Harmonious living is the highest and most difficult of Arts

It is possible that we learn the Art of harmonious living

through our mistakes, if we are taught by them.

In this long, and often painful, learning process,

cultivating virtues in our character is a must.

Applying common sense in every situation always helps.

This ultimate ART is our mission in this life!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

My Childhood in Dendron

I would like to share with you some happy memories from my childhood in Dendron, an agricultural village in the semi-mountainous part of Corinthia, some 140 kilometers west of Athens. Dendron is a tiny picturesque village, not even printed on some Greek maps, where thirty-five families lived in the years during and after the Second World War. 

Our family was the largest one, as my parents were blessed with five children, myself being the second in the row. Our father was ever so proud of us, while he earned the envy of the co-villagers who had one or two children! Despite our poverty, our parents – peace be unto them – tried hard to do their best for us. I am ever so grateful for such honest and loving parents, who imparted to us great values and principles that have stayed with us to this day. My father’s name was Charalambos, meaning ‘shining with joy’, and my mother’s was Eirini, meaning ‘peace’. Oh, I adored my parents, and tried always to please them.

Let me now briefly describe the village where I had spent the first twelve years of my life. Dendron means ‘tree’ and is derived from a centuries-old oak (valanidia), the huge branches of which used to cover the whole area of the village cemetery. That tree is no longer there. Its last huge horizontal branch, unable to sustain its enormous self-weight, was torn apart from the main trunk about twenty-five years ago. The noise it caused when falling on the ground or, rather, the graves, terrified the villagers, who thought that some huge bomb had exploded in the area...
Dendron belongs to the county of Corinthia, known for its famous ancient capital, Corinth, which was violently destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. A new city, by the same name, was built near the old one and is now the capital of the county. Corinthia covers the northeastern part of Peloponnese, which, before the construction of the Corinth Canal - an artificial canal cutting the isthmus that joined it to Attiki (1881-1893) - was the largest peninsula of Greece. Apart from a flat strip along the coastlines of the Saronic Gulf and the Corinthian Gulf, Corinthia has a predominantly mountainous or semi-mountainous ground. On the highest hill of Dendron, the ancient remains of the fortified city of Pellini are buried, still waiting to be uncovered by the archaeologist’s spade.

The tiny village of my birth is built at an altitude of 600 meters, in an area that is famous for the variety of its geological formations. Nature seems to have been very indecisive, perhaps angry and violent with this part of the world, as it must have suffered many a fierce earthquake and landslide over the millennia. The result is a phantasmagoric, even frightening, succession of mountain chains, sharp hills, naked precipices, narrow green valleys alongside small rivers, and occasional tablelands, where little villages like Dendron have grown. From the verandahs of our house I had an unobstructed view of eight picturesque villages, at a distance of 20 to 30 kilometers, perched on hills southward, northward and westward. However, the nearest villages, Zougra and Rethi, lying at a distance of three kilometers east and west of Dendron respectively, were not visible, as they were hidden behind other hills. With one of them, Zougra, we had very close ties because we used to share the same priest and, occasionally, the same schoolteacher.

The scenery in this part of Corinthia is majestic, occasionally awesome, something I have never seen elsewhere, although I have traveled to many places of the world. I hope one day someone will make a movie in this area and show in moving pictures what humans cannot communicate in words. The thirty-kilometer ride from the nearest coastal town of Xilokastro (“wooden fortress”) to Ano-Trikala, which is the last village at the foot of Mt. Ziria - the highest mountain of Corinthia (2376 meters altitude) - is equally exciting. In my childhood, people would make this trip on a mule or a horse. Those who could afford it would travel on the open platform of a worn-out van, which was the only transport to Xilokastro, the market where one could buy sugar, rice, macaroni, and other commodities. The ride, however, was troublesome, not only because of the old condition of the van, but also because of the awful state of the narrow earthen road and its consecutive steep bends, something that caused nausea to the passengers.

