Print this page

Essay: “Ten Not-so-Easy Pieces & An Epilogue”

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsVassilis Zambaras is all of the following, and more, in no order I can vouchsafe as definitive: a publishing poet who writes every day of his life; a hugely successful father (and a not-so-very-successful local political candidate); a professor of English as a Foreign Language, with portfolio; a Renaissance Man of many skills, useful and not-so; a fount of information about his particular corner of his birth country; an unstable and utterly unique mix of Greek and American, American and Greek; and the man fortunate and wily enough to have made off with Messenia’s loveliest and most talented local daughter as his child bride. I have known the family for decades, read and published Vassilis for decades and, in 2006, at last convinced the poet to write something, mainly in prose, about Messenia.

Vassilis Zambaras at Ancient Ithome

(Photo by E.B-Herring)

“Ten Not-so-Easy Pieces & an Epilogue,” An Essay, in Verse and Prose, on Messenia By Vassilis Zambaras

Vassilis's first passport photo

1.

A Partial History

Light.  The hard dirt floor
my mother waits on
the midwife knows her
time has come, this time
there is no other
time.



Moving, I perceive all things
To be moving.


Away from me.


Still


This was in Revmatia, Messenia, a tiny mountain village in the southwest corner of Greece; four years later in 1948, I went with my mother to the small lumbering and fishing town of Raymond, Washington, in the northwest corner of the US — my father having previously arrived with my older brother, Chris, in 1947. In 1959, my parents decided to return to Greece permanently and took me with them; they bought a small house with a large garden in the town of Meligalas (“Honey and Milk”), where I spent one year before returning to Raymond to finish high school.

After graduation, I enrolled in the University of Washington’s School of Journalism in Seattle, but dropped out after a restless freshman year and left for Europe.  I spent 1963-1964 traveling in Europe and in Greece and then went on to Munich, where I studied German and worked full-time in a brush factory until I was drafted into the US Army in May of 1965.

Most of my military duty was spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico and, after my discharge, I completed my sophomore year at Grays Harbor College, Aberdeen, Washington, transferring to the University of Washington in the fall of 1968, where I earned an MA in English in 1972.

In 1970, I joined forces with two other poets (J.K. Osborne and John Levy) and founded the literary magazine Madrona, which evolved into one of the seminal literary magazines in the Pacific Northwest before finally sputtering out in the late 70s. In 1972, I decided once more to return to Greece, and I’ve lived here ever since—except for brief visits back to the Northwest: in 1975-76 (night desk clerk at the Morrison Hotel on Seattle’s Skid Row, before Bill Gates, Microsoft et al and the thousands of yuppies who inundated the area transmogrified everything within a 50-mile radius into Poshville Ltd.); and again in the summers of 1993 and 1999.

I married Eleni, who is also from my village, in 1980, and we have a daughter, Efiniki, 26, who teaches EFL (English as a Foreign Language) in our school during the week and sings professionally in the state capital of Kalamata on weekends; and a son, Anastasios, 24, who is a senior majoring in Tourist Studies at the Patras Institute of Technology. So much for the Introduction. Now you know almost nothing.

2.

Vassilis & Eleni, wedding photo

In my earliest memory of childhood, I am meticulously taking apart a soft, red, rubber ball with my fingernails; I always thought this was a memory of Raymond, in the US, back in the late 40s: However, about five years ago, I was in Revmatia talking with a friend whom I hadn’t seen for many years and he said that the ball had been sent to me from America by my father in 1948. At the time it had made an indelible impression on all the village urchins, as they had never seen such a wonderful bouncing ball before—and one “Made in America”!

easily

taking a-
part

the resilient

soft
red
rubber
ball

to where

he finds
its hard

perplexing
core.

 

Milk-and-Honey House, Meligalas

In 1959, Meligalas had no electricity, no running water, no asphalt roads, two ancient dilapidated taxis, five or six equally old passenger cars, no banks, no government offices, hundreds of horses, donkeys and carts, a multitude of coffeehouses, tavernes, grocery and produce stores, barber shops, shoemakers, saddle makers, haberdasheries, tailors, blacksmiths, carters and more people than any of the other villages in the area. Even then, it was a hub of commerce and transportation, the place where people from the surrounding villages would come for their shopping; even so, when a train looking suspiciously like an Iron Horse bucked us off at the train station, I thought we were on the outskirts of some forlorn, dusty town in Mexico.

