Kailey Zitaner, University of Pennsylvania
Installment one of NOSTOS, a series by Kailey Zitaner focusing on her summer in Greece and the philosophical and cultural riches she discovered while there.
Most of the Cycladic islands are peaks of a submerged mountain terrain. Fitting – the summer I spent on those islands I did feel like I was sitting on something monstrously deep – historically, philosophically and literally.
I remember the day we landed at the port of Ermoupoli – the capital of the island Syros. Picture a gorgeous smattering of white houses clustered in mountain crevices and spilling out over a pristine Grecian beach. You ascend to the promontory by climbing the powerful marble steps which have been hewn into the mountain. The island stacks on itself, tier upon tier until the top most point. There’s a church up there which has presided over the island for generations. God would be wise to choose such a home.
6 am our last morning on the island a group of friends and I decided collectively to climb all the way to that church. It took us the better part of half an hour and by the time we’d made it we were sweating like mad. We get up there and you can hear inside the church that some sort of service is going on – I think it was a sunday. I registered on some level that that day was the anniversary of the day of my grandfather’s funeral though that wasn’t really forefront in my mind quite then – my friends and I were looking out over this gorgeous view of Syros and the port – it’s astounding how beautiful. Truly. Eventually, though we decided we’d like to go into the church and I sort of over excitedly waltz in while most of the congregation was exiting. I found myself in the middle of this church and all of a sudden I hear people crying. I whipped around and just behind me was this cavalcade of mourners holding a casket. In front of them a tiny, wrinkled Greek lady wearing black was sobbing with her hand on the casket. I was so startled and I thought “I gotta get out of here” so I leaned against the wall, let the cavalcade pass by and I just stepped out of the church and started crying. I took a moment and looked up at the church, that church must have been there for at least two hundred years, and I thought about how funny it was that all over the world grief looks the same. Even though you can be separated by culture and distance and time, the mourners faces and the sound of pain – those things were familiar to me. Those things were mine.
There was a lot about my time in Greece that summer that felt similarly foreign and familiar. Much of it forced me to find common humanness.
That’s an easy thing to do in Greece. Their culture is predicated on an openness; a sort of love for humankind. Xenia, Greek for hospitality, is an essential part of Greek culture. It’s a wholly unamerican concept – uniquely and essentially Greek. The word comes from the Greek for “other” (think xenophobic only the opposite of that) and its use dates back to Platonic times. It’s the idea of caring for those who are far from home as if they are members of the family and it’s a well respected tradition. Zeus, the Greek God of Gods, is sometimes called “Zeus Xenios”. He was responsible for safeguarding travellers. The most powerful God was tasked with that responsibility. And think about how prominently Xenia features in Homeric texts. I mean, really BOTH epics were written because of the most epic (punny?) breach in xenia of all time, right? Can’t go around stealing wives, Paris.
My time can be plotted on a continuum beginning with a sense of invasion – like I was an outsider inserting myself in the center of a time honored tradition from which I was somehow separate – and then suddenly feeling like I was one of them. Inducted into Greek culture through xenia. It’s very much alive in Greece. They really do want you to feel at home.
Xenia manifested most powerfully on Thassos where I was welcomed in by the Kouzis family. They, like the island upon which they live, have a rich history. They know it. Thasos, ‘the Athens of the North’ is a lush epicenter of Greek life, and has been for generations. Spartans, Persians and Romans lusted after her as she offered both rich farming ground and a trade stop on the route between Anatolia and Central Greece.
The Kouzis, my adoptive family in Thassos, own a restaurant-hotel called the Archodissa which sits on this huge bluff atop Thassos. Picture this island like a wedding cake. Here at the base is the Aegean, here’s the beach and then above that beach is a bluff on top of which a street has been cut, and then another bluff and then a street and the finally, like the figurine on top of the cake, the Archodissa.
The Archodissa was founded by Stamatis Kouzis – the patriarch of the clan. He is a fisherman and farmer in his early 70s and the sweetest Septuagenarian you’ll ever meet. He just built this place from dust. I believe he owned a lot of the land to begin with but then he started to set up orchards and olive groves and then finally he built the Archodissa.
The Archodissa is the center of all things fun and communal in Aliki, the town on Thassos where Stamatis and his clan live. On Wednesday night people from towns all over the island come to the Archodissa to dance and to listen to the live music and eat the amazing food that was just caught earlier that day by Stamatis on his boat. There are no words to describe the way that I feel when I’m living at there with Stamatis’ children, swept up in their vibrant, delicious lives. They really pushed me into Greek culture – the just threw me in. That’s how xenia works in Greece. It doesn’t feel like they’re being kind to a welcome but unfamiliar guest – they throw you into their culture and make you a member. Induction is permanent.
They have no patience for shyness. They just won’t have it. My first Wednesday night there I was feeling sort of uncomfortable. The meal portion of the evening was drawing to a close, I was unsure of what to do with myself and getting increasingly nervous when suddenly music started up and a train of undulating bodies started forming around the room. As the dancers wound their way about the table they just grabbed hands and pulled you in. I found myself between two unfamiliar people thinking “I don’t know what I’m doing!” but they’re just like “you’re fine, you’re doing great – you’re fine.” That was the first trial by fire – throwing me into the dancing. I rose to the occasion, figured out the steps and once I was in I was in.
Once you’re a member of the clan, you’re really just like anyone else. Once I was in I was waking early in the morning to go out with Stamatis on his fishing boat. He didn’t speak english but the little bit of Greek I was learning was quite helpful. At that point I’d learned a handful of Greek phrases but really you can tell by his eyes that he knows what you’re feeling. Such soul. He actually wrote me a poem before I left the Island. I drew a portrait of him, which he framed and hung in the restaurant and then he wrote me a poem and gave it to me before I left. My Greek teacher translated it for me. That’s how much a part of them I was. There was an instant in which I entered the culture and then I never left.
In that instant a guest dives into a tradition and a culture that took an eternity to construct. Think about this – I found a family for myself and so was inducted into all of Greek history and Greek temperament. They want you to be a part of this because they know how incredible what they have is.
That’s xenia. And it’s implications are huge. Lesbos opened its doors to Syrian refugees in droves because of xenia. Greeks are in favor of welcoming refugees. They treat them like family as they did me. Friends of mine from Thassos went to Lesbos after I left and volunteered with the refugees for the remainder of the summer.
If you’re not open and welcoming, if you have a closed off air about you then they assume you’re foreign. It’s not like they’re judging you for not being that way. It’s more like they are very secure in their own history; they know they stand on the bedrock of western civilization – and they sort of forgive you for not being as secure as they are. They know that they are incredibly lucky to live these beautifully naturalistic lives amidst a thick family and community. They’re the most self actualized people I’ve ever met and the most emotionally fulfilled. I was there on the day of the economic collapse and I asked Stamatis in Greek if he were scared and he said, “I have food, I have my family, I have my boat – what more could I ask for?” That’s really their attitude. In 2008 there were people jumping out of windows on Wallstreet. Not him, “I have food, I have my family, I have my boat – what more could I ask for?” That sense of calm allows for Xenia. That contentment was one of the greatest and most exotic riches I discovered there.