Μια φορά κι έναν καιρό ο Χανς Κρίστιαν Άντερσεν

Μια φορά κι έναν καιρό πριν από πολλά πολλά χρόνια πάνω από 200, μια μέρα σαν και σήμερα σε μια πόλη της Δανίας γεννήθηκε ο Χανς. Ο μπαμπάς του παρόλο που ονειρευόταν να σπουδάσει και να διαβάσει πολλά βιβλία και παρόλο που όλο περηφανευόταν πως ήταν από σπουδαία βασιλική γενιά η αλήθεια ήταν πως ένας άμοιρος τσαγκάρης ήταν που δύσκολα τα έφερνε πέρα.

Η μαμά του ήταν πλύστρα κι όσο ο άντρας της είχε σε εκτίμηση τα βιβλία αυτή δεν τα λιμπιζόταν καθόλου. Εντελώς αμόρφωτη πίστευε σε όλες τις δεισιδαιμονίες

Ο μικρούλης Χανς αδύναμος και καχεκτικός προσπαθούσε να τα χωρέσει όλα στο κεφάλι του, τη φανταστική βασιλική γενιά του μπαμπά του και τις σκοτεινές σκέψεις της μαμάς του. Από μικρός όμως αποφάσισε να γίνει σπουδαίος.
Ο πατέρας του, τού διάβαζε παραμύθια από τις Χίλιες και μια νύχτες, τον Λαφοντέν και τον πήγαινε στο κουκλοθέατρο. Ο μικρός Χανς μάζευε τα προγράμματα θεάτρου κι αυτό ήταν το παιχνίδι του. Καθόταν σε μια γωνιά και φανταζόταν ολόκληρα έργα πίσω από έναν τίτλο. Ύστερα έφτιαχνε μόνος του τις κούκλες, τις έντυνε και τις ετοίμαζε για τις παραστάσεις του

Ήταν 7 χρονών όταν πήγε σε κανονικό θέατρο κι εκεί συνάντησε μια από τις διασημότερες ηρωίδες του, τη μικρή γοργόνα. Άρχισε να πηγαίνει κρυφά στο θέατρο κάθε μέρα και τον έμαθαν όλοι οι εργαζόμενοι και τον πείραζαν. Ο Άντερσεν όμως τότε ήθελε να γίνει ηθοποιός και η μαμά του ρώτησε ένα μέντιουμ που της είπε πως ο γιος της θα γίνει μεγάλος και τρανός κι έτσι δέχτηκε το τρελό όνειρο του γιου της.

Μα μήπως έπρεπε πρώτα να πάει σχολείο; Να μορφωθεί; ήταν 11 χρονών όταν ο πατέρας του έπεσε στο κρεβάτι πολύ άρρωστος. Η μητέρα του τού ζήτησε να τρέξει να φέρει βοήθεια και θύμωσε όταν ο Χανς ξεκίνησε να πάει στο γιατρό. «Ποιο γιατρό» θα του είπε «την μάγισσα να πας να φέρεις, τη σοφή γυναίκα του χωριού»

Δεν ξέρουμε αν εκτός από τη μάγισσα πήγε και ο γιατρός αλλά ο πατέρας του πέθανε και τα πράγματα έγιναν ακόμα πιο δύσκολα για τον Χανς που δεν ήταν γραφτό του ούτε γραμματική, ούτε ορθογραφία να μάθει, ούτε να γίνει ηθοποιός. Όμως το πάθος του, η ορμή του, η τρέλα του, η επιμονή αυτού του παράξενου αγοριού ήταν η αφορμή να τον προσέξουν και να το στείλουν με υποτροφία σε κάποιο σχολείο όπου είχε συμμαθητές πολύ μικρότερούς του.

