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 Delicacy of Peru

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Lake Titicaca

A few weeks ago someone asked me what I missed most about Peru. I had to think about the question because even though I feel great affection for the countries where I was fortunate to have spent chunks of my life, namely Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Greece, and Peru, when it’s time to move, I am usually ready. Even when I left my beloved Athens, after living there for three years in my 20s, it was time for change. It may be because I have lived exactly half my life—twenty-two years—overseas that I tend to get “ants my pants” when I have been in one place for too long.

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Greek, Peruvian, and American family all gathered for a meal before our wedding.

After living in Lima for six years, my husband and I were moving to San Diego, and though I was terribly excited to be close to my family again, goodbyes are the worst. When my husband hugged his family and tears flowed, I knew my Peruvian husband would now, unfortunately, be on the other side of these long-distance familial relationships.

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Hugo and his childhood friends

Thus, what I miss most are the wonderful moments with my Peruvian family and friends. Loved ones gathered in our apartment as I made my famous pisco sours, days at the beach drinking chelas and eating choros a la chalaca. I miss calling friends last minute, at 6 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and by 11 p.m. our apartment was full of familiar faces laughing and listening to merengue. I also miss strolls in San Isidro with our three bulldogs, sipping coffee at Parque Kennedy. And—of course—I miss ceviche.

Yes, I certainly miss the seafood. In fact, I often crave Peruvian cuisine; for me it’s of the finest in the world. My mouth salivates when I think about ceviche from Pescados Capitales, Imagearroz con mariscos from Segundo Muelle, lomo saltado from Tanta, or Elenita’s ahí de gallina. But the finest delicacy from Peru is, in my opinion, not the food.

It’s the people and, more specifically, their manners.

I’m not talking about their manners when drivers of combis, zipping down Javier Prado (a busy three-lane freeway in Lima) would scream and honk their horn, while simultaneously cutting me off. (Though one bus driver after insulting me, did send me a kiss. All I could do was laugh.) I’m thinking about Peruvians who are not behind a steering wheel.

I found that Peruvians have the most delicate, considerate manners. This was somewhat shocking to me because I came from sunny San Diego where people perpetually smile. I didn’t think I would ever meet people that were more polite than San Diegans. These sun-tanned, micro-beer drinking, say good-morning-to everyone people seem as if they have already gone to heaven, as if they have this secret city made of eternal sunshine, (but only in their minds?). For me, it’s a bit too perfect, a bit too tranquil. But San Diegans are great people; my closest family and friends live in SD suburbs; even my mother has become more of a San Diegan than a Greek! (Maybe that’s also why I hold on so tightly to my Greek roots—I like things that are a bit more tumultuous, a bit wilder.) So moving to Peru was comforting. In this new country, I met versions of my loud Greeks (who I adore) and happy San Diegans (who I admire) but mixed with something extra: this new delicacy that I had never before encountered.

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When I first moved to Peru, my husband and I were in Wong—the Super Supermarket of Peru. We bumped into a college friend that he knew, and when Hugo introduced me, the man dove in for a kiss. I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled away. My husband later educated me, telling me that when one is introduced, a kiss follows a simultaneous handshake. I don’t mind kissing customs—I just didn’t know the Peruvian one. Later, when we went to a party and there were about ten people sitting around a circular sofa, I hesitated, and then looked incredulously at my husband. Was I really expected to go around and kiss everyone? Hugo’s eyes told me “Si!” Initially, it felt strange. Then I grew to appreciate it—even like it! This kissing custom makes people recognize one another in a most intimate way.

Upon visiting friends in San Diego years later, my husband and I walked into a gathering and no one even turned around. It was rude awakening for me as I had not only learned to appreciate “the kiss,” but now expected it. From the corner of the room, I introduced my husband; a few people turned around and said “Hi” from afar, but most kept talking. Not because they were ill-mannered, but different country, different unwritten “rules.”

I also found it interesting when teaching at the American School of Lima “the Gringos,” as we were called with cariño, would see each other at school, and we would nod: “What’s up?” “Hey.” Sometimes we would be as polite to say: “Good Morning,” but at after-school functions we all got kissy-kissy. Greetings between gringos took on the delicacy of Peruvians.

These delicate manners that I grew to love and appreciate extended far beyond kissing. When I needed something, a Peruvian friend or colleague would go out of his or her way. Not to say my American, Canadian, and British friends weren’t helpful, but Peruvians helped with a sort of joie de vivre—“I’m here! I’m ready. Where do you need to go?”

And then there were birthdays. No one ever forgot your birthday and Peruvians made you feel super-duper-incredibly-awesomely special. These were the days before Facebook alerts, birthdays were noted and celebrated. As a teacher, my class would sing to every birthday student, both in English and then in Spanish. When it was my birthday, the phone calls, hugs, and kisses were plentiful. Peruvians truly get the importance of this day—one was brought to earth and there is no other day as special.

