The Swimmers

What do you do when you are parents, and your daughters want to embark on a perilous journey in order to have a future?

This is a film recommendation: The Swimmers tells a true story, of sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini, who were normal teenagers in Damascus, training to be professional swimmers. They left Syria because bombs started falling, and practically ‘swam’ to Greece.

 

This is the story of their journey; eventually Yusra fulfilled her ambition to swim at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics. As for Sara, her story is ongoing—but I will leave you to discover it for yourselves.

I had followed the sisters’ saga via The Worldwide Tribe Instagram feed and Podcasts. You can listen to an interview with Sara, here.(highly recommended)

Often biopics can ring false, striving for a heroic bias, but I found this well done, and the actors are excellent. The two are played by real life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, which gets the sibling chemistry across really well. The film has its flaws, depending on different points of view—for example, it annoyed some people that the actors spoke mostly in English instead of Arabic—but I thought it gave a good insight into the wider humanitarian crisis facing migrants, and what it means to be labelled a refugee.

It is also a story of family, determination, guts, human frailty—and never giving up on your dreams.

Here is a trailer.

Footnote: See what you think about the traffickers—they are the villains in this story.

Did you know…

…Some animal are immortal?

Theoretically, that is—or, at least, they do not age. Obviously, they can die from other causes: accidents, predators etc. I found this bit of arcana fascinating and thought I’d share.

One species that has been called ‘biologically immortal’ is the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii. These small, transparent animals hang out in oceans around the world and can turn back time by reverting to an earlier stage of their life cycle.

Then there is the Hydra: a tubular body with a tentacle-ringed mouth at one end and an adhesive foot at the other. They’re very simple animals that spend their days mostly staying in one place in freshwater ponds or rivers and using their stinging tentacles to grab any prey that happens to swim past. Their claim to immortality? They don’t go through senescence (biological aging) at all. Instead of gradually deteriorating over time, a Hydra’s stem cells have the capacity for infinite self-renewal. Cool, right? However, who’d want to be a Hydra…

Hydra. Photo:Google


Lobsters also do not experience senescence. Unlike Hydra’s reliance on particular genes, however, their longevity is thanks to them being able to endlessly repair their DNA. Unfortunately there’s a catch: they literally grow too big for their own shells. Lobsters continually grow larger and larger, but their shells can’t change size, meaning a lifetime of ditching too-small shells and growing a brand-new exoskeleton each time. That takes a fair amount of energy. Eventually, this becomes too much, and they die of exhaustion—unless they have managed to end up in a lobster roll before that happens.

Many other species offer tantalising glimpses into an ageless existence: such as naked mole rats, whose risk of dying does not increase as they get older; the Ming quahod clam; some bristlecone pines—there is a colony of quaking aspens considered to be about 80,000 years old. Also the enormous bowhead whale, which can live up to 200 years, since they can repair damaged DNA, hence are prevented from developing cancer. Scientists also suggested that these whales can survive the absence of oxygen even for a long time.

These animal can perhaps provide information which will benefit human longevity. But to the question, asked by a young relative, ‘Would you like to live forever?’ my answer is, ‘No, thank you.’ Especially if I had to live attached to a rock, like a Hydra.

New Beginnings

Why do most of us feel a sense of renewal at the beginning of each new year?

The date itself is a completely arbitrary point in the flow of current events. Because the year is about to change, wars are not likely to stop, or natural disasters, or family feuds. And yet we do feel some change will happen—especially if the current year has been difficult. We cannot wait for it to be over, to be rid of it. A new start.

That is a good thing—the stirrings of hope. Without it, life would be too depressing. And good things do happen.

So let us be thankful of what we have, and count our blessings, and spare a thought for those who are worse off than us, for there are many. (And perhaps stop watching the news, for a day or two!)

Happy New Year!

“Hope is the thing with feathers;

that perches in the soul;

And sings the song without the words;

And never stops – at all.”

Emily Dickinson

Happy holidays!

Well, here I am again! I have been extremely busy with various matters and also a family trip to Iceland, where, to my delight, I was able to cross two things off my bucket list: the Northern Lights, and whales! Both well worth the wait, and the anticipation.

 

It was good fun being with all the family, getting suited up for all the activities on offer: the whale watching, snowmobile riding on a huge glacier, walking on the beaches and close to the amazing waterfalls, festooned with rainbows.

Iceland is a worthwhile destination, a stark, dramatic landscape totally different to what I, at least, am used to.

On the glacier

It was amazing sitting by a motel window, in the middle of nowhere, at 11.30 pm, watching a show I will never forget: illuminated curtains rising and falling, the colours fading and brightening in turn. Simply awesome.

Meet Nila (below), a 15m humpback whale recognised because the flukes of her tail are very white. She gave a display of tail slapping, and even breached for us in a breathtaking performance—imagine a double decker bus rising vertically out of the water. No photo, because I prefer to watch events live than be stuck behind my phone. Also I am a useless photographer. Photo below (as well as the minke whale above), courtesy of our captain, who had a proper camera.

