Friday, October 21, 2016

How the other half lives...

It's getting cold here in Naousa, and that's no joke.
A visit yesterday to my favorite "cava" -- wine store where wine can be bought by the liter from barrels -- provided comfort beyond excellent retsina.  I also got some validation for constantly feeling cold, especially at home.  As winter seeps in, most Greeks are very worried about keeping their families warm when money is scarcer than ever. 
I had responded‎ to the  usual "How are you?" with "COLD!" -- having spent recent days not feeling well, holed up in my apartment where the temperature hovered around 60 degrees (Fahrenheit)...and also worrying that I was just being a Miami Lightweight. But Naousa is at a relatively high altitude -- think nearby ski resorts -- and gets cold early. My wine seller replied: "No kidding. I wear a sweater to bed." Wow, I'm not the only one!
I not only felt vindicated, but determined to find a solution beyond a simple electric heater someone had given me that wasn't doing the trick while pulling costly electricity. Yes, my studio apartment does have central heating, but it is dependent on heating oil that has risen in cost by over 20 percent since April and is not yet available to us. My space is small, but If the average household here needs 200 liters a month X 93 cents and is living (like half of all Greeks) on a poverty level income of 600 Euros a month --  well, you do the math...
More and more Greeks are being forced to find other solutions, like converting to wood stoves  both in villages and big cities. Or buying 1-2 small heating appliance and toughing it out with heavy clothes 24/7. Schools are not escaping this growing problem either. The Greek People are living an economic nightmare and are now facing yet another "austerity measure" winter.*

‎Yesterday I finally invested 80 Euros in what is essentially an "electric radiator," even though I will soon be returning to the USA to vote. The new models don't use as much electricity and have an automatic thermostat.  And wow again! My apartment is now at 66-68F, though I can't yet be sure of the electricity expenditure or how I will fare when it gets much colder. And I'm not sure when my building might get organized to buy heating oil to rev up the system. Or how much that will cost.  Or if when I return, I will just limp along without central heating, wearing sweaters to bed again when needed just like many others here in Naousa and throughout Greece. 

So if you don't have a heating (or AC) problem, be grateful. Because this is how the other half lives -- in Greece and too many other places.

*The 2016-2017 Greek winter would be the coldest in 50 years!
(Published in The Greek American Herald, November 2016)

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Naousa Independence Day (for real!)

Yesterday I shed a tear singing "Tin Ipermaho," for real -- not like when we sang it on March 25th during a church play in my hometown of Stockton, California. Then we had some stereotypical/idealized idea of Greek Independence Day circa 1821. I memorized quite a few patriotic poems in those days, and can still see my mother Angeliki proudly decked out in a traditional Greek costume.
Yesterday was October 17th, the day that Naousa was finally liberated from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Naousa did indeed join The Revolution of 1821, but the local Turkish ruler responded by killing 10,000 Greeks and burning the town to the ground in 1822 -- think "scorched earth" in overdrive. About 1500 captives (women/children and priests ) chose suicide rather than change religions and live with the Turks‎. That episode, however, tied up Turkish resources big time and helped patriots win independence for the south of Greece. (For those reasons, Naousa was renamed "The Heroic City of Naousa" by royal decree in 1955.)
The Greeks of Naousa, Edessa, Veria, and Alexandria did their part in the ensuing years to undermine Ottoman rule, and the north was finally liberated in 1912-13. Makedonomachi (Macedonian Freedom Fighters) like Theodosios Zafeirakis and Dimitrios "Tsami" Karatasos were among those remembered and honored yesterday with the somber laying of wreaths in the town park.

But be‎fore that came a special church service ("Doxologia") in Naousa's Mitropolis Church replete with numerous crown-wearing bishops and a gaggle of  local priests. Not to mention elected officials, representatives from all the schools, and members of the military. (No Separation of Church and State here, even though the current leftist government has caused a firestorm by proposing the removal of religious classes from school curricula. They think religion should be taught in churches and at home...)

Meanwhile, Greek flags were raised high, and led by candle-bearing bishops we sang "Tin Ipermaho" and the National Anthem -- for real.‎ 
My kind of holiday!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Naousa Great-Grandmother back in the news!

Still searching for paperwork that proves my father was born in Naousa...A few days ago I went back to the Town Hall again. I say again, because last year I was told that all the town documents were burned in 1949 during the Civil War. But I decided to try again, what the heck. Administrative chores here in Greece often take hours if not days, so my strategy was "let's get re-started."
The office staff was both cordial and patient. Again I was told that there would be nothing, but make an application anyway in case the head archivist can find something. Then I noticed that on the same application you could also seek a death certificate. So I added the name of my father's grandmother, Aikaterina Koutsouki. She died in 1955.

