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.

Old photos

The first photo below was sent to me by my friend Anna, with the sole information that it came from the archive of Agnes Baldwin Brett. Elegant ladies walk in the snow between neo-classical houses under mount Lycabettus, in what today is Kolonaki Square, the chic quarter of Athens.



Looking up Agnes Baldwin Brett (1876 – 1955), I found out that she was an American numismatist and archaeologist who grew up in Newark, New Jersey. She attended Barnard College and Columbia University, and from 1900 she spent two years as a Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. While in Athens, Brett worked on the coin finds from the excavation at Corinth and also took a number of photographs. The one below is entitled ‘Delphi’, but I was unable to find out why there are camels there! I thought it was very amusing.



Finally, here’s a photo of what used to be called ‘The Great Road,’ which became the main retail high street in Athens, Odos Ermou, named after Hermes, the god of trade. It was one of the basic axes of the first urban plan of the city, designed by architects Kleanthis and Schubert in 1833.



And a later view, circa 1920 (unknown photographer). It has been paved, but as you can see it’s somewhat narrower, slices on each side having been appropriated by the owners of the buildings…


Scent of geraniums

I wanted to share this delightful short film, Scent of Geraniums, which is about being a homesick student in a foreign land. A lot of Greeks will identify with this, since the situation in Greek education forces many of them to study abroad – sometimes starting with very limited knowledge of the language they will have to deal with. And people of other nationalities, of course.

The film was made by Naghmeh Farzaneh, an independent Iranian filmmaker and animator based in Chicago. It has won multiple awards.



Nagmeh’s work is reminiscent of another Iranian artist, Marjane Satrapi, and her wonderful graphic novel, Persepolis, which has been made into an animated full length movie. I urge you all to check it out, even if you a not a comics fan. It’s original and very special.  Just read the reviews.



I discovered Scent of Geraniums on the blog The Slippery Edge, it is not unfortunately a WordPress site so I hadn’t the faintest idea how to repost it. Take a look at the blog, however, it has lots of interesting stuff and, on this post, there is more information about the film and its maker.


Naghmeh Farzaneh. Source:Google

Old Athens

Today Athens is a large, bustling city with a population – suburbs included – of over three million. It has its own particular Greek flavor, of course, but it also has many common characteristics with other European capitals: a lot of traffic, pollution, the usual ubiquitous shops, restaurants, cafés, museums, opera houses, theatres, squares and parks.

Athens, however, is a relatively new city, which evolved, in the 19th century, from a regional town of the Ottoman Empire to the capital of the new Kingdom of Greece. After the liberation from the Turks, it was a ruined and semi-abandoned town. But King Otto, the young Bavarian prince sent over by the Allies, declared it a capital, and in 1834 its reconstruction began, under architects Stamatis Kleanthis, Edouard Shaunert and Leo von Klenze, the king’s counsel.

It was then that the neo-classical buildings which even now give the city distinction were erected, starting with the Royal Palace, which was paid for by King Otto’s father, the king of Bavaria, as a personal loan to his son. In 1934, after extensive renovation following two fires (the royal family had meanwhile moved to a new palace), the building became the House of Parliament.



The University of Athens was designed by the Danish architect Hans Christian Hansen and built with financial support from the king, the king of Serbia and various prominent Greeks.


The Athens Cathedral was also initially designed by Hansen, but finished by Greek architect Dimitris Zezos, who added Byzantine aspects. The church was partly built using material from abandoned Byzantine churches.


There were many other public buildings built at that time, as well as private residences.

Fast forward to circa 1917, after the first war, when the following photos were taken by our French Allies.

Cattle at the temple of Hephaestus.


Cooking with a view of the Acropolis.


A neighborhood near the center.


A shopping street with a mosque in the background.



Buying grapes. Some men still wore traditional clothing.


Children playing in the streets of Plaka, beneath the Acropolis.


Coffee in the garden of Zappeion. In the early twentieth century, Athens was still a provincial town of circa 180.000 people.


Constitution Square: The large white building on the right was built in 1842 and since 1874 houses the Grande Bretagne Hotel, where history has been written many times over and  which is still  today one of the  great luxury hotels in the world. In 1888 it was one of the first buildings in Athens to have electricity installed.


One of the main commercial thoroughfares, Stadiou Avenue, in 1935.


During WWII, Athens came under German occupation.


German tanks in Athen.

The city suffered great destruction and famine, exacerbated by the civil war which exploded following liberation from the Germans, and which raged until 1949 (my parents always told us this was much worse than the German occupation).


A British soldier in Athens during the civil war.


Children singing carols in the early 1950s. Ill-fitting coats, heads shaven against lice, but at least these two have shoes on.


The ice-cream man. Many years later, a man on a bike pushing an icebox still came into the park where we played when I was a child. I vividly remember our excitement, and the smell of the ice as the heavy lid was lifted, and we bent over the box to make our choice: vanilla or chocolate, on a stick or in a cup. It was a real treat.

