By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
The epitaph inscription, Et in Arcadia Ego, in Virgil is usually interpreted as In Arcadia too I exist (I being death). I prefer the less common interpretation I (the one in the grave) too Have Lived in Arcadia. This interpretation of the grave inscription in legendary Arcadia and the paintings of Nicolas Poussin fill me with sweet sadness. I was born in Greece in 1933, on the emerald isle of Corfu in the Ionian. I remember beautiful Corfu as I saw it on a visit there with my aunt Lulu in 1973. Three months after I was born, my family moved to our own house in the garden suburb of Filothei, ten kilometers north of Athens.
My earliest memories are of nightmares, such as kicking a beehive and being surrounded by stinging bees. I would wake up sweating with mom over me, hugging, kissing, and caressing me to sooth my panic. In Filothei, at 44 Kehaya Street, I was three years old in 1936. I played in the yard and when mom was out and she was returning home, I could identify the click-clack of her heels on the pavement and was happy. I often took my tricycle out on Kehaya Street which inclined along our house, took it to the top of the hill and then rolled down fast to the house. The street had practically no motor traffic.
We did not stay long in our house. My dad was sent to rural northern and central Greece, in towns where he managed offices for the National Bank of Greece. We never lived in Arcadia, a province in central Peloponnese, with Tripolis a beautiful capital city. To me, Arcadia is all of Greece where I lived until my coming to America to study engineering and remain. I’m writing this memoir of the years shortly before, during, and right after World War II in search of time lost then and regained in old age, to explain my attachment to family and country living, my ideal of sustaining ourselves on the land with friendly neighbors, largely with our own fruits, vegetables, animals–complimented with gathering and hunting in wilderness.
Greece to me is an ideal place like the legendary Arcadia, Eden, or Shangri-La, made up of lovely childhood memories in the countryside, bittersweet experiences of World War Two, and growing up to manhood in Athens. The countryside was where I was happy in a pastoral existence, but also, because of my experiences, a place with enough food and security even in war and economic chaos. For my children and grandchildren, plenty of ready food is something they count on, with supermarkets close to home, stocked with every conceivable sort of delicacy. I could not count on getting my next meal in Greece during WWII. Frequent hunger then was an experience that will be with me till the end of my days; that and the terror of bombs and bullets.
The hunger and the terror I remember often, but also many lovely memories from Greece. I left Greece fifty seven years ago, but I keep coming back to the country every summer bodily, every day spiritually to savor the Arcadian legend: the sweetness of a simple, tranquil life in a country of shepherds, fields and streams, an experience made more poignant by the existence, in Arcadia too, of death. I keep returning to Greece to refresh, renew, and replenish myself in a spiritual fountain of peace and romance before coming back to the modern world. I live on the island of Andros in a little stone house in the lush ravine of Katakoilos, where I hear only cows mooing, goats bleating, and roosters crowing. Like other villagers, I grow fruit trees (figs, olives, grapes, apricots, pears, apples, pomegranate, and quince) and vegetables in the summer. I eat mostly vegetables, fruits, and some fish from the Aegean. Occasionally I have some local grass-fed beef, goat milk and cheese, free-ranging chicken or eggs. I swim in cool sea waters, take long hikes in the hills, and occasionally visit with friends. It’s a life good for my health and the health of the planet, if more people took to this lifestyle.
This was the life people led for ten thousand years, on the land in villages, tending animals, using not chemical fertilizers but animal droppings for fertilizer to grow crops. Small towns and cities were few and far between, the seats of government and military power. The village had a few craftsmen: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. This was a way of life that was sustainable; it could go on forever as long the sun shone. Then we invented the mechanical and industrial revolution, starting in England two hundred years ago, spreading around the world, now even in China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Africa, and South America. Have we not had enough of advertising creating wants for things not needed? Are we not fed up with business cycles, unemployment, welfare, and financial shocks? Modern industry and our consumer society are too wasteful of natural resources; they cannot last for long before environmental disaster ends civilization, humanity, even life itself.
I have seen in my lifetime the orange groves and farmland of Orange County, California, converted to industrial parks, offices, houses, shopping centers, and asphalt roads, and more roads. I have been in America through about ten economic booms and an equal number of busts, with people queuing up at the employment offices for a pittance to survive. The fruits of capitalism are great, so are its poisons.
Before industry, and before agriculture, people hunted, fished, and gathered natural fruits, roots, seeds and vegetables. That way of life was good too for millions of years. Why did we abandon the ancient modes of living that were sustainable indefinitely? We were too skillful at the job: prevailing over our natural predators, the wolf, the lion, the bear, killing more animals, harvesting more plants, and becoming too many on the land we used.
Holding a Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering, still I subscribe to the myths of the noble savage, the simple shepherd, or the tiller of the soil, and the humble craftsman making tools from wood, iron, clay, and stone. I am of one mind with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thoreau, Whitman, and Scott Nearing. I ignore the hardships of pioneer existence, loving the romance of “The Yearling,” and “Little House on the Prairie.” I seek something elusive: the Judeo-Christian Eden or the Muslim Jannah, a garden with clear streams, delicious fruits of all kinds, and my favorite: the fruit of knowing what’s good from evil.
I have since youth grasped the evils of consumerism, mercantilism, mass production, canned entertainment, advertising, and agribusiness. These developments have given us wealth, versatility, a multitude of products and services; have they given us happiness, safety, and a future for the ages?
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Nobel Prize winner, wrote about the Lake Isle of Innisfree:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
Henry David Thoreau actually went to the woods in Vermont to live alone, building a small cabin with his own hands, growing beans, corn, and other vegetables by the side of Walden Pond. Thoreau went to Walden to be at peace, to contemplate, to live a simple and full life with his notebooks, to observe the animals in the woods, and to think.
Thoreau did not seek comforts at Walden; Vermont winters are bitter. He describes struggles with weeds in his vegetable patch. He was often alone; but he was happy, and the poetic beauty of his writing shows that in “Walden.”
The behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner wrote “Walden II,” a community living on the land like an Israeli kibbutz, everybody taking care of everybody else, but without any luxuries. Now many of the kibbutz have become high technology centers, which is fine as long as machines are kind to nature.
