The following are exerts from Kalami by Alice Swift Riginos, 1999.
It is quite early in the day, a morning in the summer of 1979.
The click from the locking mechanism of the double-doored metal gate is audible to me even as I stand by the far side of the mouria. The sound of footsteps, sandals on concrete in this case, are heard next, and I can count them coming down the slope alongside the eastern side of the house, then they become more deliberate as they descend the irregular steps down into the avli, opposite the door to the kitchen. Telemachos now appears, bearing a bulging-bellied glass demijohn whose glowing liquid contents catch the morning light, magnetizing my gaze with its greenish-yellow color and its luminosity. The true first fruits of our young olive trees. So much oil in one huge jar, such a superior color. I can’t shift my eyes while Telemachos, clearly relieved to have completed the perilous transit from his mechanaki on the road down to the house, approaches the table under the mouria and carefully deposits his liquid burden. “Oriste, Kyria Aliki, to maxouli sas! Here you are, Kyria Aliki, your maxouli.” The magic thrall shatters. Maxouli??!! What does he mean by this word? Suddenly it is all for naught, all the hours of self-study in trying to learn the spoken modern language, all those other hours of formal lessons in Athens–in the saloni of Kyria Zykou and in the student club at the university–not to mention the hours and hours of listening to animated conversations and translating mentally as best I could in the continuum (imagining that I was practicing to be a simultaneous translator for the United Nations): all has failed me. I know what Telemachos is bearing, I know what to call it. It is ladi, olive oil, the golden fluid of Greek culture now and then, the fruit of his own labors which he bears with the joy and solemnity of a Knossian in procession. Yes, it’s ladi all right and surely worthy of the store-rooms of Minos but why can’t he say so? Why can’t he say, “Here you are, Kyria Aliki, your ladi,” and the magic moment would play on as I advance to receive this offering under the boughs of the mulberry tree? But no, the magic is over, and I snap to the present moment and ask the tedious question, “Maxouli? Ti tha pi ‘maxouli’? Maxouli? What does maxouli mean?” His attempt to explain the word is delivered rapid-fire and with the volume up. I try to grasp the sense and then Pitsa is next to me and laughing with relish at my perplexity. Maxouli is yet another instance of Telemachos’ conviction that the Hellenic-speaking population of the world employs the Samian dialect. Maxouli, as Pitsa explains, is the Samian word (almost certainly of Turkish derivation) for any form of produce from one specific property. “Crop” is not quite an equivalent, implying a surplus of production for exchange. ‘Maxouli‘ evokes eras past when individual households were largely self-sufficient and your maxoulia was a variety of produce, the necessities for your family for the year, the yield of your land.
Now I get it! Telemachos is our “maxouli-man,” the steward of mother earth’s bounty, and all that passes through his hands from the soil of Kalami to the table under the mouria is maxouli: onions and garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, unrivaled zucchini sewn from a treasured seed, green beans, beets, peppers, eggplant, cucumber and klossakia, parsley and celery, almonds, walnuts, lemons by the bucket-full, peaches, kaisa, bouknes, grapes of four varieties, and olives, olives for pressing and the making of Telemachos’ ladi and olives for Maritsa’s tubs of briny preserves. The catalogue is impressive and for each name images rise up to me now of Telemachos at the crowning moment of delivery when, whether descending the hillside with ladi or ascending the stony steps by the pigadi bearing a pair of five-gallon tenekedes, cans once containing olives or feta in bulk but now filled to capacity with fresh vegetables and fruits in a jumble of shapes, sizes, colors, worthy components of a splendid still-life. In these transforming images he is the priest of Ge, her sorcerer, presenting in a timeless ritual the proof of his wizardry to marveling celebrants. Thus Pitsa was well-rehearsed for the presentation of the ladi that morning so long ago, for it was the role of the lady of the mulberry to graciously and propitiously receive this bounty of the Earth, not to pursue with philological precision the derivation of the terminology. “Telemache,” she said, “ti ladi! Ti chroma! Po po, thavma! Kai tou chronou! Telemachos, what oil! What color! Po po, a miracle! May it be repeated next year!” And with these words of praise and gratitude the offering is received.
