Tag Archives: Frangoi

Athens exploding in citrus

5 Dec

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Oranges and tangerines are suddenly in season and the farmers’ markets are bathed in their smell and color.  I remember, à propos of previous post’s bitching about birthday and Christmas excess, my mother shaking her head at the riot of insane shopping and spending and spoiling of children (because she too had succumbed; how better can capitalism manipulate you than through your children?) and going about the living room Christmas morning collecting wrapping paper and mountains of horrible plastic packaging, mumbling about how: “On New Year’s Day* we’d get a pair of socks…maybe an orange.”  And while her half of the family had moved from her natal village of Pesta north to Jiannena, another branch, to which she was very close, had settled in the southern Epirote city of Arta, a very pleasant town, the mediaeval capital of the Despotate of Epiros ** and therefore full of beautiful Byzantine churches, which lies in the region’s coastal lowlands and is surrounded by one gigantic, heavenly citrus orchard like the Huerta of Valencia or parts of lower Andalusia, so it shouldn’t have been too hard to get more than just one orange.  But there was no spoiling the children then and in Jiannena one orange was probably expensive enough.

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And I’d love to know whose great idea it was to plant orange trees along many of the streets of the city.  These are bitter oranges, known as nerantzia (obviously same root as naranja and I would say sounds Persian but is probably Arabic) often called Seville oranges in Britain, and they can only be eaten in marmelades and jams — in Greece, either whole and when still green, or in curled slices of the orange peel…my favorite…  Don’t put it in front of me; I could eat gallons of it in a matter of days.

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But since there’s a limit to how many candied oranges a nation can consume, most of them end up fallen on the street, where they get squashed and can be dangerously slippery, but whose rotting smell is not entirely unpleasant.

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The compensation is in the early spring when the trees bloom and — while it would otherwise be a sin to compare such an ugly to such a beautiful city — Athens smells just like Seville.

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* Greek children, and only children, used to get their presents on New Year’s Day, and they were brought by Saint Basil of Caesarea (Kayseri) in Cappadocia.  I don’t know why, since he was a theologian saint and had no gift-giving traditions associated with him — probably just because January 1st is his feast day — and I don’t even know what people here do now.

** The Despotate of Epiros was one of the independent Greek successor states, along with Nicaea and Trebizond, of the dismembered Byzantine Empire that emerged after the Frankish conquest, sack and destruction of Constantinople in 1204, under the rule of one branch of the Doukases, I think, but later also under a motley crew of other Greeks, Serbs, Albanians and Norman Italians.  It rejoined a reconstituted Romania, or Byzantine Empire (below), at some point after 1261 when Constantinople was retaken by the Laskarids/Palaeologans of NicaeaTrebizond, the region known as Pontus in Greek, remained independent.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Belgrade: Wimbledon 2014, rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković…

12 Jul

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDONGetty Images (click)

“What’s with you and all the Djoković?”

This is M. in Belgrade, after the sixth or seventh rakia, giving me a hard time about my Nole cult. M. is an old Serbian student of mine from New York. He’s one of my favorites actually; out of the nearly ten years I taught English at CUNY, he’s one of those special ones that I can count on one hand. Funny, charismatic, super-smart – when he came to class – he was a real asset to have.

“I was your best student,” he says, a propos of nothing and with characteristic modesty.

“Yeah, when you came to class,” I say.

We live ten minutes from each other in New York but never see each other – bumped into each other at some bars a couple of times – except that every year at Orthodox Easter he comes to my house. But I haven’t been home for Easter for the past three years, so we didn’t see each other then either. Except for one night, two nights ago, the stars arranged for us to both be in Belgrade together and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get some long-due drinking done.

So this is M. getting all up in my face Serbian style:

“If you’re such a fan, why are you here? Why aren’t you in Montenegro at his wedding trying to get a picture?”

I didn’t even know Djoković was getting married this weekend and M. knows I’m too old and probably knows enough else about me to know I’m not some idiot groupie:

“Like the other groupies…” he says nevertheless. “You could try to take a picture of him with the bride…one with the bride alone…one with…”

The thing is his teasing is so good humored it makes you wanna jump right into the ring with him and take him on, so it’s always fun and it only makes you like him more. I also came away from the evening feeling good because M. and I barely know each other actually, but a bunch of his friends showed up and it was obvious how loved he was by all of them and that was nice to see; I like when my instincts about a person are correct even when I don’t have much evidence to go by.  But he’s relentless…

“You could try to get a picture of the dog…”

Well for M. or anybody, if you still don’t know what my Djoković thing is about and how it relates to my Serb thing and how possessive and defensive I get about both, you haven’t been reading my blog very regularly. So let me try again. Back to Wimbledon…

I don’t think any real tennis aficionado could’ve asked for a better Wimbledon 2014 – unless you have the frankly hilarious misfortune of being a Nadal fan, in which case you deserve your fate and I’ll tell you when it’s ok to come out of your room and stop being embarrassed. For Djoković it was no easy climb. Great tennis all the way, but he wasn’t granted anything. With Čilić, with Raonić, with Dimitrov, there was practically not a single give-away. He had to wrestle every point from the hands of the universe.

Of course the finals match between him and Federer was a friggin’ dream. It was everything you want from good tennis, from good sport, competition, art, or a good war even: matched skill and guts, intelligent tactics, constant reversal and coming back from behind – and the masochistic pleasure or knowing that even if your guy loses, he’ll have lost to someone you respect. This was one of those matches that the phrase “toe-to-toe” was invented for. At no single point during the more than three hours did either man have enough of a numerical lead to allow his supporters to relax for a few minutes. Neither of them was ever more than just one step ahead of the other and that never lasted long enough for you to take even half a breath.

