Greece Trip – Metochi

Thanks to my work on nonreligion and atheism, I was invited to participate in a week-long colloquium (May 13th through May 20th) in Greece by LeRon Shults in which I would serve as a “subject matter expert” helping LeRon and his team develop computer models to better predict who joins atheist organizations. You can learn more about LeRon and the project here. There were about 16 people who attended in total, with about half of them being subject matter experts like myself. We spent about 6 hours each day developing the models and thinking very carefully about the many factors that contribute to changes in atheist identity and affiliation.

The colloquium took place in what was formerly a monastery on the island of Lesvos called Metochi. Metochi is actually an annex to a larger monastery called Limonos. The larger monastery is connected to Metochi via a 1.5 km hiking trail through the surrounding hills (see below for more details). Metochi has, in recent years, been taken over to some degree by Agder University in Norway (where LeRon works). Agder University updated the former monastery, modernized it, cleaned it up, and now largely runs it as a quasi-owned university extension site. Metochi still has other guests (no monks), but many of the people who visit Metochi are affiliated with Agder University. Here’s a photosphere of Metochi’s courtyard:

We would typically spend about 4 hours working on the project in the morning, have lunch, then take a break in the afternoon to either relax or go explore (the same time many of the people on Lesvos where taking a nap). Since I prefer exploring over relaxing, I typically used the afternoon break to go hiking or do something else active. Here’s a rundown of what I did while I was there.

May 14th

This was the first free time I had and I was itching to go for a hike.  Living in Florida, there are no hills or mountains to climb. Being nestled in among some hills, I really wanted to get out and climb something. One of the other subject matter experts and I hiked to the Limonos monastery, walked around there a bit, then came back. Here’s a photo of the monastery from the trail:

Limonos monastery from trail to/from Metochi

And here’s the route from Metochi to Limonos and back:

May 15th

LeRon arranged to have a local bike shop owner come out and rent us bikes. There are a couple of towns that are pretty close, including Kalloni, Dafia, and Skala Kallonis. One of Skala’s claims to fame is that it was a temporary home of Aristotle where he studied biology. I biked to Skala with a few other people, walked along the beach, then sat and chatted with one of the subject matter experts I know fairly well.

Here I am at Aristotle’s beach (it’s not actually called that, but there is a statue of him about 50 meters from here):

me at Skala Kalloni beach

Here’s the route:

May 16th

The day I arrived I noticed that there was a hiking loop that could take someone to all the monasteries linked to Limonos. I saw the information on a board right in front of Metochi.

Information board on the Limonos loop hike in front of Metochi
This is a close-up of the loop itself.

The board indicated the loop was 9 kilometers and suggested it would take hikers about 3 hours. Since my afternoon break was just 3 hours, I figured I’d have to do the hike faster than that – ideally 2 hours, but 2 1/2 would still work. I managed to do the whole thing in 1 hour and 46 minutes (skipping a few extensions of the hike along the way). My route was 5.52 miles (or 8.88 kilometres), which is pretty much the route they laid out. The hike is pretty good. There is some elevation gain (533 feet) and there are parts that are really beautiful. The route from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis through Dafia is actually not that great. It’s really just a hike on dirt roads and then through a town. However, the route from Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis to Limonos in particular and then to Metochi is quite lovely. I’d recommend just hiking from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis and back.

Here are some photos of the route:

The route is fairly well-marked by these red diamonds. There were a few spots where the distance between the diamonds was pretty far and I wasn’t sure I was going the right way but I managed to stay on course for the most part.
I’d recommend hiking down to this point if you only do the northern half of the loop as it offers really impressive views of Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis, but this is as far as I would go. Just past this you’ll be walking past the garbage dump of Dafia which is much less impressive.
Most of the route from Limonos to Mirsiniotissis is actually a beautiful rock trail like this. It’s gorgeous!
This is a shot looking at Skala bay from above Metochi (after leaving Limonos). You’re just leaving the olive groves at this point.

