Showing posts with label Greece. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greece. Show all posts

31 May 2023

A Thousand Stories Deep



 

Not the author

I mentioned last time that my wife and I are archaeology buffs.  This led to us spending part of April on the island of Crete, our second tour of Greece.  And that trip got me thinking about stories.  No surprise, right?

I wrote one story on the trip (a little piece of flash fiction) and came up with two ideas for other tales which may or may not get finished.  But what I really want to talk about is the relationship between storytelling and archaeology.

Someone in the field once told me "an archaeologist is someone who can dig a square hole and tell a story about it." The second part is important because the contents of the hole do not speak for themselves.  Whatever you find needs to be interpreted, or "read."

An Evans rebuild.

Of course, the relationship is more complex than that.  Many people enter the field because of their fascination with certain stories. Crete provides excellent examples.

No doubt you are familiar with the story of Theseus fighting the Minotaur in a labyrinth.  That story is set in Knossos, the capital of ancient Crete, but  it is not a Cretan story.  Theseus is the hero of Athens and that is where the story comes from.

But it led Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, to go to the island in hopes of exploring the legendary site of Knossos. He bought the land and spent more than three decades digging up the Minoan palace there.

Evans called them "Horns of Consecration"

I should actually say "Minoan" "palace."  Our guide put air quotes around those words every time he used them.  

You see, Evans called the civilization of which Knossos is an example Minoan because King Minos was supposedly the king who was stepdaddy to the Minotaur.  We have no idea what the people actually called themselves.

And as for palace, well, a palace is a big building where royalty live.  What Evans found at Knossos appears to have been an administrative complex with large meeting rooms and storage chambers (for food supplies?), and no sign of residential space.  As our guide said, "Nobody lives at city hall." The same holds true for the other large Minoan sites on the island.  

Evans recreates a doorway


But Evans had a story to tell and tell it he did.  He decided he knew what the "palace" looked like and he reconstructed parts of it, right there on the ruins.  Today even suggesting doing this would get you kicked out of the archaeology biz.  The pictures you see here are Evans' guesses as to what the place looked like 3500 years ago. 

Now let's move to another Minoan palace (please assume I put in the quote marks) at Phaistos.  The diggers there were careful not to rebuild it according to their dreams.  In fact, where they had to make repairs they put dates on their work to avoid confusion.

Phaistos Disc, Heraklion Museum.

Nevertheless we have a very strange story there.  Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier was managing the site in 1908.  Here is the story the way my guide (an archaeologist) tells it.  Wikipedia has a different version.

Pernier suffered from an archaeologist's nightmare scenario: He left the site for a few hours.  When he came back his workers showed him a box they found while unsupervised, containing an assortment of objects whose origin covered more than a thousand years, from the Minoan era to the Romans.  One item was like nothing that anyone had seen before: the so-called Phaistos Disc.  It is a piece of fired clay about six inches in diameter, embossed on both sides with symbols.  No one knows what they mean.  



And notice one symbol that appears on the disc exactly once.  Tell me that doesn't look like a flying saucer!


Is the disc real?  Is it a forgery?  (And if so, a modern one or possibly dating all the way back to the Romans?)  Opinions vary. Think of all the stories you can write about that mess...

And here's one more object begging to be explained.  This kouros (boy) statue was found in a site called Palaikastro.  It's another unicorn - meaning nothing else like it has been found, but no one denies that it is authentic.  The context and condition convinces the scientists that someone grabbed it by the legs and smashed it against a stone.  In the name of the gods, why?  You could get a whole book of stories out of that.


One final thought: If this sort of thing interests you I recommend you read Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox.  It tells the true story of the three scholars who, over a forty year struggle, deciphered Linear B, a script of the Mycenean age that was first found on Crete.  Imagine translating a text when you have never before seen the symbols it is written in, and have no idea what language is being transcribed.

Now that's what I call a mystery. 





