The bus slowly winds through early morning Athens—the bustle of Greeks starting their day and hurrying to work. Store fronts opening their doors and the honking of impatient drivers, blasting their radios with the news or other Greek classics.
We sail along towards the port of Piraeus to begin another wonderful adventure. The campers are sleepy and the bus is quiet as we slowly approach the water. Piraeus, the biggest port in all of Greece and one of the largest in the Mediterranean, is just beginning its long day. The coast guards run across the docks, yelling to each other and directing ferries as they pull in. The scent of sea salt drifts through the air.
By the time the sun has stretched its golden arms further into the sky, we have arrived. Aegina. The home of Agios Nektarios, the patron saint of cancer. The Holy Trinity Monastery contains the miracle which brings people from all corners of the earth: the tomb of the walking saint himself. Upon resting your ear against it, you can hear the saint’s footsteps, although he has been laid to rest for years.
Campers light candles and slowly file into the area where the tomb rests, quietly pressing their ears against it. Tears upon their faces, as they pray with open hearts in hopes of hearing the Saint’s steps.
Lunch after was delicious fresh fish by the sea,its water blue and beckoning. A glimmering pool of bliss, of dreams, of summer in Greece. Late afternoon included shopping the harbor of Aegina to purchase the island’s famous pistachios and a have cool ice cream treat before boarding the ferry once again.
Watching the sun turn golden pink at a tavern in Glyfada that evening, we sing “Happy Birthday” (IV style) to a staff member as she blows out the sparklers and candles on her cake and enjoy one of our last nights together as an Ionian Village family.
Cars honking, lights of the city twinkling. Night has fallen, but the city does not sleep. Campers crowd the small plateia in front of the parliament building in Syntagma, anxiously waiting, watching. Soon three Evzones (soldiers) will come marching down towards the tomb of the unknown soldier, in an ceremony to replace the soldiers already standing. Their voices are hushed as the soldiers begin to walk forward.
The evening is full of magic, it’s Athens by night.
The day included a visit to the Monastery of Osios Loukas, located on Mount Hellicon just outside of Athens. Best known as a healer and for his prophecies, Saint Luke’s church left us all breathless. Made entirely of stone, with stained glass windows allowing rays of light to slowly filter in, campers deeply enjoyed the peace of the church. Many were lost in quiet prayer and thought, taking in its’ intimidating beauty. Afterwards, they enjoyed the astounding view outside: acres of green mountains disappearing into the sky.
After watching the changing of the guards and enjoying some late night ice cream, we head to bed: a trip to the island of Aegina awaits us tomorrow.
Tiny glows of light flicker across the white walkway and give competition to the glimmering stars, painted high above the little chapel. The light radiates and shines, and the whole camp is aglow. It is a certain kind of light, a special one.
This kind of light does not come simply from the candles we light on our last night at our beautiful Ioniko Xorio, but it is the kind of light that radiates. The kind which comes from peace and deep unassuming love, the kind that comes from within. The light that comes from Ionian Village. It is this light that is nurtured and handled with care, like a small seed amongst thorny weeds. The kind of light that begins with a small flame, and ends with a bright fire.
Tonight, in the peace of the shadows, in the sounds of young voices singing “Theotoke I Elpis,” the light burns bright. Our last night standing at the chapel, but not our last night together. “Meet me at the chapel, meet me here in your prayers,” says Father softly. Imprinted in our hearts it will always be; a dream, a paradise, a place among the heavens. Reachable only once we close our eyes and truly remember. A place we will always find within each other. Off to Athens tomorrow for our last days together, we take the spirit of Ioniko Xorio with us.
The strum of the guitar blends perfectly with the gentle voices of the girls of Hydra, as their counselor sits atop one of the wooden tables in the trap. Around her the girls have gathered, facing her as she gently plays, harmonizing with their voices. The banana trees are full in bloom, their green stalks providing shade in the heat of the sun. Nearby, other kids are eating their snacks, some playing tavli, others waiting in line at the periptero (camp store) to buy some IV apparel or some famous chocolate Papadopoulos cookies. The field is abuzz with campers and staff playing a game of soccer. The energy is blissful and happy, the air smelling of sweet sea salt, the sun bright once again, shining its’ light on little Ioniko Xorio below.
It is free time at IV, the late afternoon marker before prep time for the evening, and vespers. Kids are enthusiastic as they prepare for tonight’s evening adventure: Music Fest, where each cabin creates a musical number to perform for the camp. Singing voices can be heard from the trap to the cabins, as they practice for the evening.
After a pizza dinner and fresh watermelon to finish it off, the amphitheater is filled with sweet, soulful voices as kids’ creativity truly shines. “Ionian Village Idol” has begun and cabins’ teamwork and unity sparkle. “Summer Lovin” from “Grease” is changed with lyrics that speak of Kuria Sophia’s moussaka and summer memories. Disney movies were not forgotten, as the words “Running out of time, trying not to cry, memories at IV” are sung to the tune of “Beauty and the Beast.” As the entire camp links arms and sings along, I gaze out upon the faces of kids who, just weeks ago, were strangers to each other and Ionian Village. Kids, who now, hold hands during morning Othros and rest their sleeping heads on each other during bus rides. A camp who has become a family, under His loving hands.
