Sunday, November 30, 2014


This past week was super busy with the kids being off for Thanksgiving break and making yummy food for the feast (I made French bread dinner rolls, sautéed parmesan Brussels sprouts, and sautéed radishes with garlic and capers). And although I’ve been editing and writing throughout the week (for OTHER people), I’ve also been thankful I got the opportunity to watch some movies and catch up on some Dr. Who episodes with the kids.

I'm not sure this will last until morning, but on the off chance it does, this will be my breakfast. 
So, cooking from Grenada couldn’t have come at a better time, since we just finished up the last of our Thanksgiving leftovers.  I started with the nutmeg bread.  I found a recipe for nutmeg bread on a site for Grenadian recipes, but it was written for a bread machine. I refuse to make bread in a bread machine.  And of course, I couldn’t find any other authentic recipes, so I had to expand my search a little bit and came up with the recipe that I used today, even though it may not be a truly authentic Grenadian nutmeg bread recipe.  For this, I started out creaming my butter and sugar until it’s all mixed together and then beat in an egg. In a separate bowl, I mixed together the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, and baking soda. I poured in some of the flour mix into the creamed butter mix, alternating it with a cup of buttermilk. Once everything was mixed consistently, I poured the batter into a loaf pan and baked it for about 45 minutes.  This recipe suggested serving this with cream cheese, but I forgot to pick some up.  But, oh my, it was delicious. The best part was that the outside was nice and crisp, but the inside of it was very smooth and falling apart. I probably would’ve been good with cream cheese on it, but it was heavenly just by itself.

A bowl full of all kinds of awesome things. 
The main dish for today is called oil down. It sounds like a treatment for leather, but I assure you, it tastes much better than its name lends to.  And I made several substitutions and cheated in this dish, too. I thought it best to make this in my stock pot, starting a layer of cubed chicken in the bottom. For the second layer, I added in chopped onions, minced garlic, chopped red and yellow peppers, a couple sprigs of fresh thyme, and several dashes of a bouquet garni mix.  The next layer is supposed to be breadfruit. Well, I couldn’t find it anywhere, even though I swore I’ve seen canned breadfruit before.  So, I went out on a limb and substituted canned green jackfruit.  It may not be the exact same, and I certainly could’ve left it out, I think, but I went ahead and threw it in.  It kind of falls apart like an artichoke. But no one can say I’m not a risk taker now. Green bananas were supposed to be the next layer, except I couldn’t find that either. So, I substituted that with diced red potatoes. On top of the potatoes that are pretending to be green bananas, I added a layer of carrots and yams. (Don’t hate me: I used canned yams.) Now it comes time for the salted pork. I didn’t buy or make my own salted pork; I just used some pork sausage to spice it up a bit. Now comes time to pour in the two cans of coconut milk with two canfuls of water with a bit of turmeric added into one of the cans of water. (I totally skipped the parts of the recipe that suggests buying an actual coconut. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Well, I don’t anyhow.) Now, I added a layer of shredded cabbage and a layer of dumplings.  This is where I got lazy again. Yes, I could’ve made my own dumplings, but it was easier to buy a package of gnocchi. Again, not the same, but close enough. And lastly, there’s a layer of callaloo leaves. You can substitute spinach leaves, but I actually found a can of callaloo at the international grocery store in the African section. It smells and looks exactly like spinach, so no one would ever know the difference. I let this wonderful mixture simmer for 30-40 minutes.  I tried to make sure I got a little of each layer when I served it. I thought it was really good. The mixture of everything turned out very well. The starchiness of all the potatoes cut whatever sweetness the coconut milk had. But it yielded a ton of this, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be handing off some stew to a few people I know.

Why didn't I make this for Thanksgiving dinner? Who still has some turkey left over?
And finally, to go with it this, I also made whipped sweet potatoes with nutmeg and lemon.  I peeled and diced four sweet potatoes and boiled them until they were soft.  Then I took a potato masher and mashed them until they were almost pureed. I mixed in a stick of butter, molasses, lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, and pepper and stirred it.  Before serving, I topped this with a little bit of parsley, lemon zest, and more nutmeg. To me, this tasted like sweet potato pone, but the butter, nutmeg, and salt really brought out the flavors.  I liked it. I thought it was wonderful, especially when warm.

At least the kids ate it without (too many) complaints, and that's always my goal. More or less. 
I really liked this meal. The bread was outstanding, and I think I’ll make some more in the next month since I think nutmeg tastes like Christmas. (Or maybe Christmas tastes like nutmeg?)  I also think this recipe would make some really awesome muffins as well. With cream cheese icing drizzled on top of course. And although I felt a little uneasy about making all those substitutions and cheats with the oil down, sometimes you just can’t help it. Besides, there were a ton of recipes, and all of them were a little different. So I don’t really feel that bad about it. You decided can’t feel bad about something that turns out tasty. That’s how I look at it. Sometimes you just have to shrug at life and change your recipe. And sometimes you get to go back and get seconds.

