The Aegean, Lectures, Refugees and the Acropolis
Sadly, we left Greece today and flew to Naples. Our last week and a half had been varied and typical of our action-packed time in Greece. The last places we travelled to in Greece outside of Athens were the Aegean Islands of Chios and Samos.
After flying into Chios we headed straight towards the famous Koraes Library in the old part of Chios Town. This is one of the oldest libraries in Greece. It had been destroyed once by the massacre of Chios by the Ottoman Turks in the early 19th century and again by a tremendous earthquake in the late 19th century. Each time it was rebuilt and made better by local philanthropists and the people of Greece. It has a rich archive including a 14-volume set of illustrated albums of Egypt given by Napoleon to Adamantios Koraes in the early 1800s. The Library’s conservationist was very proud to show us the work he was doing to help preserve these priceless books.
We spent the next day touring the island. This including taking a quick dip in the warm waters of the Aegean, visiting the fabulous Mastic Museum (look up the incredible story of mastic), and visiting the traditional town of Pyrgi (where Christopher Columbus hung out – he liked mastic a lot).
The next morning we watched the sun rise over nearby Turkey (only a few miles away).
We took the two-hour ferry to Samos and came to a very different place. Chios is larger, dryer and beautiful but has a dark history. Samos is lush, has great beaches, fantastic mountains, and excellent wine. We walked along a deserted beach near our hotel and marveled at the beauty of it all. I kept seeing bits and pieces of things washed up along the shore. As we came around a corner on the beach we saw a large, brightly colored pile of life vests clumped together. We found out later that there had recently been another landing of refugees on this beach and these were things they had discarded. Because the secluded beach was less than a mile from Turkey there were still refugees landing frequently on Samos.
That night I gave a lecture at the University of the Aegean campus in Karlovasi. It was a good crowd that asked a lot of challenging, questions. We were told that Greece started a series of University campuses about 30 years ago on these outer Greek islands next to Turkey. The idea was to have a bigger population to solidify Greece’s claim that these islands belong to Greece, and to strengthen the national identity. My lecture began at 8:00pm, so by the time they took us out to dinner it was getting close to midnight. Ah, Greece! The next morning I photographed the library at the University (which is housed in an old school) and later in the afternoon the Public Central Historic Library in Samos Town. Then we took an evening flight back to Athens just before the rain.
I gave another lecture Wednesday night at the wonderful Athens Centre. It was founded and directed by the remarkable Yannis Zervos whom we had dinner with at the beginning of our stay in Athens. My slide talk included some images from my American Public Library work but mostly was an overview and summary of the work we had done in Greece over the last two months. It was good for me to be forced to make sense of this experience and to put the images together to tell the story of our Fulbright in Greece.
During our last week in Greece we voted on our laptops (watch out Republicans!) and continued our pursuit of literary Greece.
We went back to the Books & Play center/library for refugees and homeless to attend a Farsi reading session for refugee children and their dad. We also met again the dynamic founder of “We Need Books” and of this center, Ioanna Nissiriou and her co-founder Nadir Noori who left Afghanistan at the age of 12 as an unaccompanied minor. All are inspirational volunteers doing the right thing.
We had a lunch with our new friends at the National Library of Greece. They have been the most amazing “hosts” during our stay and we can never thank them enough. They are from left to right: Director General Dr. Filippos Tsimpoglou, administrative staff Evi Stefani and Gregory Chrysostomidis. We couldn’t have done this project without them!
Throughout our stay in Athens we felt like we were circling around the world-famous Acropolis. It comes from the Greek words meaning “high” and “city” and you see it from all over Athens. We finally visited it two days before we left Greece. This was partly to avoid the tourists and the heat. It was also because we have just been too darn busy to go. We got close the evening before when we visited the world-class Acropolis Museum and its fabulous rooftop café, with an “up close and personal” view of the Parthenon. The next morning we arrived at the Acropolis just after they opened at 8:30. It is unlike anything I have seen before and I highly recommend that everyone experience it at some point in their life.
We ended our stay in Greece by visiting a refugee camp in Athens. I photographed their library/classroom with a group of kids taking a language lesson. Their shoes outside the door reminded me of what we had seen washed up on the shores of Samos. We finished by photographing a room containing an Ideas Box which was leased by a group called Libraries Without Borders. Hopefully, we will meet up with this group again during the next leg of our odyssey in Italy. I was fascinated by the creative thinking that went into producing this traveling library and resource center. The Ideas Boxes had just come from Jordan and, after Athens, it will travel on to another place of need. The symbolism of the signs on the walls of this room only suggest some of the struggles endured in this place of refuge.