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. 


Friday, May 31, 2019

Greek elections not for the faint of heart!

BREAKING NEWS: Nicholaos Karanikolas (ENA MAZI) will be the new mayor of Naousa beginning September 1st!

Sunday, May 26th was election day throughout Greece. Greek citizens 17 and older voted for municipal mayors/councils (DIMOTIKES), local councils (KOINOTIKES), regional governors/councils and European Parliament representatives -- marking 4 separate paper ballots by hand in 2 adjoining rooms (mostly in schools), each with 2 secrecy booths and 2 acrylic ballot boxes. And at the end of the day, the votes were counted by hand.

By joining the campaign of the only woman running for mayor of the Naousa Municipality ("DIMO"), I got to be a poll watcher with a birds eye view. And while the above might sound practically impossible to execute, I am proud to report that voting went amazingly well -- certainly no "hanging chads"or malfunctioning voting machines. Each polling place was run by a designated lawyer; ours was extremely capable and cordial. Everything was clearly done "by the book."

For Naousa mayor, the 5 candidates had each formed a "parataxi" or grouping. Each group had a name like "Koinos Topos" or "Ena Mazi." Pre-voting activities included 2 debates, public speeches, articles in local newspapers, videos on Facebook, and campaigning that extended to the 19 surrounding villages -- not to mention political pressure applied every which way and lots of decisions being made strictly according to personal relationships.

Each mayoral grouping was on a totally separate ballot -- paid for by the campaigns! -- with a list of Council candidates that was at least 40% women. On Election Day, each voter was handed  a white envelope and all 5 ballots (+ a blank sheet or "lefko" for abstentions) and could choose one, automatically giving that mayoral candidate one vote. The voter then made a cross next to up to 4 names on that ballot, sealed it in the envelope and dropped it into the ballot box. Polls closed at 7 pm, and by 10 pm we had the top mayoral results from 71 polling places.

Official Turnout: 64.32% of 33,102 voters registered throughout the Naousa DIMO with 1.27% "lefka" and 3.53% nullified because of the way they were marked. (Voting up to the age of 70 is compulsory, but many elderly voters did turn out. Also exempt were voters who were 200 kilometers from their place of registration. Conversely, many voters traveled even great distances to go back to their places of registration. Citizens are automatically registered and listed by the government when they turn 17. And there appears to be no current penalty for not voting.)

In Greece (as in most European countries and many others) there is no "winner take all"; it's the percentage of votes that counts. No Naousa mayoral candidate got a majority, and only 37 votes separated the two top vote-getters. But the top vote-getter got 12 seats on the City Council by virtue of the percentages, and the top vote-getters on his list won those spots. The breakdown by candidate was 12, 11, 4, 3, and 3 = 33 total seats. And each candidate not becoming mayor automatically gets one of the Council seats his or her group won.

On Sunday, June 2nd, there will be a run-off for Naousa mayor between the incumbent Nikos Koutsoyiannis and upstart Nikoloas Karanikolas. Unfortunately, Ilia Iosifidou did not make the cut, even though some say she was the most qualified.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras acknowledged that his SYRIZA party was thoroughly beaten in the European Parliamentary elections by calling for "snap" Greek Parliamentary elections. They will be held on July 7th instead of October as previously scheduled, and during a summer month for the first time. At the moment it looks like SYRIZA will go down to the New Democracy Party largely credited with steering Greece into the financial abyss in the first place circa 2008...

Greek elections are indeed not for the faint of heart!