From Nike in Katerini, Greece: The Greek Accordion.

April 10, 2021

Accordion. In and out as required. It’s the nickname of the coronavirus strategy of Greece. Cases go up, we get locked in. Cases go down, we are allowed out. The accordion strategy has brought us to our fourth lockdown. In a few areas of Greece, they just entered a fifth, luckily, not where I am.

We are all feeling trapped in the accordion being blown around by those bellows and, and like an accordion when the bellows are moved in and out, there is a lot of noise. The unrest is loud. We have curfews too. After nine p.m. no one is allowed out on the streets unless they are essential workers or have a medical emergency. Nine p.m. is tough. Greece is geared for the night. At eleven at night, even families with babies and toddlers are a common sight strolling in parks and along restaurant strips.

But our restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut for seven months, not including the two months of the very first lockdown. Sunday mornings after church service the faithful once poured into the cafes, creating a bustling Christmas type atmosphere. Every Sunday. Not now though. It’s been so long since the matrons of Greece, young and old, have been to a church service or a café they now sit at home in their pyjamas watching the televised church services with just the clergy rattling around in huge empty churches. Greeks can’t wait to get dressed up again.

When the pandemic is eventually brought under control, I’m forecasting there will be promenades and parties so resplendent with colour and style they will become legendary. Nature has taken this opportunity to release some pressure and sent the floods, the snowstorms, the high winds. We thought we had seen it all and were feeling grateful the worst was over, then the earthquakes struck. There is nothing like a catastrophic natural event to take your mind off another catastrophic natural event.

Greece is a country of high seismic activity. Everybody is accustomed to a rumble here and there. Schools and workplaces have regular training for enduring and surviving an earthquake. There are no designer trendy desks in Greek schools. They are all sturdy with steel legs for students to shelter under and cling to in the event of a big quake. I’ve experienced a couple of small quakes of short duration in the past. Each time it was a couple of seconds of shaking. Uncomfortable, unforgettable, but inconsequential. Initially, it’s not the shaking that terrifies you. It’s the sound. A guttural groan rising from the earth. Only Nature can produce such stereophonic sheer terror. The earthquake went on for forty seconds. Forty seconds of blood-curdling screeching as if the Furies were descending upon us to tear us apart as they did Oedipus. Forty seconds of trying to stay upright and keep my wits about me.

Our little apartment is on the third floor of a five-storey building. The higher up you are the more you sway. And we were swaying so much I felt seasick. For forty seconds I kept looking at the walls waiting for cracks to appear. For forty seconds I gripped the door frame and waited for the falling to begin. For forty seconds I did not think of death. I thought of life. My only thought was to live to see my children and grandchildren again.

My poor mother was gripping the arms of the sofa and kept asking, ‘Why is the heater jumping around?’ I couldn’t get to her and if I could have, she couldn’t have made it to the relative safety of the door frame. I remember thinking, if she goes, she’ll go comfy. All I could do was try to shout over the horrific groaning swirling around us, ‘We’ll be okay.’ Forty seconds later came the quiet. I ran around checking everything in the apartment in case anything had shaken out of place. All was well. I rushed out onto the balcony and looked around. After what we had just heard and felt I knew the world was wounded. Nothing seemed out of place.

My mother’s sister, my aunt Viktoria, lives on the fifth floor. I ran up to check on her. Some of her glassware had smashed to the floor but otherwise she was well. I brought her down to our apartment and said to her and my mother, ‘Somewhere close by there is a lot of damage.’ I calmed them down with a hot meal before going online on my phone to check the news and to find out where the epicentre was. All it said was – ‘near the town of Elassona.’ The village where my father was born and is buried is near the town of Elassona. I immediately began calling aunts and cousins.‘We are fine. Very shaken. A few cracks here and there but we are fine.’ I hung up my phone as my aunt Viktoria was hanging up hers. She was pale with fear, ‘Turn on the television,’ she said. Her daughter, my cousin Jenny, lives near Elassona, in a village called Damasi. Every station was showing scenes of the earthquake. In the big red letters across the screen was written, ‘The epicentre was Damasi’.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/4/we-saved-whatever-we-could-greece-a-day-after-the-earthquake

Jenny is a dentist with her surgery in a neighbouring town. She was working on a patient in the chair when the earthquake struck. They managed to get out as debris was falling. She turned back before fleeing to see her expensive and sensitive equipment shimmying across the floor. The ten-minute drive to Damasi prepared her for what she would find. There were rockfalls everywhere. You reach Damasi by a bridge which spans over a river. The bridge had fallen. She sped to the second bridge tucked away behind a bend. It was damaged but still up. She closed her eyes and sped over it. Soon after she crossed that bridge collapsed too. Her house, right on the village square, was in ruins as was every building on the square. The school had completely collapsed.

She drove over to her husband’s winery. It seemed okay. He was there with their children. Jenny ran to them and saw the situation. The wine barrels had been shaken from their shelves and smashed to the floor. All his stock was destroyed. They had lost their home and their livelihoods in forty seconds. And insurance covered nothing.The entire region was without power. Pipes had cracked making whatever water came out of a tap undrinkable. Within a couple of hours, the army was mobilised as were their kitchens to produce three meals a day for the newly homeless and they erected tents on the soccer field and distributed winter-weight sleeping bags to give them somewhere to sleep. Most slept in their cars because of the cold.

