Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mykonos: Building on a Crisis.


For some time now I’ve had a theory about why Mykonos is so overbuilt, yet continues to expand, amid a financial crisis that’s crippled growth virtually everywhere else in Greece. The answer seemed simple to me: It’s the financial crisis itself, stupid.  Here’s how I came to that conclusion.

The global financial crisis began in 2008, and Greece was one of its first casualties.  It’s been officially in bailout mode from 2010 until ending this summer. I shall not repeat the horrific debt, poverty, and unemployment figures Greece has borne, for I prefer to think positively.  

However, one must keep that Great Depression mentality in mind to fully appreciate the amount of capital that’s been plowed into Mykonos in those bailout years. I mean CAPITAL.  Mega-villa construction outstripping traditional-size homes, sun-bathing beaches becoming expanded beach club sites, beach club sites adding luxury malls, and traditional tradesmen shops disappearing, replaced by hawkers of jewelry, sunglasses, and fashion of the moment, or bars and more clubs.

But most of all, more and more homes sprouted up. Virtually all for the same reason: to earn rents. All across Greece the word went out, if you want to make money, come to Mykonos, and many did hoping to find fiscal salvation there.  The more who came, the faster prices rose for accommodations and rents.  Many Greeks and others with homes on the island realized they could make more money renting out their places during the three-month tourist season than they would likely make annually at their year-round jobs. The rational decision was to build, and build they have. 

This bizarre cycle continues. The more suspect the Greek economy, the more building and investment comes to Mykonos.  Even Lindsay Lohan has gotten in on the act…if in name only.

Where it all leads is anyone’s guess, but with regulated hotels now forced to compete with unregulated renters, tax authorities left to sort out who’s paid what to whom, and wage-earning workers forced off the island because they can’t find reasonably priced places to live, it’s not hard to see all ending in tears.

As I said, all of that was conjecture on my part. A theory I’d tossed about.

Then, today, I read a review by William Gallagher, appearing in Greece’s newspaper of record Ekathimeri, of a one-man play, “Rent Control” (featuring Evan Zes). His play came to Athens from Off Broadway. The article is titled “To Be or AirBnB?”  Its opening paragraph stopped me cold.  Here it is.

 Airbnb is a popular way for cash-strapped Greeks to supplement their income. Many Athenians have rented their homes to tourists and other visitors for short stays through the website. In fact, it has become so lucrative to do so that it has become much harder to find apartments in the center of the capital for traditional long-term leasing.

In other words, what I saw afflicting Mykonos is not confined there, but has spread to Athens, and I assume other pricey places like Santorini. Some might cite that as a sign of economic recovery, but is it that, or merely a way for entrepreneurial-minded Greeks to survive until true recovery arrives?

Who knows?  I certainly don’t.  Though perhaps the government will get an indication of how their electorate feels on the subject when parliamentary elections take place sometime before October 20, 2019.


Friday, June 29, 2018

The gardens of Benmore

On our recent trip round the sea lochs, we happened by a unknown treasure.
Benmore Botannical Gardens.
They are part of the Edinburgh Botannical Gardens, first founded in the 1600's. From there, mostly during the Victorian era,  another three gardens were acquired and now  they boast one of the largest plant collections in the world.
Benmore is on the Cowal penisular, the gardens wrap round the lower slopes of... you've guessed it, Ben More.
I had been looking around for  some famous Scottish trees for the next Anderson and Costello book. I was looking for big famous trees. We have some that are a thousand year old, loads that Scottish kings and princes have hidden up or fallen out of.
One of the most famous is actually at the end of my garden. I've walked past it twice a day for twenty years and never noticed the thing. 
More about that later.

But  on the internet, I did notice a few pictures of  Scotland's giant Redwoods at Benmore.
Yip- we have one of the highest Redwoods in Europe. 

We went in for a quick look and stayed for four hours.

I got the message here but who is squatting and..errr why?

120 acres, the top part is a hike up the mountain.

Me, trying to capture the magnificence of the Redwood walk.

The bridge over the river Eachaig, looking onto the Redwood walk.
It is quite magnificent.

The Golden gates

An indecisive tree, growing this way, then that!

The gate to the Japanese garden. It was closed to fungus.

In the Bhudda garden, little pillars of stones.

And then we found some bones!
What more could a crime writer ask for?

High on the Ben looking down.

Chile may be a land of extremes...

But the trees take time to grow. This wee guy was four feet high.

Deep in Chile!

A scientific experiment to trace the evil fungus

The walled garden has been devastated by fungus, all that is left are the trees on the border.  

Fungus is dangerous and transferable. 
We had to wash the soles of our shoes on leaving.

Lichen versus fungus. Lichen is winning.

The walled garden looks a little sad.

One of the many ponds.

Me trying to photograph the reflection.

More pond and more reflection


And ponds....

The Redwood walk.

There are 25 on each side, most of them 30 metres plus high.
All except one.
He fell down  in the great storm of 1968 ( as the blogateers will know) and was immediately replaced by a wee shorty who is growing  fast to try to catch up. He's still toatie.
He is the most photographed tree in the entire garden!

