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The Long Lost Third Splash Brother

The long lost Greek Splash Brother?

The long lost Greek Splash Brother?

Curry to Thompson, Thompson back to Curry, Curry to Papafrangou, and number 7 — The Golden Greek — puts up the three and it’s a… briiick!

It seems even my fantasies of being the third Splash Brother amid the Golden State Warriors great success this season are tempered by the reality of my utter un-athleticism. Oh, well when it comes to sports I’ve always been happiest in the role of spectator. Sure, I went through a brief phase in sixth grade when I swore I’d be a basketball player, but even then I suspected it was more likely I’d pursue the role of sports writer, rather than shooting guard. Basketball isn’t even my favorite sport to watch. That would probably be football, at which I’m even less skilled. Funny that I evolved into such a couch quarterback given my lack of throwing power, catching ability, and overall deficit of coordination.

I like to think my enthusiasm for watching sports was passed down from my father. After arriving from Greece in the early 1980s, he quickly took to American football. Settling in Oakland, California, he naturally followed the Raiders, and when they left for Los Angeles, the 49ers became his team. If ever there was a glorious time to root for the Red and Gold it was the ’80s and early ’90s. Initially I complained when he’d switch channels in midst of my cartoons to catch, with his eyes at least, a touchdown. Soon, however, I was rooting for Montana, Rice, Craig, Lott, and the rest of the San Francisco crew.

I cheered when the 49ers won, was reduced to tears when they lost; all this from a kid who hid during P.E. period to avoid being picked for squads. Perhaps it was less about the games and more about bonding with Pops. In any case, my passion for NFL football carried over to Oakland A’s baseball, and NBA basketball.

Twenty years ago, as a sophomore in high school (wow, has it been that long?) Golden State had a pretty good run driven by the likes of Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, and Mitch Richmond: “Run-TMC.” Everyone had to have a Warriors jersey, and now the same electric enthusiasm has again engulfed the Bay Area. This is a fun team, more talented, perhaps, than back in ’94, ’95. From my perspective on the couch it seems they can go all the way.

We should watch the next game together, my house or yours. Just remember, if you toss me a beer there’s a good chance I won’t catch it.

Oakland, Greece

Young Greek dancers on the square!

Young Greek dancers on the square!

Kalos Orisate!

You may have traveled to Greece before… or perhaps you haven’t, but it’s on your list of vacation destinations. Would you believe it if I said there’s a way to journey there from American shores without spending money on airfare, or boarding a cruise ship? At select times of the year you need only stroll the grounds of your local Greek Orthodox church to be transported to those isles of sun, sand, and sea; to find yourself trekking among those white-washed homes and idyllic windmills.
Spring has sprung: it’s May and my birth month declares that summer is near; and with summer comes Greek Festival season. Generally a proud people full of philoxoneia, no doubt my fellow Hellenes will agree that this is one of those times of year at which we are proudest. Our hearts beat blue-and-white as we staff various food and craft booths to benefit our churches, while sharing our culture with the broader community. In short, we invite festival goers to be Greek for the weekend, and what a joy it is.

Over the course of May 15th, 16th, and 17th (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) thousands strolled the plateia of my church, Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, CA, seduced by bouzouki notes that twanged amid the salt-tinged breeze as it beckoned toward the sizzle of saganaki; the garlic-infused aroma of roast lamb; and the golden glisten of fried calamari. They danced, drank, then danced some more. When their heads felt light, and their feet heavy they sat in the kafenio for sips of dark, strong coffee, chatting about good times had like actual Greeks back in the horio.
I’ve been attending our festival since I was quite small. In one photograph from my toddler days, I’m gazing into the camera while wearing a yellow beret and a matching T-shirt with the phrase “SON OF A GREEK” emblazoned across the front. Mom says she and dad purchased it at one of the clothing booths.