Apart from the house itself, the mouria, some of the almond trees towards the rema, and the one gnarled lemon tree that overhangs the lower veranda, all that we have in Kalami is the creation of one man, Telemachos Papageorgiou. The four terraces rising up from the sea have been planted, tended, pruned according to a scheme which, while not articulated or laid out on paper, was nevertheless in the mind of Telemachos, a blue-print, if you will, for his own paradeisos. The ktema, the whole property, is truly an oasis of green. Along the coastline of Bey our ktema and that of Yiannis across the rema stand out as land that is cared for by sure and knowing hands. Our corner of Kalami was never more beautiful than this summer–from the olive trees forming a silvery shaded approach to the sea, the abundant clusters of grapes, here purple, there green; the astonishing vigor of the palm tree Telemachos planted; the bounty of the garden. For all of this our thanks are owed to Telemachos. Without him these marvels never would have come from the brambles and wild vines we saw in the first years of our marriage. Thanks and praise to his hard work and his vision of what would emerge. This year he even interspersed the vegetables with clumps of brilliant zinnias. He has mellowed: consigning space and expending energy on flowers.
A lesser man than Telemachos would have side-stepped the challenge presented by our property when it first fell into his hands. For over twenty years things had been left to wild deterioration. In the terraces, where, under the scrutiny of Emmanuel Iliades, orderly rows of moschato grapes had filled the contours of the hillside, nature went rank, producing great thorny thickets which were daunting and impenetrable. In the years after the death of the Doctor, Yiannis Chrysas, today the gnarled ancient neighbor across the rema, was given charge of the land to maintain and to retain a share of whatever he produced (he was a collegas, in other words, a designation that has a legal status). I do not know if Yiannis, who tends his own plot so assiduously, ever actually farmed the land, but he certainly felt free to pull down sections of the terrace walls to create access ramps for his own livestock to move about and graze. At some point, however, the brambles and thistles became too much for his donkeys and mules, even his goats, and the weeds and thorns went unchecked. In short, the project Telemachos undertook involved clearing out the overgrowth of decades, plowing land that had not been turned for years, rebuilding the stone walls of xerolithia and replanting the reclaimed areas. It was a Titanic undertaking. One entire season was needed to cut back the overgrowth. The second year seven men worked in the spring with Telemachos to accomplish a stremmatisma, which is a deep digging by hand and pick and a rooting out of wild growth. In the third year, planting could begin.
Photographs taken during these first years are startling, the land of Kalami as we know it is not recognizable in our old pictures. A younger Telemachos appears among those prints. He is a vigorous man with a most serious expression. This expression, one assumed for the exact purpose of a photographer’s fixed image, is typical of men of his generation in response to the mystery of the camera’s powers. His masked features, read on a face supported by powerful shoulders, convey strength of character, dependability and determination: he is our Titan.
Sitting at the table in the avli, Telemachos Papageorgiou is an imposing man. It is the time of relaxation following hours when his presence is detected from the chop-chop of his tsapa, from the slithery hum of the hoses being pulled over stone walls from one terrace to the next–but he is not visibly evident in the density of growth that is the result of his labors for twenty-eight years. Now he sits upon one of the benches at the table, and the breadth of his chest and the force of his voice reveal a powerful man. When he rises to leave it is a surprise to find that he is short, not much over five feet. All other dimensions are of a larger man.
The time of relaxation in the avli is a highlight of his morning: to rest when tired in the cool shade and to be served amply sweetened coffee and to attract an audience. Pitsa for sure is present, Vasilis and I will soon be drawn into the drama, possibly also a visitor or workman who happens to be there. The conversation is off and we are in for a good hour at least. On a given morning the following topics are apt to be covered: the unbelievably bad weather experienced in Samos during the past winter, especially rain–kaka nera–”bad waters;” the epidemic in Vathy of gastro-intestinal disorders; the price of tomatoes; current politics, climaxing with a denunciation of leading politicians (initially an ardent supporter of the PASOK party of the late Andreas Papandreiou, Telemachos has become deeply embittered by the indifference of either party to the needs of the small farmer); reminiscences of the war including an ekphrastic elaboration of Telemachos’ own heroic four years of service in the submarines of the Greek navy in exile, some of those years in the legendary Pippinos; the failure of Greek authorities to compensate veterans for service in the war; anecdotal reminiscences about his Uncle from Cairo, leading to other vignettes about other members of his extensive family, especially those who may at present be visiting Samos.
