Thursday, December 17, 2009

A White Tower with a Black & Red History

It's almost Christmas (and sadly, no Advent calendar for me this year, as those about me don't seem to appreciate me as they once did) and I still have so much to tell you about Thessaloníki that I barely (bearly!) know where to start. But today is a rather drizzly, dreary, grey day (not that grey is a dreary colour) in Izmit, so I think I'll brighten it up with something white: like Thessaloníki's famous landmark, the Lefkos Pyrgos - or the White Tower.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the city was once part of the Ottoman Empire, and the tower - originally known as "the Lion's Tower" or "the Fortress of Kalamaría" (which sounds a little bit like a stronghold for squid) - was built by the Turks some time after 1430. The Ottomans - and not the Venetians like it was once thought - probably erected it on the spot of an earlier Byzantine tower.

The White Tower was originally a fort, and then it became a garrison, a particularly infamous and nasty prison, a communications centre during WWI, and a meteorological lab. For many many years, the tower was part of the old city walls, and separated the Jewish quarter of the city from the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.

In 1826, Mahmud II ordered a massacre of the Janissaries there and because of all the bloodshed, it became known as "the Red Tower" and even "the Tower of Blood
." The Janissaries were a class of elite non-Muslim warriors - the very first standing Ottoman army - who served one of these royal institutions: as palace bodyguards, in the military, or in the religious or the scribal sectors. Originally, the Janissaries were comprised of prisoners of war. In the devşirme practice, which began in the 14th century, every 4 or 5 years or so boys were "harvested" from conquered Christian (Jewish boys were exempt) nations - in other words, they were forceably taken from their families, made to convert to Islam, and trained to serve the Sultan. Muslims considered this a very great honour (some Muslims tried unsuccessfully to sneak into the Janissary corps), but I don't think the parents of these boys felt the same way.

y though, the Janissaries became almost universally hated within the Ottoman Empire because they had become very powerful and had a habit of killing any sultan who tried to reform or disband them. In 1826 when they saw that Mahmud II was forming a private army and hiring European mercenaries with very big guns, they rebelled. Out-gunned, it is believed that 10,000 Janissaries were killed on the first day alone. The Turks have called this "the Auspicious Incident" or "Fortunate Event". I don't think the Janissaries felt the same way.

Our tower went from red to white when, in 1890, a Jewish prisoner was given the option of painting it in exchange for his freedom. Needless to say, he got himself a paint brush! At least someone had the common sense to cover up the blood.

In any case, the White Tower isn't very white anymore - well symbolically it's still white - but it really is quite pretty.

There's one more black spot in the history of the White Tower. In the early 1990s, a nationalist organization in the now independent and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia created a "souvenir" bank note on which was featured the White Tower. The Greeks were outraged! They (the nationalists) even suggested that the government adopt the design for its legal currency. The Greeks were outraged some more! Eventually the government vetoed the idea but souvenir copies of the bank notes were printed and distributed, which only fueled the fires of animosity in the Balkans. Honestly, you people. I think you just look for ways to annoy each other.

Now though, it's an award-winning museum (it was restored in 1985 for the city's 2300th anniversary!) in which you climb climb climb - with (free!) audio guide in hand - up up up the spiralling staircase to the top of the tower, stopping at each floor to read about and see the history of Thessaloníki. And once you get to the top - what a view! In some ways the seafront promenade (below) reminds me of Málaga - which just makes me miss Málaga all the more. And have I mentioned that I'll be in Málaga in 8 days?!! Until then, I'll have to bear in mind (bear!) all the positive bits of Thessaloníki - the wonderful people, the ouzo, and the yummy pastries - and try not to think of its darker days, caused by you humans.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

GB "the Great"

It seems so long since I've last blogged - five weeks in fact! - and I want to thank all of my followers who have been thoughtfully emailing me every day, asking if I'm okay. I'm fine, thanks, but unfortunately, my bipedal attendants have been too "occupied" of late (self-absorbed, if you ask me) to accompany me on any junkets, so I've been at home, thinking up ways to promote world peace and flipping through fashion magazines and counting the days until Christmas without the benefit of an advent calendar.

Then, two things happened! The first was one of Islam's biggest holiday/celebrations known, in Turkey, as bayramı. I don't want to talk too much about that because a lot of animals die during bayramı, and it's a very sad time for all of us ... but it did give my bipedals five days of holiday. The second was that the place where my bipedals work lost my female's work visa application and, on top of this, her residence visa was set to expire in mid-November, so she had to leave the country and re-enter with a new tourist visa. My male bipedal and I decided to accompany her - during bayramı, so we could also miss all of the awful awfulness - back to Greece! We took an overnight train with spiffy sleeping compartments (below, right) and the trip took over 13 hours from Istanbul. It was wonderful because as soon as we crossed the border into Greece we could see houses decorated with Christmas lights!

This time though we didn't go to Athens but to the country's second largest city Thessaloníki in the northern, Macedonian part of the country (see me, top) which lies on the Thermaic Gulf - a part of the Aegean Sea. Historically, the whole connection with Macedonia is a little complicated - like everything seems to be in this part of the world - and it shouldn't be confused with the Republic of Macedonia, which Greece doesn't even recognize. *sigh* You humans.

Anyway, I did and saw a lot of neat things in Thessaloníki but I'll have to blog about them later - otherwise, this will be a very very long-winded blog. For today, let me just talk about Thessaloníki's history and that guy and his horse.

So, if you look to the bottom-left, you'll see me with the city's best known son - Alexander the Great - although technically he was really born just outside of Thessaloníki in the city of Pella ... close enough as far as Thessaloníki is concerned. His blue-eyed horse Bucephalus (or "Ox-Head" - apparently he had a big head) is one of the most famous horses in history. We don't know where he was born, but we do know that no one could break the horse ... until Alexander came on the scene and tamed him. Bucephalus carried Alexander into many, many battles and was eventually killed in 326 in what is now Pakistan, where he is buried. There are some stories about Alexander having an "unnatural" affection for his horse, but I don't want to think about that. You humans!

