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FREELANCE WRITING

SOMETHING LIKE HOME

Nonfiction narrative about the day I spent at a Greek Festival in Georgia. Written for a freelance writing course I completed at SCAD. Names and some locations have been changed.

My lunch (clockwise from top left): Braised green beans, chicken souvlaki with rice, break and spanakopita (spinach pie.)

My lunch (clockwise from top left): Braised green beans, chicken souvlaki with rice, break and spanakopita (spinach pie.)

Men balancing precariously on chairs.

Men skewering meat on a stick.

Men dancing in circular formation in embroidered felt vests.

I am told these are the Westfield Greeks.

I saw them on one of those hypnotic carousels on the homepage of the Westfield Greek Festival. Greek festivals made their Georgia debut in the 70s with that festival, although the history of American Greek festivals appears to extend to the early 1960s (the origin of American Greek festivals is shrouded in mystery by the handful of cities that claim to have hosted the original.) Greeks had already established themselves in America before the festivities began; the oldest Orthodox Church, still the hearth of Greek culture in America, was built in 1864. A century later, the 1960 film Never on Sunday, and its immortal, Oscar-winning score, inspired a global craze for all things Greek. I suspect this encouraged the emergence of Greek festivals in the following decades (which are often hosted and sponsored by local churches who donate a portion of their proceeds to charity). The rest is history. 

I was staring at my computer screen, being promised “fun, food, and “opa,” that useful outcry that can punctuate anything in a Greek’s life from a broken toe to the tossing of flowers at folk dancer’s feet. It reminded me that it’s an expression, like the very image of Greece, that has fallen on hard times. Peter Economides, in his viral “Rebranding Greece” talk, declared that Greece “is the greatest brand that’s never been branded.” He argues we are still living under Zorba the Greek’s lively, anarchic image, which is cheapened by his imitators. Is this true? The answer eluded me, but I knew the festival was the place to start.

Three guys joined me on the day, two Greek— Nick and Christos— who had lived in the south for years, and one American—Ben, who Nick knew from work. We circled around the crowded parking lot, with no festival in sight, but we soon found the portal: a yellow schoolbus; that iconic symbol of American upbringing, whose unmistakable color and shape is reinforced by various federal and state laws. It’s an image I recognize from afar, but could never identify with; the school I attended in Greece always contracted tourist bus companies that never looked alike.

The buses pulled up to a long driveway winding up to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Fairmount Road. It seemed to barely betray its religious purpose with a modest crucifix perched on top of a plain dome more intergalactic than spiritual, with none of the plunging arches or soaring bell towers that are so typical of Orthodox churches. I wandered toward the place, spellbound. It was so far removed from my experience, yet so familiar. I later discovered the source of my déjà vu was Frank Lloyd Wright’s foray into Orthodox architecture, a modish church he had designed, which shared this churches’ saucer shape. Aesthetics are clearly important to this clergy; a beautification project for the church is currently underway. I couldn’t wait to approach.

But first there was the ticket line. Della was my agent’s name, according to her name card. She is freckled, probably middle-aged, with a face covered in smile lines and a hair bun so perfect it could have been pulled from an oven.

“You’re from Athens too?! I’m from Clarke County!” she exclaimed in her southern drawl, waiting so intently for my response, she almost missed my barcode.  

“Yes, I am! Beautiful beautiful place, isn’t it?” My friends were already past check-in.

“What part are you from?”

“Um, “The outskirts!” I floundered, interrupted from an honest conversation by

a pack of children that had arrived on the next school bus pushed the line along. Should I have explained?

As I looked for the guys, I set a course for the church. On my way there, I caught glimpses of the bazaar portion of the festival; tents and rooms full of the paraphernalia that reminded me of the tourist shops of Plaka, the old historical neighborhood in the center of Athens, which captures the imagination of Athenian bar hoppers and tourists. I was almost sure I had seen the same plastic columns, glossy postcards of beaches, and keychains of gods and goddesses in Athens as I saw that day. What do people see in these things? Is this the Greece they want?

