Sunday, May 23, 2010

Interview with Ron Stroud: Part I

As this is the academic year 2009-2010, it is the 50th anniversary of the ASCSA's Class of 1959 Regular Year Students. In honor of our scholarly forefathers who came to Greece then, I decided to do a series of interviews commemorating that year. The first interview I did was with Pierre MacKay, who accompanied us students on several of the school trips we took during my own Regular Year in the autumn of 2009. You can check out the results of his interview here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

My second interview has been a bit longer in coming, no doubt given my change in method. Pierre I was able to interview in person and record on my iPod. (Although the archaeologist in me hopes this recording is preserved forever, the first-time interviewer in me cringes at the idea that someone else might hear how moronic I sound on that tape. Does my laugh really sound like that? Oh god.) My second interview, in contrast, has been over email, so it has taken a bit longer to compile and is far from finished. But, I figured I'd go ahead and get the first portion posted since it's been a while since I talked about ASCSA history on this blog. So let's get to it.

My second interview subject is none other than Ron Stroud. Like Pierre, he came to Greece as a student of Kendrick Pritchett from UC Berkeley. Some of you may know him as one of the forces behind the monumental SEG (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum), one of the excavators of the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth, and a fan of ancient curse tablets. To others, he is an ASCSA legend both as a scholar and as an American School member famous for his general awesomeness and hard-core-osity. I met Ron in the fall of last year, and to me and the other Regular Members, he was more simply a Master of Storytelling, always willing over dinner to share tales full of high drama, adventure, wit and humor. Hopefully I can in turn share some of his gems with you over the course of the interview. As with Pierre, most of my initial questions pertain specifically to the experience of being a Regular Member in 1959. Here we go.

Ron Stroud tells stories about excavating at Corinth, in front of the Wall of Fame in Hill House's library.

What made you decide to do the Regular Year Program? Had you ever been to Greece before? The short answer to this, as to almost everything else about my career as a classicist, is a teacher. This time it was Kendrick Pritchett in Berkeley who was very active in the affairs of the School. I had completed two years of graduate work at Berkeley and did not yet have a dissertation project though I was leaning toward something in Greek history, epigraphy, or archaeology. He counseled me that if this is what I wanted to do, it was imperative to go to Athens as a Regular Member, participate fully in all aspects of the program, and stay in Greece for as long as I could. Like most of my fellow-graduate students at the time (1959), I had never been to Greece or any other part of Europe. At his urging, I took the School fellowship exams in February of 1959, was lucky enough to win the Seymour Fellowship, and doubly lucky because I also won a fellowship from the Canada Council and, unusually, both institutions allowed me to hold both fellowships, which meant at the outset that if I saved my lepta [pennies], I could probably afford to stay two years.

What impression did you get from Athens and particularly Kolonaki when you arrived? What was it like? How has the area changed since 1959? Anyone walking through Kolonaki today would never guess what it was like in 1959. The square itself could be a bit dusty at times, for it was dirt in the center, unpaved and surrounded by trees, sometimes in hot summer afternoons sounding with the same cooing doves that one still hears in the ASCSA gardens. After strong winter rains, it could also be a bit muddy. Remember also that in 1959 the mad craze to tear down the lovely old Neo-Classical houses that graced most parts of Athens had not yet set in. The square was still mostly surrounded by these. So there were no glass-fronted shoe stores, or upscale bars, or Goody's. The kiosks also looked a bit more Ottoman than their modern overstuffed counterparts. Kolonaki's most conspicuous feature in my memory was the "Byzantion", a large kaffeneion [cafe-bar for men], open-fronted in the summer with lots of wooden cane-chairs spread all over the sidewalk on the west side of the square. Many very picturesque old, bearded gentlemen could be seen there all day (except for siesta) and all evening slamming down playing cards on the tables, shouting politics at each other, and smoking out of water-cooled hookas, for which they brought their own mouthpieces, much like professional snooker players who bring their own cues to a billiard parlor. This was unequivocally a male preserve, in fact very few women even dared to walk along the sidewalk on the west side of the plateia. This added to the mystery and wonder of an apparition I viewed there once coming home late across the square. It was after 2.00 a.m. on a hot summer night. The lights in the Byzantion were still on and there were still a few denizens inside. Outside, however, occupying the traditional five chairs (one for her bottom and two for the arms and one each for her long, slim, tanned legs), wearing a long, sleeveless white dress, was Melina Mercouri, having a nightcap and a smoke, alone. I couldn't believe it. I just stood there and gawked like a Groupie. There was "Stella." This was long before her days in "Never on Sundays" or local and international politics, the Elgin Marbles, etc. She used to live just around the corner from the School.

