Friday, February 2, 2018

Naousean skier will carry the Greek flag at the Olympic Games!

As I prepare to return to my father's hometown of Naousa for my fourth 3-month stay, I am really looking forward to Apokries. This is a super special time in Naousa, where the Carnival tradition is nothing like we see on TV from other parts of Greece or Rio or New Orleans. In Naousa it is all about the proud tradition of the "Yenitsari and Boules," which dates back centuries -- even during the dark 400 years of the Ottoman Empire, when money collected during the celebrations was hidden under the skirt of the Boules (men) to buy food and supplies for the Macedonian Freedom Fighters. Each year the entire city follows a specific program of preparation, procession route ("dromemo"), and songs/dances that NEVER changes. Greeks come from all over to see this amazing, historic spectacle.

By "Tsiknopempti" (Thursday, February 8th), preparations will be at a fever pitch. But this year there will be something extra in the mix: the opening that day of the XXIII Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. And as we learned a few months ago, Sophia Rally from Naousa will carry the Greek flag in the opening ceremonies. Wow!

On October 28th, the Olympic Flame came to Naousa on its way to The Games. Sophia proudly ran it into Platia Karanatsou and lit the cauldron for the poignant ceremonies. We were reminded that  Naousa -- being located in the foothills of Mt. Vermion with access to the ski areas of 3-5 Pigadia and Seli -- has a rich winter Olympic tradition dating back to 1956. The names of all Naouseans who have skied in the Games were read aloud, and the Odeio Choir braved the cold to serenade our Korean visitors as did the young "Naousa Glee" singers. Beautiful!

Sophia will actually be competing in her third Olympic Games along with a few other local skiers. And when she marches into the stadium holding that flag on "Tsiknopempti", all Naouseans will be very proud -- and some will even raise a glass or two of Naousa's renown Xinomavro wine* in her honor...It will be quite a party, wherever you are!

*Wine lovers should be on the lookout for Episode #106 of My Greek Table with Diane Kochilas (PBS.) "A Bite of Greek Red Wine' is about the production of Naousa's Xinomavro -- double opa!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Inspiration from an 89-year-old Naousa Facebooker!

Sometimes a writer needs inspiration, especially when wondering if a book in my head will ever make it to the printed page...I recently got a big dose  of that in my Greek hometown of Naousa when getting to know more about  Manolis Valsamides, a legendary local historian who has written 23 books. His latest, Psifidhes  Istorika Vol. 6, was unveiled at a packed public event  that not only inspired me, but gave me new insight into the Naousa psyche.
"The Heroic Town of Naousa" is a fascinating place located just below the ski line and bifurcated by the ever-downward-rushing Arapitsa River. The town was officially designated  "Heroic" by King Paul in 1955 in recognition of all-out efforts to gain independence from the Turks in 1822 -- an uprising that resulted in Naousa being burned to the ground, but which also taxed Turkish forces so much as to facilitate the independence of Greece in the Peloponnesus. Only the small Profit Ilias church and three people survived that watershed event. Then, the rebuild from scratch.
For a town of only 23,000 people, Naousa is surprisingly flush with activity: an indoor and outdoor theater, a first class ski venue with its history of local winter Olympians, lectures/seminars/book readings, an indoor swimming facility adjacent to the renown St. Nicholas Grove (with its tennis courts), music events of all shapes/sizes, a large movie theater, numerous traditional organizations/dance groups, and the historic Carnival tradition which lasts about 2 weeks...not to mention being ground zero for the fabled Xinomavro grape and 19 area wineries.
But Naousa also seems to have a few chips on her august shoulders.
This I understood better when presenters for the Valsamides book emphasized the detailed recounting of Naousa's "heroic" times as information that some had not been totally aware of. They expressed wonder at Mr. Manolis' prodigious output, but focused on the fact that this chunk of Naousa history has not been written about as much as the stories of the independence movement/heroes from southern Greece -- where, in fact, some of the Naousa freedom-fighters escaped to in 1822 to became heroes yet again. Naousa simply didn't have chroniclers like Lord Byron and Kostis Palamas, so she was kind of left out of the historical narrative. That had been deemed an "injustice."
Valsamides' newest book helps right that wrong. He described his book as both "a product and a dialogue." For the grand finale he shared the news that in 1932 a journalist had interviewed a nun purported to be the 110-year-old daughter of Naousa freedom-fighter Dimitrios Tsamis Karatasou. The crowd was stunned...but no more stunned than I upon hearing that "Kyrios Manolis" at 89 is Internet savvy with a Facebook page. I immediately ran home and friended him. Very soon thereafter he both accepted and answered my questions on the nun story!
About 10 days later, Manolis Valsamides posted a lengthy and rather urgent request for help researching the above matter -- for people to look for various Thessaloniki newspaper articles for the period 1931-1940. "This is a difficult topic," he wrote. "It needs deep research, so we can find facts that can be cross-checked...Every bit of help is welcome. Search!" This from a historian who was not going off half-cocked because he was on to something. He will be satisfied only when he has proven facts worthy of his next book.
Now, that's inspiration.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What goes around, comes around...

