Tuesday, March 31, 2020

In The Mani ~ Mundane Tinged with Magic

Our first week of our Greek government-enforced self-isolation, self-distancing, self-protection - whatever name you want to call it -- has come to a close in The Mani.

Our village Agios Nikolaos last year 

The Mani is that slice of the rural Peloponnese we've called our 'other home' for the last two years.  It is that rural area where we focus on olive crops and fishing most of the year and brace for the onslaught of tourists that fill our villages and clog our streets during the warm weather's 'high season'.

High Season when tourists filled our village - 2019 

This year we realize as the high season is fast approaching, that it may actually be one of the lowest ever. Or maybe it will be back to normal. That is one of the more unsettling things about this time in Greece - not knowing what to expect of our future. Or when life might return to the 'old normal'. I suspect the same could be said for many places in the world and if  one were to spend too much time pondering those questions I would likely be writing of madness, not magic.

The fishing fleet last fall - Agios Nikolaos

I am happy to report that there are no signs of madness here. Our friends and neighbors - both Greeks and expats -- are carrying on as normally as one can when the world is slightly askew. The olive groves are being tended just as they always are this time of year. And a few fishing boats are still setting forth daily just as dusk arrives - just as they have always done. Not the usual fleet, mind you, as restaurants, tavernas, and cafes for the most part remain closed.

Going out for a glass of wine in this 'new world'

On the surface this may all sound rather mundane. Especially when I tell you that we still have toilet paper for sale and there are no lines forming at our grocery stores. In fact, a grocery in a neighboring village is offering home delivery to those who can't or prefer not to leave their homes. A few tavernas and cafes stay open despite the diminished business, offering only take out food and drink.

Going out for a glass of wine and dinner has taken on a new look as we sip wine from a plastic glass while waiting for the food to be prepared and packaged for home. Of course we stand two meters from each other while waiting. You might say mundane, tinged with magic.

Hiking one of the old kalderimi's (roads) that once linked villages

The 'lockdown' has been easy to comply with: prior to leaving our home, we text the government our intended destination (grocery store) or reason (exercise), our name and our address. In return we get an approval text - a Greek word that basically means 'movement'.  It hasn't been that taxing a task. . .it just takes a bit to remember to do it. But then we don't use it very often.  A trip to the grocery store once or twice a week. . .or to take out food or drink . . .or to go for a walk or hike.  Some days go past and we realize we've not been outside our garden's gate.

It appears our two-week 'lock down' will now extend past Greek Easter, April 19th.

In Greece Easter is a big deal. It is when city folks return to their family's roots and celebrate the holiday in small villages in the mainland and on the islands. Villages and islands that aren't equipped to handle a potential wave of COVID-19. The government has extended the lockdown and said no travel. No gatherings. And it is probably a pretty good idea.

Our olive grove at The Stone House on the Hill

Greece is currently holding the line on COVID-19. New cases are announced daily, hospitalizations and death statistics continue to grow. But more siga, siga, (slowly, slowly), here in comparison to neighboring countries like Spain and Italy. We hope to keep those numbers low and slow!

Thanks to FB friends who've planted the idea, I've come to think of this 'lock down' as 'me time' or 'found time'. We remarked yesterday at how fast the days go by. Spring is definitely here with those mundane but magical garden and grove chores -- weeding, planting, cutting -- to do.

As I began writing today I couldn't help but notice my red and white Martis peeking out from my shirt sleeve.  I've worn it since the first of March, as is tradition here.

This bracelet may have magic but it certainly has memories

These little woven or braided bracelets are made of yarn or thread; their name Martis is March in Greek. They are worn to welcome Spring. According to folklore they also serve to keep us from getting sunburned in the spring sun. The red, they say,  is for rosy cheeks and white for fair skin.

In theory we take them off on March 31st, today in Greece. And while I am not superstitious, and don't know if its protective qualities are really working, in practice I plan to keep wearing it. It will remind me of a strange mundane time in The Mani that was tinged with just a bit of magic.

We hope you and yours continue to be well and safe. Our wishes to you and as always thanks for being with us.  We'd love to keep up with you and your world, so add a comment or send an email!

