from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Musings. I sleep between an owl and a snake

June 25. I sleep between an owl and a snake.  

I’ve chosen to do so for years. I also always have books at my bedside. Reading, as all writers know, is doing a workout, attending a seminar, and participating in a workshop all in one. I’m not racist in my reading choices either. I read modern and classic literature of all genres and ethnicities, they each have theirs quirks and joys.

The Russians become entangled in minutiae and veer from the central theme of the story, the Indians are wordy, with a great love for the polysyllabic, the Africans use proverbs with a profound weariness, the Scandinavians insist on grinding mundanity into the reader till we feel their melancholia, the Australians work hard at appearing unassuming, all achievements must be quiet. The Brits think for a scene to be more interesting it requires sex. Who doesn’t love a good sex scene – but theirs are mostly raw, grimy, slimy.  

I read them all, studying their styles – but I am resolutely steeped in the Greek classics. The philosophers are my saints. Their works are my Bibles. Diogenes the Cynic of Sinope is my current entertainment. His writings have not survived but it’s the way he lived that has me chuckling to myself at odd times during the day. Every time I buy chicken to cook for dinner, I must suppress my laughter. It causes me to recall how Plato declared to the world man is a featherless biped. Diogenes showed up at The Academy at Plato’s next lecture with a plucked chicken, held it up for all to see and said, “Behold, I give you – man!”

The philosophers’ works don’t need to be read all at once, indeed I prefer them taken in morsels not main courses. You never finish reading them, you re-read them for all your days. Yet there are novels I can’t finish. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is one. I’ve started it five times. It might have won her the Booker Prize yet to me it’s like a trip to a monastery. The arrival is as good as it gets. The outlook is appreciated but once relics are seen and the story of martyrdom has been recited by a sullen monk all I want to do is leave. …. Except one time when I went with a group of friends to see the monastery of St Ephraim. 

St Ephraim had been tortured then hung by Turks. Saint Ephraim is a healing saint, so many of my group went into the chapel to light candles and pray for the health of themselves or their loved ones. I stayed outside to stroll around the garden. Monastery gardens are gorgeous. I was admiring their stunning roses when I saw a young man on all fours on the stony ground. He was clearly suffering, dusty, sweating and chanting an incessant prayer as he crawled his way to the chapel. To witness such humility causes humility to pour into you. His emotions bounced around the searing stone walls of the monastery courtyard and right into us.  

A pilgrim making a tama

I’ve heard many a story of a pilgrim making a tama, a vow of personal sacrifice in exchange for the improvement in health of a loved one. The most common tama is to make the journey from their home to the monastery of the saint to make offerings and prayers – on hands and knees. Who knows where this young man lived or for whom he was carrying out tama, a parent, a sibling, his child?

We parted to give him free passage and offered words of encouragement for his pilgrimage. When one of the more elderly women present called out to him, “My blessings dear boy, the saint will hear your prayers,” his face, set hard in determination, crumpled and he began to sob – but he didn’t stop crawling. We shared his relief when he reached the entryway of the chapel and the shade embraced and drew him in. 

A sacred silence enveloped us all afterwards, the type where a supressed thought can reverberate through your mind until it’s all you hear. My thought was, if a young man can endure such pain and suffering why can’t I finish reading a book in the comfort of my home? I’ve always believed if a book was too tough to read just don’t read it, but this was Margaret Atwood, the world’s favourite literary darling. I mean, I like her, I think she’s terrific, but maybe I just don’t like the way she writes? I think I shouldn’t have watched her in a few interviews. Her voice is flat, no warmth, no inflections. When I read her words I hear her flat voice reading them back to me. I’m being too harsh, I must be, everybody loves her, yet nothing changes the fact, for me, The Blind Assassin is a dull read and certainly not the first time a prestigious prize has been bestowed upon a boring book not all that well written. I’m still trying to digest how Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer. I decide to try to get to know Atwood. I read some interviews. 

She’s into astrology. I’m not, but, just for her, I read my stars for the day. 

