Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Summer turned into wet winter; winter into a glorious, wildflowery spring; spring into the first scorches of summer – and just like that, time crept up on us, classes ended, exams were taken, and it was time to leave this radiant place we have truly come to think of as home.

We fell in love with Crete. Really, like you fall and, more importantly, stay in love with a person. We were infatuated at first, then had many quarrels with her, saw her ugly sides, felt the cold of her bad shoulder; then we made up, were kissed by her sun, ate her stuffed zucchini flowers, swam in her Libyan sea, danced and sang and played as her sun rose – and did it all over again. We really became members of our small village’s community, and that of the city below. Ana began speaking rustic Greek with a Cretan-Brazilian accent. The daily joys and sheer quality of life started really overwhelming the bureaucratic hellishness of living in Greece.

So I started seriously thinking about becoming a citizen, doing the obligatory military service (which for me, as an American-born Greekling, would only be three months’ worth), getting us the necessary papers, and making a go of it for the long haul. I spent months hanging around government offices and making phone calls in an attempt to learn exactly what I had to do in order to complete the process, tracked down and gathered all the necessary documents – birth, marriage, baptism records stretching back in time to my great-grandfather, who was born on the island of Cephallonia in 1878 – and checked and double-checked with my local bureaucrat to make sure I was doing everything right. I even called the central office in Athens to make sure. Yes, they assured me, all is as our colleague in Rethymno says.

And so came the day when I went to hand everything in. And, as you’ve probably guessed, there and then I learned, when the attendant happened to double-check something in the giant book of draconian Greek immigration laws, that all I had been told was wrong. That due to my particular status the citizenship process must be initiated from my American city of permanent residence through the local consulate. That I have to go in person several times over a year or so with witnesses testifying to blah blah blah. And so on. In other words, ton poulo. And the best part: If you’re not out of the country by the end of June, Mr. League, you will be seized by the federal police and forcibly made to serve in the army for a year.

As you can imagine, I was shocked, and made various attempts to begin sentences starting with “But I was told that…” I was met with indifferent shrugs and “You should have asked so-and-so.” But I did! “Then so-and-so.” But I did! “Then such-and-such.” But I did! I did! “Eh, too bad. NEXT!”

So we had to pack it up and move it out, on pretty short notice. Okay, I could have spent my year’s salary at the music school on a lawyer, to research the hell out of the whole affair. But I fell prey to my rearing in a country with some measure of efficiency in the public service sector, and made the fatal mistake of actually trusting those people to do their jobs. I overlooked the fact that most of them got said jobs because they are the child, cousin, nephew, or mistress of someone owed political favors, that they receive no training, stay at the office for an average of three hours a day, do no actual work, and want the job in the first place only because according to Greek law public servants can’t be fired.

Not that I’m bitter. Oh, I was. Was I ever. But at this point we’re looking forward to returning to Boston, for various reasons.

The last several weeks have been a blur of constant movement, travel and change, as will be the next few. I’m writing this from Maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro (an ironic homage to one of Brazil’s most beloved musicians, who was mortally afraid of airplanes). We are in the middle of what may be the most complicated move of my life, which is saying something. Our worldly possessions are spread between three continents; I’m on my way to play at a festival in the Turkish-occupied northern part of Cyprus (which I’ll write about once it’s happened, since it’s a historic event and pretty interesting), then back to Brazil for two days, then finally back to sunny Boston via an eleven-hour layover in Santiago de Chile (that’s what you get for traveling on redeemed miles).

We came to Brazil for Ana’s father’s 60th birthday, which was great, as Brazil mostly is.
Despite the sickening poverty, inequality, corruption, and racism, it’s a vibrant, welcoming, love-saturated country full of the most genuinely friendly people I’ve ever met. And, best of all, I got hugged by a tree sloth. Unfortunately our camera broke, so I can’t provide any photos of the experience. Rest assured it was darn cute.

Well, I suppose this is the end of the current phase of my blogging career, since technically I’m not in the eastern Mediterranean anymore. But who knows…

Thanks for reading!

Walkin' the Green Line

A few years ago, my friend and frequent collaborator Mehmet Ali Sanlikol called me up to discuss some ideas about a project exploring the Greek and Turkish music traditions of his homeland, Cyprus. With recent political developments suggesting that a peaceful solution to the conflict between the two groups there may not be an impossibility, the time seemed appropriate; so we did a lot of research, picked a repertoire, put together a concert, and eventually made a recording in Boston (featuring a Greek Cypriot violinist, Theodoulos Vakanas). The disc, which as far as we know is the very first collaboration between Greek and Turkish Cypriots playing music from both traditions, was released early this year on Turkey’s Kalan Records, and you can check it out here: http://www.dunyainc.org.

Mehmet sent me an e-mail a few months ago announcing that we had been invited to perform at a festival in Famagusta in Northern Cyprus, and I was intrigued by the possibility of traveling to this officially non-existent nation. Since it was created by the invasion and occupation of the Turkish army, the expulsion of the Greek population, and the confiscation of their property, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is condemned by the international community and is only recognized by – guess who? – Turkey, on which it depends for just about everything that English tourists can’t provide. There’s all kinds of information out there about the recent history of this troubled island, and since I’m not a scholar on the subject I probably shouldn’t say much more about it; but basically the majority Greek population of the island wanted to unite with Greece, the minority Turkish population understandably disagreed, partisan violence and a Greek military coup ensued, the Turkish army invaded, and now there’s a UN-patrolled no man’s land separating the Turkish non-state to the north (37% of the island) and the Greek republic (a recent EU member) to the south.

There are all kinds of complexities inherent in visiting Cyprus; Turkish citizens aren’t allowed to enter the Greek side, and anyone with a stamp in their passport from the Turkish North is barred from entering Greece (so most people, including yours truly, have their tourist visas stamped on a piece of paper instead). For obvious reasons, one can only enter Northern Cyprus via Turkey. This meant a complicated journey for me, since by the time the gig was confirmed we had already finalized our plans to move out of our Cretan home and spend a few weeks in Brazil visiting with family before making the move back to Boston. So I boarded a plane in Belo Horizonte one chilly July morning, and thirty-two hours and three connections later stepped out onto the sweltering tarmac of the officially non-existent Lefkosa International Airport.