Linking this week with:

Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Novel virus, novel times, novel getaways

This novel virus that seems to have upended the earth and all of us who inhabit it, has certainly made this a novel time in our lives.

Greece is on CPOVID-19 lockdown - streets are empty

In Greece, where we live as boomer-aged American expats, we are on government ordered lockdown. It began Monday this week at 6 a.m. We learned of it on Sunday evening thanks to Greek media, social media and the country's emergency alert system.

For the next two weeks, we must notify the government of our plans to leave our home and only six categories of destinations/reasons are permitted for leaving the house. Grocery stores, banks, pharmacies as well as being out for dog walking/exercise are among those permitted destinations/reasons. Fines of 150 euros ($163US) per person per violation will be levied if you are found being out of compliance with the directives. We ventured to the village grocery last night and passed only one other car - our area's sole police car was slowly cruising through the village checking for compliance.

Pantazi Beach  near our home is empty

Airlines have pretty much quit flying to Greece and all hotels save for three in Athens and three in Thessaloniki and one in each regional capital are closed.  All non-essential business is closed. Hopefully, the closures will only be until the end of April.

So we are staying home. . .not just because the government has ordered us to do so, but because the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb here and we'd prefer not to be among its statistics.

Our home lower left, Taygetos Mountains in the distance

Our Stone House on the Hill has never been so clean (nor the skin on my hands as dry as it is from the scrubbing I have done on it and myself). Our garden has never been as weed free. But we are vagabonds. . .travelers. . .who still have the travel bug. So what do we do to ease the itch of that travel bug?

Our regulars here, know the answer. We head to novel destinations.  We've hit quite a few in recent weeks and I thought I tell you about a few of them in hopes that you will share some of yours in the comments below or by emailing us.  It was great hearing from so many of you after last week's post, so hope you'll continue to stay in touch!


Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque - Abu Dhabi - a Middle East treasure

I am currently immersed in an action packed spy thriller/romance by Ken Follett, 'Lie Down with Lions' set in Afghanistan. Now I am likely never to visit Afghanistan in this life time, but this 1980's era book brings the area to life and makes me think back to travels we've had in other parts of the Middle East. It has me entertained and thinking about where to expand our Middle Eastern travels when we can travel again.


On the Nile near Aswan - great memories

I can thank Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz for setting me,'Adrift on the Nile' with his 1966 novel. It's main character, a drug-addicted and bored, civil servant and his circle of friends provide an interesting portrait of the country's middle class - at least as it was then. I became hooked on Mahfouz when I read his Cairo Trilogy set in colonial Egypt many decades ago.

Egypt has been on our minds because we just had friends visit last week (who got out of Greece just before everything shut down) and before coming here they had visited Egypt.Their tales and photos activated the travel bug and our desire to return to this magical country.


Me at the Hapsburg Palace in Vienna

I time traveled back to the mid 1850's and took a sneak peek into the lives of Europe's powerful ruling family, the Hapsburgs, in 'The Accidental Empress' a historical novel by Allison Pataki.  This is a love story about Emperor Franz Joseph and the woman (15-year-old girl, actually) he married. His Empress Elisabeth, known as 'Sisi' was beloved by those they ruled.

We saw so many statues of Franz Joseph and tributes to 'Sisi' while in Vienna last fall, I wanted to know more about the two.  We ordered not only some history books about the Hapsburgs but this book as well after our return. It was a good entertaining introduction into the time and the ruling family.


Budapest street after dark

During our time in Budapest last November we happened upon a bookstore that had a section of books written by local authors and had been translated to English.. The novel, 'Budapest Noir' by Vilmos Kondor was among the souvenirs we bought during that stop.  It is a murder mystery set in 1936. No one but a crime reporter for the newspaper (the book's main character) wanted to investigate the murder.   It was such a good read that we went in search on line of other of his novels, but we have found no others have been translated into English.


My garden - African daisies are in bloom

A good friend, an avid gardener and  reader, recommended a vintage book, 'Elizabeth and her German Garden' by Elizabeth Von Arnim. First published anonymously in 1898, it was a fictionalized account of the author's life and the creation of her garden at the family's home in Nassenheide in Pomerania.  While, as a bumbling gardener myself, I could relate to her efforts, the book was far more than a garden journal. Set in the final years of the 19th century Germany Elizabeth offers some interesting insights to the every day life of minor Prussian aristocrats.

