Shopping list

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Selling fruit in the park

In many ways, food shopping on Lesvos throws me back to how it was in the England of my childhood, but it doesn’t ignore the modern world. The biggest Lidl in Europe is just outside the refugee camp at Kara Tepe, rather giving the lie to the idea that there is no financial dividend to housing refugees. Lidl is too far away for me, however, so I asked if there was a nearby supermarket. “Oh yes,” I was told, “a large one, just around the corner.”  Not large, as it happened, but close.  It reminds me of the Co-op we used in Beirut last year: same tired and dingy appearance, same two-storey set-up, same narrow aisles, same miniscule check-out counters, same stony-faced cashiers (though I am as determined as I was last year to make them crack a smile.)  And it has everything I need, including a separate butchery, cheese, and olive counter.

But I also use when I can the individual shops, reminiscent of my youth: the butchers, fishmongers, cheese-shops, greengrocers.  A bakery every fifty yards or so too, though, as in France, the bread is wonderfully fresh and crunchy first thing, much less so by the evening.

On a smaller scale, there are also the entrepreneurs: from the guys selling fresh produce from the back of a pick-up, to the pair pushing a supermarket trolley laden with boxes of vegetables round the restaurants, to the man with a cart of dried flowers and herbs, to the lady squatting on the pavement with a basket of tomatoes.

Like I say, it makes for an old-fashioned style of shopping, picking up what you need as you need it.  But that’s the modern way too.

Off the wall

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We went to the Hope Project today, a resource centre for refugees, based near Kara Tepe, one of the refugee camps on the island, a couple of miles out from Mytilini.  Since this also near the other projects I might be working at, and I need to know how to get there under my own steam, it also acted as a dummy run for the journey.  Luckily, it turned out to be very easy.

We were acting on a recommendation from one of the students at Gekko, and did not really know what to expect.  It turned out to be a set of three warehouses on a small industrial park, originally established by a man called Eric Kempson, an Englishman who has been involved with the refugee crisis from the very beginning, when hundreds, and then thousands of refugees turned up on the coast near his house on the north of the island. He showed us round the various warehouses: first an art studio where some 20 or so refugees were all working on their own paintings, sketches, whatever.  The walls were covered with art created by them and their predecessors: a vast array, all with different styles, sizes, forms, subject matter, and of a remarkable quality, worthy of gracing any professional gallery.  He showed us one piece, a large, collaborative piece, showing a modern Moses (in reality Eric’s wife) parting the waves, and allowing through a crowd of people.  This had already attracted great interest on Facebook, and is to be auctioned by Christies to raise money for the project.

Eric is an artist himself, but it was clear that he was equally proud of the other facilities on the site. The largest was a well-stocked resource centre, with equipment and sanitary goods available to those in need, but there was also a kitchen, a bakery, a woodwork shop, a sewing centre, and, about to open within weeks, a hairdressing and craft centre.  Awe-inspiring, and just plain inspiring.

On our return, we took pictures of some of the street art throughout Mytilini.  There is a lot there, some showing excellent technical expertise, and much witty and clever.  Far more ubiquitous, however, with examples covering just about every plain wall, shop shutter, street furniture, is street art’s ugly bastard cousin: graffiti. No wit here, but the sort of nasty, disfiguring vandalism produced by any idiot with a spray-can. It ranges from the political – smash Nazis – to the childishly obscene – “Boobs” is a particular favourite, but mostly it is badly scrawled Greek phrases.

It is the complete antithesis to the art we had seen in the morning.  In the struggle between the beautiful and the ugly, the talented and the talentless, the inspiring and the depressing, one just has to believe in hope.


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Today we took a day trip to Turkey (only six miles as the crow flies, but a two hour ferry trip along the coast to Küçükkuyu), then another hour by minibus to the famous city of Troy, or what remains of it. Our guide for the day, Aykut led us first round the museum: brand new, and an impressive building in its own right, a five-storey cube, clad in weathered, rusted steel.

After a pleasant lunch, we moved to the site of the excavated ruins of the city itself.  The entrance was dominated by a huge wooden horse, with steps leading up into its belly.  “I’ll bet the original didn’t have that,” I thought, which summed up Aykut’s message throughout: the collision of myth and reality.  Not just no steps, but no horse, not mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, and apparently a conflation of other, later myths, used as a propaganda exercise to strengthen Greek resolve when threatened by the Persians.  There was not one city of Troy, but nine, each built on the ruins of those that had gone before.  In the Trojan War, the Greeks were not Greek, and the Trojans not Trojan.  Biggest myth of all, used even in the city’s own early history (and the same explanation man has always used to explain the inexplicable): the walls of Troy were built by the Gods.

