Kapodistrias – two nations and a pile of potatoes

As those who follow my blog probably know, I’m currently on holiday in Nauplio, which is in Greece. Nauplio was once the capital city of modern Greece, and Kapodistrias was one of the heroes of that time. There are statues to him, and a street and a hotel named after him. He built two nations by diplomacy and not by war. Wholly admirable, I think you’ll agree!

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Kapodistrias was born in Corfu, and educated in medicine and law. He initially practised as a physician. As a nobleman, he was invited to help govern a newly-formed federation of seven islands, which included Corfu, the Septinsular Republic.

There was strenuous opposition to the new Republic; vested interests were threatened. Kapodistrias won them over with his diplomatic skills, and his personal courage. He became Chief Minister of State, introducing a more liberal constitution, and invigorating the public sector, especially education.

The French took over the Septinsular Republic, and replaced the Senate. Kapodistrias eventually went to Russia and made a career in their diplomatic service. After four years he was sent as the unofficial Russian Ambassador to Switzerland. The Swiss Cantons were on the verge of civil war. Kapodistrias immersed himself in diplomacy, preparing draft constitutions, and negotiating with the Great Powers to guarantee Switzerland’s constitution and neutrality. In a very real way, he was the founder of modern Switzerland!

There was then a period when he served as joint Foreign Minister of Russia. He was repeatedly approached by groups promoting the cause of Greek independence, and he was forthright in his rejection of the idea. He repeatedly declined his support. When asked by the Tsar whether Russia should support the movement for Greek independence, he expressed support for the idea in theory, but advised against it in practical terms.

His hand was forced, though, when Prince Alexander Ypsilantis invaded Moldavia, with a view to provoking a revolt against the Ottomans throughout the Balkans. A contemporary account records that Kapodistrias was thunderstruck.

The revolution slowly succeeded in Greece, until they had a defensible territory. Despite his opposition to revolution, Kapodistrias was far and away the most illustrious Greek politician in Europe, and he was invited to become the first Governor of Greece. He was pessimistic about the chances of success, and said “Providence will decide, and it will be for the best.”

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The building with the domed roof was the original Parliament of the Greeks.

Nevertheless, he travelled to Nauplio, the first capital city of modern Greece, and threw himself into the task. He established a currency, used his international prestige to raise loans for the nation, reformed agriculture, established educational institutions, all the time working sixteen or seventeen hours a day every day. It was as though he knew that his time was limited.

And, sure enough, on October 9th 1831, as he went to church, two assassins attacked him. The first bullet missed, and struck the wall of the church where the hole can be seen to this day. The second shot put a bullet through his head, and the other killer thrust a dagger into his heart. The assassins? Greek ‘war heroes’, whose vested interests had been compromised. Kapodistrias had known throughout his life the dangers of these interests. Personally I believe he knew it was only a matter of time before he was murdered, and had been working to his very limit to try and establish the Greek state.

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The bullet hole in the wall of the Church of Saint Spirydon

And he succeeded. Greece stands, and is a part of the liberal European vision, which had always been Kapodistrias’s ideal.

Now, despite the astonishing achievement of founding two states that have survived to the present day, the murder of Kapodistrias feels rather downbeat as an ending for this post. I shall, instead, finish with a legend that exemplifies the way Kapodistrias worked.

He believed that the introduction of potatoes to Greece would raise the living standards of the poorest Greeks, and tried to hand them out to the local population. However, people were suspicious, and wouldn’t accept the potatoes. Kapodistrias then had the entire shipment unloaded onto the dock on public display, with soldiers guarding them. It wasn’t long before people started stealing the potatoes, with the guards turning a blind eye. Soon, the entire pile had been ‘stolen’ and the potato introduced into cultivation in Greece!

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Lunch in a storm

Greece in July is always hot and dry, right?

Think again.

We’ve just been lunching at the Καφέ Κεντρικών in Ναύπλιο, watching the rain lash down. The only place I have seen more intense rain was in Singapore, in the rainy season. In Singapore, it was at least warm. Here, I started to wish I’d brought a cardigan.

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The waiters are very good at dealing with the rain. We were sitting under large awnings, and there were canvas gutters between the awnings of each table. The rain ran down the awnings, along the gutters and poured down in cascades outside the covered area. We felt well protected from the elements.

Unfortunately, there is a slope on the beautiful, marble square. It leads towards the café. The square is large and collects rainwater rapidly. I was lunching with my feet in 5 millimetres of fast-flowing water. Although I wouldn’t choose to eat lunch like that every day, as a holiday treat it was rather special!

