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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Chapter 2 - Beginning at the Begininng

 Continuing George's story.....

Wedding anniversaries, like birthdays were not something we celebrated, so I can only guess when my parents were married.  I suspect it was about 1908 or 1909, when my mother Olga was 18 or 19 years old.

The first time Constantine, or Costa as my father was called, came to the house, my mother was kept in another room .  Costa was welcomed by Olga’s parents Yeorgos and Urania Papaeconomou and ushered into the living room.  He was invited to sit on one of the fine chairs and offered sweets and something refreshing to drink.  Then he was subjected to a polite but rigourous inquisition.

In the adjacent room, Olga anxiously pulled a chair to the door and climbed up on it, careful not to step on her long skirts.  She reached high up on her tip-toes so that she could peek through the glass transom above the door.  This prospective husband was carefully dressed for the occasion.  His dark hair was combed back and his moustache was kept short, not long with big waxed curls like so many of the men.  His teeth were straight.  She reached up a little higher trying to hear what was being said, while Katina was whispering “Olga, get down, they’ll see you”.

Katina, worrying about getting caught, pulled at Olga’s skirt, just enough so that she lost her balance and fell off the chair.  Disturbed by the clatter, her mother came to check on the girls.  She was unable to open the door.  There was more noise while Olga righted herself and the girls moved the chair out of the way.  The cross looks and whispered scolding of her mother did not dampen her mood, what she saw pleased her. 

It was when they were engaged that my parents met for the first time. Their marriage was arranged in keeping with the customs of Greece.  My father a lawyer and a judge, would have been a suitable match for my mother who came from the well-to-do Papaeconomou family of Tripolis.  Their engagement would have been an exchange of rings, as binding as a marriage.

Their wedding was likely simple, we did not fuss about such things.  The service was at the church on Sunday, after which they had a wedding dinner celebration in my mother’s home.  Mother’s dowry would have been a generous payment to help establish the new couple.

 George - approximately 2 years old (about 1919)

The first place I remember living was in Petalidi, Kalamon, part of Messinnia.  It was a village on the shore of the Messennian Gulf, west of Kalamata.  I suppose I went to school there, but it was so long ago, I cannot remember.  

My most vivid memory of our time there, was that my brother Vasili was very, very sick.  He was a baby, not yet a year old and it looked as though the past was repeating itself.  Vasili had terrible diarrhea and he had not been baptized.   It would have been the spring or early summer of 1923 and I was six years old.

There were three of us, the oldest was my sister Uranie born in 1915.  I was in the middle, and Vasili was the youngest.  Vasili was born when I was five years old.  Uranie, or Nitsa as we called her, was two years older than me.  She had been a twin.  My mother used to remember that Nitsa’s twin sister Anna was “morpho”, which meant in Greek “beautiful”.  Anna died when she was a baby and as did the other three baby girls whose names are lost in time.  My mother always said they died of bad water and all four girsl were less than a year old when they died.  They were healthy happy babies, that would grow pale and sickly and die of diarrhea.  It would be another seventy years before we would learn why the babies had died, long after my mother had left this world.

So, when Vasili became sick with diahrea and did not improve, action had to be taken. The heart-ache she must have felt after losing four beautiful babies must have come back with a vengeance with Vasili’s illness, so intervention in this instance was unusual.   He had to be baptized!

The Priest was not available for Vasili, or perhaps he could not be found - I do not remember the reason.  Instead the Public Prosecutor was called and he came to our house to perform the rite of baptism.  Holy oil to cover the baby’s body was not available and he was not immersed the three times in water.  Instead, he lifted Vasili up to the left, to right and then high above his head as he made the blessing.  He spoke of the reenactment of Christ’s baptism, death and Ressurection and he placed Vasili into the open arms of mother, not his godparents, as officially the Public Prosecutor had also become Vasili’s godfather.  There had been no time for the celebration that normally accompanies such a blessed event, my parents were on a death watch and it appeared that this special intervention turned the tide.  

Vasili recovered to be everyone’s favourite, a cheery little soul with a devilish streak that kept us happy.

Sometime not long after this memorable day, we moved to Kavala, where my father was assigned to work on the Commission that was building the new port of Kavala.  When we arrived in 1925, the city was booming. It was teaming with refugees following the Greco-Turkish War, developing at a rapid pace with the tobacco trade. The new port was required to accommodate the rapid increase in maritime commerce.  In spite of its maritime roots, it was a beautiful city, growing up from the water’s edge engulfing the crescent shaped hill behind it.

