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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Lockdown travel

I have a feeling that traveling for pleasure will not be possible for the foreseeable future, because, even if it is allowed, who wants to spend a couple of weeks in quarantine upon arrival, or be unsure of being able to return home?
Therefore, now’s the time to turn to the inexhaustible pleasures of literature, in order to visit places one would love to explore—or, even better, places where one wouldn’t dream of setting foot in, except from the comfort of an armchair.
I know that nowadays you can see everything live on a screen: endless documentaries, some absolutely marvelous (thanks, David Attenborough—and again, some in places where you wouldn’t set foot in even if you were paid). Films set in exotic locations, YouTube videos, even Google Earth. You can go everywhere without leaving the house.

 

Picador travel classics editions. Bought years ago in Cambridge



However, the attraction of reading is not to be underestimated: you have a more intimate insight into the writer’s reactions and thoughts, and your imagination is allowed a much freer rein.
Travel writing has existed since the depths of time—for Greeks it probably started with Homer, the Odyssey being the primordial record of a sea voyage. And there are also the memoirs of Herodotus, who had traveled over almost all of the ‘known world.’
But if the Greeks have a healthy dose of seawater in their veins and have always been obsessive traders, no one can beat the English as far as exploration for its own sake goes (although they too were traders, of course.)

 



I have just finished Daughter of the Desert, the biography, by Georgina Howell, of Gertrude Bell, who thought nothing of traveling for 10 hours per day through the desert on a camel, dressed in a split skirt and a keffieh. Alone except for her servants.
The sheer discomfort of her days bogles the mind until, that is, one reads of worse travails. At least Gertrude Bell could rely on a nice bath upon setting up camp, in her custom-made canvas bath packed by her servants and carried by the camels in her caravan. This was usually followed by dinner served on white linen, with silver and crystal. She also had trunks full of evening gowns which she wore to visit the tribal sheiks she met on her travels.


Cherry-Gerrards at the hut in Cape Evans 1911


Apsley Cherry-Garrard was 24 when he signed up to join Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Polar expedition in the Antarctic, in 1911. When he got back he went off to fight in the Great War. Years later, he wrote a memoir of this unforgettable voyage, called The Worst Journey in the World. During the whole expedition, the discomforts and privations the men suffered were unimaginable—they had decided to take ponies and, when these were impractical, they manhauled their sledges—but they still managed to enjoy the stunning scenery, and ‘geologise’ by gathering rock and mineral specimens which only added to the weight they had to pull— and they even packed Christmas puddings and books to read in the interminable Antarctic winter.

 

Manhauling the sleds



The ‘Worst Journey’ in the book’s title refers to a trip Cherry-Garrard made with two companions to Cape Crozier on Ross Island during the austral winter, in order to bring back an unhatched emperor penguin egg. This was to help scientists prove the evolutionary link between all birds and their reptile predecessors by the analysis of the embryo. However, in the book he describes the whole Scott voyage, from the meticulous preparations onwards, ending with his thoughts of why the expedition failed. The Brits were pipped at the post by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who shunned any scientific pretensions and relied on dogs and skis to arrive at the South Pole a month earlier, traveling light and fast. A compelling and  thrilling account of a different reality.

 



Another fascinating book on my short list is In Patagonia, by the inveterate traveler Bruce Chatwin. Patagonia is one of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet. Chatwin paints a lovely picture of the boundless scale of the landscape and the lost specks of astonishing human endeavour in this vast, lonely region. But most of all, he peoples his tales with a varied and astounding cast of wild and eccentric, if not downright crazy, characters, who were attracted from all over the world to this stark and unforgiving land. He is most interested in describing what he used to call internal landscapes. 



Bruce Chatwin wrote the introduction to Sybille Bedford’s book, A visit to Don Otavio, a splendidly humorous tale of two middle-aged ladies traveling in Mexico (see the cover in the first photo). A little old fashioned but delightfully irreverent, the book reads more like a novel. Bedford’s prose is dazzling, and her insights enchanting. As she herself said, ‘Of course it’s a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic…I didn’t take a single note when I was in Mexico.’

