Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Year-End Report: Greek glass half full at best

For the record, I have lived part-time in Greece for the past 3 years, or 18 months out of 36 -- mostly in a rented studio apartment in my father's hometown of Naousa, a traditional yet modern town of about 20,000 people in Central Macedonia about one hour northwest of Thessaloniki. From there I have visited a number of Girls School/American Farm School grads in their villages around Northern Greece and beyond. In September I spent 5 days in Cyprus. You have read many of my "Dispatches from Greece"* -- so you won't be surprised that I have mixed feelings about the Greek reality as we gear up for the New Year. Let's call it a glass half full at best.

Naouseans are preparing for the holidays enthusiastically just like you and me. Christmas decorations have filled store windows for weeks. "Kazania" -- the traditional boiling of grape skins to produce stronger than ouzo tsipouro (together with a requisite on-site party) -- continued well into November.  Religious and other holidays are surrounded by name days, concerts, seminars, organizational events (like those hosted by the Pontian or Vlach Associations) and pretty much any excuse for a party. Education may be king, but skiing is now in ascendance after the first big snows at 3-5 Pigadia. Naousa also has admirable programs for the elderly, people with special needs and families who need assistance. And on the weekend of December 7-9, she becomes the "City of Wine" celebrating the renown Xinomavro grape. Opa!

The devastating economic situation, however, has not exactly gone away despite published reports to the contrary.  Unemployment may be down, but that's from 28% to 20.8 %.  And "the brain drain" continues, over half a million people having left the country since 2008. You may not realize that the now extended Russian embargo of EU food products in retaliation for sanctions has taken it serious toll on exports of meat, fish/seafood, vegetables, fruit (especially in Naousa!) and dairy products. 35% of all Greeks live in poverty or close to it...

On August 20th Greece officially exited the bailout program, but at what price? After 3 "Mnimonia" (memoranda of virtual servitude to the European Union) and pursuant demands for privatization, Greece has sold control of the Port of Piraeus (China), 14 airports (Germany), and a railway system (Italy). Greeks -- including me! -- pay the most for electricity in Europe, 42% in taxes and fees. Heating oil is more expensive this year with record snows predicted for year's end, so how will 60K refugees living in "hotspots" fare? Official reports may peg the average monthly income at 1000 euros, but too many people live on about 400 euros due to severely reduced pensions or part-time jobs.  Things are happening, investments are being made, but the reported turnaround has simply not yet trickled down to the average Greek citizen.

Pensions are scheduled to be cut one last time in a few weeks per Greece's contract with the banks. For awhile the Tsipras government said it wasn't going to happen, but the Lenders came back with, "Not so fast, a deal is a deal." May 19th elections are looming on the horizon, so those last bailout bits have become predictable political footballs. The Syriza government -- which has dealt with this mess with a proverbial gun to its head for 4 years -- is down in the polls by double digits to the New Democracy Party which helped create the disaster in the first place. Who should Greeks trust? (And most basically trust no one.)

On the bright side there is a woman running for mayor of Naousa, which has never put a woman in charge. Ilia Iosifidou is a civil engineer and mother, who is smart and energetic in the face of 4 male opponents. For some time I have been asking, "When will Naousa have a woman mayor?" After years of uninspired leadership, Naouseans now have a chance to elect a woman who seems to embody transparency and hard work over grandstanding and unfulfilled promises. 

Will Greece really turns the page in 2019? Greeks have swallowed a lot of very bitter medicine no matter what we think about the historic economic meltdown. They now deserve our very best wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year.  Kali hronia, to you and yours, too!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What do you really know about Cyprus?

Especially now as the plot surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi thickens with Turkey and its President Recep Ertogan right in the thick of things. Turkey is always front and center here in Greece.  And certainly no less in the Republic of Cyprus -- an island surrounded by Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Cyprus won independence from the British Empire in 1960...only to be partitioned in 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup cultivated by the Greek Junta to overthrow Archbishop/President Markarios and join Cyprus with Greece. The coup failed, 3,000+ Cypriots lost their lives (many more, including children, still unaccounted for), and 200,000 Greek Cypriots became refuges overnight. 