“To increase your creative powers, try to sleep with either an owl or a snake nearby.” 

I look to my right and to my left. I have both an owl and a snake. 

I bought the owl of Athena because it’s the symbol of wisdom.  

I bought the snake for the cup of Hygeia, the pharmacist daughter of Asclepius god of healing. Snakes were considered a symbol of eternity by the ancient Greeks because they could shed their skin. It’s only since modern times Greeks began to view the snake with revulsion. 

I keep my keys in it. 

So, according to my stars, my creativity is in full force because of the owl and the snake.  

Life in Greece right now is dominated by two things, Covid-19 and Turkey. We call Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, a snake. Every single day Turkey commits some provocation, from promising to send drilling vessels into our waters to drill our gas and oil reserves to gloating in his parliament how he believes Rhodes, Chios and Crete should belong to Turkey and he is going to take them, to sending fighter jets into Greek airspace to disturb the flight paths of our own domestic carriers, to Turkish coast guards spinning their craft around the boats of Greek fishermen until they capsize. And I haven’t even mentioned the illegal immigrants. France, Italy, Egypt and Israel are telling him to back off. Russia doesn’t want to know, and the USA has Trump who holds hands with Erdogan. To think he is just to my left, across the sea. 

But the symbol of Athens is the owl. The Greek government wisely says, “We do not seek war,” to which they add, “But we do not fear battle.”

I sleep between an owl and a snake. 

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the borders are opening …

Greece’s border queue

18 June. Greece’s borders opened on Monday mostly to neighbouring Balkan countries. The lineup at the border of Greece and Bulgaria is ten kilometres long and growing. That’s just for cars. The lineup for trucks is fifteen kilometres long. Our case count today was 55. On Monday it was 4.

I bought pastries from the zaharoplasteio today. All the staff were wearing masks which made me feel more comfortable. They said there are inspectors prowling around checking on businesses to follow the health department guidelines or be fined. Good. I’m all for it.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the classics, a baptism and a survivor

Diotima

June 14. I am steeped in the classics, the Greek classics. Every day I study at least one of the philosophers or the great plays and today my subject was Diotima because I’m working on a small project on the women philosophers of Ancient Greece. Diotima scores a mention today not only because she is part of what is probably the most famous teacher – student chain in history, Diotima taught Socrates, Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great – but because, according to Socrates, she delayed the onset of the plague to Athens by ten years. It’s not made clear how, other than by appeasing the gods, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if a woman first taught the principles of care, isolation, hygiene and so on over two and a half thousand years ago.

baptism of Hektor

My study had to be put aside. The garden required serious attention. I scraped back my hair, put on my daggiest, least flattering work gear and worked hard digging and weeding. Any makeup had sweated off and my damp with sweat hair stuck to my head when my little neighbour, Artemis, called out for me to come out of my garden and onto the road.
She had a puppy with her.
‘I want to baptise him,’ she said.
Now, it must be made known, each and every one of Artemis’ dolls has been baptised in our tiny chapel, plus there have been some doll weddings, so it makes sense she’d want her first pet baptised too.
She asked me to be the Nouna, the godmother. So, in the height of my sweaty gardening non-glamour, puppy was baptised in my shiny new red bucket as the baptismal font. He was given the name, Hektor.

the goats arrive

After the baptism I returned to work and soon heard the jingle of goat bells. The shepherds were guiding their herds back from the day’s grazing. It’s such a common sight I didn’t stop to look. I had too much work to do but I caught a glimpse of the shepherd. It was Christo, the snake bite victim of a few weeks ago.
I yelled out to him. ‘Perastika sou.’ The traditional phrase one says to someone who has been through trauma. It means, May it pass.
‘Thank you. Thank you. I’m not well yet but I thought I should start going out again.’

