Saturday, June 27, 2009

People, Places and Puppets that Pull Me Back to Greece

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

I’ve been traveling to Greece for the past 40 years (and lived there between 1977 and 1982 when our children were small) and every year certain places and people keep turning up in my photos. When I get back home some of those people and places end up in my paintings. And then I know I’ll go back to find them again.

Two years ago Eleni and I were in Mykonos taking photos at the fish and produce market in the harbor and I painted a particularly animated vegetable seller who was overwhelming his elderly customer with the sales pitch for his tomatoes. I liked that painting so much I used it on my business cards.

This year, about a month ago, we were back in Mykonos for a wedding and found the same manavis (produce seller) in the same spot wearing the same hat. I showed him the card and he insisted that we take more photos of himself and his fellow produce seller Yiorgos. The two men told us sadly that the elderly customer in my painting, named Manoussis, had passed away. The next day Eleni gave those two the photos she took and I promised to mail Mr. Yiannis, the guy in the hat, copies of the painting. We learned that his friend, Yiorgos, has talents beside selling produce—he was one of the musicians playing the accordion at the wedding.

The man playing the lyra—a rare instrument native to Crete —is Yiannis Demarchoyiannis, well into his eighties, the unofficial mayor of his mountainous village of Axos in Crete. He came up to us in the village coffee shop two years ago, and asked if he could join us to practice his English. “You look so young,” he said to me, full of Cretan flattery and charm, “that I thought you were brothers.”

Yiannis insisted we come to his barber shop where he served us pears and his homemade raki (moonshine) and played and sang to us mantadas—the Cretan songs which the singer makes up on the spot in rhyming couplets to suit the occasion. “Take me to New York as your bar-bear,” he sang to Eleni, “and I will style your golden hair.”

This month I took a photograph (above) of the bell tower of the church of Aghias Paraskevis in my husband Nick’s village of Lia, next to the village Inn. The painting is one I did on the same spot many years ago when it was early spring and the Judas trees were in bloom all over the mountain.

Every time we go to Nick’s village, on the Albanian border in northern Greece, we start by flying from Athens to Ioannina, the provincial capital, which was under Turkish rule until 1913. Its most infamous ruler was Ali Pasha who entertained Lord Byron and made a habit of drowning women from his harem and anyone else who annoyed him in the deep lake.

Every time we’re in Ioannina we eat at one of the outdoor restaurants on the lake shore and I always take a photo from the restaurant toward a mosque in the walled Turkish city –now the demotic museum. I’ve painted this scene several times over the years. In the painting above you can see the snow that remains on the mountaintops well into spring. On our recent trip, the snow was gone and I shot the scene with a rose in the foreground.

Every time we’re in Athens we drop by the “Icon guy” as we call him in a tremendously crowded little shop near the Cathedral – at 20 Apollonos, in Plaka. His name is Stavros Tassis and he is a true folk artist who compulsively glues bright cardboard icons all over things—a bread board, a door, a priest’s hat, a chair, a wooden drawer from a bureau—and then distresses it to make it look old. His work always is religious in theme, although he includes small non-religious objects in his eclectic works of art. He is also the source of most of our collection of Greek shadow puppets, the karaghiozi—who are often painted on camel skin and still can be seen in the shadow puppet shows that delight the children in Greek towns and amuse the adults with their satire.

Thanks to the icon guy, who can find almost any puppet you want by rooting around in the bowels of his shop, we have decorated the walls in our house in the village and our porch in Massachusetts with shadow puppets—and it’s really hard to find the authentic hand-painted and signed originals outside of a museum any more.

This year I dropped in to see the icon guy on my last day in Athens. He was muttering about spilling paint on the floor of his shop. (How he can even see the floor is a mystery, the place is so crowded.)

I knew that the greatest of the Karaghiozi puppeteers Evgenios Spatharis, had died a month before at the age of 85. The icon guy showed me a painting he made as a tribute to the great man. He had written on it “Great teacher, the angels are waiting for the great performance”. Then he listed three late, great puppeteers: 1. Spatharis, 2. Kouzaros, and 3. Antonaros.

I hope it’s true that they’re all together with their puppets behind a lighted screen, delighting the child and adult angels in Heaven. That’s a performance I’d to see.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The New Acropolis Museum & the "Elgin Marbles"--Sneak Peek!

