I first heard of the Metochi study center on a dark, wet November afternoon in the cafeteria at the University of Agder. Sleet smeared the great windows, afternoon was already indistinguishable from midnight.
I was finishing up a semester as a guest lecturer in the Department of Religion Philosophy and History and having coffee with one of my colleagues, professor of ethics and prolific author Paul Leer-Salvesen. He told me how he’d recently spent some weeks on the Greek island of Lesvos, completing his latest book.
“You should go there,” he said. “It’s inspirational and productive. A special place.”
I was working on a memoir at the time, about growing up half Iraqi and half Scandinavian in the U.S, in the years leading up to the oil and terror wars. During my months in Kristiansand, I had completed a large first draft that needed quiet contemplation and a deep edit.
I applied to go to Metochi in May 2020, but Covid cancelled that trip, and a family member’s illness prevented another trip I scheduled year later. Throughout the pandemic, the paradisal place lurked at the edge of my mind, like a promise. A retreat, if not to safety exactly, to some kind of imaginary peace.
I finally made it to Metochi in September 2021, after a voyage not without its challenges. Besides the tension of masking up, virus tests, and State Department warnings against travel, on the night I was to leave, the New York area suffered a freakish deluge of the sort that is becoming more and more common in the Northeast and other parts of the world. As I left my apartment, Niagara Falls fell from the sky. Water was ankle deep in five minutes. The half hour drive to Newark airport in the tempest was harrowing. Waves covered the roads in some low lying areas. I remember thinking, people must be dying around here tonight - and indeed they were, dozens would be reported drowned in cars and in basements in New York and New Jersey next morning. The first floor of a major international airport was underwater. Airport employees had been told not to leave the building. The women’s bathrooms were packed with travelers like me, trying to dry our clothes under hand dryers, emptying water from our shoes.
It seemed impossible that any fight would depart. Then the rain stopped and in the wee hours, the plane took off, leaving Noah’s flood behind. By next evening, I was on the other side of the world, peering out the window in the back seat of a van, bumping over arid, dirt roads along the black shores of the Aegean Sea, just a few nautical miles from the coast of Turkey.
To get to Metochi one must travel an “unnamed road” according to the Google map on my i-phone. The dirt road winds for kilometers through stands of tall grasses, cucumber and tomato and pepper fields, and pear and pomegranate orchards, on a flat plane. Monks have walked this path for 500 years. Generations of olive-tending peasants in need of medicine, and pilgrims seeking spiritual succor also added their centuries of footsteps to the grooves in the rocky dry soil.
The van dumped me off at the end of the unnamed road. Up a steep little hill, and through a stone archway, I passed under a second, living arch, a giant fig tree, its trunk planted in the ground, apparently rooted there for a very long time, rising and then bending a great bough of leaves and green fruit over the entrance. Cats lolled here and there, eying me, tails switching. At the far end of the courtyard, I spied the tables and benches where we would eat al fresco, arranged under a gazebo laced with thick old grapevines heavy with bunches of green grapes. Just over a stone wall and down below the tables was an orchard of pomegranates and pears. Small and large stone urns nurtured bushes of rosemary and basil, their scent filled the night air.
A flock of birds had settled in the orchard, numberless tiny brown feathered things whistled in chorus as they went to roost for the night. They belonged to one of the many species of migratory birds that rest on Lesvos en route between Europe and Africa. (Lesvos is known as a great birders’ island among the breed of tourists who travel with binoculars.)
Metochi is a monastic annex to the greater Limonos Monastery, a massive structure built in Byzantine times a mile deeper into the olive trees and grazing area. For centuries, Limonos was the intellectual center of the island. Its library holds 5,000 rare books. Its human population, however, is down to one abbott and a few monks.
The Metochi annex was built in the 16th Century and named after a pair of healer monks, Saints Anargyroi. Greek for incorruptible and poor, or as I was told, “no silver.”
For centuries the healers at this place treated the sick for no pay.
Metochi was near ruins when the University of Agder began leasing it from the Greek Orthodox church two decades ago. The university has since financed extensive work on the structures and modernized many of the rooms. My room had a bathroom, a ceiling fan, new walls, starched and pressed linen sheets, two solid desks, an ample armoire, and a window that looked out onto the side of a rocky hill. Wifi works great, but other modern luxuries have been kept at a minimum. Down a covered walkway past another dozen simple rooms, I found a pair of stone sinks for hand-washing clothes, and an outdoor shower for rinsing off after biking or hiking.
