Random thoughts (and drawings)

January and February have never been my favorite months—it’s still SO DARK! Usually I’m a morning person, but I find myself feigning sleep so the dog doesn’t ask to be let out at 7 a.m. She also has to be dressed, alas. See below the latest in dachshund winter fashion…


We have been deprived of many little pleasures of normal life: sharing a bottle of wine and a nice meal with friends (preferably prepared and served by someone else!), wandering around an art exhibition, taking in a show…Moreover, in any wanderings we are surrounded by people wearing masks, so even exchanging a smile is not the same.

We are lucky at least that we can enjoy some entertainment at home. I really enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit (about chess) and Dickinson (a very amusing takeoff on the poet’s early life), and a wonderful documentary called My Octopus Teacher. Remember I wrote about An Octopus in my House (A strange Pet)?Well, this one is even more remarkable, since it is filmed in the wild, underwater, in a kelp forest. Highly recommended. Unfortunately, it has quite put me off eating octopus, which I used to love. But, it inspired me to make an ink drawing.



There is only so much screen time I can take, but I’m a bookworm, so I’ve devoured some of my TBR pile: Where the Crawdads Sing,  by Delia Owens, about a girl growing up in a swamp—wonderful), two cozy mysteries: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Oscan (very entertaining) and The Guest List by Lucy Foley (a page-turner), a thriller called Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins (another page-turner). On a totally different note, Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin (about a woman caretaker of a cemetery). And finally a memoir called The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay, describing his journey, as a twelve-year-old boy, from Afganistan to the UK (mind-boggling). 

I do love to have a couple of books on the go, so now I’ve started Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize for writer Bernadine Evaristo, together with The Mirror and the Light, the last in the Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel (a huge slab, but I loved the first two, so I will persevere). I’m also dipping into The Lemon Table, short stories by Julian Barnes. Hope this list will inspire some of you.

Apart from chilly walks wrapped up in layers like an onion, I’ve also been drawing. I finished up a few Christmas present comissions.



The ones above inspired me to make a large elephant pencil drawing.

 



I find I’m more in the mood for drawing than painting at the moment. I added a couple of drawings to my ‘Travelers’ series.

 



My resolution for this year is to include more human figures in my work, and even, dare I say it, some portraits. I find I always collect portrait photos because I so admire the capability of artists to reproduce likeness and expression. I’m also drawn to portraits in museums because they show so much about each era. So perhaps it’s time to try for myself.



Laughing into the New Year

As we march, or slither, into an uncertain future, I thought what better way to convey my somewhat belated good wishes than by trying to amuse you. It is a well-known fact that laughter is the best medicine.

So here’s a selection from some of my favorite comic strips and New Yorker cartoons: 

🔸For those who never make to midnight

🔸For parents of annoying teenagers

🔸For doggy people

🔸For cat lovers

🔸For those who aren’t sick of politics yet

🔸For ladies who lunch

🔸For optimists

🔸And pessimists

Hope that’s got you smiling at least.  Happy New Year!

And may it be less bizarre than the last one.

 

Celebrating Christmas

This year’s celebrations will be difficult if not nonexistent for a lot of people. Yesterday my thoughts were with the hundreds of truckers blocked on each side of the Channel who will not make it home to their families for Christmas. But it’s not only them: so many elderly persons living alone and unable to see family, so many families divided, so many displaced and homeless people. Those of us who have a roof over our heads and food in our plates already have a lot to be thankful for.

At a time when the news is relentlessly bad and the future is uncertain, what better way to celebrate than by listening to children’s voices, joyful and pure.

 



El Sistema is a social education program founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Dr. José Antonio Abreu, which aims to provide inspiration through music. It has expanded to more than 60 countries and, since 2016, El Sistema Greece has the goal of bringing music education to children and young people, including those in refugee camps in Athens and on the island of Lesvos. Thanks to music, these kids are given a platform for dialogue and togetherness across diverse communities.