Christo, the snake-bite survivor

He re-enacted the event showing me how his kerchief slipped from his neck and how he bent to retrieve it when the snake struck to bite him on the hand. His hand is still bandaged. ‘I might only lose this finger,’ he says, wiggling it at me before he herded his goats away.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the daily count

Katerini, Greece

Our daily case count is rising. Greece was doing so well, we even had one day where we had no new cases and we mostly had very low single digit figure days of two, three, four. We are having spikes now, we had 52 last week and we’ve had 20 the last three days. They mostly come from overseas, either Greek Nationals returning home or visitors, plus we’ve had some outbreaks in two cities, Xanthi and Larissa.

Xanthi’s was in its sizeable Greek speaking Muslim population present since the Ottoman occupation. In Larissa the outbreak was in the Roma gypsy encampment. The Greek government has announced it won’t induce another nation wide lockdown but it will induce mini lockdowns in affected areas. Plus they are relying on the testing of all incoming visitors and a quarantine period before they can commence mixing with the population. I just hope it works.

easing of restrictions ….

Just before the nationwide lockdown was introduced I’d ordered a new bed. I remember my bed arriving much later than the promised arrival time because the furniture maker, Dionysus, had been inundated with new orders for the tourist season. I could not stop thinking about him during quarantine. When those orders were placed he would have ordered materials, booked staff etc to create the inventory. I popped in to see him to say hello and tell him I’m very pleased with my new bed and to ask how he went during quarantine. Indeed it was as I feared. Those hotels still haven’t opened and the few that have so far are showing minimal bookings and many have cancelled those orders which he has piled up to his ceiling in his warehouse. Just one example of the economic impact of Covid 19. His mother came out to say hello to me as well and she said, “don’t tell me you believe all this virus stuff, it’s all a conspiracy by the government to close down our churches and force us to become atheists.”
I did not laugh or roll my eyes but remained calm as I said, “I do believe this virus stuff in fact my own son got it and suffered quite a lot.” She snapped back at me, “your son is young, he probably didn’t have it at all, he probably just had a cold.” and with that she turned on her heels and waddled back to her big leather desk chair at the back of the showroom where a gaggle of her friends were sitting all clucking their agreement.
Dionysus shrugged as he said to me, “I know the virus is real but what do you do. People believe what they want to believe

On Monday, 15 June, our borders officially open to many countries. Let’s see how we go.

In the meantime I went out for a stroll last night.

from Nike in Greece: at the Paralia Katerini beach

Greece: beach at Paralia Katerini

Just in case you’re all thinking I have nothing to do all day but go to the beach …. I’m getting the folks some sunshine to enjoy in the quiet – and the bountiful parking – before the tourists start arriving on Monday when the borders open to certain selected countries. My aunt came along to give me moral support.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: We did it!

After the patchwork of fields lies the city of Katerini. Across the part of the Aegean known as the Thermaic Gulf is the city of Thessaloniki. At night, we see its lights twinkling. Behind it is Mount Holomondas. (view from our house)

June 5. Greece had a Covid free day on Wednesday. Yesterday we had a new outbreak of 15 people up north in the city of Xanthi. Today mass testing is rolling out in that area. It’s a good thing. If our case count rises then we are identifying where they are and controls can be activated. We’ve been lucky in our city of Katerini. We’ve had zero cases for over two months and only ever had six cases in total.

Yesterday, I spent the day at the Olympus house. I had to mow the lawns. I always wear protective gear when I mow the lawns: safety glasses, ear protection, hat, gloves. I also follow the example of the local boys. They wear knee-high gumboots. I mean it is almost law that you wear closed shoes when walking around the mountain for protection from snakes but the boots are better. Ankles are protected too. This time I also changed my gloves from my regular garden gloves to thick leather ones.

our views to Mt. Olympus

Last week, one of the local men, a shepherd, was bitten by a venomous horned viper right behind my house. He only just made it too – thanks to the intervention of two other men who happened to be close by. They whisked him off to hospital. Knowing they might not get him there in time, they called an ambulance which met them halfway. He’d followed all the rules. The closed shoes. Carrying a stick etc. He’s been shepherding all his life but when his kerchief slipped off his neck and he bent to pick it up, the snake struck.

The St Konstantine and Eleni family chapel: fully consecrated with great ceremony over thirty years ago by the bishop, seven priests and the entire village in tow.