I was amazed by how soft their bark was.
Lovely things.
Big trees.

Caro Ramsay 29 06 2018

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Windscreen Phenomenon

Michael - Thursday

The odd thing about the windscreen phenomenon is that it’s about what isn’t there. And some people wonder whether the phenomenon exists at all. Simply put, it’s the fact that when you drive some distance, your windscreen isn’t covered with squashed insects collected as you drive through the countryside. The implication is that the number of insects has significantly decreased over the years. That’s the windscreen phenomenon.

So, there are several issues with this. In the first place, it only applies to flying insects. No one checks how many creepy crawlies their tires have run over. Secondly, cars have developed much more aerodynamic bodies – perhaps the insects are caught in the slipstream over the vehicle. And one school of thought is that that the whole thing is perception – there is no phenomenon. (Remember how big Texas was when you were young?) Personally, I’ve just driven from Johannesburg to Knysna (about 800 miles) and I had some splatter, although not as much as I would get in the summer or in a moister area than the semi-arid Karoo in the center of the country. Maybe, it’s not a global effect (if it exists at all). The main problem is that it’s all based on anecdotal evidence, and insect populations are notorious for their boom and bust behavior in any case.

And then we can ask if we should care. Would a drop off in the populations of flies and beetles necessarily be such a bad thing? What about the diseases they spread and damage they do? And butterflies and moths are pretty to look at, but many of their caterpillars are food pests. As for mosquitoes and biting midges…

Here the answer is pretty clear. Insects sit at the bottom of the animal food chain and overall they are a vital basis for the global ecosystem. Butterflies and moths pollinate plants. Bats eat hundreds of times their body weight in mosquitoes and midges. Flies and beetles help with recycling decaying material. We’ve all heard of the dire effects of the decline in bee populations which is forcing hand (and recently drone) pollination of almond trees in California. And they all form a key protein source for animals and birds and even people. (Harvesting the caterpillars of the giant silk moth – ‘mopani worms’ – is a small industry in Botswana.)  The list is endless. The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson has warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” So, yes, we should care.

If the windscreen phenomenon is real, what could be causing the decline? Insecticides is the obvious answer. The effect on insectivorous birds is well-documented – it’s fifty years since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring woke people up to that. Presumably the effect was also significant to the insect population – after all that was the point. There are various other suggestions around – including that the windscreens themselves are partly responsible – but, again, most of the evidence was from casual observation. That’s why a recent study from Germany made the headlines.

Members of the Krefeld Entomological Society at work
Interestingly, it wasn’t based at a well-known university or research organization the way most such studies work. It was mainly driven by a group of amateur field naturalists from an entomological society. They have been documenting flying insect populations in 63 nature reserves over almost thirty years. Over that time period, the insect populations studied have declined by between 70% and 80% depending on the season. The study also recorded weather conditions, and the decline has been ongoing, so it seems unlikely that it can be put down to global warming.

Other evidence has been coming out of North America that suggests something similar, and a recent report from Australia reported similar declines there. The bottom line is that no one seems to have a very clear idea of why this so-called “insect apocalypse” is occurring or what we could do to reverse it. Maybe we need to find out!

Monday, June 25, 2018

In Montisi

Annamaria in Chiantishire

Thanks to the good offices of John Lawton--fellow crime writer and dear to many of us MIE bloggers, I have had my first visit to that part of Tuscany preferred by visitors from the British Isles: the Crete Senesi, the hills southeast of splendid Siena.  Nicknamed Chiantishire because of its density of English population.

Montisi is a beautiful medieval hill town.  The atmosphere is nothing short of splendid. Viz--

What impressed me most about the ambience of Montisi were the relationships between the locals and the expats--whether seasonal or year round.  I saw no divide between the resident Italians and the resident imports.  They all seemed capable of sliding between English and Italian, sometimes within the course of a single sentence.  Much more telling: they took a kind and caring interest in one another--who was sick, who needed extra company because his wife was away, whose chid was nervous over a university application. All the kinds of things one might expect in the life of a small village, but with none of the "us/them" dichotomy typical of say a town in Florida where northerners show up only in winter. With the people of Montisi, there is only "us."

My host was Ugo Mariotti who was a producer and casting director for the movie "Don't Look Now" with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

Lawton (my term of endearment for him) told me about the artists and writers who call the town their full or part-time home.  Among Ugo's neighbours are painters Liz Graham-Yooll (who also illustrates children's books), Elizabeth Cochrane, and Sue Kennington.  And sculptor David Mackie.

Mackie's magnificent bird house.  

Mackie's avian neighbor, but presumably not a resident of the above.

Mackie's sculpture of Caliban, which figures in John Lawton's
brilliant "Friends and Traitors."

In addition to John, Montisi has hosted authors Rupert Thomson and at one point a few yers ago, our own Zoe Sharpe.

The area is home to Bruce Kennedy, a world renowned maker of harpsichords and clavichords.  He is also the executive Director of Picolo Accademia, a music school in Montisi, which jointly with my hometown favorite Julliard School of Music, hosts an annual festival of baroque performances.  I am missing it by a week.  Next time, I plan to be there to hear the music.  