One of the most fervent ambassadors of El Sistema Greece, world-famous Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has visited Athens many times, for performances and workshops. Now she joins her voice once again with the members of the El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra and the El Sistema Greece Youth Choir, who come from 30 different countries, in a virtual concert hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

I give you The First Noel, and wish you all a very happy Christmas!

https://youtu.be/ilqrly3FBWo






Podcast Parade

There are so many hours one can spend on a screen, and now that we’re facing another few months of restricted outings, listening to podcasts is a very pleasant way of getting immersed in different worlds. I’m an obsessive bookworm, but it’s nice to have something to listen to while cutting up veggies or ironing. A human voice: it’s almost like company, when you’re alone; and it’s different to music.

I’ve listened to a lot of audiobooks, and that’s lovely as well, especially when read by someone with a voice that suits the subject; but podcasts are short, and you don’t constantly have to remember who the characters are.

There are millions out there, of course, but here’s a list of some I recommend:

For crime aficionados, whether writers or readers, Listening to the Dead podcast features crime writer Lynda La Plante and CSI Cass Sutherland. They discuss, in fascinating detail, how the police investigate various forensic aspects of crime-solving such as insect infestation, arson, DNA and fiber analysis. Amusing as well as informative.

 

Caliphate follows journalist Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism for The New York Times, on her project to find out about ISIS. Listening to the podcast is quite harrowing, and there’s an added twist to the tale, because Canadian authorities have since arrested a man featured in the podcast and accused him of falsely claiming to have been an ISIS executioner.

 

For art lovers, the Great Women Artists podcast is presented by art historian and curator Katy Hessel. She interviews contemporary women artists such as Cecily Brown and Toyin Ojih Odutola, or curators and art historians who talk about famous artist like Alice Neel and Georgia O’Keefe. Some of the artists you might never have heard of, but it’s interesting finding out about them. Has excellent reviews.

 

The World Wide Tribe podcast

On The Worldwide Tribe podcast, the incredible Jaz O’Hara (I’ve written about her before here) brings us stories from the refugee crisis. Jaz, whose mother is fostering no less than four refugee children from four different countries, wants to give people a voice, so that their stories come to light. Really moving and a great eye opener.

 

For fiction addicts, there’s nothing better than a good short story, and the New Yorker offers two podcasts: The Writer’s Voice, where writers read their own stories, and Fiction, in which writers pick a story from the magazine archives to read and discuss with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. There’s something for every taste, and the beauty of it is, if you find you hate one of the stories, just go on to the next one!

 

Here’s the thing. Podcast with Alec Baldwin

In Here’s the Thing, actor Alec Baldwin takes his audience into the lives of performers, policy makers and artists, by going into their offices, appartments and dressing rooms. He interviews a wide range of people. I loved the episode with Patti Smith.

 

Fake Heiress podcast

Finally, for a bit of fun, Fake Heiress is the story of Anna Delvey – the apparent millionaire heiress who grifted her way through New York’s upper echelons. Journalist Vicky Baker and playwright Chloe Moss collaborate on a podcast that mixes reporting about the millennial fraudster with a dramatisation of her swindle. In the reviews, people complained that the actors’ accents were terrible, but whatever. I don’t think we’re meant to take this seriously, although it is a true story; Netflix and HBO are supposedly preparing films about it. Anna Delvey, at the cost of a few years in jail, will probably end up richer than she ever imagined!

Well, this concludes my eclectic selection. Enjoy!

We are made of Earth: a book for our times

A man and a boy, sole survivors of an inflatable boat full of refugees, wash up on a remote and unnamed Greek island. Before long they come upon the incongruous sight of a grazing elephant. It turns out the animal belongs to a circus which is stranded on the island due to its owner’s debts, but the owner still takes the strangers in and gives them food and shelter.

The boy, Jamil, who has lost his family at sea, dotes on the man, Mokdad, who has saved him. Mokdad feels responsible for the boy, but dislikes him and keeps him at arm’s length. The circus owners are, in a way, immigrants themselves—or, at least, aliens on the island—but still manage to provide for the strangers out of their meager means.

When more refugees arrive on the island, Mokdad avoids them, even though they are compatriots who speak his language. He feels guilt about having fled his country, and about an incident that happened at sea.