Bingo! Her death had been recorded in the book, and her death certificate was in the computer (with her name spelled Koutsiouki). Within minutes I had a copy of a document that recorded the date and time and also verified the address in the "Alonia" that I had come to know -- even though the home was bought subsequently and torn down to be replaced by a new one. The doctor of record was her grand-nephew and my father's cousin Giorgios‎ Koukoulos (now 91), who noted that she died at 90 of old age.

My pro-yiayia's birthplace is Pyrgos, Kozanis, known then as Katranitsa. Her father was Georgios Lalas, paterfamilias of a large clan still thriving in Naousa. And Her husband Kostantinos was a Makedhonomachos (Macedonian freedom fighter) who died in a Thessaloniki Ottoman prison in 1904. They had four kids: Antonis (Tony Gust in the USA), Eleni (Huntalas), Paraskevouda (my Yiayia), and Maria. All except Maria went to the states. She married Nikos Theofilos, a soldier from around Corinth who subsequently became mayor only to be assassinated by Communist guerillas in 1949 and hung in the town square (as reported by TIME Magazine). They named a street leading to that square after him. I often walk down that street...

Here's a photo of "RiRi" Koutsouki circa 1934 with her grand children Georgios and Soula Theophilou -- yes, the Soula that we in the family know as Thea Soula in Paleion Faliron (Athens). Soula has lived there since 1949 except for a few years‎ in Salt Lake City and LA where her late husband Mario -- also a soldier stationed in Naousa who fell in love! -- studied and worked. She is my favorite Greek relative in Greece, and I have quite a few.

Before I left the Town Hall, I also had a letter to prove that there is no record of Efstathios ‎ Xanthopoulos because the town records were burned.* Not sure how that helps -- but I do now unexpectedly know more about my great-grandmother to help trace back to my grandmother and then my father, as I build my case for Greek citizenship.

And the whole transaction took only about 45 minutes, surely some sort of Greek bureaucracy record -- opa!
*In the coming months that would be proven false!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Day 5 of Thessaloniki city bus strike, is any help on the way?

I go online to get my news here in Naousa -- no TV at home! -- but I obviously need to do a better job. When I arrived at the Thessaloniki bus station Saturday AM, there was no #12 bus waiting to take me to my destination. Not a single city bus in sight. The drivers were on strike -- a good thing for taxis, even though the 23-year-old driving me did not not see the situation that way. "Rather not get a ride than benefit from others' misery." They call that "filotimo" here.

2300 bus drivers are not so sympathetic, as they have not been paid for July or August. The bus company is privately held, but receives a per passenger subsidy from the government which I heard had been cut.  The matter is apparently in the courts. Mayor Ioannis Boutaris is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Here hard to know anything for sure, that's how complicated and depressed things are. ‎ 

Sunday being the last day of the 81st Thessaloniki International Fair‎, city officials put some buses into circulation. Traffic was a mess. Thankfully I was in the village of Koimisis, near Serres. Nice long, quiet walk around town Sunday night -- which is one reason why I love villages. Women were chatting at a gyro sandwich place. Men were quietly watching a soccer match on TV. But Monday it was back to reality, and the strike continues.

Thessaloniki is a town of a half million people. It's not clear what tomorrow will bring for working people and students struggling to get places. ‎Who wants to drive their own car with gas at about $6 a gallon? Thursday and Friday the ferries will also be on strike, while the Shipping Ministry is deploying a vessel to Lesvos to provide housing for some of the migrants again homeless after a bad fire in an overcrowded hot spot. Many Greeks meanwhile are not taking kindly to the assimilation of so many foreign kids into the already stressed public school system. There are still over 60,000 refugees in Greece, including 20K unaccompanied children. ‎ Prime Minister Tsipras just made his case at he UN, but will anything immediately tangible come of it?

Oh, did I mention that the Egnatia Road -- one of Greece's biggest and newest highways, which cost 6.5 billion Euros to build & has 50 million Euros in annual revenues -- is on sale for 100 million Euros? It's part of the deal with the infamous Creditors. ‎ Nothing big financially can happen without permission from THEM...not even, I might add, promises made by the New Democracy opposition party a few days ago.

Maybe those Creditors can get Thessaloniki buses running again, if you know what I mean. Why not?

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Lekani, village of refugees also in need of Family Trees!