Thessaloníki itself was founded
by King Cassander in 315 b.c.e., who named it after his wife who was also Alexander's half-sister. Her name came from the Macedonians military victory there: nike in Greek means "victory" so if you always wear Nike shoes, you'll be victorious. At least it's a nicer name than "Ox-Head".

Aristotle (photo, bottom-right) was Alexander's tutor, who himself had been a student of Plato or Play Dough as my female bipedal al
ways calls him. It's so easy to mock what you don't understand, isn't it? Aristotle, who was born about 50 km. east of Thessaloníki, gave lessons to Alexander, as well as two other future kings. His advice to Alexander was to be a "leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians" and to care for the Greeks as members of his family and the barbarians as animals or plants. It seems that the boy listened.

At the age of 20 - after the assassination of his father, Philip (he wasn't as
"Great") - Alexander became King of Macedonia. He embarked on a programme of world domination, and at its height, his kingdom stretched from Greece, across Syria, Babylonia and Persia to India, and south to Egypt, and he took the title "King of Kings" - which is a little much in my opinion.

Over the years there were mutinies and plots to overthrow him, but he pretty much managed to stay on top of things. In June of 323, after a night of drinking, he died at the age of 32. Scholars have suggested everything from poison, malaria, typhoid fever, pancreatitis
- and even West Nile Virus - to explain his early death. What we do know is that his body was a mess with battle wounds after years of fighting and he was also a heavy drinker. His health had also declined after the untimely death of his best and closest "friend" Hephaestion (more stories about "unnatural affection") - whom Alexander requested become deified, but whom the oracles gave permission to be worshipped as a divine hero. Honestly, you people ....

Anyway, the Kingdom of Macedonia would eventually be destroyed, with Thessaloníki becoming a city of the Roman Republic and taking the name Salonica. By the 6th century it would be the second most important city in the Byzantine world, after Constantinople. When Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Thessaloníki fell too, but it (and the area around it) became known as the Kingdom of Thessalonica and the largest fief of the Latin Empire. The city was recovered by the Byzantines and then, in 1423, sold - sold! - to the Venetians. Why are the Venetians always involved in my stories?

A few years later the Ottomans captured Thessaloníki, brutally killing and enslaving about a fifth of the population. Those Ottomans ... But the city actually did do well under them, becoming known as Selânik, and had a mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Jews. In fact, to off-balance the large Christian population there, the Ottomans invited the Jews expelled from Spain under Isabel and Ferdinand (isn't it weird how my travels seem to be all interconnected?) to settle there, and, for some 200 years, Selânik/Thessaloníki (called "the Mother of Israel") came to have the largest Jewish population in the world. Until the Nazis stormed in. In 1943, 11,000 Jews were sent to labour camps and another 50,000 were sent to the gas chambers. I don't even know what to say ...

At the turn of the last century, Greece started to throw off the Ottoman Empire and in 1912, the Ottomans surrendered the city to the Greek army without a fight. In 1917, much (but not all) of the historical city was destroyed by a fire which left almost a quarter of the population homeless. And then, while Greece tried to find its identity as a sovereign nation, the Nazis invaded and occupied the city until the end of 1944.

*Sigh* Your human history makes me so sad sometimes. All the wars and killing - and gas chambers? What were you people thinking? You never see bears acting like this! At least Thessaloníki has rebounded and has embraced all of its past, mucking it all together like Play Dough(!) into a vibrant, cosmospolitan city with lots of UNESCO world heritage sites. I wish I were there right now. In fact, I wish I were having an ouzo and munching on pickled peppers (below, photo) right now. Maybe I was a little long-winded after all, but like the guy on his horse, Thessaloníki sure was great.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shaken Not Stirred

After all my years of trotting about the globe, it never fails to amaze me how much we still have to learn about each other. At least, that's a bear's philosophy - I'm not sure how you humans work into the equation. Anyhow, whenever I used to think of Greek beverages, drinks like ouzo and retsina always jumped to my mind first. Until I visited Greece ...

And although I'm not suggesting that thousands of litres and litres of ouzo and retsina aren't drunk in Greece every day - because I'm sure they are - I was surprised to find that, for the past several decades, Greece has become a Frappé Nation. Maybe it should be renamed Frappé-opolis.

Like all great ideas, the frappé began as a very happy, if not frothy, accident. In 1957, at an international trade fair in Thessaloniki (in northern Greece), a Nestlé food rep couldn’t find hot water to make his coffee. He improvised and used cold water instead, giving birth to the caffeine-packed frappé - now a staple in the Greek diet.

Nowadays, everybody seems to have a frappé in hand as they walk down the street, and those who don't, are sitting in a sidewalk café drinking one. My male bipedal started drinking them almost the second we arrived in Athens - sort of a "when in Rome thing". Except we were in Athens. Anyway, my female turned her nose up at them until she tasted one and, rather than buying one herself, just kept taking mammoth sips from everyone else's.

That's me above with one of mine. That frapp
é was particularly delicious: it was on the rooftop café of the brand-new Acropolis Museum, which overlooks the Acropolis where I was banned for being a toy!. It was such a costly museum to build that the city is charging only 1 euro for admission as a special thank-you. Isn't that nice of them? And they make awesome frappés.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a recipe with you if you want to make your own frappé at home. Of course, there are some minor differences between recipes but this one pretty much nails it:

Grey Bear's Authentic Greek Frapp


2 teaspoons instant coffee (locals still favour Nescafé)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Cold water
30 ml evaporated milk or regular milk (this is optional but I don't think it would be a frappé without milk.)

