‘Estia’ means hearth

In Ancient Greek religion, Estia or Hestia (/ˈhɛstiə/; Greek: Ἑστία, “hearth” or “fireside”) is a virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the home, and the state.

It was a difficult start to my road trip to the seaside town of Galaxidi. The rain poured down, washing out the view on all sides. A few bare branches were the only things visible as I tried to keep the car from aqua-planing on the turns. A two hour trip took a while longer but, as we emerged on the top of the mountains above Itea the sky cleared and a few rays of brilliant sunshine pierced the clouds.

 

 

The view towards Galaxidi

 

The charm of Galaxidi was restored, and so was my mood, over a cup of mountain tea taken at the hotel with some of the other visitors. We were all here for the annual cutting of the traditional vasilopitta at the Estia Agios Nikolaos, (https://www.estia-agios-nikolaos.org), a community where adults with special needs live, work and share their free time together with those caring for them. In this, Estia Agios Nikolaos is quite unique, and not only in Greece. It is also one of the few such communities worldwide which is not affiliated to one particular religious faith, and this inclusiveness is the main point of attraction for people all over the world who come to live and work here, making Estia a vibrant and exciting place.

 

Our b&b, the Hotel Nostos

Everyone had dinner together at a wonderful seaside taverna. I sat next to Clara (German, speaking fluent Greek) and Maxime (French, having just signed up for his second year, rapidly improving Greek), two vivacious and inspiring young people, who talked about their work with enthusiasm. Also present were numerous locals, such as the pharmacist who donates all meds for the community, and a lady who provides fish from her fish farm once a week. And, making a star appearance, was Estia’s first baby, Mia, born to a couple who work as carers – a source of endless fascination and delight for all.

Next morning, after a delicious breakfast of home-made delicacies and a walk in the port, we drove to Estia, where everyone was gathered in the assembly hall.

Music and songs. The man playing the trumpet is the Estia gardener.

The festivities started with a couple of songs  (this video might look as if it’s facing sideways, but it will right itself once you click it. The mysteries of technology…)

Then the cutting and sharing of the vasilopitta.

 

 

We visited the ceramics shop, where colorful creations were on offer.

 

The wonderful vegetable garden,

 

complete with scarecrow,

 

and free-range chickens.

 

And finally one of the four residences, which in total cater for 45 people, of whom 22 have special needs (at the moment there is space for two more.) In ‘Estia Agios Nikolaos’ all the members live in small family structures, which comprise 6-9 special needs guests, 2 to 3 professional caregivers and 2 to 3 volunteers.

 

 

The entrance with its cats and box of fresh home-grown veggies.

 

A cozy living area

 

Complete with music corner

 

Fireplace

 

A large dining table for communal meals

 

A lovely kitchen

 

And a well-stocked larder.

 

We went on to visit another building which is used for various activities, fronted by a shady terrace for barbecues and ad hoc concerts. This doubles as the Kafeneion (café), a gathering place for Sunday coffee with the locals and evening parties.

 

A brand new kitchen, designed by an architect friend and donated by IKEA (the floor had been freshly washed), will be used for the new bakery and pastry workshop.

 

And there is a loom for weaving

 

Maren, who is German, is responsible for one of the houses and took us on tour, while explaining that the residents really look forward to their activities each morning after breakfast: either working in the garden or in the pottery and jewelry workshops.

The afternoons are devoted to music, exercising, walking, and in the summertime, swimming in the sea nearby. Besides the staff, there are professionals (most of them on a volunteering basis) providing specific therapeutical activities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, gymnastics and music therapy.

During the weekends, individuals can choose the activities they would like to participate in. There are various artistic and spiritual pursuits on offer, in connection to the local communities, such as outings to musical events, theater and cinema, church attendance and participation in local celebrations. Every Sunday late afternoon, the entire community gathers in the Kafeneion for cake, music and games, often hosting visitors from the local community.

Each new resident is taken in for a month’s trial, to see how well he or she will fit in. Most adapt well, some don’t. After the extensive mutual screening there is a mandatory period of at least one month when the potential resident returns to his/ her home so that each side, resident, family and the Estia team can calmly make up its mind. Sometimes parents find they miss their child too much, and prefer to keep them at home.

Residents join in on outings and trips whenever possible and have even been abroad, which I found impressive, due to the logistic problems needing to be solved.

The cornerstone principle of ‘Estia Agios Nikolaos’ is that “each person is unique and can be helped to develop his or her unique capabilities in a nurturing environment via creative work, artistic stimuli and direct interaction with nature.” Efforts are made to treat each person as an individual – the girl who made a friend in town goes for sleepovers to her house and is allowed to invite her in turn, those who don’t like to sleep after lunch are not made to have a siesta, and so on. Such an anthropocentric approach is quite revolutionary in what remains, in essence, an institution.

