Christos Stavrakoglou Addresses Inaugural Crowd at
St. Nicholas-Papoutsy Park in Lesvos

Translated by Joanna Michalakelli

On August 2, 2008, Mr. Christos Stavrakoglou, the president of the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Foundation for the Revitalization of Vatoussa, addressed villagers, guests, and dignitaries at the opening of the St. Nicholas Park in Lesvos. The following is the text of his speech, translated by Joanna Michalakelli and edited by HCS staff for internet posting.

We welcome your presence here which is a great honor and pleasure for us.

Today, with the blessings of our Church we are inaugurating a project that enhances the existing beauty of the village of Vatoussa and honors those people who, out of the best intentions and their generous offer, enable the completion of the project that is now being offered for public use.

For almost a decade, the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Foundation for the Revitalization of Vatoussa has undertaken a wide range of significant and successful projects that aimed at the preservation and revitalization of the traditional elements of Vatoussa and the improvement of the quality of life of its residents. Naturally, this is not the right moment to analyze the significance of these projects. More recently, the development of this park has been our main objective.

We should mention that the idea for the creation of a park at this site has been long-standing and officially expressed. The financial means, however, to realize this project were lacking. Fortunately, this matter has been successfully resolved thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Papoutsy.

There were a great number and variety of reasons that led us to this decision. Presently, I will mention the natural beauty and the historical dimension of this place.

You can discern the beauty of this place yourselves; it is not essential to describe it at present. It will be necessary to attempt that later. Nevertheless, as far as the historical dimension of the place is concerned, we should mention that this site has been a significant part of the history and the tradition of Vatoussa for a very long time. It has been an element of the social and religious life of the village, a place of amusement, celebration and revelry, but also a place of worship and prayer.

See also

Grand Opening of the St. Nicholas-Papoutsy Park in Lesvos and

Popular Festival of the Past in Lesvos: The "Fton" of Vatoussa

Indeed—apart from the oral tradition, we also possess written data from the end of the 19th century that confirm this claim—in former times the residents of Vatoussa came here every Easter Tuesday, when spring was full of fragrances after receiving the grace of Resurrection, to celebrate the so-called "Fton." It was an old popular festival with very interesting folklore and sociological elements. They came here in order to revel, to relax after daily work, to have a good time with the sporting events, namely the races, stone-throwing, stunts, and wrestling in which Greek roisterers and Turkish wrestlers from throughout the island competed. During the first period, the "Proodos" club which was a pioneer in the whole of Lesvos was the organizer and prize-setter. And the prizes were rich: a sovereign for the winner of the race; four silver medjidies (Turkish coins) for second-place; two medjidies for the third; four medjidies for the winner of wrestling; two medjidies for several wrestlers; for the tabor [long-handled stringed instrument] player, one medjidie; for the policemen, one medjidie. This festival continued with some changes until the eve of the Second World War.

Here I can remember—and that is one of my most vivid childhood memories—that people came after the end of the great war, on the eve and on the day of the Dormition of the Virgin [August 15], and they organized a festival in order to celebrate the great victory, to breathe the 'fresh air' of freedom, to wish for better days to follow.

The musicians were playing ceaselessly and the connoisseurs were dancing here in the shade of the gigantic oak tree, which even Ouranos himself envied and once "sent" it his heavy thunderbolt. And we, as children, we were entangled in the wares lying there and the toys that were glittering before our eyes and the love song of those times which parties of young boys and girls were singing on its side "new life now, let's rebuild our old nest which has collapsed for a long time." This song aroused in our childlike mind patriotic wishes and associations as it reached us as a prelude to the rebuilding of the collapsed life, to the reconstruction of our ruined homeland.

Here, in this picturesque chapel an anxious Vatoussan mother would came at dawn in the coolness of the early morning or at dusk in the evening tranquility, with oil and frankincense in a little basket, so as to scent the place, to illuminate the Saint's face, to ask for her or his grace to help her to cope with the tribulations of life with strength and fortitude, to dismiss disease from their home, to protect emigrants, and to bring fearless young men back from the [military] front alive, vigorous, and honored.

This place, then, is not simply a place with exceptional natural beauty. It has a soul. It is alive. It has a history that should deeply affect every Vatoussan.

The Latin people have bequeathed us a phrase which derived from a concept of the ancient Greek spirit and in my opinion is most suitable in our case, one phrase that consists of two words with rather profound meaning, genius loci, or the spirit of the place. The inanimate elements that constitute it, the cliffs, the trees, the grass, all of them have a spirit. Therefore, we could say that these elements possess an immaterial substance which is in operation, and which guides and offers content to the substance itself, the substance that produces thoughts and emotions, that creates values and history.

How could we comprehend and interpret this phrase?

The place by itself is an empty space. It acquires significance and existence in relation to human beings. Without human presence, even man's objective existence is disputed by certain philosophical systems. It is, then, a creation of human senses.

