Tag Archives: Greece

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.

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.

SHADES OF ROALD DAHL

Several years ago Costa arrived at the house late one afternoon with a happy grin on his face.

“I’ve something for you. Will you give me a beer?”

Biera. That’s possibly one of Costa’s favourite words. Fond of his beer is Costa, and we make sure to have a supply on hand. He drops in when he’s working in the area, and we have our little ritual of beer for Costa and tea for me. He’s the most cheerful man, loving to crack jokes, especially about being a Muslim.

“Yes,” he’ll laugh, “I’m a very good Muslim – I drink beer and I eat pork.” (It’s worth noting here that over 50% of Albanians are secular Muslims; the country was under harsh Ottoman rule for five centuries and then Communism for decades.)

“Are you both well?” he continued, as I made ready to fetch him a beer.

“Sit! Sit!” He led me to a garden bench. “I’ve brought something you will like.”

He darted off up the driveway towards the gate. Puzzled, I waited. Hiding something away to surprise me with is a little game of his.

“What is it?” he’ll tease. “What do you think I’ve got?”

Could be anything. If it’s a plant or bunch of flowers he’ll keep it behind his back until he’s satisfied I’m sufficiently curious, then he’ll produce it with a flourish. He’s a great showman, is Costa, and a most kind and generous person.

He came trotting back down the drive carrying a typical round Greek terrace table. You see these classic little tables everywhere in Greece. Simple and practical they’re the stuff of picture postcards, often painted blue, set amid pots of bright red geraniums, and with an inviting jug of wine or cup of coffee atop them.

They’re iconic, instantly recognizable as Greek, speaking of lazy summer days. Mind you, I’m not sure if the days of the staff who serve customers in tavernas and coffee shops are all that lazy – they run themselves ragged taking care of their customers.

But the table Costa was holding aloft was not new. Its top was quite battered, what little paint left on it flaking off in a mishmash of grayish green, mixed with plenty of rust. It was charming. I loved it instantly. It reflected a great deal of age, hand wrought of thick steel and still perfectly sturdy.

“Costa!” I exclaimed. “Where did you get it?”

“What do you care?” came his standard reply. “I got it and it’s for you. That’s all you need to know.”

Bless him, he knows I appreciate the old, the unusual and most especially the handmade.

We put it in a corner of the terrace where it stood proudly for several years facing Mt Pelion, often graced by a red geranium in an old ceramic pot. The winds can be very fierce across this terrace. Aelos, god of the wind and chosen by Zeus himself, doesn’t always tease gently off the sea. At times he hurls himself savagely onto the land, particularly when Zeus is having a right old spat with his wife Hera and has demanded that Aeolos do his bidding.

The original geranium has been replaced many times, so vicious can Aeolos be when he decides to release the winds under his command, but the pot and the table have never yielded to him, and the table became even more weathered and dignified in its old age.

“You need to let me paint that,” Costa would assert, frequently, over the years. “It’s old and people will think you are very poor and can’t afford to buy a new one.” Appearances matter to Costa.

“No, you can’t”, I would reply. “I love it like that. It’s beautiful. It has a history. Who knows where it’s been, and how many tales it can tell us? Just you leave it alone, there’s no need to paint it.”

Costa would merely sniff, but one day, after a couple of beers, he did reveal he’d found it dumped in a gully with a pile of builder’s rubble. It could have come from anywhere, but it certainly has had a long life.

As you know, we were gone almost all of last year. Costa and Freddie were absolute stars, taking it in turns to come down from Albania to look after our numerous pets and keeping everything going here. Costa isn’t usually in Kalamos during the summer because there’s not much work. The winter months are his busy ones as it’s then that the olives are harvested, the trees pruned and the lands tidied up. So he had lots of time on his hands, and he used it well, doing all kinds of little chores about the property.

Have you read Roald Dahl’s wonderful story “The Parson’s Pleasure”? If not, you’ve missed out on one of his typical pieces of black humour. This tale involves the destruction of a genuine Chippendale commode, and yes, you’ve guessed right. Costa channeled Dahl, of whom he’s never heard although Dahl’s delicious stories must surely have been translated into Albanian.

