Thursday, April 28, 2016

About Eleftheria #2 (in living color!)

Sitting here amid the ruins of ancient Sparti, I have  Eleftheria (Liberty) on my mind. That's Eleftheria #2, whom I just left behind in Koroni, Messinias. ‎ She's one of 3 cousins of that same name and generation whose Yiayia was Eleftheria Kapiniari, mother of my Yiayia Evghenia Sarris. 
I have known Koroni ‎Eleftheria since 1962,‎ when I first visited Greece with my Aunt Libby Sarris, aka Eleftheria #1. #2 was a slight young woman not too much older than me and raised by her aunt Panayiota, who could not ‎bear children. She subsequently married Vassilis Sayiakos and had 3 kids of her own. (Eleftheria #3 lives in Athens...)
Later visits‎ revealed a kind woman with a wry sense of humor and an unusual flair for color. My brother Bill remembers a house crawling with painted flower pots large and small. When I visited 4 years ago, I was taken aback and charmed by Eleftheria's unusual creativity. She gave me a commercially-printed postcard that featured her colorful housefront.‎
And when I went back to her house last Sunday, I was simply amazed and dazzled by a current output that now includes gourds and rocks of all sizes --  and takes up every available inch of her courtyard.‎ A phalanx of large cans housing plants that stands guard outside is painted bright purple! 
"What's happening here?" I joked. "'I've lost my mind,' she joked back, while stepping around a bunch of paint cans in the middle of the floor.  ‎"I like doing this, it's very relaxing." I couldn't help admiring her efforts outloud and repeatedly. She promised me a gift. 
The next day, she proudly presented me with a freshly-decorated rock signed per my request, a new concept it seemed...For my part, I had taken a leap of faith and bought her some art supplies‎ from the local stationary store. I suggested that she could perfect designs on paper first and then paint rocks and gourds to sell. She said she had thought of that...Inspired, I promised to send her a book about Grandma Moses -- who late in life painted in a simple, folksy style. Who knows what might come of all this?
That's the story of Eleftheria #2, for now. I should also mention that her husband died last year. So here's a talented woman who LOVES bright color‎s, but is now consigned to wearing black for the rest of her life. What is wrong with this picture?‎
NOTE: While in Koroni, I met her grandchild Eleftheria -- the only relative carrying that name in the current generation. I'm hoping that some day one of my nephews or nieces decides to name a daughter Eleftheria. Is there a cooler name than Liberty‎?
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

To roast, or not to roast a lamb on Easter!

On my way from Koroni to Kalamata, and overhearing a conversation between 3 elderly gentlemen -- will they roast a lamb at home on Sunday for Easter? 
One reports that he has heard that "a lot of dust will come from Africa over the weekend" -- not uncommon here in Greece, and clearly more relevant here in the Peloponessos.‎ And definitely not conducive to outdoor cooking that takes many hours turning a spit by hand, though many people have barbques with spits turned by DEH (the electric company). Why not just take a piece of lamb to one of the village fournos (bakeries)?
Another laments the guest list issue. His son won't come to the village. And his son-in-law has nixed a visit -- going to his side of the family (or just doesn't have the money to bring the family from Athens)? Yeah, pipes up Traveler #3: You need to have at least 10 people to justify roasting a lamb these days.

So consensus seems to have formed around using the local forno for a specific, needed quantity... or, perhaps, visiting a neighbor who has roasted a lamb :)

And there you have it!‎
NOTE: Am now wondering if and where I will eat lamb myself Sunday in Kyparissi. And, more importantly, magheiritsa. Should I worry?
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Friday, April 22, 2016

Can someone answer my question?

Traveling now by bus from Thessaloniki to Athens and parts south for Easter. Unfortunately most of the first kilometers were marred by a National Highway‎ lined with tall trees both sides. Bad idea!

Suddenly, we came face-to-face with Mt. Olympus -- a ‎place that looms larger than life in my own history...From the time when those glorious peaks were my view every day from the window of my small house at the Girls School. To the time when my one and only try at climbing her was thwarted near the top by a General Mobilization vs. Turkey in July, 1974. News (accompanied by marshall music) from a transistor radio made us turn tail and literally run down the mountain. My feet in cheap work boots were totally killing me. And in Litohoro, Yiayias swathed in black were crying and carrying on as their grandsons boarded buses to report for duty. Mind-boggling.