The villages in Greece I knew as a child were no communes, neither were they Irvine Company villages, neighbor seldom talking to neighbor. The Greek villages were organic: people lived close to each other, interconnected, with stable lives, permanent homes, often clustered together, built one next to the other for safety and ease, commonly on hillsides to preserve level land for growing crops. People knew each other in the village well; many of them were related by blood or marriage. People depended on each other for their livelihoods; not much was imported. Goods were hand-made by local tradesmen. I remember as a child having my feet measured for custom shoes by a town shoemaker. Villagers had no cars; they used donkeys, horses, and wagons.
In Katakoilos, Andros, where I live now summers, some old farmers still ride donkeys to get around. The rest of the people drive cars and have moved to bigger towns, mostly Athens, which carries half the population of Greece. Younger people have deserted most villages, leaving only a few old people. Many migrated to America, Australia, or Northern European countries for greater opportunities, but they tend to be nostalgic about their Greek village or town, returning to their homeland often when they have enough money to stay permanently or to visit. An untranslatable Greek word, xenitiá, describes the aching nostalgia emigrants feel overseas, away from their homeland in a strange land. In San Diego, my American home, Greek immigrants have their Church, St. Spyridon, and community center; they have prospered in business. Ninety-five percent of their children earn a college degree; then they pour into the melting pot. Quite often the immigrant community comes from the same village in Greece, but they don’t have the same organic village abroad.
Before World War II
As a child I didn’t live in a village, but visited many. My dad Elias managed a small town bank in Amýnteon, Macedonia, in the thirties, during the rule of Ioanis Metaxa, one of Greece’s periodic dictatorships. My dad often hired a taxi and went out to villages in the area to sell life insurance and to enjoy the countryside with his family. I have a photo of him with his back on a tree trunk and his long legs on another trunk, lean, youthful and smiling. I like to remember him as he was then, rather than in his last years, wrinkled, emaciated, and withdrawn. My brother George, nicknamed Louli, my senior by two and a half years, and I, pet name Billy, wandered around watching the animals, climbing giant plane trees in the village squares or rolling on grassy hillsides. Practically all villages had a square in a flat area of a cool, watery ravine, with large plane trees, cafeneion with outdoor tables and hand-made straw-seat little chairs where the men would sit for hours, playing backgammon, drinking little cups of sweet black coffee, and passionately talking about politics.
One village we visited was called Sour Water, Xinó Neró, coming out of the village fountain being slightly acidic as if a drop of two of lemon were in the water. In those days village girls went to the spring fountain or the well to fill big unglazed clay pots, which they balanced on their heads. They set the clay pots on the window sill and the water cooled with evaporation. Houses had no indoor plumbing, so there were no plumbers to charge for clogs and repairs. Even in our house we had no refrigerator; we used an icebox with a block of ice and a screened pantry. Many villages had no electricity. Villagers relied on oil lamps as in ancient times, so they had no electric bills to pay, and no air pollution from power plants. The donkeys and horses they used for transportation just ate grass and produced fertilizer, needing no oil from Saudi Arabia.
Sometimes in the summertime, we took trips further north in Macedonia to the towns of Naussa and Edessa, where my dad’s sister Barbara and other relatives lived. This was a forested area with waterfalls and lush valleys with cherry, apple, and pear trees. The people lived on the hills above the valleys, among the conifers. My brother Louli and I found sliding places in the forest covered with dead leaves and we careened down on our backs. We loved all the flowing water and greenery, not common in the rest of Greece.
In Amynteon we lived in an apartment over the bank where my dad worked. I remember once in the street a little puppy followed me home and upstairs. My mom Georgia chased the puppy out, because my dad could not tolerate animals; I was heart broken. My dad bought me a pedal car, big and shiny in red and gold colors. I drove it in the street in front of the bank back and forth, while all the neighborhood kids hitched rides on it with me. The car was demolished in a few days.
Little boys wore short pants back then. Scrambling about town at five years of age with my brother Louli who was seven and a half and looked after me, (He still does, even now when I’m 77) we were safe our parents thought, because townspeople knew us. One day, absent minded in a game, I crapped my pants. I will never forget my shame. I walked home to mother to be cleaned up, crying all the way. Another time I was given a pair of new shoes with a tough leather front. I wondered how tough it was, so I put my foot under a horse cart moving slowly on the road. My shoe was squashed, but my foot wasn’t hurt; the shoe was sturdy enough, or the cart wasn’t loaded.
We had a fascist government then; boys and girls had to join the youth corps, all dressed in navy blue, giving the fascist salute with the right arm raised. In school we were taught to sing nationalist songs. One song went like this: “Health, youth, life, and national pride; from work springs honor which rises to heaven. To work we all go for Greece and Yanni Metaxa.” My brother and sister joined the corps, my dad, hating the dictatorship, had no choice in his position as bank manager, but I was too young to join. I was jealous of the others and their dark blue suits, so my mom dyed blue a light suit of mine with short pants, and I wore it proudly. We paraded, sang the national anthem on every opportunity, and planted pine trees in the hills for reforestation. We dug a little hole, put the baby tree in, filled the hole with soil, packed the soil well all around with our feet, and poured some water from a can. After that, the little pine was on its own, waiting for rain and sun to grow.
When I was six I went to first grade in school. My teacher Kyra- Froso hugged and kissed me often. “I love you, little rascal,” she used to say to me. I didn’t miss my mom so much. Mom and dad were busy with work and a full social life. They felt like prominent citizens and kept company with the local merchants and professionals, doctors, dentists, and attorneys. They received people often at the house on social occasions and poker games for my dad, who usually won with his careful tactics. Dad was also making good money in addition to his salary from commissions selling life insurance on the side for the Bank. My mom, born and raised in a rich household, liberal with money, spent dad’s earnings and more with charge accounts, on lavish parties and gifts.
My parents had arguments with mom’s spending habits all the years they were together in Greece, until she came after me to America and went to work to support herself as a seamstress and dress fitter. After that, dad was able to accumulate a small fortune. But in Amynteon I remember him scolding her for some extravagance while he was shaving in front of the mirror in the morning. She liked becoming a godmother for babies and a matchmaker for young couples, both activities resulting in expensive gifts, charging her purchases with local merchants who knew my dad would pay up. She was liberal and he was conservative; they kept up a running conflict as long as they were together over her spending and his thriftiness, never realizing they could not change each other.