Με πολλά βάσανα ο Άντερσεν κατάφερε να τελειώσει το σχολείο στα 23 του χρόνια. Αυτά τα χρόνια του σχολείου ήταν τα πιο πικρά και τα πιο σκοτεινά της ζωής μου, έγραψε αργότερα ο Άντερσεν

Κι ύστερα με το απολυτήριο στο χέρι έτρεξε πάλι να κάνει τα όνειρα του πραγματικότητα. Αλλά το σανίδι δεν τον ήθελε, είπε να γίνει τραγουδιστής αλλά έχασε τη φωνή του και τότε άρχισε να γράφει με μανία, μυθιστορήματα, διηγήματα, ποιήματα, θεατρικά έργα, λιμπρέτα και τίποτα φοβερό δεν γινόταν, ερωτεύεται με πάθος, μια μπαλαρίνα, μιαν ηθοποιό, μια σοπράνο και καμιά δεν τον θέλει, σαν τρελός ο ψηλέας με την μεγάλη μύτη στέκεται όταν βρίσκεται με κόσμο στο κέντρο κι αρχίζει να απαγγέλλει τα γραφτά του και όλοι τον βαριούνται και τον αποφεύγουν ώσπου κάποια στιγμή συναντιέται επιτέλους με το πεπρωμένο του και γράφει τα πρώτα του παραμύθια που πέταξαν παντού γιατί η ζωή φαίνεται του το χρωστούσε κι αγαπήθηκαν τα παραμύθια του αμέσως από μικρούς και μεγάλους σε όλο τον κόσμο και σε όλες τις εποχές.

Και στα παραμύθια του, όλα τα πάντρεψε, τα απραγματοποίητα όνειρα του πατέρα του και το πάθος του για τις λέξεις και τη γνώση, τη σκοτεινή σκέψη της μητέρας του με τις μάγισσες και τα μέντιουμ, τις απογοητεύσεις που έζησε, τη σκληρότητα και τη φτώχεια, την προσπάθεια, το πάθος, τον έρωτα που δεν χάρηκε. Κι απ΄ όλα αυτά που δεν έζησε έκανε τα ομορφότερα παραμύθια που μεγάλωσαν πολλά παιδιά στον κόσμο όλο. Κι έτσι ο μικρός καχεκτικός Χανς κατάφερε να φέρει τον κόσμο όλο πάνω κάτω και να αποδείξει πως το πάθος είναι μαγικό.

Τότε ήταν που κατάλαβε πως το να ταξιδεύεις σημαίνει να ζεις. Κι αφού γυναίκα, φίλους και παιδιά δεν είχε άρχισε να κάνει πολλά ταξίδια και να γεμίζει τα ημερολόγια του. Και στα ταξίδια του συναντούσε σπουδαίους, φτωχούς αλλά και άλλους παραμυθάδες όπως τους αδελφούς Γκριμ στη Γερμανία και τον Ντίκενς στην Αγγλία. Μάλιστα ο Ντίκενς τον κάλεσε για λίγες μέρες στο εξοχικό του αλλά αυτός κάθισε για 5 βδομάδες και δεν έλεγε να φύγει. Στον καθρέφτη εκείνου του ξενώνα βρέθηκε μια κάρτα που έλεγε: “Ο Χανς Κρίστιαν Άντερσεν κοιμήθηκε σ΄ αυτό το δωμάτιο δυο βδομάδες που φάνηκαν στην οικογένεια Ντίκενς αιώνες”. Τι περίεργο αυτόν που τόσο δυσκολευόταν με τους ανθρώπους τα παιδιά τον λάτρευαν σε όλο τον κόσμο. Για τα παιδιά ήταν ένας άγγελος που έγραφε τις πιο ωραίες ιστορίες.

