Sarah Pavey is in her second year of her English Masters at St. Thomas and is a recipient of a travel and a research grant. This spring she traveled to Greece to participate in a literary conference on Lord Byron where she presented her research on Byron and disability studies.
Yassas in English, like aloha, means hello and goodbye. In light of the warm welcome I received in Greece this May, it’s appropriate that you can’t say goodbye without saying hello. Once you’ve made a connection with the people of this incredible country, you can’t truly say goodbye forever. So many people have asked me what the most memorable part of my trip was and I keep finding myself saying “the hospitality.” In a world that seems to become more fractured and divided by viewpoints on civil rights on a daily basis, the kindness and hospitality in Greece was something that I found surprising and often very moving.
After much planning and anticipation, Dr. Young-ok An and Dr. MacKenzie and I headed east for the 12th International Student Byron Conference. Accustomed as I am to international travel, covering a distance of over 5,000 miles in one fell swoop is still rather tiring but it was well worth the effort considering our destination. After an 8 hour Delta flight to Paris, a 2 hour layover, a 3 hour flight to Athens, and a 3 hour taxi ride, we reached Messolongi, the municipality where Lord Byron spent his final days. Our hotel was by a lagoon, and surrounded by a picturesque scattering of stout palm trees. The air was humid, and gentle breezes alleviated the sting of an often blinding Mediterranean sun. Each day after presentations discussing Byron and nature we went on tours of museums, a monastery, churches, and archeological sites organized by the Messolonghi Byron Society. In addition to the Byron-related locales, we saw places of natural beauty including Trichonida, the largest lake in Greece as well as the local salt works, which viewed from high up in the hills looked like a patchwork quilt made of glass. It was easy to see how the landscape of Greece set the stage for Byron’s experiences there.
Frankly speaking, I am neither a Romanticist nor a Byronist, and though I knew Lord Byron was considered a hero by the Greeks I wasn’t aware of just how much he was idolized and respected. In 1823, Byron decided to support the Greeks in their fight to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, sacrificing a great deal of money and time, even selling his estate in Scotland for over £11, 000 which equates to about $1.6 million today. Before he was able to lead an attack against a Turkish fortress, Byron became ill. Poor medical practices led to a violent fever and his subsequent death on April 19, 1824. Ultimately, Byron’s death drew more attention to the cause and with it more participation in the Greek War of Independence and his generosity and courage remains his legacy. From the Messolonghi Byron Research Center dedicated to studying him to his great marble statue in the Garden of Heroes and even a pavilion in the town square, Byron is honored everywhere in this welcoming city. It is with his same level of devotion that the Greeks remember him. And of course, all of us who attended the International Student Byron Conference traveled thousands of miles to honor and appreciate the life and work of a man who’s been dead for nearly two centuries.
The conference was a very unifying experience. I learned so much about Byron and why other writers and academics love his work. I met so many wonderful people from Lebanon to York, London to Kentucky. As one professor said to me “birds of a feather…” and it’s very true. We all came to Greece for the love to literature and learning and I am so thankful for the wonderful experience. Literature opens doors and puts people on planes and gets you meeting people you won’t otherwise meet. I was a little melancholy to part from my new found friends.
After the conference came to a close, we headed to Delphi, a magnificent sanctuary and small town on the southwestern side of Mount Parnassus. The walk to the the Delphi Archeological Museum afforded a breath-taking view of the valley of Phocis (not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights and I mean that sincerely). Beyond the museum was the archeological site which included the famous Temple of Apollo. One thing is for certain, the ancient Greeks knew about prime real estate. The stray (and often feral) cats certainly appreciate the locale, sunning themselves on the hillside and ancient stones. It didn’t really feel like I was there in any specific era, as if time paused there just to see the view.
Our final stop on our journey through Greece was the capitol. It was hot, busy, and mildly confusing, but it grips you. The electric twang of the tram cables sounded above my head as I walk through the bustling streets. The sound of Greek voices, mellow and musical, floated around me. If someone was watching me they would have seen me in the process of learning, trying to memorize the streets. Luckily for me or anyone else who wasn’t fluent in Greek, the street signs on most buildings had convenient translations into Latin characters so we could make passable pronunciations if it was necessary to ask for directions. Though I picked up several words of salutations, Google Maps averted the need to bother some innocent local on the street about where various tourist attractions were located. But there’s far more to the city than museums and statues.
You can’t turn a corner in Athens without seeing graffiti over every abandoned or chained up storefront, laid waste by economic hardship. Although graffiti is often dismissed as a defacement of public property, this art form functions as a protest against the oppressive forces weighing people down. The written word is not limited to books; it is people souls bared on walls and an expression of political distress. The graffitied messages encompassed not only the current economic struggle of the country but also issues we face at home in the U.S.; women’s healthcare, issues in gender, and the threat of fascist elements in government. The more I wandered the city, the more attention I paid to the graffiti itself. The styles and similar use of fonts, anarchist symbolism, the use of stenciled messages; at one point I even saw a euro symbol = a swastika. This is not your average intercity artistry on a train carriage, and though not necessarily more or less significant, the graffiti in Athens is hardcore. It felt as if the graffiti was screaming out to me, needing to be read, to be understood. I was often moved by those words I couldn’t even read because of the energy, color, and artistry in which they were emblazoned all over the city.
On our first night out in the city we went for a meal after our long journey. As we sat down I looked to my left and suddenly saw the Parthenon, illuminated in the distance. Acropolis essentially means upper city in Greek and it’s a glorious sight, those ancient buildings poised above a city whose nightlife teems below like some sort of dark human ocean. The Parthenon was even more splendid and unbelievable up close in an all consuming blaze of sunlight. Your eyes are drawn too it and the soft looking white marble soothes your gaze. The remains of great structure and power that have influenced our own culture still stand. Damaged. Broken. And yet it’s being reconstructed and valued; millions of tourists per year come from around the globe to see it. The great columns, like books, reach for some semblance of immortality.
By happy accident, early one morning on the way to our information-packed tour of the Acropolis, I was sitting on the bus and a restaurant facade caught my bleary eyes. Zonars. The name and the building was very familiar to me. I realized that this very swanky restaurant was mentioned by British novelist Olivia Manning in her semi-autobiographical work The Balkan Trilogy, the first of two trilogies that document the journey of an English lecturer and his wife through war-torn Europe. Businessman Karolos Zonaras (1873-1968) started up the café/pastry shop in 1939 and it quickly became an important cultural center in the city, attracting the rich, important, and famous from politicians to writers. As if simply sitting in this grand establishment wasn’t literary enough, I stayed for quite some time, making margin notes in Ford Madox Ford’s tome of a tetralogy Parade’s End sipping one of the best cappuccinos money can buy. As Manning’s character Prince Yakimov would say, “Bit pricy…But convenient. After all, one has to go somewhere.”
Journeys like this trip are never just for the conference; it’s for paying homage, for honoring the past. We didn’t just go to modern Greece, we went to Byron’s Greece. His love of the people, the landscape, and the country inspired him and he left his mark in return. When you’re inspired by a writer, their inspiration becomes yours and it’s only natural to reach back into the past and bring it into the present.