Telemachos speaks in a loud voice, his words come in quick succession, his diction is loaded with Samian words. The speed, the dialect, the abrupt transition from one topic to the next make it difficult to follow his every utterance. Listening to these conversations is like viewing a mosaic from a lens unfocused. The words are filled with themes of different colors and shapes, and there are patterns which control his accounts of the topics now familiar to us through repetition and reiteration. Each time his narration returns to a familiar thematic cluster the focus appears sharper. Sharper, but not the crisp sharp image you want to see in your lens, for the art of oral narration requires variatio. And as skilled practitioner of oral artistry, Telemachos keeps his narrative nuanced, shifting, laced with improvisation. Try as I may to zero in and focus on one of his narratives, I realize that for many of Telemachos’ tales I am not ready to click the shutter and freeze the narrative in the fixity of a frame in a roll of film.
These conversations form a continuum, bridging the individual days into weeks, the weeks into a summer, the summers into a succession and still we have not exhausted even the most familiar of the topics. Telemachos’ World War II service in the submarines is a prime example. We had often wondered to ourselves how it came about that Telemachos entered the navy, for he is a man so bound to the land that, in spite of years of assisting the Uncle from Cairo’s exploits as a fisherman, he is unable to put foot in even a small varka without betraying his apprehension and illness at ease, gripping the gunwales with white knuckles and his whole body rigid. How did it happen, then, that he served for four years below the surface of sea, our hero of the Pippinos? It was not until this summer past that a version of the story was told to me, a story shrouded in death, dislocation, human suffering. It seemed incredible that there was so much that was new, that had not been introduced into previous rounds of Telemachos and the war years. Was Telemachos reticent about this for so long because to talk about it still affects him so emotionally? I think so. And yet. And yet I am not altogether unaware that there is here a kind of cunning, a teasing on the part of the narrator who stuns his listener by presenting such compelling new material to a familiar topic.
The facts were reported in a rush. Telemachos’ found himself enlisting in the Greek navy at the end of a chain of events and reversals which began with his father’s brutal death, executed by the Germans, far from Samos (following a brief introduction we are now launched on the first digression). Telemachos’ father, at the time mainland Greece was occupied by the German military but before they had come to Samos (this is vague–does he mean when Samos was occupied by the Italians–or before there was any enemy presence on the island–the year is not specified), was able to travel (what sort of boat? secretly, openly, how long a trip?) from Samos to Corinth. The purpose of this trip was to purchase several hundred bolia for his vineyards (bolia are branches prepared for grafting; is this credible? that a farmer from an island famed for its vineyards would undertake a trip by sea in perilous times to acquire bolia? we recognize here the Hero-Farmer, a figure well-established in Telemachan narrative, yet–point of truth–Corinth is also famous for its grapes). The elder Papageorgiou was staying in a small village where he negotiated this transaction, but before he had concluded his arrangements he found himself rounded up together with all the male inhabitants of the village by the German authorities and sentenced to death in reprisal for the recent assassination of several German military policemen at the hands of the younger men of this village. Attempts to plead the innocence of this outsider in the communal guilt of the village were in vain. Together with the local men, young and old, Telemachos’ father was lined up and shot to death. It took some while for this bitter news to filter back to his waiting family in Samos. (My mind is racing, this tragedy has been set in another region of Greece well known to me, the Corinthia; one hears terrifying tales of these brutal acts of reprisal during the war; did they happen so often? Surely it must be possible to verify this event; I think now of Solomos, that small village wrapped around the Corinth-Argos road where so many of our workmen in Kenchreai came from–an event of this sort would still be referred to in the coffee houses when the older men spoke of the war) After the war, years later (now we are concluding the digression of his father’s death, making a transition back to the family) the girls of the family, Telemachos’ little sisters, married women who live in Athens nowadays, located the village in the Corinthia, went there, and confirmed the report that had reached Samos. They saw with their own eyes the place where their father died (which village is this? Telemachos does not know; his sisters probably remember; one further thought fleets through my mind, where were all the victims buried?).
