Monthly Archives: September 2018

Refugees, Fulbright, National Library and Athens

9/30/18

 

REFUGEES, FULBRIGHT, NATIONAL LIBRARY AND ATHENS

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This was a week where the weather changed from hot to windy, cooler and rain. Even the Embassy sent out a weather alert. The project also shifted to finally include refugees in Greece and we spent a lot of time with various NGOs throughout Athens. Photographing refugees is always hard and I am especially sensitive to not photographing people that express any reluctance to my camera. Most people, however, are very accommodating. Much of what I photographed turned out to be symbolic of refugees such as child’s drawings, paintings, maps and posters. A child’s sketch of drowning people being rescued by a Greek ship was especially powerful.  We spent an afternoon photographing Afghan women doing hand work such as crochet and making jewelry which they later sell. The woman who volunteers for The Greek Forum of Refugees explained that much of the work is therapy from the trauma they have endured. We also went to a soup kitchen for a Catholic charity for refugees called Caritas where I photographed families and volunteers.

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During the middle of the week the Fulbright Foundation sponsored a reception for all the Fulbrighters in Greece (both teachers and researchers) and then a two-day orientation, lecture, briefing at the American Embassy and a cultural walking tour. It was all quite fascinating, especially meeting the other Fulbrighters both young and older (like us!). It was also a chance to meet the exceptional staff of the Greek Fulbright. For 70 years this program has tried to use people to people diplomacy between Americans and Greeks to help create a mutual understanding between cultures. We are proud to be a part of that tradition.

We also spent a few days back at the National Library of Greece looking at their digital labs and manuscript departments. There was a great show by a Greek photographer on homeless in Athens inside the library. They have an amazing space which made us think that we should have an exhibit of my library work there someday.

Between the work and the rain we did have time for some fun in Athens. What is most interesting are the everyday things we encounter on the street. Like the changing of the guards at the Greek Parliament as they were walking down the street. Or Ellen standing in the pouring rain next to the ancient Tower of the Wind with the lit-up Acropolis in the background. These are the unexpected, magic moments that help define our time here. We spent yesterday dealing with my wallet being stolen and celebrating one month in Greece. Never a dull moment. Onward!

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WAY UP NORTH: Veria & Kozani, Corfu and Meteora

9/23/18

 

WAY UP NORTH: VERIA & KOZANI, CORFU AND METEORA

 

This was the week that we split from Athens and headed out into Greece. Like New York City, I imagined Athens to be the most and least typical part of Greece. The Greek mountains are everywhere, the coast is rugged and the country is beautiful. It reminded me of parts of southern California – with ancient ruins.

 

After a 5 ½ hour drive on an excellent Greek highway (lots of tolls!) we arrived at the delightful town of Veria. It is in the heart of the Macedonian empire and near the birthplace of Alexander the Great (yeah, that guy). Veria’s old Jewish quarter (the Germans wiped out most of Greece’s Jewish population during WWII) is fascinating and right near the fabulous Veria Public Library. Ellen scored big-time by booking us for three nights at the Agroktima Kapsali. It was a challenge to find it as the light was fading, what signs we saw were all in Greek, and it was half an hour drive out of town into the ­­­­­­­­­­mountains. But when we finally got there we felt like we had landed in paradise. After the Manhattan-like density of Athens we had arrived at a Greek farm! The mountain lodge is a family run business that was built by hand by the father and run by the mother and daughter. The food was mostly from what they grew and was delicious.

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The Veria Public Library is considered one of the best in Greece. It received a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant and seemed filled with state-of-the-art everything. The head of the library took us on a long tour of the library and then took us out to a long lunch. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of time to photograph. I finished just before I gave my lecture at the Veria Tech Lab in the library. I am always amazed when I get a large audience for my talks on American public libraries. It turned out this audience was a very interested local photo club that has also done some great work of their own.

After a full day in Veria I couldn’t imagine that Kozani could be as interesting. How wrong I was! The small town of Kozani has a massive new library (two weeks old!). As the Veria Library was compact and cozy, the Kozani Library was large, sleek and beautiful. Everything smelled new. The most unique experience was in the archive with the smell of old books mixing with the smell of the building.

Both towns are on the edge of beautiful mountains and are connected by an unbelievable highway and massive series of tunnels funded by the European Union. Billions of Euros must have been spent over many years to build this world-class engineering marvel. The politics of this must have been mind-boggling. I have never seen anything like it on this scale.

 

The next day we took this same amazing road through huge mountains for 4 hours eventually arriving at the Ionian Sea on Greece’s northwest coast. We hopped on a ferry with no time to spare and headed to the enchanted Island of Corfu. This is one of the few parts of Greece that wasn’t conquered by the Ottoman Turks and, as a result, feels very unique. It does seem that it was invaded by everyone else including the Venetians and British. Now it has been invaded again by massive amounts of tourists and cruise ships. The smell of burning white skin was everywhere as lobster-red northern Europeans and Russians in sunglasses and shorts shopped for tee shirts and Gucci everything. The saving grace was Corfu Town itself. It looks like Venice and was built, in part by Venetians. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was worth wading through the tourist scene just to experience it.