(NOTE: Clean-up/repairs are well underway in flash flood impacted villages. And people are abuzz analyzing Prime Minister Tsipras's annual address Saturday night opening the 81st Thessaloniki International Fair. He said, amongst other things, that: there is light at the end of the tunnel, thousands more doctors/nurses will be added to the nation's hospitals, and the Thessaloniki Metro would be done soon...But is there now another EU loan crisis on the horizon?)
Per my previous post I made the bus to Lekani, Kavalas, but it was packed...and my hostesses were waiting as planned in the town square to show me a good time. (I just continue to wonder how exactly I earned VIP treatment every time I visit Girls School graduates 45 years or so later. But I digress...)

Many have noted that the Greek people have been amazingly kind to the Syrian refugees even as they are in dire straights financially. It's because many come from refugee families -- especially during the Exchange of Populations in 1922. Lekani was a Turkish Village, so the Turks went to modern Turkey (remnant of the Ottoman Empire) and Greeks in Turkey came to Greece‎. Many were Pontian people from the Black Sea area. Sofia Makridhou's father came from Trapezounda when he was 7. She herself spent 15 years working in Cologne, Germany, after graduating in 1970.  Then back in Thessaloniki as a single parent, Sofia worked for 24 years in a hospital taking food trays to the patients. Stability is a hard-won attribute in these parts, but resilience is rampant.

Currently only a few hundred people live in Lekani full-time, where the mai‎n crop is potatoes -- and like many places, the younger people have left and visit during the summer or special holidays. Another Girls School grad said her grandfather was a teacher; there were then over 500 kids in the grammar school, many speaking only the Pontian dialect and trying to learn Greek.  It was recently reported that 1.5 million Greeks have left the country since the financial crisis began, the "brain drain" (in English!) frequently referenced as seriously hampering economic development.

On the September 4th, Lekani celebrated it's annual "Potato Festival," created some years back to bring people to the village to both eat and buy potatoes (10 kilo bag for 6 EU) -- and to celebrate the Pontian Heritage, which goes back to the Ancient Greeks. I was blown away not by just the dances -- my absolute favorites! -- but by the town's junior dance group. They were totally amazing, right down to the 5-year-olds at the end of the line. It was a very good day.
At lunch with the Makridhous, I started on the topic of Family Trees and how much I lamented not having asked my grandparents the salient questions. At which point, Sofia's mother Zoi ("Life") -- who had pictures from my 1969 visit stashed in her plastic photo box -- chimed in, "I didn't ask my parents/grandparents those questions either."  More information lost!

Ask those questions of your parents/grandparents immediately and write the names‎ of your ancestors down for your kids and grandkids...have I said this before?

(Published in The Greek American Herald, October 2016)

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Disaster this morning in Greece w/heavy rains, flooding, destruction!

Was planning to update my blog w/details from my beautiful weekend in the two villages of Lekani and Platamon NE of Kavala. Maybe later...

Came down to Thessaloniki for a few errands, only to be greeted by heavy rains all night that caused havoc and disaster in many parts of Greece -- especially very near here along Thermaiko Bay ‎(ie. Ag. Triadha, Epanomi, Mihaniona) and also in the Peloponnesos, with havoc of "biblical" proportions reported in and around Kalamata.  So far 4 casualties -- and many homes, roads, towns/villages in ruin. Mud everywhere, cars floating out to sea, people in shock...

Keep in mind that the Greek people suffered yet another pension cut just last week along w/announcements of increased taxes/fees. School is supposed to start on Monday. Many have now gone from distraught to furious, as there appeared to be a (predictable) lack of services on top of everything else.  ‎Spent the morning checking in with friends/relatives -- some of you might want to do the same.

When are these people going to catch a break???

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Friday, September 2, 2016

On my way to Lekani to eat potatoes!

Speeding now towards Kavala on a Friday morning after making the 7:20 am bus from Naousa to Thessaloniki. No time between buses for a bathroom break, so let's hope for the best...

After 10 days getting settled in my studio apartment, kinda glad to be taking a trip -- the cleaning and shopping were getting to me, resulting in a cold I can't quite shake. First you sweat, then you cool off in a breeze or with a fan, and the result is multiple boxes of ComtrexCOLD...with each pharmacist suggesting a differing dosage.  Oy!

Have spent time exploring Naousa/listening to people, and today seems to be yet another day of reckoning when people go to the bank to see how much has been cut from their pensions this time. No end to the economic misery here...But now I am on my way to a quasi-remote village -- 2 buses a week! -- northeast of Kavala‎ named Lekani. We had 3 Girls School students from there, and I remember a charming place.  Now none of the "girls" live there full-time. 