We were in Kavala less than a year and then it was time again to move.  This time the destination was Argos, a city in the shadow of Nafplion , on the north-east coast of the Peloponnese.  A promotion for my father and an opportunity for my mother to socialize with women of similar society.

On the last day we said good-bye to our house built during the Ottoman Empire and the magnificent view of the Port of Kavala.  Mama’s carpets, dishes, her precious sideboard buffet and all the furniture were once again packed up.   Vasili had just been put down for his nap, so Papa took Nitsa and I for a walk keeping us out from under the feet of the ladies who were helping Mama.   We wandered our neighbourhood and ventured up to the promontory above the port, passing by the house where Mehemet Ali Pasha was born.  Papa explained to us that Mehemet Ali who had been born here, was once a tax collector in Kavala, and later became the founder of modern Egypt.  

From our vantage point we could see the construction of the new port below and looking out to the west, it seemed the golden sandy beaches carried on all the way to Amfipolis.  As our eyes turned and followed the crescent of the bay and the hills into the heart of Kavala,  we could see the 16th century aqueduct rising several stories above the houses with its two levels of arches.  It was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the 10th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, to supply his Fort with water.    

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Papa also pointed out the new Tobacco Warehouse built by the merchant Kizi Mimin and the courthouse where he had worked.   We could see the crush of new buildings stretching beyond the city centre, where the Greek speaking refugees from Turkey had built rough houses while they struggled to find a place in this strange environment.  

We turned and climbed up a bit further up to the Byzantine Castle of Kavala at the peak of the hill where we could look west to Nea Karvali and the route to Turkey.  There we sat and rested a bit before heading back to our home.  

Walking down the hill, we passed a mix of two and three story wooden and plaster houses that were painted a variety of pretty colours.  These Ottoman houses looked nothing like the traditional Greek houses we were used to.  Well lit inside because of the many windows, the top floors were especially inviting because they extended out into the street.

As we arrived, the last of the furniture was being loaded into the carts for delivery to the wharf.  Mama was anxious to get down to the ship.  She had the taxi waiting with all the small suitcases packed and was wondering where on earth we had been.   I had to run in and take one last quick look in the house to say good-bye and we climbed into the taxi for the short ride to the wharf.  

At the wharf,  our belongings were on pallets that were lifted on a crane from the dock up into the ship.  I could see Mama cringing with each bump of the pallets, while the men were shouting “προσέξτε, pay attention!”.

Less than one year after we arrived in Kavala, we were leaving.  Father was assuming the judicial duties at the County Court, or the ειρηνοδικείο of Argos.  We climbed onto the gangplank of the steamer ship and were shown to our cabin to leave our suitcases.  I was anxious to get back up onto the deck to watch the men and the boats before we set sail.  As the whistle blew, we pulled away from the wharf and I watched Kavala grow smaller and smaller.

We stayed out on the deck watching the sailboats and the fishing boats that peppered the bay called Kolpos Kavalas.  On the port side, we came to the island of Thasos, which I knew to be covered in beautiful trees.  As we edged past the island, a golden sun was setting over the starboard side.   As the sky turned orange and pink and the golden orb dipped below the water, Papa said “Time to go in and eat, pedakimou, my child”.

We found Mama, Nitsa and Vasili in the tiny cabin.  Mama had put the suitcases away under the bed and was resting on one bunk.  With one arm over her eyes, Mama looked to be asleep.   Nitsa was up above her on the top bunk reading a newspaper she had found.  On the other side, with the top bunk folded up, three-year-old Vasili was hopping in big jumps from the head to the foot of the bed and then pulling himself up to peek through the port hole.  As we opened the door, he was turning around and bouncing back to the other end of the bed.  Clearly we had been above deck too long.

“Olga, it’s time to get some food, before we miss the dinner service.” My father said gently.
With that, Mama pulled herself up, patted her hair to make sure it was in place and said “Ella, let’s go”.  

Nitsa climbed down the ladder without a word.   While Papa turned to Vasili holding out his arms and said “ok maimou, my monkey”  This Vasili took this as his cue to jump, certain he would be caught.  The little room was crowded and we all squeezed out the door into the narrow corridor.  