My first impressions of Northern Cyprus were about what I expected of a country cut off from the rest of the world – everything was a bit dingy and beat-up, looking like it was bought second-hand a decade or so ago. The guy at passport control asked if I wanted a stamp in my passport or on a piece of paper, without me even bringing it up, which I found pretty telling. The heat and humidity were truly oppressive – I think I can say, after spending four days there, that it’s the hottest place I’ve ever been. I later learned that Famagusta (which isn’t the “real” name of the place, but a Frankish corruption of the Greek toponym Ammochostos, or “buried in the sand”) is renowned for having the stickiest climate on the island.
The performance, which took place in the ancient Roman theatre by the sea, went well, despite our relative lack of group rehearsal (I arrived at midnight on a Tuesday and the performance was the next evening), and was met with an enthusiastic response. The audience was rather small – which, quite frankly, I expected, considering the somewhat controversial nature of the event (even though it was officially advertised in a way that downplayed the Greek component) – but mobbed Mehmet after the show with their congratulations, and their expressions of gratitude to all of us were truly heartfelt.

I have to say that the festival treated us really well – aside from the standard amenities of transportation, meals, and accommodations, they really went out of their way to make it possible for us to get to know the northern part of the island, giving us several extra nights in the hotel and even providing a van and driver to take us around to various places of interest. These included Mehmet’s ancestral village on the northern tip of the island, the divided capital of Lefkosa/Lefkosia/Nikosia, and the old city of Famagusta. Much of what I saw reminded me of other places I’ve visited in either Greece or Turkey, albeit much less well maintained and even somewhat deserted. After being somewhat creeped out by the omnipresence in Turkey of pictures and statues of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state (you can barely turn your head without coming face to face with the guy, no matter where you go), his relative absence in Cyprus was refreshing. One feature that stands out, in both Famagusta and Lefkosa, is the large number of imposing French gothic cathedrals (built in the wake of Guy Lusignan’s purchase of the island from the Templars in 1192) – nearly all of which were converted to mosques by the conquering Ottomans in the sixteenth century. St. Nicholas Cathedral (AKA Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque) in Famagusta, its gargoyles and gothic windows flanked by minarets and palm trees, is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

We all agreed – the two Turkish percussionists and local boy Mehmet included – that the overall vibe was really strange and not a little uncomfortable. I’m sure this was partly due to the fact that our hotel was itself a bizarre place, featuring a sleazy casino (they’re illegal in the Greek South, so they’re everywhere in the North), prostitutes, panpipe versions of Mariah Carey songs pumped over the PA day and night, an elevator that broke on several occasions, trapping people inside, and staff and management ranging from indifferent (“no, you may not have another towel”) to belligerent (we were sitting on the hotel’s private beach when a non-guest tried to come for a swim; the security guard grabbed at him and when he resisted hit him in the face, producing a noise worthy of a Batman comic.). But the most unsettling thing by far was the hotel’s proximity – about five meters – to Marash, the former resort area that was abandoned during the violence of the Turkish invasion in 1974 and is now a ghost town of crumbling hotels and restaurants. These dangerously teetering buildings loom pale and spectral behind the barbed-wire fence that separates this UN-patrolled buffer zone from the English and Turkish tourists sunning themselves on the beach and splashing around in the tepid sea. When I arrived it was night, so I didn’t realize the extent of the area; but the next day I saw it up close and was really impressed by the desolation. So that's what war zones look like.

Unfortunately my camera broke before we left Greece, so I wasn’t able to take any pictures of these things, nor the sloth that I got to hug in Brazil (which is really a shame), so that’s why there’s no visual evidence on display here aside from the words on your screen. But hell, that’s the way they used to do it, and if it was good enough for Mark Twain and Herodotus, it’s damn well good enough for me.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A History of Violence

I've joked before about the lawlessness of this part of Crete. Rethymno recently became world famous for a week, thanks to the hash-growing outlaws of Zoniana, and in general the region is considered to be the most criminal in Greece. A good deal of this "criminality" is the product of the prevailing attitude of self-righteous entitlement that many Cretans share with the rest of the Greek world (and humanity in general), combined with the native proclivity for doing whatever the hell one wants, particularly if someone else says otherwise; most of the time this doesn't directly harm anyone else in a serious way, which is why I place the word in quotation marks.

Usually this manifests itself in the form of, for example, driving huge 4x4 pickup trucks in a dangerously irresponsible way, unilaterally ignoring all traffic signals and overtaking whoever is front of you no matter how fast they're going and regardless of what's coming from the opposite direction. Of course, this type of behavior does more than occasionally result in accidents and not a few fatalities; this is chillingly attested to by the numerous makeshift memorial chapels which one sees every few hundred meters on roads here. And then there's the complete disdain for anything and everything official and centralized, like utility and phone bills, which apparently about half the inhabitants of the aforementioned village of Zoniana habitually neglect to pay (and the powers that be are too scared to cut off their services). Not to mention many locals' incredible disrespect for the spectacular natural beauty and resources with which Nature chose to bless this island. Trash is everywhere, tossed out of the windows of the aforementioned trucks, dumped in gorges, rivers, and the sea, littering the streets and courtyards of the most picturesque villages and washing up on the "pristine" beaches on which a large part of the Cretan economy depends.

It's not just in the cannabis-producing mountain villages of Rethymno's interior that lawlessness abounds. There's a disturbing amount of violence here that seems to be particular to the province, judging from what people (both locals and transplants from other parts of Crete) say, and what's reported through the media. A few weeks ago a shepherd in a village south of us assaulted his neighbor, breaking both of his arms, because the victim had developed and sold a plot of land that the pastor and his flock had previously used as a shortcut on their route from field to field. And just the other day, in the historic district of Rethymno, a fellow student of mine at the University was stabbed to death in the middle of the street by a local man (who three days before had finished serving a ten-year prison term for another murder) because the former threw a half-eaten sandwich on the ground and it happened to land on the latter's shoe.

Now, I certainly don't mean to imply that murders of this kind are an everyday occurrence around here, or that the narrow alleys of the medieval city are crawling with criminal sociopaths, ready to slack their blood-lust at the first perceived slight. But they do happen, and with some regularity. Right around the time we moved here last summer a lyra player was ambushed and stabbed in an alleyway by some goons after a performance, apparently because he didn't play the song they requested. And shortly before that, a passerby complained about someone's dangerous driving in front of a school, for which he was shot in the head. And so on.

