80. On the Road Again: 2010 Trip, Part 1 – Athens, Saint Nektarios and some rambling Comments

I don’t care if you read this Post or not.

Well, actually I do. My trips to Greece meant so much to me in so many ways that I’d like to share them with you.

But this one is mostly for me. In a trip journal long ago I wrote that I was keeping those daily records so that when I got old and couldn’t travel overseas any more, I could read them and relive my trips. And now I am, and so I do – and writing about them here makes them come even more alive to me.

I’ve been spacing these travelogs many weeks apart lest we soon run out. My health being what it is, another trip to Greece seems unlikely. And really, at age 80 (just day before yesterday – me? 80?) and after about 10 trips to Greece plus many to other places, I should complain…? I’m grateful. But I do miss Greece so very much.

Why Greece again and again? 

As I told you way back in Blog Post 2, I love Greece and when I’m not there I get homesick. Of course, after I was in Greece for a while I got homesick for lovely Wisconsin and our then-still-existent Progressive tradition of clean, open, honest government * which is something one certainly won’t find in Greece!

* Did you know that the Progressive movement came out of Wisconsin 100 years ago, and that it was Republican? When we moved here 50 years ago, a state official had to resign because he had accepted a lunch from a lobbyist! We came from Illinois where that same year the Secretary of State died and left a closet with shoeboxes full of cash.

Why do I love Greece? The blue summer skies, the cobalt and aquamarine sea, the indescribable brilliance and clarity of the sunlight, the gorgeous beaches, the pure country air (I can smell the herbs even now), the white churches and chapels dotting the countryside, the clang of church bells, the crazy drivers, the treacherous back roads (oh no, more goats!), the only somewhat organized chaos of Athens, but with the Parthenon white in the sunlight or brilliantly lighted at night hanging over it. And above all a land filled with graceful Mediterranean Orthodoxy * – Orthodoxy integrated with society, churches with people forever going in and out lighting candles and praying, churches filled on Sundays and feast days. But it’s more than that. It’s like when a man loves a woman. That’s all I can say.

*  Some other kinds of Orthodoxy seem heavy and ponderous to me. Same faith, different style.

My mind so easily goes back. At Saturday Vespers at Saint Nicholas a few weeks ago, the door was open, the sun shining in, a warm wind blowing – and suddenly I was at a country monastery on Crete high above the sea, the sun shining in the west door, sheep bleating outside (we don’t have those in downtown Cedarburg), the warm sea breeze blowing, Vespers being chanted within. I could barely focus on our Vespers here.

I hope that when, God willing, I get to heaven, Greece will be there and Wisconsin, too, both glorified – and that the places you love will be there for you. (See Plato. See C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle.)

The Trip

We traveled in September that year. Late spring and early autumn are the best times to see Greece – not so hot, fewer tourists. After all this time, you really should meet Khouria Dianna – she’s the pretty one on the left. This picture was taken maybe 15 years ago? I now look 15 years older. She looks exactly the same. By 2010 I was 72 years old and still working full time, so vacation for me meant less sightseeing and more relaxing.

Most of our time was spent on Crete, the Big Island to the south of the mainland, closer to Africa than it is to much of Greece. This is where in 1985 I discovered Orthodoxy and Greece, and the place I kept going back to. But first, after we landed in Athens, we went to the island of Aegina to visit Saint Nektarios again, that wonderful 20th century saint who first took hold of me in 2002. If you have not, you can read of my sometimes startling, sometimes subtle, sometimes funny experiences with him in Posts 7, 12, 19, 24, 34 and 47. To locate Posts go to https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/frbill/ 

So… It’s 2010 again. We’re just taking off from General Mitchell International, Milwaukee. It may be a little tricky trying to squeeze you all into our 2 seats, but no matter: Come along!

