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Culture > Kytherian Identity > Leaving New York for Greece

Culture > Kytherian Identity

submitted by Dean Coroneos on 11.08.2006

Leaving New York for Greece

Article by Zoe Artemis

The last thing I did before I left for JFK airport was to pin my 'don't blame me I voted for Gore' button onto my lapel. That was last summer. As I walked through the metal detectors at the airport the alarm went off, and the security guard said to me,' it's probably that button you're wearing, please take it off.' Oh great I thought, please arrest me, this would be great publicity for 'the cause.' But they let me through and I proudly put my button back on and boarded the plane. When I arrived in Athens, my cousin Pericles was waiting for me. He had driven all the way down from my ancestral village of Mavromati, in central Greece, to pick me up and take me back with him. Many years ago I had inherited a small house in Mavromati from my grandparents and for the last two summers I was finally making use of it. Two hours later we began to approach the highlands and like a mind altering drug my mood shifted to one of exhilaration. With another hour to go we drove through winding steep roads and the air was thinning out and smelling fresh. The physical kingdom of light was so startling I felt as though I was looking at a Van Gogh or a Monet painting. Every image was sharply defined. The sight of goats, donkeys, farmers, and widows dressed in black, walking along the road, moved my cynical New York soul into a place of humanity.

Mavromati is a village of about l,500 people, wedged between mountains and seemingly lost to the modern world. In the summer of 2003 the village passionately took hold of me and I decided to finally make a commitment to being there, at least for the summers. My soul clearly needed a lifestyle to the extreme opposite side of the New York spectrum. When we arrived at my house, my cousin Litsa along with about a dozen of my relatives were there to greet me. The women prepared a variety of tasty, wholesome mezze. My culinary skills are nil and in New York I mostly eat out in restaurants. Naturally, I prefer home cooking and I've come to respect its status as a high art form for women in the village. I hadn't seen my relatives since last summer. My cousin Stephano, who looked after my house throughout the year, said to me, why did you wait so long to get here? What do you mean, I asked. 'You've only been coming to Mavromati the last few years'. 'I know', I said 'I wish I had come here sooner too.' Well, he said, 'better late than never...leave New York and move here, at least then we can all die together.' Everyone nodded in agreement and we broke out laughing. It was amazing that we were all able to communicate with each other, considering they spoke no English and my Greek speaking skills were only fair. Looking out at Mt. Olympus from my kitchen window, I said to Litsa, 'I forgot to bring my alarm clock and I want to get up early and watch the sun rise.' 'Don't worry,' she said, 'we don't need clocks here, in the morning we wake up to the crowing of roosters, and when it's 10 pm we hear the wheezing of horses.' She was right. Throughout my entire stay it was the crowing that motivated me to wake up at 6am and write for two to three hours. From the villages to the islands Greece expresses herself through the extended family, the slow passage of the seasons and their relation to the natural elements.

During the second week I received a phone call from my friend Kevin who lived on the island of Skiathos. Kevin is a retired English stage actor living on Skiathos all year round, like so many other European artists and writers. I met him the year before when I first visited the island. As we spoke on the phone, I told him how happy I was being in my village, how the landscape, big sky and sense of community inspired me to write. I also expressed to him my frustration of not having anyone to speak English to, or read my work to, and how I yearned to be by the sea. He said, 'well then come to Skiathos for a few days'. He went on telling me about a writing retreat on the island that was starting in a few days, led by a poet from Prague named Luka. 'If you want to join in I'll speak with the instructor, and see if there are any openings.' Yes, I said, 'please speak to him, I had been thinking about coming to Skiathos for the weekend, but I'll stay longer if I can take the workshop.' Kevin rang me back the next day and said it was all arranged, there was still room in the workshop. 'All right I'll see you three days, and call you when I arrive on the island.' Little did I know that the universe was setting me up to organize my own writing retreat the following year on Skiathos.

hree days later I was on the bus to Volos, where I could then catch a ferry to the island. The bus was filled with villagers, farmers and a few chickens. Gazing out the window the sight of farmers ploughing their land, women carrying buckets of water from the natural springs and white stucco houses accessorized by blue shutters, yellow roses and bougainvillea heightened my senses. After two sweaty hours we arrived in Volos and soon after I boarded the ferry.