This slim volume, written by Greek-born author Panos Karnezis, deals in a terse but evocative manner with themes of alienation, hospitality (philoxenia, as it is called in Greek, being the antithesis of xenophobia), life and death decisions, courage and cowardice. Nothing is as it seems at first, and yet the novel brims with compassion. None of the characters are particularly likeable; even the child seems strangely unaffected by the death of his family. In fact the most likeable character, to me, is the elephant, who is also a migrant in an alien land, but is totally innocent. She is sad and lonely, but ever dignified, and makes us care the most about her fate.

The narrative is spellbinding. The physical details of the island are described sparsely but so evocatively that, for a Greek at least, they ring vividly true. As does the difficulty humans feel in connecting with each other.

Karnezis was born in Greece in 1967, and came to England in 1992 to study engineering. After working in industry, he studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first book, Little Infamies (2002), was a collection of connected short stories set in a nameless Greek village. This is his fifth. 

Karnezis is a brilliant storyteller, and this book will stay with you for days after you’ve turned the last page. Its theme is a very current one, but he deals with it in a delicate and original way. Highly recommended.

Athens turns up another treasure

Aiolou Street is named after Aeolus, God of the Winds, and is the first street to have been paved in Athens in the 19th century. It it to this day a major shopping street in downtown Athens, and it is in its sewage system—which has been undergoing a maintenance overhaul—that workers discovered a bust of Hermes, herald of the gods.

 

The marble head is bearded and with his hair in strictly arranged curls. In good condition, it was found a mere 1.3 meters under the road surface.

The bust dates from around 300 BC, and is believed to have been part of a stone pillar serving as a street marker. These pillars were called Hermae, and were used as markers and also to impart good luck to travellers, and ward off harm or evil. They were placed at crossings, country borders, in front of temples or public buildings such as libraries, gymnasia, and palestrae, and also in front of houses. They were quadrangular and plain, with the head sitting on top; sometimes male genitalia were carved at the appropriate height. They were called Hermae because the head of Hermes was the most common, since he was the protector of merchants and travelers. However, the heads of other gods and heroes, and sometimes distinguished mortals, were also frequent.

 

Photos from Google

Music will not be stilled

Not to be cowed by the pandemic, the Greek National Opera turned to the Internet to present its Online Festival, curated by Giorgos Koumendakis, and under the aegis of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The Festival was a big success: each of its video performances attracted tens of thousands of viewers and many positive comments from across the globe.

 

Source: GNO/Andreas Simopoulos

The first part, entitled Exit: Spring,  streamed from 17th May to 30th June 2020, and offered eleven new music, opera, operetta and music theatre video-performances created during the pandemic, as well as one recorded dance performance.

Below, a video of ‘When will, when will summer come’, by the GNO children’s chorus concert, conducted by Chorus Mistress Konstantinos Pitsiakou.



The 2nd part, titled Counterpoints, was streamed online from 27 September to 31 October, and its aim was to shed light upon the relationship between Greek music and architecture. Emblematic buildings of Athens were connected to great works from the historical repository of Greek music, from the Cretan Renaissance to the present day.

The Festival was filmed at some of the greatest buildings of Athens, such as the Church of the Holy Apostles at the Ancient Agora, the Gennadius Library, and the Athens Conservatoire, amongst others.

 

Photo Credit: G. Domenikos

In one example, three of the most celebrated works of Greek art music written during the interwar period were performed at the Gennadius Library by mezzo-soprano Margarita Syngeniotou, accompanied on the piano by Apostolos Palios. These were:
• Yannis Konstantinidis’ Songs of Anticipation
• Manolis Kalomiris’ Should I Speak? set to poetry by Kostis Palamas
• Dimitri Mitropoulos’ 10 Inventions set to poetry by Constantine Cavafy

The closing act, Zeitgeist, written for string quartet by distinguished Greek modern composer Christos Hatzis was performed by musicians of the Greek National Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Miltos Logiadis, at the Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos”.

 

Some of the  videos of the performances are available on YouTube. 

Saying it with flowers

Life seems to be getting more and more weird each day—with new lockdowns everywhere, people are forced to exist in a sort of limbo. We’re waiting—for what? To be free to return to our previous existence? But when? Meanwhile the virus in Denmark has mutated and is spreading via mink farms. They’re planning on culling 17 million animals to try and stop it. What next? Hopefully we won’t have to cull our dogs and cats. That would be too horrible to even contemplate.