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These are just a few of the delicacies of Peru. This South American country is rich history, art, culture, commerce, organic products, and geographic bio-diversity. When one thinks of Peru, undoubtedly, Machu Picchu comes to mind. The four-day Inka trail was, indeed, one of my favorite adventures, but Lake Titicaca remains my favorite place; ceviche unequivocally my favorite food, but none of these foods or places compare to this country’s greatest commodity: the warm-hearted Peruvian people with their delicate manners.

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Lake Titicaca

It’s a delicacy that I will never forget and has changed me forever.

Personal Ad for Opa

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Hi, my name is Opa! You know, like the versatile Greek word meaning so many things from “Yay!” to “Oops!” to “I love the sound of plates smashing on the stage!” Anyway, I’m twenty-seven years old (almost four in dog years) and have never had a Significant Other. I’m one quarter Greek, one quarter American, and half Peruvian (I was born in Lima, but recently became an American citizen, and am still waiting on my Greek passport). I speak Spanish fluently (it’s the language of intimacy with my parents), understand some English, (“sit,” “stay,” and “freeeeee”) and some Greek (“Bravo Koukla!”); I even know some German words (“nein” and “aus” but I only hear them when I am in trouble, so they aren’t my favorite words).

ImageI’m the baby of the family and adore my mama (and I know I’m her favorite even though she says she loves us all equally :)) I love to shake my butt and lick her toes when I see her. I have a brother, Achilles, and a sister, Oia. Both are grumpy and like to sleep all day–and all I want to do is play. So I’m looking for a guy or a girl, who wants to run, jump, and chase balls with me. If you think you’re The One, you can email me at opa@plentyofdogs.com

ImageOh, and I tend to have a thing for the wild ones–so if you are a pit bull with tattoos, I’m your girl! But, I have to admit, I also have a soft spot for German Shepherds and rottweilers. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m really not that picky. I like short dates too: so if you are a dachshund, a Maltese, or even a chihuahua, you can write too! All I really want is a friend who has energy and doesn’t sleep all day (like my boring brother and special sister). I like long runs on the beach; I’m not a picky eater but do love calamari with tzatziki, and my drink of choice is Inca Kola. So, if you want to go to the bouzoukia and smash some plates and have a grand ol’ time, remember, OPA!

(Even though I have a lot of energy, writing this made me tired and, I guess, I do need a power nap, so . . . ciao for now . . .)

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“7.9 Earthquake—Home Alone”

                                                             In memory of those who did not survive

August 15th, 2007

Lima, Peru

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It was a pretty apartment on the 10th floor, a bit noisy with the traffic of Camino Real, but it had a magnificent view of the lush, green course of the San Isidro Golf Club. It was about 6:30 p.m., and I had just gotten back from my yoga class, so I was wearing a sweatshirt, exercise pants, and sneakers. I unlocked my apartment door as the deep smell of onion mixed with squash tickled my nose. It was winter, and Elenita had made a delicious calabasa soup. I looked at the soup and thought: I need to go out and buy ham and cheese for tomorrow’s lunch. Then, a second thought crossed my mind: shall I go now or after I have a bowl of soup? I walked over and saw it was still warm. So, I decided: Soup first!

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After serving myself a bowl, I went into the small TV room and started channel-surfing. I slurped a big spoonful, licked my lips, leaned back, and looked out the window at the bright lights. Then I heard it. The deep, rumbling sound. Maybe it was a big truck that had just driven by? Sometimes the windows shook because of the traffic below, but the noise sounded different. It was deeper, darker, almost incestuous—too connected. I realized it came from the belly of the earth. Within two seconds, logic registered: it was an earthquake. A BIG one. I was on the 10th floor. And I was alone.

I jumped up. My body swayed a bit as if I had drunk a few too many glasses of wine. My hands were shaking. But it was the sound that I can still hear in my ears today. A gurgling noise, a scratching noise—our building and the one beside us were built together. Stuck at the seams. And now they wanted to dance by the beat of their own drum. It was as if they were Siamese twins, trying to finally separate from one another.

Ignoring the sounds, I ran through the living room, ready to open the door. My heart was beating wildly as if to the rhythm of some tribal beat, but then again, it may not have been beating at all. Time was frozen as I saw my cell phone and keys on the couch, five meters away from me. I hesitated. I needed to get to my phone. If I survived this thing, my husband would be worried and would inevitably try and call. I needed my phone! But then I stopped. If I turned back, would those be the three seconds with which I could have gotten out of the building alive? Just to retrieve my phone, was I foolishly choosing be buried under rubble when the building collapsed? And when it collapsed, would I be trapped under slabs of concrete with a silly piece of technology in my grip?

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I went back anyway. I grabbed the phone, the house keys; my body was rocking back and forth. Things were falling—short, sharp sounds; a series of crashes—someone’s TV? Someone’s porcelain? Then a long, heavy rumble . . . my God, someone’s building? I was still thinking. Thinking rationally, that is. I had to get out of there: yes! Down the stairs! Just the week before, I had seen Nicholas Cage in the movie World Trade Center. The words of Sergeant McLoughlin reverberated in my head: “The stairwell is the strongest part of the building.” I needed to make it down the stairs. Get out of the building.

