Thursday, May 21, 2015

Grandma’s Travel Emergency List

Amalia, Mommy Eleni and Nicolas on the day of his 40-day blessing in church

Here we are in Miami on the third leg of daughter Eleni’s book tour for her new novel “Ladies of Managua”, which she’s launching while on maternity leave. From Manhattan to Boston, then New Orleans, and Coral Gables, FL, her entourage consists of me, (“Yiayia”), Eleni’s  3-year-old daughter Amalia and infant Nicolas—7 weeks old today.  There are also guest appearances from Daddy (“Papi”) and Grandpa Nick (“Papou”).

Some say Eleni is foolhardy trying to combine a book tour with round- the-clock breastfeeding, while also coping with a super-dramatic threenager.  I say it’s a good opportunity for me to have fun, refine my Grandma emergency kit and dredge up old college drinking songs to sing to Nicolas while carrying him around at midnight, trying to get him to sleep.

 (The best emergency tool so far was an unbent wire hanger used to fish a bag of garbage out of the bottom of a dumpster when we began to suspect, correctly, that a sleep-deprived Eleni had thrown away her wedding and engagement rings along with a poopy diaper the night before.)

First emergency today: I pulled out a bright red and orange Indian print cotton dress to wear in the Florida heat.  On the front was a white spot—the result of bleach or spit up?  From Amalia’s set of mini colored markers, which I carry for drawing pictures on napkins, I matched the color—spot gone until the next washing.

Yesterday I noticed that the toes of my navy rope-soled espadrilles were starting to flap.  Out came my mini-tube of Super Glue gel. I’ve used the stuff for everything from temporarily reattaching an automobile part to re-gluing acrylic fingernails.

Amalia has enjoyed more restaurants at three than I had at 18.  She behaves well, aside from bellowing at the waiter, “I want bread and butter and water!” When her restaurant behavior gets too annoying, I hand her my smart phone, which has a series of animal puzzles.  She moves pieces with her fingers and is rewarded with electronic balloons to pop. For a real emergency, her mommy has kiddy TV programs downloaded to her phone.

Here are some more emergency tools from my toiletry case:

Bandaids—nearly any kind of boo-boo immediately feels better when you apply Bandaids with a familiar character—Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins, those sisters from Frozen-- you get the idea.  These character Bandaids are more expensive, but can provide hours of fun.  Once in a restaurant a young mother complimented me on my colorful “bracelets” applied by Amalia, adding that she often wore the same.

We also travel with a small bottle of children’s Tylenol, a thermometer for kids and hand sanitizers. And, of course, an IPad that allows us to access PBS kids and when needed. Parents (like my daughter and her husband) inevitably quote the rule about letting toddlers watch no more than one hour of screen time a day or their brain will be destroyed. As soon as you realize that a TV set or computer screen will turn your granddaughter into a hypnotized zombie and give yourself some precious quiet time, you’ll start to feel like you’re her drug dealer.  But you’ll do it.

Each child will find his own favorite shows, whether it’s about trucks and trains, dinosaurs, or the beloved (by me and Amalia) Doc McStuffins, a girl who treats ailing toys while giving out health tips. And every parent will warn the grandparents against exposing their children to certain TV shows.  At our house, Disney princesses top that list, but Amalia has never been interested in them, and she is also the first three-year-old girl in history who doesn’t like “Frozen”.  It’s too scary for her.

Pooping and potty training. Most toddlers, at a certain age, become obsessed with the subject of poop. I generally travel with a flat, fold-up plastic potty seat for both sanitary and convenience reasons.  But lately Amalia scorns it, saying she can use a regular-sized toilet seat.  When I bought the delightful book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer, she made me read it over and over. As for babies in diapers like Nicolas, there seems to be a growing trend toward cloth diapers and diaper services. Eleni and Emilio used them in both Manhattan and Miami (better for the environment and for the kid, etc). But even the most adamantly environmentalist parents have to use disposable diapers for travel—so eco-friendly parents insist on Naty and/or Seventh Generation organic diapers.

