Sunday, November 3, 2019

Kavala Tobacco Museum well worth a visit!

The weather in Greece was fabulous right up until the end of October, and I took full advantage by going to Kavala for the OXI Day weekend. It was a long-overdue trip to a beautiful city north of Thessaloniki and across from the island of Thassos. (It was also, of course, a chance to meet up with 5 AFS Girls School graduates who live around there.)

There is a lot to see and do in Kavala: Beautiful beaches/marina, remnants of the Roman Via Egnatia, a Byzantine fortress, multiple reminders of the Ottoman occupation (1387-1912), the ferris wheel in Luna Park, and the decadent allure of Iosifidi "kourambiedes" (butter cookies smothered in powdered sugar). The Apostle Paul landed at Kavala on his first journey to Europe.

But it was the Tobacco Museum that really caught my attention.  Once-upon-a-time, Kavala was the center of the tobacco industry in Northern Greece, beginning around 1820. The Municipal Tobacco Warehouse built in 1910 stills stands a few blocks from the museum.  Area production and trading of Basma, a fine oriental variety, reached its peak around 1920.  After  the war years, the Kavala tobacco trade never regained its former importance.

Nevertheless, I remember a succession of tobacco execs who came through the American Farm School circa 1968-78 when I was there. Most of all, I remember villages where producing tobacco was still very much a way of life.  In the summer of '74, I visited my student Maria and her family in the village of Doirani, Kilkis, wondering  exactly how tobacco growers lived and worked. It was a real eye-opener!

We went to bed early and got up around 4 am to head for the family's fields, riding along a bumpy dirt road in a wooden cart pulled by a donkey. As soon as we could see well enough, we snapped mature leaves off the tobacco plants -- something that can only happen when the stems are firm.  So when the sun came all the way up and the leaves started to sag, picking time was over. Home we went where the leaves were to be strung up to dry. At that point, Yiayia and any other available relative became part of the crew. (Tobacco farming required 100% family participation, which often restricted educational and other pursuits.)

Dried tobacco leaves would later be bundled for market to be further processed -- examined for quality, weighed, sold, and then repackaged according to size and destination -- as exhibited in amazing detail at the Kavala Tobacco Museum.  Tools, machinery, tobacco samples, photos, documents and much more also tell the stories of the people who made it all happen.

The museum showcases an important facet of Greek history and a slice of rural life not to be forgotten. It is definitely well worth a visit.

NOTE: 37% of all Greeks are smokers, the most of any EU country. Only 44% say they have never smoked a cigarette. Every year, approximately 20,000 people die from by tobacco-related diseases. And smoking bans are routinely ignored...

Friday, October 4, 2019

4th AFS Girls School Reunion: Mission Accomplished, Onward & Upward!

The 4th AFS Girls School Reunion took place last Sunday, and I had a blast -- perhaps because I suddenly realized that all the work to make that happen is now basically done...So here indeed is a good story.

In June 2015 I had come to Greece for a 6-week visit, including my first to Northern Greece in over 30 years. I had worked at the AFS/American Farm School in Thessaloniki from 1968 to 1978, bonding especially with the students of the Girls School Dept. (home economics/handicrafts) and their families. The AFS was then a school solely for kids from villages, and visiting the students in their villages was my favorite thing to do during holidays and summer months.

There being no current information at the School in 2015 as to the whereabouts of the women grads, I set out with 2 of them to find the rest. What would they think, would they even remember me? By the time I left, I had visited and/or spoken with 51 of those women. We were all simply overwhelmed with joy at the reconnection -- especially since the Girls School Dept. had been closed in 1978. Wow!

So with the invaluable help of grads already located, I continued to look for all of them -- and thus also initiated my ongoing 3-month/twice-a-year stints in Greece.  In April 2016 we had the first reunion; 120 women attended a veritable festival of reconnection.  Soon thereafter I moved from Thessaloniki to Naousa, a Macedonian city of about 23,000 people one hour NW of Thessaloniki where my father was born and where I still live when in Greece...and where I have lived through a good chunk of the financial crisis.

