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.

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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! 

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Naousa is proud of its Carnival traditions, but what about the freaking weather?

After going out earlier in a drizzle to shop at the Saturday outdoor market, I am waiting here with baited breath to see if it will rain again in Naousa this afternoon. Everybody plans be out with barbecues in the street 2 days before Lent starts. I also expect frolicking satire/dancing to the music of zournades (think clarinet) and daoulia (drums)‎.  The theme is "One City, One Celebration." While $$$ times are very tough, the people here are all-in for a good time all Carnival week thru Clean Monday

The worst days of one of the harshest winters on record (down to - 17C!) seem to have passed, and my studio apt is now fully heated (costing more than the rent!) -- but the bad luck continues. Last 3 days it has been sunny and around 65F, but now the forecast says rain/50F tomorrow (just like last Sunday!), THE most important day. But that won't deter anyone from celebrating the historic rituals/traditions that go back centuries.  

"Yennitsari and Boules" are men in special costumes, who during the Ottoman Empire danced through the streets under the guise of Carnival to collect money to buy supplies and then go into the mountains to fight for Independence. So both Sundays start with a ritual dressing of each "soldier" in his family home by his parents, some accessories being sewn on right then. When his "boulouki" (think platoon) comes to fetch him, he greets them, does his cross, kisses his mother goodbye, and joins the group to go collect others. Then they go to the Town Hall for permission from the mayor to dance through the town on a special route so never-changing that it printed on a map! At 5 o'clock they reach stop #8 Allonia -- neighborhood where my Dad grew up -- where they take off the special masks (crafted basically in wax) and everyone dances. Opa!

Such an amazing and moving spectacle that I had only known superficially till now. During my time at the Farm School 68-78, I did visit Naousa a few times for a day or two. But living here the whole week (Yennitsari without masks dancing through the town every day!), I really get how proud the people of Naousa are of this unique tradition...and how dedicated, resilient, and fun-loving. And I am proud of them, too.

(Just wonder what Steve X. would think of all this...)

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Breaking News: Back to business, in a manner of speaking...

Heading back to and Greece and Naousa today for another 3-month stint, and looking forward to the historic and quite famous Carnival celebration there. But NOT to the snowy, cold weather I been reading about lately -- or what kind of mess I might find in my studio apt since the pipes froze and burst a few weeks ago. Who knew Greece would have one the coldest, snowiest winters on record THIS year?


Before I left in October, they gave me a book with step-by-step descriptions of the Carnival happenings, including the ritual dressing of Yennitsari and Boules in elaborate costumes. The unique celebration lasts 10 days, prefaced by "Tsiknopemti" which is this coming Thursday and kind of a Halloween said to be the totally spontaneous and satirical. Thinking of going as a "We won't pay for The Wall" Mexican. We'll see...


The people of Naousa have vowed to celebrate Carnival to the hilt regardless of more ridiculous and painful pronouncements/pressures from "The Creditors" -- and in case you have forgotten what's going on there, you can catch up: A Greek tragedy: how much can one nation take?  Just last Thursday, the German Finance Minister insisted that Greeks not only need to endure MORE pension cuts/higher taxes, but debt reduction is not possible unless Greece leaves the Eurozone. REALLY?  (Indeed, the note inside a Xmas card that I received from one of my relatives said this: "...we're a mess. There is no work, businesses are closing, and people are besides themselves. I don't know what will happen. The pensions are constantly cut and necessities get more expensive...")


While projections have the Greek economy picking up on paper in terms of so-called "bailout" goals, the effect of multiple pension cuts and 24 percent unemployment has been catastrophic (and disgraceful, I might add without hesitation) on real people who are really suffering. Some of them might be your own relatives who have been loathe to admit it!


Then there is my Extended Family of approximately 200 AFS Girls School graduates, most of whom I now have on speed dial...plus their many children and grandchildren that I have met in my travels.  I have heard some amazing stories of grit and determination by strong women over the past 50 years of topsy-turvy Greek history.


What will be worse? Potentially below freezing weather or coming again face-to-face with an unfathomable 2017 Greek reality or having to explain why the American people elected Donald Trump? For a few days we will be able to hide behind masks. Then back to business, in a manner of speaking.

PS: If you read Greek, you can follow the very timely and informative Naousa/Veria blog EPEA PTEROENTA here. Opa!

Friday, October 21, 2016

How the other half lives...

It's getting cold here in Naousa, and that's no joke.
A visit yesterday to my favorite "cava" -- wine store where wine can be bought by the liter -- provided comfort beyond excellent retsina.  I also got some validation for constantly feeling cold, especially at home.  As winter seeps in, most Greeks are very worried about keeping their families warm when money is scarcer than ever. 
I had responded‎ to the  usual "How are you?" with "COLD!" -- having spent recent days not feeling well, holed up in my apartment where the temperature hovered around 60 degrees (Fahrenheit)...and also wondering if I was just being a Miami Lightweight. But Naousa is at a relatively high altitude -- think nearby ski resorts -- and gets cold early. My wine seller replied: "No kidding. I wear a sweater to bed." Wow, I'm not the only one!
I not only felt vindicated, but determined to find a solution beyond a simple electric heater someone had given me that wasn't doing the trick while pulling costly electricity. Yes, my studio apartment does have central heating, but it is dependent on heating oil that has risen in cost by over 20 percent since April and is not yet available to us. My space is small, but If the average household here needs 200 liters a month X 93 cents and is living (like half of all Greeks) on a poverty level income of 600 Euros a month --  well, you do the math...
More and more Greeks are being forced to find other solutions, like converting to wood stoves in villages and big cities. Or buying 1-2 small heating appliance and toughing it out with heavy clothes 24/7. Schools are not escaping this growing problem. The Greek People are living an economic nightmare and are now facing yet another "austerity measure" winter.

‎Yesterday I finally invested 80 Euros in what is essentially an "electric radiator," even though I will soon be returning to the USA (to vote!). The new models don't use as much electricity and have an automatic thermostat.  And wow again! My apartment is now at 66-68F, though I can't yet be sure of the electricity expenditure or how I will fare when it gets much colder. And I'm not sure when my building might get organized to buy heating oil to rev up the system. Or how much that will cost.  Or if when I return, I will just limp along without central heating, wearing sweaters to bed again when needed just like many others here in Naousa and thoughout Greece. 

So if you don't have a heating (or AC) problem, be grateful. Because this is how the other half lives -- in Greece and too many other places. ‎
(Published in The Greek American Herald, November 2016)

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