Saturday, June 30, 2007

Monday Evening in Rome

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After the Vatican, we took a bus back over the Tiber River and just got off somewhere. We had landed next to the Church of St John the Baptist of the Florentines, so we stopped in. It was yet another giant, imposing church with plenty of baroque painting on the inside. On the painting, I’ll say this – I found it interesting, but I must admit that I am personally not a big fan of the style, especially for religious subjects. While I can appreciate the aesthetic, it’s more from a clinical perspective.

Anyway, after that we continued walking toward the center of town, and stopped at the Sacred Area of Largo di Torre Argentino, which features the ruins of four ancient temples, built between 4th-2nd centuries BC. (See the top photo.)

Interestingly, a volunteer group runs a cat shelter from the ruins. As in Greece, stray cats seem to like hanging out in the ancient ruins, so what better place to run the shelter? The group even gives tours of the ruins in exchange for a small donation to their project. Of course, Pelagia stopped to play with the cats and talk to the shelter workers.

After that, we stopped for dinner. (The food in Rome was great, by the way!) The second photo is of the accordion player who serenaded us all.

After dinner, we walked over to the famous Trevi Fountain and then the Spanish Steps (photos 3 and 4). They were both packed with people. The Fountain in particular made a very nice place to just sit for awhile and enjoy the sights and sounds of the water.

Friday, June 29, 2007

St Peter's Basilica

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At the end of our tour, we were left at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. We were told there was supposed to be complete silence and no cameras or video (even without flash), but when we went in, it was pandemonium. The place was jam packed, everyone talking, flashes popping. I took some video (which has the advantage of not needing flash), which you can see at the end of the Vatican video in the last post.

I was surprised at the paintings on the ceiling – they were smaller and more of them than I had thought.

After the Sistine Chapel, we headed through a special entrance (which did not require another security screening since we had already passed one) into St Peter’s Basilica.

What can I say? It is absolutely enormous, although it’s sort of sectioned off into manageable pieces with enormous pillars and side chapels. We got to go right up to the altar, over which there is an incredibly tall tower. At the top of the tower, which no one can quite see, are supposedly housed the skulls of Sts Peter and Paul.

I tried to take some photos, but the space is so enormous that nothing really came out.

So I have now been in (I believe) the three largest churches in the world -- St Peter’s, Hagia Sophia, and St Sava’s (in Belgrade), and I would honestly have to say that I was most impressed by St Sava’s. Even though the interior is not finished, the way they used the interior space is the most awe-inspiring. There are no pillars dividing the space, and the roof seems the highest of the three.

The first photo is of St Peter’s Square, taken from the entrance to the Basilica.

The second photo is also taken from the entrance, but pointing off to the right, where many of the administrative buildings of the independent country of the Vatican are housed – such as the Vatican Post Office. (The country of the Vatican, you’ll be interested to know, has a population of 400 and the official language is Latin.)

The bottom photo is of the front of St Peter’s, looking back from the end of St Peter’s Square.

For more information on St Peter’s, click here. It’s interesting to note that St Peter’s is actually the patriarchal seat of Constantinople, not Rome. The pope, as the patriarch of Rome, technically has his seat at St John Lateran. (There are five patriarchal basilicas in Rome, acting as seats – originally – for the Pentarchy, or five equal Patriarchs of Christendom.) St Paul’s Outside the Walls was the seat of the Pope (or Patriarch) of Alexandria; St Mary Maggiore for the Patriarch of Antioch; and St Lawrence Outside the Walls (not considered a major basilica) for the Patriarch of Jerusalem (who is ranked fifth in the hierarchy of honor among the patriarchates).

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Monday Afternoon: The Vatican Museum

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After the catacombs, we headed toward the Vatican. There were people everywhere. The Vatican Museum averages 17,000 visitors a day – and they close at 3:30!! It was crazy!

