Tag Archives: Dropoli

The Classical Liberals: “On the Balkans, the Former Yugoslavia, and the Unity of Spaces”

4 Jan

dropoliThe Valley of Dropoli, the pass up to the Pogoni plateau near Libochovo, and in the distance, the snowcapped peaks of Nemerčka, from the Monastery of the Taxiarches in my father’s village of Derviçani, Easter 2014 (click)

I’m honored by the fact that this really intelligent blog quotes extensively from the Jadde’s mission statement in a recent post: Jadde — Starting off — the Mission.

Check them out: The Classical Liberals: At least, most of the time  Smart, perceptive, interesting stuff.

The author of the post below and the person I suspect is largely behind the editing of the blog is one Eoin Power, not just a fellow Balkan-freak along the lines of me or Rebecca West, but also a fellow Epirote.  He demurs a bit — though not very convincingly — at being called an Epirote, because his lineage is multiple and complicated and the connection to Epiros is fairly distant historically.  But he’s from one of the most archetypically and ancient Epirotiko villages — where they still own their patriko — in one of the most archetypically Epirotiko regions of Epiros and he carries himself with the requisite Epirotiko dignity and soft-spokeness and if I, NikoBakos, have conferred the title on you, it’s ’cause you deserve it.

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On the Balkans, the Former Yugoslavia, and the Unity of Spaces

The other day, as she is wont to do, my mother sent me a link to something on the Internet; this time it was to Nicholas Bakos’ blog, which you can find here. If you’re reading this blog, we’re probably friends in real life (thanks for reading!), and so it’s probably obvious why something like that would be of interest to the both of us. I have admittedly only skimmed sections of his posting so far, but in his introductory one, it was especially gratifying to read this:

This blog is about “our parts.”  It’s about that zone, from Bosnia to Bengal that, whatever its cultural complexity and variety, constitutes an undeniable unit for me.  Now, I understand how the reader in Bihać, other than the resident Muslim fundamentalists, would be perplexed by someone asserting his connection to Bengal.  I can also hear the offended screeching of the Neo-Greek in Athens, who, despite the experiences of the past few years, or the past two centuries, not only still feels he’s unproblematically a part of Europe, but still doesn’t understand why everyone else doesn’t see that he’s the gurgling fount of origin and center of Europe.

But set aside for one moment Freud’s “narcissism of petty differences,” if we have the generosity and strength to, and take this step by step.  Granted there’s a dividing line running through the Balkans between the meze-and-rakia culture and the beer-and-sausage culture (hats off to S.B. for that one), but I think there’s no controversy in treating them as a unit for most purposes; outsiders certainly have and almost without exception negatively.  And the Balkans, like it or not, include Greece.  And Greece, even more inextricably, means Turkey, the two being, as they are, ‘veined with one another,’ to paraphrase the beautiful words of Patricia Storace.  Heading south into the Levant and Egypt, we move into the Arab heartland that shares with us the same Greek, Roman-Byzantine, Ottoman experiences, and was always a part of the same cultural and commercial networks as the rest of us.  East out of Anatolia or up out of Mesopotamia I challenge anyone to tell me where the exact dividing line between the Turkic and Iranian worlds are, from the Caucasus, clear across the Iranian Plateau into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Bakos suggests that for people of “those parts” displaced to another environment (e.g. grad school in the West), this kind of geographical unity came, at least in a social context, fairly naturally, so perhaps I shouldn’t be all that surprised and delighted at seeing it reconstituted in blog form. But in fact I think the basic unity of the geographical zone outlined here often gets lost in the way these places are understood by outsiders and, ironically enough, in no small part due to the vehement insistence from each of the zone’s component peoples that they could not possibly be compared with those uncultured idiots with whom they share a border.*

Explaining the rationale for delineating “his parts” the way he does, Bakos writes:

But to step into Buddhist Burma is somehow truly a leap for me, which maybe I would take if I knew more. And in the other direction, I stop in Bosnia only because for the moment I’d like to leave Croatia to Europe – mit schlag – if only out of respect for the, er, vehemence with which it has always insisted that it belongs there.  Yes, I guess this is Hodgson’s “Islamicate” world, since one unifying element is the experience of Islam in one form or another, but I think it’s most essential connections pre-date the advent of Islam.  I’ll also probably be accused, among other things, of Huntingtonian border drawing, but I think those borders were always meant to be heuristic in function and not as hard-drawn as his critics used to accuse him of, and that’s the case here as well.

