As the online course The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools commemorates its 20th anniversary year, it honors the City of Athens as a UNESCO World Book Capital. It also honors muse-inspired Mara Kanari – and travel guides like her – modern day bards who have a firm grasp on the golden thread that connects antiquity to the present.
Annually Mara leads Greek Study Fellows, primarily American teachers, writers, and book people on a study tour to Greece. The tour is the high point of The Examined Life’s online graduate course in which the Homeric epics, tragedies, comedies, and works of poets, philosophers, and historians, form the core of course readings.
The acquisition of knowledge itself has intrinsic value, but these travelers are on a mission to make an even greater impact on the children they teach. Wide eyed, they take notes and photos; they make videos and exchange ideas over meals in preparation for the study guides they will write on their return. They are a captive audience for Mara’s passion for story.
In antiquity, to hear a well-versed bard, villagers gathered on moonlit evenings on a hard-packed circular threshing floor, but Mara Kanari’s stage is often a forty passenger bus, bumping along precipitous roads, and in museums and archaeological sites, like the egg-shaped Delphic omphalos, the center or “belly button” of the universe; and sometimes it’s in the early evening with Greek Study Fellows gathered round, while sipping fresh, full-bodied barrel wine made by a local farmer.
With expressive dark eyes and lush black hair, almost waist-long, a knapsack on her back, and guide certification on an i.d. necklace, Mara is at times poetic and at times irreverent with an easy laugh and an engaging style. Since 2011, the start of her career, the fluency and resonance of her voice has enchanted groups in English, Greek, and Japanese.
Born and raised in Athens, Mara (short for Maria), joined The Examined Life team early in the Greek economic crisis and since then her candid reports tell the tragic toll it has taken on the Greek people, but invariably with a recurring refrain, “Greeks are resilient and they always bounce back.”
Mara welcomes Examined Life travelers to Athens with the story of the Athena-Poseidon rivalry to win the patronage of the city. The god who gives the most precious gift will win. Poseidon tapped the earth and a spring of salt water appeared. Athena’s gift is an olive tree with the promise that the “liquid gold” extracted from its fruit will provide light and food, and medicinal as well as spiritual blessings and cures. Athena becomes the eponymous victor, her name defining the city’s character and destiny through the millennia.
From this foundation myth, Mara’s bounty of story begins. She recounts questions posed to the Oracle at Delphi and the soothsayer’s enigmatic answers, and King Agamemnon’s startling blood-spattered murder on his victorious return to Mycenae from Troy. Into her mosaic, Mara scatters an infinite number of Greek-rooted words and traces their origins including poetry, drama, tragedy, comedy, catharsis, fantasy, as well as recurring themes such as hubris and humility, atrocity and retribution, and recurring symbols like the snake and the lion.
As a child the tale Mara loved hearing over and over again was Jason and the Golden Fleece, with its powerful visual images and a crew that included Theseus, Hercules, and Orpheus. “Each time we visited Volos, the mythical Iolcus where Jason was born, I convinced my parents to stop and help me look for Jason. It’s no wonder,” she added, “that my dad named our first boat Argo, the name of Jason’s boat, and every other thing we owned later on, like the family hotel…”
At the cozy family-run hotel, her brother Makis holds Greek cooking lessons and her dad makes driftwood sculptures (recently on exhibit at a gallery on the island of Mykonos). He also raises ostriches – and her mother manages the place and serves up ostrich egg omelets (one ostrich egg equals about two dozen regular eggs).
Mara is clearly from a warm and hospitable clan. She reminds people that filo dough, the stuff of baklava and spanokopeta, should be so thin that you can read the newspaper through it. No problem finding a newspaper to test the thesis as Greece boasts at least 20 dailies.
“I love stories of history, too, Mara says. “I also love people – and traveling. For me, tour guiding became a beautiful way to combine them. Really it was a natural calling.” Tour guiding is also a demanding calling and Mara is often on the road for two or three weeks at a time, leaving little time to work on a book that she refers to with a smile as Misguided in which she good-naturedly describes some of the funniest incidents she’s encountered. “I’m just kidding when I say I’m writing a book,” she says, but no one believes her for a minute.