No, Costa didn’t saw the legs off my beautifully distressed table, my gorgeous piece of shabby chic, but he did finally get his way. He painted it.

He went to all the trouble of having someone buy him the paint, and he painted it. Bright green yet. Rather a startling bright, glossy green. He couldn’t wait to show it to me when we returned.

I confess I gasped. I was stunned, but Costa was thrilled, assuming I was delighted. Oh dear. No way could I have hurt his feelings. Never could I do that. So I told him it was perfect, absolutely perfect, I praised him for his thoughtfulness.

And Costa beamed. He’s so proud of it. He’s overjoyed to have made me happy. And yes, it’s absolutely not what I wanted, not at all, but you know what? It is perfect. Absolutely perfect.

 

NEW BEGINNINGS

 Yes, it has been almost a year and many thanks to those who wrote to inquire. We very much appreciate your concern. And yes, it was a medical emergency that landed us in Split, and no, we weren’t heading there. We were on our way to London and then Austin when Ron became ill. British Airways was absolutely fantastic to us, insisting on getting Ron to medical attention after a doctor on board noted that his blood pressure had dropped to a life-threatening level. I could write volumes on what ensued – perhaps I will someday – but it must be said that the Croatian doctors and hospitals treated us with nothing but care and concern. We will be forever grateful.

I was almost rigid with fear when Ron was taken away in an ambulance and I was put into a taxi. This was intensified when it became clear to me that I couldn’t speak. Not in the usual sense, for all those who know me will tell you I have no trouble prattling on. No, I couldn’t find any words to exchange with the taxi driver who spoke no English. Why should he? I have some knowledge of a few languages but of the Slavic languages I’m mostly ignorant. Being unable to communicate aroused a primal terror in me. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

We spent more than a week there – our departure being delayed by reams of red tape – during which time we fell completely in love with the Croatian people. Croatia became part of Yugoslavia after the First World War. Its history, like that of all the Balkans, is a turbulent one. Centuries of occupations and revolutions, suffering and oppression, were compounded by the Communist takeover following the Second World War. To that must be added the horrors of the Bosnian War at the end of the last century, the aftermath of which continues to resonate.

Today Croatia is a member of the European Union. The country is forging ahead, eager and hardworking after the domination and degradation of Communism. There’s a buzz, a vibrancy, and it’s to their credit that most of those we interacted with spoke good English. This surely augurs well for the future.

We hired a charming young tour guide to take us on the long drive to Zagreb where we would continue the journey to London. He exemplified the enthusiastic spirit pervading the country with his spanking new and spotlessly clean Mercedes, flawless English and most informative running commentary.
Apparently Bill Gates spends a lot of time in this beautiful country, and we can fully appreciate why.

We spent the next several months in Austin, a busy time with family and friends but I managed to finish writing a book to be published in April, 2017.

An uncomplicated return trip and here we are again, back in Greece. We stepped out of the car, four days of travel behind us, and were greeted by this

Here is a tiny part of the new arrivals –

There’s plenty to tell, but it will have to wait. We’ve had what’s being described as the worst winter in the last 50 years. It has really been bad – it’s still very cold but at least no more snow. We’ve been a haven for homeless animals as we are the only people in the area at this time; we’ve taken them all in, never fear, and they have plenty of food and shelter. Those that are sociable have all been neutered, but those that sneak up to eat once darkness falls are a problem. This is a subject for another time, but meanwhile, in addition to our longtime pets, we have 14 cats and 3 dogs.

The garden has been pretty much destroyed by snow and ice, but spring’s putting in a tentative appearance, and the wildflowers are raising their heads to take a peak at it all.

His Sultanship

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Computer “Help”

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Just Resting

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Just Resting ….. Some More

Many of you know that Raki is a much adored, much indulged cat who genuinely doesn’t appear to know he is a cat. We fancy that he believes himself to be one of us. Like us. He certainly has no idea how to interact with the other cats of the household, and holds himself aloof from them. Perhaps this is because he was hand-reared, but it also has to do with his personality.