Up next: Guatemala

Saturday, November 29, 2014


The music of Grenada is pretty representative of the Caribbean. Several popular and high-selling musicians have emerged from this island nation. Both British and French influences mixed with African and Caribbean styles to create the sound that Grenada and other nearby islands are known for.

Musical styles such as calypso and soca tend to dominate Grenadian music, although reggae and dancehall have their followings as well. One of the most noted calypso musicians is known as Mighty Sparrow (even though he later moved to nearby Trinidad).  Calypso music developed on the island of Trinidad from a mix of kaiso music and canbouley music, both of which have their origins in West Africa.  These styles were brought over during the slave trade when West Africans were brought to the Caribbean islands to work in the sugar plantations. Calypso started to spread to other French-controlled islands in the West Indies.

Soca music stemmed from calypso music in the fact that some of calypso musicians started mixing in funk, soul, and cadence (a type of méringue from Haiti).  It tended to spread among the English-speaking countries in the Caribbean, but it wasn’t just limited to those countries. Everyone enjoys a little soca music.

The island of Carriacou, which lies just north of the main island of Grenada, is best known for its folk music traditions. The most famous of these traditions is their funeral rites, involving storytelling, feasting, and a lot of music (usually performed in a call-and-response fashion). Carriacou is also known for its style known as Big Drum.  This style pays homage to their African ancestors by means of short, rhythmic phrases interspersed with choruses and accompanied by two boula drums (a type of hand drum, most often made from rum casks) and a smaller cut drum, or kata, having a higher pitch (also made from rum casks). If a family cannot afford the traditional funeral festivities, the community will perform Big Drum music for this as well.

Because of the cultural influences from both France and England during its history, Grenadian music and dance used bits and pieces of both cultures. Dancing, and especially African dancing, was forbidden when the slave owners realized they were using it to communicate to each other. But rather than paying musicians and dancers from England to entertain them in Grenada, they taught the workers the quadrille and other dances. (The quadrille actually came to England by way of France.) Of course, the Africans there used it to mock the Europeans and ended up modifying the dance a bit. It generally is danced with four women and four men standing in a square, and the dancers either dance somewhat rigidly in a formal setting, or in a more free-flowing fashion when in a casual setting. Tambourines, triangles, violins, and bass drums are the typical accompaniment to the quadrille dance.

I listened to Eddie Bullen’s album Desert Rain. He’s one of the more popular musicians to come from Grenada. I would place it the soft rock category, and I could totally imagine hearing this in a grocery store somewhere. Or if someone were trying to “create a mood” and turn the lights down low. Yeah, I could see that. 

David Emmanuel’s Bird of Paradise album was pretty enjoyable. In a groove reggae style, I could totally sit back with a Red Stripe (sorry, I know it’s Jamaican, but it’s the only Caribbean beer I know) and just chill. Still occasionally venturing over to the “creating a mood” side of music, the reggae beat is its only reprieve. However, it ended up moving away from reggae back to the same styles as Eddie Bullen.  It's not terrible, except that I was really liking the reggae stuff. 

I also listened to Mighty Sparrow’s album First Flight. He emerged during the 1950s and performed into the 1990s, so his music reflects many of the styles during those times. In my opinion, the melody lines reflect some slight British musical styles with West African overtones: simple melodic lines that stay in the key, but the instrumentation includes drums, saxophones, trumpets, and guitars – it almost reminds me of the dance bands from the 1930s and 1940s in the US. I really like this music, and I could listen to it all day.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Although the earliest people here, the Carib Indians, were driven away or died there to avoid the first option, they left a part of them behind: their art. The Caribs etched important events of their daily lives into the sides of cliffs, in caves, and other areas around the islands.

Painting is huge on the island of Grenada. And who can blame them? They have a wonderful backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery to paint. Whereas most painters typically use canvas as the main medium to paint on, Grenadian artists don’t stop there. These artists have been known to paint on a variety of mediums: wood, metal, cloth, bamboo, and even the calabash (a type of gourd). St. George’s has several art shows and showcases throughout the year bringing hundreds of visitors to local artists. Some of the most influential painters in Grenada are Canute Caliste, Elinus Cato, and John Benjamin MBE.

by Elinus Cato

Woven crafts are also very popular, especially in the tourist markets. However, items such as hat, purses, placemats, and baskets are also regularly used in the average Grenadian home as well. You’ll find most of these items are made from wicker, straw, or bamboo. 

Woodcarving is also especially popular as well.  Many of these items are also used in the home, like bowls of all sizes, kitchen utensils (wooden spatulas, wooden spoons, etc.), or furniture. Typically, these items are made from mahogany or red cedar but other types may be used.

As with most other Caribbean countries, jewelry is an art form going back centuries. Known for jewelry made from local materials, black coral and turtle shell are common materials from these islands. Actually, shells of all types are used in jewelry, as well as wooden beads and even paper beads. 

