Nike’s Special Air

 

FullSizeRender-24Reflections of Summer by a Greek American: Travel Tips and Personal Stories

It’s in the air. It’s in their voices. The instability. The frustration, the anger—but those are not the constants. The pride. The loud voices, the grand gesticulations, the love of their country: those remain static. Greeks are fiercely patriotic and proud; at times stubborn and sardonic—but always faithful with a fighting spirit.

Nevertheless, genuine fear has encroached upon the lives of many Greeks, and Summer 2015, with the climax of the crisis, the outlook looked dire. It was a strange time to be in Greece this past summer, but the looming crisis was also precisely why my husband and I chose to return after a year’s absence. If we had a few dollars to spend on a summer holiday, why not drop them in the country that is closest to my heart? That was one good reason, but seeing my Greek family took the top slot. When I heard my aunt’s anxious voice through the phone line in June, it made my desire to be close to my relatives even more powerful. I needed to be in Greece, see their faces, hear their stories, and—more selfishly—I wanted to stroll the streets of Athens, sip my Loumidis coffee on the balcony of our summer house, eat calamari with a xoriatiki salad, and visit an island with my favorite travelling partner.

Despite the country’s financial crisis and my family’s suffering, I was and am painfully cognizant that others are suffocating in Greece; yet, for me, Greece is—and always will be—the country that lets me breathe.

FullSizeRender-26When I’m in Greece, I’m another person. I drink wine by the kilo, eat lots of bread dipped in tzaziki, devour souvlakia filled with greasy gyro, suck on endless red Greek tomatoes—and I never step on a scale. Funny thing is, I don’t gain a pound. There is a lightness inside that permeates outward, sucking away the fatness of stress. Of course, I am on vacation with time, money, and a fun husband—why shouldn’t I be happy? But it’s something else. Being around Greeks, in Greece, recharges my battery. These people are beyond resilient, and this vivacity gives me strength. If Greeks can struggle, fight, and still laugh, then so can I. Despite the melee, Nike still seems to fly over Greece and, I believe, in time they will be victorious.

One victory was tourism. Many visitors ignored the fearmongers and did not take heed to negative propaganda and, instead, “hashtag visitGreece” took over. Tourism was up 2% compared to last year according to U.K.’s Daily Mail (July 20th, 2015). While eating at Thanasis in Plaka, we met a man who works at the airport in customs and he said it was up 10%, a family member told me 22%. Suffice it to say, tourism did not drop. In fact, as I walked the streets of various Greek cities, towns, and villages, on the mainland and on Skopelos island, I saw crowds of people, both Greeks and visitors, and I heard a lot of laughter.

ATHENS

IMG_6643Playing with my cousins and their kids in the blue water of Vouliagmeni reminded me why Athens is my favorite city in the entire world. Some parts of the city such as Kyfissia and Kolonaki offer posh shops, cafés, high fashion, and people-watching; other districts like Glyfada and Voula have the aforementioned but also provide island-like beaches—complete with chaise lounges, umbrellas, and cafés on the shoreline. For a few euros, one enters and can stay all day; have the freedom to drink beer on the beach or have a freddo cappuccino, and then a club sandwich or a tyropita. Somewhere in between these districts is Nea Smirni, where my family reside, and where my mother owns a house. I adore the neighborhood and feel quite at home there as does my husband who has visited six times. If I’m deep in Greek with my cousins, my husband disappears to the local platea (district’s center) to get a gyros at his favorite taverna or to relax at his favorite café. He knows how to say, “Freddo cappuccino metreo” and “Then milao Ellinika” (I don’t speak Greek). When we first met, he asked me how to say, “Hello, how are you?” So I taught him: “Eho geneka Elinitha, i kaliteri.” It was years later when he greeted someone with this phrase that I realized I had forgotten to tell him it actually meant, “I have a Greek wife and she’s the best.” But he forgave me and we still have a good laugh about it.

From Nea Smirni, my husband and I always take the tram to Syntagma Square where the Hellenic Parliament is located. In general, Athens’ public transportation is fantastic and one can get from Syntagma Square to Eleftherios Venizelos Airport for only a few euros, and “Express” buses run 24hrs a day/7 days a week from the center. The Express Bus takes about 35-40 minutes; the Metro is also an option though it can take between 45 and 90 minutes. Next to Syntagma is Plaka. I love the walk from the Parliament down Ermou St., where shopping is plentiful, to Plaka, the old part of the city where one can buy souvenirs and sip an Ouzo, enjoy a Fix beer, or have cold cappuccino.

