Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Midsummer Night Themes

Let Them Eat Cake (and Hear Music, and See Fences)

A week and a half ago, our neighborhood organization sponsored its second party of the summer, and of the last ten years, at the local basketball court. Actually, it co-sponsored the gathering, along with the recently expanded municipality of Chania, which has been paying musicians to appear at get-togethers in various neighborhoods, and has sponsored other free, family-oriented entertainments, for the first time in recent memory. When I expressed my surprise that the city government thought it could afford this, these days, one of our neighborhood association officers replied that it’s better for us to go out and enjoy ourselves, rather than listening to the news. After all, it’s not good news, but just more of the same ol’ same ol’ talk of austerity: budget cuts; reductions in salaries, benefits, welfare, and pensions; struggling and failing businesses; recession; and little realistic hope for economic growth any time soon. The news is actually getting worse: the government has temporarily (we hope) frozen spending on everything but salaries and pensions, meaning hospital and pharmacy suppliers (as well as others) will not be paid, and pharmacies will probably stop accepting our insurance and require that we pay in full  for medications--again. (And who knows if D’s “promised” research grant money will ever appear, so he can pay graduate students for the work they do.) In this bleak socioeconomic climate, there have been almost 500 racially motivated attacks against immigrants in Greece in just the past six months, according to the president of the Pakistani community, who is also the leader of the Migrant Workers’ Association in Greece (Migrants call for protection).

So, instead of prosecuting violent offenders or promoting economic growth, why not opiate the masses with some wine, cake, and tsikoudia—well, they can bring that themselves—or at least with some songs, violin, and laouto (a Cretan instrument that’s related to the lute)? Our smart neighborhood organizer decided to accept the city’s offer of co-sponsorship, partly to entice a city official to come see the pitiful state of our basketball court, with its aged hoops (no nets), and especially the many missing sections of fencing. This way, the official would be embarrassed enough to take action to fix up our long-neglected facility. Our wonderful organization officers—by far the best in the ten years I’ve been here—had already succeeded in convincing the authorities that we needed a safety railing on both sides of the bridge over the little gorge at the entrance to our neighborhood, rather than just on one side, and had managed to finish fencing in the playground and remove the most dangerous piece of dilapidated equipment. But for the basketball court fence we needed more help from the city’s bulldozers. I was astonished when I woke to the sound of machinery digging up overgrown brush around the basketball court, so new fencing could finally be installed. And a day or two before our party, I was amazed to see a properly fenced space. I think officials are working on the fence on the border between Turkey and Greece, too; they’re certainly letting fewer immigrants slip in there these days. Not that there are so many who want to enter Greece any more, unless they’re escaping from Syria.

Second Neighborhood Gathering of the Summer

A pastry company and a juice company had been convinced to donate orange juice and far more pastries than we needed (both sweet, and filled with mizithra cheese). Neighbors provided other drinks as well as homemade desserts, salty pies, pizzas, and popcorn. Our organization offered art supplies, so children could draw health-conscious and environmentalist pictures with the encouragement of our neighborhood kindergarten and art teachers. Supplied with whistles, older kids joined a little bikeathon to alert more neighbors to our gathering. They were ably led by the twelve year old who seems likely to be the next (or at least an eventual) president of our organization, since he demonstrates impressive organizational abilities: he labeled all the borrowed balcony chairs with letters and made a list of which letter corresponded to which family and address, so chairs could be properly returned after the party. His sixteen year old brother politely invited some newcomers at the adjoining playground to come to the party, switching to English once he realized they weren’t Greek. Later, he tried to teach me a Cretan dance, then sat and chatted with me a bit. Those boys give me hope for the future of Greece; they are good kids.

This neighborhood party featured an even wider range of ages than the first one: everyone from a 40 day old baby to great grandparents. And it seemed to emphasize the importance of family ties in Greece: at least in our neighborhood, it appears that when a young unmarried couple is expecting a baby, that couple is likely to marry and to live with parents or grandparents. We couldn’t amplify the music at our party much, because a grandmother had died two blocks away, and it would have been inconsiderate to disturb the pre-funeral vigil underway in her house. It was the two- to three-year-old girls who started dancing, with the encouragement of one mother; soon, a few grownups joined in, and I did my best to follow. When more adults tried another Cretan dance, and I figured out whose foot movements were easiest to watch and duplicate, I caught on well enough to earn a hug from a jovial neighbor. 

With the music fairly quiet, it was easy to catch up with neighbors I hadn’t talked to for some time, since we spend most days hidden away from the sun, and don’t seem to emerge in the same places or times most evenings. A kindergarten teacher is working at a fast-food franchise at the airport. A Dutch couple is happy enough here, and economically secure enough, that they don’t consider leaving Greece. An American and a Romanian have recently moved into our neighborhood, and the Romanian children are taking intensive Greek courses in preparation for entry into a Greek public school—but not the one closest to us, because that’s not the one that complies adequately with European law to offer supplementary classes for immigrant children who need additional help with the Greek language. A Greek homemaker is tired out from cooking for visiting family, caring for her three children, and commuting to “the village” to help her father, who’d broken his ankle. Most of us, for that matter, are tired, in all this heat and humidity.