01 December 2021

Greece is the Word


 


 In October my wife and I took a trip of Greece.  To be exact we toured the Peloponnese with 10 other adventurers and two guides.  Had a great time.  I want to tell you a few things about the trip from a writer's point of view.

One point that kept recurring was the influence classical Greece had on our culture, and especially our language.

Take for instance, the stoa, which is a roofed colonnade.  For those of us who are architecturally illiterate, that means a wall-less roof supported by columns.  Nice public building for hot climates.

Corinth 

There was one in classical Athens called the Royal Stoa and a group of philosophers hung around there so often that the name of the place was hung on them: the Stoics.  And that's where we get the word.

Leaving Athens for the Peloponnese peninsula you have to cross a narrow strip of land where Corinth was located, and on it you will find a place called Isthmia.  Which is why a narrow strip of land connecting two larger parts is called an isthmus.

Sparta Museum


In the peninsula you come to Sparta, whose residents were well-known for their no-frills lifestyle.  In other words, the Spartans led a spartan existence.  

They were also famously stingy with words. (They even sent the first TL:DR message.  Another city sent a long letter asking for their help in a war and the Spartans replied that the missive was too long to read; send something shorter.)  Sparta is in the Laconia region, which is why we describe people who don't talk much as laconic.

See the pattern?  I could add marathon but we didn't visit that site.

On a different but related note:  When we visited the Acropolis we passed the Theatre of Dionysus and our tour guide casually pointed out that this was the theatre.  It took me a moment to grasp what she meant.


Oedipus Rex
premiered here.  The Oresteia had its opening night (well, afternoon) on this spot.  Athenians sat on these stone seats to watch Lysistrata, Aristophanes' satire on sex and war.

In other words, everything the Western world thinks of as drama started in this very space.  Made me shiver.

It is interesting to remember that those drama festivals were competitions.  Each year the man who paid for the production of the winning play would put up a monument boasting of the fact.  Unfortunately for scholars all that was included was the man's name and the year.  Petty details like the author and title of the play were not deemed important enough to mention.  It seems like theatrical producers haven't changed much in 2,500 years.

Let's move on to another topic we love: Crime!  Fortunately, we did not experience any on our trip, except...  In Athens I saw something I never expected to witness in real life.  On a busy pedestrian walk there was a young man with a small table on a high stand.  On the table were three cups.

It was the shell game, live and in person!  The thimblerig has been recorded all the way back to  ancient Greece, and here it was in allegedly modern times.

If we hadn't been with a group I would have walked closer for  a better view, with my hand firmly on my wallet - not because I would have been tempted to bet, but because pickpockets love to orbit these scams.  

And speaking of crime, the photo on the right shows the street (?) in Nafplio where our 17th century hotel was located.  Before you reach it you pass a church with a plaque commemorating Ioannis Kapodistria, the first head of independent Greece, who was assassinated there in 1831.


Which reminds me... Jeffrey Siger is an American crime writer who spends part of the year in Greece and writes about an Athenian police detective.  (He has also written for SleuthSayers.) I told him about our itinerary and asked which of his novels we should read for background.  He recommended Sons of Sparta, which is set in the Mani (and I recommend it too).  

There are three little peninsulas at the south end of the Peloponnese and the Mani is the middle finger, geographically and also figuratively, you might say.  It has a certain reputation. When we arrived in the Maniot town of Areopoli, one of our tour guides solemnly told us: "The Mani is famous for vendettas, so please be very polite.  We don't want to start any blood feuds."  But our other guide replied: "You are being more than usually stupid."  So take that with a grain of salt.

But maybe not too much salt.  The statue you see here was right in front of our hotel in Areopoli. It commemorates Petrobey Mavromichalis, the Maniot who started the Greek War of Independence.  Ten years later, his brother and nephew were the very men who assassinated Kapodistria in Nafplio.

Interesting place, the Mani...