I entered the church. By then Nick, Christos and Ben knew where I was, they were not interested. The two Greeks, like myself, attend church on select occasions to pay our yearly respects, which are mostly centered around Holy Week at Easter. Greeks are overwhelmingly Orthodox (98% of the Greek population identifies as such), but usually relaxed about formal worship. Easter, for instance, is as much about celebrating resurrection under the radiance of the Holy Light, carried from candle to candle from the back of the church, as it is about catching up with neighborhood gossip and friends, and ending the lent as soon as humanly possible. In fact, the church bell chime, marking the strike of midnight is more like a dinner bell to go home and guzzle a bowl of magiritsa (lamb stew, which wastes no part of the lamb).

But despite the relaxed worship I inherited, details still matter. Whitewashed arches replaced the exquisite icons typical of Orthodoxy. Transparency replaced the stained glass that often adorns the windows. No smell in there replaced the intoxicating incense I remember.

The sun was scorching in typical early fall Georgian fashion. As if by psychic connection, Nick expressed my exact desire of the moment “I need my Freddo cappuccino!” he declared. Of course, he was referring to Greece’s national daytime drink which serves as an indelible link to Greece’s coffee culture. Peppered along the meandering streets of Athens are an eclectic range of trendy espresso rooms, and kafeneia, the small coffee shops with round iron tables for older Greek men to lean their tired elbows on, and watch as day fades into night (see a great photo of this phenomenon at Fantasy Travel of Greece). Conversation moves slowly, savored, like every sip of coffee that restores life to the drinker, and energy to the discussion.  

But the coffee line did not resemble the kafeneio. Tables were all concentrated in the eating area, and most orders were taken “to go,” perhaps rushed to the drive-thru section of the dining area. The coffee itself was not familiar either. It quenched my thirst, diluting the normally invigorating bitter center. It lacked the foam that teases the lips before caffeine seals the deal. Was I missing something? I turned to Ben, watching as he slugged his Freddo with delight.

All around me were familiar images made strange. Behind the coffee stand was the lamb stand. I did a double take. Lamb stand? In September? At first, it set off my stomach and my mind, as I recalled my uncle’s house on the southern coast of Athens. To this day, he buys lambs and roasts them on his prized spit on Easter Sunday. Lamb, especially the skewered-on-a-stick variety, is normally an Easter phenomenon in Greece, so it is a rare sight there, let alone in the US, where I have heard stories of local police who stopped the car of the person appointed as the lamb bearer. They are caught in the act of transporting an animal that neither had a wagging tail nor was filleted on a platter. Cuff ‘em!

We sat down for lunch.  I avoided some of the grander experiments, like the long line at the “baklava sundae” tent, in the interest of time. I hesitate to say the marriage of baklava and sundaes is made in heaven, but the number of people waiting in line to grab one speaks for itself. My choice was the “souvlaki combo,” which included all the usual suspects: braised Greek beans, which is the type of dish Greek mothers chase their children around with. Then there’s souvlaki, which has been Greece’s signature street food long before the food truck era. The zoumi, or juices of the meat, are not wasted, which is what made my rice so irresistible. 

A bouzouki melody fills the lunch tent through the speakers. Nick and Christos, half brothers, are linked by a mother and their loathing for the bouzouki sound, a distinctive weep that comes from a long-necked string instrument, similar to the mandolin. 

“I hate it,” Nick confesses. Christos shakes his head in agreement. I pull out my note pad, seeing a discussion brewing. The brothers, like me, had left Greece for college. Christos studied computer science at Georgia Tech. Nick left for Indiana on a basketball scholarship, which I suspect ignited his interest in all things American. He now works as a systems analyst for a robotics, power, and automation company. Were his American fascinations a flight from Greece?

Nick quickly points out that Atlanta’s Greek community is “tight” and fairly scarce, united by the church and sports. It is no mystery that so many churches in the US, including the one I saw that day, have sports facilities, including its own basketball league; their website stresses community as a central component of faith.

 But I wondered if there’s anything specific about Greece that alienates them. Is there something more than attraction to America that pushes them away from Greece? They gave one of several examples I would have given, recalling the Greek educational system, which they both graduated from (I had attended an international school in Greece, so my experience differs somewhat), in which high school students are challenged to a breaking point to enter college. The barrier of arduous national qualifying exams stands in their way. They describe the college system, in which students don’t need to attend class, which places the weight of students’ entire grade on their final exam. They also pointed to the cost-free public education as a double-edged sword, removing the incentive to finish school in a particular number of years, no small task, considering the rigorous curriculum, particularly the sciences and math. This seems consistent with the fact that that so many Greeks go on to illustrious careers in the natural sciences, engineering, law, and economics. 

