A Young Artist's Pilgrimage

31 August 2016 Written by  By Don Huntington Alvis

I have had the pleasure of learning something of the story of Nick Koukis.

Nick’s life has focused upon art, which admittedly hasn’t included too many years of living up to this point, since he graduated with the Heritage High class of ’16. This month Nick is beginning his first year at San Jose’s Cogswell Polytechnical College where he intends to pursue a degree in video game art design.

Puberty is an awkward time for anybody and especially for Nick since he is coping with some learning disabilities. Nick said he found a group of kids who would accept him as he was. However, he was dealing with a lot of complexities, including being made the object of cruel humor by some of his classmates.

The troubles and pressures of the real world drove Nick into realms of imagina­tion —journeys that permitted him to leave his weaknesses and insecurities behind and to wander down paths of fantasy in which nobody ridiculed him or put him to shame in front of a group of cruel children. Nick demonstrated genuine talent as an illustrator. Thousands of hours spent with pen and ink while producing hundreds of images honed his skills and enabled him to create fine art and designs. People began to come to Nick with commissions and contracts to do ad design.

SEARCHING FOR HIS ROOTS
As you might be able to tell from his last name, Koukis, Nick’s forebears were Greek. Nick’s father told him that there are only about 300 members of the Koukis line left in the world, so they are something of an endangered species.

Nick’s grandmother was from Athens; his grandfather from Sparta. Following World War II, they fled to Quebec, where his father was born and raised, and where he met a French Canadian girl in high school who became his wife. After his father graduated from Montreal’s McGill University, he and his wife drove a little Audi to California where he became an IT professional and where Nick was born in 1997.

Last year Nick’s mother tried to help her husband reconnect with his roots while helping Nick connect with his by booking them on a 14-day cruise to explore “The glory that was Greece, And the grandeur that was Rome,” as Poe put it. They sailed from Venice on a Holland-America ship, the MS Oosterdam.

Nick’s own efforts as an artist enabled him to appreciate the examples of incredible art that he saw at each stop on the voyage and with their breathtaking examples of techniques involving image, composition, and color.

Adventures with Greek cuisine turned out to be the best part of the trip. Cruise ships are famous for offering good food in enormous quantities, and the Oosterdam didn’t come up short in that regard. However, Nick and his family discovered that ship’s food couldn’t compete with the amazing entreés and dishes that they were served at various tavernas, cafés, restaurants, and private homes at each stop on that trip. They ate cheese made from the milk of a goat bleating in the back yard of a mom & pop café, and partook of a succulent entrée prepared with a fish that had been harvested an hour before from a pool in the back of a restaurant.

Before embarkation Nick spent a day touring the sights of Venice, which he said was as picturesque as he imagined it would be. He explored cathedrals while taking pictures with his iPhone. Santa Maria della Salute, in particular, turned out to be a memorably beautiful structure. The church was built following a plague in 1630 that struck down one out of every three residents. Construction was begun the next year. Fifty years would pass before it was finished.

Nick discovered that climate change and rising ocean levels are becoming harsh realities for the ancient city. At one point, he and his family were walking through polluted water that a high tide had forced back through the sewers. The highlight was enjoying an impromptu dinner at a Venetian restaurant and a late night water taxi down the Grand Canal.

Oosterdam’s first port-of-call was a lovely island called Corfu, which was originally named Korkyra after a beautiful nymph of ancient mythology. Korkyra was beloved of the god Poseidon who brought her to live on the island. Corfu turned out to be the only stop on the cruise that featured lush and green vegetation. Visitors can imagine why Poseidon might have chosen Corfu as the get-away with his nymph lover. Nick said that they spent a couple pleasant hours driving a small jeep up and down single vehicle pathways through the island’s lovely mountain wilderness areas.

The island features a number of ruined castles that are remnants of the lengthy period from the medieval time until the 17th century when Corfu was a heavily fortified European outpost built to stem the incursion of Ottoman armies into the Adriatic. Corfu itself was a picturesque and lovely city — a small town the size of Pleasant Hill.