In our semi-mountainous area, people produced mainly wheat, barley, raisins, olives, and meat from poultry, goats and sheep. Limited quantities of fruit were also produced for home consumption. The commodities in short supply were vegetables, because there was very little water. Only on the riverbanks, where each villager owned a small piece of land, one could grow some vegetables. For drinking water, each family had its own well, sometimes very deep, if they couldn’t find water near the surface. Ours was 20 meters deep, and bringing up water in the bucket for the animals and ourselves had always been a very tiresome task for my elder sister, my younger brothers, and myself. Since we were not tall enough yet, we had to climb onto a stone or an overturned bucket so that we could manage to turn the handle around in order to reel in the rope and bring the bucket up.

We lived in a two-story stone-built house that was almost in the center of the village, facing the main road, something that in those years was considered an advantage, since there was no traffic. The ground floor, which from the front view was a semi-basement due to the slope of the ground, was divided in two parts. The west half was for the storage of our agricultural implements and products (wheat, raisins and oil), while the other half, right underneath our living room, was the stable for our animals. We usually kept a mule and a horse, two to three goats, and one or two sheep. When a she-goat or an ewe would give birth to their offspring, the barn would be overcrowded and there was always the danger of the mule or the horse stepping on a baby lamb or kid and killing it.

The stairs to the upper floor were external. There was one staircase in front, leading to the main verandah and a long entrance hall, and another staircase in the rear connecting the kitchen to the back yard. There were four main rooms: our parents’ bedroom which faced north and was ever so cold, the living room with the fireplace, which also served as the children’s bedroom during the winter, and on the other side of the corridor, facing west, lay two interconnecting rooms, the salon and the dining room. These latter two rooms were tastefully furnished with expensive and elegant pieces that our mother brought as a dowry when she was married. As it was the custom in those years, such rooms would be used only a few times a year on special occasions: name-day celebrations and when we had eminent visitors. My mother was very particular that we shouldn’t go in there with our shoes on. I do remember occasional little quarrels over this…

The entrance hall itself, a long corridor 1.5 meters wide, would serve as a summer bedroom for the children and as a winter bedroom for our grandfather who also lived with us. From March to November, our grandfather would sleep outside, either on the front verandah or on the rear one. If the snow came unexpectedly in the spring or early in the fall and was accompanied by strong wind, we would find grandpa in the morning covered with snow to the top of his head. I have memories of us sweeping off the snow from his face with a broom. Yet he never minded being broomed! He had a good sense of humor and he always smiled. His clothes were old and patched, the sheets of his bed tattered, his blankets worn out, and he was usually fed with the leftovers of our meals, often a mixture of all kinds of different food.

Yet, in spite of all this, grandpa seemed happy, often whistling or singing old folk songs, those which were sung during the Greek revolution against the Turks for the liberation of Greece. (For those who are not familiar with Greek history, let me say that Greece came under Ottoman rule in 1453. The revolution for independence started in 1821 from Peloponnese.) My grandfather had taught me some of those songs - they were called “kleftika”- and he enjoyed having me singing them back to him. He also liked to invite passers-by for a drink, a glass of homemade wine, although he wasn’t sure who they were since his eyesight was impaired. My grandpa lived up to the age of 98 and I always cherish his memory.

During the cold winter days, grandpa enjoyed sitting by the fireplace together with us all, the children I mean, for our parents were always busy working outside, one way or another. When it was quiet, we could clearly hear the animals downstairs chewing their food or shaking the dust off their bodies. However, the smell from their manure kept coming up through the joints of the timber floor and we didn’t like it. Unfortunately, we had to put up with this for approximately twelve years, until our father could afford to build a detached stable in the back yard and move the animals there.

Regarding food, I remember that we were usually short of sugar, as it was rather expensive. Because of this, our father used to put salt in our milk instead of sugar. We didn’t like it and would complain, but to no avail. One of our usual meals was bread toasted in front of the fire and dipped in olive oil mixed with wine. Very tasty! Still, our favorite “dish,” when there was sugar at home, was bread moistened in water and sprinkled with sugar. In our early childhood we had not tasted honey, marmalade, or even butter. Once in a while, when there was some milk left over, our mother would make a kind of Parmesan cheese to use with a macaroni dish. However, since we had no refrigerator in those days, as there was no electricity, this was not preservable. After a few days, depending on the weather, it would become moldy and be thrown away.