Cats have been part of my life, all my life. There’s a photo of me sitting up in my pram in Scotland – one of those gorgeous large carriages, all wood trim and huge wheels – with a tabby cat asleep at the foot of it. I adore cats, I like to think I understand cats, my childhood home was filled with cats. I was enthralled by the stories my Mother told me of cats she had owned, of cats she had known of, of cats which had featured in tales she in turn had been told in lands far away and foreign to me at the time.

Raki is unique. Not because we are besotted with him, not because we are slowly going dotty, but because of his behaviour which enchants all who see him, even those who are not typically lovers of cats. It’s often said that cats are standoffish, that they aren’t faithful and companionable like dogs, but that can never be said of Raki. He’s deeply affectionate, has the most delightful quirks, and is devoted to us, particularly to Ron. He’s always very close to us, following us everywhere; we never have to search for him.

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Nap Time

A few weeks ago, Costa’s daughter came down from Albania to visit her husband who is working here on the Pelion Peninsula, and accompanied him daily to assist with his work in the fields. Marieklena speaks little Greek, but she speaks the language of yarn. Fluently. Her workworn hands were busy every spare moment in the evenings; crochet is her thing, and she’s an expert.

Marieklena was charmed by Raki, and told us of other Van cats like him in Albania, for of course these cats came to Albania from Turkey as they did to Greece. She returned to Albania with hubby Freddie last week – a few days break for him to see his children. Freddie came back last night, bringing gifts from the family – Costa’s extended, generous and gracious family – but the most important gift is for Raki. Mariklena made it, and sent it with explicit instructions that it is only for him so that he might sleep on bedding fit for a sultan, which is what we occasionally refer to him as.

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Freddie explained that Mariklena made the pompons* so that he’d have something to play with. I admit I was overcome, and clearly so was Raki for he wasted not a minute climbing on it when I spread it out, and fell instantly asleep.

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Immediately

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Three Minutes Later

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As the Day Passed

* Apparently the pompons are created on a wooden device, hand carved for the purpose, which is traditional in Albania.  Mariklena uses a very old one made by an ancestor of Costa’s family. Such an item is new to me and I can’t wait to examine it.

SHRINES

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SHRINE: A place dedicated to a saint or deity; a memorial.

Greece is a bewitching and often bewildering mix of the ancient and the modern, and particularly so in the deep countryside, away from the urban sophistication. There are many springs here on the Pelion; the charming villages in this beautiful region originated in the age-old sites where water sprang from the ground, although some of these springs are dry now. The local people are usually quite well informed about the history of the area, and indeed, several of the families trace their roots back for many centuries.

What treasures of information are in their memories: family biographies, community traditions, local narratives, the historical record, tales of yesteryear. Greeks are well schooled in their history, and fiercely proud of their heritage. I’ve had the pleasure of many a fascinating conversation from which I’ve learned much, and so it is that I’ve heard about springs or caves with shrines dedicated in antiquity to gods or goddesses, but which are now updated, so to speak, to The Virgin Mary, to Christ, or to a particular saint. Thus you may see a little sign pointing to The Spring of Diana, and a few feet away, another sign indicating The Spring of the Blessed Mother. Take your pick. One thing is certain though – the spot was known and enshrined in pre-history, whatever its name or names since.

Shrines abound in Greece, and because they’re frequently found at the roadside, they’re often assumed by tourists to be memorials to a life or lives lost at that particular location. This may well be the tragic case, but many shrines are erected, in prominent places, to commemorate a life lost elsewhere, in circumstances other than a road accident. Shrines may be built in memory of persons beloved; in gratitude to God or saints for favours received and prayers answered; to acknowledge a miracle attributed to the entity so venerated; or simply even as a sign of respect to a divine being.

Many and varied are the shrines. They may be a simple stone, placed perhaps by a tree. They may be tiny, they may be enormous. They may be a basic metal box balancing precariously on rusting legs: these are old, quite often badly neglected for nobody remains to tend them. They may be large, beautifully constructed and maintained. They may even be grand enough to accommodate people: magnificently decorated chapels, open to those who wish to spend a moment in quiet thought or prayer.