Assembling GB's Authentic Greek Frappé

1) Place coffee, sugar, and 60 ml cold water in a shaker, jar or drink mixer (anything with a lid).

2) Cover and shake well for 30 seconds or, if using a standing or hand-held drink mixer, process 10 seconds to produce a thick, light-brown foam.

3) Place a few ice cubes in a tall glass.

4) Slowly pour all of the coffee foam into the glass.

5) Add milk, if desired (you really should), according to your taste.

6) Fill with cold water until the foam reaches the top of the glass.

7) Add a tall, bendy straw (this is mandatory!)

8) Serve with glass of cold water on the side (because this is Europe).

9) Slurp & enjoy!

Yum! Doesn't that sound delicious? - and I just saved you the cost of a plane ticket ... but I hope you do go ... and remember to ask for a frappé! And until then, I'll try to rustle up some recipes for ouzo and retsina - oh! and γεια μας - and in case that's just Greek to you: cheers!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shoppers, Gods, Emperors & A Bear (Oh My!)

I've received tens of thousands of e-mails from my readers asking for an update on the international incident I nearly caused - or rather, nearly caused by that little troll of a guard at the Acropolis. First of all, thank you for your concern and just to put your minds at rest, the city of Athens has officially apologized, all ambassadors are back at their respective posts, and that little troll of a guard has been reassigned as the city's dog poop cleaner. With all the stray dogs in Athens, he'll be a very busy troll - I mean, man.

My being banned from the Acropolis was extremely upsetting, but to give my bipedal attendants their due, that didn't deter them from snapping photos of me at Athens' other historic sites. Of course, having said that, the guards at the other sites weren't as zealous as that troll but we had to keep a sharp eye out, just in case.

After the debacle at the Parthenon, we descended the Acropolis and continued on our way to the Agora - which just means "market". From 3,000 b.c.e., this was the heart of the ancient city as both a place to shop as well as a meeting spot for merchants, gossips, and politicians. This was where citizens could ostracize (from the Greek word ostraka, or potsherds) their rivals, tyrants & people who looked at them the wrong way. You simply scratched a name on a potsherd and popped it into a big urn. If 5,999 other Athenians agreed with you, the unlucky fellow was exiled for 10 years with no chance of appeal. This was an important feature of that crazy new fad called democracy.

I didn't have to worry about being ostracized because that had been already taken care of at the Parthenon.

You can see me (above, left) in the stoa (Greek for "covered walkways"), a columned colon
nade under which shops and stalls stood, and which offered protection from the elements to potential shoppers. Its modern-day equivalent would be an outdoor shopping plaza. In fact, my female bipedal thought she'd be able to do some shopping here. Her ignorance astounds me some time - besides, how many fridge magnets does one person need?

Not far from the Agora stands the Hephaisteion (above, right) - probably the best preserved Greek temple in all of Greece (although it was a Greek Orthodox church for some 1200 years). It was built in the 5th century b.c.e. to honour Hephaistos, the crippled blacksmith of the gods, and a god himself. You may know him by his Roman name Vulcan (as in our word volcano: think of his fiery furnace).

Hephaistos, besides being lame, was not very attractive and there are lots of myths about his being spurned by Greece's goddesses, including Athena herself. He was said to be so ugly that when he was born, his mother Hera was so appalled at what she had given birth to that she hurled him from Mount Olympus - and it took nine days & nights for him to reach the ground.

I bet he never
sent her a card on Mother's Day.

He did eventually find a bride: the goddess of love Aphrodite (or Venus, in the Roman version). Zeus arranged the marriage so that the other gods would stop squabbling over Aphrodite. I don't think she was too pleased with the match but I doubt she was very faithful either. My female bipedal attendant tells me that there beautiful women have to bear (bear!) many trials and tribulations - although I don't know how she would know that.

It was from Hephaistos that Prometheus stole a spark of fire - thus bringing fire to humankind - and it was
he who fashioned Achilles' armour (although he forgot about the heel) and who created the box which ended up in Pandora's curious hands.

We decided to push our luck with the city's antiquities guards a little further - always keeping our eyes open - and stopped for a photo at Hadrian's Arch (bottom, right). This huge gateway bears (bears!) an inscription which states that Athens is the city of the Emperor Hadrian - the fellow that built the big wall in the north of England - but beyond that we don't know what his actual involvement was.

Hadrian was born in the 1st century and died in the 2nd: he was a Stoic, an Epicurean, Emperor of Rome, and later a god. And a Capricorn. He was born in the city of Italica which lies just outside of Seville in Spain - which gave birth to another Roman Emperor: Trajan. I love Seville. *Sigh* - I miss Spain.

Among all of his positive and not-so positive exploits (Hadrian d
eified his lover after his untimely drowning), battles (he quashed the 2nd Jewish Revolt), accomplishments (he banned circumcision, saying it was barbaric) and travels (he spent more than half his reign outside of Italy), it is believed that Hadrian popularized the beard among Romans (until then it was a Greek thing). As a former international fashion model, I know how easy it is to start a trend. In the autumn of '98, everyone (and I mean everyone) was wearing grey flannel! - but the truth is, he had lots of warts and scars on his face which he tried to hide with his beard.

Anyway, all that we have in Athens is his arch while there's an entire gate belonging to Hadrian in Antalya, here in Turkey. I guess that bears (bears!) visiting too. I wonder what the guards are like there ... hopefully I won't be ostracized from Antalya. As it is, I think I'll have to wait 10 years before I can return to Athens. No wait! - I forgot! That little troll of an antiquities guard is scooping up dog turds as I, or rather my bipedal types this. What goes around, comes around ... or maybe in his case, shit rolls downhill.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Grey Bear of Troy

You'd think that I'd be used to it by now: every time I visit a cemetery with my bipedals, we get hopelessly lost and we can never seem to find the graves of who we're looking for. We once spent 4 hours in Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery looking for the grave of Jane Avril - the famous can-can dancer - immortalized by painter Toulouse-Lautrec. Do you think we ever found it? No! I mean, why can't "some people" do their homework and try preparing a little? Isn't that what I pay them for?