20 June 2019

Ancestry and Me


by Eve Fisher

As many of you, beloved readers, know, I was adopted to this country from Greece back when I was 2 1/2 years old, and have lived here ever since.  I was naturalized by my parents when I was five.  I was told I was adopted when I was about ten, and I took it better than you might expect.  For one thing, I was starting to grasp that my red-haired, Scotch-Irish, blue-eyed mother was probably not a direct genetic link.  (Still not sure about Daddy, but that's another story...)  For another, things were already getting strange in the Velissarios household, and - eventually - it was good to know I didn't have to be like that.  It wasn't in my gene pool.

But, inevitably, the question arises, what is?  Other than thalassemia minor and arthritis?

Now growing up, I'd been told three different stories about how I'd ended up in the orphanage.
Me, in the orphanage, looking
as happy as I was going to get.


  • The first one was that there had been an earthquake in my home town of Karditsa, my parents had died in it, and I - plucky little orphan that I was - was found in the rubble.
  • The second was that I was illegitimate, and my biological mother had to put me in the orphanage because in 1950s Greece, there were no decent unmarried mothers.  (This sounded more real than the last one.)
  • The third was that there was a female relative of my father's family who'd gotten in trouble, and I ended up in the orphanage.


Anyway, a few years after my parents died, I thought I'd look into it.  There were a couple of reasons why I finally decided to do this:

(1) I finally had all the adoption documents which my father had saved but never let me see before.  Included:  a Certificate that I "was taken over by the Athens Municipal Foundling Home of Athens on the 6th of July, 1955, and entered into our records under register serial number 44627."  (We will be coming back to this.)

(2) Loneliness.  You see, my parents had successively cut themselves off, through travel (when we moved to California, my father never contacted any of his relatives in NYC again), quarrels (my mother and her only brother didn't speak for the last 20 years of their lives), and a general indifference to family which I've never understood.  And that cut me off too.  Plus I'd done quite a bit of moving myself.  The end result was that somewhere in my 50s I realized that the only family I had was my husband and friends -

AND I AM EXTREMELY GRATEFUL FOR EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU!!!! 

But I felt like I was standing on the end of a thin wedge of rock hanging over an abyss.  So, being me, I decided to try to do something about it.  The research began.

And the first thing I found was a number of news stories about black market adoptions from Greece to America back in the 1950s.  (See New York Times, LA Times, and many more; just Google Greek black market adoption.)

Basically, what happened is that a very poor post-war Greece figured out that they could make a lot of money from selling babies to Americans.  And they were stealing them from poor Greek families - telling the mothers of twins that one of them had died in childbirth, or that their baby had died, period, or just taking them - and then laundering the babies through places like the Thessaloniki Orphanage or the Athens Municipal Foundling Home.  And then selling them to desperate American families for $1,000 and up (which back in the 1950s was a fairly large sum of money).  And telling the Americans back-stories about their new little toddlers like her biological parents died in an earthquake.  And giving almost all the little girl toddlers the same damn name as is on my original Greek passport:  Mariana.   (Emphasis mine.)

Well, after I gasped for a while like a fish on the bottom of a boat, I went to one of the websites that existed to reunite [perhaps] black-market adoptees with their birth mothers, and began the process.  It was all remarkably swift, and did not end happily.  I never spoke or wrote directly to my supposed birth mother; instead it was filtered through an intermediary.  At the end, I sent photos of myself in the orphanage and now.  The last response I got was "That is not my child.  Leave me alone."

And so I have.  Thinking back on it all, I don't know if any of it was true or not.  Whether the woman who did the search was actually in contact with anyone, or just answering out of her own head, for some obscure reason.  (No money exchanged hands, which makes it even weirder.)  Whether the supposed biological mother told the truth - she lost a child, but it wasn't me - or if she was lying because she did not want me back in her life.

But I never reopened that can of worms.  Instead, I moved on to the next one:  Genetics. 

