Monday, December 27, 2010

Santorini –The Ultimate Greek Island

When people say “Greek islands” they are usually thinking of  Mykonos and Santorini, the two most popular (and most expensive)  of the countless islands of Greece.  Both are in the Cyclades chain (which includes about 220 islands, some uninhabited.).  They are  characterized by white stucco buildings that look like melting sugar cubes, winding roads that are often blocked by donkeys and stunning views of the sea.

                                                  Santorini 1
A large majority of the travel photos you see of Greece are taken on Santorini, because  it’s impossible to take a bad photo here.  A tip: If you see a photo with an alligator-shaped rock lurking out in the sea, then it was taken on Santorini.
Santorini 2

If Mykonos is the island known for international jetsetters, divine decadence, nude beaches and hard-partying nights, Santorini is the island known for the honeymooners who flock there, and is often called the most romantic island in Greece. 

If coming by boat, you sail into Santorini’s central lagoon, land on the black sand beach and immediately take either the téléferique--a cable car in a tunnel --or a donkey to get all the way to the top, where the two towns of Thera and Oia perch.  (You can also try to walk it if you are in really, really good shape.)
Santorini 3
About 3,600 years ago Santorini was the site of the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history-- the Minoan eruption, when much of the island sank into the sea, giving rise to the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis. 
Santorini 4

On Santorini there has been excavated a complete prehistoric town,  called the Akrotiri, but unlike Pompeii, no dead bodies were found there.  Evidently everyone had time and warning enough to leave (although they probably were drowned in the tsunami that followed the  eruption).  Today (if the excavation is open to the public—sometimes it’s closed) you can walk the streets of Akrotiri and look in the houses and see the pots and furniture and wall paintings they left behind.
Santorini 5
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Helen asked me to select some photos that I’d taken of Mykonos and Santorini so that she could select three to have blown up, matted and framed as a Christmas gift for her son Nicholas.  I posted the photos of Mykonos on Dec. 19. 
Santorini 6
All these photos show  Santorini, where the views are to die for because everything is terraced down the side of the volcano.  Every night, everyone  on the island gathers outside, on roofs and balconies and in tavernas and especially in a chic bar named Franco’s, where you can reserve a lounge chair, to watch the sun go down with great drama and music and applause, when it finally sinks below the  horizon.
Santorini 7
As for which photos Helen chose—she picked  numbers 2 and 5 above and from the Mykonos group, the photo of the golden hour gilding the houses of Little Venice.
Santorini 8

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Eve thought about Angels

Yesterday at the supermarket I bought a Hallmark book called “Angels Everywhere, Miracles and Messages” by Lynn Valentine.  I paged through it last night before wrapping it as a gift.  I’ve always had an interest in angels—especially folk-art renditions of them-- and  so have carved and painted images of them all over the house, especially at Christmas time.

The book was a collection of various people’s experiences with what they perceived an angel because,  at a critical moment when they asked for help from God,  a mysterious stranger appeared  and then, after saving them or giving them a message of  encouragement and hope, he or she suddenly disappeared without any explanation.

The author included, in between these “as-told-to” stories, quotations from various sources about angels.  When I read the first one, from Hebrews 13.2, I suddenly remembered the verse, but reflected that it sounds so much better in the King James Version of the Bible (from which I memorized passages every week for Sunday School) than it does in the Revised Standard Version (which came out in 1952.)

(This is also true about the Christmas story-- in St. Luke, Chapter 2-- which I memorized for a church pageant when I was very small.  Now I recite the King James Version to my long-suffering family every Christmas after we see the children’s pageant at St. Spyridon Cathedral, as we will tonight.)

The passage in Hebrews 13.2 about angels goes like this:  “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Earlier this week I went with a relative who has lymphoma to the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston.  We sat in the huge, crowded adult reception room for hours, waiting for her name to be called.  While there, I was moved by the poignancy of all these people, who were clearly so ill, having to suffer during Christmas week with their disease as they were battling to survive to another Christmas.

A young teenage Asian girl sat in front of me, wearing a red knit cap to hide her bald head.  She had brought her father, who didn’t know any English.  Then a doctor came out and evidently told her that her blood count was too low to give her chemo today—maybe she could come back on Thursday?  She introduced her father to the doctor and the dad fervently shook the hand of this man whom he hoped would save his child. 

