Greek life

Museum marathon

Having visitors is a great way to check off things to see in your city.  Erin, Demetri and I attacked Athens sites this week, logging some 70 miles on foot with good coffee and snacks and fun visits with cousins along the way.

The Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum are the obvious first site choices.  While Demetri has visited the museum many times, my first visit was this week.  I missed it in 2006 (not built yet) and then in ’11, ’14 and ’16 we opted not to do museums with tiny kids in tow.  But it was worth the wait: its collection and multi-media exhibits are  excellent.  And the Acropolis museum has a 5 for 1 ticket that gets you into several other sites and is good for 5 days.  As for the Parthenon and other sites on the Acropolis itself, everyone should go to the top and see it in person. While it’s visible from many points in the city and the night views (say, from a rooftop bar in Monasteraki) are definitely the best, there’s nothing like seeing the tree that Athena planted herself when the city was named for her.  Yeah, so not really but you still have to go see the tree and imagine Athena and Poseidon fighting over who should be the city protector.

The Museum of Cycladic Art is one of the newest museums in Athens and is located downtown in Kolonaki. Its benefactors are a couple who were sick and tired of all of the looting of antiquities on the islands. Naturally, its signature collection is ceramics, statues and other pieces from the Cycladic island group, but it has other prehistoric and ancient art, a great exhibit on Cyprus, and a temporary exhibit about coins and money.  Fun fact: the drachma, Greece’s currency before it adopted the euro in 2001, comes from an ancient word for ‘fistful.’   This may explain the exchange rate in the 1980s when two other little Fefes boys had hundreds of drachmas to buy $3 worth of ice cream. Fistful indeed.

The National Archaeological Museum, along with the Benaki and the Acropolis museum, rounds out the city’s top three.  Erin and I really enjoyed seeing the wall paintings and frescoes that were excavated from Akrotiri – some of which are in situ in a special exhibit in this museum.  The collection in this museum is so well laid out … from Neolithic to the Bronze Age to the Classical period and Byzantium, its collection is vast but somehow doesn’t feel overwhelming.  I think this museum is one that kids would like, especially with a guide who can tell the stories and myths behind all these nifty pieces. Aside from the Akrotiri frescoes, the museum’s best known pieces are two bronze statues – one of a horse with a jockey, the other of Poseidon, and the Antikythera Device, an ancient computer used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for the calendar, and it also tracked the ancient athletic games.

When Athens became part of the (relatively unified) eastern part of the Roman Empire/Byzantium, Roman influence invaded the city — but in a peaceful way, except for maybe the religion part. The Flavian Dynasty (famous for the Roman Colosseum) in particular left a nice mark on Athens with Hadrian’s Library and Hadrian’s Arch, two giant monuments right in the city center.  There’s also the Roman Agora, a mini-Forum. The Ancient Athenian Agora, which was established, built and added to way before the Romans set foot in Greece, is really impressive. There must be 30ish structures that are/were in place.  One building has been rebuilt to give a sense of what the market was like and has a great little museum, and on the opposite side, the Temple of Hephaestus is incredibly well preserved. The Agora is perfect for a walk — with or without kids.

The sleeper of the week, the National Historical Museum, is an absolutely lovely museum in the old Parliament Building on Stadiou Street.  It is more of a modern political and cultural historical museum and after visiting here, you get a much better sense of the Greek struggle under Turkish occupation. This museum had a terrific World War I exhibit with political cartoons from the early 1900s.  I wish I’d taken pictures of those illustrations; they were one of the best visuals I’ve seen of the power struggles in Europe for domination across the globe.

One of the most astonishing themes in visiting all these museums is how many antiquities have been made off with by other countries.  Lord Elgin ‘took’ two marble statues from the Parthenon for the British Museum.  A Delacroix sits in the Louvre that should be in the National Historical Museum.  Greek authorities confiscated paintings and statues from Germany and they have recovered countless things from the sea, in transit outside the Mediterranean. And then of course, there are the Turks.

And now for something completely different, it’s Spring Break as of 2:30 yesterday afternoon. Disney Paris, here we come.