On the plus side, Greece suddenly became a democracy again following the collapse of the Junta and return of Konstantinos Karamanlis -- but not before a rather scary (I lived through it!) General Mobilization of many thousands of military reservists in anticipation of war. Turkey would eventually claim 36.5% of the island and create the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized today only by Turkey. The two parts are separated by a UN buffer zone, the Green Line, and a Turkish flag flashes brightly over Lefkosia every night from the "katehomena"  (occupied  territory) to add insult to injury. Many thousands of Turkish nationals have been repatriated to occupied Cyprus in defiance of the Geneva Convention. And 44 years later, Greek and Turkish Cypriots are in perpetual reunification  talks constantly complicated by the hostile demands/actions of Recep Ertogan.

By now you might have forgotten about that Green Line and focused more on oil/gas drilling confrontations or a financial crisis (now mostly resolved) caused in part by a sudden influx of big Russian money. But did you know that 3 percent of Cypriot territory is still under foreign military control? And did you notice that during her recent confirmation hearings, the new US Ambassador to Cyprus had trouble acknowledging the events of 1974 as an invasion by Turkish troops? Ouch!

It's no wonder that there is not a whole lot of love lost between Cyprus and the UK because of the military bases, Greece for their role in the ill-fated coup, and the USA for supporting the coup and doing nothing to thwart the Turkish invasion. Thank you Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. 
Last month I revisited that Green Line in Lefkosia (aka Nicosia), which bears little resemblance to what I saw in 1976 when barricades were manned by Greek and Turkish soldiers screaming obscenities at each other while UN Peacekeepers patrolled a tiny strip in between them. I had gone then to visit with the families of 17 boys we took as students at the American Farm School after the Agricultural High School of Morfou had been closed by the invaders. The students adjusted incredibly well at the School. But in Cyprus things were super bleak as many lived in refugee camps or over-crowded homes. From certain vantage points we could see untended crops that had simply dried up. At that point in time there was precious little to look forward to.

Today one can cross back-and-forth through checkpoints along the Green Line. In Lefkosia, show your ID at passport control and go right ahead. The Turkish side is sadly dated; I saw a man in a small, dingy shop actually stuffing a comforter with cotton by hand.  No Burger King or Starbucks there. You can buy cigarettes and pharmaceuticals sans EU taxes and then have a leisurely lunch -- just don't be thinking you can get your property back.

My Farm School graduate hosts Spyros and Nikos introduced me to their wonderful/most hospitable families and drove me all around free Cyprus. We visited a raft of towns, villages and other sites, including the front gate of the British airbase along the beautiful southern coastline of Akrotiri.  Then, of course, a pilgrimage to the final resting place of Archbishop Makarios  at Kykkos Monastery in the Troidos mountains -- about 11 km from mountaintops planted with British radar stations. You can read about it, but not fully feel it until you are suddenly told "You cannot be here" by a British soldier on an idyllic Saturday afternoon.

Most memorably, I was able to visit with half of those students who came to the American Farm School in 1974 at a special "mini reunion" dinner. There were stories, laughter, selfies, great food (love that sheftalia and halloumi!) special music. While several grads do work in agriculture, Andreas is a music teacher and Tony Solomou a well-known singer/composer/activist. Tony was especially touched when I showed him a photo of me and his family circa 1976 (see above), as his mom had died about a year ago. His singular compositions about occupied villages like his own Aghia Marina are both wistful and defiant. Have a listen.

Then think about what you really know about Cyprus.

Monday, September 24, 2018

"500 Years of Greeks in America!"

As the 83rd Thessaloniki International Fair comes to an end, it's a good time to stand back and take a deep breath.

Even as the United States was the honored country this year -- last year China and Russia the year before -- there is a not so subtle anti-Americanism that colors almost all political conversations/arguments here in Greece. Everything and anything bad is America's fault, don't you know? Now with the Macedonia question on top of the various financial/refugee issues, the plot (συμφέροντα!), of course, thickens...

The fair's USA Pavillion focusing on technology -- Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc -- was indeed impressive and well-attended. But I was super-surprised upon entering the Greek Government Services Pavillion to suddenly be standing in front of a stand-alone display extolling the virtues of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Then one for Olympia Dukakis, Pete Sampras, Maestro Dimitris Mitropolis, Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, Maria Callas, Constantino Brumidi (Google him!) and many others.  All under the heading "500 Years of Greeks in America." Wow!

