Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Link to temporary blog...

While with the Rotary Team in Greece, we will be blogging in joint at

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Warmth of a Smile and a Fountain Full of Lions

We were met at the port in Heraklion at 7 in the morning by Anna, whose ready laugh and humor set the tone for our stay in Crete: This was to be an incredibly different experience from Athens in that Anna was determined we were to slow down, laugh, see what there was to see but – above all – never hurry.
We were settled into suites provided at Anna’s Kalimerna Village Hotel in Piscopiano just outside Heraklion to rest until a late lunch.

TJ and I unpacked in what turned out to be our little house with a living room, bathroom, kitchen and two bedrooms and I had the chance to open my violin case and play a bit to relax; this last resulted in Anna’s directive to bring the violin to the evening’s Rotary club meeting.

The meeting was to take place at a hotel in Heraklion owned by the very chic Maria, but before the hotel we stopped by a salon owned by the club president, Giannis, where we were given gifts and the girls were left to have their hair done. (This is also where we met another gorgeous soul: Fo-fo.)

While the girls were being pampered, Anna took Tj and I for a walk in the center of Heraklion. My first impression of the city was one of magic, laughter and soft lights off of incredible window displays, music drifting from full cafes, the saffron-and-purple lit lion fountain in the central square and, as ever in Crete, the laughter and enthusiasm of Anna.

Once we had collected the girls we went to the Rotary meeting in the rooftop restaurant of Maria’s hotel. There was more Greek than English available in the room, but we never for a moment felt out of place or anything but very welcome.

The club secretary, Sophia, translated our presentation for us and after a wonderful dinner (which was made a lot of fun by Voula’s conversation) we heard wonderful young musicians from the school of Ms. Marianne play flute and classical guitar and I played a piece improvised for that evening on my violin. After many, many, manymanymanymanymany photographs and much laughter we went home – in one afternoon of Anna’s hospitality it began to feel like home – to Piscopiano for a night’s sleep.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Honey, Love and Faith

In the morning we visited Attiki Honey to find out how the company not only packages honey, but also creates three distinct blends of honey as well as coaching the apiaries from which they buy honey in the best techniques to produce the best product.
We then visited a place called Margarita:

Margarita was founded in 1978 by a mother whose daughter was challenged by Downs Syndrome. Only hall the school’s funding is subsidized by the state; the rest of the funding must be raised through private donations and grants.

The school’s purpose is to assist mentally challenged individuals in finding jobs in the open market and learning basic life skills such as hygiene and simple meal preparation so that they can make the best possible lives for themselves with the most dignity possible.

Students enter at age 14 or 15 and though many only stay 5 or 6 years, some stay into their 40’s.

We met a good number of the students in our visit learning to weave, make copies, jewelry, cook, etc. One thing stood out to me: Wherever we went people who do not know how to lie lit up with appreciation for the people guiding us through this remarkable facility.

Meeting Katy, who has decided to learn Greek after growing up in Britain and only coming to Athens after losing her father and Murto whose day was complete in the simple action of giving some one else a hug and telling a portion of her day…these were incredible experiences illuminating the incalculable importance of providing a place in our world for people who do not know what it means to be bitter of grow old.

One of the original students of the school graduates this year at the age of 50.

The government funding for the school has been frozen because of the financial crisis currently shredding the economy of Greece and the staff has not been able to be paid since February of this year, but – yet – they are still here.

Upon leaving Margarita, we went to the mountain where much of the marble that graced the Acropolis and other monuments in ancient Greece was taken from. On the top of this revered mountain is a monastery of great age noted for its focus upon education – even when education of common people was forbidden. There is a secret school underground and under the “modern” church. The tiny chapel of St. Stephen, also underground, was the site of many generations of marriages and christenings.

We board a night boat to Crete after dinner…

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sweets and Smalti

We had separate vocational visits today and my first was immediately after coffee with Dora. We left the house and she drove me to a bakery (Top Bakery, to be specific) near home in Kiffisia where I was to put in my morning. While waiting for Dimitri, the owner, to arrive I had the chance to look about the shop and counted over 130 different baked products including varieties of breads, cakes, tarts, cookies, rusks, sandwiches, sweet and savory pies as well as gelato and espresso.

