This blog is dedicated to the front-line health workers all over the world who are putting their lives in danger to help save others stricken with the coronavirus, who are dealing with shortages of masks, rubber gloves, not to mention precious ventilators. Thank you for your courage, your stamina, your selflessness. May you be able to rest soon from the ravages of this pandemic. A thank you also to those who are sewing badly needed masks and to so many other workers:
This blog also has a personal dedication, to the memory of my beloved Uncle Bert, who died last week of old age complications at age 93 — here’s a photo of him from years gone by in front of the family clothing store in Queens, NY (early 1950’s?) looking for all the world like one of the Jersey boys.
There’s a saying that “March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.” This year March slouched in, neither lion nor lamb, but like some poor animal, its head hanging low, a little pale, shaky on its feet, half-beaten in the face of the relentless spread throughout the world of the coronavirus, as numbers of cases spiraled and deaths kept increasing. As the month wore on, much of the world was in enforced quarantine or self-isolation and new terms had entered our vocabulary like social distancing, remote work, shelter in place and flatten the curve. It seems that hundreds of health experts in articles and books had warned unheeded of an inevitable pandemic coming. In the end, its “microbes, not missiles” that will get us, as Bill Gates foretold in 2015 in this TED Talk, Note especially the first minute.
We look back on our ignorance at the beginning of the month when admittedly, the so-called virus from China had started to spread to other countries but there seemed to be no real cause for alarm. “Like the seasonal flu” people said, but just in a new form we were not familiar with. “It’ll just go away.” It wasn’t really taken seriously, although carnival in Venice was canceled in February and one week later the Greek government canceled all Carnival activities and the parade in Patra and other cities. Things moved fast here with school closures by March 11, the same day the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
On March 23rd, after a week of closure of restaurants, cafes and bars, and eventually nearly all stores, but with free circulation allowed, the government banned any unnecessary circulation. You can’t just walk out of your house — you need to have a paper with you with your details or send an sms justifying the reason you’re on the street: with 1 for pharmacies & doctors, 2 for supermarket… up to 6 for exercise (near your house) & walking your dog, and you must carry official identification. Fine for violation: 150 euros. Greece is famous for having laws that are sometimes “lightly” followed, and of course in the first few days there were violations, but whoever you talk to seems to support this measure. The government is sending constant information on our phones, having radio and TV spots with beloved actors about the importance of good hygiene, staying inside / Menoume spiti! Menoume enomeni! Menoume aisiodoxi! (Let’s stay home, stay united, stay optimistic).
In Greece the month is marked by March 25, a day commemorating the 1821 War of Independence. Of course there were no parades this year or other activities. Next year for the Bicentennial, many celebrations are planned — let’s hope they happen! Well, let’s go back to the beginning of March, when, in light of these few weeks, we seem so woefully ignorant. When concerts, talks, conferences, classes and sporting events started to be cancelled, people were dubious: “exaggeration isn’t it!” In some small towns, the bans on Carnival parades on March 1st & Clean Monday activities the next day, were defied and in Patra, a number of people still dressed up and paraded through the streets. In Athens, Clean Monday, usually a day full of music and dancing, was quiet. Some people joked that it was the cleanest clean Monday in history, as everyone was washing their hands. The end of the Carnival period and the beginning of “sarakosti” or “lent” it is supposed to be a day of purificatiom as shown in the custom of flying kites. Before the holiday, kite vendors sprout up everywhere.
Although municipalities didn’t have music or offer traditional foods, people still gathered for picnics and flying their kite. Unfortunately it was practically a no-wind day and you could see a lot of people running and running with their kites, only to see them flounder a bit and then fall. But a few succeeded.
The holiday is associated with various “fasting” foods. No food with any kind of animal protein, no fish with backbones. Shellfish are eaten most of all and the fish market in the center of Athens does a thriving business.
Octopus and kalamari are among the most popular kinds of shellfish eaten, as shown below.
Other kinds of special foods include lagana, a long flat bread, bean soup taramosalata (fish roe dip), pickled vegetables and halvah, a sweet of sesame paste.
Not to forget dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves with rice, spices and herbs) cooked with a lot of lemon by “theitsa” our aunt Electra. Oh yes, and fresh shrimp with oil and lemon.
March 1st dawned a golden day. We took a drive to an archaeological site past Marathonas near the tip of Attiki across from Evia, called Ramnous, so named for the bushes growing there (ramnos). In its remoteness, it’s not a site that anyone would stumble upon — the lack of signs makes it almost as if it doesn’t want to be found. There was a scattering of other wanderers, disappointed like us in that only half the site was open, due to a lack of personnel in the winter months. The fortified city itself you couldn’t walk around, only the area outside it, where you could see the ruins of the sanctuary of Nemesis and a number of family tombs, dating from 400 BC.
