Monday, 25 March 2019

Independence Day

Today I walked along the golden road to Pelekas,or golden was how it felt, even if at each side of the road there was mostly a variety of shades of green, pale green on the just-coming-into-leaf trees, grey-green of the olive trees, the dark green of the cypresses. But there were some golden flowers, as well as blue and palest pinky cream and there was some deep pink blossom on trees and I don't know any of their names but I greet them all the same. And all that blue above, and even a glimpse once I reached Pelekas, of the blue of sea.


I didn't reach the sea because it was a long way down from the village, and I needed refreshment, which I found in a tiny cafe which wasn't really a cafe at all, but a small shop only they had a sign outside saying coffee, so I went inside and asked for coffee, actually for Greek coffee, and I sat with 3 or 4 other old men, and watched the parade on the TV, taking place in Athens. There were marching people in uniform,  there was music, there were fly pasts, fly overs really, of helicopters or perhaps they were small planes, it was hard to tell.

This is a special day in Greece, it is Independence Day, celebrating the victory of the Greeks in 1821, finally being liberated from the centuries-long rule of the Ottoman Empire. The cafe (shop) owner is delighted and welcoming and pulls me out a chair so I can squeeze in among the old men, though I am unable to join in their conversation. But I practice my few words of Greek which are mainly to do with how I do not understand Greek, and how are you, but the cafe owner is very tolerant and smiles, and I have to point out on this special day, how one of my compatriots, Lord Byron, helped the Greek struggle for independence at Messolonghi, though sadly did not live to see their eventual success.

After this, I follow the twisting road through the village and climb up to the topmost point, where the Kaiser's Throne is located (there are lots of signposts pointing the way) a viewpoint looking out across the valley, and right to the sea beyond Kerkyra town. 

 Apparently it got its name from the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm used to spend summers in the early years of the twentieth century, up to that dread year of 1914, at the Achilleion (that extraordinary palace built by Sissi, Empress of Austria-Hungary, or commissioned rather, by her, but she loved Corfu, and Achilles). He liked apparently, to watch the sunset from there, always spectacular, and so this spot came to have his name, a bit like the way a viewpoint in the Scottish borders, looking out over the valley of the Tweed river and over to the Eildon Hills, is known as Scott's View as Walter Scott, the renowned novelist, who lived nearby, often stopped his carriage there, to gaze at the view of valley, river and hills.

It was hazy today, and I don't think the sea over beyond Corfu town and the port, is visible in the photographs but it was there, most definitely, in fact at almost any high point in Corfu you can see the sea in at least one direction and often in more than one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Arrival in Thessaloniki

 I go out walking in Thessaloniki's busy, noisy traffic-choked street, Odos Egnatia. The smells intoxicate, smells of flowers and honey, smells of baking and heated cooking oil. Which has a particular smell here that's like nowhere else. If I was to be brought here blindfolded I would know where I was by the smell of hot oil. Just as the olives here taste different. And the honey. The street's messy and untidy, it's loud and full of life.

My heart expands as I walk along this street of small shops, bakeries, clothes shops, shoe shops, and one selling icons. Further on, there's road works, and I move away into quieter streets

There's the Rotunda Temple. There's the remains of a vast Roman archway, the Galerius Arch, (4th century AD) its sculpted friezes still clearly defined. 

Rotunda & Galerius Arch: photo credit Wikipedia

There's the original Roman Agora, and there's the sea front, the promenade, packed with people – and there's the White Tower, surrounded by pine trees, their thick trunks leaning away from the wind.

View of agora

Agora amphitheatre

The road's so full of traffic it's hard to cross. There's grassy squares lined with trees that still have clusters of dark green glossy leaves, between Odos Egnatia and the sea front. The paving stones beside the squares are broken, there's dust in the gutters, the park edges are brown earth, the grass quite worn away and dried fallen leaves from the trees lie on the earth and on the uneven tufts of grass. We become another person in a different place, one we love, and I feel so at home here with these crumbling kerbs and brown edges of parks and all the dried leaves, these crisp and curled up yellow cylinders. 