When we got together for our big Reunion last April, I expressed an interest in going back to their village‎, which has a "Potato Festival" first weekend in September -- not that potatoes are on my diet of moderation (which is going pretty well so far). So about a week ago, we made a plan to meet in their home village, sniffles be damned. A last-minute check of the Weather Channel revealed temps around 75/50 F there coming days. Should be happy to escape the heat, but I have this damn (secret) cold. And with my heavier clothes still stashed in Thessaloniki, I didn't even pack a sweater (really?). But I do have my trusty Thea Lib Jean jacket to keep me warm...and just hope the one 1:30 pm bus isn't  sold out!

To be continued -- but while I'm eating potatoes in Lekani, you all have a great ‎ Labor Day Weekend! 

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

On the subject of Mikis Theodorakis, in Naousa.

In case you don't know, I decided to rent an apartment in Naousa (Imathias), the "Heroic City" -- the town where my grandparents Paraskevouda Koutsouki and Xanthoulis Xanthopoulos were married 100 years ago in Panayia Church and where my father was born in 1920. So here I am. 
Having come down with a case of the flu, I managed to go look for a chicken to make soup -- and was directed to a store where the woman deals only in chickens and eggs. When I asked if she sold the chickens in pieces or whole, she said any way I wanted. And in a matter of seconds I got a whole, completely skinned chicken (for 6 euros) -- saving me a lot work and mess in my tiny kitchen. I love that woman!
Naousa is a cultured town of 23,000 people. There is a LOT going on here. Accordingly, I saw posters for a concert of "The Love Songs of Mikis Theodorakis" at the Town Theater featuring a band of mostly mandolins‎ and a chorale from Corfu. It was put on by "Hope," a local group raising money to feed indigent families. I was surprised  that the ticket was only 5 euros, and the not small theater was packed with several hundred people. The concert was amazing on many levels.  
The 21 songs were prefaced by a narrative of when the songs were born and why, and also who wrote the words -- mostly famous Greek poets (Elytis, Cavafy) and others (Naruda). It was amazing not to just hear the songs, but to try and grasp the scope of Mikis Theodorakis' music and his life's milestones fighting for justice and freedom as a fearless and unapologetic leftist. He is most certainly one of the most important Greek patriot-artists of modern times, whatever your politics are.
More amazing was the response of the audience, ‎mostly senior citizens in a town that suffered greatly during WWII and the brutal Civil War that followed (that no one talks about). Everyone loved the music and did what I love so much about the Greeks: they sang along, like they do in restaurants or wherever there is music. It's a certain joie de vivre rarely released in the US and continues to override even the horrendous economic situation we face here.  People always know all the words to all the songs. Beautiful, to say the least.
Thank you, Mikis Theodorakis!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Continuing German entanglements...

It was a deja vu kinda weekend in Greece -- strikes against more punitive legislation voted on late Sunday and angst about the meeting of European financial ministers (aka "The Creditors") that followed. I had been running around preparing to leave Greece after 3 months right in the thick of things. Eight o'clock flight to Munich, and I was going to sleep all the way.  But next to me sweet Kyria Despina of Mikrohori, Dramas, had other ideas. She wanted to tell me her story.

She wanted me to know that she was on her way to her son-in-law's funereal. He is German, she said, but was such a great guy. He met her daughter when he ate at her taverna in Munich. There were always lines of people waiting to get in, until the place closed on its 30th anniversary. The sign outside had extolled "Mom's cooking." 

Despina was not only "Mom," but had actually worked about 20 hours a day back then. Early AM at the Herta slaughter house in Dachau -- just across from the infamous Dachau concentration camp -- where 1250 pigs and 50 cows were processed every day. ‎ Then an afternoon stint at her husband's coffee house. Followed by a shift at the taverna, from which returned about 1:30 AM only to start up again around 4:30. Kyria Despina is retired now, but she looked quite sad and worn out.

Too many people I saw every day in Thessaloniki looked sad and worn out ...resigned to whatever was needed to make Greece whole again, and trying hard to make do. But it is never enough -- now more pension cuts, higher taxes on many things like cigarettes and coffee (from 23 to 26 %), etc. Hey, Greeks need to stop smoking, but they will never stop drinking coffee.
Kyria Despina's story of hard work in Germany is a very common one. Many Greeks went there to work not long after the war in a country prospering because their wartime debts had been forgiven. Germany needed those workers, until they didn't. Now Germany & Co. is the boss of Greece, and Greeks have been labeled by some as lazy. You cannot make this stuff up! 