Storytelling is at the heart of Grenada’s literary traditions. This tradition is closely tied to the African traditions that were brought over during the Slave Trade.  Today, the vast majority of Grenadian literature is written in English, but some of it is in French Creole. Literary festivals, such as Spice Word Literary Festival and Poetry Slam, are held throughout the year to showcase the best of what this island nation has to offer.

Tobias S. Buckell is a science fiction author who was born in Grenada. He is most known for being the author of the sixth book in the Halo series, Halo: The Cole Protocol. As successful as he is as a writer, he suffers from dyslexia.

Merle Collins was actually born in Aruba, but later moved back to Grenada since her parents were Grenadian. She got her bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish in Jamaica, her master’s degree in Latin American studies in the US, and her Ph.D. in Government in the UK. She has spent many years teaching and was active in the Grenadian Revolution. Collins has published literary and social commentaries, poetry, short stories, and novels.

Gus John is a writer, educator, and social commentator. He was born in Grenada and later moved to the UK where he was instrumental in writing and advising on the problems with the education of minorities. He worked closely with various groups aimed at curbing youth violence and has written many articles and books on the subjects of education, race, violence, the Caribbean, and the inequality persistent in all of these things.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, November 23, 2014


The island of spice: Grenada is especially known for nutmeg, a spice that is known to cause psychoactive effects if taken in large doses. But in small doses, it’s quite tasty. The nutmeg is actually an interesting seed because it produces two distinctive spices: nutmeg and mace.  (Not the kind of mace you ward off potential attackers with, and it doesn’t contain the spice mace at all, so don’t start spraying down your food. Please, don’t do that.)

Grenada is a small island in the South Caribbean, just south of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and north of Trinidad and Tobago as well as Venezuela. It’s actually the largest island of the Grenadine Islands and includes several smaller islands in the chain. (The others belong to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which I always think sounds like a great band name.) The islands are volcanic in origin, and Mt. Catherine is the highest peak.  Grenada has distinct rainy and dry seasons typical of its tropic climate. The islands are also subject to Atlantic Ocean hurricanes and suffered greatly during Hurricane Janet (1955), Hurricane Ivan (2004), and Hurricane Emily (2005). The term Grenada comes from the French “La Grenade” and from the earlier Spanish “Granada,” a reference to a province of southern Spain of the same name, originally serving as a Moorish emirate.

The French were the first Europeans to land on the island and essentially forced the indigenous peoples to move to other islands. Some of them refused and opted to jump off cliffs rather than be relocated by the French. The island was mostly used to grow sugarcane and indigo at that time. It was formally handed over to the British but then the French took it back after the American Revolutionary War, which was then toggled back to the British with the Treaty of Versailles. A merchant ship on its way back from the East Indies stopped in Grenada and left a small number of nutmeg trees behind – the start of Grenada’s nutmeg industry.  The island country became a Crown colony in 1877, and by the mid-20th century, Grenadians were striking for better working conditions and held their first elections in regards to universal suffrage (to oppose the system that was put into place which tied eligible voters to property ownership and wealth, only allowing them to vote for 1/3 of the available seats for the Legislative Council).  Independence was finally granted to the Grenadians in 1974, and several coups took place in the decades afterwards. During the early 1980s, a pro-communist group took over, and the US, along with the support of nearby countries and regional groups, invaded Grenada in 1983 and stopped this radical group.  While other countries criticized the invasion and other military tactics, democracy and general peace were established once again. Hurricanes have ravished the island several times in recent times, destroying homes and businesses and straining their economy and resources.

The capital city is St. George’s. Named after the patron saint of England, it was first discovered by Christopher Columbus. St. George’s is known for its Carnival festival, which takes place every August and celebrates the emancipation of the slaves. The city is also famous for the Grenada National Museum, Queen’s Park Stadium Complex, a large marketplace, several famous churches, beaches, and shopping centers.

Grenada is known for its spices, namely cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, clove, ginger, allspice, and sugar cane. Oranges, coffee, and cocoa/chocolate (like Grenada Chocolate Company) are also produced here as well. Grenada is the second largest producer of nutmeg (after Indonesia), and in fact, it’s so important to the Grenadian economy, that they put it on the flag. Tourism, especially eco-tourism, is also a huge economic driver. Its beautiful beaches (both black sand and white sand), pristine mountainous environment, and tropical climate make Grenada the perfect vacation location. St. Georges University with an enrollment of nearly 5000 students is the country’s largest employer.

The vast majority of Grenadians adhere to some denomination of Christianity with Roman Catholic making up the largest portion, followed by Protestants, and then Anglicans.  There are a small number of Rastafari, Hindi, Muslim, Buddhist, and Baha’i followers.  

Because of Grenada’s history as a Crown colony of England, English became the official language of the country.  However, Grenadian Creole English is the major spoken language and has influences from European, African, and Indian words and phrases. Grenadian Creole French is also spoken, but mainly in the rural areas.  It’s sometimes known as Patois or Kwéyòl.  