Papa, holding Vasili’s hand, led the way to the small passenger dining room.  The ship covered a local route and carried a mixed group of passengers and a large cargo, so the service was not fancy.  The wooden tables and chairs were worn and there were no table cloths.  

We found a table next to another family and settled in to wait for the waiter.  It seemed like he was forever in coming to serve us and I was so hungry.  He brought, bread, four forks and two knives and laid out two place settings.  There were only two choices; spaghetti or moussaka.  I picked spaghetti.

While we were waiting for the food, Papa and Mama started to chat with the couple at the table next to them.  This gave me a chance to sneak a second piece of bread.  As I reached for the third piece, Mama slapped my hand and said “enough, you’ll spoil your appetite”.  
When the food finally came, it was a disappointment, hardly any meat in the sauce, but I was hungry and ate it all.

Vassili was asleep on Mama’s shoulder and I could feel my lids closing when Papa said it was time to return to the cabin.  Nitsa and I, were thrilled to have the upper bunks, while Mama, Papa and Vasili took the lower bunks.  I fell asleep almost instantly to the rocking of the ship.

We awoke to bright sunlight shining through the porthole and the sounds of water splashing against the deck.  The sailors were cleaning all levels of the ship, so as to start the day fresh.
After a simple breakfast of cheese, crusty bread and tart marmalade, we went up to the deck to enjoy the sea.  As we sat, the air was salty and fresh and we could see small fishermen in the distance with the occasional island here and there.  The sun was high in the sky and we were very warm, when we passed through the Straight of Kafirea, where the houses dotting the hills on either side reflected the lifelessness of siesta time.

It was cooler and the sun was hidden behind the hills as we sailed into the Argolic Gulf.  Here Papa pointed to the Palamidi Castle rising up above Nafplion.  I was especially interested, as the castle’s name was the same as our own.  The famous fortress recognizes the ancient hero Palamedes.  We had to tip our heads back to see the very top of the castle which was at that moment touched with the golden rays of the setting sun.

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The moment of wonder was lost, as the ship docked and the noise of the sailors shouting to throw the ropes and tie them up against the dock, grabbed our attention.  We would be staying in Nafplion that night, as our household goods had to be unloaded.  The port was filled with a hodge podge of boats, some big commercial ships with huge stacks of steam, other smaller boats that the occupants were using long oars to row into the shore.  The city was built right up against the pier.  The two storey stone houses were built in steps up the hill toward the fortress.   The city  was smaller and tighter against the water than what we were used to at Kavala.
Our departure the next morning was from the Nafplion train station, which we walked to from the hotel.  As we arrived,  our boxes and furniture were in the process of being loaded on an open rail car attached to the passenger cars.  Men were shouting, two in the car and two pushing the furniture and boxes in on the dollies.  I saw Mama’s buffet wrapped in heavy blankets, tucked into the corner.

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Papa pulled us against the butter coloured plaster wall of the station.  “Stay here and wait, while I go and get the tickets, he told us.”  

It was an old, two-storey station with a carved canopy that was at home amongst the neoclassical buildings of Nafplion.  There was action everywhere, people moving in and through the many open doors into the station building. It was my first close look at a train and I was fascinated with the the engine, the cars and most especially the engineer who was walking around the engine and seemed to inspecting the brakes.  

I was not able to watch for long, before Papa arrived with the tickets and ushered us to the first passenger car.  We waited as the conductor placed the step below the door and held out his hand to help Mama into the train.  Papa lifted Vasili up to Mama, then he helped Nitsa and me, before joining us.  

It was not long after we took our seats that I heard the whistle sound and felt the lurch of the train beginning to roll.  I must have spent the entire, short trip to Argos, with my nose pressed against the glass.  For a few minutes the train followed along the shore line, where I could still see our ship anchored in the harbour and then it turned into the dry country-side as it headed toward Argos.  Less than an hour later, we found ourselves in our new city, stepping down onto the platform.

The station at Argos, painted a darker yellow, seemed a pale imitation of that at Nafplion. It had none of the fine grace of the carvings in the canopy.  This one was straight and utilitarian.  If we thought Nafplion was busy, it seemed that Argos was twice as busy.  It was a city that bustled.

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