Alumna Shanoor Servai on Returning to Paros and Visiting the Aegean Center
9, October 2012 § 1 Comment
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Sitting on the top deck of the 5:30 p.m. Blue Star ferry, I pulled my black moleskin journal out of my backpack. “Why I am going to Paros,” I wrote at the top of the page. I stared at the blank sheet.
I had dreamed of returning to visit Paros and the Aegean Center since the day I left almost three years ago, but now that the moment had arrived, I was more nervous than excited. None of my friends from my semester were returning with me—What would I do on my own for an entire week? Did my teachers want to see me as much as I wanted to see them, or was my visit an imposition? Had I built Paros into an unrealistic fantasy in my memory, and was the bubble about to burst? Did I really expect being there to answer all the huge, existential questions about my precarious future that were running through my mind?
I chewed on the back of my pen. “Because I love the beach,” I wrote, drawing a line through the words immediately after. “Because the baklava at the bakery is the best in the world,” I wanted to make myself laugh. “Because I need John’s advice,” I tried again. “Because the last time I was lost and confused, I went to Paros and swam in the Aegean Sea and calmed down, and I’m counting on the magic still being there.” Not entirely satisfied with this list, I snapped my journal shut. The sun was turning a rich orange as it sank into the water and the wind was thick with salt and anticipation, reminding me of the sunsets I had watched and painted from the church by the Paroikia shore.
When the ferry finally pulled in at 10:00 p.m., the port could not have been a more different place than the cold, deserted town I had left behind three Decembers ago. Tourists flocked up and down the waterfront. Hotel staff and car rental services accosted disembarking passengers before they could make it past the windmill. Every bar and restaurant was packed beyond capacity. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, feeling more anxious than ever. But my feet did not falter once as they walked through the Plaka, turning onto Market Street towards the school building. Behind me, the noisy evening erupted into a flurry of fireworks to celebrate the assumption of Mary. “What am I doing here?” I muttered to myself.
I first met Jun when he was busy at his exhibition “Sacred/Wild,” but he still took the time to welcome me back and help me settle into my apartment. My initial apprehensions retreated and I fell asleep to the sound of the wind in the olive groves. When I arrived at the school the next morning and saw John and Jane, any remaining uneasiness disappeared entirely. “We’re so happy to have you,” they welcomed me. Within moments, I felt no different than I had as a student, stopping by the Uffizi during one of my breaks between classes. Before I could ask, John handed me a key to the school and encouraged me to use it as much as I needed to. Soon, Jane was making travel suggestions for my upcoming trip to Turkey and we were pouring over books about Istanbul. Our conversation meandered, from the potential to study the similarities between Indian and Greek philosophy to journalism in the digital age and, most importantly, the texture of the week’s myzithra. I was finally home.
Hours later, at a table at the Albatross laden with my favorite Parian foods, I remembered one of the most valuable lessons I learned at the school: to appreciate good food. From our elaborate dinners at Villa Rospigliosi to the simple meals I used to cook with other students at the Aegean Village, food is a central part of the Aegean Center. I began to see food as much more than the basis for sustenance: it is an experience to be revered and cherished. At my first Monday morning meeting as a student, John opened with the words, “I want you all to promise me that tomorrow morning, you will buy a pomegranate and break it over Greek yogurt and honey for breakfast.” I didn’t really like pomegranate, but the one I ate to fulfill this promise changed my palette forever.
That was October, and this was August— it was too early for pomegranate. Now was the time to eat honeydew and water melon, and I was not about to argue with the land. On Paros, eating seasonal food acquired new significance. I became more attuned to weekly weather transitions than my own desire for a specific food. I realized that fresh, local ingredients and spontaneity are critical to a good meal, but even more essential is good company. As students, we had carried our small stoves to one apartment, pooled together the produce we had bought earlier that day and cooked dinner with each other.