The main island of Grenada is divided into six parishes, named after the patron saints of the United Kingdom: St. George (English), St. Patrick (Ireland), St. Andrew (Scotland), and St. David (Wales). The other two parishes are named after two New Testament writers, St. John and St. Mark. Because the country’s origins are volcanic, there is a crater lake called Grand Etang that is essentially bottomless. Even sonar has not been able to find the bottom. (It makes you wonder what kind of strange sci-fi creatures lives down there. Or how many bodies have been dumped there.)  Most countries have a long form of their name (like People’s Republic of China) and a short form of its name (everyone calls it China).  However, Grenada is one of those few countries that only has a short form; it’s just Grenada. (Canada is another short-form-only country.)  Their cuisine is pretty typical of the Caribbean – except with the largest number of recipes containing nutmeg that I’ve ever seen – and it all sounds super tasty.  

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Ah, the day I’ve been waiting for all week. Not because we’re supposed to get our first measurable snow tonight. I’m not waiting for that at all. If it never came, I’d be happy.  No, it’s because I’m hungry for Greek food. Even though I never did get to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding again (mostly because Netflix doesn’t have it available for streaming, and I forgot to check the library). 

Once I got this right, it was pretty tasty. 
I started with making the bread, tsoureki. This is traditional sweet braided bread is typically made at Easter time, but you know, lent and advent rhyme, so it was good enough in my book.  Besides, is there really a time when you CAN’T eat tasty bread? Didn’t think so. I started with two cups of warm milk and added a couple of yeast packets, flour, and some sugar. I let it proof for about 40 minutes.  Then I pulled my large mixing bowl out and added in seven cups of flour, salt, sugar, orange zest, and aniseed.  I stirred everything and then made a well in the middle. I poured in my yeast mixture, some melted butter, and five beaten eggs. It took a while for the dough to come together because it was a lot more dough than I’m used to working with. But the smell of the aniseed and orange zest is purely amazing! I oiled my dough and let it sit for about an hour and a half. After that, I divided the dough into six pieces and rolled each piece into a 12-15” long rope.  Taking three stands, I pinched one end together, braided them, and pinched the other end as well, doing the same thing with the other set.  After they were both braided, I carefully laid them on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and let it rise for two more hours.  Before putting this in the oven, I brushed each loaf with an egg yolk-milk mixture and topped it with the sliced almonds. It takes about 40 minutes for it to bake. I made the mistake of taking it out of the oven at around 23 minutes because the top of it was already dark brown.  And it generally looked and felt done, but when I finally cut a piece of it after it cooled, there were parts on the inside that was still a bit raw. I threw it back in the oven in hopes to finish baking these parts, but what I tasted was truly, truly amazing. The orange zest in it was the dominant flavor that came out, but it was coupled with a very yeasty smell. I know why this is so popular. I’m glad that I was able to save it somewhat, mostly because it seems like the type of bread that would go well with some English breakfast tea.

Yep, this just happened. 
While I was waiting for bread to rise, I started the Horiatiki Salata, or Greek salad.  I love Greek salads and have been a fan of them for many, many years now. Unlike many places in the US where Greek salads are served on lettuce with a variety of toppings and feta cheese, this recipe is slightly different. For starters, there is no lettuce. I used cut tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, and onion (it calls for red onion, but I had a bag of yellow onions already).  Then I sprinkled some oregano and olive oil on the vegetables and put it in the fridge for later. Just before serving, I added some capers, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese crumbles.  I even bought some anchovies to top it as well. I liked this because of its simplicity. The anchovies were super salty, as expected, but if you gathered enough vegetables with it, it cut the saltiness just a bit. My daughter came into the realization that she LOVES anchovies.  She even asked for a tin of them for Christmas as a stocking stuffer. I mean, it was only $1.79. And if it’s what she wants….

This is what's up. This is the thing, right here. 
The main dish for today is pastitsio, which is Greek for “truly amazing.” Ok, I made that part up. For this I browned my ground beef (I actually used ground turkey because it was cheaper – I have no idea what happened to the price of beef.), adding some onions and cooked for a bit longer. Then I added in some white wine (I had to sample half the bottle last night just to make sure it was ok. It passed the test.), tomato sauce, parsley, allspice, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and let simmer. While this was simmering, I started my water for my pasta and cooked it like normal. (I used penne, although ziti is acceptable as well.) Then I went back to my meat sauce and stirred in some breadcrumbs to soak up some of the liquid and moved it off the heat. Once my pasta was finished, I rinsed my noodles in a colander under some cool water while melting butter in the original pot. I poured my noodles on top of the melted butter, and I also stirred in beaten egg whites and Parmesan cheese and stirred everything to coat it evenly. So, now I put a layer of noodles on the bottom of my casserole dish and flattened them down, followed by a layer of the meat sauce, then another layer of the noodles.  Now comes time to make the béchamel sauce: I started this by melting butter and adding flour to it until it’s smooth. The hard part is to constantly whisk it so that it doesn’t scald. Then I slowly added in warmed milk and just a pinch of nutmeg. It’s supposed to be thick – thicker than gravy but not too thick. Once my sauce was thick enough, I poured it on top of my noodles and meat, topping with a little bit of Parmesan cheese.  I baked this for 45 minutes, and it was so good. This is what’s up. That’s all I can say. Even my normally finicky 5-year-old cleaned his plate up. It was the perfect meal for a snowy Sunday afternoon. Of course, it had enough butter to make Paula Dean jump for joy, but whatever. It’s certainly not a meal for people who are counting calories.