No, as often as they do occur, these sort of things don't happen every day. What does go on every day, though, is the less spectacular but more insidious trafficking in drugs, weapons, and prostitution that thrives in and around the nightclubs of Rethymno. The exploitation of immigrants and refugees, particularly women and children, has become something of a crisis here, and not just in Crete; yesterday Amnesty International roundly condemned Greece for its stance on many human rights issues, particularly these. This situation is aided and abetted by the remarkably apathetic efforts of the local police force, which is so inefficient that demonstrations protesting their inactivity have also become a common phenomenon. (When people can make off with entire, intact ATM machines, you know there's a problem with law enforcement.)

Why? Why is this particular part of this particular island so rampantly criminal? Everyone has their theory, and since I haven't done a PhD on the subject, my own isn't the most objective. But it seems to me that a lot of it - the disdain for authority and ready violence - may be due to a few historical factors and their modern-day legacy. Crete has been occupied on and off (mostly on) by belligerent and exploitative foreign powers since the Arabs invaded in the early 9th century, and the freedom-loving local populace was for centuries on end either planning, conducting, or licking it wounds after an armed revolt. Every household had swords and later guns aplenty, everyone knew how to use them, and every man could expect to participate in a mass rebellion at least once in his life, particularly during the Turkish occupation. The rural population was highly insular, suffered from extreme poverty, depended on a tight network of family ties for survival, and deadly violence was an everyday reality. Naturally, the personal qualities that were cultivated during this period - distrust of the powers that be, swift and decisive action in response to threats, extreme bravery in the face of danger, and constant readiness to meet violence with violence - were passed down from generation to generation. And it continues to be, for obvious reasons: it was less than sixty years ago that the Nazis invaded and the locals put up a bloody, fierce, and ultimately successful resistance.

The problem is that we don't live in those times anymore, and whether you teach your kids outright to bear arms and use them when provoked or simply provide the conditions for violent impulses to flourish rather than be reined in and channeled elsewhere, Western society has decided that settling differences and taking what you want by means of harming people is no longer a viable option (at least not until the stakes are judged big enough to use the army). And much of Rethymno hasn't gotten the message, apparently.

Okay, maybe it's not quite as simple as that. But I do see the little kids in this village running around with toy guns, "shooting" each other and arguing over who gets to be the outlaws and who has to play the unpopular part of the hated police; I hear many of their parents and grandparents speaking in admiring tones about the latest daring, authority-defying acts on the part of local criminals; I see their older siblings wasting and destroying their lives with drugs and related activities.

And, every once in a while, I get invited to their funerals.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bright Week Weddings... and a Funeral

I was awakened late last night by the raucous sound of a dozen or so voices roughly singing in tandem outside my window. Hypnos must have had me in a particularly tight net; I'm generally an extremely light sleeper and wake up every hour or so during the night, but this time it took me about thirty seconds to understand where I was, the approximate hour, and what was happening. The fog gradually cleared; I realized that I was in my bed, it was about 3 am or so, and there was a group of extremely drunk men somewhere out in the street - most likely in front of the tavern, which is just two doors down from us - repeating more or less in unison the couplets sung by a single reveler, who could just be heard over the instruments (lyra and laouto) accompanying him. This took me by surprise particularly because a celebration at the local tavern was the last thing I would have expected this evening - there had been a funeral in the village during the day and normally that means no music, dancing, singing, or public revelry of any sort by anyone for a certain period (for the family of the deceased it holds for quite some time, sometimes many months or even years if they are of particularly traditional mentality).

Though it was unusually loud, the singers weren't so drunk that it was terribly unpleasant, and I was just starting to get used to it and debating whether or not to close the window when there was a sudden burst of automatic rifle fire, which echoed tremendously off the mountains to the east and came rushing back across the otherwise silent valley. It was followed by shouts of encouragement, and soon by another two or three bursts, at which point I shut the window and eventually fell back asleep with a pillow over my head, silently cursing the lax security at Albanian arms depots (one of the main reasons why Cretan villagers have more Kalashnikovs than the Greek special forces).

Upon waking this morning, I learned that it was the local army unit which was celebrating at the tavern, which meant that their weapons probably weren't bought on the black market from shifty Balkan arms dealers, although you never know. A bit later I was informed that the deceased was none other than the first cousin of the tavern owner, who, along with his son, nephew, and son-in-law, constitute the traditional orchestra for all the musical events held there. This gave me quite a pause, since this is a small rural community where most everyone over the age of sixty still wears traditional clothing, people consciously retain their local dialect and accent, are generally very conscious and proud of doing things the way they've always been done and constantly invoke the traditions of their forefathers to justify everything from cattle rustling to bearing illegal arms. So I would expect the tradition of mourning to be observed by the deceased's family, at least. In fact, I remember when an elderly neighbor died last summer and I was advised by my landlord not to play music in the front part of the house, since it could be heard by someone passing by on the street and it would be considered disrespectful. "Even though you're a foreigner and nobody expects you to observe these rules," he said, "it would be appreciated by us locals, out of respect."

And yet, a few hours after their cousin is laid in the ground, the bereaved family fulfills their contractual obligation with an important client, despite the transgression of not only the unwritten social rules that it implies, but the religious ones as well. In fact, when I think about I realize that the deceased passed away several days ago, and there have been nightly festivities at the tavern since then - this is, after all, prime wedding and baptism season, Easter having been celebrated just last weekend. Of course, I'm not one to judge, and I certainly don't mean to; I just find it terribly interesting and indicative of how much things have changed here, even in this self-proclaimed stronghold of traditional culture and values. I know for a fact, from countless first- and second-hand anecdotes, that a generation ago weddings and baptisms were routinely rescheduled because of deaths, and many musicians went for years without playing in public because of mourning obligations. In some places this still holds; my friend Pericles, a teacher living on the particularly traditional island of Karpathos, has told me many times of months-long periods without music because of collective mourning in a community where nearly everyone is somehow related.

Of course, I believe strongly in the cathartic power of music, and will be the first to urge people (in advance, of course) to sing, dance, and celebrate life at my own funeral, whenever it be and whatever the circumstances. I sincerely hope that my neighbors found some measure of comfort and hope in the face of their loss by providing music, food, and drink for an evening to a company of young men, many of whom are no doubt far from home for the first time in their lives, and are in the midst of the intense boredom and ennui that is Greek military service.

As much as it saddens me to say it, though, I sincerely doubt that my friends at the tavern went ahead with this and the other scheduled events of the week for these or other therapeutic or altruistic reasons. It seems that the Euro has assumed first place in the hierarchy of priorities even here in this sleepy village, where local shepherds take out loans to buy a third car, every ten-year-old has the latest mobile telephone-internet-camera-GPS gadget, and people are slowly but surely falling victim to the "Western" disease of work and stress as a way of life.

