Down memory lane: Sports Day

Since our school didn’t possess the necessary facilities, our annual sports day was held at the Athens Tennis Club, on one of the clay courts, which had a ‘grandstand’ from which the parents could admire their offspring.

For this occasion we wore white shorts and a white T-shirt, on which the letter of our class—Α, Β, Γ, Δ, and so on—had to be sewn by the mothers using blue ribbon. Every year we were issued with detailed instructions regarding the dimensions of this letter: the exact width of the ribbon, the height and width of the letter and its position in the middle of our chest. Each year most parents totally disregarded these instructions, so that some kids had a tiny letter attached to their left shoulder, some had a huge one going from neck to waist, and so on. No two T-shirts looked the same! My mother, needless to say, obeyed the instructions to the letter, and we were the proud wearers of the perfect specimen.

First there was a display of Greek folk dancing—for girls only—for which we pulled a blue skirt on over our shorts. Each class formed a circle, supposedly led by the best dancer. In our case, however, since both my sister and I were very tall for our age, and it would have looked strange to place us in the middle of the circle, we were made to lead our respective class, despite our evident lack grace and talent.

My mother, stifling laughter, once overheard the following conversation, between two ladies sitting in the row in front of her.

‘Why are classes Α and Γ led by older girls?’

‘They can’t be older, they have the same letter on their T-shirts as the others.’

‘Actually, I’ve heard there are two sisters in the school who are huge. It must be them.’

After the dancing, we pulled our skirts off and were joined by the boys to do basic gymnastics. Some of the exercises meant our backs came into contact with the clay court, so that when we stood up our back view was covered in red clay.

 

After the show was over, we were all treated to sour cherry ice lollies dispensed by a little man with an icebox on the front of his bike. These rapidly melted in the heat and dripped down our front—so that a little later, in the streets around the Tennis Club, groups of parents could be spotted going home with children who were plastered with red clay down the back, and stained red down the front.

Fire…

A terrible catastrophe is taking place in Greece, where a large number of wildfires, caused by the worst heatwave in years, are destroying the natural environment to an unprecedented extent, while also causing untold damage to personal and state property.

The fires are raging in the suburbs of Athens, where they have destroyed the pine forests of Varibobi and Tatoi, up the slopes of Mount Parnitha,  on the island of Euboea and elsewhere.

Photo Reuters

The situation is still at this moment far from being brought under control. Our neighbouring Turks are also fighting serious fires, so we are unable to come to each other’s assistance as we would normally do. Both countries have even been obliged to enlist the help of civilians. However, we have had assistance from Cyprus, France, Roumania, Sweden, Croatia and others, who have sent planes, helicopters and firefighters.

I will not go into details, which can be read in any newspaper. I would just like to express my gratitude to the firefighters; it is a real hero’s job in the worst possible conditions, especially since there are strong winds making everything inconceivably harder.

Wildfires have got much worse worldwide in recent years, which should certainly give us cause for thought. It is lamentable that governmental reaction to obvious phenomena is so slow, and always led by political and financial considerations rather than public benefit. The destruction of nature is really the saddest thing.

The passing of a music legend

ITolis Voskopoulos (Τόλης Βοσκόπουλος) who has passed away aged 81, was one of the legends of modern Greek music.

Born to immigrant parents from Asia Minor, he was the 12th child and first boy in his family. His father, a well-known and popular greengrocer in the working-class neighborhood of Kokkinia, was so overjoyed to get a boy after so many attempts that he immediately changed the sign on his shop to ‘Haralambos Voskopoulos & Son.’

Tolis grew up following his father everywhere: in the street markets, at the shop, and observing his business dealings. However, he felt early on that the job was not for him and, aged 15, found the courage to tell his father that he wanted to be an actor. He expected to be ‘slaughtered,’ but his father just said, ‘Let’s go.’ He took him to be enrolled in the National Odeon of Manolis Kalomiris, which taught music and drama. It was the first time Tolis had left his neighbourhood and he was awestruck to see Athens.