I watched the game in an empty Greek bar with a friend of mine and don’t think I actually sat back on my seat for a second. And I don’t know whether it was the emptiness of a bar in suburban Athens, perhaps, on a hot July, Sunday afternoon — the hours of high summer heat in Attica still turn the city into a desert — but this was the first time that Djoković’ loneliness on the court struck me so hard. Existentially.  How completely lonely he sometimes seems.  Of course, that day, Wimbledon had to do with it as well. For a variety of reasons we all know, Novak’s always been considered the kind of odd man out in the tennis world despite his stupendous capabilities as an athlete, and Wimbledon is clearly the most classist of all tennis venues where that would show up in its starkest form. I don’t know if it was the shots that the Greek network we were watching was being fed, but not once during the whole match, were the cameras able to get even a single shot of the crowd looking satisfied or anything but stressed whenever an exchange went well for Nole; except occasionally from Becker and his team; no one from his family even seemed to be there — getting ready for the wedding circus I can now presume, but didn’t know at the time. Unlike the always cool French, who’ll applaud you for your art no matter who you are or where you’re from, like the standing ovation they gave Djok for his battle against the Catalan that left him in tears at Roland Garros, here there was the unmistakable look of British and other jet-set spectators at a sporting event in the grip of pure class terror: that their suave Swiss aristocrat would lose to this Balkan nut-job…and at Wimbledon.

I remembered that shitty little article by Lauren Collins that The New Yorker had run last September — The Third Man — about Novak, which kept essentially asking whether he can learn how to act like a proper tennis player: “Can he make us like him?” Like you guys are the arbiters of what exactly and he needs your liking?  And all my pro-Serb and pro-Nole nerves got twisted into knots again, like when I had first read it. The whole article was just dripping with condescension and I thought to myself that if Collins had written an article like that about an athlete from a “country of color,” The New Yorker would have been faced with a howling riot of censoring anger and cries of racism. “Is Nole too ghetto for Wimbledon?” Collins had essentially wanted to know. She could’ve consulted me and I would’ve come up with at least twenty terms from half a dozen Balkan languages for “ghetto” that she could have used.

Then the fifth set started and it became clear that both men knew this was it, life or death, especially because it started to become clear that physical and – from the tightness of the game and competition – nervous exhaustion had started to set in. And Nole got that look he gets late in matches, where he alternates between a look of steely professionalism and hunger that’s ready to rip his opponent to shreds, and this strange watery-eyed look of almost spiritual exaltation, looking dreamily skyward, or gazing down at the ground blankly. And this latter look, though beautiful, is a little worrisome because it means he’s either going to start playing like a man possessed by some god and steamroll whoever he’s up against into the ground – or just start f*cking up and making a royal mess of everything.

It became clear that he was in a state of deity-possession almost as soon as the set started. And then he stopped looking lonely to me. Instead we was simply magnificently alone, the akritas fighting it out on the marble threshing-floor, the young kraljević single-handedly taking on the hostile hordes of pink frangoi in their sun-screen and appropriate hats.

NOLEUSE1404667649000-AFP-531415517Glyn Kirk, AFP/Getty Images (click)

And Federer hit the ball into the net and it was all over. And Nole cracked open; not up, open — like the cracks that Leonard Cohen says let the light get in, except the light here was not flooding in but out of him in this great luminous glow. I don’t know what mad idea of redemption or humility or gratitude was going through his crazed Slavic mind when he knelt and started eating the grass off the court, but in the back of my mind I could hear some Serbian Sonya Marmeladova crying:

“This is what you shall do! Go at once, this very moment to the crossroads and kiss the earth which you have defiled and bow down to the world and say: ‘I am grateful. I am humble. I am grateful. I am humble.’”

And then the tears of that gratitude and humility started flowing and I haven’t even wanted to watch any of the post-game interviews or read anything; I just want to be left with that image of him holding the cup and bawling. Weeping copiously.  Like a man.

wimbledon-men-novak-djokovic-wimbledon-trophy_3169070Getty images (click)

My sense here in Serbia is that there’s a little bit of a conflict between Djoković’ status as saintly national hero and the celebrity circus that’s constantly flowing around him, and that that’s what M.’s cynicism was about with the wedding and all. But a girl, I., who was in M.’s kompaniya that night: very smart and pretty, who speaks absolutely native-speaker American English and who is always running what’s apparently one of Serbia’s fastest-growing websites from from her IPad – which she was doing that night – while still managing to remain front and center of any conversation she happens to find herself in, says that’s the girlfriend and the media’s fault, not his, and that it really irks her.

“What does ‘irk’ mean, M.?” I decide to play professor with him, addressing him by his last name.

“It means like when something bother-… What do you mean what does it mean?!  I know what it means.  I was your best student!”

“Yeah. When you came to class.”

I. also talked some about some genuine darkness that was part of Nole’s childhood, the details of which are common knowledge here, but I’m not going to get into because it’s part of this blog’s journalistic policy not to go there with cheaply personal and especially hurtful personal issues, and especially not with someone I love and admire and who’s as much of a hero of mine as Djoković is. But let’s just say the redeeming, protecting hero archetype is a structurally core part of his psyche.

“He’s a beautiful man and he has a beautiful soul,” I. declared, definitively ending that conversation, as I imagine she must definitively end others when she wants to.

And I felt vindicated.

Do you have your answer now, M.?

Out of respect for this spectacular victory and the Djoković-and-tennis tolerance of my readers I promise there will be no Djoković or tennis at all until the U.S. Open.

But see you before then.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Note:  Speaking of “marble threshing-floors…”  The court at Wimbledon is in such shit state that it can only be called a grass court in the most ideally Platonic terms.  Really; cute British shabbiness has its limits.  Beer and probably piss-stained pub carpeting is one thing.  A court where most of the playing is done on parched, packed, rock-hard dirt, made that much more treacherous by the fine layer of sand it kicks up and coats itself with, is another.  It definitely put a cramp on both players’ styles at several moments during the match and there were times where it even looked like it could cause dangerous injury.  With Nole I didn’t know whether his super-human flexibility would protect him or if it would make his propensity for taking acrobatic risks that much more risky.  Either way, do something.  It’s one of those things that’s not charming about England anymore.