Then two attractive brunette sisters took their places in front of me.  I assumed they were sisters because they looked so much alike, even though one of them had a mask over her face. Throughout the reception room were people with oxygen tubes, wheel chairs, canes, surgical masks, bandanas and caps in place of hair

But each one of these cancer patients had a caregiver with them. 

When we first arrived, a man in his sixties, with his wife beside him, told the receptionist  “I’m here to check in for three weeks because I’m having a bone marrow transplant.” I winced at the thought of having to spend Christmas and the next two weeks sealed in a sanitized, isolated room where no one could visit you, because of your compromised immune system.

Today, wrapping the last of our gifts and preparing for all the traditions that we enjoy with our children every year—made even better because our newlywed daughter is introducing her husband to our family’s Christmas customs—I reflected that, even if you have the world’s best gifts and tree and food, there’s no joy in it if you don’t have someone there to share it with you.  That’s why Christmas can be the saddest time of year for those missing the person who used to share the holiday with them.

A week ago I dropped off gifts for a family referred to me by Pernet Family Health Services-- something my friends and I do every year.  Pernet gives us a wish list made out by the parents.  These families are so poor that they can’t afford winter clothing or toys.  But at least they have each other at the holidays.

Every one of us, if we stop and think, can come up with an acquaintance who might be about to spend the holiday alone… someone who has lost a spouse through death or divorce, or maybe a single parent whose children have grown up and moved away, or even a pet owner who is grieving the loss of a beloved cat or dog. 

Among people I know, there’s a woman who recently lost her husband of 50 years, and a beloved teacher from high school who may also be alone now that she is retired and a widow.   I also know a foreign student stuck in snowy Boston who can’t afford to go home to her own country.  Foreign grad students are often stranded over the holidays with no place to go.

A telephone call or an invitation to dinner or just  dropping by with some homemade treat would probably be a better gift than the expensive toys and winter clothing I dropped off at Pernet last week.  Sharing the joy of the season with someone who’s alone might be not only the cheapest, but also the most meaningful gift we could give right now.  And our friend or acquaintance might remember that call or visit and think, as the scripture put it, that they had entertained an angel unaware. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mykonos and Santorini for Christmas

My friend Helen has a son living in a New York apartment with bare walls, and she promised him some "art" for those walls for Christmas.  He loves the Greek islands of Mykonos and Santorini --especially the beaches and the waves, she said, asking me to come up with some photos of those two islands so she could choose several that I would have printed in a large size and matted and framed for his Christmas gift.

This gave me a delightful chance to go back through photos taken four or five years ago on those islands to give her a selection to choose from.  The photo above shows a Greek woman meeting Petros, the famous pelican who is the mascot of Mykonos.  It seems that there has been a pelican named Petros wandering the harbor around the fish market since forever.  The original Petros died in 1986, it is said, and the whole island went into mourning.  Then Jackie Kennedy Onassis obtained a new pelican, named Irene, to take its place.   I think there are actually several tame pelicans lurking around the harbor, but the natives will always tell you that the pelican you are pointing at is Petros.
Here is another shot of Petros--or is it Irene?  It's a rather pink pelican, so maybe it's a female.  Helen chose three other photos for her son's Christmas gift, but said she might eventually get this one for herself, as she really loves the pelican.
This church--right on Mykonos' harbor near the fish market, is said to be one of the most photographed churches in Greece.  It's very tiny.  It shows in the background of a painting I did of two men in the vegetable market.  I use that painting on my business card.  And I went back to Mykonos and  showed it to the vegetable seller last year.  He loved it.  He said the old gentleman who was his customer in my painting has now passed away.  Here's the painting.

Here's another photo of Mykonos taken from the second-story veranda of a bar where we always go to watch the sun set.  The row of  windmills at the end of the harbor are the symbol of Mykonos--so this scene is easily recognizable to anyone who has been there.  The  stretch of picturesque buildings on the left is called "Little Venice"
This photo was taken during the "golden hour" as photographers call it--the hour before the sun goes down, when  everything turns a beautiful color, including the white-washed stucco houses of Little Venice.  Fashion photographers often take advantage of the golden hour which makes everything, including their models and their fashions look better.

Here is a view of Little Venice looking in the other direction, when I was standing below the windmills.

While sitting in our favorite Mykonos bar, waiting for the sun to go down, I took this photo of my glass of wine with the windmills in the background.  It was at this same place that my daughter Eleni took the photo of me that I use for my profile photo.