I recall, in later years, racing my non-Greek friends across the courtyard, eager to be first in line at the gyro booth. The same crew got a kick out of seeing me trade a few “foreign” words with my Greek buddies as we all sat together taking bites of tender meat wrapped in fluffy pita bread.
Over the last several years I’ve volunteered at the calamari booth, just like the protagonist, Angelo, in my novel “Wings of Wax.” It’s hard work — leaning over a hot fryer, narrowly avoiding oil burns in the quest to feed the hungry masses — but hard to complain about after seeing happy faces. I’m among my community, among friends, shooting the shit in Greek with the boys, as we dish out crisp amber rings of succulent squid. It’s a pleasure — an honor — to toil at one of the festival’s busiest stations, providing Greek hospitality to guests sharing in our heritage. The hours pass quickly, and by festival’s end I already feel nostalgic about the experience. More than that, I’m filled with pride, not only in respect to my culture, but simply because I helped make someone’s weekend; provided them with many good memories. I gave them a taste of Greece right here at home, and that’s the best feeling.

Portrait of the Artist as Mother

“The Cradle” – Berthe Morisot (1872)

Happy belated Mothers Day to all the mamas out there, especially my own: a loving parent, a dear friend, an artistic inspiration.

My mother is an artist, painter and sculptor, who has always brought her creative sensibilities to every facet of life, whether it be her sense of style — exemplified in vibrant colors and occasional animal prints; or her style of parenting — encouraging me to pursue my own artistic ambitions at all costs, exerting no pressure to take the safer and more mundane path in respect to career choices.

The protagonist in my forthcoming novel, “Wings of Wax,” is an aspiring illustrator whose mother doesn’t always understand his artistic pursuits, concerned that despite his passion for craft, he has chosen to make a difficult life for himself… at least monetarily. In contrast, my own mother set the creative standard when I was growing up. As child I saw her in her studio, at her easel every day, no exceptions, working late into the night. Often I sat with my own drawing pad beside her desk, literally matching her output. Painting, drawing, and sculpting were not just parts of her routine, they were the elements that sustained her physically and emotionally. Her commitment to craft continues; and when people ask how I’m able to conjure the self-discipline to write every day — at least during the normal work week (treat it like a job, because it is a job) — I always defer back to Mom. She set the example, instilled in me the same, often obsessive, drive to get the real work done regardless of a day job. Musicians make music, painters paint, writers write. My mother, as well as my father, have always been my biggest supporters. Rendered in my mother’s likeness, as if via brushstroke, I follow her example. She’s one of my greatest barometers of success. If I can continue making a life for myself in which art remains at the forefront, I’ll know I’ve won.

I thank my parents, and Mom particularly, for laying a foundation; providing a canvas on which I’ve always been free to color outside the lines.

No Extinguishing The Joy

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As a small child I called candles, “Happies!”
Appropriate in light of how they signified joyous occasions in my home. We lit them for special dinners; and special dinners meant company, and company meant lots of laughter, joy, and utterances of Yeia’mas as we clinked glasses with the gusto of life-loving Greeks boasting kefi in abundance. Okay, I exaggerate. Maybe the enthusiasm wasn’t quite so grand during those meals. But the candles did flicker with fervor.

Even the occasional electrical blackout could be exciting: we sat in the shadows, eyeing one another’s faces rendered ghostly in the glow of tiny flames. And I can’t forget those Easters; church services, and keria with crimson cones to catch melting wax.

But, above all else, “happies” are associated with birthdays. Looking through an album recently, I came across photos of my second-year celebration; little Apollo all deep brown eyes and apple cheeks seated before a lavish cake my mother made. It was shaped like a yellow car — a taxi cab, perhaps — rendered in detail down to the red frosting brake lights. Another photo, maybe from my first birthday, shows me seated with Cookie Monster-blue icing around my mouth, “happies” in hand. In a third picture — no longer a toddler, but still a child — I’m blowing out candles with the force of the Anemoi: ancient Greek wind gods.

