In the summer of 2014, I worried deeply about a family I left behind in Margariti, Greece. They seemed to need a little more help than the other families. They were living outside our balcony window, atop the electric pole. A family of storks.
Storks choose one mate for life. They raise their children together in one nest and if something happens to one of them, the other stays alone for the rest of its life.
When I first arrived in Margariti in 1983, the stork nests dominated the scenery. They were everywhere. This giant nest on the old house was the residence of the first stork couple with whom I would become well acquainted. The sound of their clacking beaks each morning was part of the countryside cacophony. They would swoop down to pick up snakes and other tasty treats or fly off to the lake and return with their prey squiggling in their beaks. They often landed beside the house to peck at dried sticks and grass, choosing carefully for their nest, a nest that would soon contain a few chicks watching in awe as the adults took flight.
The children had black beaks in contrast to the red adult-beaks which indicated that they were too young to fly. But by the end of August those beaks were adolescent pink. So the young birds began their hesitant departures from the nest. First in small circles--wobbling through the air with their parents gliding gracefully nearby, later flying far from the nest, away from the watchful eyes.
The storks' annual departure was one made for a Hitchcock movie as it all happened within twenty-four hours. It was a bit eery. In one afternoon, all the swallows that had lived under the balconies and the eaves of the village houses, would line the electric wires. It was an unofficial signal that the end to the summer was at hand. The very next day, both the swallows and the storks would be gone--on their way to Africa. We'd awaken without the noise of those clacking beaks that had been present every morning before, and every nest, stork and swallow, would be completely empty.
Then and now, the storks mostly prefer electricity poles for a building location secure from predators. You can see one in the 1983 photo to the right.
But occasionally one or two might be electrocuted when wet straw of their nest touched a live wire. As a result, the village government put large plastic containers at the top of the poles and the birds learned to build their nests inside those protective containers.
That nest in the photo is now across from our present-day balcony. We watched that same couple raise their little ones over many years, the children flying away, the parents moving to Africa for the winter and then returning to the same nest each summer to raise a new batch of babies--a cycle renewed. I didn't think much about it until a few years ago when one stork came back alone. That bird sat by itself in the nest all summer and again the following summer until one year no bird returned and the nest was left empty for several years.
However, in the summer of 2014, a new young stork started checking out that location. Eventually there were two of them and they worked to fill the plastic container with straw and sticks. It was a little late in the summer for setting up house, so at first I thought they were just using that pole to rest.
I snapped a photo of the reflection in the balcony door, a sort of clandestine move on my part. I was so excited to see a new young mother moving in, I didn't want her to know I was spying. You can see her working with the beginnings of a nest. And a few weeks later there were baby birds in that nest.
I watched them each morning as they grew, but when the swallows lined the electric wires, those babies still had not left the nest. And the next day when every swallow and stork nest was supposed to be vacant, that one family was still there. On our last day in Margariti, I saw the baby birds being taught to fly. I hoped they were able to make it down to Africa without the help of the flock. I tend to think the parents, with their adventurous spirit, having waited longer than the rest of the flock to have their children, were resourceful enough to get the family south. I thought about them all that winter.
I'm guessing they made it there because the parents returned and took up residence again the following summer, and the one after that, each time producing one or two offspring. And this year they are back.
It appears we have neighbors who love to return as often as we do . . . and who can blame them? It's a perfect location to spend the summer!
A "bucket" list implies the end of which I'd rather not contemplate. Instead the list I've decided to embrace, is a little bit different but still carries the same charm, and it rhymes with the original. This list is generated when people tell a person he or she is too old to do something, and the reply is, as it should be, "F---it! I'm gonna do it anyway!" Hence, the other list.
Number one for this old biddy is water skiing. I've wanted to do this since I first watched fellow campers water skiing on Lake Chateaugay in the mountains of New York about fifty years ago. So why didn't I? Oh, it was too dangerous or I didn't want people to see me above water with my butt hanging out of my bathing suit or, more recently, it might throw out my back. . .
