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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I'M DREAMING OF A TROPICAL ISLAND NEW YEAR!

"Selamat Datan!" means "Welcome" in Bahasa Melaya, the national language of Malaysia. This greeting is reflected on the faces, expressed in the gestures and unrestrained friendliness of the people, reflecting the heartwarming charm and genuine hospitality of the country.

I've been reading some things about Malaysia in preparation for my trip there in March.
Some things I've found out: Malaysia is a melange, a mix of three distinct ethenticities: Muslim Malay, Chinese and Indian. Each group holds fast to its separate religions, languages and customs and cohabit in social harmony.

I've wondered about these various customs. Are women expected (as in Morocco) to dress discretely? But apparantly in Kuala Lumpur, Muslim Malay women covered in pastel-coloured headscarves and billowing robes are alongside Chinese teenagers wearing the latest Western fashions of bare arms and torsos. The variety of wardrobes in Malaysia make us Westerners look like 'an army of clones'.

As far as the language is concerned, children learn their parent's language at home, and Baha Malaya is the country's official language. Englishis taught at school, so there is a mix of languages. Their mastery of English is melodious and engaging.

We'll be staying three days in Kuala Lumpur in the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel which is near the famous Petronas Twin Towers that stand an impressive 452 m.
In pictures, K.L. looks like a space age city. It has a 'garden city' ambience because the streets are adorned with trees and decorative shrubs. The buildings are colourfully lit giving the city a unique dazzle. There are many gardens and parks to enjoy and great shopping areas. For a historical writer like me, Colonial K.L. has a great many heritage sites, beautiful mosques and museums. We'll be escorted on a half day tour of the city and look forward to exploring on our own and practicing our bargaining skills in the markets. From what I hear about the food in Malaysia it doesn't seem practical to go on a diet before the trip as we'll certainly need to go on one afterwards. From all reports the food is simply a gourmet diner's delight.

Next we fly to Langkawi, located in the north near the Thai border in the Straits of Malaca and the Andaman Sea. This will satisfy my life-long dream to spend time on a tropical island.
Pulau Langkawi is the largest island in a cluster of 99 islands all renowed for their legends. There are beautiful sun-drenched beaches with brilliant blue water, limestone hills and caves, rustic villages and scenic padi fields. The islands are abundant with flora and fauna so there are many opportunities of ecological interest. I'm already fantacising about strolling on an idyllic beach in a new bathing suit and the bright new yellow sarong my daughter gave me for Christmas, along with its matching tote.

We'll be staying at the exotic Langkawi Lagoon Restort. When I saw the photos on the internet it took my breath away! We haven't begun as yet to descide what places we'll visit during our seven day stay on the island. There are many choices and easy access to other locations including Penang "The Pearl of the Orient". In the 1700's this island city was established as the first British trading post in the Far East and is now a bustling metropolis with a unique blend of East and West.

Wherever we go, what ever we do there I already know this visit will be on the list of 'most exotic holidays" I could ever dream of, something to really look forward to in 2006!
What a wonderful beginning to the New Year.

Friday, November 25, 2005

SEE THE WORLD WHILE YOU CAN!

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but go to.
I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
Robert Louis Stevnson 1850 - 1894 "Travels with a Donkey." 1878

The plans for Malaysia are taking shape. We're leaving some time in March. Six days of the trip are all expenses paid (first class!) and we will stay an extra four days on the tropical island of Langkawi at our own expense. So this is something exciting to look forward to over the Christmas season. A new destination, and somewhere I'd never have thought to travel to!

About a month ago I went to a media reception for Jordan Tourism. I've always been interested in the archaeological sites of the Middle East and in particular Petra, where a friend of mine has done some work. Browsing through the brochures I was amazed at the marvelous places there are to visit in Jordan. So I spoke to the tourism person at the meeting and she encouraged me to forward to her examples of my published work. I had decided that if a media "FAM" trip were available, since they are plannig to promote Jordanian tourism next year, then I would gladly accept an offer.

Then the bombs went off in the big hotels there and that was definitely a scare! Of course it may not happen again, but still...I'd have to think twice now, although if a courtesty media trip came up, could I turn it down?

Meanwhile, I have talked over some ideas to go back to Cuba next December for the jazz festival with my Havana Buddy, the one I met while there last December. I'd love to go back to Cuba and see a little more of that beautiful country.

Then, a few days ago, I was given another invitation which is one I feel I could not turn down...the trip of a lifetime, a sentimental journey for sure, to visit Chile. My friend A. who recently passed away was living here in exile from Chile and longed with all his heart to return. During his terminal illness I came to know his family, especially his wife and daughters. C. had flown up here to assist her girls in caring for their father. She and I became friends and she has invited me to visit her.

So many destinations...so little money to pay for travel...so I must choose. Lucky me that Malaysia is a 'gift' - a trip I won through the B.C. Travel Writer's Association. But come April when the tax refunds come in, I must make a choice of my next destination. I think it's going to be Chile.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

MALAYSIA: THE WHEELS ARE IN MOTION!

Yesterday I went by the Malaysian Tourism office and told them the dates we'd like to go -- between March 10 and April 1. I also explained we'd like to spend an extra four days on the islands. The woman suggested that as the hotels they put us up in are all five and six star that perhaps we might like a cheaper (but very nice) hotel elsewhere for a change of scenery. So she'll do the research for us and then we can choose. She also told me we can get to Penang easily from Langkawi so that's another option.

I feel it isn't just a 'dream' now, but closer to a 'reality'. I picked up a stack of brochures including walking tours of K.L., tips on shopping (she said to sharpen your bargaining skills as that's part of the custom). There's lots to see and do on the islands too besides the gorgeous pristine beaches!

Now one little surprise: I was told to make sure our passports are in order, and valid for at least six months after our stay there. Good job I checked today because mine expires April 16/06 which means I will have to apply for a new one soon! I had this problem a couple of years ago when I was heading for Greece and almost got turned back at the check-in desk because of the same reason. And I'd left my British passport at home because it also was almost expired. However, they informed me that the British passports were honoured past the expiry date. So I made a frantic call to my girlfriend who rushed over to my apartment to meet my son who had the keys and she got my British passport and raced all the way across town to the airport, arriving just a few minutes before I had to go to the boarding gate. I was so stressed out after that fiasco I was in a state and had a headache all the way to England. Then when I got there, they didn't even check anyhow and especially at the Greek customs. They just glanced at the passport and waved me through. I don't want to take any chances this time, however. So now the wheels are in motion I have to make sure everything is in order!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

MALAYSIA: Planning the Dream Holiday

Some people win lotteries. I won a trip to Malaysia through the B.C. Travel Writer's Assoc. Six days, all expenses paid, first class. As everything except the air-fare is paid for two, I've invited my girlfriend to go along with me (because my sister couldn't go). We've decided on early March for a departure and we've also decided to extend our stay by four days, mainly on the island of Langkawi.

The first three days will be spent in the high-tech modern city of Kuala Lumpur. I've been doing a bit of research to psyche myself up and give a bit of insight into what we're likely to see/do while there. "Kuala Lumpur" means "a muddy confluence" and had its origins as a shanty miny outpost for tin trade in the 1800's. It's located in the state of Selangor at the convergence of two rivers. It has been the federal capital since 1974 and is a bustling metropolis, centre of commerce, politics, entertainment and international activities. You can visit the site of the original settlement where the British flag was finally lowered on Aug. 31, 1957 and replaced by the Malaysian flag.

The modern city boasts the magnificent Petronans Twin Towers, 452 m. as well as the Menara Kuala Lumpa, the world's fourth tallest building.

In spite of the ultra modern buildings, KL still retains old word charm, and buildings of the colonia ear still stand among the new. There's lots of museums and excellent shopping areas (prices are very low here in Malaysia) as well as night life and theatre events.

I'm looking forward to sampling the tastey cuisine which includes a tempting variety of local and foreign dishes. KL was once an oil palm plantationn so there's plenty of greenery, parks and botanical gardens to visit too.

Farther north, in the state of Kedah, known as the 'rice bowl of Malaysia' there are a number of interesting points of interests but our main destination will be the islands group of Langkawi, a group of 99 islands in the NW near Thailand. It's a freeport with lots of bargains for shoppers! There's a number of interesting points of interest here including a crocodile farm, hot springs and the idyllic beautiful beaches.

The Island of Langkawi is steeped in legend and there are fascinating places to visit, organized boat trips and many museums incluidng an Underwater World aquarium where you can view more than 5,000 kinds of marine life.

Kedah was once the cradle of an ancient civilisation. Recorded history shows that in the 5th c. AD traders plied the E-W trade routes stopping at the port of Kuala Muda. There are ruins of ancient temples where a Hindu-Buddist civilsation once existed.

Malaysia is a cultural melting-pot, multicultural/multi racial country made up of local Malay, native groups, immigrants from China, India, Indoensia and other parts of the world. In Colonial times it was occupied by Portugese, Dutch and British settlers.