There were very few cars in Kolonaki in 1959, which made even more conspicuous the arrival of the old Marasleion bus that rattled through the square several times a day. There were also a number of horse-drawn carts of junk-dealers, vegetable merchants, and always, every day, a man on foot selling brooms and shouting, "Skoupie," in a voice that could have been heard as far away as the Plaka. Many of the other itinerant merchants shouted out the names of their wares and led heavily laden donkeys. Also, every few days a man would come through with a dancing bear, an accordion, and a monkey carrying an open hat for donations.

I saw a lot of this in my very first days in Athens, for Loring Hall had not yet reopened after the summer break and I had to stay at the fabled Pension [hotel] Suisse on Neophytou Vamva, just off the Plateia. Here I met Wade-Gery and Paul Alexander and the formidable private secretary of Queen Frederica, a permanent resident, who owned the large Liddell-Scott [Ancient Greek Dictionary] and lectured me on the absurdity of the Erasmian pronunciation of ancient Greek. Like many others over the years I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the proprietor Loukianos ("Kyrios Lucien") Polykandriotis from Trebizond and his wife Olympia (the best cook in Athens at the time, in my view). I later became their friend and Lucien came to our wedding in Athens in 1963. But that is a whole other story and the history of the Pension Suisse needs to be
written in full.

Could you tell me a little more about this Pension, since I have not heard of it? The Pension Suisse had roughly ten rooms, an elegant 19th century sitting room, a large dining room. They served an enormous three course lunch, with lots of wine, every day and a simple dinner every evening except Sundays. I remember glorious siestas there in the heat of an Athenian summer in those lovely old rooms with very high ceilings and the curtains wafting in whatever little bit of breeze came up. I used to stay there a lot in later years. Lucien was a wonderful raconteur, read Anna Comnena almost daily, and had a small but potent collection of Byzantine silver coins, which had been in his family and which he managed to salvage from the wreckage that drove him out of Trebizond to Athens. My last memories of it, after it moved from Kolonaki to Alkmanos Street near the Canadian Archaeological School, were in March 1969 when my family and I arrived there after driving through a very cold, wet, rainy Italy, with a very sick one-year old son (allergic to wheat, eggs, milk, and meat--great fun feeding him in restaurants), my three-year-old daughter, and Connie. We took the ferry from Brindisi to Patras and had planned to drive that evening to Athens where we had booked rooms at the Pension. By the time we reached Patras, however, Connie was so sick, having picked up all the germs and earaches that my daughter and I had finally shed, that she literally could not walk. I had to carry her from the car to a motel room outside Patras. The next day she was even worse and when we finally made it to the Pension, I had to carry her up two flights of stairs. To say the least, my family was in tatters. It was getting close to Easter when Olympia always used to get pretty nervous thinking about all the cooking she had to do, Christ on the Cross, rising from the dead, etc. But she and her family just took us all to their bosoms. They had a doctor there for Connie within 15 mins., Olympia and the maids just embraced my two children and actually baby-sat my whole family for more than a week while I went out during the day foraging for an apartment for my sabbatical. Salt of the earth human beings.

In "My Family and Other Animals" Gerald Durrell talks about the place where the Durrell family used to stay on Corfu also called the "Pension Suisse" and Connie and I actually stayed there over the Christmas break when we were digging year-round in the Demeter Sanctuary at Corinth in 1964/5. The only thing it had in common with its Kolonaki counterpart was the name.

Once the school year started, did you live in Loring Hall and where? Yes, after it reopened following the summer break, I lived in Loring Hall in the West Wing main floor about midway down the hall between the door and the bathrooms. My maid was "Old Maria," a bustling cleaner-upper, who made the bed every morning, changed the sheets once a week, took my laundry away on Tuesday and and brought it back on Friday, and "straightened up" all the keys, belongings, books, etc. on the dressing table, and made sure my shoes were in order under the bed. She had a terrible time with my neighbor, David Mitten from Harvard who was an assiduous sherder. In those days one was actually encouraged to pick up sherds and bring them back to place in the School's sherd collection, which was kept in the basement of the Main Building. David returned from all the Fall Trips, the Friday Trips, and any other personal outings with large numbers of unwashed and often muddy sherds that he used to dump on the top of his dressing table much to Maria's despair.

