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.
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
Hope that’s got you smiling at least.Happy New Year!
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!
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.
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 KaterinaTopouzoglou, founder of the organization ALL FOR BLUE.
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.
–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!
The sea needs allies. Are you with us?
–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.
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?
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!
Melbourne has been in Stage 4 lockdown for a few weeks now. Exercise once a day for a maximum of an hour; shopping for essentials once a day and only one person; only within a 5 km radius. And a curfew from 8:00 at night to 5:00 in the morning. Businesses have been severely curtailed, with only essential work to be carried out and workers needing a permit to show they are essential.
Mask-wearing has been mandatory for about a month, and most people are complying.
Our borders with NSW and South Australia are closed.
Fortunately these very strict measures seem to be bringing the numbers down, although our elderly in residential care have had a very tragic time. You might like to read my last post about our Elders.
And me? Thank you for asking! I feel that I have been doing this for ever, and indeed it has…
I originally posted this Wander almost exactly four years ago, when the Olympics were in full swing in Rio, the world celebrating together as it usually does. However, although the 2020 Olympics were scheduled to take place this month, things are much different. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next year, but even that hasn’t been confirmed, as we live in such uncertain times. It’s such a shame, and I really feel for the athletes who have been working towards this for so long. I’m not much of a watcher of sport, but there is something about the Olympic Games that captures my imagination, and I find myself caught up in the atmosphere and excitement of it all. Therefore, as we have no Olympics to celebrate this year, I thought I might revisit a Wander that takes us to where the modern Olympics began…
The news these days are full of stories of social unrest. Something that has been brewing for a while, as society divides become greater, rather than narrower. However, I find myself perplexed by the practice of tearing down statues of people who were slave traders or racists, along with their other attributes, for which they were celebrated.
History is built in shades of grey: unfortunately human nature is such that the strong often prey on the weak. Alexander the Great built wondrous libraries in his glorious conquest of the ‘known world’, but also massacred plenty of ‘barbarians’ along the way. In the democracy of classical Athens, there were slaves, who did not have a vote—and neither did women, or foreigners. The men who hauled blocks of marble to build the Parthenon were not blessed with paid holidays and health care. Should we tear down the Pyramids, because they were built in sweat and blood? Religions and sects have persecuted, burnt, and tortured people who did not share their beliefs. Should we tear down the churches and temples? Some of the slave traders were black themselves, preying upon their own kind. And racism is not confined to blacks—many others have borne the brunt of it. Native Americans, Maoris, Armenians, Jews, Tutus, the list is long—anyone who found themselves in the minority in the place they lived in. Human nature.
Here is an anecdote: I recall, when visiting one of the Balkan countries during Communism—I think Bulgaria—being shown around a monument by a local guide. It consisted of a large circle dug into the ground, two stories below. It was open to the sky and, all around the perimeter, stood a row of larger-than-life bronze statues representing workers: one held a scythe, another a plow, a third a hammer, and so on. The whole thing was rather ghastly but, was was weirder still, was that when I asked the guide who was the sculptor who made them, she answered, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘How can you not know? This is not antique, it’s recent.’ She hemmed and hawed, then she said: ‘He fell out with the regime, and his name was erased from the books.’ Such a narrow minded way of looking at things.
Things that happened, happened. Should we try to erase the past? I think it’s better to reserve our energies for improving the present—with more efficient laws, and with reform, not destruction. Thousands of people are slaves still, in the 21st century—and they’re not all black. There’s a huge immigration crisis, worldwide. There are people now, today, who have made fortunes exploiting others, but everyone sucks up to them, because their money gives them power, and they also take good care to make large donations to charities and universities. There are huge corporations operating on the returns of sweatshops and the like.
Is it a solution to stop reading Rudyard Kipling, or showing Gone With The Wind?
I’m curious to know what everyone thinks about all this.
Greece is now opening up its borders to travelers, so if any of you are thinking of taking the plunge, here’s another wonderful place to visit. For the rest, a little more armchair traveling on a ThrowbackThursday, from a trip taken in 2016
In the Iliad, Homer described Mycenae as ‘a city rich in gold.’ It was the legendary home of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks who went to Troy to fight the Trojan War. The Greeks of classical antiquity idealized the Mycenaean period as a glorious period of heroes, closeness of the gods and material wealth, as described in the Trojan Epic cycle.
In 1876, amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to prove the historical accuracy of the Iliad by identifying the places described by Homer. Using the text of Pausanias, the second-century A.D. traveller, as his guide, he excavated the site at Mycenae, discovering the deep shaft graves where bodies were buried dressed in lavishly decorated shrouds adorned with gold items and diadems and with their faces covered by masks of gold or electrum (such as the Mask of Agamemnon, below).