Thursday, December 19, 2013

St. Basil the Great was amazing, and lucky, too!

Surely St. Basil's parishioners remember when the relic of St. Basil was brought to the church by Father Luke and blessed by the bishop. I was very lucky to be in town. St. Basil the Great was an amazing person whose many achievements/qualities included serving the poor and underprivileged, after having been born into wealthy family -- an important example for all.

Many parishioners also probably know that the church was named for St. Basil by lottery on December 7, 1930 (presided over by the bishop of that time). Stockton area Greeks bought tickets for $5 and wrote the name of the saint they favored right on the ticket. The winners were Stamatia and Emmanuel Xenakis...and St. Basil, of course.

But have you actually seen winning ticket #447? While in Stockton rummaging wherever I could for historical information about my family, Eleni directed me to photo albums in the church's Fireside Room by saying, "There are more in the cardboard box on the floor." Voila!

One of those albums has the winning ticket, plus a few other historical documents relating to the consecration of the new church. A letter gives witness to the fact that my Papou George Sarris was one of the founding Board members.  Rows of little slips of papers for each family included the names of current family members and those deceased -- much like the slips turned in today for special prayers by the person who baked the andithoron.  My best guess is that each family turned one in for blessings when the church was consecrated in 1932.  In any case, each slip contains important historical information.

There is a lot of information in those albums -- one with community obituaries, some with Festival pictures/articles, and others carefully organized/donated by parishioners who wanted to memorialize some Church milestone or other activities as the church was the gathering place for all things Greek. Others are just waiting for someone to come along and reorganize them, to create that comprehensive history of St. Basil's and the Stockton area Greek-American Community.  Will that be you in 2014? KALI HRONIA!

Church music to my ears...

I recently came across a dog-eared, mimeographed (yes, I said mimeographed!) copy of the "Troparion Kassianis," a hymn sung during Holy Week and my mom's favorite. Many notes have been darkened with a pen, and there are some handwritten directives.  Some might remember the Good Tuesday duo of Angeline Xanttopoulos and Dorothy (Trachiotis) Henning.  Mom was a stalwart of many services at St. Basil's, often playing the organ and singing at the same time. When she died, the monies contributed to the Memorial Fund in her name were used for an icon that graces the choir loft today.

Long ago, there were a few Friday nights during Holy Week when my mother and I were the only ones up in the choir loft on Stanislaus Street.  There were other special hymns, like "Soma Christou" (my personal favorite).  And for the Christmas season, the various "kalanda" with wishes for KALI HRONIA. Those tunes are indelible, and I continue to sing along from my pew whenever I attend services in Stockton or anywhere else -- much like you probably do.

The family tradition of singing during St. Basil's Church services goes back to my Yiayia Sarris, who, having not been allowed to join the convent in her village of Koroni, continued her religious ways in Stockton. She often filled the role of "psalty" (cantor) at St. Basil's in the early days...and later sang along from her pew.

Perhaps this is why I have been especially touched in recent times to hear Demetria Veziris chant during services. Her sweet renditions of prayers and hymns remind me of my Yiayia.  And there are not that many women cantors. So I am thankful each and every time I am able to hear her. But I can't be in Stockton often enough...anyone have a recording they can send me?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yiassou, Yanni!

Had to let you know that I attended a 2-hour concert last night by Yanni and his orchestra in Miami -- and even though there wasn't much Greek about it per se, I felt supremely proud of this whirling dervish from Kalamata.

Yiannis Chrysomallis was never much of a slouch.  He was a champion 14-year-old swimmer before leaving Greece to major in psychology at the University of Minnesota.  He then devoted himself to music with about 300 songs and 19 recordings to-date.  His "Yanni in Concert: Live at the Acropolis" has been viewed one way or another by 1/2 billion people worldwide via Public Television. And while his amplified music is called New Age with a keyboard and synthesizers, the other 13 orchestra members + 2 sopranos from places far and near  -- especially on violin (Armenia/USA) and harp (Paraguay) -- were totally amazing virtuosi. They are a happy bunch totally respectful of one another.

Yianni in Miami 12-7-13
That's a reflection of the man himself  -- who doesn't back away from comments about love, acceptance, and tolerance wherever he happens to be in concert.  Yanni's music sounds positive and his shows are full of energy and optimism. That's why I got a ticket in the second row, so I could take that in.  He has many very devoted fans -- and when someone yelled out that his sister had seen him 30 times, Yanni beckoned her stage-side and gave her a kiss. Yiassou, Yanni! (Or is it Yianni?)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On remembering our Vets and visiting cemeteries more often...

Yesterday we observed Veteran's Day. Many visited cemeteries around the world -- Normandy, Arlington, and Stockton Rural Cemetery, too -- where little American flags were planted to remember and honor those who served our country.  Some died in that service and never made it home.