“What makes you feel Greek?” I ask Nick. Perhaps there’s an upshot to his argument. I was sure there was. Nick, Christos and I share a complicated affection for Greece, as it struggles with the financial and humanitarian crises it faces today.   

Nick points affectionately to his long surname (pronounced Af-rou-DAH-kis), and his unmistakable accent. I think I am one of his few Greek friends. It seems every time we meet, someone new and far removed from his world is in his company. He speaks to them in English as he does with me.

Today it was Ben, born and raised in Atlanta, and “American as can be,” by his own estimation. It was hard to learn about Ben for reasons partly out of his control. He was eager to talk, but hard pressed to speak, stifled by a stammer he has had all his life. But greater than the speech barrier was Ben’s own modesty.

“I don’t know enough to answer that,” he responded to the question about what makes someone or something feel Greek.

“But,” he interjected, tapping his knee to troupe of folk dancers who had just reached the stage, “in Greek culture there’s a lot to celebrate.” The song they were playing carried a heavy lyric typical of Greek folk, which blared over the microphone: “with one bite, I devour Hades!”

It must be lunchtime at the Westford Greek Fest.

“I want to dance to that song!” said Ben, tapping rhythmically to the bouzouki tune, to the affectionate dismay of the guys, and to my fascination. Ben seemed happy to be Greek for a day. Nick and Christos seemed happy to be American until further notice.

I had to get going not long after, so I wound back past the booths, the lines leaning up to the children’s activities, the coffee stand, the drive-thru extension of the food stand, the gift shop, the mothership cathedral, and Della even caught another glimpse of me at the end of her shift.

Greek festivals draw crowds in the tens of thousands, so is complaining beside the point? Will I ever buy a plastic column on a keychain? No. But is it my right to judge what people feel at home with or the image of Greece they call their own? Zorba’s image suffers because the distortion of his image makes some people suffer. But he gives others a reason to dance, so perhaps my right to judge them is beside the point.

Works Cited:

“About.” The Original Greek Festival (Houston, Texas). n.d., http://greekfestival.org/about/. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.
“Annunciation Church, Wauwatosa.” Wrightinwisconsin. Wrightinwisconsin.org.                                                                                                      http://www.wrightinwisconsin.org/WrightSites/AnnunciationGreekOrthodoxChurchWauwatosa.aspx. n.d. Web.                                          Accessed 17 Oct 2016.   
Dabilis, Andy. “Pressure that Kills: Greek University Entrance Exams.” The Greek Reporter. The Greek Reporter. 16 June,                                       2014. Web. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.                                                                                                                                                      “Event Info”. The Original Greek Festival (Phoenix, Arizona), n.d., 
            http://phoenixgreekfestival.org/event-info/. Accessed 17 Oct 2016. 
“Explaining Greece’s Debt Crisis.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, June 17, 2016.                                                                   http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/business/international/greece-debt-crisis-euro.html?_r=1. Accessed 17 Oct 2016. 
Glaser, Gabrielle. The Nose: Profile of Sex, Beauty and Survival. Washington Square Press, 2003.                                          
            “Greece.” Everyculture.com, n.d. http://www.everyculture.com/Ge-It/Greece.html.
             7654. Accessed 17 Oct 2016. 
Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. 18 Oct. 2016, http://www.atlgoc.org/ . Accessed 17 oct 2016.                  
             n.a.. “Greek Festival Will Go On Rain or Shine.” CBS46. CBS,8 May, 2015. Web. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.   
McCarthy, Maura and Ali Hassan (n.d.). Greek Immigration to the United States [PowerPoint slides]. Retreived from                                                 http://www.slideserve.com/JasminFlorian/greek-immigration-to-the-united-states
Pappas, Gregory. “Never on Sunday: Quite Possibly the Most Successful (and Controversial) Greek Film of All Time?” The                 Pappas Post. The Pappas Post, 4 Oct, 2014. Web. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.     
            “Revealing the Secrets of Coffee Culture in Greece.” Fantasy Travel of Greece. n.d.,                                                                                       https://www.fantasytravelofgreece.com/blog/revealing-secrets-coffee- culture-greece.html. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.              “2016 Greek Festivals”. Hellenic Festival: Your Greek Festival Connection. n.d.,http://www.hellenicfestival.org/festival/. Accessed 17 Oct               2016.