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This wasn’t even the first storm of the day. The first had been at about 2 a.m. Zeus was banging off lightning bolts in all directions, one of them seeming to strike the Old Citadel directly above us. We waited for a chunk of masonry to plunge through our roof. When it failed to materialise, we reckoned that perhaps we weren’t quite as well loved by the gods as we’d thought (for, those whom the gods love, die young). We would probably live to fight another day. We ignored the lightning, and went back to sleep.

In the late morning, we walked up over the hill past the Old Citadel. Zeus appeared to have spared that, too. There is a very picturesque path around the headland of the peninsular. We strolled along beside the sea, intoxicated by the sweet, spicy scent of pine trees and cactus fruit. The water was calm, the small waves making a chuckling noise as they broke in pools and chambers worn in the rocks by the eddies of a thousand years. All was calm.

Then we looked the few miles across the Gulf of Argos, and the clouds hinted at what was in store for us.

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Still, it’s bright now. The sun keeps pretending that it would like to shine, and objects once again have shadows. Perhaps a siesta would be good; it was a large lunch (I have never eaten four fried eggs at a single sitting before) with twice as much beer as we’d intended…

A small milestone

Thank you to all those people who are following my blog “Autumn Leaves”; you now number 101! I’m delighted!

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The photograph is the view from Nauplio across the Gulf of Argos. Normally at this time in the evening it’s a tranquil scene. Today, thunder has been rumbling intermittently, and the clouds and sun combined to make a stage set. Cue the entrance of Poseidon…

In the moment – beautiful tulips

How beautiful tulips are, and how diverse! The chaste elegance of pure white, the sombre glow of purple, the flamboyance of scarlet and yellow parrot tulips, all grace borders and vases. In our garden there are some crimson and white blooms that are almost heartbreakingly lovely.

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And they seem to last so well, even as cut flowers. I’m sure they last longer than they used to in my childhood. Human actions have modified tulips dramatically. It’s an intriguing thought that this has been done largely for aesthetic reasons. We have changed the world to indulge our passion for beautiful things.

While we’re thinking about our impact on the world, we could also consider what we eat. Although most of my food is locally sourced, today I will also eat food from Morocco, Kenya and – where do bananas come from anyway?! The greater variety of food means that it is easier to prepare tasty, nutritious meals; but it comes at an environmental cost because the food is transported further.

It’s good to eat tasty, nourishing food. It’s good to plan a garden, to work to achieve harmony of colour and form and scent. It’s good to enjoy the results of that effort.

There is, though, a way that we can enrich our lives and, at the same time, lighten our environmental footprint. We can explore locally sourced food; appreciate seasonal variation in availability. We can be aware, too, of the beauty that is around us all the time, without effort on our part. Bluebells in a wood under the bright new leaves of the trees. Brave scarlet poppies flourishing on a building site for a few short days. The tiny flowers of toadflax clinging tenaciously to dry stone walls.

If we live in the moment, we will see beauty everywhere, perhaps in the sunset, or a cloudscape, or the harmony of a building’s proportions, or in the face of someone dear to us.

Let’s be awake to our surroundings, and open to the possibility of beauty wherever we are!

In the moment – the power of a symbol

Sufferers from anxiety know that the condition can be debilitating. I was in that state some years ago; thankfully I’ve now recovered. In the recovery, I learned a number of mental habits that help me to avoid recurrences; living ‘in the moment’ is one of them; hypnosis for relaxation is another. I recently came across another influence, namely the power of symbols.

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I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan. I’ll start this post by confirming what a wonderful holiday it was. It was full of interest, full of beauty, full of emotion. My wife Daphne and I really enjoyed it.

It was a big, important holiday; we cashed in savings to be able to afford it. I was looking forward to it eagerly – but I was also apprehensive, because I am prone to anxiety attacks. They are sometimes very unpleasant, and they’re triggered by stress…

Travel – especially long haul flights – can be stressful. A different culture – and Japanese culture is pretty different from European culture! – can be stressful. Visiting a place where you don’t understand the language can be stressful – and although English is taught to all children in Japan, it’s not widely spoken, and only the most important signs are in English as well as Japanese.

And yet I have returned feeling tranquil, and the feeling has endured. This was sufficiently unexpected that I have tried hard to understand it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any definite conclusions, but here are some of the thoughts.

Before going to Japan, I recognised that I might suffer from anxiety, and I accepted the possibility. I find that acceptance is a big deal. It goes at least halfway towards dealing with anxiety symptoms. I must make a very clear distinction at this point. To accept the possibility that something might happen, is definitely not the same as expecting it to happen. It’s the exact opposite of worrying about something. It’s realising that something may happen, and saying “Yes, I understand that, I accept the possibility. I don’t have to worry about it.”

So I considered in advance what might happen.

