece for my fifth time, each time I go I find something new to hang onto once I’ve returned (like Sean’s wise “the same but different” response when asked about his breakfast on our first study abroad trip in 2008–we repeated that phrase so many times that year because it always summed up our experience of the strange familiar that we kept coming across); based on this I’m confident that, with new people traveling with me, new items on our agenda, and new places to visit, new memories will be produced. So just what do I think those memories will be….?

For starters, this will be the first time that I’ve stepped out of the airport in Athens. I’ve connected through Athens International Airport on a few occasions but have purposefully avoided visiting the city. Although many aspects of our study abroad course are an ongoing, collaborative work in progress–i.e., we’re a small enough group that we can easily adapt to changing circumstances and make parts of it up, as we go (e.g., Looks like a rainy day today? Ok, we’ll do the trip to Vergina tomorrow)–I’ve always seen at least one theme of our study abroad as working against stereotypes and as complicating commonsense. One way this is exemplified is in going to Greece and purposefully not going to Athens. That is to say, not serving up for our students the taken-for-granted knowledge that comes with them from their high school and university history courses, in which simple narratives of progress from past to present are often delivered. Going instead to Greece’s second largest city is one way that we do that–though we can’t help but be visitors, of course, we are immersed in a large, vibrant Greek city instead of in lines of tourists waiting to “walk in the footsteps” of the ancients. Sure, I fully realize that the narrative of ancient Greece that we carry with us is deeply woven (the first set of posts from our group makes that pretty obvious, including my own!), but going to Athens always struck me as catering to it just a little too much.

There’s a reason, of course, to go to see the monuments in Washington DC, when visiting the US, but there’s likely also good reasons to avoid memorials to the official, sanctioned past and, instead, go somewhere else. Somewhere else is no more authentic, of course, but it at least complicates the legitimacy of the orthodox in a way that we’d never see if all we did was visit monuments to a (supposedly) golden age.

But this time we are going to Athens. We’re staying for two nights on either end of the trip in one of the hotels at the base of the Acropolis, and then taking the train to and from Thessaloniki (you wouldn’t believe how much cheaper the airline tickets were if we just flew to Athens–it seems that, instead of the Fates, it is now the myth of the free market that dictates that we pay our respects to Athena, the city’s goddess). So I am looking forward to seeing for myself this city that, not so long ago, was just a small village and which captured the imagination of 18th and 19th century mythmakers in such places as London, Paris, Berlin, and Washington–those who worked to invent new things that we now call nation-states by linking them to “the glory that was Greece” (as Edgar Allen Poe famously phrased it, in his 1831 poem, “To Helen”).

So I’m very much looking forward to seeing the recently completed Acropolis Museum; with this in mind, I’ve been reading up on the Elgin Marbles–correction, the Parthenon Marbles (there’s much in a name, you know–like Father Maximos, a Greek Orthodox monk on Mount Athos, who was recently interviewed on the US news magazine show “60 Minutes” and who made sure that the reporter didn’t classify icons as mere art.) I’m keen to learn more about the role that these ancient artifacts now play in building not a temple, as they once might have, but, instead, building a social identity, whether it is for the modern British (as a reminder of their once glorious past) or the modern Greeks (as–you guessed it–a reminder of their once glorious past). For in these marbles and monuments (which include fifteen of the Parthenon‘s 92 original metope [Greek μετόπη] panels, 17 sculptures from its pediments, and almost half of its original 160 meter long frieze–much of which is pictured at the top of this post) we find competing narratives, for whose glorious past do they signify? Are marbles, like the ancient Hebrew god apparently was, jealous in guardians of a sole significance? Instead, are they promiscuous, signifying virtually anything, to whomever? Or does all of this have nothing to do with the marbles themselves (for, like a text, they are mute on how they ought to be read) and everything to do with those who are doing the signifying and the competing meanings that they can attach to the cold stone that, since 1816, has sat in the British Museum.