Greek life, Travels

Independence Day and Nafplio

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, and for the next 400 years, Greece attempted several (unsuccessful) revolts. In 1814, a secret liberation organization was founded and made plans for several simultaneous revolts in four or five locations around the country. Planned for March 25, 1821, the revolution got started a little early as someone let slip to the Turks what was going on. As in any war, there were major, significant battles — Hydra, Navarino, Missolonghi — between 1821 and 1829. The Turks aligned with Egypt, who sent an enormous fleet to help defend Ottoman holdings. Greece was eventually aided by Britain, France and Russia — funds, fleets, soldiers. In fact, Lord Byron believed so devoutly in the Greek cause he came to fight and died in battle.

Fighting ended in 1829 and Greece was finally recognized as an independent nation via the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832.

That was a very brief summary of the most important event of modern Greek history. It’s been fascinating to learn about the Turkish oppression that led to revolution and see how it factors significantly into today’s national culture. It explains so much — at least we think so — about life and attitudes in Greece.  A country invaded and occupied by others makes for an incredible national spirit.

March 25 is Independence Day. We learned last week that the Education Ministry directs all schools to celebrate various national holidays and the 2018 programs were to be held Friday the 23rd. Michael had a role in Kessaris’ program: reading a stanza of a poem (in Greek of course) to the lower school. He crushed it — and Papou and Aunt Ernie were there to see it.

Our friends the Schumachers are visiting, so we planned a weekend with them (and Erin) in Nafplio, a beautiful city on the water in the Peloponnese, just across the Corinth canal. Nafplio was the capital of Greece before Athens, and it was an Ottoman stronghold in the war of independence.  It was first invaded and occupied in the 1600s by the Venetians and has a huge fortress on top of the hill. We spent hours climbing in and around various walls, trails and innards.  We even found the cell of Theodoros Kolkotronis, the pre-eminent leader of the war of independence.  The cell was awful: dark, stinky, not a smooth surface in the place.  Kolkotronis was convicted for treason; he was just one of many revolutionary heroes jailed and exiled post-war as enemies of the state.

On the 25th, there were parades and celebrations all over Greece with military marches and lots of people in traditional clothing. 25 March is also an important religious holiday: the feast of the Annunciation (Evangelismos). The celebration of the Virgin Mary is a joyful holy day and one of only two days during the 40-day Lenten fast that allows fish, oil and wine to be consumed. Palm Sunday is the other day; it’s next week.

Since the 15th century, the traditional food for this holiday is fried cod (tiganitos bakaliaros) with garlic sauce (skordalia).   Cod isn’t native to the Mediterranean sea, but it’s quite prolific in the North Atlantic and it can be cured, making it inexpensive and simple to preserve.  Skordalia is made from either potatoes or bread crumbs and it’s got lots of garlic in it.  It’s often served with beets or just with some bread.

We hugged the Schumachers goodbye as they headed to the rest of their vacation in the Peloponnese. We headed for Athens, blissfully unaware that the clock in the car had not been changed for daylight savings.


Greek life, Travels


Erin, my sister, arrived last Thursday for a two week visit that is going way too fast. Earlier this week we flew to Santorini, probably the most well-known island at the southernmost end of the Cyclades. Volcanic activity (massive eruptions every 20,000 years) began 1.5 million years ago; today the crater of the volcano is located under the sea.

The last eruption in the 17th century BC destroyed the flourishing city of Akrotiri. It appears the city was abandoned pre-eruption so the citizens must have had some warning of what was coming. Like Pompei, the volcanic material that covered the city has provided excellent protection from prehistoric times until now.

It is estimated that only 3% of the city has been excavated (3% of 20 hectacres, that is), and what has been explored is likely the city center, as evidenced by the density of the buildings, the paved streets, an extensive sewer network connected to the sanitary features in the houses (yep, indoor toilets in 1700 BC) and the outside animal stables. More evidence of Akrotiri’s sophisticated society are the many frescoes and paintings in the residential section of the city’s multi-story buildings. The paintings prove some commercial exchange with Syria and Egypt; and also with the Minoan settlements on Crete, 60 miles south and visible on a clear day.