And so begins the narrative, with surprise and shock, and the faster Telemachos rushes on the more questions seem to reel through my mind on my own inner TelePrompter, questions to be mentally acknowledged but not articulated in the interest of getting on with this new and engrossing information. The execution of Telemachos’ father by the Germans near Corinth left a family comprised of mother and four children. The boys, Telemachos and Christodoulos, were in their teens while the two sisters were just little girls, two and four years old. It was decided, and I am not clear as to who made this decision, that their prospects for survival would be better if they fled Samos for Asia Minor. Telemachos today insists that the girls, ta koritsa, would not have lived through the long years of German occupation, for even a farming family with the manpower of two teenage boys would have known starvation when all available foodstuff was commandeered by the forces of occupation. And so, under cover of night’s darkness, a caïque bearing the five members of the Papageorgiou family and other unnamed relatives departed from the bay of Lakka and made its way to the opposite shores of neutral Turkey, putting in at Kusadesi. There the family, as thousands of others, was accepted as refugees, held in a processing camp for some thirty-five days, women and children kept separate from the men. Dirt. Flies. From Kusadesi they were sent by train in two crowded box-cars across the Anatolian expanse, a trip of days. Telemachos remembers the litany of names, places through which he has passed but not set foot–Sojuk, Denizli, Ankara, Konya, Antalya, Alanya–further and further east. Into Syria. Fourteen days in Aleppo. Into Beirut. Finally, they arrived in Palestine and were placed for a month in a refugee camp in Gaza. All five family members moved at this time.
In Gaza the ethnic Greeks in the camp were given the option of voluntary induction into the Hellenic navy in exile. It so happened that at the time the need was for inductees into the submarine corps, and since the majority of those in the camp were refugees from Samos and other islands of the eastern Aegean, I can now understand how it is that when Telemachos speaks of specific friends who served with him and are survivors alive today they turn out to be from Samos or Ikaria.
The inducements for joining the navy were attractive. In addition to taking a patriotic stand, there would be an end to confinement in the refugee camps and a move to Port Said in Egypt. Moreover, the remaining family members would be moved to a camp on the outskirts of Cairo. The word via the grapevine was that the conditions at the Cairo camp were much better than in Gaza. The choice seemed obvious: a course of action versus the idleness of the camps, a sacrifice to improve the lot of mother and sisters. Also, don’t forget the Uncle from Cairo married to Theia Demetra, the sister of Telemachos’ mother. (How could I possibly forget the Uncle from Cairo? Although I do not know how he came to be married to Auntie Demetra, I do not ask, and a good thing, too, for now I do know, sort of, and it is a complicated story but independent of this narration).
So, given the option of enlisting or sitting in a refugee camp, Telemachus put his name forward as a volunteer for naval service and so did one hundred and nineteen others, like himself boys from the islands. When the assembled group of prospective volunteers was told that they would be placed where needed and that the present need was for submarine crews, sixty-three withdrew their names since the prospects of survival were but slight. Telemachos Papageorgiou at age eighteen was among the fifty-seven volunteers who were moved out of Gaza to Port Said, where clothing of quality and food today recalled as “good” were provided during the training. From training they went to the submarines, for Telemachos this meant four years of service.
This is all completely new to me, the refugee camps, the volunteering, and the generosity of the Uncle from Cairo. The Uncle– and I did know this before, indeed I knew it very well–was the proprietor of a very large, very successful restaurant in Cairo. Why, Farouk and his cronies ate there regularly (!! no comment). So it was possible (and these details are bringing closure to this section of the narrative), since Telemachos’ brave action caused his women-folk to be moved to Cairo, for the Uncle from Cairo to provide for his sister-in-law and young nieces, not to secure their release but to see to it that they received better food and necessities.
This is the story. The heroic themes are emphatic: death and danger, suffering, self-sacrifice, travel to unknown lands. It’s wonderful stuff in the telling, sitting as we are in the safety of the mulberry’s shade. It seems no surprise that the hero is Our Man and, to a lesser degree, the Uncle from Cairo. But I must suppress any note of sarcasm, for however much the oral process over time has enhanced the narrative, there is at the core of it real pain and horror. Confinement in a submarine, four years of constant peril with intermittent rushes of triumph, has left Telemachos haunted by a lingering claustrophobia.
The main narrative of the day has been woven masterfully. Telemachos stops speaking and sips his cold coffee, sneaking glances sideways to gauge the response of his audience. Like queen Arete and her Phaiakians, we are stunned. We voice admiration at his brave decision, we express pride in our link to this hero-turned-narrator in our midst. And then, the query he was waiting for, “What happened next?”