Ramnous was most famous for its 6th century B.C. temple and sanctuary devoted to Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, representing the idea that you can’t escape divine retribution or punishment for evil deeds, undeserved good fortune and hubris (as some might say, is this a lesson for the terrible time the world is going through now?) Not to believe that Nemesis is punishing us, but maybe one of the effects of this pandemic is a new, shall we say humility, a lessening of our arrogance that we’re in some kind of supercontrol mode, as opposed to people in the past. The word “nemesis” of course we use to mean an enemy, but it has a stronger meaning, some kind of avenging force that you can’t seem to overcome easily: COVID-19 maybe.
The sanctuary was rebuilt after the Persians destroyed it in the 5th century. In the 2nd century A.D. Herodus Atticus, the Athenian statesman and philosopher, supported a project to repair the temple. Eventually, as so many temples, it fell into disrepair by the end of the 4th century during the rise of Christianity. The setting for the fortified city and the temple was well chosen for its beautiful view.
After Ramnous, we traced our way back on the semi-deserted road, stopping in Nea Makri to walk along the promenade. A speardiver was lucky and found a couple of large octopi. Before the swimming season starts, the rocks are full of them.
Then he does the hard work of pounding them on the rock to soften them. It was a sunny day, but not that warm —
The first week of March we entered the world of ancient Greece, first in Athens and then, a trip outside of Athens to the ancient site of Delphi.
We had been wanting to see the so-called neighborhoods that were excavated around the Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis metro. A few months ago the museum opened to the public a tour of ancient Athens neighborhoods under and around the site of the museum.
Although this area was actually inhabited as far back as 3,500 B.C. the ruins of the houses that we see here are from 5th century B.C. to 5th c. A.D., in other words, over the span of a thousand years. It takes a lot of imagination to imagine the mosaic floors, private latrines, colonnaded courtyards, symposia, or meeting rooms for guests, and public baths.
The coronavirus has made me think about other epidemics in history. One of the earliest known plagues might have hit some of these 5th century B.C. Athens inhabitants, more specifically in the year 430 B.C. during the Peloponesian Wars and one of the reasons for Sparta’s victory over Athens and even Athens’ general decline from democracy. The plague, which killed over 25% of the population, ravaged the city for over 5 years. To this day it’s a mystery about what caused it, though the dense living conditions in Athens, as the residents were crowded inside the city walls due to the war, encouraged the spread. There have been theories through the ages that it might have been bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid, influenza, measles or even Ebola. The only written account of the illness was from the historian Thucydides, who by the way, got the disease but survived. The great leader Pericles was not so lucky — he and his family all died from it. Effects of the plague were devastating. Besides ruining Athens politically and economically, there was a general moral decline and disobedience of laws. With the feeling that you were most likely going to die, then who cared? (This was also was an effect of the Black Death in 14th century Europe). Check out the very interesting article in The Atlantic, “What the Great Plague of Athens Can Teach Us Now.” (Is anyone learning?)
We got a little claustrophobic wandering around underground, so we were glad to take a walk to the Panathenaic Stadium, known as the “Kalimarmaro,” “beautiful marble,” the only stadium in the world built entirely from marble, refurbished in the 19th century to host the 1st modern Olympic Games in 1896, used during the infamous junta years (late 60’s) for God, family and country rallies, and occasionally for concerts that I’ve enjoyed over the years.
Back in the 6th century this site, a natural ravine between two hills, was used for the Panathanaic Games. There were no seats, and spectators sat on the hill slopes. In the 4th century B.C. a stadium of limestone was built that was eventually replaced with marble in the 2n century A.D. under the directive of who else, but again the Greco-Roman statesman-philosopher Herodus Atticus (how did he find the time to be into so many projects?) But by the end of the 4th c. A.D. after Hellenistic festivals were banned, the area became covered by a field of wheat. That’s how it remained until the mid-19th century when it was excavated and later refurbished for the 1896 games.
At the Kallimarmaro is where the Olympic flame is handed over. This year the ceremony on March 19 took place with no spectators of course, eight days after it was lit in ancient Olympia on March 12 again to an empty crowd, only to International Olympic Committee officials and the Tokyo organizing team, each chair carefully placed 2 meters apart. As it happened of course, the flame this year was not carried throughout the country, as it usually is, and as it turns out, the Tokyo Olympics will be postponed for July 2021. Here are a couple of photos though from the 2016 ceremony in the Kallimarmaro, when the flame was given to Brazil.
For a while we had wanted to take a drive to the ancient site of Delphi in central Greece, which we hadn’t visited in many years. About 200 kilometers from Athens, it’s on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos and overlooks the Gulf of Corinth.
The ancients saw Delphi as the navel or “omphalos” of the world, for according to the myth, Zeus sent out two eagles to each side of the world and they both met here, making this beautiful spot the place where earth touches the divine and it’s as if you’re isolated from the world here.