Speaking of cakes, for this year’s May 7th festivities I’ll have to find one large enough to hold thirty-five candles. Thirty-five has a nice ring. Surprising, given that there was a time when I’d be tempted to leave a couple candles off the cake, not so happy about singing another age goodbye.
Beyond those early days of mother-made baked goods, birthdays made me anxious. I remember back in ’91, turning eleven, I requested birthday dinner at Sizzler for some ungodly reason… perhaps buffets were all the rage back then. Or maybe, in my angst over being one step closer to teenhood, one year closer to junior high school, I sought to go out with a sizzle. What better way to conclude my last year of “childhood” (at least in my young mind) than by gorging on all-I-could-eat fried shrimp?

Turning twenty brought similar anxiety. Childhood was really over. I was getting old. Just ten years ago, on the cusp of turning twenty-five, I felt over the hill, half-way to thirty. Back then I imagined thirty as a purgatory between childhood and old age. Thirty meant I could no longer roar as I had in my twenties. No more partying, no more hanging out. Thirty meant shit had to get real. Come May 7th, 2009 I was chewing my nails in lieu of blowing out candles. Twenty-nine had arrived. The final frontier. Extinction-level event.

Three-hundred-sixty-five days later, come to find out Thirty was no big deal. Thirty felt good. I was ready to graduate from my Creative Writing MFA program, and the time to celebrate had arrived. Feels as though I’ve been celebrating ever since. Maybe Thirty really is the new Twenty. The Thirties have unexpectedly been better than the Twenties, roaring ever louder. On the cusp of thirty-five, I feel far more comfortable than I did ten years ago.

With the exception of my thirty-second birthday, I’ve been in a great mood come that first week of May, ringing in Taurus season with horns blazing. Actually, turning thirty-two was pretty cool, if not for the untimely end to a romantic saga. I recall the night before that birthday, feeling a little blue, I decided to watch, against my better judgement, “Requiem For a Dream.” Watch the lives of people worse off than me in order to feel a little better about myself, right? Eeh!! Wrong! But that’s a story for another blog.

So, here I am, ready to turn thirty-five on Thursday. I’m excited, as I have lots celebrate, much to be grateful for. A couple months ago, I signed the deal with Booktrope to publish my first novel. I’m surrounded by loving family, great friends and community, and a wonderful girlfriend. Good times.
Bring on the “happies!” Thirty-five of them to be exact. It may be time to blow out the candles, but there’s no extinguishing the joy.

Room For One More

Mentor Greece 01 CROP ORANGE

Let’s enjoy a beverage together.

You are my guest, my friend. Follow me into the banquet room of polished hardwood floors and high ceilings, and tall windows to let in the ample sun. Let me hand you a paper cup of kafe — there’s cream and sugar, if you so desire. Feel free to grab a glazed donut, or a chocolate filled, if that’s your preference. Step amid the crowd — silver-haired elders, middle-aged mothers and fathers, young children and older siblings all clad in their Sunday best. Take in their smiles, their nods of welcome, find seats among them at the round tables where conversations are carried on in the mother tongue. News from Greece transcends the Atlantic — stories of political happenings, of family life, cultural traditions, exchanged between sips of coffee and cookie nibbles. Share a laugh, tell a tale of your own. Feel the welcome, savor the smiles; you are one of us.

A prominent theme in my forthcoming novel, Wings of Wax, is community — the importance of being a part of one, the desire to find a place within a close-knit group. The book’s shy, stammering protagonist, Angelo, seeks to reconnect with the local Greek community in Oakland, California, to which he lost his ties after his father moved back to Greece when Angelo was a teenager. Much of the story showcases Angelo’s often comic misadventures as he attempts to combat an inherent sense of loneliness and forge true connections — to women, to old friends, to family.

Upon Wings of Wax’s release, readers will surely wonder how much of the story is based on my experience. Angelo — like myself — is the son of a Greek-American mother and a native Greek father who eventually returned to his homeland after their divorce. In addition, Angelo struggles to live with a chronic medical condition, as I have. In those respects, Angelo and I share commonalities. But I can’t say I wrestle the same feelings of alienation. Perhaps, when I was in my twenties more intensely did I experience a certain loneliness while struggling with dating and building confidence in general. Now, however, on the brink of turning thirty-five, things are quite different.

