Road trip to Metéora

Throwback Thursday and time for some armchair traveling, for want of the real thing. I thought some of the newer readers would enjoy an account of this road trip taken in 2015, to the magical site of Meteora.

Letters from Athens

Taking advantage of the brilliant weather, we headed out for an overnight excursion. Our destination: Metéora, the largest complex of Orthodox monasteries in Greece, outside of Mount Athos.
The monasteries are built atop almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindos Mountain, in central Greece.

image

Monks settled on these ‘columns of the sky‘ from the 11th century onwards. Twenty-four monasteries were built, despite incredible difficulties, at the time of the great revival of the eremitic ideal in the 15th century. Today there are six left.

To break up the four-hour journey, we stopped for a snack in the town of Domokos. The crisis is apparent here as well, with a lot of empty shops in the central street. An abrasive woman in a red pickup honked as we tried to park the car. The taverna…

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Weird Fish

It seems the Mediterranean is now full of ‘alien’ fish, which decided to emigrate to better seas, and so swam there from the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.

They have thrived to the extent they are now threatening the eco-system, being both prolific breeders and aggressive towards native species; but they are already too numerous to eradicate.
So, what is the next best solution? Why, eating them of course, and thus killing two birds (fish?) with one stone: hopefully equilibrium will be established, while at the same time we can complement our calamari with rabbitfish, trumpetfish and lionfish.

 

Lionfish



At least this is the original idea of Greek conservationists, who have come up with a cookbook of recipes, so that tourists can be encouraged to try these new species. ‘Recipes for Edible Alien Species’ is published by two conservation organizations, the Cyclades Preservation Fund and iSea.

In the book, written in both Greek and English, Greek chefs have paired these species with classic Mediterranean ingredients like olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and parsley. While it doesn’t have the glamour of a Nigella cookbook, the recipes sound delicious: it would probably be a good idea to take some good photos of the finished dishes and post them on Instagram. You can find the cookbook here

 

Rabbitfish


Tempting locals and tourists to eat the invaders will help the environment, but also fishermen to make a living. A campaign called Pick the Alien, launched in a few islands such as Santorini, Amorgos, and Zakynthos, aims to encourage people to choose these fish on the menu of their favorite fish taverna.

Would I try them? Of course. I’m always in favour of new tastes, as long as it’s not fried insects or monkey brains, even if the former are also touted as a help for the environment.

MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Staying on the armchair traveling theme, I’ve been avidly following Mary Smith’s adventures in Afghanistan. Take a look at her blog, her posts are also full of wonderful photos.

Mary Smith's Place

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

IMG_0011 (Custom) The view from my window

A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of…

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Bits and bobs

Greek Easter has gone already, isn’t it weird how time seems to drag on and fly at the same time? I couldn’t get hold of bread flour, so there was no tsoureki this year, neither could we find egg coloring, but we dyed the eggs using onions skins, turmeric and paprika. They came out quite pale—they were brown eggs—so the children enhanced them with Tombow markers. Behold the result:




Greece has managed to keep the number of deaths from coronavirus low—around 100 at latest count—leading to the macabre joke that the virus at Easter was actually saving lives, since every year the mass exodus to the countryside results in multiple traffic deaths. This year people were forced to stay home.

Someone who seems to be having a great time at home is the street artist Banksy, who has released his latest painting, titled My wife hates it when I work from home.

 


Credit: Banksy



He’s put in a lot of rats, RAT being his anagram for ART.  I can’t say I’d like to share his confinement!

While trying to copy Banksy, ie drawing or painting, I’ve been listening to some interesting podcasts, which I thought I’d mention:
For crime readers or writers, Listening to the Dead, a podcast about forensics with Lynda La Plante. Some fascinating stuff in there.
The Worldwide Tribe podcasts with Jaz O’Hara, which documents some very interesting life histories. I loved the one she did with her mother, who is fostering no less than four teenage boys from four different countries, while managing to keep her sense of humor intact.
And of course, the New Yorker podcasts, The Writer’s Voice and Fiction from the New Yorker, featuring some great short stories.
Finally, I’m planning to try The Great Women Artists, with Katy Hessel.

