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THEY’VE TURNED OUT THE LIGHTS!

August has gone. It came in stifling hot, and went out on a slightly cooler note. As the locals say: “At the end of August, the lights are turned off.” And it’s literally so. The lights across the Pagasitic Gulf from us, at the very end of the Pelion Peninsula, didn’t come on last night. They won’t come on again until late April or early May. Holiday homes are in darkness. The tail end of the holidaymakers left in long convoys yesterday, heading to various parts of Europe, some of the vehicles towing boats.

The little boats that bobbed about in front of the house until yesterday are not there today. As I write, in mid-afternoon, the only boats I’ve seen all day are those above – the one slowly and carefully towing the other across the Gulf. I waved to the boatman. He waved back. Perhaps both boats are his. Perhaps he rented them out through the summer. Perhaps the boat on tow needs repairs. Something about him and the two little boats seemed so forlorn, though I hope all’s well. Those two little boats and the solitary boatman said it very firmly: “Summer is over.”

Today is the Labor Day holiday in America, a day that celebrates the workers of the country, and has come to mean the unofficial end of summer in the United States.

Good wishes to all.

 

GETTING AROUND ON THE PELION

Transportation is the movement of people, animals or goods from one location to another.

Here on the Pelion there are many areas which are difficult to access, and some can only be reached on foot. Donkeys are still used although they aren’t seen as frequently now as they used to be. In many instances it can be much quicker to get from A to B by way of the waters of the Pagasitic Gulf. Anything that floats, it seems, can be used.

There is a network of paved roads, most of which are single lane and require great caution on the part of the driver navigating them. We joke that the driving term ‘overtaking’ can be defined variously as taking your life in your hands, and your life being effectively over. That’s not to say the drivers are bad though of course many are, rather too many actually, but because there are multiple hazards on the roads apart from drivers.

Flocks of sheep and goats are frequently encountered once you’re out of the city; there are drivers with an alarming tendency to stop in the middle of the road, usually around a blind corner if the fancy takes them; strange vehicles of every kind puttering along in a fog of fumes; motorbikes and cyclists seemingly intent on early arrival at the Pearly Gates; horses; dogs darting this way and that; trucks and lorries; tractors towing trailers full of livestock/olives/hay bales/barrels, and just about anything else you can think of; cars towing boats or other vehicles; goods of every kind tied and teetering on top of cars.

Getting stuck behind a slow moving vehicle on a narrow road is a nightmare in itself. The death defying manouevres of those who insist on passing – very often slap in the face of oncoming traffic or along some precipitous drop into sea or ravine – do nothing for one’s blood pressure.

The road from Volos runs out along the Peninsula right up to Trikeri village now and is generally quite good, barring the odd pothole. The nature of the terrain ensures that practically any type of roadway here will twist, turn and coil back on itself like vines in a rain forest. Many of the so-called roads are little more than tracks through the olive groves, and are unpaved, badly rutted and occasion all kinds of challenges in mud, ice and snow. That’s when tractors trundle to the rescue, or sometimes your only way out is by boat.

It’s never boring here on the Pelion Peninsula.

THE BACK END

BASKET UPDATED

I wrote about a basket given to me by Ron’s mother here and received a very interesting email from Biljana, a reader presently living in Thailand. She had information to pass along with reference to these Asian baskets – isn’t it amazing how the Internet can link people from across the globe?

Biljana is much interested in this type of basketry, and thinks that the Taiwanese basket given to me by Ron’s mother is not a funerary basket at all. In our email discussion on it, I had written that Taiwanese clients of Ron’s – guests to dinner in our Austin home – were excited to see the basket and told us it was used to take food to a loved one’s grave. She replied: “I am of the opinion that it is actually a wedding (rather prewedding) woven cane and wood (later lacquered) basket that is usually exchanged between families involved.”

She had further information: “The golden painted woman on the basket lid looks like more like a potential bride getting ready for her marriage ceremony than a candidate for heavenly departure. In those baskets the families of bride and groom sent to each other some presents, usually oranges ( mandarins) as a sign of respect . Mandarins are usually fruit of choice in Chinese culture as they consider them an auspicious element.”