Athens

When I first went to Greece in 1985, Athens airport was a third world affair – small, kind of grimy, doors wide open, dogs running around inside! Transportation into the city was by rickety bus or by taxis, whose drivers conspired together to overcharge us tourists who didn’t understand drachmas. Today Athens Aerodromeo below is large, clean, the most efficiently run airport I know. No chasing around for your bags – they arrive immediately in front of where you enter the airport. Employees stand by the entrance doors to help you find where to go. (Chicago O’Hare, take note.) Right across from the airport exit, clearly marked (Chicago O’Hare, take note), are modern buses to everywhere, the Metro rail to various destinations in the city, and good trains to Corinth – with connections to trains to the city’s port Piraeus, and to Thessaloniki. Car rentals are immediately at the end of the airport building, not ‘way far away. (Chicago O’Hare, take note.) Well done, Greece!

Our usual Athens hotel was in a southern suburb, Paleo Faliro, along the sea with a gorgeous view at night across to the lights of Piraeus – if you dare to sit on your balcony, for between the hotel and the beach area are 6 narrow lanes of heavy, very noisy traffic, full speed ahead except when it’s jammed up, with motorcycles darting in and out between the cars, trucks and buses. Why Greek motorcylists are not all dead I have no idea. The beaches and water are clean. Athens has made some progress getting the nephos/νέφος (smog) under control. (They have the same meteorological, geographical problem as Los Angeles.) They once tried to limit traffic with a regulation that drivers could use their cars only every other day – even license plate numbers one day, odd the next. Greeks, who are nothing if not innovative, solved the problem by buying 2 sets of license plates!

But also in front of the hotel is the “Tram”, the light rail. (Wisconsin once led the nation in passenger rail. Why do Wisconsin politicians now oppose public transportation with such venom? I can guess.) So while highway traffic raced or clogged along, for 1 Euro apiece Khouria Dianna and I rode in quiet comfort to the port of Piraeus, where 2 big Orthodox churches stand by the docks. The harbor is filled with the most wonderful boats: big cruise ships from England, Italy, Holland, huge ferries in overnight from Crete and the far islands, smaller ferries to the near islands. Some have classical Greek names, but many are titled Panaghia (“All Holy” – which I explained last week) or Aghia Pelagia or Aghios Nektarios and the like. I tried to imagine our Milwaukee Lake Express ferry to Michigan being christened “Saint Nektarios”.

Aegina

Pronounced EGGina, the “gg” with a soft “hccch” in the back of the throat, the “i” with an “ee” sound. 

We caught the 10 o’clock ferryboat to Aegina, up the escalator, up the stairs and sat on a back deck – is that us up there? – to see what we could see. Not much: it was a hazy morning. Behind us sat a group of middle aged women singing, who finally began Greek dances around the benches! I couldn’t tell if they were happy pilgrims on the way to Saint Nektarios or just glad to be away from their husbands for a day. Probably both. Again, I tried to imagine this on the Lake Michigan ferry to Muskegon!

Aegina is the first island off the coast to the west, maybe 15
miles; it took an hour or so. Aegina port above also is filled with boats, fishing boats, private craft and ferries coming and going. At the end of the main dock is a little white chapel of Saint Nicholas, Patron of Sea-farers where you can light a candle for a safe voyage. Aegina is a gentle island. Its scenery is not spectacular and rugged like much of Greece, but just pretty, hilly, covered with olive trees, pines and little villages.       

Up to Saint Nektarios

Saint Nektarios’ Monastery and Shrine is about 10 minutes up in the hills to the east. We caught a taxi there for 9 Euros plus 1 Euro tip. Coming back the same guy charged us 12 Euros. Sorry, fellah, no tip.

As you approach, first on the left is a large parking lot, which attracts many buses as the day goes on. To its right is the big new Saint Nektarios Church. Inside they’re still working on the dome.

