Homage to the olive tree

‘I will give you water,’ said Poseidon, striking the Acropolis rock with his trident. A salty fountain sprang up.
‘And I will give you a tree,’ said the goddess Athena, striking the rock with her spear. An olive tree sprang up. ‘Its fruit will feed you, its leaves will give you shade, and and its wood provide fuel.’
There was a vote, and Athena won, thus giving her name to the city of Athens.

At the first Olympic Games, held in 776 BC in honor of Zeus,
athletes were massaged with olive oil in the belief that the wisdom, power and strength of Athena would be bestowed upon them. The winners, of this and all subsequent games, were also awarded olive leaf crowns and olive oil.

 

'I am the Sun's daughter the most beloved of all' Poem by Kostis Palamas
‘I am the Sun’s daughter
the most beloved of all’

Poem by Kostis Palamas(1859-1943)

 

The olive tree was considered sacred. It was believed that if you polished a statue of Zeus with olive oil, Zeus would be so honored that he would grant you a long and happy life. The 13m-high ivory and gold statue of Zeus at Olympia made by the famous sculptor Phidias (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) was always kept polished with olive oil.

Olive trees are ancient. Fossilized leaves, believed to be as much as 60.000 years old,  have been found on the volcanic island of Santorini. However, it appears that olive trees as we know them today originated approximately 6,000 to 7,000 years ago in the region corresponding to ancient Persia and Mesopotamia. But they were first cultivated commercially in Crete in the Minoan era, as can be seen on the murals in Knossos – they may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan civilization. Later, Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle further developed the cultivation of the olive into a science. Olive oil was a valuable trade commodity, and a main source of prosperity in Classical Athens. It was also used to anoint kings, athletes and warriors.

Olive trees have a special significance in all aspects of life – an almost magical dimension. The olive branch was – and still is – seen as a symbol of abundance, wisdom, glory and peace. The leafy branches of the olive tree were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures as emblems of benediction and purification, and they were used to crown the victors of bloody wars, as well as athletic games.

From the beginning of the 6th century BC olive trees were protected by special laws, first instituted by the legislator and statesman, Solon. The laws decreed how the trees were planted and how many could be cut, and differentiated between common trees and sacred ones, which were believed to be descended directly from the first olive tree given to the city by the goddess Athena. Crimes against these sacred trees were tried at the highest level and punished harshly (by exile, confiscation of property, or even the death penalty).

The olive trees was also revered in other civilizations, such as the Egyptian civilization, and went on to become the sacred tree in most religions, including Judaism and Islam. In the Christian religion, a pair of olive trees symbolize both the Old and New Testaments. A dove brought an olive branch to Noah, to signify the end of the Flood. Today, olive oil is still used in many religions for various rituals.

In everyday life, olives and olive oil are a major part of the famous Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is used in soap, cosmetics, and even to exorcise the evil eye! Greeks often give it as a present, to each other and to foreigners.
Olive wood burns slowly, so it lasts long. It is a hard wood, and can be used to make many objects and utensils.

Olive trees are resilient: they don’t need much water, they resist drought and high winds and they even regenerate after fire.  They have an enormous life-span: there are olive trees in the groves around the Mediterranean that are said to be centuries old, and ages as great as 2000 years or more have been demonstrated for some individual trees. The Olive tree of Vouves in Crete (one of many examples), has an age estimated between 2000 and 4000 years!
The older the trees get, the more dignified and wise they become. Their twisted, gnarled and scarred trunks, their dark, hollowed-out centers, their silvery leaves glinting in the sun, give each a distinct personality.

The olive tree has been celebrated in art, prose and poetry. In the Odyssey, Homer referred to olive oil as ‘liquid gold’.
As poet Odysseas Elytis, (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1979) put it:

If you take Greece apart,
In the end you will be left with
an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat…
which means that with these items
you can rebuild Greece…

A thought for Turkey

The flight of eight soldiers from the failed Turkish coup to Greece in search of asylum has become the object of protracted debate in the Greek Parliament. Turkey has asked for their extradition, but some Members of Parliament are against it , because of their probable fate… On the other hand, there is no doubt these people fired from the air on unarmed civilians and have been branded traitors in their country.

Obviously whatever happens in Turkey concerns us closely. We are neighbours, we share a border and a sea; historically we have been mostly enemies, but we have a strong connection as well. After four centuries of Turkish occupation, we share many tastes, plenty of words and cooking recipes too! We get on well in person: at universities everywhere in the world, at sports meetings, we are always forging bonds. We have business connections. We help each other in the event of natural catastrophes like fires and earthquakes. We could be doing a lot more together, to the benefit of both. But – there is always a but – there are always politics. Threats, planes invading airspace, the unsolvable crisis in Cyprus… Things that cause a lot of agony, and help nobody in the long run.

 

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I swear, history just makes me tired sometimes.