My parents came from Turkey and met in Corfu, where both escaped from the catastrophe of the Greeks in Turkey, during the 1922 war in which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the Turks to victory. The Turkish army and irregulars slaughtered millions of Armenians and Greeks who had joined the fight for liberation, including most of my dad’s family. My parents’ similarities ended with their origin. He was tall, slender, reserved and idealistic. She was short, pleasantly plump, outgoing, and practical. She came to the National Bank of Greece where he worked as an accountant then to inquire about reparation payments and he kept her in his office for a long time, pretending he could not find papers in order to get to know her. After two weeks of seeing her a few times he was deeply in love and asked her to marry him. She was impressed with his stature and good looks and wanted to leave her father’s household, which she found oppressive. She asked him, “Will you marry me now?” He was thinking of an engagement for a year or so, but he agreed. The rest was history, with my sister Alice, born first, my brother George or Louli a year later, and finally two and a half years later, unplanned and unexpected, me.
In Amýnteon, my dad was making good money from salary and commissions. He brought home glossy catalogs of cars: Fords, Chevrolets, some European models, all colorful and sleek, unlike the black, boxy taxis he had been hiring. It seemed like a good idea to him to buy a car for his trips around the countryside, but he never managed the cost in Amýnteon or anywhere else given my mother’s expenditures.
I was getting to be a big boy, muscular for my age in Amýnteon. Close to our house was a bakery where we often sent trays of food for baking. One day the tray was filled with lamb and potatoes. My mom said some hours later, “The lamb should be ready now.” I was hungry and skipped out the door to the bakery, coming back with a loaded tray bigger than I was. Lamb, slow roasted in a wood-fired brick oven, with potatoes sprinkled with oregano and olive oil, that’s a feast.
Another tale was one where the family laughed at me, because, usually very brave, I acted like a coward. A big barn not far from the house caught fire. Everybody got excited and they were yelling. I got panicky and started yelling too: “Let’s get away from here; let’s get away right now.”
Soon enough, in 1939, we did get away from Amýnteon. My dad was transferred to Elassóna in Thessaly, at the foot of Mount Olympus. A bigger town than Amýnteon, Elassóna has two rivers running through it, situated in a fertile valley, which produces wheat, beans, corn, vegetables, and livestock. We lived again in the bank’s building, a two-story house that used to belong to the Turkish pasha of the province. The house was on a big plot of land, surrounded by a high stone wall. We lived upstairs with a good view of the big yard and fruit trees. An arbor with grape vines joined the house to the front gate. One winter day, the arbor covered with snow, we spotted Grisetta on a beam of the arbor facing up to a big tom intruding in her territory. The cats were making horrid screeching sounds. Suddenly, Grisetta lashed out with her paw. The tom fell off the arbor, dropped to his feet and ran.
Next to the massive oak front gate, the yard had a huge chestnut tree. When ripe the chestnuts fell out of their pods after we prodded them with a stick and we picked them up from the ground. We ate some and saved some for later in the year when snows arrived with Christmas. We roasted the chestnuts on a pot-bellied stove in the living room and sat around munching as late as we could in the warmth, Grisetta purring next to us, except once when we tested to see how she would react placed on top of the stove. Eventually my brother and I grew too sleepy and trundled to our bedroom to slip into icy sheets on our beds.
Saturday was wash day. The hired woman came to wash our clothes in a tub by hand using large green olive-oil soap bars. We went into the tub next, hot and cold water poured in from canisters. A bath was obligatory once a week on Saturday to be clean for church on Sunday. We had at that time a charismatic priest, Father Barnabas, of the local Greek Orthodox Church. Our family, except for my atheist dad, listened to his mellifluous sermons on Sunday which draw large crowds, filling the church and the plaza in front of it, loud speakers bringing out his message of hope and salvation. Father Barnabas organized a youth group and a choir. My sister, my brother, and I joined the choir. We learned to sing all the songs of the liturgy the Gregorian way–“Father, Son and Holy Spirit, triad of the same substance and inseparable,” and many others, which I remember and still sing for fun.
Our house was next to the foothills of Mount Olympus. In the spring, my brother and I wondered the hills, playing on rocks and rills and picking up wild flowers growing in great variety and profusion, thanks to sheep and goats and their droppings, for our mother. One huge flat round rock was almost vertical with a horizontal crack in the middle. We liked to walk like little goats on the crack from one side to the other. Miraculously we never hurt ourselves climbing on rocks, trees, rock walls, or roofs.
In season my brother and I would trek along with a hunter friend of the family on the hills, looking for rabbit. The hunter had a hound dog which smelled the ground to the rabbit’s lair in the bushes and scared it out. The rabbit would run uphill with its long hind legs to escape the dog, making a good target for the shotgun. A village boy would hang the killed rabbits on both sides of a stick, put the stick on his back, and carry them to town. We would get a wild rabbit for our dinner, skinned, and cleaned. The meat was lean and tough. The rabbit was soaked in wine vinegar overnight, and in the morning slowly cooked in the oven with lots of onions and potatoes until tender and delicious.
We walked around town too, on the river bridges, and to our school. The town people knew us, the banker’s kids, and looked after us. We made friends with other kids in town, one of them older than we were. He lived close to our house and told us tales of the town and his family. I saw his mother once after her bath, sitting in the sun, combing her black hair all the way to her knees. She was slender and beautiful. His father fell in love with this woman who was reluctant to marry; so he drove a blade through his leg to show his devotion and passion. The father was as tough looking a man as you can imagine with a big mustache, but honest, like the ones who fought for Greek freedom for many generations in the mountains. Our friend liked to sing the old songs of the Greek guerillas against Ottoman rule, the kleftika songs, and cried his eyes out with emotion.