Three years later, over plates piled with fresh gavros and calamari, luscious beets perfectly complemented with skordalia and horta, and tomatoes with creamy myzithra that instantly put all other cheese to shame, I remembered how much I loved to eat the Aegean Center way. As we passed the plates around, each of us was careful to serve ourselves so that everyone else would have enough. Sharing was far more important than self-indulgence. How we learn to eat is symbolic of how we learn to take care of each other and develop a heightened sensitivity to our surroundings.
The Paros I had returned to in the summer was remarkably different from the winter Paros I remembered, but its beauty still left me breathless. My friends (the ones who have never been to Greece) often tease me that my relentless praise for Greece’s natural beauty makes me a perfect candidate to work for the Greek Tourism Organization. Ever since I left, I have dreamed of the narrow, cobbled streets of Paroikia, weaving my way through white washed walls, blue domes and pink bougainvillea creepers. I have insisted that the sunlight on Paros is more luminous than anywhere else in the world and that the deep purple and turquoise water of the Aegean has mysterious healing properties.
Returning to Paros reaffirmed that its landscape instantly calms me. I spent my days visiting old haunts and discovering new ones. I realized that Krios was no longer the far beach I used to hike to in the winter; it was one of the busiest beaches on the island, and a ten-minute ferry ride from the port. Lefkes, however, was still deserted once I walked out of the town square and into the mountains. Hiking past abandoned windmills, through the terraced landscape studded with ancient olive trees, I returned to my solitary Paros. The sirocco was particularly violent that day, but with no one but the wind to listen to, I found the same inner quiet that I had come looking for. Suddenly the questions that had been on my mind since I left New York three weeks ago no longer seemed insurmountable.
I rediscovered my old running route to the Valley of the Butterflies and went swimming at the Cave of the Nymphs, each time feeling immensely grateful to connect so intimately with the earth. I have grown up and lived in large cities for most of my life, and the ability to appreciate nature is one that I have gradually learned. Learning to love Paros, and by extension Greece, was easy, because I was introduced to the place through John’s love for the island. Friday hikes are as much a part of the curriculum as figure drawing or art history. As students, we learned that although we spent most of our time in Paroikia, there were worlds beyond for us to explore. Three years later, my interest in wandering around the island was still fresh. Where would a familiar path lead me if I turned left instead of right? Where would the land lead me if I left the path all together?
Paros reminded me that it is possible to live slower and more deliberately, and that the benefits to watching the sun set and moon rise every evening are immeasurable. I felt the same unencumbered joy each morning when I woke up simply by choosing to listen to the waves. I realized that I could call more than one place in the world “home,” because even after I left Paros, I continued to carry its wisdom with me.
Being at home on Paros was possible because I was also coming home to family. The Aegean Center is not a semester- or year-long program: it is an opportunity to belong to a close-knit community for life. From seeing familiar faces around Paroikia to meeting students from different semesters who were also there, every day was an affirmation of the school’s inclusive and supportive community.
When I met Jeff and Liz in the school courtyard, they asked me not five but twenty-five questions about how I was, what I had done in the past three years and what I planned to do in the future. Our conversation picked up exactly where it left off when I used to sit in the dark room with Liz, pouring over my test strips and telling her what was on my mind. At the school, we develop relationships with our teachers that go far beyond typical student teacher interactions. Our teachers make the effort to get to know us, take care of us and remain genuinely interested in who we become after we leave. Reconnecting with John, Jane, Jun, Jeff and Liz reminded me that I had learned much more than fine arts skills at the school. Their experience and insight has taught me a way of life that I constantly seek to recreate when I am physically not on Paros.
One week later, on my way to Athens, I was back on the top deck of the ferry with my journal. “I could write pages and pages about this past week. But all I need to say about it is that it was perfect,” I wrote. Visiting Paros brought back beautiful memories and allowed me to create new ones. It reminded me that the bliss I had experienced as a student was still there, and will always be there, waiting patiently for me to return.