Converations from Tripolis

I have walked from Tripolis to Kakouri. One third of the distance might include the outskirts of Tripolis, until you reach the provincial road to Levidi that crosses your path perpendicularly. After this the road narrows. There is a small church on cement stilts opposite on the right. The road narrows and has a shiny tar surface, spotted with sheep droppings that have been flattened into black discs on the grey road.

After that you pass a place called Xania, which is halfway between town and village. It is a collection of a few houses, stables and chairs on the side of the road that used to welcome villagers on the way back from the market at Tripolis in the days when they too used to walk to peddle their wares. They would have had hard earned cash in the scarves around their necks, some of which could be spent on a coffee or cooled water with cherry preserve.

After this on the right you can see Analipsi, the mountain above Kakouri. It is covered on an oak bush called pournari for the lower two thirds. The peak is at about 1800 meters, and is rock and screed. Just above the junction of the pournari there is a small plateau facing Tripolis and if you lock closely you can see the white walls and red tiles of a tiny church called Analipsi, The Resurrection.

After Xania, below Analipsi, is a small round hill called Kortsouli, with the ancient city of Mantinea at its feet. The road to Old Man Simbonis’ farm runs along the outer boundary wall of great stone blocks that are 2500 years old, and everyone referred to his farm as Kortsouli. An everyday term used easily that encompassed a whole civilization of proud farmers and warriors.

After Kortsouli, also on the right, is a taller round hill, with another church, this time Agio Ilia. This is hidden amongst the pines on the crest. This saint’s churches are always on the top of mountains or hills, closer to the sun, after which he is named.

The road curves slightly, left here, right there, but there is no altitude change from Tripolis to Kakouri, until you enter the village which straddles the foothills of Analipsi. From Agio Ilia you enter an avenue of plane trees, their white fluff ball blossoms covering the road like snow in late summer. A few of the trees are missing, like a tooth missing in the gnarled mouth of a villager. In the missing tree’s place is a small iconostasio, in remembrance of the young person who died driving too fast on this quiet road. If the tragedy was recent, or if they were really loved, there is a fresh bunch of flowers lying inside with the burning olive oil wick.

As the avenue ends you enter the village, with Simbonis’ house on the right and the old Manelis house on the left. My grandmother grew up as a Manelis there. In front, in the elbow of the fork, is a bigger iconostasio for The Ascension, and on the right is the now disused village spring, where we used to fill our large glass wicker covered bottles for house water when we first arrived in the village.

If you follow the left fork, towards Levidi, at the first intersection 150 meters further on is our house, the Patriko, on the left opposite corner.

The Iconostasio Analipsi in the elbow of the fork of the road as you enter Kakouri

Conversations on Blessings

My father would always say we should count our blessings.

We always had to go to church on St. John’s day, 6 January, when the priest blesses everyone in church with Holy Water from the Epiphany sprinkled with a sprig of Sweet Basil. The heady mix of a summer day in South Africa, incense, candle wax and the Basil mades one feel blessed without any further ado. But kissing the big gold Crucifix in the priest’s left hand while he sprinkled the Holy Water on you head, cooling the day and your thoughts, was the ultimate blessing.

Until he occasionally got confused and made you kiss the wet Sweet basil and sprinkled your head with a heavy gold Crucifix!

Blessings are important in most cultures, but doubly so in Greece and for the Greeks. Any new building or venture needs to be blessed, and the priest is engaged for the engenia. Obviously babies need to be blessed, and important farm animals and vineyards also need blessing. Domestic pets do not feature, but I am sure if the Orthodox had a St Francis he would gladly bless the arrival of a new precious pet.

The first engenia I remember, a sort of roof wetting, was the blessing of the cellar at 45 Kakouri. After the squatters had been moved out and a house built for them in the village at my father’s expense, Number 45 was quite run down. The cellar was a mess of storage and animal waste and was not desirable.

The cellar was cleaned out, the floor was dusted with sawdust and barrels of wine were installed. The grey double doors which were low and forced you to stoop when entering were painted with a fresh coat. The inside walls of rock were painted with whitewash that left a sweet moist aroma, like bread still to be baked. The six cement steps leading down to the cellar had their edges trimmed in the same whitewash. I remember whitewashing the walls once, with a great big wooden brush that allowed you to slosh the limestone mix happily over the dirtied wall. It was quite therapeutic.

Our whole family was present, with both grandmothers, Big and Small Giagia. All the village friends were invited but the main players were the two men who were to become my father’s greatest friends. Old Man Vlachos and Old Man Simbonis. They were both almost twenty years older than my father, but embraced his desire to be part of the village and sprinkled his life with simple wisdom and love.