(click on the photos to enlarge)

Today, Friday morning, as I walked out of the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Constitution Square in Athens I saw that metal detectors and guard ropes were set up in the hotel lobby and a crowd of police and secret service types outside were screening those who enter. This is because eight heads of state and various church dignitaries are expected to arrive at the GB today and tomorrow for the ceremonies surrounding the opening of the new Acropolis Museum on Saturday.

But last night, Thursday the 18th, Nick and I were lucky enough to attend an opening party at the new museum. About 280 people—mostly Greeks from Athens, I think—got to attend a sort of dress rehearsal. It was completely thrilling and moving and certainly the best Museum party I’ve ever attended. Thanks to the photos I took with my little digital camera, I’m able to give you a look at it all ahead of the foreign and domestic press, who are invited to do it all tonight (Friday). Then on Saturday will be the official opening with the heads of state and their bodyguards.

I realize the world press has already printed a lot of words and photos about the new museum because of the controversy over the “Elgin Marbles” which will move into high gear this weekend. Books have been written on this subject but to tell it in a nutshell — back in the early 1800’s when Greece was still suffering under its 450-year occupation by the Turks, British diplomat Lord Elgin got permission from the Turks to chop about half of the priceless sculptures by Phidias off the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon and cart them back to his estate in England. This act of desecration gave him bad karma leading to personal, physical and economic disasters (he lost his wife, his nose and his money, for example) which forced him to sell the marbles to the British Museum for 35,000 pounds.

Since then, Greeks and Philhellenes have been trying to get the British Museum to give back the marbles so they could be rejoined with the other half of the Parthenon sculptures, but the British have replied that they could protect them from pollution better and show them to more people than if they were in Athens. The new
Acropolis Museum, ten years in the building, has been created partly as a reply to those assertions.

In the new museum everything is climate-controlled and the surviving Parthenon marbles are displayed in a special top floor gallery facing the building where they originally existed. It’s a dramatic sight, especially at night when the huge sculptures are reflected in the window wall with the Parthenon lighted high above.

At the opening last night, after speeches by officials including Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras, challenging the British to return the marbles, we were led on a tour of the museum’s five levels. As always happens in Athens, when they started to dig on this spot, an entire pre-Christian village emerged underground, so the museum has been built on pillars so that the excavations can continue underneath. And the floors of the museum have been made of glass so that the excavation is visible even from the top floor. The glass floors made for a lot of nervous tiptoeing last night especially among those guests with fear of heights or extra-high stilettos.

On the tour, we were told not to take photos in the top gallery featuring the controversial Parthenon marbles, displayed in a continuous frieze, as they were meant to be shown on the Parthenon — with white plaster casts standing in for the missing British Museum marbles.

After the tour, we were led to the third floor where a string quartet serenaded while we filled plates from three separate buffets of bite-sized Greek delicacies. Then we wandered out onto the immense terrace jutting toward the illuminated Acropolis and I realized that there was a light show projected onto a wall and a large building that created a horizontal screen several stories high right below the Parthenon. (Other light shows were being projected on the front of the museum building itself.) The show featured objects from the museum collection but they were cleverly animated—a silent, smiling archaic statue of a goddess would slowly wink, a calf being carried on a marble kouros statue’s shoulders would suddenly swish his tail, and a primitive bird on a red clay vase would suddenly come alive and fly off toward the next building and up to the sky. (There were even archaic red cat figures rambling across the horizon—perfect for my next Greek Cats book!)

I watched the light show for over an hour, slack-jawed in wonder. Every new scene was unforgettable and a stunning way of dramatizing the treasures in the museum and making them come alive as a moving and vital part of the life of Athens in the 21st century.

On our way out we were given favors—a silver medallion stamped with two archaic horses from the museum collection. As we climbed the steps to the pedestrian walkway outside, toward the majestic outline of the illuminated Parthenon, we saw that dozens, maybe hundreds of passers-by who had not had the privilege of going inside were gathered, watching the light show.

I hope it will continue long after the festivities this weekend, and that everyone will have the thrill of walking through this new world-class museum at the foot of the Acropolis.

