“Children can tell truth and lies apart”

"My child and I"
Interview with Evi Karkiti

A recent award, that of the literary magazine Diavazo, was the occasion for yet another look at the world of Maria Papayanni. In her books, a miracle is always waiting outside the door, to change the life of her young heroes. The same thing happens in the performance Strange isn’t it? whose libretto she signs, and which will be presented from 20 to 30 December at the Athens Megaron Concert Hall.

-In your books, do you present the world to children exactly as it is, or is there always space for dreams?

In the stories I write, I try to tell children the truth. But I don’t record reality as it is. Part of it is paired off with a fantasy, a dream, an expectation, a burning wish or obsession which I wish could come true. For example, that there is a miracle waiting outside our door or that in this life, the good guys win… They say that myths are shared dreams. The Australian Aborigines called creation the Dreamtime and their myths dreaming. I don’t think today’s children have given up on dreaming. My need is to share my dreams with them or to get inside their dreams.

-What made you take up writing for children? Is it easy, in the end, to write a story that can be understood by children?

I love children’s fiction. I’ve never stopped being interested in it. I remember that at university, grown up child that I was, I never missed a book by Georges Sarri or Alki Zei. Later still, when I started to write about things that moved me, the way I approached them was always through the eyes of children.
I like stories that aren’t childish in order for children to like them, precisely because I believe that children do understand an awful lot and, above all, they can tell truth and lies apart. And if they sometimes chose the lie, that’s because they can’t bear the truth.

-What do you believe children look for in a book today?

I believe that good books are for both grownups and children. Selma Laggerlef, the first woman to receive a Nobel prize for literature, used to say that “the children’s book is real when it is liked by both young and old.” When I start to write something, I never think of my readers’ age. According to sales, children in recent years may well favor fantasy fiction but, for me personally, what is really important is that books should help children grow up. As a great storyteller, Tolkien, used to say: “Their books, like their clothes, must allow for room to grow but, books especially, must at all costs encourage growing up.”

Interview with Anna Routsi for the internet magazine stylista.gr

-In your works, the element of otherness is quite pronounced: The characters are different from the majority of people. Is there something you want to point out and why?

Without thinking much about it, I’d say that I don’t decide in advance to make my characters different. It’s just that I was always fond of special people. Whether silent or loud. A little gone with the fairies and not all that conventional. The people who interrogate daily the self-evident, disguise it, transform it. Who dare on a daily basis to dust off their treasures and pin themselves against them. Thus, a friendship becomes a precious gift and an excursion, a journey full of possibilities. I like watching the everyday through a magnifying glass. I don’t know if that’s my way of trying to familiarize my young readers with the acceptance of the “other” but I certainly believe that miracles take a different form for each one of us and that life would be dreary without colors.

-The characters in your book struggle with superstitions, popular beliefs, fears, things closely linked with the Greek tradition. Which of these amuse you and which do you consider potentially dangerous?

I think the dividing line is pretty clear. In the Lonesome Tree, my main heroine loves life very much, she laughs easily. Her sister takes her to an icon in the church and points to an angry saint. “See how he’s looking at you? The saint doesn’t like it one bit that you’re laughing.” On the other hand, there are the legends and folk traditions which I find utterly poetic. Magic realism. In many villages people still live side by side with sprites and ghosts, talk with those who have passed to the other side and have stories to tell about every single stone.

-Do you think that our times lend themselves to dreams and to the imagination? Can the drive for survive b combined with those elements and how?

Dreams and the imagination are not a medicine and can’t be dispensed with a doctor’s prescription. You live like that, or you don’t. They exist in our life. They are a part of who we are. It’s just that some people have closed the door, in their effort to survive this unbearable everyday. As far as kids are concerned, this is their way of growing up and explaining the world. They need to slip away from reality into the world of the imagination. Nobody would claim that the solution is to take up residence in the world of the imagination. Still, a pebble keeping the door open for some fresh air to come in now and then, is always needed.

-We often hear that young people don’t read, don’t write, and so on and so forth. You, who are in touch with these issues, how do you see things? Does society and our educational system play a role in this?

The only thing they play a role in, is the accumulation of knowledge so that the children move on to tertiary education. Kids in adolescence have next to no time for extracurricular activities. This morning I heard myself calling out to my daughter to quit piano practice and get to her homework in Religious studies. I heard myself and I was appalled! Kids are so overloaded that they haven’t time not just to read but get together with their friends. Naturally, I think that those children who got some “training” when they were young, on growing up, will again seek the pleasure of reading.

-Fiction for adolescents has the peculiarity that neither will adolescents buy it of their own accord, nor do grownups quite know (or dare!) to buy something for adolescents. How can it be made more accessible? You in particular, what is the audience you address and how do you approach them?