Some of our Greek fore- fathers served even before becoming citizens. George Sarris was a young man who came to America in 1910 from Kyparissi, Lakonias. He was living in Crockett, CA, when he enlisted in 1918 for World War II and spent his army time at Ft. Kearny, CA. His discharge papers noted: "Character: Excellent" and "Horsemanship: Not mounted" (which doesn't quite explain the photograph). Papou Sarris married my grandmother Evghenia a few years later, and they moved to Stockton. The flag that decorated his coffin in 1964 was presented to The American Farm School at Thanksgiving in 1968 during my first year there.

Steve Xanttopoulos was 9 years-old when he came to San Francisco in 1929 from Naoussa, Imathias. He moved with his family to Stockton not long after, got married to his sweetheart Angeline, and worked hard before being drafted. He served as a "Buck Sergeant" (his own words) in the Pacific -- including parts of the Philippines now devastated by Typhoon Haiyan and where he earned the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with Bronze Star -- and somehow managed to learn to play golf on the side. Much later he was invited on a special trip that his friend Alex Spanos organized for Stockton Greek-American vets to visit the new WWII Memorial in Washington, DC.

Each family of Stockton area Greek-Americans has it's own history/ memories of service in the World Wars or later in faraway Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. We honor their service by remembering their sacrifices -- and can only imagine what it was like to serve in those trying times so far from home.  

We should visit our cemeteries more often. Stockton Rural Cemetery is not just the keeper of bones. The history of local Greek-Americans is right there, if we just bother to look for it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Remember Greeks in Greece at Holiday time!

The Holiday Season lets us consider what we can do to help others, instead of falling for the crazy commercialism swirling around us. I am "downsizing" to move into a smaller place and constantly wondering, "Why do I have this (fill in the blank)?"

St. Basil's Church supports both it's own parish family and wonderful outside programs like the One Warm Coat Foundation, the local Emergency Food Bank, and the Salvation Army's Angel Tree. That is so cool. When I was a kid we didn't have that kind of focus -- which goes to show how the Greek-American Community  has not only grown, but has real impact beyond gyro sandwiches and yalaktoboureko. There is great pride both in being Greek and being part of the larger community. Opa!

But have we forgotten someone? How about the Greeks in Greece?

Have we followed the bitter facts of their situation beyond news of bail-outs/no bailouts or corruption in Greek politics? Things may seem a bit stabilized on an international level, but too many Greeks are jobless (27%) and no longer have access to healthcare, depending on underground clinics or other emergency resources. Senior citizens are going without their medications (or begging for money in the streets, true story). Who is at fault? Certainly not the growing number of children who are going to school hungry.  Seriously...these are real people we are talking about!

And some of those people are our relatives. Do we know how they are doing?  Have we sent them something they might need, even a cash gift to lift them up?  Or have we joined the smug chorus of critics that casts blame and heaps ridicule on people who have no control over the situation?

Many Greek-Americans nationally are helping (see: Project Hope for Greece). Now the Holidays provide a great opportunity to do our part to help Greeks in Greece.  If we can't be proud of Greece fulltime through thick and thin, then what exactly is the point of Greek pride? Just sayin'...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Palace Candy Store & Fountain/Restaurant

It's hard to document details of life for Stockton Greek-Americans early/mid 20th Century without pictures of buildings inside and out as well as of people.  My September Stockton stay included pestering friends/relatives for old photos.  Thanks to everyone who helped! 

Courtesy of The Haggin Museum
Good information tracing family movement through the years is available in old City Directories found at the public library.  But when you get a lead on an old family address, that home or business may simply no longer exist -- like the Palace Candy Store & Fountain/  Restaurant, which was located at 216 Main Street a few doors down from what became the Fox (now the Bob Hope) Theater. My Papou George Sarris was the cook, with candy-making duties.  Think See's Candies of Stockton...

Jane & Kathy w/Aunt Libby
The Palace was owned by Bill and Sophia Demakopoulos (my Papou's sister).  They had 5 children -- Evelyn, Jimmy, Demie, Nick and Georgia -- and last lived at 320 W.  Poplar before moving to Santa Cruz.  The children also eventually moved away except for Dr. Nick Demas, who married Lilla ("Ginger" from Georgia). They had 2 daughters, Kathy and Jane.  Kathy got the call; did she have any photos of the Palace? She had one, with  her Papou and uncle Demie standing outside. The sign in the window says, "A complete dinner 50 cents."

Demie & Bill Demakopoulos
The same photo turned up a few days later in Aptos (Santa Cruz) where I happily visited with Connie Mellis, daughter-in-law of Evelyn Mellis and now the matriarch of that side of the clan.  Appointments with Bill Maxwell (Archive Manager, Bank of Stockton) and Todd Ruhstaller (CEO/Curator of History @ The Haggin Museum) turned up 2 downtown photos from the early 20's with the Palace sign clearly visible.

I have dreamy memories of visiting the Palace as a child -- allowed into Papou's inner sanctum and then to eat lunch (roast turkey with a scoop of mashed potatoes cradling delicious brown gravy) along with my Mom in one of the booths. That was a little girl's most favorite thing. 