Back then, the only tourists who came were invariably lost or on their way to the then scanty ruins of Ancient Messene, just a few kilometers to the southwest behind the impressive ladder-like flanks of Mt. Ithome. It has always been difficult for visitors to find their way so far south of Athens; most of them just jump on the first available boat and spend their time “doing the islands”—and I do know what that amounts to, having spent the summers of 1972 and 1973 doing just that.  Besides, who wants to spend five to six hours on a train or four hours on a bus getting to an area of Greece that is still fairly unknown? Good question.

Part of the answer may be found in the following sentences of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, written what seems like aeons ago now, in 1966: “The strangers who form the deepest regard for Greece are not the ones who are bear-led; they are the solitaries whose travels lead them, through chance or poverty or curiosity, along the humble and recondite purlieus of Greek life. The monuments of the past evoke their deserved wonder, but it is not these that finally win pride of place in the memory and affection; it is the live Greeks themselves:  not the Greeks as they were two-and-a-half thousand years ago, nor as they will be or could be or should be one day, but as they are.”

Ah yes, you say—but how are they?

3.

Eleni preparing a pomegranate

In 1997, Eleni and I had been living in our half-completed, two-storey stone house for about a year; at that time, she had a tiny sandwich shop in Meligalas’s lower square. This had previously been Meligalas’s first and only gift shop, which she ran from 1987 to 1996 and which had managed to run in the black long enough for the other shop owners to get wind of a good thing and start stocking their own stores with what they hoped would be equally “nifty” gifts. Why not? The more the merrier. It finally got so bad that, at one point, a woman who lived near the shop started selling gifts out of her living room.

That was when we decided to do our store over and make it into a combo sandwich shop-ouzeri. Eleni ran this culinary oasis by herself until 2003, and it quickly became a hangout for people who liked good food. Since I also had an extensive collection of authentic rembetika (Greek blues) songs, it also attracted those few denizens of Upper Messenia who were hooked on this kind of music. In no time at all, people who could play bouzouki, tzoura and baglama began dropping by the place, and it soon became the only watering hole in the area where you could eat good food, drink good, homemade wine and hear live though somewhat harshly played rembetika—until the police department started receiving complaints about the loud music and told us we had to stop disturbing the peace. They never told us who had lodged the complaints, but Eleni and I suspected a taverna owner farther up the street who had no good food, no good wine and no live music.

One summer night that year, Eleni and I were about to close up and go home when I saw a couple on heavily loaded bicycles hesitate in front of the shop—clearly tourists and clearly confused as to their whereabouts. They had mistakenly assumed there was a hotel in Meligalas (long since razed but still mentioned in some hopelessly outdated guide books) and had dutifully stopped in the upper square to ask its location. “No, no hotel here—but you can camp in area behind church in lower square; no problem.” No problem?! Hardly: where the local gypsies have been squatting in deplorable conditions for the past twenty-plus years waiting for the central government to find land where they can live decently may still not be considered a “campsite.” I told the cyclists so and then asked them to park their bicycles and have something to drink on us. After they had finished, Eleni suggested we invite them to stay the night at our house; they slept in their sleeping bags on the bare, concrete floor of our unfinished second-storey bedroom and had breakfast with us the next morning before continuing on their way to Ancient Messene. This chance meeting ten years ago with Ans Brouwer and Peter Goedhart of Wageningen, Holland morphed into a lasting friendship marked by visits to our house whenever they come to Greece.

In his wonderfully entertaining and insightful book about Meligalas, We Don’t Kill Snakes Where We Come From: Two Years in a Greek Village, John Levy, my good friend of 35 years, fellow-poet and my son’s godfather, remembers one of his Greek students writing in English class: “We have the hospitality like something holy.” Amen.

4.