The anxiety would be very unpleasant. Could I get through an attack without going home? Yes. Could I get through two attacks without going home? Er, yes, probably. What about repeated attacks? It would spoil the holiday but I’d survive.

What about a worst-case scenario? The worst case would be that I would have repeated anxiety attacks that would leave me feeling so vulnerable that we would have to return home before the end of the tour. It would be a great shame to lose the holiday. It would cost a lot of extra money to change flights for an early return.

I consciously accepted that this could happen, and used my usual hypnotic relaxation regime to put aside any worrying about it.

I’m sure it helped. But I’m equally sure that it’s not the whole story.

Could the tranquillity have arisen as a result of having succeeded in surviving the stress of the holiday? I took on the challenge of a visit that in prospect I found quite intimidating, and came through it unscathed. Was I just feeling relief?

Well, I suppose it’s possible. But the tranquillity seems such an active feeling. I’m a slightly different woman from the one who set off to Japan. I would have expected relief to be a reactive feeling, and to dissipate quickly.

One of the features of the holiday was that we visited some important Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path, and includes a recognition that human suffering is unavoidable. It also teaches, among many other things, that true happiness can be attained despite human suffering, by relinquishing useless craving and by living in the moment. Surrounded as we were by pilgrims, it seems possible that some of their piety ‘rubbed off’ on me, so to speak.

Beyond any of these possible explanations, though, my emotions tell me that the answer may lie in the symbol of cherry blossom. It was the ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’ that we took, and there were several occasions when the symbolism of the blossom overwhelmed me emotionally. The blossom is beautiful – and transient. But the symbolism goes far beyond the recurrence of beauty in the world despite personal tragedy. I can’t explain it; I had to experience it.

I suspect that Japan has given me a most valuable gift. I’m so glad we took the holiday!

Fiction is back!

 

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Well, that was a wonderful holiday in Japan, and I feel refreshed as well as enriched. But now it’s time to recommence writing fiction, and maybe the occasional poem. I’m planning to follow the same posting schedule as previously, that is to say a piece of original fiction on Saturday afternoon, a short item on ‘Living in the moment’ on Tuesday, and, if something has caught my fancy during the week, a guest item on Thursday.

There will be a short story posted this afternoon!

I’ve been toying with the idea of serialising the first novel I completed; if anybody would be interested in that, I’d be delighted to hear from you via the comments function. Likewise if there’s anything literary that you might enjoy reading on this blog, it would be great to know!

There’s something about Japan…

Why did I visit Japan?

I expected to enjoy the food and the scenery; I anticipated seeing cutting-edge technology; I already knew from working with them that I liked Japanese people. The country seemed slightly exotic without being intimidating. A tour of Japan felt like a suitably ‘special’ holiday to mark my retirement, especially as we chose the cherry blossom tour which takes place around the time of our wedding anniversary.

Many Japanese celebrate cherry blossom season with a hanami party, which is a picnic under the cherry trees. On day two of the tour, our group was going to enjoy its very own hanami party! Unfortunately, the weather was poor, cold and wet, and we picnicked in the rain. Our tour guide had prepared copies of a traditional Japanese cherry blossom song for us to sing, and provided a recorded accompaniment. We sang it. It all felt a little silly.

Until the next day.

We took a boat trip on the Sumida River, and there, in the background, was the cherry blossom song, ‘Sakura, Sakura’, we had sung the day before. Suddenly, the symbolism of cherry blossom made perfect emotional sense. I don’t think I can explain it; it’s something you need to experience before you can even begin to understand it. It goes way beyond the obvious reading of the transience of beauty.

Then, a few days later, Mount Fuji. What is it about that peak that makes it so potent? I’m not Japanese; it’s not a national icon of mine; and yet seeing it evoked a sense of awe in me. And it wasn’t just my response. We were travelling by bus, and the whole busload of us  gasped (and I really mean that – you could hear the sharp intake of breath) as we first saw the mountain.

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In the afternoon, I walked a short way along the ancient Tokkaido highway, which is planted on either side with 400-year-old cedars. There was one especially majestic tree. I stopped and rested my hand against its trunk. Abruptly I felt…disrespectful. I felt as though it would have been more appropriate to have bowed to the tree.

The next day we saw the Miyako Odori. I have rarely watched a performance of such intensity. I understand some of the theatrical devices that made it so powerful, but there’s more to it than that. Once again, it leads back to cherry blossom, the exquisite beauty of the world that humans are privileged to share for a short period.

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This holiday has changed me. A small part of that change is that I feel more tranquil. I haven’t changed my religious belief; I’m certainly not a Shintoist, or an animist; but I’ve experienced emotional responses that go beyond my ability to understand or describe them more than superficially. I’m glad of those experiences; I’m the richer for them.

It was a good holiday. Thank you, Japan!