As I was cooking, I started thinking about how the father in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding always took everything that happened in the world and tied it back to the Greeks. But in reality, the Greeks really did do a lot of fantastic, innovative, and life-changing things since the ancient days. I’m certain there is no one alive today who hasn’t been impacted by Greek scientists, mathematicians, or philosophers in some way – in fact, much of our own language is based on Greek prefixes and root words. And of course, their cuisine is amazing. Balkan cuisine has always been one of my favorite cuisines, mostly because it’s the best of Europe and the Middle East combined. Everything was beyond what I expected – these are definitely do-again recipes. My son already asked me to make the pastitsio for his birthday, but seeing how his birthday is in three days, I told him he better just eat up. 

Up next: Grenada


Greek music has been influenced by the musical styles of the Romans, Eastern Europe, and others. It is generally divided into two sections: traditional music and Byzantine music. 

In Ancient Greece, music was regarded as a critical part of the educational path.  Both vocal music and instrumental music were included in their studies. They came up with their own theoretical advancements, such as the development of “enchiriadic notation,” that is, notation that dictates general pitches and the general flow of the song, but it doesn’t denote specific notes or rhythms or rests. This was especially true in chant notation.

Byzantine music took what was already established and built upon it with their own influences.  It is very much tied to Early Christian music, and it utilized a variety of string instruments, a bagpipe-like instrument, and an organ. Another thing Byzantine music contributed is that distinct “eastern sound” that was characterized by part of its Persian and Turkish roots.

Folk music has changed many times over the centuries as the country changed hands and advancements in music reached Greek musicians. Different islands and areas of the mainland had their own special variations and styles. Besides vocal music, folk music was also highly instrumental; the main instruments used are guitars, clarinets, violins and other string instruments (like the oud – not to be confused with the Ood, a Dr. Who character), and tambourines. Cretan music – music from Crete – often incorporates the use of the lyre and the mandolin. “Zorba’s Dance” by Mikis Theodorakis (used in the movie Zorba the Greek [1964]) is probably one of the most well-known Greek tunes in the world.

Greeks certainly made a name for themselves in classical music as well. Schools of music started popping up during the mid-late 1800s, and composers and performers began writing and performing their own classical music.  Operas and operettas were also written; The Godson by Theophrastos Sakellaridis (1918) is still probably one of the most popular Greek operettas. After the 1930s, Greek composers began to incorporate more pan-European and American elements into their music, including jazz and Latin musical styles.

There were several styles of popular songs that emerged during the 20th century.  Some of the more commonly known styles include Rebetiko (originally a lower-class style performed by poor urban musicians during the 1920s, singing about drug addiction and the struggles of being poor), Éntekhno (orchestral music that emerged in the 1950s, based on folk rhythms, melodies, and lyrical poems of classical Greek poets), Laïkó (popular during the 1960s and 1970s, often used in musicals, movies, and theatre), Skyládiko (in reference to nightclubs and described as a degradation of music, appealing to the masses).

There are about a million Greek dances. Ok, maybe not that much. But there are a lot. Nonetheless, the Greeks like to get down, I guess. Different areas and islands have their own styles and set of dances.  The Aegean dances generally fast-paced couples dances.  Dances of Crete are more or less fast-paced as well. The dances of Epirus, Thessaly, and Peloponnese are, in contrast, slower with much heavier steps. It takes much more muscle coordination for slower movements than quicker movements. They do have quicker dances, too, but are known for their slower ones. Thracian dances are generally lighter in nature and tend to be in a line form; however, only the men get to dance in the front. Sorry, ladies. (We’re used to this by now, unfortunately. Let’s have a collective eye-roll.) Pontic soldiers have their own dances that get them ready for battle, and there’s probably more battle dances out there.

Of the music that is popular today, there was a lot to choose from – and from a variety of genres more or less. I found Dionysis Savvopoulos, a group that performs modern classical music with a distinct Greek flair. I actually really like the pieces that I heard on the live album Savvorama. Some songs are instrumental, but there are some that have vocals as well.  I think the thing that gets me, is that while there is a definite classical music feel to many of the songs, there is also a rock-opera feel at times. It’s almost amusing. Of course, I have no idea what they’re singing about; it’s – wait for it – it’s all  Greek to me.