She continues: “Black and red colours and golden gilding are also a combination for some baskets – here we have to be careful, as different Chinese groups use different colours, shapes and materials.”

Biljana’s emails are full of fascinating information about various Chinese cultures and subgroups; about how they migrated through the subcontinent, thus dispersing their techniques and symbolism and acquiring new knowledge in the process.

She sent the photograph I’ve included here – it’s one of her baskets and Biljana describes it: “I have a three tier one (antique) that belonged to a Peranakan family. Peranakans are Chinese Malays, a combination resulted in intermarriages between Chinese and local population in Malaysia and Singapore (we lived there also)… So, I am sending you a picture of my own with same combination of colours, but meant to be given on a wedding day, each tier filled with a group of gifts sending a message of wish for prosperity, longevity …. This type of basket is called “Bakul Siah” or “auspicious basket “. In them wedding gifts were transported and exchanged during 12-day wedding period and even from the engagement day.”

I’m delighted to think that a basket bought in Taiwan some 60 years ago journeyed to Texas across the Pacific, was enjoyed for many, many years and then became mine. Since I’ve had it, it has crossed the Atlantic and traveled through Europe and today sits atop a bookcase in Greece. Much has certainly been woven into its life, and now it’s brought me the friendship of a kindred spirit living on the continent where my basket was so carefully made.

Biljana, thank you very much for all the trouble you’ve taken to add to my knowledge of these baskets. And yes, I fully agree with you that people should share such information as they have, and that it’s always important to open a discussion. I’ve learnt a great deal from you and intend to discover more.

A SWIM-ALONG

We were lingering over our caffeine this morning, and were discussing how quiet the Gulf has been – scarcely a boat have we seen this season – when Ron said: “What’s that on the water?” I looked out at the Pag and saw three canoes, in fairly close proximity to each other, heading across in front of the house. Each canoe was escorting a swimmer.

“Must be some kind of training exercise,” I suggested. “For the Olympics perhaps?” A fourth canoe appeared around the headland to our left, with its accompanying swimmer moving along at an impressive clip.

Before too long, more and more swimmers came by, each one with his or her helper in a brightly coloured canoe. Quite eye-catching. Some of the athletes were superb – scarcely rippling the water – and beautiful to watch. Others were perhaps a little less graceful in their strokes, but all were obviously very strong swimmers. We couldn’t tell from where they’d come, but it was from some distance further down the Pelion Peninsula. Milina perhaps?

We watched for some time, moving from window to window to take photos. Raki, as you’ll note, was bored with the whole thing, and made it quite clear.

Mythos watched our antics at the window from below, but showed no inclination to join us. I think he was keeping an eye on Grappa who was hiding under a bush – he torments her horribly. He’s old and cranky and resents the youngsters.

Dolphins appeared a little further out, and kept pace for a while with the canoes and swimmers. I was expecting them to come closer – they often follow a boat – but they weren’t as curious this morning as they usually are.

I checked the local newspapers online, but could find no reference to this rather fascinating exercise. The participants must be in very fine shape for they covered a considerable distance before disappearing beyond the headland into Afissos. Marathon swimmers, I would guess.

I wasn’t asked to participate – they probably feared the competition.

PLATAMONAS CASTLE

We spent a couple of days this week in the Pieria region of Central Macedonia with friend Dave and the indomitable Tex, a Greek sheepdog rescued here in Pelion. Central Macedonia is one of Greece’s thirteen administrative regions; we are in Thessaly.

For those who might be interested in the ongoing row between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which claims Alexander the Great and wishes to be called Macedonia, I offer the following links, picked randomly among the great many that a Google tour will suggest.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macedonia_naming_dispute
http://www.mfa.gr/en/fyrom-name-issue/
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/27/AR2009072702653.html

Needless to say, I support the Greek view.

The castle, depending upon whose version of events one decides to follow, was built by the Crusaders at the beginning of the 13th century. Other sources maintain it was Byzantine, and built in the 1100s or perhaps even earlier.

Given its prominent position it was of strategic importance in controlling movement through the Vale of Tempe, which linked north and south, and in monitoring sea invasions. Pirates plundered the region repeatedly, as they did The Pelion.