Over time we have located every one of the 232 women who graduated from the AFS Girls School Dept. (1967-1978), plus others who attended for only one year -- some found after extensive "investigations" (for lack of a better word). Most still live in their Northern Greece villages or have moved to Thessaloniki. 17 are unfortunately deceased. A handful of those who went to Germany to work still live there. 7 live in the US/Canada. Over 50 are on Facebook and members of a secret page where they share info and news. All have been provided with a list of their classmates with current addresses and telephone numbers.

We also connected with the current occupants of what was the Girls School campus, the Asylo Paidiou (a not-for-profit school for 370 kids from pre-school to 6th grade) -- asking to come in during a Sunday when the school was closed to have a picnic on our old stomping grounds.  Picnic? They rolled out the red carpet along with all the tables from the dining room. What great people!


We have now had 3 reunions there, all volunteer-driven...adding to our lists women who attended the original Quaker-run iteration of the Girls School (1945-1967). When they heard about our reunions, they just showed up, and we have been blessed with the presence of women who graduated from the School in visits by 3 of the younger women now living in the USA. Double wow!

Yes, this is a very good story. The grads of the AFS Girls School Dept. -- who 4 years ago were mostly out-of-touch with each other -- are now in constant contact by phone, at coffee klatches/ tsipouro parties and even field trips. Our Travel Team has gone to Cyprus -- where we met up with AFS guy grads/another amazing get-together -- and will soon be going to Madrid. Triple wow!

The Girls School grads themselves are now charged with organizing a 5th reunion. Meanwhile, I can happily say, "Mission accomplished, onward & upward!"

Friday, September 6, 2019

Back in the Greek Saddle

The 4-step journey from Miami to Naousa is tough, especially as I grow older. Nevertheless,  here I am on the last leg,  the 6:15 pm bus from Thessaloniki that takes about one hour fifteen.

I can't help feeling emotional as I see the oh so familiar, heart-tugging landscape whiz by. Sun-kissed farm fields in various stages of use (or not), bales of hay, tractors awaiting their next assignment, homes in distant villages, a water tower here and there, sheep and their shepherd -- and now the toll booth on the impersonal "Ignatia Road." Impersonal because the bus no longer goes through villages except on a couple of non-"express" runs each day. There aren't even any signs to say, "Valtohori this way"...

Most disturbing are the abandoned buildings for homes or businesses that were never finished or later closed down -- and now stand still in silent protest to all that has befallen Greece financially in the past 10 years. Those snake-bit buildings are everywhere. The setting sun only accentuates the negative.

No matter what you hear, things are not yet good for the average Greek citizen. And despite the cheerful demeanors, everyone on this bus knows it. 
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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Anti-Greek Toronto Riot of 1918 (Never again!)

Finally had a chance last weekend to check out the "Taste of the Danforth" in Toronto's Greektown (reportedly the second largest Hellenic community outside of Greece). Regularly referred to as Canada's biggest street festival, the 3-day event is really just a big souvlaki fest -- meats of all kinds on a stick for $4. You can also find yummy spinach/cheese pies and "loukoumades" like my Yiayia used to make...or pay Battle Sports to smash some plates. Opa!

Walking along Danforth Avenue and watching Canadians of all stripes patiently line up for their souvlakia, I couldn't help wondering who there -- Greeks or non-Greeks, old or young -- had any concept of the grim (and timely!) history of Greeks in Toronto, who originally lived around Yonge Street.  

101 years ago, Greek-Canadians were the victims of a race riot which lasted 4 days (August 2-5, 1918).  It was the worst riot in Toronto history, with thousands of Canadians furiously beating up on Greeks and destroying their property.  

World War I veterans had been in town to voice their many concerns.  Canadians were misinformed about Greece's role in the war, thinking that Greece -- which remained neutral until 1916 -- was not on the side of the Allies. Moreover, Greeks in 1918 were simply not thought of as being "white." * So when an alcohol-impaired vet was removed from a Greek restaurant, the incident was blown way out of proportion...Greeks, who were already perceived as not doing enough to help Canada, had allegedly mistreated a vet!