Ultimately what unites us more singularly than anything else, and more than any other one part of the world, is that the Western idea of the ethnic nation-state took a hold of our imaginations – or crushed them – when we all still lived in complex, multi-ethnic states.  What binds us most tightly is the bloody stupidity of chilling words like Population Exchange, Partition, Ethnic Cleansing – the idea that political units cannot function till all their peoples are given a rigid identity first (a crucial reification process without which the operation can’t continue), then separated into little boxes like forks after Easter when you’ve had to use both sets – and the horrendous violence and destruction that idea caused, causes and may still do in “our parts” in the future.

Having not, at least north of the equator, yet made it further east than Istanbul, I am in no position to question Bakos’ perception of the fundamental apartness of Buddhist Burma. But the loose border he posits to the north and west is one I’ve crossed many times, and it’s one that is both deeply present and functionally invisible.**

At the very least it is present in people’s minds; I can vouch for the vehemence (to use Bakos’ word again) with which Slovenes and Croats will insist that their countries are European, and not Balkan. It’s also pretty visually observable – you could mistake Zagreb or Ljubljana for a city in Austria or Germany in a way you simply can’t for, say, Sarajevo or Belgrade. And on one frantic trip from Dubrovnik back to Ljubljana (the ferry which I’d intended to take from Dubrovnik to Ancona decided not to arrive from Split, leaving me nothing to do but beat a hasty retreat back north) you could, if you were looking for it, see an actual tangible difference in the way things were done in the world – bus tickets in Mostar and train tickets in Sarajevo had to be paid in cash and a conductor on the train north from Sarajevo let me pay in a mix of Croatian kuna, Bosnian marks,  and euros. In Zagreb I could pay with a credit card, the train station had working and appealing amenities, and you couldn’t smoke in the train. This is a terribly squishy thing to write, but it did feel more “European-y”.

On the other hand, if the relatively old Huntingtonian dividing line between formerly Orthodox and Ottoman lands to the south, and formerly Catholic Hapsburg lands to the north is visually (and, at least in terms of credit card viability in 2009, functionally) discernible, the comparatively recent unifying experience of Yugoslavia is also unavoidable. Here, too, the first signs are in architecture and appearance; Soviet-style architecture and the legacy of 1950s industrialization has left the same physical scars on cities from Nova Gorica to Skopje. But they run deeper than that – the protestations of linguistic nationalists notwithstanding, Slovene, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Macedonian (hell, even Bulgarian a bit) all exist along a spectrum of of mutual intelligibility; state apparatuses, all having those of the former Yugoslavia as their common predecessors, share similar characteristics. Indeed, to me as a foreigner, the similarities often seem more salient than the differences.

Just on the basis of whether or not there “is” a usefully differentiating border to be drawn where Croatia meets Bosnia, it seems you can argue fairly fruitfully either way, depending on whether your sympathies lie with a sort of longue duree emphasis on deep civilizational splits or a faith in the primacy of modern political experiences. But by Bakos’ own ultimate criteria, it seems a bit odd to leave the northernmost bits of the former Yugoslavia out of things (though there is a nice alliterative symmetry to covering “from Bosnia to Bengal”) . If you’re going on the basis of, “the bloody stupidity of chilling words like Population Exchange, Partition, Ethnic Cleansing,” surely things like Jasenovac or the Istrian exodus argue for the inclusion of all of the former Yugoslavia?

Of course, any exercise in boundary-izing is a bit arbitrary, and in this case there are good reasons to put one in between Croatia and Bosnia and not, say, in between Slovenia and Austria (two countries for which there also exist plenty of historical reasons to consider them as part of a unified space). So if all of this does anything, it is perhaps to show how much more liminal are most places than we or their inhabitants often care to admit; whether or not you see a border somewhere often depends as much on your level of zoom as anything else.

*Or at least their nationalist politicians – many average people (whatever that means) in Bosnia and Serbia, for example, will quickly stress to you the fundamental similarities between the two countries and their inhabitants
**People sometimes marvel at my overstuffed passport but really something like 40% of the stamps come from the Dobova and Dobrljin border posts.

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Again, check these guys out; you won’t regret it: The Classical Liberals

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Jerusalem: “…if he cannot control her, he would rather see her dead.”