Warm shadows bounce off the walls of the amphitheater, and a murmur of voices can be heard amidst the darkness. Night with God, another tradition at Ionian Village, is an evening where the camp comes together to reflect on a question that Father asks. “What are you thankful for?” he asks, his voice echoing. Slowly, one camper makes her way to the front and stands shyly in front of the sea of two hundred faces. “I’m thankful for this camp, and for our faith. Because real life is Orthodox Christianity,” She says, her voice strong and clear. Everyone sits in silence, enamored by the truth of her words, by their depth, by her wisdom.
Campers one by one shared their hearts and thoughts, then lit a candle. By the end of the night, one candle had turned to many, burning together strongly, our voices softly singing “Theotoke I Elpis,” lighting a pathway of hope and love into the dark night sky.
“Dear Lord, as we gather here tonight, in the midst of your sand, your surf, your sky and stars, we ask you to give us strength, and to allow us to understand that you give us what we need, only when we need it.”
The words were spoken in the waves, to a place far beyond the sky, to the heavens. On the cool sand we gathered around the light of the flames, listening to his voice blend into the night. Campers sat closely, meshed as one, realizing that our days at Ioniko Xorio are shorter and quickly coming to a close.
Our day began at the monastery of Mega Spilaion, tucked away in the cliffs of Kalavrita, overlooking carpets of green, bushes, trees, fields in neat rows dotting the countryside. After being burnt and rebuilt multiple times, the monastery is eight stories and built over the cave where the first icon of the Theotokos was found. Campers venerated the icon with gentle care and took a sip of water from the spring where the icon was found.
Afterwards, a visit to the monastery of Agia Lavra (“Holy Banner”) gave campers and staff the opportunity to see the birthplace of the Greek revolution, where a secret assembly was held in 1821 declaring independence from the Turks. They gathered in the sunny courtyard after venerating, and lunch in the quaint town of Kalavrita followed. A solemn visit to the Kalavrita memorial site, where the Massacre of 1943 occurred. During World War II, Nazi soldiers burned down the village and executed over 1,000 men and boys. Children were silent and deeply in thought, touched and sad, as they looked out over the same view the victims saw on that fateful day on the mountain side. The breeze blew strongly, as we held hands and looked down upon the little town which had seen so much.
Now, under the black of the night and back home at our white washed cabins, we sit looking out over the water to the tiny lights of Zakynthos and the crescent of the moon. The sound of Father’s voice carries over the waves, and we relish the beautiful Grecian night.
The seaside is to our left, with yet another clear sky the color of summer blueberries. It’s 5 pm and traffic hour in Patra is slowly starting, as drivers honk their horns and pedestrians crowd the sidewalks. The smell of grilled corn sweeps through the air, and the sounds of the city crowd my ears. We walk together, as one, towards our destination: The Cathedral of Saint Andrew.
The largest church in all of Greece and one of the largest churches in Europe, with its wooden chandelier also believed to be the biggest in the world. Special to this church is its depiction of the Panagia in the platytera behind the altar, with her arms extended in protection over the city of Patra. After campers admired the church’s beauty and venerated the relics of Saint Andrew, they drank from the well of Saint Andrew where he baptized Christians many years before.
Dinner tonight was atop a cliff overlooking the entire city, with the sun’s rays exploding behind the mountains in the distance and the Rio-Antirio Bridge stretching over the Gulf of Corinth. Children excitedly raced the balcony’s edges to take pictures with their friends and staff as the sun slowly set in the background and the night fell upon us, as we made our way home to Ioniko Xorio.
The air smells of oregano and Greek soil honey and incense. It wafts through the church doors as campers and staff begin chanting “Theotoke I Elpis,” softly, gently, while patiently waiting in line to venerate the body of Agios Gerasimos. They take in the breathtaking iconography which covers every wall of the church where the saint lies, here on the beautiful island of Kefalonia.
As children softly kiss the relics, they then wait in line by a small hole in the church’s marble floor: leading into the ground and down the hole is a ladder, descending into the actual cave where Saint Gerasimos himself lived, isolated, for nineteen. Attached to the main chamber is a smaller cave, with a narrow passageway. The campers are nervous and apprehensive; many wonder how they will fit such a small hole. Some have a fear of claustrophobia, others doubt their faith. “But what if I don’t fit, because my faith isn’t strong enough?” she whispers to me, fear in her eyes. She descends the ladder with her cabin and after some time, crawls through the passageway with ease. She stares in awe at the walls, which were home to the humble saint, known as the healer of mental illnesses, taking in her faith, the conquering of her fear, the fact that He is with her.
One by one, over one hundred campers, staff, and clergy seamlessly enter the chamber, overtaken by this holy man’s presence. The camp is slowly coming together; our faith is getting stronger, our love growing bigger. After exiting the cave, we make our way to the church of New Jerusalem Monastery, admiring the icons of many saints and feast days.
Lunch is at a tavern by the beach, and campers can’t wait for a refreshing swim. Back at Ioniko Xorio, “Saint Skits” night begins in the amphitheater where each cabin depicts the life of a certain saint. The owls coo and it’s early to bed, as more adventures await us tomorrow.
This morning started off in the beautiful church of Kimisis Tis Theotokou (The Dormition of the Virgin Mary) in Bartholomio, a neighboring Village. Campers were quiet and thoughtful as they gazed upon the intricate and beautiful icons, asking questions and whispering amongst each other. Their gentle voices echoed in the marble walls and upon returning to camp, got their own real-life lesson in iconography.