 



And, last but not least, a book I keep giving to people as a gift, because of how much it amused me (I’ve no idea whether any of them read it, actually.)
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette, (even the title is delightfully eccentric) is a book about his travels in Paraguay. A beautiful and captivating country, one of the most exotic and extreme in South America, but not a place for the timid tourist. According to Gimlette, the place is teeming with dictators, ex Nazis, fraudsters and missionaries. It is a stage for utopian experiments and violent coups. As the Amazon synopsis describes it, ‘The beguiling Paraguayans, despised and feared by their neighbours, are unfathomable. They adore Diana, Princess of Wales, as if she were still alive and hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War. Their politics are Byzantine but when the Vice-President is murdered, they call in Scotland Yard.

If any one of these books does not transport you out of lockdown for a few hours, I will eat my hat. Happy reading! 

Wildlife and beautiful women

Some time ago, an elderly man with dementia wandered out of his house in Montauk, Long Island. After a three-week search, he was found dead in the woods, a fitting end for someone who loved nature as he did. The man was Peter Beard, 82, photographer and artist by profession, adventurer and playboy by nature.

 



In 1996, I came by chance upon his exhibition Carnets Africains, at the Centre National de la Photographie, in Paris. His works entranced me: huge photos of wildlife, in black and white, embellished all around with smaller pictures, ink drawings, diary and sketchbook pages, magazine cuttings, dried leaves, ticket stubs. Sometimes he’d drawn or scribbled over the central picture itself, with red or black ink, or colors. Each work was a whole, sometimes heart-rending, world into which you entered and wandered about. The artist himself was there in the gallery, walking around with a cane, since he was recovering from having been trampled by an elephant.

Born into wealth and privilege in New York, Peter Beard was possessed of an artist’s eye and a love of animals from a young age. He found fame as a photographer of African wildlife and of beautiful women, and also as a diarist and collagist of rare insight.


As a young man, Beard fell in love with Kenya where he’d travelled after being inspired by the book ‘Out of Africa’. He eventually bought a property named Hog Ranch, next to the estate of its author, Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen). He photographed the plight of elephants and other wildlife at Tsavo National Park, eventually producing a book called The End of the Game. In the second edition, he documented a massive population die-off in Tsavo of 35,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinos as the animals succumbed to starvation, stress and density related diseases.

His main area of focus, and great cause of sadness, was mankind’s negative impact on the natural world. In his own words: “The beautiful play period has come to an end. Millions of years of evolutionary processes have been destroyed in the blink of an eye.”

 

Zebra carpet



Beard spent decades photographing Africa and its creatures, but he was a man of extremes: swimming in croc-infested waters one day, painted by Francis Bacon the next. Because he was also a bon vivant, party animal, and lover of beautiful women, befriending and photographing a wide range of celebrities and icons. He became well known for his hedonistic and flamboyant playboy lifestyle. Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair famously described him as: “half Tarzan, half Byron.”

For twenty years, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, Peter Beard was the Golden Child of New York. He knew everyone and was friends with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Francis Bacon, Mick Jagger, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. He partied with models at Studio 54, and partook of any recreational substance available. However, he was liked and respected by all, because he was good-hearted and never put on airs.

 

Model Maureen Gallagher feeding a giraffe



Beard was married three times, first to socialite heiress Minnie Cushing, then briefly to model Cheryl Tiegs, and thirdly to Afgan-born Nedjma, who survives him with their daughter, Zara.

His charmed life, however, suffered some serious reversals: he barely survived the encounter with the elephant, which left him with some serious injuries.  Also in 1977 his house in Montauk burned to the ground, and with it it thousands of photos, a processing lab, a 20-year scrapbook diary, and more. Despite the huge financial loss, what hurt him most was the loss of the irreplaceable scrapbooks.

 

Writing in his scrapbooks



By the 1970s, Beard had created a unique series of artworks by combining photographs, text from his daily journals and various found objects such as dried leaves, insects and newspaper cuttings, and sometimes animal blood, or even his own. This body of work is his legacy: a far-sighted and deep commitment to the cause of reversing, or at least halting, an African ecological catastrophe.
In the course of a Vanity Fair interview, he once declared: “We’re in deep shit.” And indeed, unfortunately he’s being proved right.

 

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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