All, no matter how humble and long forgotten, represent the hearts and minds of those who placed them there. They are, quite literally, historical markers.

They serve as a reminder to reflect.

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ERMOU STREET

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Ermou Street, referred to simply as Ermou, is an important shopping district in Volos. It’s been pedestrianised and is largely free of cars, though it’s criss-crossed by streets running from the harbour on up towards the mountain. Vehicles travel along these streets but it should not be assumed that drivers will automatically stop at the zebra crossings. What typically happens is that one or two people wait as cars carry on through regardless, and when enough have formed an increasingly impatient cluster they surge across.

The shops along and around Ermou are brimful of goods, varied and interesting; coffee shops abound. This past Friday I settled myself with my purchases on a bench in front of the cathedral to wait for Ron and watch the world go by.

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This area is perhaps the heart of the city, almost always bustling unless the weather is particularly foul. It’s quite impossible to be bored if you’re at all inclined to people watching.

Harried housewives, courting couples, elegant shoppers and ladies-who-lunch, locals and tourists ambling along, the frazzled rushing to appointments, mothers with their children, friends and family meeting up, the ever-present students, vendors, musicians, street artists, panhandlers, demonstrators and protestors.

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Wait long enough and you’re almost certain to see a large slice of society. Observe a little closely and Volos will reveal herself in all her layers.

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This cheerful violinist, always smiling and often interrupting his playing to greet a friend for a brief chat, is pretty much a fixture at this spot. His choice of pieces is rather fixed also, comprising the schmaltzy mixed with the occasional polka, but he’s an entertainer after all, a busker performing to the tastes of his perceived audience.

A woman pushing a young boy stopped. “Listen to the lovely music,” she enthused to the kid. “When you’re older you’ll learn the violin, and then you’ll play just like this clever man.” The musician obligingly smiled and jiggled about while the kid stared impassively at him, showing no interest at all until the woman tossed a couple of coins into the violin case. Perhaps the child is destined for a career as a classical music critic, or maybe he’ll concern himself with matters financial.

The violin was emitting strains (in more ways than one) of Tschaikovsky when an advancing group to the right caught my eye – an orderly protest by staff of the state-run home for the aged.

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Greece is in a ferment over plans to cut pensions, representing yet another hardship in the lives of people already heavily burdened financially. The care workers grouped themselves a couple of yards from me, standing quietly as helpers handed out leaflets explaining the issue.

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Soon television crews from various stations arrived to record the event for the evening bulletins.

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The cameramen drew the attention of passersby, some of whom used their phones to take their own pictures, but mostly the demonstration attracted little interest, and people went on their way.

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Tschaikovsky was replaced by Strauss, but as the reporters began to assemble in front of the protestors, the violinist gave up the performance, leaning back to watch the proceedings.

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It wasn’t long before his hands needed something to do, and a cigarette was fished from his pocket.

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The journalists began their interviews of the staff, who calmly, quietly explained their position. I’m very much in sympathy with them, but it’s clear from the political rhetoric that the chances of success are slim indeed.

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Interviewing

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Rather a pragmatic soul is the violin player who noticed the crowds dwindling and decided to call it a day. Smiling all the while he packed up the violin and moved off, nodding pleasantly to me. Maybe I’ll chat to him next time I’m in Ermou.

“TO MARKET! TO MARKET! TO BUY…?”

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Street markets are a common sight throughout Europe. Many towns and cities grew from ancient beginnings at crossroads where merchants from exotic parts set up bazaars to buy, to sell, to swap news, to plot, to scheme. In short, to engage in all the activities man is capable of.

Several of these markets are historically significant, well documented in book and film, essential destinations for tourist and trader alike. There is much to explore, both in open air and covered street markets, while the careful observer will note that little has changed with respect to human behaviour. Sadly now in certain countries local markets are fast becoming targets for those whose twisted minds seek to sow horror and carnage.

As one travels further and further east across the Balkans, away from the sophisticated culture of urban areas and deeper into the simpler life of isolated rustic communities, the street market has much more in common with its ancient counterpart. The exchange of goods, especially fresh produce, is vital to the well-being of the community. It is not unusual, even today, to encounter people clad almost entirely in handmade garments, people who have never gone beyond their village of birth.