FullSizeRender-23After souvenir and shoe shopping, we always eat at Thanasis, famous for its kebab plates. After eating, a picturesque walk to Thissio is a must-do. You continue past Plaka and walk at the foot of the Acropolis; then an entirely new neighborhood presents itself with countless taverns, cafés, and bars. Street vendors, who come out after dark when the authorities are too tired to arrest them for illegal sales, line the streets with incredible handmade goods. I bought a pair of miniature tsarouhi (traditional Greek shoes with pom-poms) earrings from a lovely Russian woman who has been in Greece for twenty years. It reminded me, once more, how everyone has a story. We chatted for fifteen minutes and I debated taking notes while she spoke, her voluptuous chest heaving, her smile wide with a missing incisor, but my husband gave me that endearing look of “You are my wife tonight, not a writer.” But when one starts writing, every scene, every image becomes one that we want to share because we think it’s important.

IMG_6830-2 We also met a Nigerian man a few days later in Kamena Vourla whose story was equally fascinating; selling burned CDs he told us that he was a graduate of the University of Athens and held a psychology degree. We talked about politics, life, and literature; about Boko Haram, my Greek aunt who was born in Nigeria, and my Master’s Thesis, which was about the Igbo and Yorubu tribes. When I asked him if he was from one of those tribes, he responded that he was indeed an Igbo and a proud one at that. I had just finished the best-selling novel Amerikanah about a Nigerian woman living in the United States. Jeff, as he introduced himself, pulled out his laptop from his backpack, wrote down the title and author’s name in Notepad, said he loved reading, and would download it that night. Yes, everyone has a story. And every story is important.

EPIDAVROS

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After a few days in Athens, we drove two and a half hours south, past the Corinth Channel to Epidavros where we visited its majestic theatre; built in 340 B.C., it holds 13,000+ spectators and provides unparalleled acoustics. The choice to build this theatre amidst a forest lay in the purposeful decision of the ancient Greeks; the ground was sacred, a magical healing center. Today, one can enjoy a modern or classical performance in this theatre, and the sentiment of “something special” lingers in the air. I sat for a while, after pictures were taken, and digested the view, felt the lumpy marble that cooled my derriere, watched the tourists who stood at the bottom, yelling to their friends in the seats far above to test the strength of a natural speaker. The sky seemed especially blue, the trees too green to be real, and the clouds almost transparent. Surreal, magical, extraordinary.IMG_6808-2

NAFPLIO

IMG_6713-2The next stop, about forty minutes from Epidavros, was a city that beheld a beauty of another sort; pink, yellow, and blue houses, a city center that reminded me of Venice, and not surprisingly since the Turks and the Venetians fought for this port city in the 13th century. The influence of the Venetian’s second occupation (1686-1715) is present in the architecture; today balconies adorned with hanging plants and underwear add to the colorful Italian-like setting. Nafplio enjoyed its seat at the first capital of modern Greece from 1829-1834, and although no longer a political hot-spot, it offers bars, cafés and hours of endless roaming.

IMG_6804Above Nafplio, a grand Venetian Citadel graces the skyline. It’s a short drive up the hill from Nafplio or a hike with never-ending steps. In August the heat can be unbearable, but that day, the goddesses gave us a slight breeze and a sky speckled with clouds. Yet, every time we wanted to take a picture of Nafplio or the blue water below that surrounded the citadel, the sky opened and the gave us a natural flash.

IMG_5557-2My cousin drove us around that day, and the car ride provided much needed girl-time. My husband dozed in the back seat while we talked about life’s challenges. My cousin is a wise young woman, only thirty-eight, and when we talk, it’s more like a discourse with Socrates. Apart from the financial crisis, personal issues have presented her life with increased challenges. In our conversations, which are more like discourses about the human condition, suffering, and the desire to find peace, we never reach conclusions but philosophize, laugh, and sometimes cry. Mostly there’s a feeling of xelafrosi (a letting go, a lightness) when we are done.

That’s what makes Greece so special for me: it’s the land too, but it’s always been the people—those who are living and those who are dead. One who is gone, physically, is my dear Yiayia. On August 12th, 2015, three car loads of family gathered for my yiayia’s one-year memorial. The forty-day memorial is more important in Greek culture, but my family gathered again to make it special for me, so that I could say my formal goodbye. The last time I has seen Yiayia was the summer before.

A MEMORIAL

IMG_6665On that hot day in August, we all gathered at the cemetery, the kids ran around, and the adults greeted one another. My aunt made koliva, wheat berries flavored with walnuts, raisins, cinnamon and powdered sugar, a favorite of mine (Yiayia used to make a huge pot just for me—even when someone hadn’t died). After the priest’s prayer, we sat in the church’s café, had Greek coffee, sans the traditional Cognac since my family are not drinkers. I really would have enjoyed some at that moment because even though the family chatter lightened the mood, it felt like a buffalo had sat on my chest.

When we had arrived to Athens the week before, I had walked though Yiayia’s house; I can’t say that I felt sadness or shock. My cousin lives there now, and my adorable niece and nephew were so excited to show me their new rooms that the ambience felt peaceful and happy. Yiayia was ready to go, so I was grateful that her death provided a home for a family in the time of need.

