The One Where Time Both Leaps Forward and Stands Still

 

At least for this post, anyway.

 

Let me take you back to the unaccounted days of our time here in Athens, the 23rd and 24th of last week.

 

And now that I have committed myself to recounting I should actually make sure I even remember…

 

Okay, got it. Here goes.

 

On Saturday, I did laundry. Which may not sound glamorous at all but this is what one does on days off, especially when the smell that comes from detergent (only recognizable as such by the snuggly bear on the bottle because it was purchased in a Greek supermarket) is more preferable than eau de metro.

 

Oh, yeah and I think I read some plays—that’s for you #TimVasen.

 

Sunday was πολύ καλή (poli kala—Greek for “very good” this is actually the automatic response I’ve adopted from survival Greek class or the right answer when someone asks “How are you?” But I just wanted to slip it in here because I’m very proud of my limited conversational abilities and will create a context for it based on this pretext. Every. Single. Time. πολύ καλή; πολύ καλή.)

 

We had almost the entire day off, so everyone formed their own plans and since you’re reading my post, you’ll have to read about mine. Don’t worry they were very πολύ καλή.

 

I woke up at 8:00 and tried to round up those who had expressed an interest in the Monastiraki flea market, a Sunday bazaar when the Greeks come out to sell, sell, sell.

Funnily enough, no one wanted to join me.

 

When I arrived in Monstiraki square, tables were just being set up. Greeks and college students are not so different.

 

I sauntered down the streets until I came upon a tight throng of people. I joined the crowd, keeping a tight grip on my bag. Here was the commerce– the energy of that Sunday morning.

 

Picture this scene:

 

Plastic tables, not unlike those used by retirees for playing bridge, were set up on the sidewalks. They held a nice collection of miscellany: “antique” coins, snowglobes, XXX videos.

 

Blankets with mismatched china and naked Barbie dolls tended by barefoot children.

 

A trunk full of off-white tablecloths that someone’s grandmother probably made.

 

Knives.

 

A typewriter.

 

An oil painting of Adolf Hitler. (I somehow don’t think this ever sells)

 

Lots of wooden furniture.

 

It was the best adventure I’ve had so far, though I watched far more than I bought.

 

Much later in the evening, the entire group attended a German musical that was a part of the Athens-Epidauros Festival.

 

This is what I know:

The play was called “The Return of Ulysses.”It was performed by a troupe from Berlin called Schaubühne Berlin. It was loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey. It was all in German. The subtitles were in Greek.

 

That being said, despite the 90% of the play lost due to the German, we all came away with some idea of what we liked and didn’t like about the performance. It was visceral in that sense and I guess that’s why Tim and Michael wanted us to go in the first place. We were able to pick up on who the Athena, Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus figures were as well as the sexual frustration of Athena, Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus. Maybe the German renditions of Greek epics and college students are also not so different. Haha. That was definitely the joke of this blog post. The only one. I (kinda) swear.

art as an antidote to the state of things

From the Athens & Epidaurus Festival 2012 programme of events:

“Last year we talked about finding order in pessimism. So what should we talk about now that we are one step further on, or rather one step further down? About rage or indignation or both? Or maybe, despite everything, about hope?

Is one step further far enough? Can art really help? Is it necessary? Or has this crushing crisis rendered it useless and redundant? Can art alleviate the anxiety? Or just help us see things from a different perspective, distance ourselves a bit, acquire another sensibility, while still being ready for the battles ahead?

And while a thousand questions remain unanswered and everything points to us being all at sea with no safe haven in sight – and if the state of things is gauged in terms of public debt, recession, the cult of austerity, the new poverty and unemployment – then on the other hand the search for a new identity, dignity, transcendence, and opportunities for young people can only emerge as the necessary counterweight [...] History did not end; it never ends, it is simply manifesting itself as a crisis, primarily of values. And when a society is brought face to face with critical problems, it usually works to the benefit of art and culture.”

-Yorgos Loukos,

Chairman & Artistic Director

 

I don’t want to jump on the tail of any of the blog posts that haven’t gotten up yet about our experiences as audience members at either Schaubuehne Berlin’s The Return of Ulysses or Elliniko Theatro’s Socrates NOW, but it’s very clear that the state of things here is playing a very active (and vital) role in the state of theater. Both as young artists and audience members, it’s an unnerving, artistically dangerous, and extremely exciting time to be in Greece.

