Summer comes to Greece quickly, and everything dries up. Wild flowers and weeds get overblown, and dried grasses have to be cleared because of fire risk. We live in fear of forest fires, which is a big downside of our lovely summers. Pine trees are especially at risk, because of the resin in their sap. They can spontaneously combust just from the heat of a forest fire, and the cones can fly as far as 500 meters, thus accelerating the spread of the fire.
We have had a little welcome rain lately, which has kept things green, and so we can still enjoy wild flowers and the blossom on trees. Of course in the mountains spring will last a while longer, but around Athens summer has a habit of establishing itself quite early. People are already heading to the beach – in fact, we had our first swim in the sea on April 14. The water was freezing, but invigorating! Then it turned cold again for a few days.
I don’t know what these flowers are called, but they were so pretty growing amongst the rocks, that I felt inspired to make a sketch in my journal.
Tortoises are coming out of hibernation, to the great interest of some! This one came to visit. It’s amazing how much faster they move than what you’d expect. I went into the kitchen to get it some lettuce, and by the time I came out again, it was gone. In the countryside, sometimes they decide to cross the road, stopping all traffic.
Today I would like to welcome Mark Stephenson, who wrote a very interesting post for me some time ago, about books set in Greece (read it here). His own debut, a thriller set partly in Crete, has just been published. Having read an early draft, which I found a real page-turner, I’m eagerly anticipating discovering the final version. Meanwhile, Mark has described for us how he got his inspiration. In his own words:
I’ve always dreamed of being a writer and while working in investment banking in the City of London, I started to write a novel which was set in Greece. The half-written manuscript sat in my desk drawer for over twenty years. It told the story of a student called Andreas who was killed by the police in the famous Athens Polytechnic riots of November 17th 1973. It is a quest by his girlfriend, who was carrying Andreas’ child at the time of the killing, to find out the truth. It is also a fight between two brothers, one of whom was responsible for the murder and now deeply regrets what has happened. There were many plot holes in the manuscript and the pressures of my job did not allow me enough free time to finish. A novel involves a huge amount of work and I’ve got great admiration for those who do a day job and still manage to write in the evening. Christopher Hitchens once said: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” I was determined to let mine out into the world, but whether I have any talent for story-telling remains to be seen.
To find out, I retired from my job a few years early and decided to follow my dream. The first thing I did was to enrol in an MA in Crime and Thriller writing at City University in London. I was not trying to write literary fiction so this course seemed to be the right thing to do. A requirement of the MA was to complete a novel so it provided excellent motivation to get the novel finished. My hopes were set back when my tutor told me that the novel I’d started to write all those years ago was not topical enough for a mass market and suggested that I try something else. I took the advice, but could not throw away my desire to write a novel set in Greece. I’ve been going to Greece for over forty years and fell in love with the country and most of all the people. I’ve always been a big admirer of the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis and his wonderful Report to Greco which steered me towards setting my novel in Crete.
The novel has two interlocking time shifting narratives. The first tells the story of Callidora, a young Cretan shepherdess, during the German invasion of Crete in 1941. She discovers an ancient Christian scroll which has been revealed, buried under a church’s foundations, after it is destroyed during an air raid. Callidora meets Hans, a German paratrooper who helps her understand the significance of what she has found. Her friendship with Hans does not go down well with Callidora’s family and fellow villagers, who make accusations of collaboration with the enemy and disown her. Meanwhile, Hans’ commanding officer, Captain Wolfgang Kohlenz, will stop at nothing to force Callidora to reveal the scroll’s secret.
The plight of Callidora’s fictional village of Tirata reflects the truth that many Cretan villages were destroyed during the occupation by the Germans. One of the most famous is Kandanos in the White Mountains. I wanted to see for myself what the village was like and, although it has been rebuilt, at least I could see the location and visit the monument to those Cretans who were executed. My experience on that trip into the mountains typifies why I admire the Greek people so much. I am told that there is no word in Greek for stranger and I have certainly seen that over the many years I’ve been going to the country. I think the way they have helped the refugees in islands like Lesbos illustrates that point better than my story but I’ll tell it anyway.
On the road to Kandanos with my wife, I made the wrong turning and ended up on a stone track. Foolishly, I kept going and as we began to climb I decided to turn back. I needed to reverse a little but got stuck in a ditch and couldn’t move the car. Thanking God for good mobile reception in the mountains, I telephoned the car hire company who were not best pleased. When I said that the car was not damaged and just needed some help, the car hire lady said that she thought she knew somebody who might help and would phone me back. A few minutes later she came back to tell me that a friend from the fire service was coming and that we should start walking back to the main road. In less than twenty minutes, a large fire truck appeared manned by two handsome young firemen, much to my wife’s evident pleasure after being fed up with her husband for getting stuck. The men towed us out of the ditch. They refused my offer of recompense for their help and went on their way.
