What Pegman Saw – The Spirit of Christmas

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is North Pole, Alaska. My story is inspired by the prompt, and is not about North Pole!

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WPS – The Spirit of Christmas

The smell of barbecued meat mingling with the sweet spiciness of mulled wine teased Maureen’s nostrils. Snow smothered mountains loomed above the streets of Sion, which thronged with people. Ancients, weather-beaten like the trees on the mountain, greeted teenage students. Locals in workaday clothes stood chatting in half a dozen different languages to visitors in furs.

People of many different nationalities have found a home in Sion, and there is a tradition at Christmas that each community prepares a Nativity scene. Visitors make pilgrimage through the town, following the “Chemin des Crèches”.

This year, Syrian migrants had been invited to contribute. Maureen stood reading the placard beside their offering. It reminded readers that the infant Jesus had himself been a refugee in Egypt.

Suddenly she laughed for joy, and spread her arms wide.

“Why, Christmas isn’t something from a tawdry Santa – it’s a world of brothers and sisters to love!”

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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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Carnival

I’ve been in Switzerland this weekend, staying with my daughter and her family. Unfortunately I haven’t found time to finish the story that I planned to post today – I’m sorry about that. However, we went into Sion this afternoon and saw the carnival. I’ve written a brief account that I hope you enjoy!wp_20170225_14_18_18_pro

The sousaphone player marched at the back of the band. He must have been as strong as an ox, because his was no ordinary sousaphone but a monster. It needed a full breath for every note. The tone blended with the boom of the big drum, providing a rhythmic, percussive bass for the ensemble. The bandsmen wore costumes so brightly coloured that a jester in motley would have been an austere figure beside them.

The Carnaval de Sion is an annual event, one of many carnivals in Valais that take place just before Lent. Its origins, though, predate the church’s calendar, having their roots deep in pagan beliefs. Thousands of people take part in the march, almost all in bizarre, and even sinister garb. If I tell you that a voodoo display was amongst the milder disguises you’ll get the idea. Tens of thousands come to watch, and, delightfully, many of the spectators come in costume too. The throb of the drums and the rhythmic music arouse a sense of magic, of possibility.

I sat in a café, drinking an Americano and watching. A monstrous pirate ship mounted on a lorry came down the street. Every so often, the pirates fired a cannon, filling the street with smoke, and, amid shrieks of laughter, showering bucketfuls of sparkling confetti over the crowd. The café where I had my vantage point was on a corner that the pirates needed to round, an operation that required them to strike their colours, lower the black sail, and take down the mast. Halfway through this one of them fired the cannon, earning scowls and suitably piratical curses from his colleagues.

One spectator, perhaps thirteen years old, was in a white dress like a bride. I watched as she ran around with a group of boys of similar age carrying light sabres. She seemed very familiar with all their games; if it weren’t for the dress you would have thought she was one of them. Two men in cowboy costumes, hand in hand, picked their way through the crowd.

The town square was filled with stalls, mostly selling food and drink, featuring such traditional Swiss fare as crepes, fajitas, pies and curry, with plenty of German beer to wash it down. A metre of beer cost forty Swiss francs, which seemed rather expensive. I gave it a miss this year; maybe I’ll try it next year.

I cut through back streets, and when I rejoined the route of the procession I found that I had overtaken the band. The sousaphone player was still at the back, still blowing one breath to every profound note, still synchronised perfectly with the man on the bass drum. The costumes no longer seemed outlandish. Like the carnival itself, like the spectators, they were just a representation of some of the colourful ways we can all be human. 

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