The instructor at Lichnos Beach in Epirus Greece, helped me finally realize this dream. Okay, so I never said I expected to stand on the water, only to ski, hence the name of the activity. And as a very short and insignificant post script, I did throw my back out. Darn!
But there's something to be said for putting your fears on the back burner and allowing yourself to just do it! And so, though my back may delay my next attempt, I now know what it is to feel that brief moment of flying atop the water because I did make it to a standing position for about 3 seconds, which of course was not memorialized by my "photographer." However, he is forgiven, as I'm pretty sure he was startled by the shriek I let out as my knees straightened, and he was probably more surprised by that momentary success than I!
Onward to number two on the list. Run a marathon.
Well, running a marathon probably requires some preparation, so that item has been tailored to running a 5K which I can run perfectly well on my flat even treadmill, with the added fan feature cooling off my face.
As it turns out, though, nature's terrain is a bit more challenging with her monstrous hills. And the chatter and competitive nature of the other runners can be a distraction. AND! For Goodness sake, aren't there supposed to be those tables with little cups of water when you get to the top of a hill??
So let's just modify that "running" to "finishing." I did maintain a slow trot that never became a walk. . . and for that I am proud, placing three hundred and thirtieth as I met the finish line, which is evident by the normal town activity going on in the background as they'd already cheered 329 people and probably thought the race was over. However, I was not last and my bib number is hanging proudly on the wall of our home.
I look forward to other activities like hang gliding, paddle boarding and yes, parachuting! But lately I've been sidetracked by several experiences that scream:
I always thought it was a bit dramatic, my husband's insistence that we cover the beautifully tiled floors of our New York bathrooms with some not-so-beautiful rugs. It's too cold on the feet, he always says, this from a man who could suffer the most numbing circumstances without complaint.
With my experience of a February Epirus, however, I now realize the sensation he's been avoiding comes more from an Epirote memory than the present-day winters of New York. No matter how long the heater in the Margariti house has been running or the house air has been warmed to a comfortable temperature, the tiled floors remain painfully cold to the touch. And this is in a fully formed, windowed, modern, heated home. I can barely imagine how it was in his childhood home, a home I arrived at in the sweltering summer of 1983. A home with no heat, no running water (so forget about a warm shower on a winter morning) and enough space under the doors to allow entry to creeping creatures or winter winds.
In this Winter Epirus, there are several unexpected surprises. One such delightful surprise is the water . . . it's everywhere!
Rivers run off the mountains, into the sea, from every direction. And flat valley fields have become lakes filled to capacity, their farm roads submerged with only the smallest edges peeking up through the water to let the unknowing eye understand that these are, in fact, not lakes! Such abundance of water exists, of course, because of the winter rains--constant and steady. And that rain brings idle time. For many of the villagers, cafes and taverns remain the favorite places to pass that time. The summer crowds have dwindled to local residents and rather than familiar outdoor living, they huddle beside warm fires in well sealed taverns. At first glance, a village that appears sleepy and void of residents is actually bustling with life. It's just mostly indoors.
The Epirus winter siesta is the fuel that fires the evening rendezvous as the summer-siesta ritual is carried into these darker days. Most shops still close at 2:00 (and not one second later, as I learned one day when I tried to get something from a launder in Igoumenitsa). The schools let out at the same time so the students and the workers can go home for the afternoon meal and customary snooze. For myself, however, I find waking up in the winter darkness a bit disconcerting, as sunset occurs within the siesta window of time. But the siesta seems to be the norm as shops reopen around six in the evening and cafes spring back to life.