Annika

Euro? Drachma? Try the TEM.


Greece’s currency has recently been in the spotlight with political pundits everywhere questioning the drachma’s reappearance. But not much has been said about a revitalized system already in place in one Greek town.

Volos, a port city in central Greece, has formed an alternative local currency.  Citizens of Volos found themselves struggling to afford items in euros so they turned to TEM.  TEM stands for topiki enallaktiki monada which translates to alternative local currency.  In effect, it is a highly-organized barter economy. Members sign up online to activate their own TEM account which starts at zero.  For their goods and services, they take payment in TEMs and use TEMs given to them to buy the goods and services of others.

The rules are simple: one TEM unit is equal to one euro. No one may hoard more than 1,200 TEMs and no one may owe more than 300.  This initiative is still based in a currency, but haggling and trading are integral to its survival.

Though it’s reminiscent of an ancient system of bartering, this is no simple reversion.  People can now pay for their purchases via text messages and check their online account at any point to see their TEM balance and the transactions they’ve made.

This currency began functioning in 2010 and has been embraced by nearly 1,000 residents of Volos.  Each Saturday, the TEM-users of Volos gather at a large central market venue and barter away.  Euros are nowhere to be found.  Among the participants are unemployed locals who put their skills to work again as baby-sitters, gardeners, tutors, mechanics, hairdressers, and technicians.  And locals have added incentives for TEM-users.  Some restaurants and cafes, for instance, offer discounted meals for TEM-diners.

The euro is not being forced out by Volosians, but the TEM is undeniably being let in as a means to manage their burdens in this time of strife.

Thoriko and Cape Sounio

On Friday, we spent our day traveling to the southernmost tip of Attica, Thorikos and Cape Sounio.  We took a coach bus with a new tour guide, Αγγελικι, aka Λενα.  Our first stop was at Thorikos, which is home to one of the oldest theatres in the world. The theatre is from the 6th century B.C.  We don’t exactly know what was performed in this theatre, because it predates the ancient plays, but we assume that choral performances took place here.  From the rows of seats, by seats I mean reconstructed slabs of rock, you can see water which harbors Greece’s “Long Island.”  Their Long Island is a bit different from ours, as it was used as a prison, most famously from the mid 60’s to mid 70’s to hold political (communist) dissenters.

Thorikos isn’t only famous for its ancient theatre, but also for its silver mine.  In fact, there is a mine entrance right next to the theatre.  When this ancient Greeks were deciding what to do with this prosperous collection of silver, they found that they had two options.  The option which was originally under discussion was a plan that would distribute silver to all of the Athenians.  I’m sure this was enormously popular.  The other idea, brought forward by a man named Themistocles was to build an enormous navy which would set Athens apart from all the other city states.  In the end, the Athenians decided that a navy was probably the best choice of action, a choice that definitely paid off during the Persian Wars.

After Thorikos we headed to Cape Sounio.  Now this is a truly amazing place. The Cape is surrounded by water on all sides, except for the small stick of land that keeps it attached to the coast.  On the crest of the Cape is the Temple of Poseidon.  From this Temple you can see all of the ships that pass in and out of the ports surrounding Athens. In ancient times, a ship would depart from port and then stop at the Temple.  The shipmates would pray at the Temple and likely make a sacrifice or give a gift to the God in order to ensure a safe journey across the Mediterranean.  Out of all the places we have been in and around Athens, this is my favorite spot.  The wind is constantly blowing and you can feel the presence of something powerful on the Cape.

On our way back from Cape Sounio, we drove along the southern coastline back toward Athens.  I’ve never seen water as clear and turquoise as this water. As a northeasterner I’m always stunned by water that isn’t a dark blue/green mass of angry waves.

After much deserved 3-hour siestas, we ventured out to a bar to support the Greeks in their attempt against Germany.  Though it was a rough game, the bar we were in was a blast: Small, cramped, lots of Greeks, lots of American music from the 70’s. It was happenin’.  We are planning another excursion there on Wednesday to watch Portugal v Spain, or possibly Thursday  to watch Germany v Italy

 

Our day on Friday was tiring, but followed by a completely free weekend of just rehearsing and fleamarket adventures.  Though we had quite a theatrical experience Sunday night, which will be blogged soon.