 

 



Having finished a number of books I had on the go, I’m tempted to re read A suitable boy, by Vikram Seth. Although it’s a huge slab, I loved it when I first read it years ago, and maybe it would be fun to at least dip into it again before the eagerly awaited TV adaptation comes out.


On the viewing front, another thing I’m eagerly awaiting is the new Wes Anderson film, called The French Dispatch, which is inspired by the New Yorker magazine. I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel, and this seems to be in the same vein, and features a stellar cast. Here’s a trailer below:


 



With all the daily applause going on, I thought I’d mention Captain Tom Moore, in case anyone has missed the story. This feisty 99-year-old has managed, by today’s count, to raise a stunning £26 million pounds for NHS charities, by the simple expedient of walking 100 times around his garden in celebration of his 100th birthday later this month. His initial target was £1000!

And finally, I would like to put in a good word for the Word Press Hapiness Engineers, about whom I’ve been endlessly griping. Having experienced a few glitches with my new theme, I went on the WP Live Chat and, despite a warning saying they were experiencing delays, each time I got an immediate response. They were friendly and extremely helpful, and my problems were solved in no time. So, a heartfelt thanks.

Tulips in the garden. Nobody can cancel spring!

 

Celebrating Greek Easter

Tomorrow is Greek Easter. This usually entails large and joyous gatherings of family and friends, which of course this year are prohibited. Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year in Greece, so here is a reblog of a post I wrote a few years ago, describing the traditions of a normal year.

Letters from Athens

Celebrated by even the most secular of Greeks, Easter is for us the biggest holiday of the year. Yes, even bigger than Christmas. Everyone joins in the church rituals and there are lots of other traditions as well. To top it all, this year Greek Easter falls on the first of May, which is, in itself, another popular holiday.

I thought I’d begin by explaining why Easter is a ‘mobile’ holiday: the determination of the date of Easter is governed by a computation based on the vernal equinox (the point at which the ecliptic and the celestial equators intersect) and the phase of the moon. According to the ruling of the First Ecumenical Synod in 325, Easter should fall on the Sunday which follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox (invariably, March 21). If the full moon happens to fall on a Sunday, Easter is observed the…

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One day at a time



This morning when I woke up there was a perfect half moon hanging upright in the lightening sky, like a slice of lemon with a bright rind.
At the moment, going to a café seems as unattainable  as going to the moon, which just proves how relative things always are.
In a survey asking people what was the first thing they would do when lockdown was lifted, a surprisingly large percentage answered ‘Go to the hairdresser’ — conjuring up images of hordes of bushy heads, grey or dark roots, split ends and pudding bowl cuts.



In another article, what the writer missed most was going out to eat. She could not face another day of staring at two potatoes, a can of chickpeas and a mouldy piece of cheddar, wondering what to make for lunch. She dreamt of restaurants with white tablecloths, pub lunches, or even a kebab wrapped in a piece of paper.


Amazing how much we are appreciating little things we used to take for granted—a walk on the beach, having a coffee with a friend, hugging kids. Pet owners have got a lot to be thankful for.
We have found ourselves in a weird, astonishing limbo where normal life has been all but suspended—except for those who, on the contrary, are on the front lines, tasked with keeping the most important, basic services going. The rest of us are very grateful to them now, but let’s hope we will continue to value them afterwards.

The thing that is most frustrating is the lack of proper information, rendering it impossible to make any kind of plan. 
However, even if we can’t plan yet, we can dream and we must always keep a glimmer of hope—a big part of happiness resides in anticipation.

Santorini, a dream destination



For those dreaming of their next holiday, please put Greece on your list. Towards the end of summer, supposing things have eased up and before the next wave of virus(es) hits in October, would be a perfect time, both for the beach and for the sights. Not too crowded, not too hot. So much to enjoy, and so helpful for the economy. Greece was struggling to emerge from the crisis, only to get a serious kick in the teeth. And so many people are dependent upon tourism to make a living…

It remains to be seen how affordable air travel will be in the future. Or how practicable.

Santorini with cruise ships. Less dreamy


I will end by mentioning the weirdest thing I’ve read all week. Apparently cruise bookings for 2021 are up by 40%! And here I was thinking that at least the coronavirus would be the end of those ginormous petri dishes going around the world defacing beautiful places like Venice and Santorini. But no, even after dozens of passengers were infected and many died, after they were shut inside hellish cabins for weeks, there is still demand for this kind of specialized torture. I rest my case.