The talented and humble Dimitris Mourlas has been writing icons for fifty years, now using his inexpressible talents to fill the white washed walls of the little chapel at Ionian Village. Campers sketched their own icons during the Music and Greek Culture session, then had the opportunity to observe Mr. Mourlas as his brush swept across the church walls. As campers watched him gently stroke vibrant colors into magnificence, they asked questions about his work and the history of iconography. The chapel now has a beautiful icon of the Panagia and Jesus in the platitera above the altar. The walls also depict Saint Christopher and Sophia, honoring Kyria Sophia and her husband Xristoforo, who have helped IV flourish with their endless love and hardwork.
As the day slowly settled into dusk, the camp once again sprang to life: The trap at dinner time held colorful characters: video game heroes, sparkly prom queens, sneaky gypsies, rugged cowboys, mimes, and a whole lot of weird: Carnivali night. Playing off of the Greek tradition of Apokories (“Mardi Gras”) before the Lenten season, campers and staff created their own costumes and then paraded onto the field where the night began. Cotton candy, popcorn, a horse and buggy carriage awaited the campers, and mini stations set up with various fun and games spread across the grass and into the sunset. The night ended with a surprise…FIREWORKS at camp for the very first time! As the golds and reds spread across the black night, cabins linked arms and sang along to “Ten Feet Tall,” walking to bed under the lights of the sky.
The kids sit scattered on white benches overlooking the sea, as we slowly sail away from the port of Killini towards Zakynthos. The morning is early, and campers snack on ham and cheese Paninis (called “tost” here in Greece) and chat energetically. The water is smooth like a sheet of glass, paving the way for a quiet ride, and the sun’s rays warm the ship’s deck.
As we near the port of Zakynthos, I spot the church across the harbor and know that soon we will see Him. Our protector, the patron saint of Ioniko Xorio awaits us, and as we dock and walk from the limani (harbor), the beautiful church of Saint Dionysios comes into closer view.
Built in 1708, it is intricately inspired by Venetian influence, and was miraculously one of the three buildings to survive the 1953 earthquakes that struck the island. Agios Dionysios joined the monastery of Strofados at the age of 21, and became known as a protector of the poor and sick, and later, as the saint of forgiveness.
As we enter the church, Father leads us to the reliquary room and as he hums “Kyrie Eleison,” campers go forth and venerate the body of the walking saint, resting in a glass case. They break down, tears overwhelming them, as they kiss his feet. It is in this moment where something incredible is happening, the wonder of children discovering their faith, deep in their hearts.
After the church, we head to a delicious seaside tavern and eat lunch, followed by a refreshing dip at the beach. The day is not over yet, for when we head back to camp, the traditional Ionian Village panigiri is about to begin and a feast awaits us: plates of Kyria Sophia’s lamb, Greek Salad, spanakopita, turopita, tzatiziki and other treats. After dining by the sunset, Kuria Sophia’s son-in-law grabs the mic and sings soulful Zeimbekiko, Tsamiko, and Kalamatiano melodies. Soon the whole camp is on its feet, dancing under the summer sky.
After another beautiful day at camp, night has fallen upon the little houses of Ioniko Xorio, but this night is unlike any of the previous.
The massive field is lit and the twinkling lights of Zakynthos across the water loom in the distance. Cabins are lined up in neon knee socks and rainbow jerseys, created from sheets and sharpies contrasting against the dark night sky. The annual Olympic Games at Ionian village are in full swing. Leaping, shrieking, clapping and cheering, campers try to capture the attention of the “Kefi Fairy,” (spirit fairy), one of our staff members dressed in wings and clipboard in hand, keep score of points. The watermelon eating contest begins and teams race to finish the most pieces of watermelon in the fastest time.
Relay races are neck in neck between boys and girls cabins across the soft grass, as music blares throughout the field, the camp, and across the waves of the Ionian Sea. Staff, dressed as various famous athletes including Marion Jones, Misty May, Shaun White, and Alex Morgan, don full-on costumes, created with duct tape, scissors, and enough enthusiasm and passion to light a room of darkness.
As the games end and Kerkyra takes first place and the “cup,” a gleaming structure made of water jugs and covered in sleek gold duct tape, they storm the field to sound of “We Are the Champions,” and bystanders actually start to believe that they have won more than just a title at camp. Their happiness radiates and exemplifies true cabin unity and love amongst each other.
As the night winds down, we lie down in the field as Father shuts off the lights. A soft gasp can be heard as kids and staff alike take a glimpse of the sky—brilliant and black, with shimmers of silver. Father begins to tell us the story of the walking Saint Dionisios, the patron Saint of forgiveness and of Ionian Village itself. All that can be heard is the sound of his voice, as children are lost in the story and think of how we will visit His church on Zakynthos the next day.
The birds chirp softly, the wind breezes. I turn the key and open the door quietly. Inside the kitchen is exactly how I left it the night before, and the night before that one and every for the past nineteen years; clean, waiting. I open the refrigerator and begin to take out the dough I made the night before, behind the cartons of eggs and the vats of olive oil from our family’s groves. The watermelons from the fields around us are in the way and I move them swiftly, as I make my way towards the steel counters and begin to knead the dough gently.
The children are not yet awake, the camp still asleep. But the sun is up early with me, as it slowly spreads its light into the clouds. I think of all the years I have seen the sky from this same screen window in the trap, with the silence of the morning for company. It is my home, my life, my soul. It is as much a part of me as Greek soil is to olive trees, as the sand is to Mediterranean waters. You cannot have one without the other.