Oh well. It's theirs for the taking.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Πως το τριβουν, άραγε;

Well, almost three months have passed since my last entry here, and all kinds of things have been afoot. I'll start how I always seem to, with the weather. Shortly after my last post, we had a massive country-wide snowstorm that cancelled nearly all flights to and from anywhere in Greece for almost a whole weekend. Crete, especially the western part of the island, was in on the fun in a big way, resulting in the above landscape behind our house and shrinking my brother's already short visit to just over 24 hours on Greek soil. He still managed to make some friends though.
March was full of sun, blooming flowers, and trips to the beach... until a few weeks ago, when winter woke up from its nap and returned in full force. The locals (who, like locals everywhere in the world, consider it their duty to do so) grimace and complain. I have a suspicion that it's really going to be spring now, though, because the wild orchids and tulips are starting to show themselves. The local Late Minoan cemetary supposedly boasts a dozen rare varieties of orchid. (Where else in the world can you say that?)

The city of Rethymno has for some reason become famous throughout Crete and indeed even further afield for the Carnival celebrations that historically take place here; people come from all over the island and beyond for the weekend before the beginning of Lent to dress up in strange costumes, get drunk on incredibly overpriced booze, and take a few giant strides towards deafness, complements of the malfunctioning loudspeakers set up in every corner of the old city and pumping out the worst that Eurotrash techno has to offer. I suppose the judgemental tone of that last sentence tells you what I think of the whole affair, but judging from what we saw the few times that we ventured into the city, what was started centuries ago by the lusty Venetian occupiers in the spirit of their homeland's famed masquerades seems to have degenerated into a mostly characterless college block party that would probably look, sound, and smell the same anywhere in the Western world (although probably at Halloween everywhere outside of the Balkans). I say mostly characterless; the presence of the various clubs and their floats, like this charming couple, does lend a community atmosphere to the proceedings (the floats, by the way, begin randomly appearing in seemingly random locations of the city two or three weeks beforehand, surely puzzling the chance visitor), and the definite highlight is the appearance of King Carnivalos, a bizarrre greenish dolphin-like creature, who addresses the assembled multitudes at the start of the parade and satirizes with withering honesty (and not a small amount of obscenity) the various local foibles of the past year.

By the way, Carnival season in the Orthodox world starts with Tsichnopempti, the "Thursday of Roasting Meat" - technically the last day of red meat before the Lenten fast (very widely observed in these here parts, I can assure you), and more or less analogous to Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras on the Catholic calendar - although really Fat Tuesday is actually the Catholic version of the Orthodox Clean Monday. Got it?

Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα in Greek) is the true beginning of the Lenten fast in the Orthodox world, when all non-aquatic meat and cheese (I know, there's no aquatic cheese. Hmmm, maybe in Japan?) - as well as other carnal activity - becomes off limits until Easter. In practical terms it's actually a holdover from pre-Christian times, a fertility ritual tied to the change of seasons and the banishing of winter. Rural communities throughout Greece and the rest of the Balkans traditionally celebrate Clean Monday in, well, the dirtiest possible ways, both figuratively and literally. In my grandmother's village of Galaxidi, the climax of the festivities involves everyone running through the streets pelting each other with colored flour (as one old man said to me, "The next day you sneeze and purple bread comes out."). In most places people paint their faces black and dress up in costumes - particularly involving the skins, horns, and bells of goats and sheep - to scare away the evil spirits of winter and invoke the famed virility of the billy goat. Many places in Greece still preserve customs that are outright pornographic, involving shocking pantomimes with giant phalluses, and there is almost always something involving gender role reversal, from temporary gynocracy to mock marriages (and sometimes public mock consummations of said marriages!) between two village men, one of whom is generally done up like a Chattanooga whore, lipstick, garter, and all.

And the music of Carnival... all over Greece, especially on the mainland, the villagers shun the more sophisticated, urban sounds of the violin, clarinet, and lutes, and demand the primal sounds of bagpipes, shawms, and percussion to incite them to the Dionysian ecstasy demanded by the occasion. The zournas, a wooden oboe-like instrument with eardrum-piercing volume, is the favorite in many parts of northern Greece, particularly where Roma (gypsy) people live; it's always accompanied by the daouli, a large bass drum. The gaida, the Greek mainland bagpipe, is also favored in the northern reaches of the country, particularly near the Bulgarian border. On many islands the tsambouna - the primitive goatskin bagpipe whose praises I've previously sung here - makes its presence felt and heard at this time of year. On many islands and in Athens, I should add, as a very serious revival of the instrument is underway in the capital.

Here in Crete there are a few places where the Clean Monday festivities retain their old, rural character, and the locals re-enact the same rituals that their grandparents and great-grandparents did. One of these places is the village of Meronas in the mountainous Amari region south of Rethymno, where we went with our friend Manolis, one of the five or so people who actively play the Cretan tsambouna, or askobandoura (ασκομπαντούρα). The event took place in and around the village hall, revelers spilling out into the flagstone-strewn courtyard, dancing to the sounds of the lyra and bagpipes, and devouring huge quantites of traditional Lenten food - stuffed grape leaves, fava beans, halva, lagana (a sesame and poppyseed-topped flatbread), homemade wine, and, of course, that Cretan specialty famous the world over: garden snails pan-fried in olive oil and rosemary.

I was surprised at how many rituals the very organized locals acted out over the course of the day, from the undoubtedly archaic custom of young men dressed in animal hides and wearing goat-bells (plus gorilla masks, for a modern touch) running through the crowd making noise at random intervals, to the more topical "arkoudiaris" or traveling bear-tamer pantomime and the obviously historical skit/ritual dance involving a Turkish bey being made a fool of by his serfs. One event that drew my attention was the local version of the "Piperi" dance, well-known in many other parts of Greece, during which the dancers are instructed at intervals to simulate "grinding the pepper" on the ground with various - and progressively more suggestive - parts of their bodies. You can easily imagine the hilarity that ensues, as it is patently impossible to preserve even a shred of dignity while engaged in such an act. The spectacle is rendered even more gut-wrenchingly ridiculous by the fact that the leader of the dance patrols the perimeter during the grinding intervals, belt in hand, and lashes away at any of the participants who aren't performing the task with the appropriate enthusiasm.

