Greek theatre

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Mytilini’s ancient theatre is not easy to find, situated at the top of the largest of the hills which ring the town, with no direct route up, but I managed to make it even harder.  I had seen signs pointing to it down by the ferry terminal, so that was where I headed, but of course, they were intended for travel by car.  If I had looked at the map before setting out, I would have realised that the far more direct route was to head into town and then work my way up through the higgledy-piggledy maze of streets that lie above.  But I daresay the additional exercise did me good, and eventually, with the help of some local shopkeepers with very limited English, I found myself at the entrance to the site.  I was told the entrance fee was one euro, but when I proffered a five euro note, I was waved through.

It took me a few minutes to understand what I was looking at.  Many people will know the layout of a traditional Greek theatre: a half-circle of marble terraces (the theatron) looking down onto a flat circle (the orkestra) with a raised stage (the skene) behind.  Of these three components, at Mytilini only the orkestra is still entirely clear, having been excavated by archaeologists in 1958.  The terraces are covered in earth and grass, even a tree or two, and little remains of the skene or the tall building which would have stood behind it (presumably the large stones which lie around the site are what it was built of.)

Nonetheless, it is still possible to imagine an impressive site.  The orkestra is 24 metres across, and the terraces which stretched up away from it would have held about 15,000 people.  Apparently, it was so impressive that it became the model of the theatre at Pompeii.  One interesting, slightly more modern adaptation is that the Romans built a six foot high wall around the orkestra, replacing the first few rows.  As the high culture of Greek theatre gave way to low Roman spectacle, the audience needed to be protected from the wild animals used in such events.  An early and physical demonstration of dumbing-down.

I have been involved in theatre for virtually all of my adult life.  Coming to Greece for the first time gives me the chance to perform my own pilgrimage.  In that way, visiting the theatre at Mytilini is, I suppose, my own personal journey to the holy land, the roots of the culture that has threaded its way through my life.  But let’s not get too pompous about it.

Moving on up

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Working on the new fountain in the park

The only thing I know about the political situation in Greece is that economically they have been (and may remain) in a pretty bad way, and that the EU in general, and Germany in particular, have imposed a pretty austere budget in an attempt to get their economy under control.  My apologies if that is an oversimplification;  as I say, my knowledge is patchy at best.  I do know that Grexit was a thing before Brexit was.  Not that Grexit happened (but then, as yet, neither has Brexit.)

There is physical evidence of decline.  There are some areas of town with clusters of derelict shops, and plenty of abandoned factories in the industrial estates outside town.  On the other hand, the main shopping street looks pretty healthy, better than its British equivalent, though it probably isn’t fair to use a tourist town as an example; if there is one time people put aside their laptops and shop in actual shops, it is when they are on holiday.

There are also lots of large houses which at one time must have been magnificent, but which are now empty, derelict, and “beyond economic repair.”  But Mytilini is actually better off in this respect than other places I have seen which once had a proud history: Havana, Myanmar, Johannesburg.  The specific causes of decline are different in each case, but in each case it is sad to see the sorry state to which they have been reduced.

But there are also positive signs in Mytilini.  Modern shops on Ermou are undergoing rapid refurbishment, even in the short time I have been here.  And one particular project is the nearby park.  An elaborate guided pathway for the blind has just been laid, new decorative walls and flower-beds built, and a large central fountain is under construction.  The children’s playground is as yet in a sorry state, with broken slides and roundabouts, and for now it is surrounded by a high security fence (though I was amused to see one father helping his young children to scramble over.) A contractor told me the whole project would be complete in two months.  The cost? Nearly half a million euros.  Paid for by the EU.

 

Barber shop quartet

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I needed a haircut, so took myself to Vintage Cuts, a modern salon right next to the Mousiko café.  I had spotted another barbers’ in town, but it was small, dark and unprepossessing, tucked away down a side street, and I wasn’t sure I could even find it again.  Vintage Cuts, in comparison, was bright, modern, airy and stylish.  When I arrived, the barber was at work on another customer, so I waited and watched.

He was obviously both skilled and meticulous, taking great care and plenty of time to create a look that was too extreme for my taste, shaven at the sides and back, and a diminishing top-knot.  Meanwhile, a slim and very pretty young woman was working on another customer, a huge, overly muscled guy covered in tattoos.  She had put a rubber cap like a swimming cap on his head, and was teasing tufts of his hair through holes in it with something like a crochet hook.  He looked ridiculous, but I daren’t show my amusement.  Besides, I was getting rather nervous at what I had let myself in for. 