So, to answer Vaia’s question: I’m looking forward to a time when I will have remembered how the absent indicators of a glorious past are filled with meaning in the present, how missing monuments may someday return to a home that wasn’t there when they were taken.


What’s the Story, Wishbone?

Wishbone. Yes, the tiny Jack-Russell Terrier on PBS
that captured the attention of American third graders from 1995-1998 . Every single day after school I watched joined Wishbone on his many journeys through literary “classics.”

Who else would come to mind but Wishbone when I was asked, “Where or from whom did you first learn or develop an idea about Greece?”

Every episode began with Wishbone and his human companions, Joe,Samantha and David facing an obstacle. This dilemma always reminded Wishbone of the time a character in a classic tale encountered the same type of problem, warranting a journey into Wishbone’s literary imagination where he played the lead character.

I recall the episode “Hercules Unleashed” in which Wishbone became Hercules in the story of The Golden Apples. I distinctly remember the spear-skirted, toga-like garb that Wishbone wore. He was defeating dragons, conquering Mt. Olympus, and as always, looking for his bone. Where did all of this take place? Ancient Greece of course! For a sound studio and stage some place in Texas, Wishbone didn’t do such a bad job of “imagining Greece,” or did he?

It wasn’t until the 2004 Summer Olympics that my interest in Greece developed and lead to countless hours researching and learning about Greece. I have always been fascinated with everything-Olympics: the history, the mascots, the athletes, the “whole world coming together” and so on.

“Welcome Home” was the official motto for that Olympiad, complete with mascots named Athena & Phevos and an incredible, breathtaking opening ceremony. The motto itself lead me to read about the history of the Olympics, resulting in a plethora of Greek knowledge.

The Olympic Games seek to bring about athletic-competition in a malice-free atmosphere. Participating countries sit aside their grievances and disputes in order to participate in world-class competitions to “Bring Home the Gold.”

Of course there are problems and issues surrounding the concept of  “the games.” Over the years, certain countries have been suspended from competition, or separated during the Parade of Nations because of international disputes. Just look at the official emblem of the 2004 Summer Olympics–a possible claim to authenticity about Greek attire? Maybe so.

Aside from the many complications of the Olympic Games and Wishbone’s staged perception of Ancient Greece, these are where my first impressions of Greece developed. Thankfully they have landed me two weeks out from a month-long excursion into today’s Greece. Or maybe it’s yesterday’s Greece…or tomorrow’s Greece.

Reading Uncategorized

Craftiness and Cannibalism

So I remember hearing stories about wily gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon, but “Greece” as an identifiable thing brings two images most clearly to mind.  Both are books.

First: my father is an artist and an art history professor, and I remember the book From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History in the little bookcase we had in one of the hallways.

From this book, I learned that the Greeks had their own headless horsemen (as I thought of them, anyway), and I learned that they’re not big on tweeds. Gossamer robes and sandals or nothing at all.  This is where I also started having a sense of what “ancient” meant…

The other image I have of Greece came in the 7th grade, when I read The Odyssey for the first time.  I was completely into the whole adventure thing, and I was a big fan of Circe, who turned Odysseus’s team into pigs.  But what I really remember was my teacher who had a long last name and bright red hair.  She couldn’t get enough of the cyclops story:

Sure, it was a scene that showed off Odysseus’s famed craftiness and cunning, but what my teacher really dug was all the GORE.  She described in gruesome detail what it must have been like to watch him tear bodies in two, guts dripping from his mouth, until the crafty Odysseus plunged a spike into his great big eyeball.  Seriously. This was my teacher.

I imagined something along the lines of the old Sinbad the Sailor movie:

So, you can understand, perhaps, why I was fascinated by but a little apprehensive about these Greeks, who wrote epic poetry about one-eyed monsters eating people…

“O Cyclops! Would you feast on my companions?
Puny, am I, in a Caveman’s hands?
How do you like the beating that we gave you,
you damned cannibal? Eater of guests
under your roof! Zeus and the gods have paid you!”