At the moment, I’m thinking about my friends in Istanbul, and the uncertainty they’re facing. Battles on Bosphorus Bridge, purges, a state of emergency.  In Greece we’ve lived through a coup like this, and it ended in a military dictatorship that lasted 7 years. This one hasn’t, but combined with the latest terrorist attacks in public places, it all makes for a lot of distress.

One effect will be a huge blow to tourism. And we cannot forget that the people who were killed, as well as the thousands of soldiers now in jail, all have families – a lot of lives have been destroyed.

In her mostly photographic blog, photographyofnia, Nia has posted her thoughts and feelings about the coup. It makes for disturbing reading.
And for anyone who wants an interesting commentary on the same subject, read the relevant article (here) on Levantine Musings, a blog written by David Edgerly, who lived in Turkey and the Middle East  for 25 years.

Extreme Images of A Storm

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We never get this kind of storm in Greece. Awesome images!

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Late yesterday morning I saw this great broody cloud coming over the horizon like a huge intergalactic mother ship, I dropped what I was doing and sprinting past the long list of work I should have been doing, I collected my camera, jumped in the truck and went storm chasing. I love these images. The skies here fill me with awe.

Here are the best of the images in the order that I shot them. storm coming

extreme storms

storm clouds

storm clouds

And then I looked back to the house.

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And said Oh my God. There is no way you can look at that image and not think that all hell will soon be rained down upon my little farm.  But this storm did not bring much rain or wind -just an ordinary storm with dramatic clothing.  Those of you on Instagram with me  (cecilia_bwg) will have seen this shot in real time. Thank fully this time I had…

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There are no words…


Another day waking up to horrendous news…

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What is it about our times? How many individuals are prepared to commit suicide, if they can take others – many others – with them? What is this urge to go out and murder people who have done you no harm? How much anger can their heart contain?

Fanatics, I hear you say. Of course, fanatics were always dangerous – loose cannons who feel they have nothing to lose. Once they have decided on martyrdom, nothing can stop them.

But it is not only fanatics. There have always been people who are suicidal, but they went off into the woods and shot themselves, or stuck their heads in the oven. Now some feel they have to shoot down a whole classroom, or smash a plane against a mountain.

 

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Is it the fault of chemicals in the air? The influence of violent video games? The availability of guns? The unfairness of capitalism? How can this be explained in terms of human psychology? I wish someone would tell me.

Meanwhile I am thinking about so many lives shattered, and taking solace in nature.

On leaving home

I keep writing about the refugees and immigrants arriving in droves upon Greek shores, but there is also outgoing traffic. Many Greeks are leaving the country in the third major wave of emigration to be observed in the last 100 years.
In the 20th and 21st centuries alone, nearly two million (1.764.000) Greeks have moved away. Why? What makes someone leave behind everything they hold dear?

The two major causes are war and poverty. At the moment we are lucky not to be at war; but we are experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis, and more than 420.000 Greeks within the 15-64 age range have left since 2008. Here I would like to point out that we are talking about a population of only around 11 million, of whom one million are immigrants themselves.

In the last 100 years, there have been three instances of mass exodus, all connected with financial crisis expect for the late sixties, where the reasons were predominantly political (to do with the dictatorship of 1967-1974). In the first phase, circa 1903-1917, those who emigrated were largely uneducated men, peasants and workers, who found employment as servants and laborers, mostly in ‘transatlantic’ countries such as the USA, Australia, Canada, and Brazil. The second wave was chiefly made up of young people, unemployed or manual laborers, who found work as factory hands primarily in Germany and Belgium.

 

Cheerful sketch of the day by Leo
Cheerful drawing of the day, by Leo

 

The big difference is that today the people who are moving out are young, educated and experienced professionals. Specific countries appear to be absorbing specific types of professionals; for example, finance graduates have gone primarily to the U.K., medical graduates to Germany, computer science graduates to the United States, and engineers to the Middle East. So we are talking about a real brain drain, which is the last thing Greece needs at the moment.
This exodus is not surprising, considering nearly 1 million jobs have been lost in Greece over the last six years, according to an analysis by the Hellenic Statistical Authority.

A study made by Endeavor Greece, an international group that supports entrepreneurship, showed that a stunning 46% of Greeks living in the country are considering relocating.
This is a very disturbing statistic: at a time when the European Union wants Greece to try to pick itself up by its bootstraps and restructure its economy, the brainpower needed for this transformation is leaving.

What would make these people stay? A promise of a future, for one. Decent jobs, an environment where entrepreneurship is valued and promoted, a stable and reasonable tax system. As can be seen in my monthly Q&A, there are young people fighting to stay and make the best of things, but for how long?
What does the future hold? If nothing is done to reverse this trend, Greece could end up as a country where the indigenous population is a minority.