At home we were privileged to have a radio, unlike most people then. We listened to fairy tales, such as stories from Hans Christian Andersen and the Snow Queen, with some sound effects. We were completely enthralled by the stories, making up the images in our heads–we had no television to do it for us. Back then families provided much of their own entertainment, getting together with other families, children and grandparents, talking, eating, drinking, and singing, usually outside in summertime. My parents gave parties with other families in our big yard, laying out chairs and tables. Children played while adults talked. After a meal, everybody gathered together and sang popular songs, while someone played a guitar. We sang, “Barba Yanni with your pottery and your little pots on your donkey, watch out that a pretty lady does not fool you and take your donkey, leaving you the tail.” We often sang the old folk song, “Down in the valley, down in Elassóna, they made a bet, Yannos and Pagóna…” Life was close to idyllic in this rustic area. Picnics to the countryside were the most fun, spreading blankets on the grass and reclining. Easter picnics were special, with lamb roasted on a spit, hard boiled eggs dyed bright red, tsoureki sweetbread, similar to the Jewish Chalah, and with each drink wishing each other, “Christ is Risen!”
World War II Years
We listened on the radio and read in the papers that World War II had broken out in Northern Europe between Germany, England and France. We felt we were far removed from the scene of those early battles, but on October 28, 1940, Italy’s Benito Mussolini invaded Greece from Albania, at the same time he issued an ultimatum for surrender. Metaxa wanted to stay neutral, but he was given no choice. He responded to the ultimatum with the famous word, “Ochi, meaning No,” and the Greek army fought back and pushed the Italian army across the border. Greeks were enthusiastic about the war, supporting it heartily. Women wove woolen socks for the soldiers in the freezing weather and we listened daily on the radio about the Greek army’s victories. My dad put up a map of Albania on the wall with pins showing the advances of our army.
The fun didn’t last long. The Wehrmacht invaded from the North through Bulgaria, an Axis country. By then we had British officers and soldiers staying in our house on the ground floor; they had come to help defend Greece. The powerful Luftwaffe flew in the blue white skies above our town. We watched the dog fights between the few allied planes and the German fighters from our yard as in a movie. The British officers went about their chores coolly; we admired their composure. Then the bombers came. We had in the meantime dug a trench in the yard and covered it with tin sheets and soil as an air raid shelter.
I was then eight years old, very interested in the air battles. One day after the air raid siren I stood at the door of our house looking at the sky for the action. My family was already in the shelter. A British officer yelled something and grabbed me, taking me down to the shelter. We heard explosions and bombs whistling down from the dive bomber Stuka planes. People prayed loudly. A loud whistle went over the shelter, we heard a crash.
After the raid, when we came out of the shelter, we saw the side of our house where I had stood a few minutes earlier had caved in, a big unexploded bomb hung, stuck in the floor of the upper story.
Soon we were headed south with the retreating British and Greek troops on the road to Athens. My dad packed the bank’s money in a big canvas bag with important papers and we all piled in a bus together with our servant girl Athena and others escaping. We even had our old cat Grisetta in the bus with us. The column of trucks and cars was moving slowly on the road. Any vehicle that stopped for any reason was pushed off the road by army police on motorcycles and occupants tried to repair it off road to keep going. Quite frequently, German planes appeared to bomb and strafe the column. (I had nightmares with this experience for many years afterward.) When planes were spotted, the movement of vehicles stalled and we ran out of the bus as fast as we could away from the road until the raid was over. Sometimes when people spotted hawks or other birds, taking them for aircraft, we would also go up the hills along the road. Athena sat on the bag of money in the bus while we were running away.
When we arrived in Athens, Grisetta skipped out the door of the bus; we never saw her again. My dad was much relieved to deliver the money and papers to bank headquarters. We rented a house in Folothei for a while, ours being rented. It was April, 1941. Soon the German army marched in Athens, on the streets people watching silently, most of them sullen, a few of them crying. People expected suffering–and it came. The food supply chain to Athens had broken down; what came through in food or fuel was seized by the occupiers. We were often hungry now. I walked around mumbling, “I’m hungry; I’m hungry; I’m hungry.” My dad had a nervous breakdown. He knew we had to return to the country where food was growing, but my mom felt safer in Athens.
Finally, as things settled down militarily, dad got his appointment back in Elassóna with the bank and we left Athens, where people started starving and dying in the streets. Carts came to pick up the dead and bury them. In Elassóna dad had the unexploded bomb removed and the house repaired. We had left in the house most of our possessions, blankets, kitchen utensils, and clothes during our flight to Athens; intruders looted nearly everything. We had hidden our radio well and we found that working. We would bring it out of hiding during the occupation and secretly listen to BBC news of the war in other theaters, like Russia, and North Africa.
Dad began hoarding food right away using his connections with local producers. We planted a large vegetable garden with string beans, corn, peas, and tomatoes in our huge yard. We had many free-ranging chickens, which hid their eggs in the yard, but my brother Louli was good at locating the nests. When we were sick we got a fresh egg yolk or two, mixed it with sugar, and thoroughly blended the mixture, eating it raw; or we put holes on opposite ends of a fresh egg with a needle and sucked. Dad leased some land outside of town to grow wheat, lentils, and chickpeas. He bought gallon tin cans of olive oil, olives, feta cheese in brine, and big yellow wheels of kasseri cheese covered with wax, similar to Parmesan, big sacks of grains and beans, all of which mom stored behind folding doors between the dining and the living rooms, her secret hiding place from the occupying forces.
Elassóna was garrisoned by Italians, officers billeted below our apartment on the ground floor. We made friends with these officers as we had done with the British. They seemed to us much like Greeks, talking sentimentally about their mothers or children. They worshiped the Madonna and crossed themselves in prayer as we did. Captain Messina would often come up to our home to dine and chat with us. He cried talking about his mother, but he would say, “I’ll jump into fire, if Mussolini orders me.” He was fond of our family, especially my mother and sister. I think he would have liked to marry my beautiful sister Alice, then twelve years old, when she grew up. He rode a big palomino about town in his free time. Sometimes he let me ride the horse alone, though I was too small for my feet to reach the stirrups. I would hang on with my legs tightly rapped on the saddle and put the horse into a smooth gallop with a whip because that way my bottom didn’t bounce.