I also hope the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum will eventually be restored to this site where they were born. The elderly President of the Museum Dimitrios Pandermalis, said that he believes they will be returned someday, “but I wonder if I will live to see it.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pelicans, Rabbits, Dogs & Scads of Cats

(Click on photos to enlarge)

After 40 years of traveling in Greece and photographing the country’s ubiquitous cats, I put the best of the feline photos into my book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” last year — telling each cat’s story, recounting their folktales and insights into Greek life, food, history, myths and holidays.

This year, I still can’t stop photographing every cat I see, so I thought I’d share some new ones taken on this trip. But I couldn’t overlook a couple of dogs we encountered, as well as rabbits, pheasants and of course Petros—the famous pelican of Mykonos.

First in the photos above is a cat we saw guarding the temples in the Roman Forum of Athens, right below the Acropolis, next is a cat on Mykonos who loved having her back scratched by the “Big Eleni.” Third is a cat who tried to crash Maggie’s Mykonos wedding by walking down the aisle ahead of the bride.

Next row shows Eleni and Marina getting to know Petros, the pelican who is the mascot of Mykonos. (There’s a Mrs. Petros too, and several other pelicans who keep an eye on the fishing boats as they come in every day.) Next is Marina holding Ruda, a morbidly obese and very spoiled little dog from Nick’s village of Lia who thinks she’s a person. Third is Marina again, getting to know a puppy belonging to our Corfu cousins, and finally — a sign on a Corfu handicraft shop asking if anyone would take six orphaned kittens and keep the siblings together.

Third row shows what we found when we took a little boat from Corfu’s new harbor to the nearby island of Vidos to watch the sun set. The tiny island used to be home to expatriated Serbian officers (who got cholera and died), then to a juvenile detention school. Now the imposing buildings are in ruins and there is only a single taverna (and a lot of camp grounds,) but to our astonishment the island is teeming with rabbits—large and small and all colors—maybe thousands of them—and they’re tame. So are the pheasants that are nearly as numerous as the bunnies. The third photo show our Corfu cousins holding some of their four kittens as well as the afore-mentioned puppy.

The fourth row shows some of the six cats belonging to a British lady named Val who has a beautiful little resort of stone cottages on Corfu. Three of her cats are all white and also deaf. I already knew that white cats with blue eyes are usually deaf (it’s a genetic thing) but the one of Val’s that I photographed most—named Nobu—has greenish eyes.

Finally are two photographs of the hard-working taverna cats who decorate nearly every outdoor restaurant in Greece and usually wait very politely for scraps from the table. On the left are two cats at the Cephalonian taverna of Annoula where we were treated to the delicious local treats by Aunt Lillian, and on the right is a cat at the pink and blue Lefkada taverna called “The Seven Islands”.

Our Greek odyssey is drawing to a close in a week and we’re now in Athens where the dogs outnumber the cats. Right before the Olympic Games in 2004, the city picked up all the street dogs, had them spayed, vaccinated and dressed with a color-coded collar to show they belong to the city and put them back in the streets where they seem to be well fed by local merchants. The dog that lies sleeping by the door of the super-elegant Grande Bretagne hotel is nearly as fat as Ruda.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I Know I'm on Vacation When.....

(click on the photos to enlarge)

The other day, while driving from the harbor of Igoumenitsa to the ferryboat that would take us from Lefkada to Cephalonia, Eleni started making a verbal list:

“I know I’m on vacation when I ….
--eat bacon for breakfast
--drink wine at lunch
--wear my bathing suit all day instead of underwear.
--read books by Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie then leave them at the hotel and pick up others from the left-books shelf.”

I added a few of my own.
“I know I’m on vacation when I:
--do the NYTimes crossword puzzle on weekdays as well as weekends (in the International Herald Tribune)
--take lots of photos of cats and windows and bicycles and the food I’m eating
--don’t check my e-mail every day (because I can’t find wifi or an internet café)
--can’t remember what day it is.”

When traveling in Greece, my perfect day includes eating outdoors overlooking a body of water. (Ideally the meal includes fish and a Greek salad with tomatoes, feta cheese and olive oil and there is a cat under the table begging for scraps.)

Eleni’s perfect day includes watching the sun set into a large body of water while drinking rosé wine.