During one warm Epirote month in 1964, the Margariti elementary students, under the direction of one imaginative and cunning teacher, created the most memorable of projects. It was a museum filled with the artifacts that the villagers had collected over the years, mostly ancient coins and other paraphernalia from history, some found while digging on the family farms, others passed down from generation to generation. The teacher understood the value of these items and sought the children's help to collect and display them, creating a wonderful museum right there in the classroom. They worked for days, writing descriptions of each item and then they proudly wrote the owner's name of each contribution on a small place card. It was meant to be a secret project until its unveiling on opening day -- a temporary museum that provided a multi-layered lesson of history and language, one that required research and note-taking, a lesson greater than any the children had learned prior, or ever would learn afterwards. Unforgettable. My husband, Nick, was one of those students and he recalls the excitement of the time. Each day a new coin or ancient relic would be brought in. The contributing student, a star at the head of the classroom, would describe his or her piece and gain the much-sought-after attention and approval of their teacher. My father-in-law, Toma, had a nice little collection of coins that Nick gingerly wrapped in a handkerchief and brought to school. It was a variety of coins that out-shone the other students' contributions. Nick was very proud. The students created invitations for their parents. They also created posters to be hung within the village so that everyone could share in this open invitation -- enjoy the beauty of the artifacts and admire the students' creativity. Two days before the grand opening, the museum pieces were placed around the room and carefully arranged. The school was decorated while the beautifully sculpted invitations and posters lay upon the teacher's desk, ready for distribution the following day. The children's excitement could hardly be contained as they pulsed with the delicious secret they awaited to share with their parents. But, the next day, the teacher was gone and so were all the artifacts. And no one ever saw him again . . . or the artifacts. So much was stolen that day. The disappointment those children felt is indescribable, but worse is the horror of those who had lost gold and silver that they had held for generations. We can only hope that this man suffered in some way for his crime against Margariti. Perhaps one of the gods caught up with him.
Yiayia's advice: The right time is now . . . for whatever it is you've been promising yourself.
Yiayia didn't know how to drive a car. Every January she promised herself—with a list of other promises—that she'd finally learn to drive. But it seemed too complicated, all those gadgets and buttons and . . . well, Papou had always done that sort of thing. But when at the age of 75, she watched poor old Papou reach for his jacket in the back seat of their beat-up old sedan and slump lifelessly to the floor, she realized her time to learn to drive had arrived. First she dialed for the police and received a recorded message, then she screamed for her neighbor who appeared to not be home. Then she pushed poor old Papou further into the back seat, closed the door, got into the driver's side and backed the car out of the driveway with all the speed and prowess of Mario Andretti.
The hospital was only 3 blocks away so she didn't have much time to think about the fact that she was, for the first time in her life, in the driver's seat.
But when she did have time to reflect on it (and after she found out that poor old Papou was okay), she felt very proud and happy. And then she felt very sad.
"But why are you sad, Yiayia?" her awestruck granddaughter asked.
"My dear," said Yiayia, "it's an awful feeling, at my age, to realize you can do something you thought you couldn't." She shook her head slowly. "And worse than that," Yiayia continued, "is wondering about all those other things in years past, that you hadn't tried simply because you thought you couldn't."
Yiayia's advice: The right time is now . . . for whatever it is you've been promising yourself.
* Photo: https://pixabay.com/en/users/PaelmerPhotoArts-126905/ * Reposted and revised from December 2015
You need only to wait 40-50 years before your children and/or your students begin to appreciate you. That's what I've gleaned from my husband, Nick's, attempt to comfort me in a moment of despair.
We've met for a brief daytime break during the school day. My head, having dropped to the table, rests on the back of my hands. I'm barely able to lift the feather-light weight of an espresso cup as I relay the latest of my classroom drama.
A bundle of perfectly sculpted lesson plans with activities and mastery goals that could bring tears of joy to an observing administrator, still lay untouched as my only goal has become, quite by necessity-----for those newly immigrated 12-year-old boys from a country that eludes me in my repertoire of worldly knowledge-----to keep their hands off each other, away from their noses and out of their pants which seem to have them in a perpetual state of itch. My arm muscle aches from pointing to the self-crafted poster in their home language that reads: "I expect you to behave like young men." And it is at this moment Nick starts to reminisce.