Here’s my route:

And here are some of the stats from my hike so you have a better sense of the elevation gain and my speed compared to your own:

I was moving pretty fast as I had to get back to my seminar.


May 17th

This day was a scheduled off day. LeRon arranged for a bus to take us to Petra which is a bit of a tourist town on the coast where we got to do a little shopping, have lunch, and walk around for a bit. I walked around with another subject matter expert and even visited the chapel that stands on top of a massive rock in the middle of town. You can see the top of the chapel in this photo:

The Panagia Glykofilloussa in Petra

Here’s a photosphere from inside the chapel:

Petra is a cute little town with small, winding streets and nice places to shop.

After Petra, we went to the Lifejacket Graveyard (informal name) where thousands of life jackets from refugees have been dumped on the island of Lesvos. The original aim of putting them there was to keep them out of sight. However, as the life jackets piled up, they became an impromptu monument to the thousands of refugees – both those who survived and those who did not. It’s a very somber experience to visit.

One of the tougher aspects of visiting the graveyard is when you see kids lifejackets, like this:

One of the many kids life jackets at the Lifejacket Graveyard.


Here’s a photosphere of the Lifejacket Graveyard:

After the Life Jacket Graveyard, we went to the castle in Molyvos. We arrived just a few minutes before the castle closed but I managed to run through most of it. Here’s a shot of the castle near the entrance:

Molyvos Castle

And here’s a photosphere from near the top of the castle:

From there, we walked down into Molyvos. I ran into one of the subject matter experts after leaving the castle and he and I wandered through Molyvos before finding a bar on the beach and ordering a few drinks. We chatted for a couple of hours before heading up to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations. The restaurant had a stunning view and the food was amazing!

The sunset from our restaurant in Molyvos.

May 18th

Metochi is surrounded by hills that are covered with large boulders. Seeing those large boulders and hills day after day but not finding any hiking trails to climb the hills, I finally decided that I was going to go off-trail and see if I could climb one of the hills. That was a terrible idea. Despite donning some of my hiking pants, my gloves I brought for hiking Mount Olympus, and all my other gear, I still had exposed arms and my neck and face were exposed. The hike started with me wading through thick underbrush. Two minutes in and I was covered with burrs, had encountered multiple thistles, and I had lost a fight with a stinging nettle bush. Ten minutes later, my arms were covered with red bumps where one of the plants I had encountered had started an allergic reaction. I made it halfway up the hill, fighting my way through thorns, thickets, spider webs, and a variety of other plants, each of which really wanted to cause me serious pain. By 20 minutes in, I gave up. I’m not one for quitting, but it was the smart choice this time. I still had to work my way off the hill and down to a trail, which meant wading through some more vicious plants (seriously, everything had thorns). A scant 45 minutes after I started, I returned to Metochi covered in burrs with dozens of bumps on my arms. Hiking off trail in Lesvos is a bad idea.

May 19th

On the last day in Metochi, I hopped back on my bike and rode with a few other individuals down to Skala again. This time, I wore my bathing suit and spent a good hour and a half wading and swimming in the bay with another subject matter expert as we discussed various research projects. We got some lemonade at a cafe on the beach afterward, then rode our bikes back to Metochi.

Waiting for our drinks at a beach bar in Skala Kalloni.

Some concluding thoughts on Metochi

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was told we’d be holding the colloquium in a refurbished monastery. I was thinking I’d end up with a small cell (6 feet by 6 feet) with a tiny bed. It turns out my room was fairly spacious. It did have three beds in it (a single and then a bunk bed), a small desk, and a closet for clothes. With the room to myself, it was spacious. It also had a nice window overlooking the hiking trail. Bathrooms were shared (there were four on my floor) as were showers (there were four of those as well, but I often used the outside showers, which was refreshing in its own way). The room and facilities were kept clean but they did occasionally smell. The restrooms and showers were cleaned every day, but the plumbing is still a little wonky. We lost water there once (and power a couple of times). Throwing toilet paper into a trash can instead of the toilet took getting used to, but when in Greece…

The rest of the facilities at Metochi were also good. We used a couple of other rooms for our workshops and seminars. There was a large seminar room that could accommodate 40 or 50 people with two projectors and screens. The room I spent the most time in was just off that room and could hold about 8 people. It had a TV for projecting someone’s computer. There were other rooms for meetings but I never went into those.