I had enjoyed my freedom of wandering around town and playing games in Amýnteon, and I continued this in Elassóna, sometimes during school hours. My dad heard of my truancy from my teachers and I had the one and only major dressing down from him in my life. He held my shoulders, looked into my eyes and said severely, “You’ve go to stop skipping classes, or you’ll become a bum.” The scolding made a big impression on me, because I respected and loved my dad. From that day on I did my duty first before playing, and I became a good student.
In 1942 and 1943 food was getting scarce for everybody. The occupation forces seized any food stores they found for their troops. But when an Italian inspector came to look for food stores, somehow he missed mom’s hiding place. The inspector, a burly sergeant who spoke Greek, once asked her, “What do you people eat, stones?” My mom said, “We eat wild greens we gather in the fields,” partly true. Our diet, I realize now, was actually quite healthy with plenty of vegetables, beans and whole grains, naturally organic–we knew nothing else–and just a little oil, eggs from our chickens, and on rare occasions some meat. My dad, who had had stomach problems for years before the war, never had any complaints on this diet.
The Italians were friendly and tried to win us over. They pressed into service idle workers to dig trenches and brought clean water in pipes to the town square from a spring. Once a week they set up a stage in the square with a music band and actors doing skits in pantomime. Us kids found them funny and laughed our heads off. An Italian general came to visit the Elassóna garrison and was greeted by my sister with a bouquet of flowers. “Bienvenuto, Signore Generale, …” she started and parroted her little speech prepared for her by the Italian officers. She was thirteen then and very pretty.
Those years of the war, mom was suffering excruciating pains from kidney stones. Surgery was out of the question under our circumstances. Mom would groan and cry when an attack hit her. “I’m going to die; I’m going to die,” she would cry. She was always in the habit of contemplating her demise, her love of living as passionate as her fear of dying. Since I loved her dearly, some of my worse nightmares as a child were my mother’s death. Recently, I learned from my sister Alice, that she too had the same nightmares about mom. A friend told mom of a cure for kidney stones, daily drinking a glass of wine vinegar. She was desperate and she tried the cure. One day on the stool she passed a big kidney stone with much pain, and to the day she died at 92, she was never bothered by kidney stones again.
We were living reasonably well despite the occupation, our food stores holding, with some surplus. My mother’s sister, Lulu, came with her three sons, George, Vassili, and Demitri, from Volos, a big city on the coast where food was scarce. They stayed and fattened up for a few weeks, while my brother and I enjoyed the company of our cousins with games and stone throwing battles. We stopped that when my oldest cousin George almost lost an eye. A cousin of my mother’s also visited us from Athens with her two boys who depleted our food stores. My dad finally sent them away.
I didn’t mind. I had my pet goat for company. He was tiny when I got him as a gift for my birthday. I hugged and kissed him wanting him to love me back and eventually he did. The goat would follow me around on the streets like a dog, amusing passers by. He even wanted to come into the house, but dad wouldn’t allow that. Eventually he got big and I was told the family needed the meat. I walked to Tsaritsani, a village close to Elassóna, to a butcher shop, the goat right behind me.
In 1943 it was plain the Axis was losing the war. In North Africa, November 1942, Allied forces led by General Montgomery had broken the Axis line at El Alamein, Egypt, and forced Rommel’s forces back to Tunisia. In Russia, February 1943, Stalingrad became a graveyard for Hitler’s 6th Army from the onslaught of the Soviet forces and the severe winter. We got the news from BBC, taking our radio out of its hiding place and listening late at night, then quickly stashing it way back in a cabinet. Guerrillas in Greece were more active now in the mountains such as nearby Olympus, ambushing German and Italian convoys on the roads. When some German soldiers were killed outside of town, the Italians gathered up prominent men in Elassóna, including my dad, and put them in prison to be executed as a reprisal. Our Italian friends intervened and that did not happen. Instead, the village of Tsaritsani was burned and many of the older men, who had not skipped out to the mountains, were lined up against a wall and machine gunned. We watched at night the burning of Tsaritsani from our living room windows, the fireball reaching to the sky.
One day someone escaped from the Italian prison in town. He had dug a hole in his cell and crawled out of it to freedom for a few minutes. He passed by our house, headed for the hills leading to the mountains. Guards were right behind him with rifles. We watched from our balcony. The man walked up on the nearest hill, appearing above the tree line. Soldiers were firing rifles. I could see the yellow-blue flames squirting from the gun barrels. The man was hit and he fell to the ground, but he got up and started moving up again until he was felled with more shots. Later my brother and I walked to the hill and saw the blood stains on rocks and dirt. This little man, a resistance fighter, survived and we met him after the war. My mom said to him, “We watched your ordeal,” but he would not talk about it.
My dad decided it was getting too dangerous for us in the countryside with the guerrilla war, but could not leave his post without authorization from headquarters. My mother traveled to Athens to secure a transfer to a safer place. She was 37, still beautiful with white skin, long wavy black hair, sparkling hazel eyes, a ready smile of perfect teeth, and a curvy body. Mom was very affectionate towards all her kids, hugging, kissing, and caressing us often. She was gone for three weeks, longer than planned, and I missed her desperately. From birth I had been very close to my mother and mom to me, and we remained close till the day of her death at 92 in my house in Vista, California. She always had this absolute faith in me, that I was destined for great things, which haven’t happened yet. Mom liked to tell the story how I breast fed until I was two years old. At two I would say to her in the street or in shops, “Sit down, mom; I want to eat.” My brother was jealous. He would point to one breast and say, “This is mine.” Then point to the other, “This is Billy’s.” He’s always been fair minded.
My dad was reserved, not openly affectionate with his kids. He was busy with his work, friends, and books. On occasion he would hold us close, but instead of kissing he would sniff us. Every morning upon waking he would do a set of exercises with stretches in front of an open window in his pajamas. Sometimes he sang a little, often a popular area from an Italian opera, which he had learned to love in Corfu, such as Verdi’s Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento…,” or a Greek song of the resistance against the Turks, “Black is the night on the mountains; the Greek meets up with the Turk; the Greek unsheathes his sword, killing the Turk.” Dad loved George his first born son and heir best, while mom adored me. Mom dearly loved my sister Alice too, and always kept her close at home, teaching her sewing, cooking, and other household duties, but my dad never completely got over his disappointment that his first child was a girl. Dad found me funny. He would say to me affectionately, “You clown, Billy; little wheedler; trouble maker; captain hubbub.”
