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Saturday, June 30, 2007

RETURNING

"Some time, man or woman, traveler,
afterward when I am not alive,
look here, look for me here
between the stones and the ocean,
in the light storming
in the foam.
Look here, look for me here,
for here is where I shall come, saying nothing,
no voice, no mouth, pure,
here I shall be again the movement
of the water, of
its wild heart,
here I shall be both lost and found --
here I shall be perhaps both stone and silence."
Pablo Neruda

Well, I'm home again. Barely. Still jet-lagged and going through the usual cultural shock.
The last few days, melting in the heat of Athens, broke, exhausted, having seen everything and everyone I had come to see, I was anxious to move on homeward. But by the time I arrived in Amsterdam, the reality hit me and felt sad at having to leave, wished I could have stayed on and on...

It's always like that with me and Greece. I am torn. It is my other home. I have friends and family there I love as much as my friends and family in Canada. Once I get there, I never want to leave, but know that eventually I have to. Just as I know I must always return there once I come back here.

I love the life there. I love the bright blue of the sky, the quality of light, the smell of the air, yes...even the heat. Most of all I love being in the ancient places, relishing the memories of when I resided on Vironos Street in Plaka, walking the well-trodden paths, running into people who knew me back then. It's a 'returning' when I go there, just as it's a 'returning' when I come back home to Canada.

The thing is, when I get back here, I go through weeks of culture shock. And this is why:
Athens has become even more beautiful than it ever was; I love the sea, the still-quaint villages, the people and their culture. I love being able to ride air-conditioned buses and not have to put up with drunks and ugliness; I love listening to the Greek language, the elegant way the Greeks speak, not having my ears bombarded with cheap filth. (Why do people here constantly bastardize the English language, swear so often -- use those awful words?) Why are so many people here so angry, so desperate? Why is there is much violence in North America?

A day after I returned, there was a story on the front page of the Vancouver newspapers: "Vancouver a scarred paradise, UN says." Our beautiful city is blighted by a two-kilometre square stretch of urban misery. "A grim analysis of the city's drug-drenched Downtown Eastside was included in a report released around the world by the UN Population Fund, which warns of huge social and environmental costs as urbanpopulations skyrocket over the next two decades." It describes Vancouver as a "breathakingly gorgeous" city with a sizzling economy. "But", states the UN, "nowhere is it more evident than in the Downtown Estide - a stretch of dcaying rooming houses, seedy strip bars and shady pawnshops. Worst of all, it is home to a hepatities C (HCV) rate of just below 70 per cent and an HIV prevelance rate of an estimated 30 per cent -- the same as Botswana's." Imagine that! "The same as Botswana's"

I was only home an hour or so, sitting on the Drive having tapas with my girlfriends, when the pan-handlers appeared. And the next day, as I rode through town, I saw people begging and sleeping on the streets. A friend told me he was in the DES the other day going to his radio station, and saw several women sleeping on the sidewalk. Two tour buses came by, the horrified tourists, gawking out the bus window. Can you imagine the impression they got of our 'beautiful' city?

It's disgusting. It's a disgrace, that while the fat-cat politicians spend billions of dollars on the 2010 Olympics, the poverty level here increase and along with it the crime rate. People are desperate. No wonder there is so much discontent, anger and unhappiness!

So, you can understand my dismay on returning. The whole time I was away in the city of Athens (more than 6 million population) I rarely saw a beggar (only the occasion old gypsy woman or terribly disfigured or disabled man. Yes, even the gypsies seem to have made themselves scarce.) I know there's crime there that didn't used to exist -- a lot of it blamed on people from the northern Balkans -- but it was a pleasure to not have it 'in your face', to read a newspaper and not be bombarded with horrible violent stories. (Yes, and not have to see a certain Bush-boy's stupid face staring at me from every TV screen or newspaper!)

OK, I'll get over it. Within another week or so I'll become innured to what is going on around me and learn to ignore it. I'll take cabs home at night and watch over my shoulder when I'm walking down the street. I'll remember to keep an eye on my belongings. (While I was away, my friend had her purse rifled while she ate dinner at a very high-end dining room in a classy hotel downtown. You're not safe anywhere here, it seems!)