To tell the truth, I don’t have a specific age group of readers in mind when I’m writing. I don’t tailor my stories to anyone. I wouldn’t want to write a novel partial to adolescents that would only speak their slang and have as its sole subject the violence, conflicts and mad pace of that age. In the music I listen to, the conversations I have, sometimes I like to turn the volume up and at others to turn it down. When I am invited to schools, I meet such different kids, with such wide ranging interests. Some will discover my book and, if they like it, recommend it to friends. That seems to me a more normal way. Isn’t that what we did in high school as well? We swapped books, music and poetry. Kids at that age are suspicious of their parents. They can discover a book by themselves which, if imposed by adults, they will reject out of hand.

-Do you remember your favorite books as a kid- an adolescent – a grownup?

I remember well the bookshelf in my room in Larisa. Next to the tales of the Grim brothers and Andersen, were added Doctor Mars’ daughters and then the Silver Skates, A tree grows in Brooklyn. At some point, A child counts the stars was joined by the Tiger in the shop window, the Wooden Swords, When the sun... There was a reason that books came into the house during the first ten years, on holidays and during vacations. Nowadays, books are piled into bookshelves, the unread ones are crammed on the bedside table, and it is harder to remember them and bond with them. At university, I discovered Marquez with great excitement, I was amongst the first to buy Maro Douka’s latest and recently, I fell in love with Zyranna Zateli. And then, I wiped the slate clean and went back to the beginning: the Odyssey and A thousand and one nights.

We all have a Peter Pan hidden in us

Writer Maria Papayanni talks about the magical world of children

Chryssoula Papaioannou

for Eleftherotypia, 12/18/2007

“As we grow, we become trapped in the everyday and lock away our riches for safekeeping, except we hide them so well that we forget about them and we end up …accepting discounts on our dreams. Children dream both with their eyes shut and open.” Maria Papayanni, writer and translator of children’s books, knows what she is talking about. She wrote the story Strange, isn’t it? to remind young and old that “life’s miracle are the small, everyday moments. Mom’s hug after a nightmare or a friend’s embrace.” We will be seeing it as a musical play at the Nikos Scalkotas hall of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall starting this Friday until December 30.

The score is by Thanos Mikroutsikos on verses by Yannis Ritsos (the title is from his poem “Again the young Eleni”) Nikos Kavadias, Maria Papayanni and Melina Karakosta. The show is dedicated to the latter who passed away during rehearsals. Mikroutsikos and Panayotis Larkou directed, while the sets and costumes are by Yorgos Vafias and the choreography my Cecile Mikroutsikos. The dancers are Rania Glymitsa and Konstantina Mikroutsikos.

As the name Mikroutsikos is often repeated in the play’s credits – and besides, Maria Papayanni is the composer’s spouse – the writer clarifies: “In a sense, artistic productions are family affairs anyway. Thanos who is at the helm of the undertaking, would not choose people without experience in similar performances.”

The performance at hand is built around the axis of Papayanni’s story: in a city without dreams, feasts or celebrations, a falling star appears but Yomo and Cora have nothing to wish for. The reason is that, a long time ago, an evil witch stole the key of dreams from the wise old man who was their guardian. Yet, the two children will go all the way up to the sky to find the missing key. They will become circus acrobats, have an encounter with pirates and will live through many adventures.

A children’s story for Papayanni means … a happy end. This is not to say that evil is absent. “We shouldn’t tell stories where everything is fine as rain. We are preparing children for this world, not another ideal one. Evil needs to be present and it must be recognizable. The bad guys have always existed in fairytales though, nowadays, unfortunately, they are glamorous and it’s easy for a child to identify with them”, she says.

Not only fairytales but the conventional storytellers have changed. “The stories that grandmas and grandpas used to tell, were good practice for children’s imagination. Today, they take their grandchildren on their lap to watch the afternoon TV serials”, she remarks.

What does a good fairytale mean for Maria Papayanni? “It’s the one that speaks about the truth without being childish. Every child has a different level of maturity. We want them to walk away with their pockets full of pebbles, that is to say, ideas and emotions. On their way home, each picks out what suits them.” Of course, fairytales don’t address exclusively young children. “A tale for children works when grownups also like it. Also, a bedtime story is combined with a hug, and a child may need that for many years”, she adds.

Though she is a mother of two, 6 year old Stergios and 11 year old Alexandra, her love of fairytales dates to her years as a Literature student. “Maybe it’s because of the Peter Pan we all have hidden in us, and the longing for the land of Never-Never. I leave the door open so I can come and go to both worlds”, she explains. Which is why she finds it hard to tell her young son that there is no Santa Claus. “I am in favor of making our life into a bit of a fairytale and not killing myths off”, she says. These festive days, then, will find her with her family under the Christmas tree where

“we will all sleep together and tell stories…”

