Friday, January 31, 2014

Marriage and Family: a Hauppauge High School Course!

Yes, the name of a half-year course, taught by Mr. Gough, that I took as a senior back in 1976 was: Marriage and Family.

These two pictures were taken from the yearbook.  Don't be fooled by the quality of the photos.  The art of photography was not as backwards as it looks. It's just that our graduating class felt that it would be more earth-friendly to have our yearbook on recycled paper.  We knew that society was changing and soon we'd be living in an environmentally sound world.  

I remember the Marriage and Family Class because it was so popular and because it was the only class that I felt would be remotely useful for the life my parents had prepped me for --a life that I was enthusiastically looking forward to.

Specifically, I remember the list of "don'ts" which, if followed, would increase your chance for a happy marriage:

RULE #1: Don't marry someone who is not of the same ethnicity as you are. My Irish boyfriend was in that class with me. I looked at him, batted my eyes and thought, "Well, I guess I could overlook that teeny-weeny little discrepancy."

He broke up with me a month after graduation and shortly after, married Maureen Tipperary.

But my Italian father had always told me the same thing--marry an Italianmarry your own kind--so I guess I thought there was some merit in it. I even remember assessing the boys in kindergarten and then coming home and reporting to him that I was going to marry Michael Savintelloni, at which he gave me his approval. Though it would take me a little longer before I would realize dad's hypocrisy.

"Hey! Wait a minute. Mom's not Italian." But he stuck to his position.

RULE #2:  Don't marry outside of your religion. According to Mr Gough, who was also heavily involved in the local Catholic church, this rule was a deal breaker. You really needed to be of the same faith or you would have all sorts of problems.This idea was reiterated years later by Father Donovan when I brought my Greek Orthodox boyfriend to meet him and talk about a possible wedding at St.Thomas More. His exact words: "You should not marry him."

Rule #3: Don't marry someone who had grown up in a country other than yours.  That person won't understand you because he/she will have different customs and raising your children will be confusing. That rule seemed like it would be the easiest to follow because at that time, the furthest I'd ever travelled was New York City--one trip with my English class to see Equus -- a play about something completely incomprehensible to my seventeen-year-old eyes and mostly forgotten. What I do remember was the full frontal nude scenes and the absolute silence of the audience. 

Mr Gough had a few other rules and these rules were probably based on someone's sound research, but I only remember the three outlined above.They stuck in my head over the years as I awaited the doom that would follow, having broken them all on one sunny February afternoon in 1982, standing in front of a Justice of the Peace at the Suffolk County court house.

Independent authors, such as Ms. Fagioli-Katsiotas often have quite a challenge in getting exposure for their work. I hope, dear reader, you will consider writing a review on Amazon or

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cyprus goes to Epirus, Greece

"Not this one!"  she said, shaking her finger at all of them for emphasis, "don't bother this one."
"Just introduce me," Nick spoke up, "come on."
"No way! Stay away from her."
They were speaking Greek so I didn't know the conversation was about me.

It was Andrea talking to the cooks more than 30 years ago, in the kitchen of a Greek diner in New York. She was from Cyprus and she had been given the job of training me as a waitress--which was no easy task. For the first few days, I thought all the workers there were Italian, until I realized that the cuss words they were spewing during the lunch rush were not the ones I knew, not Italian.

Those people were the first Greeks I'd ever met. So when Andrea spoke to them in their language, I assumed she was also Greek.

We became good friends and I learned that she was Cypriot. She told me how she had come to the U.S. at seventeen, leaving her small village for the first time, having gotten engaged to the tall Cypriot man who lived in New York, and then married, but he returned to the U.S. without her, awaiting the immigration papers. She told me how she came to join him and the numbing panic she felt, her first time on a plane, not knowing the language, worried that her new husband would not be there. How she had vomited on herself and the man in the seat next to her and his kindness, helping her, not humiliating her. And the joy she felt when she saw her new husband's face waiting in the crowd of people as the double doors at JFK airport opened and she was -- in America.

She told me about the war between Tukey and Cyprus that started a few months after she had arrived and she stayed glued to the T.V. looking for news about her family, her village but there was no news, only the information in the Cypriot-American community about how her village had been taken over and it would be days before she would hear that her family had made it out and years before she would see her village and her home again -- though only as a visitor on the occupied side of Cyprus.  How hard it must have been for her. I had no idea, and yet we were almost the same age.

I looked at Andrea as a young girl looks at an older sister. She taught me how to make spanakopita, and kourabiethis (Christmas cookies). She was a loyal and dedicated wife, a loving and kind mother.  I took my cues from her.  Below is a picture of her holding my son when he was newborn.
One day while we were sitting in the kitchen of the apartment that was attached to my parents' house, my sister Joanne opened the door that connected the two homes and yelled to me, "Linda, is my shirt on the clothes line?" I had done some of her laundry for her.