The evening of the engenia of the cellar arrived and sheep on the pit were brought from Tripolis. Feta and olives were laid out and the newly pressed Retsina barrel was drilled so that a spigot could be inserted after the sudden rush of pink fluid.

The village priest blessed the proceedings, there were speeches and then people ate and danced. They danced and laughed into the early hours of the morning. Old Man Vlachos drank so much he passed out, and they remaining men carried him home in a funeral procession. They laid him in his wife’s outdoor oven, lit candles around him and closed the door.

I am not sure who was more shocked: Dina when she opened the door to bake and found her husband lying there, or the Old Man who woke dry throated surrounded by heavenly candles in the dark?

My Father's First Trip to No 45 Kakouri 1968

Conversations while Looking at a House

No 45 in Kakouri lies on the southwest comer of the intersection of a small tar back road from Tripolis  to the bigger village of Levidi and a road that goes up into the village and down into the planes to the even smaller village of Simiades, in the  shadows of the tallest mountain in Arcadia, Mainalon.

The intersection is criss crossed at roof level by a Zembetiko dance of telephone and power lines. My father always used to look up and say:

“See how clean the air is here. The wires have been up for years and still shine”. Somehow it was true. I can still see the spirals in the cables clearly.

The main gate to the house cuts a small corner off the property. The old gate was a rough wooden plank affair, with an old cement slab between two columns. A vine used to struggle to cover this from the village side. The original wall was of stone, roughly put together and low. It was whitewashed every year. A few years ago when my father finally sorted out ownership of the adjoining property amongst the cousins, he build a garage where the family stables were and over an old threshing ground. He build a smart low wall with a metal balustrade, and made a gate of the same. The cobbled stone front courtyard suddenly looked neater and quite suburban, and the grapevine made way for a struggling rose or two.

The house is two storeys, made of stone. There are small holes in the masonry that held the rough wooden scaffold as they built the house which was completed in 1936, the year my grandfather John came back to the village to marry his bride Marigo. The red village tiles rise in a simple quadrangular cone above the lines, so that if you were on the roof you would have an uninterrupted view of Analipsi to the north and Mainalon to the south, and a great swath of summer blue sky between. From the street and even the first floor verandas, the view is as good but the sky loses impact with the black and silver lines.

The lower floor which would have held the animals in winter is above the cellar which still holds wine barrels and would have stored earthy potatoes and luscious red apples that seem to increase in flavour in winter until they were brought up cold and refreshing as dessert after a rich winter stew for lunch at any of the villagers houses. At the entrance to the cellar is a wine press whose drain aims into the stairwell, so that buckets can be placed to catch the freshly pressed juice.

The wine press is under the steps that lead outside to the first floor veranda and main door. We seldom use that door, but the concrete structure has been clad with stone tiles to make it look less modern and the cement slab that shades the veranda from the fierce afternoon sun has a pine ceiling to cool it off. The original would have been of wood, planks thick enough to hold the weight but thin enough not to cost to much. They never lasted, as can be seen in any of the older neglected houses in the village, where sometimes only the beams and struts remain.

No 45 Kakouri at Night

Conversations on Small Change

When my father had to travel with someone to a meeting he would ask a standard question:

“Do you want to travel in my old new car, or in my new old car?”

It was a Mercedes W123 200 that had a few hundred thousand on the clock. It was bought second hand (or third or fourth) and had a reconditioned engine.  The square seats were worn on the seatbelt no longer retracted automatically. In the glove compartment was a lighter, instant lighting discs of charcoal and incense   for his trips to the cemetery. In between the two front seats, behind the gear lever, where most cars have an open space, the Mercedes had a open carpeted utility space.

In this space was a tin of English sweets. Actually, it no longer held sweets, but was full of R5 coins. It was the sort of float you would have to go specifically to a bank to acquire, unless one of the shop owners in the buildings made change for him.

As the old new car, or new old car, swayed to a halt at a traffic light it would give a final lurch sideways as he shifted his bulk in order to open the sweet tin and pick up a coin for the inevitable beggar in amongst the traffic. Some held a sign up proclaiming unemployment; others appeared blind and were accompanied by a younger person holding the cane. The best sign I saw was one chap who at the peak of the Zimbabwe land claim crisis held the following clear sign written on brown cardboard:

“Mugabe has taken my 10 cows and now I only have this shirt on my back. Please help.”

He had a pleasant disposition about him and gained popular support from all passing traffic including my father.

I know it’s hard to believe but he really did give to every beggar on every corner when he stopped. Some knew him, and he would always greet them politely. They had less than him and the little money was surely something that would help them. It was a good Christian act and what else could one do?

