Sunday, October 15, 2017

What goes around, comes around...

Last week, the 3rd AFS Girls School Reunion took place at the Asilo 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 Asilo 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 Asilo 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 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 Asilo 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 Asilou 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 -- to benefit the Asilo 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.

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 recent horrific hurricanes and earthquakes, I saw a jarring and yet strangely 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 up 100 years ago and was then re-imagined/rebuilt with some genius urban planning. 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 now I understand that it went beyond that.‎ In August1917, a bustling "Salonika" -- as Thessaloniki was then known -- had about 158,000 residents, mostly Jews.  She was a commercial hub only recently freed from the Ottoman Turks, also hosting 200-300,000 French Etc troops and basically under French command.  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 were already consuming a lot of the available water.

The initial small fire spawned a horrific accident waiting to happen,  spreading while people watched in disbelief from various vantage points.  Slow to respond, the French forces did too little too late‎. The vardari wind turned the flames southward, and suddenly the restaurants and hotels quayside were also on fire. People were running everywhere along very narrow streets trying to save themselves and few belongings. A 3-day nightmare!

‎75,000 people were rendered homeless -- 54,000 Jews (many of whom emigrated to France and Palestine), and also 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 1917-1918 when many elderly 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. Not before, however, 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 beginning at Platia Aristotelous going north. 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 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.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Any news from your friends in Miami?"

Been a couple of days now since I have stopped obsessing about Hurricane Irma with all-night Internet binges trying to get news from Miami. Some brief relief came with a Stockton Record article ("Thousands get their Greek on at popular festival") reporting on the 58th St.Basil's Greek Festival -- and with a picture of good friend Gayle Maduros continuing my mom's legacy of quality control in the sweets department :)

Meanwhile my friends here in Greece were asking me daily‎ if I had any news from my friends in Miami. They had been watching  with horror the destruction being wreaked by the giant "typhonas". No storms like that here -- even though Climate Change brought one of the coldest winters on record throughout Greece last year and searing heat all summer.  And Greeks are well-aware of what President Trump thinks about Climate Change. (I totally HATE being asked about Donald Trump!)

On the one hand, I was lucky not to actually be in Miami going through all the preparation and angst associated with a Cat 5 hurricane.  Yes, I have been through a few hurricanes, but not the infamous Andrew. As I saw Irma develop, I was both terrified and feeling guilty about not being there.

Amazingly, I could tune into CBS4 Miami local news online -- but not without being forced to watch a VW ad at least 100 times. In the end it was a small price to pay for updates I could relate to, like rivers of water rushing down Brickell Avenue and the attempted looting of my favorite Publix on Biscayne and 17th Terrace. "Reality TV" made palatable only by no big wind damage in Miami as far as I could see...unless you count 3 downed cranes.

Devastation in the Keys was something else, largely unspeakable. Good Samaritans are collecting food and emergency supplies to drive down there if they can. The FL West Coast is much more flooded. Many places still have no electricity.  8 seniors perished in a Hollywood nursing home because of no AC.  There are continued curfews and boil water orders. Paradise lost on a grand scale.

And here I sit on a gorgeous Greek day in town of about 20,000 people in Macedonia, trying to digest what has happened a world away -- feeling safe and even happy to be in what is essentially a bankrupt country.  Thinking, too, that there is something not right with this picture.

‎But for now I'm just glad to have good news, in the realm, from Miami.

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

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!