The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

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This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

Rustem pasa tiles

Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

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The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

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But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

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So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

Uranium piles

Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

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While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” — John F. Kennedy

30 May

Or just basic facts.  Or as Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona says: “Le sobran opiniones y le faltan argumentos.”  “He suffers from an excess of opinions and a lack of arguments.”  Which Greeks might want to put on their flag in gold embroidery across one of the horizontal white bars.

I write on May 19th: “…how I’ve been wasting my time engaged in a running war with everyone in Athens to prove basic things like the fact that Albanians are a tall, extremely attractive people.”

And a reader writes back:

“I know, why is that?  I had the same experience in Greece.  I worked for an NGO in Kosovo for a year and then hitchhiked through Albania to Greece and found Albanians in both places to be very good-looking I thought.  When I would say that in Greece people would laugh at me.  I guess politics just gets in the way.”

No, they’re just idiots.

And I have to apologize to readers if this blog has taken on an increasingly polemic or nasty tone in regards to certain issues.  But I wrote in an early post: “In the 1990′s, when Albanians flooded Greece and Greeks were faced with the horrifying realization that their northern border hadn’t really been with Austria all that time, many of them predictably behaved like racist jerks…” and nothing has changed, that’s all, and my trip to several Balkan countries has opened this toxic can of worms from all sides that I should probably just ignore, but can’t.  Whenever almost anyone has asked me where I’ve been — if they know enough to ask about these places, their neighbors — the question always has that snickering Athenian sub-tone, that smart-ass “ξέρω εγώ…” half-grin that expects tales of backwardsness or καφροσίνη or just unspoken baseline disbelief that I went and that I found it fascinating and I can’t abide it.  Others are just angry.  Because…like…why should you go there?  Aren’t they the enemy?

It’s not politics.  If anything it’s purer socio-economics and what that does to perceptions of the Other in a monocultural world, or rather one where the Other is just invisible.  And I mean social economics on two levels: one, where you really don’t see, because you’re not trained to see or to care, the real effects that economic conditions have on the physical body of a human being — Hoxha’s Albania was the only country in late twentieth-century Europe, where, like the Kims’ North Korea till this day, people suffered from literal, physical, stunting malnutriton — and two, that once that perception or non-perception is established, it becomes frozen.

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How many people in New York, especially people like me who have worked in the restaurant industry a lot and get chummy with owners and managers, have not had this experience?  You’re sitting at the bar and through the kitchen door you can see a young Mexican kid who’s just started.  And the poor kid looks like hell.  He’s probably new here, so he’s probably just risked his life several times to get to New York in ways in which we would not consider risking ours even once.  He works at least six days a week for probably over twelve hours and for shit money.  He lives in a studio that’s an hour-and-a-half subway ride from where he works, with three or four other guys like him, and to escape both the claustrophobia and loneliness of his life he probably goes out a few nights a week and, with whatever money he doesn’t send home to his family, gets drunk, so lots of days he comes in hungover.  But he always does his job anyway, not only diligently and efficiently, but with a certain perverse pride that he probably needs to maintain to keep himself from feeling like an animal.  He rarely speaks and if for any reason he needs to it’s always with unfailing courtesy and politeness.

“Γλυκοχαράζουν τα βουνά, και οι όμορφες κοιμούνται, τα παλληκάρια τα καλά στα ξένα τυρανιούντε.  Tους τρώει η λέρα το κορμί και η ψείρα το κεφάλι. Ανάθεμά σε ξενιτιά, κ’εσύ και τα καλά σου.”

“Dawn breaks along the peaks, with the young beauties still asleep, and our best boys are off suffering in a stranger’s land.  Their bodies covered in filth, their heads full of lice.  May you be damned foreign lands, you and all your riches.”

an Epirotiko folk song

But he’s smart, this Mexican kid, like our grandparents were before him.  And he watches and he asks questions and he learns about the restaurant’s wines and foods and about New Yorkers and their often insufferable particularities, and what they like and what they don’t like.  And the owner notices and makes him a busboy, and then a runner, and then a waiter.  And he gets a few days off.  AND HE GETS TO SLEEP.  And he’s making a little bit more money, so he buys himself some clothes and can afford to take a girl out on his night off.  And he’s completely transformed.  And one night you say to the owner: “Who’s that hot Mexican kid you put out on the floor?”

Κι’έτσι προκόβουν τα ‘παλληκάρια τα καλά’ της Πουέμπλας και της Çoλούλας…

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This is not a possible scenario in Greece.  Or one that the average Athenian is capable of noticing.  For one, Greeks have forgotten that just until two generations ago hundreds of thousands of their own went off to live initially hellish lives in other parts of the world like this Mexican kid does — or the Albanian migrant worker anywhere in Europe today does.  Two, the Greek is not trained to watch others or care, the way every New Yorker is an amateur anthropologist.  So the change occurs right before his eyes and he doesn’t even see it.  Because other than the parts of the world that can confer some kind of ersatz glamour on him — Europe or certain  limited aspects and places of the United States — the rest of the planet is just not on the average Neo-Greek’s radar.  I can’t put it any clearer than that.  To know the reputation that we, Greeks, have as an ethnic group in New York: that we’re open, friendly, curious, eager to learn about others and their countries, learn at least some pidgin form of others’ languages faster than they can learn English, are willing to try any food or any drink, will invite their Mexican waiter to their kids’ christenings — and then to come to Greece and see this completely shut-off from the world society, is startling.

When I came to Greece in 2010 I hadn’t been there in eight years and the gruff middle-aged waiters or relatives of the owners that served in most restaurants and tavernas had been replaced by these nice-looking polite kids and I asked who they were, since it seemed strange to me that usually cossetted Athenians kids had suddenly condescended to wait tables.  And I was told: “Oh, they’re Albanians.”  These same people now laugh if I say anything positive about those same Albanians.  Even my own people, relatives, Greeks in Albania, said to me on several occasions: Όχι, είναι ωραίος λαός…   “They’re a good-looking people.”  Like, let’s tell the truth where we should.  And then come to Athens and have people stare at you incredulously…

I don’t know why this particular issue has ticked me off so badly.

A lot of Americans once thought that all Blacks were ugly too.  I guess I’ll leave it at that.

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And Philopomeon adds:

“We always need to put ourselves in a status-race with others… we can’t be as good as the Frangoi, but surely we are more advanced/richer/better looking/more cultured than the Alvanoi.

“To add to that, as you know, the Albanians were noted as “poor dressers” when they crossed the border in the 90’s. They had to take hand-me downs from charity, hence the Greek insult to a poor dresser ” You look Albanian.”

“But I agree, in general, Albanians are good-looking folk. Especially Kosovar girls.. hehe.”


Kosovaroi — of both genders — were real stunners, P., you’re right.  They have even gently nudged Afghans out of their first place position for me — no mean accomplishment.  I really couldn’t believe it when I was there; you didn’t know where to proto-look. (click)

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And what I should’ve done from the beginning is put these pictures together with all the pictures of the young Derviçiotes I have in photos and videos and asked a random group of thirty-something  Athenian Concrete-Cave-dwellers to tell me which ones are the Greeks and which the “ugly” Albanians.  And see the results…

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Toulouse: “Who ever lov’d who lov’d not at first sight?”

20 Jan

Toulouse Old_brick_wall

“Who ever lov’d who lov’d not at first sight?”  Those who know that line know it’s Shakespeare from “As You Like It” – but actually it’s Shakespeare quoting Marlowe, a little homage to his more accomplished contemporary; interesting, particularly, because in my opinion Marlowe was a keener analyst of desire than Shakespeare, though I have only instinct and no textual support to back that up.  The important thing is that it’s true.  There’s now even science to support it; in “Narcissism Guides Mate Selection,” published in Evolutionary Psychology 2 (2004) Liliana Alvarez and Klaus Jaffe (?) write:

“Research has shown two bases for love at first sight. The first is that the attractiveness of a person can be very quickly determined, with the average time in one study being 0.13 seconds. The second is that the first few minutes of a relationship have shown to be predictive of the relationship’s future success, more so than what two people have in common or whether they like each other.”

And so it was with me and Toulouse.  My first morning here I walked out onto the street at dawn, as the sun started coating the walls of the slightly pinkish brick that the whole city is built with and that was it.  I think it actually took 0.9 seconds in my case.  But I was finished.  It was all over.  I was lost, tumbling into that so familiar abyss.  I had never fallen for a city so hard and so fast in my entire life.

Why?  Well, “you can’t really say why you love somebody,” Stella says in Streetcar… but you try anyway, only because the temptations of let-me-count-the-ways and the attempt to grasp the ungraspable are so powerful.

To start with the most banal and obvious, it’s beautiful.  Not a stunner, a Paris or a Florence or a Venice, but even more loveable because it’s not so perfect.  Who wants every city to be Paris anyway?  The medieval quarters are amazingly well-preserved and in the nineteenth-century neighborhoods it’s interesting to see the classic Haussmanian idiom of French cities translated into the local brick.  But that’s not really it.

There’s the immediacy and availability of pleasure in all forms, somehow even slightly more than in the rest of France.  Here, I’m reminded of Istanbul actually, because I think Turks might also have that same keen sense of “the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure” as the French do and even in Istanbul’s current hali, you feel, like in France, that you’re in the presence of a very ancient tradition of the production and consumption of luxury.  New York tempts you at every turn as well, except New York makes you struggle so much to reach the promised gratification that it in the end it feels as if you’ve had it pulled through your nose, as the Greek expression has it. 

The food: though these things are eaten all over the country, this is the home turf of foie gras and pork belly and duck confit and restaurants that proudly assure their customers that their french fries are made in goose fat, the way McDonald’s promises you there are no trans-fats in anything.  The wines are thick and rough and tannic and delicious; the only place where there’s no need to worry about ordering: whatever house red comes by the carafe is always perfect.  The streets are filled with always-full bars and cafes and the disconcerting sound of talking, of discussion, I mean of people really conversing.  Then it’s a university town, so it’s full of beautiful young people trying to fix all of their above oral fixations: talking and drinking and smoking and making out in public all over the place just like they should be.  And it’s not just the young; that magical ability the French have to make it seem like they have more available leisure time than people in any other industrialized country is even more visible here than in Paris, to the point where even someone as anti-work as me sometimes wants to ask: “Does anybody here work?”  And it’s not Italy, where everything is so homebound — all so tied to mamma’s apron strings — that most life happens domestically and out of view.  Here, more like Spain, it’s out on the street, even in January; it’s public, like in the natural polis.  It makes all the difference.  You can feel people needing interaction hungrily, like Greece in better days, craving the stimulation of others.

(This is a characteristic of the French everywhere — this love, this need for language and the exchange of ideas, sometimes what seems like nothing but a deep gratifying pleasure taken in the sheer enunciating.  It’s why — if you don’t speak any French at all and have no clue what people are talking about — every conversation you hear seems to have this tone of desperate urgency about it.  That the French are rude or cold or unfriendly is patent bull-shit; they are absolutely none of those things — quite the opposite; but if interaction or closeness is sometimes a little difficult to achieve if your French isn’t at least very good, it’s the importance of language again that explains it.  Sorry — I think they feel — but life is too short and there’s too much to talk about for me to help you with your halting French right now.)

And then there’s St. Sernin, the spectacular Romanesque basilica named after the patron saint of the city, which has become a major obsession of mine and in which I’m finding myself unable to keep from spending at least an hour every day.  This may not be the most beautiful church in Europe but it’s certainly the most beautiful Romanesque church in Europe, and for me, therefore, the most beautiful, since I have what’s almost – no, what’s clearly — a powerful erotic attraction to the style.  Knowing the renovation history of European ecclesiastic architecture, its interior is almost suspiciously austere, so I’m pretty sure it was re-Romanesqued or de-Baroqued, or however you want to see it, at some point.  This happened a lot in the nineteenth century, when Romanticism made the mediaeval more attractive to people than anything that had to do with the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries: it generally involved stripping later decorative accretions from older churches and restoring their “purity.”  Especially in southern Italy one finds this having been done fairly often, with mixed results: some before and after images I’ve seen of Sicily’s Byzantine churches seem successful; with the famous convent church of song and legend, Santa Chiara in Naples, they didn’t have a choice, since the Baroque church had been bombed by the Allies into a burnt shell and they rebuilt according to the original Gothic plan; others, like the practically made-up design of that silly Moorish cathedral in Amalfi, are clearly failures.  But whatever distractions they removed from St. Sernin I’m all for: nothing should impede the soaring, muscled athleticism of this structure and the space it embraces so powerfully.  It has to be seen — and felt, like flesh — to be believed.

St. Sernin is god-like; the building itself overwhelming the idea of whatever deity is supposed to be honored there.  The city’s other churches are more human and all quirky in the extreme.  There’s the Jacobins, named after some father monastery dedicated to St. Jacques and not those Jacobins; but still kind of jarring — like Our Lady of the Bolsheviks or something.  Only in France.  This church is described as having two naves, but only has one nave really, with a towering row of palm-like columns running right down the dead center (?) like the rope at a Hasidic wedding, so that the view of the apse and altar are obstructed from almost everywhere, so much so that mass is said at an altar set up against one of the side walls because if you’re further than even ten feet from the real altar you can only see it by peeking from around these, granted, beautiful columns.  Then there’s the city’s cathedral church, St. Etienne.  This was begun as an unusually low-arced and unusually wide Romanesque church, but that idea was apparently scrapped as not grand enough, so they continued the rest of the church in a higher Gothic style.  The thing is it wasn’t continued on the same axis.  So you enter the older Romanesque part, which now almost feels like an exonarthex in an Orthodox church, then the building’s axis makes a left turn, for about 50 feet, then a sharp right, then continues down the central nave.  Later they pasted a Renaissance — but it being France, still slightly Gothicky — belfry onto the northwest corner of the façade, and at some point a shorter little clock tower in front of that, so that, as disconcerting as the interior is, the exterior looks like it was put together from leftover pieces of different Lego sets.  And yet it works.  Works the way that French girl in the bar can put on an orange sweater and purple scarf and make it work.  And, like her, St. Etienne is quite elegant and well-loved by all, in fact.  And almost every other church in the city is that kind of pastiche; they must’ve been some art historian, early post-modernist’s wet dream back in the eighties.

“History is a personal emotion for you” a good friend once told me, and all these buildings are obvious signs of a weighty, turbulent past.  Is that why I fall in love? Because someone has a complicated past?  What we used to call “baggage”?  You don’t have to be too long immersed in Toulouse’s diffuse and slightly transgressive air of sexiness (a national poll apparently voted the local accent the hottest in France), or venture too far out into the surrounding countryside, which even in the dead of winter looks so lush and cultivatable that you half expect figs and quinces or roasted partridges from somewhere to fall into your lap, to believe that what we recognize as Europe’s first love poetry and, in fact, the West’s entire concept of Romantic love, as perverse and ridiculous as it seems to the rest of the world (and is: “Wait, you mean you’re supposed to not get what you want?”  Yep. “And just pine and suffer forever?” Uh huh…)  all come from this little corner of southwestern France.*  In fact, so much of what’s considered quintessentially mediaeval in the popular mind took some consummate form in this region.  And that includes the fact that so many of the skylofrangoi Crusaders that effed us over in 1204 came from around here.  But that no longer matters, you see.  Because while the Pope’s apology for the sack of Constantinople in 2004 left me cold, Toulouse and love have taught me to forgive.

That brings us to the crusade which brought an end to all that love and poetry.  If they think you know no history, which the French automatically assume about anyone who speaks American English, people here will talk to you about the Albigensian Crusade like it happened last week.  The ostensible purpose of this “crusade” was to eliminate a group of heretics that were probably never such a large percentage of the population of southern France; I think a popular Dan-Brown-type interest in “alternative” Christianities has perhaps exaggerated the importance of the Cathars, who were actually weirder than any mediaeval Mormons one could imagine.  But it was the perfect excuse, with the blessing if not egging on of the Always and Eternally Holy See, for the kingdom of France and its northern dependents, to go on a conquering rampage throughout the independent duchies and counties of the south, decimating and depopulating whole swaths of the most urbanized, prosperous and sophisticated part of Europe and ending, as well, Europe’s first vernacular literature by destroying the court culture that supported it and reducing its language, Occitan or Provencal, to a despised folk dialect.  This strikes all the chords in my personality that are peculiarly sensitive to the marginalized, the subjected, the memory abandoned, the tradition vanished, the lost, the forgotten — “all those things you know and tell me of, things that are long dead,” as the lyrics of a favorite Greek song testify.

(It’s why I love the Italian South as well.  And it would maybe be why I’d love the American South too, if there weren’t so much else so ugly about it.)

So does that explain it?  I don’t know.  Who did you fall in love with Stella?  Obviously someone completely in love with himself.  That’s a powerful draw, isn’t it?  Self-confidence.  Probably goes for France as a whole.  We think they’re all that because they’re so obviously convinced of it themselves, and that’s fine with me: “Great souls are always loyally submissive,” Carlyle said, “reverent to what is over them: only small mean souls are otherwise.”  But even for France, I have never come across a city or a population so cocksure confident of their specialness than Toulouse and the Toulousains.  Remember, we’re not far from D’Artagnan’s hometown here, and actually, if there’s any truth in the exaggerated cliché that Toulouse is a little bit of Spain in France (when it’s really Barcelona that delusionally thinks it’s a little bit of France in Spain), it’s that people’s comportment here has a definite element of swaggering, almost Spanish majeza** to it; and add that to the already elaborate culture of French flirtiness and you get a heady mix for sure.  And it’s the only city in France where rugby is more wildly popular than soccer and that tells you something too.  St. Sernin, come to think of it, is built like a rugby player.