Snacks—Whether headed to the South Pole or to Grandma’s house, we pack a supply of juice boxes and Amalia’s go-to snacks—Cheerios and Goldfish. She’ll eat strawberry yogurt as long as there aren’t chunks of strawberries(!) and it tastes best if Dora and Boots are on the container. I make sure that her flip-top plastic water cup really is watertight.  (General rule for all things plastic—if it doesn’t have “BPA free” printed on it, avoid it like the plague. )

The essential in every Grandma’s travel emergency kit is an extra pacifier. With first grandchild Amalia, I didn’t realize that pacifiers come in different sizes, and a panicked dash to the nearest pharmacy ended in disaster when I bought the wrong size. Now that I’ve graduated to grandchild # 2, Nicolas’s pacifier is attached to his clothing by a strap with a clamp on one end.  But I still have an extra pacifier in the right size, just in case.

Now if only someone would invent barrettes for toddler girls that actually stay in.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Last Surviving Grouchy Grammar Nut

So far I've published 421 posts on "A Rolling Crone" since November of 2008. (Some have, I admit, been re-posts.)  In the past few years a number of my posts have been published on The Huffington Post as well.    If I get as many as 10 comments on a post, I'm surprised and pleased.  But the post below, published on The Huffington Post on 04/04/2013, evoked 243 shares, 28 tweets and 728 comments!  It even got me  elected to some "save our language"  internet group which sends me Facebook messages now and then.  Evidently there are a lot more grouchy grammar nuts out there than I thought!

         You know how, in World War II, the Marines employed Navajo code talkers to transmit radio messages because no one but another Navajo could understand the language? Now there is fear that some of these obscure Native American languages will disappear when the last of the elderly code speakers passes on.
         Well I'm 72 and I suspect that I'm the last person on earth who knows the proper usage of "lie" and "lay." Not that I would dream of correcting anyone, such as my fabulously flexible and toned Pilates teachers who say about a dozen times an hour, "Now everyone lay down on your mat with your head facing the mirror."
          I've also given up on "its" and "it's." And of course there's "two, to and too," all of which are texted as "2." In fact, now that texting is ubiquitous, I suspect that all language will soon be written phonetically using numbers, symbols, emoticons and perhaps bar codes.
          It's always an error in The New York Times that sends me off on a grammar rant -- and there was another one today (Thursday, March 28). In the Style Section, in a large, bold pull-quote from an article about photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith taken in the 1960s, I read: "After laying dormant for decades, a second life for photographs taken of a pair of artists on the cusp of fame." Of course, it's supposed to be: "after lying dormant..."
         This "laying" was the last straw after last week, when I saw in The Times a large headline about the economic troubles of Cypress(!) even though, throughout the text of the piece, the economic troubles were ascribed to the island of Cyprus, rather than a species of tree.
          In the olden days, when I was being trained in New York Times style at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, these errors would have been caught by people called copy editors, but I can only imagine that, in this very difficult period for all print media, The Times has been forced to fire all its copy editors for economic reasons.
          That thumping noise you hear is the late, lamented Times editor Ted Bernstein spinning in his grave. Once upon a time, Theodore M. Bernstein was the watchman of the venerable Great Gray Lady as well as a professor at Columbia J School. After he died in 1979, Time Magazine noted, "Theodore M. Bernstein, 74... served as the paper's prose polisher and syntax surgeon for almost five decades, authoring seven popular texts on English usage and journalism... In a witty Times house organ called 'Winners and Sinners,' the shirtsleeves vigilante caught solecists in the act."
         At Columbia J School we often saw Bernstein's "Winners and Sinners" newsletter. Somewhat like the judges on American Idol, Ted Bernstein would periodically praise a brilliant headline or turn of phrase in the NYT and chide and make fun of grammatical and syntactical lapses. The "Cypress" debacle would probably have sent him into overdrive.
            Three years ago, on April 14, 2010, in a post called "Michelle Obama, the Grammar Police and a Cranky Crone," I gently chided the First Lady for a lapse in grammar. Although I think I did it in a friendly way, it almost got me expelled from a women's group I belonged to, as one particularly vehement member insisted it was heartless and morally wrong to criticize her for anything except her political actions. (That blog post was also reprinted in a book called "Grammar Rants" -- and they did not mean that in a good way.)
             The funny thing is, I am a huge admirer of Michelle Obama. Her photograph stands on the top of my desk. And the same day I published that post, I emailed it to her office. Evidently no one there who read it was offended, because ever since, nearly every week, I get an email from the office of the First Lady, or from the President himself asking my opinion of something, or sometimes it's just from "The White House." If the White House had been as offended as my fellow club members by my post, certainly they wouldn't have put me on their mailing list?
              Anyway, I'll reprint below some of what I said about the First Lady and grammar and let you decide whether I was being "heartless." And thanks for sticking with me through this current grammar rant. I feel a lot better now.
     Today [April 14, 2010] I read in all the news media about Michelle Obama's surprise visit to Haiti during her first official solo trip abroad.
     I applaud her for her compassion and for bringing public attention to the devastating needs that still have to be met, especially for the Haitian children.
I'm a huge fan of Michelle's and admire her more than any first lady since, say, Eleanor Roosevelt. But I did wince when I read the statement that she made to the press about her trip. Her insight was perfect but her grammar was not.
     "I think it was important for Jill and I to come now because we're at the point where the relief efforts are under way but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit, " she said.
     What's wrong with that? Take out Jill and you have "I think it's important for I to come now." It's supposed to be: "It was important for Jill and ME." ....
...You don't expect perfect grammar from a baseball player (or from Bob Dylan... writer of "Lay, Lady, Lay"), but maybe you do from a First Lady who's a lawyer, educated at Princeton and Harvard.
      Kids acquire an ear for correct grammar by hearing it spoken by the adults around them; their parents and their role models. But now that young people mainly communicate by texting in a phonetic code, both spelling and grammar are becoming as antiquated as the Model T.
        It's great that Michelle Obama is encouraging kids to eat smart and get out there and exercise, but let's encourage them to mind their P's and Q's and their prepositions, nouns, verbs and grammar as well.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Could Lost Bird’s Tragedy Inspire a Triumph for Native Americans?