But the business closed down around 1952...and I have no pictures of that kitchen or those booths or the candy room upstairs where Yiayia Sarris worked boxing bonbons after Hilda had dipped them in chocolate. Does anyone out there have any photos of the inside of the Palace Candy Store & Fountain/Restaurant to share?  There is a reward!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New Prosforon bakers always needed!

Prosforon ("Offering") is the altar bread used for communion, literally transformed into the body of  Christ during the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy. And it does not come from a bakery.

It is offered by a congregant who has baked 5 loaves stamped with a religious seal at home and brought them to church, usually with a list of family names (living and deceased) to be read during the service. 

 A few days ago, I was lucky to get a Prosforon-baking lesson. It took place in a home kitchen where my grandmother Eugenia Sarris had given my teacher that very same lesson. I am sure there is more than one kitchen in Stockton/Lodi/Tracy where that happened -- just like other women taught their daughters and friends over time, passing on a tradition of serving the church in this most meaningful way.

It's not so difficult to bake these loaves, just important to pay attention and make them exactly as proscribed -- beautifully round and smooth, lightly-browned with a clear-cut seal. It's a labor of love dependent on good yeast, purposeful kneading and no bubbles. (Before baking, 12 pricks with a toothpick are made at an angle around the seal, with four more around the inner square and one in the middle to facilitate the priest's work preparing the sacrament.)

At St. Basil's, one congregant bakes the Prosfora for every Divine Liturgy during an entire month. Sometimes it's not so easy to line up 12 bakers for this important task, so new volunteers are always needed to keep up the baking tradition that has been so much a part of St. Basil's Church life for 84 years. 

How about you? Baking lessons (if needed) will be provided. I can vouch for that!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The REAL Stockton Farmer's Market

Many farmers from as far as Fresno sell their wares at the Saturday Farmer's Market in downtown Stockton. It takes place on Lafayette under the freeway...just a stone's throw from where the original St.Basil's Church on Stanislaus used to be, and not too far from the poultry store where you can still get chicken feet. 
Gorgeous vegetables and fruits of all kinds -- some of which I was totally unfamiliar with -- are set out for your inspection and purchase. And all manner of fish and seafood including many sizes/types of cuttlefish, are also on display. It's a sight to behold! 

I could picture my father Steve stalking the numerous  colorful pepper displays in search of his beloved jalapenos, especially now that Centro Mart over on Alpine and Franklin no longer exists. And my mother Angeline would, I am sure, have drooled (figuratively, not literally) over the beautiful crabs I saw -- not unlike those we used to buy at the iconic Busalacchi Fish Market on a part of Channel Street that no longer exists either...
Never before had I seen seen a prickly-looking bitter melon or sweet potato greens or hairy wild potatoes or tiny eggplants the size of cranberries.  And how about the ginger still on its long stalk, who knew?
And just so you know, nice big bunches of dandelion greens ("horta") were available for $1 a bunch. Now, that's a really good deal that you won't be getting over at the Delta College Farmer's Market. The REAL Farmer's Market is a real super saver, plain and simple!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stacey L. Davis of Gardena Avenue

2445 Gardena Avenue today
Saddened to open the Stockton Record yesterday and find an obituary for Stacey L. Davis, our long-time neighbor on Gardena Avenue. Stacey was born around the time we moved to that neighborhood, had two brothers Brad and Bruce Long, and like us attended Daniel Webster Jr. High and Stagg High. The Longs were always good neighbors, a tradition upheld by Stacey and her husband Jim Davis, with whom I visited yesterday afternoon.  The Davises were always kind to my parents in their later years, especially when they were locked out or had some other issue/emergency.

And it turns out that Stacey, in addition to being an oncology nurse, was an avid horsewoman -- and "past president of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Mounted Posse, riding in the Honor Guard in many local parades in addition to providing posse security at the Asparagus Festival and at Lincoln Center events."  You might think you know someone, but then you really don't...

As I might have reported before, a Papapavlo's employee bought my parents' house back then -- and Jim now tells me that her parents may well be moving into Bessie and George Pappas' house on Oxford Way, just around the corner. So the beat goes on!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Walking in his father's shoes (literally)...

I noticed something yesterday afternoon at the coffee reception after Thea Bessie Pappas' Trisagion Service at St. Basil's. I asked Andy Pappas if the shoes he was wearing were Knapp shoes; not only were they Knapp shoes, but his father's Knapp shoes!

The man next to him (Vasilios Veziris) then said he was wearing his father's pants. Indeed, I had taken some of both my mother's and father's clothes when they passed. I no longer fit into my father's khaki shorts, but some day, hopefully, I will be wearing them again. My mother's blouses, no problem :)

Uncle George Pappas used to sell Knapp shoes on the side -- when he wasn't working for one of the local grocery stores. We all would give him a hard time, calling the shoes "space shoes" for their oddly-shaped toe boxes. But the work shoes were pretty standard-looking, and in high demand amongst Greek-Americans (like my Dad Steve and George Marmas) and others. Then, of course, Uncle George became a mainstay of the Papapavlo's Restaurant operation.