Yesterday, a Girls School grad and restaurant owner in my Dad's hometown Naousa told me: "Greece is a boiling pot." The press doesn't mention the thousands of suicides, she rasped -- and I was taken aback by her informed passion and weary anger. She was about to fill out papers registering the fact that the ridiculous spring weather -- which had included hailstorms -- had damaged about 80 % of their fruit trees. What's next?

Meanwhile, in Munich there is a funeral on Friday, and Kyria Despina will be there.

NOTE: There is a shred of hope for the Greek economy. For the first-time, the Germans have signaled some willingness to discuss debt reduction -- the only way that Greece can actually recover instead of continuously cutting pensions to borrow money to pay back the banks. That's what Tsipras was fighting for last summer...You didn't think these bailouts were actually helping the Greek people, did you?

(Published in The Greek American Herald, June 2016)

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Left Kyparissi (for awhile) with more family info!

Left Kyparissi (KYP) yesterday, but only in body not spirit. In fact, I began a process of finding a place to stay there next spring for 2 months. Yup, KYP earned a try-out for permanent status...

I had hoped that relatives who no longer lived there full-time would join the traditional ‎convergence on their horio for Easter. KYP was indeed quite crowded over the holiday weekend, but not with the important people on my list.  One of two surviving children of my Papou's brother Ilias (the infamous Louis Sarris) called me from Athens to lament that we would not meet. I promised to visit on my next trip. He seemed sad about that...

And I got to thinking‎...for 6 days I heard over and over again, "He could have answered your questions" or "My Yiayia knew all about that." In fact, one font of information, George Poulakis,  passed about 10 days before I got there. Another, George "Mountzouras" Kolomvotos (also of San Mateo) died suddely about 2 months ago. I wasn't going to miss a chance to meet Ioannis Sarris and his sister Angeliki sooner rather than later!

So I changed my plans and stopped over in Athens on my way back to Thessaloniki. I had asked him what could I bring from his horio. "Haroupia!" he said laughingly. This morning I went to his apt in N. Irakleon -- an Athens northern suburb not so easy or cheap to get to‎ today because all public transportation workers were on ‎ strike. Again.

Uncle Ioannis Sarris, my mother's first cousin, got his haroupia (carob pods) whether he was joking or not, and he laughed some more... and seemed quite pleased to meet me -- right along with his son Ilias‎, sister Angeliki and her daughter Voula (Paraskevi!), and Eleni Ianniou who is the widow of their brother Anastasios. Thea Angeliki kept asking, "What is the purpose of this Family Tree investigation?"  Her nephew's answer? "So we can find out who we are!" 

I had met Eleni last summer in KYP. Her sister is a historian who continues to write about her village.‎ Eleni came armed with more paperwork than me, and we (sort of) took turns sharing info and asking questions. We finally identified "Thea Andonina," who sold a Sarris aloni (threshing place) and home to the father of an old geezer I had been hanging out in the kafeneion with. I now know where in KYP the Sarris family lived before Ilias built the large home above the Sarris Mill. Her husband Andonis died in the States in 1919. We're not sure if he was the brother of Papou George Sarris' father Nicholas, or...

But there was bigger news: Nicholas Sarris -- who first bought the mill in 1907 -- also came to the States and then returned, potentially‎ even before my Papou came over in 1911. Got to shuffle those old photos back in Miami again to see if we can identify the man who then died in KYP on March 9, 1922. To be continued...

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Monday, May 2, 2016

St. George's Day in Kyparissi, Lakonias -- better luck next year!

Yes, St. George's Day is normally celebrated on April 23.  But because Easter came after that‎, it was celebrated today (The Second Day of Easter). And tomorrow is officially May Day. Sweet!

And normally here in Kyparissi, the local priest is taken by boat to tiny St. George's church, about a 30 minute walk from the village. I was determined to hitch a boat ride to celebrate my Papou/Kyparissioti George Sarris' nameday -- family facts I foist on anyone here who will listen -- and then walk back. All went well at first, as the priest and‎ psalty (Mattina, a local nun) were loaded onto the boat along with all their accoutrements for the first run. ‎I was pretty excited.

Just as the party of four -- did I mention the boatman George's mom? -- made shore, down came the rain. They quickly borrowed the little church's antique St. George icon ‎and turned back. Services were then held in Aghia Triada, one of Kyparissi's 3 churches. About 20 minutes later, the sun came out. Better luck next year!