Telemachos is moved and excited. By way of epilogue he launches on an encapsulated version of what followed his induction into the Hellenic navy at Port Said. He knows we have heard before accounts of his service, and so he now skillfully jumps from high point to high point without lingering in the troughs intervening. Quickly we are told of his assignment to the Papanikolis under the command of Iatrides, the sinking of a number of German transport vessels in the Aegean, the hit-and-run burning of German warships in the harbor of Kiparissia on the east coast of the Peloponnese. We are reminded that the base of operations for the Papanikolis was transferred to Malta, we are led to recall the orders to fly to Britain to take possession of a new submarine, the Pippinos. But, in fact, the flight out of Malta takes the crew only as far as Gibraltar, and from Gibraltar they travel on to England by ship. Following forty days of training in transit in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Pipina under Lountra’s command enters the Aegean. We now pass immediately to her greatest exploit, this coming at the very end of the war. And now the narrator can no longer rein himself in, the epilogue is taking on its own force, it is practically a sacrilege to tell this part in outline only, the details are essential, and so this final digression will be the climax of the entire narrative.
The Pippinos’ greatest exploit came on August 8, 1944, a surprise attack on a convoy of four ships under German flag: a cargo ship, the Orion, which, under escort, was carrying fuel to different destinations in the Aegean protected by a destroyer and accompanied by two diesel transports. The Pippinos enters Aegean waters on July 30, 1944, her fifth cruise in occupied waters. She is carrying eight torpedoes. Moving underwater from the seas of Kythera and Antikythera to the coast of Crete, then north through the small islands off the southern coast of Mykonos, she heads northwards to patrol along the Kavo Doro. Next she turns eastward along the commercial route towards Syros. From Syros she again passes Mykonos, sailing east towards Ikaria. As the days move tensely forward, she encounters several vessels which, when observed by periscope, are determined to be targets not meriting attack. The Pippinos’ lurking presence is not betrayed by any untimely action. And then, at last, on the moonlit evening of August 8 she surfaces, now south of Ikaria, close to Fourni, the cluster of islands just west of Samos. Allied intelligence has reported on the wireless that an enemy convoy was sighted from the air in the Ikaria-Fourni passage. Now through the illuminated night it is possible to discern in the distance the outlines of a pair of ships rounding Cape Domenikos, the western-most promontory of Samos. A convoy is indeed making its run along the Samian coast, probably to Karlovasi first, then to Vathy.
Telemachos pauses so that the audience is given time to ponder the hand of Fate here at play to set the Pippinos’ greatest hour on the coast of Samos. Now he resumes. The Pippinos approaches Karlovasi harbor in the early hours of the morning; rising smoke is just visible, confirming the presence of ships within. By 6 AM it is light enough to make out by periscope the outline of a German destroyer moored sideways along the breakwater, two smaller vessels anchored in the calm waters of the inner harbor, and, at the protected mouth of the harbor, the Orion lying with a third of her stern exposed-but at an angle precluding a straight shot by torpedo. The Pippinos will wait for the convoy to exit before striking. Hopefully by evening. Tense hours pass. At noontime enemy planes fly over, the Pippinos sinks lower for concealment. A nagging concern arises: is the depth of the sea along the coast sufficient for the Pippinos to attack and to maneuver a successful escape? Then Loundras outlines the risks. To a man the crew votes for attack. Time passes, the Pippinos rises to periscope depth about a mile from the harbor and continues her uninterrupted observation. Finally, here we go, the attack at last: at 4:58 PM we are poised as the destroyer exits the harbor and heads north with increasing speed. Loundras positions the Pippinos and 5:05 the command is given. Four torpedoes are fired. The resulting explosion, observed by periscope, indicates a hit on the boiler room. The destroyer makes a complete turn, first listing slowly to the right, then splitting into two sections. The sections rise vertically at one end before submerging beneath the sea.
Confusion next erupts on shore as clusters of people, shocked by the explosion, gather to observe. Survivors from the destroyer can be seen swimming back towards the harbor. The four torpedo launchers are reloaded as the Pippinos turns toward the vessels still within the harbor. At 7:14 the first torpedo is fired directly at the eastern end of the breakwater, which is obstructing a good shot at the Orion. Columns of water rise 100 meters in the air, boulders rain down as the end of the jetty is demolished. Four minutes later a second torpedo is fired, but this time there is no spray, no plummeting rocks. The torpedo is a dud. More people are now seen in the waters of the harbor as the Pippinos turns to fire the third and fourth torpedoes in rapid succession. The third again levels a section of the jetty, creating an opening for the fourth to pass through and connect with its target, the bow of the cargo ship Orion. When the spray and smoke disperse, it is evident that the Orion, while still afloat, is badly damaged. (On August 16, we are now quickly assured by a speedy digression, she will attempt to exit the Karlovasi harbor and will sink almost at once from the damage sustained from the final torpedo shot from the Pippinos).