Several years ago, I first posted about the Native American baby girl who was found alive under the frozen body of her mother on the blood-soaked fields of Wounded Knee, SD, four days after the massacre on December 29, 1890, that killed  more than 300 Lakota men, women and  children.  I had purchased a  vintage photograph showing the infant in the arms of Leonard Colby, the brigadier general who adopted Zintkala Nuni or “Lost Bird” as the surviving -Lakota called her.  I learned that her life was one of unremitting tragedy.  She suffered every kind of injury the White Man has imposed on Native Americans—including sexual abuse from her adoptive father. She was exploited in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and in early silent films, forced to play stereotypical Indians (which is still happening-- witness the Native Americans who walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s comedy “Ridiculous Six” last week). 

As an adult, Lost Bird saw one child die and gave away another because she couldn’t raise him. She died of syphilis and the Spanish flu on Valentine’s Day, 1920, aged 29, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in California   But 71 years later, her people, the Lakota, found her grave and brought her remains back to Wounded Knee.

I wrote about Lost Bird’s story on my blog “A Rolling Crone” in 2012.  Then, early this year, I received an e-mail from Brian George, a Native American who works at the St. Joseph’s Indian School In Chamberlain, SD, which houses over 200 Native American children whose parents cannot care for them (and there are 100 more on the waiting list.)  Brian told me an intriguing story of how he has taken Lost Bird as his “guiding spirit” and visits her grave every year on the day she died.  While he says he is cynical, he has encountered many unexplainable signs that her spirit is with him. 

Brian emailed me a photograph of a tattoo of the baby Lost Bird on his shoulder, with the word “Wakanyeja” which means “children are a sacred.”  “Every morning I look at the tattoo and vow that our 212 young Lakota students don’t endure the same,” he wrote.  “I have tried to turn her tragedy into an inspiration.  I believe Zintka knows that I am all about helping the Lakota children and she is my guide.  I see endless cycles of poverty, addiction, suicide and abuse…However, the people are resilient, strong and have that special Native sense of humor. I call the reservations in our country “The forgotten America.”

(Today, Monday, May 4, The New York Times published on its front page an article about the epidemic of suicides among the young people on the reservations of South Dakota—especially Pine Ridge, which is on the ground of Wounded Knee.  Since December, nine between the ages of 12 and 24 have committed suicide and 103 more have tried.)