So it really shouldn't have come as any
surprise that, when we were in Athens - spending some quality time with The Dearly Departed in the Próto Nekrotafío, the city's historic cemetery - we should a) get hopelessly lost and b) be unable to find the grave of the one individual I wanted to see: Heinrich Schliemann.

For those a little rusty on their history, Schliemann was a 19th century businessman and indigo (as in the colour - I prefer grey to blue but I do look dashing in indigo) dye merchant and banker and maverick archaeologist and all-round rogue from Germany who, as a child announced -
or so he later claimed - that he would one day discover the city of Troy. And did. At that time, most scholars believed that Troy - home to the Trojan War as recounted by Homer in the Iliad - was nothing but a myth. Schliemann, however, was obsessed about its existence.

Born dirt poor, he climbed up the financial food chain in Europe and later moved to California in 1851 where he opened a bank and amassed a huge fortune during the state's gold boom - both through banking and through private speculation. I'm not sure if that's considered insider trading or not - I have a head for fashion and humanitarian causes so I hire professionals to worry about money. Shortly after this, he left the USA for Russia where he made even more money through military contracts during the Crimean War. By the time he was 36, he was able to retire quite comfortably - unlike my bipedal attendants who still barely have a pot to piss in.

He travelled about the world - he could speak 13 languages - and even infiltrated the holy city of Mecca disguised as a Bedouin tribesman. He then decided to find Troy and, divorcing his wife in absentia (what a swell guy) and inspired by the work of a British archaeologist who was working in Turkey, he moved to Hisarlik in the northwest of Anatolia. Hisarlik - modern Çanakkale - is only a few hours from Izmit but we haven't been able to make the pilgrimage yet because the bus system here leaves a bit to be desired. Except for the cookies and tea you get on board - they're yummy.

Schliemann decided he needed someone to help with with the "modern" Greek part of things (although he was in Turkey) and so he advertised for a wife in an Athenian newspaper. Sophia, a 17-year old relative of the Archbishop of Athens was suggested to him, and the two married. Their children would be named
Andromache and Agamemnon - just to give you an idea of how obsessed he was with all things Ancient Greek.

With his huge personal fortune backing him, he started digging and didn't stop for eight years. Within 2 years, he struck gold - jewellery, cauldrons, vases, shields - with the so-called "Priam's Treasure", referring to Homer's King of Troy, who in fact lived several hundred years later than the date of the gold. But calling it Priam's Treasure must have sold a lot of newspapers and tickets to his forthcoming lecture circuits.

He had his wife's photo taken with some of the gold, erroneously dubbing it "the Jewels of Helen" - as in Helen of Troy. As a former international fashion model, I have to say that less is definitely more and she should have fired her personal fashion consultant. Such gaudiness! So tacky! Anyway, the Turkish government went ballistic and sued him for a share of the gold. They revoked his license and Schliemann skipped out of Turkey, smuggling everything out with him in order to "safeguard" the treasure from corrupt Turkish officers.

That comment didn't endear him much to the Turkish authorities.

He then popped up in Greece, where he started digging again. In Mycenae, he unearthed the (again) so-called "Funerary Mask of Agamemnon" belonging to - you guessed it - Agamemnon, the cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy. Unfortunately, Schliemann's dating of the find was way off again but, like Priam's Treasure, the name has stuck. I saw the mask and some of Schliemann's other finds in the Archaeological Museum of Athens but they wouldn't let me have my photo taken there either (Athens' guards are so testy and I'm still in the throes of my last international incident, I decided to let that one go).

Itching to get back to Turkey - perhaps he liked Turkish baklava more than Greek baklava - Schliemann traded some of the gold from Priam's Treasure w
ith the Ottoman government for an excavation permit. Some of this gold is in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum but the rest was scooped up by the Imperial Museum of Berlin. The treasure was moved to an underground bunker during WWII (it was below the zoo!) but was stolen by the Red Army in 1945 and brought to the USSR (those German bears must have been napping).

For yea
rs the Soviet Union claimed to know nothing about the treasure but 16 years ago it turned up in Moscow's Pushkin Museum. Germany wants the gold back - and probably Turkey does too - but Russia wants to keep the hoard as reparation for the looting of museums and general destruction caused by the Nazis. You humans: you'll just never play nicely, will you?

Anyway, back to
Schliemann. In 1890 he developed a serious infection in both ears and travelled to Germany to seek medical attention. After surgery, he disregarded his doctor's advice and decided to return to Athens. On the way, he stopped off in Italy to visit Pompeii, and on Christmas Day, while in Naples, he fell into a coma and died the next day. Friends sent his body to the Próto Nekrotafío in Athens where it (or he?) was interred in the Mother-of-all-Mausoleums which, if you scroll back up, you can see looks like a Greek temple. The frieze which encircles the outside shows Schliemann leading the excavations at Mycenae. Schliemann would have liked that, although he probably would have asked for another monument recording his excavations at Troy.

I would add that his mausoleum is the biggest grave in the entire cemetery and sits (or looms) just by the front gate - you really can't miss it - but unfortunately we entered through the back gate and it took us 3 hours to find it. But we - or rather I - saw it perched on a rise of ground, towering over the other lowly graves! Like Troy, his monument wasn't a myth and I can prove it - and that was cause for having a cold pint of the appropriately named Mythos beer.

I think it might be time to go back to Paris and look for Jane Avril's grave. Or to ancient Troy - at least you'll all know the story now!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grey Bear Creates an International Incident

So ... where to begin?