The Zambaras Family

The Peloponnese—“Pelops’s Island”—begins where the Corinth Canal severs it from mainland Greece and culminates at mainland Europe’s most southerly point—Cape Matapan (Tenaeron in Greek) in the Mani. Besides being a region of outstanding natural beauty, it is also full of classical archaeological sites such as Olympia, Mycenae, Ancient Messene, and Epidaurus; medieval ruins and old Venetian castles like those in Nafplion, Methoni and Koroni; Byzantine cities such as Mystras and Monemvasia. Not into ruins? No problem—the Peloponnese is also a perfect destination for those who want to get “off the beaten track” and explore all the other magic it has to offer: craggy, massive mountains and expanses of fragrant citrus; lush vineyards and silver-green olive groves; beautiful sandy beaches; hundreds of villages tucked away in valleys and hanging from mountainsides. If you get this far south of Athens, you will be amply rewarded.

One of the reasons for going through Meligalas is to visit the impressive ruins of Ancient Messene—but first you have to go over the historic, three-pronged, multi-arched, stone bridge of Mavrozoumena on your way to Neochori (the birthplace of Maria Callas’s father). Mentioned by Pausanias in his Travels, this bridge is believed to be the only one in Europe built over the confluence of two streams, and is surely the only one with a hairpin turn right in the middle.

I must have driven back and forth over this bridge hundreds of times, as it is on the way to my home village of Revmatia, but on the 11th of November, 1978, I found myself driving off it and into the shallow, muddy waters of the Mavrozoumena River ten distant meters below. There were no safety railings at that time, I was traveling at about 90 km-per-hour in a brand-new Ford Fiesta I had driven across Europe from Belgium one month earlier and was just returning from a leisurely three-hour-long, ouzo-drinking bout with three friends in Neochori’s main square. . .and then, sure enough, there I was, falling over the right side of the bridge.

Luckily, the span was flanked by some thick plane trees which miraculously broke the car’s momentum. However, I was flung out the open door and through the branches into the murky waters only to have the Fiesta land right on top of me. There was enough mud to cushion the car’s fall, and I found my head was still above the mud, though I couldn’t move my legs (because they were under the car) and I thought they were broken until the villagers raced from the main square and pulled me out. I was so drunk and in shock that I got back into the car and tried to start it.

Tassos & Efiniki Zambaras

Confluence

Nightingales near
the river.
No superfluous noise.

 

5.

When I first came back to Greece in 1959, there were far more donkeys in residence than there were people who could speak English; that is no longer the case, since the number of donkeys has alarmingly fallen to the point where some children wouldn’t recognize one even if it came up to them and brayed, “I am an ass! What are you?” On the other hand, the number of Greek children now able to speak and understand English has risen dramatically—thanks to the countless number of private language schools (frontistiria) scattered throughout Greece.

When I returned to Greece again in 1972, there were certainly many fewer such schools than there are today, but the measure of any school’s success was and continues to be its track record vis-à-vis how many students manage to pass either the Cambridge First Certificate (“The Lower”) or the Michigan ECCE examinations held twice a year in various venues throughout Greece.

Students usually sit for these examinations after six years of studying English as a Foreign Language, and the certificate issued after successful completion of the Cambridge test is usually referred to as “The Lower”—as it used to be called up until the early 90s—but which term the vast majority of Greeks still use when referring to this particular (cough) “diploma.”

Back in the late 90s, there was a spirited national discussion carried on within the private foreign language teaching community as to who is better qualified to teach English: those with university degrees in English, or those with so-called “Proficiency in the language,” i.e., those who lack a university education but who have successfully passed either the Cambridge or Michigan Proficiency Examinations—usually taken after eight years of study at an English Language School.

This question of who is better qualified remains controversial; what is beyond questioning is the unsettling fact that more and more parents are relinquishing their responsibility to find the best language school for their children’s foreign language education. Looking back on my 30 years of teaching English in the Greek boondocks, I have to conclude that though there are parents out here who are truly concerned with the caliber, qualifications and experience of English teachers, and who do make their selection of schools accordingly, there is an ever-increasing and thus unsettling number of parents who just don’t give a damn one way or the other.

Decisions about where to send children are often reached at the hairdresser’s and/or as a result of door-to-door campaigns carried out by industrious language school owners who also enlist the help of relatives, politically affiliated cronies, hoi polloi, you name it—and all the while thinking up every conceivable wile to drum up business, including free lessons for kids in kindergarten, free school bags, free notebooks, etc.