 

The view from the entrance

Giovanna Kampouri, the president of the foundation which supervises the organizers, explained the community’s vision:

For our residents with special needs, Estia Agios Nikolaos is often their only family and home. Many of them do not have a family that can care for them, and very sadly, most will face the trauma of losing their parents. It is our mission to be able to provide them with a lifelong, stable and loving home. The biggest challenge will come when the first residents will age (in the case of those with Down Syndrome, with dementia). We are now starting to study what it will take to build our 5th home, with special facilities for this group. We need to solve many issues for this, in addition to money, and particularly Greek legal requirements and infrastructure.

On a day to day basis, in the middle of the crisis, Estia has not only survived but managed to thrive, thanks to the love and generosity of an ever widening circle of supporters in Greece and abroad. I believe that this is thanks to its message of inclusiveness, which is filling a growing need in all our societies (to balance the opposite trend of nationalism and xenophobia) We are thankful for this, as we need to continue and to expand our possibility to provide life-long care for our residents. Due to the crisis, the ability of many of our residents to compensate for the patchy payments by EOPYY(social security) been reduced, and we have been able to fully cover this and to even offer full ‘scholarships’ to new residents from every part of Greece.”

And of course, the work is never done. There are plans for acquiring more animals, such as bees and a donkey, building a wood-fired oven, planting olive trees.

I left feeling invigorated and inspired – some truly remarkable work is being done here. If you want to know more, and meet the principals of this story, watch the wonderful video made by Marianna Economou.

 

Painting step by step

I have been continuing with my feather series, as you can see from my Instagram feed, but, due to popular demand (drumroll, please), I will now describe the process by which I create the layered ones. Here’s one:

I started with watercolor on a piece of cold-pressed, 300gms paper.

 

Added random pieces of aluminum foil, glued on with a glue stick.

 

Which I painted over, with watercolor, so the paint is still transparent. Anything with foil is notoriously difficult to photograph, and I’m no photographer – I use my phone!

 

Then I added pieces of cut up newpaper

 

More paint

 

I glued on a sheet of crumpled tissue paper, which I painted over with white gouache.

 

Made a rough drawing of a feather

 

Added color, and another sheet of tissue paper. And now for the fun bit, gouging bits out with a cutter.

 

Ta-dah! (more drumrolls). You can zoom in to see more detail.

Original mixed media art by AthensLettersArt.

 

The process is quite random, since I follow my imagination and whim of the moment. I have lately been inspired by artists who use collage and layers, such as Anselm Kiefer, whose wonderful paintings I wrote about here. Sadly, I do not have the means to use molten lead, so I have to fall back on the humble aluminum foil.

Here’s a différend feather:


Original mixed media paintin by AthensLettersArt

 

In this case I used torn bits of pages from an old book, and glued a strip of red tissue paper on the left side. I’m tentatively planning to create more feathers to make a up a large mosaic.

Other artists who have inspired me lately are Romare Bearden, Derek Fordjour and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.  l was thinking of writing about them in a future post.

What’s in a name?

Yesterday a crowd gathered in the center of Athens, waving flags and chanting to protest a Greek compromise over the naming of a neighboring former Yugoslav republic. Macedonia, which is what the republic wants to call itself, is the ancient name of the region where Alexander the Great was born, and Greeks feel it belongs to them. Most call the republic by the name of its capital, Skopje.

The name dispute has been going on for years: it broke out after Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The country is recognized by international institutions as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, even though about 130 countries refer to it simply as Macedonia.

 

Flags make for a pretty sight. Syntagma Square. Source: Kathimerini

 

Greece argues use of the name implies territorial claims on its own province of Macedonia. Officials in Skopje counter that their country has been known as Macedonia for a long time.

The easiest solution would be to add a modifier such as “New” or “North” to the republic’s name, but this proposal has triggered protests in both countries.

It is debatable how many people attended yesterday’s rally: the organizers claim to over a million, whereas the police estimated around 140.000 – not a small difference. Politicians of all parties had their say, 92-year-old legendary musician and former minister Mikis Theodorakis put in a appearance and called for a referendum [oh no – not another one…] Everyone accused the everyone else of using the event for their own interest, and of faking attendance numbers. Left-wing and anarchist protesters, bearing banners calling for Balkan unity, took the opportunity to set up a counter-demonstration nearby, which suspected far-right supporters attempted to attack. The riot police had a field day.

About 100,000 people attended a similar protest last month in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the capital of Greece’s province of Macedonia.

What do I think about it all? Hard to say. I do think the choice of the name was provocative in the first place – surely they knew it would not please Greece, so why not opt for something else and avoid opening that particular can of worms. However, as usual the issue is obscured and transformed by political interest on both sides, and used to funnel people’s frustration and despair away from the real problems that desperately need to be solved. The endless squabbling is inelegant, to say the least. As to the referendum, no thanks – I’m sick of being dragged out to vote, knowing nothing will change in the long run. Let’s not forget that in the last referendum, we voted NO to stay in Europe, or YES to not leave Europe. Ridiculous.