Greece remains as ζεστι (hot) as ever! Stay φρεδο (cool, or iced… I forget!)

 

-Savannah (not Annika)

In which we meet the Mustache Man

Alright, I admit it, I was supposed to blog last Thursday, but it’s next Tuesday, and this post is just being written. I’m going to chalk that up to being a fickle thespian and living in the moment and always moving forward never looking back, etc. You buy that, right?

Anyway, forgive me pretty quick because I’m about to recount to you one of more wondrous, if not the most wondrous, theatrical performances we have witnessed yet in Greece: classical Greek folk dancing!

Lo, doth I hear a snigger? Perhaps it was the echo of mine own snigger when I found out we were going to a folk dancing concert, but either way, the snigger was and is unfounded, because the folk dancing was pretty impressive and solid entertainment for a Thursday evening.

The male dancers entered first in a long line, with high-stepping knees and raucous whoops. The ladies entered next to the accompaniment of wild cheering from the men, perfectly poised in their classic folk dresses and headgear, with such synchronization in their simple and controlled swaying walk that they looked like reflections in a long line of mirrors. The fringe on the bottom of their skirts even flounced in the same way!

They performed many different kind of dances for us, with really interesting costume changes and chances for individual dancers to shine during spectacular solos. One solo in particular stands out to most of us who enjoyed their performance: that of one man with a gloriously waxed and combed mustache, twisted into two ginger curlicues on either side of his wide, toothy smile. We have, creatively enough, dubbed him the Mustache Man, and he lives as a legend in our hearts. He was featured during the rest of the show, but during the last dance, “the most famous Greek dance” as the announcer informed us, he completely, explicitly, unequivocally stole the show. He was obviously the trump card hidden in the folk dancers back pockets (if their loose, draping, drop-crotch pantaloons had pockets) to save the best for last. Holding on to a handkerchief held steadily at shoulder height by a dancer to his left, he would leap into the air and twist around to slap his side, the inside of one heel and the outside of the other heel before he landed on the ground again. He would also bend, limbo style, balancing on the tips of his toes and held up by the handkerchief alone, to brush the tips of his hat or his mustache on the puffball that decorated his partner’s shoes. He would the swing around in a circle and spin on the tips of his toes to do it again and again and again, lightning fast some times and then painfully, achingly slow the last time. He was a true performer to the last moment, and I would do anything to be more like him. Number one on my list is growing that mustache, I’ll let you know how that works out.

The moments for pair work were very interesting to see, especially because I loved the dynamic between the dancers. The men were always cheering, whooping, singing along to the music and talking to their female partners, while the women always coyly ignored the men’s cheers or flirtatiously played hard to rouse. I pictured these group dances happening between the men and boys and women and girls of the village, either in the town square or in somebody’s barn. Doubtless marriage proposals happened because of a man proving his skill on the dance floor, or a girl her grace and poise. The dynamic between the males and females was actually the most interesting facet of the dancing in my opinion, for the strange way I could see it reflected in modern Athens. We’ve encountered a strange and strikingly prevalent phenomenon of men on motorbikes and scooters catcalling or whistling at  females walking on the sidewalk as they whiz past on the street. It bears a striking resemblance to the cheering and calling of the male dancers when the females would dance alone, or when they danced in partners. Perhaps it is the great-grandfather of the scooter-rider’s catcall?

Verbal sexual harassment, dance tradition,  an expression of culture or whatever, we had a fabulous time at the Greek folk dancing concert, and those are words I never thought I could ever say.

Yasas from Athens! (That means hi, mom!)

ML

Some basics

Thought it might be good to let readers know what our daily/weekly schedule looks like.

Three days a week we have language class from 9-10:30. Our Greek professor, Angeliki (pronounced ahn gel eee KEE), is wonderful. From the first class she understood that we were there to learn conversational Greek that would best help us immerse ourselves in Greece during this six-week program. She says she’s like the bride’s father from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” because she never misses a chance to point out how English words have Greek origins. On Tuesday she showed how the root of the word technology is techni meaning art, which I don’t naturally pair together.

