Monday, April 25, 2011

Rediscovering Wonder

Sometimes it seems to me that there are currents in space and time which sweep all of us into places and situations where we review, correct, amend, or remember some scene. Or rediscover wonder.

The population of San Francisco is greater than 809,000. The population of Ouranoupolis, Greece, abut 9,000 miles away, is about 900. More than 50 years ago, I spent some time visiting in Ouranoupolis and my son Nonda had his first taste of solid food, fish, at the hands of a woman called Fani Mitropoulos.

What are the chances of my meeting Fani’s nephew (“I am like a son to her”) at an Easter church picnic yesterday, and what are the chances of our discovering the connection? We had reserved a table at the picnic in San Francisco, a celebration with roast lamb, music, all the good Greek things which follow 40 days of fasting and several late-night church services.

We had empty seats at our table, so the man, Neboisa, and his companion joined us. The conversation began in English: “What part of Greece are you from?” “Actually I am from Serbia,” the man said. “We used to look across the border at Serbia,” I said.

“From where?” he asked. “Near Thessaloniki,” I said. And from Thessaloniki, it was just a hop and a skip to Ouranoupolis, the tiny village in northern Greece where the boats leave for Mount Athos.

Fani Mitropoulos was part of the household of Joice Nankivell Loch, an Australian writer and self-trained medic who wound up with her husband, Sydney, in Ouranoupolis in 1922 as staff of a Quaker refugee camp for people displaced from Asia Minor. The couple rented their house and its tower from the monks of Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos , a religious city-state more than a thousand years old .

They worked with the Quakers in Rumania during World War II, but then returned to Greece to assist victims of the Greek civil war. Even after Sydney died in 1955, Mrs. Loch stayed on in Ouranoupolis. She was the only medical person for miles around. People with serious problems who could stand the trip were sent to the nearest doctor, 70 miles away; Mrs. Loch dealt with everything else.

“It’s do-gooders like me who have contributed to the village poverty,” she once told me. “If a couple had four children and two died, which was usual, then the property only had to be split two ways. Now it is four.”

That autumn of 1958, we slept on rope beds, clever contraptions which could be firmed up or softened with a few tugs. We visited the 14-th century tower but did not see the monk’s ghost so many visitors reported. Fani came up with a wooden laundry tub which made a fine bassinet for baby Nonda. We marveled at Mrs. Loch’s six-toed cats, played with her baby goats, looked out upon the blue Aegean sea and watched the sun sparkle on the waves. Currents in space and time: Only a few years ago, Nicodemos made a retreat to Vatopedi Monastery, and Nonda and his family visited Ouranoupolis and took the boat which goes around the coast of Mount Athos. A friend in San Francisco had an ikon of Saint Marina. When I admired it, she said that it had been painted by Fani Mitropoulos.

“Mrs. Loch’s cook?” I asked. “Yes. Fani.”

No women are allowed on Mount Athos, so often the monks would have to hike down to Mrs. Loch for first aid or dinner. Fani cooked for Mrs. Loch, her Swiss companion Martha and their many visitors. She produced huge meals on an enormous wood-burning stove. The day we were there, she milked the sheep and made yogurt.

From 1922 until the 1970s, carpet-weaving, fishing and farming made a modest living for families who were forcibly removed from their homes and livelihoods by wars and political events over which they had no control. As Quakers and peacemakers, teaching trades was for the Lochs a vital part of re-settling the refugees.

The local women were fine carpet makers, but their chemical dyes were gaudy, Mrs. Loch said, and their patterns were unlovely. The monks brought Byzantine carpet patterns from pictures in the monastery libraries. Mrs. Loch, Martha, and Fani sketched out the patterns and gave them to the village women.. They perfected the art of dyeing wool with natural materials, yielding beautiful subtle colors.

Mrs. Loch knew exactly when to harvest leaves, bark, grass and flowers for just the right color. The resulting carpets, while expensive, were so in demand that there was always a waiting list for them. A Greek friend had one of the Ouranoupolis Tree of Life carpets. Fruits, flowers and animals cascaded over the fine wool in colors straight from the natural world. It was one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever seen. Today many of the carpets are in museums.

Mrs. Loch had started out as a writer, and she collected stories from Ouranoupolis for two children’s books about a fictional boy named Christophilos. Any re-telling of a folk story received her full attention. Her blue eyes would light up and she would nod encouragingly. “You mean the knife would never have been used to cut garlic?”

Some years after our visit, Mrs. Loch had a stroke. The villagers went to church and prayed that God would take a month from each of their lives and add it to that of Mrs. Loch. She recovered, regained the power to speak, and was well until she died in 1982 at the age of 94.

Among the many humanitarian awards received by Mrs. Loch (none of which her Greek friends knew about) were those awarded by the governments of Romania and Poland for saving a thousand Polish and Jewish children through a daring escape with the Rumanian underground. At her funeral, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Oxford called Mrs. Loch “one of the most significant women of the twentieth century.”

There are probably still Greeks named Sydney—Seed-nay-eee in the Greek transliteration--, both men and women, from the days the people of Ouranoupolis wanted to honor the stranger who stayed to help them.

(Photographs: The young writer Joice Nankivell; Mrs. Loch, MLB, Martha and Fani’s sheep at Ouranoupolis in 1958.)

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