Dimitri arrived and we had coffee as he explained to me that they make and sell something like 500 loaves each day aside from other goods. The bakery makes gelato in house and we discussed specific types including one called Kaimaki made with Sheep’s milk and mastic (a special substance whose production is unique to one Greek island - Xios - in all the world), thickened with salepi, frozen and topped with a “spoon sweet” of sour cherries. I am thinking this one might just show up at the Magic Bean when I get home.

Aside from learning to make phyllo dough and about 8 other things, I had a very interesting discussion with Dimitri about the economy in Greece and how it impacted his business; the intriguing thing was how similar the economic challenges to service businesses in Michigan and Greece seemed to be.

I was picked up from the bakery by a Rotarian contact and spirited to meet Maria and her daughter, Aggie, in another part of Athens where I was allowed to visit the studio of a mosaic artist working in the Byzantine style on a piece of the Madonna for a church commission.

It was incalculably useful to be able to see, smell, touch the various natural adhesives, stone and glass smalti and backing materials that were strange to me; the artist was enthusiastic to share what she knew and her book of pieces was very impressive.

Having a chocolate and a sandwich with Maria and her girls at a French-themed café next to a large church afterward was an amazing way to chat and end the scheduled part of the day before returning to Kiffisia to rest and get ready for dinner.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Layers of an Ancient Society

The morning started with the finding of a parking space near the city center so that we could visit the Presidential gardens, walk around the surrounding district of mansions and consulates and go to the Byzantine museum. The museum was interesting to me in particular for its collection of icons and wall paintings.
{photo of mosaic Madonna of Tenderness]

We filed out of the museum to make it to Constitution Square for the changing of the guard at Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The skirts of the guards contain 400 pleats: One for each year of Turkish occupation.

Next came a walk to end all walks: We went past temples, Hadrians’s gate and the stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held on our way to the New Acropolis Museum to meet our guide – the inimitable Dora with her wide grin, floppy hat and perfect English.

The museum was an incredible architectural experience: The glass floors and open spaces of the structure give the impression that floats above the architectural dig that gave the museum many of its objects.

The place of honor in the museum is reserved for what much of the world knows as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. These pieces were looted irrespective of structural damage to ancient temples and monuments and taken to England in the late 19th century/early 20th century where they remain today. Greek officials and academics have tried unsuccessfully through diplomatic means to engineer the return of these objects to where they belong: In Athens.

Initially, the British Museum and government claimed reluctance to return the pieces because the city of Athens had not a safe or suitable home prepared for such historically significant works of art. The current museum certainly resolves that issue without dispute. I sincerely hope one day to return to Athens to see the alarming number of plaster casts scattered through the phenomenal facility replaced with the originals pirated by a British collector about a century ago; it is time for the marbles to come home, regardless of the possible chaos it may cause in the world’s most famous museums. It is time to call theft what it is and make restitution.

The climb to the Acropolis itself was a bit tiring in the heat, but standing on the summit amid structures I had only read of and never thought I would see in person was a very moving experience and well worth the climb.

My favorite building was never the Parthenon; It was always the temple that belonged to both Poseidon and Athena, though it is said that Athena got the lion’s share of space because she gave the perfect gift to the ancient Athenians: An olive tree that once stood in the angle where the two sanctuaries met.

The olive tree was significant because it symbolized life, light and wealth through its oil and fruit. An olive tree was replanted in the same spot some years ago…I left the Acropolis to head to dinner and then to walk folk dances from all over Greece, but in my pocket were two dried olives and several leaves gathered from under the tree re-planted to commemorate Athena’s perfect gift.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Art, Golf and a Sunset

After a chatty breakfast with Dora we went to the studio of {insert name}, noted painter and sculptor. The light in the studio came mostly from one wall and fell on a forty-year accumulation of canvases, plaster busts and medals, mosaics and stained glass panels.
I loved that the abstract canvases – some very large – all had very harmonious colors but a strong sense of movement as if the swirling fragments might converge into something new if one only looked long enough. All of the artist’s human compositions in either plaster (later to become bronze) or in paint had a warmth I have not seen in portraiture in some time.

My favorite piece, though, was a small composition on paper – again a rapidly but quietly moving abstract – in an incredibly beautiful frame of leaves and cherubs ornately wrought in bronze. The artist rightly commented that the piece combined with its very contrasting frame became a separate work that neither could have achieved alone.

