Thursday, July 6, 2017

From ‘north of Ithaca’ by Eleni Gage

Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape. Greece offers you something harder – the discovery of yourself.
-          Lawrence Durrell

….Thitsa Lilia replied …….On one trip from America, Patera brought a toilet seat up the mountain.’
‘But we wouldn’t sit on it!’ Thitsa Kanta giggled. ‘We weren’t used to it, so we just stand on the seat.’

….Epiros, our native province …..In Greek, when you want to say someone is stubborn, you call him or her an Epirote-head.

Of the almost 11 million people living in Greece, 4.5 million of them live in Athens.

….Epiros, the most remote province of Greece ……from the word apeiron, ‘infinity’…….Lord Byron, who visited in 1809, wrote that other regions of Greece were ‘eminently beautiful’, but were ‘nothing to Epiros….Epiros is still the least urbanized, least-touristed region of Greece. It was also the last province to win independence from the Ottoman Empire – 1913, after 460 years of Turkish domination……

He looked like a typical Greek civil servant: miserable. In a country where the average worker is lively to ebullient, I couldn’t help but notice that every government clerk was ashen-faced and unsmiling. In Greece, the waiters are amused, the soldiers are raucous, the priests, jubilant. But the civil servants are grim, harried, work out by the pressures of shuffling papers until two p.m. five days a week ………They’re exhausted by the endless toil of creating hoops for the fearful public to jump through in order to achieve their unrealistic goals of building a house, obtaining a visa or mailing a package.

…..calling his friends masturbators, that most cherished of Greek insults.

Approximately 95 per cent of Greece’s population is Greek Orthodox……

…….the innate Greek suspicion that everyone is out to cheat you….

Epiros is the poorest region in the European Union ……lack of jobs, that drove young people out of the area, emptying villages of all but pensioners and migrant workers ……..Lia was rural, but we had plumbing and electricity, which had arrived in the village in 1967. …….I could tell the villagers weren’t well-to-do….But my neighbours were so generous with their food, drink and company…….with ninety-one major saints’ days and eleven national holidays to celebrate, life became a non-stop party.

……a rather mournful tune, the traditional Epirotic music that Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in Roumeli was ‘Exactly the kind of long-drawn-out and wailing song in a minor key, whose waverings …..bewildered and irritated Byron’s Western acquaintances’…..

…..a famous – and infamous – ritual that takes place each year near Thessaloniki, when a religious group known as the Anastenarides walks barefoot on burning coals, clutching icons of Saints Eleni and Constantine. Traditionally, in Greece, birthdays aren’t celebrated; you receive gifts and good wishes on the festival of the saint you are named after, without anyone ever mentioning how good you look for your age. …Eleni is one of the most popular Greek names for women, as Constantine is for men. ……anthropologist Loring Danforth quotes serveral articles that insist that anyone can walk on coals as hot as 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, because coals conduct heat poorly.

…….a middle-aged man…. ‘I was the boy whose umbilical cord your grandmother ate so she could have a son,’ he explained. I nodded, pretending I knew what he meant. …… ‘That’s what they did in those days,’ he explained ……..

………Zagorohoria, a collection of forty-six grey, misty villages which cling to the edge of the mountains ……..scattered around the periphery of the Vikos Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world.

…….most anthropologists do think that since the Sarakantsanis were such an insular community, seldom intermarrying with outsiders, they are the closest ‘race’ to the Ancient Greeks…..Sarakantsani women were so modest they used to dance with their eyes cast downwards, because it would compromise them to look into a man’s eyes.

The Liotes warned me that gypsies would try to cheat me and were known to steal babies…..
‘How come the gypsies are still so poor and nomadic?’ Nikki the innkeeper asked…….. ‘Look at the Albanians – they came here and in ten years they’ve built homes, got jobs, lives. But the gypsies are cursed to roam. I’ll tell you why. Its because a gypsy smith made the nails used to crucify Christ.’
‘That’s funny,’ Antonis Makos replied. ‘In the army, a gypsy soldier told me that the Romans were going to use many nails to crucify Christ, but a gypsy stole a few, sparing him some pain. So Christ blessed the gypsies with permission to steal for ever.’

… thing gypsies do not lack is self-esteem……

It was five months since I’d heard the phrase ‘lactose intolerant’. In Lia, old people climbed everywhere and ate everything – the memory of years of starvation had inspired many of them to cultivate Santa-like paunches and force food on me.

….Greek Jews ……about 87 per cent died in the Holocaust. Before the war, there were 78,000 Jews in Greece. Today, Marcia said, there were about 5,000 – 3,000 living in Athens, 1,200 in Thessaloniki, and the rest in small communities elsewhere …..

Greeks are big on patron saints: islands, people, even boats have them ……..

……this joke: ‘Short summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, they lost, lets eat.’ I quickly realized that the short summary for every Epirote song could be: ‘I’m miserable, I’m going to die in a foreign land, lets dance.’

…….the expression that Greeks always turn to in times of misery: ‘Mother, why did you give birth to me?’

…….I’d learned in Lia …everyone in Greece is involved in politics – or, at the very least, everyone considers himself an important political commentator …..nightly news broadcasts, which were often as bloody and sensationalized as an American cable TV series.

……..old ladies tend to make up Greece’s 5 per cent illiteracy rate ………

……..Dora won the race for mayor by the largest margin in Athens’s history …… Dora was the first female mayor of any major European city …….her family, who celebrated at her headquarters by Cretan line-dancing in a way I couldn’t imagine the Bushes or Karenna Gore Schiff doing…..

‘Well, I hardly ever get the evil eye, but its because of this,’ Nikki said, pointing to a small scar on her temple. ‘When I was born, parents used to burn a scar on their baby’s forehead with a hot coal or poker.’ …… ‘So the babies would be imperfect and less likely to get the mati.’ Nikki noticed my look of disgust. ‘Of course, no one does it any more!’

This was a marriage-minded society; at every holiday, all the old ladies in my village automatically wished me, ‘Next year, may you be here with a groom!’

…her complaint that ‘No one in Greece says “Have a nice day!”’ Its true that shopgirls often acted as if I was dragging them away from their real job of non-stop gossiping in order to force them to sell me something, but other Greeks I’d met more than made up for the missing ‘Have a nice day’ with continuous blessings. Instead of ‘You’re welcome,’ people respond to ‘thank you’ with ‘May you be well.’ On the first of every month, people wish, ‘Have a good month!’ And when I set off for a trip, everyone would say, ‘God be with you.’ If I actually did anyone a favour ……..then a shower of blessings would rain on me, along the lines of ‘May you live happily for a thousand years, as strong as the tall mountains, and with a good husband.’

I walked over to the fireplace, where the photo of my grandparents stared back at me. I had overseen the rebuilding of their house, and in return the house had stopped time for me, allowing me to live in a village full of grandparents, a place where people treated me like a beloved daughter. As I looked at the photo of my grandparents, who died oceans apart, I realized that every happy family is a tragedy, because it exists for a limited time only. Children grow up to form their own families, parents die, and the original family is lost for ever. Every family is a civilization and all of them decline too quickly. Immersing myself in the village allowed me to extend my family a little longer, and to expand its sphere to include many people who had been there at its beginning.

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