I have watched my three children run across this land, first playing, then crawling, and somehow, into adulthood. Now with their own children, in the little white house by the gate. I tighten my apron and relax my fingers. I gently let my love seep into the dough, as I roll it into small balls and I slowly drop the bits into the bubbling oil.
The sun is now above the chapel, and I know soon I will hear the sound my heart waits for all winter: the scamper of feet, of all ages and sizes, scurrying to the tiny church front to sing morning Orthros. When they are gone, the camp has no life, barren and lifeless like winter months. When the cold air passes I know the children will return, and that’s why I wait, ready to receive them.
The bell rings, and the soft chanting begins. I put the Loukoumades on the same white dishes that we have had for years, and get the eggs and bread with jam ready. The comforting chatter of 223 buzzing voices soon fills the trap. As breakfast ends, the day begins.
They disperse into their daily activities and wave goodbye to me, chanting, “Kuria Sophia, Kuria Sophia! Euxaristoume!” (“Miss Sophia, Miss Sophia, we thank you!”). I close the screen door and watch them skip to their sessions by cabin, some to the Ethousa where Music and Greek Culture is done, some to the vast green field for Athletics, others under the shady overhang by the pool to participate in Arts and Crafts. I watch them walk back and forth all day as they go from one session to the next, from free swim and back to the trap for lunch, singing, skipping, joyful.
Siesta during the day is the one time the camp is quiet again until dark, and I prep for dinner. Snack time comes later, and I prepare trays of cookies and juice for their eager hands. Later, as dinner comes once again, the same energy and love fills the trap and I divide plates of biftekia (hamburger) and Greek salads.
As they clear their plates and tables and start their walk down the road to the little church of Agia Marina for vespers, I watch them disappear through the gate. The dinner plates have been cleared. My daughter passes me the last dishes and I hear the screen door slam and turn my head. Three little heads of brown and blond hair appear by my side, and I see three generations in front of my very eyes. For them too Ioniko Xorio is home and comfort, a paradise of lush flowers and ocean, of His presence, of meals made for years to come.
Gauzy togas, golden bangles, olive wreaths. A siren’s song, a shipwreck tangled in fishing net. Worn treasure maps, and an oracle in the amphitheater. It is Modern Mythology night at Ioniko Xorio, and the camp is aglow with Gods and Goddesses, and sprinkled with sirens, muses, warriors.
Tiny lights string the aqua pool, as the sunset reflects on its waters and the last rays of the day turn to deep oranges. Mermaids, covered in gauzy green fabric and shimmery scales, sing a luring song atop the water fountain at the camp’s front. Our staff member Christo, dressed as Hercules, carries a staff and bronze shield and traverses the field. Nurse Stephanie has become Aphrodite, Goddess of love, donning a long flowing cape, and crisp white dress. Ionian Village has transformed into Mount Olympus, with cabins dressed in various makeshift togas created from bright sheets, retrieving their maps for their scavenger hunts from the Oracle in the amphitheater and anxiously running from station to station. Various activities included pinning the snake on Medusa’s head, and excavating pieces of the Greek armored soldier
The night ended with the entire camp meeting at the “river of Styx,” (or the pool), with cabins competing in a trivia challenge, and winners awarded with ice cream under the stars.
Kastro Chlemoutsi stands high on the hill, overlooking the Ionian sea with Zakynthos and Kefalonia in the hazy far. Built by a Frankish prince in the 1200’s, the voices of the campers echo within the castle walls, as they shout and laugh to each other, taking photos in the ancient archways and exploring the stairwells and rooftop of the fortress.
After taking in the sights, we head to a café for a modern day Greek tradition—frappe drinking in all its glory. Campers sipped the zesty coffee while overlooking acres of trees disappearing into a blue horizon, ships gracefully gliding along its surface. Upon returning to camp, the day continues with free swim at the Ionian Village beach, lunch in the trap, and various departments including Athletics and Arts and Crafts.
Later, as the sun melts into the skyline, campers dressed in all white line the infinity pool and snack on appetizers under the cabanas, dance hits blaring through the speakers as we kick off our evening activity of the “White Party.” As Father closes the evening with us encircled as one, singing the traditional IV prayer of “Theotoke I Elpis,” cabins head to bed with the sound of crickets and waves in the cool of the night.
The moon is a crescent sliver, high in the dark sky. The only light for miles, it illumines the walkway in front of me as I make my way to the whitewashed chapel, the beginning and the end of all we do. The sound of tumultuous waves fill my ears, and the dewy grass presses beneath my feet.
DONG…DONG…DONG…I ring the bell tower, breaking the silence of the early dawn and the sleeping Ioniko Xorio. Breathing the fresh, crisp air I stand for a moment and press the picture in front of me into my mind, forever engraining it, forever keeping it a part of me. The trap and its tables and chairs, waiting for company. The tiny, sleeping cabins. The feeling of being in Ellada, the sweet scent of Greece.
As morning slowly falls upon us, sleepy campers slowly make their way to the trap for a quiet breakfast. Before we know it, we are on the buses and headed to Ancient Olympia, the location of the very first Olympic Games in 776 BC. After an engaging tour and walk around the grounds, we reach the actual arena with a track of 210 yards and campers take turns racing down the track, posing and laughing. After a visit to the museum, we head back home, for our first free swim at the beach lining the camp grounds. Ecstatic for their first swim in Greece, kids race towards the emerald waves, flinging their towels and flip-flops into the sand.