Apart from the glossy-leaved ones, and the maritime pines by the water, the trees are still bare. Light changes colour and texture in late afternoon and it's this kind of light that surrounds the old Hamam. 


The entrance is fenced off and there's graffiti on the fence. There's graffiti and stains on the façades of buildings. Roman ruins and ruinous modern concrete high-rises. It's all weary and watchful, it's worn and marked with life and time and traffic. It's stained and it's sheltering, messy and magisterial, it's unkempt and dishevelled, it's the Balkans and there's nowhere quite like it. There are artistic details – hand-painted signs for cafes and bakeries, bold lettering in bright colours. 

A woman sweeps the pavement beside cafe tables, under an awning. Her brush is made of long yellow twigs – like the brushes kept in the shade of a bower, to sweep up the leaves from the paths, in the garden around the Rotunda. 


Wednesday, 6 March 2019

International Women's Day: Writers and Photographers

Thinking of  International Women’s Day and some of the women I have been spending time with lately (in my imagination that is). Researching the life of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, writer, photo-journalist, traveller, (and translating some of her work) has led me to look into the lives of others who were important to her.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach: photo by Marianne Breslauer

In the late 1930s she travelled around Europe Germany, Austria, Poland & the Baltic countries talking to people, and documenting the rise of fascism. This article (my translation) was written by her in 1937.

The Good-for-nothings

The narrow wheels of the cart sink into the sandy path and the horse’s hooves make a dull sound. I have accompanied the country doctor on his visits – we have gone to the miller, the forester, to a tenant farm on a landowner’s estate and now we’re returning to the village…

The duty forester talked about the harshness of the times. ‘I was sent this guy,’ he said, ‘in uniform of course, a very young and stupid lad and insolent into the bargain. He knew nothing about forestry, wood or forest management but he said he was a ‘forestry expert’ and he wears a uniform and it was the local councillor who sent him – so clearly he was allowed to do anything. “Replant” he told me, “you have to replant quickly, Germany needs wood, we have to become self sufficient”. As if you could order the pine trees ‘grow faster, in the Führer’s name!’

The forester scared himself a bit with his own words but he knows that the doctor is a good man and as for me, I’m not from here, I’m a foreigner – curiously that seems to give him confidence.
‘All of them’ he says to me, ‘these gentlemen, the party functionaries with their pretentious titles, they are all good-for-nothings. People who have failed in life, in their profession, even as far back as school – they have not learned anything of worth and now they want to make it big in the Party. Isn’t it true doctor?’
The doctor says quietly ‘You exaggerate. There are also hard working and honest ones among them…..’

You can read the rest of the article here.

Her archive of thousands of photographs, from many parts of the world including Switzerland, Morocco, Russia, Congo, Lisbon, Afghanistan, Persia/Iran, Danzig/Gdansk, Estonia, Finland etc, can be seen online, from the Swiss National Archives.

Marianne Breslauer took many photographs of her, which often featured on the covers of Annemarie's books. In 1933, they travelled together to Spain, Annemarie writing articles and Marianne taking photographs, for publication in a Swiss magazine.

Marianne Breslauer: self-portrait

 Erika Mann, playwright, dramatist, actor, daughter of Thomas Mann, was a close friend of Annemarie. Photo taken at Annemarie's house in Switzerland.

Erika Mann:photo credit
Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/175

Inge Westendarp, another friend, also taken in Annemarie's Swiss house.

Inge Westendarp: Photo credit
Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/175

Annemarie met Barbara Wright, photographer, when she was living in Tehran. She and Barbara later toured the southern states of the USA, writing articles and taking photographs, to alert the public to the desperate poverty of many people at that time, still suffering from the effects of the Depression.
This photo was taken in Persia/Iran, near Tehran

Barbara Wright: photo credit
Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/175