The Public Central and Historic Library of Corfu was amazing. It is one of the oldest public libraries in Greece and was housed in an old British barracks in an old Fortress. Like much of Greece’s long, tragic history the original library and all of its contents were completely destroyed by German bombers during WWII. The librarian gave us a PowerPoint slide show about the library in Greek with an English translation. We then walked through the crowds to our next destination of the old Corfu Reading Society. It was established in 1836 and is housed in a charming old mansion near the sea. It is the oldest cultural institution in northern Greece and seems like out of another world from long ago. We spent the rest of the day in Corfu Town. After the heat of the day was over we strolled back to the old Fort, watched the sun set, had a beer in a café by the wine-dark sea, wandered through the old town again, had dinner and then collapsed back in our room, utterly exhausted and full of great experiences.

The next day we took the ferry back to the mainland and drove again through the extraordinary Pindos Mountains to an incredible little place called Meteora. The name comes from the same root work in Greek as meteor which means “suspended in air.” When you see the many monasteries perched atop impossibly tall rock columns you can understand why. They were built there as far back as the 11th century to protect the monks from the invading Ottoman Turks. Some are still used today as monasteries. Some still have remnant ladders that were pulled up at night for protection. Magical is a word that just hints at the special power of this place.  At night I photographed the local public library against the lights on the cliffs. Meteora is the second-most popular tourist attraction in Greece after the Acropolis. But it didn’t feel like the craziness of Corfu because it is so spread out and there are no cruise ships here.

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We drove back to Athens on Sunday with what we thought would be a little side trip to a library in Fásala. This was one of our son Walker’s picks from his internet research. It is a library shaped like a tall, thin castle in a small farming town in the middle of Greek farm country. Strange but true. Hours later after we dropped our car off we walked through the now, somewhat-familiar streets of Athens. We strolled by the Sanctuary of the Olympian Zeus at sunset and we once again fell in love this sublime, crazy and fascinating city.

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DIGGING DEEPER

9/15/2018

 

DIGGING DEEPER

 

One of the great luxuries of this Fulbright Fellowship is the ability to dig deeper into our subject than a normal traveler breezing through a new culture. Of course, we are trying to understand the concept of what is a library. What should be in a library and why? What are the roles of different types of libraries? Why do we have this need to preserve memory?

 

In Greece there is the added dimension of time. Greek history is everywhere and goes back thousands of years. We were told that if you dig anywhere in Athens you will find artifacts dating back to Classical times. We went to one of the great Museums of Athens – the National Archeological Museum to see this rich history. The Greek cuneiform tablets were not as old as those from Babylonia but they show the beginning of the Greek language as it evolved from Phoenician and Mycenean languages. Greek is the second oldest continuously used language after Chinese. An exhibit on the concept of beauty was fascinating as were the archeological discoveries on display.

The Library of the Hellenic Parliament was a rich source of contemporary Greek culture and history. After going through a pretty rigorous security- check we were escorted by a whole range of highly-educated people that expanded that history and deepened what it means to be Greek today. We left with a 20-pound gift bag of their exquisitely produced exhibition catalogues.

The Lilian Voudouri Music Library at the Athens Concert Hall was another surprise. I had no idea what to expect as we entered a library about music. Byzantine musical script was something I had never seen before. How music could be produced from that was mind-boggling. The pages of newspaper clippings about Mikis Theodorakis, the man who wrote the music for Zorba the Greek and Z, gave us an insight into contemporary Greek musical culture.

Like San Francisco, Athens is a very hilly town. As we walked home from the Music Library we decided to go to the top of Mt. Lycabettus where we were rewarded with spectacular views looking down on our densely crowded neighborhood of Exarhia. Off in the distance, like a beaconing jewel was the Acropolis and the Aegean.

Much of this Fulbright trip will be exploring things we don’t know. I did a massive amount of research on the internet about each of the libraries we hope to see. But I am always hoping for the unexpected. The American Library at the Hellenic American Union was housed in a private college that was accredited through the State of New Hampshire. It has a long-running American Spaces that was started years ago by the US State Department. It was interesting to see a book on the Harvard Medical School in Greek with a poster of National Parks in Maine in the background—examples of American “soft power”.

Like all of Greece the Central Municipal Library of Athens has gone through hard times for many years. In some ways, it reminded me of the library in Stockton, CA where Ellen and I have worked for the last four years. It has struggled against all odds and yet maintains the essential ingredients of an important part of the community. These photos show some of its old books, research and a children’s library.