In addition to adjusting to the 'life' here -- the weather is impossibly horrible. I left Athens sizzling in record high temperatures (which were, yes, 'unbearable'). When I arrived at Amsterdam, with an 8-hr lay-over during which I'd hoped to explore the city, there was a storm with high winds and freezing rain. I lasted an hour in the town before I was soaked and frozen and had to return to Schipol to wait for my flight home, which was delayed an hour because of the weather. Arrived home to the same. It's apparantly been raining most of the time I was gone. There have only been a few rare glimpses of sunshine since I arrived back. Help! my tan is fading (or is it being washed away?)

No wonder I want to go back! And if I had the finances you can bet I would. I'd like to be able to afford to spend six months every year in Greece like I used to. Meanwhile, I'll have to make do with the occasional vacation there. But in my heart, that's where I really want to be and I shall return.

So...now that I have returned home...I must get over the jet-lag which makes my brain all mushy, and try to resume work on my novel. Maybe if I bury myself in Alexander's world it will help to distract me from what is going on around me.

"To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction."
Edith Hamilton 1867 -1963 "The Greek Way" 1930. Ch. 1

Sunday, June 17, 2007

NOTES IN THE COURTYARD

"Ordinary men hate solitude
But the Master makes use of it,
embraces his aloneness,
realizing he is one with the whole universe."
Tao te Ching 42

An important reason why I come to Greece year after year is not only because of the friends I've made here, and that it is a part of my life. It's because of my writing. a good part of my historical novel "Shadow of the Lion" was written while I stayed here during the '90'
s and mostly all of the research for it was done here at the Gennadius Library, the British School Library, at archaeological sites or with the help and encouragement of the Finnish Institutes and the classical scholar friends I've met here from Finland,Norway and Denmark. I hve, to this point,never had any help or encouragement for this project from Canada (other than the critiquing of my Scribblers writing group who have kept me on track)

My travel writing career started in the '80's when an article I wrote about Leros Greece wa published. And from the time I came here to live in 1983, every article I submitted to the Globe and Mail, typed on my portable Brother typewriter set on the bottom of a drawer on the floor f my sparsley furnished room on Iannatakis Street, or when I lived on Vironos St (Byron's Street), was pubished. In 1993, the Greek consul in Vancouver became aware of my studies and writing of Macedonian history (Alexander the Great had been my hero since I was 16). They offered me a ticket to Greece so I could do my research. This was also an opportunity to bail out of a very unsavory daycare job that was sapping my energy and health. This trip opened new doors for me and resulted in an interview in Thessaloniki with the secretary for Macedonian studies, and eventually led to me meeting my group of classical scholar friends at the To Kati Allo in Athens.

So Greece has bgecome an imortant part of my writing career. If I could afford it, I'd be coming here for six month stints like I used to, just to write. As it is, I'm fortunate to have found my niche at home, living the writer's life, teaching writing classes and making connections with local writers. I'm dismayed though, by the current situation with freelance travel writing and recently have had some unpleasnt experiences in this respect which have left me feeling as if I should give up, back off, like I don't 'belong' with the 'in' group. I won two trip prizes fair and square at the BCATW gala but took a lot of flack becauser of it and was told at the last gala that if I won again I should give the prize away. (some of this was joking but there were so many comments made I felt uneasy and unhappy about it). There were even insinuations that I had not produced articles to cover those trips, even though I'd already had one published and three more out to market at the time. I don't qualify for the FAM trips that other travel writers get because unlike them, I don't have an 'in' with an editor and do everything on my own. All my trips such as this one have been funded by ME and the majority of my published stories are from these trips which I write about 'from the heart' and not because I'm 'expected' to. (Even the Greeks didn't 'expect' me to write the feature article that was published in the Montreal Gazette on "Searching for Alexander" after they had generously paid for my journey to Greece.)

Recently I submitted several previously published stories to a populare on-line travel publication which does not pay for your submissions. The editor of this publication hs high expectations as to how these 'free' articles should be sumbitted. I sumbitted one which was published, then she requested more which I sent. Unfortunatly I made some errors in the required format, and received back a couple of nasty scathing emails as if she was addressing an idiot. this woman makes her career off of other writers free submissions. I have never been addressed so disrespectfully by an editor in my entire freelance career, and told her so. Needless to say, I don't think I'll give her any more of my work. On the other hand, I do published on other on-line/print sites with no problems (and usually pay). If you check on
http://www.cstn.org/ site (under Greece and Turkey) you will find recent and past articles by me about these destinations. I have always been treated courteously by these editors and these are publications I will continue to submit to. And I will, as usual, pay for my own trips with no 'expectations' from anyone.