Goat bell door bell - Kotroni village

So where have you traveled to in your easy chair? What novel destinations have you visited lately? Any recommendations for us?

We do wish you well during this unsettled time.  Take care. Stay healthy. There will be plenty of time for real-time travel when this comes to an end.  

Hope you will be back next week as we do have a few travel tales yet to tell ~ as always thanks for the time you have spent with us today!

We are linking this week with:

Monday, March 16, 2020

Greece - A Dozen Days Later

The village on a Sunday afternoon this time of year is one of my favorite places on earth. The sun warms the stone buildings as we stroll our main -- and only -- street that stretches from one end of town to the other. A few fishing boats bob and sway in the harbor.  It is a great time to sip a cappuccino at a harborside cafĂ© and contemplate nothing more serious than what one might eat for dinner.

Sunday afternoon Agios Nikolaos - streets are empty

Well, that is the way it was.  In fact, only a few days ago. Back before corona virus made itself an unwanted visitor in Greece as it is doing in so many places around the earth right now.

In last week's post, I wrote that back when I started writing it - now a dozen days ago - we had 9 identified cases in this Mediterranean country whose population numbered 10.9 million in 2017. Before I got that piece published, the cases jumped to 45.

In those dozen days many things about life in Greece have changed. First and foremost is the COVID-19 numbers: 228 cases, (38 identified on this past Saturday alone) and sadly, 4 fatalities.

Going into Lock Down

Gregg's Plateia - usually the village hub of activity 

Back a dozen days ago, the cancelled Carnivale celebrations were just the start of actions being implemented to curb the spread of this killer. Like dominos toppling into each other the prevention steps and related closures picked up momentum last Friday.

Not the time to visit Agios Nikolaos

The Greek government's response team is taking the threat seriously. And while what I tell you about life here right now may sound somewhat draconian, let me assure you it is comforting to know that tough decisions are being made, being implemented expeditiously and the citizens are functioning within our new guidelines. Not questioning. Not whining. Life is continuing. . .just differently and more cautiously.

An editorial praising the government's swift actions in Ekathimerini, our  English-language Greek paper noted that 'political rivalries have been put aside' and 'the main opposition party is on the same page.' It concluded: 'Energy cannot be wasted in political fighting when lives are at stake.'

How is that for a refreshing approach to politics in a time of pandemic?

Life in a Time of Coronavirus

Restaurants are closed - the village feels and looks empty

Greek schools closed for three weeks shortly after the Carnivale celebrations. Then came the cancellation of events and closure of  archaeological sites and museums and other attractions. Last weekend all restaurants, bars, tavernas and cafes were closed for two weeks.  If an establishment has take out beverages or food options you can stop by long enough to pick up the goods - but no more than five people are allowed to be together inside the establishment and they must stand two meters apart.

The police were patrolling the village on Saturday to assure compliance.

Wildflowers are in bloom in The Mani despite the crisis

By Saturday evening the government announced that all seasonal hotels, Airbnb, and other rentals registered with the tax office as 'seasonal' if open now must close by March 23rd. They will remain closed until  April 30th.


 * the border - air, sea and road - between Greece and our neighbors to the north, Albania and North Macedonia is closed.
* flights from Spain are no longer allowed to land in Greece.
* ferries traveling between Greece and Italy are allowed only to transport goods - human passengers are no longer allowed.
* cruise ship and sail boats are not allowed to dock in Greek ports.
* all organized beach and ski resorts are closed.
* retail operations are curtailed and services like hairdressers, nail salons, closed.
Violators face fines of up to 5,000 euros.

There are no restrictions on movement within the country. But who wants to travel?

The few retail operations limit the number of people inside at one time. Grocery stores were ordered to limit the number of customers inside at one time. (Not a problem, I might add, in our village.) People are behaving sensibly here.  We even have lots of toilet paper available although hand sanitizer and wipes are not to be found.

Clerks today are wearing gloves now and some have face masks.  Some stores are displaying large bottles of hand sanitizer and require you to use it before entering. Some are going about business as usual.

Is It Social Distancing or simply a Wellness Retreat?

