Saturday, December 01, 2012
When I was at university, I would spend my day off with yiayia Kalliopi. Ringing the bell, I would listen to her slow footsteps, muffled by the Edwardian carpet of her entrance hall, approach the front door. The door would open slowly, and a smiling face would explain in Samian English: «΄Αλαου Κουστάκ.' Σι πιρίμινα. ΄Εμπα μέσα να σ' κάμου τουστάκ'»
According to yiayia Kalliopi the most perfect toast could only be made using Granny Smith white bread, smothered in Meadow Lea margarine and placed within a rusting archaic toaster whose cord had frayed, almost exposing the live wires underneath. Such toast could only be enjoyed with a cup of tea, Lipton by choice. Coffee, enjoyed by most of my relatives, was to be execrated, for it was evil, in that it excited the blood and caused people to act irrationally, whereas tea was the only drink suitable for civilized company.
According to yiayia Kalliopi, her father, my great grandfather back in Samos, once thought of growing tea, but decided that tobacco was more lucrative. He was a very clever man, because he didn't need to use his fingers to do arithmetic. Yiayia Kalliopi was also very clever. Had she been able to study, she would have gone far, even become a professor, but her father pulled her out of school when she was in grade three saying: "Why do you want to go to school for? So you can learn to write love letters to boys?" Yiayia Kalliopi could have been a great intellectual. She remembered all the poems and songs that she learned at school and made me learn them off by heart too. Apparently intelligence ran in the family, because her niece was a high school teacher. Yiayia Kalliopi also read the lives of the saints and the Bible but didn't believe that there would be a resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment. "That's what the Jehovah's Witnesses say in order to suck you in," she would laugh. "Once you are dead, that's it." According to yiayia Kalliopi though, Lazarus did come back from the dead and he asked for something sweet. Also, he wouldn't tell people what he went through.
Yiayia Kalliopi loved going to church. She would wear her headscarf and sit on the left hand side, in the third row from the front. In the mornings and the evenings I would hear her whispering prayers but when I would ask her how she prayed, she would smile and say that these were not things that children should know. Yiayia Kalliopi believed that priests were silly and hypocritical because one day, the village priest came to her father's shop during Lent and purchased a smoked fish. My great-grandfather told him off but he, unfazed, his it under his cassock and walked off. For this reason and because I was displaying an unnatural interest in things religious and metaphysical, Yiayia Kalliopi told me, «Άμα γινς παπάς, θα σ'κόψου τα ψ'λιάς.» Consequently, I believed, right up until my late teens that Greek Orthodox priests were castrated, Origen-like, prior to their ordination.
According to Yiayia Kalliopi, there was no resistance movement in our village on Samos during the Second World War. Instead, there was a guy called Betsos, who terrorised the Italians. He did not do so out of patriotism but because they came to his fields one day and confiscated his oranges without telling him. Swearing revenge, he went up into the mountains and wreaked havoc upon them and the Germans until the end of the war. When Betsos was on the loose, yiayia Kalliopi said, no one was safe. My great grandfather offered some mandarins to a German detachment that was searching his shop for weapons, but they kicked them out of his hand. He did not join Betsos because Betsos was uncivilized. During the Civil War, the Royalists offered Betsos a highly paid position in the army but he told them that it was the Italians who had stolen his fruit, not the communists, so he went back to his farm.
According to Yiayia Kalliopi, there was nothing wrong in being a communist, as long as you believed in God. Her brother Panos was a communist, having become indoctrinated while serving in the Greek army in Palestine during the war. When he returned home, he was bursting with ideas about how the Party was going to change the world and tried to discuss this one day over dinner. My great-grandfather slapped him across the face and forbad him from ever discussing politics in the family home. Soon after, the family dispersed theio Pano moving to Athens and my grandmother to Australia.
According to Yiayia Kalliopi, Pappou Kosta was engaged to someone else who died during the war and so he had to marry her instead. After a while he decided to migrate to Australia and when my father and aunt were young, my grandmother followed him. She caught up with him at Bulla, working on his cousin's farm, who had been there since the thirties. According to yiayia Kalliopi, conditions were so squalid that she put her foot down and said: "I didn't leave one farm to come to another," and so the family left for Melbourne. Yiayia Kalliopi said that in 1954, there were no other Greeks in Essendon. According to her, they had a chance to buy on old Victorian house that is now a mansion in the most expensive street in the suburb, but my grandfather didn't want it, because it did not have a cellar for storing wine. Though, my grandfather did once threaten to open up my grandmother's skull with an axe if she continued to pester him about the way he was planting beans, according to yiayia Kalliopi, he was very quiet and never laid a finger on her, or my father and aunt.
According to yiayia Kalliopi, my grandfather quit smoking because one day, when my grandmother was out, he was forced to break precedent and purchase cigarettes himself. When he saw how much they cost he was horrified and went cold Turkey straight away. According to yiayia, my father first walked and was toilet trained at nine months old. His first words were «Θέλου τσάπα,» and he inherited her intelligence, industriousness and speed. Unfortunately, he also inherited her height, which was a problem as she was only five foot tall. Yiayia Kalliopi said that when my father obtained his driver's license, she bought him a nice sensible car with which to drive the family around, but when she went to Greece on holidays, my father sold it and purchased a Monaro. This yiayia Kalliopi said quite often, especially when my father was near, along with how she was chasing my father around the house in order to beat him for a misdemeanour one day, and he grabbed the back door to stabilise himself and pulled it off its hinges.
Yiayia Kalliopi said that her Jewish boss in the restaurant where she worked always told her to add an extra pinch of salt in the food to give it taste and because salt is very good for you. Whenever we would visit, she would make a barbeque, burning old offcuts, some of which still had paint on them. My cousin would have chocolate milk but I was not allowed to have chocolate in my milk. According to yiayia Kalliopi, only the eldest could have chocolate in his milk and I had to make do with strawberry. This system also applied to Neapolitan ice cream and was only broken when my sister, as a baby, purloined the Neapolitan ice cream container from the refrigerator and ate the chocolate section. A similar system also applied in terms of the poems that each of us had to learn, which we tailored to our characters and attributes.
According to Yiayia Kalliopi, the reason why her tiganites, bourekia, and dolmadakia were better than anyone else's was due to the addition of «σάμθινγκ». Her grey eyes would wink and she would assume an air of mystery. Though we have since found her notes, written in phonetic Samian Gringlish, that «σάμθινγκ,» could never be replicated. Yiayia Kalliopi would fill bags with cakes and garden produce, especially tomatoes and cucumbers and send me on a produce run to all the widowed Samian ladies living in Essendon, in mute advertisement both of her skill and inability to age.
According to Yiayia Kalliopi, when she died, I would remember her for her cooking. Fifteen years on, her injunctions have become my habits and her cautionary warnings my inhibitions. And not a day goes by that I do not begin at least one sentence with the words: "According to yiayia Kalliopi.."
First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 December 2012