And of course, there’s one of the most well known Greek composers in the US during the 1980s and 1990s: Vangelis. The most famous song practically everyone knows is the theme from Chariots of Fire.  I just realized that I’ve never seen this movie, although Vangelis did the entire soundtrack and won Best Original Score for it. I suppose this means I should probably add this to my Netflix queue. (Although I love in the video clip above, how he still has to get in his smoke before playing the piano. Geez, I hope playing the piano wasn't interrupting anything.) 

Speaking of popular Greek composer/musicians of the 1980s and 1990s, a few of my friends and I were fairly interested in Yanni back in the day. We used to play some of his songs from the piano book my friend had. I think it was actually the hair that drew us to him. Skip forward several years later, another friend and I were in Chicago with her mom (who spent the entire time in boring banking meetings, but since the bank was paying for that posh hotel room, we at least brought her a piece of complementary cheesecake). We were told to try the Greek restaurant Pegasus, and as we were waiting for a table, there were framed photographs of various famous Greeks on the wall, all posing with the owner we assumed. We had no idea who any of these people were, but then we saw Yanni on the wall. At least we knew someone! We were not that ignorant of the world. Our 21-year-old selves finally made it to the worldly traveler stage.

Let’s move on to rock music. There were several fairly good choices to listen to this past couple of weeks. The first I listened to was Rallia Hristidou. I liked her, especially the song “Mia Zoi” and its subtle switches to a minor key for the chorus, and then back to major for the verses. The other songs ranked from “not bad” to “pretty good,” but I think this was the best song on the album Etimi.

Michaelis Hatzigiannis definitely draws more of traditional Greek rhythms and utilizes more traditional instruments in with his modern rock feel to his music. At times, it reminds me of a Greek Jon Secada, but then he would introduce a harmonica, which then makes me think he’s a Greek Carlos Vives or something.

Giorgos Perris is a little more subdued, definitely falls in the soft rock category. I’m not so much of a soft rock fan; it reminds me of being in a waiting room, department store, grocery store, or elevator. But… it wasn’t bad. I actually liked some of the songs.

I listened to Filippos Pliatsikas, and outside of a voice that makes me think he was the long-lost Greek brother of the guy from that Canadian band Crash Test Dummies, I kind of liked their music. It definitely has a 1990s sound to their music, but since I’m such a huge fan of 1990s rock, I gave them a pass.

And of course, there’s Helena Paparizou (also listed as Elena Paparizou). Although she was raised in Sweden, she won the 2005 Eurovision music contest representing Greece. Her music is typical pop and dance music, but I like several of the songs I heard.

Kore. Idro. is another band that fits this pop sound, except they tend to use more strings, at times giving the music a slight bit of Goth rock feel to it, but then they’ll quickly reel it back. They tend to stay on the safe side of rock, but I always think they’d do very well at branching out to the folk metal side of things. It’s probably outside of their comfort zone, but they need to think about it at least.

And of course, this brings me to one of my favorite genres: ska. I found the band Locomondo.  They have another album that has more of a reggae sound. It’s pretty fun, because it still has Greek instruments in their music. But it meshes, so it’s all good.

And now onto Greek hip-hop. Because, yes, this is a thing. I listened to Imiskoubria’s album 30 Years of Hits, and it sooooooo sounded like most of these songs were handpicked straight from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I like that era, so it was pretty fun to listen to. With some jazz sounds here and there, a lone bass here and there, it sounds like they were influenced by the music of A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill. Zontani Nekri is a little harder rap group; it seems their influences were the early 2000s styles from the US.  Whatever they’re talking about, both of these albums had every song listed as “explicit” so they were certainly living the life at least. But then the group FF.C is slightly different. They use a lot of sampling in their music. I think their vocals are probably tighter than the previous two hip-hop groups mentioned.

Up next: the food 

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Greek art was the basis for most Western art and went through several artistic periods. The earliest works of Ancient Greek art were influenced by that of Ancient Egypt. You can see this in paintings where figures are shown in their profile rather than looking straight ahead. Greek art styles spread as they conquered more lands.  It influenced other artistic styles from the Romans to the Japanese and everyone in between, thanks to Alexander the Great and his crew.

Next came Byzantine art, a period starting from about the 5th century and lasting until the collapse of Constantinople in 1453. This period of art still held on to a lot of classical themes, but it focused on glorifying and paying homage to God and other holy figures. Following this was a school of icon painting called the Cretan School, named after its popularity on the island of Crete.

Most Greek artists didn’t have much opportunity to study art while they were under Ottoman occupation, so many of them chose to study abroad. At this time during the 19th century, Munich was one of the centers for artistic study, and many Greek students went there to study. Upon coming back to Greece, they started the Greek Munich School to pass on the things they learned to the next generation of artists. Among some of the top names to come out of this generation are Theodoros Vryzakis, Nikiphoros Lytras, Georgios Jakobides, Georgios Roilos, and Konstantinos Volanakis.