Greece meant a classroom full of horrified middle-schoolers.  But we were ALL reading!!! Rubber-neckers to “the ancient world”!

Reading Watching

I’m Greek

I suppose when you are asked to remember the first time you realized you were of a certain nationality is not that easy. I’m Greek I was born in Athens and grew up in Thessaloniki and it sure fills me with pride when, as a local coordinator of this trip, I’m asked to show around and talk about my ancient Greek heritage, which I see is of great interest to my N. American friends.  Of course this pride has its ups and downs, especially when I’m asked about the current politico-economic situation in Greece…. Anyways!


Being Greek is many things but let us start from the beginning: it means that your ancestors (I won’t go as far as to say my great -great grandparents) were Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and many others of course.  You spend your entire school years learning about them. Now of course I could write all sorts of stories how, when I (and I’m sure others like me) was at school learning about my ancient history, I was with Spartans when we fought against the Persians in the battle of Thermopylae but I could easier identify myself with Athenians rather than Spartans, especially during the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), besides the Golden Age of Pericles had a glamour of its own (no wonder why Athens came to be my scholarly interest)… And then finally Macedonians did what the egocentric Athenians failed to do: unite us all, unite the Greeks! The story of how the Roman Empire took over us was never my favorite, but Byzantium soon made things better and then came the Turks and the 1821 revolution against them and this is when the Modern Greek state emerged….


I can easily say I’m Greek but less to start explaining as to how I came about thinking I’m one. But luckily pictures (our modern artifacts) help towards that direction. So, the first recollection I have of how important it is to be Greek, goes back into my early days in school. I remember I was six years old and we celebrated in Kindergarten the 25th of March, which is Greece’s National Celebration of the 1821 revolution of the Greeks after 400 years of slavery under the Ottoman Empire. I was dressed with a foklore costume(pictures I have of the celebration make it easy for me to remember) holding in my hand the Greek flag and I had to recite the following poem:

I am a Greek
And like a Souliotopoula
I love with all my heart
My sweet country
And if an enemy comes again
With intention to attack her*
NO I will not let him*
And I will shout “Go Back”

*In Greek grammar Greece (the noun) is female and Enemy (the noun) is male.

I don’t really remember how reciting the poem made me feel (no picture for that), that is, whether I had a consciousness of my Greekness, but the reaction of my family that gathered for the Kindergarten’s celebration must have made me think that being Greek , whatever that means in the mentality of a 6 year old, and reciting a poem rather than reading it, was very important; but despite the picture I have of that day — much like artifacts found today in a site of archaeological interest – one should do well to question whether the recollection of my past is mine or that of my parents and extended family and how they thought I felt and repeatedly told me. But then again you have to learn of your past from somewhere, right? Whether it is your family, friends, archaeologists, songs, poems or even history books you learn it from; but now wait a minute whose past were we talking about, mine or theirs…?


Know Thyself

It’s hard to say where my interest in Greece originates. I honestly can’t recall becoming aware of Greece, but I know I did at some point. Whether I had some idea of it as a child, I can’t say, but my increasing interest in Greece, well Ancient Greece, came from studying Greek and Roman mythology in my Latin classes. Though, considering it was a Latin class, we focused primarily on Ancient Rome and the writers and stories from there, but Rome took most of their ideas from the Greeks, so the two are inseparable. Over the four years I took Latin in high school I became fascinated with the Ancient civilizations and cultures. My teacher would have us translate the myths in class, which is how I came to know most of them. The others I read in Edith Hamilton’s  Mythology and learned more about in Greek and Roman Mythology at the University. I’ve been ruminating as to why I am so interested, but I really don’t know. I find it absolutely amazing, though. Through my Latin and History courses I have just become more obsessed with the Ancients. I am also humbled by the Ancient Greek and Roman architecture. When I traveled to Italy, I stood open-mouthed and in complete awe of the beautiful structures I was looking at. I am truly fascinated by the mythology, the “cultures,” the architecture–you name it. I don’t know why and I know it’s problematic, but I absolutely love it!