Yesterday’s trip to church — the parish at which I attended services sporadically throughout childhood, but now visit on most Sunday mornings — Oakland’s Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral, inspired this post. Sitting in one of the pews, gazing up at the grand ceiling mural of Jesus fondly regarding his congregation — all those people by which you are warmly surrounded — you can’t help but feel a part of something larger than yourself; and not only in the spiritual sense.

The Greek Orthodox churches across America have long been community centers for Hellenes. Since the times of early immigration from Greece, people have utilized the parishes not only as places of worship, but to maintain and strengthen ethnic ties and cultural traditions. When she was alive, my maternal grandmother — my yiayia — attended church most Sundays. Just between you and I, I think the reasons for her frequent visits weren’t motivated as much by religion as they were friendship. The coffee hours following services provided a place to catch up with old friends, savor tight bonds. People still recall my yiayia, who passed in 2007, as a lady of impeccable class, warmth, and style in ever-so-chic, customarily earth-tone garb. She is well remembered and loved by her friends.

If life is made up of fleeting moments, we must cherish them as we cherish our friendships. I’m fortunate to have many comrades with whom I share a significant history, knowing them since I was a young child. I thought of them fondly after church this afternoon while I sat at table of elders who appeared to have long-fostered ties. What is a community, if not a circle of friends? What is friendship if not a bond formed by common interest, mutual respect, and a mutual desire to lift one another to the highest potential?

Amid my community I’m always inspired to create, to write; but above all to spread genuine kindness, to enrich other peoples’ lives, to do better, and be better; to prepare another seat at the table so there is always room for one more.

Adventures in Hydrocephalus

“It hurts, mama! It hurts! It hurts!”
I’m five years old, sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s living room, clutching my throbbing head. Wincing, I watch my mother frantically trek the space, snatching purse, keys, coat. I’m whisked into her arms and carried out the front door with my grandmother in tow, raced toward the car in which my father awaits. We stop several times en-route to the hospital so I can vomit, unable to tell what I dread more: the pain in my head or the spasms of my stomach….

“Miracle Baby.” I hear the phrase and have to chuckle. It sounds like the potential moniker of a comic book hero’s infant sidekick: “In this exciting issue, Wonder Mom joins forces with Miracle Baby!” But then I imagine what those first days must have been like, and the name doesn’t seem so funny. Over the recent holidays, I ran into a family friend who took me aside and said, “Y’know, Apollo, I just have to say how impressed I am with the young man you’ve become. I remember how afraid we were after your mother gave birth. There was a great chance you wouldn’t make it at all. You were the miracle baby!” I felt my cheeks flush upon hearing this, assuming said friend was just being dramatic. But by all accounts my entry into the world was a difficult one.

I was born in May of 1980, two months premature, in Berkeley, California. My mother was ill with a bacterial infection called lysteria. As a result, I contracted lysterial meningitis. I endured seizures as a newborn which led to mild hemorrhages in my brain. Soon after, I developed Hydrocephalus. This is a chronic illness in which cerebral fluid builds up in the ventricles of the brain, and a operation must be preformed to install a device called a “shunt” which allows the liquid to properly drain. According to the Hydrocephalus Foundation, the illness occurs in “1.5 of every 1,000 births” and if left untreated can lead to coma or death. In addition, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, “Hydrocephalus poses risks to both cognitive and physical development. (Although) … Many children diagnosed with the disorder benefit from rehabilitation therapies and educational interventions, and go on to lead normal lives with few limitations.”

I fall into the latter category now, but in my earliest days it was doubtful I would ever walk properly, be able to see, and it was almost certain I would have some severe learning disabilities. With each month that passed, I defied more of the doctors’ expectations and miraculously developed into a relatively healthy baby, shunt and all.

