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...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Great Door of Koroni, Outside & In

This is the iconic Great Door of Koroni, the entrance to the Venetian citadel ("kastro") built on a cliff so many years ago when Koroni was a major port for the transport of olive oil -- as documented in the brilliantly-organized, must-see Museum of Greek Olive and Olive Oil in Sparta. The kastro today contains 3 churches, the town cemetery, and a beautifully serene convent where 6 nuns from Kalamata still live, plus 7 neat private homes. Stairs just beyond the War Memorial along the west wall lead down to Eleistria Church (see previous post).  Like many areas of Greece, Koroni has a long history of invasion and occupation by outsiders -- oft-destructive happenings which do, at least, provide interesting historical footnotes.  While the kastro might now be a fascinating place to visit, there are controversies regarding preservation and upkeep.*

Indeed, my Yiayia Sarris' (nee Kapiniaris, or is it Stamatis?) family homestead is located just to the right of where I am standing in the photo, inside the stone wall and abutting the kastro's front wall -- and I am told that it is illegal to build anything against that wall or do much of any improvements there because of legal archaeological issues.  That remains to be seen...

Meanwhile, the southward Gate B is a smaller door which allows for a climb down to a basically uninhabited promontory that I had never seen before in my 5 previous visits to Koroni! While looking for postcards in a small "psilagidhiko" (5 & 10) this past November, I spotted a card with an aerial-view of this very strange-looking place. When I exclaimed "What is that?" to the proprietor, she laughed. The next morning, I went there to see for myself -- and you, too, should visit beautiful, historical and easily-accessible Koroni.

View from Gate B
* On November 25th a fire ravaged the historic church adjoining the cemetery. St. Haralambos Church was established by the Venetians in 1689 first as the Catholic Church of San Rocco.  Later under the Turkish occupation (approximately 1728-1828), it became a minaret. When Koroni was liberated, it became an Eastern Orthodox church. (from Koroni newspaper "I Dhrasi" 12-12, Vol. 77)                                                                                          

Monday, May 13, 2013

From Koroni to Stockton

Last Friday after Easter, the miracle relics of Eleistria were carried in procession around Koroni, Messinias, a small town near the tip of the left finger of the Peloponnesos where my Yiayia Evgenia Sarris was born. The original family homestead is just inside the iconic great door of a Venetian citadel ("kastro"). Panaghia Eleistra is the protector of Koroni, and on every other day you can leave her a note asking her please for assistance. 
My Yiayia was a devout reader of religious tracts and had wanted as a very young woman to be a nun. She left home to live in the convent of St. Prothromos established by a relative inside the ramparts, but her brother Poulo took her back. I keep wondering if that is why she was the daughter sent to live in the States in 1923...
Once in Stockton after marrying George Sarris in San Francisco, my Yiayia continued her religious ways as a new church was established in 1930 on Stanislaus Street. The name St. Basil's was chosen by way of a lottery;  Stamatina Xenakis had the winning ticket, becoming the sponsor who chose the name.  All that is chronicled in the book the issued by the church for its 50th Anniversary in 1980.

While my Yiayia is not listed as a founding father -- they were all men, including my grandfather -- she was very active in the church and often assumed the role of "psalti" (cantor). She was a Philoptohos stalwart producing andithoron (bread given after Communion and at the end of the service), artos (sweet breads for special occasions like St. Basil's Day on January 1st), and koliva (made from wheat berries for memorial services).  She continued to read religious books and had the traditional "iconostasis" in her bedroom. I still have the battered prayer book she kept in the glove compartment of her car to read whenever she was waiting for something or somebody. (Indeed, my Yiayia provided transportation for all the Stockton Greek ladies in her generation who never learned to drive -- always a sight to behold and rides to be avoided by us kids.)                                                
Evgenia Sarris finally went back to visit Koroni and her siblings in 1965 -- a joyous occasion, not without pitfalls. More on that another time...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ode to dandelion greens & Yiayia Sarris

Just finished up this glass of dandelion water, the bi-product of boiling 2 bunches of organic dandelion greens ("horta") for Easter dinner. The drink is actually kinda tasty (in its own semi-bitter way), and, like the greens, very good for you -- not to mention that my Yiayia Eugenia Sarris used to drink the water that she boiled her horta in. She wasn't kidding when she insisted that it was very, very good for you.
Dandelion Water
Indeed, incrediblesmoothies.com (Green Smoothie Recipes & Info for Incredible Health) cites 10 reasons why dandelion should be used in green smoothies: 1) High in calcium; 2) Rich in iron; 3) Low in calories; 4) Loaded with antioxidants; 5) Ultimate detox & cleansing green; 6) Lots of minerals; 7) 14% protein; 8) Multi-vitamin; and 10) Additional health benefits that include "anti-inflammatory properties which may provide benefit to those with asthma and other inflammatory diseases." Wow!

When  I took the greens to check out at the supermarket, the cashier said, "You could have come over to my house and picked some" -- a sentiment echoed by the elderly woman in line behind me. And then I told them how my Yiayia used to pick them, stopping wherever she spotted dandelions in a yard regardless of whose house it was. She would grab her wooden-handled fishing knife from the glove compartment along with a bag and jump out of her orange and black Plymouth to blithely pick some horta. Meanwhile, I would be yelling "Yiayia, they are going to arrest us!" before crouching beneath the dashboard to hide -- even though most people think of dandelion greens as WEEDS...