George Pappas may be gone, but his shoes keep working on.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Tradition: Dancing for Bessie Pappas

Just sitting here near the outdoor stage at St.Basil's Greek Festival, waiting for the Greek dance performance by the church's groups. (Reminds of my days at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki when folk dancing was a major preoccupation of mine -- and I had even organized a student Pontiako dance group, but that's another story..)

It is nearly overwhelming to see so many kids aged about 13-18 involved in performing traditional dances here in the year 2013. There are 2 groups, Keravnos and Astrapi, directed by Maria Karapanos: "We dance to honor tradition and those who came before us." 
Elliana Pappas (2nd from left)
This performance is being dedicated to the late Bessie Pappas, whose granddaughter Elliana dances in the group. She is Andy and Jennifer Pappas' daughter. "Thea Bessie" was a linchpin in the family's very successful Papapavlo's Restaurant. Her funeral is this coming Wednesday.

Here they come -- but just wait a minute! It's a group of 8 small people called Kali Parea (Good Company), directed by Rodama Veziris. Ti omorfa paidhia  ("What beautiful children").

And now for the main attraction: dances from several regions of Greece by about 20 young people who look like they really love it. Gives me hope that these dances and traditions will last a lot longer than we will...Opa!

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Gyro Sandwiches by Debbie & Company

Debbie Marmas Buck
Just finished chopping a few tomatoes behind the scenes at the St. Basil's Greek Festival Gyro Booth. It's run by the indomitable Debbie Marmas Buck and her crew. You can get a "tasty beef/lamb combo" or "delicious chicken" sandwich for $7. Opa!

I have known Debbie since childhood. Her dad George Marmas was the G in the S&G Market which he and my dad Steve had on Yosemite and Acacia in Stockton. My parents baptized her brother Peter, who now lives in Mesa, AZ. Most importantly, Debbie is a mensch.

Her gyro-making crew includes son Garrett -- the church priest's right-hand man and new president of the Stockton AHEPA -- on the  grill.  Daughter Nikki is one of the sandwich makers. It's a family affair times X 25 counting all her many friends/volunteers.

The booth is sponsored by parishioners, including local members of the Xanttopoulos Family. They're backing a winner!

Debbie's crew seems to look forward to the craziness of making GYROS the most successful outside food booth. Indeed, it is almost 6 pm and starting to cool down from the earlier 100 degree temps. Yep, people are starting to line up in the confines of special crowd control chains...

Who doesn't want a gyro sandwich made by Debbie & Company?

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Yalaktoboureko X 10

Here I am observing the making of ten -- yes, I said 10! - yalaktoboureka (a delicious Greek custard-filled, filo dough dessert.) Unfortunately, I cannot tell you why, or where they are going...but they will soon be sold for $3 a slice.

Layering the filo dough
This is quite an undertaking, which my friend Gayle has organized with military precision -- 6 stations in all...The butter, Cream of Wheat, milk, vanilla, and dried orange peel are pre-measured in small bowls -- ready to mix together and heat. The pan is then put in a sink full of cold water to cool it off a bit, so when the beaten eggs are added they won't curdle. 

A buttered 12"X18" baking pan is lined w/ 7-8 filo dough leaves, buttering each layer and cross-layering them so as to avoid potential syrup leaks. Then the custard mixture is added. Then more fila, scoring the top (one way only). And the yalaktoboureko is ready to be baked at 325-350 degrees (depending on your oven). Last but not least, 1 1/2 c. syrup (sugar & water, simmered until thick and then cooled) is poured on top and distributed evenly. Not too much syrup, please!

Gayle and the finished product

Viola! When I add the pictures to this blog post you will see exactly what I mean...But just so you know: when I grow up, I want to be a yalaktoboureko-maker, too.
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Monday, September 2, 2013

St. Basil's Food Festivals, Past & Present

Steve X. (2006)
Getting ready to get on a jet plane to Stockton for the St. Basil's Greek Festival (aka "Food Festival").  It'll be my first one since 2006. That was my Dad's last one, and we both worked pretty hard that weekend. The 3-day festival is the church's biggest fund-raiser, but not exactly easy money.  A lot of people work very hard, starting many weeks before.

These days, the festival takes place on the church's March Lane campus. In the beginning -- that would be 1959 -- it was held at the Stockton Civic Auditorium. That was a VERY big deal for us Stockton Greek-Americans.

Quality Control
There is rich history of festival articles in the Stockton Record, and several featured my parents. In 1982, "Preparing pastries sweet assignment for Greek festival" talked about my Mom Angeline's hope to soon be able to finally step down as Sweets Chair after 10 years of doing that. But in the 1988 article "Taste of Greece," she is still at it!  In both articles, she talks about the importance of quality control: "..because the ones on top brown on top and then need to go to the bottom to brown on the bottom." And she heaps praise on all the ladies that make the sweets sales such a success.

