Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Greeks living in Europe are closely connected to 2017 Greece, Greek-Americans not so much...

Back in the States after my last 11-week stay in Greece (primarily in Naousa and environs),  it seems surreal that I was spending the weekend in the village of Nea Pella not too long ago.  I am constantly asked: "What's it's like there, how are things going in Greece with the economic situation." Things will most probably get worse for regular folks before they get better, and it's a totally different world.

About half a million Greeks have left Greece since 2010 -- many of them educated young people, a "brain drain" that will have lasting repercussions. That does not count those who left years earlier to work in nearby more prosperous countries. A number of AFS Girls School graduates did so, and some subsequently put down roots in Germany. Germans occupied Greece not all that long ago without paying a drachma in Reparations...and are not as a country exactly at the top of the Friends List these days due to austerity measures being repeatedly inflicted on the Greeks primarily at German insistence.

So it was with a bit of a chip on my shoulder that I set out shortly after Easter for a 4-day visit with a grad living in Essen. Soula '76 had traveled to Thessaloniki not once but twice recently to take part in our Girls School reunions. I wanted to know about her her life there, how do Greeks live in a second  European country so different on many levels?  I was surprised to like Essen -- and gained insight into why many Greek-Americans do not have the same connection to or concern for 2017 Greece as do Greeks currently living in European countries

Essen -- home of the infamous Krupp steel empire and Zollverein coal mines that closed in the 1986 -- is a beautiful city of 589,000 that has spent years being built beautifully upward to erase it's wartime, sooty past. It's now a green, clean city filled with charming homes (for the most part) and perfectly manicured gardens. Colorful tulips, excellent ice cream and bike riders everywhere!

As previously reported ("When Greeks went to Germany...and some stayed"),  Soula not only earns a good living in Essen, but appreciates her current home country even as she is constantly connected to Greece.  She has a small business with 2 additional employees in an upscale neighborhood, a meticulous shop that specializes in clothing alterations...and where the racks are consistently bulging with garments: "People need to come and get their clothes, we are out of room!" At least 3 times during my visit, we ran into customers of hers on the street who greeted her warmly and vice versa. From an economic standpoint, it would be ludicrous for Soula to return to Greece permanently.

She has long-lived in the same apartment building as her sister and brother-law, just 2 tram stop from work, and has a number of Greek friends that she pals around and travels with. And most importantly, her 2 sons and their families live in Essen, too, where they grew up after Soula migrated in 1990.  They have their church, "Greek School" and Greek soccer team for the grandson, plus Greek TV -- not unlike Greek-Americans. I flew RT from Thessaloniki to Dusseldorf for 109 Euros, so travel back-and-forth by plane and also by car is not a big deal. And if people are not actually going to Greece, they are in constant contact with their relatives and friends on the Internet (by Facebook, Skype, Viber and WhatsApp).  Greeks in Germany and other European countries are closely connected and dedicated to their homeland, and they feel the pain.

Most Greek-Americans (like me just a few years ago) not so much -- even with the Internet, our many organizations, newspapers/TV,  or through church with some charitable projects for Greek Relief (as if it was Help for Haiti). Almost all congregations in the States have annual, highly-successful Greek festivals where their heritage is extolled and traded on. But just ask the parishioners what they think about how their relatives are doing back in the village and are they extending a helping hand to anyone, and you might be met with blank looks or worse yet ignorant/disparaging comments about Greeks in Greece being lazy, corrupt and not paying their taxes. Talk about fake news! Half of all Greeks are now living below the poverty line due to 25% unemployment/constantly reduced pensions....and don't even have $$ to pay their electric bills.

Clearly distance and time have disconnected Greek-Americans to a great extent from the current Greek reality. So many more Greek-Americans must make renewed efforts to care for real about the humanitarian crisis in Greece, to be in touch with their relatives in the "Old Country." Extend a helping hand if you can. Most of all, feel their pain -- which is collectively our pain, whether you like it or not.

PS: Political activism helps, too! Rep. Gus Bilarakis (R-FL12) is a very dedicated co-Chair of the 130-member Congressional Hellenic Caucus along with co-Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY12). Did you know that Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was married in the Greek Orthodox Church and is also very active on behalf of Greece? Join the Hellenic-American Leadership Council (HALC) to receive daily news about Greece and Cyprus. Or start your own project to help Greeks in Greece. Zito Hellas!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What can I say about Corfu at Easter?

Let's start with "Wow!" -- and then "Thank You!" to the family that made‎ my Easter perfect. Easter is the most important Greek holiday, when families get together to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and also of nature by spending the spring day roasting lambs outdoors and just being together. These days most people can't afford much, but they pull out all the stops for Easter. Next week, back to the New (and continuously disintegrating)  Normal...