So is that it?  I dunno.  A mix of all that?  Self-confidence bordering on the sweetest kind of arrogance?  Sophistication with a definite rough edge?  A behind the scenes complexity you don’t see all of, not at first at least, if ever?  Something quirky and slightly off: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” as another Brit said?  I don’t know.  And probably don’t really care.  I just know how it feels.  And for those of you who have made it this far, sorry, I have no images of the Beloved to share — just the bricks.  He’s all mine.

For G., Toulouse, January 2014

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* The most powerful, searing contemporary treatment of Romantic or Courtly love in all its cancerous beauty is Kaija Saariaho’s 2002 opera, L’amour de loin (Love from Afar) with a libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf.  It’s based on the real, historical figure of Jaufre Rudel, a 12th century Aquitanian prince and poet who fell in love with a Toulousainne princess married to the Count of the Crusader state of Tripoli in Syria (makes Maalouf’s collaboration even more interesting) without having ever seen her.  The music and poetry are beautiful and the opera’s psychological insights are razor-sharp — disturbingly so.  The end leaves you in pieces on the floor — me at least.  You’ll never come closer to the soul of Majnun in the desert than this.

It’s a shame only one aria is in Occitan; it would’ve been a real coup and homage if the whole libretto were.  Get the DVD; Dawn Upshaw has to be seen and not just heard.

**Majeza,n., or majo, adj.: you can read the whole post where the meaning of this word appears previously: “Un Verano en Nueva York”, but if not, here’s the quote from it:

Majeza is a very Spanish term that encompasses such a complex of qualities that it’s difficult to explain, especially in English, which is tragically lacking in a comparable term, as its speakers (aside from the Irish) are in most of its qualities.  It means openness and frankness and humour and swagger; it means being hospitable without being in anyway servile; it means being able to put away copious amounts of wine and pig meat; being friendly and spirited and generous while always maintaining a kind of stylish dignity and flair; it partakes of some of the qualities of Greek and Turkish leventeia in that sense; in fact, it’s a word with a certain undoubtable Balkanness about it.  Soon after the term appeared in, I think, the late eighteenth-century, working-class barrios of Madrid, it almost immediately became associated during the Napoleonic Wars with the city’s street kids, who terrified the French with their suicidal bravery, so it probably originally implied a quickness to pull a knife too and no squeamishness about seeing a little bit of your own blood shed as well.  That doesn’t apply anymore, though the ferocity into which demonstrations in Madrid have descended these days makes you think twice about that; I’m proud of the angry tenacity of the Spanish protests; don’t know what they’ll accomplish but it’s good to know Spaniards can still be scary; that anger has become such a stigmatized, pathologized emotion in our civilization (“You know…I think you have a lot of anger…”) is partly what’s let banks and governments get away with what they have over the past few decades and generally has brought us to the civilizational crisis we find ourselves in.  No, it’s not the other way around.  In any event, courage is still certainly an implied element of being majo.  There’s a great, chapter-long analysis of majeza in Timothy Mitchell’s Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting, if you’re interested and can get your hands on it.”

“History has made lawyers of the Croats…”

10 Dec

…Rebecca West famously wrote, “soldiers and poets of the Serbs. It is an unhappy divergence.”

And she is proven, once again, to be among the sharpest ever of Western observers of the Balkans.  From today’s New York TimesBob Dylan’s Discordant Notes:

“Last month, France presented Bob Dylan with its highest civilian prize, the Legion of Honor. At the ceremony, the French culture minister gushed about how Mr. Dylan had inspired a whole generation to push for peace and civil rights, about how he was inspired by Verlaine and Rimbaud in his fight for justice and freedom.

“It turns out that just days before the award was pinned on Mr. Dylan’s lapel, a Parisian prosecutor had filed preliminary charges against Mr. Dylan for violating a law that restricts free speech. The French authorities are investigating Mr. Dylan for “public injury” and “incitement to hatred.” The timing was strange since the inquiry involves comments made more than a year ago to Rolling Stone magazine. Also, the full transcript of his remarks makes it clear he was decrying racism rather than trying to incite racial hatred.”

It turns out the lawsuit was filed by the Representative Council of the Croatian Community and Institutions in France.  What they objected to was the following from Dylan:

“It’s a distraction,” the singer-provocateur said in the September 2012 interview. “People at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back — or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery — that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”

It’s hard to take the simplistic comments of someone I’ve always thought was a posturing creep like Bob Dylan seriously, but the Croats are infuriated that they can end up in the same sentence as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis and, of course, are filing charges.  Who even knows how much Dylan knows about the Balkans or the former Yugoslavia or Serbs or Croats.  I just found it gratifying for someone to state so publicly that Serbs might have historical reasons to fear others, since Croatian WWII crimes are among the least talked about in post-war Europe, and Croatian war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars among the least publicized, and that for once Serbs weren’t made the default villains in that relationship.

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For those who weren’t aware, Croatia officially joined the European Union just this past July.  Thus, the most dangerous Euroligourides (“Euro-salivators” in Zouraris‘ wonderful term) and frangoplektoi (“Frank-ridden” — though I guess technically they are Frangoi) of Balkan peoples see their dreams realized and join their Teutonic buddies.  Alles Gute, then, herzlichen Glückwunsch und auf Wiedersehen!

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Vocabulary: “Frangoi”

2 Sep

I’ve used this term several times without giving a more specific definition of it and that was a mistake because some of those posts would have made more sense if I had.

Like: “Little Rock, Greece”  (May 26th, 2012):

“But an equal object of my bashing here is the European Union, which aside from proving itself to be a neo-colonialist endeavour masquerading as the Highest Achievement of Western Humanism Project, has also revealed itself to be a half-assed, thrown together mess on so many institutional and bureaucratic levels.  (Yes, neo-colonialist: the Frangoi** gave up their colonies after the war and then discovered the exploitable potential of Europe’s own periphery again.)”