It should also be noted that a 1989 article featuring my Dad Steve was entitled "Beware of Greek serving  fine food."  We are reminded that: "Between festivals Xanttopoulos and his wife manage the church social hall."  There was no end to their involvement/devotion to St. Basil's, and they weren't the only ones.

Chris, Oly & Paula (2006)
I am really looking forward to being at the festival this year, both to do my part and to see everyone.  No one, after all, knows what next year will bring...I'll be in the Sweets Department, of course -- and if I'm lucky, I'll get a turn in Debbie's Gyro Booth. See you this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (September 6-8). Opa!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Today is Tootie2 Day!

Can't really remember my parents' last years without thinking of Tootie2, a remarkable feline who led a remarkable life.  She was our pal for 13 years.
Tootie2 was adopted for my mom in 1999 at Christmas Time. She had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and was rightfully deemed to be in need of pet therapy.  For three years, the cat was Angeline's pal, often sitting in her lap as she sat in her recliner. And on the night she died in 2002, Tootie2 was right on her bed till the very end. 

(I'm told that Tootie2 had two previous homes, but was returned each time to Pets & Pals Animal Shelter -- clearly because she was destined for 2445 Gardena Avenue.)

Now my Mom had wanted in her waning weeks to get a second cat to keep Tootie2 company, worrying about what would happen when she passed. How would the cat and my Dad cope? They were sad, but coped just fine.

Tootie2 became Steve's pal, following him around like a dog and draping herself on his legs when he sat in his recliner. Did he ever figure out that she did not like to be over-petted, or did he think it was funny to bug her on purpose?  In any case, he would occasionally shriek, "She bit me!" And if I was in Stockton, he would add (for effect) "I'm going to send you to Miami with your aunt!" Fat chance.
But when Dad passed suddenly in 2007,  she really did come to Miami. It was my turn to be befriended by Tootie2, and she became my pal.   By then, her whiskers had turned distinctively white. In the AM, she would wait at the bedroom door facing out so that we could go into the kitchen together. Following a long-standing cat tradition at my place, she would enjoy a few licks of milk from a special little Greek dish.  She had her captain's chair (much to the consternation of another cat, ChrisDog, the original Milkman) -- but at night she would jump onto the bed, put her head on her little pink pillow toy, and watch TV. Did I mentioned that she spent the summer of 2008 on vacation in Canada, or that she always knew with ever-widening eyes when I was about to open a can of tuna even before I did? And, yes, she liked to lie on my legs when I sat on my recliner.

I have had three other totally amazing cats, but Tootie2 was the cat with a higher purpose. From California to Florida, she rose to every occasion. So when she passed away one year ago today following a long illness (and her last, never-missed licks of milk), it was truly the end of an era. It was also the first time in 30 years that I did not have a cat...and so far no replacement.

How can I ever replace Tootie2?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What's in an obituary?

Plenty. In a former life as a Development Director, I would scour the obituaries in the New York Times looking for clues to people who might support the school I was working for.  Obits expose family trees and thus are invaluable tools for genealogy research.

So nowadays I check the obits for anyone who is Greek, to see where they come from and whether by any stretch they are connected to someone I know or the towns that our forefathers came from -- and I always learn something regardless.

Sunday's Times (8-11-13), for example, told us about the sudden death of  Dr. George Moutoussis, 65, who was from Athens and specialized in Geriatric Medicine and Nephrology. His promise was: "To practice medicine in the old traditional way, when the doctor was not the provider and the patient was not the client." Amen to that.

But sometimes we are confronted with news that we could have done without -- like the obituary posted on August 7th in the Stockton Record for my friend Cally Anagnos, 84, a Giants fan and sister of the late, beloved Helen Gaines amongst others. The Anagnos family has had more than its share of illness and tragedy, including the recent death of Cally's daughter, Kathy. And just like that, the St. Basil's Greek Festival pastry booth -- once my mother Angeline's domain -- lost two devoted volunteers.  Zoi se mas.

Now the rest of us will just have to carry on. See you in Stockton on September 6-8 for Greek Festival #54!

Friday, August 9, 2013

President Obama gives the Greeks advice...

In a meeting in the Oval Office yesterday, President Obama gave the Greeks and Prime Minister Antonios Samaras some advice: “In dealing with the challenges that Greece faces, we cannot simply look to austerity,” Mr. Obama said in brief remarks to reporters after the two leaders met. “It’s important that we have a plan for fiscal consolidation to manage the debt, but it’s also important that growth and jobs are a focus.” (New York Times 8-9-13)...

Too little too late for a country with 26% unemployment (60%+ for young people under 25)? Hopefully more was said/done during the private meeting, as the people of Greece continue to suffer greatly for a situation not entirely of their making. Certainly, regular folks with no jobs, shrinking pensions, high fuel costs, and evaporating health care need support from us all.

