Get Me to the Greek (Festival)

The Greek stones may not actually speak, but the food does.

Yesterday, we went to the 60th annual Dallas Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the North part of the city.  The day was gray and gloomy, hinting at thunderstorms which never quite arrived.  But we are steadfast aficionados of Greek Festivals from many years back, so it would take more than impending rain to keep us away.

Despite the weather (or threat of it) the Fair was happy and busy.  The church is a large stately edifice with a matching parish house and a broad campus.  The friendly grounds were festooned with festival tents for the occasion which served as ticket and coupon booths, drink and dessert dispensaries and a massive and impressive food court.  The food court is the heart of all these festivals; that which attracts folks year to year even if they are Christopoulos’s or Levines .  More on the food later.

The Fair also boasted a small but thriving vendor’s area (where else would you buy your Pysanki eggs?) and cooking and music demonstrations.  To me, the church bookstore was by far the most intriguing retail spot.  We found it well stocked with incense and icons of all shapes and practical size (including a small palm sized diptych of Jesus and Mary which we added to our collection).  In addition, the shelves were lined with thought provoking books on liturgy, history, epistemology and all aspects of the life of the Greek Church.  One of the things I admire most about the Orthodox religions (including Roman Catholicism) is the desire to explore and understand their devotions. 

A crowning part of the day was a visit to the church itself.  Like many Orthodox Church buildings, Holy Trinity is shaped like a Roman basilica with a large narthex, squat and broad nave and aisles and a bold screened apse and altar crowned with a gilded dome.  The airy clerestory as well as the bright yellow paint gave the building a welcoming air which was countered by the haunting and solemn paintings of saints and priests, rendered in a Byzantine style.  These works were so strong and deft that they had a serene antiquity that belied their recent vintage.  The same sure hand was seen in the elegant and charming icons on sale in the store.

One small disappointment was the earnest choir toiling through their demonstration hymns on high in the choir loft.  It is surely no one’s fault, but an Orthodox choir without the booming grounding of deep basses is like a Kourabiedes without powdered sugar.   It is recognizable as a cookie, but not the kind it was meant to be.

Ah, and the food.  In full disclosure, I am mad for Greek food, haven’t never met a souvlaki that didn’t enrapture me.  In further candidness, I was not my usual trencherman self.  We chose lighter fare, but feasted nevertheless on spanakopita, pastitsio and salad.  The foods were fresh and genuine, down to the flair of the cumin in the noodles.   Other dishes on sale were grilled chicken, fried feta balls, the obligatory French fries, souvlaki, and crisp looking dolmanthes.  One thing missing that the festival we used to visit in Raleigh boasted was lamb kleftiko, which I love but always thought was ungainly for mass consumption.  Instead, the Dallas version featured lamb sliders with generous portions of juicy meat on small buns, probably a better approach and certain to leave fewer shank bones to clog the trash bins.

Greek families sang, Greek children danced, Greek deacons flapped about.  The outstanding feeling of this Festival was one of shared community, not just local but with all Greek Festivals everywhere.  I was transported not only to Raleigh but also to the heady days at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Brookline, MA where we were young.  For brief moments, even though we live in a strange city and we are not Greek, we were home.


Pirate Talk

It be Speak Like a Pirate Day, me buckos.  Arrrh.  Grab yer hornpipe and cut yer jib for smooth sailing.

I wonder why we assume that pirates ever sounded like that, speaking with a horrible cockney brogue broken with guttural growls.  In our imaginations, even pirates on Dutch or Spanish or French ships sound like they were just Shanghai’d in Stepney.

Our most enduring image of pirates comes from the book and the various movie versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  The cut of the pirate suit, the filthy bandanna across the brow, the garish rings in both ears leap out at us from that quintessential story.  But if you read the dialogue, there is nary a “shiver me timbers” or a “belay that” to be found.  Stevenson, a Scotsman who traveled throughout the world, might have heard the flat southern accents and the colorful expressions of English seamen on his travels, but he chose not to garble their talk into Piratese.

It was the movie makers that filled in the sounds, just as they brought all aspects of American imagination to life.  In the classic 1934 Hollywood version of the story, the director needed an instant representation of how far into the dregs the brigands had sunk.  So although most of the backup actors were American, they can be heard growling in an unlikely mix of Irish and West London accents, some barely intelligible as human speech.  Even the great Wallace Beery, the classic embodiment of Long John Silver was born in Missouri.  His booming bass and the outlandish seadog utterances were meant to project low-born and criminal.  Because of the power of his portrayal, they became the essence of how pirates are meant to act and sound.