Dear reader

Dear reader,

After a surge of posts at the end of last year, things seem to have gone quiet. Or rather, I’ve been both very busy and a little uninspired. I see now I only managed a single post in January – horrors! So let me hasten to reassure you, I have not died or gone away.

 

 

However, I do find myself at some kind of crossroads with this blog. It’s difficult to write about Greece at the moment – things are no better, and do people want to keep reading about the refugees, the hopeless politicians and the unending financial crisis? I feel I’ve also covered the various traditions, feasts, etc – this is not supposed to be a travel guide, after all. Interviews seem to have dried up, a couple of people never having come up with the goods.

 

 

When I come across something amusing or worthwhile, or think of someone fun to interview, or have time for a road trip, or visit an art show, inspiration is easy. However, this does not make for regular output – on the other hand, I don’t want this blog to turn into a kind of homework, there’s no point to that.
So, suggestions are welcome. What would like to read about? Any special interests, more interviews, more art, less art?

 

 

Meanwhile, I am planning a trip next weekend, to visit a facility for people with special needs, in the beautiful seaside town of Galaxidi. The Estia Agios Nikolaos is a unique place, the beloved project of a good friend of mine, where people live in a family-style environment and are allowed to thrive at their own pace. They are having their vasilopitta, the Greek tradition of cutting a special cake each New Year. So there is a post to be written soon, which I feel sure will be interesting.

 

 

The photographs are of a series I’m working on at the moment, Feathers. They are small paintings, which will make up to a larger installation, and at the same time I’m using them to experiment with different techniques in mixed media. As well as working with watercolor, collage and gold leaf, I’m  also layering pieces of newspaper and silver foil with paint and crumpled tissue paper in various combinations. Sometimes I draw or paint over the top, sometimes I gouge bits out with a cutter. It’s really fun to do, and I’m hoping to use these techniques on larger pieces eventually.

 

Don’t forget to comment and egg me on with your suggestions!

Best wishes and a super moon

Stepping  outside at night on January first and seeing a huge moon shining behind the clouds felt like a good sign – an omen of a great year ahead?

 

 

Best wishes to all of you who have been reading my ramblings all year.
But so as not to be too complacent, I will share a cartoon frrom the New Yorker that someone sent me.

 

Season’s wishes

Athens has put on its glad rags as a general effort is being made to celebrate the holidays.

SYNTAGMA (Constitution Square) decorated and lit up for Christmas. Photo: tornosnews.gr. Source:Google.

 

There is a lot going on, despite the continuing problems, which remain huge. Art shows, music, dance, parties – and people just walking the streets, enjoying the season. Athens remains one of the popular destinations for the winter holidays.

As always one must spare a thought (and perhaps a little money) for the people whose finances or personal circumstances make the holiday more of a worry than fun. Also the homeless and the refugees, who are spending another winter without heating or running water.

However, I would like to end this post on a positive note, and send my best wishes to all of you out there, who have been following and commenting all this time. I really appreciate your friendship (even when virtual!) and hope you will enjoy the days to come, with friends and family.

 

Christmas gift: Trying out a new toy, a Duke Confucius fountain pen – it makes the most interesting marks and is a lovely object in itself. Made from bamboo.

If any of my more recent followers are interested about Christmas celebrations in Greece, I wrote a post about it some time ago – you can find it here.

A season for dance

For ballet lovers, Christmas is often a time of indulgence, with a lot of dance companies putting up festive shows. In Athens,  The Nutcracker is on at the Megaron, one of our opera houses, featuring principal dancers from the Bolshoi.

I do not consider myself a connaisseur of ballet but, as most people, I do love a performance by an outstanding artist.

 

Laura Morera and Sergei Polunin at the Royal Ballet Triple Rhapsody at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Source:Google

 

Some years ago, I watched Baryshnikov dance at the ancient  Herodion Atticus theatre in Athens, on a moonlit summer night. To see him literally flying across that stage was a breathtaking spectacle, and I’ve not seen a male dancer of that caliber since.

So when I came across this video of Sergei Polunin, performing in a barn to the sounds of the song ‘Take me to church’, I thought I’d post it here as a little Christmas gift for all you ballet lovers out there.

 

 

Sergei Polunin was born in the Ukraine and started dancing at age three, pushed by his mother who hoped it would be a way for him to escape their difficult existence. The pressure put upon him by his extraordinary talent made for many ups and downs in his life, including quitting the Royal Ballet at just 21, despite having had the best roles laid at his feet. Fortunately, after trying different things such as acting, he always seems to return to ballet.

The ‘Take me to Church’ video went viral, but it is a showy piece of work for someone who is, above all, a true purist of classical dance. That is why I am also posting a more conventional clip of him dancing in Swan Lake.

 

Enjoy.