 

In every way, we’re trying to adapt to a new reality, and make the best of things. I love going to the theatre, but sadly that’s out, so I took the opportunity to watch a play online. What a Carve Up is adapted from a satirical novel by Jonathan Coe. It is an ingenious play about the venality of the Thatcher era, a murder mystery with an extra twist. I enjoyed it: the actors were excellent, the plot was developed in original and interesting ways. Well worth it and a change from Netflix. A ticket costs £12, and you get a link to watch in the 48 hours following your chosen date. You can watch on a laptop or, better still, connect to Apple TV, in which case you can make a family evening of it, with drinks and popcorn. For anyone interested, you can get a ticket here: https://www.whatacarveup.com/

This cultural foray made me mull things over. Art depicts life in many ways—if this pandemic carries on, will people in new films be shown wearing masks, and staying away from each other? If I write a short story, do my characters need to wear masks and keep washing their hands? I continued wondering about this while watching a film set in the fifties, where the actors smoked non-stop, and nobody wore a seatbelt. Now characters in films are constantly peering at some kind of screen, and if they smoke, it’s something stronger—but more tolerated nowadays—than nicotine.

 

I digress, but there doesn’t seem to be much to write about these days (I refuse to dwell upon the American Elections). So I will try and lift your spirits by posting some pictures taken a few months ago, when we managed to squeeze in a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny. There were not many people around, which was just as well, because Giverny is not a public park, but a private garden, with narrow paths between the flower beds. I dread to think what it would be like to visit when they have their usual 4000 people per day—shuffling along in a queue behind a coach group led by a guide, I suppose.

 

As it were, we wandered about happily. The place is beautifully kept up, and we were told it’s worth visiting at different times of the year: in May it’s covered with different types of iris, and in late August it’s full of sunflowers.

 

The famous lily pond lived up to expectations—it’s a magical spot. Apparently the water lilies tend to take over, so they are carefully pruned back to resemble the patches Monet painted over and over (he made a series of about 250 Nymphéas, as they’re called in France).

The inside of the house is very pleasant, with a collection of lovely Japanese etchings on the walls and a sunny yellow kitchen. Monet had a complicated personal life, reading about which gives a little extra spice to the surroundings.

 

All For Blue

Having spent many summer days snorkelling, and thus having witnessed, over the years, the deterioration of the Mediterranean sea floor—while also being an obsessive collector of beach trash—I was interested to come upon a woman who is dedicating her life to the solution of these problems. Meet Katerina Topouzoglou, founder of the organization ALL FOR BLUE.

Photo credit: Alex Suh

Katerina grew up in Greece and spent a lot of her time in the water, becoming in the process a world class underwater target shooting champion, freediving and scuba instructor. She also has a thing for sharks.

What Katerina saw on her ocean adventures inspired her to dedicate her life to ocean conservation. She was kind enough to answer my questions:

Tell us a little about your story. What was your initial involvement with the sea?

K: I was an athletic child, and practiced many different sports from a young age. Finally, I realized my element was water. I was competitive, and my dream was to compete for Greece. I took up underwater target shooting, which is a swimming pool sport that combines apnea with shooting at a target with a speargun. In 2014 the Greek team went to Italy to compete and I totally messed up—I was so anxious! I came back determined to work at it, I practiced as much as I could, entered any swimming pool competition going; and in 2016 I went back to Italy, as Captain of the Greek team, and this time I won three medals in the European Championship, and two medals in the International Championship.

You have many strings to your bow: shark protection, ocean conservation, educating the new generations. What motivated you to make this your life’s work?

K: I watched a video of Cristina Zenato, who is famous for her technique for removing hooks out of the mouths of sharks, and I was fascinated. I emailed her, and managed to get on one of the courses that she runs at a diving centre in Freeport, in the Bahamas. She’s a great instructor, and I loved her approach to things. We got on really well, we became friends, and I went back several times. I also got my scuba diving certifications there. She was my inspiration, not only for my organization, but for the necessity of educating the world about sharks.