Therefore, the spirit of the place is nothing but human beings' own spirit that creates and operates through the place which surrounds them. That spirit is stimulated and inspired by this place, intervenes in it and adapts it to their needs, makes this place handy, productive, a vital and familiar place in a harmonious synthesis of natural elements that arise from the prudent human intervention.

Furthermore, the spirit is man's own soul that is introduced in the elements that surround him, imparts joy from their joy and sadness from their sadness. And then one can see the mountains mist over, the rivers threaten, the brooks sing sweetly and the moon laugh or become gloomy.

Indeed, what is the genius of the place where we gathered today in order to celebrate? In my opinion, it would be of greater worth if each one of us conceives it in his own way and evaluates it, so as to evaluate simultaneously the project we are inaugurating. However, I am afraid that the festive mood of the moment, the sound of the loudspeakers and the large concourse of people would not aid that attempt. It requires solitude, composure, tranquility in Nature and in our soul. You should sit at a bench down there in the morning or at dusk and encourage yourself to enjoy the enchantment of reverie and meditation, to feel the shade of the oak tree, of the pine tree and the cypress, the sacredness of the chapel, the aesthetics of the theatre and the stone pathways, to reminisce about the history of this place and the generations of people who have left a significant part of their lives here. And then the spirit of this place as "fine emotion"--to remember the poet as well—will touch your mind and your senses.

Nevertheless, as I do not wish to forget my former art, the art of teaching, I will attempt to evaluate some of the elements that constitute the spirit of this place. And these elements are nothing but the elements which, according to what has become evident from what we have mentioned so far, are offered by Nature and have been created by human intervention.

And I will start from the former. So, it is the idyllic landscape, the beauty of the surrounding Nature that calms down your soul. It is the view of Elympos and the other opposite hills that refreshes your eyes with the several hues of green. On the other side, it is the view of Kastelli, Marmantos and Omalos. It is the bewitching picture of a part of Vatoussa with the houses' grey walls, the red roofs, and the grass springing up from the yards.

And, naturally, in this place, it is the oak tree that offers a special color to and characterizes the flora of the entire landscape. The oak tree since ancient times has been associated with our race's progress and has inspired some of our most pleasurable legends. The sacred oak sheltered the first pair of lovers under its branches, namely the gods Zeus and Gaia. This beneficial tree was protected by the dryad and hamadryad nymphs who lived inside it and died with it. It was Homer's beauteous oak tree. It was the speaking oak of Dodona, which the first Greeks consulted, in order to receive oracles through the rustle of the oak's leaves. It was Papadiamantis' royal oak. And the oak is our own oak tree, which at least to us who lived the agricultural life of previous times, arouses distant nostalgic memories and emotions. This oak tree was blazing in our fireplaces on the cold nights of winter and was "gilding" grandma's fairy tales. It refreshed our wayfarers and the farm laborers under its shade, the blessed tree that during those hard times offered money to poor people, set up households, endowed girls, and enabled poor country boys to study.

No other tree, not even the olive tree, has been so closely associated with the life of Vatoussa. And nowadays, as modern technology has nullified its financial value, it still continues to adorn our hills and remind us of the rough structure of the mountain dweller's life, his guileless soul and his straightforwardness.

Nature has offered this tree bountifully to this location. It crowns the amphitheater; it chats with the pine tree and the cypress; it shades the chapel; it pacifies the side of the hill. At its trunk the woodpeckers hammer beneficially. At its branches the centuries roost languidly.

At this place, everything has a meaning, everything has a voice, provided that you are able to hear it, to listen closely to this meaning. Even this stone which we trip over—"rooted" in the ground—or which we see as building material for the construction of terraces and for fencing, this slate-colored stone has its own history, a history of many million years. It takes us back to the "wild" times of volcanoes, when the Earth was ceaselessly shaking, a gigantic volcano. According to our geologists' claims, the mouth of the volcano's crater was exactly at this location. It roared and spewed burning dust and a fiery mass. It has been claimed that once a terrible eruption burst open the edge of the surrounding hills and created a deep ditch towards the side of Lardia. There lava surged out of the crater and headed towards Sigri where this wonder of Nature was created.

This wonder of Nature has been completed by the previous generations. And they thickened the oak's shade with the shade of the pine tree and the cypress. And they embellished the hues of green and they set up a chapel in order to shelter their faith.

It is precisely this place we have chosen to revitalize. And next to the chapel, the symbol of Orthodox faith and our Byzantine heritage, we have placed the theatre, the symbol of the ancient Greek spirit, at a location that has been required by the place itself. Indeed, the cavea has been formed with rather limited excavation. We have planted shrubs which flourish in and characterize our countryside, the rush that adorns the sides of our hills and the oleander that blooms at our rivers, aromatic shrubs; we have also constructed terraces, fencing, stone pathways, and a covered grilling pit with all the necessary equipment for the organization of receptions. We have added opulent lighting and provided a water supply, as well as other things that you can observe, so that it would be redundant to enumerate them.

Perhaps some of our fellow citizens will dispute the utility of this project. We would like to believe that this would happen, not because of a critical disposition, but because of the thought that Vatoussa is declining, the population of its residents is continuously decreasing and, thus, such projects would seem to be a redundant luxury.