 

July Q&A – the Archaeologist

Chryssanthi Papadopoulou can conceivably be described as a sort of treasure hunter. Every summer, she dons scuba gear and explores archaeological sites at the bottom of the sea. Archaeology is a job uniquely suited to the Greek environment: wherever you excavate, you are likely to find something. During digging work for the Athens Metro, more than 50.000 findings came to light! Sounds like an ideal life?  As you will see, things are never that simple.

 

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Chryssanthi and I am an archaeologist. I am from Athens, which is also where I currently live and work. I love my job; it is one of the things that keep me happy. I conduct fieldwork in the summer and research in the winter. Both aspects of the job are rewarding in different ways. For the last ten years I have been excavating underwater sites: primarily shipwrecks, but also sunken land structures. The break that the sea offers from reality is rewarding enough to get me through the winters – literally and metaphorically. Needless to say that Greece is an archaeological paradise.

What were the major difficulties you’ve faced in the last five years?

A little over five years ago, I returned to Greece after having spent 5 years living on and off in the UK. At the time it seemed like a good idea to “come home” – at least temporarily. It took me over 2 years to re-adjust to Greek reality. I still have not managed to fully come to terms with Greece. Nevertheless, I have gradually fitted in again. I often feel that I made a mistake returning “home”. This is a thought that I simply cannot shake off and in a sense, this doubt is an omnipresent difficulty for me these last 5 years.

 

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Did anyone in particular inspire you or help you?

In Athens we have 17 foreign Schools of Archaeology. It was the foreign schools that have always been my haven; a buzzing international community of junior and senior scholars constantly on the move for the purposes of their field-projects and research. Being a member of this community reassures me that Greece too can be multicultural and that perhaps it is not such a bad place to live after all.

What are your hopes/plans for the future?

I have no long-term plans. I am still considering the possibility of going abroad. The UK continues to feel a lot like home and I miss it still.

What are your hopes for Greece? What changes do you hope to see happen?

I hope for the financial crisis to pass. I realize that this sounds naïve and oversimplified. Nevertheless, after everything that’s been said and done in the last six years, I no longer know how to make this sound factual and realistic. I am unclear as to what really needs to be done and even more unclear as to whose benefit this will be for. This is one of the worse predicaments that our governments have imposed on us: not knowing with any degree of certainty what to wish for any more… Saying that, what I hope to see are reason, factual explanations, tangible solutions, and (alas!) intelligent politicians.

Have you considered leaving? If so, where would you like to go, and why?

Yes, I admitted to considering this before. The UK continues to feel partly like home. In the case of a Brexit, though, I can no longer go there that easily.

If you have already decided to leave what would make you stay?

Intelligent ideas, solutions and individuals make me want to hang around. Provided that Greece chooses to invest in these, I am up for staying and helping out whichever way I can.

Angor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Are you actively doing anything to help with the situation? Is there something you would like to do?

I have sunk into a state of passivity. I feel too numb to move. As a result, I am of very little help to anyone including myself. I suppose the one thing that I have never done is evade taxes. Consequently, in a way I am helping with the situation. What I need the most is to be able to see a way out of this. However long this way may be, as long as it is discernible, it is a viable destination. One can at least feel that one is heading towards something.

How do you see Greece in 5, 10 years?

This is way too difficult a question. Not even Pythia (the Oracle of Delphi) would have had an answer to this. In antiquity the manteis (seers) were commonly blind. Their sense of sight was the sacrifice they were forced to make in order to gain divine foresight. I find myself in the paradoxical situation where I have been stripped of my sense of sight without having been offered anything in exchange. I simply cannot see down the line.

How do you cope with obstacles and frustrations in your everyday life?

I do my best to keep frustrations and negativity away from the dinner table. We have our evening ritual at home when we cook something delicious and take a long time to dine (Italian-style). At the dinner table we share only the positive encounters and incidents of our day, and crack as many jokes as we can. Wine always helps.

What are the positive sides of living in Greece? Have you had any good experiences lately?

Summer is coming. This they have not managed to interfere with yet! Summer in Greece is one of the international stereotypes for fun. I make the most of it and it lifts my spirits.

World Watercolor Month

What’s World Watercolor Month?

It’s a month to inspire people to paint with watercolor (watercolour, aquarelle) while raising awareness for the importance of art and creativity in the world.  Anyone can join the celebration, from master watercolorists to artists just starting out with watercolor!

 

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Best of all, this first year of the celebration will be about raising awareness for children in need of art supplies and art education around the globe. Art is an important aspect of child development and paves the way for a successful future. What would the world be without art?

 

 

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How could I resist? I’m joining the 31-day challenge – a watercolor each day. Some might be just doodles, some only dabs (abstract dabs?), but it will be fun. It will be motivation to pick up a brush each day, to try new things; and an opportunity to meet other artists. I will be posting on Instagram(athensletters). Below is my first contribution:

Day 1: Sketch of flowers past their prime.
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