Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beware of the Evil Eye!

The evil eye is real.

And this blue and white glass, called a mati, is the surest protection against it. The evil eye's harmful powers are brought upon you by jealousy when an envious person unwittingly sends the curse your way, resulting in some very uncomfortable ailments.

So -- if you have any aches or pains. Maybe you're just feeling blue, a little under the weather, or sluggish. It's not that heavy meal you ate, or that overenthusiastic workout.   It's the curse of the evil eye. And it's because you are so awesome that those around you cannot help but be jealous. You should have worn your mati.

No need to worry, though. There is a cure. First, we need a glass of water with three drops of olive oil. Then we will cut a small piece of your hair and put it in the water. An old Greek woman needs to whisper into the glass -- some prayers -- or an incantation, I've never been sure of which.

It was done for me when I had food poisoning back in 1983, during my first visit to Greece, after returning from a visit to a bouzouki club there on the countryside of Epirus. The bottle of portokalatha that I drank had tasted a bit odd, but I was too shy to tell anyone and so the results--a few hours later--were quite ugly. Especially without modern plumbing or running water.

My two small children also experience the evil-eye-cure when I returned a few years later. Their whiny complaints and embarrassing tantrums in a language that no one understood, (no one but me, that is) prompted several incantations over olive oil laden with their hair. That's actually the time I decided to embrace the evil eye theory, as it got me off the hook for my parenting skills.

So anyway, once the elixir is stirred and the words are whispered over the glass, you need to drink it. Yes, that's right. It's not very tasty, but you'll be cured and that's the most important part of the ritual.

Bottoms up.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Good-bye to the old Days!

You know how people say they miss the "good old days?"  Well - I have to be honest.  I don't.  The old days were hard.  
. . . on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Yes, of course, I miss my youth, my little children, my naive sense that time was endless.  But I do not miss the hard times.  

The changes in Margariti were slow but welcome improvements.  The last section from the old house was knocked down. (below)  That was the room where the whole family slept after the fire, before the little house was built.  It was replaced with a lovely 3 bedroom apartment area.  The finished product is the photo on the book cover of The Nifi. 

Can you see the cooking shack in the background of the photo below, to the left?

That was also knocked down and replaced with a nice new modern one.

No one was sorry to see it go.  For Chevi, the improvements were more signs that her children were becoming successful.  And isn't that what we all want?  To see our children go forward in life, independent and productive.  To know that they have found a good friend to go through life with. There is nothing else after that.

And Chevi knew that about all of her children.

Some changes are brought about by hard work and perseverance and some are beyond our control.

Monday, November 25, 2013


"Tzoumpa" is a hill above the village of Margariti in Epirus, Greece. The word is not Greek nor is it from the local dialect, Albanetika, and I've never been able to find anyone who knows the origin of it. The structure atop Tzumpa is one of the abandoned homes from the old Margariti Village and it was once a place we would walk to frequently. Now when you look up at Tzoumpa, you see a wall of lush green vegetation, with no visible hint of a structure. 

Before the modern world came to the Margariti valley, the hills were picked clean as the women collected the wood and used it for heating and cooking. At that time, most people also kept their animals close to the village so the goats would wander up onto Tzoumpa to graze, eating every small sapling and twig.

Entertainment back then was in the form of whatever could be done locally because there were very few cars. No one really left the village other than on buses for work or official business in the surrounding areas. Hiking up Tzoumpa was an evening activity after the heat of the day began to subside. The view of the valley was spectacular.

The last time I hiked up there was with my brother, Bob, and his family in 2006. Most of the grazing animals were no longer kept in the village and the cutting of wood had ceased all together with indoor heating and kitchen appliances, so the vegetation on the hill was just beginning to take over. There were enormous spider webs across the path, stretched between the branches of young saplings that had finally been allowed to grow, and the spiders those webs were as big as my thumb.

Bob had taken a big stick and held it out ahead of us so he could knock down the spider webs. The motion of pushing the stick back and forth in the air sort of looked like a dance and when I mentioned that, he started doing a crazy dance, jumping up and down in the air, pirouetting with his hands held high and the branch pushing out in front of him. I imagine any villagers who saw us, wondered what those crazy Americans were up to. We laughed so hard we could barely talk.