It is an indisputable fact that our village is declining; this fact preoccupies us and grieves us. We do not, however, agree with the opinion that for this reason we should not undertake projects such as this one. This is a pessimistic point of view, a fatalistic attitude which does not resolve but instead intensifies the problem. In this case, we should leave our schools without maintenance, as the number of students is decreasing, our churches neglected, since the congregation is thinning out, our houses untidy, as we inhabit them only a few days every year, and provide only for our last resting place.

We had the chance to take over Vatoussa, beautiful as it was, from some generations of tormented people. We have the obligation—we who live under better conditions—to entrust the village to future generations, in a condition even more beautiful.

Let's not be frustrated or discouraged by the fact of the dramatic decline of our population, to the extent that we disdain every ambitious project, every project that can open up new prospects and convey optimistic messages.

It is essential that we accept the new reality and that we adapt ourselves to it. Vatoussa, the residence of 1500 to 2000 people, belongs to the past. The people who lived in Vatoussa, lived in privation, and we, the people of today, should regard them as happy with our irremediably romantic disposition. If a generous State or European policy for the countryside is not implemented, something that does not seem to appear on the horizon at present, Vatoussa, as the majority of the villages of the island, will continue to decline and will be reduced to a population of a few hundred residents. The number of residents will be increased only by the summer visitors. Therefore, we should aim at further increasing the number of these visitors and at extending the time of their stay here, in parallel, of course, to the creation of those conditions that will assist in the increase of the permanent population and in the improvement of the quality of their life. And, in order for this to occur, Vatoussa will have to be a place of pleasant residence.

Thus, it is evident that the project we are inaugurating today, as well as the sports center which is being completed and the olive press that is being streamlined and the other olive press that is being restored, correspond precisely to this necessity. Such projects should make us feel more optimistic about the future.

We would like to believe that this project is not a project of fa?ade and impressiveness. It is a fruitful project, because every project that develops a culture, cultivates young people's aesthetics and shapes their environmental consciousness, is a fruitful project. Such projects provide models of beneficial social behavior. And what I mean is the kind gesture of Mr. and Mrs. Papoutsy.

Every similar project is productive and useful, provided that we can comprehend its significance and its utility and exploit the potential it offers us. Otherwise, even the most beneficial project remains dead and useless.

And that is—I would like to underscore this—the point at issue, in our case. It is essential that young people love Nature even more. To get out in the fresh air, in the light, in the colors and the soil's fragrances and the recreation grounds so as to evade traps set by the dealers and the smugglers of amusement that is noxious in every respect, the amusement of the insipid television and video games, the amusement of cafeterias and bars, the dark places and the deafening noises. Let's not proceed to other characterizations that will induce sorrow and frustration. And we, the older ones, who have adequate free time at our disposal, let us not neglect to take frequent strolls here. Actually, where can we find a more suitable place than this one?

It is an absolute necessity to love Nature, to take care of the Environment. History has taught us that every time human societies are led to problems and deadlocks, which are created by the boundless urbanization and the improvident use of their own creations, they resort to Mother Nature in order to be re-baptized, to gather standards and strengths that will enable them to restore their route and recover lost happiness like wandering children who frequently return to maternal affection, so as to find comfort and redemption in innocent childhood memories.

The "Christos and Mary Papoutsy" Park has the potential to cover a variety of needs, namely emotional, intellectual and social. It can become an incentive for the organization of cultural activities at this unique location of the amphitheater, a place of enjoyment and strolls, worship and prayer, a place for the celebration of religious and social events--weddings, christenings, and so on.

Dear Christos and Mary, ten years ago, you came here, following your ancestors' secret voices, in order to become acquainted with Vatoussa, the birthplace of your father, who did not manage to become acquainted with it. Your emotion, as you have confessed in one of your latest interviews in a newspaper of the Greek community in the USA, when you first saw Vatoussa, was great. You instantly manifested your desire to undertake the cost of certain projects that the village needed. We started in a climate of general enthusiasm in the beginning as an unofficial committee and then as a foundation with the aim of fulfilling your kind intentions and your visions. We have achieved a lot of things.

You have loved Vatoussa and its people with their virtues and their weaknesses. You are particularly interested in the events that are taking place in Vatoussa. You visit it once or twice a year--I wonder how many Vatoussans do that--you have built a nice traditional house, you intend to extend the time of your stay here, and you have acquired Greek nationality. What else would somebody expect you to do, so as to discover your love for our place?

We are boundlessly grateful to you. We would like to thank you with all our heart, and wish you and your family health, happiness, and the will always to undertake projects of charity and progress. Your children and grandchildren are giving us great pleasure with their presence here. We would like to congratulate them for their kind and capable parents and we would like to wish them good health and progress and that they "inherit" some of their parents' love for Vatoussa. We would like them to be frequent visitors to our village.

Mr. Christos Stavrakoglou, President
Christos and Mary Papoutsy Foundation for the Revitalization of Vatoussa, Lesvos

(Posting date 6 October 2008)

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