The main religion is Islam but other religions are practiced freely.

My friend and I are excited about this trip. In particular, I am thrilled about the opportunity to spend time on a tropical island. So for the next few months look for more updates about this journey.

Friday, August 12, 2005

THE HISTORY AROUND US

The O'Keefe Mansion
"The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or woman."
Willa Sebert Calter 1873 -1947 "O Pioneers!" (1913)


I've been interested in the Pioneer history of Canada since I was a child. Growing up on the Prairies at the end of the Great Depression, I was fascinated by the local Native bands who would troop into our small town. I used to fantasize about living back in the time of the early Pioneers or often pretend I was an Indian child. My first historical writings, when I was 12, were inspired by the long cross-Canada train trip my family made from Ontario to British Columbia, over the vast Prairies and through the majestic Rocky Mountains to the Coast. I began writing stories in lined scribblers, in pen or pencil, illustrated with my own drawings or pictures clipped from magazines to represent the various characters. I still have these early writings in an archives box.

There is history all around us. One only needs to take time to explore, investigate, research.
On a trip to the B.C. Interior last summer, my friend and I visited the historic O'Keefe Ranch.
Located in the Okanagan valley just north of Vernon, this was once the largest cattle ranch and the longest family operated ranch in the Province. It was founded in 1867 by Cornelius O'Keefe who, along with his partners, were driving cattle north to the gold fields from Oregon. Impressed by the vast fields of lush grass they decided to buy land and raise cattle themselves. By the turn of the century they owned 20,000 acres.

The ranch was self-sustaining and included not only the impressive mansion O'Keefe built for his growing family, but the first post office and first Catholic Church in the North Okanagan.
After O'Keefe's death in 1919 the ranch was operated by his youngest son Tierney O'Keefe, until 1967 when it became an historic site. Now you can tour around the Ranch and take a step back into Pioneer history. My friend and I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around the Ranch. We were especially impressed with the mansion and its furnishings and the many other exhibits including a cowboy museum. I've written a story about the Ranch which I hope to market to local publications.

This weekend I'm heading up to the Okanagan again, this time to Shuswap Lake, new territory for me to explore. I took some time to investigate and located a couple of publications in the Public Library that outline the history and legends surrounding this Lake and the area where it is located. There's lots of material for another local history story.

It makes your travels more interesting if you take time to read up on the destination (local or afar) and find out the specific historical background of the place. Even in the city of Vancouver there are many historical sites to explore including some of the elegant Victorian mansions that have been turned into museums. The family stories behind those houses are fascinating. Recently my Memoir group visited the beautiful old Roedde House and I was amazed at the intriguing story of the Roedde family. I'd never have guess, nor would I have known this interesting bit of local history if we had not taken the time for that visit.

So get out there, look around, find out about the wealth of history around you!


Monday, August 01, 2005

DREAMING OF AN ISLAND PARADISE

"I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant
gypsy life,
To the gull's way, and the whale's way where the
wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing
fellow rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long
trick's over."
John Masefield (18-78-1967) "Sea Fever" st. 3

I gave my memoir group a ten-minute timed writing assignment this week on the subject
"If you had a pair of ruby slippers like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz where would you want them to take you?" This is what I wrote:

Ruby Slipper Dreams of a Tropical Island Paradise
I've always dreamed of going to a tropical desert island. For several years I've thought of making a trip to the Cook Island in the South Pacific. Tahiti is my island paradise of choice, but I understand it's way beyond my price range.
Tropical desert islands have appealed to me since I was a child, sparking my wildest imaginings as I read books like Treasure Island and Mutiny on the Bounty. The musical South Pacific appealed to me too, because of Bali Hai.
I've often browsed through brochures and travel magazines, day-dreamed over photographs of brilliant turquoise seas lapping on pristine white beaches strewn with the occasional palm tree. My idea of a perfect vacation would be to live in a grass shack on the seashore on one of those tropical paradises.
The realization of this dream/fantasy may not be far off. The other day I was browsing the internet looking at sites about Malaysia. I've won a six day trip to Kuala Lampur and it includes three days at a place called Langkawi. Much to my surprise and delight, I learned that Langkawi is one of a group of tropical desert islands off the North East coast of Malaysia not far from Thailand. It isn't a well-known tourist spot as yet and obviously the Malaysian tourism is touting it as a possible destination. (It was sheltered and so escaped the destruction of the recent tsunami that devasted so much of the coastline and islands in that area.) I'll be a media guest of the Malaysian tourism and I knew they'll expect me to write something about this island group.
Now here's the dilemma. I'd hoped to go to Malaysia between mid November and mid January
however I've found out that's the rainy season and if you want to enjoy the beaches there, it's not a recommended time to go. Of course I wouldn't want a tropical rainstorm to spoil my long-dreamed-of trip an island paradise, so now I'm rethinking my trip plans. It looks like March will be a better time to go. At any rate, after all these years my dream is finally going to come true, and what's better: it's all expenses paid courtesy of Malaysian Tourism.
I might get to stay in a grass shack on a tropical beach after all. I just hope there won't be a danger of another tsunami!
"If there is a paradise on the face of the earth,
It is this, oh! it is this, oh! it is this." Anonymous.
Stay tuned for more about travelling to Malaysia!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

NOTES UPON RETURNING

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
Marcel Proust


I have landed, as always with a 'thud'. It was a long, exhausting trip home. The flight from Athens to London (up at 4.30 a.m. on board by 8, arrived at 10.30 a.m.) was pleasant, especially the chat with my fellow traveller. Funny how you misjudge people. I'd seen the man on the airport bus, took him to be a worker, plump, simple, a non-discript Greek. Then I saw him in the boarding line, and it turned out we were seat--partners. He was a computer technician going to Dundee, Scotland for a conference. We talked about many things, and in particular he had a keen interest in the subject of my novel, Alexander. Surprisingly his opinions and mine jibed, so it made for an excellent conversation, helping the flight time pass in a most pleasant manner.

There was a five hour lay-over at Heathrow. I had only a little money left, so mainly just walked around looking in shops, but for awhile sat at the Costa Coffee bar (where Ingrid had also sat on her return trip) watched the planes, people, wrote in my journal. It was a rather long, tedious wait made even more so when we were half an hour late boarding due to a malfunction in the air conditioning. When we finally did board, the plane was like an oven, not a breath of air. I thought I would faint and became extremely claustrophobic. We had to sit there another 40 minutes before taking off. Finally we did, and thank god the air conditioning kicked in. By then, though, I felt uncomfortable, exhausted and unable to properly rest.

Nine hours later, arrived in Vancouver to the usual grey skies and damp weather, though at that point a breath of cool fresh air was much appreciated. Suzaki met me and we went direct to the writer's group. Only lasted an hour though, before fading out. By then I'd been up 24 hours.

I've been extremely jet-lagged and exhausted, and as usual, the culture shock hits me as soon as I venture out of my cozy apartment. It's appalling the sights you see here (which we take for granted and tend to ignore!) the losers, the homeless, the despair and most of all the ugly bad-mouths on people here. My gosh, I know the Greeks swear too, but there's something more 'poetic' about the word malaka (wanker) than the continual use of the "F" word (and worse) you hear constantly on the streets here. I always go into a kind of depressed 'shock' on returning, appalled at the way things are here, longing to be back in Greece in the sunshine, to hear the Greek language surrounding me (I love the language though I am far from 'fluent'. I even love watching the mouths of people speaking Greek. So senusous. A lovely, soft sound. ) It's a pity I had to leave when I did because I was starting to speak the language more, got confident, paid attention to what people were saying and tried to respond correctly.

When I unpacked, I found out someone had gone into my backpack front pocket and stolen my almost-brand new boxes of contact lenses, my little tape recorder, my good sun glasses, a beautiful gold-trimmed mati (a charm to keep away the 'evil eye') and, most of all, my favorite book by Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire. All items can be replaced. The contacts are useless to anyone who took them. It was my fault for not tying up the zippers. But...it's an annoyance...and I hope whoever took them reads the book and learns about honour.

Last night I revived enough to go see my friend and later dropped by my favorite bistro for something to eat. The kitchen was closed. I had one glass of the 'cheap' house-wine....paid as much for one glass as I've been paying for a half carafe of excellent barrell krasi at the To Kati Allo. The wine was so acid it immediately caused me to be ill. I felt 'poisoned', and still today can feel the chemicals in my body. Cheap swill. Ah....I long for a carafe of Anna's kokkino krasi.

I already feel 'homesick' for Athens. I put on my CD of beautiful songs by Haris Alexiou, and phoned Jimmy, the Greek 'man from the bus' who happens to be a close friend of Anna's. It was good to hear his Greek voice on the phone. We agreed to get together for coffee soon.

As the French writer, Marcel Proust, said: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes." This is true, and it is with these 'new eyes' that I see my own culture and what is happening in my city, my country. In a week or so I'll get over the 'culture shock' and I'm almost over the jet-lag after a good long night's sleep. But, as usual, I'll be forever torn -- part of me always wandering under the Greek sun, longing to be in Athens even though things are different now and so many old friends are gone. It's so very much a part of my soul.