Peer pressure also plays its part and lets many a parent off the hook—the children assume the responsibility of selecting their own school—which means the more lemmings, the merrier; and if it’s also the cheapest place in town, so much the better. Get the picture? If not, let me tell you the following true story. It illustrates what many conscientious English teachers are up against when it comes to dealing with the great majority of Greek parents.

When Lower Is Higher

Quite a few years ago, in the late 70s, Eleni was working in one of Meligalas’s two tailor shops as an apprentice to a man who had spent 19 years in various concentration camps after the Greek Civil War. He had been a member of the Greek Underground and his period of imprisonment was his reward for fighting against the Germans during their brutal Occupation of Greece. It could have been much worse for the tailor—hundreds of his compatriots were either murdered by roving bands of Rightist thugs after the Occupation, or put on trial and executed by a series of US-supported Rightwing governments up until the early 50s. (For those who wish to read more about this dark chapter in US/Greek history, I can refer you to. . .)

In the late 70s, I was heavily involved in party politics as a founding member and local secretary of the PASOK organization. Back then (how times change!), PASOK was considered by many of my area’s residents as more Leftist, more radical and perhaps more dangerous than even the Greek Communist Party! Zounds! To understand the region’s fear and loathing of Communism and its cousin, Socialism, we have to go back to September 1944, when Meligalas was the scene of a fierce three-day battle between Greek partisans and the Security Battalions set up by the retreating Germans to protect their rear as they were leaving the country.

The Security Battalions lost, summary people’s trials were held, and those found guilty of collaboration were taken to a site just outside the village of Neochori, shot and thrown down a well. Estimates vary, but there were at least 1,400 men, women and children executed. The battle and resultant executions left an indelible mark on the area’s residents and makes it easier to understand why Meligalas is today such a bastion of conservatism. It does not satisfactorily explain why so many Messenians and locals swore an oath to Hitler, donned German uniforms and fought against the partisans as members of the Security Battalions.

So, it was in this former partisan’s shop that I would drop by one or two times a week to spend a pleasant half hour or more talking with both the tailor and, of course, Eleni. One morning, a client of mine dropped by the shop while I was being measured for one of the two suits I eventually had made as an excuse for stopping by the shop to see Eleni. Never wore them but they were well worth their price in more ways than one! Anyway, after dispensing with the usual social amenities, my client asked me about his son’s progress in English. After telling him his son was unfortunately not progressing, the following exchange of vast pedagogical import took place.

“Ah, I see. Thank you, Vassilaki; that is interesting. Now that I think of it, just where was it you learned your English?”

“Well, Mr. Banias, thank you for asking! You know, I’ve been teaching for ten years and you’re the first parent who’s asked me that—most of them just want to know how much I charge. Let me see. My parents took me to the US when I was four; I went to elementary school for six years; then another six years of junior/senior high. After that, I went to university for four years, got my BA in English, and then did two more years of graduate school for my MA, also in English. After returning to Greece, I taught for two years in Athens before opening my school here. That’s about it.”

Mr. Banias hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Well, all that’s fine and well, Vassilaki, but can you tell me please, do you have the LOWER?

6.

When we first came to Meligalas in 1959, my father was receiving $300 a month from combined SS, VA and Weyerhaeuser Timber Company pensions—about 9,000 drachmas a month. To give you an idea of the buying power of the almighty dollar at that time, my parents bought the house and the 700 sq.m. lot it stood on for 27,000 drachmas—the sum total of three monthly US pension checks! An iced latté in one of Meligalas’s five coffee bars now costs you 2€ ($2.70).

7.

“If you haven’t built a house, dug a well, and married off a son or daughter, you haven’t lived.”  —Greek proverb

Greece's wealth on the bough

As part of her dowry, Eleni was given a small olive grove with about a hundred olive trees; the grove is situated about 9 kilometers due west of Meligalas in the middle of nowhere and the only way you could get there in 1981 was to park your car a kilometer away and walk for about 15 minutes.  Every winter, my mother-in-law and her late husband would walk from Revmatia to this olive grove during olive harvesting time (a two-and-a-half- hour walk) with a donkey loaded down with provisions, all six children, the goats and anywhere from 15 to 20 sheep. Once there, they would stay in a tiny stone hovel (3x3 sqm) for as long as it took them to harvest the olives-- usually a week, but longer if it was a good year.

