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.

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 connected to 2017 Greece, Greek-Americans not so much...

Back in the States after my 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 a 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 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 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 its 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 stops 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 hardship. And if people are not actually going to Greece, they are in constant contact with their relatives and friends on the Internet (via 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 Greece is a "foreign country"). Almost all Greek Orthodox congregations in the States have annual, highly-successful Greek festivals where their heritage is extolled and exploited. 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 many 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. At the very least, 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!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What can I say about Corfu at Easter?

Let's start with "Wow!" -- and then "Thank You!" to the family that made‎ my Easter perfect. Easter is the most important Greek holiday, when families get together to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and also of nature by spending the spring day roasting lambs outdoors and just being together. These days most people can't afford much, but they pull out all the stops for Easter. Next week, back to the New (and continuously disintegrating)  Normal...

Corfiot Easter traditions are legend, so I went to see for myself and to visit with the family of Evangelia "Litsa" Meschini (née Thinori, AFS Girls School '70), who hails from the village of Episcopi just a few km from Naousa. Her husband Aristos was a policeman there when they met/married, and they have been in Corfu ever since -- living now in Kanoni, just south of Corfu City and one of the most picturesque places of many around this beautiful island.

Corfu was never occupied by the Ottoman Turks, but instead was under relatively congenial Venetian rule ‎ from 1386-1797. That's why you think of Italy when sitting out on the various plazas drinking your freddo espresso. There are many Catholics in Corfu and so both the Orthodox and Catholic Easters are celebrated together EVERY year, not just every four -- 2017 capped by great weather and a visit by Prime Minister A. Tsipras  & family

On Good Saturday morning, the remains of St. Spyridon -- brought from Constantinople in 1456 --  ‎were led in a solemn procession by 3 of Corfu Town's 18 Philarmonic Bands playing the funeral march from Franco Faccio's opera "Amleto." St. Spyridon is credited with saving the island from "food privations" around 1553. Quite the spectacle...Followed immediately by a"First Resurrection" service in the Mitropolis‎ Church and the ringing of bells at 11 am to start the prevailing calling card of the Corfiot Easter:  the throwing of red (or whatever you have) clay pots of all sizes -- some tiny and a few as tall as 5 ft! -- from balconies all over town. Thousands of visitors jostled for position to witness a pretty amazing sight that signifies the victory of life over death, out with old and in with new, and wishes for future prosperity. You are supposed to take a shard for your own good luck, but then you wonder who is going clean up what's left underfoot everywhere you go.‎

For me, however, the religious high point was Good Friday -- with at least 35 churches in town bringing out their "Epitaphio" (Christ's flower-laden funeral bier) starting at 12:30 pm for processions around their neighborhoods led by one of the bands, a chorale group, and representative ‎Boy/Girl Scouts, etc I never get tired of this part, and by 3 pm it was Epitaphio "gridlock" at various intersections with the many people following each procession through the narrow streets. Saw my last one about 7:30 pm from the Saints Iason and Sosipater Church in the Garitsa neighborhood...Then back to the same church for The Resurrection service at midnight on Saturday when candles were lit and we said "Christos Anestis" (Christ is Risen).  ‎ Over the Old Fortress and waterfront, a booming fireworks display put exclamation points on the joyous moment. 

After The Resurrection we went back to Litsa's house for the traditional magheiritsa soup -- super delicious, but you'd better not ask me what's in it! -- and a meal including meat and cheese to break The Fast. We cracked red eggs, too, and I somehow went undefeated in that department...In the afternoon we gathered at her daughter Elena's house for Feast II. Dad Aristos had roasted a lamb to perfection in the backyard and let me pick off little burned pieces of skin (a delicacy!) before he took it down, something my mother would not have approved of‎ :) Lunch was stellar, accompanied by "oven potatoes" and a fab pitta made by Sofy, daughter #2 and quite the go-getter. They had baked revani for dessert and just to be on the safe side topped it with bourbon vanilla ice cream. I did not say no (surprise!), but after an inevitable power nap on the couch eagerly went for the long walk around Kanoni.  What gracious hospitality, and so perfect a day.

Easter in Corfu 2017 -- Double Opa!

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

I'm in love with a river

And the Arapitsa is not just any river.  It's a magical river that swirls down through Naousa via a succession of waterfalls‎, beginning above us at Aghio Nikolaos Grove in the foothills of Mt. Vermion and fed by the many springs in the area (and now also melting snow). I never get tired of watching those rushing waters‎!
The Arapitsa -- one of only 3 Greek rivers with a feminine name -- is not just an amazing sight. These waters once powered famous textile mills that employed about half the town, but are now largely closed and shuttered due to globalization. It used to be a pretty big deal to buy a Vetlans blanket from Naousa.‎
About halfway up the river at Stoumpanos Falls there is a poignant monument to Naousa women who jumped to their deaths in 1822 rather than subjugate themselves to the Ottoman Turks who had just killed about 10,000 Greeks and burned the town to the ground. Naousa was not liberated until 1913, but the hard-fought "Olokaftoma" episode diverted Turkish forces enough to enable the Peloponnesus to become independent -- thus the unique honorific "Heroic City" bestowed by Royal Decree in 1955.
Today, the Arapitsa flows down into the valley below, serving to irrigate the many crops...fruit trees, grapes, vegetables, and, more recently‎, kiwis. The associated springs also give us our drinking water.  And there is promise of more energy uses in the future...
There are many amazing things about ‎this Macedonian  town of 23,000 people an hour west of Thessaloniki. Just a lot going on all the time, and on so many levels.

But Naousa's indisputable and indispensable backbone is a river, the magical Arapitsa.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.‎

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.

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

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 a 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, those women 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 Women's Day 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 renown 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 beleaguered Prime Minister Alexis 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! 

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Naousa is proud of its Carnival traditions, in spite of the 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 to 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 (think bass drum)‎.  The Naousa holiday 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 bad luck vis-à-vis the weather continues. Last 3 days it has been sunny and around 65F, but now the forecast says rain/50F tomorrow, a VERY important day. But that won't deter anyone from celebrating the historic rituals/traditions that go back centuries.  

"Yenitsari 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 -- the neighborhood where my Dad grew up -- and take off the special "faces"(masks) crafted primarily of wax. They dance, and then so does everyone else. 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 -- Yenitsari 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 they are. And I am proud of them, too.

(Just wonder what Efstathios Xanthopoulos would think of all this...)

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

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 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!