So, this is the end of the Greek adventure. Coming up next Fall will be a bonus trip (which I won) to Malasia. Six days, all expenses paid. A chance to meet a new culture and see a country I'd never dreamed of visiting.

Meanwhile, keep track of me living my writer's life by reading my Living the Writer's Life blog
at http://wynnbexton.blogspot.com




Sunday, June 26, 2005

HOMEWARD BOUND

"Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I should say goodnight, until tomorrow..."
Shakespeare "Romeo and Juliet"

There comes a time when the fun ends and one must face homeward. I do so with regret, but also will the anticipation of returning to my other life, to be with family and friends again.

I started the morning in Christina's courtyard, my usual breakfast of toast, cheese, a peach and cup of coffee. My morning routine: write in my journal, make notes for my blogs. And this morningI finished reading the final chapters of Steven Pressfield's "Gates of Fire". These are the closing lines, writen by the poet Simonedes and inscribed on the monument to the Spartan heroes at Thermopylae.

"Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here obedient to their laws we lie."

I was moved to tears by this book. I sat awhile, stunned but the powerful prose of this magnificent story so brilliantly written by the author. I wondered if, when I finally complete "Shadow the Lion" it will have as much impact, leave my readers overcome by emotion as I was. I learn, from reading fine historical novels like this; I study the style, content, turns of phrase and I am truly inspired. Later Dinaz told me 'But your story is like that, Ruthaki. You have made the characters so 'alive' that the reader feels for them." This was good for me to know. I feel that I have been truly inspired by reading Pressfield's book. Now I'm coming home, refreshed, renewed and yes, the Muse has been with me.

I was left with this emotional feeling all day today. I went for a last stroll about the Plaka. It was so hot and humid I didn't feel like doing much so sat awhile in Plaka Square listening to some fine bouzouki music and singing from musicians at the Acropoli Taverna. Even the music made me feel sad, nostalgic. I know it's time to go home, yet as always I am torn, wishing I could stay longer yet knowing it is time to go.

I came back to Dinaz's apartment and tried to rest but lay in the bed tearful and sad about leaving even though I have been longing for home. Whenever I leave Athena it is like this -- like I'm being torn from a loved one's arms.

"Can I cease to love thee? No!
Zoe mou, sas agapo." Byron

How many times have I left, yet I always come back!

Now, after these regrets about leaving, I look toward what awaits me...the possiilities of new friendships, experiences, adventures. Summer in the cool sweet greenness of the Coast.

But here's some little things I'll remember:
Dino, seranading me at the To Kati Allo on his little tsouras ( a type of bouzouki)

That delicious sweet we bought yesterday for dessert: galakaboureko
(filo and custard drenched in honey....yum!)

On the balcony this afternoon, the tzitzicas (cicada) churring.

The way the evening light hits the slopes of Mt. Hymmatos...Athena, violet robed in sunset's glow.

There are so many memories to cherish....and now it's time to turn homeward....

"Remind me not, Remind me not
of those beloved, those vanish'd hours,
When all my soul was given to thee;
Hours that may never be forgot
Till time unnerves our vital powers,
And thou and I shall cease to be."

Byron.


Saturday, June 25, 2005

A BEAUTIFUL DAY BY THE SEASIDE

To be her chosen
Messenger of wise words
To the fine dancing-places of Hellas
The Muse has raised me up. Pindar 518-438 BC


This is my last weekend in Greece and today I spent the most beautiful day at the seaside with my friend Dinaz, and her friends Lydia and Andreas. Andreas has a summer home down the coast at one of the many sea-side resort villages, Anavistos, not far from Cape Sounion. He picked us up at about 9 a.m. and we drove down the coast. Such beautiful scenery all the way!

Passing Saronida, I recalled when I used to work p.t. as a nanny for a little girl. Her family had a summer home there and I used to have to get on the Sounion bus really early in the morning for the long trip down. A few times, I remember, I fell asleep on the bus, went all the way to Sounion and had to come back on the next bus. That little girl's mother was a lawyer and the child was spoiled rotten. Sometimes the mom would check up on me to see that I was doing everything for and with the child, whose name was Anthea, and that included spoon feeding her meals which I refused to do as the kid was five years old and capable of weilding a spoon herself.
Passing Saronida brought back a surge of these child-care memories from the early '80's when I first came to live here.

Dinaz's friend Andreas is a Greek who works in the tourism industry and lives in Australia. I"ve met his wife Nicoline previously (she wasn't here this time). He's a very interesting man and so thoughtful. He made sure we saw all the sights going down and back, stopped to by supplies for our lunch etc. He's in the process of selling the summer flat but told the women they can use it any time so long as it's not sold. He's on his way for a tourism meet in Italy and won't be back til August. Lydia, the other friend, is an older woman who used to teach English and Greek for many years. The four of us had an excellent day together. The beach is just across the road from his apartment and the sea there is shallow and sandy and cyrstal clear. We stayed in the water a long time enjoying ourselves. There was a meltemi wind blowing to keep the air fresh and cool so it was quite pleasant.

Afterwards we came back to the flat, cooked a delicious meal, sat around eating and talking for a few more hours before the drive back to Athens. What a lovely day it was !

So now I'm heading back to Chris's to do laundry, tidy up, spend the night and tomorrow I'll lock up and come back to Dinaz's for my final day in the city. I could go to the beach again. But I might just spend the day browsing around Plaka (just in case I've missed something!)

One more blog tomorrow night, because I'm HOMEWARD BOUND!

Friday, June 24, 2005

THE CURIOUS TALE OF THE DOG AT THE CROSS-WALK

Well the bus strike never happened as scheduled, though I understand they are to stop running tonight. So I could have gone to the beach today, as planned, but by the time I found out from Zoe what the scoop was on the transit, it was after mid-day and not a good time to go fry yourself. Instead I went back over to Chris's and watered down the courtyard and plants, sat awhile reading, had a nap, sorted out my back-pack and toddled back over to Dinaz where I've been killing time on the computer. So there's no great adventures to report for today...just a curious story about a dog at the crosswalk.

This happened Wednesday evening when I'd gone to the Web Cafe right after returning from the beach. I was walking down to Syntagma Square and noticed, across the street, lying in front of a trash can right beside the crosswalk, a big tawny-coloured dog. There were people gathered about and at first I thought the dog had been hit and was injured, but later realized there were just people waiting to cross busy Stadiou Street. I walked down to the web cafe, did my emailing and then went back to sit at McDonald's for a snack. It's a great place for people-watching too. And the dog was still there, exactly where he'd been an hour or so earlier.

I watched to see if anyone was concerned over him, or if he seemed in distress. He occasionally lifted up on his front legs and barked at passing traffic, but was mostly lying down or watching the passers by. He didn't budge even when another stray dog wandered by.

Why was that dog there? Was he really injured, perhaps paralyzed so he couldn't get up on his hind haunches? Nobody seemed to care, not even the dog. Or was he just planted there to reserve his cool spot for lounging and people watching? The strays of Athens love to just lay themselves down in the middle of the sidewalks or whereever there is a cool spot on the marble pavement. They sleep there as if they are dead and don't budge for anyone.

I meant yesterday to look for the doggie again, but didn't pass by that way. If he was hurt, I hope someone phoned the Hellenic Humane Society because the poor fellow couldn't last too long in this heat without water and care. I'm going down that way tonight to meet a friend at McDonald's so I'll look for him. Maybe he's just the watch-dog of the crosswalk.

McDonalds? you say, aghast. Yes folks, after a few weeks of Greek cuisine I find myself resorting to the fast-food I rarely ever eat at home. Besides, as I said, it's a good place to hang out and watch the passing parade.

Tomorrow I'm going with Dinaz to her friends beach home so that will make up for the loss of my swim today. Two more days. I'm trying to fill them with as much fun as possible.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

TRIVIAL PURSUITS

This blog is just a general bit of chit-chat about how I'm spending my last few days in Athens.
Mezedes: Greek appetizers. So pour yourself a glass of retsina and pull up a chair for a chat.

Here's a story I meant to include yesterday, but didn't. It's just another of my 'memoirs' but I don't want to forget it.

A Tale of Marathon Beach
This is a story told to Roberto and me by our friend Ariadne. Let me introduce her to you first.
When I first met her in the '80's she was already in her late 60's, a tall, slender woman who wore clingy dresses (no underwear), body like a dancer, hair dyed carrot red, scarlet lipstick and lots of makeup. The best way to describe her is "extravangent". She was a German-Jewish actress who escaped the Holocaust by marrying a Swede and going to live in Sweden. Later she became a war correspondent. When I met her she was living in a beautiful house up the hill toward the Hill of Muses. She was known to invite friends to dinner and greet them at the door wearing only her apron. (And that was when she was in her 70's). She was admittedly 'bi' and always had an entourage of flambouyant people around her, writers, artists, performers.
She used to say to me in that deep husky voice of hers, "Kojak..."(she always mispronounced my name) "Kojak, why don't you come and live at my house?" Tempting as the offer was I was too in awe of her (scared?) though I was secretely flattered she'd asked.