In 1981, Eleni and I decided to tear down the hovel together with the nearby sheep shed and use the stones to construct a new house, but first we had to find enough cornerstones, so we began rummaging through the countless heaps of dumped stones and piles of rubble scattered all over Messenia to find the pieces we needed.

For this small, 4 x 6 sqm house, we only required about 50 and, at this time, people were still demolishing traditional stone houses in fits of modernist frenzy and building new monstrosities out of reinforced concrete and brick and calling it “progress,” so it was fairly easy finding cornerstones. And that’s just what Eleni and I did in the ten years between the building of the house in the grove and the construction, in 1991, of the two-storey stone residence (Elizabeth would call it a villa) our family now lives in. By 1991, we had amassed approximately 1,200 cornerstones—more than enough for the house and the stone wall in front—and were known throughout Upper Messenia as that “slightly batty couple in the battered Fiat 127 who were gathering, of all things, cornerstones.”

But back to the grove. When the two children were still too young for school, we would leave Meligalas every other Friday night after I had finished my English lessons, drive the car (loaded down with enough food and other provisions to last us until Monday morning) to where the road became a rut, and then cart the kids and provisions up to the house—no electricity, no phone, no other people, jackals crying at night, millions of stars—for a weekend in Paradise. As strange as it might seem, when we came back down to idyllic Meligalas on Monday, it felt as though we were returning to Hell, aka Civilization.

8.

The mighty Kalamata olive

For most Greeks, drinking and eating go hand-in-hand and are usually complemented by plenty of lively, peppery conversation; so when Greeks invites you to their house for “a glass of wine,” be prepared for a night of feasting and imbibing along with all the talking. Over the years, we have been fortunate indeed to have had many wonderful people visit us—Greeks, Germans, Austrians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Dutch, British, Russians, etc.—a wide and always interesting spectrum of individuals who have enriched our lives in many, many ways and who have been fortunate in turn to have tasted Eleni’s superb cooking! Here’s one of Eleni’s easy-to-prepare dishes, which goes marvelously with good wine:


Eleni’s Pork Appetizer (Bekri meze or, in English, Drunkard’s Hors d’Oeuvre)


Ingredients
1 kg pork
1 medium onion
1/2 cup of olive oil
5 small green peppers
Feta cheese
2-3 ripe fresh tomatoes
2 water glasses of white wine
Pimento powder (if you like it really spicy, 1 or 2 whole pimentos/red peppers)
2 cloves garlic
Salt
Pepper
Oregano

 

Preparation

Carefully wash the meat; cut it into small chunks and let dry; sauté in pan until it gets brown. In a large pot, add the rest of the oil and sauté the chopped onion and the thinly sliced peppers. Add the meat and stir a few times; then douse with the wine. Add the chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic and pimento and more wine if needed. Let simmer until wine has evaporated and the pork is tender. Remove from heat and add pieces of feta cheese sprinkled with oregano on top. Enough for four persons. To your health! More wine, please!

9.

The "face" of an ancient olive tree

Born in the same village but brought up in radically different worlds, Eleni and I have tried to marry our widely dissimilar backgrounds and characters and bring up a family which is truly bi-national. Most of the credit goes to Eleni—what is missing in my make-up and which Eleni possesses (in very generous proportions, I might add) are the traits that have made her special not only to our family but also to the hundreds of people who have crossed our threshold over the past 25 years: She is at once generous, outgoing, caring, friendly, loving, compassionate, hard-working, devoted, self-sacrificing, persevering—to mention only a few such traits—while I am lacking in one and all of these! Eleni says that even though I am very “special,” I am also very difficult to live with, but that that special quality was more compelling than my idiosyncrasies and something made life with me an adventure. She does say, tongue in check, that no other woman could have suffered beside me for so long -- had I married anyone else, that someone would have divorced me 20 times over!

The oldest of six children, Eleni had to assume the role of surrogate mother to her siblings at an early age—when she was 13, her youngest brother, George, was born and she had to stay home and look after him while her mother and father were out working in the fields; she was also responsible for her other brothers and sister, all of whom were still living at home. While she was apprenticed to the tailor in Meligalas, she lived in a small, two-room apartment where she cooked, washed and looked after the two brothers who were also working as apprentices in Meligalas—one as a plumber and the other as an arc welder. She is probably the last, youngest, finest representative of what women used to be like in Greece.

