Egonne Roth

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A Family Affair

Posted by Egonne Roth on March 22, 2016 at 2:10 AM Comments comments (1)


My great grandmother had a hotel in what is today a school in the Government Gardens in Cape Town. Every time I walk through that lovely green oasis in the heart of the mother city I feel sadness that ‘Afrikaneroord’, as the hotel was known, has been lost to the family. Some families lose their businesses for whatever reasons, but some manage to keep what is theirs and treasure it. Such a tale we heard on the Greek island of Aegina.


One evening in 2014 as we were dining on the terrace of the Vagia Hotel on Aegina, I was delighted to hear that we were truly sitting in a family hotel. It was a somewhat exceptional dinner: my daughter and her partner had cooked for us but we served it at the hotel because Maria, the owner and her two sons could not take the evening off to join us at our rented villa. Usually when we visit Vagia, we stay with them in the hotel. Both sons, Notis and Stylios, had successful careers elsewhere until the big economic crash in the country put many professional people out of work. “My father had died not long before and so it was good for us that we could come home to the family business and help our mother,” Notis had told me during our first visit to the hotel.

“Tell us the history of your hotel,” I asked Notis.

He settled his tall frame into one of the chairs, took a sip of wine and began. “My grandfather’s father was a black marketer here in this area. He used to lend people money and in exchange he bought their land until he owned large parts of what is now the village of Vagia.” As we listened all you heard was the night birds, the soft drone of the sea down the road and Notis’s deep voice telling a tale that I suspect few visitors usually heard. Stylios kept everyone’s glass filled with white wine or retsina while Notis checked his facts with his mother every couple of sentence and she seemed to add asides which we sadly could not understand.


“So my grandfather inherited a great deal of land which he in turn began to sell off. There where you saw those big houses,” Notis continued waving his hand in the general direction of the beach, “all that land used to belong to our family. So my father asked for some of the land in the shadow of the Temple of Aphaia to build this hotel and then taking a loan, he began to build here. First, this main building in the island style.”


“Describe what you mean by the island style?” asks one of our friends sitting at the table.

“Well, first the colour ochre and then the materials. You see the floor – that is Karystos stones which today you can’t get any more but it was once very typical. The best,” Notis smiles and his brother nods. Their pride and joy in this venture is obvious and fills me with a little envy. “Each room is a little different. Individual. Simple but honest.We’ve used wood. The architect designed this place so that it feels like home with unexpected corners.



Only later we added the building at the back. We run this business with very tight control. My mother does the baking – tonight she has baked carrot cake – the one you love so much,” Notis points at me.

“Oh it’s very good,”  my daughter pipes up.

“But you haven’t eaten breakfast here yet,” says Notis.

“My mommy brought me a little piece,” she replies with a smile.

“Oooooh, so you steal out of my hotel,” says Notis wagging his finger at me. “My god, the next time you come here I will have to body- search you,” and his hands demonstrates very vividly what he will have to do. Everyone laughs but I feel a little uncomfortable. It is not something one does in this small family run business but Maria had dished me a piece of cake far too big and I had wrapped most of it up to take to Tamar. She winks at me.

“I will bring the kids for breakfast on Friday morning,” I tell Notis, “We’ve now gotten into bringing our guests here for their last morning before they leave.”

“You can be glad you are leaving on Friday,” Notis tells the kids. Actually only Tamar is mine but she brought her boyfriend, Dishen, who has been spoiling us with his delicious cooking. It has been a special time together and I find nothing good in their leaving.

“Why?” they ask, hardly able to believe there can been a good reason for leaving paradise.

“There is a big storm coming in on Friday. By Sunday I doubt that any boats will be leaving the island. Then you’d be stuck here – maybe till Wednesday,” Notis says. He turns to us. “You won’t be leaving your villa much over the weekend.” And I begin to figure out the implications for our domestic arrangements: Most of our guests stay in little outside cottages and have to walk past the pool to get into the house. We usually eat our meals around a table that seats ten on the back veranda. 

“But first, you come on Friday,” says Maria, “and you have a nice breakfast here and eat my cakes.” She is so warm and inviting in her manner that one feels this invitation is more than just a business deal. She remembers small details such as that Judy does not eat pork and so, if there is ham in the toasted sandwiches that are sometimes served at breakfast, she will rush into the kitchen to make sandwiches with cheese and tomato instead. Everything served at breakfast is home-made by Maria.

“But no recipes,” says Notis with a grin.

“One of our other guests liked Maria’s chocolate cake so much, that every time we managed to eat here, she would ask for the recipe. We speculated endlessly what was in it,” I explain.

“Maybe I can come back next year and be your receptionist-cleaner,” says Mary Ann, another of our guests, with a dreamy look in her eyes.

“I think not,” says Notis, “Sophia’s been with us for eighteen years. She is not going away soon!”

Judy and I have come to know Sophia during our stays at the hotel – like Notis and his mother, she has a ready smile and is always looking for ways to make one’s visit more pleasant.

“You know, we want this place to be different from the other places here on the island. We look at the details. You see the wood and the furniture, the curtains… All the decorations are designed to make it feel homey so that our guests feel good here and want to return.”

Later as we walk back to our villa, everyone comments on what a distinctive ambience the place has and what lovely people they are.


 

 

 

Refugees in Lesbos Day 2

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 26, 2015 at 1:15 PM Comments comments (0)


 

The next day we had to return to Mytilene to return our rented car. Again as we drove along the main road we saw the groups of mainly young men walking. We decided to drive a different route into town and discovered the route took us right past the camp where the refugees were taken to register.


