Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Solution to Greece's Problems

Greece has her problems but the biggest, in my opinion, is not her economy or unpredictable political climate. It's something that has existed throughout history and I have to admit, I often long for it.

Her problem is . . . air. Yes, that stuff that the Greeks inhale. If somehow they could've just stopped breathing it in, before they got into their latest crisis, I believe they'd have been more inclined to see through the insanity of borrowing money, decreasing their workload, and then spending said-borrowed money.

But that air! They were defenseless against it. It's just so subtle as it sweeps along on warm breezes, oh so sweet and anesthetizing. And in the summer months it picks up the sounds of cicadas--their songs carrying everywhere like the rhythmic rocking of a sailboat, slowly back and forth, until eyelids grow heavy and thoughts turn to mush.

Like white carbohydrates and refined sugar, my body longs for it in these work-day months as I recall its effect and reminisce of those lazy Greek summer days.

Well-rested from a good night's sleep, and ready to start the day, I've often left the front door of our Margariti house with a strong conviction to get something done and a rock-solid plan. But the minute that warm air pats the top of my head, my gait slows to a saunter and then the sunlight blinds my ambition.

That Greek air turns my limbs into iron girders, so naturally I have to rest from the weight of them. A cup of coffee might help because back in New York as I sip caffeine all day long like the drip of a life-saving intravenous, the work-gears continue to grind.

And yet, that same elixir--coffee--brewed with its turbo blast of caffeine there in Margariti, energizes me to the degree of which my only thoughts are in deciding under which tree I should position my chair so as to get the perfect mix of sun and shade.

So what are the Greeks supposed to do? Who could blame them for this new Greek mess? It's the creditors' fault. Had they spent only a few hours on the Greek countryside before doling out the money, they'd have seen the futility of it all.

This older generation was hopelessly weak from lack of food, years of poverty and terrible suffering, thus helpless against such an adversary. They sucked up that oxygen without a second thought and now it's up to the younger people to be strong -- to stop breathing that Greek air.

I wish them strength and I wish them luck!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Food is Love

Julia Child said, "People who like to eat are the best people." Thank you, Julia.

Let's face it. Food is love and we all want to be loved. My mother-in-law, Chevi, used to cook for me. It was a great feeling. She'd tell me--not her son (He's one of those people who forgets to eat), what she was cooking that day and what time we should be home to eat it. And she and I didn't even speak the same language! It was done with gestures and pointing and a few words in Greek.

Those who are thinking about what they'll have for lunch as they read this, which in my opinion is completely normal, will understand what I mean about this whole food-love idea. Back in the 1970s when television had a few major stations and no remote control, I used to watch a show with my older brother, Jim. It was called The Galloping Gourmet. The host, Graham Kerr, would prepare a dish and then at the end, he'd pull someone from the audience to dine with him for the last few minutes of the program. Jim and I would run into the kitchen at every commercial break to prepare tuna salad sandwiches. The tuna had to be mashed with the mayonnaise and chopped onions into just the right consistency. And the bread popped into the toaster at exactly the moment when the last commercial break began. We would have our little snack trays set up in front of the sofa, so we could run to them with our sandwich plates and have the first bite of sandwich coincide with the first bite of the showcased dish on television.
I don't remember anyone else sitting there in the den as we bit into our sandwiches and voiced our satisfaction or complaint, if perhaps the onions hadn't been chopped finely enough. Our other siblings were probably outside running around with the neighborhood kids. I'm guessing they didn't find this activity quite as fascinating as did Jim and I.

I'm pretty sure my first words as a child were something like,"Where's the salt?" 

The first Greek words, however, that I attempted aloud, (besides the filthy stuff my husband taught me while we were dating) were also about food. It was to a group of Greek cooks in the restaurant where I worked in the early 1980s on Long Island. I had confused the words for plate and glass and asked for a glass of meat. The laughter that ensued resulted in a two-year-Greek silence, only practicing the language in my head until I attempted to communicate again, using my formal-book-taught-Greek in the rural village of Margariti. Another disaster--different story.

In those early Margariti days I was always anxious to get away from the village at the midday meal time. Each meal came with a multitude of guests. It could be very overwhelming at times. The food was placed "family-style" in the middle of the table and though I had grown up inside a family of eight--a perfect training ground for holding your own when the food is placed on the table--I was too shy to grab what I wanted and so that food-love was rarely satisfied. Only in later years when Chevi's children and grandchildren were far from the village, and my own had left me in an empty nest, did I fully realize the importance of the dining experience in Greece. It was partly a social gathering and partly a means for satiety. But mostly it was an act of love.

Chevi quietly observed me and eventually figured out what I was inclined to eat from that array of food. When she'd make certain dishes, she'd say to me, "for you." It was a very nice feeling. 
Chevi making cheese from goat's milk

Anastasia with pita
As a cook, Chevi was a perfect example of the older generation. Her baked dishes (butter beans, okra, stuffed tomatoes, eggplant . . . ) were swimming in olive oil. And incredibly tasty.

Eftihia making pita crust
She was also well-known for her pita. Pita means pie in Greek. She would roll the dough out to an almost translucent thinness and then stuff the pita with whatever fresh ingredient was available from the garden. Many times, the milk from her goats accompanied the other ingredients. I did my best to learn her cooking techniques but my results were nothing like hers or her daughters'.  

But Chevi understood the message of love delivered through these dishes. In fact, as my husband and I made our way to Greece a few summers ago, one of the last things she said before a major stroke took her, was: "I have to cook for my son . . . and for my nifi."

I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Rebel

Chevi was a criminal. There's no getting around it. As a middle-aged woman in the 1980s, she committed a criminal act, not just once but for several consecutive days and weeks.

This was very uncharacteristic of her law-abiding, sweet nature so it's sometimes hard to believe it actually happened. It's true, though. Her grandmother had told her a story once that Chevi repeated often to us and it was that story that governed her actions during her crime spree back in the 1980s. Because Chevi's mother had died shortly after childbirth, it was her grandmother who raised her and who taught her the appropriate behavior for living life in their isolated mountain village on the Greek countryside.

Her grandmother's story went like 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.

This flood of young 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.

The greatest crime, she thought, was in withholding food and water from a hungry person.

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