During mom’s long absence I was depressed and lonely. I would think of her constantly and sighed, losing my usual adventurous character. I would often go in her closet to smell her clothes for comfort. When she finally returned home, she told us the story why she had delayed coming back. On the return trip from Athens, partisans seized her bus and took the passengers to a village high on Olympus. The resistance fighters were looking among the passengers for spies and collaborators with the occupation forces. At night the captain of the guerillas came to my mother’s room when she was asleep and fell on her. He was a tough fellow with a bushy beard. My mother said to him, “I admire your courage, fighting in these mountains to free our country. I’m raising two sons to be just like you.” He walked out.
Mom had arranged for dad’s transfer to the bank in Volos as a supervisor, not manager, and we settled in my aunt’s house, sleeping on floor mattresses, sharing the kitchen and yard. My aunt Lulu cooked corn porridge every morning with molasses, nourishing and delicious, I can still taste. The families pooled their resources, both fathers working at the bank. We played and wandered around the city with my cousins, school being closed most of the time.
We walked in the olive groves, vineyards, and fields between the lushly green Mount Pelios and the harbor of Volos, looking for bamboo with which to build kites. We sliced the bamboo along its length and made a hexagonal frame with it, tied in the middle; we put string along the ends and glued colorful paper on the frame; finally we added a long bushy paper tail for stability, and flew the kite with string. We learned to fly the kites well, making them dive, and sometimes put a razor blade on our kite to cut an opponent’s string.
Our two older cousins, George and Vassili played with my brother and me a game with marbles on the ground, in which game you could capture the other guy’s marble if you could hit it. (Our youngest cousin Demitri, 12, was working for a neighborhood coal merchant as a cleaning boy and didn’t play with us, bringing home some change to his mother to supplement the family income.) Eventually, my cousin Vassili showed so much talent at marbles he captured all of them. Often a neighboring kid, Takis, joined our games. He was an only child and skinny. In the middle of a game, his mother would bring him a thick slice of peasant bread covered with butter and honey. We were hungry; saliva ran down our throats, but we would say nothing.
We also played with discarded guns, bullets, and hand grenades, taking the powder out and making firecrackers with it. A simpler game was exploding the bullets on a rock. We would put the bullet on a rock with the lead pointing away from us and threw a stone on the primer to enjoy the bang. Some kids lost hands, eyes or lives with such games.
We played other risky games. In the yard we dug tunnels, the dirt was soft, supported the roof with timber, and we carved out a room for our games of penny poker and a variation of bridge we called bradge. We even brought an electric light from the house with wires. In winter the rains came and our tunnels all caved in, but we were not using them then.
When school was open, we walked some distance to attend classes. I liked school and did well in my lessons, having become an avid reader of my dad’s non-fiction books, and my mother’s romance novels. I also loved the early science fiction volumes of Jules Verne, which my cousin George had in his collection, which he got from his dad, titles such as, From the Earth to the Moon, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with fascinating Captain Nemo and his invention of something like nuclear power, and my favorite, The Mysterious Island. Cousin George and I loved to talk about basic physics, the phenomena of gravity, inertia, and centrifugal force. (When George graduated from high school, he immediately passed the tough exam to enter the Polytechnic School in Athens, but did not finish engineering school because he had to go to work. Last summer he died at 79 and I attended his funeral with my other cousins and my sister Alice. He was a smart man and should have had more success in life.)
Brother George, or Louli, did not fare well in school and was sometimes the target for bullies. In those days he was thin and gentle, wearing eyeglasses, and did not fight back. I was bigger and stronger now than he was and I would fight back, defending him whenever I could. (Later in his youth my brother got into sports, competitive swimming and fist fighting, and got tough enough to fight back quite well, as I found out once when I picked a fight with him in our room in Filothei, when he wanted to sleep and I wanted to read.)
Eventually my parents moved the family to a rented apartment in a stone house on the edge of town, owned by a tavern keeper named Papakyritsis, who had made money in Egypt and returned home to build the house and start his tavern. He married a village woman from nearby Pelios and raised two sons, one married to a Cretan woman, the other, Vangelis, a pale youth, living with his parents. Neighboring houses were mostly shacks occupied by Asia Minor refugees from the war of 1922 with Turkey. We were thought to be rich kids because we lived in a fine house and our dad worked in a bank. Communist kids taunted us and picked fights with us. I would don a home made shield and helmet, defending myself and my brother with a wooden sword.
We lived upstairs, but Mr. Papakyritsis let us use his fenced back yard to raise chickens and rabbits. The chickens would often get sick and die, possibly because they did not have enough to eat in the small yard. The rabbits ate grasses we picked for them and multiplied profusely, digging warrens and raising their young, going wild. When we could catch a rabbit, my brother would hit the rabbit’s head with a brick and execute it for dinner. We cooked the rabbit with lots of onions, if we could get them, a dish called stifado. It was delicious.
In spite of our privations, my parents decided their kids needed culture. Alice and Louli went to music school. My brother picked up the violin quickly and soon gave a recital, sticking his leg out and playing a simple Mozart tune with much sentiment. We all learned to sing songs from Schubert with Greek words. I loved to sing one that went like this:
“By the spring in the mountain grows a mulberry tree; I often sat under its shade to dream. I still hear the mulberry tree whisper to me, ‘stay with me forever, you’ll find peace here with me.’ ” Unfortunately, my parents ran out of money for music lessons and our venture into culture came to an end.
Summer came and my brother and I started to swim in the harbor which had little traffic. The kids were jumping off the pier into deep water, splashing around, having a good time. I jumped in too, but didn’t know how to swim and started sinking and taking in water. Some older kids noticed my problem and dragged me out. After I rested a bit, I jumped back in and stayed afloat paddling like a puppy. (Ten years later, in Raleigh, North Carolina, sophomore in college, I learned to drive my first car similarly. Friends showed me the clutch, break and gas pedal. I got in and drove until on a left turn I hit another car. After insurance fixed my car, I took it to a vacant lot and practiced turning, driving straight and stopping. Afterward, I got my license; those were the days of a quarter for a loaf of bread or movie ticket.) Sometimes we walked for two hours to swim at a beach outside of town. We found the rusting iron remains of an old pier there and we would dive from the edge into deep water. We swam all day and walked home in the evening. Eventually we became good swimmers. We would head out to sea for miles and then swim back to the beach to build sand castles.