Brian wrote that he is the Major Gift Officer for St. Joseph’s and often travels East on business, so on April 15, I met him in Philadelphia to learn more about his connection to Lost Bird.
 Brian George with photographs of Lost Bird's grave stone
Brian describes himself as a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, but he’s one- third Irish and one-third Scottish.   He grew up in the suburbs of Dallas and never thought of himself as Native American until, at the age of 30, in 1993, he attended the funeral of his full-blooded grandmother. “As I walked in, all these elderly Native ladies ran up saying ‘You look just like your great grandfather’ --a man named  Winchester Colbert.  I looked him up and our likeness is stunning. He was a governor of the Chickasaw Nation and served in that capacity during the Civil War.”

After a divorce in 2007, Brian was working for the Chickasaw Nation outside Oklahoma City as a host at a casino by day and a bouncer by night, but he felt a “hole in my heart.” A number of coincidences drew his attention on Easter Sunday, 2010 to an ad in the newspaper saying, “Want to make the world a better place?  St. Joseph Indian School.”

Brian started at St. Joseph’s as a houseparent. “That hole in my heart has become whole again with the unconditional love I give and receive from the Lakota children I raised and continue to mentor. No more breaking up fights in bars.  Now I help put together lives once shattered by the tragedies of reservation life.  Then a person named Zintkala Nuni, Lost Bird of Wounded Knee came into my life.”

Brian first discovered the story of Lost Bird when he was substitute teaching in St. Joseph’s  “Native American Studies” class. The class watched a 30-minute DVD titled “Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota.” Then he purchased a book  with the same title, written by Renee Sansom, who was a social worker in South Dakota when a co-worker showed her an old photograph she had found in an attic.  It was the self-same photograph that I bought some years later. Sansom spent the next five years researching and writing Zintka’s story.  In the book, Brian discovered that Lost Bird had spent two years—1905 to ‘06—attending a school named Chamberlain Indian Industrial Boarding School on the same ground where St. Joseph’s is today.

He decided to make the three-hour drive from St. Joseph’s to Wounded Knee to pay his respects to Lost Bird and the other victims of the massacre.  The visit was unremarkable until he was leaving the burial site, when “Something happened. Something touched my back like I had never felt before.  I literally left the ground. I had chills. I knew immediately it was Lost Bird’s spirit coming with me.” 

Brian visits Lost Bird’s grave every  Valentine’s day—the anniversary of her death. “I lay flowers and ceremonial tobacco prayer ties on her grave.  In  2013 I rubbed my left hand across the word ‘Lost’ on her headstone. A few days later, my watch began to malfunction. A jeweler told me that my battery was ‘burnt up’.  I realized it was on the arm that was touching the headstone. I had always heard that spirits use electrical energy to communicate.”

On subsequent visits to the grave in 2014 and 2015, Brian again noticed electrical phenomena. In 2014, “I went to Lost Bird’s grave and took out my iPhone 5 that was fully charged. From YouTube I pulled up the Lakota Healing Song, which is 5 minutes long.  I placed the phone on the grave.  At the end of the song, I picked up my phone and noticed it was completely drained. I showed my girl friend. As we got in the car, she saw a strange kind of bird circling overhead. Then that bird flew about nine feet above, as if it was escorting us.  I told her it was a Scissor-Tail Flycatcher—the state bird of my state of Oklahoma.  Later I found there had only been 12 reported sightings in the history of South Dakota. This time of year it should be in Central America.  Was this, I wondered, a lost bird or Lost Bird?”

On Valentine’s Day 2015, Brian again played the Lakota Healing Song on a fully charged phone, The phone was drained again. This time, in the photographs taken by his girlfriend, there seemed to be a mysterious mist surrounding Brian, despite no visible fog.

He also experienced signs of an electrical nature back at St Joseph’s in the area where Lost Bird had gone to school. “I had left my car in a parking lot close to the Missouri River,” he told me. “It was dark and I looked up at this storage building that was used as a chicken coop in the early 1900’s. The flood light was not on. What I did next is unexplainable.  I asked ‘Zintka, Zintkala Nuni, were you here?’  Immediately the light came on.  I got in my car and drove off.  The next day I asked the maintenance guys if that light was on a timer or sensor and they said no.” 

About a year later, Brian was on the school’s playground sitting on a bench and he noticed the light on the old bulding was out again.  He asked the same question “Zintka, were you here?” and immediately it came on. When other adults asked what had happened, Brian repeated the question three more times, each time with the same result, to the wonder of the onlookers.   “Each time I received an answer exactly after I asked, with no delay.”

