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Introducing...Sam's Salon Dinner Series
We're going to 🇬🇷GREECE🇬🇷 for some philosophy with a side of whipped feta
Friends! I’m excited to announce a very fun new project: From now on, I’m hosting a monthly travel-inspired salon dinner. You have an open invitation, and this month, we’re going to Greece. To celebrate the launch, I’m offering 25% off paid subscriptions for the next 30 days—click here to subscribe for $6/month.
So…what is this, exactly? Quite simply, a salon is a gathering of interesting people to exchange ideas. Imagine Gertrude Stein’s Paris, only in my salon, you will be the Hemingways and Picassos and Josephine Bakers, and each dinner will be organized around a specific place. I’ll give you a regionally-inspired menu, a related topic that we’ll explore in depth, and book and movie recommendations to spark discussion. I can’t wait to host you—I only ask that you join the conversation.
Why am I doing this? I love writing memoir like this and this, but I don’t want to be on transmit mode all the time when my subscriber list—and Substack overall—is full of smart, thoughtful readers with tons to offer. This platform is about more than just email; it lets us build interactive communities. I want these posts to be a vehicle for trying new things and meeting new people. (I’ll still write personal pieces and will send them out when ready, but the salon will now be my regular feature.)
What will you get out of it? This series will bring the world into your home and give you a way to connect with it. It will inspire you to cook interesting dishes, read or watch something new, and chew on ideas you may not have considered. You can use it as a template for hosting your own real-life salon, to liven up family dinners, or for an enriching solo night in.
Free subscribers will get one salon dinner post per month. Paid subscribers are invited to stay for dessert. As a paid subscriber, you’ll get a dessert menu, a fresh conversation topic, and a more intimate and invested community of readers to chat with. There may also be some surprise extras. :)
So step into my salon. The only house rules are 1) come hungry and 2) share your thoughts openly and civilly in the comments. And with that, let’s head to Greece!
If you told me that I had the next 30 seconds to pick a place to retire abroad, it would be an easy decision: Greece. It’s at the intersection of east and west, its dry landscapes feel like my native California, and the sunsets…oh my, the sunsets. (Can I go right now? Catch me in a whitewashed villa in the Cyclades, bye.)
Part of my infatuation might be associative. Not counting my move to Egypt, Greece was my first international trip post covid, and it was like breaking out of a straight jacket. After years of pandemic, upheaval, and personal loss, the rough sand between my toes and the syrupy smell of ice cream shops by the harbor gave me a taste of freedom and delicious, delicious normalcy—a respite from an unruly world.
I’m not unique for being a Hellenophile—the Mediterranean island nation is one of Earth’s most popular tourist destinations, welcoming more than 30 million visitors in 2019—nor am I alone in seeking shelter amid turmoil. Which brings me to the theme of this month’s salon discussion: when life feels messy and out of control, how do we not only survive, but thrive?
One possible answer (which I hope you’ll debate in the comments!) is to practice Stoicism, a philosophy that originated in ancient Greece and that everyone and their mother seemingly took up during the pandemic years. We’ll also explore books and films that address this question. But first, we need sustenance!
Try these Greek and Greek-inspired staples to accompany our discussion. Or just buy a bunch of tzatziki and hummus, have a snack dinner, and call it a day. This is a judgment-free zone.
Appetizer: whipped feta. It feels fancy yet comes together in 5 minutes in the blender.’s base recipe is perfect and infinitely adjustable. The mint and pistachio version is just lovely, but I can imagine it with chili or thyme, maybe a little honey swirled on top…so many possibilities. Serve with pita chips or crusty bread.
Main: baked orzo. This risotto-like dish is full of tomato-y, crowd-pleasing umami flavor. It can be prepped mostly ahead of time—always a win when you’re hosting!—and whacked in the oven 10 minutes before you’re ready to serve (though if you’re going to do this, I’d recommend adding the orzo just before the bake so it doesn’t get too soft). Make sure to stir a couple times so the orzo doesn’t bake to the bottom of your skillet and to help the sauce thicken. It’s excellent with feta, but I tried a version with halloumi crumbles that worked well, too. You can also swap the chicken for chickpeas to make it vegetarian.