Stoupa Beach Friday evening

We are now three days into this new Greek world and seem to be surviving quite well. In fact, it took this new behavior to make us realize how our daily life at The Stone House on the Hill, has been a sort of undefined social distancing all along. We go into town for errands or entertainment, usually related to food or drink. We've still got the grocery store and takeout and a bit of social interaction when running errands. Right now we don't even have neighbors in five of the seven houses on the hill as they've not yet returned from winter travels.

Our Stone House on the Hill far left, the village below

You know there are some people who pay enormous amounts of money to experience a wellness retreat - those get-away-from-television-people-phones kind of experiences? Those getaways that now sound a lot like high priced social distancing to me.

I Googled a few of those getaways and found them described as focusing on variations of spirituality, cuisine and art, and health - some within a cultural context. Whoa! That is exactly what we seem to be doing here -- and it is free of charge, every day!

So for those of you out there who are wringing your hands at being told by some governing body that you have to stay a bit closer to home, (and I know you are out there because I read FB!) just think of it as a wellness getaway:

Our new activity: hiking in the Mani

Your mind will be at ease knowing you are staying out of harm's (germ's) way, you have time to read those books you haven't yet gotten to, there's no excuse not to pursue some long-dreamed of hobby or you could dig out the cookbooks and see what culinary talents have been lying dormant within you!

Where ever you are in the world we hope you and your loved one's are safe from COVID-19. Continue to take the recommended prevention steps being recommended by health professionals around the world.

I leave you with a thought from a FB friend: 'Viruses are contagious. But so is panic, fear, hysteria, calm, grace, empathy, love and kindness.  Choose wisely which one you will spread.'

Hope to see you back here next week. In the meantime, how about a comment or email to let us know how you are doing in your part of the world?

Linking this week with:

Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Greek Spring: Carnivale, Coronavirus, and Conflict

Bucolic scenes are almost common place this time of year in our slice of the Greek Peloponnese.  Wildflowers are carpeting the olive groves while oranges and lemons ripe for the picking hang like Christmas decorations from the trees. 

Springtime at The Stone House on the Hill

This may be - in our collective opinion - the best season of the year here because the countryside's  idyllic scenes are a backdrop to villages coming to life with celebrations and events leading up to  Lent, or Sarakosti, as it is called here.

Lemons and wildflowers mark spring here
Lent comprises the 40 days leading up to April 19th, Easter, Pascha, in the Greek Orthodox religion.

Yet, the beautiful scenes and festivities are being a bit overshadowed by events putting a different spin on the season this year.  And it all seemed to start during Carnivale. . .


Kalamata Karnivali banners decked the streets

Carnivale, Karnivale, is the jubilant period leading up to the start of Lent; a time of celebrations involving eating, drinking and dancing. A time when cities and villages are as decked out and as festive as the party-goers themselves.

The Karnivale decorations were up and posters announced upcoming events in Kalamata on the day we chose to run errands there. By happenstance our trip to the big city fell on Tsiknopempti, 'Smokey Thursday'.  Tsiknopempti always falls on a Thursday 11 days before Kathara Deftera ('Clean Monday' the official start of Lent.).

Streets decorated for Karnivale

Tsiknopempti ( tsika - the burning of food and pempti, Thursday in Greek) is the day when all of Greece it seems lights up the barbeques and cooks meat. It is a day for carnivores; a time those observing a meat-free Lent can stuff themselves without guilt.

Sidewalk bbqs in Kalamata for Tsiknopempti
Restaurants and tavernas on every block -- even a car wash -- had the barbecues going and meat grilling as we made our way through town.  Back in the villages streets were being cleaned and preparations made for scheduled celebrations.

Karnavale cookouts

Karnivale spans three weeks in Greece: Profoni, or prelude; the second week Kreatini or meat week (during which time Smokey Thursday happens) and the third week is Tirofagou, or cheese week.

Coronavirus arrives in Greece

The bus comes through the village twice daily

Shortly after Tsiknopempti, the celebrations it came to an abrupt halt.  It was because the Greek Health Minister - in a televised news conference -- confirmed two additional cases of coronavirus in Athens. He then announced the government was cancelling all remaining large-group Karnivale celebrations.