Aren’t sharks prehistoric creatures?

K: Of course they are; they evolved before dinosaurs. They’ve been on this earth 450 million years. Only for that, they deserve our respect. They are very misunderstood creatures, and—something I didn’t know at first—they are extremely important for the equilibrium of the eco-system. The fact is, we only get 50% of our oxygen from trees—the rest we get from plankton. Sharks keep the ocean clean by eating dead and wounded fish; where there are sharks, the sea floor is alive and wealthy with all sorts of creatures—fish, turtles, dolphins. In the Mediterranan, in many places you see few fish and a sea floor full of rubbish.

How does the Zenato shark technique of ‘tonic immobility’ work?

K: You get the animals to come close and touch their noses, and that induces a state of tranquillity which allows you to relax them, and get the hooks out of their mouth. Different species of shark behave in different ways. I’ve practiced mostly with Caribbean Reef Sharks. Sharks in general like fish blood, not human blood. Generally attacks are rare—there are 5-8 fatal shark attacks per year, whereas humans kill 100 million sharks each year.

 

Photo credit: Noel Lopez Fernandez


Do sharks realize you’re trying to help them?

K: Again, it depends on the species of shark. For example, whale sharks entangled in nets will go near divers, as if they understand they will get help.

How did ALL FOR BLUE come about?

K: All the ideas come to me while I’m in the water. In 2015, I went to Mexico on a project to measure microplastics in the sea. We collected water 600 miles from shore—it took days to reach the spot—and it was full of microplastics. That’s when I decided to quit spearfishing and devote myself to conservation. My initial interest with keeping the sea clean came from my parents, as a child—so I thought it would be a good idea to connect with the younger generations, and that could best be done through the schools.­­

I started by myself, and now, after four years, All For Blue has  a team of 20 volunteers. We organize seminars in schools, where we give out diplomas, that the children can use later in their college applications and CVs. We also do research with the data we keep from the marine debris, keep records of all trash removed, organize exhibitions, and, of course, beach and underwater  cleanups.

It’s difficult to keep an organization like this alive, because in Greece, especially in the last few years, it’s been hard to get funding. We collaborate a lot with local communities, setting up programs in the areas of interest of the relevant authorities, who can then cover our costs; and also with companies. 

So, this has become your career;

K: No, this is my life purpose. For my day job I’m a real estate agent in Cyclades. But nothing gives me as much pleasure as talking to kids in schools, sharing my knowledge. I’m touched by the response of the people who follow my seminars. The see videos of the sea and they have so much enthusiasm to help and join in. All the medals I’ve won in my life cannot compare with this joy; this is my life’s aim and I feel driven from above.

Do you usually get a positive response from local authorities?

K: Not always. Some are not convinced: they deny there’s any rubbish, don’t see the necessity for seminars or diplomas. What is fantastic is the reaction of the children themselves. Even in the technical colleges, where kids are quite street-wise, they become riveted. On some islands they have started their own teams, and are doing great work. There are now 20  such teams, the most active of which is in Kalymnos. We did two seminars there, and we send them reusable equipment—all plastic free, of course. We’re all very proud of them.

How do you choose the venues you visit? Are you proactive, or do they contact you? Are they mostly Greek?

K: Increasingly we have companies contacting us, in the framework of CSR. They ask us to give seminars to their staff, or they subsidize programs for their company. However, we contact the schools ourselves. This year we got a contract for a yearly project in Cyclades called #KeepMykonosBlue. The program included beach and underwater cleanups, and from this year all plastic removed during our cleanups are turned into trash cans, by using a special procedure. These are now on the island in central areas, such as the stadium etc. 

 

Wherever I travel, I contact the schools. Apart from Greece, we’ve done seminars in the Bahamas, Miami, Djibouti, South Africa and others. Once I went with a group to Cuba for a diving project. We had a free afternoon, so we just walked into the nearest school; we didn’t even speak Spanish. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable the kids were about the sea. They still send us emails about beach cleanups they organize. 

When talking to kids, how do you combine sharks (cool) with trash (potentially boring)?

