by Jenn Morris
Today I have been preoccupied with thoughts of crossroads and intersections. From making simple breakfast decisions (Should I pair my iced cappuccino with a slice of milk pie? Nikos and Dimitri demand that I do. Immediately.) to mulling over the nature of interactions between the monastery and the Serres community to considering future directions for the Menoikeion seminar, we Princetonians have much to contemplate during our time in Greece this year. And we are realizing that shifting lifestyle habits and environments at Prodromos signal significant changes for our group and our understanding of how we fit into the monastic setting, academically and personally. For those of us returning to the mountain for the second, third, or seventh time, these alterations in the social landscape are rather jarring, perhaps even painful. While we all harbor some nostalgia for the Prodromos we once knew, however, we sense the nuns’ eagerness to move past last year’s tragedy and ourselves feel sparks of hope for what lies ahead. In the end, we realize that the convent is an organism of sorts which adapts and continues to thrive despite having some of its limbs quite literally cut off. The soul of Prodromos is alive and well, even as the heart of the community has been displaced and relocated.
Like all organisms, Prodromos is largely self-sufficient but relies to an extent upon other things and beings — an ecosystem delicately balanced between isolated enclosure and outreach to and from the town of Serres (and beyond). This idea hit home with me during our early morning excursion to the Technological University of Serres (TEI), where we had kindly been invited to visit and tour during our week here. Upon our arrival to the campus, we met with the rector and other officials of the university who informed us of the school’s mission and its ambitions to attract students globally. We felt like local celebrities as a camera crew filmed our discussion and then interviewed members of our group, inquiring about our activities at the monastery and our impressions of Prodromos after the fire. When someone asked Emily her opinion of locals’ reactions to the disaster and of the extent to which there should be governmental and civic contributions to the crisis, I realized that the monastery was not alone in standing at an intersection in deciding how to proceed: from distant bureaucrats to local devotees and pilgrims, everyone seems to be looking at a giant question mark. How do we find the funds to help the nuns? How do we take appropriate measures to survey the damage and excavate whatever archaeological remnants we can recover? How much of the previous structures should we attempt to preserve when there is a need and desire to fill in the empty spaces, and how do we make this happen responsibly, conservation-wise? As Matt Milliner, a longtime Prodromos veteran, wisely remarked, the history of churches and monasteries could easily be told in terms of fires. These are the moments that define monuments and enable us, as later viewers, to discern their pasts and relive their stories. Both monastery and community are at a serious juncture now, figuring out how the time, money, and design for repair will ultimately materialize.
Professor Zchomelidse’s lecture on notions of the numinous and its reproduction in Italo-Byzantine paintings brought us back to a different conception of crossroads after a very delicious lunch which left us in postprandial comas (as she herself remarked over a bowl of baked giant beans and fried zucchini flowers: “After this, how can I go back to reality?”). We listened as she talked about the ways in which West and East came together in medieval Italian art in the form of iconic paintings and the devotional and ritual practices which accompanied them — allowing us to contemplate what Xenophon and I like to call ‘icons in action.’ Besides offering an insightful overview of the subject which was particularly helpful for non-specialists like myself, Professor Zchomelidse’s lecture brought us to a fruitful discussion of the Menoikeion seminar’s history, purpose, and future goals at the monastery. Although there are many decisions to be made about the direction of Princetonians’ involvement with the seminar and the way our research should proceed, what remains clear is that we very much value our time at the monastery and feel that our yearly congregations at Prodromos are an important part of our collective and personal development, both academically and socially. We all feel that this is a time for responsibility, engagement, and leadership, and we must seriously reflect upon the shape that our project will take in the coming years.
Not all is tragedy and loss, however, and both the Princeton team and the nuns find many sunny moments each day. I, for one, have made a personal study of the unusual and conspicuously large size of Serres pigeons, and have come to the conclusion that they are heftier because they enjoy too much of the famous local mpougatsa. The nuns seem to be steering us towards a similar demise of waistlines, as they feed us impossible-to-resist meals and sweets which surely will result in our having to be rolled down the mountain in barrels by the end of the week (they happened to remember, for instance, that I have a special weakness for the indescribable creamy deliciousness called kormos, and insist that I have at least one or two per day). And everyday tasks such as visits to the post office enable us to see the unique pace of Greek life in action, slow and steady and content. Who wouldn’t like a place where you can get frappes delivered from the cafe next door while you wait in line to mail a package?
In the spirit of happy things, I shall end my note with a haiku:
Kormos, frappes, mbougatsa
O delicious yum.