We drove on and found Kandanos, visiting the monument which was moving in its simplicity. There was a strange feeling about the village which, although rebuilt, seemed still in mourning for what had been lost. I came away feeling inspired to complete my novel. Many tourists never get much past the Cretan coast line but in the mountains, you see the true resilience and spirit of Zorba.
The fierce resistance by ordinary Cretans took the Germans by surprise. The Parachute regiment known as the Fallschirmjager were expecting an easy victory but were horrified by the way that the resistance started within the first hour of the invasion. Every member of the parachute regiment received a copy of its own ten commandments. The ninth commandment said: “Against a regular enemy fight with chivalry, but give no quarter to guerrillas.”
These so-called guerrillas included boys, old men, women and even priests and monks fighting with any weapon they could get their hands on including antiquated rifles used to shoot ducks, pick axes, scythes and spades. On the first day, the Germans lost over 2000 paratroopers, many who were killed by the irregular army of Cretans. The pictures and the video below illustrate the massacre at Kontomari where a similar war crime was committed and where the paratroopers had their revenge.
Apart from Callidora’s story, the other narrative tells the story from the perspective of Richard, a British MI6 intelligence analyst caught up in the London bombings of 2005. The two stories are linked by Richard’s search for the truth about his father, who is presumed dead and yet being hunted by both the CIA and Al Qaeda. He discovers a family secret which draws him into a conspiracy of global significance. The conspiracy relates to words of the Cretan scroll discovered by Callidora in 1941. Terrorists want its secret revealed but the CIA, Mossad and MI6 want it destroyed.
My novel is called The Last Messenger and is intended to be the first book in a trilogy. I received quite a few positive comments from agents about the strength of my writing but all said that there was no demand for conspiracy thrillers. Therefore, it is with a streak of bloody-minded and perhaps misguided optimism that I decided to publish the book myself. I certainly don’t expect to make any money from publication, but I’ll be thrilled if someone I don’t know tells me that they enjoyed reading it.
The attached link will lead you to a free sample of the novel and has links to purchase either the paperback version or the Kindle version.
I do hope you will consider adding it to your reading list. If you do read it then please let me know what you think on my website.
There is much more on the background themes of the novel on the website.
The modern narrative set in 2005 would suit readers who enjoyed I am Pilgrim whereas the World War Two story explores themes similar to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Thank you, Marina, for giving me the opportunity to guest on your blog and to relate some of the inspirations behind setting my first novel in Greece. Readers of Letters from Athens will be pleased to see scenes from the novel set in that wonderful city, in the district of Exarchia.
In a surprising move, Adam Szymczyk, Documenta’s Artistic Director, transplanted half this year’s exhibition to Athens, where it is sprawled over 40 venues, showing 160-odd artists, with the working title ‘Learning from Athens’. Documenta is an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. It was founded by artist, teacher and curator Arnold Bode in 1955, in an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art.
Here in Athens, the heart of the exhibition resides in the large available spaces—the Athens School of Fine Arts, Benaki Museum Pireos Street Annexe, the former Athens Conservatoire, and the EMST Contemporary Art Museum which, due to government mismanagement, has only just opened after years of delays. But the rest of it is spread around the many small galleries about town.
The program also includes a radio station that broadcasts 28 commissioned sound pieces in multiple formats, art films screened on Greek television, a vibrant education program, and a jam-packed schedule of live performances.
It was difficult to know what to tackle first, so we decided to start with the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), which is a converted beer factory, and thus an interesting space in itself.
The building does not disappoint – it has been beautifully converted, provides an amazing background to showcase art, and has stunning views on the Acropolis, Mount Lycabettus, and the Philopappos hill.
The art itself, however, and although it did include some stunning pieces, left me somewhat underwhelmed. There were a number of very plain sketches which would have been better placed on Instagram, and installations which, while being creative and sometimes original, inevitably brought to mind the question: This is clever/imaginative/fun, but is it art?
Austrian artist Lois Weinberger had packed old objects ‘excavated’ from under the Weinberger family’s old farmhouse floorboards – animal skulls, broken crockery, bits of torn paper, scraps of wood – into cardboard boxed with plexiglass tops. There was even a line of old shoes.
Strangely, the labels for the whole exhibition were located on the floor – they were just work titles on paper and handwritten artist’ names on small, rectangular blocks of marble that looked like paperweight (apparently a number have already disappeared – perhaps purloined as souvenirs).
Another installation comprised a few desks strewn haphazardly in an empty space, as if an office had been abandoned in a hurry. On them were objects described on a list: i.e. ‘a piece of A4 paper.’