NOTE: Finally made contact with Mihalis Papapavlou, nephew of George and Pete Pappas (and cousin of Andy Pappas). He lives in a house across from my hotel, where I stayed in 1974 on a visit with my Uncle Pete and Thea Faith -- when Kyparissi still had no electricity and no road. In those days you came by boat...and we left by a caiqui driven by Barba Ioannis Zafeiris, father of today's boatman. Mihalis lamented having lost track of a paper his father left behind outlining their family tree. He thinks there is a connection betwen the Papapavlou and Sarris families. I need to ask his brother Nick, who got away back to Athens before I could nab him. Shortly, Georgia Adams (from Stockton, Calif) will be arriving here, and we can sit around pondering our relative family trees together -- and maybe even connect the Sarris and Vasiliou families. Who knows?

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

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?
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

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?
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

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!


(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?) 
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network

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!‎

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

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 came to mind while I was in Greece last summer -- when I visited/contacted far more AFS Girls School Department grads than I thought possible, 51 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 232 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, Halkidhiki, Kilkis, Serres, and Kavala areas. Eleni P. '70' -- who I did not expect to see -- was driven from Elatohori to Thessaloniki by her beaming son.  Aphrodhiti K. '70 brought me some sweet 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 there and with the somewhat far-fetched request for them to let us come in 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)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ode to Liberty "Libby" Sarris 1927-2016

My dear aunt Liberty "Libby" Sarris "left" this morning (as the Greek people put it when someone passes away), details still coming in to me here in Thessaloniki. On the one hand I'm very sad, especially since I won't be in Stockton for her funeral. But on the other hand rather relieved that she is at rest. She even managed to go back to her apt yesterday for one day after 2 months of rehab!

Libby or Lib -- Greek name: Eleftheria -- was essentially the sister I never had, especially when I was young and needed someone to bum around with that was not my parents. It was not Ok to hang out too much with teenagers my own age, but it was very Ok to go somewhere with Thea...the boys were treated differently, what else is new? So we went to Greece together in 1962, before that was such a common occurrence -- quite the memorable adventure! AND I got all the hand-me-down sweaters!

There may have also been some hijinks around important baseball, football or basketball games -- especially when rooting for the Stagg Delta Kings, Pacific Tigers, San Francisco Giants or 49ers. I gave up on the Giants years ago, but Thea was rewarded with multiple championships and visits to ATT Park. Her favorite player overall might have been Joe Montana, but Bill Walsh was God. Snoopy was the mascot to end all mascots.

And, yes, she took my brothers and me to the last Beatles USA concert in Candlestick Park circa 1969 -- not to mention to hear the Rolling Stones at the Cow Palace and some others at that rather smoky Fillmore Auditorium. (She also had many good times/trips with her pal, Stella Kouretas).

Let's not forget Liberty Sarris'  50+ years of dedicated service to the Stockton Unified School District -- beginning at Stockton High in 1947 and then primarily at the then newly-minted AA Stagg Senior High...back in the days when that school was way out there, nothing past the student parking lot to speak of. She was The Registrar and pretty much indispensable. (And I, personally, never got away with anything!)

Upon her retirement Libby received many accolades from her colleagues, the school district (for "Outstanding and Exemplary Service"), and the State Legislature -- and was called back repeatedly to help here and there. Something about institutional memory, no iPads required. She was also my main source of family info...and now it's the end of an era for the Sarris Family in Stockton.

In her last days, Thea often worried about her older and now deceased sister, Angeline..."I can't find your mother!" Or she insisted that Jell had just left or was in the next room. Or that Yiayia had been by. On the one hand, she knew full well that they were not actually there. Or, she may have known something we don't...Love you, Thea!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ups & Downs, here in Greece.

And first the Downs -- in case you were wondering about the refugee situation in view of the alleged deal with Turkey. We really don't trust those people, even as the Greek government tries to nail down agreements/services to lessen a double-edged humanitarian crisis. Were programs really put into effect today?  There are at least 46,207 refugees stranded in Greece (now being called "the warehouse of souls"),  and the Port of Piraeus threatens to becoming another Idomeni. Which refugees are actually qualified for asylum?
Meanwhile, there are ongoing reports of Turkish fighters entering Greek airspace. And, oh, did I mention the Greek condemnation of continued Turkish denials of the Armenian Genocide during the recent visit of the Armenian president to Athens? Or that Turkey has occupied a good part of Cyprus since 1974? (Let's discuss the Greek unfinancial situation another time...)
On the Up side, my search for Girls School grads (circa 1967-1978) is going quite well, leading up to a reunion planned for April 2nd. I think there will be at least 100 women there, if not more -- from as far as Germany, Athens, and Corfu.  Word is out and fingers crossed!