A graduate of Athens College and Hellenic Open University with a major in Greek civilization, her study and apprenticeship in tour guiding took place in Corfu at the School of Tourist Guides, administered by the Tourism Ministry. The breadth and depth of her knowledge have continued to grow through years of experience and a lifetime of study as archaeological sites are uncovered, and new books revealing startling new findings and ideas come to the fore.
Mara holds fast to friendships made over the years on her tours, including storytellers and book-lovers in Children’s Literature New England (CLNE) and the Greek section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), both Examined Life kindred organizations, devoted to promoting literature in the lives of children.
Despite the crisis that caused the closing of prominent bookstores and Greece’s popular National Book Center (EKEBI), books have not gone out of fashion for Mara or her country. But for awhile, a pitstop at a service area along the way afforded Mara the best opportunity to buy books as presents for her godchild and her family.
In a country that has comparatively little snowfall, the photograph of Mara’s ersatz snowman housed comfortably in her Athens apartment, represents the incredible hold of books on the Greeks – it’s a sculpture that will never melt.
Books for young and old are also on sale in coffee shops, kiosks, hotels, and piled high on tables on bustling Ermou Street, Athens’ shopping district; and in Santorini at the Atlantis, listed in National Geographic’s top ten world’s most interesting bookstores.
Within the last several years, in Athens, Little Tree Books & Coffee opened on Rovertou Galli, run by a cooperative of eight young people driven by the desire to keep books alive during the economic crisis. Little Tree is sequestered directly behind a busy kiosk, and diagonally across the street from The Examined Life’s Athens home, the Herodion Hotel, itself a readers’ and writers’ paradise with a comfortable living room-like lobby, bookcases on either side of a fireplace, and a remarkable view of the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum from a rooftop terrace.
At every site, from the most obscure to the most well-known, Mara’s range of knowledge and accompanying wisdom breathes life into antiquity. On bus rides from one site to another, it’s not surprising to hear someone call out, “Tell us a story, Mara,” interrupted only when the bus comes to a full halt because of a turtle or a herd of goats trying to cross the road.
“There’s nothing more authentic than this,” she exclaims.
One 11-year old traveler in Greece on a family trip earlier in the year who had proclaimed himself the all-knowing mythologist of his family said that he finally met someone who knew more about Greek mythology than he did and had something really “cool” to teach him. “Best thing I’ve heard in a while!” Mara exclaimed.
Knowledgeable? Yes, with substantive commentaries for young and old on topics as diverse as the early quest for literacy of the Greeks, including the decipherment of Linear B, the oldest surviving Greek script; the laws of ancient Greece inscribed on marble on a Delphic Temple wall; the first recorded musical notation; inscriptions on statuary and grave stele; battles of Marathon and Thermopylae; excavations at Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos, Santorini. Respectful attention is paid to the wisdom of the philosophers, among them Socrates’ “Gnothi Sauton” (Know Thyself) from which The Examined Life program takes its call, and to such writers as lyric poet Sappho whose work was often accompanied by a lyre.
At the invitation of Susanne Fisher Staples, 2014 ExL lecturer and writer in residence, Mara traveled to the United States to give a talk as part of Keystone College’s international myth series. Mara’s talk attracted a packed audience of over three-hundred. “You cannot grow up in Greece and not love stories,” Mara said in a follow-up radio interview on NPR’s WVIA affiliate.
In designing the study tour, Mary Kemper, The Examined Life’s executive director, works closely with Mara. She says, “Mara’s strong focus on the rich oral tradition of the Greeks speaks to Greece’s hard-wrought battles with things of the mind as well as in theaters of war.”
“Take it from me,” Mara says, “Don’t look down on stories; don’t disregard them unless the account cannot be corroborated by independent sources, and don’t think of them as unimportant unless they can be proven or explained away or easily categorized. Embrace the imagination and embark on your own journey. Go live your own odyssey, so you will have stories to share.”
Among Mara’s most magical qualities are her radiant joy of life and passion for sharing her love of Greece with others. She’s blessed with what the Greeks call ‘kefi’ and she has it in abundance.
As The Examined Life applauds the City of Athens as a UNESCO World Book Capital, it also applauds Mara Kanari and travel guides like her, modern day “singers of tales” who are keeping alive one of the world’s oldest and greatest oral traditions.
Barbara Harrison is the founder and director emeritus of The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools