This is the story of how an American spent Thanksgiving on Paros and was pleasantly surprised to find she was not the only one. In fact, Paros, due to its long American presence makes a better locale to celebrate this all-American holiday than even Athens.
The story begins with a big challenge: finding a turkey weeks before Christmas time when Greeks are accustomed to making turkey, and not just any turkey, but a big turkey like the kind we have in the States.
My local neighborhood butcher, Babbi, called a few places but he said, “Me sichoreis, there are no full turkeys I can get for you. You will not get them fresh, you might get them frozen. And if you do, you won’t get a whole turkey. You might get parts–breasts most probably.” The wholesalers start granting orders starting from December. Greeks associate stuffed turkey with Christmas time.
So I had to do research and widen the net to snatch a bird. The internet resulted in two places: one an organic producer in Evia that grew his own poultry and another butcher in Chalandri. They both said they would get back to me. I stressed the fact that I needed a turkey, close to 7 kilos, by the latest November 22nd. The one place quoted me a price of 12 euros per kilo, but the organic producers called me with a price of 16.90 euros per kilo! For a turkey around 7 kilos, approximately 15 pounds Stateside, that’s like paying over $100 for a bird. I’d rather have filet mignon for Thanksgiving. It would wind up being cheaper.
In the end, while visiting friends in Psychiko, I noticed an International Meat Market run by a Greek Canadian. There was an awesome display of a native American Indian on the outside along with a menagerie of ducks, buffalo, hens and sheep. The inside of the butcher’s shop could double as an exhibit window from the Museum of Natural History. When I asked if they could order me a turkey, they told me, “We can have it for you next week.” How much? Roughly 5 euros per kilo. That was reasonable. I had found my bird!
Next would be how to cook it. My elderly relatives on Paros would not have the energy or the oven space to cook a turkey for four hours. To make the situation easier, I decided I would cook the turkey in my apartment in Athens and then take it with me on the ferry for the four hours through the Aegean to Paros. So that’s what I did. Cycladic cuisine is expert in creating stuffing for the birds. The award-winning recipe for stuffing I had grown up with, which I thought had come from the pages of a Martha Steward catalogue, turned out to be from my yiayia from the island. The sweetness of orange rind mixes with the golden raisins and chestnuts on a bed of parsley with some other fragrant spices lathering each long grain of rice into a heavenly brew. It took the whole morning to stuff and roast. The final challenge was to secure it for the journey across the sea. I had to wrap it around a whole roll of wax paper another of aluminium foil, two heat-resistant bags, carefully cushion it with a baby blanket, and gently place it its giant turkey platter, the only one we use for the occasion, in the travel sac voyage with rolling wheels to make sure it survived the journey. Like carrying an infant in a baby carriage, I had to make sure the sac voyage did not suffer too much shocks through the sidewalks, down the marble steps to the metro stations, and the cobblestones of Pireaus port.
When I disembarked in Paros port, I had the impression I was going to be the only American hauling a stuffed Thanksgiving. I was so wrong. On a short trip up the mountains to Thapsana to visit the female convent of the Theotokos the Myrrovlitisa, I chanced upon an older gentleman. He was walking through the mountainside foraging or else because the access for the road was blocked. We stopped and offered him a ride. While we started chit chatting and I noticed an accent. “Where are you from?” I asked nonchalantly noticing an accent. “Apo Ameriki,” he said. I turned around to the back seat. “What is the chance of that–two Americans in one car on a remote Cycladic island on Thanskgiving Day!” I shouted. “No,” he said. “There are more.” “I will invite you to Thanksgiving dinner at my relative’s house,” I continued. “No need, we are having Thanksgiving dinner for 30 students at 4 pm later today.”
It turned out the man we had picked up from the mountainside was no other than Barry Tagrin, writer and artist, and current director of the Hellenic International Studies in the Arts, HISA, for short.
His school hosts on average 20-30 students from the US in dorm-style facilities for a year of studio art courses in Paros. Barry Tagrin has lived on Paros island since the 1980s. He remembers it when there were only a few houses around the port and barely a paved road. “What’s the draw for a young art student to Paros?”I asked him.
“Our school offers their own accommodation, art studio and mentored teachers,” he explains. “We have more experimental classes. The idea is that someone come here to be an artist on an island in their own independent way so our students have bit more ambition, more freedom and responsibility for themselves.” The students go on five trips to neighboring islands, Mykonos, Delos, Croatia and at one time Turkey.
To my dismay, it turned out that the American presence on Paros was not limited to Barry’s school. The Aegean School of the Arts is a second institution. This school, in operation from the 1966, began as an independent summer arts program by founder Brett Taylor. Its motto quotes Plato, “TO MARVEL IS THE BEGINNING OF KNOWLEDGE…AND WHEN WE CEASE TO MARVEL WE ARE IN DANGER OF CEASING TO KNOW.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the school. Next weekend, December 4th, the students will stage their exhibit, displaying their entire year’s effort.
Ironically, a stroll through the alleys of Paroikia, the capital of Paros, gives the impression that more Americans live in the town than natives. That’s because both art schools host close to 50 students even through the winter, making the small town their campus.
Along the marble balustrade overlooking the port stretch in front of the chapel of Saint Constantinos, three American students were lounging in the late afternoon sun, intense enough to force you to take off your winter jacket. Olivia Leer, 19, is studying photography at the Aegean School of Arts for a year before heading off to George Washington University next fall. “I wanted to use [my gap year] as an opportunity to travel and to explore areas I am interested in exploring in university,” she explained. Many universities actually encourage students to take a gap year before starting college, she cites, in order to alleviate burn out. Unlike students from her parents’ generation who took a gap year after college before entering the work force, many young millennials like Olivia choose to take a gap year before investing time and income in a 4-year college.
She and her companion Kira Sze,18, from San Francisco learned about the Aegean Center through a Massachusettes-based company that specializes in tailoring gap year experiences for students. Sze took the year at the Aegean Center as a time out with the approval of her parents.
Her companion, Ananya Tultli from Mumbai, India, learned about the Center through her elder sister who attended the program five years ago and stayed not one but three years.
“Paros has a specific happy vibe,” she explained behind cool shades, lounging on her friend’s back, the azure Aegean spread like a moving landscape in front of her. “I can’t explain it. It’s low-key in a happy way and very creative. It is so family-oriented, which is what I am used to back home,” she explains. “Everyone knows everybody, they say ‘hi’ to you in the morning. You make friends with the souvlaki guy and in the supermarket they go out of their way to help you giving you recipes.” She also mentions that the teachers in the Aegean Center are “amazing” exaggerating the word.
There is a saying that if you lift a stone, you will find a Greek, a Chinese, and a Latino. I think the same can be said for an American, especially if that stone is a votsalaki on the Cycladic isle of Paros.
To read more about the art schools on Paros:
Aegean Center for Fine Arts: www.aegeancenter.com
Hellenic International Studies in the Arts http://www.hisa-studyabroad.com/