Evenings, a large part of the city’s population descended to the harbor promenade, the city’s paseo. Older people sat at the cafeneion tables and talked; young people walked back and forth on the promenade, girls with girls and boys with boys, often arm in arm, looking at each other as they passed, commenting and laughing. That was our big night out on the town.
The war and occupation were drawing to a close in 1944. Vangelis picked up a bundle with necessities and walked up the road to Pelios to join the resistance. Italy had been overrun by the Allies, Mussolini and his mistress hanged upside down by Italian partisans. German forces in Greece rounded up the Italian troops, took away their weapons and then set them loose. The dismissed Italian soldiers went around neighborhoods, begging for food in dirty, torn uniforms, and Greeks gave them some food from what little they had. Guerrilla fighting raged on, directed from Pelios. One day walking by the town park I saw men hanging from trees with wire around their necks. Their eyes were bulging out, faces purple. These men were guerillas or just townspeople killed as a reprisal for an attack on German forces.
My dad was studying German, figuring it might be of some help to speak the language. He met Fritz, an officer in the German army, a conscripted Austrian, sick of the war, convinced of the eventual defeat of the Axis. They became good friends, and the Austrian visited our family whenever he could and talked with dad in halting Greek, dad responding in worse German. One night about two in the morning he came knocking on the door of the house. He was obviously drunk, yelling “Elias, Elias,” my dad’s name, but we were afraid and did not open the door. Finally, he went away. We never saw him again.
A German fleet of warships sailed into the harbor. The warships were firing their guns at Pelios over our house, tracer projectiles lining the evening sky. Next morning Allied planes appeared flying low, almost silent. We watched them strafe and bomb the German fleet from our house. We heard loud explosions. After the plane attack, we walked down to the harbor and saw dead bodies of German sailors floating on the waters, many ships sunk or sinking. It was October, 1944. The German armies withdrew from the Greek mainland. Vangelis returned home from the mountains a grown man and his father made overtures to wed him with my sister Alice, a mature girl of 15, getting a lot of marriage proposals in Volos.
After World War II
By now we had hyperinflation and paper money was worthless. People traded with cigarettes, manufactured in Volos. A single cigarette was like a dime, a pack like a dollar, and a carton like a twenty dollar bill. We had eaten all of our rabbits. My aunt Lulu and other women went out to the fields between Volos and Pelios and collected wild greens that they cooked with a little oil. UNRRA passed out packets of egg powder, greenish and horrible in taste, but a high-protein food. Women mixed it with water and herbs, frying it like keftedes, meatballs.
Probably because of malnutrition and weakness I caught diphtheria and was miserably sick in bed for a month. My throat all clogged, I could hardly breathe; I felt as if the weight of the house was on my chest. My parents frantically searched for medicine. British forces had arrived by now in small numbers. A friend of a friend knew a British doctor and obtained penicillin, one of the first antibiotics discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, but developed during the war in Britain and the U.S. I was quickly cured and was running about like my old self. My dad took me to a confectionery store in town and treated me to a piece of cake. I had not eaten anything sugary for years; the cake seemed like pure ambrosia, food of the gods. I ate slowly, savoring every bit of cake.
My dad was now appointed as bank manager in Katerini, a town of fifty thousand people in southern Macedonia. The town was surrounded by a fertile valley full of fruit orchards. We especially loved the big yellow-red peaches, yarmades, growing to full ripeness on the trees, dripping sweet juice as we bit into them. Again we lived in a house owned by the bank, close to the bank offices. My brother and I liked to climb an arbor and go to the roof of the house to play. When mom spotted us up there, she got us down with threats and whipped our legs with a thin tree branch, causing stinging pain. The punishment was totally ineffective on us. We went to school regularly now, and in summer we went camping with the boy scouts. That was a good outlet for us. We earned many merit badges for our skills especially for tests in water, swimming and diving, colorful badges we wore proudly on the sleeves of our shirts.
In summer, camping with the boy scouts was fun and a social outlet. We slept in pup tents or vacant schools in villages. We enjoyed hikes in the countryside and games. We learned how to tie knots, and sang scout songs: “Oh, boy scout when you are, how pleasantly you live, especially when out camping.” At the end of a camping trip, we were waiting on the road for a bus to come get us to Katerini, and the bus was late. I got annoyed by the waiting, picked up my knapsack and headed home on foot, a distance of at least ten miles. My brother had not seen me leave the group, but the other scouts told him I was headed home, so he followed after me and caught up with me. I was twelve. In the heat of the day we got thirsty and stopped at a farm to exchange cans of food for cantaloupes. At that time the scout leader, a friend of the family, who went after us, passed us by. He went to our house, and asked my parents, “Have Louli and Billy arrived?” We arrived home in the early evening, tired, thirsty and hungry. We were fed and sent to bed. Some seven years later, my brother would follow me again when I flew from the family hearth to go to America.
`In 1946 our family met with several disasters in Katerini. My brother suffered from heart murmur. I fell ill with gangrenous appendicitis. My dad picked me up to take me to the taxi and to a hospital in Thessaloniki for an operation. I was in the hospital for a month in bed flat on my back. I remember the thirst. Doctors would not allow me to drink anything for many days. I kept dreaming of water flowing in my mouth from an open faucet, gulping and gulping. My mother and sister were in church for hours praying for me. I finally recovered, but dad suffered retinal detachment in both eyes from lifting my hefty body. The family left for Athens again for a final time, so dad could have surgery to sew up the retinas in his eyes. We moved into our house in Filothei for good, dad now relegated to supervisory work in headquarters.
Occasionally, I would take the bus to downtown Athens and meet my dad in his office. I was impressed on how quickly he did what seemed to me to be his work. Clerks brought him papers; he briefly scanned them, and scribbled his signature on the bottom. The he took me out to lunch near his office, which lunch was always a cheese turnover and a glass of German-style beer, called Fix, a monopoly from the time of king Otto of Greece, and okay for kids my age back then.