Modern history told of tragic errors.  A German archaeologist in the late 19th century was so determined to discover the “true” Troy that he dug a deep hole, and finding a layer which had suffered a cataclysmic fire, assumed that he had found his prize… even though he was actually 1,900 years too early.  They excavated a huge trench, thirty metres wide, ninety metres long, clearing everything above his Troy out of the way, and destroying tons of evidence.  He looted thousands of gold artefacts, which were sent back to the archaeological museum in Germany… and which were subsequently stolen by the USSR with the fall of Berlin.  Some of these were acquired by the USA (probably via light-fingered Russian soldiers who traded them at Checkpoint Charlie), and eight have now been re-acquired by Turkey, and are on display in the museum.

With impressive story-telling, building to a powerful climax, Aykut made the case for the vital historical importance of Troy as the cradle of Greek, Roman, even Western civilisation, and as such a place of pilgrimage, by Alexander, Julius Caesar, Augustus…  And though one might regard him as an unreliable narrator, with his own “historical” account suffused by myth, he told an amazing tale well.  Troy is a fascinating ruin, with a remarkable story.  Despite the the long journey, we were very pleased to have seen it.

On the road again

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Eating on the balcony of the Women’s Cooperative Restaurant, Petra

With Val here, and a two-day break from school, we decided to hire a car and explore the island, as well as take the chance of a trip to Troy in Turkey. Val stayed up late to do the research, and planned a route which zig-zagged across the island, taking in just about every tourist attraction going.  Having heard that the castle at Molivos was particularly special, I managed to persuade her to limit her ambition.  As a result, we enjoyed a far more relaxed and leisurely drive, taking in some gorgeous, heady, herbal scents along the way, and breaking for coffee and lunch before arriving at the hotel in Petra. Then we got back in the car for the short trip to the castle.  Which is where things started to go wrong.
It began at the very gates of the hotel. Our route in had taken us along a very narrow, fear-inducing lane, which might (or not) have been a one-way street. To play safe, we went the other way, turned a corner… and found the (even narrower) street blocked by a parked van. Nothing for it but to find a way to turn round. I was reversing,  slowly and carefully, into a side alley, back and forth, making a few inches headway each time. And then a guy on a motor-bike arrived. We were in his way; he got off.
“Avis?” he asked, and pointed at his chest. “Avis” was written on his T-shirt. (Now that, I thought, was service.) He indicated I should get out, and he took over. Leave it to the professional, I thought. My slow and careful manoeuvres were replaced by fast and, as it turned out, careless driving, as he backed into the wall; not hard, but enough.  He leapt out, we both examined the damage, and (with the universal symbol of a phone) he indicated he would sort it out, before leaping on his motor-bike and riding off.
Feeling somewhat chastened, we drove to the castle…to discover a padlocked front door and a sign saying Closed – only on Tuesdays, it turned out, but still. For once, it was Val who was steaming out of both ears. But we returned to the hotel, and a swim, a beer, and a cocktail managed to restore some personal equilibrium.  And then, following a recommendation from the hotel, we went to the Women’s Co-operative Restaurant for dinner.
It was one of those special meals that linger long in the memory: a balcony table overlooking the sunset over the Med, superb food, superb service.  All’s well, and all that: Shakespeare had it right (as ever.)

Election day

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Election day today; I had thought it would be the same here as back in England, but it seems we are more like India, with the election staggered across the EU (and at 500 million plus, almost as big.  It seems though, according to the map above, seen outside a currency exchange in Mytilini, Britain has already left.

I can only give the most superficial impression of the impact here, as without any knowledge of the language, I can only guess at the meaning of the posters and political literature.  There is a decidedly parochial feel, however.  There is apparently a large number of parties, and though some have shops acting as party offices, there are also impromptu ones: two garden sheds and a gazebo, set up on Sappho Square, as well as numerous tables set up on the pavement in various parts of the town, each with some plastic garden chairs around it, and a handful of party activists, their activity being chiefly checking their phones and stuffing leaflets into envelopes.  I am sure it is no different at home; it is just that the weather allows this to happen out in the sunshine, rather than in some dingy office.  I am sure I am misrepresenting the nature of the struggle, and that they represent a broad spectrum of strong political opinion; it just doesn’t look like that.