3 Jan

 

ISRAEL-superJumboJerusalem’s light rail trams, once a haven of normality, have come under attack in recent months. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times  (double click)

A line from an op=ed piece by

“Yet, with all their talk of Jerusalem’s indivisibility, neither side has a plan to enable everyone to live functional, productive lives here.

“Both sides profess their love for this city, but they love it as a violently jealous man loves a woman: If he cannot control her, he would rather see her dead.”

It says it all, and lends itself to a powerful explanation of why the fiercest nationalist is usually a male.  If I can’t have her, who cares.  Better yet, kill her, Stella-style.  This is what Venizelos was thinking when he embarked on his pipe-dream in 1919; this is what he though at Lausanne when agreeing to the Population Exchange — he had already run through several population exchange scenarios in his head with which he might seduce the Allies and bring himself glory; 1923 wasn’t the first time he had expressed such ideas.

This what Milošević was feeling when he abandoned Krajina’s Serbs to their fate and then again when he sealed the fate of Kosovar Serbs by thinking he would expel its 90% Albanian population.

This is what that other raging ego-maniac Jinnah was thinking when he convinced people to cut the heart out of Muslim India and create two dysfunctional wing statelets, one of which barely survives in horrible destitution, the other ruled by a series of some of the most hideous, corrupt, mendacious regimes in the world (see October 6: “It’s not even a country; it’s a fuckin’ acronym!”)

This is what the Messenger thinks when he starts shrieking from his Mussolini balcony: “And I don’t give a shit about Anatolian Hellenism or Politikes Kouzines or Loxandres!!! [.] I care about what’s good for Greece!!!”  Or when he stands ten kilometers from my father’s village “…where my ancestors held on tooth and nail to their land, their religion, their language, for centuries – as every other people have the right to — looks out over the valley of Dropoli and thinks out loud: “These borders could have been drawn to better advantage for us. All that was necessary would’ve been a few key population exchanges…”

The weird “contentlessness of nationalism” as I’ve said many times before.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  Or what it becomes.  It just has to be mine.  Or set a match to it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

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This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

Rustem pasa tiles

Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

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The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

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But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

Lebpic1340611232r779452Leblebi

So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

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Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

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While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather

17 May

Mana kai babas mikrosThe most recent picture of my grandmother to resurface, with my father as a baby, she in somewhat less then the full-out finery of the photo at bottom with my grandfather included, but with her good sash and her mecidiyia around her neck and forehead in any case.

Probably the saddest of all the stories I got bombarded with while in Derviçani this time was one told to me by my cousin Chrysanthe, shown here in this picture with the Coke can (below) with her daughter Amalia and her two grandsons, cracking Easter eggs at the Monastery above the village on Easter Monday where the dancing takes place.  (See Easter in Derviçani” — the stunning young girl behind them is my niece Marina — click)  

Augaimg_0102As our house was pretty much just off the village’s main square, most of the afternoons my grandmother could be found sitting on the stone bench in front of the house watching people. Try to imagine her about forty years after the above photo was taken, but not quite as old yet as this last one we have of her. (click)

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Spiti DervitsianiOur house today (click).  Built by my grandfather with blood and sweat shed in the slaughterhouses of Buenos Aires.  The village collective confiscated it and allowed my grandmother to live in only one room, keeping hay and seed and agricultural implements in the other three odas.  It’s lain abandoned since her death.  But someone always burns a cross on the top of the doorway at Easter.  This year I got to do it myself.

My grandfather dead in some prison camp in central Albania, my father, the only child, in America, letters getting through the censors only every so often, she was lonely, despite the hordes of family she had to take care of her. People say she would beg to hold any baby that someone brought by: “I just want a baby to wet me,” she would say, “and let it be someone else’s.”

But around Easter my cousin Chrysanthe says: “She would tell us quietly to come inside, and she would open up a little sentouki [chest] she had with a pile of bright red Easter eggs inside.” This was in the mid-sixties, when Albania, recently aligned with a China in the midst of its brilliant Cultural Revolution, had prohibited any form of religion whatsoever and dyeing Easter eggs could land you in jail, even the parents of the child, in this case, if they knew and hadn’t reported it. “And I would say, ‘oooooyyyyyy Kako [auntie]*, can I take one?’ and she’d say, ‘No canım, we’re just going to keep them here and you’ll come and we’ll look at them and we’ll play with them and have fun and then we’ll put them back in the sentouki and you won’t tell anyone, ok?’”