So, here I sit in the courtyard musing and writing. I haven't made any new notes of "shadow" so far on this trip and I missed out on the trip to Sappho's Leap to get new inspiration for my play "House of the Muses". But I have been inspired by the time spent with my friendshere, and just 'bing' back in Greece. I have tried to focus on writing travel articles though,and have garnared more material for this. (another reason for my disappointment about the amorgos trip was that I had really made an effort to connect with the tourism people there and thought I had been successful in impressing them on my reasons for being there. Instead I felt as if we were treated like just another tourist.) Well, in the end, I've been doing this on my ownnow for over 25 years, quite successfully, so I don't really need a 'group' to do it. I guess I just need more experience inpromoting myself. Maybe what I shall do in future is start my own travel website, and if I do, I shall remember not to be nasty to my contributors and try to pay them at least a little stipend for their effort.

"Don't allow something or someone to cast a shadow over your life - this shadow seems to block your source of illumination andhappiness. these shadows -- experiences or attitudes -- have no control over y ou. You can release negativity and the cloud of darkness is lifted."
the Daily World

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

PILGRIMAGE TO DELPHI

JUNE 5
We set off on a morning when Zeus was tossing about his thunder bolts and a torrential rain was filling the gutters with gushing streams ankle deep. We didn't let that deter us and boarded the 10.30 bus for Delphi, a four hour trip north into the mountains. Vesa and Joonas were supposed to meet Ingrid, Deb and me at the bus depot but didn't show (apparantly were driven to the wrong bus depot and missed us by minutes!)

The rain subsided by the time we reached Delphi although throughout the day there weree scattered shoers. Our first goal on entering the hallowed area was to hike down the mountain to the Tholos and the Temple of Athens. Ingrid had missed this part of the sanctuary the last time we were there and wanted more than anything to see it.

Delphi was the most sacred sanctuary of ancient Greece the "naval' of the earth and hoome of Apollo, god of light. In his sanctuary, the fabled Pythia sat on a tripod inhaling hallucenogenic vapours and interpreted the fates of the supplicants. No important decisions were made politically or personally without first cosulting the Delphic Oracle.

First the pilgrims would bathe to cleanse themselves in the Castalian Spring below the sanctuary. The area has been fenced off now due to rock falls, but y ou can still refresh y uself from the same mountain spring water that gushes from a fountain nearby. Below the Spring, several hundred meters down the mountain is the site of the gymnasium and down the road below that is the beauitufl Tholos and Temple of Athena.

Fortunately the rain had refreshed and cooled the air and there weren't the usual hordes of tourists at the site, making it a pleasant though energetic hike on the mountain. Ingrid was thrilled to finally arrive at the holy Tholos. Deb and I left her there to contemplate the beauty and snap lots of photos while we hiked back up the long raod to the Sanctuary.

Just as we reached the pillars of the Temple of Apollo,the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the temple. I'm sureif the Pythia had been there she'd have protended good fortune for us!

The new museum at Delphi is a wonder, so artistically constructed and the treasures tastefully displayed. My most favourite pieces of sculputre are there: the bronze figure of the charioteer which commemorated a victory at the Pythian Games of 478 BC and the remarkably life-like marble sculpture of Antinous, beloed of Hadrian who drowned in the Nile and wa later deified.

It is here too that a copy of the "omphalos" a sculpted cone representing the spot where the two eagles released by Zeus met - the cnte of the world; and there is an impressive marble sphinx dating from 500 BC, a gift from the Naxians.

We had four hours to tour the sites and managed it with time to spare, treating ourselves to a most delicious pizza and jug of red wine while we waited for the fus to return to Athens.

Another excellent day, and you can't help but feel you are in touch with the gods while at Delphi, so we returned to the bustle of the city feeling tired but blessed.