Akrotiri is beyond impressive. There have been legends for years that Akrotiri is the lost city of Atlantis, but it’s never been proven. Artifacts from Akrotiri are housed in the Museum of Prehsitoric Thira on Santorini and in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

When Demetri and I visited Santorini in 2006, Akrotiri was closed because of a roof collapse and replacement.  Today, the site is housed with one roof; it provides ventilation and natural light and its inside temperatures allow tourists and archaeologists comfort even in the heat of the summer. The site has no energy-consuming mechanical support.

Santorini’s rich volcanic soil makes for excellent crops of tomatoes, fava beans and grapes.  Santorini wine was famous in ancient times all over the Mediterranean and remains a successful export even today.  Most of the grapes grown are white (assyrtiko is the most prolific), but there are a couple of varieties of red wines that are gaining popularity.  The island also has unique, cool beaches — red sand, black sand, plain ole tan sand and lots of rocks from which to jump.

Weather for us was excellent: sunny, mid-60s. We explored the whole island on foot and by car.  The villages of Thira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia all sit cliffside on the caldera with fantastic views of the volcano and the famous Santorini sunsets.  Even though it’s off-season, the island was busy with tourists. All the locals were busy prepping and primping for the summer crowds — the smell of fresh paint was everywhere.

Our trip to Santorini was actually the second trip Erin and I had. Her first weekend, we ferried to Hydra for one night that turned to two because high winds prevented the hydrofoils from running. An extra night in pretty little Hydra is an unexpected gift — we were able to visit the Archives museum and learn a lot about the role that Hydra and its citizens played in the Greek war of independence. It was a great introduction to the national Independence Day holiday on March 25.


Greek life


What is it about cousins just being instant pals?  It’s one of the marvels of the family unit in my opinion.  I didn’t grow up with a lot of cousins, and most of them are way younger than me, but when we visited each other, my siblings and I were always so excited and so happy to have them around.  It was like they were long lost best friends.

Demetri had the same dynamic.  He has four cousins that lived near him in New York — all considerably older than he and Michael were — and then he had cousins closer to his age in Greece.  He felt the same about them all.  He loved the older boys so much and when they would visit Greece, Thodoris and Anna were their best pals.  In fact, Anna took her first steps to Demetri at their house in Marathona.

Now that we’re all grown up, these cousins are our best friends here and with whom we most like to hang. But what I really love are the four kiddos: our two and Anna’s two. The dynamic is exactly the same as it was when Demetri was growing up: three boys and a girl, with the girl being the youngest.   And this ‘instant pal’ phenomenon was evident even when Michael and Giorgos were 4 years old and I realized that it didn’t matter that they didn’t speak the same language.  That trip, superheroes were the great cultural equalizer.  They would play at the house in Marathon, calling to each other in English and Greek, and Big Katerina (Anna’s mom, another cousin Demetri adores) would translate.  “We are on a mission!” “Let’s get the bad guys!”

The language barrier is getting noticeably smaller.  I hear Michael and George speaking Greek to each other when they compare soccer tags.  Peter, basically fluent at this point, runs around with Little Katerina calling and yelling to her.  And then sometimes they switch playmates.  George and Peter were riding scooters at the park together and talked to each other to coordinate what was next.   It’s so cute.  Living here has been awesome to connect the kids with their extended family — which was one of our hopes for our time in Greece.

This past weekend we spent all Saturday afternoon in the park with the 4 kids — Anna and me, that is, with special guest appearances by Katerina, Lampis and Thodoris.  Sunday we met a new friend, Rafael, at Vouliagmeni Beach and Thodoris and Mina came and met us for Sunday lunch and coffee. Next week for Sunday lunch, Aunt Ernie will be here.

Mina took the photo above. I love their happy faces.

Greek life

Culture Week

Greek culture is diverse, rich in tradition and defines the national spirit.  Culture itself — having it, that is — is incredibly important to Greek citizens. Many prominent Greeks, Stavros Niarchos, Aristotle Onassis, Melina Mercouri, The Benakis and Lalaounis families  to name a few, have founded and contributed to major philanthropic and educational efforts that bring Greek culture across the country and to other parts of the world. We have been stoked by the various ekdromis (excursions) that Kessaris school has for the children — from theaters and music to art and science expos, museums, olive groves and sea turtle refuges, Greeks want their children to embrace cultural activities and what makes Greece, Greece.