A motorbike roared up to immediately outside the shop, and another man came in; evidently another barber, for he was a slightly taller version of his colleague – same cut-off jeans and t-shirt, same stylish hair and beard.  Once he had deposited his helmet, washed his hands, and checked I was there for a haircut, he indicated that I should sit in a low chair next to a sink.  “Oh no,” I replied, “I’m not here to have my hair washed, just a haircut.”  “It is the system,” he replied, but by now I was in total panic, stammered my apologies, and fled.  I felt a complete fool, realised how ridiculous I must have appeared, even thought of seeking out the other barbers’. But once I had calmed myself, I resolved to return the next morning – I still needed a haircut.

The next day I tried to explain that at home, I went in, sat down, had my hair cut, paid, and left – five minutes.  They were all charming, and if they thought me a silly old fool (and they must) they didn’t show it.  I had my hair washed – “is better for me” he explained – by the young woman, which was extraordinarily pleasant, and once it had been dried, I was in the chair.  “A grade 4 all over,” I said.  He understood, but looked doubtful.  “I think, on top, yes, but here, and here…”  I decided to go with it; in for a cent, in for a euro.  “You’re the professional.”

And professional he undoubtedly was: careful, thorough, meticulous. He told me I was shaving my sideboards too short, snipped and clipped with dexterity.  Eventually I was ushered back to the sink, where the girl washed my hair – again! – and then he applied various gels and powders.  It was quite an experience, and cost me eight euros.

But when I left, I realised that though I had enjoyed the experience, I didn’t appreciate the result.  My hair was hard and stiff, my neck exposed.  It occurred to me that I had been given the haircut of my childhood, fifty years before: a short back and sides.  My dad would have approved…  but I am not my dad.

Commedia dell’arte

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In terms of seeing live theatre, Val and I went from the feast of South Africa, where we saw lots of wonderful productions, to the famine of Lebanon, where we saw nothing.  So when I saw a poster advertising a commedia dell’arte performance, I was very interested.  The poster was entirely written in Greek, except for just two words in English – Hope Project – so I knew where to discover further information.

I went with Jaime, a newly arrived volunteer from Madrid, here to teach English, and arriving at the Hope Project we discovered a stage set up in front of the warehouse.  Since we were punctual, and the cast and audience were operating under Greek time, it was easy to claim a prime spot, and we took our seats in the second row.

For the benefit of those who do not know anything about commedia dell’arte, it is a theatrical style and tradition which began in Italy, played by companies of travelling players, and has been an important influence upon theatre since the 16th century.  It has a number of characteristic aspects – largely based upon improvisation, it features traditional costumes and distinctive, caricatured half-masks, and includes music and acrobatic movement.  It also includes famous stock characters, such as Punchinello and Arlecchino, which are the originals of Mr Punch and Harlequin.  Despite knowing all of this in theory, it was the first time I had ever seen it in action.

I loved the beginning, a mimed prologue which involved a pair of bumbling fools stealing some sacred bones from a church, and I laughed lots.  From then on, I did not enjoy it anything like as much as I thought I would.  It is hard to pin down why.  The live band was excellent; the costumes and masks were authentic, colourful and most effective; the players were skilled, acrobatic, energetic, and with all of the required exaggeration.  I think the real problem was that there was also a great deal of language, and apart from some occasional (and welcome) modern references in English, it was all in Greek and really quite hard going.  Of course, I am not suggesting that the performance should have been tailored to the very small number of English speakers in the audience, but although there was some laughter from the audience at some of the references, I think there ought to have been more.  There was much to enjoy, but the scenes did seem to go on more than they needed to.

I am pleased to have had such a unique opportunity, but it did remind me of the advice that it is better to leave the audience wanting more, rather than hoping it had been just a little bit shorter.

Cafe culture

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Alea cafe

Neither Val nor I have ever been much for the lazy, take it easy sort of holiday, where one spends the morning relaxing over a leisurely breakfast, and the rest of the day strolling, reading, lazing in the sun  and plotting where to go for dinner.  We are both too driven, with too low a boredom threshold, for any of that. (And I still recall the look of incredulity on my sister-in-law’s face when, joining her for a few day’s holiday in Spain, I told her that this was the first time I had ever spent time lounging on one of those pool inflatables with a holder for your beer.)  But having said all that, I am rather enjoying that sort of lifestyle here… though only on the condition that, for the rest of the time, I have plenty of work to do.

And there are plenty of places to sample such a way of life.  I have never seen a town with so many places to sit and while away the time, all of them spilling out onto the street, and most of them with plenty of customers.  If Mytilini is overstocked with taxis (and bakeries, butchers, fishmongers…) that goes ten times over for cafes and bars.  I am something of a creature of habit, but do now spread my custom over a wider range of establishments – morning coffee at Alea in the nearby park, refreshing iced lemonade with mint at Frames in the middle of town, Diavolos for beer and backgammon on the fashionable side of the harbour, the unnamed bar on the unfashionable side where I have beer and nuts while watching the football.