I like seeing miracles in the everyday

Writer Maria Papayanni talks about the magical world of children

Interview with Sandra Voulgari, for Kathimerini, 03-11-2012

The Lonesome Tree, an unusual story, taking place on the rocky outcrops in the shadow of a Cretan mountain, earned writer Maria Papayanni the State Prize for Adolescents’/Youth Book of Fiction. This piece of news happily coincided with a second one concerning both the writer and children’s literature in Greece, as the contract was signed with minedition press for publishing yet another of Papayanni’s stories with the title, Another day, it will be your win.
The latter book is addressed to preschoolers and will be illustrated by the well loved and much acclaimed illustrator Eve Tharlet. In tandem with her voluble and very interesting writing, Maria Papayanni has translated several of her titles published by Patakis, and has dreamt one day to see how Tharlet might paint one of her stories.
When I called her, I found her in the abandoned village in Crete that was the setting for the Lonesome Tree. I thought that was very exciting. Our conversation took place through the internet and over the phone in the middle of several adventures, as, last time we spoke, the house she was staying in, was flooded by the rain…

-What inspired the Lonesome Tree?
All stories I think are born in a place. Certainly, they carry along seeds and pebbles from all the journeys. My tree looks out to the south. In the outskirts of an isolated village in the Asterousia mountains, gazing out to the Libyan sea. Here live people who may have never traveled in their life but can tell you countless stories about every village stone. According to those tales, the village was always chosen by strange beings.
Elves and things that go bump in the night, spirits that arrive from the sea, visit one of the houses and never let it be in peace. So, then, I thought what it would be like for a young child to grow here carrying all the local beliefs and legends, growing up in a place far removed from the urban alienation. And then, I used this adolescent, whom I christened Simos to talk again about my own obsessions. Namely, that the deeper the roots grow, the larger the branches. That the more solidly you tread your home ground, the farther you can fly, travel, explain and get to know the world.
Also, that you need every so often to empty yourself out of everything you hear daily and remember your on weighing scales, the ones we all carry inside us for things small and large. But with the world’s din, we forget ourselves and use other people’s scales.


- What inspires you as a writer more generally?
I have always loved unusual people, those who are different, whether they’re silent or passionate about some thing. On the other hand. I observe everyday life through my own magnifying glass. A minute detail, a gesture, a phrase, a dream, assume the leading role. I like seeing small miracles in the everyday, which is to say, seeing through the eyes of children, as much as that is possible, of course, because their imagination is limitless. I love fairytales. As you know, fairytales don’t say that everything is perfect, they say that we all lived happily ever after. How? Only if we cross the dark woods, if we dare confront the wolf and the wild beasts and, especially, if we spend the time to listen to the advice of an old woman, a bird, a beggar.
The magical advice is only given to those who keep their eyes and ears open, their senses vital in a mill that grinds up everything. All this is my starting point, true enough, but with one precondition. Even when I immerse myself in tradition, in terms of space and time, I endeavor for my writing to be contemporary. I don’t believe in realistic representation in the sense of depiction, but in the magnification of the real in the sense of magic.


-Are you crafting a new story?
It’s not possible to turn our back to the unbearable everyday life, the difficulties we are all experiencing and which put us under so much strain and pressure. For some time now, I have been thinking about a story with children as main characters, who see the circumstances of their lives change dramatically. My goal is for unemployment not to be a strange and exotic experience but part of the reality of people who, up till yesterday, were employed and living normal lives. The next story, then, will be taking place in the years of the crisis.


-Do you believe that children are ready to hear it?
Children don’t live inside some glass ball, they live in the same everyday as us, with their antennae always on the lookout. It seems to me wrong to keep children away from problems. Children are peers in any discussion and that is how I treat them. Those who think they need to make a fake oasis for their children, evidently don’t know how to prepare them for this world but for some other, ideal world which I, personally, have no idea where it might be located.
It’s a shame to let kids try and piece together the puzzle of reality from things that come under the crack of the door, because they might build an even more dismal reality. Besides, they are getting daily bombarded through that big door, television. The point is to bring up strong children who can resist wretchedness, who will dare stand up for what they believe in and, even more, who will not clip their dreams down to the size of necessity but will try to make their own dreams reality.


- Do you prefer writing for children?
The truth is that, when I write, I am not thinking of the age I am addressing. Yet, I do love children very much and I envy the way they dream, I admire their ability to overturn everything, the great sense of justice they possess. Personally, I had quite a hard time making up my mind that I am grown up and, to be honest, I still think about what I want to be when I grow up and, in fact, have quite a long list in mind. I don’t know if that’s the reason I write for children.
At all events, when I write a story, I don’t tailor it to any particular age. I do have a tendency, though, to taint even my evil characters with goodness and seek their other side. I love life a great deal, despite how disappointed I am in people, despite all the difficulties. And maybe it’s this unwavering persistence in always choosing life, in trying to reverse misery, that fits in with childhood. One storyteller used to say: “The world is unbearable. Life is beautiful. We always have the option of choosing. The narrator of tales chooses life.”