As with most mechanical devices, shunts eventually wear down and revision surgeries are necessary. Symptoms of shunt malfunction include severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, general lethargy and compromised motor skills. The amount of revision surgeries needed varies greatly from case to case; some patients endure more than fifty in a life time, others only a handful. I have had four revision surgeries since I was born. In between these procedures, I was able to live a rather normal life, though each trip to the hospital would shatter the illusion that I was just like the other kids. Early on I developed a sense of my own mortality, unable to fully flaunt the shroud of invincibility with which most children drape themselves. I reflected often on life and death, and developed a preoccupation with my health, obsessing over the possibility of another operation.

My last trip to the hospital was in the summer of 1994. I haven’t needed Hydro-related medical treatment in the last twenty years… knock on wood… and I’ve since learned my strain of Hydro was a relatively minor one. Neurologists say it’s quite likely I’ll never endure another surgery. Whenever I have a headache these days, however (more often, perhaps, than the average person), I can’t help envision those frightful episodes from childhood. They had such an impact on me that I wrote about Hydrocephalus in my forthcoming novel “Wings of Wax.” Having the story’s protagonist, Angelo, struggle with the condition was a way for me to address, and come to terms with, my own hardships in that regard.

Today I’m healthy and happy. While looking over baby pictures this past Easter, and again recalling those early years, I wished, above all, that I could reassure that miracle baby… that miracle boy… everything would be okay.

Why Do You Write?

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I’m always surprised when I enter a home without books,the lack of literature seems amiss. With such a discovery, friends can suddenly feel like strangers — unfamiliar non-readers depriving themselves of stories. Maybe I’m being too judgmental, reading too much into the void, but I can’t help it, having grownup in a household where books were abundant and valued, and stories were a family affair.

As far back as I can remember, my mother read to me at bedtime. Depending on my age, my dreams swirled with technicolor visions ala Dr. Seuss, or the rolling river adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When I was about seven or eight, my father began the episodic evening ritual telling of Homer’s epic The Iliad.

Given my early introduction to fiction, I suppose it’s not surprising I would eventually author some myself. I began writing in third grade when we were given journals for creative writing assignments. My early tales were ghostly mysteries, capers involving lost dogs and eerie hooded figures, even red-eyed, revengeful cows. At the prompting of teachers, I read these stories aloud to receptive classmates. Before long I was penning tales at my own volition. At that age, I wrote because it was fun, and it was one thing at which seemed particularly adept. I didn’t care if my stories found an audience, I was happy creating for creativity’s sake.

In my teen years, fueled by adolescent angst and a budding social awareness, under the mentorship of Oakland author Jess Mowry, I penned a collection of short stories about the struggles of urban youth, published by Double Day. Back then, if someone had asked “Why do you write?” my answer, perhaps a bit naively, would have been to inspire positive change in the world. A friend, and fellow writer, had recently posed that open-mic question to other authors and garnered responses ranging from “To tell a good story,” to “escape.”

Why do I write?

It may sound a little cliche, but I write because I have to. I feel compelled to sit down at the desk five days a week (treat it like a job, because it is a job, as much as it’s art) and yes… gasp… create, whether or not the muse whispers. I also write to illustrate a cultural experience. I’m proud of my heritage, and the modern-day Greek-American perspective has remained largely unshared in contemporary literature. Hence my resolve to present fiction in a Greek-American voice.

Now, why do you write?

It’s All Greek (Easter) to Me!

Greekeggs

Against the Spring palate, blood red is a stark contrast to baby blue, powder pink, lime green, lilac purple, canary yellow; yet I equate crimson with Easter more than the season’s softer hues.

As a child I hunted pastel eggs, but the ovals gracing our dinner table were a rich, vibrant vermillion. Occasionally, Greek Easter fell on the same day as its non-Orthodox counterpart. Either way, the Easter Bunny who visited my home possessed a thick mustache and a string of worry beads, and, during select years, scored candy at discount prices.