By far the tragicomic highlight of the event was the mock wedding. The bride, a grotesquely transvested fellow complete with imposing mustache, pot belly, and messily applied hot pink lipstick, rode in on a terrified donkey, which, after the groom was chosen and drunkenly hoisted up to ride beside his beloved, fainted. The passengers tumbled to the ground amid shrieks, shouts, and cries of mixed character, and there were a few awkward moments while the assembled crowd wondered if the poor beast had breathed its last. But, fortunately, the formidable Cretan knowledge of animal husbandry came through in the form of a few old fellows who successfully resuscitated the donkey to the lusty cheers of the crowd, thus saving the villagers from any serious contemplation of what they had just witnessed.

The celebration ended with us playing our bagpipes and the last remaining revelers singing along, arm-in-arm, as they so often do here in Crete. Και του χρόνου!

March 25 was Greek Independence Day, when the country celebrates the 1821 revolution against the Ottoman Turks and honors the daring heroes who pulled it off (a great many of whom were of Albanian descent, by the way). What better place to celebrate this holiday than... Istanbul?

We went to the City (as the Greeks call it, referring to its status for a millenium before the Turkish conquest as the absolute center of Greek intellectual and artistic life) for a few days, and despite the pollution, strange weather (it snowed), and ubiquitous Spanish tourists, had a wonderful time. Not that I have anything against Spaniards, or think that they shouldn't be allowed to travel wherever and in however large numbers they please; it's just strange to be in Turkey and be accosted at every turn by restaurant touts shouting "bueno, bonito, barato!" at me. Luckily we took the time to visit a friend who lives far away from the center of the city in what amounts to, as he described it, an unspoiled Anatolian village near the old ruined Bosphorus fortress of Anadolu Hisari; he lives in an old Ottoman mansion with a terraced backyard garden the size of a football field. The last thing I expected to see in that chaotic city of 12 million people!

The other highlights of the trip were our discovery of a sweetshop that only sold baklava-type things made entirely out of pistachioes; several visits to mosques during prayers (with some really astounding chanters); and a sufi ceremony: swirling robes and Rumi.

Things move slowly here; as I type these last words, April is ending and the Easter lamb has been digested (not by me, but anyway). Stay tuned for more...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fiddle Me This

Winter is in full force here, which means it's really, really wet, and, here in the village, cold. Although we have had blessedly welcome spells of sun - with breathtaking views of the completely snow-covered Psiloritis and his rivals to the west - for the most part the weather has been wet. Paint-peeling, mold-inducing, goat-stinking wet. The humidity here is astounding; if we don't air out the place vigorously whenever it's not raining, evil-looking black mold grows on the ceilings, the walls drip, and in general it starts to feel like a medieval castle. Which makes me wonder what the hell people did all the thousands of years before central heating and industrial-strength mold spray. I suppose they had the fire going all the time and they just took the pneumonia as it came. It's impressive how much colder and windier it is here than on the coast; the really mountainous villages must already be getting regular snowfalls by now. We've also had some misadventures (amusing in hindsight) with our inexpertly installed front door, which had the charming characteristic of letting in huge amounts of rainwater. One night as we were sitting at the kitchen table with our friend Kostis drinking tea, the wind suddenly picked up, the heavens opened, releasing a truly unbelievable barrage of hail, and within five minutes our entire living room was an inch deep in freezing cold water. We rolled up the rug, stashed the instruments on higher ground, and bailed for hours. The next day the neighborhood kids made hail-people.

I'm gradually getting more involved in the musical life of Rethymno. I'm playing violin with the chorus of the Rethymno Asia Minor Society, which is comprised of descendants of Greek refugees from the Aegean coast of modern-day Turkey who were resettled in Rethymno in 1922 during the population exchange which resulted from the Greek state's disastrous empire-building gluttony in the wake of World War I. The refugees brought their decidedly eastern culture with them, including a wealth of instrumental and vocal music that had a profound and fateful impact on Greek popular music and still resonates powerfully today all over the Greek diaspora. The choir sings these old songs, which they learned from their grandparents' generation (most of the members are roughly 40-60 years old). This has given me a new perspective on this repertoire (collectively referred to as "Mikrasiatika" - Asia Minor music - in Greek), hearing the songs sung by living people with a real context for them. I've heard and played many of them countless times, and adore them for their matchless beauty; but always felt an experiential distance between myself and this music, its creators, and the people who made them mean what they mean, especially when compared to the Greek music that has a tangible context for me - for example, the traditional music of Kalymnos or Crete. But spending time with these people who grew up hearing their grandparents and parents sing them, who listened to refugee musicians playing the ud, santouri, and other "Turkish" instruments at family celebrations, and who have an entire universe of memories and emotions tied up with the contours of their melodies and the feel of their words in the mouth, has made me feel a little closer to them. I realize that these peoples' experience of this particular music is not unlike my experience of the Irish and Greek island music that I love so much - it boils down to an immigrant experience. Though their immigrant ancestors traveled a shorter geographic distance than mine, and though the linguistic and cultural barriers that they encountered upon their arrival in their new home weren't quite as daunting, there's a common feeling of reaching for something at once familiar and foreign, part of one's self and part of a past that's gone for good.

We rehearse in an old Turkish mosque, known as the Neratzi, which was originally a Venetian church and whose towering minaret looks like it would collapse in a second if they removed the scaffolding supports. It also serves as the city's central odeion or music school and is one of the most atmospheric live music venues I've visited recently. In this setting, something happened at one of my first rehearsals with the choir which served to crystallize for me everything I just wrote about in the preceding paragraph. One of the singers brought with him an old Cretan Turk (in other words, more than likely an ethnic Greek whose family had converted to Islam) who had been born in Rethymno in 1913 and was deported along with his family in 1922 to be resettled somewhere on the Turkish coast as per the population exchange. At the age of 97, having lived nearly all his life as a forced immigrant, he decided to make one last trip, a first return to his birthplace. The director of the choir turned to us and called up a classic song of the 1920s that was a big hit in the Cretan Turkish community, as an homage to this old man who had come so far - so much farther than the flight from Izmir - to find some small measure of comfort in the waning moments of his life under the sun that shone on his childhood, to feel under his feet the island that was mother to his ancestors for God knows how many centuries. Though he was nearly deaf, his ears pricked up with the first notes of the instrumental introduction, and he was clearly transported by the song. Tears flowing, he thanked us in pure Rethymnian Greek and told us how much it meant to him to be back home.