What a success. A total surprise. Annihilation of a destroyer, fatal damage to the Orion. A blow is struck for the freedom of all Greece, and especially Samos. Now the hairraising flight, German planes searching and searching for a trace of the submarine. The Pippinos, her torpedoes expended, must return to base. Finally, arrival in the Silema harbor on August 14, 1944, the evening of the feast day of Our Lady, the Panayia. In harbor on August 14, 1944, the evening of the feast day of Our Lady, the Panayia. In Silema the crew of the Pippinos is given the welcome deserved by all. Amid general expressions of victory, Telemachos’ cousin, Yiannis Manettas (a great bull of a man, stevedore for years in Vathy), also in the Hellenic navy, throws himself off the pier into the harbor to welcome the return of his heroic cousin when he sees the Pippinos surface safely. A masterful addition this last detail, one I have not heard before. It allows us to break the tension and smile at the mental image of Yiannis’ huge bulk and the splash it would make in those distant waters while reasserting the themes of local patriotism and family loyalty which are very important to Telemachos.
The account is over. The narrator stops short, then he makes an abrupt switch. “Dioksete me!“ he commands, “Throw me out! Hanoume to kairo mas–we are wasting time!” And with that he is off, refreshed and restored, up the hill to his mechanaki and on to the other obligations awaiting his attention.
Maritsa and Telemachos
In the eighth book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid relates how once Jupiter and Mercury concealed their divine identities and wandered the earth to test the virtue of the humans they would encounter. They were driven from many doors until they came to the humble dwelling of Baucis and Philemon. The goodness of this elderly couple, touchingly devoted to one another, was made clear by the simple but generous hospitality they offered the unknown strangers. At last, however, Baucis and Philemon recognized the divinity of their guests who then asked what their hosts would like as a reward for their generosity. Baucis and Philemon received what they requested, to continue to live in harmony and to leave this life together so as not to suffer the pain of separation. After long years together they departed this life when transformed to a stately oak and a linden tree.
When I think of Telemachos and his wife, Maritsa, it seems that this couple in real life measures up well to the paradigm of Baucis and Philemon. Like the couple of myth, they are childless (and this is a sorrow to them and to us as well for there will be no son and heir to Telemachos) and seem to grow more fond of one another as they become older. When they are together at a social moment they will tease and pretend to complain, each about the other, but these attempts at conjugal friction are very transparent. Telemachos, simply put, adores his wife. It is a point of pride that she does not work–alongside him in the field, that is, or outside of their home. For Maritsa, Telemachos is a heroic figure who not only manages his own land entirely on his own but also in his prime accepted a network of obligations which he discharged in a responsible way–olive trees in one location, vineyards in another, other properties maintained for absent owners–all attended to in their turn. When he returns home, his comfort is assured. And Maritsa revels in her domestic chores because for a long time, decades into their marriage, they did not have their own home. Their union as man and wife, you see, was a love match, not an arranged marriage. Maritsa came from a large and poor family (ten children born to her parents, of which seven lived). She had no dowry. Telemachos’ family was not enthusiastic about the prospects of this marriage. But his head was turned by Maritsa, who was still a teenager when Telemachos came back to Samos in his twenties and began to feel he was entitled to his own life after the war years. For many years as a couple they made do, living in different rented quarters. It is about fifteen years now since Telemachos installed Maritsa in her own home. This house, built on a triangular lot just where the roads to Vla Marie and Ano Vathy separate, is as fresh and immaculate as it was when new and is filled with decorative touches which reveal Maritsa’s pride in her domain.
In these recent years Telemachos makes his rounds on a mechanized tractor which is open in the summer but is enclosed in a plastic hood when the rains and wind necessitate protection. Sitting on the driver’s bench, elevated above the level of drivers of passing cars, Telemachos assumes a very serious and dignified attitude. This attitude is magnified when Kyria Papageorgiou joins him, for his broad chest then seems to expand even further in a posture of protection and pride. It is a very stately progression when this dignified couple moves at the tractor’s slow speed.