There’s a story that once years ago when Nektarios’ incorrupt relics were uncovered and the fragrance filled the air, a bus had a flat tire on the road ‘way down below. This picture is from the road. The monastery is up above the church. A woman (some say of questionable repute) who was on the bus asked: What is that lovely smell? On being told, she got off the bus, walked up to the monastery, repented and never left, became a nun. Sometime I must tell you the whole story of Saint Nektarios. I think for his feast day, November 9.

The taxi goes around the hill to the back entrance, so we didn’t have to climb all the way up. You walk on the marble sidewalk (most sidewalks in Greece are marble, since it’s abundant and cheap) to the back entrance, where a sign is posted in Greek and in English: “No men in shorts, no women in slacks or half naked”! There are skirts and shawls available for half naked women. But inside the monastery there were in fact some women in slacks (Khouria Dianna was not one of them) and a man and his teenage sons in shorts, all busily lighting candles.

On the trip I was reading Elder Paisios who wrote this: When people come to church inappropriately dressed, just let them in. What are they going to think, that we care more about their clothing than their souls? about how they look rather than the fact that they want to pray? Then, he says, teach them to dress appropriately.

And really, brothers and sisters, do dress appropriately in church. No shorts on adults, please. No short shorts on anybody. No tank tops or cleavage. (What do we think this is – the beach?) No elaborate jewelry. Dress so that people will look at God, not at you. Once we had a Baptism at Saint Nicholas for which I wish we’d had skirts and shawls waiting. It was apparent… uh, very apparent… that the dressmaker of the… uh, well, ok, well-endowed mother and godmother had run very short on material. Lord have mercy. Father David and I found it very difficult to concentrate on the prayers – and have had a hard time forgetting ever since, as you can tell!

Where was I going with this? Back to the story.

At Saint Nektarios

On the right as you enter the Monastery by the back entrance is a book and icon shop, then on the left is the first of 2 small rather dark chapels. In the first Saint Nektarios’ skull is kept, enclosed in silver. The second chapel is where the nuns have services, and is at those times for women only. I know because I got chased out of it once as Vespers began! Next comes a small white chapel, in the middle of which is the tomb with Saint Nektarios’ body. Why they keep his skull and his body separate I have no idea.

Behind all this, not often open to the general public, is the building in which Saint Nektarios lived, and in which is the icon which inspired him to write the popular hymn Agia Parthene (Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride). You heard the Slavonic version last week..

The following is partly in the original Greek, partly in English.

Across from this is the women’s monastery. In the winter after his death, Bishop Nektarios regularly visited the gerontissa (abbess) and the other nuns, and instructed them on how to continue in his absence – if you can call that “absence”. Outside the chapels on the patio are a few benches where I always liked to sit and watch the pilgrims come and go. So that’s the layout, you’ve got the picture, and you are now with us at Saint Nektarios.

Here, see the place for yourself in this video. “No men in shorts”, eh? 

What we did there

Khouria Dianna and I went into the first chapel and prayed for each of our loved ones and all our people back home at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, quietly reading the Paraklisis (supplication service) to Saint Nektarios. Apparently we weren’t quiet enough, for the very firm-minded little widow in black who guards the chapel frowned at us and said “Shhhhhh”, so we moved to the chapel where Nektarios’ body lies, and tried to behave ourselves. There a woman was clinging to the tomb, crying and listening. They say sometimes you can hear him. I never have. Everything was quiet when we began, but then buses must have arrived down below, for suddenly there were many pilgrims. So we moved outside the chapels and kept praying for the 969 (more every year) people whose names our folks at Saint Nicholas had given us. We lit candles for all we knew who had special needs.

Did I ever tell you this story? Once Zoe, a woman from our parish, and her family visited Saint Nektarios. A woman with a candle so enormous she could hardly carry it rudely pushed ahead of them in line. Zoe’s father Chris said to the woman in a brusque tone, as only the Greeks can do it, “Lady, you should go get a bigger candle.”

Next Week: The rest of our visit to Saint Nektarios, then Crete, with more Comments 

Week after Next: 3 Saints who “took hold of me” 

 

 

 

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