Sides: a classic Greek salad, but riff on it however you please! (I can’t stand raw onions, so I like to substitute red bell pepper.) A bowl of salted pistachios, which the Saronic island of Aegina is known for, is a great addition to the table for extra texture and to serve as an all-purpose garnish.
Cocktail pairing: ouzo lemonade. A sweet and tart aperitif with fresh lemon juice, Greek ouzo, and simple syrup is just the ticket. Mix it in a 3:1:1 ratio of ouzo to lemon juice and syrup. Add a splash of tonic or sparkling water to make this hard lemonade into a taller drink, or a nip of rosewater if you want another flavor dimension.
food for thought
Recall our discussion question: when life feels messy and out of control, how do we not only survive, but thrive? Could Stoicism—a philosophy first introduced around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium at the Agora of Athens, and later developed by Greek and Roman heavy hitters including Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius—be the answer?
Stoicism is a complex and expansive school of thought, but today I want to focus on a couple of its most practicable tenets: the art of distinguishing what is and is not within our control, and using that knowledge to moderate our emotions. (For those who want more, this is a fantastic deep dive into modern Stoicism and its criticisms.)
Recently, I found myself feeling stressed. Not the “I’m terribly busy right now but I know it will pass” type of stress—it was the type where you feel like you’re at the bottom of a twenty-foot-deep hole you can’t possibly dig out of. There were simply not enough hours in the day to do the things I wanted to do in service of important personal goals. I thought if I was ever going to achieve anything, I would have to cram a million things into just a couple hours of daily free time, and it felt like I had an anvil sitting on my chest.
When I confided in my husband, Nick, he wanted to fix it for me. “I think the only solution is to accept the reality of your situation, change what you can, and try, to the best of your ability, not to let the rest affect you,” he said.
Reader, I was PISSED. I didn’t want Nick’s solutions, I wanted him to agree with me about how soul-crushing my life was. Would it have killed him to tell me I was a sort of tragic hero who bore her cross with elegance and grace, and that I was strong for getting out of bed every morning (no, not just strong—brave!)? Accepting my situation and focusing on what I could change sounded like a crap ton of emotional work, plus I wouldn’t be able to elicit sympathy anymore. No, thanks!
Of course, my darling, bright, slightly oblivious husband had a compelling argument. He was referencing a Stoic principle that’s thousands of years old. The idea is that while you can’t always change the world, you can adjust the way you engage with it. Your mindset and your reactions are within your power. The key is letting go of unhelpful emotions while finding ways, no matter how small, to regain your sense of autonomy when you are under stress.
Say you’re at the airport, waiting for your flight to…oh, I don’t know, Athens, only to learn it’s been canceled due to a storm. You’re in for a long night in a cold, uncomfortable terminal. You feel angry and frustrated and could just strangle the gate agent, who is being way too nonchalant about this.
Now say you’re a practicing Stoic. You might pause and ask yourself the following:
What parts of the situation are within my power to change, if any? (In this case, probably none, unless you’re willing to hijack a plane and fly it through bad weather.)
Is my anger reasonable? What will happen if I act on it? Can it be channeled into something useful, or would I feel better if I let it go? (Your frustration is justified, but screaming at a gate agent is unlikely to produce results and will probably make you both feel worse. On the other hand, taking a deep breath to calm yourself can only help.)
What can I do to improve the situation, or at the very least make myself feel better about it? (Maybe you won’t get to Athens anytime soon, but settling in with a favorite snack and a good book could help you make the most of the unexpected down time.)
Feel a little better now, with your chocolate-covered pretzels and paperback? I sure would.
