Sunday, 31 March 2013

Nice tree, shame about the name

About this time of year here on Skopelos you suddenly start seeing large dashes of deep pink dotted around. These splashes of colour are trees and they crop up in people's gardens, at the side of the road, away up on a hill - they're everywhere. You really can't miss them, they are most striking. Here's a picture of one:
This beauty is Cercis Siliquastrum, also known as the Judas tree. It is called this because it is claimed that Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver, hanged himself from such a tree. All quite appropriate in a way seeing as we are in and around Easter. This depends on which church's calendar you go by, here in Greece the Orthodox Easter is not until May 5, but the trees are ahead of the game and showing themselves off in all their glory.

Not that this posting set out to have a religious theme, but it has often struck me that Judas Iscariot gets a bit of a bad rep, as I believe they say in some TV police shows. After all, if he had not become a paid informer, the Romans would not have arrested Jesus, he wouldn't have been crucified, then there would have been no resurrection and the central basis of the entire Christian religion would have never got off the ground (or out of the ground?).

Anyway, I digress, and I DO love a digression, and let's face it the whole question of which tree Judas Iscariot might have used is, I am sure, always going to be open to debate. In any case, there are other theories about why the tree is commonly known as the Judas tree. Still on the suicide theme, one of these is that the seedpods of the tree can dangle in a way reminiscent of Judas's suicide....mmm, nice. Another is that in French, the trees are called Arbre de Judée meaning tree of Judea where they used to be common.

The official name, given by Linnaeus back in the 18th century, derives from the Greek word for the weaver's shuttle and the Latin word for pod, but evidently calling the tree the Shuttle Pod tree wasn't good enough for  Linnaeus.

So, does the name really matter? Broadly speaking no, they are lovely trees which go on to develop attractive foliage and for ease of identification as much as anything I shall continue to call them Judas trees. But anyone who thinks "it's just a word" might like to ponder how many Judases they have met - that is as in people called Judas rather than treacherous types. You see, I told you the name carried weight.

The Judas tree can go by another name, which is the Love tree, but in all honesty it's just not as memorable, is it? So Judas tree it shall remain and don't let that name put you off, they are stunning.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Independently independent

Today is Independence Day for Greece. A BIG national holiday and on Skopelos a day when just about everyone dresses to impress and gathers on the Paralia, the waterfront, to watch the parade and meet friends and family for coffee.
Women in traditional Skopelitan costume carry the Greek flag.

For Greece the particular piece of independence the day marks is fighting for freedom  from the Ottoman Empire over a period from 1821 to 1832. And here is a picture showing how it all started.
The old days.
Well perhaps Theodoros Vryzakis's painting can be accused of some artistic licence, he painted it about 30 years after the events it depicts, but it is meant to show Bishop Germanos of old Patras blessing the Greek banner at the start of the national revolt against the Turks in 1821 (thank you Wikipedia).

So does something that happened almost 200 years ago, still carry weight? You bet it does. Greek history is much more than all that sword and sandal stuff with Sparta, the Trojan wars and old temples. In the 20th century Greece has arguably had a bit more history than it could deal with. Bits added, bits taken away, wars, coups, invasion and general turmoil.

In this century things are still pretty bumpy and I suspect many Greeks are more than a little fed-up with being the focus of attention of some of their Eurozone colleagues. No names, no pack drill etc etc, but being told by the Smartypants with Europe's leading economy that "you must try harder" must grate after a while.

Those fighting for independence back in the early 19th century used as their rallying cry Ελευθερία ή θάνατοσ (freedom or death) and while that's probably going a bit far for modern tastes, I would hate to see this sometimes joyously eccentric country sacrifice very much more of its independence in the cause of global capitalism.
Their costumes honour the past, but the worry must be what
will the future hold for these children?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

My four-legged friend

My name is Bonnie and I live in Greece.

Would you believe me if I said I can quite easily reconcile having a dog here in Greece and also have once said, and meant, "I'm not having another dog".

If you are a dog owner (do we ever really own dogs?) I suspect you would believe it. Consequently, the "another dog" I said I'd never have, Bonnie, a black Labrador, came with us from the UK to Greece.

I have no difficulty in saying, and believing, that this is actually a good thing. I like dogs, well, most of them, but they are a commitment that should not be undertaken lightly. Anyway, enough of the "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas" spiel, even if it is true.

There was no way I was going to see Bonnie packed in to a crate and then stuck in the hold of a flight from the UK to Greece. As a result, we drove from Devon to Kent, went through the Channel Tunnel and then down through France to Italy. There we boarded a ferry which went down the Adriatic and landed us in Greece. We crossed the Greek mainland to get another ferry from the port of Volos to the island of Skopelos, where we live.