This is far from pretending to be a comprehensive overview of the long and complicated history of Athens. I just happened upon these old pictures and thought they gave off a charming aroma of time passing.

Syntagma  (Constitution Square) then…

And now…

All images are from Google. Since most are old, it was difficult to attribute credit.

Introducing ‘Letters from Greece’

Starting with the Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens famously published his novels in the daily press, in weekly or monthly installments. He thus pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for fiction publication. This format allowed him to get feedback from the audience, which he often used to modify his characters and plots accordingly.

Now publisher The Pigeonhole has re-created this concept for the digital age, by bringing out a series of books divided into sections called ‘staves’, which can be read on a tablet, iOS device or a PC. The process is interactive, as it allows the inclusion of photographs, extra ‘margin’ notes, and commentary from readers. It can function like an on-line book club.

Amongst the books on offer, my curiosity was naturally aroused by Letters from Greece, a series of essays on various themes, all describing what it’s like to live and work in Greece today. The series is curated by literary agent Evangelia Avloniti and features a line-up of writers and photographers who, if one is to go by the staves so far, are top class.



I enjoyed all the staves, which were very different in tone and style but each fascinating in its own way; but I thought I would include here an excerpt from the first one, Florina: Where Greece Begins, because it struck a particular chord.

It is by award-winning writer Peter Papathanasiou, who was born in the northern Greek town of Florina and was adopted as a baby by a family in Australia. He describes a visit from Australia to see his brothers and combines this with the story of his grandfather Vasilios, an Orthodox Christian refugee fleeing for his life from Anatolia during the 1923 population exchange with Turkey. As Peter Papathanasiou puts it:

The war was over. With the return of their triumphant army, the Turks had started taking all able-bodied Orthodox Christian men into labour camps. If the Greeks dared return to march on Ankara, the Turks’ prisoners would be executed in retaliation. Vasilios was not interested in being human collateral.’




Vasilios walks from Smyrna to the Aegean Sea, leaving his family behind. He wants to get to Greece.
Reading this together with the refugees’ stories one sees every day in the press reminded me how history repeats itself and how we can never take anything for granted. I have chosen to feature the part where Vasilios arrives at the Aegean shore, after four months on the road. I hope you will be as moved by it as I was.




‘Vasilios could hear screaming in the distance. It was a sound familiar to his sunburned ears. After four months on the road, it was also a sound to which he was numb. But there was something about this scream. The timbre was higher and lighter, the duration longer. It was not a wail of agony or distress. It almost sounded happy. Vasilios tried to remember the feeling.
The seasons had changed. Winter had become spring and the rebirth had made the countryside burst with wildflowers and new grass. Vasilios had collected orange seeds from the road and stored them safely in his jar of Anatolian soil. Climbing to the top of a lush green ridge, he saw the Aegean Sea. It was the bluest, sweetest sight. People threw their hands in the air and ran the final mile to the water. Vasilios sprinted.
A sea of humanity saturated the waterfront. He arrived at the port breathless. His clothes were rags, his skin black. He could barely hold down his bread ration for hunger. He had run out of notches on his belt and started constructing his own with a rusty nail. His pockets were also considerably lighter for all the Turkish guards he had bribed with a fakelaki.
Vasilios had trudged the last hundred miles with a hole in each boot and bloodied soles. One out of four travellers did not make it. Some might say they were the lucky ones spared the scene at the docks and aboard the boats bound for Salonika. Emaciated, diseased Christians clogged every dirty corner. They turned potato sacks into makeshift clothes and old rubber tyres into shoes. Vasilios found the waterfront warehouses crammed full, saturated with refugees. The stench of human filth made him retch. There was no space to lie down and sleep, and no toilets. Elsewhere on the docks, shanty towns had sprung up, refugees sheltering in oil drums and beneath metal sheeting. Diseased cats were everywhere, all bones and patchy fur.

Boats were left floating off the coast to prevent the spread of smallpox, typhus and cholera. After two nights on the docks, Vasilios was eventually herded onto an overcrowded boat that looked like it would sink at any moment. He was quarantined for a week on an island whose name he did not know. It was there he got his first taste of what it meant to be ‘coming home’. Bowed with despair, he was spat upon by the native Greeks from their upper windows as he shambled past. ‘Tourkosporoi!’ they jeered him; ‘Seed of Turk!’ The mere fact he had lived in the Turkish state made his loyalty to Christianity suspicious. He did not fight back or even plead his case. He had neither the energy nor the spirit.




The same welcome greeted Vasilios in his new village. Its name was Florina, and it was so far into the Pindus Mountains that Vasilios could smell the Albanians from across the border when the northerly wind blew. He watched as mosques became churches, minarets torn down, crosses erected. The native Greeks were suspicious of his odd dialect. They ended up going to different churches and kafenia and even used different water pumps. The Muslims who had left were a known quantity. Vasilios’s kind, though Christian, were still alien.’





The photographs of Florina then and now were kindly provided by Peter Papathanasiou. He took the recent ones himself.

To check out The Pigeonhole, click on the name in the text above.