IMG_5247But as as I walked through the cemetery, the feeling was different. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. My kooky, fun-loving, naughty Yiayia was no more. She would be lying under a slab of cement decomposing. I won’t dive into religion here; hopefully heaven is real and she is laughing from above. After the prayer, the family left us for a few moments of private time, and I sobbed uncontrollably. Yiayia was ready, she was old, 94! She had led a full, good life. She had twenty people who stood there; many who shed tears again even though they had officially mourned her a year before, their sorrow still palpable.FullSizeRender-29

Then, I thought about my own death. When I die, my husband and a few pets will be present. I have never regretted not having children, and as I sat around a table with uncles and aunts, cousins and their children, I felt serene. Maybe a few nieces, family members, or friends will come. I’m blessed with an incredible family. I lack nothing. My husband held my hand and asked me gently with his eyes how I was doing. We all know there are no guarantees in life, who will go first, when, or why, but I know that I live every moment to its fullest and don’t wait for tomorrow’s success to be happy today. We all learned this lesson from Yiayia who was a genuinely happy and mischievous person till the day she closed her eyes.

DELPHI

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On the way to our summer house, we took a detour to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. According to tradition, Zeus sent two eagles from opposite sides of the universe to find each other at the center. They met at Delphi. Standing in the sanctuary with my husband felt electric. We were at the “omphalos,” navel of the world; at the center, with my center. FullSizeRender-30We walked around, took lots of pictures, but always stopped to admire with the naked eye. Visiting the theatre, stadium, and sanctuary, built in the 4th, 5th, and 7th century B.C. respectively, among all the other sites of yellowish-beige marble, demonstrated the creativity and mathematical genius of the Greek people. While we walked down the path, with large looming trees and mountains on all the sides, I could hear the cicadas chirping. It’s a sound that reminds me of good days, happy times, sleeping on the balcony of our summer house, the only care in the world was what I would wear to the disco that night.

KAMENA VOURLA

imageThis seaside village, also one of the settings in my novel, Red Greek Tomatoes, provides a sanctuary for my protagonist. Unlike the main character of my novel who goes to Kamena Vourla as a stranger on her way to Delphi and knows no one, I know this village intimately. It’s the village where my grandfather chose to buy a summer cottage in the 60s, so he could fish early in the morning, roll his cigarettes and drink Ouzo at night. And escape from hectic Athens.

While in Kamena Vourla, if one wants a break from taverns, Camino Restaurant offers sumptuous dinner and mouthwatering steaks. The popular Mythos and Friend’s Café are also favorites. Both are owned by acquaintances who I see year after year, and though they may temporarily forget my name, I’m always greeted with kisses and a warm welcome as though I am a long-lost friend. That’s what Greeks do; they make you feel special. When my childhood friends smile, hug, and kiss me, it feels like home—it doesn’t matter if we only spend a few hours together, time always stands still and our hearts feel just as connected. My Greek friends are tough-as-nails women who I admire for their strength and tenacity; they don’t count calories, worry about working out, and openly complain about their kids without one ounce of guilt. They are real. They enjoy life. Yes, they are stressed, tired, deal with mother-in-laws who live above them, but they laugh and bitch, then laugh again; no problem is too tough to handle.

IMG_6935A few kilometers from Kamena Vourla, towards Agios Konstandinos, is Asproneri, a pebble-stone beach that rivals any island one with its clear water and mountain as a backdrop. Thair, my protagonist, falls in love while at this beach so Asproneri is personified in my novel. It’s alive and offers Thair much of what it offered me; when I swim in the water, her hands caress me, the majestic mountains always take my breath away. It’s a sight I never tire of. My husband and I usually stay at the far end, close to the lighthouse where it’s quiet, but a visitor can sit close to the snack shack and see beautiful young bods and older ones who wear all their rolls and cellulite with pride and comfort.

That’s another thing I adore about Greece. Women don’t seem to have body issues. A girl may be 16 and long-legged or 60 with a pudgy belly, every female, despite age or size, wears a bikini. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a full swimsuit there. And when women walk to and from the café and order drinks, they don’t hide in a beach wrap. This confidence thrills me; men with their keg-bellies and skinny legs flirt with their eyes as if they are Zeus’ gift to women. When I ordered our freddos at the shack, I debated dropping my sari on the walk back, allowing eyes to critique my ample thighs, but the thought only entered my mind long enough for me to push it out. No way. I tightened the knot of my wrap, held the coffees, one in each hand, and strolled back along the shoreline. I’m only half Greek; my American self-consciousness won this time—again.