Towards the end of the abominable civil war, thanks to the American “Marshall Plan” for European recovery, which even reached the tiny village of Dendron, we were offered a daily, nutritious meal at school. Usually it was some soup and cheese. Oh I loved that yellowish cheese, whatever its name was. Unfortunately, this did not last for long. Although the Marshall Plan’s implementation in Greece continued for three years, 1948 to 1951, in our village the distribution of food lasted only a few months. Apparently other parts of Greece were considered poorer than Dendron… As regards our toys, oh, well, they were either homemade or collected from the street. Whenever our mother found spare time, she would make us dolls from rags and we played with those. We also gathered round little stones from the street and played different games on the cement floor of the front terrace, while our grandfather enjoyed watching us sitting on his bed. Instead of a soccer ball, my brothers would kick around empty tin cans. Alternatively, they used the tins as toy cars, rolling them on a tiny winding road that they had carved on the slopes of a small clayish hill in a corner of our rear tree garden.

As regards work, I used to help my father in the fields from the age of seven, especially during my summer holidays. Harvesting the wheat was always a painful experience for me because of the thorny weeds it was mixed with, which often pierced my bare legs and arms to the point of bleeding. Yet I had to endure this even in hot weather. The same applied to my elder sister and my two brothers. My younger sister was born later. The real panic came, however, from the 16th of August till the end of September. During that period we used to gather the raisin and sultana grapes in order to dry them, something that was the main product of our family. Sorting out the papers to cover the south-facing, long, rectangular, earthen floors, on which we laid the grapes for about ten days, was almost solely my own responsibility. This was very important in order that the dry raisins shouldn’t be mixed with soil when gathered and put in huge flaxen sacks. I would spend days in our back yard trying to clean up the previous year’s papers and patch up the holes in them; I used dough for glue. Cleaning and gathering the dry raisins was also something that I used to help my father with, and I remember my little palms becoming quite hard at the end of each season. Yet I never complained; I had accepted this duty wholeheartedly.

The real agony, though, wasn’t the work itself. It was the weather. If the rain came suddenly and we didn’t have enough time to cover the raisins, the whole crop would be destroyed. The work of an entire year would be wasted; and how could we survive for another year without the income from selling the dry raisins? Our livelihood was at the mercy of the weather! At this time of the year, rain and strong winds were our worst enemies, our nightmares. To this day, I have not overcome this feeling of fear of bad weather at the wrong time. Although I live near Athens now and I do not own any raisin vineyards in Dendron, I sympathize with the people living there, and especially my brother, whose livelihood depends totally upon the weather. But I don’t just sympathize... I cannot help agonizing, should heavy rain come during August or September.

But it wasn’t only outside the house that I used to work during the summers. I also helped my mother in the kitchen. Actually, I preferred staying indoors when my elder sister would be outside playing with other girls from the neighborhood. Apparently, even as a child, I was rather a loner. Frying potatoes, sliced zucchini or sliced eggplant was my job, even when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the frying pan on the top of the clay fireplace. Until I grew taller, I was standing on a small stool. Sweeping the yards, both front and rear, was another responsibility that I had taken seriously. And sweep I did, not just the yards, but also the whole section of the road in front of our house and well beyond it! Among all the little jobs I performed at home or outside, my favorite one was to prepare food for the chicken. I especially enjoyed kneading the bran for them and I looked forward to that afternoon duty. Oh, I loved the smell of bran! I always prepared too much, though, and some of it was wasted.

Regarding my father, he must have been very clever at school and, for the little he had been taught, he wrote like a scholar. His handwriting was beautiful and, by intuition, he didn’t make any spelling mistakes or syntactical errors. He was also good at mathematics and very methodical in everything he did. Our father also loved music. As a young shepherd he used to sing a lot, enjoying listening to the echo of his own voice from the ravines. He also used to make handy musical instruments, either from a reed, using it as a flute (shepherd’s pipe) or from tree leaves, folding them in a special way and whistling music through them. When he finished serving in the army, he taught himself how to play the violin and also the lute. In the years before his marriage, he used to play music at fairs, which were organized in the nearby larger villages during religious festivals throughout the year. And it was at one of these festivals that my father met and fell in love with my mother. I still remember his violin and lute, hidden away in the salon, but I very faintly remember him playing music either with one or the other. As he was working hard to raise a large family during the difficult war years, it must have been hard for him to continue to play music...