I remember waking early on those special Sunday mornings to scour my basket for chocolate prior to dressing for services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. We didn’t attend church with much regularity, with the exception of Easter. It was the one day religion took center stage as we cruised through the hills, passing the towering Mormon Temple with its peaked, space-ship-esque towers, and entering the lot below, our comparatively humble dome.

As I shuffled across the cobblestone plateia, careful not to scuff the polish on my little black Wingtips, anticipation grew en-route to the chapel. Stepping into the dim narthex with its holy icons, the somber faces of the saints painted in rich detail, while the deep violet, blue, and orange tints of their robes exuded a richness rivaled only by the pigments gracing the pages of my comic books. There in that shadowy chamber, I was given a candle. About an inch down from the wick was a translucent plastic cone, a wax receptacle the same deep red as those prized Easter eggs.

Reaching the pews, we lit our candles from the flames of other parishioners. Soon the chapel was awash with a crimson glow, the red color symbolizing the blood of Christ and, in turn, new life. As the priest intoned the liturgy, I kept my eyes on the ruddy flicker before me, illuminating that scarlet cone, yet I couldn’t help fixate on the eventual feast.

Some years, my family attended the church picnic, usually held at suburban fairgrounds, and I vaguely recall potato-sack races across vast green lawns, or egg relay games. But most vivid are memories of lambs roasting on spits, constantly rotating while being basted with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and herbs.

When we didn’t attend the picnics, we celebrated Easter at the homes of friends or family. My yiayia was known for oven-roasting leg-of-lamb, always well-done to skin-crackling perfection, as is the customary Greek method. While savoring each bite, I would sit in anticipation of the “shell game,” in which selected from the centerpiece bowl of eggs. I always picked a nice, heavy one. With orb chosen, I turned to the person next to me, raised my egg, point-side-down, and bashed it against my neighbor’s with a cheerful utterance of “Christos Anesti!” (Christ has risen!) In reply, my opponent declared, “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly, he has risen!) If my shell cracked, I was out of the game, left only to peel and eat my hard-boiled delight. If my shell remained intact, I advanced to the next round.

A simple game to end an exciting day and sumptuous meal, and yet even now as an adult, I anticipate it and all the Easter season brings, with joy. The stuff of a Greek-American childhood.

Why Open a Book?

I read an article once that posed the question, “What entertainment value does fiction… novels, short stories… hold in a world where it’s so easy to just watch TV, scour the internet, etc?” The answer was, basically, fiction is the only medium that provides a glimpse into another individual’s inner-experience.

Through reading stories we glimpse a character’s thoughts, emotions, conflicts. No other medium provides this and, in gaining this insight, we’re reminded we aren’t alone in the world.

I’m paraphrasing here, but writer Neil Gaiman basically put it like this, “When you watch a movie, you’re witnessing things happen to people. When you read a story you’re envisioning scenarios and being an active participant.”

I like that.

trope

Hey, friends! My novel WINGS OF WAX will be published by Booktrope!

I’m excited by the prospect of working with such an innovative company! Stay tuned to the blog page for updates, and my impression, on the process!

http://9musesnews.com/2014/11/16/poetry-by-apollo-papafrangou/

Hey, friends! Thrilled to announce that some of my poetry has been featured on Keri Douglas’ blog, “9 Muses News!”

Click the link below to read a few of my recent pieces, along with a brief
interview where I wax philosophical about growing up Greek; poetry as an artform; and the influence of mighty 3 Stacks!

Thanks for checking it out, hope you enjoy!

One of Many Random Thoughts…

My maternal grandparents were painters. My mother is an artist, too. My father, a house builder and electrician by trade, has an artistic streak as well. It seems this path for me, rocky as it can be at times, was inevitable. Sometimes I joke with Mom that I should’ve gone into business. She chuckles and says, “You never had a chance.” …Guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

A painting by my mother, Iris Polos from recent gallery show called

A painting by my mother, Iris Polos from recent gallery show called “Us.”