A number of deities were worshipped here from ancient times but Apollo, god of light, music, harmony, moral discipline, eventually replaced all the other gods & became sole guardian of the famous oracle of Delphi who was believed to be Apollo’s mouthpiece. The Sanctuary of Apollo reached its height in the 4th century B.C. when pilgrims with expensive votive gifts, came to ask advice. Battles were fought, marriages, journeys, business deals were made, based on the oracle’s always-ambiguous advice. After battles, the oracle was given even more gifts by the victors, so of course it was accused of partiality by the vanquished!
At the ticket office, some tourists were complaining that the museum was closed. The reason? It was being disinfected … And we encountered the same strictures as in Ramnous in that some of the site was closed.
After the Roman agora area, the Iera Odos (sacred way) winds uphill. In ancient times the Sacred way was lined with treasuries and statues that were donated by city states, thanking Apollo for helping them win battles. The Athenian treasury has been reconstructed.
We keep climbing. The heavy Doric Temple ruins that we see today are from the 4th century b.c. It’s a hot sunny day and the cypress trees don’t offer much shade as we make our way even further uphill. Wild spring flowers are starting to bloom and the air is thick with the sound of bees buzzing around.
The.temple used to be inscribed with philosophic maxims such as “know thyself” and “nothing in excess.” Supposedly inside was a chasm that emitted vaporous fumes that the Pythia, or oracle, inhaled. Who was this oracle? She was a priestess over 50 years old who sat at on a tripod at the entrance to the chasm and when she inhaled these fumes, she had a kind of frenzy. The uttered seemingly unintelligible things that she uttered to pilgrims looking for advice were translated into verse by a priest, either orally or written down. The advice was always ambiguous.
There’s a famous example of ambiguity with Croesus, king of Lydia, who asked the oracle if he would defeat the Persians. The Oracle replied, “if Croesus crosses the river Halys, a great power will be destroyed.” Croesus interpreted that in his favor, crossed the river between Lydia and Persia with a great army, and he was defeated.
According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, in winter, Apollo and the oracle took a rest, while Dionysos was then worshipped so there was a lot of feasting, a welcome relief from the “serious business of trying to comprehend the oracle’s cryptic and grave messages.” This ambiguity in telling the future is surely a characteristic of fortune telling and your horoscope, except for the one that has circulated lately!
If there was still an oracle, I’d ask about the future of coronavirus, though when I was there, the situation was nowhere near as grave as it is now (and would we understand her answer?)
Still climbing up you find the 4th century Theatre, where plays were performed here during the Pythian festival every 4 years. The theater was restored by the Romans when they took over Delphi the end of the 2nd century A.D. By this time the oracle had lost much of its power. The Delphi sanctuary met the same fate as other pagan temples and structures mentioned above when they were abolished in the late 4th century A.D.
From the theater, it’s a very steep climb up to the stadium known for its chariot races, but that was closed. I don’t want to forget the most beautiful building in Delphi, the tholos, and the most emblematic of Delphi. You go back down to the ticket entrance, where cats are sunning themselves, and look down on the other side of the road to the sanctuary of Athens. The tholos is a doric marble monument from 400 B.C. that originally had 20 columns; 3 of columns left, and also an unusual 3 stepped podium to the columns. It’s still not known, what the tholos was used for, but it’s lovely to look at.
Time to leave Delphi to drive down to Galaxidi, a naval town from the 19th century, a town truly untouched by time, that has left is 19th century homes and soft colors. Galaxidi was actually a very old shipping community which flourished from as early as 1st c. up to Greek War of Independence, when it was destroyed by the Turks. It’s truly a dream place, just to sit and gaze at the sea, across to a park of cypress and pine or up to snowy Mt. Parnassos.
The road through the valley took us through acres of olive groves. A nearby town, – Amphissa, is famous for its olives.
Besides olive and cypress trees, as we drive up the mountain again to the winter resort town of Arahova (practically deserted), on the way to the ski center of Parnassos, we find the area is still covered with almond trees, whereas in Athens, most of them have lost their blossoms.
On the way back to Athens we pass through the village of Heronia past a huge stone Lion statue. Wait, what’s that? We turn around to get a better look. This statue marks the site of actually one of the most decisive battles of the ancient world. Macedonian king Philip II and his son Alexander claimed a victory over Athens and Thebes in 338 B.C. This battle marked the end of the independent Greek city states and the formation of the Macedonian empire.
I’m grateful that we could experience this trip before the measures. Now, mostly shuttered in. If we ever needed the strength of a lion to fight, it’s now. Each day we awake to hear of more cases and more losses in Italy, Spain, the U.S. and other countries. The situation is grave. We worry about ourselves and the health of our loved ones. When will it end? If only the oracle could speak… Whatever we can do, we’ll try. The month of March is slinking out… It’s hard but we try to be both hopeful and humbled. We expect to spend April inside. Kali dinami (good strength) to all. Stay safe!