I woke up that first morning to a pink dawn and the sound of musical bells like a mysterious gentle alarm clock. Sheep farmers on the island attach bells tuned to different notes to their sheep, in order to identify and locate wanderers. I grew used to this celestial sound over the next three weeks.
There was nothing monastic about the cuisine. The university employs four local women who, arriving at dawn on motorbikes and cars, even during the slow pandemic months, cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can only begin to list off the delicacies, because a full accounting would take up many pages: Dolmates, Baklava. Beef stewed in red wine, cinnamon and shallots, over rice. Slabs of Halloumi cheese roasted inside peppers and eggplants drowned in olive oil. Platters of roasted chicken, or grilled pink sardines that are fished out of the Bay a few miles away. And at every meal, cucumber and tomato salad, and yogurt sauce. Fresh olive oil and a light and tasty local red and white wine, and of course, olives. At. Every. Meal. (Fortunately, all the recipes are recorded in a book by Metochi’s manager, Kari Grodum, translated in Norwegian.)
Agder supported the staff through covid lockdown. The 2020 season was bleak but work continued, with staff renovating rooms and outbuildings. There is cultural preservation: while I was there, the husband-wife team who had originally inhabited and begun restoring Metochi, dropped by to make batches of soap in boiling pots with lye and spices, for example. And, as Lesvos is an island of many cats (two for each human from what I could tell), a colony of whom have found their way to the old monastery, Metochi staff round up one feline every week to be neutered or spayed.
Guests can stay at Metochi for several weeks - as I did - without ever needing a car. When I craved exercise after a morning of writing, I hopped on a bicycle and rode to the village or went for a swim. The shallow warm waters of Kalloni Bay are a half-hour pedal through winding farm roads. I got to know the hamlets and coffee shops fairly well but I am embarrassed to confess I never got far beyond please, thank-you and yes, in the Greek language.
The pandemic dramatically reduced the number of guests this year. One, a professor from Bergen, had braved still-tricky pandemic travel. He did rent a car, and sometimes we explored the island together.
Greece’s third largest island, Lesvos is not a top tourist destination, although it has its fair share of resorts, especially around the jewel-like town of Molyvos on the north coast. Eressos, the birthplace of the poet and lover of women, Sappho, is also an attraction, and hosts a women’s festival every year. Eressos has one of the best beaches on the island, clear waters lap the shore above a bowl of pale sand that extends as far as the eye can see into the depths. Lying with my back on the tiny sun-warmed black pebbles after a swim in the super-salty sea ranks among the most exquisite sensations I have ever experienced on a beach.
“Love shook my heart,” reads one fragment of Sappho’s poetry. “Like the wind on the mountain rushing over the oak trees.”
Lesvos is a mountainous island, topping out at nearly a thousand meters, barren and volcanic to the west and to the east, green and fruited with olive trees, pines and, on the flat, farms. Real people live here doing real things, mostly farming, fishing and olive oil and wine production. Politically, working-class Lesvos has long leaned left. Red graffiti supporting the Greek communist party is slathered on the occasional warehouse wall and cement breakwaters on the coast.
Like Sicily in the Mediterranean, and the larger Greek island of Crete, regional ruling powers traded control over Lesvos throughout history. The Greeks inhabited it since at least 800 BC, absorbing the natives into Aeolian Greek culture. In ancient times, it was the island of the “Mitilenes” and Herodotus refers to them repeatedly. Spartans overran it, Persians ruled it for a time. In the current era, Slavs, Catalans, Ottoman Turks, Venetians and Genoese have at one time or another controlled the island.
Lesvos served its conquerors as an olive oil factory. Peasants planted olive trees up and down even the least arable, steepest bits of land. Today these forests of olive trees, testament to centuries of human labor, are hardly harvested for lack of labor. Depending on who you ask - the bartender at nearby coffee bar or the local winemaker, or a University of the Aegean nutritionist - there are 50 million or ten million olive trees on the island. Islanders brag that Lesvos produces more gold medal-winning olive oil than any single other place in the world.