Let's begin with Ramadan which ended last Sunday. So, to celebrate, I took the two bipedal attendants to Athens for the long weekend - my god-bipedals were supposed to come too
but they felt that leaving Italy for good and moving back home was more important than spending time with me, so it was just the three of us. I confess that in spite of all my world travelling, Greece is one place I had yet to visit so I was almost as excited as my bipedals were to be visiting the Land of Homer, Democracy, and Tzatzίki.

With some 5,000 years of history - the last 3,400 of which were actually recorded - there was a lot to do and see in 3 days so I'll probably have to write several blogs about our adventures (although I'll skip the bit about my female bipedal attendant's infected big toe - you're welcome!) and, unfortunately, misadventures.

Athens' crowning glory - literally - is the flat-topped rock of the Acropolis which looms over the city and upon which stands, among other buildings, the Parthenon: the temple devoted to the city's patron Athena, goddess of wisdom. Scholars believe that a settlement was there 5,000 years ago and that the first palace on the site may date to the Bronze Age, but the Acropolis, as we know it today, began to take its form in the 6th century bce.

Athens enjoyed a Golden Age in the 5th century and the buildi
ngs on the Acropolis were given a face-lift under the orders of the Athenian statesman and general Perikles. The most famous sculptor of the day, Phidias, and two architects were entrusted with the project and they tweaked and refurbished and rebuilt theatres, sanctuaries and temples to Nike (the goddess of victory, not sneakers), Artemis (the goddess of wild animals - her name may actually mean "bear"!), and Poseidon (the god of the sea) - to name but a few.

Of course, if you visit these days it feels like you just stepped into the 5th century - what with all the scaffolding enveloping the temples and the ongoing construction (well, reconstruction). The site has sustained a lot of damage over the years from the passing of time, earthquakes, a seige by the Venetians (the Italians again!) who also blew up an Ottoman (the Turks again!) munitions magazine, looting by you humans and, of course, pollution.

A Greek temple stood on the hill for almost a millenium, but over the years the Parthenon would eventually be converted into a series of churches (Byzantine and Roman) as well as a mosque under the conquering Turks
, who added a minaret to the building - a minaret torn down when Greece won its independence from Turkey in 1832. For the last 100 years, parts of the Parthenon have sat inside a metal cocoon and visitors have been barred from entering any of the buildings since 1975.

Still, you can imagine my excitement! I'm not just a former international fashion model and freelance Goodwill Ambassador - I'm a bit of a history buff too. So very early Sunday morning, we made the climb up the side of the rock and my bipedals - as instructed - began to take some tasteful shots of me on the Acropolis. I know that by nature I'm rather photogenic, but such a historical and monumental backdrop (it was completed 2,441 years ago!) makes everyone look smashing - except for my female bipedal who, poor thing, is freakishly unphotogenic.

Anyway, just as we passed the east side of the Parthenon, we heard a shrill whistle blow and someone calling out to us. We stopped to see an awful little troll of a man (I know that's not nice but I'm still really mad!) running towards us. Showing us his badge, he identified himself as a secuity guard. He then proceeded to tell us that we had breached the rules of the site by taking photos - are you ready for this? - of a toy at an archaeological site. Me! - a toy!

A toy??!!

He said that we were being disrespectful towards the Acropolis.


He then mad
e my female bipedal scroll through every photo she had taken that day and delete every picture of me snapped on the Acropolis. Every one! I was fuming! Had my female god-bipedal been there she would have kicked his ass! Then my female bipedal asked the guard where it said that she couldn't take photos of me, a former international fashion model and freelance Goodwill Ambassador - clearly this yob hadn't recognized me or had drunk too much ouzo the night before - and he told her that "it" (meaning "taking photos of toys") was clearly marked on all the signage.

I can tell you that I was so angry, I could've spit nails!

From that moment on, I swear we were followed about the site. Every time we he
ard a whistle - I mean, I'm glad that the guards take their jobs seriously and all but still ... - we froze in our tracks. And as far as disrespectful goes, we actually did see people take photos of little stuffed bears and monkeys and no one jumped down their throats! For crying out loud: I'm a fashion icon and a world renowned humanitarian and I get targeted?

So, needless to say, I have no photos of me on the Acropolis - only ne
ar it. I also checked all the signage on the way out of the site and there was no mention of taking photos of toys or anything of that nature - not that I'm a toy. As soon as we left the site I made a mad dash to a phone booth (my bipedals' crap Turkish phones didn't work in Greece) and called the Canadian Embassy. They were both outraged and appalled, and not a little embarrassed (for my sake) at how I was treated. And although they're launching an official investigation - and I suspect that the Canadian Ambassador in Athens will be recalled to Ottawa any moment now - I also decided to pay a visit to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give them a piece of my mind. You don't f@%# with a bear!! (Sorry for the profanity: I'm still pretty upset).

Not surprisingly, they wouldn't open their doors to me. I suspect they had already been tipped off. I made a point though to tell them (through
the intercom at the gate) that they hadn't seen the last of me and that I hoped that the British Museum never returned the Elgin Marbles to Greece. I know that was awfully petty abd spiteful of me - and hardly acceptable behaviour for a freelance Goodwill Ambassador - but believe me: I was still seeing red.

I felt badly about this whole ugly affair because I was on the verge of allowing that awful little troll (sorry, not nice of me) to ruin our day and our time in Athens. This wasn't fair to my bipedals whose fault none of this (amazingly) was. So we continued on our way and stopped at a little café in the Pláka - the historical and picture-postcard-perfect neighbourhood of Athens with its narrow, labyrinthine streets - and had a cold glass of Mythos beer. It claims to be Greece's ambassador to the world, and after I'm finished with this country, it'll be the only ambassador Greece will still have - period!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Definitely Not Hibernating

I've just realized that it's been over a month since my last posting and many of you must think that I've begun my winter hibernation early. In fact, although most bears do hibernate - although usually not until October - I don't because, as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I can't afford to take time away from my many pressing duties. Famines, earthquakes, genocide, Paris fashion week ... there just aren't enough hours in my days. Besides, to be honest, bears put on about 18 kilos of fat each week those months leading up to hibernation and I don't want to lose my fashion model figure!

