Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday, July 27th - Buffer Zone Entrance???

Sorry for the delay all! I’ve been seriously into research, and as my parents will attest to, I’ve been stressing out a bit about it because of the short time frame that I have left. Regardless, I’ve seen some incredible things and met some fascinating people, each of which are bringing me closer to Cyprus and its issues.

The other day we were at the Byzantine museum (connected to the Archbishops palace) watching the process of 3-D documentation of each of the museums pieces. They were using cameras that shot from different angles and a projector that placed a series of lines on the item to show the contours. Very cool stuff, and allows the pieces to be permanently stored (visually at least). We were introduced to the director of the museum who was very interested in our research. (In case I haven’t already mentioned, there is another student here, Mike, who is researching similar topics to mine but specifically focusing on the monuments directly connected to and within the Buffer Zone). He told us that only a few days ago, there was an agreement that has promised the eventual renovation of the two main churches that have been swallowed by the UN-controlled buffer zone. He believed that as architecture students and American citizens, we have a better chance than most for an entrance application to go through. Immediately we were excited, but realized that it is a bit harder than it sounds.

Today we went to the US embassy to seek some guidance. The man at the front gate of the fortified embassy was not very much help, so we went straight to the place that we thought we would have to… The UN base in Cyprus at the Ledra Palace Hotel (formerly one of the most beautiful hotels in all the island and now a military barracks) in the Buffer Zone to the Office of Civil Affairs. The man we were introduced to (from Bosnia) gave us the number of a woman that would take in our application and listen to our proposal. He said that if she finds it worthy, we will have the opportunity to enter the abandoned core of the old city (escorted by armed UN soldiers of course) to look at the churches of St. George and St. Jacob, which was at one time a monastery.

The former hotel now has bullet holes in the walls from the war. The rooms are used as offices and housing of the soldiers during the peacekeeping efforts between sides Cyprus. Walking into the hotel at first seems to be a place of luxury, but once at the front desk with UN soldiers you are quick to realize the sad reality that is the division of this beautiful island...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday, July 20th - 20/7/74

35 years ago this morning at 5:45, Turkish troops invaded the island of Cyprus at the northern port city of Kyrenia. After moving south over the next few days, the current dividing line between the Republic of Cyprus and the north was created as a ceasefire line. Fast forward to today and this ceasefire line has gained permanence while becoming the epicenter to the destructive apartheid within Nicosia and Cyprus as a whole.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday, July 17th - Architects Point of View

Two nights ago, we had a guest over for dinner. Loukas Kalisperis is a very accomplished architect and professor, and is affiliated with the Cyprus Institute as it develops. Note: The CyI is only two years, and already they have millions of Euros of grant funding coming in for projects they’re conducting. They are expanding at a rate so fast that by the time I return next year, I will probably not even recognize this campus (which is on the site of a Technical University).

There were a few conversations that I had with Prof. Kalisperis that I found particularly interesting. Most of it revolved around the values of architects and their clients. We were talking about Cyprus and Greek islands that have allowed development to ruin any history that existed in the place, making it a tourist site while throwing the archeological remains to the wayside. His response to me was that an architects job description is, “half a cheap psychologist and half an educator.” As crude as this sounds I think he is right on. Usually a client will come to an architect with a general list of things they want, and the architect is expected to place them in some sort of a container. But the thought process is not robotic… There is designing that happens by taking these needs and arranging them in a way that the architect thinks would be best for the client and adds or subtracts things that are (un)necessary. His phrase lends itself to the architect’s duty to listen, analyze the client’s thoughts, and then explain to them why they make the decisions they do but also advise them on issues that the architect believes would be better for them, the community, or the world (climate change). It’s not about persuading the client to do what the architect wants to build… Rather, it’s the architect’s duty to explain things that the client possibly didn’t consider to improve the design or the quality of life after the design becomes a building.

There’s a saying that goes, “Engineers know a lot about one thing, while Architects know a little about a lot of things.” The way I’ve looked at my architectural education is as a lesson in the humanities. It is required (though not always enforced) that architects are well versed in history, the sciences, politics, and society (local, national, and international issues). They have to be able to converse with both the specialists (engineers) and the common man (client) elaborating the same ideas on different levels.

I’m not trying to put architects on a pedestal, but I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing. I find it specifically useful when I can come home for winter or summer break and have an in depth talk with my mom about marketing and efficiency standards for Kohler standards and then talk to my dad about environmental consciousness within our community and at Cardinal.

NOTE: This may be my last post for a few days. I'm starting to feel the pressure of the research build and as much as I love keeping you all informed, I unfortunately am only here for a short amount of time. Keep checking back however, as I may just make smaller posts with photos to keep you updated.