The water, wind and salty air was invigorating and cleansing. When I disembarked, three hours later, there was a large group of locals, mostly women holding up signs and shouting, 'rooms for rent.' Greece is known for its filoxenia and even when it came down to business, it was heartwarming to be greeted at the port in this manner. I began haggling for the best price. 'I need quiet, but I want to be right in town, I need an air-conditioned room, but nothing fancy, just clean.' I followed Kyria Marina to her pension as she offered me the most affordable price.

The following morning the workshop began at Papageorge's cafe right on the port overlooking the sea. All the participants were European, mostly from the UK. Being an Anglophile, I was delighted. There were seven of us, four women and three men. We began the process of introducing ourselves and then Luka presented us with our first exercise. 'Close your eyes and breathe deep, then scan the past twenty four hours of your life as if you were watching a movie. Notice the experiences that hold some charge for you. Then let the mind land on a single image and notice each detail and then begin to write. You have l5 minutes'.

As we wrote together the only noise we could hear was the sound of the waves beating against the docks. Most of the tourists were either still sleeping or at the beach, so we practically had the entire cafe to ourselves. The first words I wrote were 'Shepherds, fishermen, shopkeepers, widows in black are all gods in disguise.....' Fifteen minutes later each of us read our work aloud. He then asked us to make a list of images we see, or hear or smell or feel in the immediate environment. This was my list: the smell of salt water, the blue painted urn on the yellow table cloth, a couple in love sitting at a table, the bluest sea. After we finished our list, Luka told us to go back and add the words 'reminds me of' to the end of each phrase, and finish the sentence. I wrote 'a couple in love siting at a table reminds me of Lambros and myself....sitting at our usual outdoor cafe in Mavromati we talk for hours......we notice no one around us.....though everyone else notices us.......the American and the farmer....we need to be more careful.....' Reading aloud our impressions to one another was ridiculously fun. Luka then showed us a post card of a British ship with a group of passengers. I think it was a photograph of the Mauratania from the 1930s. He asked us to write sentence or two about our impression of the photo. I wrote: 'I like the time when men wore hats, grace was noble as modesty then, that which is hidden is more interesting.' As the days went on the writing exercises became more challenging and our writing time extended into one hour intervals. Many of us brought first drafts of poems and short stories that needed rewriting.

Most often, when the course ended at noon, we would go to Ayia Paraskevi Beach that had a forest as its backdrop. There were two very fine tavernas right on the beach where we ate lunch and drank wine. Afterwards we went swimming and sunbathed. Later in the afternoon we went back to our rooms to write or take a siesta. Taking a siesta after lunch is one of my favorite pastimes. It's a lulling, drug like induced hypnotic sleep. In the evenings we would all have dinner together and take long walks. The balance between writing and swimming and socializing was good medicine. I know I couldn't have lasted here for seven days without taking the writing workshop. Without being challenged, even paradise can feel boring and empty.

At our last evening together while we were all dining together, Luka asked me whether I thought Greece was a western or eastern country. 'I think it's both,' I said. 'The thread of their classical past has long been woven into the oriental fabric of Byzantium Greece. No matter how Americanized or Europeanized Greece has become, it is basically a peasant country. Once you venture outside of Athens, you step back into a time warp. Therein lies its charm and restorative powers. The sights and sounds of 'men only' kafenios, the wailing tones of rembetika music, the pungent smell of lamb roasting over charcoal and the stroking of the komboloi (worry beads) are more reminiscent of an eastern culture, than a western one. Greece has always felt more like an eastern country to me.'
As a result of the workshop I now had a body of work that was near completion and some first drafts. The comments of the participating writers and the instructor was invaluable in helping to bring some loose ends together and made me better writer. I wrote new poems and and reworked two short stories that were now ready to send out for publication. In seven days we began together as strangers and very quickly moved towards being a tight knit community. I was aware that long term friendships had been created. After saying our heartfelt good-byes I walked over to the El Morocco Bar to meet Kevin for our last drink.