Before dealing with Loring Hall in more detail, however, I have to tell the story of my first full day in Greece in September 1959. My teacher, Kendrick Pritchett was at the School at that time and he invited me to join him on an excursion to Marathon on which he was then preparing a monograph. Evelyn Smithson, a professor from Buffalo who came to Athens every summer to work on the publication of the Geometric pottery from the Agora Excavations, joined us. Pritchett had rented a car and I got my first glimpse of the Attic countryside as we drove out. At Marathon, we climbed Mount Agrieliki, picked up some Geometric sherds, and saw Byron's famous view, "The mountains look down on Marathon..." We went to Vrana where the present museum was built much later and where Soteriades had dug a lot of Classical graves, then we walked quite a bit across what was then a totally empty plain to the Soros--no weekend villas, no posh hotels, no fences, no orchards, nothing but fields of wheat stubble and vegetables and few olive trees and sheep. I remember Pritchett stopping, as his pipe went out yet again, and saying, "Mr. Stroud [we were still on formal pupil/teacher terms at that point] we are walking across sacred ground!" We walked some more after visiting the Soros and found at the shore the only "structure" in sight. It was actually a tiny hut or lean-to that an old geezer had built. Inside he had a little gas stove on which he was grilling a great fish (a synagrida) that he had caught in the Bay of Marathon that morning. It smelled delicious. It was only than that we happily noticed the letters scrawled in chalk on one side of this little hut, "EXOKIKON KENTRON" which meant that we had reached a commercial establishment and we could pay for our seafood lunch. He also had FIX beer in the old blue label bottles that was icy cold. I couldn't believe it. This glorious lunch next to the sea, sitting on the grass, with the ghosts of the Marathonomachoi [warriors of the Battle of Marathon] only a few meters away. I returned that evening to the Pension Suisse where I was staying and excitedly told Kyrios Lucien about my day. What a fantastic first day in Hellas!

This was followed two days later, however, by an interlude that was not quite so pleasant. Pritchett, bless his heart, had wanted to help his student in any way he could, so he invited me to come to the garden of the French School at 6.00 p.m. where he had been invited for a cocktail by the Director Georges Daux and Mrs. Daux. The latter was one of the most elegant ladies in Athens and Daux himself was a scholar of great repute but also a formidable presence. I didn't even own a suit, let alone a summer suit. So clad in a heavy cream colored sports jacket that desperately need dry cleaning and gray flannels that were coming apart at the cuffs, I tentatively rang the bell at the front gate of the French School on Didotou Street. The thyroros led me to a flowery sector of the garden where seated in all their splendor were the Daux and Pritchett with one empty chair beside them. Daux in a spotless white suit rose to greet me and I was introduced to Mrs. Daux who looked like something out of Vogue magazine. To make it even worse, my Professor, as I knew before, was a connoisseur of fine wines, champagnes, madeiras, and all the rest. So I was offered a huge array of potent drinks, many of which I had never even heard of before. I was scared stiff, but the Daux quickly realized it and they loved Pritchett, so that they made every effort to put me at ease. Not a chance.

Luckily I was savvy enough not to gulp down what was in my glass but to take only a few sips and to hold onto it half empty until it was time to leave. Later in life, I became good friends with Daux and during a long rainy afternoon together in Berkeley many years thereafter we joked about our first encounter, but it was far from amusing for me at least at the time.

Stay tuned for Part 1.2 and Part 2.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Evil meltemi madness

I’m down on the Florida coast now, staying with family. The weather is beautiful, the dissertation is happening, and relaxation is simultaneously in full effect.

Blog writing spot.

Yes, unbelievers, that IS the sunrise. Which I have gotten up to see three times this week.

Unfortunately, my lovely peace of mind is beginning to fray as I’ve become increasingly more twitchy. And let me tell you why.

It’s the damn wind. When I first got here, the trees were still and the water was flat. Then a steady wind picked up on Monday and it hasn’t stopped since. Granted, it’s only about 15-20 miles per hour from the east, which is really no big whoop. The problem is that it’s incessant, all day and all night, with no lull. Wind in palm fronds may be one of my all time favorite sounds, but even that is starting to grate on my ears.