But I digress, and have turned my attention away from a window full of mezmorIzing scenes: charming villages, a rolling patchwork of farm fields/orchards, soldier-straight cypress trees, beckoning hills, half-hidden streams and a smorgasbord of animal vignettes. Now and again I see water and islands and am ashamed to say I'm not sure where we are... 

Never mind. In my eyes it's all one: ELLADHA, the most beautiful place on earth.

And, of course, hearty olive trees everywhere -- the olives often going to a local oil press, where they keep some of the oil as payment. Families with 50 -100 trees can usually get at least a year's worth -- and believe me, they put olive oil in/on everything! -- plus some to sell to neighbors. But such sales are down. Most people can't afford to buy a large can anymore and rely on "olive oil" bought in smaller amounts from the supermarket: a very serious sign of the times. 

Commercial buildings also dot the landscape from John Deere tractor dealers to Macaronia Misko makers. Manufacturing has largely disappeared, and there are too many abandoned buildings and homes that were never finished -- depressing memorials to family dreams that came true for awhile with Greece's entry in the Common Market...and were then buried with nary a eulogy in the years following the 2008 Crash. Was that a normal economic consequence or was it manslaughter?

Seriously: ‎Why, when everywhere‎ you turn here in Greece there are amazing things that so many people spend good money to come see and experience. Why, do over 1/2 Greeks try to live on 600 Euros a month or less and so many kids go to school hungry? Greece is treasure trove of unparalled beauty and important history, yet Greeks can't get by!

Why?

(Don't talk to me about financial missteps, crooked politicians, bad loans, back taxes, etc. Why is the suffering of the Greek people even acceptable in 2016?) 
 
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Friday, April 15, 2016

LIVE from Thessaloniki: Dances of Thrace!

Well, not exactly live, no WiFi there...But a few hours ago, I attended the 34th ‎Festival of Traditional Dances & Music at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Student Center. It's a week-long event, with a different area featured each night -- tonight dances from Thrace (the farthest NE area of Greece, part of which is now within the borders of modern Turkey and once home to many Greeks who became refugees when booted from there during the infamous 1920-22 Exchange of Populations). 

My grandfather's mother came to Greece from Skopo w/4 kids in 1920, her husband Efstathios having been killed by the Turks. Seems like Papou Xanthoulis Xanthopoulos left first around 1915, during what is known as "The Armenian Genocide" (not limited to Armenians). He went to Naousa and married my Yiayia Pareskevoula in 1916 -- and the rest is history. 

Here are some photos from the performance by the Eastern Thrace dance troupe from Lakoma Halkidhikis...note the women upper right, one Yiayia was at least 80 years-old. Opa!‎

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

When Greeks went to Germany...and some stayed.

You might be wondering what kind of lives those AFS Girls School grads have lived. Most have worked very hard to raise families in better economic times and are now stretched to help raise grand kids. Jobs have run the gamut...and many of those women now live in Thessaloniki and still work very hard -- so, no, not everyone got those early pensions!

When I was at the school in 1968-78, many students were being brought up by Yiayia because parents were in Germany or Sweden working in factories to save and get ahead -- good economically at the end of the day, but difficult for their kids meanwhile. Germany wanted Greek workers until they didn't, not unlike the fate of Mexicans in California. Greeks mostly wanted to be in Greece, and many returned at some point.  There are many songs lamenting life in a foreign land.  But there are many Greeks who went and stayed, like our friend Rosa '69 (from a previous post).

And then there is Soula '76. After a difficult marriage in Athens fell apart, she moved to Thessaloniki with her 2 small boys even though she had been doing very well sewing for a designer boutique. Why did she leave for Germany in 1990? She couldn't make do here: "I was hungry"  (literally and figuratively). She left an extended family that included 3 priests. Her sister Anna went with her.

Soula front and center!
Soula arrived in Germany on a Sunday and got a job on Wednesday, working for a small business that altered clothes. When the proprietor died 14 years later, she took over the shop now run with one employee. She is her own boss and makes a good living, which is why she could afford to come to the Girls School reunion from Essen laden with SMILE paraphernalia reminiscent of the slogan/awards that underpinned our school dormitory ethic and good times. Soula also brought her iPad and became our official reporter! 