IMG_5808Over the years, the village has changed a lot; or it could be me that’s changed. Kamena Vourla still has romantic appeal with its countless taverns and cafés that line the shore, but—unlike my youth when I could stay for two entire months there—after a few days, I get restless.

In my teens we started the evening at Pringipico, a café on the water’s edge, and ended the night dancing at Laxmi Discoteque. Now the disco is a dilapidated structure at the far end of town, and the “in” place is Mythos Café where people spill on to the street, where people go to see and be seen. No more dancing; it saddens me that this new generation just drinks and stands around for endless hours. It also bores me. I don’t get it. A sure sign I am finally getting old. As an aging adult, time is running out, and Greece offers so much beauty and intrigue that after I’ve visited my friends, stood around on the street for three nights in a row, took my cleansing baths at Asproneri, I’m ready to move on.

SKOPELOS

IMG_7514From Kamena Vourla we took the ferry from Agios Konstandinos to the island of Skopelos, also known lately as the “Mamma Mia” island because parts of the movie were filmed there. Skopelos is part of the Sporades islands and offers tranquility, unlike the neighboring island of Skiathos that has a wilder nightlife, but equally beautiful beaches. Again, despite the crisis, Greeks visitors populated the beaches and cafés. We met Italians, Spaniards, saw many blonde Europeans, and heard a few Americans. We stayed in Chora, the main town, at Hotel Dionyssos, a hotel with an excellent breakfast, nice pool, and helpful staff. I met the bartender who was my age, a beautiful brunette who was a French professor in her native Albania and moved to Greece twenty years before. She lives permanently on the island with her Albanian husband and two teenage boys. She tried to teach private French lessons but her degree wasn’t recognized, so she instead, to help support her family, she works full-time tending bar and working in the restaurant. Everyone has a story.

FullSizeRender-16By U.S. standards the hotel was not expensive, but more than my husband and I usually spend when we travel since we spend so little time in the room. The Expedia photos looked inviting, and since the location was ideal, we decided to splurge. Our room, typically Greek: clean, small and simple, did have lovely views of the beach and mountains; mostly the details, little bottles of ouzo and loukoumades in our room to welcome us, added a nice touch.FullSizeRender-15

The first day we took an all-day, very inexpensive (12 euros), guided bus tour to the famous church, Agios Ioannis, (from a scene in Mamma Mia) that included stops at several beaches. Some have said that the movie has cheapened this island paradise, but I don’t agree. It has created a bit more tourism, so I think that’s good. If someone expected to see the same grand chapel from the movie, then they don’t understand Hollywood magic. The 202 steps that we climbed to reach this chapel were well worth it because at the top the vast turquoise sea could be seen, and a feeling of romance, indeed, lingered in the air. I signed the church’s registry where couples’ writings filled the pages, notes of love and adoration for their spouse or partner. If you visit the church, check out entries under Summer 2015; maybe you’ll see my name, my husband’s, and my wish for eternal love.FullSizeRender-27

The night life of Skopelos is similar to Kamena Vourla: sitting in cafes, standing in bars, talking, smoking; we did come across a “club” but when we tried to enter at 1 a.m., on our way back to the hotel from a drink at the center, they told us it would not open till 2 a.m but we were welcome to come in and wait. I definitely felt old. The only dancing we would be doing was in our dreams.

IMG_9133Skopelos with its mountains, valleys, and forests give the island a breezy feeling unlike some other popular islands that I’ve visited with dry landscapes. The greatest appeal of Skopelos are the beaches; from Limnonari to Panormos to Kastani, golden sand and clear water circle the island. Most of these places have beach bars with expensive beer and some food choices though it’s best to wait because the taverns in Chora serve up delicious traditional Greek dishes and fresh seafood for decent prices. It’s known to be a quiet island, one for couples, families, or those who just want tranquility. I found that to be true.

Back to ATHENS

The last day in Athens is always spent returning to Thanasis for a kebab plate and to walk the streets of Plaka. But this year plans changed. We stumbled upon a restaurant that opened its evening terrace for us early, so we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Parthenon. We ate and drank wine for more than two hours and by the time we left, our secluded terrace was filled with more than fifteen tables, never noticing when the tables had been set or the guests arrived. It was a perfect ending to a perfect holiday. Almost perfect. Saying goodbye is always tough. I’m not a fan of phones or Skyping and only call my family a few times a year because when I do, I know we will be on the phone for several hours. Everyone has busy lives, so we all understand because when there’s genuine affection, as corny as it sounds, distance is only measured in kilometers; the hearts remain close.

FullSizeRender-13That night, while I leaned on the balcony of the restaurant, with my husband’s arm around me, taking in the sights, life felt complete. It was a cool night for August, a slight breeze blew my bangs in my face. As I moved them to the side, I could see Nike in the distance smiling at me. I know she loves Greece as much as I do.