Fortunately, I had read about this and found a way around it – to book a guided tour in advance. This way, we got to skip to the front of the line to clear security. The sun was beating down, so it was great to avoid the line baking outside. But, almost unbelievably, the museum does not have any air conditioning.

Anyway, our guide led us through some of the highlights of the museum for about 1.5-2 hours, then left us at the Sistine Chapel, through which we then went into St Peter’s Basilica. I put together a 10-minute video of all this that you can view below.

As for the photos, the middle one is the porphyry sarcophagus of St Helen, the mother of St Constantine.

The bottom photo is from the Hall of Maps.

In all, I believe our guide said there are 7 km of exhibits! I did not get to see the manuscript collection, which I was interested in. This is held in the nearby Vatican Library, and – I was told – that I would need to file a written request in advance and have some scholarly purpose for the visit. Maybe I can invent one if we ever go back! ( ;

Check out the video:

Monday Morning in Rome: The Catacombs

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On Monday morning, we headed out early for the Appian Way and the famous catacombs. The Appian Way is an old road which led out of the city to the southeast. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, it was here that St Peter, as he was fleeing the persecution in Rome, had a vision of Christ, who was heading into the city. St Peter asked Christ: “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?), to which Christ replied: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” From this, St Peter understood that he was to return to Rome to face the persecution. He was crucified upside down. A church is built on the site of this vision.

Further down the Appian Way, there are miles and miles of catacombs. The bus dropped us off, and we started walking down this famous ancient road. (See the top photo.) Along the way, we saw several sites, including the above-ground mausoleum of a wealthy Roman woman, Cecilia Metella, and the ruins of the ancient church, St Nicholas de’ Caetani (see middle photo). Sadly, as we walked around these ruins, we noticed that this secluded area appears to be used for less-than-holy purposes – we found hypodermic needles tucked into a crevice in the wall. This was all the more odd because the area is very well-to-do, with massive, beautiful estates on either side of the road.

Finally, we made it down to the Catacombs of St Sebastian, one of three catacomb complexes in the area open to visitors. It stays a cool 60 degrees down there, so it was a great place to visit! This set of catacombs stretch for several miles and contained 100,000 bodies, with Christians and pagans buried together. During the persecution of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD), the relics of Sts Peter and Paul were hidden here. To commemorate this, St Constantine erected a church on top of the catacombs to the memory of Sts Peter and Paul. It was later rededicated to St Sebastian, who was martyred in 287 (see bottom photo).

Afterwards, we walked on a little while to the Catacombs of St Callixtus, which are the largest and most famous catacombs with 20 km of tunnels. It was originally founded as a specifically Christian burial ground, and ended up housing 500,000 Christians, 100,000 of which were babies. (For more information on the Christians as a funerary association in the eyes of the Romans, check out this fascinating book by Robert Wilken.)

In one of the rooms we walked through, which once housed the tombs of 7 popes, one early pope, Pope St Sixtus II (257-258) was martyred along with four deacons during a service. Contrary to popular belief, we were told, the Romans did know that the Christians were meeting for services in the catacombs. Enforcement, however, was sporadic. On this occasion, Roman soldiers entered the catacombs, found Pope Sixtus II addressing the faithful, and martyred him and his four deacons. The faithful attending the service were allowed to live.

The catacombs were definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the catacombs.

First Evening in Rome

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We left Thessaloniki on Sunday around 2 pm and it was only a short 1.5-2 hour flight to Rome. The airport is about 30 miles outside the city, so you have to take train from the airport. We got to our little room around 4:30 PM (Italian time, one hour behind us), checked in with our host, and then headed out for a stroll around town.

As I’m sure I’ll mention again, it has been *extremely* hot in this area of the world for the last week or so, and Rome was no exception. (Although our neighbors told us it was worse here – on Tuesday it supposedly got up to 114 in Athens, and a breezy 109 here in Thessaloniki.)