Maria Papayanni was born in Larisa. She has studied Greek Literature and worked as a journalist for radio, television, newspapers and magazines. In recent years she has been writing children’s stories and translating fiction for children. He last novel, As if by magic, was awarded the Prize of the Circle of the Greek Children’s Book as well as the prize for Children’s Book of Fiction, of the literary magazine Diavazo. She wrote the libretto and the verses for the play Strange, isn’t it? (musical theatre performed at the Athens Megaron Concert Hall in 2007 and 2008.) Also, the libretto (adaptation of the novel by Selma Lagerlof, Nils Hoggelrson’s wonderful journey) for the play Say it with a fairytale for narrator and orchestra, to the score by Thanos Mikroutsikos, produced in Christmas of 2002-2003, at the Athens Megaron Concert Hall.

kathimerini


Hμερομηνία: 11-03-2012   

The Singing-stew

Ever since I was small, I loved stories. I adored listening to grownups recounting scenes from when they were young. Small feats that, to my ears, sounded fabulous. It was always at mealtime. When the plates emptied, when the glasses were filled and refilled, when the kids went back to playing, that’s when the best part started. “Do you remember when…” The first stories brought on laughter, the laughter singing, the singing hugs and, then, more stories. In the summers, five brothers, five families with a dozen children, we all shared the same house. In the morning, we were always roused by the smell from the oven. All the moms were in the kitchen, one washing tomatoes and peppers, another slicing onions, another preparing the meat. The singing-stew was a summer dish and a Sunday one at that. For the large formal spread. None of our friends knew what the singing-stew was. Maybe it was a family invention. “Why is it called singing-stew?”, I would ask the moms. “Because whoever eats it, sings.” The meat was swimming in potatoes, peppers and onions and the only wintery note was the feta cheese, like snow on the colorful dish. I wasn’t particularly fond of it but I didn’t make a fuss because I was thinking that the Sunday singing-stew helped the grownups sing more tales. The kitchen leader was grandma. She sat on the side and pridefully watched the daughters and daughters-in-law cooking. It was her, grandma Victoria, who had taught them the recipe. She hadn’t made it herself for years but she knew how it was done better than anyone. They’d show her the plate with the feta that was about to land on top of the casserole. And although she could neither see nor hear all that well, grandma Vic took the opportunity to start chatting. They would forget about her all through the morning. She kept a discrete distance throughout the cooking, to keep a white hair from her well made bun, wander into any of the pots and pans. “Don’t rush, has the meat boiled good and proper?” “Why, mom, it’s melted already!” “Oh, you didn’t over boil it, did you?” The first-born and best cook, Marika, would decisively take things in hand: “If we spend more time discussing this, it will soon be inedible!” She turned off the stove and sprinkled the feta on the casserole in one smooth motion. Then, she took a clean dishcloth and covered it. The meal was ready and the women could go to have a quick dip, meet up for a while with the men and children, then come back again before the others, to set the table. Grandma kept the singing-stew company until the children and grandchildren returned. I was convinced that at that exact moment, grandma put something in the singing-stew casserole, something magical, that would make her children sing tales again. One Sunday I asked my mom to not go swimming because my belly ached. “Alright, you stay quietly in your room. Grandma will be in the kitchen.” As soon as I heard them all leave, I went barefoot and took position by the kitchen door. I saw my grandmother rise laboriously and lift the dishcloth, sniff and sniff and, then, reach inside the pocket of her black house robe, pull something out and sprinkle it on the food. Then, she turned to where I stood and winked at me. That gesture always stayed with me, like a great secret. I never told anyone and never asked my grandmother what magic she added to the recipe. When she died, I went into her room, opened her wardrobe and stroked her black robe. I slid my hand into its pockets and there was the answer to the great mystery of my childhood. On the one pocket there was a dry leaf of basil and in the other, a twig of oregano. We were fairly grown by now. In the summer, us kids ran off, each with their own group of friends to the islands that lay off the beaten track. Back in the summer house, the Sunday table grew that much poorer. Still, ever since then, all my cousins agree that mine is the best singing-stew of all.