Everywhere has free wifi (and a stronger signal than I get at my apartment, so I often take advantage of it to write something, read the Guardian, catch up on correspondence.)  Because, provided you buy something when you arrive, you can pretty much stay for as long as you want.  You know, I could get used to this sort of life… though I am also looking forward to getting back to the very different attractions of home.

Country comfort

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Because of a booking hiccup, there are these three days in the middle of my stay when my apartment has been rented out to someone else.  However, Tassos offered me the use of his summer retreat, some 10 kms up the coast.  Apart from the hassle of having to empty the place, it seemed a good opportunity to get away from town for a long weekend. (Not that I had any choice.)

 In many ways, I have fallen on my feet.  The house is in Tassos’s own vineyard; just fifty yards away is his own private beach, on the shore of the Mediterranean.  Though beach is overstating it.  It’s a narrow strip of land covered in dried seaweed, but it does mean I can walk through the garden in my swimming  trunks and go straight in to the water.

Which I did on my first morning, having arrived the evening before.  Warm water, easy access… and very dull.  Within ten minutes I was done.  The narrow shore does also give access to the local resort and café-bar, however, and later I strolled along there for lunch.  About a ten minute walk on the same springy seaweed, but with a distressing amount of plastic debris, a couple of dead seagulls, and a nasty rusting wire fence to negotiate right at the end.

The house is perfectly comfortable, but it is a throwback to another time.  It is full of stuff: shells and plastic fruit and painted stones and old cassette players and little model houses and things made of pine cones and acorns and model cars made of wood and every sort of tourist knick-knack.  There is a modern(ish) kitchen, and when we arrived Tassos had to unload masses of plates from the dishwasher, as he had hosted a dozen of his friends the day before.  He tells me he comes here every day, and in the summer stays for weeks at a time, which must be a wrench for him when it is rented out.  Like now.

There are wide terraces on all sides, each with its own comfortable seating area: cane furniture with big cushions, big tables for outdoor meals, perfect for sitting and eating and drinking and enjoying the company of your friends. For me, who is actually an indoors person, it is a little claustrophobic, and also a little lonely.  I shall not be sorry to get back to Mytilini, get back to my cosy little apartment, get back to work.

Greek time

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I have always been a bit of a stickler for punctuality.  It is one of the things I have inherited from my mother (nurture not nature; I don’t suppose there is a punctuality gene).  She would always want to be at anything with a declared start time with plenty of time to spare, and would declare that she was quite happy to “sit and wait”.  This has occasionally caused a slight strain in my relationship with Val, for she takes after her mother.  I still remember the frantic rushing about in their family home on a Sunday morning, desperate to fit in one more chore before rushing to church.  And Val is still the same, squeezing every second out of the time before leaving, while I stand by the door, tapping my foot and looking anxiously at my watch.

So, as you can imagine, I am not at all relaxed with what is called Greek time, a laid-back (to the point of horizontal) approach to time-keeping.  The Psarantonis concert, advertised to start at 10.30, began at 11.30 (and needless to say I was there at 10.)  The dance performance was half an hour late.  And I have never yet attended a social event here that began even close to its announced start.

This affects even something as precise as a school timetable.  My lesson supposedly runs from 2 till 4, but then I have to wait for the Safe Zone kids to arrive, and others roll in some time after them.  So when I am asked what time my own lesson begins, I don’t know how to answer, which truth to tell.  So I shrug my shoulders, and offer a range of times with a questioning tone of voice.  Which means I too contribute to the idea that it doesn’t really matter.

I know, I know.  I am just an uptight Englishman who wants the world to run to a timetable.  And if I lived here long enough, I daresay I would become more relaxed about the whole thing, would know just how late to turn up so as not to miss the beginning, would automatically build in just the right amount of leeway.  But still…!

Punctuality: the politeness of kings.  Just not Greek kings, obviously.

Reigning cats and dogs

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This is a picture of Rosa, who lives here.  Normally, I am not a dog person (someone who likes dogs, rather than a curious hybrid) but I have become quite fond of Rosa.  She is friendly, and comes to say hello when I come in to the courtyard, but she doesn’t jump up, and rarely barks, except when other dogs are about.  There are also two resident cats, who are actually more annoying, in that they prevent me from having my window open, and from eating outside, as they have to be fended off.

Both dogs and cats are extraordinarily prevalent here.  Small dogs in particular are popular pets, and making sure you aren’t tripped up by their leads does add one extra peril to navigating the streets.  I have even seen two dogs on motorbikes (with their owners.)  But there are also loads of strays, which wander freely, though it doesn’t appear to bother people.  But as dogs do what dogs do, you have to be careful where you tread.  They seem relatively benign, and don’t form the dangerous packs which make some cities so unpleasant.  On the other hand, there are apparently some more aggressive ones which live near the castle, and one of the volunteers did get bitten recently, necessitating a tetanus jab and course of antibiotics.