The El Morocco is situated high on a hill, taking up about 20 white washed steps. Scattered on each step are saffron, pink and lime green pillows to sit on, with low Arabic style tables, and a clear view of the sea. As I waited for Kevin I ordered a glass of retsina and gazed out at the horizon. I thought, what is this great secret that lies in those jagged mountains and sea--those meaningful glances between it and us? It was an 'Aha' moment. When Kevin arrived I said 'thank you so much for turning me on the workshop, it was just what I needed.' 'I know' he said, 'look, with all the writers you know in New York, you should think about organizing your own writing retreat on the island next summer.' 'That's a great idea, I think I'll do it.' He went on, 'I'll be your liaison and help you with accommodations and whatever else you need.' We clicked our glasses of wine, and I said 'done.'

The next morning I made the journey back to Mavromati. As a boarded the bus, I was lucky to find a seat. It was quite crowded. A middle aged, shabbily dressed, thin woman, with no front teeth and a wild look in her eyes was standing next to my seat and leaning to close to me for my comfort. 'Excuse me' I said to her, and she went berserk. She proceeded to curse at me and then took her hand and hit me on my head. I was stunned and my first instinct was to lunge at her and strike back. But I quickly realized this woman could really hurt me, and so I decided to ignore her and she finally moved away from me. At the next stop she got off the bus. People around me were saying 'she's crazy, are you all right?' I'm fine I said, my head throbbing. I thought about all my years traveling on the New York subway, encountering unbalanced people many times, yet I never experienced anything like this before.

I got back to Mavromati around 8pm and felt wired, so I decided to walk up to the town square. The scene was unusually lively and there was a big screen TV set up for people to watch the final match of the European soccer game that had been going on all week. Within an hour's time Greece had won, for the first time, everyone said. I'm not a sports fan, but I got caught up in the mania and I celebrated with my friends and relatives by drinking and dancing at the square until midnight.

The crowing sounds woke me up the next morning. I made my cup of Starbucks coffee, and went outside to my backyard to see the sun rise. I watched the beams of light shoot through the darkness over the great plains, surrounded by big mama mountains. I watched big sky openly spray her light like a big showoff for all to see. Hours later I heard the sound of sheep bells, and I waved kalispera to Kyrios Pavlos as he proudly led his flock down the road in front of my house, for their morning constitutional. I finally went inside to get dressed and my next door neighbor Kyria Eleni knocked on my door to welcome me back. She brought me a whole bunch of aubergines from her garden and invited me over for coffee the next morning. I then turned on the radio to my favorite station, Epirors, which plays traditional mountain music. With the clarinet as the main instrument, it sounds like the earth is crying. I think because it's so incredibly soulful it makes me feel joyful and not sad.

People in Greek villages, as in most indigenous cultures, have a natural aptitude for song and dance as a way to celebrate all kinds of events, harvest time, marriage and mourning. As Anglos we best express ourselves with words. Greeks are unsurpassed story tellers, but the use of gestures is also part of their rich oral tradition. An upward turn of the head means no. Their hands play a big part in conversation. A Greek man will break out into a dance whenever the spirit moves him. The best actors in the world are those who are expressive with their eyes and body language. I remember one morning when I was looking for the bus stop in the nearby village of Mouzaki. I saw a middle aged man with a thick black mustache, sitting at an outdoor cafenio. I walked over and asked him for directions. Without saying a word, he picked up up his foot and pointed it towards the left road.

During my last week in Mavromati my next door neighbor Kyria Eleni's son-in-law Yiorgo suddenly died of a heart attack. On the day of his funeral I was sitting at an outdoor cafe, when suddenly a procession of about two hundred people appeared, walking all together on the road towards the church. Unlike the men, all the women were dressed in black and it was close to 90 degrees. Several of the men were carrying Yiorgos casket and everyone was chanting a mourning dirge. At the head of the procession was the village priest, Papa Nikos, carrying a large cross. These noble villagers walked a half a mile in the the boiling heat to the church. I have never forgotten this picture. For me it represented shared community and sacrifice.
I returned to New York the day before the Olympic Games began. My friend Linda who visited me the day after my return, said 'you look fabulous, you look like you just came back from rehab or did you go and have plastic surgery?' 'I definitely didn't have plastic surgery, but you could say I was at a rehab of sorts,' I replied. I grudgingly managed to get through the rest of the summer, but it wasn't pleasant. New York is the worst place to be in August. But come fall and during the months of October through December there's no place in the world more stimulating or more thrilling than New York City. The energy is bold, frank, free and there is a celebratory atmosphere in the air. Friends and relatives come in to town at this time to visit. Numerous poetry readings, cultural events, concerts, parties and the buzz of Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays electrify the air. New Yorkers talk fast, walk fast, with irony as its main feature of speak. I can't help getting caught up in the insanity of it all.