Now just so you know, I haven't been sitting on my paws for the last month doing nothing. But we've had a very unfortunate and distressing technological snafu here at Grey Bear Inc. which has thrown a monkey wrench into my blogging. My male bipedal accidentally knocked over the external hard drive on which all of my travel photos were stored and actually broke the hard drive.

I know what you're thinking: you mean, it wasn't the female bipedal who destroyed the entire pictorial record of your travels?!!

Indeed it wasn't.

But having said that, it was her who had transferred the photos from her laptop over to the external and it was her who stupidly deleted the originals from her computer before she could make back-up copies onto another drive. So I suppose that, although it was the male who broke the external, had she made back-up copies, there would be no problem.

Yes, it was definitely her fault.

All this talk about computers and external drives and back-up copies makes my head spin. This is why I try to hire competent individuals so I don't have to worry about such trivial details - and what do I have to show for the last few years of travel and good deeds? - nothing! I bet this never happens to Angelina Jolie.

Anyway, I smell a couple of performance appraisals in the air.

The good news is that on Saturday afternoon - on the last day of Ramadan - I'm flying to Athens for a much needed long weekend. I have yet to decide if they're coming along but, with or without them, I'm certain that I'll have a wonderful time: baklava, ouzo and spanokapita - and there's even a funicular there & I love funiculars (except for the one in Istanbul - it sort of sucked). I just hope that I can pick up a pair of those pompommed shoes the Greek guards wear! - as my friend Frisco once said, "I be stylin'"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Grey Bear in a Black Sea

I know I'm behind on my posts but it's just so hard to get good secretarial help these days and my bipedal attendants (especially the female one - the other one can't type at all) are either too busy or too tired ... well, let's just say that I'm typing this myself and as a former international fashion model and freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I have more pressing matters to attend to.

Anyway ...

... two weekends ago (see how behind I am?), I was invited to meet some friends of friends who live near the Black Sea and to visit some small villages in the area and, because I am such a generous employer, I brought my bipedal attendants along. The plan was to visit an American woman and her Turkish husband and possibly take a dip in the sea so we all piled into the car - driven by a driver who would have made my female god-bipedal's hair stand on end - and off we sped (literally) to the town of Kerpe along the Black Sea coast.

Just as an aside: the Black Sea wasn't always black - or Black with a capital B. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Black Sea was called the Inhospitable Sea because of the nasty "savages" who used to live there. Greek colonists in the south of Turkey moved in, making the area safe for sailors, so it became known as the "Hospitable Sea". The Scythians (those ancient Iranians who gave us the stirrup) called it the"Unlit Sea" but most seas are unlit, aren't they? Have you ever seen a "sea lamp" - apart from a lighthouse? Some suggest that the hydrogen sulphide in the water makes the sea black. I don't know: it looked awfully blue to me but the Turks called it black (or Black) too - the Karadeniz, the Black Sea - so who am I to judge? Although as a former international fashion model, the one thing I do know is colour.

Jason and the Argonauts sailed it and some scientists believe that this was the sea that Noah drifted across in his ark. The ancient Greeks once thought that the eastern edge of the Black Sea was the end of the world. Over the millennia, its shores were visited, inhabited and invaded by the Hittites, Thracians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Huns, Slavs, Crusaders, Venetians, Genovese, Ottomans and Russians - to name but a few.

Nowadays, it's an alternative tourist destination for İstanbullus with money but not enough time to go south to the Aegean. The climate is warm enough to grow tea, kiwi (that's me, above left in a kiwifruit tree), and figs. I had never seen a kiwi in its natural environment before, so that was neat. The pretty green leaves helped block out the uglier bits of human history indigenous to the area too.

As it turns out, our plans to visit our friends' friends were aborted without our knowledge - these people are the most untrustworthy travel planners I've ever met - and we ended up staying the whole afternoon at the beach which annoyed my female bipedal attendant because she didn't have her bathing suit with her. I confess that I actually felt sorry for her because the water was really nice (me, above right) and it probably wasn't much fun for her to sit on the beach and watch others swim in the sea. I chose to keep her company and not just because I'm a freelance Goodwill Ambassador.

I should add that the beach that we ended up at was our third that afternoon. The first main beach was really overcrowded and you could barely (!) see the water for all the tourists. The second, which was a beautiful deserted grotto-like inlet, was strewn with garbage and people-feces. I couldn't decide if I wanted to cry or let out a big bear-growl. The beach where we ended up only had a couple dozen families - and most of them seemed like rather poor families on a budget holiday - and it was much more bearable(!) than the others.

I didn't bring bathing trunks but, of course, I can go bare (!) in the water. I confess that I found it strange that some of the women were swimming in bikinis while others were swimming in their head scarves and robes. As a former international fashion model, I can say that bathing suits are not only chic but are probably safer in the water than ballooning tents. I kept expecting a rogue wave to take these girls out to sea forever. What you humans do for your gods makes us bears howl!