Today, the vegetation has completely taken over and you cannot see the house on top of Tzoumpa at all. In fact, the vegetation is so thick, it is very difficult to get to that house. The greenery is of great pride and satisfaction to the locals who lived during a time of barren landscape. But frankly, I miss that brown scenery and those naked hills . . . or maybe it's just my youth that I'm pining for. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Chevi once said to me, "Two children are not enough. You need more." Nikki and Thomas were still very young at that time.  I wanted to tell her about our life in the U.S. -- about our struggles and the reason two children would be best. But how could I have dared to even think of saying such things to a woman who knew only hardship. Luckily, I didn’t speak much Greek back then, so I just smiled.  

She persisted.  “Children are a blessing.  More are better.” 

“It’s expensive,” I said in broken Greek. “We'd never be able to visit you again if we had more.”

“That’s okay,” she answered. “Have more.”

It gave Chevi great pleasure to see each of her children succeed. It was more important to her than having them stay behind in the village, as was customary. Anastasia and Eftihia, the two younger daughters, remained somewhat close, in towns that were a short car ride away, though neither of them drove. But Nick in America and Fotis and Vaso in Crete, would be a full day's journey.

I cannot pretend to know what it was like for her, but I am at an age where I wonder at the locations in which my own children will settle. Specifically how far away will they be? Chevi must have felt great anxiety about not seeing those other children for long periods of time.  America or Crete, to her they were the same -- another world, too far to contemplate.

So, I remember when we broke ground for our new house across the courtyard. The photo on the right shows the original little house before it was absorbed into the new.

Chevi was very happy, as the construction was her proof that we would be back. And I know that was a great comfort. She really wanted her children to be nearby. What parent doesn't ? Each time we left, she'd produce a stoic smile but the good-bye hug would linger for a few minutes. It would be many years later, that I'd hear from her cousin, Toula, how Chevi cried for days each time we left Margariti for the U.S.

The house was a project that took years and provided insurance that she would at least see Nick, her eldest son, one more time. For why would he build such a permanent structure, if not to return again and again? 

And when the roof was constructed she heaved a sign of relief.  "Okay," she said, "now it is a home!" Back in those days, there were so many cement slabs dotting the Margariti landscape. They were unfinished buildings, like ours, and they would take years to be finished, some never at all. Chevi worried relentlessly at the unfinished structure. In her mind the house represented all of her children. She'd done her best to raise them in the worst conditions and now she sought to see evidence of success. 
Like all parents, she suffered a common fear: Have I done a good job? Was it enough?

Chevi supervising the construction. You can see it in her eyes: relief. 

The roof was an ordeal that stands out in my memory above all other aspects of the construction. The original roofer proved to be very dishonest and we scrambled toward the end of the summer to find a solution.

Following is an excerpt from the memoir,  The Nifi   
     Eftihia told her brothers of a quality roofer she knew in Igoumenitsa, but he didn't drive. He would need a ride back and forth every day.
     There were only eleven days left and although The Igoumenitsa Roofer had a son-in-law who worked with him, two single workers would not be able to finish in that time. Nick and Fotis would have to help. Eventually, we would all help by carrying the roof tiles up the ladder, handing them tools, and bringing them water. The work was started early every morning. Chevi would cook a large midday meal which we all would stop to eat, but no one would take a siesta, including the neighbors--though they had no choice in the matter--and after ten days, the roof was finished, one day before our departure.
     Chevi, in keeping with the old tradition, insisted on affixing a wooden cross to the finished roof with a clean towel hanging from one end and some apples from the other. The cross, a symbol of a Christian home, was something of importance to a woman who rarely visited her church but was ingrained with memories of a time when one's religion determined survival. The towel was a message to all who viewed it that this was a family who respected its workers, thus providing a towel for their use. And the apples symbolized a fruitful future for the inhabitants of the home.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Chevi: The Rebel

Chevi is a criminal. There's no getting around it. As a middle-age woman in the 1980s, she committed a criminal act not just once but for several consecutive days and weeks until she saw fit to give it up. But it was very uncharacteristic of her law-abiding, sweet nature so it's sometimes hard to believe it actually happened. However, it's true, and it was that one unforgettable story her grandmother had told her when she was a young girl, that dictated her actions during her crime spree.

Yiayia Vasiliki told Chevi, this:  There once was a little girl who did not have enough to eat.  She was starving but she was also too shy to ask for food. When people offered her food, she said no, because she felt it would be rude to accept, knowing that it was most likely not even enough food with which to feed that person who was offering. And so the little girl died of starvation.

True story? It doesn't matter. It governed Chevi's actions for the rest of her life and it personifies the cultural norm surrounding the Greeks' insistence that you accept their food. 

Don't ask the person if he wants food or drink. Give it to him and insist he take it.