As evening falls, the camp is abuzz with “Greek Invasion,” a night of Greek cultural activities. Kyria Sophia steps out of the kitchen to show campers how to make baklava, lovingly mixing the walnuts and sugar and coating the pans with phyllo dough. Campers watch carefully, as she exclaims that one day they too can make this for their families like she does for hers. After frappe making, tavli playing, and of course some enthusiastic Greek dancing on the basketball courts, we head to sleep under the same moon, by the Ionian Sea.
The wind sweeps through my hair. In this heaven I am boundless, free, infinite. Through the white washed walkways and past the emerald grasses and the jungle of oranges and pinks that have blossomed over night. The sun has not yet reached its highest point in the sky, but the warmth of the day beckons.
I gently hum along with the beautiful “Kyrie Eleison” that the children’s voices so beautifully echo. It is our first official day at camp for session two of Ionian Village, our Ioniko Xorio, which waited patiently for another group of new campers to flee joyfully across its grounds. God has granted the staff the strength and love for new faces and hearts, and session two of IV is off to a wonderful start.
As morning Orthros finish, we head to the outdoor seating area, known as the trapezaria (lovingly knick-named the “trap”) to eat our first breakfast together. Following breakfast is a regular camp day at the camp itself, including Orthodox Life, Arts and Crafts, Athletics, and Music and Greek Culture. A swim in the breathtaking infinity pool overlooking the sea worked up an appetite for a lunch of Kyria Sophia’s famous pastichio, served with Greek salad and plenty of mouth-watering side dishes.
After evening vespers, the night kicked off with Junkyard Wars, where cabins competed in an adrenaline-racing “build your own car” competition. Cars were built out of bottles, cereal boxes, water jugs found around the camp. Each cabin rocked their best team spirit gear under the stars, decked out in sparkles, neon socks, bandanas and enough cheer and singing for the entire village of Glyfa.
My eyes take in green pastures and acres of watermelons, the sun beating down on the brown earth. The sky gleams down on us, crystal blue, as I stretch my neck to see out the window. My backpack is under my feet, heavy and stuffed to the brim with my sweatshirt, iPod, and other things from home, now far away. As I shift around in my seat, I notice one of the counselors wearing a navy blue polo making his way to the front of the bus. “Two minutes!!!” he exclaims excitedly, pumping his fist in the air, as the other staff start screaming and the bus driver turns the volume up louder on the radio.
We are nearing the camp, and the butterflies in my stomach suddenly overwhelm me. I’m tired and a little nervous; I look around at the other kids in the seats near me, some confused, thoughtful. Some exhausted, smiling, some hopeful. Faces of all ages and from all areas. So many different cities on one bus, so many stories, and somehow, here we are, together.
Slowly, the bus wraps around the corner and the driver begins to honk loudly and urgently, announcing our presence, announcing what is to come. Slowly we slip through the gates and begin down the driveway towards more sunshine, and nothing but white houses in the distance. I am unaware of my sleepless body, the thoughts in my head, the fear in my heart. I hear cheers, clapping, music blasting. The faces start to become clearer; they are all smiling and radiant, beaming.
The bus comes to a subtle stop and campers and staff who are waiting to greet us run toward the bus with their whistles and ecstatic cheers chanting, “I-V! I-V!” I start to smile just a little, and grab my things, making my way towards the front. As I step off the bus, I am overwhelmed with the beauty of a lush paradise—trees swaying tall, reaching their branches towards heaven. Flowers radiant, brimming the walkways, bursting with every color, their faces turned toward the sky.
We find our new cabins and staff, what everyone says will be our families over the next two and a half weeks. I’m not really sure about that yet. We take a tour of the camp and settle into our cabins, then do some fun icebreakers games in the huge green field under the sunshine.
By dinner, things are starting to feel ok. After sitting in the camp’s amphitheater and watching the counselors put on a funny opening skit to kick off camp, we head to our cabins under the twinkle of the Mediterranean stars. I pause, as we pass the chapel. I peak inside and see the soft glow of the candles illuminating the icons. I can’t explain it but I feel peace. Maybe, just maybe, I am home
Session Two of Ionian VIllage starts on July 20! Make sure to tune in here daily for blog updates of our movements at camp!
Stay tuned for posts from Session 2 beginning in July 2014!!
Windy cobblestone paths and stores filled with gold crosses and colorful bracelets, jeweled sandals and little jars of olive oil and herbs. Venetian inspired shutters and doorways, the sky a bright aqua. We are on the bustling island of Kerkyra, after a bus trip to the harbor of Igoumenitsa in the region of Epiros, where we took a ferry ride to cross to our destination. The kids are excited, and gasp at every new turn the bus takes, at the little cafes lining the harbor and the bakery selling bougatsa.
Later that night, we board all six buses into the city center, and split up into shopping groups, campers and staff members exploring the old town and all its charm. Kids carrying bags of “I love Corfu” beach towels and flip-flops crowd the streets, and many stop to take photos at every possible chance. They stop for dinner at little tavernas hidden in the alleys, or grab a fresh turopita from the fourno (bakery) and walk along the water. Early to bed, tomorrow brings a trip to Agios Spyridon and an afternoon at the beach.