Anyway, one day sitting in the plateia talking over wine, she told us this story about her former lover Socrates, (he who was owner of our favorite taverna "Socrate's Prison" which she claimed was financed with her money.) They had gone to Marathon Beach for the day and taken along another women, one who he was clearly interested in. Ariadne got fed up with the scenario and decided to go for a swim. She's a good, strong swimmer and was out quite aways from shore when she got caught in the strema (current). It was a windy day and the current was strong. She was an experienced enough swimmer to know not to fight it, instead to drift with it. So she did.

On the shore, Socrates and the other woman became alarmed when they realized Ariadne had not returned. They began to search for her and called the necessary authorities to report her missing. Meanwhile, the strema had carried Ariadne farther down the coast and she finally came ashore at the next beach resort Nea Makri. Clad only in her bikini she had to find a way back to the city. I can't remember how she did, but when she got there of course Socrates and her other friends were in a state, notifying everyone that she had drowned. You can imagine the scene! Ariadne laughed when she told us about it. She'd really given them a scare -- served them right for ignoring her on the beach! She might have laughed even harder if she'd known that a year or so after her death Socrates' taverna was expropriated by the Ministry of Culture and torn down to make way for the new Acropolis museum.

Mr Bean on the Tram
This is another story that grew out of yesterday's adventures.
I was on the tram going to the beach and a man got on who I swear looked exactly like Mr Bean.
I actually did a double-take and almost started to giggled. Perhaps he noticed because in no time he came and sat beside me. He acted like Mr. Bean. He was dressed like Mr. Bean. He had those same big soulful eyes and goofy look on his face. He started asking me questions (in Greek). Where I was going. Glyfada? No, Alimou. Was I going swimming? Yes. What's your name?Ruth. Ah...he reaches over and chucks me under the chin. "Ruthie!" Then he turns his attention to a young guy sitting in the seat in front of me. Starts asking him questions.
Meanwhile, he's holding a little briefcase or leather folder on his knees but he keeps reaching under it and at first appeared to be scratching his leg, but later I realized he was scratching (or rubbing) his dick. This went on more frequently as the ride continued. I ignored him and stared out the window but wondered if the woman in the seat across might notice. She didn't seem to. I guess he was harmless, like Mr Bean, and he was certainly at bit, as they say trellos but I was glad when the tram came to my stop.
Goodbye, Mr Bean!

Today: A relaxing morning and then a bit more culture.
I spent the morning at Christina's watering the garden and doing laundry and having a long chat with my friend Zoe. Then I headed off for an afternoon at the National Archaeological Museum. I hadn't been there for a couple of years and thought it was time to pay another visit. Also, being air-conditioned, a good place to spend the afternoon out of the heat.

The National Archaeological Museum opened in 1879, a beautiful neo-classical building that is one of the nation's finest. It has the worlds finest collection of Greek aniquities including the Hall of Mycenaean Antiquities -- a treasure trove of gold objects from jewellry to funeral masks. The chief exhibit is from the six graves of Circle A found in Mycenae first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann from 1874-76. It displays what is commonly known as "The Mask of Agamemmnon". There is also a display case of jewellry and funerary offeriings from the grave of his queen Clyntemnestra who was slain by her son Orestes after her youthful lover murdered Agammenon when he returned from the Troy wars. This is a familiar theme of several Greek tragedies.

There are also fragements of beautiful Minoan-like wall frescoes from the Mycenaean palace of Tiryns as well as a collection of magnificent gold cups.

The Cycladic collection contains the largest Cycladic figurine every found, discovered on the island of Amorgos (where I wanted to visit this summer, and didn't!)

Some of my favorite pieces of sculpture are in the Museum so it was a pleasure to go back and see them again. The bronze Horse and Jockey of Artemesion dominates the central hall. It was found with the magnificent
bronze figure of Poseidon, the Sea God, who stands as if ready to hurl his trident. Both these statues were found off Cape Artemision in 1928 in a shipwreck. There is also a big display of grave stele and funeray objects particularly the one of Aristonautes (330 BC) found in the Keramikos. It's a large sepalchral relief of an Ethiopian groom attempting to restrain a frisky horse. This si a most pwoerful piece of realist scultpure especially the finer details such as the leg muscles of the boy and horse, the expression on the boy's face and the animal's stance -- so realistic even the horse's tongue and teeth are visual as it champs at the bit.

I missed the head of Demosthenes, but saw a double-sided Herm of Aristoteles. (I think the glorious sculpure of Alexander by Lypiddus has been removed for a current N.Y. exhibit).

I would have stayed longer but my brain was boggled and my feet gave out, so I walked down Patission Street, found a Goodies and went in for a 'burger and chips. Lo and behold for the second time in a couple of months I won something! An orange back-pack (which I'll leave for Dani). Hobbled on down to Omonia Square. Plateia Omonia has been spruced up somewhat since the Olympics but it's still a dodgier part of town and has earned the reputiation in recent years as a hangout for pick-pockets and prostitutes. It's now transformed into a traffic hub where eight important roads converge, so it's always busy with traffic and pedestrians. Just off Omonia on Athinas Street and Aeolou, a meat and vegetable markets and other shops making it a popular cheap shopping area where y ou can buy everything from hardware to clothing.
(Yes, Patrick, I found the water-bottle insulators I'd been searching for!)

Came home to rest my tootsies and water the plants. Then tonight I came back over to Dinaz and we were joined at the TKA by her son Andreas. I had plans to go direct from here to the beach in the morning but apparantly the entire transit system of Athens is going on strike. (Some things never change!) so that means I'm bound to the Plaka and home. Dinaz says we're invited to her friend's beach home on Saturday though, so that makes up for it.






Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A QUICK TOUR AROUND ATTIKA

I had a busy, eventful day today starting early this morning when I headed off on a day trip to Marathon. Last night as I lay in bed I had some uneasy thoughts about these plans, but after analyzing the reasons why I felt these trepeditions, I recalled the details of my first trip there back in May 1984 just after I'd come to live in Greece. I'd always come to Greece in the autumn so I was not prepared for the climate of May and didn't realize that, though the day was overcast, the sun is very penetrating here. Consequently, I ended up having the worst sun-burn of my life, so serious I was sure my back would be scarred from the blisters.

How it happened was, I'd gone to Marathon to see the tumulus of the Greeks who had died at the battle of Marathon, and later gone to Marathon beach to enjoy the afternoon. After a few hours on the beach I stood on the highway waiting and waiting for the bus back to Athens. By this time I was feeling the affects of sun-stroke. The bus didn't come. But a nice looking man in a van stopped and asked if I'd like a ride. Without hesitation, because I simply had to get off that highway, I said yes. I realized later how risky it was, that my guardian angel must have been on high alert. When he turned off the highway onto a mountain road I got real scared. He stopped the van and I waited, trying not to panic. What the heck would I do anyway? Well...it all turned out okay. He'd only stopped to change into his shorts. He must have realized how frightened I was as he was quite kind to me and later drove me around to show me the home of Papandreaos, the Prime Minister, and other posh mansions in the area where he lived. Then he dropped me off so I could get the trolley home.

Well, today sure wasn't going to be a repeat of that day! I set off covered with sun-screen, carrying water, food, and a hat, necessary equipment in this hot country. Got the bus at 11 a.m. for Marathon which is 42 k. NE of Athens. The road passes along the coast to the plain of Marathon which extends in a crescent around the Bay of marathon, skirted on the landword side by stony mountains. I explained to the ticket boy that I wanted to get off at the 'tombs and museum' which are on a side-road before you get to the town. It's an hour and half ride out to the east coast of Attika, past the various small coastal towns and resorts. I noticed we were passing the plain that is marked as the famous battle site, then the sign of the tumulus went whizzing past. Next I see we are entering Marathon and the boy told me it was here I should get off. (How in heck was I going to get back to where I wanted to be?) There was a museum where I was let off, but it turned out to be the new "preservation of the Marathon" museum. Across the street is the Olympic stadium entrance with the starting gate for all marathons run in Greece.

The new museum was actually interesting. They were just setting up for some event tonight so the young lady was appologetic but showed me around. It is mainly a record in photos and writing of all the marathon since the first modern Olympics in 1896 when a Greek shepherd, Louis Spiridon, who was known for his powers of endurance won his first mrathon and in a show of indescribably enthusiam, 60,000 spectators and the King of Greece welcomed him in the Panathenaic Stadium as if he was the new Pheidippides, the runner of the original 40 miles from Marathon to Athens back in 490 BC.

There was a gallery of women runners too. The first woman to run a marathon was from Syros. She was known as "Melpomene" and she ran 40 k. of the 1896 marathon the day after it was officially run. She had been denied permission to run in the official race so she decided to run alone. She asked a priest to pray for her protection but he refused, saying he would only bless official athletes. Her finishing time was 5.30 hrs.