On to the fun! Friends have been regaling me with stories of their fantastic buys in recent months, and as it’s been some time since we visited a Volos street market, we decided to do so this past Friday. Small neighbourhood markets take place on most days, typically offering fish and fresh produce, while the Wednesday and Friday markets are the largest with regard to clothing and household goods.

They can be huge, occupying several blocks, so these markets are required to rotate their locations in order not to inconvenience residents and shopkeepers on a regular basis. There’s a roster determined by the municipality, but because the clothing markets are situated in an area of upper Volos, away from the town centre, it’s not strictly necessary to know exactly where they will be held – it soon becomes obvious as you drive along where the hustle and bustle is.

It’s also apparent that parking is a problem: the streets are narrow, the vehicles numerous, the obstacles many, the crowds large. Nothing for it but to get stuck in. Literally. You can see why we don’t often go. Hubby dropped me at an intersection and went off to sandwich the car somewhere; thank goodness for cell ‘phones which make it possible to locate each other in the throng.

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We often joke that you can clothe yourself from head to foot as you meander through the stalls, such is the variety of goods on sale, from shoes and socks, underpants and some rather improbable-looking bras, to sweaters, coats and headgear. You can eat too, if street food’s your thing – souvlaki, sausages, grilled corn on the cob, the ubiquitous sesame bread twists. The smells are tempting but I confess to a certain reluctance to sample them.

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You can take care of personal grooming; you can accessorize; you can clean, carpet, curtain and cushion your home; dress up your dining room; brighten your bedroom, and toss a few new tschotsches about while you’re at it. Depending on your taste of course.

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While you may occasionally see a soul selling some interesting item from the ancestral home, the bulk of the goods consists of cheap imports though lately it’s clear that stock has been obtained from defunct business enterprises. This is where the bargains are to be found, good quality clothing in particular – if you’re prepared to rummage through the piles stacked on the trestle tables. Designer pieces turn up – sometimes with the labels removed which I’m told is the practice when prestigious names clear their overstocks – to the delight of the savvy buyer.

Most of the vendors are Roma people, often referred to as gypsies – an offensive term. The Roma in Greece are settled in tightly knit communities, are citizens, and aren’t as a rule itinerant. Their native language remains intact, and certainly here in Greece the Roma are fully bilingual. (It’s worth noting that the Roma I recently encountered in Bulgaria speak a different Roma dialect, as well as Bulgarian.) 

The Roma and their history have been of interest to me since childhood, but I’m not going to elaborate on their culture now – I’ll drone on about it another time.

What all the vendors do have in common is their patter, pitched at ear-splitting volume. Roma women often sit atop the tables stacked with their wares, tossing garments at would-be shoppers:

” Come on, my love!” they bawl.

“Look at this beauty! Where will you find such a bargain! Don’t think for one moment you would pay this pitiful amount in the snooty store!”

Their helpers dart about, taking the money, retrieving the goods, cajoling the doubtful into a purchase.

“Girls! Girls! Would I lie to you? Would I? You think I’m selling things? Am I selling things? I’m not selling things, girls, I’m not selling! I’m giving it away!”

All good fun. I’ve never encountered rudeness, I must say, and find it absolutely fascinating, though I’m not made of stuff stern enough to spend a lot of time in the raucous atmosphere.

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Market’s end

 

A WINDOW INTO BULGARIA

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We recently spent a few days in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, driving up from the Pelion and crossing the border outside of Serres. We’ve travelled quite a bit through Balkan states, but this was our first visit to Bulgaria, nestled deep in the heart of the Balkans.

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It will take me time to process my impressions, to reconcile what I saw and heard with the very little I knew of the country’s history and its warm-hearted people. Of course, it can be argued that a few hours of driving through small towns en route, together with a somewhat hair-raising encounter with rush hour traffic in historic downtown Sofia, hardly qualifies one to make pronouncements, but first impressions do frequently find their mark, which in this instance make us eager to return for further exploration.