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Talk to Your Yiayia . . . (And if you don’t have one, find a grandma!)

imageI love my husband for so many reasons, but for one that I had never expected. He taught me how to appreciate old people, especially how to hold my yiayia’s hand, caress her cheek, lie in bed with her.

When I was in my 30s and still single, an old maid by Greek standards, my grandmother wanted me to find a good husband. She was the product of another generation, and though she believed every woman should be married, she quietly celebrated the fact that I dated and had many lovers before “settling down.” I know this because she was always a naughty yiayia, asking me very specific questions about my boyfriends, “So he has big . . . thing, yes?” Then she would roar with laughter.

imageStill, despite our openness about sex (not typical for a Greek grandmother but mine had lived all around the world and was very open-minded), her and I were not especially close. That is, until my husband came into our lives.

The first time Hugo and Yiayia saw each other, in the summer of 2004, it was love at first sight. They met, he held her hand tenderly, and she said in English (one of the six languages she spoke), “You good man?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“You love Kimi?”

“Yes,” he said, “very much.”

“Good, good. Now you listen to my anecdote.”

My grandmother started telling him a dirty joke about an Italian soldier with a macaroni stuck up his derrière, and he continued to hold her hand while sitting on the bed beside her. Yiayia had been bedridden for almost twenty years (mostly by choice). I’m tired. I don’t want to get up. But she ambled to the bathroom till she was ninety-four without a cane or walker or help.

I had heard the joke countless times, so I went to the kitchen to make a frappé because she didn’t care if I were there or not. She had the attention of a handsome young man, and Yiayia always preferred boys to girls—her grandsons were her favorites; the granddaughters she could live without. When I came back into the room, my husband was lying on her double bed beside her, chuckling, “Yiayia, tell me another joke!”

“Oh, you like?” she said and grinned at him.

“Yes! Yes!” while laughing from his heart. I stood there and thought two things: I don’t think I had ever—in my adult life—lain next to my yiayia, and second, I had never seen her so illuminated. She adored Hugo and he adored her. Every summer we would visit Greece and he would lie beside her, kiss her forehead, touch her in a way that was foreign to me. I always kissed her quickly and was never that physically close to her. Why? Because I had the crazy idea that old people didn’t need touch.image

I watched him throughout the years and I learned. It was osmosis; the more he loved her, the more I did, too. The more he caressed her, the more I wanted to, too. He leaned on her shoulder, stroked her hand, and always kissed her forehead when he came and when he left. He learned this from his own Peruvian upbringing. His family is inimitably kind to old people, so when my mother-in-law gave up her spacious bedroom to her mother-in-law for the last few years of her life, I wasn’t surprised.

Hugo’s grandmothers were extraordinary women. Mamama (my mother-in-law’s mother) was already lost to Alzheimer’s when I met her; she was gentle and sweet, loved to sing and dance, visions of her at our wedding in a polka dot red dress, twirling on the dance floor, fill my mind’s eye as I write this.image But before her illness, I heard Mamama was strict and would lift her skirt, giving Hugo a kick in the backside if he misbehaved.

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Nana at ninety-five, a year before she died.

Nana, my father-in-law’s mother, on the other hand, was still sharp at eighty-eight when I met her, a statuesque woman who lived alone. Nana mostly sat in a recliner, but one could see that she was still a tall woman with straight shoulders and extensive legs. Nana went to Peru from Normandy in the 1930s, and though she had been in Peru since she was a teenager, she still retained a strong French accent and an air of arrogance.

I adored Nana. Her hair was white and fluffy, smelling like a strawberry patch; she always wore a matching necklace and earrings, her lips painted bright red by the woman who took care of her during the day. She sat upright, but with great labor, shortened breath, told me about France, stories of love and heartbreak. I only regret not writing them down and asking more questions because they are bit and pieces of images, but not a clear story in my head.image

Unlike Nana who I immediately admired, the feelings towards my own grandmother were more complicated because we had had our share of troubles. When I was young, we were jealous of one another and constantly vied for my mother’s attention. When Yiayia would visit California for three months of the year, I was told to give up my bedroom and, as a spoiled teenager, was quite resentful.

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South Africa, 1981. Yiayia would come stay with us for a few months of the year wherever we were living.

When Yiayia passed away last year, my mother flew to Greece, and came back with a stack of photos and a card that I had made for my grandmother that she had apparently saved throughout the years. It was from one of those visits.image I’m trying to remember the good times, not the bad, and also the happy times not the sad.image I don’t remember making the card or creating that horrible poetry, but I must have always been searching for recognition from my tough grandmother who thought putting horse manure in her daughters’ Christmas stockings would create laughs, not tears and years of distrust whenever my mother and aunt received a present. Yiayia had a twisted sense of humor, playing practical jokes all her life and wetting herself (because she laughed so hard) when her victims responded with disbelief. But Yiayia also loved fiercely, lived frugally, and saved, saved, saved—so with the manure-filled stockings, she also presented her daughters with a dozen 18K gold bracelets each; and before she died, gifted each of her three children a house. Yiayia was complicated and, as a child, I didn’t understand her—and didn’t care to (or at least that’s what I remembered till I saw this card).