In the Village and at the Exhibition:  Locals vs. Tourists

So many Greeks have family roots in a rural village, to which they return either regularly, bringing eggs and produce, or occasionally, for vacations, to help relatives, or to harvest olives. We visited some vacationing friends last weekend at their lovely old house in a traditional mountain village. The interior staircase smelled of rich old wood. Something about the house reminded me of my grandmother’s rural Kansas farm house, although the actual resemblance eludes me. No mountains or dark wood in that Kansas house, no grape stamping space outside to make wine the old way. We sat on a patio under an immense grapevine, enjoying some of its plump purple grapes (along with prickly pear cactus fruit, watermelon, and honeydew) between courses of sweets and more sweets.  Parents and grandmother sat and watched the children play in the cool evening air of the island’s mountains.

Why are so many of us who live near sea level so tired this summer—even those of us who are fortunate enough not to be street sweepers, ditch diggers, or dishwashers in hot taverna kitchens? I’m not sure if it’s because we can’t sleep in our hot houses at night, or because we spend evenings in the cooler outside air as much as possible—and as late as possible—becoming night owls who struggle to wake up to the bright sun of morning. The Greek sun has always struck me as far brighter than any sun I encountered in North America, or other parts of Europe I’ve visited—with the possible exception of the sun on bright white ski slopes. It’s the only sun that forces me to wear sunglasses, which I always resisted before I came here. And while our temperatures aren’t any hotter than many parts of the U. S.—usually not much more than the low to mid 90s—the strength of the sun combined with the humidity, plus the stark contrast between air conditioned stores and cars, and the heat of the outdoors and many homes, wears us out, and keeps us indoors until the sun disappears. So our neighborhood party was barely getting going at 7:30, when the sun was still a bit too high in the sky, and the 14th Exhibition of Cretan Products in the Western Moat next to the Old Port of Chania was still relatively quiet by 8:30 the next evening, but increasingly crowded as we left at 9:30. With our kids’ morning swimming lessons and other sports activities requiring us to get up earlier than we’d like, we’ve often been the first to leave an event. But now it’s sleepy August in Greece, and the activities are over, so we’ll give in to our inclination to stay out more at night and sleep late every day—even though that will make it harder to re-adapt to school hours in mid September.

Meanwhile, we pull our son away from the water at the port and try to prevent our kids from tasting every single food sample at the fifty or a hundred attractively arranged and well-staffed stalls of cheese, honey, herbs, pastries, wine, and raki at the Exhibition of Cretan Products. We wait in the long lines of extra traffic that tourists bring each summer, as motorcyclists use the double line in the center of the road as their own passing lane.  The Cretan economy certainly needs its tourists, but everyone who’s not directly dependent on tourism is extra annoyed by the delays in traffic that moves slowly between Chania and the beaches, traveling more uncertainly that we locals (ha—that’s me!), making sudden stops, stalls, and unsignaled turns, or hesitating at a snail’s pace before they figure out where to go. We do the same, naturally, when we’re on vacation in unfamiliar areas, but here I feel more solidarity with the Greek supermarket cashiers who bemoan the impossibility of getting into and out of Chania and feel worn out by the increased number of “foreign” shoppers, such as Athenians. I feel honored that I’m not one of the “foreigners” in that context, at least. At last.

Frangokastello:  Castle, Sand Dunes, and Clear Sea in Southern Crete

We took our turn as tourists last Saturday, visiting Frangokastello in southern Crete. We started with the 14th century Venetian castle, with its impressive towers and crenellated stone walls. This time, floors and stairs had been added inside one tower, which featured an art exhibit—folk art, embroidery, and photography—as well as striking views of the beach and mountains from its deep stone windows. Once we convinced the kids to conclude their exploration and ghostly games, we headed for the Orthi Ammos (Upright Sand) beach, with its huge dunes of the softest sand partly covered with greenery and merging with white cliffs in the distance. The beach features both pebbles and sand, and the sea, clear, clean, cold water. Schools of finger to foot-sized fish swim near large rocks, including some green, blue, yellow, and black striped beauties easily visible during  my first attempt at snorkeling in ages. The kids loved climbing up the immense dunes, running and rolling down them. Several families were camping, with their tents on the beach, but we left the beach just at dark to head home through the moonless night. D surprised me by stopping in the middle of nowhere, in silence and darkness, and under STARS—such stars as we hadn’t seen in years. We were all awed by a brilliant meteorite that shot over our heads for a thrilling instant. 

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