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.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Baby Countdown Ends on April 2.

On April 2, at 8:43 a.m., at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, Nicolas José Baltodano was born right on schedule--the happy climax to the Manhattan baby watch.  He weighed 7 lbs 7 oz.  All of us are ecstatic but none of us have had much sleep since then.  I'm too tired to be articulate,  but I wanted to share some photos of the welcome accorded our second grandchild by his family and fans.
You may have seen this photo already on Facebook--Amalia's awed and delighted expression when she got to hold her little brother for the first time.  She counts his little toes every day and woke up at 6:30 this morning insisting that I read her a book called  "You're a Big Sister" before I got up or had my first cup of coffee.  This photo and the next show Amalia on April 3, as she held her little brother for the first time.

On April 2, the day of his birth, we opened a bottle of  champagne that Papou Nick had brought for the occasion.  After all, this was his grandson and namesake!

Here is a sweet portrait of  Mommy and Big Sister and Little Brother, taken on April 3, the second day of Nicholas'  life.

Somebody else took this photo of me holding our new grandchild.

And here is the proud Papi, Emilio, revisiting the "football hold" that he used so successfully when Amalia was a newborn.  It works wonders with cranky babies.

 We're hoping that Baby Nicolas and  his mommy will come home from the hospital tomorrow, April 5, and will have a week to convalesce before much of the family descends on Manhattan to see its newest member and to celebrate Orthodox Easter on April 12.

(Did I mention that on Wednesday, April 1, while picking up Amalia from the Greek Cathedral preschool, Eleni decided to slip into the church to light a candle and found herself locked in and contemplating the possibility of going into labor right there.  Luckily, someone went hunting for her and got her out, and Baby Nicolas was not saddled with an April Fools Day birthday!)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Countdown to a Baby in NYC


I’ve been in Manhattan since March 11, hanging out with granddaughter Amalia, age 3, as she and her parents prepare for the arrival of a new baby in their family, expected around April 2.
Even before I arrived, Amalia was helping her Papi assemble new furniture from Ikea like these toy shelves,
and using her doll for a test run on this gadget, which will rock the new baby and serenade it with a variety of sounds, including falling water and birdsong.
A high point of Amalia’s life so far was Friday, March 13, when her Mommy was the Mystery Reader at her pre-school, where they’ve been studying children’s authors like Dr. Seuss.   
Parents have been serving as surprise Mystery Readers, presenting their child’s favorite book to the class.  Amalia’s Mommy read “Llama, Llama, Mad at Mama” by Anna Dewdney, while Amalia sat beside her, looking very proud.
Saturday, March 14, Amalia and Yiayia Joanie and Mommy went to the Museum of Natural History where they met up with the family of Amalia’s friends Siya and Milind.
The kids got close up and personal with some of the Museum’s famous critters, including the high-hanging whale, dinosaurs, tigers and polar bears. 
And a whale battling a giant squid.
The next day Amalia practiced pushing the umbrella stroller with her monkey Boots standing in for a baby.
On March 18, Eleni’s colleagues at Martha Stewart Weddings threw her a surprise baby shower with a Greek theme and all the fabulous Martha Stewart touches in food and flowers. 
At the last minute Amalia and Yiayia Joanie and Papi Emilio learned they were invited too.
waiting for Eleni to walk in and be surprised
On March 20, after dropping Amalia at preschool, (where every Friday she gets pizza for lunch and a dance party for exercise) Mommy Eleni and Yiayia Joanie had a late breakfast at Francois Payard Patisserie and learned it was Free Macaron day.
On Saturday, March 21, Amalia celebrated with pancakes at the Lexington Avenue Candy Shop,
story time at Barnes and Noble on 86th Street
and stomping in the snow which had blanketed the city the night before.
The next day, Sunday, the snow was nearly gone
and Amalia and family had an outdoor lunch at the Pain Quotidien in Central Park. Beside melting snow drifts, great swathes of snow drops bloomed in Central Park.
Before lunch they visited the Macy’s Flower Show, where Amalia stood in line for more than an hour with hundreds of other preschoolers to get her photo taken with Peppa Pig. 
On Friday, March 27, Amalia helped Mommy buy a Moses basket for the baby at Giggle. 
On Monday, March 30, she went to Lenox Hill Hospital where Mommy got the last sonogram of the baby before the expected birth-day of April 2.
And every night, Amalia asks the same question: “Mommy, when will the baby be ready to come out of your tummy?” 

“Soon,” her mommy says.  “Maybe tomorrow.”