Saturday, September 01, 2018


«Έλα δουνά πδάκιμ να μαγειρέψουμι. Ας του βιβλίου κάτου. Θα παλαβουθείς απ’του πολύ διάβασμα κι θα πουστοφέρνς σαν του γιο τς πωστλένε στου χουριό.»
It was with these loving Samian cadences, that my grandmother would pry the book I was reading from my hands and frog-march me into her kitchen. According to her, too much reading caused softening of the brain and potentially, sexual perversion. Nothing that a session in the kitchen would not cure.
«Άντι, σήμιρα μπουρέκ’ θα κάμουμι. Καθαρισέ’μ του κουλουκύθ. Ιδουνά είνι βρε. Kουλουκύθ δε ξερς τιείνι
With that, she would provide me with a paring knife that had been sharpened so many times since then nineteen fifties, that it had been worn down to almost the thinness of a razor blade. Clumsily, I would place the knife betwixt my uncoordinated twelve year old fingers and wince as the blade would bounce off the skin of the pumpkin and land upon my own.
«Ου άντρας ούλις τς δλειές τ’σπιτιού πρεπ’να τς ξέρ’,» my grandmother would pronounce, her grey eyes peering disapprovingly over her lilac rimmed glasses, as she placed a saucepan full of water on the stove, deposited the pumpkin, which, at my hands had obtained the exoderm of a shorn sheep, in it, and left it to boil.
“Why?” I would ask, even though I already knew the answer.
«Γιατί τουν άντρα απ’ δε ξέρ’τς δλειές τ’σπιτιού, τι να τουνε κάμς; Βάρους δεν είνι;» she would ask rhetorically, handing me the strainer and compelling me to push the boiled pumpkin through its mesh. «Είνι μόνου για να κατσέρν’ τς μύγις.»
At this point, my eyes, already teary at the onslaught of the odour emitted by the onions I was chopping at my grandmother’s direction, would cloud over as I imagined a future version of myself, unschooled in the ways of domesticity, relegated to a corner of the room by a plump, forceful wife who eerily resembled my grandmother, condemned by virtue of ineptitude, to perennially wave a fly whisk around nonchalantly all day. Secretly, I resolved that not only would this not be a lamentable existence, it was something that should actively be aspired to.
While sautéing the onions and mixing them in with the strained pumpkin, my grandmother had ample time to intrude upon my thoughts: «Άμα δε μάθς τς δλειές τ’σπιτιού, η γναίκα’ς θα σι βάλ’ στου βρακί τς,» she prophesied.
Now I was transported back to my corner, fly whisk in hand, but this time, I was clad in rather voluminous flesh coloured female undergarments, and was feeling rather cramped, since I was sharing said undergarments with the increasingly incensed woman of my grandmother’s dreams.
“What do you mean? How will she put me her underpants?” I’d ask mortified, adding one and a half cups of crumbled feta cheese, some mint, a handful of sultanas and the two eggs my grandmother had directed me to beat, into the mixture.
«Άμα σι έχ’ μαθ’μαίνου ότι δε ξέρς να κάμς τίπουτα, θα τν έχ’ς πάντουτε ανάγκ, κι θα σ’ βγαίν’ απού παν,» came the curt reply as she added a cup of burghul to the mixture. «Κι άμα σ’ βγεί απού παν κι σ’ βάλ’ τα δυό σ’ πουδάρια στου βρακίτς, θα σ’ πέσνει τα ψουλιά’ς.»
I reflected upon the meaning of my grandmother’s oracular vision as she handed me her rolling pin and commanded me to roll out the dough she had prepared. Apparently, if one was male, one had to be adept at matters domestic, to avoid one’s partner gaining ascendancy over one. The power equilibrium of the relationship depended on this, for if it was not achieved, an as yet undefined part of the male genitalia would presumably be forfeited. And once that event took place, one was written out of the family narrative forever.
«Άι ου μπαμπά’ς. Τουνέ παρέδουσα στ’ μάνα΄ς τιχνήτς κι κύριους. Τα χέρια’τ πιάν᾽νει για ούλις τς δλειές. Ούλα ξερ να τα κάμ.»