Even more amazing was the sponsor of that exhibit: "The General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad" of the Greek Foreign Office ( -- "the government's coordinating body for the implementation of state policy with respect to Diaspora Hellenism," about 5 million people of Greek descent on 5 continents and in 140 agency created to "support the the interests and the expectations of the Greeks abroad." Who knew? 

Three million people of Greek descent live in the US, thus the long list of distinguished accomplishments -- plus a multitude of organizations, schools, churches, restaurants, newspapers, radio/TV stations, etc. The first Greek in the "New World" was Don Theodoros Griego (1528) and the first Greek colony was in St. Augustine, Florida (1768). The first Greek Community was founded in New Orleans (Holy Trinity/1864.) New York, Chicago and San Francisco are all important to the narrative, but who can possibly ignore Tarpon Springs?

More significantly, there was a wave of American Philhellenism that did its part in support of the Greek Revolution of 1821 -- bolstered by Thomas Jefferson,  James Madison, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Henry Clay. Others actually fought in Greece against the Turks, including Samuel Gridley Howe and George Washington's cousin William Townsend Washington. It was a fitting effort to help Greece towards independence while the USA itself was still in its democratic infancy. To this day there is an active, bi-partisan Hellenic Caucus in Congress fighting for Greece!

The USA has contributed much to Greece in the last 200 years and still supports Greece in many ways. Those efforts/policies may not always be perfect or altruistic,  but they are way too often misunderstood or taken for granted. On other hand, it's very clear that Greek-Americans have contributed much to the USA -- 500 years' worth to be exact. 

I am proud to be a Greek-American and part of the Greek Diaspora story still being written, thanks to my immigrant father and 4 grandparents who worked very hard for a better life. It's a rather tricky thing being Greek-American and living part-time in Greece -- which is why I'm standing back and taking a deep breath. Somewhat hard to explain, but I'll keep trying.

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

Making Memories with Basketball, Gin Rummy and Refried Beans

So, I was walking up the street in Naousa when someone called my name. Turning around, I saw a man approaching whom I did not recognize...until he showed me a of photo of himself when he was a student at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki when I worked there (1968-1978). John Dourakis -- one of my very best English students! -- has lived in Naousa for 13 years working for an agency that coordinates Greek peach canneries. I had absolutely no idea. But about 10 days ago a mutual friend happened to mention my name to him. Stunned and amazed, he had then been on the lookout for me. Wow!

We, of course, reminisced about our years at the School -- including when he an a few other students took me to see a big, important soccer match between PAOK and Olympiakos. I've been a PAOK fan ever since, but I also swore never to set foot in a large soccer stadium again. Standing on bleachers for all 90 minutes, we were constantly being pushed towards the brink. I was sure we would be trampled to death, but did live to talk about it...45 years later!

More importantly, you'll notice that John is wearing a Delta College basketball uniform -- and no accident that talk then turned to my pal Ernie Marcopoulos. Many years may have passed since he, Josie and their 3 kids -- from my hometown of Stockton, California -- spent their sabbatical year in Thessaloniki  at my urging. But the revered Coach of the San Joaquin Delta College Mustangs has not been forgotten here in Greece.

Ernie volunteered to coach basketball and teach PE at the Farm School for basic "room-and-board."  He brought with him some retired uniforms and worked tirelessly with the boys. John was a left-handed sharpshooter who might have excelled further had he not continued his studies in England.

Everyone at the School got super excited when Ernie was asked to also coach the PAOK professional basketball team for that one season.  We all became PAOK fans.

Behind the scenes, however, the Marcopoulos clan and I did our own thing...religiously. Every Tuesday night -- my day off from my Girls School Dept. dormitory duties -- I headed over to their apartment for our weekly Mexican Food Night and Gin Rummy Marathon. Ole!

Josie -- of Mexican decent, but who NEVER made tortillas in Stockton -- did, in fact, make tortillas from scratch every week thanks to a rolling pin that our friend Harry Theocharides graciously cut down to size. I learned to make them, too, along with refried beans and salsa. There may have been some carne asada and beer involved. The adults played cards until our (self-imposed) 12 o'clock curfew. Who was "World Champ" is still in dispute.