The population of Damasi slept on the soccer field that night which was just as well because the next day there was another earthquake, shorter duration but equally strong. Two days later, there was another one. Whichever part damaged buildings were still up were now rubble.The quakes are still occurring. They will continue for at least the next two months as the earth tries to right itself after the collision of the tectonic plates. One month later and my cousin, her husband and two young sons are still sleeping in their vehicles. They are lucky. They have four. One regular car each, a delivery van, and a truck. They are sleeping a little easier since the government came forward with compensation packages and rebuilding plans. They’ve also offered to pay the rentals on any temporary home so my cousin and her family are about to move into a little house in a nearby town where at least they will have a real roof over their heads again while their home is rebuilt.

Those forty seconds changed the lives of many but for many more of us it gave us a break from living in the deep, dark shadow of Covid-19. The relief was brief and stark, a brutal reminder of who is really in charge on this earth. Nature. Just as Nature sends terror, she also sends hope through sights and sounds. The dull, grey skies are turning pink and white with blossoms bursting out of dry branches, and the birds are back. The squark of seagulls heralds the promise of summer which makes me imagine the feel of sand under my toes and the salty scent of sea spray. All my senses are being activated.

For the first time in a year, I heard children playing outside, giggling and babbling. We all know the children spent most of lockdown indoors with heads bent over a phone or tablet screen. You could feel their release at finally being allowed outside to play. They will return to school next week after months of lockdown. Hearing them outside again highlighted how surreal the life we are currently living really is. Things we once took for granted, blossoms, birds and babbling, today, for me, were sights and sounds so beautiful I now understand are sacred.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?I just received an email from the Greek government announcing they have received our applications for our vaccinations and for us to make our way to the nearest Citizens’ Bureau to proceed with booking an appointment. Do I fear side effects? No. I don’t fear poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, measles either – because I am vaccinated against them. For me, it’s a no brainer. I haven’t seen my children and grandchildren in almost two years. Being vaccinated means I will have an easier time travelling.

Freedom is only a jab away.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: No Alarm Clocks …

Albin Hillert/WCC (World Council of Churches)

February 10, 2021.

No one needs an alarm clock in Greece. We have church bells. Every morning at 7:30 am sharp the bells toll for morning service. It’s a cheery burst of eight bouncy peals in bouts of ding, ding, dings. And ends in a burst of dings like a mother clapping her hands in her children’s bedrooms to wake them up and prepare them for the day, ‘Come on guys, up and at ‘em!’ The bells toll again at 8 o’clock, and again at 8:30 in case you missed the first two. At 5:30 pm the bells toll again to raise you from siesta slumber for vespers. You always know what time it is because there are churches, ranging from cathedrals to tiny chapels, everywhere to gladden our hearts.

It’s the sombre single peals in between which pierce them. Each time we hear the mournful tone like a long low groan we all wonder for whom the bell tolls. In our neighbourhood alone nine people have been lost to Covid. (Make that ten, another one died this morning) Beyond our neighbourhood, at the end of my street is a snazzy electrical goods store. It’s owner is a flirty silver fox. I mean, he was. He was taken too. As was the sister of the owner of one of the boutiques in which I shop. As was the real estate agent’s wife and the city’s top lawyer and, and, and. It’s the Grim Reaper. The average age of the victims is dropping. Here in Greece it started at around 78. It’s down to 62. Now, with the mutated strains, there’s a terrifying development. It’s striking children. For that reason, and because our case counts have been steadily rising, Greece just ended its third lockdown.

The pandemic is colour-coded. Red means lockdown. Here in the north we just exited red and have entered Orange. We are doing everything we can to stay out of the red. So, we wear two masks now. Doubling up does help. Also, there are psychological effects in a society like Greece’s of having no physical contact with anyone but your direct family. We’re not used to standing far apart, we’re not used to seeing someone and stepping back. We are all about being up close. In your face, but in the best way. I don’t remember the last time I was hugged, I don’t even remember the last time I’be shaken anyone’s hand. In a society where all people, women, men, other and children greet each other with the traditional double kiss and walk along arm in arm, not being permitted to touch is creating an atmosphere alien to the Hellenic way of life.

It’s been unseasonably warm. We are literally having the famed halcyon days. And they are glorious. It’s a divine feeling walking around in a light shirt in the middle of winter. But in a couple of days it will all be over. The Halcyon phenomenon has passed for this year. The forecast is a severe drop in temperature, to around -10, and snow. At least if we are housebound the pandemic doesn’t seem so bad. A positive can be made from this negative by keeping the home cosy.

So, I will shop this week for more groceries than usual just in case the streets become snowbound. Something will always be simmering on the stove. The home will always have the aroma of freshly baked bread, pies, cakes and cookies and I shall keep doing my 7 minute high intensity workouts to compensate. I find I’m watching television a lot more, and videos online. It’s my version of conversation. I watched the famous interview of Cormack McCarthy with Oprah on YouTube. In it McCarthy says he was never bothered by anything as long as he had food and shoes. He says you can get by without lots of things but without food and shoes you can’t do much.

We are all spending a lot more time in our slippers seeing as we are indoors most of the time so the shoes are not a problem. And I’ll just keep the food coming. I cook every day for my mother and her sister who lives on the fifth floor of our building. They love traditional Greek food as well as the old byzantine recipes. So today I’m making them Imam Bayeldi the sumptuous eggplant dish that was so delicious the imam for whom it was cooked fainted, either from the intense flavour or from the amount of olive oil it takes to cook it in. That’s what Imam Bayeldi means, the imam fainted. To go with it I made them one of their favourite comfort foods, Atzem Pilaf. It’s a divinely fragrant pilaf, cinnamon scented and studded with slivers of toasted almonds. April, they say. It will take until April to bring the situation under control. That’s what the modelling is telling the health experts. Until April we must remain on full alert and in some form of lockdown. Until April.

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 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.