My mama wanted to get rid of my homemade card and almost didn’t show it to me; she said it reminded her of a time when Yiayia and I didn’t get along. My mama is a very diplomatic woman, a perennial optimistic, someone who compartmentalizes love and chooses to only save good memories. Unlike her, I use all situations to grow and learn. My mama only wanted to remember the last decade, the one where Yiayia and I loved each other deeply and openly. It was finally through my husband’s silent actions and, unbeknownst to him, teachings that, at the end, Yiayia and I had the relationship I had always desired.

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Yiayia with her adopted parents (her biological aunt and her husband). This is the photo I plan to use on the first page of my novel with the dedication.

FullSizeRender-5A decade before meeting my husband, while I was in Greece, I sat rigidly on the side of Yiayia’s bed. I was just filling time, so I asked her about her life. What I didn’t expect was a waterfall of stories about travel, relationships, jobs, and dreams; her birth on the island of Imbros and her subsequent adoption, her life in Nigeria and Egypt; about her Ally “friends” who were stationed in Egypt during World War II; about her assembly line position changing the headlights on Jeeps; her desire to go to England and be reunited with her British boyfriend.

My novel, Red Greek Tomatoes, was born that day. I wrote a few notes about my grandmother’s life and stashed them in my computer; then, years later, in 2010, I started writing and in 2012, the first complete draft of my novel was completed.

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2004

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2014. A month before she passed away.

Last year, I lay down on my yiayia’s bed beside her, our legs crossed, and I touched her leg, commenting about her ever-so-soft skin (skin that I’ve luckily inherited).image Yiayia told me that when she had met my grandfather, he told her she was ugly but, thank goodness, she had soft hands, so she could rub his penis well (Yiayia always used proper terminology). Hugo was sitting on the helper’s bed beside us and laughed loudly. Yiayia at ninety-four, still so feisty, so naughty.

Then I started telling her about the character, Dita, from my novel. Dita is the grandmother character, a Greek girl who lives in Egypt, spends her time with the Allies at dance halls in the early 1940s and is—for her time—promiscuous. My yiayia listened quietly, but when I told her that Dita loses her virginity, she pretended to be horrified.

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Yiayia in Alexandria, Egypt. So beautiful. This was the first photo I had ever seen of her so young and so happy.

“But, Kimi! People will think I was poutana!”

I responded with a smile, “She’s not you, yiayia. Yes, I used some of your background, but she’s her own person.”

“Hmmm, well, she sounds like poutana to me!” Then she laughed her deep, throaty laugh.

Every summer when we would leave, I would asked her, “Yiayia, what do you want me to bring you next year?”

Her answer was always the same, “I want big, handsome Peruvian, like Hugo.” My husband and I would laugh, kiss her, cry, and then the following year we were back to lie with her on her bed and listen to her joke about the Italian and the macaroni that had to—of course—be included in my novel.

Last year was different. Hugo and my aunt had gone upstairs to visit her from my aunt’s home downstairs, and found Yiayia on the floor. For the last week of our visit she had to be in diapers and could no longer walk herself to the bathroom. When her helper was changing Yiayia’s diaper, the woman asked if I wanted to leave the room. I looked at my yiayia, “Can I stay?”

“You like smell shit? Okay, stay!” She laughed. But changing a grown woman’s diaper, who is still sharp as a Sharpie, is no laughing matter. The woman wore rubber gloves. It took several buckets of water and endless wipees—a grueling fifteen-minute process of her legs being yanked up in the air, Yiayia turned to one side, then the other.

When the woman left, I sat close to my yiayia, the room still smelling less-than-delightful, but in that moment nothing mattered. I tried to be light-hearted; inside I was breaking. “What do you want me to bring you from the States next year?”

She smiled quietly, not the naughty-girl laugh, “Nothing. Yiayia is ready.”

I asked her, “Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” she bravely admitted. “But Yiayia not want live like this.”

Goodbyes are always painful, tears drop on the keyboard as I write this, but last year, I knew the goodbye would be forever. I never questioned Yiayia’s strength and determination to live—or die—the way she saw fit. The final morning before my 7a.m. flight, I went upstairs and Yiayia screamed, “Leave! Why you come up? We say goodbye last night!” I had saved an extra twenty minutes for a final cup of coffee with my yiayia, and I’m so glad I did. I was calm and relaxed. I sat beside her, held her hand, and left nothing unsaid. I cried while looking back; she had tears while blowing me kisses.