K: Of course we start with the sharks! But we are passionate about what we do, so we have developed a seminar that is fast—we try to keep a momentum going, with plenty of brief videos and not much lecturing. We show the kids shark teeth we’ve found underwater, and talk about that. Before I start talking, I show little videos of various projects, to get their attention: research projects, freeing mammals (turtles, dolphins, etc) from nets, how hard it is for a diver to get a plastic bag out of the bottom. A dolphin trying to free itself from a plastic bag. I also talk about bio-degradables, and how they’re not as green as advertised, because in the water there’s not enough oxygen; so they break up into little pieces and the fish eat them.

 

What are some of the weirdest things you have removed out of the sea?

K: The first thing I found that shocked me was a shopping trolley stuck in some rocks. Thankfully I had help from other divers, but it still took us 45 minutes to get it out. The list is endless: washing machines, a radiator, 4 scooters, tables, chairs, champagne buckets…

I want the kids to still be shocked. I want our actions to inspire, and have a return to the local community. I insist on education before the cleanup, but I especially insist about the underwater cleanups; because there might be somebody to pick trash off the beach, but few people dive and do cleanups.

We have now collected more than 220 tons of rubbish and given out 55.000 diplomas. In three years, 30.000 of those only in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. It’s lovely to return to the same places when we can. 

How is the organization coping with the present restrictions?

K: We’ve replaced school visits with Webinars. And outdoor events are held with limited numbers of participants, who wear masks and practice social distancing. Here I would also like to point out that all the equipment we use—gloves, bags, etc—is  plastic free.

Do you have a motto or catchphrase?

K: All for Blue and Blue for All!

Also:

The sea needs allies. Are you with us?

 

Athina Koutsokosta and her daughter, volunteers in All For Blue cleanups

What can people do to help?

K: Lots of things: even making a small donation or buying reusable products from our e-shop, such as stainless steel reusable straws or thermos reusable cups. You can volunteer, join clean-ups, invite us to your country (if you are a relevant organism), invite us to talk in a school. Make your company plastic free.

Where can people follow you on social media?

K: All For Blue has a site, (www.allforblue.org) where you can see exactly who we are and what we do. We’re also on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, (https://twitter.com/allforblueorg ), as well as posting videos on YouTube. You can link to all of these via our site, too; we’d love it if you followed us!

Footnote: According to new estimates by Australia’s government science agency, CSIRO, at least 14 million tons of plastic pieces less than 5mm wide are sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans; more than 30 times as much as is floating on the surface. Also microplastic has been found in the actual flesh of fish. Finally, Western countries such as England export millions of tons of their rubbish to Third World countries, instead of processing it themselves. Scary, isn’t it?

September light

The world around us feels extremely weird at the moment: people wandering around in masks, unreliable information buzzing about our ears, uncertainty about the future. Political leadership is underwhelming, to say the least, and crime has increased, sometimes taking on strange manifestations: all over France, horses are being maimed and killed in their fields, for no discernible reason; in Canada, a cable was cut, sending numerous gondolas plunging into the forest below. What can possibly possess people to think of doing such things? 

The news in general makes for uncomfortable reading.


Due to the circumstances, I have not been gadding about to art shows or going on road trips—thus I have been uninspired to write. I took a break and just enjoyed other people’s posts; lazy, I know—but, after all, it’s not homework!


My refuge, as always, is nature. In Greece the light has subtly changed, heralding the coming of autumn, although the temperature is still high: it’s yellow and mellow. The pomegranates are ripening on the trees, so are the olives. The bougainvillea is blazing.  The house is full of baby geckos. I will try to capture some of this with paint and paper
; meanwhile, enjoy these few photos.

 

Listening to bees buzzing around I thought what fascinating creatures they are: I recently read an article describing how scientists are “scent training” honeybees like search dogs. They believe establishing long-term memory scents in bees could help boost crops like almonds, pears and apples.

Honeybees were given food scented with odours that mimicked sunflowers which then altered their choices about which plants to visit. Isn’t that amazing?


Also, I find the scent of jasmine irresistible—so subtle but bewitching. I’m digressing, I know, but I just wanted to reconnect: a few people have told me off for the radio silence. I’ve got a couple more interesting posts on the boil, so stay tuned!