Old Man Vlachos was one of my father’s best friends. He and Old Man Simbonis. I say old, because as I write this Simbonis is still alive, of clear mind, at age 98.
These were two men from the next generation to my father who adopted him in the village of his father when he returned from South Africa to make a second home. Two men, of different backgrounds. Old Man Vlaxo was nicknamed a Vlach as he was an orphan from Thessaly. He grew up in hard times in Kakouri, was a shepherd and farmer. He had fields in the southern part of the plain of Tripoli, and would pass by the house to collect my brother John to work in the fields with him. He was essentially unschooled, but wise beyond books. He, like Simbonis, could read people easily and see where they were headed even though the person they were seeing had no idea. I think they knew where my father wanted to go, and helped him reach his destination.
I remember the engenia of the cellar at our house. My father had finally secured tenure of the house from a cousin who had been squatting there. John and his son had carved their names in the cement staircase my Uncle Arthur had built a few years before. I remember the rage on my father’s face, the insult to him and his family, as he made my brother chisel the cousin’s name from our lives. It was my father’s first big expense in Greece, to build a new house for his cousin that thought he had rights to live in our house. I wonder what the two old men advised him to do, and what they thought of what he did?
But that didn’t detract from any celebration. The biggest was the engenia, the blessing, of the cellar. My father had allowed someone from the village to use the vineyards he had inherited from his mother, a small piece of land near the river bed. The fee was a barrel of wine a year for the cellar. The appropriately named the barrel “PIS”, for my father’s initials: Peter Ioanis Stathoulis. Much to his concern, although at times when I was younger and stole a sip of the retsina from the barrel I did think it tasted like donkey pis!
There would always be last year’s barrel and the current years in the cellar. The wine was pressed by foot from a cement bath built in under the steps next to the entrance to the cellar. The wine of the current year was a delightful rose with strong resin flavour. As I grew older I loved it as much as my father did, and the smell or quick taste can transport me back while accompanying some strong cheese or meat.
For the engenia they had a whole new barrel for use. And sheep on the spit from Tripoli. And the finished the barrel that night, with much dancing and joking. Even more so after the women had gone home and we children ran out of steam as we played late into the night.
Old Man Vlaxo got so drunk that they carried him back home in a funeral procession and placed him in his wife’s “fourno”, the outdoor stove where they would bake bread once a week and on Special Sundays cook meat and potatoes. They lined candles along his side and left them lit as the closed the door. When he wife came out to bake the next morning Dina found him wishing he was dead from the headache. Good thing they did not know what a babelaas was in Greece!
Dina died last year. She was gentle soul, always tearing a piece of small leafed Basil from her gardens as she blessed you with sparkling tears in her eyes, on the road to the good.