Phillip 2nd, father of Alexander, marched his men along the Tempe valley on his way to Athens, and while no defensive castle existed at the time, there were certainly other structures. We don’t know precisely what, but work continues on the site and evidence is mounting that the ancient city of Herakleion was sited here.

New Tempe Tunnel Entrance

Long before Phillip, Xerxes trotted his troops through Tempe during Persia’s second invasion of Greece. Leonidas and his men fought to the death at Thermopylae in a vain attempt to stop him getting through the pass. Xerxes and his army then continued south to Athens where the Persians were decisively beaten at Salamis.

The castle was never destroyed, but has fallen into ruin over the centuries. It’s a rather fine example of medieval fortifications with all the bits and pieces one usually associates with such structures: towers, crenellations, loopholes, cannons – the whole nine yards. (Ron points out that the cannons to be seen dotted about the castle grounds are later than anything that would have been used by Crusaders.)

Defence Tower

Water Cistern

The cistern for water storage would have served the defence tower – all protected by a high wall. Presumably for a last stand?

Good advice!

 

 

 

 

 

TAGS: FYROM, Macedonia, Phillip 2nd , Alexander, Platamonas, Thessaly, Pelion, Byzantine, Crusaders, Vale of Tempe, Athens, Xerxes, Persians, Salamis, Thermopylae

 

 

 

 

 

 

RAKI – ALWAYS ON TOP OF THINGS

With all the attention recently seeming to focus on the latest furry additions to the household, some of you have been asking if the other cats have been sidelined.

Hardly! Retsina and Ouzo are now almost twelve, and still as standoffish to the other cats as ever – they spend most of their time on various beds and armchairs these days. Mythos is ten, doing perfectly fine considering the poor prognosis he was given as a desperately ill kitten and Raki is nine.

While ‘Sina, Ooze and Mythos are beginning to show age, with Ouzo in particular being quite arthritic, the little white horror is just as lively and demanding as always. He misses nothing, is involved in everything, expresses his opinion loudly and frequently and is absolutely adored by us both. One tries not to have favorites, but….

Remember him?

To this day he seems unaware that he’s a cat and we believe he imprinted on us. He behaves very differently to the others, disdaining all contact with them. He cannot bear to be parted from human company and is extremely inquisitive, always needing to be involved in whatever’s going on. He has an opinion on everything and all but speaks.

Yes, I know we’re besotted, but he’s unique among the scores of cats I’ve ever been owned by.

 

LOO WITH A VIEW

We’re so used to it now that we barely give it a second glance. It’s been there since our very first visit to Kalamos, when we vacationed in Magda’s house, long before we came to live here.

I imagine the enthusiastic hikers who encounter it as they trek along the headland do a double take. Flushed as they are with their exertions, it must rather bring them up short in their tracks.

It’s not exactly what you’d expect to see standing in an olive grove above the rocks and sand that drop away below. The waters of the Pagasitic flow before it and Mt Pelion stares impassively across at it.

In spring it perches proudly among the wildflowers. In summer it hums with bees as the grass and herbs dry out around it. In winter it faces the lashing of the winds and the thrashing of the rains.

Photo by B. Baxter

I’m grateful to our friend Bryan who provided me with this photograph.

Why it was dumped exactly there and not at the backside of the building we’ll never know, and although it’s hardly private, very few people ever pass that way. There’s a little beach cottage, only suitable for summer use, about fifty yards higher up from it.

Built very roughly of cement block and stone long before any electricity and running water came to Kalamos, not to mention tourists, the tiny house stood in splendid isolation from the world. Fresh water would have been drawn from the well in a deep gully below the house. This is now completely caved in, breached over the decades by the heavy winter waves.

Presumably built as a convenience for those who’ve got to go, the facility’s rather a wee one. Maybe the original owner of the cottage, now long dead, enthroned himself there to contemplate the passage of time? Perhaps he felt bogged down by life but the stunning view surely relieved him.

We’re not privy to what passed through his head, but would not all the ants and other creepy-crawlies have driven the occupant potty? A real pain in the butt.

Though bizarrely placed it isn’t quite as primitive as first appears. Ron noticed that a crude septic tank of sorts – a large barrel – was buried downhill from it. A sort of long drop you could say.

Quite a good job.