Demetri dubbed this first week of March, “culture week” in Athens.  Several of the museums in the city were free in honor of Melina Mercouri, one of the greatest women figures in 20th century Greece. She was an actress, activist, politician and stateswoman — often all at the same time.  Most famous for her role in the movie “Never on Sunday,” she was a vocal opponent to the military coup and the junta in the 70s, and was appointed the minister of culture in the early 80s. Mercouri is credited with supporting and helping to finish the Megaro Mousiki concert hall, organizing Greek art and cultural exhibitions on all five continents, and helping bring the modern Olympic games back to Athens. (She and others worked hard to get them here for 1996 – the 100th anniversary of the modern games, but that title went to Atlanta.  Athens hosted the Summer Olympics in ’04.) She also introduced free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens — an educational effort for the general population and especially children.

She died on 6 March 1994.  And for the last many years, museums and archaeological sites are free on this day or sometime this week. We went to the Benaki for free last week, in fact.  Last Sunday, March 4, entrance to the Acropolis was free, and though both boys have walked by, under and across many times, we realized they’d never been to the top. So off we went. It was a lovely Spring day and we walked and talked about the many myths about the Parthenon, the olive tree at the top, the various temples that used to stand there and how some brave youngsters climbed to the top in the middle of the night and replaced the Nazi flag with the Greek flag during World War II.  From there we walked down into Monasteraki and met Papou and Sandy for lunch outdoors.

This week we also visited Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery. The name comes from the greek word for pottery (like ceramic) and in ancient times was a community of vase painters and potters.  Some of this area was converted into a small cemetery which eventually grew into a large cemetery and a major ancient archaeological site.  There is a little museum on site that holds many burial artifacts from the excavations some of which date back to 2700 BC. It’s fascinating to see, just like art, how burials reflected the political evolution in Greece.  Places traditionally reserved for aristocrats were opened to ordinary citizens as democracy emerged. Historians learned a lot about Greek life and culture through the way people were buried.  It’s a nifty site that many tourists miss.  And – bonus – there were tons of turtles just hanging around.  It was awesome.

Next on our list was Plato’s Academy, a huge outdoor space in a now run-down Athens neighborhood.  Aristotle studied here before founding his own school.  It’s also on sacred ground for the goddess Athina, as her religious ‘cult’ was located here in ancient times. There’s a cool digital museum about Plato that looks like it’s made from storage containers — its design symbolizes the road to the light, and windows exist only in the entrance and exit of the building. Inside, you learn about Plato as a person, a philosopher, his travels and his writings. And there’s a copy of Demetri’s favorite painting of all time: Raphael’s “School of Athens.” The Academy grounds would be a perfect location for wellness retreats.  We pictured group yoga, horticultural therapy, meditation gardens and nature walks all year round.   Wonder how we can share this idea with the benefactor philanthropists from above?

And yes, the photo below of Papou and the kids is with a roasting lamb in the background.  It was boys night Saturday while the girls went to the movies.


Greek life

The Benaki Museum

The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is a jewel in the crown of Athens museums.  Located on Vassilis Sofia Avenue just up from  Syntagma Square and just down from the chic Kolonaki ‘hood, it’s a beautiful location with great views from the terrace.

The Benaki, as locals call it, is housed in the former Benakis (Μπενακησ) family home and is one of the most gorgeous neoclassical buildings in the city. It was converted to a museum to hold the art collection of Antonis Benakis and donated to the state by Antonis and his sisters around 1930. Named for their father, Emmanuel Benakis, the museum has a wonderful collection of items from ancient times to the 20th century.  Antonis worked hard until his death in 1954 to enrich the museum’s collection and to ensure its future financial security.

The collection is incredible.  The Greeks’ huge trade network and colonial expansion influenced life and culture as early as the 7th century BC.  Visits to the east (Phoenicia) added illustrations of sphynxes and griffins to their iconography.  Animals were added as well.  In the 5th century BC, when democracy began to emerge, various paintings (vases, cookware, etc) showed images of people … citizens.