Σ΄ ένα από τα ταξίδια του είναι στο πλοίο που από την Μάλτα θα τον φέρει στην Ελλάδα. Έχει πλάκα κάτι που θυμάται ο ίδιος στο ημερολόγιο του. Ταξίδευε με 7 Ισπανούς καλόγερους. Για όλους αυτούς ο Άντερσεν ήταν κάποιος που ταξίδευε από τον Βορρά. Ένας καλόγερος τον ρώτησε από που έρχεται κι ο Άντερσεν είπε από την Δανία “Από την Δανία; είστε δηλαδή Αμερικανός;” “ όχι η Αμερική είναι πολύ μακριά καμιά σχέση με την Δανία. Είναι από την άλλη μεριά” είπε ο Άντερσεν. Ο καλόγερος όμως επέμενε “Δεν είναι μακριά, δεν είναι μακριά”

Και στ΄ αλήθεια δεν είναι μακριά γιατί τα παραμύθια του ένωσαν όλο τον κόσμο. Από την Ανατολή στη Δύση, από τον Βορρά στο Νότο. Κι όπως στα παραμύθια του όλα μπορούν να συμβούν έτσι και στη ζωή ο μικρός Χανς που δεν είχε να φάει, τάισε τα παιδιά όλου του κόσμου.

Ακριβώς μια μέρα σαν και σήμερα 2 Απριλίου του 1841 ο Άντερσεν γιόρτασε τα γενέθλιά του το πρωί με μια βόλτα στο βράχο της Ακρόπολης. Κι επειδή του άρεσε τόσο πολύ, το βράδυ ξανανέβηκε και πριν κοιμηθεί σημείωσε στο ημερολόγιο του:

«Κατέβηκα από την Ακρόπολη και στάθηκα στο θέατρο του Ηρώδη. Ένας βοσκός έβοσκε εκεί κοντά τα πρόβατά του. Μερικά πεντάχρονα ελληνόπουλα μου έριξαν μια πέτρα και μετά έτρεξαν να κρυφτούν.»

Λίγες μέρες μετά στις 20 Απριλίου γερμένος στην κουπαστή του πλοίου γράφει στο ημερολόγιο του: «Είμαι λυπημένος, αισθάνομαι σα στο σπίτι μου εδώ» Υποσχέθηκε πως θα ρθει ξανά σ΄ αυτούς τους μαγικούς τόπους, Σπάρτη, Μυκήνες, Δελφούς που και μόνο το όνομά τους έκανε την καρδιά του να χτυπάει δυνατά.

Στις 4 Αυγούστου του 1875 στην Κοπεγχάγη παιδιά συνόδευαν τον μοναχογιό ενός τσαγκάρη και μιας πλύστρας στην τελευταία του κατοικία. Κι από τότε 200 χρόνια και βάλε δεν σταμάτησαν ποτέ να τον ευχαριστούν που έγραψε τόσα παραμύθια για να ζούμε εμείς καλά κι αυτοί καλύτερα

The last thing life’s going to do, is wait behind closed doors

or

Beware of sharks!

As you grow older, the colors fade. Rage, anger, fear, anxiety. It all gains entry into our life, there is space for it all. Successes, joy, losses. Yet, if there is one period I recall that was thoroughly focused and single-minded, a period in which it felt like we were about to leap over the ditch onto the side of happiness, from “was” to “will be”, that was the period of the entry exams for Uni.

I don’t know if it was because I was growing up in rural Greece, I don’t know if my parents thought of University as a one-way street and, so, had brought us up with the dream of a graduate degree.

I don’t know if it was because all the cool guys in town were the University students who arrived back during the holidays and livened up the place.

I don’t know what the reason was, but there was no doubt in my mind that there was a red dividing line that ran through everything: University exams. The time before and the time after. I looked with sadness on the kids that didn’t make it and had to take on extra tutorials for one more year, and then another; and then? Personally, I couldn’t imagine anything past that. Thinking back on it, it seems that ever since primary school, I toiled for when I get into to University, leave the city of Larisa, become independent, become myself, know what it is I want and where I’m heading. For when I will be able to plan trips, be able to do what I want, pick and choose among all the different life-scripts.

We had loaded so many expectations onto this passage to University life! It was the passport for exiting the restrictions of the birthplace for the challenges of a big city, where poetry, revolution and love were waiting. There, at university, we would live at full throttle.