Whoever built it took fullest advantage of the view to answer the call of nature.

 

GREEK INDEPENDENCE DAY

The War of Greek Independence, sometimes referred to as the Greek Revolution, began in March 1821 and lasted until 1832. Most of the area known today as Greece had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks since the fall of Constantinople, now called Istanbul, in 1453. That’s not the only name change the city has experienced. In 330 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine took over the city of Byzantium – a major crossroads then as it is now between East and West – and established it as the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantium became Constantinople, from the Greek meaning the city (polis) of Constantine. It seems it made better sense for the Romans to wield their power in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean from a more central position.

And powerful Constantinople certainly was. In addition to its most advantageous location, the city had abundant wealth and was a significant cultural and academic center. Every major religion was represented, every school of thought, every profession and every calling. Every ethnic group and virtually every language then spoken found its way at some time or another through the centuries to Constantinople. Famed and fabled Constantinople attracted the kind of attention that few other cities could boast of.

I’m no historian. Some of you will know far more than I do about Constantinople’s long history, and particularly the impact of the Crusades. I’ve been to Istanbul (which no Greek will call by any name other than Constantinople) and love it. But now? Turmoil and upheaval are the order of the day again, and with Erdogan making waves with his claims to certain of the Greek islands, you’ll occasionally hear a Greek jokingly say that the Turks are on their way back here. Others shake their heads, muttering that many a word said in jest…

The Ottoman Turks controlled almost all of present day Greece for 400 years, with the exception of the Ionian Islands held by the Venetians, and the Mani Peninsula of the Peloponnesos. A long, long time during which the Greeks never lost their language. I could rattle on at great length about this period – the fascinating subject of countless tomes and theses – but you can read up on it if you’re at all interested.

The Greeks had made many attempts over the centuries to overthrow the Turks. The Peloponnesos, a thorn in Turkey’s side since she first invaded Greece, finally declared war on Turkey on the 17th of March 1821. The conflict was long and brutal. The Greeks had their allies and the Turks theirs. Great Britain was one of the countries that came to the aid of Greece; some accounts have tended to romanticize her role – Lord Byron’s involvement in particular with his tragic death being a factor. Byronas, as he’s called in Greece, is a national hero who is celebrated throughout Greece for his determined efforts in the Revolution, literally dying for the cause. Many boys are named for him, as are streets, squares and buildings.

March 25th is a national holiday in Greece, marking her independence from Turkey. The day is a joyful one. Parades take place throughout the country, from simple flag ceremonies in small villages to major parades in cities. Proud schoolchildren and various cultural groups wear traditional costume, while the blue and white flag of Greece flutters from hands, banners, buildings, balconies, and just about anywhere a flag can be hung or stuck into a holder. Happy gatherings celebrate the day and if the weather decides to play nice – for winter’s nearing its end – the festivities are even more fun.

The Independence Day Parade in Athens is an elaborate affair, complete with military displays and ponderous speeches by an assortment of bigwigs – in other words, it’s typical of this type of thing. What’s noteworthy though is the march of the evzones, the elite Presidential Guard.

In every video of the Independence Day parade I’ve found the commentary is in Greek, so instead I’ve chosen to give you a link to the parade which takes place every Sunday at 11.00. This is quite a display whatever the weather, culminating in the changing of the guard. In summer the temps can be over 100 deg F – the outfit must be murder to wear.

If you like a parade, here you go – you may need to copy the link and paste it into your browser.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qq4KP9CU63E

This particular video is very long and not well edited, with a rather choppy cut into the national anthem at the beginning, but it shows the march from the barracks to the cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Presidential Palace. These soldiers are part of an elite unit and are called evzones.

You can read more about the Greek National Anthem here
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hymn_to_Liberty

and listen to it here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDTVFbTHB5w

or here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAXByp_xLy8
This version gives a nice little slideshow if you’re interested.

The presidential guard changes on the hour, every hour, all year round in front of the cenotaph, but it’s only on Sunday that the full parade takes place. As you can imagine it’s quite a tourist attraction.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw-5GYg8WGo

This video is quite interesting – the maker gives a little commentary; I must point out though that the guard changes every hour, and not every two hours, as he says.