That's what happens when you live in Northern Greece and need a Mexican food fix -- which, in fact, I still often do. But I don't think I'll ever be able to top basketball + gin rummy + refried beans.

Monday, June 25, 2018

"No, I am not an enemy of the people" (a Greek story of reunification and quasi-redemption)

Sticky wicket might well describe the role of communism in Greek history -- as the promises of the Bolshevik Revolution crept into the consciousness of the working man, captivated some, but  fell  down during a crushing Civil War following WWII.  In Naousa, bitterness and mistrust  still  simmer under the cover of normalcy. But little-by-little, lost facts/secrets are being uncovered and confronted...occasionally by people seeking their roots.

So when I heard that a book entitled No, I am not an enemy of the people was going to be presented at the Naousa cultural center a few weeks ago, I immediately assumed that the reference was to the Greek people with some sort of apologia for someone who had simply been castigated as a Communist.  But it was a human story much more complicated than that.

Markos Markovitis was born in Naousa in 1905, the eldest of 9 children in a relatively prosperous family. He was not alone in falling under the spell of the communist promise. But by 1925 and with a messianic fervor, he was one of the movement's hard core evangelists in Thessaloniki, where he was arrested and condemned to death in 1931. Managing to escape, he went to Russia, the Communist "Fatherland." There he studied, married, and tried mightily to become a citizen. But in 1937, it all came apart for Markos. He was arrested in a Stalinist purge and condemned to death as an enemy of the state -- prompting the writing of two poignant letters to Stalin.

"No, I am not an enemy of the people,"  Markovitis wrote to convince Stalin that he was dedicated to the Communist cause. That he had come to Russia full of joy and hope to serve Stalin and the State. That he wanted to stay and live out his dreams. But those letters were never read by Stalin. Markos was executed and buried unceremoniously in a mass grave. Meanwhile, his family in Greece had long lost track of him. 

In Russia he had a new family, with children. After the execution, that family  disappeared  itself in order to survive -- his children going into orphanages under assumed names. It wasn't until 1957 that the KKE (Greek Communist Party) learned of Markovitis's fate, but his family was not informed until 2002. By then his parents had died and other relatives ("down to the last cousin") had also been hounded and stigmatized as Communist sympathizers -- all due to a lost son of Naousa who had died in Russia 80 years ago as a suspected traitor to the Communist cause!
Reunited Markovitis Family
Enter Markovitis's grandson Dimitris, whose search for the real Markos Markovitis led to the discovery of the two letters in Russian archives -- bringing him into contact with his family in Greece and with Marios Markovitis, nephew of Markos and the author of the aforementioned book..a labor of love with a double meaning in terms of political consequence and historical perspective.   

The room for the book reading was full and captivated, especially by the author whose closing comments were so very powerful on several levels: Markos Markovitis,  he  declared, died twice in 1937 when he was executed and, even worse, disappeared as a person -- and now in 2018 the truth comes out and "we can mourn him properly."  He named others who had suffered much the same fate.

Why did it take so long to find and publicly talk about Markos Markovitis? Because "history is written by the victors," as you may have heard before.  But in Greece, victors have been few and far between. 

NOTE: In Greece, as in many parts of Europe, the Communist Party is a legal/viable, if not particularly successful, political party. Indeed  the KKE in Naousa recently staged a public event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But a certain kind  of  paranoia/hostility abides due to that Civil War which fully impacted Naousa -- and where a pipeline for Communist abduction of young people literally ran down Andarton, the street where my father grew up so many years before.  

Thursday, May 3, 2018

On June 3rd we are going to Makronisos!

Not because we have been rounded up by the Greek police due to our political beliefs, but to never forget the 100,000 detainees who were held on that island 1946-1953 and tortured until they recanted theirs. There were other islands/prisons where enemies of the state (mostly communists)  were held or exiled for random, indeterminate lengths of time -- an ugly kind of political punishment favored in Greece during other periods in her history, too.