WRITING FOR NEW MEDIA

A PAINTER OF THE SOUL

Transcript for a podcast I wrote and recorded for SCAD's Quilt Stories series, dedicated to the people depicted on the AIDS memorial quilt and the loved ones who designed panels in their memory. Names have been changed.

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 George Makris’ panel radiates with his partner’s love. Daniel Keller, George’s friend and lover of 9 years describes him as a “perfectionist,” charmed and startled by his artistic drumbeat. George was drawn to iconography, the art of painting devotional portraits that adorn the walls of Orthodox churches. In Daniel’s written tribute to George, he admits his struggles to convey his lover’s “religious background,” so closely linked to Greece in my mind.

Maybe George knew Greece. Perhaps he ventured to a Greek mountaintop to learn his craft from the monks. After all, he mastered gold leaf painting “early on,” and rose to the top of his trade both as iconographer and as a restorer of gold antiques. Maybe an icon caught his eye at church one day as he bowed to kiss it, inspiring the awe in him that we feel in the presence of great art. After all, George’ religious feeling burned with the fury of his artistic drive.

George’ panel contains photos of Daniel and George. The central photo shows George and Daniel lounging on the roof of their Manhattan apartment building. Between them is a freshly completed icon George had labored over for months. Maybe his work ethic, not to mention his flair for cooking chicken, trickled down from his father and grandfather who were in the restaurant business.

George’ passion for landscaping and gardening show his love of nature. You see it in his photo of Fire Island at sunset, the site of his second anniversary with Daniel. He had bought George a camera so he could photograph his work, but he captured that sunset before anything else.

Daniel’s favorite photo of George was on Christmas Eve 1989, not because it was in the last batch that were taken while he was healthy, but because it captures his grin, a glimpse of his sense of humor.

George may be the only one who could tell his own story. After all, Daniel speculates that George would love nothing more than to “come back” and explain himself. Until then, maybe George is at the drawing board, with the subjects of his icons huddled around him.

 

A Man WHO KNEW THE POWER OF A NEW DAY

Transcript for a podcast I wrote and recorded for SCAD's Quilt Stories series, dedicated to the people depicted on the AIDS memorial quilt and the loved ones who designed panels in their memory. Names have been changed.

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A panel sits in royal blue on the quilt, honoring the reverend Robert Kent. It displays Kent’s dates of birth and death, a clergy symbol, and his motto: “it’s not just another day, it’s another chance.”

Cleo Abrams, Robert’s panel maker, used to watch him spellbound at crowded services. Perhaps she had a favorite prayer or chapter from the New Testament, if only because his sermons had drawn her to them. 

I can picture the day she met Robert as a newcomer to Fallfield, Pennsylvania. She smiles as he greets Cleo at the church door, inviting her to the children’s sermon. She is home again. 

For the next 14 years, Cleo could not wait for Sunday to come. She recalls the warm touch Robert applied to his sermons. Perhaps they were peppered with personal anecdotes, referring to his wife Linda, known as Lin. Like Robert, she was ordained at Boston University, and they were married in 1959. 

Sunday-by-Sunday Robert got to know his congregation as his friends. Cleo recalls his excitement over the news of her high school graduation. She called him Pastor in reverence and called him Robert with affection. 

But the comfort of his voice began to fade. In 1986, he contracted HIV during heart surgery. I can’t begin to picture his inner state at that moment. How could he bring himself to tell his friends? Where could he turn at a time when many doctors were reluctant to confront the afflicted?

What Robert needed was another chance, and in 1988, he got it. That year, with the announcement of his wife’s promotion in the Methodist church, Robert announced his own retirement. Cleo embraced him at his farewell dinner as Lin assured her, “we’re not dying, just leaving.” 

Rumors spread in the following years, but Robert was not ready. Cleo sent a letter to him around that time, happy to learn later that it meant so much to him. Finally, local newspapers revealed Robert’s illness. The whispers died down. It was time for Kent to speak.

In the early 90s, Robert returned to Fallfield to accept a plaque honoring his service. Cleo was there, like all those who remembered him. In his speech that day, Robert described a conversation with God at the hospital, where God decided Robert needed to see his loved ones one more time. At the end, Cleo looked around at the applause, claiming no one at that church had brought so many to their feet.