I've also started a regular gig playing Brazilian music in a local bar, which is an experience as strange as it sounds.

In November I was hired to teach traditional violin at the Μουσικό Γυμνάσιο/Λύκειο Ρεθύμνου - the Music Middle and High School of Rethymno, one of the two such institutions on the island (the other is in the capital, Herakleio). From what I hear, this is a fairly common phenomenon in Greece, at least in larger cities, some of which have several. It's not quite an arts or music magnet school - it's public; anyone can go as long as they apply in time and it doesn't fill up - and the amount of time the kids spend taking music lessons and rehearsing in various ensembles is immense compared to what I had at my arts magnet public school when I was 12. Well over half the faculty are music teachers, either adjunct (like me) or full-time, and the kids have an impressive range of instruments and styles to choose from, ranging from orchestral standards like cello, piano, and oboe to bouzouki, laouto, lyra, and guitar, as well as classical and traditional instrumental and vocal ensembles.
This being the epicenter of the Cretan lyra tradition, there's no shortage of aspiring young players tearing it up in between (and during) classes, and they have some of the best representatives of the local traditions as teachers at the school, including the lyra virtuoso and askobandoura (Cretan bagpipe) player Alexandros Papadakis. One of the most common sights I witness upon entering the grounds of the school is a kid with an oversized lyra on his knee, ripping away with the bow at an alarming speed, flanked by two or three of his classmates pounding on laouta while a line of girls dance a graceful malevizioti as a crowd of onlookers sing mantinades and take pictures with their cellphones.

The environment at the school is fairly chaotic, as you can imagine; not just because of the noise, but more due to the astoundingly disorganized nature of the enterprise. When the school approached me about the job, I decided to be up front about things and inquire at the scondary education office whether I was allowed to be a government employee (which all teachers here are) even though I'm not a citizen and am here on a student visa. "But you're Greek, right?" They asked. Well, kind of. "So it's ok. No problem." A month or so later they called to inform me that I couldn't be hired, after all, but the headmaster made a phone call ("Ela re Giorgo, where else are we going to find somebody in Rethymno who plays traditional violin?") and an exception was made. This atmosphere or informality extends to paying the teachers, as well; we get paid not twice a month, like most Greek employees, but (and I quote) "whenever the Ministry of Education puts money in the bank account".

The New Year started with a bang - literally. Several of them, in fact, as our landlord fired off a few rounds with his shotgun outside our window while we were cooking dinner with my in-laws. They came from Brazil to experience "real" Greek and Cretan culture, and were not disappointed; aside from my father-in-law's five trips to the Parthenon while staying in Athens ("a coisa mais linda que eu ja vi na minha vida" - "the most beautiful thing I've seen in my life") and two to Knossos, the exacavation of the grand Minoan palace outside of the Cretan capitol Herakleio, they ate wild rabbit, drank raki with stivania-clad, moustachioed villagers, listened to old-fashioned Chaniot violin music in traditional kafeneia, endured the harrowingly precipitous drive to the south coast of Rethymno province to see the sun set over the Libyan Sea, and made friends with an extraordinarily hirsute local tavern keeper who they nicknamed "o lobesomem" - "wolfman". So naturally we spent New Year's Eve cooking Indian food with the apothecary of spices Ana brought back from Bombay and played bossa nova until 4 am. We even had an intercontinental jam session with my brother via Skype (my father-in-law lays down a pretty nice samba groove on the spoons). Ana recorded a few videos of the occasion, but I don't think we're quite ready to take the world by storm, so I won't post them. As she said when e-mailing the incriminating films to our collaborators, "Just remember Jobim's line, 'people who sing out of tune have a heart, too'".

I recently took my first final exams at the University, which one the whole wasn't too different from what I'm used to, except for the first day, when my test was cancelled because of a bomb threat. We were directed by a nervous secretary to "evacuate the auditorium and move to the hallway", presumably because if a bomb went off in the room and we were all crammed into the adjacent corridor we would be completely safe and nothing would fall on our heads. When it became evident that there would be neither an explosion nor an exam, I went home. My initials efforts to learn about the make-up were met with confusion, the characteristic Greek shrug-frown-raised eyebrows-protruding lower lip-palms heavenward, and the speculation that it might be rescheduled for September. September? Yep, confirmed a classmate, that happened to me twice. Fortunately they managed to squeeze it in during the exam period, but it got me to thinking. The professor didn't even bother to show up for the exam the first time. Maybe he didn't want to travel down from Athens, and made the bomb threat himself. Actually, now that I think about it, he didn't come for the make-up either.

On February 2, the feast day of Iemanja (the Brazilian sea goddess), the elements saw fit to smile upon us, so we went down to the sea, offered some flowers, and Ana danced for her.

But the most wonderful thing that's happened recently is that I've found a musical mentor in the person of Manolis Manioudakis. Once or twice a week, I make the hour-long trip west to Chania where Manolis runs a kafeneio, which also serves as the headquarters of "Charchalis", the Traditional Musicians' Association of Chania. Named after the most important local violinist of the early twentieth century, the association sponsors cultural events, concerts, and the occasional recording, but its primary missions are to serve as a gathering place for all lovers of the region's traditional music, and most importantly, to pass on these musical traditions to young people. This last objective is furthered to a great degree by Manolis, who gives lessons on violin, laouto, and lyra to anyone who's interested, completely free of charge. On any given afternoon, the visitor to the kafeneio will see two or three aspiring violinists, ranging in age from seven to their late teens (and older on occasion), spread out among the kafeneio's tables and chairs, diligently sawing away at a new syrto, while their fathers or grandfathers
drink coffee and raki, read the newspaper, and engage in animated discussions with the regulars, who stop every now and again to comment on the young students' progress and offer unsolicited advice ("Now, I don't play the fiddle myself, but I know for a fact that you should be ending that phrase with a down bow").

In between making coffee, pouring generous cups of raki and wine and dishing out plates of mezedes like Sfakian herb pies and home-cured olives, Manolis sits close by each student in turn, listens attentively, and, with the patience of Mother Theresa, shows them where to put their fingers and, over time, how to mold the wild melodies into a musical conversation.

The kafeneio is something of a museum and musical panoply at the same time, every available wall space covered with framed photographs of the great Chaniot violinists, laouto, and lyra players of the past - each one numbered for easy identification - and a floor-to-ceiling cabinet bristling with instruments in various states of readiness, tuning, and (dis)repair.
I have seen many the random passerby spontaneously enter, groceries or paintbrush in hand, gaping at the musical pantheon on display and asking excited questions, to which Manolis responds with warmth, humor, and an infectious love for the music and everyone who makes it (or, as he often says, "anyone who tries").