So in the 1980s, when the government of Albania collapsed, and the Greek government relaxed the guard at the Albanian borders, just north of Margariti, a flood of illegal immigrants came over the mountains and passed through the valley on their way south in pursuit of a better life. I don't know the political aspect of this situation and neither did Chevi.

But one day Chevi went to tend to her animals on the farm and she saw some young boys eating the stale bread she had left in the dog’s bowl. When she spoke to them in the local Albanian-like dialect, they understood her. She gave them food and water and then they continued on their way. Somehow these moving bands of young Albanians heard about this kind woman on the farm in Margariti and there were always more boys to feed each day.

One particularly skinny 15-year-old, stayed on the farm with her for a while. Perhaps he was worn out from the journey over the Pindos Mountains, or maybe he just saw Chevi as a surrogate mother and didn't want to leave her. But he stayed down on the farm in the goat shed and she gave him fresh food every morning.

Then one day someone reported him to the police. It’s likely that others had seen him prior to that day and had stayed silent. In those days there wasn't much vegetation in the valley or on the mountainside so people could easily see from the top of the surrounding mountains down into the valley of the farmland.

The picture on the right shows how barren the landscape was back then.

Now, this flood of immigrants also came with the characteristic racism that usually accompanies them, so maybe someone reported him because, instead of a small 15-year-old boy, hungry and alone, they saw an Albanian, or a criminal. In any event, the police came to get him. But before they could, Chevi was alerted by someone in town which gave her a few minutes to guide the boy from her farm to her house.

Across the front yard was the beginning of construction that would someday be the home Nick and I would live in, and there was one piece of cement that sat atop the walls for a hallway ceiling, so the boy climbed up there and hid. The police searched the farm and found nothing so they came to the house and questioned Chevi. She wasn't fond of lying but she had no second thoughts about it in this case. This continued for many days, until the police assumed the boy had left Margariti.  

Each morning, before she lit the cooking fire or began her chores, Chevi would call the boy down from the cement slab when she thought no one would see, and she'd give him a meal inside her house, usually pita that she'd made the day before. Then the boy would climb back up into his hiding spot so as not to be seen by the numerous visitors who came unannounced at various intervals of the morning, hoping to get a piece of Chevi's fresh pita as she began her daily cooking. There was always that one small pita, that she'd hide from her guests. 

That skinny little boy is now a legal Margariti citizen, a grown man with a wife and children. He was a frequent visitor of Chevi's while she was alive and if she needed anything, he was quick to help her.

Chevi was a remarkable woman. She'd witnessed atrocities during World War II and the civil war that followed. Over the years she'd experienced the tumultuous changes that came with different ruling parties and different governments. But she, herself was always governed by the simple laws of morality.

For her, the greatest crime, is in withhold food and water from a hungry child.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Let's go Fishing!

This is someone's fishing spot along the Acheron River in Epirus, Greece. The hot sun is the reason it is deserted. In the morning before the sun was too high, I had seen someone sitting under that dried palm leaf-roof, holding a fishing rod and smoking a cigarette. It looked so relaxing, I thought I'd like to do that. Ever since, I've wanted to go fishing. Maybe next time. Just keep it simple. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Amoudia: Then and Now

In 1988, the village of Amoudia (The older people call it Splanza) in Epirus, Greece had only a few riverside cafes. 

Amoudia is a few minutes from Margariti. It lies at the mouth of the Acheron River and is surrounded by a small delta where fresh water meets the salty sea.

My father always had an appreciation for good food and in this photo, he is eating at one of the cafes that existed in Amoudia at that time. 

Fish in Greece is usually served whole, bones and all, but that is not something that we New Yorkers had been accustomed to, especially back then. So, at first it took some adjustment in attitude, but eventually we figured it out. We were always sure of its freshness when we saw it pulled from the river and brought to the frying pan. I haven’t yet found fish quite as tasty. And to that list of tasty food, you can add the fresh fruit and vegetables that reached our plates hours (sometimes minutes) after they’d been picked.

At that time, the tables were arranged beside the river and we could sit with our feet in the soft sandy dirt. The branches of the river trees above, sheltered us from the sun as we enjoyed the quiet splash of the water that drifted by. After we had eaten, we would wade into the river and wash our hands.

Nowadays, in that same space, you will find rows of cafes with cement walkways that go right up to the water's edge and drop off into the river, creating docks for the small boats that will take you for a tour of the river or of the surrounding coastline. Or if you'd prefer, a day trip to one of the nearby islands

And there is also the opportunity to walk to the end of the man-made jetty, stand atop the boulders and experience the incredible view of the mountains, the Ionian Sea and the Acheron River, all in one glance.