Bulgaria’s history is long, and long has its geographical position subjected it to invasion. Social turbulence, hideous conflict, unspeakable horrors have dominated the country since time immemorial; the Ottoman Occupation lasted here even longer than in Greece, and finally ended in the Independent Bulgaria of 1878.

Not for long, sadly, for immediately post World War Two Bulgaria was gripped, choked by Communism. The Soviet-era scars remain, both in the hideous concrete structures built to house the populace – visible memories of poverty, fear and repression – but also in the recollections of those who lived through it.

Plovdiv, the second largest city, is ancient. Its buildings are a fascinating mix of architecture; there’s a Roman city, there are mosques, temples and churches, museums, theatres, and dwellings of historic significance. The city was home through the ages to peoples of all ethnic groups, religions and cultures; it was a crossroads of commerce, a thoroughfare of tradesmen, a meeting point for many minds.

Bulgaria was admitted to the European Union in January, 2007. Plovdiv’s inner city is undergoing urban renewal – the inevitable signs of rapid development apparent in the many construction sites, with their scaffolding scarring the facades of graciously genteel buildings. Steel and glass modernity is juxtaposed with gems of bygone architecture, and in some cases is even imposed upon these older buildings in that the lower levels have been updated – plate glass windows and doors – whilst the upper levels remain untouched. So far.

The wealth of architectural detail and ornament still to be seen is quite stunning. Many are the photographs I took while ambling in a very small area, some of which I’ll share with you in the next few posts.

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WELCOME BACK, PERSEPHONE!

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We were still in Austin when Persephone began her journey back from Hades to return to her grieving mother, so we missed the earliest signs celebrating the end of winter on the Pelion.

Winters here are typically mild with very occasional snowfall and rarely any frost, but the rainfall can be heavy and this past winter it certainly was. No complaints at all as we really needed it; many springs had dried up during the previous summer, causing considerable difficulty for those who depend upon them for their water supply.

The ancients would have attributed this generous rainfall to Zeus, god of rain, who reigned supreme on Mt Olympus. Good of him to spare the time from his lusty pursuit of young maidens! His daughter, Persephone, surely appreciated it for the wildflowers have done her proud, happy as we all are to welcome her back.

Greece is renowned for her wildflowers, and deservedly so for they are spectacular, not only in their beauty but also in their variety.
Habitats are many and diverse: sandy coastlines, pastureland and scrub, rocky ravines, wooded highlands and craggy mountains, saltwater, freshwater, well-watered lands and dry, wind-lashed and tightly sheltered, all with their particular plants adapted through the aeons to their conditions.

Man’s influence has inevitably been enormous. The maquis, which might at first glance seem untouched by man’s activities, will almost without exception have been affected in some way by previous populations and their lifestyles, stretching back into antiquity. The mountains of the Pelion region were once dense with native hardwoods; today only comparatively minute forested areas remain. Man is an innovative creature and where there is something – whatever it may be – to his advantage, he will make use of it.

Greece is a paradise for botanists professional and amateur alike, who may be seen, notebook in hand, hiking enthusiastically about as they spot and document plants. Several species are unique, found only in one particular location, such as an island. Many plants are rare, threatened, on the verge of extinction, others have already vanished, identified only in old engravings and drawings, the regrettable result of man’s impact on the environment.

Wildflowers of varying types appear throughout the year; some are tiny, almost invisible, others stand tall. Colour! Colour! Colour! The bees are frantically busy, knowing that warm days will inevitably end, while the beekeepers carefully tend their hives, moving them about to take advantage of the best nectar. Pelion honey, infused with flavour fit for the gods, is much sought after.

Spring and summer flowers retire, their seeds and bulbs lying peacefully dormant until Persephone calls to them again. Autumn arrives, throwing down dense carpets of cyclamen, welcoming the approach of winter, much as local residents roll out their rugs and kilims in preparation for the cool damp days ahead when more time must be spent indoors.

Look closely, remembering that the photos will enlarge when you click on them, and in some of the photos you’ll spot bugs, bees, butterflies  buzzing busily in the abundance! The cycle continues as birds and other wildlife feed, thus ensuring seed dispersal, and preparing the way for Persephone to return in all her ageless beauty.

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