Morning coffee near Hotel Diana
Consider a trip to Greece soon and a visit to my Yiayia Sarris' home town, the beautiful and multi-faceted Koroni, Messinias

P.S. Looking for a Koroni hotel?  Try the Hotel Diana --  modest, clean and VERY conveniently located "downtown" a few steps from the seaside restaurants, shops, etc. And a short walk to the beaches and kastro above the town.  Cost me 25 Euros a night last November, and I even had a key to the front door!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Must-see National Hellenic Museum (Chicago)

The must-see National Hellenic Museum ("The Newest Thing in Ancient History") -- where I am sitting right now -- is located at 333 S. Halsted St in Chicago's Greektown. The wonderful 4-story building (with it's amazing views from the terrace) has been open about a year-and-a-half. The library is pretty neat and welcomes materials from Greek-American communities around the country. And there is an oral history section. I'm impressed!

Current fabulous exhibits include "American Moments: The Legacy of Greek Immigration" (every Greek-American will relate!) and "The Holocaust in Greece." There's more to see; check the website for more info and to join. Spread the word, while I visit the gift shop :)

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Chicago Jimmy = Koroni Convent?

All roads lead to Koroni -- seriously!

It would be good enough just to eat a meal  at my favorite Chicago Greek restaurant, Rodytis -- and chat with Jimmy the Manager, whom I've known for about 10 years.

Jimmy Kalogeropoulos
This time a little more chatting lead to the inevitable, "Where is your family from?" When I mentioned Koroni, he basically said: "I'm from Messinia and my aunts were nuns in the convent  above Koroni for 40+ years." Yes, that very same convent started by a monk related to Yiayia Sarris and which she wanted to join. He got his other aunt Stamata (now in Chicago) on the phone for a chat. She was glad to hear that the convent -- which has undergone some turmoil -- is open, so she can go visit again. Jimmy said I made her day, but he made mine! 

Jimmy Kalogeropoulos (from Loutro) lights a candle at the convent every time his goes to Greece. He said he'd like to take me around Messinia if we are there same time. After this conversation, who knows?

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Georgia Metaxas 1916-2013

I was so sad to hear that Georgia Metaxas died early this morning. She was one of my favorite people -- and 96-years-old, so maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked. But she was still pretty amazing, and, according to my Thea Libby and her neighbor/dining buddy at Rio Las Palmas, she had wanted to make it to 100.  Georgia passed rather suddenly, so that is a good thing.

My friend Georgia was a stalwart in the Stockton Greek-American community -- a seamstress par excellence who lived for many years on W. Alpine, not far from Gaines Market and our own house on W. Sonoma.  Her late brother Jerry worked at the S&G Market on South El Dorado, and another brother Nick (and Bella's) son George is my parents' godson. Lots of history there. I simply can't remember a time when I did not know Georgia Metaxas.  

She was sharper than a tack right up until the end-- and whenever I was seeking some historical information in recent years, I was always told, "Ask Georgia Metaxas." And I did. 

I last saw Georgia when we visited with her on her 96th birthday last year, on the day after Christmas. We had planned to get her some of her favorite raviolis from DeVinci's, but they were closed (for some reason) -- so she had to make do with donuts with strawberry filling from Krispy Kreme. Her niece Phyllis came by, too.  We hung out and laughed.

My Thea Libby is really going to miss Georgia. So am I.

NOTE: Georgia's great friend from early Stockton days, Georgia Demakopoulos Johnson, passed away on July 17, 1977.  As her daughter Elaine said upon hearing the latest news, "What's the chance?"

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July (But what about Page 19?)

Today on the Fourth of July there is much to think about. And much to be grateful for, even though it is sometimes difficult to ascertain who is better off or who is doing what to whom...

Recently in China, a new law was enacted compelling adult children to visit aging parents abandoned in villages -- facing up to the complexities of the industrialized world with its big city migrations and pandemic erosion of cultural values. Rewritten classic Chinese texts tell children to buy health insurance for their parents and teach them to use the Internet!

Greece, a much smaller country, is another story. More people may well be moving back to their villages to escape rents and other costs associated with city living until the dire economic situation really turns around.  The problem is a corrupt political system that the average citizen is now paying for in the extreme, making family ties even tighter.

Here in the USA, Greek-Americans have  maintained -- for the most part, so far  -- the same family ties forged by our forefathers not so long ago. Time will tell if those ties/values, including cultural/hometown loyalties and a strong work ethic, will survive in the future. It's up to us.

One way to do that is to preserve family histories -- including stories, documents, photos, other heirlooms -- and to celebrate them.  It is important that we do so with accuracy, by writing things down and even recording stories and voices.  I wish I had thought of that while my grandparents and parents were still alive, but it's not too later for others in Stockton and every Greek community to diligently do so. Indeed, the Greek Historical Society of the SF Bay Area (headed by Jim Lucas) meets every month and includes one recorded interview for those purposes.