Dad’s eye surgery was scheduled eventually, because he had trouble seeing his paperwork. He was in the hospital for a month after the surgery, his head resting on a pillow, not allowed to move it. He was 48. In four more years he would take early retirement from the bank and never work again except in his garden or on his writing as a hobby. He collected his pension from the National Bank of Greece for 48 years.
I walked the streets of Filothei, up to a hill to attend Athens College, a Greek-American preparatory school. Life was good in the garden suburb of Filothei, a master-planned community developed and looked after by the employees association of the National Bank of Greece. When my mom sent my brother and me to the bakery for fresh crusty bread, we walked home picking at the bread and munching. Our beautiful suburb was clean, practically clear of automobile traffic. The air was fresh and pure, with no pollution. The streets had no trash from packaging, no graffiti. Every intersection had a circular garden with flowers. All homes were single-family, with gardens all around. A friend of my dad’s and neighbor invited us into his garden where he had a little cherry tree, full of ripe red cherries. He led me under the cherry tree. “Eat all you want,” he said to me, and I picked and ate the ripe fruit, forever imprinting in me the love of tree-ripened fruit, hard to find these days with refrigeration and agribusiness. Last time I visited Filothei, most of the houses had been raised and replaced with luxury apartment buildings, the streets covered with parked cars and traffic. Street gardens were neglected and sidewalks were littered, but still Filothei remained one of the best areas of Athens.
My family had more adventures before I left for America in 1953, our lives in the country over, yet remaining with us. We still have the need for the safety of raising our own food, if ever again economic or social breakdown may come our way. In America, I searched for Arcadia for several decades. I visited the beautiful Ojai Valley in California, the backdrop for Frank Capra’s film, Lost Horizon of Shangri-la, on several occasions and considered settling in this place, full of artists and artisans, ranches, and fields. But I found my Shangri-la in the lush Willamette Valley, near Corvallis, Oregon, and lost it in the Reagan-Volcker recession of 1981, a depression for Oregon. My brother and I were finally able to set some money aside to build a house with over an acre of land on county land in coastal San Diego, to plant over 300 fruit trees, and to cultivate five small vegetable gardens. We have chickens and a nanny goat, so far. Several attempts to keep rabbits have failed due to disease. I also returned to the Aegean, on the island of Andros, to build a little stone house in the village of Katakoilos, with garden and fruit trees, and to live there summers close to the cool waters of the sea. But I don’t forget, even in Arcadia, an evil snake lurks behind the tree of knowledge and some day my gravestone will be there with its Et in Arcadia Ego inscription for passersby.
In the meantime, I visit Greece every year, not just for the simple, pastoral life, but also to recapture the ancient ideals, still hovering in the pure sunshine and blue skies of the country. For a period of time about two thousand five hundred years ago, a culture flourished on this land with a splendor not equaled by any other place or any other time. The Greek culture embodied clarity of thought and sentiment, harmony, symmetry, balance, excellence, reason, passion, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that I also possess.
Fine culture develops only in cities of some size, not the countryside that’s true, but so does corruption and degeneracy. In Greece, villagers flooded Athens and other big cities since World War II, escaping the tough work in fields raising food, imported cheaply or grown more efficiently with farm machinery and Albanian immigrants, to find work in government agencies and large industries, to educate their children in universities, to get better medical care, to have fun with big-time entertainment in clubs and theaters. Other people have had the impulse to flee the cities, at least periodically, for the countryside.
In America we had similar developments earlier, but after the great industrial depression, Scott Nearing, a college professor, and his wife Helen pioneered in 1932 a lifestyle for educated professionals on a farm in rural Vermont, living off vegetarian foods, music, and liberal politics. Young, artistic people in 1965 established Drop City, in Colorado, made with car tops, influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome designs. Back in the sixties and early seventies, we had a promising “greening of America.” Mother Earth News and The Whole Earth Catalog published counter-culture articles, promoting books, supplies, and equipment for living off the land, such as the book “Two Acres and Independence.”
In a search for a community of human dimensions, people have speculated on the perfect design of human society and living styles, going back to Plato’s “Republic” and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, places without poverty, conflict, or misery, places of peace and quiet meditation close to nature. In America we had the Shakers, the Harmony Society, the Quakers, the Oneida Community of John Noyes, the Amish, and the Amana colonies established by German pietists. Many modern communes emerged in the sixties and seventies, but few survive. The ideal persists, however, of a community in harmony with nature, where the simple needs of the people are satisfied by nature’s abundance, not so much by commercial products, a community where the good life may continue in a sustainable way nearly forever.
In Greece, near Sparta, Peloponnese, Germans have been buying abandoned village homes and converting them to modern cottages with gardens in a back-to-the-land movement, growing natural foods on their own land. I visited a few years ago the beautiful village of Kardamili, near Kalamata of the famous olives and figs, where many German families have bought and refurbished homes; I loved it so, the greenery, the hills, the beaches, I almost didn’t leave the place. On Andros many of my neighbors are British, Dutch, or German expatriates, in early retirement, setting up homes there permanently and traveling back to their countries when family or business needs demand it.
In Russia, those who have some money follow the tradition of the dacha, a country home, a tradition also prevalent in France and England. In Greece too, people now may start returning to the villages of their parents, at least for part of the year, as they lose their government jobs or see their pensions cut. In India and China, young people are leaving family farms, massing in the new industrial cities for higher earnings to acquire cars, television sets, and other Western luxuries. But in Europe, America, and Japan, as jobs migrate elsewhere or are lost to automated industry many return to the land for survival if they have some means to escape welfare, expiring unemployment benefits, and middle-age blues. In an age of economic and social upheaval, at a time of terrorist threats and actual attacks on our civilization, it may the right move to go back to the land (“Buy land,” said Will Rogers, “they ain’t making any more of it.); let’s go back to the land then, but with our libraries, computers, Internet, cell telephones, pickups, solar panels, and wind turbines, to largely grow our own food, seeing to our own security and peace of mind.
Andros, Greece and Vista, CA