John D. Croft at English Wikipedia























My first genetics test was with National Geographic Genographic Project, and the results were that I was 53% Greek, 24% Tuscan Italian, and 21% Northern (Asian) Indian.  It was the last that surprised me - Greeks and Italians have commingled for millennia, but what ancestor picked up a Kashmiri bride/groom?  Although it might have occurred back at the same time that my ancestors - a randy lot - were commingling with any hominid they could find.  My genome is 3% Neanderthal, 3.7% Denisovian, and 93.3% Cro-magnon, and if you'll look at the "Evolution and Geographic Spread of Denisovians" map above, you'll see what I'm talking about.
BTW, I am inordinately proud of my alternate hominid ancestry.  For one thing, it explains my unusual ability to spot wildlife wherever I go.  I was also pretty darn good at tracking before my knees gave out.  Plus I'm a great believer in diversity.  In my book, if all you've ever known is one thing - you're missing out.  
And then there's the story about the Greek Consulate.  At one point, I was thinking about going to Greece and searching, so I wanted to know a few things, like how long can you stay in Greece without them kicking you out and do I still have Greek citizenship?  After all, I still have the Greek passport that I came in with (along with a vintage TWA bag from 1957 that I have been offered serious money for).  So I was talking to them about this, and they said that it was just a travel passport, but did not prove my citizenship.  And, to confirm whether or not I was a Greek citizen, they would need the names of my biological father and mother.  I explained that I was an orphan, and I had been in the Athens Municipal Foundling Home.  That I had all the paperwork from the adoption and would be happy to FAX that to them, including the above-referenced Certificate.

But that wasn't good enough.  As the lady said - and I hesitate to repeat it here, for fear of giving Stephen Miller more evil ideas - "Just because you were in a Greek orphanage does not mean that you are Greek."  I told her I had a DNA test, but she was not interested in that.  Only the names of the biological father and mother would do.  I asked how orphans were supposed to come up with that information when they had been abandoned at an orphanage?  Not her problem.  What about the fact that apparently the Greek government had jurisdiction enough to sell me off for adoption and ship me overseas?  Irrelevant.  I finally asked her if that meant that Greek orphans in Greece had to apply for citizenship when they came of age, and at that point the conversation came to an end.  She suggested that if I had a problem with it, I should get a Greek lawyer, in Greece, and pursue it.  So there you go.  The ultimate Catch-22 for orphans, and how appropriate for the @#$^&! age we live in.

So, after that, I thought, what the hell, I'll do Ancestry.com's DNA test because they match you up with genetic relatives as well as the general heritage.  First off, they disagreed with National Geographic:  according to them, I'm 85% Greek/Balkan, and only 13% Italian.  The rest is kind of vague...  But here's the kicker.  I went to the list of DNA matches...  and I have none.  The closest I get is a short list of people who might be my 4th to 6th cousins.  What this means - looking at the chart below - is that while we might have crossed paths at an airport, no living relatives have shared bread, wine, or talk for probably 100 years.

calculating cousinhood how related far removed

My first reaction was that I was like a fox, looking for a hole in a fox hunt, and all the earths are stopped.
My second, was that I was back on that effing wedge of rock.
My third was that the universe was being very clear, and while I didn't like it, I was going to have to accept it.

And then, as Mr. Edwards said to Dr. Johnson, "Cheerfulness breaks in."

I called a dear friend of mine and told her the latest, and she said, "Oh my God!  You really are an alien!  You really are from some other planet!"  And we laughed our heads off.

So, now I have decided to embrace the truth:  Sometime after the Neanderthal/ Denisovian encounter, or at the latest after the little trip to the Kashmiri serai, my gene pool carriers took off somewhere else.  And then - after some trouble in that particular space-time continuum - dropped me off at the Athens Municipal Foundling Home.  Or so they say...

Will keep you posted.  Oh, and if anyone out there knows who the little girl below used to be, please let me know.