Corfiot Easter traditions are legend, so I went to see for myself and to visit with the family of Evangelia "Litsa" Meschini (née Thinori, AFS Girls School '70), who hails from the village of Episcopi just a few km from Naousa. Her husband Aristos was a policeman there when they met/married, and they have been in Corfu ever since -- living now in Kanoni, just south of Corfu City and one of the most picturesque places of many around this beautiful island.

Corfu was never occupied by the Ottoman Turks, but instead was under relatively congenial Venetian rule ‎ from 1386-1797. That's why you think of Italy when sitting out on the various plazas drinking your freddo espresso. There are many Catholics in Corfu and so both the Orthodox and Catholic Easters are celebrated together EVERY year, not just every four -- 2017 capped by great weather and a visit by Prime Minister A. Tsipras  & family

On Good Saturday morning, the remains of St. Spyridon -- brought from Constantinople in 1456 --  ‎were led in a solemn procession by 3 of Corfu Town's 18 Philarmonic Bands playing the funeral march from Franco Faccio's opera "Amleto." St. Spyridon is credited with saving the island from "food privations" around 1553. Quite the spectacle...Followed immediately by a"First Resurrection" service in the Mitropolis‎ Church and the ringing of bells at 11 am to start the prevailing calling card of the Corfiot Easter:  the throwing of red (or whatever you have) clay pots of all sizes -- some tiny and a few as tall as 5 ft! -- from balconies all over town. Thousands of visitors jostled for position to witness a pretty amazing sight that signifies the victory of life over death, out with old and in with new, and wishes for future prosperity. You are supposed to take a shard for your own good luck, but then you wonder who is going clean up what's left underfoot everywhere you go.‎

For me, however, the religious high point was Good Friday -- with at least 35 churches in town bringing out their "Epitaphio" (Christ's flower-laden funeral bier) starting at 12:30 pm for processions around their neighborhoods led by one of the bands, a chorale group, and representative ‎Boy/Girl Scouts, etc I never get tired of this part, and by 3 pm it was Epitaphio "gridlock" at various intersections with the many people following each procession through the narrow streets. Saw my last one about 7:30 pm from the Saints Iason and Sosipater Church in the Garitsa neighborhood...Then back to the same church for The Resurrection service at midnight on Saturday when candles were lit and we said "Christos Anestis" (Christ is Risen).  ‎ Over the Old Fortress and waterfront, a booming fireworks display put exclamation points on the joyous moment. 

After The Resurrection we went back to Litsa's house for the traditional magheiritsa soup -- super delicious, but you'd better not ask me what's in it! -- and a meal including meat and cheese to break The Fast. We cracked red eggs, too, and I somehow went undefeated in that department...In the afternoon we gathered at her daughter Elena's house for Feast II. Dad Aristos had roasted a lamb to perfection in the backyard and let me pick off little burned pieces of skin (a delicacy!) before he took it down, something my mother would not have approved of‎ :) Lunch was stellar, accompanied by "oven potatoes" and a fab pitta made by Sofy, daughter #2 and quite the go-getter. They had baked revani for dessert and just to be on the safe side topped it with bourbon vanilla ice cream. I did not say no (surprise!), but after an inevitable power nap on the couch eagerly went for the long walk around Kanoni.  What gracious hospitality, and so perfect a day.

Easter in Corfu 2017 -- Double Opa!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Friday, April 7, 2017

I'm in love with a river...

And the Arapitsa is not just any river.  It's a magic river that swirls down through Naousa in a succession of waterfalls‎ beginning above us at Aghio Nikolaos Grove in the foothills of Mt. Vermion and fed by the many springs in the area (and now also melting snow). I never get tired of watching those rushing waters‎!
The Arapitsa -- one of only 3 Greek rivers with a feminine name -- is not just an amazing sight. These waters once powered famous textile mills that employed about half the town, but are now largely closed and shuttered due to globalization. It used to be a pretty big deal to buy a Vetlans blanket from Naousa.
About halfway up the river at Stoumpani Falls there is a poignant monument to Naousa women who jumped to their deaths in 1822 rather that subjugate themselves to the Ottoman Turks who had just killed about 10,000 Greeks and burned the town to the ground. Naousa was not liberated until 1913, but that battle diverted Turkish forces enough to enable the Pelopponesus to become independent -- thus the unique honorific "The Heroic City of Naousa" bestowed by Royal Decree in 1955.