In the evenings, after a day’s hard work outdoors, and especially during the winter, we would gather around the fireplace and our father would recite beautiful poems that he had memorized. I still remember two of them by heart. They not only had a literary value, but they also contained instructive messages for us. The first poem was about two brothers, Demos and Gionis, who were shepherds. They loved each other dearly until one day something happened that was to have terrible consequences for both of them. Gionis lost two sheep. When he returned to the sheepfold in the evening, he announced the bad news to his elder brother, Demos. Demos became very angry and, in an evil moment, he drew his knife and slew his brother. Later, the two sheep returned to the sheepfold. When the killer saw them, he bowed his head and started crying in repentance. He cried so bitterly, the story goes, that God saw him and pitied him, for Demos’ grief was deep and sincere. Therefore, God transformed him into a bird which, every evening ever since, climbs a tree and sings a sad song, “Gioni! Gioni!” This was the story of that beautiful poem, which our father never got tired of reciting to us. He would also identify the actual bird whose chirping sounded like a lamentation, “Gioni! Gioni! Gioni!” And, of course, all of us recognized that bird whenever we heard it warbling from a tree. We called it “Gioni” because of the sound of its singing, although it was supposed to be Demos himself.

The other poem, which our father recited to us over and over, was about a young partridge that didn’t obey its mother. The young partridge, against its mother’s strong warnings, left the company of the other partridges that were bathing in a small stream and started walking further away on a rock. But, alas, a hawk was hiding nearby. When the hawk saw the young partridge walking alone, he wasted no time. He dashed forth against it, grasped it, tore it to pieces, and started eating it bit by bit. As you can see, our father knew what kind of poems to choose for us. They ought to have an allegorical instructive meaning. Apart from poems, he taught us how to sing and how to dance. He used to spend hours dancing around with us in our small living room, stooping down in order to reach and hold our hands. I don’t remember my mother participating in those dances in front of the fireplace, although she, herself, was a talented dancer. She was always busy serving us from dawn to midnight. Our mother was a “born giver” to the point of self-exhaustion. She was also an excellent cook and she always managed to keep the house, her husband, and her children spotlessly clean.

The sacrificial love of our remarkable mother must have been the source of her enormous reserves of physical strength, in spite of her frequent illnesses. How else could she have coped with kneading eight to ten huge loaves of bread at a time? And not only that; she burned firewood in the big earthen oven for about an hour in order to bake those loaves of bread! To meticulously clean the hot oven base from charcoal and ashes in order to place the bread loaves thereon was also an exhausting process.
What amazed us all was that our mother always chose to do both the kneading of bread and the washing of our clothes on the same day. These two most heavy tasks had to be done on the same day of the week! Of course, there weren’t any washing machines in those days, and to wash clothes by hand for a family of eight members meant leaning over a tub for hours, using a cake of soap that she, herself, had made out of oil sediment. As if all this were not enough, during the week our mother found some spare time for weaving on her wooden loom. There, she would weave carpets made of rags, blankets of wool, and also woolen carpets. In the winter, all the rooms and corridors of our home were carpeted throughout with her colorful textiles.

The time when our beloved mother exceeded herself was during Easter holidays. She would start quite early to whitewash the edges of the front and back yards of our house, the edges of our front and rear balconies and staircases, the henhouse, the stable, and the granary. Then she would start making three different kinds of special small cake-rings (koulouria). She would make several kilos of each kind in order for them to last throughout the Easter holiday season. We loved those Easter cake-rings and we always complained why they should only be made once a year! Dyeing the eggs was another Easter custom that our mother kept devoutly. What would Easter mean without red hard-boiled eggs? You had to have one in your pocket in order to strike it together with the egg of the person next to you in church, as soon as you heard the priest chanting, “Christ is risen!” Oh I loved the melody of that short Easter hymn. But to hear it being sung by papa-Totonis, the village priest of those days, made you think that it was some angelic music coming straight from heaven. More melodic, however, was the hymn sung by the priest before the announcement of the resurrection. It was when he was bringing the holy light out of the sanctuary into the darkened church, “Here, come, take light from the never setting Light...” How beautiful the words, how sweet the sound of this hymn! It used to give me shivers. I remember all the sacred ceremony of Easter night with much nostalgia.

