A recent photo of Linda and Nick in front of the New York skyline
This week I am interviewing Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas, a New York teacher and writer who married a Greek in the 1980s and bravely went to live with her new family in a remote and raw village in Epirus, in Greece. Her fascinating story is the subject of her memoir The Nifi.
Q: Welcome to my blog, Linda. Tell us a bit about yourself.
A: First let me thank you for inviting me to this interview. I was born and raised on Long Island, outside of New York City. My father’s parents were Italian immigrants and my mother was from the little town of Malone, in the Adirondack Mountains; her parents were French Canadian. I’ve been a teacher for 21 years, working with immigrant children at my local school.
Q: In your 20s you married a Greek. Tell us a little about that.
A: I met my husband in 1980 at a restaurant on Long Island, where we worked together. Nick had been in the US since 1978 and didn’t speak a lot of English but it was enough. Later we eloped after knowing each other for about a year. It was a marriage with all the trimmings for failure: different culture, religion, language, ethnic background, but somehow we made it.
The traditional village of Margariti in Epirus
A young Linda and Nick in 1983 getting to grips with village life, and roasting a goat for lunch
Q: Later you went to live for a while in your husband’s native village of Margariti, in Epirus, north-west Greece. What was your Big Fat Greek Immersion like?
A: At that age, I had no idea what I was doing. I was madly in love and, probably like every young person then, I wanted a life that was different from the mainstream. Nick was quite a tough person and I realised when I got to his village why he was like that. Most of the people in Margariti are tough. It’s a matter of survival. The journey to his village was my first trip out of the US. Epirus is a beautiful mountainous area with some of the most exquisite beaches as well like Karovostasi. But lovely surroundings quickly lose their appeal when you’re living in quite primitive conditions, without the ability to communicate with anyone.
Q: In your book you have a funny description of your first day, looking for a workable toilet in your mother-in-law’s house. What was it really like there for a young American?
A: The difference between living on Long Island and living in Epirus was extreme. There was no running water and we had to collect it from a nearby natural spring, no fly screens on windows or doors, very few cars, no television signals, maybe one or two telephones in the whole village, but not at my in-laws’ house. And yes, that toilet! Many toilets in those days were just holes in the ground. Nick’s was a porcelain toilet but it only had a pipe leading to a ditch outside the house. There was often family waiting outside the rickety door held shut by a piece of string.
Linda helping her mother-in-law Chevi to make pita bread in 2003
Q: Apart from toilets, your worst problem, I imagine, was trying to get to know the in-laws, but speaking no Greek.
A: Yes, that’s true, and to make things worse my mother-in-law Chevi spoke a northern dialect, Albenetika, which I didn’t know either. We couldn’t disagree on anything though because between us there weren’t enough words in any language for us to argue. But she was kind and always used simple body language and, in later years, simple Greek words, and somehow we understood each other.
Linda and Nick in the village this year and on Karovostasi beach (below)
Q: You live in the US, but still spend most summers in Margariti and, judging by your blog posts, it looks idyllic. What is the village like now?
A: I have enjoyed writing about my Greek life on my blog www.truestorythenifi.blogspot.com. These days, Margariti is perfect. It has the old-style charm that it originally had. It’s near to many different beaches and seaside villages but it’s also away from the tourist crowd. Most important, however, are the changes that brought the amenities I had in the US: Internet connections, indoor plumbing, satellite TV and a car. Anyone who is yearning to live the old way without these modern conveniences is someone who’s never done it before.
Q: When did you decide to put your experiences into your first book The Nifi? How was it received?
A: The word νύφη (nifi) means bride in Greek but is also used to refer to a woman who marries into a family. My mother-in-law, Chevi, had an arranged marriage with a member of the Katsiotas family. He was a stranger from another village. I wanted to write down the stories that she’d been telling us over the years, which were so incredible, with so much drama and heartache. I wanted my two children to understand their background. In the book, I have also juxtaposed my experience as a non-Greek nifi in alternating chapters with my mother-in-law’s life. The Nifi has sold well, but best of all, in the UK. So I want to thank all my British readers.
Q: What did your mother-in-law think about your first book, inspired by her.
A: My mother-in-law passed away just as I was finishing The Nifi. She died two weeks after a stroke but remained in her home the entire time. I cannot put into words the effect that those two weeks had on me. Chevi knew I was writing the story but I don’t think she realised it was going to be a book. I wish there had been time to show her some translated excerpts. I am sure she would have loved it though!
Q: What else have you written?
A: My first work of fiction is called Your Own Kind. It was published last spring. In the book, Sara is a young girl who comes in contact with several young men from different cultures. Love, jealousy, desire and racism play against each other in a plot that takes the reader from Turkey to Greece to Long Island.
I’m currently working on a new novel. I tried not to have a Greek theme, but we write what we know, right? So, the characters are not Greek, but they’re southern Italian, which is basically Greek!
Q: Okay, if you say so! Still on the subject of Greece, however, what do you think about the economic crisis there. Has it impacted greatly on Epirus and your Greek family?
A: It has unfortunately impacted on everyone I know. My generation, those who started families 30 years ago, did so in the upward climb of those wonderful improvements I mentioned before, whereas the generation before that was mostly living in poverty. Life has been good for a few decades now and young people only know that life. I think the effects of the crisis and the austerity will be hardest for them.
I know people of my age, however, who have saved relentlessly and worked like dogs all their lives, expecting that hard work and savings would be enough, and now they’re poor again. Life is difficult in Epirus now but the region was always Greece’s poorest child, so these are very tough people. Most live off the land or know how to if they must.
Q: Would you and your husband ever consider retiring to Greece one day?
A: I have two adult children, Nikki and Thomas, who are just settling into their own lives in the US. I really do not think I want to be separated from them more than a month or two but, again, you never know.
Q: How can we find out more about you and your books?
A: Both The Nifi and Your Own Kind are available at Amazon.com. I always love getting feedback from readers.