Shared dreams

I’m lucky. My office faces a couple of trees squashed in between the apartment blocks, but trees nevertheless. I can hear my neighbor watering them with unfailing enthusiasm on Sundays when he’s off work. My friend, Christos, is lucky as well. If he leans out, he can see over the apartments a little bit of Lycabettus Hill. He dreams of growing a small forest on his rooftop and has entered a waiting list on a municipal program. We live in the centre of Athens. Still, those two, three trees create the illusion of a small luxury. Under those trees, my daughter used to leave notes to the fairies, looking for ways to communicate with them. I watched her at first with joy though later it made me sad to see her searching desperately for in which language to talk to them. She would write on ribbons and tie them on to branches, painted small scraps of fabric or colorful bits of paper, then she thought of drawing on the leaves. She possessed a great deal of patience, she had the vision, the passion and, in her youthful mind, all that was missing was the right form. But she needed a fairytale that had its beginning in the small courtyard of our house. She would have discussions with me and I would anxiously search for the right answers. Should I tell her that there are no fairies, ground her in the adult world. I didn’t want to. We were the ones knocking ourselves out telling her fairytales and, on the other hand, she was growing up in a world were dream materials were so scarce! When she went to primary school and learned the alphabet, I found her one late afternoon repeating under the two trees: “a, b, c…” “What are you doing?” I asked. “Shhh, I’m calling the fairies”. She asked me to join her. Her small alphabet sounds mixed with the everyday sounds of our neighborhood. The cars passing, Severina looking for Pipi, her cat, the cat’s bell jangling as he leapt from one balcony to the next and, of course, the steady sound of a TV set out of all the apartments, but especially the one across, on the first floor. A deaf old lady lives there with her carer who keeps changing every so often, A Bulgarian, a Russian, a Pole, always from the Eastern Bloc, because Mrs. Nana used to play the piano in her youth and held the Russian school in high esteem. My mind follows the sounds in the apartment across the way while my daughter goes on: a ...b …c.At some point she cuts short annoyed. The fairies won’t come unless you sing, too, a…b…c.Her comment is as disarming as her expression. Feeling awkward and moved all at once, I start murmuring a…b…c and, gradually, the sounds from the surrounding balconies fade away and it’s just the a, …b, …c. and my daughter’s need for a new myth of her own, in this modern world. But it is so hard to make out the voice of myth in a world that has completely forgotten its forebears and their pathways through nature.

I was reminded of this story of my daughter while reading a Hebrew tale. Baal Shem Tov and his faithful scribe are going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The boat hits a storm and the sailors surround the Jews considering them responsible for the bad luck. Death seems certain. The worst thing is that Baal Shem Tov has forgotten all the sacred prayers and can’t ask for God’s help. His apprentice pleads with him to try but he can’t remember a thing. Eventually, the great teacher and storyteller, asks his faithful scribe if he can remember anything. Slowly, with difficulty, he recalls the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So, he starts murmuring in a timid voice, Aleph, Beth. Baal Shem Tov repeats the letters and these most elementary parts of language have such power that they are saved from perdition.

Every time period brings changes with it, ours, though, is a time of complete transformations. Many simple things are being overturned. Electronic media, new technologies for the dissemination of information. Yet, the more information accelerates, the more people’s vital communication is hampered with family members, friends, neighbors, nature. In this new reality, the need for something immutable grows. And oftentimes, the realms of “Once upon a time” are proving more stable that the contemporary geographical maps. In recent years an ancient art is being revived. Storytellers, revisionist bards, fairytale festivals, home gatherings, seminars on narration and oral tradition. This past summer, on Kea island, in Vytina, in Kallipefki, the hillsides and woods filled with people thirsting to hear fairytales. Could it be that in amidst the galloping of a mechanical everyday, a new feeling is growing that the human voice and memory are irreplaceable? Is it maybe that we need the renewal of the bond between those who narrate and those who listen? Is this a response to modern day barbarism? How else to explain the ever growing interest in such a simple form?

Is it perhaps the need for introspection, if we agree with the view that our ancestors’ stories are always alive within us, though their voice can’t be heard in the midst of modern living? Or, is it our need for simplicity, for the things that used to be self-evident in times past? Our need to live our life with perfect simplicity, just like in a fairytale? Might it above all be the need to dream up a new myth? Besides, weren’t myths in different times of history, the way to explain the inexplicable and, simultaneously, an ongoing reflection on life’s unanswerable questions? Could our times be at that very point? The point, that is, where we need a modern myth that will teach us to listen to one another, listen to the voice of nature before we utterly destroy it? 

Who is the hero in the traditional fairytales all over the world? The one who travels through the dark forests, who slays dragons, who dares to take on obstacles but, mainly, the one who listens… The one who listens to the elves and leprechauns, who listens to the spirit of the forest, the tired woman at the edge of the road who might be a witch or a benevolent spirit. If his ears are closed and, particularly, if he is in a hurry, he will walk past the solution to the problem and will be powerless when the time comes to pit himself against the challenge. In fairytales, then, we learn that the need to listen is as heroic as fighting a dragon with a dozen heads. How then should I dissuade my son who is trying to communicate with animals or my daughter who used to try to listen to that which is different in the dusk? Could it be that we have simply forgotten how to listen? Might that be what we need over and above anything else? Might we, also, have hastened to name certain things all the better to forget them straight afterwards? “Imagination is essential for a happy child…” Yes, certainly, but, then, how come we don’t miss any opportunity to dismember its dreams? Always with the best intentions, to be sure, we stuff that child with knowledge and information – computer literacy, and language classes and some sports and a bit of music. We run along the street to be there on time before the class starts. The young boy pauses: I heard something in the trees. A lizard was desperately asking for help.Next to a wizened tree, in the middle of an encumbered city, all I can see are a few pieces of discarded plastic. The kid insists: listen.And, suddenly, I feel how poor I am. How difficult it is even for the best parents to be able to hear a small lizard’s cry for help, the young boy’s desperate need to transform reality in order to be able to experience it. And, then, I want to go down on all fours and find the little lizard except time is pressing and the class is about to start irrespectively of lizards and the tears of wayward students.