I saw a young woman who looked exactly like one of the daughters of the paralysed woman in the wheel chair but I could not stop to talk to her. I felt wretched. Would I ever know what happened to them? Once we were in the town we had to be in the midst of the refugees as the car rental office was near the port.


We literally had to step over people lying and sitting on anything they could find to get to the office. Across a small courtyard was a café packed with mainly Syrians and sitting close to the door was a young man looking so forlorn that I could not turn away. I bought a coke and sandwich and offered them to him. Eventually he took only the coke and the owner told me someone else had bought him sandwiches earlier. As we had not eaten lunch I decided we could enjoy the sandwich ourselves. Yehudit had completed the business with the car rental man and joined me at the café called “Art and Coffee”.


We ordered the best coffee frappes I have ever had and talked with the waitress, a lovely young woman called Marina. She told us that for months the place was regularly packed out by the refugees who mainly drank coffee or coke, ate the most basic sandwich and sat resting there while they loaded their cell phones: the café had provided an extension cord with half a dozen electrical points for that purpose. I was amazed at how gracious and kind both she and the owner were. These were not customers who were buying meals and expensive drinks and moving on but were literally camped out there until they could figure out what to do next. Even though there was a sign saying no toilets I had been told to ask and the owner would probably open up for us, so I did. “I am terribly sorry,” the waitress said, “but with so many people the whole system has packed up. You definitely can’t go in there.” The tiny twitch of her nose told me exactly why not.

We decided to move on and walked to the port to take photographs of the hundreds of people camped out there on the tarmac. There were no ablution blocks and few water points and it was hot and smelly. As we were about to cross the road, I literally pumped into a young woman coming round the corner. I stepped and was about to apologise when I recognised her, “Seba?” Like a long lost daughter she rushed into my arms and would not let go, only to hug Yehudit. We tried talking but her English skills were not enough. I caught sight of a young man watching us and asked him, “Do you speak English?” He did and for the next 15 minutes he interpreted for us and we got Seba to understand where we were from, that we were always in July / August in Germany with the family and that if she had by next year July made contact with me via Facebook we would drive to find and see her. He translated and she kept hugging us. I got him to explain to her that we taught Arab students who could translate the Arabic for us – the main thing was to keep contact. She expressed the hope that we would be in Germany sooner – she expected to be there within a week! The stories they have been told by the smugglers are astounding. We took photos together and then she went off with some people she knew. We asked the young man about his exceptional English – he had learnt it in Syria where he also came from and he felt confident that he would be able to learn German very quickly. I am sure he will – Malik is bright and determined. Like Seba, he believed that they would be in Germany soon. He did ask about the border situation and we tried to give him good hope. He also promised to keep an eye on Seba. He expressed surprise that we had told her we were from Israel and immediately advised us to be careful whom we told. “Not everyone here is informed. Also there may be ISIS people among us – who knows? I think Europe will soon have problems. Not everyone is a real refugee. There is my father. He and I came alone until we can make everything sure before we send tickets for my mother and sisters. We did not want them to come with us on this dangerous journey.” We asked where they had landed and how they had got to the capital. “I don’t know the name of the place but we walked about sixty or seventy kilometres. I can no longer feel my legs,” he said. I gave him my name and said to contact me via Facebook when he could. He promised he would.


We crossed the road and began to walk through the port area taking photographs and seeing what was happening. The gypsies had moved in with their car filled with bottles of water – I did not ask how much they were charging. Their children moved along refugee families and began begging – something we have not seen a single refugee do. As we’ve been travelling in Greece now for several years we have learnt to recognise the gypsies who come mainly from Bulgaria and exploit the present situation for their own good.


People greeted us and told us where they were from – often without us even asking. One young man had an exceptional grasp of the language and soon we were in a deep conversation. He was a Kurd and when he heard we were from Israel he also warned us of possibly unfriendly people. “But,” he said, “we Kurds know that the Israelis are our friends and we know that if the Muslims would start working with Israel there would be no problems in the region.” I was a bit astounded and asked what he had done before embarking on this journey. “I studied literature but my real desire is to become a film maker in Germany. He showed us a USB hanging around his neck. “This is video material I bring from Syria – I want to make it into a real documentary to show the world.” I asked his name. “Gunewa,” he told me. I said I hoped I one day would see it in the newspapers telling me he had made it. For some reason I did not give him my name or invite him to look for me on Facebook. “Smooth talker,” Yehudit said as he moved away. “I hoped you would not give him your name.” We moved on taking more photos. At the Hellenic Seaways office there was a queue waiting to buy tickets and near the gate giving access to the ferry due to take refugees to Piraeus a shuffle seemed to be developing.


“Those are the Afghans,” someone told us. “The Syrians who have been registered are the people standing in the queue waiting to buy their tickets in the correct manner. There could still trouble here.”

We decided to move on: we were the only white women among a sea of refugees, a large percentage of them Afghani young men. Also we were still looking for a toilet and knew there was not one close – our noses told us so.

 

Refugees in Lesbos Day 1

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 21, 2015 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)


 

“The world’s gone crazy. Totally schizophrenic!” I tell Yehudit as we drive next to the sea from a point south of Eftalou to Molyvos, our car heavy with two women and four children who have just landed safely on the coast. The children belong to the family of the older woman; the other is a younger woman travelling on her own: she later tells me her name is Seba Gnead. All from Syria. All have just crossed the eight kilometres from the Turkish coast to northern Lesbos in a rubber duck designed to take maximum eight people – they were probably between thirty and forty. We are driving past a group of north European tourists lounging next to the sea, the women in bikinis, the men round with affluence. They glance up at the refugees walking past with little interest.


“What must these young men coming from radical Muslim countries think? Their world has really turned upside-down.”

 

Two days previously we collected our car and as we drove out of Mytilini to our guest farm among the olive groves we had seen groups of young refugee men walking towards the capital of the island.

“Where are the women and children?” we asked ourselves, but soon we turned off the main route and there were other things to be seen. We put on the radio and all we could find was music from Turkey. The reception from Radio Izmir was very strong. “One forgets Turkey is so much closer than the Greek mainland,” Yehudit commented and we thought no more of it. Yet we could not get those young men walking along the road out of our minds, neither the news reports we saw on the computer. The next day we drove north and arrived in Petra late – just time for supper and bed.

 

In the morning we headed towards Molyvos. As we entered there were hundreds of refugees laying sitting standing next to the road. I got out of the car to take photos and ended up talking with the head of one of the volunteer groups working there – volunteers are recognizable because they either wore bright orange jackets or t-shirts announcing which of the organizations they are working with. Rowan, a focussed young woman told me that at least 400 had arrived during the night and more boats were coming in. A young Australian man told me he was a lawyer but from the way he spoke I had the feeling he had not ever practised law – “No,” he told me, “I only graduated in July and have been travelling in Europe since then but I have been involved in human rights organizations for three years.” He was now helping full time in Molyvos. Everyone, refugees and volunteers alike look exhausted. Rowan also tells me that the young men get impatient and chose to try and walk to Mytilene – families get priority treatment on the busses and so it is better for them to just walk the nearly seventy kilometres through very mountainous terrain to the capital where the only registration point is. “The authorities here in Molyvos don’t allow us to open another registration point here or in Kalloni,” she says frustration clearly marked on her face. The refugees may not use public transport or taxis until they are registered, so her volunteer organisation have organised busses – it was unclear who carries the cost.

 

Yehudit and I decided to drive towards the little port and see what was happening there and to find some breakfast. All was quiet and we sat down to enjoy a delicious breakfast next to the water. We got into conversation with the waiter and he told us more about the situation. “There are little boats arriving all the time but not here, at Eftalou and along the eastern coastline, wherever the boats wash up. Few have proper engines and many disintegrate along the way. The refugees have to pay the smugglers at least $1500 to get onto the boat and then extra for the life jackets. We’re trying to do what we can but we have so many problems of our own. Still, you cannot let people die in the water and Europe and the world don’t care. No-one wants them. It is a human tragedy and a political disaster. Of course ISIS is using it to smuggle people into Europe. You will see within a year the bombs will begin to explode in cities all over Europe!”

 

We drive out to Eftalou – all along the route we see people walking, some exhausted, others triumphant – they are in Europe - safe, they believe the worst is behind them. Little do they know the worst since they left home is about to come. Where the tar road ends we find the help station where they are brought once they are out of the water or their boats. Here they are given sandwiches and water and whatever basic medical treatment they need. Many get hurt trying to survive in the boats, most of which are of the poorest quality. We talk to Rieke, a Dutch volunteer with Stichting Bootvluchteling and get told that there are more boats coming in further along the coast. If we want to help transport people, we can follow her and bring the worst cases back to this point. We follow her in our rented car and are horrified at how bad the ground road is. Vehicles with Greek and Swedish and Dutch registration plates drive like crazy, one direction empty and back overloaded. We follow them more slowly, more carefully. All along the route are people walking, whole families. We stop at a point some 5 km further where we see the other vehicles parked and look down – men woman and children, some holding tiny babies wade out to dry land, their boat seems in shreds. Later we hear from one of the refugees, “The smugglers tell us to cut the boat as soon as we are really close to land so that the Greek coast guard won’t send us back.” The Greek coast guard are not sending anyone back, only saving those from the water that they can. Up from where we are watching, we can see only volunteers helping at the shore. A young blonde man is handling a drone and soon he sends one of the volunteer boats to try and tow in a rubber duck that has run out of fuel – a common occurrence – to safety.We watch holding our breath: the boat is seriously overloaded; one wrong move and it will capsize. A German couple is standing watching with us, “While the leaders of the Europe debate what to do, people are dying in the water. And the Americans? They wash their hands of the whole Syrian disaster because there is no oil or something they need in Syria!” he says bitterly. “How will Europe cope with so many refugees? And of course ISIS uses this – you will see what happens!”

 

 

As we watch they struggle up the steep mountain side to where we are standing and then begin to walk towards the official help point. A man asks us to take his wife who is older with the three children and another asks for a young woman who looks near collapse. The car is full but I take her rucksack onto my lap and she manages to squeeze in next to the children. As we drive now extra slowly back I try and get them to drink water. In the heat dehydration is one of the biggest threats they now face. We get to the beginning of the tar road and everyone gets out of the car leaving behind the smell of fear, sweat and urine. The young woman clings to me and makes me understand she is totally alone – both parents died in Syria. I give her my contact details via Facebook and she promises to get in touch with me as soon as she can. She smiles a big smile when I tell her we come from Israel.

 

“We can’t risk that dirt road again with this car,” Yehudit says and so we decide to transport those in most need the 4 km from this point to the place in Molyvos where they wait for the busses. A man approaches us, “My mother,” he says pointing to an old woman in a wheelchair. Yehudit nods, “Yes!” and he quickly lifts her into the car and two of his sisters and some children also squash in. We explain to the men exactly where they will find the women and leave. As I look back I see the men loading their luggage into the wheelchair and start walking– at least they do not need to carry and push. We drop the women off exactly as promised under a canopy that offers solid shade against the sun as the temperatures are rising into the thirties. We go back and find the rest of the extended family – one small child stayed with them as his mother has been killed and he would not leave his father. Now we load the other two sisters, the man with his child and the entire luggage into the car and again explain exactly where they will all be reunited. Back in Molyvos we drop off our load and one can see the relief on the old mother’s face. We go back, passing the men with the remaining child who is about ten, now riding in the wheelchair – they happily wave at us. When we get back to Rieke we are told there is a family where the younger child urgently needs to get to the hospital in Mytilini. Yehudit nods and they explain to the family we are taking them to the hospital – it seems the child has a dislocated shoulder or broken arm. The mother demonstrates that someone pushed the child and she fell hurting herself. Every time the father who is holding her very gently moves ever so slightly she whimpers with pain. The mother keeps asking how they will get back to the other Syrians – fear is etched into her young face and she does not speak or understand any English. All communication is by guessing. It is 67 km to Mytilini and the road zigzags up the mountain till we get to a plain and then it is easy driving. All along the route are young men walking or resting where they can find shade. Still it is more than an hour later that we eventually find the hospital, locate ER – everything is written in Greek – and find a doctor who is willing to help. They are very busy. She takes Rowan’s number and promises to see the family get reunited with the other refugees. The mother still looks terrified and communication is difficult. Thanks to Google Translate on our Smartphone we can answer some of her questions and are horrified to discover that they have no clue where they are. Yehudit buys them food from the cafeteria and offers them money. “No!” she shakes her head. They will not take money.

 

It is late afternoon when we head back to Skala Eresos, more than an hour’s drive away. We are exhausted as we have also not eaten or drunk anything. We have seen so much sorrow. I feel such anger at the double standards of the world. I think back at how I have been attacked repeatedly in South Africa and elsewhere about the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians – even if the worst of those stories were true and we know many are not - it would in no way compare to the stories we have heard today. The courage with which the Syrians have made their treacherous journey and the determined optimism with which they face their very unsure future is moving. Every person we have spoken to and helped knows we were from Israel because we have told them so and all smiled happily, “So you understand,” those who speak enough English say each time. Yes, we do.

 

“We can’t help thousands and for sure not millions,” Yehudit says, “but all I asked for this morning was to help someone. I think we did.”

“All I can see is Seba’s face as we left her. What will become of her, a young woman alone? Will we ever see her again?” I say feeling close to tears with the frustration of knowing how little we can do.

 

 

End of a special stay

Posted by Egonne Roth on August 19, 2015 at 4:25 AM Comments comments (0)


I was in the Cape for four nearly five months and did not write anything. It was as though I was totally blocked from writing about my stay while still enjoying it. As though I was not able to translate all that was happening into words that made sense and I still do not know where to start. So much happened during my time south of the equator and giving shape in the form of language seems nearly impossible. I have considered putting together a power point presentation using some of my thousands of photos and maybe I still will. In the interim, I have discovered that the easiest subject to discuss are the birds on the vlei in front of my daughter’s house.


For some time now a friend has teased me about my love of photographing birds – “Another birdie and another,” she says flipping through my photos trying to stifle her boredom. I think she is right – it is an obsession. Maybe it comes from the fact that the flight and freedom that birds symbolise holds such universal fascination; maybe it is simply that they are such elusive creatures to capture especially in the air. There is always a challenge given the changes of light and wind and air that all affect a photograph.


From the moment I first arrived there and fell in love with Tamar and Dishen’s home on the water’s edge, I was not able miss a day of attempting to catch an image that would be satisfy me. And maybe it is not possible – we always attempt to improve on what we have already done. I spent hours simply staring across the water at the changing images and trying to find patterns in the way the bird population changes depending on the time of day and the water conditions.


At the end of April the authorities opened the sluices so that within days the water level withdrew from the grass verges and reeds exposing the shallow vlei floor with its accumulated debris deposited by the little streams feeding it. This is of course a serious environmental issue that various groups are attempting to address but not very successfully. Where the kids live in Bottom Road Sanctuary considerable progress has been made and all the gardens now end in a nature reservation area that covers Zeekoevlei and its banks. The problem lies further afield: as long as the authorities do not provide adequate bins and facilities for waste collection, the problem of the polluting the vlei will not be resolved. Tamar believes if the residents of this area can work together to find sponsorship with dirt bins to be installed along the streets and on the edges of the rivers and in the many green area that do exist here and if the City Council agrees to service these, a substantial part of the problem will naturally resolve itself. If there is nowhere to throw dirt the streams become the obvious recipients of the garbage.


A brief look at the Bottom Road Sanctuary’s website shows the number of endangered species that live exclusively on this chain of wetlands of which Zeekoevlei is a part: the Cape Flats Erica, the Cape conebush, the Nationally Endangered Western Leopard Toad and others. I am afraid that I have not seen the toads yet nor identified the ericas. I have also not had the privilege of seeing some of the rare birds that frequent these waters but I have had much pleasure getting to know the flamingos and pelicans, the different water birds and watched who gets on with whom and who you seldom see together.

When I left the vlei levels were still very low. Yet, on the last three days of my visit different groups of birds came as though to say good bye.


On the Monday morning, after not seeing them for weeks a large group of pelicans were suddenly gathered right outside the house and I took many photographs. Within an hour they had all left.


Tuesday morning there were at least thirty or forty flamingos walking up and down scratching in the muddy ground to see what they could find amid the dirt. I went out onto the balcony to talk to them and photograph them. Within an hour they left.


Wednesday morning the sacred ibises came in a large crowd, walked up and down and allowed the grey heron to join them. I could not believe my eyes and photographed them. Within an hour I left.

During my stay I took nearly eight thousand photographs, a dozen or more videos, mostly of the birds. “What will you do with all your birdie photos?” asks my sceptical friend. “I will look at them wherever I am and dream of Africa,” I tell her. “Of its southern tip where there is still a place that my grandchildren can watch wild birds and animals and marvel at the beauty of creation.”


 

Festival of Festivals in Wadi Nisnas

Posted by Egonne Roth on December 21, 2014 at 7:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Celebrating in Israel

We have friends from abroad staying with us and so we decided to take them to celebrate the Festival of Festivals in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas. It incorporates all three faiths and dominant national groups in the country: it is Chanukah for the Jews, Christmas for the Christian Arabs and Eid-al-Adla for the Moslems. The celebrations last from end November until Christmas: each Shabbat the streets in the Wadi are closed to cars and filled with throngs of visitors from all over the Galilee

.

We found parking way on the far side of Ben Gurion Street that joins the Bahai Gardens to the sea and walked across into the neighbourhood. It was a riot of sights and sounds, colours and flavours. Our friends kept exclaiming at the profusions of images: Christmas kitsch at its best,


                                                   art of a high standard on street walls

and in small galleries, children in strollers or on their fathers’ shoulders often wearing Christmas hats with tassels,


little girls dressed up as ‘Mother’ Christmas. The air was filled with many of the languages of this country – Arabic, Hebrew, English, Russians, French. There were Christian groups singing gospels songs, Arabic music from the many cafés


and gifted street musicians playing in different corners.


The residents of the area sat on their balconies watching the crowds, enjoying it all without having to leave the comfort of their homes and their own pot of tea.One’s senses were assaulted by it all but not overwhelmed unpleasantly because the atmosphere was so friendly and relaxed.

“According to what we hear in England, Jews and Arabs never mix like this!” our friends said several times, watching as


a Jewish teenager plaited a little Arab girl’s hair Afro-style and another painted kids’ faces in the most magical designs. A Jewish street jester entertained a bunch of tourists and


a Druze mama served ‘koubbey’ – cracked wheat balls stuffed with spicy lamb meat that were totally irresistible.


There were hawkers selling syrupy cakes from large trays


and bright coloured sweets.


The local greengrocers had packed out their fruit and veg in generous mounds and in the bright winter sun they gleamed enticingly.


We visited Beit HaGefen, a community centre for all three faiths that live in the area, to see an art exhibition that was on there. It always amazes me how rich and vibrant the art scene is in Israel. As is often the case at times like this, there was


an installation that was interactive for the children and watching them was lovely. Where are my two grandchildren? I kept wondering, they would love all this.

But eventually enough is enough we staggered to our favourite Moroccan café in Ben Gurion Street for a drink before driving home with our heads still spinning from all the sounds and smells and colours – well satisfied by our outing.

 

Food and Friendship

Posted by Egonne Roth on December 4, 2014 at 8:10 AM Comments comments (1)

Food and Friendship

 

We have been home for nearly two months and it is time to think about what our six weeks in Villa Aggelos meant to us: many different experiences. One aspect that was consistently fascinating and full of surprises was the FOOD!

 

When we were still in the planning stages, Judy and I imagined that several people would opt to take everyone out for dinner rather than cook. This, in fact, did not happen very often – lunch snacks wherever one was sightseeing were usually delicious and most of us enjoyed the fresh fish, especially near the market but in the evenings we usually produced such delicious meals and were so comfortable sitting around our communal dining table next to the pool that no-one wanted to be anywhere else. In our first week, Judy and I did insist that we all go to Vagia Hotel so that Maria and Notis – the mother and son who own the hotel and helped us a great deal with our preparations – could spoil us. It was an evening of Greek hospitality – traditional oven-baked vegetables, salads with Maria’s fruity nutty chocolate cake as the grand finale. Notis served Greek wine, organically fermented retsina and Greek beer. We did not dance or throw plates but not due to a lack of spirit or laughter. It was an evening to be remembered.

 

In the seven weeks that Judy and I were in Greece – six in the villa and the rest before and after, we took 8597 photographs and of those more than 400 were of food and drink; cooking, eating and being together around the table at home or out. As I look through those photographs, I am flooded by memories of sitting around the table for dinner while the bats fed on the insects drawn to the pool by the underwater lights. Meals ranged from simple pasta and salad to rich roast leg of lamb with roasted potatoes and garlic. We had vegetarian meals that made us consider giving up meat or fish but then there was chicken tempura or a delicious moussaka; once we ate calamari fresh from the sea a couple of hours after it was removed from its rocky water abode; tasty chicken according to a German recipe, potato and cheese blintzes American Jewish style and my all-time favourite, baked apples for desert.

 

We found Greek wines easy to drink and some of the group discovered the joy of retsina. Retsina, white or rose wine, is an ancient wine-making art. Aleppo pine resin is used to seal the amphora after distillation so that oxygen does not get into the wine and spoil it. Today, pine resin is still added during the fermentation process giving it that distinctive whiff of ‘turpentine’. Some makes Judy and I found too strong but when Notis poured us organically produced retsina, I was sold on it. It was fresh on the tongue with just the slightest sparkle in it, not too sweet or too ‘turpentinish’.

 

But what fascinated me most was the relationship to food in a foreign country that many guests had – not only our guests but the tourists we watched in the cafes and restaurants. Food is often like a security blanket – when we travel and are surrounded by strange smells and sounds and different forms of behaviour – we resort to tastes that are familiar. For many of us, our palates have been trained too believe if it’s a new – strange, different flavour – it is best avoided. In the tourists’ areas, chefs are aware of this and the food on the menu that they recommend is often adapted from the local ways to be more familiar tastes for their foreign customers.

I discovered this early one morning when I was sitting alone at my favourite café looking onto the fish market. The kitchen had officially not opened yet, tables were still being packed out and all that was available was black Greek coffee. The owner already knew me – I had been there before, with Jerzy, with the kids, with other friends, just with Judy. I was hungry so I asked him if he could just give me something to eat – anything – maybe a little salad. Something small. Something fresh. He soon set a Greek salad down before me. It had the bread fresh from the bakery next door on the side, but the actual salad of tomato, cucumber and feta with large onions rings was spiced quite differently than usual. I recognised capers but there was a fresh green herb I had never tasted before – he only knew the Greek name and I did not try to write it down. I would keep it as a perfect memory. The next time we were there we were back to the more usual Greek salad, still delicious and fresh with lashings of olive oil but more familiar.

 

Food and eating and drinking are such an integral part of the experience of travelling. Smell and taste are so evocative – they bring back memories and emotions we had long forgotten and so I think it is sad that people are often resistant to making more than photographs a part of their memory repository. Maybe Judy and I go to the other extreme but, oh, it is so much fun!!

 

On Celebrating Sixty

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 11, 2014 at 8:20 AM Comments comments (0)

On Celebrating Sixty

As I wrote before, on each of our sixtieth birthdays, Judy and I had an open house celebration on the big day. We were lucky because for both of us it fell on a Shabbat and so it was possible to have friends come over to wish us well. But Judy wanted something bigger and so we started planning and saving three years ago to make this dream come true. We rented a villa on the Greek island of Aegina and began inviting friends and family. As I write this we are into the second week of our dream.

During the first week, Judy’s brother with his family joined us as well as old friends from Poland and friends from Nahariya. It was an interesting experience to see how people who have never met before respond when thrown into such close proximity. This week has brought a couple from Berlin and a couple from the Netherlands here and today my daughter with her partner and best friend will arrive – how will they gel? Except for the last week when nearly everyone will know each other prior to arrival, each week offers a new combination of friends and a new opportunity to define friendship. By the end of the six weeks here I suspect we will have been able to come to some meaningful conclusions. It’s a fun experiment.

But in fact, it is more than that for us. It is a way of testing our own ability to cope with differences and turn them into opportunities to grow, to learn to handle situations that are potentially problematic, to see how other couples interact and test our own relationship to what we observe. There have been moments that I have been shocked by my own desire to just withdraw and let the others get on with what has to be done. Early in our time here, I did just that until Judy found me curled up with my Kindle in a corner and asked me what was wrong. “Nothing,” I said but I knew suddenly that I was sulking because I felt she was spending too much time with her little nieces. “Please join us,” she said giving me a kiss. I had to respond. I did and began to get involved with these sweetest of little girls and utterly lost my heart to them. And as little creatures are inclined to do, they responded back giving me lots of hugs and drawing me pictures and making lovely little bracelets for all of us. Once again, the principle that giving is more rewarding than receiving was confirmed. Sara and Leoni, you taught your aunt a big lesson! Thank you.


I have been overwhelmed by our guests willingness to share in jobs and ‘duties’ and how in doing so new friendships were formed while loading the dishwasher or cutting the ingredients for the huge salads that are part of every night’s meal. We are constantly working our way around having several different mother tongues competing to dominate and having to find ways to communicate what we really want to share. Surprisingly, there has been little small talk but rather the ambiance of the villa and the place has led to really talking about issues, be they personal, cultural or political in an open and honest manner. Nobody has felt the need to simply agree for politeness sake but rather most of us have worked at finding new understanding of the subject under discussion. And if all this sounds very serious, I have to say that someone always found a way to relieve a tense moment using humour. Laughter together with good food and plenty of wine and retsina has smoothed away most of the wrinkles.

We are not only living a dream, but we’re learning the value of having a dream that is large enough to make miracles happen.

 

On Turning Sixy

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 4, 2014 at 5:20 AM Comments comments (0)

On turning sixty

I turned sixty in April and enjoyed a weekend of celebrating but there was one curious incident that has stayed with me: my friend, a professor of social work came in, wished me mazel tov and then asked, “Are you okay?” At first I did not comprehend the meaning of her question and then I understood, “are you okay at entering a decade that will be characterised by retirement, growing older in a way one has not been conscious of earlier?” My spontaneously answer was “yes!” And her response was “Really?” She smiled in a manner that said, “I’ll be here when you need to talk!” I know she loves me and I love her so her question needs serious consideration.

Shortly after that I started reading a book she had lent me: Irvin D. Yalom’s The Schopenhauer Cure. He opens with a scene where his protagonist discovers he has a skin melanoma which could prove fatal – he has to confront death and life, religion and faith. Maybe the timing of the book was more meaningful than my friend had intended. It made me think of a poem by ‘my’ poet, Olga Kirsch

The Older One Becomes

The older one becomes, the more time spent

on upkeep of self:

Half an hour daily merely to prevent

muscles and joints from seizing;

another vainly trying to erase

what age grooves on the face

faintly at first, then brazening its graffiti.

Time for applying chemicals that suppress

fungi and sweat,

waiting for them to dry so one may dress.

Enough of this.

I must go to where you sit crouched at your desk

oblivious to the radio drooling news

to me with my book hurried here by the thought

that however long we may have together

will seem too short.

 

It is true that we so often think that whatever time we have left is too short – too short to do what we want to do, too short to love the one we love most, too short to have to face death…. That is ultimately for most of us the crux of the matter: the fear and uncertainty of having to face death. In Kirsch’s opening line she says that the older we get the more time we need to fight the process that will eventually bring us face to face with our own death; the process that reminds us that that is where we are headed. But why is this such a frightening prospect? Maybe because most people cannot face the fact that their days on this earth are counted, that we will cease to exist in the way we know and understand. Most religions offer some form of life after death – heaven or hell, reincarnation, whatever – so that we can feel we won’t just stop being.

I have no fight with this but in the process we become so fixated on the life after death that we ignore the life before death. I have a friend, a poet, who maintains that he is quite convinced there is no life after death and that this is the only life he is going to have and so he will live the years he has left to their full. And while I do believe in a life after death, I agree with him that I want to live the years I have left with as much passion and enjoyment as I can muster. This brings me back to the beginning of this blog. Yes, I am okay at turning sixty. I am planning actively for my retirement. I do not want to join the “forever young” club. Rather, I, actually we, Judy and I, want to exploit the advantages of growing older, of having cheaper train tickets and museum entrances, of knowing our world is eventually going to shrink and we will become slower in moving through it. Just as we worked hard at enjoying our youth, sometimes in such foolish ways and we did everything to become successful useful members of society, so now, as we face retirement in a few years, I want to experience it in all its fullness. I want to enjoy the fact that shopping is now something done of necessity; that reading is for pleasure and not for career advancement; that I choose my clothes for comfort and not as a statement determined by fashion; I need not be driven by lust for possessions because I am beginning to realise one day, not so far off, my children will wonder what to do with everything we have collected with such care.

I do realise that in part Kirsch is right: we have to do certain things like exercise to “prevent / muscles and joints from seizing”. In explaining to me why it really is important, my daughter once said, “Ma, you have to keep in shape because I may have to look after you one day!” I promise I will, but as important as building muscles so important is building memories for when we are sitting on the veranda, whether of our little apartment in Berlin or the old age home in Nahariya or even my daughter’s home in the Cape watching the sunset. I am seriously not certain I have a preference where that stoep is going to be as long as my Judy is sitting next to me. Then I want to be able to turn to her with satisfaction and say, “Remember, love, when we had that crazy celebration of our sixtieth birthdays? Remember all those people who came to wish us well? Remember our loooong celebration on the island? Wasn’t that fun?” And she will pat my hand and say, “It was! It was!” and fetch our photo album. We will page through it and relive every joyous moment, thankful to have such memories to share because the older we get the more memories feed the soul.

But now… now I must first do my exercises - up and down in the pool of the villa we have rented to celebrate our sixtieth birthdays with friends and family from all over.

 

 

City of Surprises

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 3, 2014 at 11:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Thessaloniki: City of Surprises

 

My guide to Greece has about 600 pages of which only 5-6 are devoted to Thessaloniki. The uninformed conclusion is that there is not much to be seen in the city. False!

 

"The cheapest flight to Greece is to Thessaloniki," Judy explained to me, "and the city has a rich Jewish history. Your favourite Yehuda Poliker comes from there. Let's go see!" We booked the flight. We booked a hotel in the central part of the city near the Jewish Museum. We arrived on a Monday evening towards the end of August - the temperature was just below the 30 *. I groaned. I hate heat. Why am I not cool cold Cape Town?

 

Soon we discover that we are in a city of the most friendly helpful people. The reception at the hotel, the woman who was cleaning our room, people on the street when we lost our way; the man in the Vodafone shop who helps us to install our new Greek SIM cards - so the list goes on and on. But not only is this a friendly city but filled with fascinating things to see and an informative on line guide to different walking tours. Our first port of call is the Jewish Museum which is excellent, organized according to the latest exhibition principles. In 1917, more than 50% of the population of the city Jewish; by the end of the Second World War, more than 90% of the Jews in Greece killed by the Nazis. Today there are again at least two active synagogues in Thessaloniki.

There is the ancient Roman agora, the Byzantine city walls with their solid strongholds from which there are endless views of the city lying before it and the sea beyond, the White Tower on the beachfront, an excellent archaeological museum and endless shops and bakeries and little tavernas and chic restaurants.

The Museum of Photography was for us the most glorious discovery: we were just in time to see the PhotoBiennale – or rather part of it. The last three Biennials form a thematic trilogy (Time-Chronos: 2008 Location - Topos: 2010-2011, Discourse - Logos: 2014) This year's theme focuses on the discourse or Word which is developed through various events (exhibitions, discussions, parallel events, performances, concerts) at more than 20 locations in Thessaloniki. The public has the opportunity to meet over 1000 works by 100 Greek and international artists from 23 countries around the world. These artists - some more natural, others less so – explore the interaction of text and image in their work. Besides these expressions found in the works themselves, many experts and individuals in the field of photography from different countries talked openly about the work and offered master classes and workshops. We only had the privilege to see the main exhibits.

 

"Logos manifests itself here in primary obvious manner. In many works it is used as raw material: the alphabet reserves as an object to be photographed, literally depicting logos. In other cases it presents itself with the energetic presence of language, in which the form of a text participates equally with image to form a conception of a whole work for the viewer, while many series refer directly to literary genres, such as diaries and autobiographies ". (Displays text)

 

This topic has fascinated me for some time. One could argue that Judaism is based on receiving an image and text - namely the two tablets of Moses with the Ten Commandments written on - while Christianity is built on the concept of the word "And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us". The word thus became embodied in the figure of Jesus. Text / word are in a special relationship to image and in this exhibition this relationship is examined within the art form of photography.

 

I previously wrote about an exhibition in London where hand written and printed poems each on a similar white A4 pages by refugee youth form the ground material for an art installation on the South Bank. At the PhotoBiennale in Thessaloniki is based on similar concepts, but given the number of artists who participated, the variations on the theme have been wider and more extensively explored.

For example, the work of artists, Elena Sukhoeeva Victor Khmel and Sergey Lutsenko from Russia to construct an image of a work of art with letters in specific landscapes to create and then photograph the image for the viewer to see. Thus the original installation only by the three artists seen. The letter in the snow using other letters are formed and in relation to other images in the photo. Other artists used other techniques to connect image and text. The South African artist, Brent Meistre was represented and in his work words are the images that serve as objects to photograph. The pictures were during the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Grahamstown. The author focuses on words that at the time were abundant in the discourse surrounding the work of the commission. It was nice to be so close to South Africa is home image.

Less 'pleasant' perhaps, but surely as poignant were the images that portrayed negative experiences - with evidence of abuse and violence and the suffering of man. Already before we entered the exhibition, the ironic comment of the photograph on poster of the Biennenale caught my attention. It is a photograph of a woman whose voice has been silenced by taping her mouth shut with tape reading LOVE. As we studied these images I again realised how effective photography can be to tell a story - a story that may or may not be true. There was a series of photographs designed to reflect on the negativity of much punishment that is applied at schools including the practice of making students write out the same words over and over again – it brought back memories of writing out lines a hundred times. I wondered then and I wondered now as I looked at this brilliant expose of a stupid practice how such a stupid form of punishment became so popular. Then I did not know it was worldwide but now it makes me wonder even more: what’s the point of making a little child write out words hundreds of times? It can’t possibly teach them anything except resentment.

As we walked out of the cool dark building where we had viewed the last part of the exhibition into the warm late afternoon with the sun dancing on the water, we promised ourselves that in two years’ time we will be back in Thessaloniki to attend the next biennial event. There is still a list of other places we need to discover and enjoy. Watch this space….

 

Berlin, Birds and Memory

Posted by Egonne Roth on August 12, 2014 at 11:25 AM Comments comments (1)

I am not a birder and I know little about birds but I love photographing them: they are so pretty and often so elusive. Preparing for a visit to the Hula Valley in Israel through which thousands of thousands of birds migrate between their summer and winter homes, I was struck by a map of their migratory paths. As I studied it I asked, “How does a bird coming say from Germany know when to leave home so that it comes through the Hula at the same time as say another member of the species from Siberia (if such a combination does not exist, bear with me, at the time of the question I had the map in front of me and so it was easy to be accurate and sound vaguely informed)?” I can’t remember that anyone was able to answer me satisfactorily at the time and in the years since I first asked that question. It would seem that the answer has something to do with a bird’s subconscious “species memory”. That’s what they have been doing for so long that it is virtually impossible for them to behave differently. It is deeply inbred.

This half-answer led to a second question: Look how tiny that bird’s head is; look at how big mine or yours is: why is their instinct so sharp and ours so obtuse? What they instinctively do, we need computers to help us figure out. If the instinct of a tiny bird is so accurate, could we not develop our instincts so that our behaviour becomes more accurate and meaningful? If you study the path of one of those migratory birds and the way they fly in formation, it becomes obvious that nothing they do is superfluous. Can’t we learn from them? Do we as a species also have a “species” or “communal” memory? Some philosophers would say yes and this brings me to a letter a friend wrote to me last week in response to my Berlin blog. He wrote:

Berlin of course has many memories for me... I could see myself spending some time in Berlin; these days it has so much to offer... and yes, the shadows and the trauma are never far away too. The truth though, is that the shadows and the trauma are always with me, no matter where I am, and I was not even there, not even alive at the time. Crazy, completely crazy!

No, my friend, I don’t think it is crazy: I relate to Berlin in the exact same manner as you do – I respond to Berlin as though I have known it all my life; lived through its traumas as far back as when my great-great… grandfather Yehuda Roth was born there in 1785; as though I was there when the gate taxes were enforced but also when Jews became part of the intelligentsia and I attended soirees and drank champagne in the villas of Grunewald and Dahlem. Yet, I did not grow up conscious of this knowledge: my father did not tell us any real stories about his youth. Rather, I grew up with an inexplicable sadness that often rested on me like a smothering blanket. True, my maternal grandmother was inclined to melancholy and as young girl I sometimes sat next to her bed stroking her arm as she had done for me when I was little. Her melancholy did not disturb me – it seemed completely normal. I felt it too.

It was only when, as adult I discovered some of the truth regarding my father’s history and visited Berlin that this emotional memory inside of me, but that had not been shared with me, began to make sense. As my friend wrote, “the shadows and the trauma are always with me”: once I began to read Holocaust literature and the history of Berlin, I understood what had thrown the shadows over our lives all through the years and what the trauma was. My thoughts turned again to the Hula Valley and its migratory birds and my questions of long ago: when we allow ourselves to slow down and listen to deep inside, is it the same instinctive call that leads us down paths we tread as though familiar but which with our conscious mind we have never known? Is it the call of our ancestral memory that moves in us to make seemingly strange choices that cannot be explained? In fact, were my questions about the birds, actually questions about the paradigm shifts that I was experiencing inside of myself? I suspect so! And, I suspect this inbred memory will continue to guide my steps in years to come.

 


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