And: “Russia and Syrian Christians, ctd”  (June 5th, 2012):

“Tying your survival to extra-regional players or regimes like Assad’s that are destined to soon make their exit is a losing strategy for the region’s Christians.  The threat of Islamist violence is probably real.  Iraq and even Egypt certainly seem to indicate that.  But their only choice is probably the tricky dance of fostering, or just going with, the flow of democratic change while keeping themselves as least vulnerable as possible.  Forget Russia.  And, as Constantine XI had to heroically face in the end, there’s certainly no help coming from the Frangoi.*  If you want to live in peace and security, look to your neighbor because, ultimately, he’s the only one who can provide it for you.”

And: “Un Verano en Nueva York” (July 13th, 2012):

“In Astoria I catch the end of vespers at Hagia Eirene.  This is a church that used to be the territory of fundamentalist, Old Calendar, separatist crazies but has rejoined the flock on the condition that it was granted monastic status (and I have no idea what that means).  But it has somehow got its hands on a great bunch of cantors and priests who really know what they’re doing.  I’m impressed.  I brought friends here for the Resurrection this year and for the first time I wasn’t embarrassed.  If I hadn’t invited them back home afterwards I would have stayed for the Canon.  Only one cantor now at vespers but he’s marvelous and the lighting is right and the priest’s bearing appropriately imperial.  It’s incredibly heartening to see our civilization’s greatest achievement — which is not what the Frangoi taught us about Sophocles or Pericles or some half-baked knowledge of Plato or a dumb hard-on about the Elgin marbles or the word “Macedonia,” but this, the rite and music and poetry and theatre of the Church – performed with the elegance and dignity that it deserves.”                  

So…when the Byzantines first encountered the West and the conglomeration of Germanic kingdoms that had sprung up on the territories of the western Roman Empire, or rather, when they first felt challenged by it and not just irritated, was when Charlemagne, previously just King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of the Romans in the year 800 by Pope Leo III, whose skin he had saved after Leo had been deposed and almost lynched by the mobs of Rome.  This, of course, was intolerable to us, because we were the Romans and we had an Emperor, with an unbroken line back to Constantine, if not Augustus.  This is close to impossible an idea for anyone today to understand; it’s even hard for modern Greeks to articulate and it’s at the core of our completely mangled identity.  It’s nearly impossible to speak definitively about consciousness or identity in the present tense, much less more than a millennium past.  But this is the simplest way I can put it: by the late first millennium, the Greek-speaking Christians of the eastern Mediterranean had a stronger sense of Imperial Roman continuity than the inhabitants of even the Italian peninsula.  Till well into the twentieth century our most common term of self-designation was “Romios” – “Roman.”  If you had asked any of my grandparents, all born Ottoman subjects, what they “were” — if they even understood the question — or even my father very often, they would’ve all answered “Roman.”  For the inhabitants of my father’s village in Albania, especially the older ones, who never had “Hellenes” imposed on them by the Neo-Greek statelet, the world is still divided into Muslim “Turks” and Orthodox “Romans,” and whether they speak Greek or Albanian is irrelevant.  The Greeks of Istanbul still call themselves “Romioi” for the most part; Turks still call them “Rum” too, out of simple historical continuity, while the Turkish state is still faithful to the appellation for partly more cynical and manipulative reasons.  I’m writing a piece with the appropriately pompous working title of “A Roman Manifesto” or “A Manifesto of Romanness” that will deal with this whole theme further.

The Frankish West (click)

So Charlemagne was a Frank, a Latinized Germanic ethnic group, and though the Pope’s primacy “inter pares” was recognized, he had no right to unilaterally crown this Frank emperor in an Italy that had become a ravaged provincial backwater from the Constantinopolitan point of view.  This didn’t end relations between the Empire and the various western European kingdoms.  They continued to trade and even contract dynastic marriages and all the rest.  But the tension, which had already been planted for quite a while before that, only went from bad to worse: power tensions; trade concessions to the Italian city-states that fatally mirror the ones the Ottomans had to make to the Western powers a millennium later; massacres of Italians in C-town that are equally mirror-like.

The West grew in confidence.  The Empire shrank.  They started bickering about theological issues, and eventually, in 1054, Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other over some nonsense about the division of labor among the Trinity that I’ve never bothered to try and understand.  Then came the Crusades — more growing Western confidence — which the Byzantines weren’t ever really enthusiastic about because I reckon on many levels they felt less animosity for and greater cultural affinity to their the Muslim/Arab neighbors than they did to the “Franks.”  Runciman, I think writes somewhere that a ninth-century Greek felt more at home in Arab Palermo or Baghdad and Cairo that he would’ve in Paris or even Rome.

Sometimes Wiki’s gets it perfect:

“The experiences of the first two Crusades had thrown into stark relief the vast cultural differences between the two Christian civilizations. The Latins (as the Byzantines called them because of their adherence to the Latin Rite) viewed the Byzantine preference for diplomacy and trade over war, as duplicitous and degenerate, and their policy of tolerance and assimilation towards Muslims as a corrupt betrayal of the faith. For their part, the educated and wealthy Byzantines saw the Latins as lawless, impious, covetous, blood-thirsty, undisciplined, and (quite literally) unwashed.”

Then came the Fourth Crusade, led by the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo.  The Crusaders fell into the internecine machinations of the some Angeloi  Emperors and I think ended up feeling betrayed on some promise made to them by one party in the Byzantine political scene, and they probably were, because our latter Emperors compensated for the diminishment of their real geopolitical power and the sapped strength of their once massive military machine by becoming major manipulative sleazebags and liars, initiating a long Greek tradition that persists to our day.  In retaliation, and, or, because that had been their real object all along, the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, captured the City – the first time Constantinople had ever fallen to anybody and destroyed it.