St. Basil's Church published a 68-page book in 1980 for its 50th Anniversary. There is a lot of great information about the history of the church and the Greek Community that grew up around it. Great pictures, too, but precious few details as to who is pictured. Take Page 19 for example, where an image is identified as "Father Kouklakis following a baptism."  I see my Yiayia Sarris holding a baby, standing next to Mrs. Sperry. Has to be in 1950-52, but whose baptism is it? Who are the others in the picture?

Maybe there simply wasn't enough room to print more details then, but we can revisit the book now...Can you help write more detailed captions for photos in that book?  Do you have other family photos that trace the history of the Greek Community in Stockton to share? I will be asking you to help put together photos and information that can be a lasting, more accurate history for Stockton Greek-Americans to build on when I see you in September.  Start looking, please. 

Meanwhile, "Hronia Polla" for the United States of America and the democracy it's built on. That's a Greek word, you know. Just ask Mr. Gus Portokalos.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

In praise of buses...

News of potential 30% bus service cuts in Stockton sent chills up my spine. Some neighborhood routes could be eliminated, and there would be no weekend service starting in August if federal funds don't come through. Bus services during the week could end at 6:30 pm instead of 9 pm, with reduced frequency of express routes. What about people who depend on buses for work, shopping or church!

Kifissou Bus Station
My recent trip to Greece gave me new respect for buses, still the primary source of transportation for trips long and short.  I traveled by bus wherever I went, including to Kiparissi (southwest of Sparti) and Koroni (about 1.5 hours south of Kalamata) -- and I spent a total of 128.20 EU ($165 at the time) on in-country travel over 10 days, including 15 Euros for an Athens' cab from the bus station to Thea Soula's in a moment of weakness. (Did I mention that gas was about $7 a gallon?)

Molaos Ticket Window
Some things, however, do not seem to have changed that much since I was last in Greece nearly 30 years ago.  Arriving in Athens, I took the bus that went directly to the Kifissou long-distance bus station (for southern routes), to be absolutely sure I got a ticket for the bus leaving for Molaos at 6:30 am the next morning.  I would be on a tight schedule, transferring to the one bus that goes to Kiparissi twice-a-week. Inside the station, there were separate ticket windows for each bus route.  The airport and Metro stations might be pretty spiffy/high-tech these days, but this heavily-used bus station not so much. What's up with that? 

Athens Central Metro Station
The Athens bus system is pretty neat.  Tickets, which are purchased at special kiosks, cost  1 EU or .70 for seniors -- with a 90-minute window to transfer to any another bus(es), trolleys, or the Metro. You're supposed to stamp your ticket entering the bus, but it's a trick squeezing into a bus at rush-hour  (especially with a duffel bag) -- let alone there being enough room for a conductor to go around checking tickets. Still, a crowded bus ride to central Athens was no worse than taking the NYC #1 West Side local at 5 o'clock.  So far no drastic transportation cutbacks, but general strikes do take their toll -- even though not as many people are actually going to work due to 27% unemployment.

Long-distance buses have assigned seats, and everyone, young and old, seemed surprisingly good with that.  The regional bus stations were comfortable, and the Sparti station people stored my bag while I twirled downtown during a 4.5-hour layover. No problems, no complaints -- even though some bus drivers liked to smoke or talk on cellphones while expertly navigating mountainous, hairpin turns. You get used to it like everybody else. But best to snag a window seat on the right side so you can easily see the road signs to know where you are...I was even able to catch a bus to the airport at 5 am at the senior 1/2 ticket price of 2.50 EU, saving about a 50 Euro cab fare.  Mission accomplished! 

All that makes me wonder why I really need a car in Miami with it's many buses, trolleys, Metro Mover, and Metro (also to airport). After all, I do now have my Golden Passport!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday Night Dinners

We spent many a memorable Friday night at Yiayia and Papou Sarris' house enjoying dinner they had prepared for us and often also for the Demas Family, cousins on my Papou's side.  Uncle Nick's mother Sophia Demakopoulos was my Papou's sister. She and her husband Bill had owned the Palace Candy Store & Restaurant on Main Street with Papou as the chef.

The cornerstone Friday night attraction was Papou's Clam Chowder, Manhattan-style.* Fish -- baked or broiled, catfish or halibut, occasionally cuttlefish (ink fish) -- was also central to the menu as we were not supposed to eat meat on Fridays. My aunt Liberty remembers a white Alfredo-like sauce Papou sometimes whipped up for the fish, which he must have perfected at the Palace. Specialties included horta, fried artichokes, and vegetables & potatoes baked in the oven with tomato sauce (and, if Yiayia was able to snagged some, those long, thin string beans from Gus Terezakis' garden).   Everything was super delicious, of course, and, per the photo, there was also some assigned seating. Yiayia and Papou had their places, and my Dad Steve had his. The rest of us filled in the blanks...