Nick next visited the Island of Olympia and saw the ruins where the Olympic torch was lit and the Olympic games were first played 700 years before the birth of Christ. Some of the areas are partially restored but much of it remains in ruins. The games were played in honor of Zeus, but not a single pillar remains standing of his magnificent and renowned temple. The complexity and design of the central training and competi­tion complex, called the palaestra, was impressive with various venues including assembly halls, dressing rooms, storage rooms, courts, a boxing and wrestling area, a clubroom, gymnasium, and a public bathroom that was probably added during the Roman era. The place even had an ancient version of a bowling alley.

Nick said that walking through those ruins gave him new appreciation for how transient civilizations are. For more than 1,000 years of history, the competitors and spectators that gathered for the games could never imagine tourists walking among the collapsed ruins that the marvelous structures would one day become. It caused Nick to reflect on our own civilization. In 2,000 years will people stroll through the ruins of San Francisco and stare with fascination at the fallen and broken Transamerica Building or stand on some decaying pier and gaze at the rusted ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge?

Nick landed at Athens and met his Uncle Constantine. In spite of a language problem, Nick’s uncle made the visitors feel warmly welcome and escorted them on the two-hour ride to a small village just outside of Sparta, which turned out to be a sleepy farm village consisting mainly of a central open market in which local farmers sell their products. Nick visited his grandfather’s home and the schoolhouse where he first learned his ABCs (or, I guess in this case his Alpha, Beta, Gamma).

They also visited the farm where his father had made the important childhood trip. A distant aunt, matriarch of the family, prepared a magnificent meal. The region of Sparta that Nick visited has only 100 residents or so, and the woman was preparing another meal to be served that evening at a funeral that was attended by all the townspeople. The small streets were packed with mourners.

While in Athens, Nick and his family made a brief call on some family member at Argus, an ancient city that has been continuously inhabited for at least 7,000 years. In its heyday, Argus rivaled Sparta in importance.

The next morning Nick’s Uncle Constantine took him to visit the Parthenon whose imposing ruins still stand majestically on the Acropolis. The temple was built in 447 BC. The sculptures appealed to Nick’s artistic spirit, since they are considered some of the finest examples of Greek art. The Parthenon was originally a temple in honor of the Goddess Athena but during the Ottoman period, it was converted into a mosque and in 1687 the building was being used as an arsenal when Venetians ignited an Ottoman ammunition dump seriously damaging the structure.

Even though the Parthenon is under reconstruction, Nick said that the magnifi­cent structure lived up to his expectations. Nick and Uncle Constantine walked through the surrounding neighborhood known as the “Plaka” passing mom & pop eating establishments, and coffee shops that were nothing like Starbucks.

Unfortunately, the Greek economy is struggling so Nick saw some homeless people and walls covered with graffiti. He was surprised at the number of stray dogs and feral cats that were wandering the streets. Nick learned that restaurant owners traditionally will have a cat that supposedly feeds on scraps left over from diners’ meals. A local belief is that the quality of the food can be determined by the appearance of the cat, so you wouldn’t eat in an establishment inhabited by an undernourished feline. (I don’t know if the advice can be trusted. Perhaps the cat is skinny because the food is so good the diners are cleaning up their plates.)

Nick’s next stop, Mykonos, is a picturesque island with blue waters, a lovely sandy beach, and sparkling white buildings. They say that the sun shines on Mykonos 300 days a year. Nick’s days had been filled with activities and he still hadn’t recovered completely from jet lag so he took a memorable nap while lying on one of those beautiful beaches. They later stopped for a meal at a taverna specializing in seafood and were served a baked 2-kilo fish, with lemon potatoes, consumed to the strains of a recital by a gifted bouzouki player. Nick and his family hung out there until sailing time. “It was difficult to leave the place,” Nick said.

The trip ended at Rome, which turned out to be Nick’s favorite port-of-call on the cruise. Everywhere he looked, Nick said that his eyes seemed to light upon something picturesque or compellingly beautiful. The Vatican was especially nice with beautiful art covering every wall and standing in every room.

Travel is broadening, they say, and the experience really did give Nick a richer perspective about his origins. In some ways, his contacts with the people and the places that contribute to his legacy as a human being generated more questions than answers. However, when the subject of his heritage comes up, Nick now understands a lot more deeply about what that means. “Greek” has become much more than a mere label.

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