I create works in a variety of materials and it has often worried me that this was not sustainable; this studio and this artist have shown that not only is such variety sustainable, but that it can also help produce better works through interchange of disciplines.

[insert pic of studio, artist, busts, stained glass and piece in bronze frame)

After leaving the studio we were taken to the Athens Golf Club in Glyfada where we leatned that gold was a costly sport to maintain in Greece due to the water requirements involved in maintinaing a course. So far we have only heard of three courses in Greece. We learned to hit balls, strokes for long and short game as well as putting…though golf was never a favorite of mine, our coached made thigns simple and I had a good time.

Instead of a more formal meeting of the younger Rotary club of Athens, we had a lunch meeting at the gold clubhouse chatting sociably with those we had tootled around the course with earlier.

After lunch we bundled into a couple cars for an excursion to the Cape of Sounion (Maria had to return to work, Sevy joined us and I rode with Jimmy).

After sweeping around curves over hills and through valleys we drove up Cape Sounion to explore the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon at the top. It was an incredible fitting site for such a temple so that it’s god could accept his offerings and keep an eye on his watery kingdom at the same time. The site was also one of ancient tradgedy, we were told, when an ancient Greek king threw himself from the cliffs mistakenly thinking his son had gone to battle and been killed when in fact he had conquered and merely forgotten to change the color of his sail as agreed upon before leaving home.

The massive standing columns and seemingly random piles of colossal pieces of marble combined with the sunshine, wind and sparkle of the sea to make one of the most romantic sites of our trip so far.

[Photos of Temple]

On our way up to the temple we had driven past a group of abandoned buildings and I requested a stop on our way to the bay to explore a bit. The church was the most interesting to me because it was unlocked and most of the bits of paper and prayer cards left behind dated from 1969. It almost seemed as if the last prayers were offered and then the church was left to the howl of the wind and the sand swirling restlessly across the floor.

[photos of abandoned village and church]

The day’s activities closed with swimming in the bay below Sounion as the sun set. Had dinner at a lovely Taverne with Dora before crashing for the night.

[sunset at sounion photos)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Walking Glyfada

Waking up at the Glyfada Hotel there was just time for an espresso and a three-block walk to the beach (the color of the seas is this incredible blue-green) before meeting Olga and Kosmas for a walking tour of the shopping district of Glyfada. The pavements we walked on in a very short time had captured my attention (not hard to do): There were sections of white marble (most of the curbstones were also marble), red marble, granite cobble, polished granite interspersed with tile, pebbles and all were tied together with the crosshatched 16” colored and cast pavers.

We stopped for coffee (which is a typical mid-morning in Greece). In passing, Cappuccino Freddo is wonderful and will become a favorite of the team. After meeting our hosting District Governor and after deciding where we were to eat and were waiting for our meals we settled in for some chat on what we would be doing and where we would be going during our stay in Athens.

We had several dishes, but the lamb fricassee with a warm salad of chicory on top. A woman in black carrying a cardboard sign walked up to the café wanting money before shuffling off. Despite very slight translation issues we had an enlightening afternoon before being taken to our host families to rest and settled before heading to dinner at an Aesop-inspired cafe.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Flight to Greece

We boarded a plane at MBS bound fro Chicago after the weighing of bags and much debate over whether everyone had everything he or she should have to be equipped for a country none of us had ever visited.

The layover in Chicago seemed long, but the chance to stretch our legs before the longer portion of our journey would prove precious later and the airport was an enjoyable one to explore.

The Lufthansa flight to Munich was novel for a group that had become used to domestic American flying conditions in post 9/11 United States: We were greeted by copies of international papers to read in flight, hot towels for our faces, lap blankets, cocktails ranging from Dewar's and Capari & soda to beer and meals that were actual meals were all included as a part of our fare.

We settled each in our respective ways to read, journal or watch television (the latter chosen from a wide variety of programs available to us) as the the flight took us into the night and across the Atlantic Ocean to Munich before boarding a connecting flight into our first Greek home - Athens.

Met upon arrival by three of our new Greek Rotarian friends, we were taken to the Glyfada Hotel to rest before dinner and unpack. Our new friends and dinner itself were wonderful, so I will write of the separately as soon as time permits.