Since it was already approaching evening when we arrived, the heat wasn’t too bad. We took a leisurely stroll toward the Colosseum, which was about a 20-minute walk from our place. Along the way, we passed a local soccer match in action (see the top photo). Surprisingly, it seemed that most of the players and spectators were from Latin America.

Overall, I was very surprised how diverse the population in Rome was – there seemed to be an enormous Indian/Pakistani population (at least in the area we were staying), as well as many from central Africa and Latin America. Combine that with all the tourists (20 million per year) and I began to wonder if there were any actual Italians left in Rome. It’s funny, but I actually heard more American English than Italian there!

Anyway, we stopped and watched the game for a few minutes and then continued down to the Colosseum, the Palatine, and the Roman Agora (see the bottom two photos).

Along the way, we also stopped in a church, the Basilica of Sts Sylvester and Martin. It had started as a house church in the 2nd century! Here is some historical information I found on it:

“Its origins reach back to the era of the imperial persecutions when it was a domus Dei, a house church, known as titulus Equitii, probably because the house or land belonged to a priest named Equitius. The original church was built by Saint Sylvester (314-335) and restored in the early sixth century when it was dedicated to St. Martin of Tours (317-397) and Pope St. Sylvester. The crypt shows signs of the ancient alternate name of the church as “San Martino in Thermis.” It was the site of the preparatory meetings for the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the site of a diocesan Council over which both Constantine and Sylvester presided. It was here, in fact, that the Nicene Creed was first proclaimed in Rome. Also, the heretical books of Arius, Sabellius, and Victorius were burnt here.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


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Finally, we stopped at Ouranoupoli (within sight of the island) for about an hour before we headed back to Thessaloniki. This is the traditional departure point for the Holy Mountain, so it was nice for Pelagia to be able to see it. There’s really not too much there – in a strange combination, it caters as much to the German tourists looking for great beaches as to Orthodox pilgrims.

I ended up having a coffee with the priests. I had a really interesting conversation with Fr Panayoti, the second priest at our parish. Our little town of Panorama has a population of 28,000 (27,997 of which are undoubtedly Orthodox). There are two parishes in Panorama to serve them, each with two priests. So that means that each priest has about 7000 faithful to care for.

Just at our parish of St George’s, he told me, there are about 60 funerals and 70 baptisms a year (more than one of each per week). Additionally, there are about 15-20 weddings a year (many people in Panorama opt to have their wedding downtown at a big church like St Gregory Palamas or St Demetrios).

And the clergy in the US thought they had it hard! ( ;

The top and bottom photos are of the old fortress in Ouranoupoli, located right at the port. The middle photo is of the local parish for the residents of Ouranoupoli.

Amouliani Island

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The boat ride from the main land to the veesaki (little island) of Amouliani took only about 20 or 30 minutes. It is located between the second and third fingers of the Halkidiki peninsula, and has a wonderful view of Mt Athos.

It also has some beautiful beaches – and little else. But what else do you need? The water is crystal clear. I have heard many people say that the beaches of Halkidiki are the finest in the world, and I have no reason to dispute that.

We arrived on the island around 12:30, and Fr Alexei told us we had free time to wander around until 5. Pelagia and I went first to a little restaurant on the water and had something to eat. In the top photo, you see Pelagia looking over the side from our table down into the water, where thousands of little fish swirled around. Diners would frequently throw a piece of bread into the water, which the fish would swarm.

The second photo is of the restaurant as we walked away – what a lovely location!

After lunch, we walked about a mile or two across the island to what we were told was the best beach. We weren’t disappointed! The third photo is of Pelagia entering the beach from the path we followed, and the last photo is of her taking a nap. What a great way to spend the afternoon!

Later, when we met back up with the group, Fr Gregory (the priest-monk) admitted to us that he even went for a swim, albeit in a secluded place where no one else was. The weather here has really peaked in the last few days – yesterday it was over 100! – so the water felt great.

Again, for more photos, click here.