I had read the interview of a contemporary storyteller, Ednos, who was saying that one of the challenges of his art form was to give meaning back to words. To forge materials, including ancient ones, in a way that resonates with society and its dysfunctions. “The fairytale is like a pebble that must prevent the door from closing.”

Through the half-open doo, I am again thinking of a small girl seeking her fairytale, repeating the only letters she knows: a, …b, …c. A great teacher and storyteller whispering his own letters: aleph, beth, to avert a disaster. A contemporary storyteller who wants to give meaning back to words. They say that myths are shared dreams. Australian Aborigines called the creation Dreamtime and their myths dreaming. Are we maybe at that very point? Is all this contemporary interest in fairytales the need to share a dream and dream again a new myth? At all events, while our forests were burning I, who admire the two little trees crammed in the small space between buildings, my neighbor who on his one free day, Sunday, waters them with enthusiasm, my friend Christos who is planning a forest on his rooftop and that young girl sending signals to the fairies through the lower branches of a lemon tree, we were all having the same dream. An earth that is under threat and is desperately asking for help like the little lizard on the way to the classrrom.

Scattered diary notes

How prettily the light comes in through the hole in a curtain when you are in History class and your mind won’t focus no matter what.

My feeling is that this evening, in this classroom, we are all floating above the desks and everyone is as happy as me.

“Mrs. Bateau” (our great nickname for our teacher) is looking at her list for her next victim. Make it not be me: Papayanni…no… Christiana… yes! Saved again! Christiana throws me a hateful glance. She gets up in front of the blackboard and says something about the Greek Revolution. I don’t want to grow up. Old, tired, with no dreams? How dreary! Too bored to run barefoot on the sand, too scared to scream at the sky. Please, mind, come back. School, the blue color of our uniform and, under that, us thirsty for life, for surprises. It was a gorgeous sunny day today. We didn’t want to have classes with a sun like that. Excursion! We chanted aloud. The answer? The same as ever. Get inside the classroom.

Are we to blame for not understanding your language? Same situation at home. Yesterday, I was thinking of today’s program and it got on my nerves. I was feeling tired and angry. Then, mom comes in and starts harping on the same old tune. You are so young! Why get so upset? Alright, mommy dear. How nice if we could put colored buttons next to ages. Under 12 you are not allowed to feel upset or get tired…

“Mrs. Bateau” brings her ruler down on the desk. Take note: demotic poetry is a people’s mirror…

… and a class window, I say, is the dream hatch. If I could fit into that hole in the curtain! The bell! Oh-oh. Next, is the Physics test. Excuse me, did I hear right? What good luck! There’ll be no Physics! There is a teacher’s meeting instead. 

Scattered notes in school notebooks. All these years later and, again, I don’t want to grow any more. I still like to escape through the curtain holes. The only thing different now is that I am interested in demotic songs and history and so many other things whose usefulness I didn’t understand back then.

Bicycle

Bicycle

I must confess it’s been some time now that my bicycle, as precious as that relationship may be, is no longer a part of my everyday life. I live in the centre of Athens, in Metz, and when setting out to various chores in the city, I first cross Zappeion gardens, which is so far so good but, then, before I pedal a few more meters down the road, to Syntagma square, I start to get panicky, which escalates as I ride down Panepistimiou st. and, by the time I’ve reached Omonia, I have bitterly regretted the whole idea. Athens is not a city fond of bicycles, even if many drivers give friendly honks, greeting you and making you feel like cycling in the centre of Athens is an act of resistance. Resistance to all those who overtake you in a hurry, swearing at you for delaying them, as if they don’t know you will be meeting again at the next traffic light. Resistance to the pace of everyday living, resistance to glumness, resistance to the easy way of doing things, to speed, to uniformity. Cycling, then, for me is like the wildly painted house sprouting amongst the nondescript apartment blocks, like the small flowers poking from the bitumen. Cycling for me is an act of resistance and an alternative way of dealing with one’s everyday, of refusing time’s wear and tear and laying claim to a more human city.

I grew up in the periphery, in the city of Larisa. Summers were spent in the nearby Platamonas river. The bicycle always played a leading part in the life of the family and the city, without it ever occurring to us that one day it would be an act of resistance. My father cycled to and from work and, to my mind, this was always connected to the “family being back together” at the end of a long day. So, then, when it got dark, we would run out to welcome dad and his bike. The front door opened, dad passed the bicycle to my mom, and took me in his arms. The bicycle rested behind the door until the next morning. Early on a Sunday, we would wake up, dad took care of the bike and my sister and me put on or Sunday best for our customary ride. Myself at the front, my sister at the back and dad pedaling, the three of us started out for a ride to the Aquaduct, where the countryside began. We played, we ran, we gathered flowers, then, all three of us got back on the bike again. Through the magic of photography, I have held on to a couple of favorite moments from my childhood. In one, the three of us are on the bike. My father youthful and handsome, and us in pretty dresses with well combed hair, starting out on the Sunday ride. The second photograph is on the way back. We’ve stopped by the nearby bakery. My father is holding the big baking pan while my sister and I are walking the bicycle back to the house.

