Friday, July 07, 2006

Athos Journal Part I

Perhaps recording my Athos itinerary might be of help to any men (or daring Yentls) who'd like to go, and prefer to learn from someone else's mistakes rather than their own. While taking issue with the word "ferocious," I can generally concur with one guidebook that put the matter this way:
"It is possible to be treated to ferocious bigotry and disarming gentility at the same place within the space of ten minutes, making it tricky to draw conclusions about Athos in general and given monasteries in particular" (527).
Were I Greek, Orthodox, or both I am certain things would have gone much more smoothly - but being neither made the extraordinary hospitality I (sometimes) did receive all the more disarming.

Preparation: As with much else in modern life, hippies spoiled the fun for the rest of us. Flowerchildren flocked to Athos in the 60's on hearing everything there was free and overstayed their welcome, thus requiring Greece to now insure the process is complicated enough to discourage the idle traveler. It's a pain, but doable, and up until the visit to the port city of Ouranopoli can all be done by phone/fax. Two months in advance however proved not to be enough to get the day of my choice, so plan way ahead. After securing a permit, one needs call individual monasteries for reservations, and 6am (1pm Greek time) proved not to be early enough, but 5am usually worked. Be prepared to speak Greek on the phone, and to call repeatedly. There is of course spiritual preparation as well, which I could have used a bit more of.

Day 1- Departure and Dionysiou: In Ouranopoli (literally "Heaventown") the Pilgrim's Office opened at 7:30am and they even let me keep my bags there for a couple of days. With permit (diamoneterion) in hand I bought a ferry ticket, and by 10am was cruising up the easternmost peninsula of the Chalidici. I took the boat to Daphne (the main port), from where I took another smaller boat past the visual feast of the famous "cliffhanger" monasteries. I got off at St. Paul Monastery, and backtracked in a beautiful but punishing one hour hike to my first reservation, Dionysiou. Upon arriving I was treated to the traditional libations, a shot of tsipouro (a nice liqueur) and louokoumi (Turkish delight).

Immediately I found myself engrossed in conversation with a Catholic German who shared with me his dismay at having to eat entirely alone at the monastery he had just come from, apart from both the monks and other Orthodox pilgrims. He said he understood not being able to receive the eucharist, and he would not have minded being able eating apart if there were one or two others with him - but he was literally in the corner at his own table, alone, while all the Orthodox ate together. It was an ominous conversation to begin the trip with, especially considering for some reason the Pilgrim's Office named me a Catholic (even though I said Protestant).

At 5pm vespers began, and at 6 pilgrims and monks processed into the refectory for a fasting season supper as we listened to texts read aloud in Greek (no one here had to eat alone). Though I grew to really enjoy refectory meals, to be honest my first impression of the corporate-passive eating style was, "This must be what prison is like." However, with few exceptions the food is (to my taste at least) phenomenal: Organic vegetarianism before it was cool. Afterwords we were processed back into the church for relic venearation, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike being allowed to go all the way into the main katholikon. Had my Greek (or Russian) skills been sharper it would have been easier finding evening conversation after dinner. But silence can be good for the soul.

Day 2 - Skete of St. Anne and a Less Hospitable Place: I was off early the next morning to make it to the Skete (i.e. less than a full monastery) of St. Anne, where I had a tip about a friendly, English-speaking, icon-painting monk named Father Theoliptos, who turned out to be all three. The hike was again on the brutal side (I'm not exactly in shape), but included an impromptu donkey ride from a passing caravan, and was rewarded by great hospitality at the guest house of St. Anne's. Arriving pilgrims were shown the relics of ee giagia tou Jesou (Jesus' grandmother), and one priest noticing my interest gave me an icon. After monastic lunch and a long conversation, Father Theoliptos recommended a speed boat to loop around the tip of Athos on my way to where I had a reservation for the night. These waters are treacherous enough to have led Xerxes to build a canal, but the ride seemed pretty smooth to me, and seeing the terrain I would have been covering relieved me of any sense of guilt that I hadn't walked.

At this monastery I unfortunately felt like I was in the way. Though the guestmaster invited non-Orthodox pilgrims into the main church for relic veneration after dinner, this proved to be too much for one priest who promptly ordered us out. Things proceeded apace, and at one point while I was observing a mural, one monk said to me snippily, "Can you understand what you're reading?" Hoping this might be the beginning of a conversation, I explained to him that (in this case at least) I did, but he just kept walking. Though I've tried to give this incident a charitable interpretation, I feel that to do so might be misconstruing this particular monk's intentions. The stay was disheartening enough that I even considered leaving before my permit ended.

But the next day, thanks to a few amazing monks the trip took a serious turn for the best, so much that I stayed past it. Part II is in the works.