I was told I could get a bus to the tombs at 2 p.m. and I went to wait on the corner. Two buses passed and I visualized another incident like had happened back in '84. So I decided when the bus finally came (right at 2 pm as the schedule said!) that I'd go straight back to Athens. It turned out that the bus detoured around by the tombs and the beach. The tomb is in the middle of an olive grove, the dome of it rising above the trees. It's like a big upturned bowl with sod covering it. Nothing seems to have changed since I first saw it so I wasn't missing anything new.
The beach though had been built up with tavernas and hotels. I wouldn't have minded stopping but had already decided to head for Alimous the minute I got back into the city.

It wasn't an entirely lost-cause outing though. I did get to have a clearer look at the Plain and another look at the tumulus. I've an interest in the Persian/Greek wars. The attempted conquest of Persia of all the Greek lands went on for a number of years and of course, when Alexander headed of on his conquest of Asia Minor and all the Persian lands, it was because of these previous raids, so it is interesting to understand the whole history.

The Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC, is one of the most celebrated battles in history. It was here that an army of 9000 Greeks and 1000 Plataeans defeated the massive 25,000 strong Persian army, proving that the Persians were not invincible. The brilliant Greek general Miltiades' ingenious battle strategy saved the day when he altered the conventional battle formation so fewer soldiers were in the centre, more in the wings. This tricked the Persians into thinking the Greeks could be easily overcome. They broke through the centre but were ambushed by soldiers in the wings. The Greeks had sacrificed earlier to Pan and when the Persians retreated in disarray, they knew Pan had heard their prayers. That's how the word Panic got it's meaning. At the end of the day 6000 Persians and only 192 Greeks perished. After the battle a runner was sent to Athens to announce the victory. After shouting "Enikesame!" ("We won!") he collapsed of exhaustion and died. This is the original of today's "Marathon" foot race.

In ancient Greece, bodies of those killed in battle were returned to their families for burial. But as a sign of honour, the 192 men who fell at Marathon were cremated and buried in a collective tomb. This is the burial mound I went to see. The top of the bravemound commands a view of the battlefield. At the foot is a marble bas-relief copied from "The Warrior of Marathon". The tomb stone had the names of the fallen arranged according to tribes, but this no longer exists.
According the the historian Pausanias, the Persian dead were flung into an open trench.

I've just been reading Steven Pressfield's excellent book "Gates of Fire" about the war at Thermopylea, when the 300 Spartans led by their king Leonidis, and an allied army of about 6000 men faced the formidable forces of the Persians at the "Hot Gates". His descriptions of this battle, which happened only 10 years after the one at Marathon, are so vivid, it helped me to visualize exactly what it must have been like for the Greeks in both battles.
"One felt as if he were facing men from the underworld, from some impossible country beyond Oceanus where up was down and nght day. Did they know something the Greeks didn't?"

(I recommend, if you like historical fiction, you read this book as it is truly outstanding!)

It was worthwhile going to Marathon even if I didn't see the museum with all the ancient artifacts. Tomorrow I think I'll visit the National Museum here to make up for it.

I got back into Athens at 3.30. The afternoon excursion had been interesting but I wanted to head for the beach. After a few hassles with getting on the wrong trolley, I ended up walking to Syntagma Square but there was a tram waiting and by 5.15 I was lounging on a deck chair under an umbrella at Alimou Beach. Aaaah....the water was so fine today. The beach is best in the late afternoon, so peaceful! I swam and relaxed with my book and CD's for a couple of hours.
By 8.30 I was back here at the Web Cafe. And now I'm going home to water Christina's plants and spend the rest of the evening in the quiet solitude of the courtyard.



Tuesday, June 21, 2005

RANDOM NOTES ON A FULL MOON NIGHT

The moon, She shines on everyone
She knows what we can not,
Binding friends together
With ribbons of forget-me-nots...

The full moon is shining like big ripe peach over the rooftops. Dinaz and I sat awhile on the balcony enjoying the sight. I'm over at her place tonight for some company but she worked very late and then retires early so we didn't get a long visit. Tomorrow I'm heading off on a little day trip, just a change of scenery. The hot weather was getting to me. The heat zaps your energy, sucks the vitality out of you. I felt listless and unmotivated for a few days. But last night it rained a little and the air cooled. A good night's sleep on Christina's bed and this morning my energy had returned so I went off to the beach and had a lovely day.

It's been a bit lonely and at time's I've felt a little blue. All my friends were gone yesterday. Patrick returned home Sunday, Dinaz went out of town to visit friends, Christina and Dani left for Sweden. Nobody to really hang out with. I started jotting down random notes, a collection of thoughts and musings, some of it nostlagic, though I've tried not to let myself get too into the nostalgia or then I feel sad.

NOTES FROM THE COURTYARD: Monday ( I didn't even remember it was the Summer Solstice!)

Now that I've done my little research field trips around the Agora and Acroppolis and can visualize my characters moving about in this setting, I'd like to think a great blinding light of inspiration would hit me so I can do some actual writing for my novel. This is my last week here, and starting today, I'm house and garden-sitting for Christina.

It's quiet and cool here in the courtyard, birds chattering in the tree tops, the whir of traffic passing by on Kolokroni St. I enjoy sitting here reading, jotting down notes. Over the years, how many hours have I spent in this courtyard? Ten years, at least, counting the times I baby sat with Daniella, and other occasions when I've house/cat sat for Chris when she goes home to Sweden for a holiday. The last summer I saw Roberto it was here. I'd invited him to stay with me and we spent hours here in the garden reading and conversing over wine. My last photos of him were taken here, sitting this this very same chair I'm sitting in now, cigarette in hand, wine glass half full, a book open (he was a voracious reader). I knew he wasn't well that summer. I was concerned as his voice had become hoarse and he was moving about gingerly as if he was in pain. He didn't complain though, dismissed my worries, shrugged it off in his casual way. By the following summer he was dead of cancer that had spread from his throat through all his body. He never took care of himself. Each time we'd say goodbye I would think it was for the last time. He wouldn't say 'goodbye'. He'd always say "Misbehave!" I miss him so much!

Musings from the To Kati Allo Taverna: (Monday evening)

I came to the TKA for dinner tonight, hoping there might be some people around, someone to talk to. There used to be such a gang of us and now it feels strange sitting here alone. I feel the presence of the absent ones. Robbie, Graham...Graham and I used to spend evenings talking about music - mostly jazz. I had looked forward to telling him about the Jazz Festival in Cuba.
He had written just after Christmas to say he was looking forward to seeing me. Now he's gone too.
Nostalgia overcomes me, and a few tears fall...

The arrival of W. perks me up. I can't print her name because she's the daughter of a famous cowboy movie star of the '40's and 50's and step-daughter of an even more famous American novelist. I've known her since I first came here to live, although we were never more than casually acquainted. She's about my age, very Butch, you almost have to look twice to see it's a woman. She lives across the street from the TKA and comes out of her seclusion now and then, tonight passes by with a 'hello' and takes a table by herself inside. She has a son who sometimes lives with her and in the past it generated some rather oedipal commentary. I used to see the kid when he was about 10 yrs old, with his odd little midget nanny, drinking ouzo in Plaka. W. had an assortment of bizarre friends back then, La Dolce Vita. Now she lives very reclusively.
Eventually when she leaves the TKA she stops to chat, very friendly, says she'd just returned from the States, says she hopes she'd get to talk more to me before I leave. It would be mighty interesting to get into a real conversation with her. A fascinating character!

I sit alone, eating my dinner (Anna's chicken is the best!) watching the clientele, talking now and then to Anna's son Dino (I notice how charming he is, such an attentive waiter!) He's another one I've known since he was a tot running around the tables annoying everyone. The other night he was entertaining us playing his bouzouki.

A light rain begins to fall freshening the air. I won't mind walking home even without an umbrella. The cool air has revived me and I feel some of my energy returning. Anna's husband Leonidis arrives, greets me with "Yeia Sou Koukla Mou" (hello, my doll!) I feel 'at home' again. This family is part of my life here and this time there is such affection being shown to me which I find very touching. (Anne even tries to phone 'the guy from the bus' - Jimmy, the Greek who I keep meeting on the #20 bus in Vancouver who happens to be a good friend of theirs. Too bad, he isn't home!)

Notes made at Alimou Beach today (Tuesday)
Today I felt revived and started to organize the rest of my week here. It was good to wake up refreshed and eager for a new adventure. So I took the tram to the beach. A first, for me.
The tram is one of Aten's new rapid transit systems (though it's not as rapid as Sky Train). There's been complaints aobut it ever since they started digging up all the streets to lay down the tracks. Two years ago the city was a mess and one wondered if they would ever get it done in time for the Olympics. Miraculously they did! It's an odd-looking train, like one of those high speed bullet trains, but it's really not any faster than a trolley except, like SkyTrain, there are fewer stops and the tracks cut through the city, out to the coast, running from Syntagma to Voulagmenis where the big Olympic centre (camp) was.