On Jan. l, however, the axe falls, at least for me. The weather seems to abruptly turn cold, gray and gloomy. The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza comes down. The glittering lights and decorations throughout the city are removed. The magnificently decorated shop windows on Fifth Avenue are replaced by 'the new spring line.' The city empties and the rich escape for some faraway place in the sun. It's at this time of year my soul yearns for colors, grows weary of worldly pretensions and I begin to dream of Greece. The process of organizing the writing retreat was a new venture for me and it lifted my spirits and put me in contact with many new people. Whenever I mention to anyone that I'm organizing a retreat on Skiathos, peoples' eyes and ears perk up with curiosity and excitement. Greece's long illustrious history and its landscape conjures up dreamy images of the sea, the light, ancient ruins and rustic elegance. With the excesses of the 90's the new countertrend is for rustic living. Artists especially want to be part time peasants; want to undo being slaves to round-the-clock creature comforts.

As fall approached I began the process of organizing the writing workshop for the summer of 2005. I'm fortunate to know many well-respected writers in New York, and after some consideration I decided to ask New York poet laureate George Wallace to lead the Skiathos Writing Retreat. I met George about five years ago at the annual St. Mark's New Year's Day Poetry Marathon in the East Village. We were both in the back room where refreshments were being served. We looked at each other, as if we recognized one another, and I walked over and introduced myself to him. It turned out that we had several mutual friends, including jazz musician David Amram who had been one of Jack Kerouac closest friends. When I told George that my ancestors were from Greece he told me that his father was born in Thessaloniki, but that he had never visited Greece. He told me he was organizing a four city marathon tribute honoring Jack Kerouac soon and invited me to read an excerpt of Kerouac's work. Not only did I read, but I also gave a dance performance at the tribute, accompanied by David Amram & his Trio. Although I had never met Jack Kerouac, I have known both Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Back in the early 80's I had a long term friendship with ex-con and raconteur Herbert Huncke..

The writing retreat in Greece is a unique opportunity to spend a week with one of the finest poetic voices in the English language. George is one of the hardest working writers I know. When I invited him to teach in Skiathos he happily accepted. He told me about his life long dream of meeting the great surrealistic poet Miltos Sachtouris who was now in his 80's and living in Athens.
The retreat is designed for both aspiring and seasoned writers. My intention is to provide a space for writers to come together from all over the world, in a mutual commitment, to hone our craft and push ourselves more deeply as artists. I know the writing friendships I have made at workshops have continued to nurture me when the muse was not keeping me company.

The Course:

June 25-July 1, 2005, Skiathos, Greece
'Imagination-Based Poetry': The process is to stretch your imagination and to focus on wordplay and inventive writing. Instead of the traditional confessional approach to self-confrontation or deep-imaging, the inventive approach leads writers to discover meaning and art by cultivation of the imagination. 'Imagination-Based Poetry, whether it is magical realism, surrealism, dada, or fictive writing, permits the writer to escape ego-based writing and reach into deeper truths about our nature and our experience.
The cost is only $595. which includes course (about 20 hours) and accommodations. Skiathos beaches have been rated the 7th best, not only in Greece, but in the world.

About George Wallace:

An award winning poet, journalist, museum curator and co-host of his own weekly radio show, Wallace has had eleven poetry books published, translated into many languages. Four years ago George organized the hugely successful U.S. four city 'Big Sur' marathon honoring Kerouac. Each year he travels to Europe and gives readings throughout the UK, the Netherlands and Paris. For more info about Wallace visit

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