"Grandma's Favorite" by Georgios Jakobides

Greek artists continued to draw influences from other art capitals of Europe throughout the 20th century, such as Paris and Rome.  French Impressionism was especially popular among Greek artists.  Other acclaimed artists who made their mark during the 20th century include Constantine Andreou (painter, sculptor), Thodoros Papadimitriou (sculptor), Giorgio de Chirico (painter, founded Metaphysical art), Jannis Kounellis (influential in Arte Povera movement), Theodoros Stamos (abstract expressionist painter), and Constantin Xenakis (kinetic sculpture).

Constantin Xenakis
Greek literature is written in Greek, and its beginnings are generally attributed to Homer’s timeless classics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Poetry was also highly regarded, and poets such as Sappho and Pindar are two of the most well known.  Historians, such as Herodotus and Thucycides, were instrumental in creating chronicles highlighting important events in Greek history. Most notably, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had such an influence on prevailing thought at the time that they are still highly revered and studied today.  Scientific studies and treatises were also being written, Hippocrates being the most well known.  He’s also the namesake of the term “Hippocratic Oath,” which basically holds doctors and medical staff to swear an oath that they will uphold specific ethics in their work. 

Athens became the center for thought, education, the arts, and of course, literature.  Greek literature is essentially divided into the three main eras: Ancient Greek literature (before 350AD), Byzantine literature (about 290-1453), and Modern Greek literature (1453-today). It’s a little weird to think of the “modern” era starting over 550 years ago!

Ancient Greek literature was pretty diverse as far as types of literature. Of course, poetry was always popular, as was drama.  Both tragedies and comedies were becoming quite the thing, and many new plays were being written and performed. Translations of the Bible into Greek were also being written for the first time during this period.  The Byzantine era was more or less a transitional period, although encyclopedias were brought to the forefront during this period.

An early transcription of the New Testament called "Papyrus 46."

Most of the literature written during the Modern Greek period was written using the Modern Greek language. Poetry and dramas are still being written during this time. Literature became influenced by Italian trends in literature and philosophy as well as other European trends. As Greece moved toward independence, literature took a more nationalistic turn.  Kostis Palamis was considered the “national” poet. Many writers, novelists, poets, and playwrights have emerged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Many have won awards and prizes for their works, including Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis who are the only two Greeks to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (Seferis in 1963 and Elysis in 1979).

Giorgos Seferis
Of course, there have been many books written about Greece, or take place in Greece, or are based on earlier Greek plays and epic poems and mythology. “Jason and the Argonauts” is one Greek myth that has been remade as movies and TV series several times. Greek mythology is the basis of many stories and references in other works. Some of the most familiar gods (and many are copied in Roman mythology) who are the subjects of fables and mentioned in lyrics are known around the world: Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysus, Hades, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, Poseidon, Zeus. There are many classifications of minor gods and demigods, and important mortals; it’s a huge list. One of my favorite books –and I’m not necessarily a romance genre lover– is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières, which takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia during the German and Italian occupation during WWII. 

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, November 9, 2014


It’s the birthplace of Western Civilization, where democracy and political science, mathematics, Western thought, modern literature, language, drama, and the Olympic games were created and developed. And from there, they spread all across Europe and eventually the world. The Ancient Greeks have contributed so much to the development of the world as we know it. But what about the Greece of today? That’s what I want to know.

The Greeks themselves call their country Hellas or Ellada.  However, the term “Greece” came from the Roman term for the country, Graecia. The term Hellas is also used in English, as in the Hellenic Republic.

Greece lies between the Ionian Sea (which separates Greece from Italy) and the Aegean Sea (which separates Greece from Turkey). It also borders the countries of Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. The country lies on a peninsula known as the Peloponnese Peninsula and also includes 1200-6000 islands (depending on how you define an island apparently) at the end of this peninsula, of which 227 are inhabited, the largest being Crete. About 80% of Greece is either covered in mountains or hills, which means there are no navigable rivers here. Mt. Olympus is the highest peak in the country, the same peak the Ancient Greeks thought was where the gods lived. The Vikos Gorge is noted as the deepest gorge in the world and many endangered species use its natural protection as a refuge.

Some of the oldest artifacts of human existence in the Balkans are Greek, which isn’t surprising seeing how the Ancient Greek Civilization was one of the most advanced civilizations at that time. Greece went through its own Dark Ages, which traditionally ends with the first Olympic games in 776 BC.  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey also were written right around this time as well. During this time, Greece was more or less made of a collection of city-states spreading across much of the Balkans and the Peloponnesian Peninsula. It was a thriving cultural center in all of Europe and much of the world as well — a central hub for literature, language, architecture, drama, philosophy, science, and mathematics. And in 508 BC, it became the world’s first democracy, the model that much of Europe, the Americas, and many other areas of the world base their government on. Greece entered a series of wars, battles, and oppositions with the Persians, then with the Peloponnesian War between the Spartans and the Athenians, the Goths, the Huns, the Slavics, the Franks, the Venetians, the Serbs, and the Ottomans (Turks). They eventually were granted their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829.  They continued to have several wars with Turkey on into the 20th century.  During WWII, the Italians demanded Greece to surrender to them, but they fought heroically and stood their ground against the Fascist Regime. Today, Greece is a highly industrial country and one of the biggest tourist spots in Europe.  Greece joined the European Union in 1981 and adopted the euro in 2001. Although Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, Greece was hit hard after the global economic crisis in 2008-2010.