Twelve days after my return to the United States, she died quietly while holding my aunt’s hand. In a few weeks, I’ll be in Greece and attending Yiayia’s one-year memorial. My novel will one day be dedicated to this venerable woman, and all other women, who broke the mold for how “good” girls should act. Through their daring and unapologetically unique behaviors, women—like my yiayia—paved the way for future generations of women—like me—to have choice.image

I’ve learned so many lessons over the last few years; an important one is that old people have so much to share. I hope you take the time today, or the next, to ask an elderly person about his or her life. Listen, really listen. And maybe even hold their hand while they talk.image

In loving memory of Constantina Gialias. February 10, 1920 – August 12th, 2014.

The Feminist Housewife Sans (Real) Children

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After ironing nine shirts and cooking five chicken breasts and vacuuming two carpeted rooms, I stopped mid-Swiffer and thought, “Wow, I’m so thankful.” What am I thankful for: housework? Absolutely not. I’m grateful that I have a partner who notices my work. Yes, I said work: it’s a job that lacks a paycheck or a boss who says, “Good job,” but it is, nevertheless, work.

Image I was reminded of my current position while Swiffering and reliving a conversation I had with a stranger at Starbucks. A thirty-something woman saw me grading and asked if I was a teacher. “Yes,” I replied, telling her I taught two classes at a community college. “How nice that you only have to work part-time,” she added. I felt so many things at that moment, mostly the story of my Sisters who not only didn’t work “part-time” but were also “only” housewives. Most of those women had children, a slight validation that they were actually not sitting at home scratching their arses, but as a childless women in her mid-forties who “only” teaches a few classes at a college, I feel I am constantly—if only in my mind—trying to validate my position.

Recently, I was speaking to a family member who is having a tough time with three children, a husband out of work, and a job that is not stable. Darn, my life is easy in comparison. But it is still my life and I too work hard, but much of our society still believes a woman at home is an easy job—add to that image one with no children, then she is probably a going to the gym, to the manicurist, and spending “her husband’s” money.

A male colleague (who teaches one class) told me he gave up his full-time position a few years ago, so he can stay at home and take care of his family. When he drops off his little girl at daycare for a few hours for some outside stimulation (for his daughter’s, not his), many mothers say, “What a great dad!” Really? He is just being a dad. I can’t remember a time when a mother dropped off her child and people said, “What a great mother!” He tells me this and other interesting stories of being a stay-at-home spouse. His wife is always exhausted, her high-stress executive job sucking out her smiles. But when she comes home, he has a warm dinner waiting for her, the house is clean, and the children have done their homework and are playing outside—not inside with video games. He tells me she goes into her cave for about an hour; she likes to walk on her bedroom treadmill after sitting all day, take a shower, and then she emerges a new woman.

Yes, we have progressed from the 50s and 60s and even from the turn of this past century, but we are not there yet. As a woman, I still have to validate how I spend my hours; otherwise my life seems too easy. It is easy in comparison with 98% of the women of this world. I have food on my table; coffee in my cup. I am neither abused nor mistreated. I have rights. I don’t have to walk five miles every day for clean water; I don’t have to take care of a sick parent or a child with an illness; I can buy a pretty dress when I want, but I do drive a car that is from 1997. I make mostly wise choices: a little in the bank, a nice dinner in return. I am not struggling by any means, but I also hear comments like the aforementioned Starbucks woman quite often.

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How tough it must have been to be a housewife of previous decades, and how much better it must have been if she had a partner who appreciated her. I am blessed with the latter. My husband loves my cooking, so he doesn’t just eat. He salivates, grunts, and between bites, exclaims, “Wow! This is AMAZING!” He thanks me for taking care of our three dogs. He notices the little things: the bed that’s made with the stuffed animals in naughty positions; the five shirts I iron weekly; the shower that sparkles; he even notices the orange scent of the Pledge, “Wow, Amore, the house smells amazing! What is it?”

Okay, I won the husband lottery, but that’s not the point. I also thank him for how hard he works. Up at 6.a.m., he takes the dogs for a walk and returns after a demanding-but-interesting job that brings him home at 9 p.m. most nights. So we both work hard and we both work “full-time.” The only difference is that he brings home most of the bacon. I am a part-time teacher, a part-time housewife, a part-time soon-to-be novelist. I’m a feminist, a cook, a cleaner, grocery-shopper, a dog lover, a poop-picker upper, a once-a-week-yoga girl, a twice-a-week-gym girl, a one-hour-a-day phone call daughter; a love goddess; and—above all—a supportive wife. Happy wife, happy life. (That’s what my stay-at-home-father friend told me.) I’m a die-hard romantic and when my partner is happy, so am I.

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We take care of each other and for that I am grateful. But his position in this society is still far more validated than mine.    

“So it must be really relaxing to just stay at home three days a week!” the woman repeats.

“Yes,” I smile.