It was easy to get to the beach as there is a stop at each of the beaches. 60 Euro one way and I guess it just took over half an hour to reach Alimou. Now I have the knack of it I can easily get myself to the beach any day if I wish.

Today was overcast and cooler so the beach was not crowded at all. I got a beach chair and umbrella right by the shore and relaxed all afternoon listening to music and reading, and swimming. It felt so good to be in the sea and not melting from the heat!

Tonight at Dinaz's, some closing thoughts...

I've been feeling quite homesick, so I'm trying to plan my final days here and not let myself just sit around or wander aimlessly for the zillionth time around Plaka. Tomorrow I'm taking a little trip up the eastern coast of Attica to Marathon, mainly to see the tumulus and museum there but also to check out the beach. I wanted to go to Messalongi to write about Byron, but it doesn't seem I'll get there as my money is running to short. So I'm going to have some beach time instead, work on my tan and relax by the sea. This weekend there are more free music concerts which I'll attend with my friends. Then, Monday, it's going to be a long day's flight but I'll be home again.

Stay tuned here for all the last adventures.



Sunday, June 19, 2005

ANOTHER LITTLE FIELD TRIP

A hot, humid day in Athens. Patrick was leaving to return home to Germany today so we left the apartment early for a little field trip to the Pnyx Hill. Yesterday he accompanied me on a short walk through the National Gardens searching for the exact place where Aristoteles had his Lyceum, the School of Peripatetics (Walking Philosophers). The spot I had first identified was, according to the Blue Guide maps, actually the gymnasium, so I wanted to stroll through the Gardens to locate the approximate place where the school was, just to get the idea of the distance from the Agora and Acropolis. It was actually toward the back of what is now the National Gardens, just across from where the Stadium is and nearby on the other side of the park was the Garden of Theophrastos.
Both of them were quite a distance removed from the Agora. The River Ilissos ran along between the school and the stadium and no doubt it was a peaceful, sylvan setting conducive to walking and philosophizing.

Today's mini field trip took us up the Aereopagitou pedestrian path along the foot of the Hill of Muses. The path follows the ridge of a hill along what was the Diateichisinic walls which had been built to connect with Themistocles Long Walls, and enclosed the ancient quarters of Koile and Melite, site of many ancient dwellings dating to 5th C. B.C. (the time of the Peloponnesian War). It leads past the site of the North tower of "Dipylon above the Gates' where now stands the little church of Agios Dhimitrios Loumbardhiaris. The name comes from loumbardha
or "canon" and is derived from a miracle attributed to the Saint in which a Turkish canon, located on the Acroppolis, was struck by lightening at the moment it was about to open fire on the congregation. Just above the church rises the Hill of the pnyx, in Classical times popularly called "The Rocks."

This was the meeting place of the Assembly or Ecclesia, where the great statesmen such as Aristides, Themostocles, Pericles and Demosthenes held their audiences.
Pnyx means "the place where people were tightly packed". Piknos: compact, dense, crowded.
This was in reference to the single entrance way. The area itself could hold about 5,000 citizens as well as the Assembly officials. The Assembly was presided over by the Prytaneis. The citizens were hustled to the Pnyx by Scythian archers who held cords daubed with red paint across the streets of the Agora and neighbouring streets in order to hurry up the laggards and prevent citizens from cutting a meeting. There was only the one entrance, and everyone was scrutinized so no unauthorised persons could slip in. Nobody who was not a citizen could attend without special permission. Late comers who had been marked by the red paint, forfieted their allowance.

The Pnyx itself is a huge rock terrace in the form of a semi circle with a colossal retaining wall built of stone blocks. The excavations are more clearly marked now, including the Bema, a broad terrace levelled from the rock which served as the speaker's platform. (Up until a couple of years ago this is where they held the Athen's Sound and Light Show each night.) There's a magnificent view of the Parthenon from there, it also looks down over the Agora on the East side and a sweeping view of Athens right out to the port of Pireaus and the sea on the west. As well, there is a clear view of the Philoppapou monument on the Hill of Muses nearby.

Once the Assembly had gathered, prayers were offered at the altar of Zeus Agoraios and the shrine of the healing god, Zeus Hypeistos. The Assembly met ten times a year. The Chairman of the Prytaneis presided, assisted by a secretary and a Herald who made the announcements. The audience sat on wooden benches. At the lower level of the Bema sat the Prytaneis assisted by Scythian archers who kept order. After the 4th century BC the Pnyx was abandoned and the Assembly met at the Theatre of Dionysos.

I'd been to the Pnyx many times before but today was the first time I'd ventured beyond it, along the crest of the Hill of Nymphs where there is an old observatory (Asteroskopion) built in 1842, and nearby there are traces of the long Walls and the Barathron, the ancient place of execution. On the top of the Hill is the tiny Church of Agia Marina with its multi-domed modern successor dominating the hill. An inscription found on a rock here marks the limits of the Precinct of Zeus.

Patrick and I walked down the hill and arrived on the pedestrian walkway in Thisseion where we stopped for a frappe at a very expensive side-walk cafe. Then home again as he had to make it to the airport for his flight.

It's such a muggy day, and I have no energy to do more than just get myself over to Christina's. She's leaving for Sweden tomorrow and I'll be house and garden sitting for her this week. Dinaz is going to Evvia after work today so I won't see her again til Tuesday. Hopefully this week I will motivate myself to make a couple more day-trips, with the focus on travel writing material and also some trips to the beach. It's a long weekend holiday this weekend so I was advised travel would be too hectic til Tuesday as all Athens vacates for the villages when it's a holiday. Today as we walked around, passing various churches, we were treated to the harmonious choir singing and chanting of the priests celebrating this Saint's holiday. It made the little trip around a little more special.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

MUSIC IN THE PLATEIA

Early morning sounds from Dinaz's balcony: the whirr and honking of traffic whizzing by on busy Syngrou Avenue, the grinding of machinery at the site of the new museum just up the street, street dogs barking, church bells chiming ding-dong-ding-dong, - the peeling of the bells represents a special evening calling the pious to the church. (On Greek Easter Good Friday you'llhear the steady monotonous bong-bong-bong of the funeral bells chiming all day long. For weddings and baptisms it's a more joyous ringing.)

\for me, a lazy morning, rising early to drink my coffee in the sushine on the balncy surrounded by the blooming hibiscus and other plants. Yesterday I had a day at the beach. Epame thalassa meta i filoi mou Christina kai Daniella. We went to our favorite Alimou Beach which has undergone some great improvements since the Olympics. A private beach: 5 or 3 euro admission depending on age group and on week days the chairs and umbrellas are free. All the amenities provided. The white sand is grainy and small pebbles and the water a lovely clear aqua. We sunned there all afternoon and I intend to return next week now I know how to get there on the new tram line.

When I got back to Dinaz's a group of us gathered to go to a free music show last night. These days in the various plateias (Plazas) there are open-air concerts and last night was an excellent rembetika concert at Thisseion.

We set off walking up Dionysious Arepagitou pedestrian mall to the Plateia. It's a lovely stroll with the acropolis all lit up in a golden light, musicians busking along the way: an Iranian man playing an instrument like a zither, a bouzouki player, a Russian with an operatic tenor singing the Volga Boat Song.

Music and dance have played an important part of Greek life since ancient times. Greeks love to sing and dance whether at a nightclub, a kefenion or at a concert like last night. The singing and dancing is usually acompanied by clapping. It's a wonderful thing to be at a concert or in a taverna and hear everyone burst into song especially if it's a rembetika tune, specifically if it's a composition by Mikis Theordorakis.

Musican insruments of ancient Greek included the lyre, lute, pikeis (pipes), kroupes (a percussion instrument) kithara ( a stringed instrument), aulos ( wind instrument) barbitos ( similar to a violincello) and the magadio (like a harp). There's an excellent music museum in Plaka where you can see copies of these as well as more recent instruments and listen to the audios of their sounds. The bouzouki is an instrument you'll hear everwhere in Greece and is used to play the traditional rembetika music. The word rembetika may come from the Turkish rembet which means "outlaw". This traditional music, a kind of Greek Blues, emerged in the 1870's from the low-life caafes (tekedes - hashish dens) in urban areas especially around ports. It became popularized in Greece by the refugees from Asia Minor.

The songs which emerged from the takedes had themes concerning hashish, prison life, gambling and knife fights. Music from the more sophisticated Middle Eastern music cafes
amenedes had themes centered around erotic love. These two types of music were blended by the refugees, from which came a subculture of rebels called manges who wore showy clothes - fedora hat, suit jacket draped over shoulders, flower in lapel, fingernail of little fingers grown long (for scooping cocain or perhaps to indicate they didn't toil at hard labour.) Most lived in extreme poverty and hung out in the tekedes smoking hashish from big narjilas (hookahs), singing and dancing. (Hashish was illegal but laws were not enforced until late in the '30's.) It was in a tekes in Pireaus (Athen's port) where one of the greatest rembetis, Markos Vamvakares was discovered in the 1930's.