This is what those systems wasted their energies on, in case you’re wondering how it is that they collapsed like a house of cards from one day to the next after destroying the lives of millions: forcing old women to dye eggs in secret. No one ever knew where she got the dye from or how she even got so many eggs together at one time. She probably denied herself the product of the chickens she was allowed to keep to have enough eggs for Easter. Soon after, they prohibited private poultry and confiscated bostania too (kitchen gardens), even if they were part of your house’s immediate property, and all food items had to be gotten from the village collective, but I think some local Party member with half a soul let her and a few other old people keep theirs.

There’s a partly satisfying coda to this story though. Below is my grandmother, Martha (Mantho) with her favorite sister Alexandra (Leço).

ManthaLechoTheir maiden name was Çames — and you can deduce for yourself what it might mean that Çam is also one of the major tribal sub-groups of southern Albanians, the ones who lived in what’s now Greek Epiros and were massacred and driven out by Greek nationalist forces during WWII for supposedly (and if they did, totally understandably) collaborating with the Germans. Their father, my great-grandfather GianneÇames** came to the United States in 1895 and opened a fruit store in Mystic, Connecticut (the willingness of these men to just up and go off to places that must have been to them the equivalent of Zambia to us has always astounded me). A few years later, he brought three of his sons over, my grandmother’s brothers, and during the summers he used to send them down to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a very understated, high-WASP resort on the far western shore of the state, to sell popcorn and cotton candy on the beach. But from these modest beginnings they eventually opened the Olympia Tea Room in 1916, which is still there and was quite the poshest place to eat in town for decades — and has suddenly become re-hip again. For better or worse, you know I’ve taken you seriously as a friend when I’ve dragged you down to Watch Hill to make you pay homage, as if it were my village; for my father, cut off from his own for most of his life, it was.  So the Çamedes ended up being people of some consequence in Derviçani; to have been given a Massios daughter as a bride, my great-grandmother Kostando (those who know will know what I mean), you have to have been, and their house was not just a prosperous one, but one always open to all, the “peliauri” – courtyard – where my father grew up, always swarming with women and children and guests and the whole mahalla coming in and out all day.

OlympiafrontThe Olympia Tea Room, “est. 1916,” Watch Hill, Rhode Island and general view of the town’s harbor below (click on both — I don’t know who took this Olympia photo but it’s great — thank you).

Watch_Hill_HarborYet my great-grandfather Gianne married off his two favorite daughters to two men without much wealth or property, my grandfather NikoBakos and my great-uncle MihoBarutas (Michales). And I think it was on their sheer reputation as outspoken men to be respected and feared – and in our parts, even today, you still have to be both – or, as men period, that he did so; my grandfather was tall and handsome but not to be messed with – “his word was law through all the villages of Dropoli” – I was told on this trip,*** and the Barutaioi are proverbially unafraid of anyone or anything.  Ex-Ottomans will know that the name itself means “gunpowder,” and that’s all you need to know.

KakoLechoLaloMihoBarutasMy great-aunt, Kako Leço (above) and my great-uncle Lalo Miho Barutas.  I wish we had a picture of them younger but no one can seem to locate one. (click)

Family(My grandparents and my father in what I suppose must have been around 1931 or ’32.  If you look carefully you can see that the photo is a Photoshop job of its day; my grandfather was photographed in Buenos Aires and the photograph later attached in Albania; it’s always been a metaphor of an inheritance of absent fathers for me.  My grandfather was known as Djoumerka, a high mountain range in southern Epiros because he was so tall (but see more on that below).  My grandmother’s outfit in this picture — all made possible by rich WASPs in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, early globalisation — was described to me once by a woman, my Theia Vantho, whose memory I would never dare to doubt: the vest and sash were a maroon-purplish velvet embroidered with gold thread, which would have looked most like this kind of work, but with a deepr, more puplish hue:

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The apron, green silk with heavy multi-coloured embroidery, the outer, mid-hip length vest, what was known as the “şita,” barely visible at the sides and mostly decorated to be seen from behind, was white woolen felt, trimmed in red and black.  The medallions embroidered on either side of the vest were not traditional and generally it was seen at the time as hubristically opulent, so much so that the kind of mean tongues that flourish in small communities like this attributed the misfortunes of her later life to her excessive pride as a young woman. Click, double if you wanna see the details.)