A BASKET CASE

 

This winter was a pretty bad one. Worst in living memory is what folks have said about it. Winter here is a season I usually enjoy though most people don’t, and I can see why. For sun lovers it doesn’t get a whole lot better than Greece with her typically placid summers, long and hot. Dependably so.

Once in a while the gods get angered and tempers fray up there on Mt Olympus. Zeus hurls a few thunderbolts about, Aeolos pitches his winds into the mix, and between them they might fling some rain around.

It’s usually all over in a flash, sometimes several flashes, but it doesn’t last long and it doesn’t happen often during the summer.

This winter nearly did me in. The sun pulled a vanishing act. It simply up and left. Perhaps Helios felt slighted that Chione, temperamental goddess of snow was getting too much attention and so he went into a prolonged sulk. Whatever. We missed him. We’d arise to damply dismal days, with fog so thick that frequently we couldn’t see much of the Pagasitic at all.

For the first time in my life I was affected by the lack of light, and began to understand what Ron means when he refers to the cabin fever of Alaska. Peering through the gloom at the distorted outlines of familiar shapes among the olive groves I could almost imagine that I caught glimpses of centaurs chasing about.

We’d been away so long last year that one of the storerooms wasn’t opened up until we’d come back and needed a few items. An awful smell greeted me as I unlocked the door and found, to my horror, that some of the bits and pieces were pretty much covered in a black mold. Yecch! The worst affected were the baskets I’d put there when I went through a de-cluttering frenzy a couple of years ago. Housekeeping not being my strong suit, I’d decided then that I was tired of dusting them, and probably even more tired of extricating the cats from them.

The only way to attempt a rescue was to wash the mold off, but the weather was so wet and the sun so absent that drying them was going to be a problem. I placed the sorry-looking baskets in a spare room with a dehumidifier, which Ron had to empty constantly, until winter began its journey south and the sun started getting over its snit. Finally, after still grumbling and grousing its way through a few days, gracing us with only brief appearances, the sun recovered its good humor and beamed down brightly.

As soon as I was reasonably confident of weather reports predicting prolonged periods of sun I set the baskets out in the courtyard and got to work with the hose, spraying the mold off carefully. A gentle brushing with a very soft brush completed the task and although some of the woven grass has darkened a little in color, the baskets emerged none the worse for the experience. I’m much relieved for apart from the fact that I have a great appreciation of the handmade, several of my baskets are quite old and are filled with memories.

This little basket has a history. It’s one of my most precious possessions. A great many years ago my Mother helped a Zulu woman who had come to our back door. Several days later the woman returned in order to give this basket she had woven to my Mother. Mother was overwhelmed by the generosity of a rural woman who had so little in material terms, and treasured the gift. It’s worth noting that she had walked many, many miles to come to our home. Barefoot. In the blazing sun. My Mother kept her knitting in it until I, by then in high school, relieved her of it to store my knitting needles.

Ron’s Mother purchased this beauty about 60 years ago in Taiwan. It’s a funerary basket, used to take food to the grave of a loved one. It’s woven of rattan, lacquered in red and black, with decoration in gold paint. I have no way of knowing if the female figure on the lid is a general representation of a mourner, or was commissioned for a particular person. Fortunately the basket suffered no ill effects from the mold although it was so covered in the gunk that no color could be seen.

Here are a few more from my collection.

Yesterday my friend Carrie in Austin sent me these pictures of a basket she’s just made.

One of two she’s making for her cats, having noticed, like me, that kitties are partial to taking naps in baskets. My cats, it must be said, are partial to taking naps anywhere that’s likely to inconvenience me. Ah well…

 

YOU TALKING TO ME?

My friends sent me this delightful photo of their kids reading my new book.

We do so take the wonders of the Internet for granted – one click and a book ordered from America can very soon be read by a brother to his sister in Greece.

It’s worth noting that young Michael’s English, his second language, is so good that he immediately queried the title, and asked why it’s not: “Are You Talking To Me?”.

Bless him – that lad is sharp. His parents explained the shades of meaning, and the ways in which tone and inflection can affect the interpretation of the title’s question.

I love that Nelly’s hanging on to every word and how much her brother is enjoying the opportunity to impress his little sister.