I was confused by Andrea's wet eyes as I reached out the sliding glass door and pulled Joanne's shirt from the line. It took Andrea a second before she could speak but she finally said, "This is what I want -- to be with my family. You're so lucky."

"I am?" I thought. I was a person who had an apartment in her parents' home, which is not much to be proud of in this American culture. I didn't feel lucky.

Soon after that visit, Andrea persuaded her husband to make the bold move of pulling their daughter from high school and their son from elementary and moving back to Cyprus. She would not be able to go back to her village, but she would move to a city nearby and she would be with some of her seven siblings--and both of her parents. And so, in 1990 she moved back. She was suddenly gone from my life. I missed her, but I got used to it. Life went on and slowly we lost touch.

Recently, we reunited in Margariti, Greece. It was as if we'd never been apart. We had so much fun, laughing and reminiscing. She was the first one to read my book, The Nifi, and she talked about it with such encouragement and enthusiasm.

Like a good big sister.

I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ithaka: It's all about the Journey

Life is about the journey, not the destination. Correct? The poem, Ithaka written by Constantine Petrou Cavafy in 1904, speaks to that idea. But it also was a theme in the novel Your Own Kind.

It is 1974. Alexandros is a young man who has left his rural Greek village to come to New York to work in his cousin’s restaurant. The restaurant is in East End, a small seaside village fifty miles from New York City—not exactly what Alexandros had expected when he heard he’d be going to New York. Sarah is from a small town in the mountains of New York State. She has moved to East End to escape the sins of her past. Of course, they fall in love—no surprise to the readers. But a difference in culture and tradition stands in their way, as Alexandros is betrothed to a girl back home and Sarah has a secret that would deter Alexandros regardless of the situation. Add to that, one son of Turkish immigrants—a love-sick adolescent, whose jealousy, thirst for revenge and misinterpretation of events set in motion a series of actions that lead to violence and heartbreak.  Maybe life would be easier if people would just stick with their own kind. But what does that actually mean? This book explores that theory. (From an interview with Janet Emson)

        Alexandros had been a brooding adolescent when the schoolmaster gave the older students that book of poems as a gift. There were only four of them in his grade--all boys, but he was the one Mr. Thaskalos chided to stop waiting for life to happen. "Look around you Alexandros! This is life. Live it." But at fifteen, Alexandros had thought he knew more. He needed to go somewhere, do something. But what? His restlessness had blinded him. With the other boys, he'd made fun of the poetry book. What were they to do with it? It was no use to them when hunting or herding.
        But the village boredom that inevitably creeps into the young inhabitants of the mountain led him to the book one snowy afternoon and as Alexandros read it, he was surprised to be moved by mere words. He memorized certain poems--Ithaka was the first--appealing to a young boy because it spoke of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War. He traced over those same words over and over again until he found himself reciting them inside his head while herding the goats or cutting wood. But it was in this place with this American girl, where the message of the poet became as clear as mountain spring water.
        There he was on an island in America, a jetty of sand sticking into the Atlantic Ocean, six thousand miles from home, and he'd found it--the spirit that stirred him--Sarah. The wall between them, the letter from home, his Laistrygonians, his Cyclops, his Poseidon--it was he who set the monster between them. Suddenly the letter lost it's power.

Below is the poem in video form or written form. Enjoy!

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Tunnel in Epirus

It was the first time that I had ever gone anywhere alone, in Greece.  Completely on my own, pursuing something that felt revolutionary.

And nothing compared to that feeling of sitting at the steering wheel, pulling away from the village, the music at a volume that rocked the car and the brown landscape a blur in the side windows.

It was 2009 and it was the completion of the Egnatia Highway as well as the shipping of our family car (automatic transmission) from the U.S., that made this escape possible.

I was driving alone to the historic city of Ioannina in Northern Epirus, a trip that previously had taken hours to get to on the narrow serpentine roads that had been worn into the side of the mountains by previous generations.

 In fact, when I went there for the first time back in 1983, there was a point during the bus ride where the passengers had to get out and stand at the side of the road because the turn was so
sharp, the driver feared that the bus might plunge to the ravine below.  So we evacuated and watched while someone nonchalantly gave him directions from outside the bus, as if they were parallel parking on a city street and the consequence of any error might be the bus tires bumping the curb.

It was so incredible to me, I had to snap a photo.  Below, is that photo which depicts the moments after the empty bus had successfully made the hairpin turn and the passengers were reentering.  I always wondered what we would have been expected to do if the driver had plunged over the cliff and left all the passengers standing in the middle of nowhere on that road to Ioannina.

And that was only one of the hundreds of sharp winding turns.  It was a trip that had me reeling with severe nausea from beginning to end so it was one I often avoided . . . until 2009.