"Maybe they're from a small village," he says, a far off look in his eyes, "maybe a village without water. It's hard to stay clean without water. The family might not be used to having running water. Maybe they're conserving it without realizing."
I see a look of understanding come across his face, a realization of sorts and this is what he says about his own memory as a student some fifty years ago in the rural countryside of Eprius, Greece: "We must have driven out teachers crazy. We were wild animals . . . with horrible behavior. And we only bathed once a week, Sunday for church. We washed our hands and face every morning but we were filthy, running around, sweaty and wild, just wild." He shakes his head slowly. "We really tortured those teachers."
Apparently, new teachers were required to work in that poor area before they could move on to another location; perhaps one they preferred. So few stayed and there was very little continuity in the students' lives. But Nick remembers one really dedicated music teacher.
He says, "she never gave up on us. She was so positive and cheerful and we really liked her. She stayed for a long time."
Okay! I get it. Positive. Cheerful. Never give up. I suck down that triple espresso and wander back into battle . . . um, I mean go back to school . . . fully caffeinated and bolstered by the fact that the boys might possibly, maybe, sort of, kind of, perhaps think about the effort I put into educating them.
This method for learning the language of Greece is one that I'm enjoying a great deal! It's the latest endeavor of this high-strung perfectionist who will only believe she speaks Greek when it exits her mouth in perfectly fluent chains of speech. As it turns out, the ouzo is integral to the method, as it seems to get me closer to that perfection with each sip.
Rembetika, an historical Greek music steeped in culture and history, is hard to define. But suffice it to say that the lost love, sorrowful tales and tragically flawed humans, depicted in Rembetika lyrics are simple and straightforward with many opportunities for learning idioms and colloquial Greek. I discovered this at the taverna, Piperi, in Parga, Greece, with friends, Cathy and Hanne. Hanne, mentioned that she has been using Rembetika to help her improve her Greek language.
The Piperi Taverna group usually consists of several musicians and one female singer whose voice renders my husband, Nick, soppy with emotion and nostalgia (not an easy feat). The singer's voice, to him, is that of Sotiria Bellou which takes him back to his 1960s school days in Athens when apparently he was spending much time hanging out in tavernas listening to Rembetika and pining over its lyrics.
Likewise, the Piperi Taverna music awakens its patrons with songs that release inhibitions from even the most repressed among us. During the hottest summer nights of Parga, there are always impromptu additions to the music, by overenthusiastic patrons who might start drumming on the table or, in bursts of emotion, try to out-sing the singer in an ouzo-soaked shouting voice. While these shows of enthusiasm are extremely entertaining, I prefer the actual melodic voice of the singer, and I enjoy singing along quietly if I've figured out the lyrics, or if I haven't, just making up my own.
This brings me back to the Ouzo/Rembetika language lessons.
Epirus, Greece, has leapt from the 19th century to the 21st in a matter of thirty years. Until the 1980s, life remained as grueling and difficult as the centuries before. And it had been the women of Epirus who'd kept that world turning through wars, political upheaval and devastating poverty.
This blog post is about the artifacts they've left behind and by extension, a tribute to their strength.
I was fortunate enough to witness that lifestyle -- a piece of Epirus history, the history of its women -- before it faded to an insignificant rhetoric. In the summer of 1983, when I first arrived in Margariti, Epirus was still moving at a slow crawl toward modernization with no indoor plumbing, primitive roads, limited communication to the outside world and a paralyzing culture shock that had me locked in a fog for quite a while. Dictated by chance of gender and birthplace, these women worked tirelessly during every moment of the day for the simplest necessities of life, such as clean drinking water and edible food. During that first visit, despite the fact that I was the daughter-in-law (the nifi), my foreign status seemed to exempt me from such labor as my sisters-in-law worked beside my mother-in-law, Chevi, for what seemed to me like every waking hour.