A self-portrait by my father Mihalis Papafrangou

A self-portrait by my father Mihalis Papafrangou

When I Reminisce

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In my household “Greek-lish” was spoken, a dialect in which English sentences were interspersed with Greek words. For example, before dinner my father might ask, “Epleenes ta heria sou, Apollo? (Did you wash your hands?)” Or, “Ela, Apollo, e yiayia sou ehee erthee.” (“Come, Apollo, your grandmother has arrived.”)

I knew from early on there was something a little different about me. None of my friends seemed to customize their sentences in such a way. Only a select few also called their grandma ‘Yiayia’, and celebrated Easter by dying all their eggs red and eating roasted lamb. No one else seemed to have a last name so long they couldn’t spell it until halfway through second grade: P-a-p-p-a-f-r-a-goo? No…

Despite having visited Greece, I only possessed a vague concept of my Greekness until one day, early on in elementary school, we were told to ask our parents about our heritage. The assignment was for everyone to write a paragraph about their ethnic backgrounds, draw the flag of their countries of origin, and bring a dish from their culture to share as part of a potluck lunch. This episode inspired a recent short story, titled, Somewhere Else. Maybe I’ll post it on the “Works” page. It’s part of my latest work-in-progress, a as-yet-untitled novel-in-short-stories. (That’s a lot of dashes!)

Anyhow, I went home that afternoon, wrote a paragraph about Greece being a Mediterranean country where “children played like goats jumping on the rocks”, in the words of my father, drew a big blue-and-white striped flag, and prepared a plate of spanakopita with the help of my mother and yiayia.

The next day at school we hung our heritage flags around the room, my Greek one alongside those of China, Japan, Nigeria, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, and Norway, among others. We read our paragraphs and ate our multi-cuisine lunch. It was then that it seemed to click. I understood that my Greekness was the reason that though I was often classified as “white” by dominant society, my skin was a little tanner than most. I learned that other kids had odd names for their grandmothers too, and we were all a little strange in the ways of our own special cultures.

Ermioni, Greece… My Ancestral Home, Your Next Vacation Spot

View overlooking the town of Ermioni, Greece

View overlooking the town of Ermioni, Greece

I view the ocean from the front porch of the family home, the water a shade that can only be described with the Greek word galazio, which technically translates to “light blue,” but encompasses tones found only in the Mediterranean sea and sky, the light blending the two until they are nearly indistinguishable. On summer mornings, while watching the waves, I enjoy traditional Greek yogurt in the company of my aunt. My father’s sister is an extremely warm woman who, despite my protests, always insists I start the day with freshly ironed boxer briefs. I get the sense that were I to show up with a stranger, he or she would receive the same treatment: plenty of crisp laundry and bountiful meals prepared with fish caught only hours before and garden-grown vegetables, bread delivered warm from the bakery. The hospitality of the Greeks is a cliché that holds great truth, even if one doesn’t have family to cook for them, nor with whom to explore the town.

As a thirty-four-year-old Greek-American living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have been making trips to see my relatives in Ermioni, Greece since I was three. Ermioni, where so many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins reside, is a seaside town some three and a half hours from Athens on the east coast of the southern peninsula called the Peloponnese. Ermioni is a town of a few thousand people, all of whom appear to greet me with smiles and utterances of ‘kalispera’ as I stroll the harbor area called the mandrakia on the late afternoons in summer when the heat is tolerable.

The mandrakia is lined with shops offering anything from komboloi, the traditional “worry beads” local men fiddle while sipping coffee, to bathing suits of all styles. Nearby tavernas serve classic Greek fare, while the bars and nightclubs stay open through the wee hours of the morning and offer ocean-side seating so customers can watch the fishing boats enter and depart the dock. Beware should you enter one of these establishments on a special occasion, however: I attended a late-night birthday party during my last trip in which we broke nearly every liquor bottle in celebration and then danced the traditional zembekiko atop the glittering shards.