“All my experiences with Lost Bird are comforting to me and unexplainable,” he told me. “ I believe she is my  guiding spirit and knows that I was brought to South Dakota to help her people.  She knows that my passion in life is helping the most forgotten and underserved people of a land that was originally theirs.”

Like Martin Luther King, Brian George has a dream--to unify, lead and be a vocal advocate for a better quality of life for all Native Americans.  “Reservation life has many of the same challenges as our inner cities and other third-world countries,” he said, "the difference being the lack of attention by mainstream America.  I embrace becoming the leader who will bring this to light. I want to launch the revival of the Native cultures.  Our commonalities are closer than our differences. This is a time for forgiveness.  I want to create this foundation, to help Native Americans in the areas of education, housing and rehabilitation."

The centerpiece of Brian’s plan is to bring back the 40 acres of land that surrounds the graves of Wounded Knee.  “I want to bring that land back to the Lakota people—and not as a tourist occasion.”

Brian has even written the speech he would give on the sacred ground to mark that moment. “Let us not dwell on yesterday’s injustices and broken treaties,” he would say, “so we can reap the rewards of tomorrow’s dreams and blessings from the Creator.  We must replace bitterness with forgiveness. Forgiveness of the past is the pathway to the future.  Let today mark the beginning of a new era in our stormy and storied relations…As Native people, we must join together and honor all that is right.  The return of these lands is honorable and right.”

No doubt Lost Bird, who spent her short life trying to get back to Wounded Knee, but returned only after her death, would agree.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Today is for May Baskets & May Wreaths

(I almost forgot to re-post my traditional May 1st post.  It's not too late to make a May basket--or better yet a May wreath!  Surprise someone who needs a forecast of Spring!) 

Some sixty years ago, when I was a little girl in (first) Milwaukee, Wisconsin and then in Edina, Minnesota, on the first of  May we would make May baskets out of construction paper and fill them with  whatever flowers we could find in the garden or growing wild. We would hang the baskets on the doorknobs of neighbors—especially old people—ring the door bell, then run away with great hilarity and peek out as the elderly person found the little bouquets on their door.

 Thirty-some years ago, when we moved  to Grafton, MA, I continued the same tradition with my three kids, but then they grew up and moved away.  Just today I looked out at all the flowers popping up in our yard and reflected that all the old people in our neighborhood had died.  In fact, I realized, the only old people left were my husband and myself, so I picked a small May Day bouquet for us out of what’s growing—white violets and purple violets, cherry blossoms, forsythia, wild grape hyacinth--  and here it is.

 In 1977, when the children were all small (the youngest was one month old) we moved from New York City to a suburb of Athens, Greece, courtesy of The New York Times, which had made my husband a foreign correspondent there.  In Greece, even today, whether in the country or the city, on May 1 you make a May wreath of the flowers in the garden.  Roses are in full bloom by then in Greece, along with all sorts of wild flowers. You hang the May wreath on your door.  It dies and dries and withers until, on June 24th, St. John the Baptist’s Birthday, the dried May wreath is thrown into a bonfire.  The boys of the town leap over the flames first. In the end everyone leaps over the fading fire saying things like  “I leave the bad year  behind in order to enter a better year.”

Here is daughter Eleni in 1980 wearing the wreath that was about to go on the door. Next to her is her sister Marina.

 In Greece, even today, you’ll find May wreaths hanging on the front doors of homes and businesses, although I don’t know if anyone still throws them into a St John’s fire.  In Massachusetts, the tulips and forsythia are out, the bleeding hearts are starting to bloom, and soon the lilacs will open, filling the air with their beauty and perfume.  But today I gathered a small bouquet of May flowers and remembered the years gone by.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Spring Has Sprung in Manhattan

  "April is the cruelest month," wrote T. S. Elliot, but for the Gage family, the current month of April, which we spent in New York, has been the best ever, as we greeted a new little grandson and watched the city burst into bloom after a winter of record snow.
On April 2, Nicolas José Baltodano Gage was born--our second grandchild and Amalia's little brother.  And in Central Park, the snow drops were blossoming among the snow drifts.

 On April 5 Baby Baltodano headed for home strapped to his Papi's chest, because home was only two blocks from the hospital.