Tuesday, July 14th - Oral History

I stumbled upon this .pdf the other day <>, during my search for different reunification strategies for Nicosia. Conflict in Cities and the Contested States seems to be a team of researchers looking into issues worldwide similar to, and including, Nicosia. This specific proposal is by an architecture PhD candidate at Cambridge. Her analysis was less about a specific proposal to solve the problem, and more about this term she called, “original voice.” Here is a definition that I came up with after reading her article and reflecting on it:

Oral History: Voice of the people, whether individual thought or community sentiment, from periods of time where they were overlooked or underappreciated. These primary sources should not be discarded as error if information does not match up with public view, political stance, or historical analysis of issue. Every viewpoint is sacred.

The graffiti on the walls near the buffer zone, the personal interviews I’ve had with Cypriot citizens and the thoughts of those that I haven’t interacted with are all thoughts of a specific person involved in an issue that deeply impacts their daily lives. Though some are more extreme than others, they are personal opinions about a situation to which we will never be able to understand like they do. This idea has haunted me as I walk through the center of the old city of Nicosia. Who am I to say how these people should live, what they want, and what is needed for the resolution of this international issue? I have no ties to the situation as most of you know… No lineage, and no language knowledge (except for some very basic greek)! But maybe this is what makes it an important point-of-view… I don’t have a biased opinion for one side over the other, and revert to the facts which make me constantly question the way things are currently run and the resolutions currently in place.

I’m starting to realize that I’m in a very important position. Every conversation I have is a piece of oral history that adds to my bibliography related to Nicosia and the history of Cyprus. I hope to eventually feel comfortable enough with the depth of this issue to help make decisions here. In the meantime, it’s most important for me to put the designer ego aside for a moment and give credit to those that understand this problem more than I will in the month.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sunday, July 12th - Food Coma

Today, Rachel, Nikos, and I spent all day living the true Cypriot weekend lifestyle. All three other units in the building in which they live are occupied by the same family; A couple with two children live across from us and the lower two units are for the elders (who since I’ve been here have already brought up homemade meat pie and orange marmalade). We were heading to a monastery near Fikardou in the mountains called Machiaras which was a major site during the fight for Cypriot freedom from the British during the EOKA movement. A higher-up in that nationalist movement to unit Cyprus with Greece would come here and hide out as a monk, yet hold secret meetings in a cave in the area for the “Freedom Fighters”. At the end of his life the British got into a major battle with him at the top of the hill before they were forced to burn him out of the cave with a helicopter attack. Because he died in the protection of his country, there is now a massive statue honoring him that sits on the complex that still functions as a monk’s monastery to this day. This monastery is hid way up in the Troodos Mountains and is relatively near a town called Agros where the neighboring family brought us for lunch. We had chicken and lamb souvla (a little larger than souvlaki which is like a shish kabob) which is cooked rotisserie-style and also kleftiko lamb which is slow cooked in an outdoor oven. The meat literally just falls off the bone, and everyone else in the town seemed to be at the restaurant for the two hours we were feasting and having a good time. We moved on to a small café down the road for a coffee that lasted at least another hour, were brought to a local sweetshop where they make their famous rose water, and then welcomed to see a small chapel in the town.

This sort of all-day eating and socializing lifestyle is what Cypriots live for on the weekends. Many of them work multiple jobs as any type of work is seen as positive (white or blue collar). Therefore the free time they find on the weekends is enjoyed with the family and feasting (something I could get used to). Something else I found out about Cyprus is that their government is communist! Most people tend to have negative connotation with such a word, but in this scenario it is actually necessary in the revival of a divided nation. The party that runs the government currently is committed to standing up for its people that give them so much support. Cyprus remains a very wealthy nation, and the government is less about the distribution of wealth and more about supporting the state: Nationalism. There are high taxes all over Europe, but the taxes taken in by Cypriots are focused on the things that they find most important, like helping to fund the renovation of their city, and their leaders reach out to other nations for support, standing up for itself against the UN, and in peace talks (including the Turkish North).

Now we are working on outfitting their apartment with the paintings they recently bought. There is a local Cypriot artist that is quite good, but seems to have some psychological issues judging by the breadth of his work (a brightly colored flowery painting vs. four dark self portraits… Nonetheless, he sells them at an extremely cheap rate to the gallery for his talent level, and the paintings they got were an absolute steal. This has gotten me thinking about my room next year, and owning houses in the future. Though I don’t know how my room is laid out, I want to print out a massive old map and frame it as a centerpiece. I have big dreams for a small college room!

Saturday, July 11th - 00_ agent

I had been absolutely exhausted until today when I made a day out of walking around the Old City of Nicosia. I would recommend a Wikipedia search of the city if you are interested in further information, however I will give you a brief synopsis to catch you up in the modern history of this nation and my research:

The “Cyprus Problem” has been a central issue in the foreign policy agenda of the United Nations and the United States since the end of the British reign over the island. Upon the islands separation from the British Empire in 1960, after being controlled since July 5th 1878, Cyprus was granted its sovereignty. After only 14 years, Turkish Troops invaded the island creating a great humanitarian disaster as thousands of refugees left their homes seeking safety. This aggression, which followed several years of violent political dispute between the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities, indefinitely divided the island and disrupted its socioeconomic and cultural balance.
The island’s capital city of Nicosia is the last divided capital in the world. The infamous “Green Line” divides the city into Greek- and Turkish- Cypriot parts. This sad reality displays the complex dichotomy of a historical urban environment. The two parts of the ethnically divided city are separated by this UN controlled “buffer zone,” which spans for 346 km2 across the island and from the Paphos Gate to north of the Famagusta Gate through the Venetian fortification of the old city. The “Green Line” divides the capital into three principle areas; the thriving south half of the city, occupied by Greek-Cypriots, the deteriorating community to the north, which is the capital of a state under Turkey’s control not recognized by the UN, called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and the completely uninhabitable buffer zone dividing the two regions.
The buffer zone has swallowed hundreds of buildings within or adjacent to it, stands as the end of about twenty streets, and contains formerly valuable commercial properties that is now flanked by low-income residential neighborhoods and a red light district. The construction of this partition began as a voluntary threshold between communities in the late 1950’s as distinct, segregated neighborhoods had been developing since the Ottoman Empire conquered the island in 1571. Animosity was high between societies as the Greek Cypriot citizens were in support of enosis, which was the Greek campaign to annex Cyprus in the nationalistic attempt to reclaim Byzantine territories. On the opposition were the Turkish Cypriot citizens fearing their safety if enosis was sought through military force. As unrest grew between sides leading up to 1960, the British military began to realize their post on the island as their Middle Eastern headquarters was about to be overrun. Upon the signing of the London and Zurich Agreements in February 1959, Cyprus formally became a member of the United Nations and Council of Europe. However, in December of 1963, two Turkish-Cypriots were killed by a Greek Cypriot police officer and though no political or ethnic issues are known to have been the motivation, riots broke out. Physical barricades were erected along the previously voluntary Mason-Dixon Line, which only a few days later became an official line of division between sides. Major General Young of Britain laid out the double-layered partition line as a halt to hostility between ceasefires, using a green chinagraph pencil which ever since has been infamously known as the “Green Line”. Its course through the capital city relates to the natural path of the Pedieos River as it was during medieval times, and more recently the main commercial streets of the city, Ledra and Hermes Streets.
In 1974, Greek military intervention called Operation Attila installed a commander on the island who was an advocate of enosis. In response, the invasion by Turkey only days later transformed the buffer zone into an impermeable physical boundary, passable only through a single checkpoint near the UN headquarters at the Ledra Palace Hotel. The Turkish Troops held all the land to the north of the current Green Line forcing Greek-Cypriot refugee’s from their homes and completely polarizing the island. While some believe that the invasion was a defensive move to protect the Turkish Cypriots, many consider the move to be an illegal act against a sovereign nation.
Despite being inducted as a member of the European Union in 2004, Cyprus is still divided as its northern part remains under the control of Turkish troops. Throughout the tragedy that is the “Cyprus Problem” as many as 6,600 fatalities have resulted and 250,000 Cypriots have been forced from their homes and belongings creating ethnically homogenized communities and cultural segregation in the minds of Cypriots. As a country, Cyprus has suffered as its economy once relied on the tourism and agricultural industries, which don’t accept political instability very well. Because the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognized outside of Turkey, trade is near impossible and as a result the region continues to deteriorate.
However, hope has recently come to the ethnically divided capital city of Nicosia in the form of the Agha Khan Award-winning Nicosia Master Plan as part of the Action for Cooperation and Trust (ACT) launched by United Nations Development Programme. The intentions of the plan are to revitalize the capital city, by emphasizing bi-communal spaces to bridge the cultural gap while preserving and rehabilitating the historical city center, mending what can hopefully become a sovereign nation once again. The three phases of the project are focused on important civic spaces and monuments in the old city and their connection to each other. Although there has been strong initiative for this plan to go through, there has also been growing resistance between sides which has slowed the process immensely.

*** WARNING – This information from the paper above, written by me, is taken from multiple sources which I have cited in a document not attached here. I do not give anyone the right to use this information nor to use any bit of it as a source. Please let me know if you are interested in what sources I used and I will direct you appropriately. I apologize for the legality of this statement but I don’t want anyone to take this blog for more than it is: a reflection of my thoughts and explanation to those closest to me of what I’m doing***

Today for the first time I walked along and across the Green Line that I’ve read so much about. After dedicating my entire year to researching this phenomenon, I felt comfortable in this devastated area because it seemed as though I had been there before. However, every corner I turned I found myself putting together the streets one after another shocked at the sight. I took over 400 pictures! and I’ve attached a few of the most descriptive ones that I feel comfortable posting to the public domain. I was getting into some pretty interesting areas and will show those at a later date.