After the censhorship laws and cleanup of hash dens, the music continued clandestinly, but the language changed and the recorded rembetika tunes became known as laiko tragoudi - disassciating it from it's "illegal" roots. A number of composers emerged at this time including Apostolos Kaldaras, Yiannis Papaiouanou, Georgos Mitsakis and Manolis Hiotes. And one of the greatest female rembetika singers, Sotira Bellou.

Rembeitka became popular again in the '50's and '60's but was less authentic although two outstanding composers were Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis. The best of Theodorakis work is the musix which he set to the poetry of Seferis, Elytes and Iannis Ritsos. (Last time I was in Greece Suzaki and I went to a concert at the Herodian where they were playing a tribute to Ritsos and Mistotakis was in the audience and came on stage to play one of his compositions. The audience adores him and the whole theatre began to sing and clap along with him. A thrilling moment!)

During the junta years in the '70's many rembtika clubs were closed down but revived in the '80's. The rembetika and laika performed last night was excellent: four bouzoukias, a keyboard, accordian and two soloists (male and female) The woman was especially magnificent with her throaty tremolo sining the "soul music" of Greece right from the depths of her heart.
The show lasted four hours, non-stop performance. By the end of the evening several men in the audience couldn't resist the urge to dance : the graceful dipping, swooping zeimbekikos
with it's whirling improvisations and the "Zorba dance", or sirtaki: a more stylized dance for two or three men or women linked arms on shoulders.

(Note: The folk dances of today derive from ritual dances of the past which were performed in Greek temples. Many are performed in a ciruclar formation because in ancient days dancers formed a circle in order to protect themselves from evil influences.)

There's more free shows coming up and next time I'll take my tape recorder along! I did get some good photos last night but wished I had taken along my little hand-held tape recorder as I'm sure it would have picked up the sounds clearly. The music was unforgettable!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

When I first started visiting Greece, and later when I lived here, I stayed in the Plaka, which is the old district just below the Acropolis. The name "Plaka" may be derived from the Albanian pliaka (old). It's part of the original old town which corresponds with the ancient deme of Kydathenaeion (and that's the name of the central street that runs through the plateia, Plaka Square.) In Turkish times much of this area was known as Gorgokikos. It's narrow lanes have steps rising up the slopes of the north side of the Acropolis hill to the little village of Anafiotika where the stone masons from the Island of Anafi settled. Most of Plaka is occupied by tavernas and tourist shops although now the grand old Neo Classical residences dating to the mid 19th B.C. re being restored and it's a prime location to live. I was lucky to have lived there while it was still inexpensive!

YesterdayI took a walk down memory lane, starting from Dinaz's apartment at the edge of Plaka, going up Vironos St. past #14 where I lived during the '80's in a cool, shady basement suite, sharing a courtyard with my lovely landlady and Roberto, my Argentian artist friend. Before that I had lived over in Koukaki on a tiny dead-end street called Iannatakis, with my African American friend Connie. When I returned after the summer of '84 I moved into this little suite where I lived until leaving Athens in '87. The street, Odos Vironos, is named after the poet George, Lord Byron. At the end of the street is the choregoi monument of Lysikrates. Lysikrates was a choregos who sponsored a choir of boys in a competition at the Theatre of Dionysos. Where the monument stands, and there used to be a milk shop where our gang of ex-pats hung out. It was known as the "Dirty Corner" because of the excavations around the monument, which have since been filled in.
This was once part of the Street of the Tripods. Odos Tripodon.

It was the custom of the victorious chorogoi (chorus sponsors) to dedicate to Dionysos the tripods which they had won in dramatic contest or choirs. These were either erected in the precincts of the Theatre of Dionysos which is just behind the Street ofTripods or on the street, which was specially appropriated to them. There is still a Tripodon St. which runs into Vironos, and also another street at this junction called Shelly St. after the poet Percy Byce Shelly who used to hang out with Byron on that corner.

The nomument is a round structure of Pentilic marble on a base with six Crinthian columns holding up a dome. At one time it was known as The Latnern of Demosthenes as it was believed the orater prepared his speeches while sitting inside it. During the 1800's the nonument was incorporated in the library of a French Capuchin convent. Byron, one of the many guests at the convent, is said to have used it as a study. He wrote part of Childe Harold here (1810-11)

Passing by the former "Dirty Corner" (the milk shop no longer exists and it's now quite a 'clean' corner) I couldn't help but recall the many daily dramas that took place there (of which sometimes I was the star). Every table would be occupied by ex-pats, strolling tourists or locals and there was alway some sort of scandal and much merriment. Often when I was on my way to lessons I'd have to skirt around here and detour the Plaka Square or someone would nab me along the way, inviting me to sit down for a krasi and chat and I'd never get to my destination. When I'd come home later in the evening, they'd all still be there, holding court in front of the monument, generally gathered around Roberto, the side-walk philosopher who provided hours of interesting discourse on life, often talking endlessly about his beloved Argentina, from which he was an exile.

Past this corner, I enter the Plaka tourist district, going down Adrianou St. with all the souvenier shops, until I reach the corner of Aeolou St. and Hadrian's Library. The Library covers a large area and is still being excavated and restored. The interior was laid out as a garden with the rooms around it, probably like those in the library at Alexandria, Egypt. Up Aeolou Street to familiar territory.

When I first started visiting Athens from 1978 until 1983 when I came back to live here, I always stayed in this part of the Plaka and spent my time in Monastiraki, especially at the Taverna Poulakis where I made a lot of friends including Giorgos who used to live in Anafiotkia, and Connie the African-American girl I later shared an apartment with. One of the same waiters, Ari, still works at the taverna next to Poulakis (which is closed now) and each time I'm here I go around for a meal and a visit.

My favorite hotel at the time was the funky old Hotel Tempi. It was a five-floor walk-up hotel that used to rent rooms out by the hour for those desiring a quick tryst, so there was always a lot of action. I'd lug my back-pack up the marble stairs to my room, which I usually only paid about $4 a night for or 500 drachmae. Once I had the 'pent-house' room on the roof. It was painted Pepto-Bismal pink and the walls had sole marks all over it with squished mosquitos. I liked that room though. From it I looked down on the street to the flower market in front of the Church. In those days, Aeolou St. was a busy thoroughfare but now it's all paved in a pedestrian mall. And much to my surprise, the old hotel has undergone a face-life and is quite spiffied up! I had to go back there today to take photos as I must put together a 'before and after' album. It's really quite incredible the improvements that haved been made in the city since the advent of the Olympics!

Aeolou is a shopping street, bustling with people and merchants hawking their wares. The tourists rarely venture forth here and for that reason it's more interesting to go there. Prices are moderate and there is no shortage of shops and entertaining sights to see. This is the 'real' Athens: a political protest by the National Bank with slogans broacast over a loudspeaker; a strolling group of gypsy musicians playing Latin music on clarinet, accordian, guitar and tamourine; the old hurdy-gurdy man in his yellow jacket and fedora cranking the handle on his antique laterna; a barefoot gypsy crone begging for alms.

The grand bazaar of Plaka runs off Aeolou St. Monastiraki is teaming with people (watch your purse here!), the narrow streets lined with tourist shops. Then, past Monastiraki Square where the Metro station is, there are miscellaneous shops and on weekends a huge Flea Market.
Today Patrick and I went from here up Adrianou St. - another shopping area. Here you can buy everything including the kitchen sink. I was fascinated by the pet shops with cages full of exotic birds (Cheeky's relatives were there!). We went up past the big Demokratika Agora Athena, the public market where there are aisles of fish and meat. The fish market has stalls displaying sea-food (fresh) of every species. The meat market has sanitary refrigerated display cases now. Back in the '80's there were sides of beef, whole skinned lambs and pigs and wild boar hanging on hooks. At night time, when the stalls closed, there are a couple of taverns and going to the "Meat Market" after midnight to enjoy a bowl of patsa (tripe soup) or souvlaki was a favorite place of our gang. People of all walks of life would appear there for late-night meals: from the raggle-taggle gypsies to women in expensive furs just come from the opera. I wonder if those tavernas still exist?

This is the Athens that I have such fond memories of and going back there brings to life all those long-forgotten stories which one of these days I really must write down. Athens is changing but somehow I doubt these parts of town will although I must admit the improvements have made everything look smart and appealing. (not trendy, for 'trendy' you go up to the expensive shopping areas of Kolonaki where the wealthier folk hang out.) This is Athens, the Athens I will always remember!


"Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild;
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olive ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honey'd wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain-air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Medeli's marbles glare:
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair."