I recently stumbled upon the not exactly well-known Makronisos Museum and the Museum of Political Exile Agh. Straty -- both located in the same building at 31 Asomaton in the Keramikos area of Athens. Lucky for me, the latter was offering an educational program aptly  entitled "My whole world in a suitcase." It was a heart-breaker regardless of your political leanings, and it also resolved some lingering questions that had haunted me since living in Greece under the military dictatorship of 1967-1974. By then Makronisos had largely been those resisting the Junta were reportedly exiled to Giaros and Leros, and/or held at prisons in Oropo, Aegina, Hania and Corfu. But in our then mind's-eye, our hero friends were all being "sent to Makronisos*."

Makronisos and Agh. Straty had facilities often built by the prisoners themselves -- Agh. Straty subsequently becoming more palatable post-1950 due to growing criticism voiced by European allies. A theater there begat plays like "Perses"  (Act I), with hand-made costumes and hand-painted backdrops. There was regular feel-good (censored) correspondence with "greetings to those you know." Prisoners  created  poignant "works of art" with whatever materials they could find,  including rocks and bones. And a rather remarkable official holiday photo taken on Trikeri  clearly  shows to what degree detainees literally put their best foot forward to show that they were all right and still loyal to their beliefs. Just like a bunch of girlfriends on a summer vacation.

Agh. Straty
But political exile/detention with was no vacation, especially on Makronisos if you were forced to carry a large boulder uphill on  your back while tangled up in barbed wire. 95% of all detainees  finally  gave into the programs of "reeducation," disavowing their beliefs and signing on the proverbial dotted line to go home. There are too many stories "pou then leyontai" (which cannot be discussed), despite the creation of the museums, annual pilgrimages and a free press. Fearful former exiles destroyed documents to protect their children...or maybe to cover up their own capitulations. Many  NEVER  spoke about time spent on Makronisos, Agh. Straty, Trikeri, or any other island of torture and dehumanization.

It was, after all, a period in Greek history defined by a cruel Civil War* that followed the German/Italian occupations: Government forces (supported by the UK and USA) versus Communist insurgents (supported by the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania) who had also fought  as partisans during WWII. Brother against brother. Neighbor against neighbor. Too much of what happened then is still under wraps with the hope perhaps that certain people will forget or simply fade away -- a sentiment shared here in Naousa, where bitterness and mistrust still  simmer under the cover of normalcy. Occasionally some bit of information slips out if you dig deep enough, but the cycle of silence continues...

Some Greeks disgusted by the current financial/political situation have rather casually dared to say: "Bring back the Junta, they gave us discipline and built roads." Those people should be first in line to visit Makronisos on June 3rd for a much-needed reality check...never forget, or ever repeat!

NOTE: Visit Makronisos** by calling PEKAM (National Union of Those Held on Makronisos) at 210-3247820 or by sending an email to Makronisos Museum at 31 Asomaton Street is open on Tuesday-Friday 10 am - 1pm and on Saturday-Sunday 11am-2pm free of charge. The Museum of Political Exile has identical hours Tuesday-Friday, but is closed Saturday-Sunday.

*For a very good understanding of this terrible time in Greek history, please read ELENI by Nicolas Gage (Random House, 1983)
**Makronisos became a Greek Historic Landmark on May 16, 1989 [1285/24255], a decision signed by then Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Poignant "Never Again" Remembrances in Thessaloniki (aka Salonika)

A bad cold prevented me from traveling to Thessaloniki yesterday for the 6th Annual silent march from downtown Liberty Square to the Old Train Station -- under the banner of  “Never Again: 75 years since the first train departed for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps” and led by 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Moshe Aelion in his wheel chair.  Marchers laid flowers on the tracks, lit candles and wrote messages on the old train carriages. I was there in spirit.

(Photo Credit:
The Jewish people have been an important part of this corner of the world for centuries, but the German Occupation changed everything. Imagine the horror facing Greek Jews who could not escape deportation. Or that of non-Jews forced to bear witness, some who intervened however they could. When I worked at the American Farm School circa 1968-78, I knew both Jews who had been hidden and those who had hidden them.  Nevertheless, 48,533 (mostly Sephardic) Jews left Salonika for Auschwitz on those trains between March 20 and August 18, 1943. Others arrived to Treblinka and other camps for a total of 54,000. In all, 65,000 Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust.