Chevi left behind many objects of this laborious era. They are memories and reminders, but not so long ago they were Chevi's valuable possessions.
The round wooden board for making pita would be placed on the floor where the dough would be rolled out to paper thinness.
The actual cooking took place in the fourno, the dome-shaped oven that was often covered by a small structure for protection from the weather. The heat for cooking inside the fourno came from wood collected and stored by the women during the fall months.
This wood-collecting contributed to the bald appearance of the mountains and surrounding area during that time. Such deforestation had numerous effects on the weather, as well as on the women's spines which often were loaded beyond that of any pack mule. They learned to carry this weigh as young girls while their bones were still developing.
There's nothing earth-shattering here, no words of wisdom or deep philosophy, just a compilation of photos showing a random variety of dishes (also known as mezes, or mezedes) which, in Greece, are automatically served with drinks. So a couple of drinks and a plate of food, amount to a fun night out for as little as 4 to 8 Euros. For me, this means that I often order much more than my liver can filter, just to see what kind of mezedes the server will bring.
I had no right to cry and yet, I could not stop the tears. By right, I mean my life had never touched these places, these memories, except through the stories of my husband, who'd been a soldier at the time and my dear friend, Andrea, who lived it, in her own painful way. She'd been a new bride, in the U.S. when her village was invaded, her entire family having the daunting task of trying to escape by foot on a land as flat and treeless as a cutting board. Turkish parachuters floating down to amber fields as mothers ran with children, but to where? It was not clear to anyone. Back then, 1974, there was no social media to keep the information flowing. The people of Cyprus had no idea what was happening. The radio station was quickly occupied and continued to play music. Immediately, the Greek government sent ships to help. My husband, Nick was on one of them. They were blocked by American and British ships, forced to watch from afar, impotent while the atrocities of war with its brainwashed soldiers unraveled.
For Andrea, there was only a brief mention of the Turkish invasion on the nightly news in her New York home and then silence. . . and agony as she waited for some word of her family's fate. After six months it finally came. They'd gotten out, all of them, one of the few fortunate families. Theirs was an in-tact family but without a home, without a village. Refugees forced to the other side of the island as a handful of political players, untouched by the tragedy, drew lines on a map, invisible borders that remain today.
The people are referred to as Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, both groups having lived peacefully as a diverse population of christian and muslim Cypriots until the invasion from mainland Turkey, which forced the Turkish Cypriots from their homes in the south as they feared repercussions from the injured Greek Cypriots. So they fled to the Turkish-occupied side of Cyprus while the Greek Cypriot refugees who were able to escape that war zone, relocated in the south.
There are ghost towns at the border that lie within something called the buffer zone, a sort of no-man's-land between the two sides.It's too dangerous to settle near there even though it's more than 40 years later. What would happen if one side or the other decided to take more land? Better to be as far from the border as possible. So we passed by completely empty shells of large villages with houses, town squares, and churches standing vacant against the cypriot-blue sky as nature slowly covers the stones, taking them back to the earth. . . a historical site for future generations to ponder over.
We were there to visit Pigi (Πηγη), Andrea's village, something she's dreamed of for years. The border has been open since 2003. Greek Cypriots who've been exiled from their homes for over 4 decades have trickled back to see their homes, but those houses are occupied by the enemy . . . kind of. Our Cypriot license plate identified us and most people understood why we were there. There were hesitant waves of welcome, a honk or two from a passing car with Turkish plates, a few meek nods of the head as we passed by cafes.
In Greece, everyone's heard of construction projects that've been halted due to unexpected artifact finds. It's usually a tale of woe as the building project is kept in limbo waiting for a governmental decision -- to proceed as planned or to halt work permanently thus claiming the property as an archeological site. For this reason, it is rare for citizens to report any ruins they find while undergoing independent construction projects. Instead, such sites are often covered up and left for another era.
Likewise, gardeners in Greece have similar experiences. A mere generation ago when Greece was still struggling to meet the modern world, artifacts in one's garden were common place.