The journey took us about a week and in all that time Bonnie was an exemplary passenger on ferries and in the car. Mind you she did have more room in the car than either my ever-loving or I did.

Bonnie trying not to look glum about another stint in the car.
Zonked out by the heat.
And so now Bonnie lives in Greece, where, as I have already said, she is getting to grips with the language and the intense summer heat. But even if she learns to say "ghav" rather than "woof" I doubt she will ever be regarded as a proper Greek dog. On this island at least, dogs seem to have two main purposes. Some are used for hunting - these mainly resemble pointers - while the majority seem to be used as general purpose intruder alarms. These "alarm" dogs come in all shapes and sizes and always live outside, with a fair few of them chained up.

Bonnie with Ektor, the type of dog used for hunting.
Beware of the dog.

This outdoor life could have become a sticking point with the landlord of the house we rent. He was fine with us having a dog, but when we said Bonnie was a a pampered British Labrador used to having a roof over her head he looked slightly puzzled to say the least. We assured him she was fully house-trained and her being pampered did not extend to being allowed on the furniture. Apart from during thunderstorms, which Bonnie really, really hates, she sleeps on her bed in the kitchen at night. During thunderstorms she stays as close to us as she can manage and will often sleep as much under our low bed as she can manage. He agreed it would be all right for Bonnie to live indoors and now she and he are firm friends.
Bonnie stays under the kitchen table during a storm.
So is that all OK then? Well, only up to a point because the simple truth is that quite a few Greek people are quite scared of large-ish dogs, particularly if those dogs are barking at them. And especially, it seems, if those dogs are black. I have seen people shy away from Bonnie when I have been walking her on the lead and she hasn't even uttered a peep, or a "ghav". One woman who came on to our land to gather horta (wild greens) ran off when Bonnie had only barked at her from some distance away. I should add that there are some Greek people who are very pleased to identify Bonnie as a Labrador and make a fuss of her.

You might think I'm exaggerating the scary black dog factor, but I'm not. One morning I was driving back home having walked Bonnie in some woods. A few miles out of town I spotted a Greek couple I know who were walking along the road towards town. They weren't dressed for walking, they were dressed like people whose car won't start or has broken down. Good, I thought, my chance to do a good deed. I pulled up next to them and offered a lift. Everyone was all smiles and the woman had just stuck her head in my car to get in to the back when Bonnie's head popped up between the seats. The woman recoiled in horror and that was the end of my good deed. No amount of reassurance by me would persuade the couple that Bonnie was merely interested in her new travelling companions and so they continued their long walk to town.
And relax.
So Bonnie does live up to being man's, and woman's, best friend, but be that as it may, believe me this time when I say: "I am NOT having another dog." Probably.
My friend Bonnie, she's the one on the left.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Looking for love

As I stand in the olive grove in the dark I can hear the quiet jingle of Bonnie's tag on her collar as she wanders round sniffing those interesting things that dogs always find. I can also hear a mysterious single "booop" or possibly it's a "pheew", which gets repeated from somewhere else in the distance.

If you stand quietly in the dark you can hear that sound again and again. When I first heard it - about this time last year - I was convinced it was some sort of frog or possibly something to do with a car alarm. In fact, it is the call of the Scops owl as males start to seek a mate. Their name has nothing to do with Skopelos and in fact there are variations of the tiny little owls, which are about 8in (20cm) long, found around the world.

Try as I might, I've never been able to spot one of these owls here among the olive trees even though old trees with hollows provide ideal spots for the owls. However, I have seen a Scops owl here on Skopelos. It was in the town (some people call it a village) and was sheltering from the rain next to a chimney. It looked cute, a bit bedraggled and ever so slightly disgruntled.
A young Eurasian Scops owl, which is the sort we get on Skopelos.
It is that time of year when all of nature seems to have realised it's time to get busy producing the next generation. During the day the trees are full of great tits calling to each other. Some might say their song is a trifle repetitive, not to say overly insistent, but whatever, it seems to do the trick. High above the valley, buzzards wheel around, and if they are getting up to any courtship it is being done in-between interruptions from hooded crows which mob the much larger buzzards.