It’s like the meltemi, that summer wind in the Mediterranean that comes barreling through and drives the sea into a froth too dangerous to sail. Ferries stay docked and tourists complain; people sit idle and impatient; but mostly the wind just continues and doesn’t cease. I keep reading on the internet that people love the meltemi because it cools things down, but that’s not what I remember hearing in the Greek islands. Instead, there was a mixed and strained relationship with the wind - it could be soothing on occasion, but it was also infernal because it just NEVER ENDED. The constant sound of it, the constant feel of it, the constant frustration of having to right things that had been knocked over, the race to catch items before they blew away, the need to always raise your voice. I particularly remember the relentless snapping and tangling of my hair, sticking in my eyes and the corner of my mouth and twisting in my face. Eventually you just had to give up and sit in silence with your eyes shut tight, letting the wind coil around you and do its worst.

Googled painting of the meltemi by Caroline Huff.

It’s just those sorts of moments when the rumors of meltemi madness make complete sense. I don’t know if those rumors are true, of course, but I often heard about how the meltemi could make people completely lose it. People would just …snap. It may sound ridiculous, but there’s something intensely disturbing and uncanny about that hot endless wind, and the frustration it causes can just build and build until you’re ready to have a nervous breakdown. It actually feels like bad luck slithering across your skin. Even familial violence and murder were ascribed to that evil wind and I tell you, the sinister madness caused by the meltemi seemed completely understandable.

Anyways, I’m feeling a bit meltemi crazy at the moment, like I need to go run 10 miles or chop down a tree or something. I just want it to STOP, to be silent, to be still.

This is the moment when I’ll do the smart and sane thing. I’ll close the windows and go inside. And put in ear plugs.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Take only pictures

Lately I've really been interested in the idea of 'place' in religious practice. My pal Beth Shively and I have spent a lot of time talking about 'sacred' landscapes in America (or the lack thereof), and our conversations have been rattling around my head quite a bit. Last week I witnessed one aspect of the American approach to our landscape when I was hiking the awesomely-named Fiery Gizzard Trail in southern Tennessee.

The forest was all lovely and green and breezy. Now, in antiquity if you wanted to go hiking, you just attended a sacrifice, joined a religious procession or climbed up to some Cave of the Nymphs to unload an offering or two. Nowadays we like to 'hike' and 'enjoy nature' for its own sake. Our national parks are secularly 'sacred' simply for existing; they must be preserved in their virginal and pure state, kept undefiled. Yet, other peeps enjoy the landscape just as much as we do, but their interaction with it is incorporated into their religious life and mythological histories. Going on a pilgrimage neatly solves the basic human desire to get all holy, visit some tourist sites and get exercise. It's like the ancient Athenians taking a 12-mile hiking and camping trip to Eleusis, ostensibly to get initiated into the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore. But, really, in my reconstruction, that whole religious procession with its sacredness thing was also about swimming at the beach, finding the perfect walking stick, and eating s'mores.

While getting my Fiery Gizzard on, I fondly remembered hiking in Greece. If I'd been there wandering the countryside, instead of the Cumberland Plateau, I'd have come across like 17 shrines along the way, dedicated to various saints and multiple versions of the Madonna. My Tennessee trail had no such shrines. I wonder if I should go set one up just to see how fast the National Park Service would remove it. Take only pictures, leave only footprints...and votive candles. And good luck charms. And sacrificial chickens.

Of course, not all the US is a religiously barren wasteland. There's always the Mormon landscape or the sites of Catholic epiphanies of the Madonna. Just a few weekends ago I got to visit one of the most impressive native religious sites our country has to offer, the Newark Earthworks.

They were built by the Hopewell Indians at about the same time Julius Caesar and his boys were tearing up the Roman Empire with their civil war. The mounds were huge. And impressive.

Recently I saw an author speak who was attempting to emphasize the American landscape in his YA fiction. Most of us have grown up on Narnia and Middle Earth and Westeros, fantastical worlds based on European landscapes. This author said that he wanted to make our own countryside - Midwestern cornfields and southern mountains - just as full of wonder and magic and possibility as any mystical Irish loch. I dig that idea. I think it's time we stopped worrying about the musty, fussy Old Country and spent a little more time fixating on our own lands. Who needs Bethlehem when you've got Fiery Gizzards, after all?