It is. It’s a good life. But there is more to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Happens

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I had said I wanted a job more than I needed a vacation. And my prayers were answered—with a little help from above—and A LOT of effort, after two months of angst, I was hired to teach part-time at a quaint college in Los Angeles. Some of the beautiful buildings date back to the early 1900s, and the students are diverse and lively. So though I am extremely thankful to be gainfully employed once more, a slight disappointment encompasses me today. I see my ticket for Athens, dated September 6th, 2013. On Friday my husband and I would have been on a plane going to Greece for a month. But new jobs equal no vacation time. So, for a costly fee, I will rebook.

ImageI know this desire to be in Greece is superficial in comparison to the grander issues in life, but—admittedly—I find myself envious for the first time. I see pictures of friends, former colleagues, ex-students, all who have all become Facebook friends, and when their travels include Greece, I feel a tickle in my tummy.

I see photos of Turkey, Thailand, Tanzania, Vietnam Nam and Austria; all places I would like to visit, but those are fanciful desires. My craving for Greece is different. I think my Peruvian students who studied in the U.S. and abroad must know this visceral desire of returning to a place that has “spice.” A country may have its imperfections (maybe economic and class struggles) but it’s the place that makes you feel alive—and you don’t know exactly why. I am sure we all have that special place, for a friend who lives on the East Coast, San Diego may be his spice. Another friend, who is from the Philippines, says there’s nothing like going back home.

For me, Greece is my magic place. It’s where I recharge my battery. It’s the place where I lie in bed beside my Aunt Lucy, my first best friend, with our feet in the air leaning on a wall, and philosophize about the meaning of life, feminism, and Choice. I take long walks with my cousin Daphne and talk about relationships and how our parents are getting old and crazy—but we love them nonetheless because they put up with us. Of course there are the Greek islands, the endless summers of swimming, dancing, gyros-eating, and playing. Those moments, those memories, oftentimes keep me going. And those moments have been made so much more poignant because my last four visits were shared with the love of my life.
ImageMy husband lies on a double bed with my yiayia. She’s eighty-five at the time, bed-ridden, round with baby-soft skin. Hugo is so great with old people, loves to hear their stories, holds their hands tenderly when they talk. Yiayia and Hugo got so comfortable that he would lie on her double bed with her as she told him the same (dirty!) joke over and over. When we were leaving, I asked her what she wanted me to bring her back from Peru (we were living there at the time). She said: “Bring me back Peruvian man—like Hugo!” and the three of us laughed. Yiayia Dina is bright, naughty, and demanding. She’s also the inspiration of the grandmother in my novel, Red Greek Tomatoes. When I told my yiayia that the grandmother in my novel loses her virginity at eighteen before marriage, she was horrified. “People will think I am poutana!” “No, Yiayia, she is just a character. She’s not you.” She just shook her head and told Hugo the joke again about the Italian soldier who got a macaroni stuck up his butt.
ImageMy other love in Greece, apart from my loud, warm family, is our little summer house in a village called Kamena Vourla. It a simple town with cafés and bars that line the coast. It’s also the setting for a section of my novel, but more than anything, it’s a place that reminds me of a time in my life when I was completely carefree and full in the belly.
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At only three years old, I would waddle to the neighbor’s house and come back with a handful of candies. In the back yard of our summer house, my cousin Tony, five years my junior, and I would bathe in a plastic bath filled with cold water. In my early teens, the neighbors would still give me sweets, pinch me, and tell me I had the softest skin. My mother and aunt would walk along the fifty-meter stretch to the beach in nothing but a bathing suit and flip flops. We didn’t lock doors, and we said kalimera to everyone we saw.

When I was in my late teens, I went to Greece every year and in my early twenties, I lived in Athens for a few years. Though life was different compared to when one vacations in a country, I still loved it. My dream is to own a small home in Corfu one day with my husband and grow our own vegetables and make our own wine. Ah, dreams.

Today I have childhood friends there, a small amazing Greek family, and the country, despite all its economic issues and turmoil, is still, for me, a land of mystery, history, and utter breathtaking beauty.
Image So as I plan my classes for Fall semester while sitting in my artificial-cool office in the scorching San Fernando Valley—instead of lying on the beach at Aspronairi—I am thankful for memories and for my life. Hopefully, we can reschedule, but anything can happen in a year. So prota o Theos, (or God willing) next year this time, my blog post will be from a place that has more water and less air-conditioning.

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My “Story”

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. ImageThough 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; Imagein 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.

ImageWhen 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, Imagebut 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. ImageHe 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 Imageand 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.

ImageHugo and I returned to the U.S. in 2010 with our little family, three beautiful (and extremely naughty) English bulldogs, and a new adventure began.

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.

ImageThere are not too many things in this world that are certain. But of one thing I am certain: I was born to be a storyteller.

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