Not that the debate is always so cosy here; it can’t be with the refugee crisis literally on its doorstep, inevitably provoking a passionate reaction.  Just over a year ago, there was violence and bloodshed in the centre of this pretty tourist town.  Over the course of some two weeks, there was a march from the refugee camp at Moria (yes, really) to the centre of town to protest the conditions there, and the occupation of Sappho Square; a violent reaction, called a pogrom by some, by a crowd of right-wingers; and a subsequent response by antifa forces, resulting in a pitched battle.

Now, thankfully, Mytilini appears a quiet tourist centre once again, but that does not mean the tensions have gone away.

Concert party

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A couple of days ago, as I was passing one of the larger and grander cafes on the harbour front, I saw a bunch of posters advertising a concert.  It looked intriguing: a shaggy-bearded and rather elderly man at a keyboard. I imagined some Vangelis-like techno-pop, so asked inside where it was taking place, imagining a concert hall nearby.  “Here!” I was told, so I put my name down – “Chris” was enough, it seemed.

It was advertised to start at 10.30, so I turned up at 10 to bag a good seat.  I needn’t have bothered, as there was impressive organisation.  The whole place was laid-out cabaret-style, with tables and chairs around a low stage and dance floor, and each table laid out with bottles of water, crisps, nuts… and a small piece of paper with the names of the customers.  The guy on the door knew exactly where my seat was, which might have had something to do with me being English, and the only person on his own in the entire place.

I was sat at the bar, and right in front of the stage.  Which would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the large pillar right in the way.

Psarantonis was the name of the artist, and he is apparently very famous in Greece, though someone further removed from rock star chic it would be hard to imagine.  Not techno-pop either, but a sort of growly folk rock, a cross between Tom Waits and Seth Lakeman.  Check him out on You Tube, especially “Tigris” at the Passionkirche in Berlin.  That was four years ago, and though the beard is even more unkempt, I swear he is wearing exactly the same clothes.  It was an amazing concert, and his backing band, with an additional percussionist to the ones in the clip, were all pretty special too, all of them contributing vocal solos.

Adding to the entertainment value were members of the audience getting onto the dancefloor when the music inspired them to.  Chiefly, it was the sort of stepping circle dance one knows of from movies, but every so often one of them would break into the middle to execute some athletic, exhilarating moves.

The concert didn’t actually start until 11.30, and I bailed out at 2.15, when it was still going, but I almost wasn’t.  As someone from Better Days said, when I told them about it, “Welcome to Greece!”

Electric blue

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Mytilini in blue

Those who have been following this blog for some time – actually, anyone – might have noticed a deterioration in the quality of the technical input: no bursts of video, a distinctively blue tinge to the photos.  This is largely explained by the long distance nature of my technical support, ie my wife Val, back in England.  Nonetheless, I struggle on, though to be honest it is something of a miracle that the blog gets posted at all, given the dismal level of my technical knowledge (allied to a certain wilful, stubborn denial.)  I have arrived here armed with a scribbled idiot sheet, and mostly that does seem to do the job, but should anything slightly different be required – or, worse, should something go wrong – I am helpless (as well as hapless and hopeless.)  Val can and does supply some post-production editing, but some things just can’t be done remotely.

Like the camera, for example.  Why it should suddenly have decided to apply a blue wash to every shot, I have no idea.  I just have to hope that it’s because I have inadvertently pressed a button I ought not have pressed, rather than it actually being broken.  (Unlikely, I know – what sort of broken turns everything blue?)

There is another reason why the photography is not as interesting as it was at the beginning of the blog’s existence (ie Johannesburg).  The same policies regarding putting the faces of young refugees up on the internet apply here as did in Lebanon, and for the same good reasons.  Partly it is a matter of an individual’s rights to one’s own image, which should not be trampled upon by the photographer’s desire to add some cute local colour to their social media profile.  And partly it is a matter of genuine concerns regarding security, particularly when it applies to vulnerable young people.

Val arrives on Saturday, and with her a possible answer to technical problems (especially the blue tinge.)  It will also be good to see her, of course.

Food, and associated observations

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(Yes, I did think of naming this post “Food Glorious Food”, but decided that was a step too far.  Maybe I’m growing up.)