I'm sorry to say that our outing wasn't as positive as I had expected. Compared to my friends, my bipedal attendants' ability to plan and execute a trip would make Arthur Frommer proud. And even though the coastline was very impressive - all rocky and majestic - I was very disappointed by the garbage left behind by visitors. I just couldn't not see it. Maybe some Turks need to see that old television commercial featuring the Native American shedding a tear at a dirty, littered US roadside. Then again, in a thousand years, their empty water bottles and cigarette packages will be "archaeological treasures" just like all the stuff left behind by the Hittites, Thracians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Huns, Slavs, Crusaders, Venetians, Genovese, Ottomans and Russians - to name but a few.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Palace Bear

This past weekend, I took the bipedals to Istanbul for a little R & R (the female one needed new lipstick - the vanity of some people) and we thought we would play tourist as well as shallow vapid shoppers. One of our stops was the 19th century Dolmabahçe Palace, the lavish less-is-not-more set of imperial buildings built by Sultan Abdülmecid to show the world that:

a) the Ottoman Empire wasn't sick and dying and almost bankrupt (which it was) and
b) wasn't all about orientalism like the Topkapı Palace (which was actually too bad but
Topkapı is much prettier).

I was a little miffed because photos aren't allowed inside the palace because "everything is original". I mean really, that's why we have 'no flash' features on our cameras. I thought that was a little precious. Consequently, I have a blog with almost no photos. Not only that but you can't walk on the very worn (I must say) "pedestrian carpet" with your bare (!) shoes and have to wear pink plastic booties. My female bipedal atten
dant grumbled that the last time she had to wear plastic booties was in a mosque in Egypt and that was supposedly hallowed ground. I confess that for once, I have to agree with her.

You also can't wander throughout the palace on your own but must take a guided tour and, I must say, our guide was rather surly and only smiled at the end of our tour
. If you can't even pretend to enjoy your job then it's time to get out.

Anyway, we
all waited for about an hour in line which, in the end, was worth it because the Palace is quite lovely. It reminded me of Versailles (or maybe the Paris Opera) where we didn't have to wear pink plastic booties. I guess in the grand scheme of things, Sultan Abdülmecid was a lot more important than Louis XIII, XIV or XV.

Completed in 1853, and located overlooking the Bosphorus, the Dolmabahçe (its name means filled-in garden) is a mishmash of various European styles (with an emphasis on Rococo and a nod towards tacky) and has enough crystal (including the world's biggest chandelier at 4 tons and a Baccarat staircase) to give its cleaning staff migraines well into retirement. There were lots of seemingly gorgeous oil paintings but our guide didn't allow us the time to stop and admire them. Grrrr ....

After the last of the sultans was exiled in 1922, Atatürk used Dolmabahçe as a summer residence and for state receptions (the imperial hall can accommodate up to 2500 people), and it was here that he died in November 1938. This was pretty much the only point that our nasty little tour guide showed any animation at all. We all filed past the bed he died in and tried to feel as badly as she did about it.

Until recently, all the clocks in the palace were set and stopped at 9:05 - the moment that
Atatürk died. I mean, really ...

But most disturbing are the 150-year old bear skins - used as rugs! - scattered about the palace. They were a gift to the Sultan from the Tsar of Russia, and if I had been there I would have given him a piece of my mind. Who uses bears for carpets? - in a country renown for their carpet-making industry? Bears?!!!

As we left the palace, the changing of the guard had just taken place and everybody was lining up to have their photo taken with the one honour guard. Several people in the crowd recognized me and begged that I pose with him - so I did. I normally don't like to be associated with symbols of violence - I am a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, after all - but sometimes it's just easier to say yes than no. Although it would have been easy for me to say no to those bear skin rugs ....

Monday, July 13, 2009

Grey Bear Potters About

Yesterday, I took my bipedals to Iznik, a sleepy little lakeside resort town which lies on the shores of Lake Iznik, south of Izmit. These days, Iznik is known for two things and both are connected with its past: its church councils and its tiles.

In 301 b.c., the town became Nicaea - although for centuries before that it'd had several other names - when a certain general Lysimachus seized the area from one of Alexander the Great's generals and named it after his own wife. She must have been a very nice wife - I mean, you don't see too many towns named after my female bipedal attendant.

Nicaea was an important political and commercial town during the Imperial (Roman) period but its claim to fame came with the First Ecumenical Council - which is a rather posh name for a conference of bishops - held there in 325. There would be many other councils (the second was held in Nicaea's Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya Church) but it was the first one which decided (and told Christians) what they believed in.

It seems not everyone was on the same page. Apparently, there were a lot of different views about God and Jesus floating about at that time - like the rather logical (in this bear's opinion) idea that Jesus was not the same "person" as God and hadn't lived forever (i.e., existed before he was born). A certain priest named Arian just couldn't get his head around that one so the Men in the Big Hats got together and hammered something out that put an end to all of these so-called heresies.

The result was the Nicene creed, which Catholics and Anglicans still profess to this day; it begins with I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible ... I think "one bear" works better than "one God" although, of course, I believe in many bears. Bears are more pluralistic. Christians can be so dogmatic and, to be honest, just aren't as freethinking and fun as the rest of us. You'd never see a bear burning another bear at the stake for their beliefs.

Enough about religion. I mentioned in a previous blog that when the porcelain-loving Sultan Ahmet built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, he insisted that its tiles come from Iznik. So let's fast-forward to the 17th century (bypassing the Seljuk Turks and the Christian crusaders) and we find Nicaea part of the Ottoman Empire. It's also become a centre for the ceramics industry, known as İznik Çini - Çin meaning China. I even had the chance to visit what's left of one of the city's master tile makers (above left). We had a really nice visit.

The industry would eventually move to Istanbul and so it pretty much died out in Iznik and the town became a farming community. Nowadays, there are still tile makers in the area and I found a particularly pretty shop and picked out a lovely old tile for my bipedals. Of course you-know-who wanted something bigger and better (you see why she doesn't have a town named after her?). I should've just given her a clump of mud!

Of course I just had to pick a studio where the girl working there - her name is Rachida - recognized me (above left). I wasn't too surprised: people in the arts are generally in the loop about these sorts of things. Still, it was something to be recognized in such a small town but, then again, my fans never cease to amaze me.