On April 9, Amalia colored eggs for Greek Easter (on April 12 this year) while Tia Marina, visiting from San Francisco, talked on the phone.  Amalia made the chick and rabbit place cards for the Easter table as well...
...and Nicolas celebrated being one week old.

On April 12, there was an egg hunt at home, followed by church at Holy Trinity Cathedral...

...Nicolas chatted with Amalia from his basket...

...and Uncle Bob's egg beat all challengers at the egg cracking game.

The next day Nicolas enjoyed his first outing-- to Central Park near the boat pond-- but he's hidden under Eleni's breastfeeding shawl...

...while Amalia examined the fountain in her favorite playground, which will squirt water on hot summer days.

On April 18, the first really warm day, people gathered outside their favorite coffee shop in the sun  on Lexington Avenue next to masses of flowers...

...And two statues of the Virgin Mary had their own offerings of fresh flowers.

Tulips were blooming everywhere.

On April 18, because the baby's umbilical cord stub had come off, the family gathered on the balcony to plant it for strength and health in the dirt of one of the trees--a custom in Papi Emilio's native Nicaragua.

Amalia did the digging.

On Monday the 20th,  April showers began, but Amalia was ready, with her rain coat, rain boots and umbrella, for Papou to take her to preschool.

On our last day before returning to Massachusetts, Eleni took us to lunch at a restaurant on 81st Street called Antonucci's, and on the way, she snapped our picture in front of this great grafitti work of art by Nick Walker, an artist from Bristol, England  (not Banksy, who is from the same city.)  We really do love New York in the Spring, especially in April!

Friday, April 24, 2015


This is a week when we should be remembering and mourning the genocide committed by the Turks on the Armenians, which began a hundred years ago today (and  took the lives of many Anatolian Greeks as well.).  But I am reprinting here an essay I first posted in August of 2009, because some friends are visiting Greece soon and asked me about the tragic history of Ioannina, the provincial capitol of Epiros, Greece, where we stay every summer before heading up the mountains to Nick's native village of Lia on the Albanian border. 
Ali Pasha on the Lake of Ioannina
On our first evening back in Greece, last week, a stroll down the main street of Ioannina took us past reminders of the cataclysms that have racked this area for the past 200 years. The entire population of the city seemed to be outside, enjoying the perfect weather. Ioannina (also spelled Yannina) is the provincial capital of Epiros and the stepping-off place for my husband Nick’s village—about an hour’s drive farther north on a mountain just below the Albanian border.

I often remind myself, when I’m in Greece, that any Greek my age—old enough to remember World War II—is a survivor of the Italian and Nazi occupations, the terrible starvation that followed, and the bloody Civil War that rent the country after that. The Civil War still splits the populace along political lines when you bring up stories like that of my mother-in-law Eleni Gatzoyiannis, who was imprisoned, tortured and killed in 1948 for engineering her children’s’ escape from their occupied village. She began planning the escape when the Communist guerrillas started collecting children to send to re-education camps behind the Iron Curtain. (This was called the pedomasoma, and while many claim it never happened—like Holocaust deniers— in fact 28,000 children were taken from their parents and reared in communist countries.)

In Ioannina, as elsewhere, Greeks traditionally take an evening stroll—the peripato-- families walking together, pushing baby strollers, the youth checking each other’s fashion statements. Everyone eventually sits at an outdoor cafe to enjoy an iced coffee or a glass of wine or ouzo and watch the passing parade. (Dinner doesn’t start until ten p.m.). The peripato is especially popular in towns on the sea or on a lakeside harbor like Ioannina.
Outdoor restaurants, hammered metalwork, memorial to the Jews taken from Ioannina, the gate to the walled Turkish city

Tourists have not yet discovered this city, which is little changed from the days when Lord Byron visited the notorious tyrant Ali Pasha in the walled Turkish Kastro which still stands—its walls intact, its minarets and palaces now turned into museums.

In Ioannina we stayed in the new Grand Serai hotel, ornately decorated with marble, crystal chandeliers and copies of paintings showing Lord Byron and Ali Pasha—the Albanian vizier who tried to seize control of the area from the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople.