The food was pretty good. All the food was served in the dining area, which was very unique. It was like a cave with a curved ceiling and walls. We ate in there the first night but the rest of the meals we got our food there but ate outside on the picnic tables. We had the same salad for lunch and dinner every day (cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and some oil and herbs) and breakfast was typically the same as well, but the main dishes were varied for lunch and dinner. I enjoyed the food.

The one thing I didn’t love was the bugs. Obviously, being in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to be closer to nature. But I have never seen so many moths in my life. Every bathroom had like 10 moths in it at any one time. I’m sure I inadvertently killed dozens of them just by showering, closing doors, etc. They were everywhere. There were also lots of flies whenever we would eat outside. Every meal I spent a good amount of time swatting flies off my food. A fly every now and then would have been fine – that’s life. But this was a lot more than that. There were other critters, but the moths and the flies were the annoying ones.

Ending on more positive notes… I took a black light a colleague lent me and went out scorpion hunting a couple of nights. In the rocks right outside the front of Metochi I found a scorpion both nights I looked. Scorpions are there, they just hide well during the day. I also found an injured one right in front of some of the rooms (someone must have stepped on it unknowingly as it tried to climb into someone’s room after the sun had gone down). In short, there are scorpions. Check your shoes before you put them on.

I loved how there were chairs and tables all over the place at Metochi. I learned a really valuable lesson going there. Being isolated like that – with no TVs or other distractions – made for a lot of time to contemplate. I think I now understand why they called it the “contemplative life” for monks and nuns. Removing all the regular distractions (we still had internet, but we were encouraged to just get together and chat) gave us a lot of time to think. Of course, thinking too much can be a little scary at times. But I found the experience beneficial. In my busy day-to-day life, finding time to just sit and think is rare. I should do that more often.

an interesting conception of love

During my spring break I went to the Cherokee Nation to volunteer with students.  During that trip we had several people come talk to us about Cherokee culture.  One of those speakers said something that stuck with me.  He explained that there is no word in Cherokee that translates into the word “love.”  He said the close there is to a translation is a word that basically means, “I’m stingy with your existence.”  I really like this idea.  Basically they think of those they really care about as people they do not want to lose.  They also want to be around them.  In short, they are “stingy” with that person’s existence.  I like that better than “love.”

jury duty and bias

I wrote this while waiting to serve on a jury selection panel:

I’m sitting in the courthouse just outside a courtroom waiting to be part of a jury panel to determine whether I will be selected to serve on an actual jury. As I sit here, litigants walk back and forth and in and out of court rooms. Despite my training as a sociologist I find thoughts flickering through my brain when I see the litigants. For instance, a young black man with his middle aged mother was accompanied by a security officer and his defense attorney. As I eavesdropped on the conversation it seemed as though the young man was indignant that he even had to be here. I didn’t catch any details, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the security guard was there to protect him or to protect me from him. My biases suggested the latter, not the former. A group of about 5 young Hispanic men just walked through the waiting area. Given their dress, tattoos, and hairstyles, my biases were again triggered and I immediately thought that they must be friends or family of a defendant. I, of course, don’t know that, but the biases lead my thought processes that way. If I, a sociologist, can’t keep these biases from popping into my head, why would I be surprised that others have similar biases, more openly express them, and even act on them? I recognize them for what they are and actively counter process them. But they are obviously deep-seated.

What if I’m gay?

I don’t get out much. It’s kind of sad, especially considering I’m a sociologist (meaning I study people), but I attribute it to the fact that Debi and I are both workaholics and introverted. Ergo, being around large groups of people is pretty rare for me.