Nor was our family different. Bicycles were the main means of transport. I recall another scene with a bicycle that today seems surreal. On special Sundays, we used to order ice cream from Olympion, the town’s central patisserie. I remember the delivery boy from the patisserie coming on a bike holding in one hand the metal tray with the ice creams, which were all in tall glasses. Two scoops of ice cream with whipped cream and syrup, all arriving perfectly unmolested.

This was a time when I was still very young and life flowed slowly, to the pace of a bicycle. As I grew, I learned how to cycle, skipping the training wheels stage, of course, and so I soon took life in my hands. I could now pedal as fast as I wanted and so ride at much greater speed. Our legs full of scratches and gashes, but that never slowed us down. Growing into adolescence, was the time of the great excesses. On our bikes, we broke all the rules and rode roughshod over every boundary. In the summertime in Platamonas, boys and girls would get on our bicycles and disappear. To sports fields, beaches, by the railway tracks, under bridges, up and down steep slopes. My bike was the sole witness of the first great love. We held hands while riding, then we fell over and our bikes were the first to embrace. Afterwards, our bicycles took us to ever more deserted spots and we rewarded them by parking them side by side. I honestly feel that the bicycle of my adolescence saved me many a time from ennui, melancholy and self-destructive loneliness.

Growing older still, we got caught up in things. Gainfully employed and running around, with very few breaks which were always in the Cycladic islands, on rugged beaches that disallowed cycling, so that childhood’s best friend was no longer necessary. Until my children arrived, and the old treasure chest was opened and words started to get their meaning back. Sunset, sea, bicycle, trip. I watched my eldest daughter going for broke, trying to balance on two wheels. On the summer she succeeded, we would leave in the mornings and get back in the afternoon. We took every path, to wherever it led us. We would get tired and stop for a quick dip. Next, we turned pros, bought ourselves gloves and helmets and went on greater distances. One morning, we came across a group of foreigners touring Greece on bikes and, after following them for many kilometers, we promised ourselves that next summer, we would join them. The bicycle became my ally again. This time to get closer to my children and inspire in them the joy of escape, traveling, dreaming. At about this point, the bike turned into resistance. Resistance to electronic games, isolation, alienation. We chose cars that could transport bikes. And my joy was immense, watching my children get sunburned in the summer and sucking life dry and, at Christmas, instead of game boy and play station, asking for the next bicycle. This is not to say that the bicycle and our frequent escapes were the only solution, but, to me, it was an important ally. Imagine my delight when my son was old enough to ask me urgently to show him, that very afternoon, how to ride on two wheels because he was in a hurry to start training. “What’s all the rush, Stergio?” “I want to cycle round the world with my best friend”, he said. “That’s not something you do on four wheels.” So, the thought came to me of a little story, going around the world on a bicycle.

Peter and his friend Stergios decide to travel around the world. On the travel notebook they jot down everything they need to take with them: a compass, maps, flashlights, and everything they need not to take with them: girls, moms, dads. But when Stergios announces his decision that they are to travel by bicycle, Peter finds himself in a very awkward position. How does a traveler tell his best mate, “I don’t know how to ride a bicycle?” It’s all his mom’s fault. She is always taking him on holidays to rocky islands without any roads. Now, Peter needs at all costs to learn how to cycle. It is a matter of life and death. He tries very hard but he keeps falling over, again and again. But who said the good things in life are easy? Peter will realize that for some things it’s worthwhile giving your very best.

Now, with my son, we’ve saved an afternoon every week for cycling. Though it isn’t easy going up and down the streets of Metz, until we get to the countryside. But this is our time together. It is something we both enjoy and share. I am always dreaming that my children will become travelers, the way others dream their children will get into university or succeed in life. I think that, once I manage to get them to dream of travel, I will have succeeded. All the rest in their life’s novel, they can choose for themselves.


The apples of Kofinas

Summer’s end at the village of Kato Kapetaniana, in the Asterousia mountains, under the shadow of Kofinas. Sailing the Libyan sea. One of the moments when I pinch myself trying to figure out if I have actually traveled or is it one more of the many tales of my friend Yorgis, who works in Herakleion but always comes back to his village, Kato Kapetaniana. With everything I’ve heard, I want to go again and again to taste the fritters, visit Trypiti, climb the mountainside, be there in all seasons of the year. Because there, the days are still different. How can a wee place like that, hold so many promises?