Ali Pasha had 300 women in his harem and 300 boys in his seraglio, so they say in Ioannina. Most of them were kidnapped from the neighboring Greek villages—pretty girls for the harem, promising boys to be trained as soldiers in the Janissary corps. Turkish rule ended in Northern Greece in 1913, but even after that, village women like Nick’s mother Eleni, warned their daughters to cover their faces with their kerchiefs to avoid being kidnapped for their beauty. Nick’s father, who was born in 1891, wasn’t sure of his exact birth date because his mother, like everyone else, lied about the age of the boys, making them younger so they wouldn’t be taken as Turkish soldiers.

Melodramatic painting of the killing of Kyria Frosini, one of Ali Pasha's most famous victims

Ali Pasha had a habit of drowning individuals who displeased him by sealing them in sacks weighted with stones and dropping them into the bottomless Lake Pamvotis below the walls of the Turkish Kastro. They say that in the morning mists over the lake you can see the ghosts of the women who died there, including Kyria Efrosini, the lover of one of Ali Pasha’s sons, who tried to sell her expensive ring in the marketplace. A famous painting portrays her and her maids, who were drowned with her, being rowed to their death by grinning evil Turks.

Taxi-boats to the island, entrance to the walled city

Today the lakefront is the scene of excellent restaurants and nightclubs which are filled to overflowing with the youth of the city, partying late into the night. Even at midnight, families are out, dining al fresco as children enjoy a Lunar Park of carnival rides and outdoor shows of traditional Greek shadow puppets. There are the gypsies, selling everything from mixed nuts to cheap Chinese electronics, and the little ferryboats, chugging to and from the island in the middle of the lake. Day or night the lakeside is a happening scene,

Ali Pasha was assassinated in 1822 in his summer home on the large island in the middle of the lake (which has many tavernas featuring freshwater fish like trout, plus eels and frogs legs.)
Ali Pasha nd his wife Kyra Vassiliki, who  facilitated his murder

Ali’s wife was Kyria Vassiliki, who was kidnapped (if I remember correctly) from her village of Plessio at the age of 15. The old man trusted the lovely Vassiliki, but she learned of his plan to torch Greek villages and she abetted assassins sent by the Sultan in Constantinople—giving a signal which allowed the killers entrance to Ali Pasha’s island home, where they shot him from the floor below.

The Turks cut off Ali Pasha’s head and carted it to the Sultan in Constantinople, along with Vassilki as a witness—to prove that the tyrant was dead. His headless body was buried under an elaborate wrought- iron cage in Ioannina, still standing near the mosque that is now a museum.

In gratitude for saving her fellow Greeks, Kyria Vassiliki was returned to her village and became the first Greek woman to receive social security.

As we walked down the main street--Averoff— toward the lake front, we passed the entrance to the Turkish Kastro, and a shrine to two local Greek warriors who were hanged by the Turks from a nearby plane tree. They are now saints.

Then we passed a monument to the Jews of Ioannina, who lived mostly within the Kastro—near the ancient synagogue which still survives (although there are rarely enough men to make a minion.) A sign says in both Greek and English, “In memory of our 1,850 Jewish cohabitants who were arrested on March 25th, 1944, and executed in the Nazi concentration camps”. That is another story in Ioannina’s bloody history and one that is still being written about.

As we approached the lake, we passed a warren of shops featuring wares of hammered copper and brass as well as silver filigree: traditional handicrafts of Ioannina. Some of the objects are made from mortar shells left from the war.

Then we reached the lakeside, where the music was blaring and the populace was eating and drinking and admiring the view. Aside from some lakeside statues of veiled women, representing the victims of Ali Pasha, there was no sign of the city’s tragic history, only merriment and music on a balmy summer night.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Living and Dying on The Cell Phone


I posted this exactly two years ago, when the Boston Marathon bombing was still breaking news.  The point I make below--about cell phones putting the world in instant contact with crimes and tragedies as soon as they happen, has been in my thoughts a lot lately, as we see civilian videos of police shooting unarmed black men and there is even--it's rumored--a video someone took inside the Lufthansa plane as it hurtled to its destruction piloted by its German co-pilot in the French alps.  Because I'm, well, from an old, pre-digital generation, taking a video of my last moments of life with my cell phone is something that would never occur to me, but younger people, who grew up on line, seem to reach for their cell phones as soon as tragedy threatens.  And that's good, I think, because it keeps us all connected, in the best and worst of times.