The many conquerors left their mark on the food and culture. Remnants of the Ottoman era are especially easy to spot. At one secluded beach, not far from where boats of refugees washed up in the last decade, the Aegean slaps at the cement walls of a tiny hamam, a white-washed cement dome pocked with little star-like holes to let in sunlight, erected above an ancient rectangular cement pool steaming with the hottest water I have ever dared to soak in.
The hamam is fed by a geothermal channel so scorching that my skin tingled. It attracts a very small group of regulars, and some old timers insist bathers remain silent when inside the pool, the better to meditate like mystics walking on coals. When the heat gets to be too much - I did not last beyond three or four minutes - one exits, limbs and torso boiled beet red, to dive into the crashing cold Aegean and swim far out, bobbing and weightless, toward the Turkish shore, so deceptively near one imagines one might row there.
A darker memory of the Ottoman era also haunts the island’s communal memory. Many descendants of victims of Turkish ethnic cleansing of coastal Greeks at the end of the Ottoman period live on Lesvos, one reason perhaps that Lesvians call the country across the water “Asia Minor.” And yet, before Covid, daily ferries connected Lesvos and Turkey for trade and tourism.
Around 2014, the 100,000 residents of the island bore witness to the humanitarian effects of geopolitical events set off by decision-makers half a world away. People fleeing wars in the Middle East began arriving on rickety, overcrowded boats from the Turkish coast a few miles across the water to the east.
Since the EU was not going to let the arrivals in, Greece herded what eventually numbered some 20,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war zones to the purgatory of what became the massive and notorious Moria camp, a concrete and barb wire former military base, outside the island’s main city of Mytilini.
Villagers living closest to the shore facing Turkey had the horrendous choice between minding their own business - what the EU and the Greek authorities asked them to do - or helping the infirm and families with children (some of whom famously drowned on the crossing), get 20 miles across the mountainous island to the UNHCR’s water, food and shelter.
The influx of so many hungry, homeless people was hard on Lesvos. Islanders who helped the refugees were sometimes scorned and reviled by their neighbors. But others were so moved they quit their day jobs to work in the refugee center in Mytilini. A restaurateur in Molyvos for example, started her own NGO.
Agder was heavily involved in supporting local refugee education and charitable efforts.
In the fall of 2020, during a wave of covid, rioting refugees whose ATM machines had been abruptly turned off, set small fires that spread and consumed the entire camp. Moria’s former inhabitants were moved to Athens, where they are, I was told, without services, living on the street.
New camps are filling up again with Afghans and Africans. Again the barb wire, again the guard gates, again rumors of EU plans to build a Gitmo for stateless people in the forest. No one knows how this ends.
There is of course, not enough beauty in the world at the moment. Or at least we think there is not. During the pandemic, I try to remind myself to fight that perception. There is profound beauty in the brown winter woods of upstate New York where I live, and even in the sunless Novembers of Kristiansand.
But then there is the paradisal. A mythic locale where one can dispense with care, loll on sun-warmed rocks, and have all human needs - physical and emotional - satisfied without moving a muscle, leaving the mind free for higher contemplation.
The “special place,” as my friend and mentor Professor Leer-Salvesen put it.
Metochi is one of them.
I used my precious time at Metochi to refine and edit a work about the blending of East and West in my own family ancestry, a project on my mind for several years. Metochi - washed with east and west, an Eastern place lovingly rehabilitated by Scandinavians from the west - was a perfect venue in which to further this project.
When I imagined Metochi from New York in those months when it was just a dream, I had in mind that I would write in a monastic cell. But the old stone retreat has so many nooks and crannies conducive to study - a library, offices modern and old, echoing common rooms with walls of old windows that open out to let in the breeze, secluded benches under draperies of grape and fig leaf - that I was spoiled for choice about where to work. I procrastinated a long time seeking the perfect spot and finally settled on a stone balcony overlooking wind-rustled olive trees on the agricultural plain of Kalloni and the grassy, fish- and bird-rich waters just beyond.
It was there that I typed out skeins of words I am now certain will become the story I have long wanted to tell …
With deepest gratitude to University of Agder and Kari Grodum, Professor Carl Walter Matthias Kaiser, and the dear, dear Marianthi, Maria, Evdokia, Panagiota, Nelly and Medie who sustained me with their food and care.
Nina Burleigh is a best-selling author, journalist and documentary producer.