But if it’s the dogs who rule the day, as soon as the sun goes down it’s the time of the cats.  They emerge from somewhere, their eyes gleaming, with anything from six to a dozen prowling the open spaces: schoolyards, the old mosque, corners of the various parks.  And they are easy to pet.  I am writing this while sitting in the garden at Ecohub, and three tiny kittens are doing their very best to clamber onto my lap.  They are just a couple of weeks old, but already their cuteness factor is marred by the fact that they are scabby and flea-bitten.  Despite having looked after Tom for seventeen years, I’m not really a cat person either.

Ham-ambling

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In the old hammam

Took me a while to come up with a title for this post: rambling, wandering, wombling?  None seemed right, conjuring Clare Balding, Lee Marvin, Wimbledon Common.  Anyway…

This being Saturday, nothing specific to do, beyond getting a passport photo – the authorities are cracking down on volunteers and NGOs, with roadside spot checks on the former, and warnings of large fines on the latter, so we all need official passes on lanyards.  That done, I set off on a stroll along Ermou, the narrow shopping street which connects my house with the harbour, the school, the town.

It took me past a ruined 19th century mosque and, close nearby, an old Turkish hammam, or bath-house.  Not a ruin, but not working either, just a series of empty rooms, with a few old photos on easels. It cost me two euros to enter what must be the emptiest museum I have ever seen, but the nice man on the door did take my photo.

Continuing along Ermou, I passed To Kastro, the restaurant where some other volunteers and I had had an excellent but ridiculously cheap meal last night, and where the owner George had performed some astonishing close magic right at our table. And a few paces beyond that, and suddenly I was at the sea!  My good friend Joe the London taxi driver, sadly no longer with us, had told me that the secret to knowing a city was getting to know one place, getting to know another place, and then joining them up!  After four weeks in Mytilini, that was what I was starting to do.

I knew that the castle at Mytilini had once stood on an island with a narrow channel dividing it from the mainland.  A helpful sign on some nearby ruins confirmed that the path of that channel was now… Ermou!  Every day, I walked along an ancient waterway, which had silted up and become Mytilini’s main shopping street, (though obviously it had taken rather longer for that to happen.)

Let’s dance

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I was handed a flyer today, which turned out to be for a performance of traditional dance on tonight in the big municipal theatre next to the harbour. Since I was keen to look inside, I decided to give it a whirl (so to speak).  It turned out to be an impressive place, with a massive marble-floored foyer and a modern auditorium.  But it was as well that I arrived on time, for the place was filling up fast (and before long was absolutely rammed full.) The organisers clearly understood one basic principle of guaranteeing a big audience, which is to have a huge cast.  It was a showcase given by a local drama teacher, and clearly she is very popular, for there were about five different troupes performing.

It began with the obligatory children’s group.  It started off promisingly, with a group of about five small boys in traditional dress one side of the stage, kicking around a piece of cloth wrapped in elastic bands – presumably a traditional game rather than lads who couldn’t afford a football – while on the other side a group of about ten small girls in traditional dress skipped about a bit.  They then formed into two facing lines who marched back and forth across the stage for rather longer than was interesting.

When the adults took over, the technique improved, but it soon became clear there were some structural problems.  For one thing, a basic pattern of many of the dances was people dancing in a circle, which isn’t the most audience friendly of arrangements.  Secondly, what you saw at the beginning of each dance was what you got all the way through (and again, for rather too long.)  And third, which is not uncommon with such community events, the same gender imbalance which affected the children applied to every group.  One of the troupes varied things with a sort of waltz at one point, which left about a third standing around the outside.

It did tend to be a bit samey.  One group of men injected a bit of morris-like cheerful vulgarity by putting on headscarves and doing a pastiche of a women’s dance (and one bloke even produced a pair of handkerchiefs.)  And there were some half-hearted attempts to inject a bit of drama: at one point they all gathered round an old radio and listened to some crackly broadcast, after which they hugged and the men left to go to war.  Except there was only one who would have been young enough to enlist.  Unless it was a sort of Greek Dad’s Army (complete with a Greek Private Pike.)  This did lead to one of my favourite moments where the compere recited something emotional while a man in WW2 uniform sat next to her wrote a letter… with a quill.  It was hard not to giggle.

You would think from this that Greek dancing is absolutely uncool and on the way out… except that it isn’t.  At the folk rock concert the other night there were loads of young people desperate to get up and dance, and they did so with enthusiasm and energy and athleticism.  I did enjoy it, despite everything – the costumes were nice, there was live music and it was great to see so many people involved in a community event.  So – nice, but not exciting.