Athens, the capital city, is one of the oldest cities in the world; they’ve been continually inhabited for the past 7000 years! Athens itself has been the center for education and government. It’s particularly famous for the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and the Acropolis Museum.  And actually you can go to the Acropolis Museum for free. And by free, I mean, go to Google Maps, type in “Acropolis Museum” and put it into streetview on top of the museum. You can walk through the museum, and it gives you a great view of the Parthenon. I’ve been to this museum several times this way. (I wonder what other museums Google mapped?)  With about 3.7 million people in its metro area (slightly smaller than Los Angeles, California), it is a crossroads between old and new, ancient Greek architecture standing next to modern, energy-efficient buildings. Dotted with parks, gardens, museums, shopping, sports arenas, theatres, and universities, Athens is every bit of a modern city.  Major highway systems, rail and subway systems, and ferry systems make it easy to get to and get around the city.

Greece’s economy is a high-income economy and considered advanced. They generally rank high in terms of GDP (gross domestic product) and PPP (purchasing power parity), an indication of their high standard of living and ranking high on the Human Development Index. Roughly 85% of their economy is service-based with tourism as one of their biggest economic drivers. Greece was ranked as the 7th most-visited country in the European Union and 16th in the world. Greece is ranked number one in Europe’s production of pistachios and cotton; number two in rice production and olives; number three in almonds, tomatoes, watermelons, and figs; and they’re ranked fourth in tobacco production. And because of its coastal location, they have a highly-developed shipping and fishing industry.  Science and technology is a huge industry in Greece. In fact, millions of women all over the world have a Greek scientist to thank (or resent, rather). His name is Georgios Papanikolaou, and he came up with the Pap smear. There have also been many Greek scientists who have made contributions to the confusing world of physics and even more confusing world of computer science. However, Greece fell into trouble after the 2008 global economic crisis, and although they are slowly climbing out of it, they still have one of the lowest credit ratings among EU countries.

By far, the most-adhered-to religion in Greece is Eastern Orthodoxy, which is a part of the Greek Orthodox Church. Some 97-98% of Greeks identify themselves as Eastern Orthodox. In comparison with other countries in Europe, most Greeks take religion seriously.  There are a small number of Turkish Muslims (with Muslims from elsewhere included as well) who live in Greece. The Greek city of Thessaloniki used to have a large Sephardic Jewish population at the beginning of the 20th century, but after WWII, those numbers dropped drastically. A small number of Roman Catholics and even Jehovah’s Witnesses among others have followers in Greece.

The Greek language is the official language of Greece; however, the question of whose dialect and which form (more classical, scholarly Greek vs. what was spoken by the people) has been a constant source of debate and dispute for centuries. In fact, this wasn’t resolved until the mid-1970s when the government finally decided that the official language form should be the language of the people. The literacy rate in Greece has more than tripled since the 1950s. There are several other minority languages spoken in Greece, which includes Albanian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Romani, Macedonian Slavic, Aromanian, and Meglenitic.  If you look at a list of English-language prefixes and suffixes, many of these come from Greek and Latin.

Greece has a ton of cool things about it: in light of our recent (deplorable) election turnout, no one in Greece has the option to stay home; it’s mandatory to vote. There’s a small chance that the next marble statue you see is of Greek marble since 7% of the world’s marble comes from here. There are actually some olive trees planted in the 13th century that are still producing olives today! It’s no doubt that Greece is a beautiful place to visit: they enjoy over 250 days of sunshine a year; it’s lucky for them that they get to enjoy the sunshine longer than most people since they rank 26th in the world for life expectancy.  Greeks feel that waving with an open palm is taboo, so they prefer to wave with a raised fist instead. Apparently, the British poet Lord Byron was so head-over-heels about the Greeks, he went to Greece to help them fight in their war for independence against the Turks, where he later caught fever and died (they still consider him a national hero). The word “barbarian” is a Greek word meaning anyone who didn’t speak Greek. To counter that, I suppose this is where the phrase “It’s all Greek to me” came from (Perhaps? Maybe?). Greeks generally have the lowest divorce rates yet the highest abortion rates (makes you wonder if the two are related somehow). Greece’s original currency, the drachma, was the oldest in Europe, reaching the fine old age of 2650 years (it was replaced by the euro). So, I think I’ll get some feta cheese, some kalamata olives, watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding again, and look forward to some real Greek food in about a week.

Up next: art and literature