Another year over, and the news continues to be horrendous. As usual, art provides relief, and I have had the privilege to see a lot of it, and immerse myself in the idea that humanity cannot be that bad if capable of producing such beauty.

Joan Mitchell

Amongst many others, a standout show was the one juxtaposing Claude Monet and Joan Mitchel at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

Monet flowers

The frames had been taken off the Monet paintings, giving them a surprisingly contemporary look, and they had been placed in such a way as to both contrast with and complement the abstraction of Joan Mitchell’s wonderful works.

 

The three Monet paintings below were originally sold to three different American museums, and have never been exhibited together before. I will leave you with this peaceful image with all my best wishes for the festivities ahead.

Inktober is over!

Every year I find it fun to participate in the Inktober challenge, where for the whole month of October artists post ink drawings onto their Instagram feeds. There is a list of prompts to follow each day, but of course none of this is obligatory—it is a fun thing, no prizes to be had. (See My Inktober 2019 here.)


I never follow the prompts, unless some inspire me along the way, and usually I do not manage to post every day. This year, though, I challenged myself—I would post a series of drawings, one every single day.

 


I chose to draw on A5-size paper, so I bought a pile of handmade cotton sheets, quite thick, ivory-colored and with deckled edges. I drew in ink and added gold, silver or copper leaf.

 

The drawings were for sale, and the first person to comment got the day’s drawing. Most sold, and the rest will do very well for Christmas presents!

 


Most importantly, I really enjoyed the challenge, and am proud of myself for managing to get to the end, despite work and travel that happened this month.


Also, practice makes perfect, and my control of the medium employed and my hand-and-eye coordination in drawing improved by the day.

As you can see, most drawings are of animals or birds—but I did have some trees, a thistle, a pineapple and a Haloween pumpkin!
If you want to see the lot, my Instagram handle is @athensletters

Halloween Humor

Halloween is not really a thing in Greece but, as it amuses children—and some adults presumably— Halloween parties do take place, but no trick or treating as such. However, as put off as I am by the usual overdose of merch etc, I admit I do love some of the jokes and cartoons.

I’m a big fan of Dan Piraro and his Bizarro comics

And the inimitable Roz Chas

The one below is a little gross

And the next one, decidedly non-PC

❤️❤️❤️ the raven

Continue reading “Halloween Humor”

#6Degrees of Separation October 2022

Bookworm alert: I don’t know if you have come across this blog, written by the delightful Marina Sofia, but it always contains interesting tidbits. This post is about books set in schools and universities. I had read these, and others with the same setting, what’s not to like about it? A quick google search brought up an amazing number of such books—if anyone’s interested, I might do a post with a selection.

findingtimetowrite

Always a little late to the party, i.e. first Monday rather than first Saturday of the month, but always a pleasure to take part in the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. We all start with the same book and then link it, one by one, to six other books to form a chain. There are no limits to our imagination as we use the links!

This month the starting point is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. There was quite a buzz about this book when it first came out and it was filmed as well, although I haven’t seen the adaptation. Originally a little sceptical about the book (the blurb did not do it any favours), I was actually impressed after reading it: the unreliable narrator is done so unobtrusively well. It is set in a school…

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An old tobacco factory

I am aware I have been absent for a while, the summer has been unusually busy and I lacked inspiration. However, I did manage to take in a few exhibitions, and I will now regale you with some art—beats news of wars, wildfires, hurricanes and funerals, which I’m sure everyone has had enough of.

I’m always on the lookout for new exhibitions curated by NEON, a nonprofit organization that works to bring contemporary culture closer to the public. In the past they have put on many interesting shows, in locations that one rarely gets to visit. I have written about them before. (here, and here.)

The exhibitions are usually excellent, so I went to their latest one, in an old tobacco factory in downtown Athens.

 

The Greek Public Tobacco Factory, in the area of Kolonos, was the second public tobacco factory in Athens. It was built by the Greek State at the time when the cigarette manufacturing industry was booming. The idea was to house the tobacco processing and packaging companies as well as the tobacco traders’ warehouses with the main purpose of fully controlling tobacco taxation. In its heyday it employed around 3000 workers, and included a customs office, a restaurant for the employees, as well as a house for the guardian of the building.

Today, the old building has been entirely renovated by NEON, who financed the work and gifted it back to the state for public use, as a permanent cultural and social space, while a significant portion is currently occupied by the Hellenic Parliament’s Library and Printing House.

The building itself was interesting, painted on the outside cheerful red and yellow ochre, with a large courtyard paved with flagstones.

 

However, the art was, in my opinion, underwhelming. The exhibition was entitled ‘Dream On,’ because ‘Large-scale intallations is where artists go when they want to make their dreams come true.’

Of course art is subjective, and I do like contemporary art, including installations, but the ones in this exhibition mostly left me cold.

 


A car spilling its guts out in the courtyard.

By  John Bock, it is described as ‘the surreal combination of an American vintage car giving birth to a mutated octopus (or squid).


A Credit Card Destroying Machine, by  Michael Landy. This had various complicated meanings which I find too boring to allude to (referring to ‘the death knell of the consumerist society’),
 but  delighted the six-year-old who accompanied us. I suppose it is pretty cool, in a funfair kind of way. The visitor is required to sacrifice a valid credit card—this went through a mechanism that produced an abstract drawing.