I’ve decided that my research will take a slightly different form than I had anticipated. I had originally thought that I would propose a new project for the revitalization of the city of Nicosia that would include the desperate need for the renovation of architecturally, socially, and historically significant buildings; then applying similar ideas to the Twin Cities and specifically to the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul which was a vibrant African American city divided by the installation of I-94 in the 60’s. However, it is becoming clear to me that there are many proposals already for the revitalization of Nicosia and a new proposal by me will not just fix the issues that are rooted deeply in cultures that I have no connection to outside of invested interest in the understanding of it as an outside (which I feel is important as an unbiased perspective). Instead of thinking of myself as someone that can fix the world (which I hope to do one day ) maybe it’s best I acknowledge the current efforts and struggles that occur along the way in uniting this country, analyze the methods of these policymakers, built environment professionals, and students deeply embedded in the problem, and relate these intercultural design solutions to places of ethnic diversity in the US and specifically in the Twin Cities.

America is known as a melting pot of culture and as diversity continues to grow, just as it has for millennia in many other places I’ve seen, serious rifts dividing ethnicity will harden. Strict division cultivates segregation, and a first (and necessary) step to solving such issues is design intervention. Hopefully, this argument will gain depth as I’m here talking to the people involved in (and passionate about) fixing what has developed in Cyprus over the last 35 years but began well before that.

Before embarking on my walk to each side of the Green Line, we visited a friend, Ruth, in her bookshop in south Nicosia (also known as Lefkosia by the locals) called Moufflon Bookshop. In a publication called Time Out that for this issue focused on Cyprus, they talk about her as knowing, “every publication, published anywhere,” and it’s true! She seriously knew where any book Nikos wanted was whether it was related to Cyprus or not, and she’s more than likely read anyone you ask for on the packed shelves of her shop (which seem endless. It made me want to collect more books, but also to find time to read more. I seem to like finding things on this trip to do in my free time that I never have when at school!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday, July 10th - Pictures and Notes

As hopefully you see below, I have posted pictures that are relevant to each of the posts I've made. I'm having a lot of issues with formatting the blog correctly, but they should all be there despite the text being squished at times. If you click on the images you should be able to see them full size. The Panorama got cut off in one of the posts so make sure you click on it to get the full picture.

Cyprus is ridiculously hot! it says it's around 95 degrees, but feels like 102 and may have been a bit worse a few hours ago... I'm planning on heading into the old city tonight to do some exploring on the other side of the green line by myself. I think this is important to get my own perspective on things before I tour it with the two professors I'm staying with for their opinions and further detail.

We had dinner in the Old City (walled city) last night at a great restaurant. It was in a renovated building in the old city and had a pretty young crowd. The entry was covered with books that you could pick up and read while you're there. I was quite tired though and ready to sleep after a long day in transit yet again.

We try to stay as efficient as possible here in the apartment leaving windows and doors open all the time. If the building was turned 90 degrees, there would be a constant breeze blowing through... Unfortunately it's not as strong and it stays humid in the rooms. There are A/C units in each room but I'm going to try to not use it as much as possible. We'll see how long that lasts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thursday, July 9th - Pre-Research Reflection

I’ve noticed a trend in this years trip that has made for a much deeper experience than last summer. While most of the places I went last summer were the major cities (or capitals) of major European countries, with the exceptions of the Greek islands, this year has brought a wide range of juxtapositions similar to those discussed earlier within each place I’m visiting (see Sunday 28th post). I’m broadening the extremes of my senses through travel as I witness:

Serenity vs. Overpopulation

Nationalism vs. Celebrated Diversity

Glacial vs. Tropic

Natural vs. Built Beauty

Poverty vs. Wealth

Religious vs. Secular

Tourist vs. Stranger

…I’ve noticed these issues first hand both within places and as comparisons between destinations in my Summer Travel 2009. These differences fascinate me about seeing a new place for comparison to these extremes, or to delve deeper into these difference by spending more time in a place.

Traveling with someone else was a great experience. Thus far, I had gone against the grain and traveled by myself but having someone to talk with intellectually over dinner or about history when at a site was an important experience to have. I love my personal time, as I’ve shown in my earlier posts, but there’s always a feeling of loneliness if I feel like sharing something special. At the same time, there are few people that I can see myself being able to travel with at the pace that I prefer to move at. Katie was up for any hike, beach, or monument, and sometimes it even became problematic because I couldn’t make a decision myself!

I move on now to Nicosia, Cyprus; the capital of an island divided and the topic on which my research is focused. I haven’t had the time to explore the city yet, but have been introduced to the staff and facilities here at the Cyprus Institute (CyI). There are millions of dollars in grants that STARC (Science and Technology in Archaeology Research Center -, which is a research subgroup of CyI, that are currently in the works through their office. I feel confident that a Fulbright application to work here would be strong and I hope I can get it ready for the deadline in September because there is definite potential.