The Monastery of St Arsenios the Cappadocian

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Our parish’s senior priest, Fr Alexei, loves organizing outings for the parish. On Tuesday, he took about 75 of us to visit the Monastery of St Arsenios the Cappadocian in Halkidiki. Afterwards, we then went to the tiny island of Amouliani, which is near Ouranoupoli and the Holy Mountain, for an afternoon on their beautiful beaches.

We left Panorama in two coach buses around 8 AM and headed first to the men’s monastery, which was founded in 1986 by Elder Paisios (+1994). When we got on the bus, Fr Alexei said a short prayer for our trip and we all sang several apolytikia – for Pentecost, St George (our parish), and St Demetrios (Thessaloniki’s patron). It’s amazing how many apolytikia the average Greek knows by heart!

When we arrived at the monastery, we headed first to the church, where Fr Alexei again led a short 10-minute prayer service. Again, we sang several apolytikia, including the one for St Arsenios. I took quite a bit of video inside the church, both of our little service and of the inside of the church generally. I particularly tried to capture some of the unique iconography and the impressive collection of relics at the front of the church (including, notably, St Ignatios the God-Bearer). There wasn’t much light in there, so I hope the video came out decently – see below.

I also took some photos. The top one includes Pelagia as we walked through the entrance of the monastery. The second one is of Fr Gregory, a priest-monk who serves in a village near Panorama, in the middle of the monastery’s courtyard. The third is of Pelagia near a plant she liked very much – she’s always on the prowl for interesting plants, and monasteries here always have such beautiful and well-maintained gardens. The final photo is of Pelagia walking from a viewing area across the courtyard toward the main church.

All the photos from the day are located here.

After we looked around, we all went down to the monastery’s bookstore, which was quite large. I found two books in English which I had never seen before. One was a children’s book about St Zoticus, Guardian of Orphans. The second was the story of an elderly woman named Tarso, who many say was a contemporary Fool for Christ. The monastery also had some of their own chant recordings which I had never seen anywhere else before.

I always think it would be nice to collect these kinds of things on our trips and somehow distribute them to the bookstores of Orthodox parishes back in the US, but I’m not sure how the logistics would work out. If anyone is interested in me collecting some things for their bookstore, please contact me and we’ll figure something out.

After we left the monastery, we then drove on toward Ouranoupoli, the traditional departure point for the Holy Mountain. Just before Ouranoupoli, we stopped at a little town called Nea Rodos (New Rhodes), from which we took a quick boat ride over to the island of Amouliani (see the next post for more on this).

Here’s the video from the day. It’s about 8 and a half minutes long. The first half is from inside the monastery, and the second half is from our return bus trip.

Fr Alexei started doing some traditional Greek (actually Pontian) dancing on the bus and he was looking for people to dance with him. An elderly woman danced with him for awhile as I got out the camera. You’ll see that he then came and got the two of to dance with him (unfortunately – or fortunately – I couldn’t take any video of us dancing). After that, the video ends with him leading a sing-along!

Making Jam

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Sorry for the lack of activity on the blog! I hope my three faithful readers haven’t given up on me! ( :

Since Greek school finished, both Pelagia and I have been working a lot. Pelagia keeps getting more and more work – mainly painting, but earlier this week I helped her put in some laminate flooring.

She is an extremely hard worker and does excellent work, so her name keeps spreading by word-of-mouth. She’s now even got a couple job offers to work on summer homes in Halkidiki. Of course, that just underscores a big problem – lack of a car. It’s to the point now where she could get a lot more work – and charge more – if we had a car. But of course fronting the money for even a used car is difficult for us. If anyone out there wants to donate some funds toward this end, we’d REALLY appreciate it! ( :

Meanwhile, apart from occasionally helping Pelagia, I’m working on some translations for Fr. Peter Heers, as I mentioned before. The first one I did went surprisingly quickly, but it was because I chose the easiest one first. I’m working on one now that is really bogging me down. Still, it’s good work for me – I’m learning and getting paid (although not very much at my current pace). As I get better, I’ll earn more though.