When my mother-in-law found an ancient coin while she was digging on the family farm, she
showed it to her children and asked, "Can we use this to buy something?" The answer was "no" so she tossed it aside and it lay unclaimed until many years later when it was put on a chain and worn with pride.
Remnants of war also tend to surface now and then. Take this belt buckle, for instance.
It was worn by one Greek teen throughout the 1960s after he'd found it half buried on the farm. For him it was a prize to show off with swagger. But as time went on, the belt that was attached to the buckle began to deteriorate. The buckle was lost and forgotten, only to reemerge some fifty years later in the family vegetable garden.
Currently there are two of us in this group. I am the not-so-fluent Greek speaker, making up Greek words that seem like they should be in the language and Toula is a do-or-die, won't-stop-until-I-get-the-point-across, barely-able English speaker.
But we are both fluent in grunts, groans, eye rolling and gestures. Thus, our morning conversations are both enlightening and somewhat confusing.
All are welcome to join us! Young, Old, middle aged, male, female, Greek-speakers, English-speakers, non-speakers etc.
However. . . and this is a big however. . .
No dogs, please.
Why no dogs?
Here are 4 reasons:
1. 1962, First Encounter with a Dog: I was playing at Little Jimmy Sorkell's house in Hicksville, NY. His puppy, which to my 4-year-old mind was a ferocious lion, jumped up on me and started barking. I peed all over the kitchen floor. His mother said something like "You make more of a mess than fido!" and then she got me a pair of Little Jimmy's scratchy boy-jeans to wear while she laundered my clothes.
2. 1987: Margariti, Greece . . . My brother-in-law thought it would be a good idea to keep a ferocious man-eating dog outside the door of our small 2-room house. I was terrified all that summer, especially at night. What if the dog got loose? It never stopped barking. My in-laws tried to reassure me. The dog would never hurt one of its own, they said, which I found completely unnerving. That dog was trying to get at an unfamiliar scent: American. I barely slept a wink that summer.
Greece is filled with summertime cantinas that could easily be passed by without a second thought, but this one, called Kantina Meeting, had caught our eye as we drove from the beach up to the village of Perdika, which lies between Parga and Syvota.
There was something about it . . . the detail in its structure that bespoke a clever creativeness begging to be investigated. We had to stop. And we hoped to meet the artist of such a creation.
As it turned out, the proprietor was Thanasis, a Greek who had returned to live in Perdika with his English-speaking wife. And this is how we met the very talented pastry chef, Katie, of Katie's Cakes.
She and Thanasis have 3 sons and have lived in Perdika since 2002. Before that, they lived in Corfu which is where they met. Katie's cakes are worth the trip to Perdika. In fact, after having tasted her delicious handiwork on one coffee stop after the beach, we made the trip back to Perdika just for a birthday cake which we brought all the way to Filiates where the celebration was taking place.
I find Katie especially interesting because she is a foreign "nifi" (daughter-in-law), a non-Greek married to a Greek which is something that comes with an entire village regardless of where the married couple decides to settle. And a foreign-nifi is profoundly different from a woman whose parents are Greek and comes back to Greece, leaving from the country in which she's been raised (Australia, Canada, the U.S.). No, a foreign nifi is a Different-Language-Speaking woman who never dreamed she'd marry a Greek, who only thought of Greece as an idyllic vacation place, who expected a white picket fence and fine manicured lawn with a man from her own country.
When looking for a new physician, are you the type who wants an older more experienced doctor?
Once when given a choice while making an appointment for an orthopedic, I was asked by the receptionist, "Do you want to see the father or the son?" The two doctors practiced together. How sweet, I'd thought. Of course I wanted the father. I pictured a twenty-something-year-old son. However, when the old man hobbled in, I realized my mistake. The problem was with me, really. I didn't know I had gotten older. I've always felt more comfortable with a physician who is at least my age or a bit above, but that doesn't quite work anymore.