We’ve been having a lot of perfect travel days lately and eating outdoors with stunning views and lots of sunsets and rosé wine and cats -- everywhere from Athens to Mykonos to Ioannina to Corfu to Lefkada to Cephalonia, where we are now. Eleni is researching a magazine article about “Secret Hotels of the Ionian Islands” so we change to a different (budget) hotel nearly every day. We were supposed to leave this afternoon for Zakinthos on the ferry but the wind and waves were too high so we are staying overnight at our friend Vicky’s house in the town of Kourkourmelata and leaving early tomorrow morning (we hope). And if we can’t get off Cephalonia, we’ll watch the sunset from here.

Here are some photos of our perfect sunsets and seaside meals. The top row are all about watching the sunset in Mykonos with a view of Little Venice and the famous windmills.

The next row shows us in Corfu Town—we always go to the roof garden at the top of the Cavalieri Hotel to enjoy the view of the Venetian fort below as the swallows go crazy right at sunset, swooping low over our heads chasing bugs. One night in Corfu we ate at the waterside in the Sailing Club restaurant hidden deep in the fortress where the sail boats are tied up.

The next row shows the terrace of our Corfu cousins’ house where we are always treated to a magnificent meal including vegetables from their garden. Another day we went to the west side of Corfu to watch the sunset at a bar called Petra.

The photos below show other views of Corfu, including a taverna called Le Grand Balcon. Sometimes the best view is from the balcony of our own hotel room.

The next row of photos shows where we ate last night and at breakfast this morning on the terrace of our villa in Lourdas, Cephalonia, including apricots right off the tree. Finally, photos of the tavernas in Lefkada (two days ago) and Argostoli, Cephalonia (today at noon) where we picked out the fish we wanted for lunch.

Next—Greek cats—the sequel.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tinos' Miraculous Madonna, Corfu's St. Spyridon

Please click on the photos to enlarge them

Mykonos is famous as a party island where anything goes (especially in August!) When we left Mykonos, we stopped on the nearby island of Tinos, which—in contrast-- is one of the holiest spots in Greece (after Mt. Athos, filled with monasteries, where no woman has ever set foot.)

Tinos is a place of pilgrimage especially for pilgrims who need a miracle to heal them, so in many ways it’s like Lourdes. The most pious and most needy pilgrims crawl on their knees from the harbor where they disembark, all the way up to the church, which holds the miraculous icon of the Virgin. In my photos you can see two women crawling up the special carpet which stretches from the harbor to the church. It’s a really long way, especially in the hot sun. Near the top of the climb is a statue of a faceless female pilgrim crawling and stretching her hand toward the church.

We walked instead of crawling to the church but made sure we were modestly dressed. We bought and lit candles to the icon of the Virgin that was so covered with jewelry and diamond offerings that you couldn’t see any part of the icon. Hanging from the church ceiling were hundreds of tamatas—votive offerings---often ships in full sail made of silver and gold. Also hanging there are silver houses, people, horses, autos, even a bicycle. In the harbor you can buy for a Euro a tiny flat silver image of whatever you want a miracle for (wedding crowns, a leg, an eye, a baby, etc.) and slip the tama into the slot of a box near the icon. You can also write your plea or prayer or the boon you seek on a piece of paper and slip it into another box (with an offering of coins.)

After visiting the interior of the Virgin’s church, we went into the underground basement? crypt? where everyone gathered holy water flowing from a spring under the church, filling little plastic bottles solo everywhere for this purpose.

On August 15th, the Virgin’s holiday (which is preceded by two weeks of fasting by many pious Greeks) you can hardly step from the ferryboat onto the harbor-- so crowded is Tinos with invalids and pilgrims seeking help. And on a day in September, the route to the church is filled with gypsies, who celebrate their own holiday of the Virgin Mary and often sleep in the vast church courtyard the night before the celebrations.

Our visit to Tinos was on June 1st . Yesterday, since we are now staying on Corfu, we stopped by the Church of St. Spyridon to visit the miracle-working saint—an old friend, since everyone visiting Corfu must stop by to pay him homage during their stay.

The tower of Spyridon’s church dominates the rooftops of Corfu—a wonderful old, Venetian-style city with narrow winding streets and balconies so close together that neighbors can reach across.