He learned to play the bouzouki, got married at 20 for the first time and quickly found tremendous fame because of his looks, empathy with his public and attractive voice. He was called The Prince by his many admirers.

 

He wrote songs (both the lyrics and music) that he included in his personal albums but that were also performed by other artists, most famously his duet with Marinella “Me and you” in 1974 which made record sales and is still sung today. He collaborated with a wide range of the best Greek artists of his time, including George Zabetas, Akis Panou, Mimis Plessas and many others.

 

As an actor, he starred in multiple films including the 1974 hit ‘Oi Erastes tou Oneirou’ (Dream Lovers) opposite Zoe Laskari, with whom he had a torrid affair, and who remained close to him thereafter.

 

Among his admirers he counted people from all walks of life, from the world of working-class neighborhoods to the financial elite of shipowners and industrialists, and of course the late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

Tolis Voskopoulos was adored and surrounded by women—he married four times, his last wife being Angela Gerekou, an actress and politician. They had one daughter, Maria.

 

With his last love, his daughter Maria

Mountains of plastic

 

The pandemic has had a  lot of unpleasant side effects, one of which is the amount of plastic that is being discarded on a daily basis.

Over the last few years, supermarkets and many other shops abolished plastic bags, and people have started using bamboo straws and other recyclable objects.

Sadly this trend has suffered a reversal: at the moment one can hardly go for a walk without spotting a mask or two embedded in the bushes, or lying in the gutter.

 

Hospitals also are consuming veritable mountains of protective equipment: a friend who works as a doctor in a covid ward tells me she has to wear no less than three pairs of disposable gloves daily (as well as the mask, whole body suit etc.) When I visited the dentist, both she and her assistant looked like astronauts, covered from head to foot, including plastic bootees. I too was asked to don a pair, which went in the trash when I left.

We have also gone back to disposable cups, plates and cutlery, not all of which are recyclable. I find all this very depressing, because big efforts were being made to get people and companies to reduce plastic use, efforts which now seem to be partly wasted.

Beaches, and even the ocean floor to a great depth, are littered with plastic; and we are already consuming micro particles which have been found in the flesh of fish, so the future looks grim.

 

Scary, isn’t it?                                   Photo:Google

What could be a solution to this problem?

Scientists have discovered a kind of bacteria which eats plastic (anyone interested can read about it here), but I think the results are still quite modest. It’s a sad fact that humans litter wherever they go: the pristine beauty of Everest is nowadays marred by discarded oxygen bottles and other rubbish (even abandoned corpses) and even space is now getting to be full of trash.

 

Let us hope that human ingenuity can find some answers before the natural environment is destroyed for ever.

The start of the Greek summer

May is a beautiful season in Greece. Not too hot yet, brilliant sunny days interspersed with the occasional shower, a pure transparent sky.

 

The sea is still a little chilly but, once you’ve warmed up in the sun, the initial shock only lasts a few seconds. And the sense of well-being afterwards lasts for hours.

 

The sun is good for replenishing Vitamin D, and the heat seeps happily into the old bones.

Below, fishermen mending their nets

Athens, too, is showing its best side. Cafés have opened their terraces, although people are still wearing masks in the street. And the bougainvillea is out in all its glory.

 

I’ve been volunteering to teach Greek online to a bunch of boys (unaccompanied minors in a refugee shelter belonging to the Home project, about which I posted a while ago) and we finally got a chance to meet in person, which was lovely.

Philopappos monument. Photo: Wikipedia commons


We went for a hike on Philopappos hill. This large park, which is known for the beautiful landscaping and stone pathways created by architect Dimitris Pikionis, is the home of many indigenous bird and a great variety of plants and trees. It is a favorite promenade of Athenians and presents the visitor with great views of the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens and the Aegean Sea that surrounds Attica. In 115 AD, a monument dedicated to the exiled Roman Prince Gaius Julius Antichus Philopappos of Commagene (a region in ancient Armenia) was erected on top of the hill. 
After his exile, Philopappos settled in Athens, became an Athenian citizen and held religious and civil offices. He was considered a great benefactor and was highly esteemed by the residents.