In the meanwhile here is a sample of the playing of this year's star performer: Skip Sempe'--playing one of Kennedy's harpsichords:

Alla prossima volta!  Until next time, Montisi!

Upcoming for Annamaria:

June 26: 7:30PM
Summit Free Public Library
75 Maple St
Summit, NJ 07901

July 10: 7PM
The Chappaqua Library
195 S Greeley Ave
Chappaqua, NY 105146

July 19: 6:30PM
171 Main St.
Manasquan, NJ 08736

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Snark's Eye View From the Mountains of Japan

--Susan, every other Sunday

As by now I'm sure you're all aware, I'm spending the next few months in Japan, attempting to become the first American woman over 45 to climb the Nihon Hyakumeizan in a single year--as well as the first cancer survivor to climb them within a year after finishing cancer treatment (chemotherapy).

On the summit of Mount Bandai. (A mile high, but you'll have to take my word for it.)

But this journey has quickly become about far more than merely tagging peaks and adding notches to a climbing belt. (Spoiler alert: I always knew it would, and intended it to.) My climbing notes often wax philosophical -- sometimes, downright "woo-woo" -- and yet, I think it's impossible to undertake a project of this magnitude without a great deal of internal dialogue and growth.

I WILL BECOME A BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY. (Or perhaps a moth . . .)

Or, if you did, I think you'd cheapen the journey and deprive yourself of a critical aspect of the journey. As every writer knows, the protagonist's internal arc is actually more important than the physical one (s)he undertakes--and that's true in life as well as in fiction.

However, it's also true that wherever I am, my herd of snarks is never far behind--and since I'm not revealing the bigger side of the lessons learned until I know for myself what those lessons really are, you're going to have to live with reports from the snarky side.

Tell me there's something NOT snarky to say about a display like this . . .

Let's be honest . . . the snarks are more fun anyway.

So here's the snark-cap of my travels since last we met here at MIE:

I have summited five more hyakumeizan--Mounts Nasu, Bandai, Ibuki, Omine, and Odaigahara--bringing my total climbs to 11. (And I'll be climbing number twelve by the time you read this blog.)

Technically, I didn't actually climb Mount Omine, since apparently the world will end if women cross the Great Seal at the base of the mountain--but I took my photo at the highest marker I was allowed to reach, and since that marker lies at the base of the mountain, I'm proud to say I reached the summit in record time.

(Non) Summit Photo, Mount Omine

On Ibuki, I learned that climbing mountains in the rain is a horrible idea--and that hiking through abandoned ski resorts has all the makings of an excellent horror film.

I see no way this could possibly go wrong.

On Bandai-san, I discovered something that moves even slower than I do on the trail (though not by much).

The only other hiker I outpaced on the way to the summit.

I also acquired a new, and louder, bear bell (the third bell on my pack, in case you're counting), so I can jingle up a storm with all the Japanese hikers on the mountain trails.

Chausu-dake, the active volcanic cone on Mount Nasu, taught me that volcanic gases are so nice, you smell them twice: the first time when you hike up the mountain, and the second time about twelve hours later, when you use the bathroom at your hotel.

Yay! A live volcano! (And yes, I hiked all the way to the top)

Fun fact: it smells exactly the same coming out as it did going in. (Which, I'm well aware, is more information than you needed, but now you know--and knowing is half the battle.)

Omine taught me that if you don't let women on the mountain, they'll have time to hike a beautiful gorge,

The cataracts at Mitarai Gorge

ride a monorail, visit limestone caves,

Breathtaking limestone formations in Dorogawa

cross giant suspension bridges,

One of at least half a dozen I crossed while hiking Mitarai Gorge. They wobble quite reassuringly underfoot.

and clock a 29,000 step hiking day--all the while having far more fun than the men standing naked under waterfalls on the mountain.

Respectfully submitted in place of the missing photo of naked priests beneath a waterfall.

In other words: NEENER. (Despite the law degree--or perhaps because of it--maturity has never been my strong suit.)

And Odaigahara taught me to recognize poop.

Actual sign on the summit plateau, Mount Odaigahara.

Because Japan.

(It also showed me some breathtaking vistas, which probably is more in tune with what you'd like to see - so I'll drop a photograph of that instead of something more scatalogically-oriented.)

The view from Daijagura, an outcropping on Mount Odaigahara.

Today I traveled to Nagano Prefecture, in preparation for tomorrow's planned ascent of Kurumadake. I visited an ancient shrine, watched the sun set over a gorgeous lake, and drank dragon spit--as you do, when the opportunity presents itself.

Sacred dragon drool for the win. Delicious!

As you can tell, there's plenty to snark about on this adventure--as well as enough to marvel at, admire, and learn from that it's likely to take a lifetime to fully process. One thing is already clear, however--the choice to pursue my dreams today, instead of waiting for a "someday" that might never come was the right decision for me, and it's the right decision for you as well. Whatever it is you're burning to do, find a way to do it now.

The mighty (and sacred) Tenkawa River, Mitarai Gorge, Nara Prefecture

And don't forget to let the snarks out for some exercise along the way. Traveling is much more fun with their running commentary by your side.