A series of annual events has been established to pay respect to both the Jews who perished and Salonika's  rich Jewish  heritage.  Two years ago,  children from six primary schools in the neighborhoods of that train station were asked to imagine the journey of children who got on those trains, resulting in amazing heart-breaking creations that were later exhibited.  In the words of Mayor Ioannis Boutaris: “The story of the Jewish matter had been swept under the carpet. We decided to gradually showcase the city’s Jewish identity. You cannot build the future if you don’t know the past."

The future will include a Holocaust Museum (to be built over the train station), a metropolitan park with an olive tree planted for every Thessaloniki Jew who perished, and potentially a Jewish School to support the current 1300-4500 member (depending on who's counting) Jewish Community.  Unfortunately this wave of goodwill was marred this past January by the defacing of Thessaloniki's Holocaust Memorial in the name of the ultra-right party Golden Dawn, a group embodying the populist movements sweeping Europe in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and emboldened by the hardships on the Greek people due to the financial crisis. (Should I mention that there are currently 65,000 refugees trapped in Greece?)

The good news is that some Salonika Jews returned home after the war to rebuild their lives --  like the family of Heinz Kounio, owners of a camera store founded 100 years ago. They managed to survive because they spoke German and were put to work in several locations before being rescued in Austria by US forces led by General George Patton. Kounio's is the oldest camera shop in Greece and a tribute to Jewish resilience -- a beautiful and amazing story recently profiled in the Forward.

That must-read story rang familiar to me on several levels, as I had once met Flora Lazar Schneider (mother: last name Kounio) whose parents managed to leave Thessaloniki before the two weeks ago I went to 24 Komninon Street. Speaking with Heinz Kounio's granddaughter Nora and looking at the graphics on the wall outlining the store's history, it became evident that this was the place that I had all my Kodak Instamatic photos developed more than 40 years ago. And it was just blocks away from the renowned Molho's Bookstore -- which, unfortunately, no longer exists -- where I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune every Saturday. They were simply the best camera store and bookstore in town -- and are now part of a lasting Jewish legacy in Thessaloniki,  aka Salonika.

NOTE: There is an excellent and relatively new Jewish Museum in downtown Thessaloniki at Agiou Mina 13 and another excellent Jewish Museum in downtown Athens at Nikis 39. Closed Saturdays!  

Friday, March 9, 2018

International Women's Day, then contest.

It's not like Greece is way behind on the issue of equal rights. There is a whole government program in place for that. The "dowry" system was abolished by the Socialist government in 1982, when another law also allowed women to keep their maiden names. And last October I viewed an extensive ‎exhibit dedicated to feminist activity 1974-1990 at the Parliament Foundation building in Athens where books, posters, demo memorabilia, etc. looked  amazingly familiar...
So I was rather shocked to‎ hear that a Girls School grad's husband would not allow her to have lunch with us in Thessaloniki on the occasion of International Women's Day (March 8th). She has attended other get-togethers, no problem. And the day is actually acknowledged in Greece where women do get together to party even in villages. So what was up with that?

Well! Seems like some men get crankily insecure around here at the thought of a day dedicated to the advancement of women's rights, undermining the notion that women may be at least somewhat liberated. It looks like a pretty modern society, however, it is not...on several levels. Sure, you can sometimes fold old-fashioned habits into the cultural landscape and say no problem.‎ Other times, when you are confronted with clear-cut male entitlement issues, it is not so easy. Women may have some legal entitlements complete with outspoken political views (finally!), and also look modern in dress or hanging out/going on trips with their friends. But when push comes to shove you better provide and literally put food on the table every single day, run around 24/7 caring for grandchildren (my pet peeve!), and generally play the part of Greek wife/mother with all of its tasks/constraints. Yes, looks can indeed be rather deceiving...
And now, here comes Easter. While we may be familiar with certain rituals and preparations -- like Friday night services, fried cod on March 25th, dying eggs red on Good Thursday, and procuring/cleaning entrails for maghiritsa soup -- there is one set of chores not so well-know in the States: cleaning the whole house from stem to stern (think mandatory Spring Cleaning on steroids), typically involving taking down/washing/ironing all the curtains and washing all the rugs -- thank God for washing machines! Not to mention, mostly in the villages, the whitewashing of inner walls and outside walkways, etc. All of this is done by the women except for some whitewashing and help with heavy objects, transport needs and the like. Oh, and don't you dare ask your son to help with these chores as he will probably be too busy hanging out with his friends when not working. Thus, all Greeks are simply not created equal.