On our last day at camp, the sun rose like it had for the past fourteen days, only this time it was different. This time, one took extra notice of the way it warmed the walkway in front of the chapel, the way it glimmered over the island of Zakynthos, hazy in the distance. Today was different.
Our last dinner together at the trapezaria included Greek salads and plates of gyro meat and chicken piled high, crowding the tables with the sounds of laughter and chattering. The cabins singing acapella and shouting chants back and forth. Afterwards, it was time for the neon party—and it was just that in full force, with glow sticks, thrilling dance and pop tunes, explosions of greens and pinks all around the dance floor, and black lights for when the sun went down.
The night was heavy, once we truly realized this would be our last night at our home away from home, our Ioniko Xorio. Father lead us to the chapel, under the light of the moon, and we passed candlelight to one another, until there was no more darkness, but simply a glow that could be seen for miles. Together we stood as one, one family and one heart, in our final moments in front of our beautiful chapel. Campers faces were illumined in a warm radiance, and as we linked arms and sang softly together, we knew in our hearts that we would meet at this chapel once again.
“Be Still for I am God”
Laughter and full hearts crowd the amphitheater. The night is cool and the only sound that can be heard for miles is a guitar strumming and a young girl singing shyly about her 18 years of life, made special by her time spent here. It is Music Fest at Ioniko Xorio, an evening activity where each cabin prepares a musical performance for the rest of the camp. This year’s theme, “IV Vision,” is a play on American Idol, complete with staff members posing hilariously as Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell. All twelve cabins prepared unique renditions of 90’s boy bands, modern pop icons, and classic hits. The Kerkyra boys steal the show with a simple ukulele and clear voices, earnestly singing about the peace they will yearn for at IV upon returning to the real world.
Before bed, we circle up, all two-hundred-fifty-five of our family, and Father shuts the lights off in the amphitheater. We are left only with the sound of his voice and the assurance of those we love next to us, and quietly he tells us to stop thinking and start listening. To not be afraid of the silence, to hear our own hearts and His voice…the only one we should ever listen for. The one that can be heard only when all else stops. “’Be Still For I am God,’ He says to us,” Father says quietly. We all fall silent, with only the sound of the night. As we sing “Theotoke I Elpis,” it is also tribute to a wonderful man who taught this hymn to the camp years before, a wonderful priest named Papa Giorgi who passed on just yesterday. He loved the camp and its children, and was a special part of Ionian Village for years, as he told us his heartbreaking story of his experience during the massacre at Kalavrita during the Kalavrita trip every year. As this beautiful hymn is sung whole heartedly and a slight breeze is felt, Papa Giorgi’s presence has never left us.
The moon shines clearly and brightly, carefully illuminating the amphitheater below and the faces of all who those who sit in peace and wonder, listening. The night is silent and cool, an owl coos in the distance and the sky is full of dazzling gems, scattered among the dark backdrop.
It is "Night with God" at camp, one of the beautiful traditions of Ionian Village, where the entire camp is given a chance to share, one by one, an answer to a question Father poses. “What are you most thankful for?” Father asked tonight. Slowly, campers shyly approached the middle of the amphitheater to address their friends and counselors. They looked at the ground at times, mumbled at others, but their message was always clear and very much the same: they were thankful for their family, friends, and their faith. As the night continued, their voices got stronger, clearer. The mood relaxed, and soon kids were jumping up one after another, eager to share their hearts. They shared their fears and hopes. Their love for their siblings, their appreciation for their faith and the chance to come to IV. “They say that inside every one person is a village, and what better place to have than Ionian Village,” an older camper shared, with a full heart. And on this serene night on the Ionian Sea with the chapel standing tall, nothing could be more true.
The bus slowly climbs the mountain once again and winds its' way up towards the top. Lush green trees and pastures cover every inch of the rocky cliffs, and campers gaze out the window. We are approaching the little town of Kalavrita in the Peloponnese, and high on the mountainside a monastery comes into view, it's windows facing out onto miles of forest.
We are here to visit the monastery of Mega Spillaion, to venerate the very first icon of the Panagia, made with mere tree sap and wax. The children again are overcome with thought and reverence, and wait patiently to kiss the icon, which was attempted to be destroyed and burned many times over the course of centuries, but always remained unscathed--a true miracle.
Following, we visited the monastery of Agia Lavra, "Holy Banner." It was there by a tree near the Monastery gates where Bishop Germanos of Patra raised the banner as the first Greek flag, starting the Greek revolution of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire.
The historical day finished with a somber visit to the memorial site of the massacre of Kalavrita, a mountain side where over 700 rest after being murdered by German soldiers in 1943. Campers and staff were silenced as they paid their respects, the wind gently blowing, the only side being that of crickets in the afternoon sun.
After returning to camp, we made our way to the beach to celebrate the Fourth of July in true American fashion--a bonfire on the beach, s'mores, and plenty of campfire songs. Each cabin shared their favorite song, campers listening eagerly with their feet in the sand and the sound of waves in the background.
Tonight we saw yet another beautiful Grecian sunset, this time in the city of Patra, about an hour and a half from camp. We boarded the buses, our home on the road, to Patra to see the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, the biggest church in all of Greece. The church’s dome stands at 150 feet tall, and also holds the relics of Saint Andrew. Campers took in the beauty of the marble church and drank from the well where Saint Andrew himself preached and baptized Christians many years before.