I mention that to introduce a couple of incidents from my volunteering trip in May. We flew in and out of Las Vegas, and, on the last day of our trip, we spent the evening walking the streets of Law Vegas. I’ve been to Vegas a few times before; it was always an obvious place to stop on my way from Utah to California. Perhaps I don’t remember it during my earlier trips or perhaps it has become more pervasive but one of the things I noticed right away were the gangs of mostly Hispanics (I’m assuming because they will work for cheap) on the sidewalks and corners handing out flyers advertising women. I’m actually in favor of legalizing prostitution, so prostitution itself doesn’t bother me. But several aspects of this operation did. First, they were very intrusive in targeting men. I happened to be in a group with 10 young women and was surrounded by them most of the time, so it was awkward and annoying to have people pushing in to our group to offer me brochures over and over. I was also annoyed that they were just targeting men and that they were targeting pretty much any man, regardless of who he was with. They didn’t offer them to women. Why?

While I’m sure their primary customers are men, what about lesbian women? Or do they not hand them to women because they think women would be offended? And why are there not people offering women brochures advertising men? (The obvious answer is because men are easy and women don’t have to pay for sex; it’s relatively easy for women to find a willing partner.)

But I was also intrigued by who was handing these brochures out. It was, as I noted, mostly Hispanics. Are they Catholics and opposed to prostitution but still handing out the flyers? How do they feel about this? They have to be aware of what they are doing as the flyers included pretty clear pictures of what was on offer, so how do they justify this in their mind? Is this simply a reflection of their poverty and the fact that desperate people are willing to do just about anything for money?

So, that bothered me. But something else bothered me as well.

As it got later, different people, all men, started approaching the women in my group and offering them free entrance into night clubs. Now, I’ve only ever been to a couple of night clubs (not my scene at all), but I think I know why these guys would be out on the streets of Vegas trying to get women into their clubs: more women will attract more men which will result in greater profits, offsetting the loss of comping women admission fees. I get that. But this also bothered me.  It’s basically open discrimination against one sex – men.

Additionally, this is discriminatory against non-straight individuals. I tried to make this point to one of these recruiters.

As a recruiter approached my group on a street corner and asked the women in the group if they wanted a bracelet to get them into a nightclub for free (which they all declined), I turned to him and said, “And what if I’m gay?” It stopped the recruiter dead in his tracks and he didn’t know how to respond, so I pressed on. “You’re trying to get the women into the club to attract men, but couldn’t I do the same thing if I’m gay?” Now the recruiter seemed genuinely creeped out. He stammered a very uncomfortable, “No,” then dissolved back into the throngs of people on the sidewalk.

The students with me were initially shocked by my outburst, but as soon as the recruiter left they laughed and thought it was funny.

Yes, it was funny. And, no, I didn’t really think he’d give me a free bracelet so I could get into the club. But my point was really to get him to think about the assumptions he was making and the discriminating he was doing. Of course my outburst won’t change anything, but I wanted to see how he would respond.

Heteronormativity is still widespread in the US. And, while it is often a safe assumption to make that everyone is heterosexual (since about 95% of people are), I think it’s time we stop assuming heteronormativity. My desire for this won’t change the intrusive and obnoxious targeting of people on Vegas sidewalks, but there are practical reasons for this.  In fact, my not assuming people are heterosexual probably saved two interviews I did for my research. I was interviewing nonreligious people and wanted to know about their social network. I specifically asked, “Do you have a significant other?” rather than asking about husband or wife because I didn’t want to assume my respondents were married. And, in the follow up question I asked of those who had a significant other I was very careful to ask, “What is his or her name?” regardless of the respondent’s sex. While I might still offend someone who is asexual or has a partner who is something other than male or female, this question left open the possibility of either a male or female partner regardless of the participant’s gender. Two of my respondents hesitated when I said, “What is his…” until they heard me say, “…or her name?” Both were females living with their female partners. And both participants seemed to issue a sigh of relief when I included “…or her?”  Thus, the fact that I did not assume heterosexuality helped my two lesbian respondents feel more comfortable in responding to my questions.

Is it time to end heteronormativity?