Oedipus Rex: How to Appreciate your Mother

Edith "Babycheeks" Hamilton

Anything and everything I know about Greece is from mythology.  When I was but a young, impressionable lass, my parents used to coerce me into reading for a half hour before bed in order to help mold me into the genius I am today.  Upon my mother’s instruction, I read a picture book about the gods and goddesses of Olympus.  It quickly became my favorite book.  However, I soon graduated from picture books to anthologies of Greek myth.  I have read Edith Hamilton’s Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes so many times that the pages are falling out.  When I was in eighth grade, I was thrilled to learn that we would be studying Ancient Greece, mythology included.  I’m sure that I impressed and awed my peers with my extensive knowledge and my incessant hand-raising.  I was totally that kid who pointed out inaccuracies in other kid’s god or goddess projects.  I did my project on Hera and I don’t know why because I don’t particularly like Hera. Needless to say, I received an A plus  on my mythology project. So there you have it. I am and have always been a mythology snob.


The Mighty Hercules

I was born in 1961, the youngest of four (the oldest of whom was born immediately after Word War II), so that puts me at the tail end of the baby boom. Television predated me, of course, but I was a member of the first generation weaned on it; so there’s a good chance that it was on television, and specifically in cartoons, where people like me came across the things that later turned out to be so much more complicated.

Although all of us would be unwise to trust our memories as the basis for an accurate portrait of things past, if you were to ask me how I first learned about a place called Greece, and what that all signified for me, I’d have to say it was “The Mighty Hercules,” a US cartoon from the early 1960s. It was there that I learned that the signifier “Greece” meant something: columns and men in sandals and without pants; lightning bolts and forces of good and evil; magical things and people with strange names; horses with people for front ends. And all of this was ancient history, of course.

Luckily, television has been superseded by the web, producing youtube, the refuge of those with a nostalgia for such things long past.

I’m not sure whether it was his hands-on-hips and broad-shouldered, can-do stance, his Superman-like black hair (a little long in the back–it was the 1960s, after all), his centaur sidekick, Newton (who, for some puzzling reason, always repeated everything and, even as a child, struck me as a little dense), or his magical ring and that that big, matching belt buckle, but whatever it was, it stuck with me. I can still hear not only his shout of “Olympia…” as he would leap (or better, fly, though he didn’t have a cape, which made him all the more intriguing) into action but also that catchy theme song, (sung by the pop singer Johnny Nash) that opened and closed each episode. Looking back on it now, the plots were almost embarrassingly simple (but isn’t that what makes myths so memorable and helps them to do their work?), but it was here, I think, that I first learned that there was a mountain somewhere named Olympus, that there was a bearded fellow who lived up there named Zeus, and that certain heroic individuals could move back and forth between these two worlds.

Of course this is not the sort of tale that helps legitimize my eventually becoming a scholar of religion; so maybe I should reconsider my first post to this site and, instead, invent a story about smuggling a copy of, I don’t know, maybe Jane Harrison’s 1903 classic, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, into bed with me, and pouring over it with a flashlight under the covers, late at night, turning the clock back a little bit every night so that I could read longer, stealing time from sleep (as Mircea Eliade famously recounted doing in his autobiography). Yes…, how well I remember flipping through the pages of that old, curious volume….

No; that’s not the way it was.

I think we ought to be more than just a little suspicious of that sort of story of the past, for it helps to justify my present a little too well. It assumes too linear a line connecting a little boy in the early 1960s to the person that I happen to have become today. It misses all the bumps along the road, the accidents and happenstance.

So now I return to my earlier tale and say yes, it was in the cartoons that I first bumped into Greece–a place far far away, both in space and time. A place that remains just as elusive even when I’m actually in Greece today, since the place of my memory is with a little boy, in front of a TV, so many years ago.