A promise, among others, for the most authentic tree-worship in the modern world, on September 14, feast day of the Holy Cross celebrated in the small chapel clinging to the top of Kofinas. The village boys go up from the day before. Who will cut the apples that will be placed on the church altar? Kofonas’ apple trees have put down their roots in the craggy rocks. The call them apples but, actually, they are the size of chickpeas and they are the fruit of the thorny rowan (Balkan Whitebeam). Trees, it is said, that grow in the place where a pilgrim woman fell to her death from the rocks. The fruit will stay in the water of the spring all through the night and the next day, it will be blessed by the priest on the altar. Young and old go up to the chapel before daybreak. The priest, after blessing the fruit, circles the summit with it, followed by all the faithful. Eventually, the blessed fruit with many healing qualities, will be distributed, much like a communion wafer, to those present. And they will keep it by the icon at home through the whole year, to ward off evil. And then, next year, God’s willing, we will chalk up another summer at the top of Kofinas, gazing out to the Libyan sea.

“My dear Mrs. Georges Sarri…”

“My dear Mrs. Georges Sarri…”

A letter with a 30 year delay

During the years of my adolescence, looking for escape hatches, traveling on the pages of literature, I “discovered” (finally, I used to say then!) a writer who had lived through everything we were dreaming of, was saying everything we were afraid to say, opened all the windows for the clean air to come in and clear our thoughts. That first book by Georges Sarri was «When the sun…». When I finished it, I was moved to tears. And then I read it again, and again. So, Georges Sarri first walked into my heart and then she filled the shelves of my adolescent bookcase «Red thread on the reel», «The treasure of Vayia», «The lie»

I was thinking of her as my second mom since, without me asking, she answered everything I wanted to know. I was talking to her without writing to her. I entrustedher with my secrets without her knowing. I didn’t care if I ever met her. She had made me so many gifts. All her books, which I read avidly. One of the first questions I would ask my new friends was: “What are you reading?” If they answered “Georges Sarri” or “Alki Zei” (another great love) I knew I already had a lot to share with them. At my thoroughly advanced age now, it seems funny that a writer could be the ticket to a new friendship but while growing up, we didn’t talk about TV shows, serials and games. Rather, books were a major topic of discussion.

I met Georges Sarri many years later, as the mother of my best friend, Melina Karakosta, and was impressed all over again. She was just like the way she wrote. Full of humor, vitality and love for life. Besides, she has said it herself: “Writers write first and foremost for themselves, in order above all to express themselves, to save themselves.” In all her books, Georges Sarri evokes so vividly different situations, different eras, that she draws young readers along, makes them feel that, in some way, they were there too… She says over and over again that all she did when she started writing was to copy her children («The treasure of Vayia») or recall her own childhood («The tight shoes») or her school years («E.P.») or the years of the Occupation, youth and Resistance («When the sun…»).

Georges Sarri was born in 1925 in Athens. Her mother was French from Senegale and her father from Ayvalik. She finished primary school and high school in Greece. During the German Occupation she took part in the Resistance, while attending the drama school of Dimitris Rondiris. She remembers that period in a very personal way: “The years of the Occupation were years of joy and freedom. From being unhappy, we became happy. And this because we chose the path of life, even though there was death in it. We grieved and we rejoiced all together. But we were not afraid. There was a goal, liberation.”

In 1947 she left as an exile for Paris where she continued studying drama. She returned to Greece in 1962 and continued acting in plays until the time of the dictatorship. Then, along with other actors, they chose to engage in passive resistance and not play in the theater. They thought it would only be for a few months because, again as she herself says humorously: “We didn’t imagine, you see, the dictatorship would be so long lived.” That summer she started writing her first novel, «The treasure of Vayia», as a game with her children and their friends. When she saw the great success the book met with, she decided to turn to writing. She proved quite voluble as she has already penned over twenty novels, kids’ plays and books for younger children. She also has translated several novels from French. All of her books have been through numerous editions, while some have received awards.

Certainly, the greatest prize for Georges Sarri is that, though the years pass and times change, children continue to love her books and still write to her to express their admiration.

What is the secret, then, of her books? What makes reading them so enjoyable for children and adults alike? (Quite recently I read her latest, «Ninette» which I think may be her best.) How does she manage to win children over? Is it because she was among the first writers who dared talk to children about contemporary issues without dispensing wooden lessons? Is it because her heroes are as real as the friends we play with in the summer? Is it because she always talks about children who are personable, have interests of their own and the capacity to make decisions?

I think she provides the answer herself in an old interview. “Yes, the experiences in my novels are personal. But the omnipresent narrator (me) is the ‘trick’ for speaking for my country’s historical past (Occupation, Resistance, Civil War, dictatorship). I think of my novels as adventurous insofar as life, too, is an ‘adventure’… My intention in writing was my own relief, not to say my ‘redemption’”.

 

As a child, I never wrote a letter to my favorite writer. If I wrote to her today, I would say the very same things I wanted to say to her then:

My dear Mrs. Georges Sarri, thank you for speaking to me of freedom, dignity, friendship during a time when I was looking for the stones with which to build my life’s principles.