Maybe that is why I still get slightly panicky at the mention of University exams. I remember I used to study out on the balcony, breaking all promises to myself that I would sleep, relax, spend some stress-free time. The small table full of notes and Alcazar park across the street, a summer night full of sounds and smells and promises, and me hanging my whole life on the day coming up. What if I don’t go well, if I don’t get admitted, if I don’t get to leave. Next day I was to take the exam at a building on the other side of town. On arrival, I realized I had left my ID card behind. We drove back, the car shooting every single traffic light indiscriminately, and I returned just as the doors were closing but, in the face of my desperation, they opened again. For years afterwards, I would have the same nightmare, that the doors will not open, that life will sail off without me on board. Only later, much later, did I get it. The last thing life’s going to do, is wait behind closed doors.

I wouldn’t want for my children to go through the same agony. I would like to teach them that happiness is made of different stuff. That, no matter what they choose, they need to really want it a great deal. I remember a friend wanting to study dance, “And she won’t go to University?”, aunt Lillian had said. Dance, music, were activities to do in parallel to academic studies, not an end in themselves. How very small the world was I was dreaming of. No, this isn’t not how I would like my children to think. “And if your son says he wants to be a cyclist or a mountaineer or a dolphin trainer, will you let him?” a friend had asked.

Yes, and I will even pump up his sails as much as I can, for him to dream bigger. Because I now know that no door holds happiness, unless we learn early on to appreciate life. To wage battle. To smile at small, everyday miracles.

The one thing I will tell my son is what I, too, was told by a young friend of mine, when I confided my childhood dream of going round the world on a bicycle. “Ma’am, you need to watch out for sharks. I mean, when you have the bike on the raft or boat, you need to watch out that the sharks don’t puncture the tires.”

And one other thing that fairytales taught me. Many roads open up before us. One leads to the mountain, another to the sea, one to university, another to the village. It’s a shame not to follow your own road. Then again, if you come across sharks along the way, beware that they don’t puncture your tires.

Four season travelers

I bought it twelve years ago. My kids, still young, wanted me to initiate them into holidays in a tent. Alexandra at 9, Stergios at 4. Guests on the property of a close woman friend. All the women would go along with our kids. I didn’t own a tent, so I did some market research. This was the most expensive one but also, I was assured, the best: “It’s a four-season tent, you see.” I was thinking on it when my husband called who said to go ahead and buy it at once, because he was dreaming of tent holidays in winter and summer. At the property, everyone laughed at me. “Let’s see you in the tent in winter!”

When I unfolded it, I realized that all these years I had been a stage hand, following orders, but I’d never set up a tent all on my own. The children were looking on, waiting for my instructions. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so, after an ordeal of several hours, the three of us managed to enter the tent. From that moment on, the complaints started. “I don’t like sleeping on the ground. I don’t like bugs. I’m scared of the dark that moves about all over the tent.” We overcame all of those. And, soon enough, we were happy as larks and all set to enjoy our holidays. We laughed, no matter that there was dirt being carried into the tent, we carefully took out any uninvited insects and the darkness was the departure point for the next story.

I remember the two children insisted that I sleep in the middle. We left the back window open. I was listening to them breathing and looking up at the stars. It seemed to me that a star blinked, as if it heard my wish. “That we always be well. That we hug so there’s room for all of us in the tent. That we travel. That we get to know the world. That my children become travelers.”

I came across the tent again, twelve years later. The children decided to set a tent up on Elygia beach. Before promising I would go to Heraklion to buy them one, I discovered in the storeroom the tent with the brand name: 4 seasons. I sent the children a picture of it. “Is that the one from the property in Astros? Well done, mom, it was worth every penny!” 

All these years and the promise was still good: “summer and winter holidays in a tent.” I momentarily thought of grumbling but then remembered all the fond summers I’d spent with my children in beds, beaches, balconies. And I did succeed in making them love summers, gorges, isolated beaches, expeditions and adventures. I had managed it. Even though the tent waited for all those years. The wish came true. My children became four-season travelers.  

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.