Dinner tonight was on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the hazy sun. Its rays shine differently here, and each sunset is somehow different than the one before. Kids squealed in glee after hiking the windy road to dinner high on the hill, climbing the stairs, and seeing the view—miles and miles of miniature buildings, streets, and houses, and the sun gleaming off the sea. Early to bed tonight at Ioniko Xorio, for tomorrow is another trip day, this time to the little town of Kalavrita.
Blush pinks and oranges timidly peak behind the horizon of the quiet dawn, and the sea is quiet. The beauty of the early morning makes your breath catch in your throat, and your heart stop momentarily. Campers cluster every nook of the giant ferry boat, on benches and tables, wrapped in their Ionian Village gray hoodies and chattering over early morning frappes.
Upon reaching the port of Kefalonia, we begin our ascent to the monasteries of New Jerusalem and Saint Gerasimos, to venerate the walking saint known for his extreme humility and the nineteen years he spent underground, living in a small cave. Today, we pray to him to heal those with mental disabilities. The ride is one with a seaside view, and the waves crash against the rocky cliffs, as we slowly wind around the mountain. Pure Aegean blue, with sail boats dotting the waves greet us at every turn. A painted postcard come to life, a dream.
The monastery smells of sweet wax candles and incense, and the campers are once again silenced in wonder and respect. Inside the church in the cool marble floor is a small opening with a ladder leading into the ground. “I don’t know if I want to do this,” one girl whispers. “Are we really climbing down there?” another camper asks in awe. Slowly, cabins descend down the ladder and into two small chambers built into the ground. Connecting them is nothing but a small hole, which one has to climb through in order to reach the cave which Agios Gerasimos inhabited. The hole is small, and campers and staff who had never previously visited stand anxiously. “But it’s so small, it won’t fit me”… “What if I get stuck?”…”I’m too tall”….yet one by one, they kneel and a miracle occurs: the hole can fit all, no matter the size or height. It’s as if it simply stretches in size accordingly, and all one hundred and thirty adults and children pass through smoothly. Silent cries and sobs overtake, as we stand in the small space where a truly holy man lived so many years before. It is an experience that cannot be put to words, as it is life changing. To share such a moment with staff and campers who live the same faith, the same love. An Ionian Village wonder. The sole reason there will never be another place like it.
Today included a trip to Bartholomio to see the breathtaking church of Kimissis tis Theotokou, located in the town center. Campers examined the beautiful marble interior, then headed back to the buses towards camp where an actual iconographer himself awaited them in our chapel. High on his scaffolding, children and staff quietly observed iconographer Dimitris Mourlas painting Jesus on the pantokrator (dome), while he humbly explained the history and art behind beautiful Byzantine iconography. The chance to see the actual process of careful icon painting in front of their very eyes was not lost on the campers, as they eagerly asked Mr. Mourlas many questions, their eyes never leaving the way his brush stroked the white washed walls with deep, rich colors.
Once again, night settled upon Ioniko Xorio, and the camp came alive with another celebration. The massive green soccer field was filled with giddy campers in their most outrageous costumes, as popcorn and cotton candy stands laced the edges of the green grass. Greek pop hits sailed across the ocean, and a horse and buggy provided rides to all. Tired yet satisfied, campers head to bed, for another day in the sunshine awaits them in the morning.
Zakynthos. Clear blue skies, and the sun slowly rising higher in the sky, promising for another scorching day. The soft hum of the ferry boats and the yells of the coast guards as we slowly approach the port. We have just reached Zakynthos, to venerate the walking saint of Agios Dionysios, and also the patron saint of forgiveness and our beautiful Ionian Village itself. As we cross the street, campers are high-spirited and laughing, but upon entering the church, filled with an immense sense of peace and deep compassion. They gently venerate the saint’s relics, and quietly take in the beautiful iconography and vast intricacy of the 1700’s church, located across the harbor. It is truly inexplicable to watch children discovering their faith in a way they never have before.
Afterwards, we head for lunch and a swim at one of Zakynthos’ many gorgeous beaches. The night brings our very own panigiri, with lamb, spanakopita, salad, and other incredible Greek delights. After relishing every morsel of the feast, Kuria Sophia’s son-in-law treats us to live music with his band, and dancing lasts until late evening.
After celebrating Divine Liturgy as an entire camp with the sound of the waves crashing in the background, we took cabin photos in front of the little whitewashed chapel; the center of everything, the center of all we do.
Our Loukoumades breakfast prepared us for an INTENSE day of water and land Olympics! All cabins competed in races and relays in our beautiful pool, followed by lunch and siesta to refuel, then the pentathalon. Campers dressed in their team outfits of rainbow colors, capes with nicknames, face paint and plenty of chants, claps and overwhelming team spirit, raced to various locations around camp. Stations included musical chairs Kalamatiano style and an oreo eating relay race. After dinner was the astounding land Olympics in the grassy field paralleling the beach, where winners took home their very own “gold” medals and the Ionian Village 2014 cup, made entirely of water jugs and masking tape. The evening ended with Father telling us stories of Agios Dionysios as we looked at the stars, and tomorrow we will visit Zakynthos to venerate him ourselves.
Two-hundred and fifty-six people fill the small church of Agia Marina, in the little village of Glyfa. Clear, beautiful voices singing the hymn of Agios Dionysios can be heard down the small winding streets, where its’ people are hanging their clothes to dry as the sun slowly sets on the horizon. On the walk back to camp, amongst fields of watermelon blowing softly in the breeze, the sky is a light shade of hazy pink. The campers gather in the amphitheater, and cabin Tripoli shares a meaningful reflection on who they look up to in their lives, as a hush falls upon the rest of the campers while they listen intently. Our first liturgy as an Ionian Village family is tomorrow, and we head to bed for a good night’s rest and a breakfast of loukoumades awaiting us in the morning sunshine.