Meanwhile on the ground bees are rushing from flower to flower, crickets leap wildly as you walk through the grass and ants have resumed their seemingly non-stop march both up and down the outside of our house. And perhaps best of all the wild flowers are putting on a spectacular show that holidaymakers on this island hardly ever get to see. By the time the holiday season gets in full swing the anemones, celandines, chamomile, oxalis, poppies, geraniums, marigolds, chrysanthemums and asphodels are all long gone, beaten down by the intense heat of the long Greek summer. But for now, it's springtime and everything in the olive grove is lovely.
What summer's visitors miss out on.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Down with this sort of thing

Not entirely sure what this says, but it's not 'Let's have more cuts'.
Today I have been on strike, so far as it is possible for someone who doesn't work for money to go on strike.

Growing anger on Skopelos at the way government-backed austerity measures are hitting local people's living standards prompted a strike in which most businesses shut for at least two hours.

Islanders, including a small group of the expat community, gathered on the road along the harbour front, and listened to a succession of what were, I think, angry speeches. I won't pretend my Greek is anywhere near good enough to understand what was said but some words sank in and I could put them together to come up with a sort of "We're fed up" message.

Particular points of concern on Skopelos include closure of some offices for government bodies including tax and what is roughly the Greek equivalent of the Department for Work and Pensions. People are also angry at the way the work of the island's secondary school is hamstrung by lack of funding (maths teaching is particularly affected) and the rising cost of ferry travel. In a country which has so many islands, ferries are an essential lifeline. People are also finding it difficult to meet the demands of property taxes.

Some people have, no doubt with tongue in cheek, suggested that not having a local tax office is a cause for celebration, but if you wish to take up a tax matter face to face and your nearest tax office is several hours expensive boat ride away, the joke begins to wear thin.

The effect this morning's protest will have is not entirely clear, but at least it showed those who took part that they are not alone in feeling fed up, downtrodden and marginalised by a crisis that many ordinary Greeks justifiably feel is not of their making.

As for people like me taking part, well, I wanted so far as I was able, to express whatever solidarity I could muster with the people of the island where I live. I recognise that a vibrant, thriving community has to be better for everyone. And if it were not so funny, bearing in mind who said it in British politics, I'd be tempted to say to my Greek neighbours "We're in this together".

A fed up crowd.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Let's put the show on here

It's a strange feeling to bump into James Bond and Mr Darcy, you know, the one from Pride and Prejudice. And also to see the French Lieutenant's Woman off in the middle distance.

Except, of course, that's not who they were. They were none other than Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Meryl Streep who were on the Greek island where I now live, Skopelos, for some of the filming of the hit musical, Mamma Mia. That was back in 2007 and although I didn't live here then, I was on holiday just at the time part of the film were being shot here.

It was quite exciting to see real Hollywood stars out and about enjoying themselves in tavernas and cafés. In fact, there is a surprising number of Skopelos tavernas displaying photographs of the owner proudly standing next to Pierce Brosnan, after all it's not everyday that 007 pops in for meatballs and a salad.

From the Mamma Mia cast I also saw the other "dad", the girl and the boy. I apologise for not naming them, but anyone with even just a cursory knowledge of the film should know who I mean, so keep up. Another time I saw the bearded one from Abba (is it Benny?) getting off an utterly beautiful yacht. Let's face it, were it not for Benny and the other one, Bjorn, no part of the Mamma Mia phenomenon would have transpired.

And what a phenomenon it has been. Since 1999, 42 million people have seen the stage show which has grossed $2 billion. Similarly gazillions of people have have paid up to see the film, which was released in 2008.

So where does that leave us? Skopelos has a small place in film history for being one of the locations for the very popular film Mamma Mia, but these days people like to talk of legacy, so what, if anything, was the legacy for this small island?

Well during the summer, there is a constant stream of visitors to the beautiful Agios Ioannis monastery which sits on top of a rocky outcrop and which was where "the wedding" took place.

Agios Ioannis: not for vertigo sufferers.
Many inquiries are received about the possibility of getting married there, but you can't and even true love might balk at the prospect of climbing the precipitous steps to the church only to have to descend them again. No bridal car could ever get to that church.

You have been warned, the steps are steep.
Apart from that an enterprising taverna owner secured the archway to "Donna Maria's" hotel from the film and it now graces the entrance to his taverna. Power put in at a beach for filming purposes enabled the opening of a beach bar, which might or might not be a plus. And then you get to the rather sad Mamma Mia Café, a bar and hotel used as a production office by the film team, but which has barely been occupied for a good few years and is available to rent.

As legacies go, I can't help feeling Skopelos could have done better. The impact of Mamma Mia on this small Greek island was nowhere near as bad as one curmudgeonly British newspaper claimed, but you are still left wondering if it couldn't have been a whole lot better. Despite all this, for me the real star of the film is and always has been this beautiful island and fame has not turned her head.