Years later, when living in Greece at the American Farm School on
the outskirts of Thessaloniki, I learned that this was no big deal. People would walk or drive out to the school and/or surrounding fields and do exactly the same thing: pick tasty, healthy horta wherever they found them for the family dinner table . 

Just goes to show that my Yiayia knew best!

(Please add your own comments below)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Father Wegner strikes again (and again)

Today is the Second Day of Easter in Greece -- and a chance to reflect on yesterday.

The Holy Saturday night service at Holy Trinity Church in Peterborough, Ontario, was sweet indeed -- small church, friendly people, and George, the Major Domo at "the front of the house" originally from Tripolis. George wanted to make sure I found the restroom OK, and later told me he had a sister in Tampa and had visited Ft. Lauderdale/Key Biscayne. Yes, we Greeks get around!

Father Kyriakos Wegner made it through "Theftelavete Fos" smoothly despite the rush of people trying to get the first light from his Easter candle, and then quietly said the prayers that segued into the Divine Liturgy.  His short, poignant sermon talked about the "raw truth" of Easter not being just vaguely about Christians and celebrations, but the seriousness of glorifying Jesus' sacrifice by leading a true Christian Life (not such an easy task). He reminded us that being a good Christian was not just about the individual, but about helping one another. Amen.

Father Wegner & Friends
Then Father Wegner really got to work. As we approached to get a blessing and the traditional red egg, there seemed to be a bit of a commotion up front. Upon looking closer, I saw that the priest was not just handing out red eggs. Father Wegner was actually cracking eggs with each and every parishioner -- and enjoying every moment.  I had never before witnessed such a delightful ending to the Easter Service (despite my losing the cracking contest), have you?  

That was definitely my favorite 2013 Greek Easter memory. The dinner (lamb and more red eggs) we made for friends in Port Hope that evening was a close second...Christos Anesti!

PS: George also apologized for the fact that they had run out of those newfangled plastic wax-catching things for the candles (see previous post). Just let them drip, he said -- and they did, all over my black pants. Yet another reason to bring back the Dixie cups!

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Friday, May 3, 2013

So many Good Friday & Easter memories...

Today is Good Friday in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Greeks and Greek-Americans who observe Easter have been fasting since March 18th. And they have been spending every night this week in Church -- all the while preparing for Saturday at midnight, the high point of the most important church holiday of the year and the moment when we say "Christ is Risen." 

There so many memories around Easter...Lent was important in our Stockton family. But it was not difficult to appreciate Lenten dishes like lentil soup, spinach w/rice, and stuffed peppers (no meat). As a child I really appreciated the days when we could not drink milk and had to be satisfied with Seven Up -- a sacrifice worth noting! But it was difficult to both go to church every night during Holy Week and keep up with homework during the years (3 out of 4) that we did not celebrate Easter at the same time as the rest of Christianity. It was even more difficult explaining why.

St. Basil's Greek Orthodox Church memories abound, beginning with the original church on Stanislaus Street.  Spilling into the street -- before the days of the newer church building w/the parking lot -- on Good Friday night with the "epitafio" was totally creepy and exciting. Then on Saturday night, more candle wax dripping onto our hands with oddly comforting familiarity as we chanted "Christos anesti ek nekron." (Now we have those newfangled plastic wax-catching things. Can't we just bring back the Dixie cups?)

The many Easters I spent in Greece provide more amazing memories. In Thessaloniki, the procession on Good Friday from Aghios Dimitrios Church -- containing the relics of the city's patron saint -- included a band playing dirge-like music all along the way. And how about the Easter Sunday spent in Alexandria, Imathias, with my brother George at the home of student -- where the father (a butcher) began roasting his lamb at daybreak and we helped by drinking tsipouro. Does it get any better?

Holy Trinity, Peterborough ON
Back in New York City, there was Easter at the tiny St. Nicholas Church located in the shadow of the World Trade Center and later tragically destroyed on 9/11...Memories of a Holy Saturday night at the multi-ethnic Orthodox Church in Missoula, Montana, include freezing, gusting weather and the priest -- Father Gregory Wingenbach, someone I actually knew from my days at the American Farm School! -- knocking on the closed Church door before we reentered.  A memorable, celebratory feast followed in the basement church hall...More recently on Good Friday, I usually process around the block including the small Church of the Annunciation in North Miami -- with a police escort blocking the intersections, flags and church banners, the whole nine yards. And it is still exciting, but not so creepy.  After the Saturday midnight Liturgy, the church community sits down together to eat the traditional "magheritsa" soup. Should I tell you what's in it?...This year I will celebrate Easter in Canada, at the Holy Trinity Church in Peterborough, Ontario -- creating new memories of the Greek diaspora.

On Sunday, St. Basil's congregants will celebrate Easter with an "agapi" service and picnic on the church grounds.  Sounds nice. But will it be like the gatherings we used to have at the exotic (or so I thought) Micke Grove Park in Lodi with an outdoor church service and picnic that I could hardly wait for? There were always other people in the park that day, and I was always so proud of us -- a vibrant, diverse Greek community with a common cultural heritage and purpose celebrating Easter to the fullest. Those were the good ol' days!

Kali Anastasi kai Kalo Pascha!