All the A’s in Athens

Thursday 14thFebruary 2019 – Athens

I am writing this today from Voulas, which is by the Mediterranean at the end of the Athens tram line.  Winding here through the Athens suburbs the bakeries and florists have embraced St Valentine with heart shaped cakes and bread abounding. 

Voulas near Athens

Once again, I have scant detail about Harry’s time here in Athens, but I do know from the letter he wrote at the end of his trip that “going with two Greek friends up the Acropolis, I saw the exact spot where the Apostle Paul made his famous speech to the ‘Men of Athens’ in which he said, ‘God hath made of one blood all nations to dwell on the face of the earth’.” Which he felt was akin to the I-House motto of ‘Let brotherhood prevail’.  So obviously as I set out early to climb up the Acropolis, I stopped at Aerophagus hill which where Harry is referring to.  

The Acropolis from Aerophagus Hill

It was a grey and blustery winter morning and no one else was about.  I climbed up the metal steps as the original marble ones cut into the rock, that Harry would have used, looked a bit slippery and treacherous and paused on the top imagining Harry there with his two friends looking out over the whole of Athens.  I expect there may have been less buildings and more countryside 53 years ago.  It was very peaceful and looking closely there were signs of spring in the surrounding archaeological site, with small yellow flowers and the rosemary bushes blooming. 

Plaque with Apostle Paul’s sermon to the ‘men of Athens’

I love visiting historical or ancient sites and imagining them bustling with people. The structures on the Acropolis have been adapted over the ages to be churches, mosques, temples and houses, so there is plenty to ponder.  That they are still standing at all today is remarkable.  

It was windy up the top…

Finding alumni in Athens had proved one of my more challenging destinations.  However luckily for me Alex Varelas, took a trip down memory lane last March and visited I-House NYC some 30 years after his time there.  Julie Pape from the alumni office showed him round and subsequently connect me to him.  Through a chance meeting Alex re-connected with Kosmas Michail who had also been in the NYC House at the same time.  Kosmas and his wife Leslie Jones are Sakura Sweethearts who met at the House.  Evangelia Avloniti who stayed at International Student House London completed our small but perfectly formed gathering.

Alex’s resident’s card from 1990, obviously he does not look any older…

Alex had chosen a very traditional Greek restaurant in a residential district of Athens.  One of the joys of my trip is that I have eaten in places that as a tourist I would never have visited.  I was instructed to go and inspect what dishes were on offer at the open kitchen viewing area, full of huge pans of delicious stews and vegetables.  

Alex Varelas, Kosmas Michail, Leslie Jones, Evangelia Avloniti & me at Fillipou restaurant

Around the table we had a mix of arts, with Leslie a cellist and Evangelia an art historian turned literary agent and science and business with both Kosmas and Alex originally training to be Electrical Engineers, but the common theme was the breadth and internationality of the time with others in the Houses.  

Istanbul candle went to Leslie who bought the Athens candle which I shall take to Rome

It was a delightful evening and I hope that it will be the start of alumni in Athens re-connecting.

Leslie, heads up the Music Department at DEREE, the American College of Greece and was taking a number of her students to a concert at the Athens Concert Hall and kindly invited me to come. The hall has amazing acoustics and we enjoyed – Nikos Skalkottas: Symphonic Suite No. 1 and Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83.

Story Snippets…

Missing match maker– Kosmas Michail and Leslie Jones – When Leslie Jones moved from Oregon to study the Cello in New York, she originally lived in another dorm, but realizing I-House was closer to her school she decided to re-locate.  She already had an established set of friends and was doing long hours of rehearsing for her recitals so she was not one to be found in the pub or socializing.  It was only with much persuasion that her friend Jan Fießig got Leslie to agree to come to his farewell breakfast as he was leaving the House to go back to Germany. He had mentioned to Leslie previously that she should meet Kosmas as he was a wonderful philosopher and Jan felt they would get along.  Jan was right and romance blossomed after his departure and Kosmas and Leslie became a Satura Sweetheart couple.  Sadly, Jan never knew that his matchmaking was successful.  Leslie has tried to trace him a number of times with no luck.  So, they and I are hoping that perhaps someone reading this might know him still and ask him to get in touch.  

Delights of London – Evangelia Avloniti – Evangelia left Greece to go and study Art History at the Courtauld Institute in London and was offered a place in some accommodation that was some way away from there.  Rather than accept it she enquired again about any other options and was pointed in the direction of International Student House London (ISH). She moved in and was captivated by the breadth of nationalities living alongside her counting friends from Ethiopia, Pakistan and India to name but a few.  When her sister came to London they managed to extend their association with ISH by moving into one of the apartments owned by ISH near Marylebone High Street, not a location where students can usually afford to live in London!  She loves being back in Athens, but misses the international dimension of entering a room at ISH and meeting new friends from new countries every day.  

I-House ‘magic’– Alex Varelas – We were reflecting on the difference between the I-House experience and other multicultural / international study experiences and Alex was comparing his time at I-House with his time at INSEAD business school near Paris, where he studied for his MBA.  ISEAD certainly is international environment with over 40 countries represented in his class. These classmates from all nationalities worked hard and played hard together, but still for Alex it could not compare it to the diversity and cultural understanding he experienced by living at the New York I-House.  Having 70-80 countries represented and sharing a ‘home’ together made it the most international and cross cultural experience for Alex.  Which is the ‘magic’ that Harry described often in his letters to others about living at any of the I-Houses.

Masterclass in Rhetoric – Leslie Jones – Leslie was recalling that Gerald Ford came to speak at the House whilst she was there.  She decided it was an opportunity not to be missed and went along. She recalled what an engaging and charismatic speaker he was but also how when he was done, reflecting on what she had heard, she found that he had not really said anything at all.  An enjoyable masterclass in political rhetoric indeed.  

Post office postscript…

Greece scored highly on the postcard quest.  Postcards are abundant at every tourist spot and stall.  I secured 4 for €1 and there is a handy post office opposite the entrance to the Acropolis.  The lady behind the counter was a bit tardy in opening up and as I waited the post man appeared to collect the cards from the box outside, but he waited for me to buy my stamps and took the cards, speeding off behind the trees in his blue van… 

Where we ate: Fillipou https://www.filippou.gr

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