 

All photos: Google

The Minoans

Since we are, for the moment, confined to barracks, I thought a Throwback Thursday was perfect for a spot of armchair traveling. Going back to old posts written in the same month of the year, this one is about a trip to Crete and the amazing Minoan civilization. Posted in April 2016.

Letters from Athens

On the island of Crete, which lies nearer to the coast of Africa than to the Greek mainland, a brilliant civilization flourished from approximately 3650 to 1400 BCE. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Arthur Evans and refers to the mythic King Minos. Minos was associated in Greek myth with the labyrinth and the Minotaur, which Evans placed at the largest Minoan site, Knossos.

The Minoans were the first Europeans to have a literate civilization. They were traders who built a colossal fleet and exported their products all over the Mediterranean: timber, wine, currants, olive oil, saffron and honey, herbs, exquisite pottery, jewellery, wool and cloth. They imported alabaster, precious stones, copper, ivory, gold and silver, as well as artistic ideas and techniques.
They built astonishing palaces decorated with amazing murals; the palaces, unusually, were lacking in fortifications since…

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The balm of poetry


Now that hugs have become virtual, and meals with friends take place on Zoom, it’s an opportunity to rediscover the solace of poetry. Poetry can be an endless source of comfort and inspiration.



And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.

How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.

Marina Tsvetaevna 


Eugenia Ginsburg was imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulag for a horrendous 17 years. She was a teacher, and what helped her survive was reciting poetry—sometimes to herself, sometimes aloud, with other prisoners. Her favorites were Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaevna. Poetry speaks to the heart: how many displaced people wouldn’t identify with the lines above. 

Geometric shapes can be soothing, too. Watercolor and colored pencil on khadi paper



I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers
And walk upon the beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me.

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


I am of a generation who still had to learn poems by heart, and even though we all complained at the time, this has since been a source of endless pleasure.

I think educational methods have vastly improved since my time, with endless learning by rote, dusty lists of dates and translations from the Latin and Ancient Greek being replaced by more interactive systems, and more emphasis on thinking and creativity. However, I find it a pity that learning poetry by heart has mostly been discontinued.

A 12-year-old boy of my acquaintance whose English teacher at school made the class write poems produced some lovely stuff, something which he would never have thought of doing on his own. Poetry can be very modern, and fun for kids.



WE REAL COOL. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We 

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

—Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”



As it happens, thousands of people still write poems, so this practice has not been discontinued at all. And I assume that those who write poetry, also enjoy reading it.

My favorite poet in my teens was T. S. Eliot, and he remains a favorite to this day, amongst many others. One I must mention today is Constantine Cavafy, the Alexandrian, Greek, poet-historian who was drawn to what was lost: forgotten Byzantine kingdoms, beautiful boys briefly glimpsed and never seen again. I think poetry is best read in the original, since a certain particular flavor or music is lost in translation; but the two poems below are quite close to the original.



Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.

And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life–
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.



Voices, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

*

This room, how well I know it. Now
they’re renting it, it and the one next door,
as offices. The whole house has been taken
over by agents, businessmen, concerns.

Ah but this one room, how familiar.

Here by the door was the couch. In front of that,
a Turkish carpet on the floor.
The shelf then, with two yellow vases. On the right―
no, opposite―a wardrobe with a mirror.
At the center the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
There by the window stood the bed
where we made love so many times.

Poor things, they must be somewhere to this day.

There by the window stood the bed: across it
the afternoon sun used to reach halfway.

…We’d said goodbye one afternoon at four,
for a week only. But alas,
that week was to go on forevermore.

The afternoon sun, translated by James Merrill



Most of us have the Oxford book of English poems or some other anthology lurking on our shelves, but most poetry nowadays can also be found on line. These days of confinement, dipping into them would make a change to bingeing on Netflix.

As for those stuck at home with children, kids love words that rhyme. I cannot count how many times I’ve read Room on the Broom, The Owl And the Pussycat, or Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. And for people who can’t be bothered with doing it themselves, there’s a site called poetrygeneration, where someone reads aloud a different poem every day. A great selection of poems, beautifully read.