The Sarawak headhunters wanted to kidnap me. They sought blonde babies, and I was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. My mama told me this story for as long as I can remember. Obviously, she was seeing through mommy goggles because pictures of me at that time reveal a toddler with an alien-sized head, a non-existent nose, and a belly that matched Buddha’s. Though headhunting rarely took place in the early 1970s and cute babies had nothing to do with their choice of head, to my mother’s relief, we left Borneo when I was almost two years old.
I grew up with stories—just like this one. My dad told strangers my mama was Miss Greece 1964 (as far as I know, in the early 60s, she worked as a hotel receptionist and never held the aforementioned title). In the 70s, an Arab Sheik wanted my mother to leave her engineer husband to join his harem; in the 80s, our airplane on the way to South Africa had to do a crash landing into a bed of foam; in the 90s, my Greek grandmother gave me twelve gold bracelets from a toothless gypsy who owed her money; and in the 2000s, it was time for me to finally take my family’s oral tradition, and commit these and other stories to writing.
I still don’t know if these stories are somewhat factual or entirely fictional, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. In Saudi Arabia, as an eight-year-old, I would make up long tales of camels and princesses; fire and sand dunes. In South Africa, as an eleven-year-old, my stories became more elaborate, a missing treasure, a leopard who could talk, and a Bushman who saved the day. But my favorite stories have always been about Greece. The place where everything tastes better, looks bluer, smells nicer.
When I was a few years old, my family and I moved, for a short time, back to mother’s native land, Greece. When my North American father got a new international engineering post, we packed our bags again. By the time I was thirteen, I had lived in six different countries and had visited countless more. In Venezuela, I ate arepas; in Saudi Arabia I rode camels; in South Africa I walked alongside giraffes and lay with leopards, but my favorite memories are in Kamena Vourla, at my grandmother and grandfather’s summer cottage by the sea.
Almost every summer of my life, I swam in the Mediterranean, ate watermelon and tomatoes from my papoo’s garden, and listened to stories that spewed from my yiayia’s mouth. Yiayia, who also grew up in several countries, told me about a green-eyed Bedouin woman who pawned her thick, silver ankle bracelets at my great grandfather’s kiosk in Egypt. Because the woman never returned, yiayia’s father thought, with her other-worldly gaze, she was an angel. He used the silver to make a religious icon, which now hangs in my mother’s bedroom. The eyes supposedly move; the “angel’s” eyes watching over all of us.
Yiayia would tell me stories of her youth in Egypt, her trials with two daughters who were so different, and the wimpy son who grew to be her favorite. My mother told me about her travels to Iran, Hong Kong, and Lesotho and about her youth in Nigeria. “I would climb a tree instead of go to school,” she told me, and “I loved swimming in King Farouk’s palace. Those days it was open on weekends to the public.” All my life I listened to the matriarchs of our family; I grew up with their stories and my father’s, so naturally enough, I too became a storyteller.
At Kmart, my first job, I worked in the fitting room. Hidden behind a stack of clothes, I would write for hours in my Hello-Kitty palm-sized notebook. After high school, I got a Bachelor’s Degree in English, moved to Greece, and got my first job teaching English. Three years later, I returned to the U.S, pursued a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature and became an Adjunct English Professor in San Diego.
In my 12th year of teaching, I met my wonderful husband and moved to Peru for six years. In Lima I secured a position as an English teacher, and then soon after as Head of Department, at Colegio Roosevelt, a prestigious American I.B. World School. It was a great experience though seeing extreme poverty juxtaposed with affluence often left me questioning my own choices. It also filled my mental rolodex with new stories I want to tell one day.
Teaching has been a happy accident. I love being in front of a class and telling students stories (as well as teaching them the mandated syllabus). And, thankfully, I have been successful and have made great bonds with students over the years. But, after twenty years of teaching, it was time to write the novels that have been in my head, the first one being RED GREEK TOMATOES, a work of fiction inspired by my mother’s and grandmother’s stories as well as my own life experiences.