That announcement, last week, seemed a bit of an over-reaction at the time.  Two days ago when I started this post there were still only nine confirmed cases of the virus in all of Greece and 13 hospitals throughout the country designated as treatment centers. By this weekend though the number of confirmed cases has jumped to 45.

Wildflowers carpet the Mani in March

None of those individuals with the virus are from our area. A majority of the COVID-19 victims seem linked to a tour group that had traveled in Egypt and Israel. The three regions in Greece in which those travelers live have pretty much shut down all activities and events. Residents of those areas are not being allowed to travel internationally at this time.

Ironically, our former home in the city of Kirkland in Washington State, was labeled by the Washington Post newspaper as 'the epicenter' of the virus in the United States. The first U.S. death from the virus was in Kirkland. Several more COVID-19 deaths have occurred there. The state has been hardest hit in the U.S.- so far.  Media reports say shelves have been emptied in grocery stores as people stockpile for a possible quarantine, workers are working from home, rush hour traffic jams have disappeared and events are canceled. Friends living there describe the atmosphere as 'freaky'.

Our village Agios Nikolaos at night
In our area, The Mani in the southern Peloponnese, we are going about life in quite a routine manner. No one is - yet - rushing out to stock up on food, cleaning supplies or toilet paper as they are elsewhere in the world. We still kiss each other's cheeks in greeting and hug frequently. We do talk about the impacts of coronavirus on travel and are keeping watch on its spread.

I'll admit though after having read so many articles about supplies disappearing from shelves, I did decide to buy a box of disposable gloves at our local supermarket.  There were three boxes of them (a full stock) and all were dust covered.

The Scribe and The Scout after being held in Greece last year while awaiting our residency renewal, vowed we'd travel more this year. Our first outing is to France the end of April. If we cancel our week's reservations we lose the week - no refunds or changes are being allowed. At this point, we don't plan to cancel and The Scout has plotted four options for getting there and back.

Conflict at the border

We also have in Greece the matter of  an increasingly tense conflict with Turkey, our neighbor to the east. These two countries haven't been getting along well for sometime and headlines often call out air space violations and oil drilling concerns.

Islands mentioned below and our home near Kalamata are some distance apart

 But the current tense situation is caused by the overwhelming flow of immigrants and migrants into the two countries as they flee their warring homelands and seek asylum in Europe. The route to freedom takes them through both Turkey and Greece. My brief  recap below doesn't do justice to the situation - full reports can be found on most European and Middle Eastern media. I used several of those media to compile this synopsis:

Turkey is reportedly hosting 3.6  million registered Syrian refugees and immigrants from other countries like Afghanistan.  The Turkish president recently announced he was opening the border for them to the European Union - their route via Greece. He's quoted as saying he'll allow 'millions' of refugees and migrants into Greece.

Immigrants  have risked their lives on small boats trying to reach Greece

Greece, however, is at maximum capacity for housing refugees and has said, 'no more'. The few camps created since the exodus began five years ago are already far in excess of the numbers they were designed to hold.Thousands of men, women and children are being held on three Greek islands -- Lesvos, Samos and Chios -- per a European Union containment policy, while awaiting the processing of their asylum requests.

The migrants are saying 'enough'. Reports of growing vandalism and theft by some of those held in the camps has prompted the Greek island residents to also be crying, 'enough'.  Residents for years have rallied donations and care for those who've arrived on their shores over the years.

In January this islanders held protests, demanding help and support from the Greek government.   Media report that local vigilante groups are being formed. That was before the Turkish president announced he will allow even more migrants to enter Greece.

This week the American Embassy in Athens and the US Consulate in Thessaloniki issued travel warnings to Americans who are or who are planning to travel to those islands and the mainland's northeastern region of Evros, near the Turkish border.  It was reported that the US Embassy had received reports of violence against Americans trying to travel in Lesvos.

Springtime in Greece

As I said in the opening, it is a slightly different spring. We hope that wherever you find yourselves this week that you are healthy and untouched by conflict and Corona virus.  Wishes for safe travel if you are traveling and wherever you are: remember to wash your hands!

Thanks so much for the time you spent with us today ~ let us know in the comments below or an email how life is going in your part of the world ~

Linking this week with:

Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday


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