Because it happened behind my house a couple of the local women went to the little chapel my mother had built in front of our house and lit candles and prayed for him. He’s home now after spending three days in hospital. Recovery is slow, and he still might lose half his hand plus he’s still bed ridden. But the women are convinced he’ll be just fine because of their prayers.
So now you know the reason why I change to the thick gloves.
It was a beautiful clear day and the views from our veranda are of the peaks of the mountain and of the plains and right down to the coast.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: your flight is cancelled!

Two days ago Greece recorded one new case of Covid-19. Last night I held my breath as the next day’s count was revealed. We were all hoping for a Zero. It was 19.
Most of them flew in on a flight from Doha, Qatar. Some of them were Australian Greek. In any case, now all flights in from Qatar are banned indefinitely and Qatar has stopped certain routes to Australia – including the one I was booked on. My flight has been cancelled and no new one is available as yet. I have no idea when I’ll be back in Australia. Now, if one must be stuck anywhere seriously I can’t think of a better place than Greece in the summertime. My travel agent said he could arrange flights in September but they’d be a little more complex with more stopovers. He then told me, ‘Just relax and enjoy the Summer.’
Errr – you betcha I will.
The nights are perfumed with jasmine, it seems to be draped on every second fence. I want some for my garden at our house on Mount Olympus but I doubt it will survive the winters. I’m assured it will by the staff at the garden centres but I take guidance from the other gardens in our village. Not a jasmine in sight. The climate is Alpine, so roses it is.
This summer I will divide my time between Olympus and the beach. I, along with the rest of Greece, will enjoy having it to ourselves. Not that we don’t want the tourists. We do. And the businesses relying on them deserve a bumper season. But, the rest of us are enjoying their absence for a while.
The chaos in the USA is certainly in the news but Greece is not as Americocentric as other nations. We have hostile neighbours, specifically Turkey, who have entire departments dedicated to creating unrest in the Aegean and on encroaching our borders. When we see Trump on the news telling Erdogan he’s doing a ‘great job’ much sympathy evaporates. The current president of the US has decimated and stripped the dignity from a magnificent nation and still around 30% of its population think he’s faultless. His bombast and lies have won the day there many times but, as with everything, his days are numbered.
So – anyway – I do not know when I will be in Australia again.
My biggest yearning is to put my arms around my three grandchildren again, who are all there. At least technology keeps us linked.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: lockdown to ease on Monday

poppies appearing in the streets

May 2. Melina Mercouri once said, ‘Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. In South America they throw flowers at you. In Greece they throw themselves.’
It’s true.
Lockdown begins to ease on Monday. I even have made a hairdressers appointment. We can only go in one at a time and all must be masked and gloved. I’m prepared. I’ve bought my mask and gloves supplies, Just hope everybody else has.
Pre-Covid, Neighbours would stop me for a chat and pull me into their homes or onto their balconies for a coffee. People stopped me on the street to enquire after father, mother, cousins, children. Greece is a crowded place. We have a small population of around 11 million but we also have a small country. Greece holds three spots in the List of top ten most concentrated areas of population in Europe. (with those statistics in mind it is truly phenomenal what Greece has achieved).
Streets are narrow, our pavements and narrow, most shops are small, fabulous – but small. We get close.
On my last outing two days ago the weather was magnificent and more people were out as restrictions ease. I stopped walking to take a video call from my son in Australia. My little grandson was blowing me kisses. A neighbor spotted me, rushed over, put her arm around me and wanted to share my joy. She blew kisses back to him and gave the cautionary spits to shoo away the devil. She ftou-ftoued all over me. Two months ago we would have linked arms and strolled to the nearest cafe to keep talking, the olive seller could wait. Instead I froze, clamped my mouth shut and fretted if I’d inhaled any of those mine-shaped polemic bacteria.
Overcoming paranoia might be my biggest problem. I silently scolded myself for not wearing a mask. Around 50% of people are wearing a mask. Government directives are as of Monday we will all be wearing masks until further notice.
But, the poppies have appeared. They are brightening up dreary urban landscapes. I must remember to pick some to collect seeds and scatter them through the garden at the Olympus house. I’m aware nothing will happen but hopefully some of them will lock into the earth and next spring sprout between weeds offering spots of colour like the flushed cheeks of blushing maidens. Ah, Olympus. I can go there as of next week.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Good Friday, rituals, processions and mayeritsa …