“I feel like we came here not knowing anyone and now we are an Ionian Village family,” one camper says smiling, as the hum of crickets fill the air and cabins slowly make their way to bed, softly singing the hymn of “Theotoke I Elpis” all the way to the cabins. The “White Party” has just ended, beginning by the pool with the entire camp dressed in head-to-toe white. Crisp linen pants, loafers, maxi dresses dotted the sunset, and campers took photos and relaxed, then headed to the dance floor to show off their moves.
The day included a trip with half of the camp to Kastro, to see an ancient castle built in the 1200’s, where we walked the stairs and nooks of the massive stone ruins. The other half of the camp trekked to the ancient site of Olympia to see where the very first Olympic games were held, then even had a chance to run the track! A coffee break at a little café in the town center gave campers the chance to try the infamous frappe drink and take in the sights. Free swim at the beach, lunch, siesta, and various afternoon activities ended the day off.
Tired yet happy, everyone heads to sleep soundly, for tomorrow brings yet another adventure.
The Greek flag: our origins, our heritage. Our identity. It waves above a sea of blues and whites, face paint and bandanas, Greek soccer jerseys and knee socks. Large trays of sweet baklava, spanakopita, bougatsa, and tiropita fill two entire tables, while counselors in blue bandanas explain the origins of the food. Hungry teens crowd the tables for a taste, laughing and asking for seconds. Kyria Sophia, the wonderful woman who cooks our meals, stirs tzatziki as she calls to us from the kitchen, “ama tha mageurete kai eseis, the vreite gambro!” (“if you learn to cook too, you’ll find a husband!”). Chatter and giggles fill the air, as the screen door from the kitchen opens and shuts, and Greek music drifts from the basketball court. It is “Greek Invasion” night at Ionian Village, where Greece’s history and culture combine, and the camp is starting to come together as family. As we end the night singing the beautiful hymn, “Theotoke I Elpis,” campers’ arms entwined as we encircle the basketball court, His presence is felt clear and strong.
Sunlight slowly spreads its warmth across the little chapel, the walkways and amphitheater, the cabins clustered here and there across the sprawling grounds. It is the first official day at Ionian Village and campers and staff alike gather to start off in prayer amongst the early morning silence. Campers have bright eyes after a good night’s rest recovering from their long journey.
The first day was complete with rotations of different departments, including Athletics, Music and Greek culture, and Arts and Crafts. Campers gathered for free swim in the turquoise pool, overlooking out into the sea beyond the golden sands, with campers mingling and splashing against a background of pop hits and dance songs. Free time, flextivities (a choice of various fun, active activities), vespers, and dinner followed. We concluded the evening with “Junk Yard Wars,” where cabins competed against each other in building their own “cars” from things found around the camp (cardboard, water bottles, duct tape, etc.). Cheering, screams, laughing, singing, and chanting overtook the basketball court as cabins raced their cars against each other in a blur of electric colors and face paint. Just another night under the stars, just another beautiful night at Ionian Village, and the best is yet to come.
Lush greens, gentle winds. Blooms bursting with colors of the summer sun, the chapel waits in the distance. The office phone rings, with news from the kids in transit from the airport. “The buses will be here in 15 minutes!” a staff member yells excitedly, running across the walkways to warn the others. Presybytera Maria rounds up staff members who had stayed behind, anxiously awaiting the campers’ arrival at the edge of the camp driveway. Whistles, colorful lanyards, navy blue staff shirts, and bright sneakers dance against the pavement. The buses turn the corner and a fierce sense of adrenaline, and bursting love soar through every piece of their bodies, burst to the surface, begging to escape for air. Laughter and screams, cheers, as the children peak their happy faces outside the bus windows, while their staff anxiously await them at their new home.
Upon arrival, campers were escorted to the trap, the area for meals and games. It is here where a family will slowly form, as we share our meals huddled close, followed by vespers, always together, always as one. After a brief tour of the white washed campus, cabins spent their first afternoon in the Grecian air playing icebreaker games and stretching their legs across the green field. The evening commenced with a gathering in the amphitheater, where campers sat amongst their cabins and watch an enthusiastic kick-off skit performed by their staff members, in a blaze of neon dance moves and energy. As the sun slowly disappeared into the Aegean Sea, Father Evagoras asked the campers, “are you ready for the best summer of your life?” Cheers and clapping echoed across the campus and into the breeze, furthering the sense of peace and excitement. Welcome to Ionian Village, welcome home.
Stay tuned for blog posts from Session 1 beginning in July 2014!!
As you prepare to arrive at Ionian Village or to send your child here, we want to convey to you the warm greetings and prayers from all those campers, staff and clergy that have participated in our program over the past 42 years. Ionian Village has touched the hearts and souls of over 16,000 people from all across our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and our family is continuing to grow. The stories are endless. It's not hard to find someone who has experienced the miracle of Ionian Village. If you ask any one of our many alumni about Ionian Village, the response will always be the same; "It was the best summer of my life."
I pray that the Holy Spirit guide, guard and protect you all the days of your life, and that we will meet soon.