She loves living in Germany primarily because her boys are also ensconced there. Her one grandson goes to "Greek School" (just like I did in Stockton, California once-upon-a-time) and plays soccer for a team called "Thessaloniki."  AND she admires the German people for following the rules and being disciplined.  Soula came to Greece for 10 days with a long to-do list and in whirling dervish mode. She is very organized on many levels.

We had lunch up in a Thessaloniki neighborhood where her recently deceased 96-year-old Uncle Archimandritis Gavril had lived. She sat in his same chair at the same restaurant he always ate lunch at and greeted a number of local vendors/friends along the way  -- showing a kind of sentimentality that I can relate to. No stone was left unturned.

Soula clearly loves her homeland. But like I said, she is very organized...and says that she will be buried one day in Germany.

(Wanna bet?)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Build it and they will come!

It's no secret that I have been appalled and tortured by the toxic socio-economic situation in Greece. And not much has changed as people here await a new round of "austerity measures" and are further undone by the ongoing refugee crisis. Nevertheless, Greeks who have very little have been giving the shirts off their backs to people who have nothing...What could I possibly do to help my friends without winning the Florida Lottery? 

Well, there was something that emerged while I in Greece last summer -- when I visited with far more AFS Girls School Dept. grads than I thought possible, 50 in total. I was overwhelmed by the reception I received, and, more importantly, the joy those women had getting information about their classmates. Pure joy has become a rather rare commodity here.

In Miami, I continued to research the whereabouts of 205 grads (circa 1967-78) with the help of networking classmates and Facebook -- finding 50 more, including one in my own back yard (Naples, Florida). Arriving back in Greece on Valentine's Day, I wondered whether "the girls" would come to a grand reunion of all classes. The Girls School -- a 2-year program -- had closed in 1978, and many of those students had not seen each other in over 40 years! 

The date was set for Saturday, April 2nd. A restaurant was found to (optimistically) accommodate 100 -135 people. And thus began a seemingly endless round of telephone calls to invite/confirm women whose contact info I had and to ask them to find others either from their villages or nearby towns. Three grads were found by virtue of a card I picked up at a wine exhibit. One was found in Larisa because the son of another was taking bouzouki lessons from her husband. Some classmates live within walking distance of each other here in Thessaloniki and didn't know it. My notebook was a jumble of scribbles and my mind numb. By now I had found about 80% of the living Girls School grads. They were all invited. 

And 120 of them came. Most are now grandmothers, but in my eyes have barely changed at all. Soula K. '75 came from Essen, Germany. Four others came from Athens and the islands of Corfu and Halkidha. Two came from Larisa. Many grads came from the Katerini, Veria/Naousa, Pella, Chakidhiki, Kilkis, Serres, and Kavala areas. Eleni P. '70' -- who I did not expect to see -- was driven to Thessaloniki by her beaming son.  Aphrodhiti K. '70 brought me some aromatic flowers from her garden outside of Katerini. Despina V. '69 brought  me a religious book with a notation that I need to pay attention to. There were other gifts from those women, but none so precious as the looks in their eyes and the hoopla that ensued when they were reunited with classmates! 



We all reveled in the memories of a special time at the school so many years ago, one woman posting on Facebook: "Today we were all teenagers again." Each grad received a class list with updated contact info so that they can now call each other, meet for coffee, have class get-togethers, and help each other when needed. The beautiful heartfelt bond we have in common had never died

Then the big reveal! The Girls School property had been sold to a non-profit elementary/nursery school whose students had been housed there in 1978 after an earthquake destroyed their buildings in downtown Thessaloniki. Most of our girls have never been back. I had dropped by to check out what was happening and with the somewhat far-fetched request for them to let us come in full-force for a picnic some Sunday. That request turned into an invitation to not only have our picnic, but for them to welcome us with open arms -- on Sunday, October 2nd!

So there you have it: A thriving network of Girls School graduates and friends reunited in 2016  -- with much joy, goodwill and energy to build on. Build it, and they will come!


(Published in The Greek American Herald, April 2016)