Greek Orthodox Monastery
Dimitrios took me to visit a Greek Orthodox monastery ten miles inland from Poros. We rented mopeds from a shop on the island to travel there. The monastery contains approximately twenty monks, most of whom are aged. The monastery is located in isolation far up a mountainside, similar to monasteries seen in Tibet. No women are allowed to visit. Dimitrios had established a relationship with the monastery head priest during previous visits by showing respect and bringing small gifts. Before we went, I was instructed how to correctly make the sign of the cross, which in the Greek Orthodox church goes up, down, right, left, as opposed to the Roman Catholic church, in which the motion goes up, down, left, right.
Monks renounce all contact with the world, devoting themselves to a life of prayer and service to the monastery. This tradition also exists within Hinduism, which I’ve observed on my visits to temples in India. One particular monk acted as the monastery’s receptionist. He had previously worked as a medical professor before renouncing the world and joining the monastery. Our guide took us on a tour of the monastery and its grounds, including photo opportunities of the great views from the upper floors. The monks themselves didn’t want to be photographed, though the former doctor consented to one group photo together with Dimitrios and his son who had ridden on the back of his father’s moped.
The pre-dinner church service lasted at least an hour. I felt like I was a spectator on the set of a Harry Potter movie. The cathedral interior was very ornate with religious objects and large mosaic images of religious figures. The monks all wore identical flowing black robes with little round hats, which they often covered with a black scarf. We didn’t have to take our shoes off in the chapel. (“No Moslems here,” said Dimitrios.) The service consisted of droning text readings, followed by prayers, making the sign of the cross, bowing, kneeling, taking off their scarves and hats, putting them on again, and last but not least, beautiful Gregorian-style group singing/chanting.
After the service, we were invited to join the monks for dinner. The food was all room temperature (hot food might inflame profane passions!), consisting of small boney fish, bread, various locally grown vegetables, feta cheese, and yogurt. Water was the only drink offered. My favorite part of the meal was the watermelon slice for dessert. Everyone stood at the table for a lengthy prayer before the meal. Then, a bell was rung, signaling that we should sit and eat. No one spoke during the meal. A monk read more scripture during most of the meal. Then the bell rang again, and everyone stood up for another prayer, signaling that the meal was over. Everyone then went back into the chapel for another religious service with singing that lasted another half hour. At its conclusion, the monks dispersed to their quarters with no conversation or socializing at all.
As Dimitrios, his son, and I were about to leave, I happened to meet a Greek-American man. He was working as one of the kitchen helpers and was not a monk. He explained that he had been born in Greece but had grown up in Detroit, though never getting US citizenship. He related that he had committed some crime (details not disclosed) and had been deported to Greece. He needed a job, but because of the Greek economic crisis, jobs were very hard to find. Finally, he found this job at the monastery, which was unpaid beyond room and board. He was waiting for his American wife, working with an immigration attorney, to enable him to return to Detroit, after which he hoped to finally become a legal US citizen, despite having spent practically his entire life in Detroit. He enjoyed the opportunity to speak English with me for a change from Greek.
Another day was spent together with Dimitrios and my old friend Judy driving around the Peloponnesian landscape. We chanced to drive through a very rich corner of peninsula, filled with huge mansions behind ornate gates and high walls. We were told later that this district is inhabited by millionaires and billionaires, both Greek and foreign. Seeing this great wealth elicited the common sentiment that the source of Greece’s problems is that the rich avoid paying their fair share of taxes, by promoting laws to exempt themselves. How familiar does this sound?
Not far from the ultra-rich district, we toured an upscale, gated community that Dimitrios knew of. The building style was identical to similar neighborhoods found in Palm Springs or Hawaii. In this case, each condominium in the development has a boat berth on a canal system that leads to the nearby Aegean Sea. Most of the condos served as vacation dwellings for rich Athenians or foreigners, and were thus empty for much of the year. In the wake of the financial crisis, we were told that prices for condos that had originally sold for $300,000-$400,000 had dropped drastically in price, with some small two-bedroom units available for as low as $100,000.
The landscaping of the development was beautiful, including pomegranate trees whose fruit was at its peak. The landscape engineer who conducted our tour gave us a large bag of pomegranates, which otherwise would have simply rotted on the trees. On my last day on Poros, we separated the pomegranate seeds from their husks and took over one section of the kitchen of our usual restaurant in order to use their blender to create fresh juice. I took the liberty of mixing the juice with Ouzo, the iconic Greek liquor. The result was great. Where else could tourists invade a restaurant’s kitchen and prepare our own food/drink? The owner of this restaurant was quite exceptional. He learned the names of every member of our group, addressing each of us personally by name as we took our frequent meals there!
My wife says that I “eat my way around the world.” I happily admit that this is true. And I’m happy to say that Greece is my new favorite country for great food. I had several dishes that were absolutely the best examples of their type that I’ve ever eaten in my life. These included: yogurt (incredibly rich), calamari (octopus, including especially tender pieces), stewed bitter greens (similar to what I grew up with, cooked with pork pieces, but here served here with lemon and olive oil), and aubergene (eggplant) salad, which I hope to attempt to re-create at home. I packed a two-liter bottle of locally produced olive oil to bring home. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of the outstanding fish platter that was served to the group on my first night. Instead, I took photos of the daily offerings at the local fish market.