Sunday, November 3, 2019

Kavala Tobacco Museum well worth a visit!

The weather in Greece was fabulous right up until the end of October, and I took full advantage by going to Kavala for the OXI Day weekend. It was a long-overdue trip to a beautiful city north of Thessaloniki and across from the island of Thassos. (It was also, of course, a chance to meet up with 5 AFS Girls School graduates who live around there.)

There is a lot to see and do in Kavala: Beautiful beaches/marina, remnants of the Roman Via Egnatia, a Byzantine fortress, multiple reminders of the Ottoman occupation (1387-1912), the ferris wheel in Luna Park, and the decadent allure of Iosifidi "kourambiedes" (butter cookies smothered in powdered sugar). The Apostle Paul landed at Kavala on his first journey to Europe.

But it was the Tobacco Museum that really caught my attention.  Once-upon-a-time, Kavala was the center of the tobacco industry in Northern Greece, beginning around 1820. The Municipal Tobacco Warehouse built in 1910 stills stands a few blocks from the museum.  Area production and trading of Basma, a fine oriental variety, reached its peak around 1920.  After  the war years, the Kavala tobacco trade never regained its former importance.

Nevertheless, I remember a succession of tobacco execs who came through the American Farm School circa 1968-78 when I was there. Most of all, I remember villages where producing tobacco was still very much a way of life.  In the summer of '74, I visited my student Maria and her family in the village of Doirani, Kilkis, wondering  exactly how tobacco growers lived and worked. It was a real eye-opener!

We went to bed early and got up around 4 am to head for the family's fields, riding along a bumpy dirt road in a wooden cart pulled by a donkey. As soon as we could see well enough, we snapped mature leaves off the tobacco plants -- something that can only happen when the stems are firm.  So when the sun came all the way up and the leaves started to sag, picking time was over. Home we went where the leaves were to be strung up to dry. At that point, Yiayia and any other available relative became part of the crew. (Tobacco farming required 100% family participation, which often restricted educational and other pursuits.)

Dried tobacco leaves would later be bundled for market to be further processed -- examined for quality, weighed, sold, and then repackaged according to size and destination -- as exhibited in amazing detail at the Kavala Tobacco Museum.  Tools, machinery, tobacco samples, photos, documents and much more also tell the stories of the people who made it all happen.

The museum showcases an important facet of Greek history and a slice of rural life not to be forgotten. It is definitely well worth a visit.

NOTE: 37% of all Greeks are smokers, the most of any EU country. Only 44% say they have never smoked a cigarette. Every year, approximately 20,000 people die from by tobacco-related diseases. And smoking bans are routinely ignored...