Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Kallikantzaroi, Unite!

I used to love Christmas. 
As a kid, it was truly magical. A jolly old man in a red suit coming to my house to surprise me with all the toys I hoped for? And he’d eat all the koulourakia we left for him and drink the glass of milk? Who wouldn’t love that?

We’d spend Christmas Eve at my aunt’s house. She was an artist and her home, each year, was transformed into a fairyland of holiday joy. As kids, my sister and I would walk into this pine-scented paradise, and the festive spell was cast. Awestruck, we’d take in all the decorations, lights, red ribbons, gold bows, holly berries, wreaths, angels, a small wooden carousel, an array of international Santas, a manger with a teeny-weeny baby Jesus no bigger than a thumbtack, stockings hung over an actual fireplace (our house had no fireplace) and the glowing Christmas tree itself. Tall, full, it twinkled as if it was some otherworldly entity.  Our tree at home was artificial, (of the 1970s kind), with branches made of stiff bristles that resembled a toilet-bowl brush and pinched when you touched them.

The culmination of this Disneyland-ish Christmas Eve giddiness was when Santa drove by on a fire engine throwing candy canes to the child masses below. As soon as we’d hear firetruck Santa coming, my sister and I would almost knock each other over trying to get out the door, lest we miss a second of Santa literally coming to town.

My hometown, to this day, still performs this Christmas tradition. Santa and his reindeer still ride throughout the entire town – complete with flashing lights, blaring Christmas songs, police escorts, sirens – only now there are live tweets informing everyone of Santa’s location. 

So yeah, back in the day, Christmas was a highly anticipated event in my world.

But as I got older, I realized Christmas meant helping out with all the preparations - from setting the table with my mother’s china and crystal glasses to the food prep for the huge holiday meal. My legs would ache from running up and down the basement stairs to retrieve items from the extra fridge or oven downstairs. Yes, one kitchen was not enough for us, we needed a second one as a prep area and to store extra trays of spanakopita, or cook an extra turkey just in case the lamb wasn’t enough…

Eventually when it was my turn to do Christmas at my apartment in Athens, I approached it with much enthusiasm and nostalgia. Christmas at my house was gonna be perfect, god dammit, I’ll show them. I didn’t really know who ‘them’ was, but anyway, from the decorations to the gifts, to the holiday meal, I was gonna show everyone how Christmas is done. 

Year after year, I planned and prepared elaborate dinner parties for this new family I found myself in. The preparing and anticipation was actually the fun part. I had inherited many of my aunt’s things, a hand-stitched tablecloth, a set of beautiful antique china. I took it all very seriously. Setting the holiday table became a sanctified ritual. When finished, I’d stand back, scrutinize and admire. This fork should be positioned just so, this crystal glass needs another quick polish. Perfect. 

The guests would arrive, take their places and although things were somehow different, I plugged on, after all it’s Christmas, people - I’m gonna smile and be pleasant, show my freaking Christmas joy, no matter what. I could do it all, people. Just watch.

The men would sit at the table waiting, while the women would go back and forth from the kitchen carrying platters of food. By the time I’d bring in the main course, everyone was already eating, pouring wine, clinking glasses, loudly proclaiming χρονια πολλα, turning on the music, arguing over what to listen to, quarreling about red wine or white, everyone would be reaching over each other to fork a potato from the serving tray, and no one would notice my grand entrance with the main course. 

I’d try to bring some order to my Christmas table by suggesting everyone pass the trays around, but alas, this just caused confusion. Trays would be passed in both directions, or trays would not be passed at all. The platters ended up crowded in the middle of the table. I looked on as one guest reached over, held the serving utensil in his shaky hand, transferring a giant piece of drippy pastitsio over the tablecloth to his plate. The inevitable disaster was for me, the plop heard around the world. 

Oh but that wasn’t the climax of the holiday meal. By the time the plates were cleared and dessert was being served, everyone was embroiled in a battle royale over politics. The lines were drawn. Pasok sat on one side of the table, Nea Demokratia sat on the other. The younger guests would head for the sofa, plates of dessert in hand, to watch TV (sound turned up in an effort to drown out the live political debate). I’d enter the noisy room with the main dessert which I made, something I thought would impress, like a real New York cheesecake or a chocolate cake with elaborate white frosting. The decibel level in the room would slightly decrease, just long enough for someone to comment, τι, δεν εχει κουραμπιέδες?  / “What, no kourambiedes?!” (traditional Greek christmas cookies).  