They destroyed her.  They massacred thousands, desecrated churches, including Hagia Sophia herself, and carried away what, in today’s terms, I’m sure amounted to billions in loot.  The Venetians got off with enough of a lump sum of capital to fund and run their mercantile empire for another five centuries.  But aside from the loot, which on some level is comprehensible, it’s the sheer mindless destruction of 1204 that betrays the sack as the action of thuggish, resentful provincials and their envy towards what had been the civilizational center of the Mediterranean and western Asian world for almost a millennium; it’s what an army of Tea-Partiers, NRA members or armed Texan Evangelicals would do to New York if they could.  Though pregnant already with the great traditions of this supposed thing called Western Humanism, this bunch destroyed more Classical texts and melted down or smashed more Classical sculpture into gravel than had been done at any other one time in history – far more than any fanatical Christians in any pagan city or any Arabs or Muslims in any conquered Christian city before them had.  More of the ancient world was lost to us in those few days than in any other comparable time span before that.  Just sheer idiotic vandalism.  There’s probably no more epic manifestation of Killing-the-Father in human history.

Speros Vryonis, a great historian but a seriously unpleasant man, Theos’choreston, made a career out of catalogueing the injustices done to Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greeks.  He was the great modern preacher of whining Greek victimology and one often felt that all his personal bile and biterness was poured into his work in that way; his book on the anti-Greek riots of Istanbul in 1955 is one thousand pages long; you’d think it was the most important event in twentieth-century history.  In any event, in Byzantium and Europe, he wrote:

“The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.”

The Fall of Constantinople, Palma Le Jeune — 16th-17th century (click)

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople –Eugene Delacroix, 1840 (click)

And, in fact, the Turks — fast-forward two-and-a-half centuries – weren’t as bad.  Maybe ’cause there wasn’t much left.  Aside from a sizeable amount of slaves, most of the loot Mehmet had promised his suicidally brave Janissaries when they finally made it into the City in 1453 consisted of cheap silver frames pried off of personal or parish-sized icons — Cavafy’s “bits of coloured glass.”  The Emperor’s tombs in the dilapidated Hagioi Apostoloi — the Byzantines’ Westminster — had already been desecrated and robbed by the Franks.  They may as well have sacked Astoria.  The rest was in Venice.  (Even the crown jewels had been pawned off to Venice a century before by Anne of Savoy, one of the most meddling Frangissa bitches in Byzantine history, to fund her episode of the Palaiologan civil wars; that’s the actual historical reference for Cavafy’s “coloured glass.”  Christouli mou, can you imagine what the Byzantine crown jewels were like?)  But one good thing happened for Greeks on Tuesday, May Twenty-Ninth, Fourteen-Fifty-Three: when the Turks finally broke into Hagia Sophia, they smashed Dandolo’s sepulcher — because, after all of the above, he had had the shamelessness to have himself interred there – and finding nothing of worth, they threw his bones out into the street and let the dogs gnaw on them.  I don’t care what else the conquering Turks did at that  point or that Menderes’ thugs did the same to the Patriarchs’ graves at Balikli in 1955; I sleep better at night because they did it to Dandolo.  I’m as close to a chaneller of the Byzantine mind and soul as you’ll find (aside from Vryonis) and I can tell you that the sweet Balkan hard-on of vengeance that image gives me even now is indescribable.

The Greeks got Constantinople back in 1261, but the City never really recovered, as the Empire itself didn’t.  Like the South Bronx in the eighties, whole parts of the City were eventually given over to orchards and bostania or just wilderness.  Yet even after that, the Byzantines managed to plant further seeds in the womb of friggin’ Western Humanism in the form of an artistic wave of unprecedented dimensions and creativity. 

The “Franks,” thereafter, were the unforgivable villains.  But even before, when Byzantine writers felt like being professional, they referred to Westerners as “Latins.”  When not, and eventually in most cases, they were “Frangoi.”  Frangoi stuck as the word for Westerners, or for Catholics at least, because Protestantism was only a minor blip on the East’s screen.   But generally it came to mean the Western Others and the Eastern Muslim world between which Byzantine and post-Byzantine Christians came to feel themselves stuck between.

“Fereng,” “Ferengi,” “Ferenj” and other variations is also a word that eventually came to be used as far east as India, but I can’t be sure whether in Iran or India it means/meant Westerner or just foreigner.  For Arabs and Turks, “Frank” came to mean those Christians over there, as opposed to “Romans,” our Christians over here.  So if you were Roman Catholic, either back home in Europe or in the Near East, you were a “Frank;” if you were an Orthodox Christian, you were a “Roman.”*  It’s confusing.  And I hope I haven’t made it worse.

For Greeks, Frangoi continued to mean Westerner both in a negative sense and not, until the nation-sate convinced us into thinking we ourselves were Westerners.  When Greek peasant men, for example, started wearing Western clothes, whereas their women wore traditional dress well into the twentieth century in many regions, those clothes were “Frangika.”  Frangoi also meant, with no negative connotation, the small communities of Catholics in the Aegean islands that were leftovers of the Crusader principalities that had been founded there after the Fourth Crusade.

It’s not used any more in common Greek parlance, but most Greeks know what you mean when you say it – though this generation is so profoundly ignorant historically that I’m not so sure.  I, of course, use it in a spirit of historical irony, though that spirit is entirely hostile.  The worst enemy of our part of the world is the European West, and not because of imperialist interventions or the usual gripes, but because of the ideological and cultural chaos we allowed it to throw us into.

Yes, Frangoi are the enemy.  I like to say that.  But it’s not true.  We think we’re Frangoi.  Unlike the Byzantines described above, who understood that their natural civilizational context was and always had been the eastern Mediterranean, we are either ignorant of the peoples to our East or despise them.  We disfigured our own identity in an attempt to remake it in the Westerners’ image.  We threw acid into our own face and now still look longingly into Europe’s eyes, and pathetically expect to see our Classical glory reflected back at us.

*One of the most graphic examples is Lebanon/Syria, where Orthodox Christians, who have long and poignantly tried to bridge the above gap, were still “Romans” into the nineteenth century and were among the founders and then long among the most loyal adherents of Arab nationalism, whereas Maronite Christians were the locals with the most exemplary Frangika delusions, always looking to the Western outsider to bolster their interests, first their “sweet mother France” and then Israel, and bringing disaster down upon their heads and that of all around them in the process.  That’s why in many previous posts my humble outsider’s advice to and hope for Syrian Christians in the current crisis has been that they think and act like Romans and not Franks.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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