George, Lord Byron - from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

VIEWS FROM THE BALCONY

This week I'm staying with my friend Dinaz in her big apartment in Plaka overlooking Dionysios Areopagitou, the pedestrian walk-way that skirts the Acropolis. I've known Dinaz since 1993. She's Parsi, from Bombay and was married to a Greek-Italian also from Bombay. She has a son, Andreas, who is now in his early 20's, and a part-time Norwegian husband who comes and goes but doesn't live here. From the first moment we met I knew she was the composite of my Persian princess, Drypetis from my novel and from that time on she was known by her friends here as "The Persian Princess". She lives in this enormous apartment on the edge of Plaka, actually house-size, full of elegant antique furniture she inherited from her father-in-law who used to be a sea captain, so the furnishings are mostly Oriental style. She works in tourism, a slave job, currently 12 hr days, 12 days with no break. Yesterday she said the boss brought in a priest to bless the office (which is a basement office) as he felt sorry for the staff. Economy is bad here and tourism is down, so jobs are at a minimum and she must work hard to make a living. (I might add that the pay is poor too, no overtime or benefits.)

I have been spending a lot of time on Dinaz's balcony enjoying the wrap-around view and the pots of flowering hisbiscus and other plants. That's where I sit to do my writing, eat breakfast and dinner (with Dinaz) and read Steven Pressfield's excellent, amazing book "Gates of Fire", about the Spartans. There are magnificent views from the balcony as well as the busy life that goes on down on the street below.

Looking east is a view of Mt. Hymmetos, and close by you can see the tall pillars of the Olympeion, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was the largest temple in Greece. It ook 700 years to complete and was considered to be a 'great victory of time' and 'the only temple on earth of a size adequate to the greatness of the god."

Behind it you can see the Stadium which occupies a natural valley between two hills. It was originally constructed in 330 BC for contests of Panathenaic Festivals. During Hadrian's time it was used for the baiting of wild beasts by gladiators. The stadium was reseated in marble by Herod Atticus for the Games of AD 144 and was completely restored in 1895 for the revival of the Olympic Games. (The Stadium was used for some events in the 2004 Olympics).

The wide pedestrian walk, Odos Dionyssiou Areopagitou, was named after St. Paul's first convert, Dionysius the Areopagite. It runs along from Syngrou Ave. skirting the Acropolis in a paved walkway to Thisseon. Looking west, up the Areopatigou, just one block away is the Acroppolis, Theatre of Dionysos and the Theatre of Herod Atticus (Herodian) and from Dinaz's rooftop there is a perfect view of the Parthenon. Adjacent from the corner of Odos Vironos (where I used to live) and Makgrianni St. is a building built in the 1800's that was once a military hospital but during the junta was used by military police for interrogations and torture. It was restored to its original Neo Classical elegance in the early '90's and now houses offices and a display museum for the Acropolis. The grounds have been excavated for the building of the new museum. Little progress has been made as each time they dig new artifacts are uncovered which must be examined by the archaeologists. They have expropriated shops and apartment blocks along the abutting streets including our favorite taverna "Socrates Prison" and several buildings on Hatzichristou St. across from the To Kati Allo. Our friend Graham's apartment is due to go down so he had only recently bought a new one in Stira on the island of Evvia and had looked forward to a relaxing and pleasant new life on the island, when he was tragically taken ill and suddenly passed away last March.

Farther down the road is the Hill of Muses (now called Philoppapou) and atop it is the monument in honour of C. Julius Antiochus Philoppapou, a prince of Comagene (Northern Syria) who was a benefactor of the city. The view from the top of this hill is on a level with the Parthenon. This was the site of the infamous "One Full Moon Night In Athens" story I wrote about our full moon picnic a few years ago which was interrupted because Anna Britt unknowinly ingested some ouzo containing a date-rape drug offered to her by a weird character we had invited to join us, and had to be carried off the hill and rushed to a hospital. (I can't look up there now without rememering that night!)

As I sit on the balcony my mind is full of memories. I think often of our good friends who have left us, whose spirits still haunt the Plaka and especially appear on Hatzichristou Street at the To Kati Alo Taverna where we spent so many pleasant hours talking over carafes of krasi.

Dinaz's apartment contains these memories too. Our much loved friends Graham and Roberto spent a lot of time there. Dinaz was their little angel who tended both of them when they were hospitalized. On the walls are their photographs and some of Robbie's paintings (his favorite subjects were the mangas (mafioso) and putanas (laides of the night).

As I sit looking out over the familiar views, I remember my life here, and fell I am still (and always will be ) a part of it. If I could I would spend half my time here, but economicially that's no longer possible because since the Euro and more recently the Olympics, Greece has become very expensive. But my heart will always b e here so long as I live, because Athens is my city just as mch as Vancouver is.

Zoe mou, sas agapo (My life, You I love)

"Remind me not, remind me not
of those beloved, those vanished hours,
When all my soul was given to thee;
Hours that may never be forgot,
Till time unnerves our vital powers,
And then I shall cease to be."
George, Lord Byron.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH FIELD TRIP

Let me take you on one of my archaeological research trips. Today (Tuesday) I went back to the Agora to check out setting details for the last chapter segments of my novel. I had realized the day Ingrid and I were there that I'd made some errors, so I wanted to correct them. My main focus was to locate the Bouletarian and the other civic buildings in the agora and to locate the Hill of Muses and Hill of the Nymphs to check out details and views from those locations.

The Agora ("assembly') was the place where the citizens of Athens met daily in the open air for all purposes of community life. It was a venue for the transactions of business and discussions of philosophy as well as the scene of athletic displays and dramatic competitions. Here traders rubbed shoulders with administrators, citizens with slaves.

I've visited the Agora scores of times since my very first trip to Greece almost 27 years ago. On that first day I left my hotel Tempi on Aeolou Street and let my feet take me where they would. I landed in the Agora, and had an instant deja vu moment when it seemed I could "see" it all as it had once been. It was such an overwhelming vision I burst into tears. Since the I have returned there often and each time I discover something new. Today I finally found the State Prison where Socrates was held!

I was in search of the old and new Bouletarions (which happen to be side-by-side) and also the Strategeion. These state administrative buildings figure in my novel, so I wanted to 'place' them correctly. The Bouleterion was where the Council of Athens met which included a 'presidential committee'. The Boule met here to prepare legislation for the Assembly.

The Strategeion was the headquarters of the ten elected generals (strategoi). These generals, one of each tribe, were elected every year. They were the supreme commanders of the army and navy and dominant magistrates in the political field. My characters, Phokion and Demetrios of Phaliron were both important strategoi of Athens and Phokion, who had been re-elected numerous times, was the leading military advisor of the city.

With the help of the "Blue Guide" which contains excellent historical details and maps, I easily located these buildings and noted the errors in setting I'd made, took photos to 'place' them in my mind for future reference. In my wanderings I also noted the House of Simon the Cobbler nearby, one of Socrate's hang-outs and I found the markings for the old road to Pireaus, which passes through the Melitedes Gate with Themostocles Walls on the right, and the south road leading to the Hill of Muses where Phokion would have walked to go to his home, passing through the South Gate. Up behind the Bouleterion, there was a new dig with some young archaeology students excavating a Geometric Period grave site.

I left the agora and walked back along through Monastiraki to Thission. Along the way I noted some new digs with more young archaeological students excavating. There's a beautiful cobbled pedestrian path all along this road which skirts the agora and Acropolis, passing below the Pnyx Hill. The Pnyx ("The Rocks") is a flat table of rock where the Assembly met. Here great statesmen, among them Themestocles, Pericles and Demosthenes held their audiences.

To the north of the Pnyx rises the Hill of the Nymphs. Now, on the top, stands the Observatory founded in 1842. There are traces of the Northern Long Wall nearby and a depression generally identified as the Barathron, the ancient Athenian place of execution.
Not far past this, with a spectacular view of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, are the tree-clad slopes of the Hill of Muses, a hill that through history has played a strategic role in the fortunes of Athens. Now, on its summit stands the monument of Philopappos (AD 114-116) honouring a Syrian prince who had a distinguished career as an Athenian citizens and Roman praetor. In this area are the remains of a large number of ancient dwellings, so this is where I have placed Phokion's house. This quarter was entirely within the city walls and close to the agora. Plutarch has an excellent description of Phokion's house which I have used in my novel.

It was a hot day and after all my exploring I went to the To Kati Allo for a lunch of souvlaki and lemonade. I really missed Graham today when I went there as I found myself sitting in the seat he used to occupy. I was the only one there and Anna was glad to see me. She must miss her faithful customer too. Afterwards I went home for a long nap.

I want to try and spend a part of each day now writing notes for "Shadow" so that this summer I can try to complete it. My friends here are urging me on, and also encouraging me to write my "Life Under the Acropolis" stories. There are so many of them to record and I hope the memories haven't faded, although some of the details have and now my main source (Roberto) is gone. Hopefully though my collection of journals and letters will provide the missing details.

It's nice to be back into the 'zoe' (life) just like when I lived here. I am enjoying my stay at Dinaz's place and as she is working 12 hours days I am pleased to make dinner for her each night. Tomorrow evening Patrick arrives from his Central American adventures so for a few days there will be some excitement again and perhaps a few small field trips. Otherwise, I 'll be here writing away on the balcony.