Today I took‎ a city bus up to the nosebleed section of Thessaloniki -- Kallithea, with an awesome view of the Thermaikou Bay/Mt. Olympus -- to visit Fotini Tourna (née Delianidhou '70) and her family. She has two very nice children, a policeman and (unemployed) nurse. Predictably, Fotini brought out photos of the good ol' days and we reminisced...and then discussed how we could located missing classmates. Daughter "Jenny"  (Evghenia) announced that earlier she had given Mom her first computer lesson. Woohoo!

‎It should be noted that I did call Rosa Detsika (née Kitti '69) in Germany as promised in my February 10th post, courtesy of Viber.* Rosa won't be able to be here on April 2nd, but she will be here in spirit along with about half of her 13 classmates...Ill  health is an ongoing theme in Greece, with deaths from cancer due mostly to environmental issues (like nearby wars and Chernobyl) over the top.

And so it never ceases to amaze me how the Greek people just keep on keeping on!

*Wow, love those Viber and WhatsApp free Internet calls + my 19 Euro Samsung cell phone w/7 cents per minute from Vodafone with no contract. Verizon beware!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Greece at Tipping Point?

Here I am in Thessaloniki trying to mind my own business, but how can I?  Just when it seems that things can't get worse, they do -- bringing Greece to a veritable "tipping point." 

Greek farmers have called off the 68 highway blockades that have pretty much paralyzed this country for over a month, having accepted Prime Minister Tsipras' offer of legislation that does not come down so hard on the agricultural sector (assuming that "The Creditors" don't squawk). Said farmers were asked to share the multiple burdens facing their beleaguered country and are now in wait-and-see mode...That's the good news.

TV coverage is now focused on a refugee problem which has suddenly exploded way out-of-control. Today alone about 1500 more people arrived in Piraeus. Austria --an EU member! -- independently called a meeting with the Balkan countries but without Greece, resulting in border closures. Meanwhile, refugees continue to walk 550 kilometers (330 miles) from Athens to the Greek border, creating emergency conditions and stress all along the way.  Thousands who have reached the border are living in tents or on  the street, begging to cross over.

Forecasts for solving this double-edged humanitarian crisis are beyond gloomy: "In all likelihood,..Greece will be converted into a huge 'open-air' refugee camp with unforeseen political and social consequences." 50-70,000 people will soon be stranded in Greece if Europe doesn't get it's act together. "Hotspots" are indeed popping up like crazy -- and the Greek people are beginning to be torn between continuing to help their fellow human beings and resisting a situation that seriously threatens their survival.

How can anyone blame them? To add insult to injury, waves of hotel cancellations are hitting the super-important tourist trade. Chios (-60%), Kos (-36%) and Samos (-40%) are already feeling the pain. The tiny island of Kastelorizo -- 250 permanent inhabitants and one mile from Turkey -- last week absorbed 1000 people in 72 hours, adding to tensions with a neighbor whose provocations by land and by sea have brought NATO boats into the picture. Greeks are now actually asking the question: Could there be a war with Turkey?

It should be noted that the 3 top political factions (Siriza-Anel, Nea Democratia, and PASOK) seem to actually agree on refugee issues -- but a certain opposition leader keeps talking about how his party would win new elections. Who needs that right now?

"Tipping point" just might be putting it mildly.

(Published in The Greek American Herald, March 2016)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From Germany, with love -- and back at her!

For those of you who might be getting tired of my stories about "Girls School" (GS) graduates, buckle up!

In few days I will depart for Greece to continue my mission to connect all 205 GS graduates from 1966-1978 -- from the year the American Farm School took over the GS from the founding Quakers, until they closed it forever in 1978. To refresh your memories, I was at the School 1968 -78, which is why I have such a close relationship with those students and their families. During that period I visited the village home of every Girls School student at least once.

I visited Rosa Detsika (nee Kitti '69) in Koupa, Eidhomeni, a mountainous area very near the border w/"Macedonia" town now bearing so many refugee problems. To do so, you had to leave the asphalted main road. I was a master at navigating those one-lane cart/cow tracks, but on one occasion had a bit of a mishap. It had rained a lot, and the "road" was muddy and becoming rather treacherous. There wasn't really room to turn around either. Onward we went until my trusty VW slipped, leaving us suspended more than a little over the edge of a ravine. My colleague Carolina was close to hysterical, while I got out (carefully) and waved/shouted "Rosa" at the top of my lungs -- attracting the attention of the whole village across the way. Her father came post haste with his tractor to pull my car out of harm's way...and I was most grateful!