These days there aren't any hoity-toity church councils in Nicaea/Iznik but tourists come to visit its churches, mosques and museums, and to see its four imposing grand gates (that's me at the Istanbul Gate, below and the Lefke Gate, top-top right), its aqueduct, the massive ancient city walls, its pottery kilns and hammams. This is probably the former international fashion model in me speaking, but I was quite taken with the aesthetics of the town - even their bus kiosks and rubbish bins are decorated with its famous tiles. Such attention to detail always makes me happy.

There are also the ruins of a Roman theatre which made me very sad because it's be
come a dumping ground for garbage. It made me so mad (and sad) that I couldn't even have my photo taken there. The theatre was built by one of the most famous Romans of all time: Pliny the Younger - remembered today for his eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 - while he was governor of Bithynia (Nicaea was its capital). Today the amphitheatre is a public toilet. Just when I think your race has a chance, you guys go and blow it. Maybe you should start putting more faith in bears ...

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Grey Bear in a Blue Mosque

To continue with our theme of visiting every mosque in all of Istanbul - at least that's how it feels sometimes - I took my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants to the Blue Mosque (the BM) last week. Strictly speaking, I took my bipedals and god-bipedals to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Sultanahmet Camii as it's known in Turkish, but to the rest of us it's that Big Blue One.

It may be the only Blue - so nicknamed for its interior blue tiles -
Mosque in Turkey but it's not the only Blue Mosque in the world: there are at least 8 others in the world, from Afghanistan to Iran. I'll have to add those ones to my list unless my bipedal attendants get mosqued-out first.

So, today's history lesson: the building of the BM began 400 years ago under the watchful eye
of Sultan Ahmet I who doesn't seem to be known for much other than his mosque (where he's also buried), staging a couple of disastrous wars, and for not strangling his kid brother when he came to the throne - as was the Ottoman custom. Later, when Ahmet's son became Sultan, he revived the custom, much to his brother's disappointment. In Turkey, it just didn't pay to be a younger brother.

Anyway, after losing one particularly important war with the Persians, Ahmet decided that if he built a really big mosque - which would conveniently also be his mausoleum - Allah would smile favourably on him.

I don't know if Allah smiled but his legal scholars certainly didn't because Ahmet had no spoils of war to pay for the mosque (having lost most if not all of his wars abroad), and he had to tap into the treasury for the funds - not just to pay for the BM's construction but to buy the private palaces on and near the site in order to raze them to the ground. And you know once word got out that the Sultan needed the land your home was built on, the price of real estate suddenly went up.
Some things don't change too much: it's all about location, location, location.

Ahmet didn't seem to care too much about the grumblings of his scholars and, in 1609, he broke the sod on the site of an earlier Byzantine palace smack-dab across the street from the H
agia Sophia which, at that time, was the most sacred mosque in Constantinople and which Ahmet wanted to eclipse in grandeur. The BM's front doors would also open up to what was the social hub of the old city: the hippodrome, the ancient circus where horse and chariot races took place (and which the Venetians plundered in 1204). I just hope there were no bear fights there!

Built in 7 short years
- during which only one architect was executed - the BM would include a nursery school, a market, a hospital, and a soup kitchen! Too bad Ahmet died shortly after it was completed (he was only 28 years old) but hopefully his widow Kösem - who became the de facto ruler and was one of the most powerful women in all of Ottoman history (at least until she was strangled) - got to enjoy it.

I mentioned earlier that the BM earned its nickname because of its blue tiles. There are over 20,000 handmade tiles in the BM and they all came from Iznik (ancient Nicaea) which was the ceramic capital of ancient Turkey. Just to give you an idea of how special these tiles were, recently an Iznik tile sold at Sotheby's for $600,000!

The Sultan made sure that all of the tiles used were Iznik tiles by fixing the price the potters could charge. Like his legal scholars, this didn't put much of a smile on the potters' faces because their tiles were normally quite pricey. They got even though by producing lesser quality tiles so that many of their colours have faded over time. I doubt that made Allah smile.

Besides its many domes, its Iznik tiles and its 200 stained glass windows (the originals were a gift from Venice - I bet they felt guilty for sacking the city 400 years earlier), the BM is recognizable for its 6 minarets. When news got out about the 6 minarets, Ahmet was criticized for being uppity: after all, the Ka'aba in Mecca - the holiest site in all of Islam - had 6 minarets too. Rather than appearing too presumptuous - or changing his plans - he paid for a 7th minaret at the mosque in Mecca.

Given that it's summer, we were lucky that there wasn't a line to get into the BM. We also took the precaution of wearing suitably modest clothing (no shorts and my female bipedal and god-bipedal had no exposed shoulders) because, as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I'm sensitive to these kinds of things. It takes so little effort to keep this world spinning happily.

Of course, there were many less enlightened individuals in line wearing skimpy outfits but they were given scarves to cover up their bare legs and shoulders. My females were given scarves for their heads although I couldn't help but notice that they let them slip the moment they thought no one was looking. I think I'll have to have a stern talk with them. Although I have bare (bear!) arms and legs, I was recognized by the mosque's employees and the religious authorities graciously let me enter as I am: no bear scarves.

Afterwards, we sat in the park (above, left) which sits between the BM and the Hagia Sophia and took advantage of the watermelon sellers there to stave off the afternoon's +35 degree heat. Turks eat such healthy snacks! My female god-bipedal bought me some pistachios from Turkey and Iran as well - what bear doesn't love nuts?!

At sunset, people flock to this park to listen to the evening call to prayer and watch the mosque light up.
Because I'm so easily recognized in Istanbul, I decided not to join the crowds for the evening prayers but enjoy the view of the BM from our hotel terrace. And what's more Turkish than having a cup of coffee in the shadow of one of the world's most beautiful mosques? - well, a piece of baklava would have been nice.