But the main idea was to get together as a family and share a meal/evening at the end of the  school/work week -- even though it might not have been the end of the work week for the owners of the S&G Supermarket or a prominent gynecologist.

Jewish Shabbat (something like the Sabbath celebrated on Sunday by Christians) begins at sundown on Friday and lasts 24 hours -- signaling the end of the week and time for spiritual preparation for the next week though prayer, personal reflection and rest.  "The Sabbath" (1951), by Abraham Joshua Heschel, gives beautiful understanding to the search for "inner liberty."

A compelling part of that book is the Introduction added in 2005 by Heschel's daughter, Susannah. She talks about her father's teachings and describes the family's Shabbat preparations and activities -- including the Friday night dinners ("usually quiet, slow and relaxed"). The menu was always the same: challah (bread), chicken soup, roast cornish hen, salad, vegetables, and apple. It was a memorable time for the family and occasional guests to be together for a special meal.

The focus on those Friday nights on New York City's Upper West Side may have been more religious than what transpired on Alpine Street in Stockton, since it was not a holy day per se for us.  But in my mind, there is a striking similarity...except, perhaps, for the quiet part. 

*The recipe for Papou's Clam Chowder can be found on p. 50 of the St. Basil's Greek Orthodox Church "International Cookbook."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Greece 1903 - 1923 (Bite-sized Version)

Greece in 1903 -- when Eugenia Sarris was born in Koroni, Messinias -- was hardly the idealized, white-washed vacation-spot we know today, current economic crisis notwithstanding.  The country ruled by King George I did not include Epirus, Macedonia or Crete -- as they were still part of the Ottoman Empire.  Ancient Greece was ancient history.  

The Greeks rose up against the Turks in 1821, leading to the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1832 -- freeing southern/central regions, but launching a tumultuous period peppered with more foreign intervention and royal intrigue.  In 1864, Britain ceded the Ionian Islands to Greece, and in 1881 Turkey gave up Thessalia. But by 1893 Greece was insolvent, a poor country throughout the 19th century in spite of the successful resurrection of the Olympic Games in 1896. While a few Greeks managed to get rich, most did not -- leading to waves of emigration as a way to escape rural poverty. 

Northern Greece -- including the Naoussa area where my father would be born in 1920 -- finally became part of Greece in 1913. Indeed, current-day Naoussa Carnival celebrations are based on stories celebrating heroic resistance to outsiders, including elite Turkish Janissaries often made up of Naousseans taken away as children. Greeks leaving the country in the early 20th Century had deep-rooted feelings against the Turks, based on real-life experience...Greece has a long history of foreign intervention and population issues (escaping Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, etc.) primarily because of its geographic location.

WWI and losses in Asia-Minor (culminating in the exchange of populations) dominated through 1922, leading to continued political upheaval.  In 1923, George II was about to go into exile and governing Venizelists were in constant conflict with monarchists. Coup then followed coup. But by then, Yiayia Sarris was in Stockton -- on a mission for a better life, while never forgetting from whence she came.  There were no entitlements, just hard work and sacrifice for the generations to come.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Yiayia's Secret Door

A touchstone is a standard or criterion by which something is judged or recognized.  In many ways, Yiayia Sarris is my touchstone -- and she, like all of us, had a few secrets. 

When in her hometown of Koroni recently, I retraced her steps as best I could -- and wanted to verify that the stairs near the Eleistria Church leading up to the kastro were how she got in to visit her beloved St. Prothromos convent. No, I was told, after blithely posing a question that I thought I knew the answer to. There was another way up, via a door close by her brother's family home leading to inside stairs -- also how the nuns came down into the town for provisions.  If I had known that another door existed, I had forgotten. On the other hand, I may have never asked the right question. In any case, let's call it Yiayia's secret door.

Ubiquitous whitewashed steps lead from the road, past a small shrine where you can light a votive candle, and up to an ominous, black iron double-door fronted by 2 white crosses -- just a few steps from where I  had been sitting and chatting with my relatives when the subject arose.  The door had been totally hidden by the dark evening shadows. Cousin Eleftheria showed me the way, but the door was locked and it was pitch black inside.  I could not see a thing...until I snapped a picture on my cellphone. And there they were: worn stone stairs leading upward!

How many times had my Yiayia gone up those stairs before emigrating to America in 1923, and what had she been thinking? She had wanted to be a nun and live in the convent established by a cousin.* At one point she had actually run away from home to join, but her brother took her back.  If she had prevailed, she would now be buried up in the kastro and I would not be here. Instead, she took her faith, resilience, work ethic, generosity and love of family to Stockton..Some 90 years later I walked up that very same path in Koroni, but could not get through Yiayia's secret door.  Yet. 

*The founding monk is buried next to the convent's St. Sophia Church. He is memorialized by a room left exactly as it was when he passed in 1966. His perfectly preserved yellow bones were exhumed 30 years later and and are now kept in a box inside the church. Some say he is a saint...