Wednesday, July 8th - Paphos, Cyprus

From Bulgaria we flew to Cyprus. I will be staying with my professors Rachel and Nikos in the coming days, but first decided to explore the western coast of the island since I had the opportunity to have a travel partner. The area stretching from Paphos to Polis is the area that we stayed at for two nights. We arrived at around 1:30am Cyprus time on July 7th and had decided to rent a car allowing us more freedom in what we saw on the island in such a short time frame. The drive all the way from the airport in Larnaca to Paphos is only around an hour and a half and is straight down a highway along the water. Though the island is so small, there is no solid public transportation system and Cypriots drive everywhere. Not only do they drive everywhere, but they do so on the other side of the road! Because Cyprus is a former British colony, they’ve adopted right-side-drive cars and driving on the left hand side of the road. Because we got in so early and had no place to be until check-in the next afternoon, I was able to practice my driving on wide open roads. In retrospect, it would have been easier with at least a little traffic because it would allow me to follow them rather than learning on my own. It’s definitely a fun thing to get used to, but it’s important to note that it’s not for very defensive drivers. I don’t consider myself an aggressive driver, but knew that I had to be when dealing with the European style. Rules seem to be followed much more strictly.

Much of the island has been connected by the new roadway that we took in the early hours of the morning, but there are still gravel paths that act as the only link to the most serene places on the island. Not getting to these places would be giving up on the real treasure of the island and giving into its overdeveloped, touristy façade. We only had a Hundai Getz (equivalent of a new Geo Metro hatchback), but we made our way slowly down the gravel paths to get wherever we wanted to go. Our first stop (before sunrise) was to Aphrodite’s Rock. Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of beauty and love and the patron saint of the island, was said to have been born at this spot. Though it is usually a giant tourist attraction, we were able to get some great pictures of a full moon shining on the rocks. After a small nap before sunrise, we went past Paphos (where our hotel was located) to Agios Georgios where there is a smaller resort area, and then onto Pegeia for lunch. We had read in a great review in the guidebook about a St. Georges tavern and it did not disappoint. I had fried Kalamari (squid) with fries and Tatziki sauce while sipping on a Frappe (Greek-style iced coffee) as we overlooked two neighboring coves with turquoise water surrounded by the rocky cliff we were atop. After being completely stuffed we drove on to the area of Lara beach which is protected as a sea turtle hatchery yet still allows for swimmers. Because it’s not easy to get to on the unpaved roads most travelers decide not to go that far north along the shore, and the sand is some of the best I’ve seen (despite it nearly charring my feet).

On the second day, we went up to Polis where Aphrodite’s Baths and the archaeological museum are located. The baths are definitely a tourist trap, but the trip to the city was worth it as everything is very close (and driving through mountain passes on the wrong side of the road was fun!). There was also a 700 year old olive tree across from the museum that has almost split into two, but still produces olives! However, the beaches here were not as we had hoped and went back near the place we had been the day before that was closer to Paphos and had chairs and umbrellas to rent.

Both nights we ate the traditional Cypriot “meze” which is a buffet of Cypriot dishes in small portions served directly to the table. Thinking back to it makes my mouth water… The first night we went for the Vegetarian at a place called Fetta’s in Ktima (which is the northern less developed city center of Paphos). The second night we went to the 7 St. Georges just outside of Kato Paphos (which is the southern overdeveloped port city center). It was picked as by the author of our guide book as a must do. The website ( explains further about what their philosophy, but all the food and drink is created from their own crops, they serve the food that is in season and therefore the menu is never the same, they bring you food until you literally say “no more,” and they owner thanks every last table for coming. It was better than the review even talked it up to be in the half page article!

Monday, July 6th - Sofia, Bulgaria

For the last four days I have been in Sofia, Bulgaria. On my train, which took over two hours longer than anticipated, I met two girls from the United States and one from Sweden. Incredibly, the two girls from the US were studying in Nicosia, Cyprus during the summer and we talked all the way there about what the city was like and what I can expect upon arrival! This was perfect as I had recently decided to spend the first two days in Cyprus at more of a beach area since my friend Katie Koenig would be joining me. They gave me a lot of good advice that will make the transition to Cypriot life that much easier. The Swedish girl was only going to be in Sofia for the morning before she left for the Czech Republic.

Many of you are probably curious as to why I came here, and after being here for the week I have many reasons for anyone to visit! Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria, which became a European Union nation in 2007 after a long struggle against neighboring countries and empires, but also against communism which only ended around two decades ago. As it stands today, I see Sofia as a “poor man’s Paris” because of its layered historic landscape, layout of the center city, and specifically the numerous baroque buildings that line the streets. Meanwhile, the city has developed faster than it can handle and also maintains some of the old housing complexes of the communist era. My identification of it being for a “poor man” relates to the fact that Bulgaria has yet to pick up the Euro as its currency and at this time use the Leva as their method of payment. It is about 2:1 Lava to the Euro and bartering can definitely be done in the free market economy of markets in the public squares and a cab ride (if unmetered). The language barrier can make living for a few days a little bit difficult as many speak only Bulgarian as tourism is not a major source of income.

Around the city lie beautiful Orthodox churches with foundations from as early as the 6th century and size rivaling that of Hagia Sofia (which is the epitome of byzantine architecture found in Istanbul, Turkey). The largest church that I just mentioned, called St. Alexander Nevski is one of the biggest in the Balkans, and was built to commemorate the 200,000 Russian troops that died for the freedom of Bulgaria from Turkish control in the late 19th century. The earliest church is that of St. George, which exists in the courtyard of the presidency, has five cycles of wall paintings in its history, and continues to be used today.