Apologies to those anticipating a paean to Greek food.  Not my favourite cuisine, I’m afraid, but it’s not as though I’ve really given it a chance; my first three meals here were burger, pizza and pasta (and none were very good.)  I’m prepared to be convinced, however, and did enjoy the various dips, salads and platters at Miki’s birthday meal.

Except when going there to watch the football, I tend to avoid the large cafes which ring the harbour.  My favourite two haunts are those that Joel (previous Better Days administrator) took me to when I visited in February.  The first is the Mousiko Kaferieio, though it did take me some time to find it again, as it has changed beyond recognition in the intervening months, the dark but cosy coffee house throwing open its doors to light and air with the approach of summer, and spilling out (as all the cafes here do) onto the pavement.  Absolutely my favourite place for breakfast.

The other is Pi (as in the Greek letter) close to Sappho Square on the harbourfront.  Joel told me that, during a pitched and bloody battle between local fascists and antifa sometime last year, (I am guessing not in the tourist season), it became an impromptu field hospital, and so earned his loyalty.  By osmosis, mine too.

I do like the way that all restaurants and cafes here present you with a glass of water as soon as you sit down, and often a plate of biscuits too (as opposed to the one that appears with coffee back home.)  Not that I eat them, in either place.  I also like the way the bill arrives with your order – taped to the table, or attached to a clothes peg, or scrunched up in a liqueur glass.

However, especially after that rather dispiriting first few days, I tend to cook and eat at home, and avoid sitting alone in the restaurant.  Student food mostly: spag bol, chili, scrambled egg.  All delicious.

Bits and pieces

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Some day I ought to put together a compilation tape (or playlist, I suppose) of all the songs I have used as titles for these posts.  Even though some (including this one) are not really songs.

I have decided to follow a familiar pattern, to break from the daily diary format at the weekend, and offer something more reflective.  No particular theme springs to mind as yet – certainly no observations on the refugee crisis – just a few random observations.  Hence bits and pieces.

It is one week since my arrival. Haven’t exactly hit the ground running so far as the work is concerned – I have taught just three lessons.  But it’s clear that my first task is to spread the word.  And there are signs of success, with some return customers, young people who have chosen to be with me, as opposed to simply stumbling into the lesson almost by accident.

Socially and culturally I am, inevitably, a little isolated, and spending a fair bit of time in my little apartment.  Which suits me very well; I have all I need to hand: beer in the fridge, wi-fi on tap, somewhere comfortable to sit and read (five novels devoured so far). And I prefer cooking and eating here, rather than sitting alone in a restaurant.

However, I am no hermit, and attended my first social occasion last night – a birthday meal in honour of Miki, fellow volunteer, Barcelonan, musician and all-round great guy.  It was a civilised, amiable and entirely enjoyable evening.

And this morning my first exploration of the local cultural landscape, with a hike up the hill to Mytilini Castle, the medieval ruins on the cliff overlooking the city.  I had the entire place to myself, and pottered around for an hour or two, the vaults and the water tank both proving quite astonishing.

A post-script.  The street on which I live is called Papanikoli.  If it isn’t a reference to Father Christmas, it certainly ought to be… and that’s the way I choose to think of it.

My little home

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This is my third year of writing this blog, and (inevitably, I suppose) I find the same old topics and subjects coming around each time – just in a different location.  One of these is the place where I am living, and on this trip I have my own mini-apartment.  A bed-sit, they used to be called, which is a cosy title, and really I am quite cosy here, with everything I need conveniently to hand.

This particular bed-sit is actually more of a granny flat, being a small annexe (perhaps once a garage) to a rather grander family home, belonging to a couple whose children have flown the nest, leaving them with space on their hands.  It is all arranged through Air B&B (which I know has its supporters and detractors).

The Eleftherios family have replaced their children with three cats and a dog (who also have their supporters and detractors) who roam the courtyard.  This does mean that my apartment can either have light (with the shutters open and the windows closed) or air (vice versa) but not both, or it gets the cats as well.

Having just been directed to the local supermarket, I celebrated last night by cooking spaghetti bolognese in my tiny kitchen. It was thoroughly delicious, and made a welcome change after the three frankly disappointing meals I had eaten in local restaurants. But I can only blame myself: if I will go to Greece and eat burger, pizza and pasta, what can I expect?

At present, I have no social life, at least until I get to know my fellow workers.  I tend to spend my evenings reading and listening to the BBC (both courtesy of my trusty iPad) and I am happy with this. I am sure my somewhat hermit-like existence will come to an end in time.