Today, the Arapitsa flows down into the valley below, serving to irrigate the many crops. Fruit trees, grapes, vegetables, and, more recently‎, kiwis. The associated springs also give us our drinking water.  And there is promise of more energy uses in the future...
There are many amazing things about ‎this Macedonian  town of about 20,000 people an hour west of Thessaloniki. But Naousa's backbone is a river, the magic Arapitsa. Indisputably and indispensably. 
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.‎

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

There are many ways to resist

NOTE: Last week I visited the Benaki Museum in Athens and came upon a "Dear Thea Lena" exhibit and documentary film -- learning for the first time about "one of those heroic feminine figures that lifted Greece on their shoulders." The 90-minute film was lovingly directed by her grand-daughter, Maria Iliou. (See photo)

Once upon a time, there was a Greek actress named Antigoni Metaxa. She created a children's theater in the 30's and later focused on radio broadcasts during the German Occupation. She was more educator than actress.‎ Her much-anticipated presence in so many homes throughout Greece caused her to change her name to Thea Lena. 

Thea Lena's radio programs were not censored because they were aimed at children. Children who were truly lifted up at a time when they would literally encounter dead bodies in the streets whenever they went out. An English naval barricade to deter a plundering German army helped deprive Greeks of food supplies. 40,000 civilians died in Athens alone from starvation.

By 1950 over a million kids were listening to her programs. And sacks of letters addressed to Thea Lena arrived at her home every day. Over 35 years, she produced 3500 radio broadcasts with the help of her dear husband Kostas Kostiras and fellow artists. She went on to create a children's magazine, make recordings, write 50 books plus a childrens' encyclopedia, and finally produce for television before her death in 1971. People were amazed at her dedication and output .

Most importantly, Thea Lena's broadcasts ‎did not just entertain. Children were taught important lessons. And made proud of their national identity and the Greek culture. Thea Lena's forward-looking work "projected a spirit of resistance" in the harshest of times. She is remebered by so many with love and gratitude to this very day. And rightly so.

Yes, indeed. There are many ways to resist.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Listening tour confirms crisis issues -- lock me up!

Spent a very pleasant weekend in Thessaloniki after 3 weeks with a lingering cold here in Naousa. Met up with a number of Farm School "boys and girls,"  and we danced up a storm in Kato Toumba taverna. On Sunday morning I went to nearby Aghio Theraponta church where I knew I would find 3 Girls School grads‎. A year ago, the women in the photo did NOT realize that they lived about 5 blocks from each other

Sunday morning is Ladies' day out -- go to church, hangout afterwards with your cronies, drink coffee and talk. The midday meal might have been prepared the night before...Our conversation came around to whether men or women contribute more to family life...and this a few days before International Women's Day, which is actually celebrated in Greece. (Some amazing soiree videos were circulated on Facebook by my cousin Froso from the village of Kyparissi, Lakonias.)

Opinions at our coffee klatch ranged from women being discriminated against to "what does the Bible say?" At my folk dance class yesterday, the teacher said "Many Years" to the women and a man then asked when is Men's Day. "Every other day," shot back one of the ladies in half jest. Indeed, men in Greece earn 1.75 Euros for every Euro a woman earns. Sound familiar?

During Sunday lunch with other friends, talk turned more than ever before to hardships people here face. Because there have been 3 "Memorandums" signed so far with The Creditors, I mistakenly though pensions had been cut 3 times. In fact, they have been cut 10-11 times ("who can keep track," I was told) while taxes and fees have risen in order to meet the $$$ goals prescribed by the European Union. Half of all Greeks are living below the poverty line, and many cannot pay utility bills. One woman from Larissa talked about people in her neighborhood having their electricity cut off, while another said that in her town there is group of electricians that goes around illegally reconnecting such for people with babies or senior citizens w/oxygen machines or others who desperately needed some form of heat during one of the coldest winters around here in 50 years. Can they not?

What about the woman who works in a department store, which was once a chain of 8 stores in Thessaloniki with 475 employees? Now there are 18 employees who are not being paid regularly, as people aren't shopping or are buying cheap clothes from the weekly outdoor markets. The employer has to scrape up money to pay for electricity, etc., and I saw those pictures of employees wearing coats in the store. Occasionally the salespeople are allowed to divide up what's in the cash registers at the end of the day, providing 80-100 Euros for each of them.

Here in Naousa -- a cultured and fairly modern city of 20,000 people -- the big community angst is what will happen to the reknown and now deteriorating hospital (once run by my 93-year-old uncle Dr. George Koukoulos). People come from all around to see our cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons and ophthalmologists. The government is planning to downgrade the facility to a Health Center with fewer doctors, departments,  and amenities. And there will be no ambulance to go to the hospital in the next town. Double ouch!

While beleagured Prime Minister Tsipras tries to put a good face on current very tough talks with The Creditors for the next bailout and now unavoidable debt relief, the economic suffering of the Greek people simply cannot be overstated. Last time I was here, I kept asking for receipts when shopping so that sellers could not get out of reporting the sales. This time I can really see and feel how bad things are, so I turn a blind eye to the receipt thing with small purchases even though "cheating" will not help fix the business culture in the long run. Go ahead, lock me up! 

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.