One of the things we found fascinating is how the French revolution and its ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity inspired the Greek War of Independence.  This too is evident in various pieces.  And other, modern, masterpieces abound:  El Greco, Dionysos Solomos, and others. Plus costumes from various periods, parlor and salon recreations and a cool collection of Eleftherios Venizelos’ belongings in one corner of the museum, including a pair of his signature round glasses. Venizelos was prime minister of Greece eight times and is credited with being “the maker of modern Greece.” Emmanuel Benakis and Venizelos were close friends.

Post-revolution Greece saw a great deal of benefaction, a tradition that remains strong among Greek communities all over the word. The Benaki museum is a prime example of this.   Another interesting post-revolution outcome was the neoclassical movement — i.e., buildings like the Benaki were built all over the city, symbolic of the fresh start that Greece wanted so badly. Out with the oppressive Ottomans; in with the rebirth of Greece’s new capital city with an enlightened look and culture.  (Fun fact: as old and as important as Athens is, it was not the capital of Greece until after the revolution.  Michael loves to say “fun fact.”).

Neoclassical construction continued into the 1930s, but sadly World War II and the brutal German occupation, followed by the Greek civil war saw many of these buildings damaged and even torn down with the urbanization of Athens after the wars.

The nail in the coffin of neoclassic construction was legislation in the 50s that encouraged Athenians to hand over their family homes in exchange for multi-story, concrete apartments that would replace them.  There was so much migration from rural villages to Athens in the 60s and 70s that Athens and its suburbs became a kind of chaotic place that now holds about half of Greece’s entire population.

It’s sad to see these beautiful buildings downtown in such bad shape. While lots of these old mansions have been turned into museums, others just (barely) stand in state of disrepair.  There is an effort to preserve them, but the taxes are so high, it’s nearly impossible for average citizens to pay them.

The martis are doing their job: trees are blooming, I’m starting to smell cut grass on my morning runs, and Peter’s neck has turned a pale pink.  Two weekends ago we spent most of Saturday afternoon in the square with Thodoris, Mina, Anna, George and Little Katerina to celebrate Thodoris’ name day.  The kids scootered and played basketball and soccer, and the adults ate and drank coffee.  Saturday night, big Katerina, Sandy and I watched “La Boheme” live from the Met (NYC) at Megaro Mousiki, Athens’ lovely concert hall.  Much the same is planned for this weekend; looks like a sunny, warm weekend.  Ahhhhh.

The photo of the Benaki building above is courtesy of
Greek life

The March Bracelet

Kalo Mina! On every first of each month, Greeks bestow this wish on each other.  On the first of March, something else happens too. Peter came home yesterday with a bracelet on his wrist that Kyria Anna tied. He said his best pal Sylvia has two: she brought one from home and she got one at school.  Then, this morning, Kyria Soula, our school bus teacher and perhaps the kindest person I have met in all of Greece, put one on Michael’s arm and also gave one to me.

Kyrie Aleko, our funny, kind, awesome school bus driver, told me about this Greek spring custom.  March is widely considered to be the first month of Spring in Greece; everyone hopes March brings lots of wonderful sunshine.  And to protect themselves from being burned by this hot, Greek sun, Greeks, especially kids, wear the March Bracelet.

The “Marti” (the Greek word for the month of March is Μαρτιοσ) weaves red and white string together and may have an evil eye charm or other bling on it. Red is for life and passion; white is for purity.  The bracelet is to be worn from the first of March until you see the first birds returning from migration or the first blossoming tree, all celebrating the arrival of Spring.  This is a custom that dates back to ancient times.

How you say goodbye to the bracelet at the end of March varies. Some people hang them in fruit trees, so the trees remain healthy and bear lots of fruit.  Some people hang them in trees so the swallows can use the thread for their nests.

Tradition dictates that the bracelets be given as gifts; their powers work better this way.

Demetri and I saw a cherry tree in bloom in the chic downtown Kolonaki neighborhood yesterday.  But we are still going to wear our bracelets until the end of the month.

Καλο Μηνα!