The best books, they say, are the ones that you as a writer would like to read. I got so tired of reading books about “the glory that was Greece”! I wanted something contemporary. I wanted to understand the color, the texture and nuance of life that was going on around me. Back in the mid-1970s, I don’t remember a single book in English about Greece that didn’t focus on the Acropolis, Pericles, the "Golden Age". I wanted something about everyday life. So I decided to write such a book myself. I had been in Greece for several years and could get around quite well with the language. It took me about a year to try to find topics that I thought were typical and representative – not sensational, weird stuff, just everyday things that I was convinced were meaningful to the average Greek.
For me, there were a lot of new tastes in Greece - like octopus and squid . It was the first time I had ever seen a baked lamb’s head , eyeballs and all staring up at me on a plate. Greeks tried to convince me that it was a delicacy. I’m still not sure! Snails . Another first. I’ll never forget the first time I went “snail collecting”. It was after a spring rain and people were wandering over a hillside with plastic bags, collecting snails. Me and my friends decided to do the same. We gathered the snails, took them home and put them in a box for a couple of days. I remember asking Why?, and then we cooked them up in a tomato-onion stew. Incredibly delicious! Artichokes were new to me. I still like how the Greeks stew them with carrots and potatoes.
Oh yes, and camomile flowers. Another first. What a delight to go to the hillsides in spring and pop those tiny daisies through your fingers and then spread them out to dry on newspapers for your own supply of camomile tea for the whole year. Wonderful fragrance. I still drink camomile tea. Camomile is sprouting up all over the place now in the spring.
And Greece was first where I learned to love yoghurt. Plain yoghurt. Not the manufactured kind that is so popular now in the States with all that sugary fruit in the bottom. Just plain fresh yoghurt made from sheep’s milk. There used to be a little old man who had a tiny shop around the corner from where I lived in Athens – you couldn’t even call it a store front. Just a little door to a tiny hall-like passage, lit by a single naked light bulb where he sold small plastic containers of yoghurt. He prepared them fresh each day, we bought them early evening every night. They didn’t even have any lids on them. The yoghurt, with its wrinkled skin, was exposed. If I remember correctly, we paid 3 drachmas for each container.
Last year, Emily and I met up with each other again in Los Angeles and mused about the fun we had had in Greece years earlier. We concluded that the things we had done in that class would be forbidden today in American classrooms because of the constant pressure for standardized testing. Teachers have to teach to these tests or the school loses funding. It was sad for us to realize that 30-40 years earlier, far away in the land of Greece, we had more freedom in what we could teach than what is possible today.
Yes. It’s a strange story. While living in Greece, I visited many of the islands but never managed to get to Crete. In 1977, I accepted a teaching assignment in Iran. The following October as Library Media specialist, I attended a conference in Frankfurt. I planned to be away from school for only a week. After the conference, I stopped overnight in Athens to say hello to some friends on my way back to Tehran. But then the unthinkable happened: Iran Air went on strike! It would have been possible to take another international carrier to Tehran, but within the country, only Iran Air operated. I was working 17 hours by bus south of Tehran, not a smart move for a single foreign girl when the political situation was becoming more and more volatile. Well, I stayed in Athens for a few days, thinking that the strike would soon be over. But no. The strike continued. Soon I got worried that I would wear out my welcome staying with my friends so long. What to do especially since I was running out of money? Keep in mind that there were no such things as credit cards back then, or bank transfers via the internet. One carried Travelers’ Checks and I was running out of money in any form. That’s when I decided to stop by the publisher of my book “ Sun, Seasons, Souvlaki. ” Could she help me out? Sure enough, she did. With $250 in my pocket, and not knowing when the airline strike would end, I took a ferry boat to Crete. Back in those days, one could travel economy class for about the equivalent of $1 per hour. As I recall the voyage was overnight but cost only about $12 or so. By the time Iran Air got back into operation, nearly a month had passed since I had left school. I began to sense that life was starting to become quite unpredictable in Iran. Little did I know that this chapter of my life would come to an abrupt end and we would soon be evacuated.
The school where I taught was located in the remote mountains of southern Iran, at a copper mine — Sar Cheshmeh. This was the second year of the school’s existence (Kindergarten through Grade 8). Classes were small: most had fewer than 10 students. The children came from many countries — Scotland, England, South Africa, Chile, Philippines. Their dads were helping to set up the copper mine. I might add that the mine seems to be quite productive today. It’s considered to be the second largest copper deposit in the world.
Although Betty had never ridden a dirt bike before, it became her only transportation for 15 months while she was in Iran. On weekends, she would get together with other teachers and head up into the desert mountains to villages. They always wore a helmet and the bikes were heavy. When Betty was evacuated, she was one of the lucky few who got to sell her bike for $500 - half what she had paid to buy it. At Christmas, all the couples left and not a single woman got back into the country. The men flew to Pakistan and took buses back in; their wives ever saw Iran again.
So many things were exactly opposite to what my life had been in Athens. What a stark contrast. A few months earlier, I had been driving around cosmopolitan Athens in heavy traffic in a Mini Morris. In Iran, we rode “dirt bikes”— those Yamaha motorcycles with the nubby tires. On weekends, the teachers would head out on the barren dusty roads to villages. I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life. In Sar Cheshmeh, skies were blue. Somehow, I’ve always had difficulty thinking there is trouble in the world when skies are so bright and clear. Bright stars — like brilliant diamonds — filled the vast dark sky at night. I had never seen such a vast Milky Way — zillions of stars.
You’re right. The oppressiveness of the Shah’s regime soon led to protests in Tehran. Soon unrest started to affect the copper mine as well. We foreigners were evacuated two days before the Shah left the country in January 1979. We left on January 14th; the Shah left, January 16th. And Ayatollah Khomeini arrived a few weeks later. Iran has never been the same. Back in the States, it was a very unsettling time for me. Being evacuated had been like death to me. I liked Iran. Leaving must have been incredibly painful for those who had to leave their Homeland and who have never been able to return.
Betty Blair, 1976, standing outside a periptero (kiosk) at the Corinth Canal, proudly showing off her colouring-book being sold. The Corinth Canal is now no longer touristy; since the building of a road over the isthmus, the canal lost all its tourist value. Note the kiosk's advertising: English, international and highly European.
More travel! Lots of travel to remote locations in South American jungles with linguists who were studying tribal languages. Then graduate study at UCLA in folklore after I realized that folklore was not just about folk tales – but was really the deep study of how beliefs are transmitted through history and how these beliefs were spread geographically. Actually, it was really what my first book was about – studying traditions and practices in Greece.
Yes, I was the Founding Editor of Azerbaijan International magazine, which we established in 1993. Next year marks 20 years that we’ve been publishing this magazine. We have one of the world’s largest websites in the world about Azerbaijan, http://AZER.com . The website archives the articles from the magazine and mostly focuses on cultural topics – literature, music, history, etc. Lately, we have done a lot of research about Azerbaijan’s most famous novel Ali and Nino , which has been published in more than 30 languages including Greek. I think yes. Greeks were always so generous and hospitable. And they were quite impressed when I would speak with them. "She’s one of us," they would say. They were so open to share their traditions and explain things to me. And I think the confidence they gave me – to dare to talk with strangers and to try to learn about new people and new cultures – originated in Greece.
Frankly speaking, returning to Greece was a disappointing experience. I had lived in Greece for six years when it was booming! The weakened economy has affected everything. But so many things have changed since then. Even the airport was located far away from where I remembered it! Hotels were very expensive. I can remember when you could get a room for about $10 on the islands. Athens used to be so crowded with tourists primarily from Europe. But this past summer, most tourists seemed to be American and Chinese. Where were the Germans and the French? Europeans seem to be heading to Turkey, which is much less expensive for tourists.
Although the view of Acropolis is not obscured, it's lost that old-time glamour...
Of course, there were many familiar landmarks – starting with the Acropolis. I have to admit that I loved the new Acropolis Museum with the see-through glass floors and the architecture plan that puts the statues on display so that you can study them from any angle. I’m not one who usually cares much about museums but the new Acropolis Museum is worth a visit to Greece just to see it.
And I was so pleased that the buildings in the city have remained relatively low – no high rise buildings – which are so characteristic of metropolitan centers today. I was so glad that views of the Acropolis have not been blocked by skyscrapers. But the day that my husband and I climbed the hill to see the Acropolis, we arrived only to be told that this ancient monument was closed. How could the Acropolis be closed?! There was a strike taking place in Athens. We were so disappointed. We had come all the way to Greece , expressly to see the Acropolis.
We left in complete dismay. But at the same time, it was “deja-vu” all over again for me because back in 1973, I had had a similar experience . I had arrived at the entrance of the Acropolis only to be told that curfew had been announced for 4pm for the entire city and everybody had to return back home by then. This was a crackdown by the government in response to an uprising by students at Athens Polytechnic Institute - the day the tanks rolled in. I remember heading down the hill from the Acropolis and walking home the five miles - joining hundreds of people in the streets. The public transportation was not working .
The sisters wait to be reunited once again...
But evidence of economic decline was everywhere. Talented people were doing jobs far beneath their capability. You could see that people were struggling. So many stores were shuttered and empty on the main streets in the most prestigious parts of town. The main bookstore on Syntagma Square that had sold Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki and other English-language books had closed down. There were demonstrations in the streets, and gatherings and speeches at Syntagma Square each night. It brought to mind protests and demonstrations in the streets in the 1970s. Actually, it was exciting to see how people were gathering and trying to protest at the conditions. But clearly, the problems are not going to be resolved for a long time and Greece is going to face even darker days. Somehow, we grew up with the belief – perhaps “myth” would be a better word – that life gets better and better. But my visit to Greece made me realize that this is not necessarily so. And if it isn’t true for Greece, it means that it likely isn’t true for many of the rest of us in the world as well.
*** *** *** Greece is changing in a direction that was once thought impossible. Remembering Greece as she was is of pressing urgency now, even if at times it seems that Greece's future is heading in the direction of her past. But knowing your past makes you wiser, by giving you the chance to plan ahead.
I acknowledge the internet for bringing me together with Betty, thereby forging a new friendship.
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