I met Katie at the airport the following day and finally began to explore that night more extensively. During our time we checked out many of the most important buildings in the city, but also took advantage of what I consider Sofia’s most important attribute: public space. There are parks all over the city that have endless area to walk, stop for a coffee, or have a picnic lunch, and are dotted with communist monuments (most of which celebrate the working man) representing how well this country has developed. Most people are out enjoying the comfortable weather that comes with the summer season and during our time there it seemed as though weekdays were a more prominent time to hang out than weekends.

Yesterday we decided to take a cab to the Vitosha Mountain National Park which is about 20 km outside the city center to do some hiking for the day. We hiked all afternoon through some of the most incredible wilderness and scenic natural views that I’ve ever seen (which is saying something when I’ve been to Colorado, Alaska, Greek Islands, etc.). It took us around 4 hours to get all the way from our start point to the summit of Cherni Vruh, which was at an elevation of 2290m (900m up from our start point)! There are mountain bike tours down the mountain available and the hill is used as a ski slope in the winter. Glaciers have left winding rivers of massive boulders all the way down the landscape. Near the summit, in one of the winding rivers of boulders, there was an area where snow was still melting. We had walked all the way up in T-shirts and were standing, in early JULY on part of a glacier!!! It was an absolutely miraculous site and the photos are great (but still won’t do them justice).

We took a chair lift down the mountain from that point, allowing us to see all the way across the capital city. After the chair lift, there was an opportunity for a gondola ride, but we thought we were up to the task of walking the hill. On the way down, we decided to hitch a ride from a Bulgarian girl our age that told us this mountain is nothing compared to many other places away from the capital of the country. It definitely got me thinking about a return trip one day, allowing time for the natural beauty of the rest of the country to go along with its interesting history. Is there the possibility of a biking trip in the Balkans stopping along the way for sleep, food, water, and pictures???

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mount Menoikeion in Review

Though it’s still too early to be in reflection mode with all the travel I have left for the summer, I’m confident I will always look back on this trip as an influential one on multiple levels. Meeting the people involved with my time at Prodromos monastery has motivated me to study more of art history as a supplement to my design education. They have pushed me to make the most of my time here and at school just by proving the intelligence one can gain, and the intellectual conversations we’ve had.

Professionally, I now fully understand that my studies will one day pay off. There are issues around the world that will require good planning, preservation, and design to function, but also remain as historical monuments as a celebration of history and culture. Nikos has introduced me to many of these opportunities that have broadened my interest after the Athens trip and classes last year.

Finally, the monastery and its nuns have provided me with a greatly positive mindset moving forward and has allowed me to realize how stressed I become over really minuscule things. Taking the time to reflect, and conversing with the nuns has humbled me greatly. School consuming my life makes feel like there is no time to spend on personal reflection and prayer. However, the monastic life is based off of prayer and they do so as naturally as their heart beats. Being such a close part of a part of a community and lifestyle that is completely unlike mine will hopefully make me conscious of feeling overworked in the future.
In the evening, its Greek tradition (and specifically in the monastery) to spend time conversing in the evenings as a stress reliever before bed. We stayed up until almost 2 am with the nuns talking together in a circle about everything from Orthodoxy to Minnesota. I sat right next to the Abbess who spent a lot of time talking to me about life (through translation of course). She is incredibly wise and seems to have an answer to all problems; the most prominent of which is giving glory to God and humbling one’s self. One of the nuns in the monastery, who is the Abbess’s godmother and aunt, is in her late 80’s and has Alzheimer’s… She doesn’t know anyone’s name, including her own, or where she is but can recite the liturgy word for word and recognizes her sisters. To the people she would consider complete strangers, she is so courteous that she will give up her seat for you to sit down and stand up to show respect when you leave. The Abbess was saying that these are traits that she has always had… This got me thinking, what would I resort to if I had the same case of Alzheimer’s? Better yet, what defines me as a person?

Tuesday, June 31st - Mount Athos!

Today we took a boat along the coast of the Mount Athos peninsula. For both Byzantine and monastic life, this area is extremely important. At the same time as the beginning of Mount Athos monasteries, in the middle and late Byzantine times, the founder of Mt. Menoikeion, Ktetor (founder) Ioannikios, decided against joining Mount Athos and to instead attempt to start his own complex inland (we have nicknamed this trip, “Inland Athos” as a result). However, this area along the coast of northern Greece (the eastern-most “finger” of the three finger peninsulas, closest to Turkey) became very popular as a place to practice monastic orthodox life (both solitarily, ascetic, or communally, coenobitic), and many complexes were built in the area, making it a religious stronghold. To this day these complexes are run by monks (a rarity in this day as many have been converted into use by nuns), and Orthodoxy thrives. It is a popular spot to visit by religious pilgrims, those interested in understanding monastic life, and historians. However, the entire peninsula is closed off to females, and any male interested in visiting the island may only stay four days and must be planned well in advance as a special permit is required and only a specific number of people are allowed in the area at once.