Fortunately Angeliki has taken to our rowdiness so she is always up for joking around or translating the random phrases that suit our individual needs, especially when it comes to food. Monday’s trip to the open market was eventful for those who partook because we hadn’t yet learned most food vocabulary, so finding and describing what was needed was a challenge. There may have been some accidental cucumbers purchased in place of zucchini…

The walk from the apartment to class is only about 15 minutes, and directly in our route is a lovely bakery which gets daily business from this band of students. Usually they have just taken the bread out of the oven when we arrive (a large loaf is only .60€!), so we are treated with that warm, fresh bread as we make our way to class. The bakers have been pleased with their new and devoted customers so they often let us sample their cookies and biscuits, as well.

After Greek we have acting class for a few hours. Acting class is loads of fun as we perform, adapt, revise, rework, and rewrite the comedies and tragedies from the 5th century BC. There are fewer than fifty extant Greek tragedies and comedies from comic playwright Aristophanes and tragedians Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. They are all rather short, so we are looking at the entire body of work over the six weeks. It’s amazing to think that what we’re restaging is 2,500 years old, yet it is ever-accessible.

Most of us have mastered the afternoon siesta, an integral part of the Greek day. Also in the afternoon and evening we like exploring different parts of Athens on foot or by metro, bus, and trolley. The beach is just twenty minutes away so we’ve been sure to make use of the warm Mediterranean. Though we’ve found some favorite bakeries, creperies, markets, and gyro and other food stands, we often try new places to sample as much Greek food as we can. There are shops, markets, gardens, hills, churches, theatres, museums, ancient ruins, and modern structures everywhere in sight, so new adventures are to be had each day.

Just to give you a glimpse of what we have coming up this week in addition to language and acting class:
Tonight we’re going to see Greek folk dancing (more info: http://www.grdance.org/en/), tomorrow we have an all-day trip to Sounion and Thorikos, on Sunday we’re going to see a show from Berlin’s Schaubuhne — one of Europe’s leading theatres, based on Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses (more info: http://www.schaubuehne.de/en_EN/program/repertoire/577991), on Tuesday afternoon we’re speaking to a Greek rug-maker about his craft, then on Tuesday evening we’re off to the theatre again to see the Apology of Socrates, and on Thursday we have a day trip to Delphi. So much to look forward to!

Panteleimon Melissinos (also known as Pantelis, "the poet's son") at work.

We started Wednesday with our Greek class with Angeliki, which focused on food and reading the menus in restaurants and tavernas. When we asked about sugar substitues and low-fat options, Angeliki gave us a completely incredulous look. “This is something you can not find here,” she informed us, a little shocked we would even ask. While Angeliki claims prices for produce and fresh goods have skyrocketed over the last decade, they seem pretty reasonable to kids who grew up in a culture where manufactured food is far more readily available, and we prove it by showing up to class with breakfasts of fruit bought by the kilo from street vendors in Monastiraki Square or freshly baked bread from the bakery on the way to CYA. After class, several of us made our way back towards downtown Athens on a mission – sandal-shopping.

Pantelis Melissinos is a third-generation sandalmaker, and his business is now in its 92nd year. He studied at Parsons in New York and worked there for years, but America, as he said in an interview, felt empty – “I thought to myself: ‘Who am I going to be in five years? A success story running to my shrink and my guru?'” He returned to Athens to immerse himself in culture and theater, reflected in his storefront, where his art is on display alongside his shoes and the autographed photos of his more famous customers (including Jackie Onassis, Sophia Loren, Barbara Streisand, and the Beatles.) While we had a long wait as all our sandals were adjusted by hand, it was a lovely place to spend the early afternoon – and in case we were missing New Jersey a little too much, a woman from our favorite state came breezing in as we were packing up to go and began ordering the apprentice around in the requisite Jersey accent. Home sweet home?

Since Wednesday is our weekly beach day, we spent the rest of the afternoon soaking up the sun on a beach at the edge of the city before returning to the Pangrati neighborhood for dinner, card games, and rehearsals. Tonight we’re headed to the theater and tomorrow we’re off on more weekend adventures – even though we’re in a country where life moves slowly and takes nap breaks, there’s never a dull moment.

Till next time!

Annika