As the sun set, we saw this wonderful view of an anchored sailing ship silhouetted against the sky.

Here's one last photo of Mykonos taken from the beach of Aghios Sostis--Eleni's favorite place in the world.  The beach is fabulous and up the hill there's a small taverna with heavenly food cooked in the simplest way on a grill.

Mykonos is a very sophisticated island filled with international visitors and very expensive stores.  It's all white stucco buildings and shocking pink bougainvillea and narrow, winding streets meant to confuse raiding pirates  The island is known for its hard-partying ways and the significant gay culture there.  There are many nudist beaches and loud nightclubs, but there are also wonderful  isolated spots like this one.

Next blog post I'll show you the photos of Santorini and tell you which ones Helen chose for her gifts to her son.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Christmas Tree Nut

Right now I should be addressing Christmas cards but I'm in the grip of my seasonal craziness which involves decorating...lots...of...trees.

I also decorate doors and chandeliers and kitchen shelves and the grand piano and of course the mantel piece, but what I do most is trees.  Each with a theme.  In every room.  Well, not EVERY room because my husband has started to crack down on that--especially in his office, despite the lovely all white (sprayed snow and icicles and pine cones) tree I did one year.  It shed.

I think this is a genetic thing inherited from my mother.  At Christmas time she decorated so much that you couldn't find a flat surface available to set down your cup of eggnog.

So far I've only put up, um, four.  And I'm going to show them to you now.

On the day after Thanksgiving came the Real Tree, which goes in the living room.  I realize that's much too early and it will soon be very dry, but daughter Eleni and her brand new husband Emilio, with some other elves, insisted on dragging it home and putting on the lights as soon as the turkey was digested and the cranberry sauce was gone.  I usually pick a color scheme, and this year went with silver and white, with the only color coming from some crazy peacock ornaments I got from Pier One (which has great ornaments!  Have you seen the under-the-sea collection?  Squid and fish and lobsters and crayfish and mermaids.  Now there's a theme I haven't tried.)

With the peacocks, I also used lots of white butterflies (from the Dollar Store) and white birds and angel wings, so I guess the theme of the wonderful-smelling Real Tree this year would be wings.

In the dining room I always put a wire tree to show off my antique ornaments.  And I put a wire from the tree to the window so that it (hopefully) can't get knocked over.  You can see that we don't have snow yet in Massachusetts, unlike Minnesota, but we will soon.

Some of these ornaments are reproductions, but most are the real thing.  My grandmother had a whole tree decorated with blown-glass birds with those spun glass tails and often a metal clip to hold it on the tree.  I still have a few of hers.  I really love the fragile teapots once sold at every Woolworth's for pennies. They cost a lot more now.  The blown-glass ornaments usually say "West Germany" on the metal cap.  The  glass ornaments that were once screw-in lights were made in Japan between 1930 and 1950 and are a lot less likely to break.

In the library I always put my Shoe Tree, which started when the Metropolitan Museum in New York first started selling ornaments based on shoes in their collections.  

This became a kind of mania and now I can't afford to buy the newest ones from the Museum, but I've added lots of cunning real (baby-sized) shoes, and people keep giving me more.  My favorites on this tree are the Chinese baby shoes that look like cats and the fur-lined baby moccasins and the tiny Adidas sneakers.

On the porch I've put the  Kitchen Tree, or Cookie & Candy Tree.  This was inspired by some friends who live in a tiny apartment and decorate their tree only with cookies and candy and pretzels and candy canes.  Then, when Christmas is over, they put it all outside for the birds and other New York fauna to enjoy.

As you can see, I've cheated quite a bit--adding ornaments that look like kitchen utensils and non-edible gingerbread men and peppermints.  An authentic Kitchen Tree should have chains of real popcorn and cranberries (which we did back when I had children small enough to enjoy stringing them.)

Last year  Trader Joe's sold little gingerbread men with holes already punched in their heads so I could string them on the tree, but this year the gingerbread men are frosted but the holes are missing, so I just  stabbed them with the wire hooks and it worked fine (and any that broke, I ate, of course. They taste better frosted.)