Taking a tour along the western coast of the peninsula made me realize that this is a sight I must see one day. The other two male students on the trip had each been there and said it was an absolutely incredible. The serenity, history, purity, and interesting social complex that is monastic life are all present in a small secluded area that would allow me time to understand more, but also reflect as I did at the monastery over the last week. After I travel to Meteora in approximately a month and a half, I assume the motivation for this trip will be even stronger.

On the three hour drive back to Mt. Menoikeion, we stopped for lunch at a beachside taverna in Stagiera, which is the birthplace of Aristotle! The water was beautiful and there was almost nobody on the beach. This would be a good place to get away for a while yet be close to monumental sights in northern Greece.

Sunday evening, June 28th - Development of the Monastery

Sister Maria, who is one of the only nuns who speaks English, came here from South Africa 13 years ago. I found out yesterday her parents were from Cyprus but got displaced and moved to England in 1970 where she was born. First hand information like this would be EXTREMELY important in fully understanding the issues on the island more deeply, and informing better research. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know a whole lot outside of the fact that her parents (Greek Cypriots) owned land on the north half of the island. As segregation began within the island, her family was displaced and lost everything… Though she couldn’t tell me anything more than that because she hasn’t looked into the politics behind the issue and was never a part of it, there is another sister that has more information about it and I will hopefully have the opportunity to talk to her about it in the next couple of days before I leave.

After talking about Cyprus, I asked her and another nun, Sister Katherine from Texas, about renovation that’s happening around the monastery and specifically the relationship they have with their main architect Pandalis. They both rolled their eyes because he is apparently quite a character, but then they began to express their concerns about his work. This monastery has built elements from the 13th century that must be preserved, but at what point do the nuns needs take precedent. This is a family, business, religious institution, educational facility, etc. combined into one package covered in a beautiful wrapping paper that looks best untouched. This is a highly unusual example of preservation work because the building is not just a monument, but a living environment that has specific requirements for operation. This is exactly their struggle… They also want to preserve the buildings as much as possible, but also refuse to compromise on issues like a second exit for emergency purposes, natural lighting in their kitchen area, and so on. A good question they brought up was, “What will the people centuries from now see as a historical monument if we can’t continue tradition as a monastic community today?” (This is paraphrased of course). Hearing this was extremely enlightening, as I feel that many of my experiences this week have been, and will definitely make me think more about the decisions being made in my research in Cyprus and future design work.

I had assumed that much of their money came from grants, and asked about their process for applying or receiving them. They said that much of that money has run out, and they have been forced to find more sources as a result. The EU, Levantis foundation, archeological foundations, UNESCO, etc. have money, but funding has been short lately and the amount that they give out is not nearly enough to complete the projects that they still need at the quality that is required. They said that they have been offered many times alternate sources of money, what they call “Black Money,” and what we would call laundered money… However, the repercussions that would result such as the favors they would then owe, and the immorality of the origins of the money keeps them away from danger but also finishing the project. Many other monasteries, such as the sister monastery I mentioned earlier took that route and as I reported, have ended up in a poorly executed development. They believe that if they would have taken some of the offers they received, the entire monastery would have been completed in two years… At this rate the work will continue forever, which in my point of view is best.

As I told them, I will hopefully be working with Nikos over the next year to develop proposals for the resurrection of a few chapels near the complex. Any little bit helps, and these would be great projects to work on, not only for career development but also as a relaxing setting that cuts to the core of design intervention. Every bit of development must be justified.

Monday, June 30th - Gathering

Today was the feast days for both St. Peter and Paul. We are no longer on a Vegan regiment and can eat dairy products!!! After the way I ate for the last week it seems impossible to me that I had no meat (except for fish) and dairy products, except for the one time we had dinner in the town. All the vegetables are so fresh that it’s hard to argue for anything else. However, getting cheese and milk back in my diet felt incredible and I wound up eating too much yet still coming back for more.

In the evening, we all sat down (nuns and researchers) in the room we usually eat in as an opportunity for both sides to give thanks for the hospitality and research. First, they congratulating Nikos for the grant he received to do historical work in Cyprus over the next few years. He did his dissertation on this monastery and they have taken him in as family. Then, we had produced a PowerPoint Synaxis that allowed each of us to explain exactly what we had been working on and show images of the group and our time here. They absolutely loved it, and my part with the photo comparisons of the current state compared to that from past photographs was liked by all. They said they have been looking for this sort of thing for a while! Hopefully I’ll be back next year to do a more thorough study.

After we each went through our part of the research, the nuns showed us a video from April of this year when they were given back one of their icons that had been taken long ago by Bulgarian looters during the Balkan War. The owner of the icon had been trying to sell it to a museum, but they realized it was an unethically taken piece and reported it to authorities. Courts in England came to the final conclusion that it should be returned to the monastery. The reception included the Bishop and Minister of Culture coming and a grand celebration. It was incredible to see how much these pieces of art mean to them. They each contain specific religious importance and deep connection to their original monastery. At the end of the night, we were each given a gift by the address for our services and it was obvious how much they appreciate the work Princeton does for them here.