Of course these are not qualities that get you far in a totalitarian regime like Hoxha’s Albania, except blacklisted, sent to jail or into internal exile or killed. And that’s what happened to them. Both branches of the family and by association the whole network of related clans suffered greatly during communist rule and yet held together. The Çames gene is a strong one, and anyone who is from a big family knows how certain emotional “affinities” – in this case the love between the two sisters – end up being transmitted down specific threads through generational lines: my Kako Leço’s son, Vangeli, a first cousin of my father’s who my father barely knew, is my favorite uncle in the village: the Baruta patriarch now, he’s also a man to be respected and feared, who started from less than zero when the communist regime fell apart and is now a highly successful entrepreneur with a business that reaches Albania-wide markets. His daughters — especially one in Tirane, Calliope (she’s shown in the passing of the Light photo in “Easter in Derviçani,“) — are my favorite cousins, and one of Calliope’s sons, also Vangeli, named after his grandfather, and destined to be an equally formidable personality, is my favorite nephew.

My Uncle Vangeli spoke his mind as much as one could all during communist times and how he escaped harsher punishment during those decades is a miracle of sorts. But underneath the fear of the Party, older fears and structures of respect were still operating, I think, and that’s what saved them. One of the village informers, the usual squirrels in those systems who will tell on others for an extra ration of food — what in the Soviet Union was known as a stukach in Russian, a “knocker,” i.e., someone who comes and knocks at night to tell his superiors the information they want to know, or a sapo, a toad, in Latin America, another continent blessed with the necessary abundance of totalitarian experiences to develop such terminologies – had the misfortune of living next door to my uncle, and he would try to threaten them occasionally, but my uncle was unafraid of even getting into fistfights with him when necessary, so nothing ever came of it.

And back to Easter eggs. By ’88 or ’89 things had started, like all over Eastern Europe, not so much to relax, but to show such obvious signs of cracking apart that, as my relatives put it, “the fear started lifting.”  The Barutaioi started dyeing their own eggs during Holy Week, though there was still no functioning church or any open observation or acknowledgment of the holiday.  But on Easter night, after the Resurrection, when they had cracked and eaten their eggs, they would take the shells and throw them over the wall into the Party snitch’s front courtyard…  Forget empty tombs and angels in white and “Τι ζητείτε;”****  How’s that for some “good news” on Easter morning? And being a Jungian believer that no symbolism is accidental, I can see the cracked red shells in my mind, like splatters of the blood this guy had on his hands — though this is a person obviously too much of a hayvani to have been affected much I imagine. For to be a Christian in a village like Derviçani, and have people throw Easter egg shells at you on Easter Sunday, and not immediately find a bridge to jump off of, or a quiet corner to blow your brains out, you have to have a fairly huge hole where your conscience or any sense of shame should be. He’s still around. They’re still neighbors. And my Uncle Vangeli smiles and greets him courteously on the evening passegiata in the village square.

And my grandmother’s hidden eggs have been vindicated.

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*”Kako”– aunt, and “Lalo” — uncle, are two of some of the Albanian words we use in our villages, though most people today just say “theia” or “theio” in Greek.  I’m the only one who still says Kako and Lalo and they all get a big kick out of it.  Ismail Kadare has a hilarious character named Kako Pino in his book about his native Gjirokaster, Chronicle in Stoneso I don’t know if it’s maybe a local usage only, or only a Tosk word (the southern ethnic/linguistic division of Albanians) because my nephew Vangeli in Tirane uses the Turkish “teyze” when he talks to his aunts.

** This is how we say (or again, said…) our names in the region: the first name, undeclined, attached as a prefix to the family name.  This is probably a left over from the day when there were no family names and only Muslim-type patronymics were used: your name and your father’s attached after.  So instead of “NikoBakos” I would have been “NikoFotos.”  Thus the oldest historical ancestor in my mother’s family, the Giotopoulos, was GioteStauros — his father Stauros is almost a sort of mythical character lost in time — and after GioteStauros, the family started calling themselves Giotopoulos, “son of Giotes.”  Women in this heavily gendered world were never known by their first names outside their immediate households, but by their husband’s name with a female suffix attached; thus my grandmother was “NikoBakaina” or even the more Slavic “NikoBakova.”