Of interest, other contemporary buccaneer movies, like The Sea Hawk (1940) or Captain Blood (1935), have the British freebooters speak in cultured tones.  Even the least noble of them has a rude poetic quality.  Of course these were British actors and were cast as the heroes of the show.  It was the French or Spanish brigands who do the grunting and the swearing.

So what would a real crew of pirates have sounded like?  It would have depended on factors such as who owned the ship, where was the crew recruited, what seas did it ply?  There would be a range of worldliness from callow rural runaways to the unlucky sons of richer families joining to escape debt or by misadventure.  There would be a wide range of accents and dialects, and even languages, since most pirate crews were not recruited along national lines.  There were probably pirates who sounded very much like you.

But where is the adventure in that?  On a fine made-up holiday like today, feel free to drink some grog, toss your tricorn and clay pipe in the air, play the pipes and dance a jig, feed a few crackers to Polly and praise a many of “me hearties” as you can.  The image is too fixed in our imagination to change now.  And if it makes you feel freebooting and swashbuckling, than a fine wind in your sail, lad. 



Empathy For The Devil?

It is Election Season and the pundits are out in force trying to out-erudite each other.  Here come all the arcane words like ‘hegemony’, ‘demagogue’, ‘tatterdemalion’ (okay, I lied about the last one but I love it so much).  The most commonly used and misused word in this cascade of verbiage is ‘empathy’.  People understand that empathy is something good, but they don’t use the proper context for a very complex concept.

For most people, empathy is a fancier way to say compassion.  An empathic (or the more correct ‘empathetic’) person in their eyes is one who is moved by the suffering of others and therefore acts on their behalf.  They could use the word ‘compassionate’ or ‘sympathetic’, but the word ‘empathy’ has a gravitas, a sense of being a higher order of feeling.   And it is just that, but not within the confines of the pundits’ usage.

The sense of sharing someone’s sorrow is sympathy.  Sympathy is the innate understanding of the tribulations of another through self-experience.  You can be sympathetic to a heart stricken lover because you have had a heartbreak yourself.  You can understand the pain of a broken arm because you once broke your ankle.  Sympathy is selfish and self-focused; the recognition of the responses of another only through what you have felt. 

Compassion is a more generalized and weaker term, the description of an emotion.  You feel sorry for suffering individuals because you can sense that they are suffering.  It is the sorry state they are in that moves you and not an understanding of the cause or effect of that state.  Compassion, though a kindly feeling at base, can border on pity and even condescension. 

Empathy is far more difficult to attain.  It allows you to understand a state of being without having experienced it yourself.  In empathy, you don’t need to have broken your arm or have even felt the same level of pain to recognize that the pain is enormous and requires treatment.  You don’t need to have gone hungry yourself to recognize that poverty and its resultant starvation are woeful conditions.

Sympathy is easy and common although sadly not universal.  Most people are likely to feel bad for someone in pain having experienced pain themselves.  There are some who will not of course.  But even the feeling of anger at a person who is complaining of suffering is a form of sympathy.  You were strong enough to survive.  Why aren’t they?  You have overlaid your response to a known situation onto a stranger, even if your reaction is not a kindly one.

Empathy is difficult and rare.  It requires the abstraction of a state to the point where you can understand not only the condition but the responses of the people involved.  Again there is no implication of compassion in the term.  What you do with your understanding is strictly up to you.
Where the punditry most falls apart is in the ascription of empathy to a candidate or another figure in the public world.  A candidate may be said to be too removed from daily lives of constituents, so that person cannot have empathy towards them.  In fact, that person could only have ‘empathy’.  

Sympathy is impossible without the shared experience.  But an intelligent and thoughtful statesperson might know enough about the human condition to understand that issues of daily life for a person of a different status.  FDR did just that in attempting to reverse the Great Depression.  He was never on a breadline in his life, but his understanding of society allowed him to realize that the want of food was a dreadful thing.  In his case, his empathy moved him to compassion and he implemented a number of New Deal initiatives.

Literature is rife with episodes where a character has to live the life of those in need to understand and act on their behalf.  Ben Hur must experience slavery in order to rise up and lead the slaves to the emancipation of Christianity.  Scrooge has to witness the biting poverty of most of England and recognize his own aloneness in order to save Tiny Tim.  Joel McCrea as Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels” must pretend to be out of work and destitute in order to realize what the films his audience wants to see. In each case, the character’s sympathy is released by sharing the downtrodden state of his beneficiaries.

As in life, it is rarer to find the character who acts from reasoned understanding without needing to suffer the actual scars.  John Galt, for all the flaws of the book Atlas Shrugged, is an empathetic character (perhaps the strong desire of Ayn Rand to associate her character with Jesus, the original empath).  With far less self-conscious depth, both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities are empathetic.  Why are you doing this?  It is the right thing to do.  “It is far, far better thing…”