That year, I had heard about the Greek-language and cultural program at the University of Ioannina.  It was only 40 minutes door to door. And there was a magical tunnel -- the Dodoni-Ioannina tunnel -- at the end of the journey in which a complete transformation took place every morning.  The hidden mountain villages and the sea lay on one side of the tunnel, the city of Ioannina on the other.

On my side of the tunnel (the village side) the sky was blue and the sun was shining, but on the other side the car drove into fog, or rain or just cloudy skies. Ioannina lays in a valley with a large lake and with high mountains all around it.

Furthermore, there seemed to be two completely different ways of life on either side of the tunnel.

Life on the Margariti-side of the tunnel was extremely slow paced.  Communication was accomplished by yelling across the street (or across a ravine). And the days were filled with endless floating on the sea, long-winded conversations in the cafes--about nothing, drinking ouzo in the shade with a different chair for each foot to rest on and staring into space under the mulberry tree.

On the Ioannina-side of the tunnel, I parked my car in a parking lot, sat at a table with other students, used books and pens and paper, logged into my email account, studied at the library and shopped at places that resembled Costco and Loews.
The classes were made up of young college-age students from around the world.  I was something of an enigma as the old lady in the class, but also as someone who drove every day from the coast. People were fascinated by that idea, yet, at home in New York, a 40 minute commute would be a reasonable distance for school or work.

The first time I saw my instructor, I was less than enthusiastic. "Oh, great!" I thought, "she's a child. How could such a young girl have any idea how to teach?"

How would she teach us Greek when she didn't speak English, English being the most common language among her students -- it was the language we students were all speaking to communicate with each other? It didn't dawn on me that back home in my classroom full of Spanish-speaking students, I was doing the same. Ms. Kapsali turned out to be a naturally gifted teacher and quite possibly one of the best I've ever met. I would remember many of our interactions when I returned to my own students in the U.S.

By far, one of the greatest treasures I found on the other side of that magical tunnel, was my dear friend, Yisca Harami, a student my age (the other old lady in the class). She was staying with friends in Ioannina and going to classes. We hit it off immediately and became good friends. And when the Bird Flu scare closed the school for a week, Yisca came through that tunnel  with me and spent some days in Margariti.

We had so much fun together.  
We thought we were going to make up those cancelled classes by studying on the balcony, but we were entranced by the sunset and anesthetized by the village culture.  It was beyond our control. 
Instead, we went sightseeing and Yisca, a Scholar of Religions in Tel-Aviv, enjoyed the diverse culture that our area had to offer.  And I enjoyed her enthusiasm which never wavered.

If you cannot make it through that magical tunnel of Epirus, that's okay.  

You can read more about it  in an Amazon copy of the Nifi  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Wife's identity is Determined by her husband

One evening in August, in our yard in Margariti, I sat with a group of people at the table under the mulberry tree like I had done many times before.  Our neighbor, Chavana, was sitting next to me -- as she had done many times before.  I got up to go in the house and I said, "Good night, Chavana."

"Maria," her son said. "Her name is Maria."

"Oh." I had no idea. I thought her name was Chavana.  I'd never heard her called anything else.

It's a custom left over from the old days. When a girl was married and shipped off to the husband's village, as was customary, the people in that new village would call her by her husband's name with a suffix to show who she belonged to. So the wife of Cochos is Coch-ina, the wife of Miti is Mit-ina, the wife of Chavos is Chav-ana.  Some of the older men probably refer to me as Nikina (The wife of Nikos).

The picture below shows an ordinary gathering in my in-law's kitchen.  I can name every person in the picture. Starting from the woman standing at the right: Vaso, her mother Chevi sitting in front of her, Arsenis, Aunt Evangelini, Miti, Tomas, Uncle Thanasi, and Mitina.  Yes, that's right, in the 30 years I've known Mitina, I've never heard her called anything else. She's Miti's wife.

My mother-in-law, Pareskevi, Chevi for short, (the last woman on the right, sitting) was always addressed with her real name and not the suffix-ed husband name because she had the unusual, but very fortunate, circumstance of remaining in her own village all of her life. Consequently, the villagers know her and didn't have to refer to her husband in assigning her an identity. 

Today's Greek women probably feel that they're more modern and have greater rights than their mothers and grandmothers, and they're right.  But I would challenge them to learn more about their legal status within the family.

I just found out that if anything happens to my husband, the Greek law says that I would get 1/3 of the house we built together in Greece because my 2 children would be entitled to an equal portion, as my status within the family is like that of a child. On the other hand, if I die, my husband gets full possession of everything.  


Independent authors often have quite a challenge in getting exposure for their work. I hope, dear reader, you will consider writing a review on Amazon or