I was running, fast; my heart was on fire. BUT STOP! There was a man. Another human being. He was standing in the frame of his door holding a dog. A grey, kinda ugly thing. He was young-ish (the man). Thirty-something? I had seen him before. He had an array of sexy women pass through his apartment regularly. He was sort of handsome in the rugged “I haven’t shaved for a month” kind of way. But I didn’t think any of this. All I thought was My God, another human. I wasn’t going to die alone. I heard the rumble again. I lost my balance while running past him, but managed to say in my fractured Spanish: “VAMOS A BAJAR!” (Let’s go down!) He looked at me. Then he stretched out his hand—WHOOOOOOOSSSH. He grabbed me. “NO!” he screamed. He said something in Spanish, but I didn’t understand. Suddenly, I found myself hugging this man like he was the last person on earth, accepting his invitation with alacrity. His one arm was wrapped around his dog, and I wrapped myself around his other arm. I had my eyes closed, my face tucked into his bicep, my back pressed against a moving wall. He kept repeating, “Tranquilizate, va a pasar” (calm down, it will pass). Later, he told me that I was mumbling, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die.” I remember none of this.

For 2 minutes and 43 interminable seconds the earth rocked. I remember thinking: when will it stop? And what a way to go. I pictured myself again under sheets of metal and piles of debris, my arm sticking up through a crack, my fingers twined around a cell phone—but this time there was a DOG in the picture, and he was chewing on my bloody hand! Then I saw my mother down on knees wailing, my husband with his face hidden in his oh-so manly hands, shielding his tears from the rest of the family. Suddenly, I pictured a cruise I wanted to go on; then, the little island in Greece where my husband and I had been the summer before; my mother’s face reappeared again. After that, there were no more pictures in my head. It was over. And I was still standing. And I hadn’t died.

With disheveled hair and spirit, I quickly pulled away from the stranger and said: “Gracias!” Running down the ten flights of stairs, I left him standing there with his dog.

ImageI have told this story many times to family, friends, students, loved ones, anyone who would listen. I guess I thought I was going to die, and I needed to process it. But what I needed to process was nothing in comparison to the people of Pisco, Ica, Chincha and San Vincinte de Canete. In Lima, we were very lucky. For others, it was disastrous. In Pisco about 85% of the structures were leveled, and throughout the region, 519 people were left dead; 1,366 wounded. Of course, these numbers are relatively low in comparison to other natural disasters, but one death is always too many. Just “1” represents someone’s mother, brother, aunt, sibling, child, or spouse.

About two months later, my husband and I were in the elevator, and a rugged man walked in. He had two dogs now and smiled sheepishly at us. I felt awkward. This was a person with whom I had spent two very intense minutes, and yet now, I didn’t know what to say. Normally quite loquacious, an unnatural reticence made me avert my eyes. My husband, stuck out his hand, grabbed the man’s shoulder, and thanked him for supporting his wife through a traumatic event. That’s when our neighbor told us that I kept repeating, “We are going to die!” He said it was not exactly what he wanted to hear during those crucial moments. We all laughed.

The next day, my husband and I decided to start looking for a little house (close to the ground) to live. Too many memories in this place.

A Short Love Story

A girl walks into a bar because one of her favorite songs, “Shook Me All Night Long” is playing. In the corner of the dive, a tall, dark and handsome stranger (so cliché but so true) catches her eye. The bar is called “Hobson’s Choice” (which relates to a story about a man who rented horses whose line was “take this one or no other”). So the girl must have also gotten the stranger’s attention because he keeps staring at her. He comes closer to the bar and orders another drink. The girl speaks to the boy. The very first words this young man hears from the girl are “Do I know you from somewhere?” It really wasn’t a pick-up line—she really thought she knew him from somewhere; otherwise why would he stare so openly? (Yeah, right. It was a pick-up line.)

Then, things happen quickly. He walks the girl and her best friend to their car and, in one fell swoop, slides the girl’s seat belt into the slot perfectly as she stares into his eyes. He invites her to see his country, so they travel to Peru. He thinks she takes too many vitamins and her desire to eat fish twice a week is a bit irritating. She thinks he’s too young and can’t possibly want the same things she does. But he does. He forgives the vitamins and she believes him. In less than a year, on December 22nd, 2003, they marry in a simple ceremony in Lima, Peru; and the following year, she has a small wedding, so her mother can see her in a long, pretty white dress.

This man tells her she is funny every day. She tells him he is so kind. They laugh a lot. He gets grumpy, she gets demanding, but they figure it out. Nine years later, she looks at this man and wonders how she got so lucky. She fears talking about her happiness because she’s afraid to jinx it, but she can’t help it because after almost a decade, she is more in love than ever. And if there is a God, then she says a huge thank you for creating this person who complements her so perfectly and makes everything right in her universe.

Just a short little love story that will, hopefully, turn into a long one.

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