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 («Ε.Π.») 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.