On August 2nd, 600 Canadian vets stormed the White City CafĂ© on Yonge Street, destroying everything inside and looting the kitchen...and that was just the beginning. An estimated 50,000 people joined the fray on both sides, and police went from doing nothing to indiscriminately attacking rioters and innocent bystanders. The city was on lock-down. Some 500 people were injured and Greek businesses suffered $1,000,000 in damages by today's values -- all due to an almost (but not quite!) unimaginable act of hate an violence.**

To make a long story short: Greek-Canadians ultimately rebuilt and became a vibrant, productive and beloved part of modern-day Toronto -- a town that now prides itself in being multi-cultural. 

But first they relocated to Danforth Avenue.

*In the USA,  Greek-Americans -- just like other immigrant minorities -- were targets of the Ku Klux Klan, leading to the establishment in 1922 of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA).

**For the whole story: "A century later,  a vicious anti-Greek riot in Toronto offers lessons for today" by Toula Drimonis (Maclean's Magazine, 8/1/18)

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Friday, July 26, 2019

Think of Greek farmers when you next eat a peach or an apple!

Yes, think of Greek farmers, whose trials and tribulations these days are almost too many to bear.

Let's start with the epic storm that hit Northern Greece on July 10th. Galeforce winds of 60 mph came out of nowhere, leaving 7 dead and at least 100 injured in Chakidhiki, not far from Thessaloniki. Aftermath photos/videos of the village of Nea Playia remind us of hurricane damage we see somewhere in Florida every year. But for the Greeks it was not business as usual.

News of violent storms, floods, and earthquakes around the globe rarely takes us past damage photos and casualty reports. What happens down the line to real people who have to pick up the pieces literally and figuratively? For some farmers in Northern Greece, July 10th was a total disaster.

80.000 stremmata or 20,000 acres were devastated in the Nomos of Imathia alone which includes the municipalities Verria, Alexandreia and Naousa -- with a total of nearly 100,000 acres affected throughout N. Greece...Some families lost entire crops. The freak storm was preceded by 3 hailstorms in the Naousa area, damaging peaches, nectarines, cherries, apples and pears. Hail brings heartbreak and hard times for people, especially those who live in villages working their farms just like they have for decades.

On July 10th, entire trees were uprooted, greenhouses were destroyed, and irrigation systems were knocked out. It's a long road back as government compensation may not come till the end of the year when total losses can be analyzed by two agencies. Meanwhile farmers have to pay their bills, including insurances/fees and loans. Some farmers say that without immediate monetary aid they may have to throw in the towel.

Many farmers already have, digging up trees to either plant something else or to just get out of the game. Climate change and the dreaded hailstorms too often make selling fruit for juice the only viable commercial option. Actual income from farm production is often poor and/or unreliable. It is not unusual for distributors or coops to pay late. I have met farmers who were waiting after a year to be paid or had not been paid at all...

And what about the ongoing EU Embargo against buying goods from Russia prompted by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the retaliatory Russian sanctions against buying EU goods? At that time, Russia absorbed 90% of Greece's peach exports and 60% of the strawberries -- much of which then ended up rotting in trucks at the borders. 30% of all Greek agri-food exports had been going to Russia. Redirecting exports has been one solution, while another has been going through "middlemen" like the Eurasian Economic Commission. Flimsy, inadequate markets only add to the woes of Greek farmers who simply may not be able to sell what they grow, let alone make a profit.

The ongoing financial crisis has, of course, presented another set of problems. Approximately 1/2 million Greeks have left to find work in other countries, causing a serious "brain drain."  Greece has the highest unemployment rate in the EU at 17.6%. But a marked distaste for working in the fields -- especially by people under 30 (40% unemployment!) -- has caused farmers to rely on foreign workers, mainly from neighboring Albania...much as US farms depend on Mexican workers. Still, there is a farm labor shortage this year for critical jobs like thinning out the cling peach trees so that the fruit will be bigger.

So when you next eat a peach or an apple, think of Greek farmers. For some in the Naousa area, the freak July 10th storm may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.