With equal nostalgia, I recall the entire Holy Week with the special evening services in church. Since we shared the same priest with another village, Zougra, we would walk there every second evening. It was, approximately, a 40-minute walk from Dendron, and we enjoyed singing hymns on the way. If we celebrated Easter in Dendron, we would celebrate Good Friday in Zougra, and vice versa. The people of the two villages knew each other by their first names. We were like one large family. On Good Friday, I always took part in the flower decoration of the “Holy Sepulcher”, a wooden structure on which a huge icon of Jesus was laid. And I also loved to sing the special hymns called “Encomia” at the Good Friday service. What a superb piece of music that was, and still is, although nowadays, the Orthodox traditions hardly touch the hearts of people the way they did fifty years ago. The mystical spirit, more often than not, is driven away by “Bengal” lights, fireworks, and other frightful worldly noises.

Another thing that made the Holy Week special was the fasting. Our beloved father was very particular about it: “If we don’t fast during the Holy Week, how will we be able to feel the difference at Easter?” he reasoned loudly. So, we had to abstain from meat, cheese, milk, and even olive oil. Then, in the early hours of Easter Sunday, at about 2:30 in the morning, after returning from the midnight Easter service, we would celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus by feasting on the musky steaming “mageiritsa,” a special thick soup made with entrails. Sometimes we also had a soup made with minced tripe (patsas), supposedly to help digestion. Our mother was a superb cook of both dishes, and she used to spend the best part of Good Saturday cleaning, washing, and chopping the lamb’s entrails and stomach carefully. To this day, I have not been able to explain how we did not get sick by eating so many different foods in the middle of the night, especially after a week’s fasting. Or how we managed to sleep by going to bed at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. with a heavy stomach! The only explanation I can give is that we enjoyed those traditions so much, and we were so happy, that our bodies gained extra strength to cope even with dietary excesses.

More pleasant and happy memories of my childhood have to do with the summer holidays. “Which holidays,” you may be asking, as I have already told you that I used to work helping my father during the summers. Well, there was a month or a month and a half left, from the beginning of July, i.e., after finishing the threshing and the winnowing of the wheat, to mid-August, when we used to start preparations for the sultana and raisin grape harvest. During that summer holiday time, I would be sent to Ano-Skoupa, a more primitive mountainous village, where my mother’s two sisters used to spend their summer. Occasionally, my elder sister or one of my brothers would be there with me. Invariably, all four of us would, in turns, be spending some time there - usually two to three weeks each. In the early days, our father used to take us there on the packsaddle of the mule. It was a two-hour trip on a narrow path across hills and short valleys. Later, when our father could trust us, we would travel by ourselves, two at a time, riding on the mule. Our mother used to put a soft colorful blanket on the saddle so that its hard leather girdles did not hurt our legs. I am not sure how old we were then, probably between nine and twelve, and it is amazing that we were not afraid to travel on our own.

Finding the way to Ano-Skoupa on our own was not a problem either. Our mule – her name was “Kopella” that means “maid”- knew how to get there, even with her eyes closed. She also knew that she ought to take us there safely. So she was very careful to pace steadily, even when she had to walk faster on a steep uphill path that followed a downhill section. I never quite understood why the mule needed to run uphill anyway. And, to be honest, I didn’t look forward to crossing such sections. If the packsaddle was a bit loose, one could be thrown off quite easily. But it had never happened with us. Our cousins, two boys and a girl, were delighted to have us in their home. They were Auntie Chrysoula’s children, as our younger auntie, Mahi, was not yet married. Auntie Mahi loved all of us as if we were her own children, and she devoted much time cooking for us. How did I spend my time there? Well, more or less in a similar way as I did in Dendron. I would do little errands around the house, sweeping the yard twice a day, or I would go to the spring at the foot of the mountain in order to bring drinking water in the pot several times a day. I would also help Auntie Mahi, or just keep her company, as she was working in the vegetable garden.