I never noticed beggars in Greece. It would have broken my father’s proud heart when the financial crisis engulfed Greece and proud people were forced to beg. I remember sitting in his favourite milk bar in Tripolis after he died. I was shocked when this old man walked in begging. AS I was fumbling with my wallet the owner, a young girl, greeted him and brought him a large ceramic bowl of yoghurt and a slice of bread. He thanked her and sat down to eat.

It must break a proud heart to accept charity. Even small change.

Tripolis at the time of the visit by King Constantine circa 1970

Conversations about Rabbits

The smell of stifado alone warmed me up that winter evening. The onions that were stewing released an earthy tone reminiscent of the harvest smell in the plains. This was sweetened by the cinnamon and wine. The slow bubbling of the pot on top of the wood burning stove made the kitchen so inviting, warm beyond the invitation.

Kortsouli is a hill nearby the ancient ruins of Mantinea, in the plains of Tripolis. We always referred to the farm that Old Man Simbonis had there as just that, Kortsouli. When we were children my brother would spend time in the ruins before they were excavated and find arrow heads and other items from the war against the Athenians.

The building on the farm was medieval. Some of the ancient blocks of the walls of Mantinea were incorporated into the mud wall that formed the outer wall of sheds, stables and a simple summer home, when the old man would stay at Kortsouli if there was a harvest or birthing. The heavy wooden double doors, big enough to allow a horse cart through, faced Mantinea. On the right of the door was a pigeon loft, and next to that the rabbit hutch.

The rabbits faced the courtyard through old chicken mesh, with a handmade wooden frame hinged to allow entry.  One day a litter had been born, and somehow all three of us and some children from the village ended up at Kortsouli. Often one or two of us were there with the old man. Originally it would involve a donkey ride from the village house, but later he got a Zundapp motorcycle and we would ride pillion. My father used to walk there, and I still do not understand how we were allowed on the motorcycle when in South Africa we were not even allowed to look at them. My brother even had an accident once when the old man rode into the furrow along the narrow tarred road. My father trusted his life, and his children’s, with his best friend, George Simbonis.

I do not remember the day we played with the rabbits. I remember my favourite captain’s hat, but do not remember donning the rabbit as a prince would for some wedding. I think we adopted a rabbit each, and were allowed to play with them each time we were at Kortsouli. I remember the soft fur, the warm wet nuzzle against my palm. The heat and dust of the courtyard, reprieved by the shade of a mulberry tree just outside the gates, and another at the other corner, shading the well with cold dark water.

Many years later I remember eating the winter kitchen stifado and crying inside. Because the main ingredient of stifado is rabbit.

Conversations with the Baker’s Wife

The straight road from our village Artemisio into Tripolis reaches the first platea or square quickly. The bus stops here as well, and it’s our village square. The villagers alight here, greet each other and bemoan the state of affairs.  The square is dry and dusty, with bright light because all the buildings are painted white or have white marble cladding. The sidewalks are narrow and uneven. The roads congested with cars, and the occasional bumper bashing adds excitement.

If you turn left then left again around the square, further down the next block is a bakery. My father would always have a spot to park nearby and his first stop was always the bakery. In the morning all the breads and cakes and pitas had been baked and the smell stopped you even if you thought you were in a rush and had to be somewhere else..

The daughters behind the counter would always call their mother when my father arrived.  My father would tip his hat at the iconostasio high up in the middle of the bakery, facing the entrance, at the photograph of her late husband. A big man with a handlebar moustache. She would ackwoledge the greeting of her late husband, smile, and they would exchange small talk. He would always leave with a koulouraki or kourambiede or some other sweet in the morning.

Anybody who accompanied my father was always introduced, and their lineage dissected to a level where both parties were satisfied they could guarantee an understanding of who they were talking about and what relationship existed with a visitor from say three years back. With the “aha” moment a big smile would spread over both faces and the bond was deepened. The visitor would then be offered the freshest biscuit or pita, warm and fragrant, as one of the daughter came out with tongs to serve.

My father was in the village for maybe two months of the year, sometimes only a few days at a time when he had bank meetings. Yet he never failed to stop at the bakery and enquire to their health and progress of the family. He also never failed to make sure he walked into Tripolis with a fortifying offering from the baker’s wife.

He would always return just before lunch to buy bread for the house. Happiest when it was a large round village bread, the crust of which could withstand the pressure from any other shopping bags with which it was forced into the car. Also the bread felt it was made of something, it had weight beyond the airiness of designer and convenient breads of the American lifestyle.