It’s Good Friday today. Good Friday is the day of mourning for Jesus. Jesus was actually crucified on a Thursday. It’s called Red Thursday and it’s the day we dye eggs red. When out shopping for food every woman I met on the street including myself has red tinged fingers from dyeing and polishing eggs. Last night the TV stations were screening all the famous religious epics. Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and many more. Nobody says Happy Easter here in Greece. We say Good Easter but rarely. Mostly we say, Good Resurrection.

Every Good Friday night all Greeks take to the streets and follow the procession of the Epitaphios, the funeral bier, of Jesus. Not this Good Friday of course. The government seems to have understood how important it is to have these rituals and they have said we are allowed to go onto the street and witness the processions, for all churches have their own. Not participate as usual while we carry candles representing light and stop at the stations of the cross. No. Just witness the procession from afar. I’d like to see the government try and stop the Ultra-faithful, which is half of Greece, from joining in. It would be wonderful if they did – and all maintained physical distance. What a sight that would be. The discipline of modern disciples.

In the meantime, more food has to be prepared. I’m caring for three elderly people. My parents and my aunt, my mother’s sister who lives on the fifth floor of our apartment building. She’s only 80. Don’t chuckle, that’s youthful nowadays, but she loves having someone to run her errands and cook her meals while she and her sister spend their days gossiping over coffees, watching the televised church services and torturing me with requests and demands.

They have all asked for me to make the traditional mayeritsa for the Saturday midnight meal after the service of the Resurrection that breaks the fast of Lent. Mayeritsa is a gruesome looking stew made from the offal of the Paschal lamb. I loathe it but I make it purely out of tradition and so does everybody else judging by the fragrance in the air. The heavy gamey flavours of the offal are offset by the rich abundance of herbs. The entire neighbourhood is perfumed with the refreshing scent of dill and mint. It’s a comforting little sense of unity.

For two days in a row my kitchen looks like a crime scene. Red dye has splashed onto the tiles behind the cooktop. I have hearts, lungs and liver spread out on my counter top ready for blanching and chopping before being submerged into the sea of simmering alliums and herbs. My aunt walks in and tells me there’s been an announcement from Mount Athos that all the monks of the monasteries are praying in unison for this wretched virus to leave Greece quickly and that for their prayers to reach us we must place a crucifix on our front door for their prayers to find their targets. There are crucifixes in our house galore, my mother has seen to that, but I don’t have a little one to hang on the door handle. The monks have thought of everything. They say those who don’t have a small cross to hang are to simply dip a corner of cloth or their fingers into the oil of our lamps in our shrines and anoint our doors with the shape of a crucifix three times for the Holy Trinity. Before I go to sleep I remember and dip my fingers into the oil of the lamp in our shrine and trace a crucifix on our front door, thrice.

I feel a little bit like Voltaire must’ve felt when he announced if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. The rituals have brought me peace. It’s a comforting sense of continuity in a time where we don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s so quiet there’s a disquiet. The rituals provide security in a time there is none.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Dark Thoughts …

I’ve been having dark thoughts. So dark I’m not sure I should express them. Greece is going to remain in full lockdown for the remainder of April and most likely till early May. We’ve been in Greece over six months now. We come often, we being my parents and I. Every year my father announces he wants to die in Greece so every year we come over spend half the year here, he doesn’t die, and we return to Australia until the next year.

Last year my father fell so ill I didn’t think we’d make it over in time. His doctors all said don’t bring him to us any more, there’s nothing further we can do. It was okay – I wasn’t even sad. The man is 92 years old and riddled with disease and chronic conditions. He’s lived a big life, seen children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. There’s nothing to mourn, indeed it should be a celebration to have lived like that.