Best of all, the backdrop: the Parthenon, under a  brilliant Attic sky. 

I can draw a cat

Here’s a post from the blog of Michael Richards, an artist after my own heart.

A Certain Line

Mickey (A5 Prismacolor indigo blue pencil 2020)

Axel Scheffler, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the Gruffalo, once said in a radio interview that if you can draw, people think you can draw anything. There are, he continued, so many things he wouldn’t even attempt.

As a young man this used to bother me enormously. Why can’t I draw a passable bicycle? If I can draw a dog why do I struggle to draw a horse? These days I simply avoid drawing bicycles or horses, but if my life depended on drawing a bicycle for some odd reason then I’d draw it like Quentin Blake.

I’ve also regretted never learning to play the guitar – or the acoustic bass. Why didn’t you then? you might ask. The answer, I’m afraid, is that I never wanted to be a mediocre musician and I was daunted by the amount…

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A figure from the past

Recently I came upon an article about the ”pizzardone”, as traffic policemen in Rome are known (due to the shape of their helmets, nothing to do with pizza!) They elegantly direct traffic while perched on a pedestal in central spots, such as the Piazza Venezia.

This brought back amusing memories, since we also used to have traffic policemen in Greece, at most major crossroads in the cities. In the very beginning they stood in the road, which must have been terrifying, given Greek driving habits. Then they were put on a dais, which eventually evolved into the cylindrical so-called ‘Barrel’.

They were a respected presence in their area, in their white gloves and white diagonal sash; some even acquired a measure of fame, like Mr. Nikos Kostakis, who for many years was a cult figure on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. He was known for his impeccable manners, stern but unfailingly polite approach and perfect control of the flow of traffic. Impervious to weather conditions, in later years he was offered a desk job, but declined, preferring the outdoors and his daily contact with the public.

Mr. Kostakis, known as ‘the man with the moustache’

Later came the tradition of gifts deposited around the barrels by an appreciative public at Christmas and Easter. This tradition was inadvertently started in 1936 by the king, King George II, who stopped his car in front of the palace to wish the traffic policeman a Happy Christmas and left a gift of wine. This was copied by the public and became a custom. People gave what they could, sometimes just sacks of potatoes and baskets of eggs.

 

Bad photo, but I couldn’t resist the live turkeys!

Along with wine there were seasonal sweets such as kourabiedes, and toys for the policeman’s kids. As the years went by and Greeks became more affluent, the gifts became more valuable. Local shops joined in and donated household goods such as mattresses, boilers, or even refrigerators! The gifts would be taken to the police station and balloted out to all.

Photo Dimitris Harisiadis (from the Benaki Museum Archives)

 

This is all history, but I remember well our own barrel, and my mother wrapping a crate of wine in red crepe paper with a big bow. Like everyone else, we’d stop the car right in the middle of the junction, and she’d get out to deposit the crate at the base of the barrel, and wish the man on duty a Happy Christmas or Easter.

 

Most hilarious, though, was that at Easter the police saw fit to turn the barrel into a giant Easter egg, from which the poor man would emerge like a newly hatched chick.

 

So sad all this has been replaced with mere traffic lights.

 

Celebrating Greek Independence

Today Greece celebrates 200 years of her declaration of the War of Independence, which freed the country from 4 centuries of Ottoman rule.
The Greek Revolution was waged between 1821 and 1830 by Greek revolutionaries against the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks were assisted in their efforts by Great Britain, France and Russia, while the Ottomans were aided by their North African vassals, particularly the eyalet of Egypt.

