Predictably, life with a newborn has reduced my schedule to rubble, hence the lack of any recent action here. In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures of the amazing cloud scapes that we’re privileged to witness here in the Mani on a daily basis.
The picture above is the start of the crazy storm I wrote about last month. Enjoy!!
Earlier this year, in New York, whilst on a short stroll in the uber chic Meat Packing district, I witnessed a textbook example of what can go wrong when pets are used as a surrogate for human offspring. Alongside me a middle-aged super-glam Sex In The City type was holding an extremely pampered dog, whose cute little manicured feet had probably never touched a sidewalk. Behind her she was pulling what I could only describe as a designer doggy go-kart. Inside the little mutt-mobile were two more powdered pooches, enjoying every minute of their luxury ride. In effect the dogs seemed to be taking herout for a walk.
I was reminded of this peculiar man/beast relationship whilst out for an afternoon stroll a couple of days ago. I’m back in the Mani, and the peace of the countryside is like a warm welcoming blanket after the hectic, humid, hum of Athens. In the villages, it’s not uncommon for householders to own a few ‘pets’. But these animals, have a very different relationship with their owners and environments than any city dwelling beasts I’ve come across.
For a start, because of the balmy climate, it’s rare for dogs or cats to be kept inside the house. Apart from the crazy ones, most of the village mutts in Mani have no need for leads, fences or other urbane restrictions. They are free to roam the streets and fields, popping in on their neighbours occasionally to sniff a bum or exchange gossip. Their human guardians are not so much ‘caring parents’, rather, ‘landlords’ who happen to provide free food as well as lodging.
Cats in Greece have even more liberties. Unlike much of the Western world, who enjoy posting pics of cute anthropomorphised moggies all over the internet, the feline of the species occupies an arguably more healthy place in the affections of Greeks. Most of the cats here are strays. But unlike your typical image of a sad, scrawny, mange-ridden creature, these strays tend to be proud, feisty, well groomed and often surprisingly fat. Stray dogs are also a common sight. At the hospital in Kalamata, several large mongrels proudly patrol the grounds like they own the place.
So in a country where resources are stretched, to say the least, you would think that there would be little love or tolerance for these four-legged waifs. On they contrary. Many Greeks seem to love cats and dogs, but not in a share-my-bed, slobber-over-my-face kind of way. Most of the strays hang around because humans actively like to feed them. Spend time at virtually any taverna or restaurant and you’ll be courted by armies of cute kittens and their parents. Tourists try to pick them up like they’re house pets, but these creatures have only one thing on their minds, your dinner. Rather than try to exterminate the cute scavengers, the proprietors tolerate them and feed them scraps from the kitchen. Likewise with the hospital dogs. They only hang around because some folk actually take the time to regularly leave food out.
In Mani, we have our own West Side Story-like gang of vagabond cats. After meals we often take our leftovers across the road, where the furry fellows hang out. But they certainly don’t depend on our good will in order to survive. If we didn’t feed them, they’d end up chasing mice, snakes or maybe a bird or two. These semi-wild creatures have a respect for us humans as we’re seen as part of their food supply chain. But that’s where the relationship ends. Maybe I’m falling into the trap of assigning human qualities to these animals again, but just as people of the Mani have a reputation for being tough, the cats and dogs here seem to have a similar steely disposition too.
After several blissful and uneventful days in the Kalamata Hilton, chaos has decided to pay us a visit. At the judgement of our paediatrician, our baby had to be rushed in an ambulance to a paediatric ward in Athens, a 4 hour drive away. Shortly after arriving, the little man was given the all clear, but now we are 300 km from where we planned to be, in an unfamiliar part of the city, with lots of logistical issues to deal with.
The most important thing is that our baby is now in full health, the doctor says he has a very strong heart and a loud cry – I can testify to that. But he must stay in the ward so they can run all their test and procedures. So that means making daily cross-city expeditions for breast-feeding visits and a vital supply of daily hugs.
The trip across town proves to be an eye opening insight into a seedier part of life in Athens. The old general hospital is in the down-at-heel west-side of town near the port of Piraeus. Many immigrants have flocked and settled to this ex-industrial suburb. A small patch of brown-field a couple of blocks from the hospital is home to a handful of Soweto-style shanty buildings, constructed out of scrap wood, metal and anything else vaguely suitable for building a shelter. Not exactly a part of Greece that the tourist board wants on show.
The hospital too, reflects the relative poverty of the area. Quite unlike our modern facility in Kalamata, this place is a huge, decrepit, labyrinthine building. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of corridors, some of which are reminiscent of a Victorian asylum. Although clean and well maintained, tramps have taken up residence in this air conditioned haven, trying to escape the 35 degree heat. Patients sit outside with their drips attached, chain smoking, whilst inside, visitors group together to smoke by the lifts. To add to the ambience, the staff here are (understandably) more brusque and to the point. Needless to say it’s an altogether quite uninspiring place.
The neonatal unit comes as a shock too. This fourth floor ward is cramped and stuffed back to back with incubators. Newborns and tiny premature babies lie in their clear plastic safe houses, various tubes going in and out. Bright lights, gas and fluids are pumped into and around the little ones, sustaining their frail lives. In the non-intensive care section, an orphan infant, no more than 6 months old lies in her cot, writhing around silently.
But after a few days, amidst the sickness and desperation, I start to sense some hope and positivity. Mothers with tiny premature new-borns are able to breast feed for the first time. Grand-parents peer through the glass at babies who wouldn’t have survived in their era. This may not be the most glamorous of locations, but miracles are happening every day here.