That was true enough. Not only was my father an inspired cook, he was also, when the need arose, a dexterous ironer of garments, a dab hand at the sewing machine, even as he wielded the circular saw, the chainsaw, the coping saw, the hacksaw and the seesaw within and without the bounds of his garage workshop kingdom. And it was also true that my mother looked upon him with reverence and awe. It was only now that my grandmother had revealed why.
Cutting strips of long, thin pastry, we proceeded to stuff it with the mixture. My grandmother’s gnarled and calloused hands, coursed over thick veins branching off into innumerable tributatries, like the watershed of the Brahmaputra,  running over mottled, sharly undulating skin, like a relief map of the Himalayas, worked at a bewilderingly swift tempo. We then rolled it into a thin cigarette shape and began to twist and fold it over and over itself, like an inoffensive but elongated snail, or a finger that had been squashed by an unsuspecting truck.
“Pappou didn’t really do much about the house, though, did he?” I mused. “He was always outside in the garden.”
«Δεν είπα να τς κάμ’ς τς δλειές. Αλλά να ξέρς να τς κάμς. Κι κείν’ να ξερ ότι ξέρς. Εικεί είνι του ζμι. Του ίδιου κι στου κρεββάτ.»
You mean making your own bedI do that already.” I confirmed.
My grandmother slowly placed the bourek snails into her oiled tray in ever diminishing concentric circles. Both their symmetry and geometry were breathtaking. She leaned closer and her voice took on a conspiratorial tone.
«Άκσι. Η εκκλησία μας έχ’ τ’ νηστεία γιατί, νουμίζ’;»
“That’s easy,” I replied enthusiastically. “It’s because Christ fasted for forty days in the desert. But we aren’t fasting now, otherwise we wouldn’t be making bourek.”
My grandmother shoved the tray in the aged-blackened oven and slammed the door with a flourish. «Τ’ νηστεία την έχουμι για να μάθ’ ου άντρας να κρατιέτι. Ειδεμή, άμα δε κρατιέτι στου κριββάτ, κι τουν πάρ’ χαμπάρ’ η γυνάικα’τ θα τουν κάμ’ ότ’ θέλ’. Παρά άμα μαθ κι κρατιέτι, τότι δεν τ’ν’ έχει ανάγκ’ κι δεν θα τούνι βάλ’στου βρακίτς, παρά θα κανουνίζ’ ου ίδιους την στράτα’τ.»
I had absolutely no idea what she was taking about. Something to do with incontinency surely, and underwear were also making their appearance in the paradigm, presumably soiled, but what did that have to do with fasting and household chores? And what did exercising restraint while making one’s bed have to do with forging one’s own path? The ways of the emancipation of Samian manhood, as delineated by the family matriarch were strange indeed.
Seeing me completely bewildered, my grandmother let out a chortle. By this stage, the bourek had achieved the requisite brown hue and I was enjoined to remove it from the oven.
«Άκσι τι σ’ λέου κι να προυσέχς ποια τύχ’ θα διαλέξ,» my grandmother ordered«Φάει τώρα. Καλό έγινι.»
The last time we made bourek, (and in Samian the final k is palatised, signifying the microtone between the consonant and the vowel that usual ends the noun in Modern Greek), two decades ago, my grandmother was too sick to take more than a supervisory role. Under her unremitting gaze, I performed the ritual exactly as she had taught me, listening to her interpose, at the exact same juncture as always, her rubrics about domestic equilibrium and the necessity of men playing an active role in the management of the household and calculated restraint in the bedroom. Her psalmodic overtones came to an end just as I pulled the bourek out of the oven and gave her a piece to taste. She looked at the gnarled, mottled, uneven spirals that looked more like calloused fingers than comestibles. Guiding her piece suspiciously to her mouth, she sucked on it for a while, twirled it around her mouth with the flair of a true connoisseur and then began to chew. I waited devoutly, in anticipation of my skills being considered sufficient to permit me to be elevated to the right hand of my father. Frowning, she turned to me:
«Καλά που έμαθις γράμματα γιόκα’μ,» she pronounced. «Γιατί τα χέρια'ς δεν πιάν’νει γι’αυτές τσι δλειές.»
Μπουρέκ makes no sense without my grandmother. None of us have made it ever since. In her memory, I diligently continue to make the matrimonial bed every morning and dutifully maintain an irrational, but healthy and eminently restrained reservation, with regard to women's undergarments.

First published in NKEE on 1 September 2018