Stoicism was developed in an era of pandemic and general chaos, so it’s no wonder it enjoyed a huge increase in popularity during covid. When we collectively lost our sense of control over our lives and sought ways to cope, Stoicism offered us an answer. But Stoicism, along with all strains of philosophy, has a major drawback: it’s easy to take its principles too far.
A common misconception is that Stoicism is about being emotionless; that in order to reach the pinnacle of existence, you have to become some cold automaton. It’s not about dispensing with emotions altogether—it’s about refusing to allow our emotions dictate our lives.
Moreover, the idea that certain things are out of our control can be twisted to justify selfish or overly passive behavior. For example, why should you try to reduce your carbon emissions when doing so won’t end climate change?
While it may be strictly true that you alone will not end climate change, the action you take in response to the problem is entirely up to you. A Stoic would behave responsibly, making whatever small contribution they can in service to the greater good, while simultaneously choosing not to let the reality of climate change overburden them emotionally.
Of course, Stoicism is only one of many philosophies that promise to make its practitioners calmer, happier people (if you’re curious about others, check out this piece on Epicureanism or this one on Nietzsche). Anecdotally, though, Stoic principles helped me end my stress episode, because they forced me to recognize that kvetching was doing nothing to solve my perceived problem. You know what did help? Examining my negative feelings and thought patterns, concluding that they weren’t helpful, and taking a careful look at what I could do to make life feel less hectic. I ended up making myself a schedule with time carved out for each project I want to focus on. I may not adhere to it perfectly, but knowing that I don’t have to accomplish everything at once has made me feel worlds better. Nick 1, Sam 0. (Ugh.) In sum:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
—the Serenity Prayer
With that, let’s move on to some art that explores these themes. Each of our discussion pieces features a protagonist whose central struggle is about regaining a sense of autonomy under constraints.
Circe: Early in Madeline Miller’s feminist retelling of the Odyssey, Circe, the daughter of a Titan with a gift for magic, acts impulsively out of love and anger. As a result, she is deprived of her freedom, exiled by greater gods to the island of Aiaia. She only fully steps into her power when she learns to temper her emotions and focus on the one thing she can do: hone her magic. I loved this book—mythological characters have never felt so human to me. Buy it here or here.
Diaires of Exile: Yannis Ritsos, a lauded poet who was an active member of the resistance to the Nazis and the Greek military juntas, penned this poetry collection over several periods of political imprisonment. Ritsos, like Circe, was held captive on remote islands, where journaling and poetry became his refuge. Ritsos’ tenacity in continuing to create art in impossible circumstances is inspiring, and a testament to the fact that nothing is ever fully outside our control. (Also, journaling and reflection are core Stoic tenets!) Buy it here or here.
If you love slow burns and/or want to be virtually transported, The Lost Daughter is for you. The Lost Daughter follows Leda, a woman who was unable to find fulfillment within the confines of traditional motherhood and broke away from her family. Now Leda must confront her choices while vacationing on a quiet Greek island. Through jarringly frank dialogue and gorgeous visual storytelling, this film explores an experience few are willing to talk about: Leda loves her children, but hates parenting. Rightly or wrongly, she couldn’t accept the hand she’d been dealt, and decided to change what she couldn’t accept…a course of action with irreversible consequences. Stream The Lost Daughter on Netflix.
Here are some prompts to kick off our conversation:
Do you ascribe to Stoic philosophy? Would you find its ideas useful to put into practice? Why or why not?
Have you read or watched any of the recommended books and films above? What were your takeaways? Do you think any of the characters should have acted differently?
When have you felt like you’ve lost control, and how did it affect you? How did you regain your sense of autonomy?
thanks for coming!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first salon dinner! Paid subscribers are invited to join me for dessert. We’ll chat about feminist retellings of Greek myths, why the literary world is obsessed with them, and where they fall short. To join us, upgrade here:
If you’re going to Greece IRL, check out my write-up of my trip last summer. I also offer a guide to Athens and Hydra for paid subscribers. For next month’s salon, I’m taking you to Guatemala. Feel free to bring a friend!
See you soon,