NEXT: LIVING THE LIFE: A Day in Athens

THE REUNION & THE SUNSET PICNIC

JUNE 2 THE ASSEMBLY OF 2007

The To Kati Allo Taverna on Xatsichristou street has been a meeting place for me and my friends for the last twenty years. The proprietors, Anna and Leonides and their son Dino are gypsy people from Sparta. You never know who you'll meet at the TKA although many of the old 'regulars' are gone: moved away, returned to their places of origin, or passed on, in particular my soul-brother Roberto and pal Graham and Kay, a Greek American woman who was ry often tart of the TKA scene. Yesterday I ran into Kay's daughter Maria. She's moved ack from Rhodos and is living in Kay's old flat. Also met up with two other women who have been regulars there for years. And of course last night (Saturday) the TKA was the scene of the big reunion of the Assembly of 2007.

At 10 pm a group of us gathered to reminisce and recreate what used to e a daily gathering of locals and visiting scholars from the Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Institutes located nearby. I first met Vesa ten years ago when he was here studying Classical architectures. He is an architect in Finland. He arrived with his twelve year old son Joonus, a delightful young fellow who has been good-naturedly tagging along with us crazy adults all week now. Unfortunately Vesa's wife was supposed to come, but took ill the day of departure from Helsinki and couldn't travel. Patrick arrived from Germany that day and Anna Britt sailed in from Santorini where she's been staying at a monastic retreat. My local friends Caroloa and Christina joined us.

A.B of course arrived fashioned late looking very glamourous. I had met her the same summer I met Vesa when she was here studying classical theatre and staying at the Norwegian Institute. We were all part of that amazing group of scholars, artists, writers, musicians and vagabonds that gathered at the TKA almost every night to discuss, drink wine and have a few laughs. Nowadays the scene here has changed. For one thing, the whole row of apartments across the street where Graham lived, and Waverly (John Steinbeck's stepdaughter) lived, to make way for the monstrosity they are building to house the new Acropolis artifacts. And there used to be a little souvlaki place there with rickety tables where we used to gather too, and tease the little bald-headed proprietor who we called Mr Souvlaki. Around the corner, also torn down was our favorite taverna, Socrtates Prison. So the whole ambience of the street has changed now, especially with those people who are also missing. This made the reunion an extra special event, just like old times. But we all missed Robbie and Graham and dranks some toasts in their memory.

The TKA has changed too, looking more upscale, and the owners are learning to speak English.
No matter what we have decided it is the best meeting place for us, for now and in future.
And we consider the owners as part of our 'family' so would never abandon them.

It was a lovely gathering of old friends and what a wonderful surprise right in the midst of the merriment to get a phone call from one of my L.Q. friends in Vancouver.

That made the evening even more special and I know lots of other people were thinking of me that night and will be present 'in spirit' for the sunset birthday picnic on the Pnyx.

JUNE 3 THE SUNSET PICNIC

Early this afternoon Ingrid and I made a reconnaisance trip to check the party location on the Hill below the pnxy. A lot of new excavating has been done and information posted on various sites around Philopappos, the Pnyx and the Hill of the Nymphs. The place where the party would be held is actually the old Deme of Milite, sort of the "British Properties" of ancient Athens where politicians and generals such as Themostocles and Miltiades had their homes. It was also used as an Assembly area.

So the Assembly of 2007 met at the TKA that evening and trooped over to the Hill toting enough food to feed the multitudes (as well as the stray dogs). The spot is spectacular for picnics and although the sunset wasn't at it's blazing best, it was still beautiful. From the rocks there's a panoramic view over Athens to Pireaus and a specacular view of the Parthenon lit byu golden lights, and the monument at the crest of Philoppapou Hill. It was truly a memorable birthday psent with my good friends. I certainly won't ever forget it, and took some movie snippets so I can share the event with friends at home.

The next day (Sunday) we met again, this time including Deborah who had arrived a bit too late for the party Saturday. We made a group excursio to the Theatre of Dionysus where AB gave her private theatre lecture, and then to the Acropolis. Afterwards we had lunch at an excellent taverna, the Attalos, with an amazing view of the Agora and Acropolis. Later we browsed through Monastiraki, then said goodbye to Patrick who had to fly back to Germany that evening.

It's been a wonderful but very busy and somewhat exhausting few days, but we're all having fun!

NEXT: A PILGRIMAGE TO DELPHI