Last week, the 3rd AFS Girls School Reunion took place at the Asylo Paidiou ("Children's Refuge") on a chilly Sunday morning. No one seemed to mind that we had to cram into the dining hall instead of sitting outside, since we were back on our old stomping grounds. The Girls School complex had became a campus of the Asylo Paidiou ( in 1978 after a destructive earthquake hit downtown Thessaloniki. It was summer, and they needed a place to bring the children. Thus our beloved school -- where I worked for many years -- ceased to exist as such. But the main building and the spirit of the place live on.

Last year we took a leap of faith and approached the ED of the Asylo Paidiou -- a non-profit with a variety of children's educational programs -- ‎about having a picnic there on a Sunday afternoon so that the Girls School grads could revisit their many good memories. The response? Wonderful idea, we will put out tables and welcome you with open arms. And they have done just that, 2 years running.
The grads are now organized into a sorority of sorts ("Syndesmos Kakavinon") whose purpose is to reconnect the 275 or so "girls" who attended the home economics/handicrafts Girls School from 1967-78. Most have now come to at least one reunion, even some who attended for only one year! And all have the updated contact info of their classmates -- spawning smaller gatherings and coffee klatches, plus a whole lot of telephone talk. They even have their own (secret) Facebook page.
We have also reconnected with women who attended the original Girls School on those premises as run by the Quakers from 1945-1967.  Six reunion attendees graduated in 1947, 1948, and 1950.  They first came to the School during an ugly Civil War to live away from home in wooden barracks that had been built by the Germans to house the staff of American Farm School during WWII. What an honor to meet those enthusiastic women!

Moving forward, the Girls School grads have been invited to come again...and there are preliminary plans for a next reunion in 2019, when Asylo Paidiou will be celebrating 100 years of public service.  We want to continue our relationship with that special place, whose spirit is so much like that of the Girls School. Even as a department of the American Farm School, we were located on a separate campus which created a special bond and family feeling. Walking through the halls now, you can sense the same feeling.

Indeed, some Girls School grads will be donating items for Asylo Paidiou's big fund-raising "bazaar" November 25-26. They want to be more involved‎ with helping those children, especially during the (dratted) financial crisis. It's a beautiful thing.

What goes around, comes around.

PS: The reunion program included a drawing for 14 prizes donated from businesses owned by grads -- from hotel stays in Halkidiki to a hand-painted icon -- for the benefit of the Asylo Paidiou.  We raised 634 EU ($752) to go along with our heartfelt thanks for making us feel right at home.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.

Posted By Paula to Greek-American Family Notes... at 10/15/2017 06:55:00 PM

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Game-Changing Salonika/Thessaloniki Fire of 1917

Ever wonder why Thessaloniki is such a beautiful, well-ordered Greek city in comparison to the helter-skelter, traffic-choked capital Athens?