Art is very subjective and encompasses a wide range of creativity, yet there are still some some things I don’t get – but perhaps there is nothing to get. Just sayin’. The most creative part here, it seems to me, has been getting people to believe this is worthy of a place in Documenta.
Moving on, among the video installations was one I found engrossing, from the collaboration of artists Nashashib and Skaer – a group of women and children in a house and courtyard, complete with dogs and chickens – which revisited Gaugin’s images of Tahitian women. Another, called ’15 hours’, by Chinese filmmaker WangBing, showed the repetitive work in a Chinese sweatshop – and there was an unbearable one, by Iranian director ForoughFerrokhzad. Called ‘The House is Black’, it documented life in a leper colony. I could only watch a tiny bit – in fact, I’ve noticed that visitors seldom have the patience to watch the whole of a video installation, which, in some instances, is probable a shame.
One aspect of the exhibition I liked was the variety of artists represented, from all over the world. Many from Eastern Europe, and some from unusual destinations – artists from as far away as Mongolia, or belonging to the Sami people from the Arctic regions of Norway. On the other hand, who wants to see a series of portraits of Hitler, even if they do have socio-political connotations? (paintings by McDermott & McGough from their series ‘Hitler and the Homosexuals’.)
At the end of our tour, we came upon two impressive installations, especially since our first glimpse of them was from above.
A circle of masks made of woven vines by KhvaySamnang.
And I loved QuipuWomb (Story Of The Red Thread) by CeciliaVicuña. The ancient art of Quipu is a pre-Colombian form of writing involving intricate knotting patterns. Here, untreated wool was sourced from a local Greek provider and dyed red.
Art is rampant all over town, and one of the positive effects of Documenta is that it has attracted a lot of visitors from abroad. Documenta has been called a ‘culturalpeaceoffering‘ from Germany to Greece by some, a ‘Trojanhorse’ by others. It so vast and diverse that it is intimidating: one has to make up one’s own mind in the end. The dialogue continues.
Documenta is on for 100 days, so I will certainly be seeing more of it. For anyone interested in more detail, however, or for those of you living in Greece, I recommend browsing Art Scene Athens, a blog I have often referred to before. There are several detailed posts on the subject, a lot more erudite and objective than my own biased view!
Resurrection Rocket War on Vrontado, Chios. Image: Atlas Obscura
Today, at midnight, Easter is celebrated by both Orthodox and Catholics. I’ve written in the past about Greek Easter customs, mentioning in passing how, in most places, the celebrations include fireworks.
There is one place, however, that takes this to the next level: Vrontados, on the Greek island of Chios. Here, two rival parishes engage in a most unusual and dangerous Easter tradition that has been taking place quite possibly since the Ottoman era. The churches, Agios Marcos (St. Mark) and Panaghia Ereithiani (Holy Mary on Erythai-the ancient name of Vrontados), sit on opposite hillsides about 400 meters away from one another. Every year, they recreate a yearly “Rocket War”, which is exactly what it sounds like.
According to Atlas Obscura, real cannons were used until 1889 in this annual performance, which no one really seems to…
Πασχαλιά (Paschalia) is the Greek name for lilac: the Paschal flower. It always blooms for Easter.
For Greeks, Easter is a more important holiday than Christmas: a time for fasting and feasting. A celebration of spring. Even people who are not religious will go to church at least on Good Friday and then Saturday night for the Resurrection, in order to join in the festivities. Sunday is spent with family and friends, preferably in the countryside, which is covered in wild flowers, with the aroma of roasting lamb wafting about in the breeze.
For those who have not been following this blog for long, last year I wrote a post on Greek Easter traditions which you can read here.
The date upon which Easter falls is calculated according to the moon and the vernalequinox and Greek Easter this year coincides with the other Christian churches – it doesn’t always, since the calculations are based on different calendars (Julian versus Gregorian). So, for all those who celebrate this holiday, whatever their customs and traditions, I wish you a very joyful and happy time!
I couldn’t resist making a quick sketch of the lilac bush in our garden.
The first element to consider in any Greek pie is the pastry – in this case, homemade phyllo pastry. It is often refered to as horiatiko phyllo, village phyllo, and is generally thicker than the machine-made store bought stuff. Pie fillings vary, but a popular one is based on seasonal greens. Here – as an example – I’ve made little pies (pitakia) with tsigarista, a winter dish of sautéed wild greens. It really doesn’t matter what you fill your little pies with, this post is primarily about the homemade phyllo!
When making Phyllo for a sweet pie, a teaspoon or two of sugar is added with the flour.
30ml red wine vinegar
60ml olive oil
Up to 500ml water
Place the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the vinegar and oil…