That's four trees so far and counting--I still haven't started decorating the tree in my studio that holds my stash of ornaments from Mexico and India, but that will come soon, and I haven't  shown you my Santa Claus collection and the miniature town in the bay window in the kitchen and the many creches we have from around the world....But let's face it, I have to get back to those Christmas cards.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cat Book Christmas Plug

Since there are only about 15 shopping days left until Christmas, I thought I’d post a shameless plug for my photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats”—the perfect ten-dollar (plus postage)  gift for all the cat fans or Grecophiles on your list.

Featuring eighteen separate stories about a flock of felines whom I photographed in various parts of Greece, it’s much more than just another book of cat photos.  It’s also an introduction to the country of Greece and its heroes, myths, traditions, cuisine and holidays—told through the perspective of the country’s clever cats like Michaela the Monastery Cat, Bijou the Easter Cat and Antigone the Wedding Cat.

“The Secret Life of Greek Cats” isn’t just for children.  People seem to buy it as often for their adult friends, who love the humor in the cats’ tales, as for their children who may be studying Greek myths and culture.

Below I’m introducing two of my favorite felines from “The Secret Life of Greek Cats”: Vasili, who longs to be a sailor and knows exactly what to say to a mermaid, and Dionysos, the barstool cat from Paros who  is exhausted from all the music and dancing every night  but is proud to be named for the Greek god of wine.

If you would like to buy a copy of “The Secret Life of Greek Cats”,  you can find it on Amazon or just click on the book cover at right to preview it and order a copy from my web site (  If you’re interested in multiple copies—say for a Greek church festival or a carload of cat lovers—contact me at to learn about multiple copy discounts.

                                                                     VASILI THE SAILOR

Vasili is a tawny tabby cat who longs for the day he’ll hop on a boat and sail away to see the world beyond the harbor of Hydra. Daily he watches them come and go: huge cruise ships with crowds of tourists, ferryboats chugging from island to island, streamlined yachts and tiny fishing boats that sail out before dawn.

More than anything, Vasili would like to become a ship’s cat aboard a vessel with high masts and billowing sails.  He would climb up the rigging to sit just above the blue-and-white Greek flag.  From there he would be the first to see dolphins, flying fish, whales, sea monsters, even mermaids.  If he sees the giant mermaid called the Gorgona, Vasili knows exactly what to say.

According to legend, the Greek king Alexander the Great (who conquered most of the ancient world by the time he died in 323 BC)  wanted to live forever, so he killed the dragon who guarded the water of immortality.  Exhausted, Alexander brought the magic water home and fell asleep.  His sister saw the water and took a swallow.  Then she poured the rest on the plants! When Alexander the Great woke up, he got so mad at his sister that he cursed her, turning her into Gorgona, a giant mermaid with a double tail who can lift a ship in one hand.

Whenever Gorgona sees a passing ship, she calls out “What news of Alexander the Great?”  If a foolish sailor tells her the truth—Alexander’s  long dead--the mermaid becomes so angry that she stirs up towering waves to wreck the ship and drown the crew. So every Greek sailor knows to tell the Gorgona: “Alexander the Great lives and reigns!”  

Hearing that, the giant mermaid will smile and perfumed winds fill the sails, speeding Vasili’s ship on to exotic places far beyond the horizon. 

                                    DIONYSOS,  THE BAR STOOL CAT

If Dionysos looks tired, it’s because he was up late last night partying with the college students who like to stay at the inexpensive hotel on Paros where he lives.  It’s not that he drinks wine, or ouzo, or raki or tsipouro (those last two are moonshine made from the leftover grape skins.)  Cats are much too sensible to do that.  But Dionysos likes to join in with the fun and dancing and the music of the clarinet and the bouzouki when the kefi (high spirits) begins to rise.

He likes to watch the dancers, all holding hands in a line, dance the tsamiko or “handkerchief dance” as the leader, holding tight to the handkerchief, leaps and bounds and even does flips.  (Dionysos is careful to stay on top of his bar stool, to avoid any unfortunate accident to his tail.) The zeibekiko or eagle dance is performed by two people, face to face, circling and moving as if in a trance.  Sometimes a dancer will even pick up a table in his teeth to show how strong he is!  

If the dancers and the music are outstanding, the onlookers express their admiration and kefi by shouting “Opa!”  Or hissing.  They may throw money for the musicians on the floor.  In the old days, people would sometimes show their kefi by smashing plates on the floor.  Dionysos is glad that it’s now illegal, because the noise was very hard on his nerves.

