Saturday, July 30, 2016

Our Donkey needs a Doctor

Today's cars are yesterday's donkeys. Just look at the width of any village street. No one ever expected anything larger than a donkey and a cart to pass through them.

The donkey was a means for transporting goods as well as people and according to one very well-known Margariti citizen (though it may be only me to whom he is well-known), a donkey elevated one's status in society. And rightfully so. If you had one, you had more freedom than others, a mode of transportation. Thus, it was essential to care for said-mode of freedom.

I've always felt a great sense of camaraderie with the donkey owners of yesteryear when it comes to this idea of autonomy. When my brother-in-law finally traded his motorbike for a car, I sensed a moment of power with the prospect of having a possible escape vehicle, albeit not my own and not one I could drive. I never learned to drive a manual stick shift. But it clearly was a means to escape when escape from the village was necessary. All I needed was a driver.

As I recall, the family donkey was eaten by wolves, a horrible story. He was tied to a tree down on the farm one winter night and when the unlucky family member who was supposed to retrieve him got to the farm, only his half-eaten carcass was left, and of course a frayed rope. Oh the horror! To have lost a loyal and reliable member of the family in such a way but also to have lost so much more.

Supposedly a horse is more valuable than a donkey, however, and it raises one's status to a higher degree than those who own a slow-moving stubborn donkey. So when a horse was purchased from a seller who lived higher up in the mountains, the family was elated at such a lift in status and also enamored by the lovely prospect of traveling at a greater speed while mounted upon a proud stallion. However, no one told them not to let the horse eat too much of the valley vegetation until he got accustomed to the change in diet. The horse gorged himself on valley grass and then died.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Teachers are like Mother Hens?

"You look like a hen with your baby chicks following behind," a fellow teacher once said to me as I passed by her classroom door with several of my students in tow. I liked the comparison. I thought it was cute and also accurate. Until recently.

Here in Margariti, we've acquired several chickens and one rooster. And about a month ago, one of the hens produced a certain squawking sound that my brother-in-law, Fotis, identified as her desire to brood, which means sit on a nest and wait for the eggs to hatch. So, we put fifteen eggs in a well-cushioned nest and Mama Hen sat on the eggs for 21 days. I often emailed photos to one of my sisters who was spending the summer back on Long Island chauffeuring her two teenaged sons around while also jumping through hoops to entertain her six-year-old daughter.

"Twenty-one days until they hatch?" my sister asked. "Tell her to enjoy it while she can."

So, Mama Hen sat in her nest and once in a while I checked in on her, until one day, a few little chirping chicks emerged briefly from under her haunches and then scuttled back underneath. Upon closer examination there were ten unhatched eggs and five open egg shells but only four chicks. The one missing chick was a mystery with a plausible conclusion. A predator most likely ate it. Mama Hen could not leave the nest to fend for one chick when there were so many to protect. I obsessed over that one missing chick for a couple of days and then I just had to accept its unknown fate.

After a few more days, there were more chicks but four unhatched eggs remained. Eventually Mama got off the nest and left those four behind so she could teach the others how to scratch the dirt and find food. At one point a cat got into the area where her chicks were mulling around and Mama ran after him, pecking and squawking until the intruder gave up and left her area, her babies safe, her territory unmarred. But my eyes kept going back to the unhatched four that remained in the nest and the comparison of a teacher and her students was renewed.

"What about the unhatched eggs?" I asked. "Maybe they just needed a little more time."

"Yes, maybe," Fotis agreed, "but then how would she be able to feed and protect the ten who are here now. If she stays on the nest waiting for those four, she'll risk losing the others. She had to make a judgement call."

I nodded. I don't like it. But I understand.

Monday, July 11, 2016

An Apology to the Greek Villagers

I wanted to speak for those who could not speak for themselves. That was the answer to the question asked of me a few years ago back in New York: Why had I become a teacher to immigrant children and then a speech pathologist to brain-injured adults? And as that answer escaped my lips, I realized where that yearning was born. In Margariti, my adopted Greek village. I’ve known that feeling for years. The frustration of wanting to communicate—my way, with my words—instead of through fractured and inadequate translation.

Mary Smith, the author of one of my favorite books, No More Mulberries, said "people thought I was aloof, stuck up . . . If only they understood the agonies of the socially inept." When I read it, I thought, Yes! And then add to that a different culture and different language! That’s the conundrum of being the American-me in Margariti.

The village traditions, celebrations, memorials, festivals . . . are never ending. But my ability to learn Greek is. Or at least it’s petered to a drizzle. The major culprit here is the number of people in any given conversation. In a Greek village, the number is rarely small.

In a group of four, (myself and my husband/translator, Nick, counting as two of that four), I can follow the conversation, though I might ask a question about the foot injury I think you're discussing when you are actually talking about the octopus you caught at the beach. But with such a small group, I feel like I have a fighting chance. And even better if you subtract one person. With three of us, my understanding is a bit clearer and I might venture to add something to the conversation, even if you turn to Nick and say, “Huh? What’s she saying?” I’m no longer silenced by that comment. I still might try to repeat my message without his help. And I can almost understand most of what's being said to me if the speakers don’t have food in their mouths or mumble too much.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Greek Farming Lesson

Is it healthy clean food you're after? Perhaps you've had the dream I've had since my teen years in the 1970s: to live off the land, pick my own food, simplify life to its basic components.

Well, suffice it to say that my first moments in Epirus Greece in the early 1980s shook some sense into me. Back then I was a new bride, married to a Greek I barely knew and the countryside lifestyle in those days, in that area, was grueling to say the least, but I didn't give up the dream. . . I just modified it. Erase that "simplify life to its basic components" nonsense. I am thrilled with the changes made in Epirus since then: Indoor plumbing, passable roads, independent transportation, a livable house, internet connections. I need a bit more than just basic components, thank you anyway. But the farmer-living-off-the-land dream remained and this year I vowed to make it work. That is, until a few days ago. Now, it appears that I may need to modify a bit more of the plan, based on some recent Greek Farming Lessons.

Here is what Maragariti, my adopted village has taught me:

1. Chicken sh@# is not just a word to describe a fearful person. Chickens actually have excrement and it's disgusting.

2. Picking your own food is a hassle. After it's removed from the ground/tree/bush, it still has to be cleaned and the inedible portions cut off. I now know why Village Greek Salad doesn't consist of lettuce. It's hard to grow and hard to
clean. . . not to mention the fact that I pulled most of it out while I was weeding. It doesn't grow in a neat little round ball. How was I to know?