Telemachos did not always have mechanized transport. Much of his life has been spent in hauling vegetables from his farm in Lakka in huge baskets–kafassia–lashed to the sides of a horse or donkey. When we first met Maritsa and Telemachos their chestnut Cretan gelding was still alive, and Maritsa would be transported to and from Lakka riding Kitsos side-saddle. Kitsos was a charmer. His coat was lustrous, his conformation trim. He was sure-footed and reliable when called upon to work, but it was his playful side that was captivating. Of a day he would be tethered the hours when Telemachos was occupied in his field. Ordinarily Kitsos was quiet, but if he saw Maritsa–what a show of gentle whiffles increasing steadily in volume, what a trembling in anticipation of her strokes! Unable to resist, Maritsa would come running with crusts of bread and other delectables. When the day was hot Kitsos loved nothing better than to be led–right there at Lakka–past the tall reeds and into the sea. Whinnies of pleasure summoned any and all children playing on the beach and they would douse Kitsos with handfuls of water and stroke his wet coat while Telemachos stood proudly by, holding the halter. It was sad day when Kitsos died. Telemachos eventually reconciled his grief and for some years was much taken with a new mare, Kyriakoula, who had amazingly large eyelashes but who proved to be unreliable and was sold. In Maritsa’s heart, however, Kitsos was never replaced. She executed a wall hanging in needlepoint which portrays a brown horse at a gallop and this hangs in their home as a reminder of a beloved member of their family.
For many years Maritsa and Telemachos did their entertaining at Lakka. At first they did not really have a home, and, besides, it was really so very pleasant to visit them at the perivoli, especially for the girls when young. First and foremost, Kitsos was there. Cats were also bound to be present and, with any luck, kittens. Generally there was a hunting dog, but she would be chained in a shady spot and petting her was not encouraged. There was also an old sterna or cement collecting basin for water which, now dry, was filled with chickens, often fluffy young ones running willy-nilly after crumbs. Plenty of possibilities for entertainment. The sea was accessible. Telemachos had constructed a little room of wooden planks, a large box in effect, in which there was a bed for his daily siesta and changes of clothes and shoes. This space was available for changing, should one be inclined to swim. The remaining facilities were al fresco. Over the area of a former manganos–the donkey-driven water wheel of the type that Yiannis Chrysas still employed up until five years ago–Telemachos had created a pergola of grapevines for shade above a large table and over the well head of the manganos. A small generator was installed and Telemachos pumped his water out of the well in the modern style, by electric pump. Off to one side, a barrel of water stood on a trestle with tubing leading to a cement sink perched on a table. The drain from the sink ran right into the ground. This was half of Maritsa’s kitchen; the other half was a set of burners hooked up to a gas cylinder, also in the open air. Complete this picture with a stream of the freshest vegetables selected by Telemachos from his perivoli for Maritsa’s competent hands (quodque suus coniunx riguo conlegerat horto, Metamorphoses 8.646). The best fare possible, crisp fried potatoes and zucchini and eggplant. Maritsa’s own salata perivolisia (“garden salad”) with plenty of tomatoes and boiled potatoes and pungent parsley. Add possible keftedes–or, if the Uncle from Cairo was about on a Sunday morning, the only day when Telemachos leaves his hoes and waterworks and joins the Uncle on the varka kept at Lakka for his pleasure, there might be the freshest of fish fried to perfection. Without fail, however, there would be Maritsa’s olives, fruit of our trees, small, grey-green and like no others in taste (ponitur hic bicolor sincerae baca Minervae, Metamorphoses 8. 664).
It was a real Sunday treat to be included at their table among the friends and relatives who dropped by to eat and chat and share in a Sunday at Lakka. Jupiter and Mercury would have been hailed as they passed by and they would have had a very pleasant time indeed at lunch with Maritsa and Telemachos.