St. Spyridon’s blackened and wizened body is displayed in the church lying under glass. The line of pilgrims who come by to see him and ask for a miracle are expected to kiss the embroidered slippers on his feet. (Actually it’s been a matter of kissing the glass above them every time I’ve gone there.) Gerald Durrell in his delightful book “My Family and Other Animals” describes how his mother warned her children not to actually kiss the slippers for fear of germs—just as I did with mine many years ago.

St, Spyridon in his glass casket is brought out of the church and carried in a parade around town on four occasions during the year. One is Holy Saturday. (Of all the places in Greece, Easter is most dramatically celebrated in Corfu with music and funeral marches and fireworks and marching orchestras and a famous moment on Holy Saturday at noon --the first Resurrection-- when everyone throws clay pots filled with water—the bigger the pot the better—off their balconies, tossing away the sins of the past year until every street is Corfu town is littered with shards.)

The other excursions of the saint around town mark dates when he saved the islanders once again from plague, starvation or invaders. (Corfu has been invaded and occupied by nearly everyone, most notably the Italians and English—which is why the island has such an international flavor.) The Corfiotes believe that the saint secretly walks around every night doing miracles, which is why his corpse wears out a pair of slippers every years, which have to be replaced.

Photographs are not allowed in either of these churches but I took photos outside St. Spyridon, showing the two entrances and the sellers of candles and icons and the place where you can light a candle to the saint. I also photographed an old crone who was begging near the church. I did leave a contribution in her tin after taking her photo---although she never noticed. I was fascinated by the contrast between the old hag and the young woman in the ad above her head.

Corfu is probably my favorite island because of its mixture of cultures and the constant reminder of people and times gone by. One of my dreams is to own a home here some day.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Maggie's Mykonos Wedding

Right now we’re in Ioannina in Northern Greece, about to drive up the mountain to Nick’s village of Lia on the Albanian border, but I’m hoping to post about the fabulous wedding we enjoyed in Mykonos last Saturday. (Along with Santorini, Mykonos is the hottest – and most expensive – of the Greek islands favored by the jetset— or whatever they’re called these days.)

Maggie’s grandparents are from Mykonos and the family still have the traditional patriarchal home there. The groom, Paolo—is from Italy and the bride and groom met in Boston where they now live and Paolo has a restaurant.

Maggie wanted a traditional wedding on Mykonos and we Gages were thrilled to be invited. On the day of the wedding, Maggie’s dress hung over the antique bed in her late grandmother’s bedroom. As relatives gathered in the courtyard outside the house, and two musicians entertained them with accordion music, drinks and sweets and traditional wedding songs, Maggie dressed with the help of her friends. Then she emerged from the door of the house followed by her parents and her brother, Tony, and everyone danced in the courtyard as the musicians played and a relative shot a barrage of rifle bullets into the sky.

A parade of cars took the bride and her entourage to the ancient (1786) church where Paolo waited with his family. As the bride walked through the village’s central plaza, escorted by her father, the patrons at several tavernas applauded her and both groups shouted the traditional wedding wish for the single people: “and to your (wedding)! “

Paolo, the groom, greeted Maggie at the church door with a kiss and the bridal bouquet, Then everyone went inside for the wedding ceremony which climaxed in the “Dance of Isaiah” as the couple, wearing their wedding crowns and flanked by the two koumbari (sponsors), were led by the priest around the altar three times while they were showered with rice and rose petals.

After the ceremony the newlywed couple emerged from the church and received the wishes of all their guests , who were each given the boubonieres—little white satin boxes of Jordan almonds beautifully tied with a ribbon holding a sterling silver cross or heart pendent. We Gage women have been wearing our favors ever since, because they’re so beautiful.)

Afterwards there was impromptu dancing in the village platea outside the church until a cavalcade of cars carried everyone to the Royal Mykonian hotel for a champagne cocktail hour on a terrace high above the ocean. After sunset, everyone moved to a still higher floor in the hotel—also open to the ocean view-- for a lavish buffet. The dancing, singing and toasts went on until three in the morning but for me the best part was watching Maggie and her family dancing and saluting the bride in the courtyard outside the family home.