23 November 2016

How I Conceived



photo by Peter Rozovsky
Last month I reviewed a story by Jeffrey Siger, which resulted in some e-conversation, and that led to what you see below. Jeffrey  is an American living on the Aegean Greek island of Mykonos. He gave up his career as a name partner in his own New York City law firm to write mystery thrillers. His books have been nominated for the Left Coast Crime and Barry Awards.

The New York Times called his Andreas Kaldis series “thoughtful police procedurals set in picturesque but not untroubled Greek locales.”  Today he will tell us how he wrote the latest and eighth in the series, Santorini Caesars.                                                - Robert Lopresti .

                                                                          
by Jeffrey Siger


I never thought when Robert Lopresti generously offered me the opportunity of posting as a guest on SleuthSayers that I’d be talking about conception, but hey, nothing surprises me these days, and if it’s details on how I conceived my latest Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel the SleuthSayers faithful want, that’s what they shall get! 

A dozen years ago, when I decided to walk away from my life as a name partner in my own New York City law firm to unite my loves of Greece and mystery writing, I said to myself I would not write fluff.  I would write what I thought should be said in a way that told the truth as I saw it about a country and a people I cared very deeply about—little realizing at the time how applicable my observations on Greece would be to so much of the rest of our world.

When I started writing the series, I didn’t intend on becoming a chronicler of Greece’s trials and tribulations, but things just sort of turned out that way, as each novel gravitated toward exploring a different aspect of Greek society, and before I knew it I found myself immersed in creating a collage of what Greece is all about.   

For example, I’ve written about the relationships of Greek islanders and mainlanders, Greeks and their government, Greeks and their church, Greeks and immigrants, Greeks and their families, Greeks and their financial crises, and in my just released #8 in the series, “Santorini Caesars,” Greeks and their military. As important as are the elements making up that collage, is the glue that holds it all together—the unvarnished perspective of my protagonist, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis.

Andreas is a politically incorrect, second-generation cop, and an honest observer of his times, who despite all that life and the system throw at him, retains his integrity.  Perhaps most significant for purposes of my stories is the unfettered access he has to all levels of Greek society, be it the seamy underbelly of its most degenerate bottom rung as head of Greece’s special crimes unit, or the glittering lifestyles of Greece’s movers and shakers by reason of his marriage.

The idea for writing about the Greek military in “Santorini Caesars” had been percolating in my mind for quite a few years. After all, much of the nation’s modern history stands shaped by the Greek Military Junta Years of 1967-74, and until the financial crisis struck a few years back, Greece numbered among the world’s five biggest arms importers.  Even today Greece has four times the number of German made top of the line Leopard tanks as Germany’s own military. 

But how to tie it all together in the context of a fast-paced mystery thriller was my dilemma. Then one day it all came together, inspired by a simple passing thought on the predicament known as Greece: “The fragile fabric of a nation hangs in the balance.” 

Greece stands before the world in perilous straits.  With its government and economy in disarray, its goals and leadership suspect, and men like Kaldis undoubtedly at odds with its direction, life is not the same, nor likely to return to better days any time soon, and many wonder if carrying on the fight matters any more.

Sound familiar?

Yes, Greece’s situation inspired the story, but as I wrote it, I could not help but sense how many other places in the world faced nearly identical circumstances. Here’s the plot line for “Santorini Caesars” that evolved from that thought.

When a young demonstrator is publicly assassinated in the heart of protest-charged Athens, the motive is murky and the array of suspects immense.  Kaldis’ investigation leads him and his team to Santorini—an Aegean island of breathtaking beauty which legend holds to be the site of the lost island of Atlantis—and a hush-hush gathering of the Caesars, a cadre of Greece’s top military leaders seeking to form their own response to the crises facing their country. Is it a coup d’├ętat or something else?  The answer is by no means clear, but the case resonates with political dimensions, and as international intrigues evolve, the threat of another—far more dramatic—assassination looms ever more real. As does the realization that only Kaldis can stop it.  But at what price?  It is a time for testing character, commitment, and the common good.  And for saving the nation from chaos.

As I said, sound familiar?