The public expressions of Telemachos’ piety take a peculiarly Samian form. It is the custom in Samos–and I imagine this to be an extremely old custom–that on the special day when a saint is honored in the Orthodox calendar a special food is prepared which is served piping hot to the congregation just as soon as the liturgy is over in the morning. This special food is called yiorti (“holiday”) which, confusingly, is also the term for a saint’s special day. Yiorti is prepared in a kazani, huge cauldron about three feet in diameter and standing about four and a half feet high. The receipt includes onions cooked in oil (usually a lot of onions cooked in a few cans of Phytini). To this the carcass of a young goat is added together with a quantity of cracked wheat that has been cut in a certain way, not too finely, so as to maintain some integrity in the long hours it will cook. Water by the gallon is added as necessary. In the end, the yiorti will have the consistency of a thick porridge. The onions and meat, simmering the whole night long, will dissolve. The wheat kernels stay coherent, while the bones are apparently removed at a point when the meat has come free, for you do not see them in the finished yiorti.
The preparation of the yiorti must be done at the chapel of the saint. Typically one individual will underwrite the expenses (if the chapel or exoklisi is on private land, it will be the proprietor who pays), and another group of men will volunteer their services to prepare the yiorti as an act of respect and devotion for the saint. This group assembles the night before the holiday to get the yiorti started on an open wood fire. Several men are needed for even one cauldron’s worth of yiorti because the huge vessel is stirred by means of a wooden oar held perpendicular to the cauldron’s bottom and propelled with an energetic stroke within the cauldron’s confines. This paddling is quite tiring since it is performed while the yiorti bubbles away, exuding heat. It is necessary for the cooks to maintain a vigil through the night so that they may spell one another at the oar. To keep up strength and spirit a little ouzo is consumed every so often together with a meze.
Come the hour of the service around seven in the morning and the pious cooks are typically bleary eyed and exhausted but collectively euphoric in their sense of an obligation fulfilled. They will continue stirring throughout the service and then get a second wind about two hours later when the liturgy ends and the worshippers come rushing in a great throng, a human wedge, at the cauldron holding the yiorti. These hungry pilgrims carry containers, mostly Tupperware, of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Extending the containers and pushing forward, everyone seems anxious to get their portion of the yiorti while it is still boiling. Great skill is required on the part of the cooks in ladling out the final fruit of their night’s labors without scalding one of the saint’s holy followers. Frequently they have to bellow commands in an attempt to maintain an orderly procedure, especially while huge tenekedes are being filled first for the officiating priest. Twenty minutes of ladling and jostling and it’s all over. The cauldron is lifted off the heat, soot and grime caked to the outside, viscous remnants of cold yiorti clinging to the insides. Clusters of the devout, producing tins of pepper and spoons from their pockets, sit about and consume their yiorti on the spot; others hurry home to share the holy treat; some even send a Tupperful on the morning plane to absent Samians in Athens.
Telemachos has become a specialist much in demand for the arcane art of preparing yiorti. For a long while we were aware that he prepared yiorti on two special days, first and foremost on August fifteenth, the day of the Panayia, the special day of all sharing the name Maria, and, to be sure, the name day of Maritsa. It would be unthinkable for us to be in Samos and not to pay our respects to Maritsa and eat the yiorti prepared on this day by Telemachos. And of old Telemachos would also offer his services when the little chapel near his home celebrated its day in June in honor of the impoverished ones, Saints Cosmas and Damion. But recently we keep hearing of other occasions where Telemachos presides over the kazani and at locations which seem a little far from Vathy. When I questioned him directly and tried to pin him down, he confided that the new Bishop of Samos (who is young and has the reputation of being something of an activist) kept calling on him personally and that in the past year he had made yiorti twelve or fourteen times, most often at the Bishop’s behest. This degree of involvement seemed to me almost excessive. Then I stumbled on a curious surprise: Telemachos has his own cauldron for yiorti. I had entered a little storage room he owns along the road from Kalami to Lakka–it used to be Kitsos’ stable–and there, partially covered by a piece of burlap. was a gleaming copper cauldron. It was a gift, I was told, bestowed by the Uncle from Cairo, another example of his great generosity, providing his nephew with a private copper kazani. And so it rests between calls from the Bishop, clean and ready until needed and then it is loaded onto the back of the tractor and taken to church.
“You see, Kyria Aliki,” I was told by the cauldron’s owner, “I can’t go to church and worship like other people. I have too many responsibilities. I have to be out of doors. But in this way, preparing the yiorti, I can show my respect.” A pause. I nod. And then he adds with grave sincerity: “I only do it for the saint.”
P.S. Our beloved Telemachos died from a stroke in August 2007.