The start of the revolution. Photo: Benaki Museum



The annual national holiday of March 25th, despite being marred by coronavirus restrictions, is being touted as a new starting point after a very difficult decade. Years of painful austerity drove the country deep into poverty, making one in two young Greeks unemployed and forcing more than half a million people to leave the country to find work abroad. No sooner had the economy started to recover, than the coronavirus pandemic hit and Greece slipped back into recession. Greeks really need to herald a new, more hopeful era.

The entire world will mark the bicentennial, since the Greek Diaspora thrives in every corner of the globe. Iconic landmarks in all of those countries will be illuminated in blue and white in honor of the Greek people and their struggle for freedom 200 years ago.

 

The battle of Navarino. Photo: Wikipedia



It is sobering to think that, despite the weight of her history, modern Greece is still a young country which, having missed the Renaissance, has had to struggle to catch up with her European neighbours. At least we had the good fortune to escape being included in the communist bloc after the war, something which has cost our Balkan neighbours dearly.

Heroes of the Greek Revolution. Photo: Google


🇬🇷 Footnote: A well-known Greek actor has proposed that, in order to properly celebrate the bicentennial, Greek men should grow moustaches like the ones above.

How important is plot?

A few years ago I watched a film called Arrival. A number of mysterious spaceships appear and station themselves near major cities on earth. Then nothing happens. The usual debates start: Shall we attack before they attack us? For once the doves prevail over the hawks, at least momentarily, and the American government hires a woman expert in language and communication to try and establish some kind of contact.

I’m very interested in language and means of communication between humans, or even between humans and animals; and in this instance the aliens were, in my opinion, portrayed in a very imaginative and subtle way. So I became fascinated by the ways this woman came up with in attempting to communicate with a species which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in common with us humans. We do not share any parameters of DNA, culture, location, experience or anything else.



Anyway, I found the film explored this subject well so, when two of my grandsons turned 11, I thought this would be an interesting film to watch all together (with something to discuss after). Well, that was not a huge success, to say the least. One of the boys kept pausing the film to criticize some technical or scientific detail they’d got all wrong, while the other kept up a running commentary on the ‘plot holes’. At the end I got mercilessly teased about the fact that I hadn’t understood half of it but it was just as well, because the whole story made no sense and if I’d tried, I’d have become even more confused. We ended up crying with laughter because yes, they were right in a way—the plot did contain holes, and a ridiculous and unnecessary subplot at the end. Moreover, when I looked up the reviews, I saw that I really hadn’t got the half of it. However, I still remember the scenes where the woman tries to find ways to connect to those aliens, and I still find them fascinating. This made the plot secondary in this instance.

At other times I can get so annoyed with the blatant disregard for continuity or even simple cause and effect, that I stop reading or watching. So, how important is plot in a story? Of course, a solid, well-constructed plot is a thing of beauty in itself. But the impact of it on the enjoyment of the story can be quite relative sometimes.
Mystery or crime writers can be so clever at unexpected twists and red herrings that they paint themselves into a corner—and you find that the brilliant page turner that kept you up all night ends in a damp squib. Or a denouement that defies all plausibility. But—you’ve still enjoyed the ride.
At other times the lack—or manner—of plot is so annoying that you’re unable to go beyond a couple of chapters or episodes. Is the difference in the quality of the writing? The characters? Your own mood? What do you think?



Also, I think that tastes have changed. Exposure to new technology means that we expect instant gratification: for example, usually we don’t even have to wait a week for the next episode of a series, we can binge on the whole thing at once. Thus people’s attention span has become shorter. We don’t feel we have the time to read reams of description. We expect short bites, hopefully ending in a cliffhanger, which keeps us turning the page, or going on to the next episode. Long, meandering novels like Middlemarch, or classical short stories such as those written by Charles Dickens or Herman Melville have given way to flash fiction and mini series.

I’d be curious to know if some of you still have the patience to read the old classics and enjoy the slower pace.