As we walk the streets of Athens I am stuck by the vibrant street life and the political graffiti. We can learn from what these are saying as we try to understand what it means to be Greek today. The image of the exterior of the old National Library of Greece is a reminder of how deeply rooted the past is in this moment of struggle for Greece.

Front of old National Library of Greece, Athens

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1st Week and a Tale of Two Greek Libraries

9/8/18

 

1ST WEEK AND A TALE OF TWO GREEK LIBRARIES

 

We spent our first work day this week at the dazzling new National Library of Greece in the Stavros Niachos Foundation Cultural Center. OMG, what a place! We spent our second day at the old 19th century National Library that it has replaced in some ways. Ionian columns surrounded the Reading Room like pioneer wagons defending the sacred space from the crazy, commercial world outside. I was shocked by the difference between these two competing visions of what it means to be a library. In my mind, both are good. And both speak about the times in which they were created. The old library still houses their vast newspaper collection and is, fortunately, still part of the National Library. I spent one hot day in a section of the library that reminded me of the movie Matrix. It is a vast three-dimensional space that once housed the archived memory of Greece in books. I felt like I was walking around inside a brain. The five storey metal structure had no AC. It also reminded me of the metal box the British officer was put in to be tortured in Bridge On the River Kwai. After several hours I emerged from the heat of this space drenched in sweat.

The new National Library is a bold experiment in what the future of libraries may become. Books are a part of that future as seen by the welcoming entrance way  and the “Book Castle”. The fresh air and sweeping panoramic views from the roof of Athens and the Aegean are also a part of it. The public spaces and programming are designed to bring people in to engage them in the culture of this place. But through the telescopes one can also catch a glimpse of the Acropolis -a reminder of the past as we enter the future.

One special person we met at the new Library was Gregory Chrysostomidis. He had visited 150 libraries throughout Greece. He has the same affliction we have of trying to understand the nature of libraries on a big scale. He took us on a quick tour of libraries in Athens and then drove us an hour out of town to north Athens to visit a small, struggling library that was having an open house to celebrate the end of their children’s summer programs. The children all spoke perfect English and were astonished that we had come all the way from America to photograph their library. One group showed us their perfect murder mystery video they had just completed. It included a live performance by their teacher acting out her part. We also heard a boy telling us about the student’s sculptures based on a famous Greek artist whose work was inspired by the student uprisings during the Greek junta.

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Our neighborhood is a fascinating mix of the trendy and the anarchist parts of Athens. We see the signs of this everywhere we walk. One of the highlights of this trip so far was having dinner with Yannis Zervos, founder of the Athens Center and former board member of the Greek Fulbright Commission. I found out about him while talking to his son at a coffee shop in San Francisco. Small world. It was a magical evening and hopefully someone will write a book about Yannis and his cultured and eloquent world.

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1 DAY DONE, 239 TO GO

9/4/18 

1 DAY DONE, 239 TO GO

 Building next to National Library, Athens

Greetings from Athens! Ellen and I are at the start of our Fulbright Library Road Trip odyssey. It seems appropriate that we start in Greece which invented the term “odyssey”. For those of you that have done international travel taking the big flight to Greece is a little like running a marathon (another Greek work). Exhausted and brain-dead when we arrived I was struck how much the setting for Athens reminded me of southern California. I was also impressed at how hot, polluted, crowded and fascinating this city is.

1st night dinner, Athens

We are staying in the Koloanki neighborhood on the edge of an anarchist neighborhood. The streets are filled with political graffiti. It’s all just edgy enough to be very exciting.  Our street is literally full of bookstores and coffee shops which are two things I love. We feel right at home! I am also aware of the deep history that is part of contemporary Athens. We stroll by ancient ruins and 700 year-old olive trees. The old National Library of Greece is very close to where we are staying. It is surrounded by buildings from the last 150 years that refer back to classical Greek history.Grafitti, Athens

700 year-old olive tree, Athens

Old National Library, Athens

We spend our first day of work at the new National Library of Greece at the breathtaking Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. This is our host library for this part of the Fulbright and we are graciously given a tour by Librarian Evgenia Vasilakaki. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, SNFCC is a world-class cultural, learning and recreational urban complex that includes the new National Library and the Greek National Opera. It is surrounded by one of the largest green spaces in Athens which is sorely needed in this crowded city. It also offers spectacular views of Athens and the sea. In the first year that it opened in 2017 over 3 million people visited SNFCC. Like everything else, the Library is amazing and by the time we meet the Director Dr. Filippos Tsimpoglou we knew our experience here will be a rich one.

Book Castle and hallway, National Library of Greece

After the first day here in Athens I realized that one day was gone but we had two hundred and thirty-nine days to go on our Fulbright Library Road Trip. This will be a journey where we can get beneath the surface and deeply explore what is the meaning of a library. Rather than a sprint we have started a marathon. Thanks for joining us on this occasional blog. Please send us any questions or comments.

 

 

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