Photo-Getty Images
April 16, 2013--Yesterday I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when the receptionist got a call from her son, 40 miles away at the end of the Boston Marathon.  “He says there were two explosions at the finish line,” she reported.  “I told him there’s nothing about it yet on the computer.”
         He’d called to tell her he was all right. When I got home from the doctor, I sat down in front of CNN and watched, transfixed, for the next six hours or so.  I knew a number of people—all much younger than myself—who might have been there.  My daughter who lives in San Francisco and used to live in Boston called me when she got out of work.  She and her friends were at the finish line of last year’s Marathon. I told her that the cell phone service was down in the area surrounding the blast.  Some TV announcers said this was due to overload..  Runners were calling family members and vice-versa.  Where were they?  What had just happened?  Were they okay? The fears mounted as the hours wore on without answers.
         Then some people on the TV began saying that phone service had been cut in the area of the attack to prevent more bombs from being detonated, in case the first two had been set off by a cell phone.   (It seems now, about 20 hours later, that the two bombs that went off were not that sophisticated, but rather primitive bombs using a “timing device” instead of cell phone signals.)
When their cell phone calls didn’t work, people my kids’ age turned to texting and Twitter and Facebook.  Last night, as I looked at my own Facebook page, I, and everybody else, read about nearly miraculous survivals—like one of my Pilates instructors, running for charity, who wrote:  “I finished right before it happened. Jon and 3 kids cleared out of grandstands with 3 minutes to spare. Thank you much.”
            Here’s another post I saw on Facebook last night, posted by one Lexi Gilligan, evidently a student at Tufts along with the blonde girl in the photo who was holding two thumbs up, named Jaymi Cohen.  What Lexi wrote under the photo was: “So, so thankful my best friend is doing well after surviving a bombing, hospitalization, tons of stitches and a FBI investigation—And she still looks beautiful after.  Love you Jay!”
          Then there’s the ghastly graphic photo, posted several times on Facebook, of the runner who’s had both legs blasted off below the knee, except for one long protruding bone.  (I didn’t post this photo—nor did any of the papers or magazines I saw ---because it’s so horrific—but it’s all over the internet.)  The desperately wounded runner is being pushed in a wheelchair by three good samaritans, who are at the same time putting pressure on his legs so he doesn’t bleed to death before reaching the hospital.  One of them, wearing a cowboy hat, is Carlos Arredondo, an immigrant who lost a son in Iraq and now is a peace activist.  He is one of the many bystanders who, after the second explosion, ran towards the victims instead of away. As someone commented on the photo: “He’s actually pinching this man’s femoral artery closed with his bare hands.  Honorary citizenship for this guy!”    Carlos was also photographed later holding an American flag, his jacket splashed with the blood of the people he aided.
         Carlos Arredondo is only one of the heroes of this massacre, whom I feel I know personally after watching their courage and humanity on Facebook, internet , TV, and cell phone.
I am so old that I remember when every telephone was connected to a wall and had a rotating dial. (I even remember phones with party lines and phones you had to crank to get the operator’s attention!)
When I was growing up, there was no way to check on absent loved ones.  When I traveled around Europe in the summer of my 18th year, the only way to communicate with my parents was by letter—I would pick up theirs at American Express offices in various cities.  When my youngest daughter lived in France during a junior year abroad, traveled to Amsterdam and then dropped out of sight for four days, I became hysterical, convinced she was dead, until she finally found a way to call home.
          Now, thanks to our ever- present cell phones and internet, we can share our tragedies as they are happening and also reassure loved ones that we’re okay.  Thanks to the cameras in our smart phones, we can bear witness to instances of heroism, and perhaps record something that will help the FBI find clues to the murderer who planted yesterday’s bombs in the knapsacks. 
          When hope is gone, as happened with the victims of 9/11, we can say, “good bye” and “I love you”.  The downside of this instantaneous connection is all the rumors, bad information and paranoid fantasies that can be transmitted from witnesses to cell phones to internet to TV screen within seconds, as happened yesterday.  This is where journalists must come in—to double check the facts and stop the rumors. 
          But every time evil springs up and takes innocent lives, in this age of instant universal communication, I think the good of the cell phone outweighs the bad.  The Boston Marathon bombings will be remembered not for the perpetrator, but for the way the throng of people, gathered in Boston from around the world, ran toward the explosions and tore down the fences to help the victims, instead of running away.