 

A car, covered in pine needles, by Martha Dimitropoulou, who has ‘reconstructed that paragon of consumer culture, the Mercedes-Benz, into a different life.’

 


These are called Piss Flowers, by Helen Chadwick


However, there is always something to like, and in my case it was the drawings of a wave, by Alexandros Psychoulis—studies for an installation using plastic cord.

I thought the result was very interesting—of course in my personal opinion.

Party time!

Word press has lately informed me of my 7th blogging anniversary. Who would have thought the years would go by so fast? (At least in blogging terms…) Of course I knew it was seven years, because I started the blog during the big—and continuing—crisis we had in Greece in 2015. New readers can read all about it in this post. And some of the following ones.

June 2015: my friends from abroad kept calling to find out what was happening, we were spending a horrible summer stuck in front of the TV. I thought, rather than keep repeating things to each one, I would try and put it down in writing. After a while, I decided I did not always want to talk about the bad news and difficulties,  I also wanted to present the ‘good’ side of Greece—seeing as we were being stigmatised in the press, branded as a nation of feckless tax evaders, and worse.

Although we obviously were not without fault, it has since become apparent to many people that Greece got the short end of the stick, and a whole nation was made to suffer, and is still suffering, because of the usual misguided political and economic schemes and interests of more powerful countries.

 

I have been, since university, very pro Europe, but I confess I have been sadly disappointed. How a bunch of highly qualified (supposedly) and highly paid (by the taxpayer) people managed to make such a mess of things, beats me. And they are still doing it—viz their handling of the refugee situation.

Despite all this, I still feel a united Europe is  a good thing, in order to pull its weight with the huge empires that are the USA, China and Russia. 

To come back to the blog, it will not have escaped the notice of older readers that I have been writing less often of late. Well, I lead a very busy life, shared between Greece and France, since we have had to make big changes due to the above-mentioned crisis. So, my days are full: and, besides work, I have been doing a lot of drawing and painting, as most of you know—and writing, about which you don’t, since I never put any of it on the blog. I also volunteer for two refugee organisations in Greece, which I have not talked about yet—but maybe I will in future, since it has been a most interesting, although often heartbreaking, challenge.

Therefore the blog has taken a back seat, and not only because of the above.  The fact is, I have not been feeling very inspired: the situation, both in Greece and worldwide, is depressing, and who wants to hear any more about it? We read enough in the papers. Art is a solace, but I am wary of overload.


I admit there are days when I have thought of giving up the blog, but what keeps me going is you guys, my dear readers and bloggy friends. Over those seven years there are people who have stuck with me through thick and thin (Yes, you, Pete, Goeff, Jennie, Franklin, Anne, Derrick, Bruce, Deborah, Ellen, Eha, Bea, Mick, Sue, Jacqui, Anne, Kate, Tialys, Mona, Jack, Willowdot, Mariella, Pamela—and countless others). I could not bear to lose touch with you, or stop following your own blogs and exchanging remarks and comments. Also here I must mention the few who have, in the course of those years, sadly left us—I think of them often.

So thanks, everyone, keep checking in, and let me know if there are things you particular want me to write about. In return, and since this is, after all, an anniversary, I offer you cake!

Tuscan painting trip

An old friend whose husband is Italian organised a painting trip at their house in Tuscany and I got an invitation which I could not, as one can imagine, refuse. The house is on remote hillside near Pisa, with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. This was still mostly green, with patches of yellow slashed by the dark green spears of cypress trees. The weather was brilliant throughout.

 

 

Sketchbook drawing

The painting experience was spread over two weeks, in order to accommodate all aspiring artist friends, and sadly on the days I was there, the artist who was to teach us was absent—leaving me in the position of being the most experienced guest.

Still life on the terrace

However, while I did not get the opportunity to learn from someone else as I had hoped to do, it was so much fun to paint—and eat—with others in such beautiful surroundings that I really could not complain.

One day we took the opportunity to drive to Florence, where we went around the Palazzo Pitti. I had visited this museum years ago and I can report that nothing has been done to it since. With the new style of curating now prevalent, I found it extremely old fashioned. Rows and rows of dark paintings of the Virgin Mary against a wallpaper of dark red stripes. More rows of Allegories in the next room. Rows of portraits of unattractive people. Heavy frames with the names of the artists on tiny bronze plaques—I had to lean right in to be able to read them and, every time I did so, I set off the alarm!

However, the views from the windows were stunning.

Florence rooftops seen from the Palazzo Pitti windows

We went through a multitude of rooms, one after the other, badly lit and even more badly ventilated, which tired me out and made it hard to seek out the treasures—for, of course, the Palazzo Pitti is full of treasures-

 

-such as frescoes to die for around the ceilings, and, above all, the incomparable Titians.

 


After lunch in a small tratoria hidden away in a side street, we walked in the Bardini Gardens.

And I cannot finish this post without a mention of the food—Italian food being, to my taste, the pinnacle of deliciousness.

A view of the Ponte Vecchio
Another hillside