The National Herald - March 3-9, 2018

A Recurring Column of Literary Reviews

Nick Andriotis Weaves a Compelling Story

By Dr. Constantinos E. Scaros

A photo of the book cover, taken by Constantinos E. Scaros

I have known Nick Andriotis for as long as I can remember. I don’t know him particularly well, but as his family and mine are both from the village of Nikia on the tiny Greek island of Nisyros, our paths have crossed many times. Through his book, In the Church without Vestments, I have gotten to know him even better and am happy for the experience.

I opened my mailbox about a month ago to find a copy of the book; Nick had sent it to me with a very nice handwritten note inside. He did not ask me to review it, but I decided to do so immediately, without even reading it, which says a great deal about the feeling I had that I would enjoy it very much.

You see, had the book turned out to be terrible, or even mediocre, I would not have reviewed it. It is not my style to trash a book; besides, in the limited time I have available to write book reviews, I would rather pass along a message about books worthy of reading, not ones to be avoided. And, as should go without saying, I certainly would not have written a phony fluff review if I did not think the book genuinely deserved praise.

How, then, did I know that I would enjoy the book? Two reasons. My mother had read the original, published in 2016, in Greek, and had very good things to say about it. While she is not one to say unkind things, she also doesn’t dish out empty or phony compliments. If she told me the book was good, that means she meant it. I then picked up the book myself, and noticed that the Prologue was written by none other than my own publisher here at the Herald, Antonis Diamataris. I know that he would not attach his name to something unless it was high quality.

Given those two reassurances, then, I figured the book would be worthwhile. I was right.

First, some credit about the Greek-to-English translation, which as the book’s inside cover indicates, was done by George Sarrinikolaou, Director of the Earth Institute’s Office of Academic and Research Programs at Columbia University. As someone who often deals with translations from Greek to English and vice versa, I have to say that Sarrinikoulaou did one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen.

I never read the Greek edition of the book, because although I can read Greek, I cannot “speedread” Greek, and I did not have enough time to read a word at a time in slow fashion. The English version that Nick sent me was just what I needed. I knew that even with my busy schedule I would find enough time to read it fairly quickly.

The writing helped. Credit to Sarrinikolaou’s translation notwithstanding, it is Nick Andriotis’ writing style that makes the book so compelling and easy to read.

Andriotis begins with his boyhood on Nisyros. I heard similar stories about the idyllic island countless times from my parents, aunts, and uncles, while growing up, and have long since visited there myself, many times. Though life on the island was difficult – especially during World War II – Andriotis was always curious about the world, he writes, and it was that drive and vision that allowed him to accomplish great things, such as the founding of the only Greek high school in the United States, at the parish of St. Demetrios in Astoria.

Admittedly, I may appreciate references to Nisyros and Nisyrians in the book more so than the average non-Nisyrian reader, but Nisyros is only a sliver of Andriotis’ interesting autobiography. He notes that he spoke no English when he immigrated to the United States at age 15 with his father (his mother and four brothers stayed behind at first). All he had to learn was how to count from 1 to 17 in English, because that was the number of floors in the building where he worked as an elevator operator.

He writes about changing careers, from the restaurant business to Alma Realty, when he was 43. Any of us with a desire to try many things in life professionally, even past 40 or 50, can certainly appreciate that story.

The majority of the book’s focus, though, is on the intricately connected relationship of Hellenism and the Church in our Greek-American community. He has a passion not only for Greek to be taught for generation to generation, but for it to remain as part of the Greek Orthodox Liturgy. “From the beginning,” he writes, “the leadership of the Church failed to persuade Greek-Americans that learning Greek represented an advantage, not only in terms of preserving the heritage, but for their lives and careers – because Greek is the language of languages, on which science, philosophy, and politics are based… People who aren’t even from Greece learn to speak Greek,” he continues, and wisely wonders:

“How is it that an opera singer can sing an Italian opera even though she might not speak Italian?”
Andriotis devotes a chapter each to the three most recent archbishops: Iakovos, Spyridon, and the current one, Demetrios,
as well as a chapter about Patriarch Bartholomew, and some historical context about his patriarchal predecessor, also a Demetrios.

Throughout Andriotis’ in-depth stories about the Church, what becomes clear is that he neither seeks to shower disingenuous flattery nor engage in a smear campaign. He tells all – the good and the bad – like it is. If there is one characteristic that came across to me about Nick Andriotis as I got to know him better in this book, it is: authenticity.

And that in itself makes In the Church without Vestments a valuable read for anyone – even readers not of Greek descent.

[ The National Herald - March 3-9, 2018 - p. 6 ]

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