Sunday, June 28th - Differences

From the conversations I’ve had with other students and readings I’ve done on Byzantine history, this monastic complex has a very important place in history. As east and west Byzantium split (orthodox vs. catholic) this community was developed as a strong stance against the reunification of the two polarized sides. If you look at the itinerary for the rest of my trip, themes like this from throughout history are present in every place I go. In my sketchbook I wrote down the following clashes that I will encounter on my trip either historically or as a current event:

Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy
Byzantine vs. Ottoman
Christianity vs. Islam
East vs. West (thought, religion, culture)
Judaism vs. Islam (Israeli vs. Palestinian)
Greek vs. Turk
Communism vs. Democracy
Classical vs. Modern

… Many of these issues are rooted deeply in history, but today survive as rifts that continue to separate themselves as they pass down from generation to generation.

The documentary “Promises” focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a child’s point of view. Many of the children the film focused on were interested in meeting their counterparts (all of which lived within 20 minutes of each other by car). It gave me hope that coexistence of many different types of people in the same space is possible. The US itself was once a segregated place, and now is considered a melting pot of the world… There are still many issues that need to be solved as the world population continues to increase and our borders are flooded, but as long as we maintain our post as a world superpower we need to relinquish stereotypes and look at people as individual human beings rather than a general race. I’m not advocating opening our borders freely because this would lead to the downfall of “American” society as we know it. What I am hopeful of, is for everyone to have a more compassionate view of individuals they see and meet before judging them prematurely.

The nuns were telling us a story about the first trip a community of monks from Mt. Athos, Greece (a monastic Mecca) took to the US. It was three months after… and obviously tensions were high. Because of their dress they were searched twice as much as or more than the next person in line. After making it through and into a town in Florida, they went to a park and sat out to people watch and enjoy fresh air. Immediately they got looks, and eventually a few people came over to them saying, “You aren’t welcome here…” The only thing they knew to do with little English speaking-ability, was to pull out a cross. The people who approached them apologized immediately, but this is exactly the generalizations (and even ignorance) I’m talking about. Luckily, they anticipated the issues but couldn’t cancel their trip.

I don’t believe that all people are, or should be considered the same. We are all human beings, but there are definitely differences between us. Diversity encourages the sheer existence of culture and furthers thinking; to generalize people would be taking what I’m saying too literally. However, condemning a person with different beliefs without ever meeting them is absurd. I hope my trip will be as enlightening as it has already been and I expect it to be.

The sensitivity I have towards these issues of intercultural understanding is something I hope to continue in my career, not to mention in my general interaction with others. I have always tried to view things in a humanitarian way, but since my travel and immersion in cultures around the world I find myself more conscious of how I analyze at others. As a designer, I feel I have an important role in bringing this to the community and regional scale because I have a hand in forming the landscape in which we interact. The celebration of culture and history give space life, and I feel that a preservative approach can be successful anywhere. Most importantly, I believe it has the ability to cross cultural boundaries and increase interest on any side of a political, religious, or social issue. As idealistic as this may sound, working closely in policy-making and urban planning would give me the opportunity to make this a reality!

Saturday, June 27th - Outside chapels

Yesterday we went on a walking tour in the afternoon to two smaller rural chapels in the area named Paraskeve and Taxiarchies. They are part of the property owned by the monastery, but haven’t been used for many years because they have become run down and haven’t been restored yet… It sounds like there could be some interest in funding these renovation projects, and having been there I truly believe they could become great pilgrimage sites. Taxiarchies sites in the olive grove along the hillside, and has some later wall paintings that are continuing to deteriorate as they lie within the locked chapel. We weren’t able to get across the creek to go inside Paraskeve due to the rain that has fallen over the last few days, but its site is absolutely beautiful. The small circle of Cyprus trees is the believed burial of St. John (a different St. John than the one the monastery is named) and the site scenic surroundings are beautiful.

We have begun putting together a small power point to show the nuns about the work we’ve produced during the week. Each student has taken on a research project, either individually or as a group, that is specific to their field of study. Many of my photos (some of which I hope to have added to the blog soon) will be in the presentation! Also, my work on the icons will be used as a resource for research on icons. Make sure to check the website after the program is completed to see what they have done in this summer as well as in the past years seminars.

As I put in my itinerary, this is the webpage that has tracked the project since it started about 6 years ago:

I’ve found some old pictures of the monastery in books we have as resources for research. As another side project, I’m going to hike around and find the pictures that are in the books (assuming they are physically attainable) and duplicate them to show the contemporary state of the monastery. This comparison will keep a record of progression, or deterioration, within the complex as years pass. Preservation work is requires images like this from the past to ensure accuracy. This is similar to the work I will be doing in Cyprus, in about two weeks.