***My grandfather, it’s turned out, was quite the guy.  Absolutely fearless in a way hard for us to comprehend, he was a kind of village rowdy as a kid (the guys of Derviçani are known as such even today and their arrival in the cafés of neighboring villages in the evenings is said to be slightly unwelcome because it often means trouble; apparently they drink a hefty amount so they spend a lot of money and that’s good, but the local girls like them and that combination doesn’t always end well.)  And he would even engage in some occasional sheep rustling with a buddy of his — not for the material gain, but because it was a kind of male rite of passage in the region, as it was till recently in parts of Crete (see Michael Herzfeld’s The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village” — below; let’s not mistake this with resistance to Ottoman or Muslim hegemony, as people love to do with the banditry traditions of the Balkans; it was pure thievery).  But if there were some lira to be made in the process, that was no problem either.  His nickname Djumerka, may not have come from just how tall he was, but from the fact that under the hire of a certian Ismail Ağa from Argyrocastro (Gjirokaster), he and a buddy of his (this buddy’s grandson remembered the ağa‘s name) went down to the Djumerka mountains when they were teens and stole the flocks of another rich Turk, an enemy of Ismail’s, from those parts and brought them back to Gjirokaster for him.  Given the chaos of late Ottoman times in the Balkans, this is not entirely the superhuman feat we may imagine it to be, not in terms of law enforcement at least, but we’re talking a great distance of extremely rough, high terrain and it was impressive enough to have entered the village’s legend canon.  Then he up and went to Buenos Aires in his early twenties and worked in the slaughterhouses there; Argentina is on my list of “to go” places partly or mainly because of that; I would give anything to find out even the tiniest detail of what his life there was like.  And then when he came back, with no more than an elementary school education, I think, and his pure charisma, he organized and led the delegation from the Greek-speaking villages of Dropoli to the King, Zog, in Tirane, to protest the closing of their Greek-language schools.  The campaign was successful.  Elementary school education in Greek resumed and he soon after went to jail for the first of many times.

In the late 1950’s is when he went to jail for good and never came out and all we know is that he was buried in a mass grave somewhere in central Albania.  People in the village talk a lot about who snitched under custody on those occasions; neighbors and relatives were often taken together, so everyone would eventually find out.  If you could live with yourself afterwards, you could give false testimony about someone else and get off easier or be released or maybe just get the beatings to stop.  I turned it into a ritual questioning this time when I was there, of anyone I could, because I had to know: “Lalo, my grandfather never gave false witness against anybody to save his hide, did he? No.  Lalo, my grandfather never…? No.  Lalo…? No.”  When I got the third “No” from my Uncle Vangeli this time I was satisfied.

This is all hard stuff to live up to.  When they’re thrilled to have NikoBako come to Derviçani, I’m actually ashamed, because they really see him.  I’m just a cipher — a proud one, yes, but just a representative of someone I could never be.  Half of the time, with all my family on both sides, I’m living off of credit from my mother’s kindnesss and generosity and half the time off of my grandfather’s toughness and bravery and my father’s stoic bearing of the torch.  If you think it’s great to come from this kind of stock and have these kinds of tales to tell, think again.

**** “Τι ζητείται τον ζώντα μετά των νεκρών;  Τι θρηνείτε τον άφθαρτον ως εν φθορά;” — “Why do you seek the Living among the dead? Why do you lament the Incorruptible amidst the rot?” the angel asks the women who come to the grave on the day of the Resurrection, is my favorite verse of the Easter Canon.

Note: For those of you who made it this far with me on this post, thank you.  I hope it wasn’t boring or embarrassingly personal.  I thought a lot about whether I would ever get so deep into this stuff on this blog and decided to just go ahead.

Addendum: For the person who asked how my father can have been an only child and I can have all these hundreds of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews, that’s because in Greek every indirect relative of an older generation is my aunt or uncle (even if he’s not my parent’s sibling but third or fourth cousin), and anyone of my generation laterally is a cousin and any children of those cousins, who may be third or fourth or fifth cousins, who are of a younger cohort, are my nieces and nephews.  My father was an only child; but my grandmother one of eight.  So out of those eight branches come this plethora of kin.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Easter in Derviçani

25 Apr

Dropoli

Easter in my fa… — in my — village has left behind such a mountain of tangled emotions and thoughts and joy and sadness that it’ll take me weeks, months…maybe never, to sort it all out and write anything coherent about it.  Almost feel like I don’t want to.  But here are some teaser pics in the meantime. (double-click on all)

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