Manolis himself is the last great violinist of his generation, the last representative of an old way of playing the fiddle and interpreting the dance music of western Crete. Seventy-five years old, he grew up in an era of tremendous poverty and hardships - he was a young man during World War II, the German occupation, and the Greek civil war - and his natural inclination towards music led him to "steal" as much as he could from the great musicians he heard at weddings and feasts. (Including his father, who was a noted violinist and gave him encouragement and support from the beginning: from the time that his father came home early one day and "caught" him surreptitiously playing the violin, he declined all musical job offers and insisted that Manolis be hired instead.) The very first time I heard him play I knew that I wanted to learn from him - he has a beautiful, sensuous touch, a sneaky, unpredictable way of turning the tunes inside out without ever losing track of the fundamental rhythmic cycles that govern Cretan dance music, and a powerful lift and drive to his playing despite the inconveniences of age. I like to get there not long after he opens, when there are just a few regulars and we can sit for hours picking apart the intricacies of bowing, phrasing, and the history of the music. He has great stories (like the time he went to play for a wedding in an isolated village and the locals wouldn't let him leave - they kept him there for almost a month, playing every day at baptisms and parties until his frantic, uninformed parents mobilized the police) and valuable insights into where this music comes from and how much of its power and magic lies in the details that many young players ignore in favor of faster, more aggressive, and louder ways of playing. Most of all, his gentle, warm, good-humored nature lends a welcoming aura to the place that makes it feel like home. It's probably a good thing that we don't live in Chania, or I'd spend every day there. Like this guy.

On that note, I'm getting up early tomorrow to go pay Mr. Manousakis a visit, so I bid you a happy Carnival (just barely belated, if you're in Brazil, New Orleans, or Venice, and slightly in advance, if you're here in Greece). Personally, I'm looking forward to those magical forty days: Lent is the best time to be vegan in Greece. Not that Crete is tough on my kind; quite the contrary. But still, it's handy not having to explain one's self all the time.

Next installment: Rethymnian carnival customs, the second Rome, and who knows what else...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Giant mushrooms, bagpipes, and gun-totin' drug runners

(Originally written in November 2007)

Contrary to what you may think, Greece does indeed have seasons (the first heavy snows are already falling at the Bulgarian border), and Crete, though it's pretty far south and really not too far from Africa, has so far surprised us with an autumn that, well, feels like autumn. Something in between the barely perceptible Floridian autumns of my childhood and the classic Eastern US fall. It obviously lacks the blazingly glorious oranges and deep reds of Vermont and Massachusetts, but the temperature has dropped considerably, especially up here in the village (where it's usually 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit colder than on the coast), and the beach days are getting fewer and farther between. The precipitation and humidity have also surprised us - it's rained almost daily for the past month, turning the brown and scrubby fields and mountainsides of August and September into an explosion of green clover and purple heath (it actually looks a lot like Ireland, aside from the olive trees), and giving us some really amazing rainbows. You ain't seen a rainbow until you've seen it arching over the Cretan Sea from the western White Mountains of Hania towards Mt. Psiloritis in the east. The aforementioned Lefka Ori are starting to make good on the promise of their name - on clear days we can see the snow on the highest peaks.

(Despite all this talk of fall, it's still warm enough down on the coast to go swimming.)

The change of seasons has also naturally meant a change in what fruits are offered by the kilo every time you visit someone's house. It's now nearing the end of prime pomegranate season (I have about twenty of them in my refrigerator) and the lotus fruit is currently king. This is the lotus of Homeric literature, which Odysseus' crew ate and forgot who they were and where they were supposed to be going for an inexcusably long period of time, not the Asiatic aquatic plant of the same name. The lotus fruit grows on a tree and when it's ripe looks kind of like a huge rotting tomato; yet it's tasty and reeeeeeeeeeeally sweet. Too sweet for me, in fact, which is why we also have twenty of them in our refrigerator. Oddly, they are identical (though bigger) to one of Ana's favorite fruits in Brazil (known as caqui), so she's happy about it, anyway. And with the rain (which has been an almost daily occurrence since mid-October) has sprouted another Cretan culinary delight, the wild, fleshy pleurotus mushroom, known in these here parts as "omanitis". Our landlord goes out hunting for them on dark, untrodden mountainsides each time it rains and brings back gigantic, phantasmagoric specimens that he proudly displays to all passersby. They are incredibly sumptuous when fried in (surprise!) olive oil, and the texture reminds me of duck. I don't know why, since I haven't eaten meat in probably twelve years or so and am not sure if I ever ate duck before then, but it just does.

One of the things that has most impressed me during my stay here so far is the strength and vitality of Cretan traditional music and culture in general. Naturally, being interested in such things, I seek it out at every opportunity, but it's remarkably easy to find compared to every other place in Greece I've ever been to. It seems that almost everybody is always listening to Cretan music in their car, you hear it on the radio or CD player in almost every shop from the hairdresser to the auto parts store... There are countless radio stations that play mostly traditional music, and several that play 100% Cretan music 24 hours a day. A lot of it is of questionable artistic and aesthetic value, but considering that it's non-stop and there are over 500 recordings of Cretan music released per year (by and for a population of less than half a million people!), you can't be too critical. My favorite thing about Radio Megalonisos (as it's called here in Rethymno; it has affiliate stations in Heraklion, Hania, Agios Nikolaos and... Sydney, Australia) is its status as a forum for the thriving folk poetry tradition of the island. Every morning the deejay reads off four words (for example, "wine", "longing", "lips", and "knife") and people call, text, or email in traditional couplets (mantinadhes) that they've made featuring the terms of the day. It's astounding how fast the response is. I remember listening in the car one day as the first such announcement of the day was made; before I had gone three hundred meters the first response was received and read on the air. These are rhyming couplets in fifteen-syllable lines, not free verse! The Mantinadha Challenge of the Day aside, people send in their favorite couplets via phone, email, or SMS - someone recently gave me a book of mantinadhes compiled exclusively from mobile phone inboxes - and the deejays frequently read messages from the musicians whose cuts they are playing, dedicating the next song to a friend, co-worker, or sometimes to dame Crete herself.