So why did she marry a misanthrope like me?


10.

Edible Greek bounty

Back in 1959, you’d have to walk over 100 km (62 miles) before coming across anyone over 100 kg (220 lbs); now you come across 100-kg Greek elementary school kids who are fatter, even, than their paunchy teachers. In fact, Greek children are the fattest in Europe and, for a country which coined the saying, “A healthy body; a healthy mind,” that is nothing to be proud of. Greek parents are currently the fifth fattest in the world, so perhaps that explains why a country which used to be one of the healthiest in the world is now hot on the heels of being the unhealthiest—though the US still takes top honors.

To make matters worse, the average Greek smokes more cigarettes and drinks more whiskey than any other European; he eats an ever-increasing mountain of junk food which is clogging up his arteries and wasting him at an alarmingly accelerating rate--the Greeks have always tended to be rather sedentary and this inactivity coupled with the gorging of vast volumes of food rich in saturated fats (usually late at night just before going to bed) threatens to wipe them out.  Unfortunately, the highly-touted and nutritious Mediterranean Diet, which had its origins in Greece, is well on its way to joining the Dodo. [For those interested, there is a wealth of information about the Mediterranean Diet on the internet.]

Convincing your children that eating the food their grandparents used to eat is no easy chore. I well remember how difficult it was for Eleni to get Efiniki and Tassos to take an ordinary sack lunch with them to elementary school—“A sack lunch, Mom!? You gotta be kidding!” Thanks to her perseverance and great cooking, though, our children grew up eating nothing but healthy, traditional Greek food. This insistence on Eleni’s part to preserve Greece’s culinary heritage has made her into a superb cook—there is nothing that she can prepare that is not at once nutritious and delicious; you might even call cooking her “calling.” She bakes her own bread, makes her own cheese, cures her own olives; she recognizes and gathers all the edible wild greens she can find and puts them into mouth-watering pittas; she is always willing to experiment and is always coming up with new dishes. One of the reasons our house is such a popular mouth-watering-hole—apart from the fact that I always have good, home-made wine on hand—is Eleni’s vibrant personality and her fantastic cuisine—they go hand-in-hand with the spirited conversations we’ve had with friends and acquaintances over the years.

Epilogue

Pomegranates in autumn

If you’re reading this, you certainly don’t need an introduction to Elizabeth Boleman-Herring or her work, but you might like to know how she came into our lives. It was one of those “chance” happenings that, in retrospect, seem ordained to happen--like so many of our family’s encounters with “strangers” who are now our friends.

In Elizabeth’s case, she was on her way to Kardamyli in the Mani to interview the by now living legend and dean of all travel writers, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. On her way down, she found herself browsing in a Kalamata bookstore for “something thick to read,” and found herself picking up my first book of poems, Sentences. This was in 1983, the same year that John Levy and Leslie Buchanan came to Meligalas from the US. Though we did not connect then, she wrote me a letter from Athens and published an article about me and my work in The Athenian, Greece’s now-defunct but then premier monthly English language magazine.

Our family finally met Elizabeth face to face in Meligalas in 1993 and though we’ve carried on a sporadic correspondence since then, it was only last October that we finally managed to get together once again—this time with her musician husband, Dean Pratt, and the gifted Australian writer and long-time resident of Greece, Gillian Bouras.

We had a marvelous lunch, courtesy Eleni, some great wine and then, on the way to Ancient Messene, Elizabeth invited me to write something for her website. I balked at first, having written nothing but poetry for the past 30 years, but eventually acquiesced to her gentle insistence. So: Dear Elizabeth, thank you for your invitation. This may not be what you were expecting but, in Greece, the unexpected is always to be expected and always welcomed. It’s part of the mystery—and the magic of living here.

Whitewashed village steps

Paean

--for Elizabeth

 

O

Wonderful the ray
Of sun

Upon the freezing body,
The drop of rain

Upon the burning leaf;
Pure, unmitigated

Glory of footprints passing
Over the turning Earth.

 

Essay, Poetry and Zambaras Family Photos (copyright) Vassilis Zambaras, 2007