Monday, January 11, 2010


It was an old, rickety divan whose embroidered upholstery was unravelled to the extent where it had formed its own natural patterns of the disparate and chaotic strands of time, the type one looks up uncomprehending, contriving to read within the loose threads, a possibility of a destiny. As I sunk myself upon it, the seat gave way like quicksand, causing the divan to shudder and wheeze like an asthmatic time lord.
"That's actually quite a historic divan," she said. "My father and Esat Pasha would sit upon it and discuss the affairs of Yiannena. Have you noticed the silver tray that I used to serve you coffee? It's exactly the same tray that we used to serve coffee for Esat Pasha." Rummaging through some drawers, she limped over to me, dog-eared postcard photograph in hand. "So you can see them there," she indicated, caressing the figures with a gnarled, trembling finger. "That's my father right there. And there's the bishop. And that sad looking man with the sensitive eyes is Esat Pasha. This was taken a few years or so before liberation. You would know of course how that was brought about...."
Once a teacher, always a teacher. During the week I stayed with Dorothea, one of the first female teachers of Epirus, it was not just an extensive course of lectures upon the general history of Yiannena that I was treated to, but also family history. For long before I had ever met her, she was conceptually for the family, the image-definition of a teacher, having taught all my great-grandmother's children, save my grandmother, who attended a Vlach school, and my mother.
I knew Dorothea years before I met her. I could picture her mounting her bicycle in Yiannena and riding to the village school, to the astonishment of the conservative villagers. This was due to the fact that as a child, I was difficult to feed, and the only way I would open my mouth was when my long-suffering mother would distract me by relating stories about her teacher.
Invariably, every three months, for over twenty years, a letter, written by a heavy hand in spidery writing, as complicated as a piece of lace woven by a blind woman would arrive in our letter box and I would set myself to the arduous task of attempting, mostly in vain, to decipher her handwriting. In doing so, I learned how to spell in the old way, differentiating which verbs were to be ended with an H and a subscript iota, as opposed to the general EI. I also learned that the correct way to begin a letter was in the way she began every single one of her letters, never deviating from her constancy: «Αγαπημένοι μου, σας φιλώ με πόνο πολύ.»
When my mother was young, the divan was aged but not unraveled. It stood in the parlour and was sat upon by such dignitaries as the town mayor, the bishop, and the local member of Parliament. Seated inconspicuously in the corner, my mother would watch diligently, noting how dessert spoons were utilized and gazing in wondernment as such unheard of condiments as freshly made mayonnaise. "What is this Vlach-child doing here?" her sister-in-law would snap, brushing past her. "She is fine. Leave her alone," Dorothea would reply. And my mother would sit motionlessly and listen as an entire world would unfold before her, one that was not based on the inevitability of farm animals, soil, chores and subsistence, but on music, literature, imagination, aesthetics and the conviction that people were indeed, masters of their own destiny. Ensconced in her kitchen in Melbourne decades later, my mother, hard at work straining yogurt in order to make tzatziki would muse: "Do you know where I first found out what tzatziki was? At Dorothea's house when I was a girl. But they had a different name for it. They called it 'talatori.'" Again, on New Years Eve, while making the traditional, swoonworthy rice and chicken pita, my mother would again fall into the same reverie: "I remember Dorothea and her sister-in-law making this. Of course they made it a bit differently. I've added more cheeses."
It was while listening to the unself-conscious discussions of the well to do Yianniotes at Dorothea's house that my mother learned of the existence of Hector Malot's "Sans Famille," and plucking up courage, wrote to my hard-pressed for cash grandmother in Athens, begging that she purchase it for her. This request was only fulfilled when, twenty years later, my grandmother sent the book to me for my tenth birthday. Somehow, all the books that my mother had seen on the shelves of Dorothea's house, or had heard mention of from her, invariably found their way into my room, where I devoured them eagerly.
Upon starting school, and mastering English, I was invariably disappointed. Having been reared upon stories of an amazingly inspired woman, who could construct the map of Greece out of coloured sand, kept jars of preserved reptiles in her classroom in order to teach her pupils natural history and in an age of rural class stratification, where if you could dress your child in shoes, you thought you were somebody and didn't have to consort with peasants, would take an individual interest in each child, trying to show them a way out of poverty through education, I assumed all teachers were like that. They weren't. Or were they? Looking back at the various multicultural and underprivileged programmes my mother instituted at the school in which she taught in the eighties, I can perceive the vague shades of a kindly though crusty old Epirot school-teacher, with immense love for her pupils, determined to make a difference.
Dorothea never had a family of her own. Instead, she transposed all her love upon her nephew, a talented but terribly conflicted artist and journalist, who was to eventually commit suicide. Heartbroken, she turned for solace to a young girl she had befriended and who was now living on the other side of the world. When I went to stay with her for the first time, at the age of twenty, it was as if I had known her all my life. I could remember most of her letters by heart and would ask questions about events as if I had experienced them. Dorothea would proudly show me photographs of her trip to Australia, before my parents were married, Paris and other exotic locations, mixed with historical artifacts from Yiannena. She would also rummage through her drawers, to extract pictures of my aunts, photographed with King Paul on the occasion of his visit to the village. Further, she had kept photographs of almost every single class she had ever taught, a veritable family tree for me. On that first stay, she would wake me up at the crack of dawn on Sundays and send me off to church. Upon my return, a breakfast consisting of mouth-watering pita would ensue and a lengthy lecture in her heavily accented didactic tone, about Bishop Seraphim's time as minister in the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus, because of course, she knew him. He was a friend of her father's.
The last time I saw Dorothea, I was in Greece with my mother. She was by now 92 and in a very poor way. Paying an impromptu visit to her house, we were shocked. Walking in unannounced, we saw none of the antique furnishings, Byzantine icons, books, or photographs. Albanian families were living in each room and she was alone, in a room bereft of any furnishings save a bed and a tabled, a shriveled, emaciated caricature of her former self. "She probably won't recognize you," her Albanian carer lisped. "Most of the time she is unconscious." As my mother leaned over her bed, tears in her eyes, and whispered: "Dorothea, it's me, and Kosta," I noticed my first two poetry collections on her bedside table. "Are you Kosta?" Dorothea's carer asked. "I've been wondering who you were. Until a month ago, she would make us read from these books every day and tell us all about you."
Dorothea, lying on her deathbed, stirred and opened her hollow eyes. She blinked twice as she looked at us. "Eleni, Kosta," she whispered, "I love you." And that was it. She lapsed into unconsciousness once more, sinking lower and lower into the mattress as if into oblivion and we took our leave, too distraught to be thankful for the opportunity to have bid her farewell.
Three months later, Dorothea died. The night before, my mother dreamt that someone had taken the divan out of her house and was chopping it to pieces. In it, were the multitude of letters that she had written to us over the years and they flew into the air, where they caught fire, spreading ash over the road. If you are ever in Yiannena, go to the mosque in the citadel, which is now a museum and seek out an exquisitely worked silver tray displayed in a cabinet near the window. It is of great historical significance. For it was at one time, used to serve Esat Pasha, the last pasha of Yiannena coffee and at another, the last person that Dorothea ever spoke to.

First published in NKEE on 11 January 2010