Dionysos knows that he’s named for the ancient Greek god of wine, and that, since the very earliest times, this god was celebrated with dancing, music and drinking.  Dionysos the cat would never take part in the misbehavior he has seen from his barstool in the wee hours of the night, but he does like to think of himself as a party animal.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Older Women and Long Hair—In the Olden Days.

On October 21, The New York Times ran an essay called “Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair? by Dominique Browning,  originally written for her blog  “SlowLoveLife.”

The subject clearly hit a nerve. The Times received 1200 comments, overwhelming its editors until they finally ordered an end to the discussion. 

Dominique Browning cited the way her own long hair disturbed people, including her mother, because she was well over 40 (In fact she’s 55).  She asked why long flowing locks were considered inappropriate for older women. “Why do people judge middle-aged long hair so harshly?” 

Passionate opinions were submitted on both sides of the argument.
Because I’m an avid collector of antique pre-1900 photographs, I wondered if some of the acrimony about long hair may have been coming from our national subconscious.   Did we inherit the attitudes of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation—that long hair was too sexy to be seen in public—and do we even today feel that sexy hair is not appropriate for women of a certain age?

In my grandmother’s day (she was married—to a Presbyterian minister—in 1896) a girl was expected to pile her locks on top of her head on the day she became a woman and entered society.  She was supposed to bind her tresses into a prim bun with hairpins, and then never let any man see her with her hair down except for her husband.

In fact the older women portrayed in my earliest daguerreotypes often wear lace mob caps—like Martha Washington—to cover their hair INSIDE THE HOUSE. (Their outdoor bonnets would be put on top of these caps.)

You don’t need to be an anthropologist to draw a parallel from the mob caps of America’s founding mothers to the hijabs of Muslim countries today.

Before 1900, no reputable woman would wear cosmetics or dye her hair.   (I once owned a Ladies Home Journal magazine from the  early 20th century that solemnly warned:  women who dye their hair will go mad.)

Today’s erogenous zones—bosom, legs, butt, thighs—were never seen in the early days of photography.  (The first photographs were  daguerreotypes, beginning in 1839 .)

In the dags in my collection from the 1840’s and 1850’s, women’s breasts were tightly bound and a flat piece of wood or whalebone, called a busk, was inserted into the corset, so that it was physically impossible to slouch.

Here’ s a definition I found on the internet:

Originally, a busk was a piece of carved wood or bone that was set into a pocket in a corset front to make the front completely straight and ridged. Busks were nearly always used in Tudor and Elizabethan corsets, and in certain styles of the 17th and 18th, and the early 19th century.
Elaborately carved busks were a common gift from a young man to his sweetheart. Sailors carved bones with Scrimshaw designs as gifts for the girls back home

So for our grandmothers, the sexiest thing they had going for them was long, beautiful hair.  Victorian advertisements  for hair-growing lotions were a sort of soft-core porn,  often featuring voluptuous women naked except for their astonishingly full and long hair.  (Like Lady Godiva.  And then there’s Rapunzel—the subject of the animated film “Tangled” which is currently a huge success.  I think long hair is definitely having a moment right now.)

Then there came a moment—in the 1920’s—when cutting one’s hair into a short, flapper’s bob was considered scandalous, daring, a statement of female rebellion against society’s mores—like smoking a cigarette in public. 

For the best description of just how daring short hair was in the twenties, check out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” from 1922.  (You can find it on line.)  A sophisticated, popular “mean girl” tricks her unpopular country cousin into bobbing her hair in hopes of winning popularity. When it backfires, the country cousin takes revenge in kind.

Today the tables have turned again—the rebel is not the woman who bobs her hair—she’s the women of middle age or beyond (even crone-hood!) who dares to wear her gray-streaked or white hair long, even though she’s far past girlhood.  I can think of a handful of well-aged women who flaunt their flowing locks—Cher, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton.  Among personal friends, I immediately think of a very chic Manhattan beauty, Marina, whose cascade of white hair has become her trademark and earned her a place in a New York Times feature about people who have their own unique style.

Personally I’ve never worn my hair long—except for the period in the  late sixties when I rocked a beehive.  I’ve always taken the easy way out, with short hair, but for those middle-aged women like Dominique Browning, and even past-middle-aged beauties courageous enough to flaunt their crowning glory, I think there should be a medal of honor, say a Croix de Cheveux.