This joyful holiday scene went on for years. Finally, one year the day ended with a very quiet, exhausted (and defeated) me, retreating to the kitchen to wipe dishes. One of the aunts stood at the sink furiously scrubbing a pot, seething from the political debate. She shouted loudly σταματήστε επι τέλους! (“everybody just stop it, once and for all!”). But nobody even heard her. My husband, unfazed by all the holiday cheer happening around him, had dozed off on the couch. 

I look back at this scene now and realize it was a turning point. Something snapped and I slowly began to realize, the jig is up, Christmas just plain sucks

After that, for quite a few years, I decided to go ‘back home’ for the holidays. It was at first, comforting to return to everything that was familiar about Christmas. From getting a fresh tree, to helping my mother with the holiday meal, to rushing outside on Christmas Eve to watch firetruck Santa go by. But this attempt at grasping or recreating the Christmas past only reminded me of how different my present actually was. My sense of belonging was in flux.

And so, this is how I went from feeling the magical Christmas fairyland wonderment of my childhood to becoming a sort of modern-day kallikantzaros in adulthood. Kallikantzaroi are evil goblins who reside in the bowels of the earth but come to the surface to create mischief during the twelve days of Christmas… Finally, a Christmas character I can relate to. 

I still host holiday meals, but fewer are invited, and the antique china and tablecloth stay in the cabinets, the fancy recipes and desserts forgotten. Version 2.0 of Christmas at my house is a lot simpler. Sanctified rituals be damned, my new holiday meals include meat grilled on my balcony BBQ, tzatziki, and store-bought desserts, including the traditional kourambiedes and melomakarouna.
The pinnacle of my holiday exasperation was back in 2008, during the aftermath of Alexi Grigoropoulos’ murder. Rage, disbelief, sadness – thousands took to the streets of Athens. I watched on my TV screen, live, as the protesters burned down the tall Christmas tree in
Syndagma Square. I finally felt the spark of holiday joy. Screw Christmas, people. Take that. Hey firetruck Santa, why don’t you try coming to this town?

Since then, I’ve slowly but surely taken back control of ‘the holidays’ (and my sanity). I’ve created my own traditions, in my own way. Everything less stressful.  I mean what’s the point anyhow? What does it all have to do with the birth of Jesus anyway?

The live political debates around my table still happen, but they now resemble a deflated balloon; still kind of floating around but a lot of the hot air has slowly but surely seeped out. Perhaps the debaters have resigned themselves to the fact that in politics there will always be two sides and it’s ok to have differing opinions. Or maybe their throats hurt from all the yelling. Or perhaps they’ve finally realized that all the politicians, on all sides, are bound to disappoint, cause scandal and corruption.

Everyone still reaches over each other to fork themselves a piece of something from the platters on the table. I figure that I’ll never get them to pass the platters around in an orderly manner... so whatever. Greeks might not always do things in an organized way, but in the end, we get what we need, we get the job done, and everyone’s happy. Or everyone’s at least relieved that it’s over.

Happy holidays to all, λοιπον. Rejoice – it will all be over soon.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

On getting lost, crumbling pillars, the power of a pile of pebbles, and remembering…

Although it was well past morning, I remained motionless in my cocoon – sheets, limbs, pillows balled up into an incomprehensible heap. 

It was November 9, 2016. The day after the US presidential election.  

The phone went unanswered, the beeps and dings ignored. The TV was silent. I don’t remember when I finally got up that day, got dressed, tried to function. What I do remember is the sudden inexplicable need to get out of the house, walk, wander, escape. 

I ended up on Πνύκα hill (Pnyka, Pnyx). In 2015 especially, (the height of the Greek financial crisis) I would often retreat to this hill. It is opposite the Acropolis – a mesmerizing view. Walking up to Pnyx hill, the noise of the city below would fall away and suddenly I’d find myself in a sort of ancient wonderland.

On that day I went to my usual spot. I sat there under an olive tree on a chunk of rock, lost. I stared at the view: the ultimate, universal representation of democracy – seeking what? Solace? An explanation? A reminder that democracy endures? Or that democracy inevitably crumbles into ruins, with people clambering over the remains like inquisitive ants?

Pnyx hill was, in ancient times, where the Athenian assembly would meet. It was the democratic embodiment of the right of citizens to speak – to discuss and debate matters of the state. It was one of the world’s first parliaments.  It is where statesmen and orators debated political issues of the time – Pericles, Demosthenes, Aristides, and Themistocles. 

What would they say if they were here today?

I closed my eyes and listened. Maybe the voices of the past were rooted in the energy of this place and would somehow give me a sign. But I heard nothing. All I could manage to do that day was sit and stare at ruins. 

I walked back down the hill, back onto the street. I felt like everything around me was falling apart.  Reality was the new Greece of capital controls and dismal decline, and now another new frightening reality was only beginning to unfold in the US.