We've been frequenting the Lake of Kourna these days - the only natural lake on the island and an important sacred site to the ancient Minoans. Despite its population of aggressive geese and a few patches of alarmingly efficient quicksand, it's a truly magical place. According to local legend it was formed as a divine boon to a damsel in distress, drowning her assailant and turning her into a neraid who, so the old folks say, sings her mournful song at dusk.

The first weekend of October my noisemaking partner Periklis and I (after a visit to the island of Karpathos, where he's a schoolteacher, for a traditional wedding) made our way to the island of Paros to participate in the seventh annual Pan-Cycladic Festival of Traditional Wind Instruments. It was, and is, essentially a four day long tsambouna party, where just about everybody in the world who actively plays the instrument (the traditional Greek island bagpipe, a device of primitive construction made of a goatskin bag, a wooden or horn pipe, and two canes with fingerholes burnt into them) converges on an agreed-upon island and plays nonstop, mostly all at the same time.
There was tsambouna music everywhere, all the time, twenty-four hours a day, played by over a hundred musicians (including some laouto, lyra, violin, and drums) - on the way there on the boat, on the dock, in the streets, in the hotels, in the taverns where we ate, in the buses that took us from one village to another (much to the annoyance of the less than good-humored drivers, who vainly tried to compete using the radio), and, like I said, more often than not all at once. It was MAGICAL. To see eighty year old grandpas who until they came to the event for the first time probably thought they were the only person left in the entire world who still played the tsambouna playing along with twentysomething Athenian hipsters who made their instrument out of PVC pipe and a plastic bag, and to see the assembled crowds (who were in large part local people with no particular connection to the festival) loving every second of it, dancing, singing, and in general getting their groove on, was to see that, contrary to what we may think because of where we live and what we're told, a huge chunk of the world - most of it, in fact - still knows how to relate to one another, can still have a good time without plugging things into wall sockets, and the best kind of entertainment is the kind that invites everyone to participate regardless of who they are or what they're "good" at.

My experience at the University so far has been everything that I imagined about European schools and more. There's radical leftist graffiti everywhere, as well as rallies and protests on a regular basis (always featuring shouting and the threat of violence, occasionally featuring fisticuffs, and always resulting in conflicting classes being cancelled so that everyone can attend). The student body is fairly typical, split between grungy bohemian types and your run-of-the-mill clubgoing Eurotrash. My professors are entertaining. They usually arrive about half an hour late, smoke in class (as do all the students), some of them yell and curse, and some of them are sneering and condescending. A precious minority are actually decent teachers, although I get the impression that very few of them them feel any kind of investment in the University, since about half the faculty lives and mainly works in Athens and is flown or boated in once a week for their classes. This I cannot understand. Is the prospect of living in the "provinces", where you can breathe non-carcinogenic air but can't find a Starbucks, so frightening to Athenian intellectuals, or does Greece actually have a dearth of employable university types rather than the usual surplus? (I can't imagine that it's the latter, since everyone I know here with a higher degree is engaged in a constant struggle to find a decent job.)

Another surprising revelation about the Greek educational system is the frequency. length, and widespread nature of student sit-ins. I'm not just talking about those that happen at the university level, although they are impressive (last year a whole semester got chucked out the window); I was just talking to a middle-school kid who said his class' student government had called a general strike to protest the condition of the school building, which apparently is literally falling apart and infested with rats and other vermin. They hadn't had classes for two weeks and were still negotiating with the school administration and local government. People, we're talking about THIRTEEN YEAR OLD KIDS here!!! When I was thirteen and we voted for student government officers, the hot topics were the stale danishes in the cafeteria and whether we could wear hats in the halls between classes.

A few days ago we celebrated the 141st anniversary of the Holocaust of Arkadi, a local monastic center about 30 kilometers east of Rethymno. On said day in 1866, several hundred villagers took refuge from menacing Turkish soldiers in the monastery (which they also happened to be using as an ammunition storehouse to supply the rebels conducting guerilla warfare on the Turks from their mountain hideouts). When the Turkish troops had surrounded the monastery and began forcing their way inside, the villagers decided to ignite the gunpowder rather than be subject to the horrors that certainly awaited them at the hands of their captors. Needless to say, there were no survivors on either side. I just wonder what they do for the annual reenactment.

Other late breaking Rethymnian happenings: I'm not sure if this has made the news to much of a degree outside of Greece, but it seems that the government has finally made an effort to do something about the most lawless village in all the badlands of Crete, Zoniana (it's commonly referred to here as "The Wild West"). The villagers of the mountainous region between the cities of Rethymno and Herakleio are renowned for their cavalier stance toward modern, urban social conventions and laws imposed upon them by outsiders in general; they're particularly well-known for their love of guns (as I mentioned in my previous message) and cattle-rustling ("How many head of sheep do you have?" "Two hundred of our own and another three hundred.") But a few decades ago in Zoniana, an extremely isolated village in a historically economically depressed area, the local shepherds began experimenting with a new cash crop: hashish. They quickly saw how easy it was to grow and sell, and had no problem preventing prying eyes from paying too much attention, given the firepower at their disposal. They've shot down police helicopters, ambushed approaching SWAT teams, you name it. But this Wednesday, after a police convoy driving towards the village was attacked by machine-gun fire and several officers were severely injured, the government finally had enough of being humiliated and sent in a small army of three hundred special forces officers to besiege the village. To date they've only arrested 25 people (a slow start in an area where 90% of the inhabitants are involved in one way or another in drug trafficking), but have made some entertaining discoveries: aside from the endless fields of thriving cannabis and coca plants and the drug laboratories in stables and outbuildings, they've found several stolen ATM machines, stolen cars, trucks, and motorcycles, mind-boggling quantities of weapons (some of which are far more advanced than anything the Greek police force has access to), and the bank statements of shepherds who recently made deposits in the MILLIONS (we're talking euros here, people, not drachmas!).

The mountain-dwelling Cretans are so badass, in fact, that the flatlanders can't stand it and have started applying decals to their cars and trucks that look like bulletholes. (I swear.)

Along these lines (in the cultural weirdness department), I've seen a few noteworthy English language t-shirts lately. Not quite as good as the Japanese variety, but still pretty bizarre. My two favorites: 1. (worn by a fellow student at the U.) "Banana's (sic) are my Business" and 2. (spotted on a muscly guy parking his motorcycle) "Gay Men's Department".

On that note, I bid you Γειά χαρά (health and joy). The sun is out and we're going to the beach.