Anyway, this post is about our big mousmala tree in the backyard. Mousmala is a type of sweet fruit which I had never seen before coming here. Apparently, it is called loquat in English, and it’s a type of quince (if either of those terms helps at all – they didn’t for me!). I guess the closest thing I could compare it to would be a plum.

Well, we have so many right now that they’re just falling off the tree. So the other day Pelagia climbed up in the tree (see the top picture – she’s in the tree, along with our cat Mo, although you can’t really make them out), and harvested two buckets full of them. We then made 7 jars of jam from it – and it’s even pretty good!

Stay tuned to the blog. Yesterday, Tuesday, we went on a field trip with our parish here in Panorama, and I have lots of photos – and a video – that I’m working on posting. Also, we’re taking a trip to Rome on Sunday, so I’ll have LOTS of photos when we return on Wednesday.

My parents were supposed to be visiting right now, and they were taking us to Rome as part of their trip. Unfortunately, my mom became very seriously ill and they had to postpone their trip. There was no refund on the tickets, though, so Pelagia and I are going to Rome! Please keep checking in…

Friday, June 08, 2007

Greek Exam Results and What's Happening Now

Well, the results are in – I passed! I got a 7, which probably won’t mean much to most of you. It’s based on a scale of 1-10, with 5 as passing. My goal all year had been simply to get a 5, which many of us language-challenged Americans struggle to get. So I was quite happy with a 7. In fact, my teacher told me that I missed getting an 8 by a single point. Oh well!
Since the exam, what’s been happening? Well, John Karcher returned from two months away in America to finish his exams here at the university, and he stayed with us from last Friday until yesterday (Thursday).

Last night, I went downtown to attend a lecture by Fr. Spyridon (our confessor and the confessor for most of the Americans here) at Panagia Ahiropiitou. There, we ran into Fr. John Bethancourt (of the Antiochian parish in Sante Fe, New Mexico), his son, Daniel, and Daniel’s fiancée, Maria Gallos. Fr. John is finishing up a tour of the Biblical lands for his sabbatical, paid for by a grant from the Lilly Foundation. It was very nice to meet him, since he knows Pelagia’s family.

Meanwhile, this week, Pelagia and I embarked on a major project of repainting the kitchen and all our doors and doorframes. It’s almost done – we’re hoping we’ll finish tomorrow. Maybe I’ll post some before & after photos again.

On Monday, Pelagia starts on a painting job down in Harilaou which should take about 4 days.

As for me, I will now start on my first paid translation work! Fr. Peter Heers of Uncut Mountain Press (publishers of the Elder Cleopa books, etc.) has given me three essays to translate for a forthcoming book of lectures given at the Ecumenism conference held here in Thessaloniki in September 2004. For more information on the work, click here and scroll about a quarter or third down the page. There you can see a list of all the essays to be included. Some, already in English, are available for free by clicking on the blue link.

I will be translating the following three:

The Church of Bulgaria vis-à-vis Ecumenism
Metropolitan NATHANAEL of Nevrokop, Bulgaria

The Church of Russia vis-à-vis Ecumenism
Archpriest Valentin Asmus, Professor, Theological School of Moscow

The Problem of Uniatism in Ukraine
Ivan Diatsenko, Professor, Ecclesiastical School “The Ladder”, Dviepropetrovsk

Friday, June 01, 2007

Greek Class Farewells

Since this is the last week of our Greek class, the flashes were popping this week. Everyone wanted photos to remember the year we spent imprisoned, I mean, learning Greek. ( ;

One girl from Slovakia took this photo of me and my buddy, Constantine, from Romania. He teaches theology in the public school system in Romania and he's doing a Master's in Theology here. (In Greece and Romania, Orthodox theology is part of the public education curriculum.)

This photo was taken in the little courtyard outside our school, which is wedged in between the Philosophy buildings.

Yesterday was our last class and tomorrow morning is the big test!