Walking down towards Thisio, past a row of old neoclassical homes in various states of deterioration, an old man with a cane was slowly making his way down the hill. Talking to no one in particular, I heard him wistfully declare “Αχ, Αθήνα! Πουσαι παλιά Αθήνα;” (Oh Athens! Where are you, old Athens?) 

The world was certainly changing, in a constant state of flux. We were all feeling, perhaps, nostalgic for better days. And in the years that followed, we all (no matter where we came from or where we lived) seemed to collectively sigh and ponder: What’s happening? What happened to my world?

The more I thought about it, the more disillusioned I became. Does my vote even count anymore? In Greece’s 2015 referendum vote (yes or no for bailout conditions, which was interpreted as yes or no to remaining in the EU), although 61% voted no, the government basically overturned the vote and it was yes to harsh austerity conditions.  

In the 2016 US presidential election, although Trump lost the nationwide popular vote, he had the electoral votes to win the election. Russian interference in US elections, vote tampering… Why did I even bother making the effort to send for my absentee ballot and vote?

Each time I traveled back to the US, I thought of the old man in Thisio and his lament echoed in my ears, as on each trip an increasingly unrecognizable America unfolded before my eyes.  Where is the place I once knew? What is it becoming?  As time went by, I felt more and more removed from this new American reality. 

On November 16, 2016 – about a week after the election and my stunned retreat to Pnyx hill, President Obama stood on the Acropolis. On his last foreign trip in office, he came to Greece, to the birthplace of democracy. It was originally planned that President Obama would deliver his speech from Pnyx hill, but due to security concerns it was moved indoors to a newly-built cultural center.

Of course, President Obama said all the expected things in his speech about values, truth, justice, and upholding the democratic ideals that were born here.  

But watching the live images of President Obama on the Acropolis was like a gut punch. The irony. He was a leader who upheld the ideals of democracy with dignity and eloquence. What indignities would befall us in the coming years? What was President Obama really thinking as he toured the ruins? Did he feel as hopeless and disheartened as I did?

And now, three long years later, my Athenian life is punctuated with hearings, testimonies, lies, truths, corruption, tweets, rants, disbelief, disgust… as the impeachment trial drones on in the background on my TV screen. 

Last week, on November 16, facebook showed me my ‘memories’ – my posts from November 16 of previous years. Three years ago, I had posted a snapshot of President Obama’s motorcade that I took as it sped past the main road near my house, and later I had posted a photo of President Obama on the Acropolis.

I looked up President Obama’s speech from that day and read it carefully. He talked of ancient Athenian democracy and pointed out that: 

To have meaning, principles must be enshrined in laws and protected by institutions, and advanced through civic participation.  And so they gathered in a great assembly to debate and decide affairs of state, each citizen with the right to speak, casting their vote with a show of hands, or choosing a pebble -- white for yes, black for no.  Laws were etched in stone for all to see and abide by.  Courts, with citizen jurors, upheld that rule of law. Politicians weren’t always happy because sometimes the stones could be used to ostracize, banish those who did not behave themselves.   

I went back further still, turning to the ancient voices of the past. To those whose ideas shaped what would become our modern democracies. 

From the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC):

“Yes, the truth is that men's ambition and their desire to make money are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice.”  

From Demosthenes (384-322 BC), the Athenian statesmen & orator:

“To become successful without deserving it encourages the fools to make evil plans.”

I read many quotes from the ancients and I realized that if they were here today, they would still be saying the same thing. And they wouldn’t at all be shocked and surprised. In their time, the statesmen who they voted to ostracize were accused of bribery, getting too friendly with the enemy, and dishonesty. Sound familiar? 

Ambition, greed, idiocy, corruption, narcissism are human traits that are timeless. Whether you are living in 350BC or 2019AD, these qualities in people, citizens, statesmen, leaders, CEOs, TV & movie moguls, managers, parliamentarians, presidents – are not bound by time, place or circumstances. As long as there are humans on this planet, we will, time and time again, experience the fallout of these destructive personal qualities.  

Among my favorite quotes is this one. From the philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC):

“Only one principle will give you courage, that is the principle that no evil lasts forever nor indeed for very long.” 

Whether the ballot is a pebble, a show of hands, a piece of pottery, an absentee ballot, an e-vote – you have to weigh your decision, raise your voice, and cast your vote. The outcome may cause us to feel joy, vindication, optimism, heartbreak, anger, disappointment or just plain lost. 

But if the system is imperfect, it’s up to us to fix it. I still have hope and remember that yes, we can.

Ostracon – a piece of pottery used, in ancient Athens, as a ballot. Citizens would write the name of the person they voted to be banished, or ostracized from society