The flight over from Australia was horrendous. That long haul never gets any easier no matter how many times you do it. During half of the flight my father kept yelling how dreadful this cinema is and he kept trying to leave. I spent most of the flight restraining him from trying to open the exit door. A couple of the burlier gentlemen on board kindly helped me out a few times. Dad then lapsed into a semi-coma. I genuinely believed he was going to die on that flight and I was absolutely okay with it because we would be landing soon – in Greece. But, we made it to our home and then he bounced back again.

A month after that again he seem to be at death’s door. Another recovery. He fell over on the pavement outside on the road after a dog scared him. He was startled by its loud barking, fell over backwards and cracked his head. I thought he was going to bleed to death right there on the road. He bounced back. That man has been hunted by Nazis, attacked by communist guerrillas, been accidentally electrocuted, escaped a house fire, had two heart attacks, bypass surgery, a stroke, stroke surgery, been in heart failure twice plus myriad other operations, illnesses and incidents and has myelodysplasia, a rare blood cancer. He doesn’t know he has it. Why tell him?

There are days he just stops eating. He’s been talking to people for the last seven or eight months. There’s no one there but he’s having a spirited conversation. I can hear him when he has his afternoon siesta. He is welcoming someone in. ‘Hello, hello, come in and sit down how have you been?’ This is happening every day.

I’ve read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Keep the environment serene, calm and loving so their passing can be serene too. All very nice advice but it neglects to mention the one who is doing all this for them, how do they stay serene?

He’s in a bad way. He can’t walk, except to shuffle between rooms. He demands a fat juicy steak every day which I supply and he takes maybe half a bite and leaves the rest then demands a fresh one the next day. It took my boy (son) more than 20 days to start to feel somewhere near normal after his battle with COVID-19. It’s a terrible thing to begin to resent someone just for being alive. I came to bury my father yet he’s ordering juicy steaks while my son was battling for breath. Let the dead bury the dead, said Jesus. Am I dead? I must be because I certainly don’t feel alive.

Ritual saves me from my own thoughts. It’s Greek Orthodox Easter. The rituals of Easter are many and mostly to do with food. Ritual and it’s related foods offers the refuge from the surreal. During Holy Week one favourite food is octopus. I see a good large specimen at my regular fishmonger but decide to walk further down the street to see what another fishmonger has in stock. Right in front there’s a case full of smaller cephalopods. One glance reveals to me they are not the true octopus. Every fishmonger warns of buying the small ones with only one row of suckers on their short tentacles. ‘Don’t buy those!’ they warn. ‘They’re not as tasty and they take too much work to prepare. It’s not worth it.’
They’re called musk octopus and they’re 6€ a kilo. The big fellow up the street is 10€ a kilo. I already know that even though it’s almost double the price it will be five times as good so I turn my back on the musky ones and go back to buy the real one with long fat tentacles and double rows of suckers. It’s also the day of Lazarus. The Lazarinas can’t sing and dance
so Greek Facebook accounts are flooded with videos of past Saturdays of Lazarus. The Lazarinas are young women dressed in flower festooned traditional costumes to symbolise the double meaning, that of Spring, the rebirth of the Earth, and the rebirth of a man who had just died.

The Lazarinas fast in the lead up to their dance to be performed in the churchyards. My mother was a Lazarina when she was a girl. She said they could only break their fast for the duration of the pealing of the church bells before the call to come to church. She said the bell-ringers would draw out the chimes to last for many, many minutes to allow for extra mouthfuls of food.

On the way home to cook the octopus I passed one of the many greengrocers. The lady proprietor is named Margarita. She calls out to me, ‘How is your son?’
‘He is well!’ I surprise myself by repeating. It must still be reverberating in my heart. ‘He is well!’
She nods at me with a satisfied look on her face. ‘Of course he is. I prayed for him and I lit a candle for him.’

I left her smiling allowing her to believe she held sole responsibility for his healing. My little outing was beneficial. Grecian sunshine is kissing my cheek, my son is well. I feel alive again.