While trying to come to grips with devastating hurricanes and earthquakes, I saw a jarring yet uplifting 60-minute film entitled "Thessaloniki1917, the fire that birthed a city." It showed with amazing documentation -- moving pictures, photos and testimony -- how a good part of the city burned down 100 years ago and was then re-imagined/rebuilt. Not, of course, before many residents suffered great loss and displacement. Sound familiar?
I had learned at the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum that the fire had decimated the Jewish community, but it was more complicated than that.‎ In August1917, a bustling "Salonika" -- as Thessaloniki was then known -- had about 158,000 residents, mostly Jews.  She was a diverse commercial hub only recently freed from the Ottoman Turks, basically under French command, and hosting 200-300,000 French etc. troops.  It was very dry at the time, and as food was cooked over open flames there were frequent fires‎. The troop encampments to the west of the city consumed a lot of the available water.
An initial small fire spawned a 3-day nightmare waiting to happen, with huge flames spreading while people watched in disbelief from various vantage points. The Vardari wind turned those flames southward, and suddenly the restaurants and hotels quayside were also burning. People were running everywhere along very narrow streets trying to save themselves and a few belongings. Slow to respond, the French forces did too little too late‎.
75,000 people were rendered homeless: 54,000 Jews (many of whom emigrated to France and Palestine), 11,000 Muslims, and 10,000 Christians. 16 synagogues were lost along with 12 mosques and 3 churches. ‎Gone were the market areas at the city's core and most of the historic eastside. 3 camps were set up, and 20,000 people lived in tents while many elders perished. Message to the outside world: "Old Salonika Finished!"
Enter Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who had a very soft spot in his heart for Salonika.‎ Three months after the fire he went to work on a plan for rebuilding the city, to be followed by a succession of leaders/planners that created the new Thessaloniki -- but not before more synagogues came down and small businesses were closed. Deeds for property were sold at open auctions displacing more people. Add to that many, many refugees that poured in from Asia Minor in 1923. The rich took advantage of the poor, eliminating the middle class. Real people paid a price for progress.
Nevertheless, a new "Greek city" emerged, with a vertical axis north and south of Platia Aristotelous. Planner Hebrard saved the historic Ano Polis, while cross streets with marketplaces were included downtown to bring back the flavor of Old Salonika. The urban plan hatched in the ashes of 1917 became the Thessaloniki  of today -- and the envy of many in that the main square opens down to the sea‎, the only large European city to do so. 
That's why Thessalonik‎i is so beautiful and well-ordered -- because of the Game-Changing Fire of 1917, a remarkable piece of history that seems too familiar as we watch destruction in the Caribbean, Florida and Mexico. And as everyone is asking, "What's next?"

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

82nd Thessaloniki International Fair + China = Game on!

Been too long since I had last attended the Thessaloniki International Fair. But what really caught my attention was this year's "honored country," China...especially after reading the NYT article "Chastised by E.U., a Resentful Greece Embraces China's Cash and Interests" updated online August 27th, the day I came back to Greece. You can say what you want about leftwing PM Alexis Tsipras -- who recently also organized a love fest in Athens with France's President Macron -- but he's no capitalist slouch!

The Fair (since 1926, minus time-outs for war) is basically a trade fair, with many interesting pavilions which run the gamut. Let's just say that I tasted a lot of cheese from Crete. Also saw a jarring 1-hour movie titled "Thessaloniki 1917: The fire that birthed a city." An, of course, I LOVED the Nescafe "Frappe Museum" -- the frappe having been (accidentally) invented at the 1957 Fair. Lucky to stumble upon the fascinating radio museum as I was exiting. But I was most curious about Pavilion #13.
The Chinese seemed to have spared no expense to put their best industrial/technological foot forward (see photos), in a country that they consider a linchpin of their "One Belt, One Road" economic campaign to move into Europe and anywhere else they can.  Proof of that is their moves on the Port of Piraeus, where COSCO Shipping has invested heavily since 2008. By 2016, COSCO owned 51 percent of the Piraeus Port Authority, transforming it into the busiest Mediterranean port.  Another big-time (currently stalled) investment revolves around the development of the former Athens Ellinikon Airport property. Lots of serious -- some say practically neo-colonialistic, for better or worse -- Chinese business in a country trying to become solvent again. 
Tsipras had opposed the port's privatization when he was elected in 2015 -- but in the face of tortuous and unrelenting EU austerity measures, he chose to be nice and deal with a country throwing money, modernization and progress Greece's way since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. In return, Greece has been China's political friend when it counted, even casting questionable EU vetos -- and causing Europeans to complain that Greece is abandoning it European alliances. 
You must ‎ read that NYT article for a thorough report on 10 years of Greece-China economic/political relations. Therein, a prominent Dutch EU Parliament member is quoted as saying that "...the EU‎ is not only a market, but first and foremost a community of values." Really?

Costas Douzinas (head of the Greek Parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee) said this: "If you're down and ‎and someone slaps you and someone else gives you an alm, when you can do something in return, who will you help, the one who helped you or the one who slapped you?"
Game on!
NOTE: Last year's "honored country," much to my dismay, was Russia. Indeed Barack Obama visited Greece after last year's election primarily because of fears that Putin was gaining ‎too much traction here. If there was a Russian display of any kind this time, I didn't run into it. Hacking, fake news, and sports doping do not, after all, put food on Greek tables.

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.