In my spare time, I liked to climb trees. Oh I loved it! Actually, I used to do this in Dendron also. Every tree I saw was a challenge for me. I would first stand at its foot, figuring out how I could climb it and how far up I could go. Then I would get on with the job. When I found some stable branches on which I could settle, then I would start singing at the top of my voice. I spent hours singing. I enjoyed the sound of my own voice and, admittedly, others liked it also. However, every now and again, some woman villager would complain to my auntie that I disturbed her siesta. Then I had to stop. I really loved those vacations! Ano-Skoupa, unlike Dendron, had plenty of water. Water streams ran into every corner. People didn’t need to have any wells there. Unfortunately, nowadays this is not so. I don’t know how and why all this water disappeared or where it has gone, but today hardly anyone lives there. Returning home was also exciting as, in spite of the good times we had in Ano-Skoupa, we always got homesick. We used to miss our parents, especially in the evenings when it was getting dark. During the first few days away, tears would often run down our cheeks, but we were told it was good for our health to live in a different climate, i.e. to be in a place of a higher altitude for a little while. And Ano-Skoupa, with all its streams, fruits and vegetables, was an ideal place for gaining strength and, hopefully, one or two kilos of weight since all of us were ever so skinny.

Regarding my school life, I also want to share with you what stands out in my memory. At the east end of Dendron, next to the village’s church of Saint Constantine, there was a small stone-built school with a large (4.0 x 5.0 meters) hall as its only classroom, and a small office for our teacher. In this single classroom, about 20 to 23 pupils were instructed, ranging in age from six to twelve years old. Our teacher made sure that pupils of the same class, three to four usually, were seated on the same bench. He had to divide the teaching hours equally among all six classes, which meant that each class would only get his full attention for about an hour every day. Most of our homework was done at school, while our teacher was instructing the other classes. I hardly remember studying at home during my six years in the elementary school. However, I was always the best in my class and not just in the course of studies. I used to be the protagonist in cultural activities that our teacher organized twice a year, during the national holidays, on March 25 and October 28. I loved dancing and reciting poems and, during my last two classes at school, I was our teacher’s “right hand” in everything he organized.

Every now and then, I was sent to neighboring villages, accompanied by another pupil, delivering a message to the other teacher for a joint celebration of the two schools during national holidays. I enjoyed doing this! I loved to be given little missions, and I always managed to complete them well. Another special task, which our teacher used to give me, was to look after the entire school when he wasn’t in the mood to teach. At such occasions, he escaped to the only coffee shop in the village to play checkers with some old man. He did this from time to time and, when I was in the last two classes (eleven and twelve years old), instead of closing down the school and send us home, he would trust me to look after the other pupils. I enjoyed being in charge of the classes, taking the teacher’s place in his chair, and holding his ruler in my hands. Of course, I wasn’t aware how funny I looked in that role!

However, school-time wasn’t always pleasant. Not-at-all! During the winter, it was freezing cold since we had no heating and, if we wanted to go to the toilet, which was about fifty meters away, we had to walk on snow. What toilet? A small wooden hut with no sanitary arrangements at all. One may argue that toilets were no better in our homes. This is true. They were always outside the main house, somewhere near the end of the garden, usually with a rug curtain as a door and, of course, with no running water to flush and clean them. But, thanks be to God, we survived all the hardship.

In June 1952, I finished the elementary school in Dendron with excellent marks, whereupon I left for Xilokastro to take examinations in both Greek language and Mathematics in order to enter high school. From now on, my home would be in Xilokastro, where I stayed in a small room of auntie Eleni’s – our father’s sister – house. However, I would still visit Dendron and stay there during the summer months, always helping our parents, as I used to do before. The six years in Xilokastro, without my mother’s care, were not the easiest ones in my life, though. But through hard work, in 1958 I finished high school with the highest marks and I passed the examinations for the entrance in the prestigious National Technical University of Athens. New horizons were now opening for me in the big city, and new opportunities and subtle snares lay ahead for the young village girl. But thank God, despite some pitfalls, after five years of studies and hard work, I qualified as a Professional Civil-Structural Engineer. I was one of the first few women in that field, and my father was very proud of me. I had fulfilled his dream by studying what he always wanted but had not been given the opportunity to do.

Copyright © 2008 by Maria Seferou