The Easter season in Greece, however, is something to behold -- especially Holy Week. Two years ago, I spent Easter in my Papou's village of Kyparissi, Lakonias, and joined the many visiting Greeks who ate fabulous maghiritsa at the Trocadero restaurant after church -- and by reservation, no less. Last year, I went to Corfu, with dueling epitafia on Friday and red crockery of all sizes thrown from balconies on Saturday. This year I will spend Easter in Naousa for the first time.
Kalo Pascha, Happy Easter!
NOTE: Must mention that the financial crisis in Greece might have abated on paper and in some news stories -- but still NO trickle down effect to the everyday, austerity-bitten consumer living on pensions cut many times with increased fees/taxes and 22% unemployment. Greece has the lowest consumer sentiment index in the European Union, no surprise there. Let's see how many people actually roast whole lambs on Easter Sunday...

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Picture worth a thousand words...

News of Mary Theocharides leaving us this week was hard to swallow on several levels.

The Theocharides family was an important part of the Stockton St. Basil's Greek Community for many years before moving to Thessaloniki and the American Farm School circa 1960. There were many good (verging on crazy) times in the days when the church really was the center of our lives. Harry, Mary, Terry and Nico were part of the Xanttopoulos/Sarris families, too. And to make a very long story short, our ties -- from Stockton, to Thessaloniki (where I was for 10 years at the School) and back again -- run deep.

 Evgenia Sarris, Mary Theocharides, Liberty Sarris and Harry's mother.

Terry and Nico will surely have many great stories to tell after their mother's funeral at St. Basil's on Friday at 10 am.  But this isn't just about memories and stories. It's really about an entire and in many ways heroic generation -- along with their belief system and work ethic -- having left us one-by-one. And that is VERY hard to swallow.

May dear Mary's memory -- and those of all our parents/relatives -- be eternal. Zoi se mas.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Naousean skier will carry the Greek flag at the Olympic Games!

As I prepare to return to my father's hometown of Naousa for my fourth 3-month stay, I am really looking forward to Apokries. This is a super special time in Naousa, where the Carnival tradition is nothing like we see on TV from other parts of Greece or Rio or New Orleans. In Naousa it is all about the proud tradition of the "Yenitsari and Boules," which dates back centuries -- even during the dark 400 years of the Ottoman Empire, when money collected during the celebrations was hidden under the skirt of the Boules (men) to buy food and supplies for the Macedonian Freedom Fighters. Each year the entire city follows a specific program of preparation, procession route ("dromemo"), and songs/dances that NEVER changes. Greeks come from all over to see this amazing, historic spectacle.

By "Tsiknopempti" (Thursday, February 8th), preparations will be at a fever pitch. But this year there will be something extra in the mix: the opening that day of the XXIII Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. And as we learned a few months ago, Sophia Rally from Naousa will carry the Greek flag in the opening ceremonies. Wow!

On October 28th, the Olympic Flame came to Naousa on its way to The Games. Sophia proudly ran it into Platia Karanatsou and lit the cauldron for the poignant ceremonies. We were reminded that  Naousa -- being located in the foothills of Mt. Vermion with access to the ski areas of 3-5 Pigadia and Seli -- has a rich winter Olympic tradition dating back to 1956. The names of all Naouseans who have skied in the Games were read aloud, and the Odeio Choir braved the cold to serenade our Korean visitors as did the young "Naousa Glee" singers. Beautiful!

Sophia will actually be competing in her third Olympic Games along with a few other local skiers. And when she marches into the stadium holding that flag on "Tsiknopempti", all Naouseans will be very proud -- and some will even raise a glass or two of Naousa's renown Xinomavro wine* in her honor...It will be quite a party, wherever you are!

*Wine lovers should be on the lookout for Episode #106 of My Greek Table with Diane Kochilas (PBS.) "A Bite of Greek Red Wine' is about the production of Naousa's Xinomavro -- double opa!