Photo op w/rabbit!
On another occasion -- this was a favorite village of mine! -- I went with my aunt Libby for a very pleasant visit. As we were leaving, Rosa's family presented us with a live hare (rabbit) squirming in a burlap sack. Fortunately for me (but perhaps not the rabbit), I convinced them that I was not going directly back to the School and simply could not take the rabbit. They kept it...

Last fall, I wrote to Rosa via her family in Axioupolis and received an answer some weeks later from Altena, Germany -- where I knew she had gone to work in 1970 like many Greeks. Unknown to me, she had stayed all this time. She has two children, a daughter (who now also lives in Germany, but not close by) and a son (who is a policeman in Athens.) There are now also 3 grandchildren in the mix. She was especially thrilled to get a contact list of her classmates, with whom she had lost touch!

Rosa's son became a godfather, too! (2014)
Rosa is looking forward to retiring in 2 years and returning to Greece...but will she under the present hellish economic circumstances? Time will tell, but meanwhile I have her German phone numbers and will talking with her very soon...from Greece, with love!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

First picture of Skopos (Turkey) Xanthopoulos Family Home!

Latest holiday missive from Serres, Greece, brought yet another coveted gift from my new-found Aunt Eleni Xanthopoulou. Seems as if trips to family villages outside of Greece -- formerly part of the Ottoman Empire -- are now more the norm than rare...and I hope I can get on one of those excursions out of Neos Skopos sooner rather than later.

Eleni and her husband did make such a trip to Skopos (in Turkey, and now called Uskup) awhile back. So I asked her if she had any pictures to share. And voila! This is a picture of the only remaining Xanthopoulos Family home in Skopos:

To be continued -- as in a few weeks I will be visiting Kolindros (Imathias) where Papou Xanthoulis Xanthopoulos had a restaurant/hotel type of establishment at the time he married Yiayia Pauline in nearby Naousa (1916). Opa!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The past is ever-present, and right in my own backyard!

I celebrated the first day of the New Year 2016 by revisiting my past -- in, Naples, Florida, where I visited with the family of Sofia Papanicolaou Vardoulias, who graduated from the AFS Girls' School in 1970. ‎ Up until recently when she came to Miami to visit me, we had not seen each for 43 years. This time I got to meet the whole family (minus one daughter who has moved back to Bridgeport, CT)...a real holiday treat!

Sofia and her father (1970)
My continuing efforts to locate all the 205 graduates of that 1967-78 program -- and I'm well over the 50 percent mark so far! -- made me wonder where is Sofia who came to the US in 1972? There are at least 5 grads living in the USA and Canada as far as I know, and I have been contact w/3 of them for many years. Thanks to Google and Facebook, I was able to find Sofia (daughter of  a Greek Orthodox priest and a lovely man), who was a sharp, industrious Student Body President at school...BUT totally horrified to learn that she has lived about 2 hours from me for 19 years!

Takis, Sofia, Polixeni, & Dimitri 
‎Living mostly in CT at first, the Vardouliases decided to invest in a home in Florida, which they visited seasonally. 18 years ago, they came for good -- getting involved in a pizza place that eventually became their Zorba's, a really nice restaurant in Bonita Springs which seats about 170 people inside and out. We had a super New Year's Eve dinner there with family, friends and awesome lamb chops...topped off by going home to watch the ball drop in Times Square, just like most of you did.

Lamb Fricassee Lesson
New Year's Day morning was spent cutting the Vasilopita and reminiscing in depth...Sofia has saved her Girl's School notebooks, including one with yearbook-like inscriptions from her classmates. She did not know that her younger classmate Zoi Mihalidhou '71 had ended up working for Greek Prime Minister/President Konstantinos Karamanlis for many years until his death -- another Girls School success story, matched by Sofia and many other graduates who also have amazing life stories to share.

A highlight of my visit -- even more than the orgy of Greek TV watching (Dalaras lives, and sounds/looks pretty darn good!) -- was a cooking lesson. Sofia had already planned to make lamb fricassee, my all-time favorite dish. After watching carefully (and getting over my avgo-lemono-making phobia), I can now add it to my lamb shank repertoire. 

Sofia and her husband Takis made me feel very much at home, and we are planning for a return engagement and/or a rendezvous in Greece where they visit annually (she from Elatohori, Katerinis, and he from Mistra, Spartis).  Sofia is now all-in for finding the rest of her classmates and having a reunion. We even called one of them now living in Thessaloniki to say Happy New Year!

Bottom line right now? My Girls School Family just got a whole lot bigger...Opa!

(Published in The Greek American Herald, February 2016)