Summer nights in Ermioni tend to start late and finish later. Near ten o’ clock we gather at any one of the tavernas for a light meal, then my cousins and I venture toward the bars. Fun as the parties on the harbor can be, I enjoy the hours before everyone ventures out. We gather as a family in yiayia’s yard. I relish the sound of the Greek words as they swirl around me and escape my own tongue. Then, as pensive silence inevitably ensues, my uncle emerges after a nap, in underwear freshly ironed, to belt out an old folk tune. We laugh together, as a family.

Oakland, Greece

Young Greek dancers on the square!

Young Greek dancers on the square!

Kalos Orisate!

You may have traveled to Greece before… or perhaps you haven’t, but it’s on your list of vacation destinations. Would you believe it if I said there’s a way to journey there from American shores without spending money on airfare, or boarding a cruise ship? At select times of the year you need only stroll the grounds of your local Greek Orthodox church to be transported to those isles of sun, sand, and sea; to find yourself trekking among those white-washed homes and idyllic windmills.
Spring has sprung: it’s May and my birth month declares that summer is near; and with summer comes Greek Festival season. Generally a proud people full of philoxoneia, no doubt my fellow Hellenes will agree that this is one of those times of year at which we are proudest. Our hearts beat blue-and-white as we staff various food and craft booths to benefit our churches, while sharing our culture with the broader community. In short, we invite festival goers to be Greek for the weekend, and what a joy it is.

Over the course of May 15th, 16th, and 17th (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) thousands strolled the plateia of my church, Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, CA, seduced by bouzouki notes that twanged amid the salt-tinged breeze as it beckoned toward the sizzle of saganaki; the garlic-infused aroma of roast lamb; and the golden glisten of fried calamari. They danced, drank, then danced some more. When their heads felt light, and their feet heavy they sat in the kafenio for sips of dark, strong coffee, chatting about good times had like actual Greeks back in the horio.
I’ve been attending our festival since I was quite small. In one photograph from my toddler days, I’m gazing into the camera while wearing a yellow beret and a matching T-shirt with the phrase “SON OF A GREEK” emblazoned across the front. Mom says she and dad purchased it at one of the clothing booths.

I recall, in later years, racing my non-Greek friends across the courtyard, eager to be first in line at the gyro booth. The same crew got a kick out of seeing me trade a few “foreign” words with my Greek buddies as we all sat together taking bites of tender meat wrapped in fluffy pita bread.
Over the last several years I’ve volunteered at the calamari booth, just like the protagonist, Angelo, in my novel “Wings of Wax.” It’s hard work — leaning over a hot fryer, narrowly avoiding oil burns in the quest to feed the hungry masses — but hard to complain about after seeing happy faces. I’m among my community, among friends, shooting the shit in Greek with the boys, as we dish out crisp amber rings of succulent squid. It’s a pleasure — an honor — to toil at one of the festival’s busiest stations, providing Greek hospitality to guests sharing in our heritage. The hours pass quickly, and by festival’s end I already feel nostalgic about the experience. More than that, I’m filled with pride, not only in respect to my culture, but simply because I helped make someone’s weekend; provided them with many good memories. I gave them a taste of Greece right here at home, and that’s the best feeling.

Portrait of the Artist as Mother

“The Cradle” – Berthe Morisot (1872)

Happy belated Mothers Day to all the mamas out there, especially my own: a loving parent, a dear friend, an artistic inspiration.

My mother is an artist, painter and sculptor, who has always brought her creative sensibilities to every facet of life, whether it be her sense of style — exemplified in vibrant colors and occasional animal prints; or her style of parenting — encouraging me to pursue my own artistic ambitions at all costs, exerting no pressure to take the safer and more mundane path in respect to career choices.

The protagonist in my forthcoming novel, “Wings of Wax,” is an aspiring illustrator whose mother doesn’t always understand his artistic pursuits, concerned that despite his passion for craft, he has chosen to make a difficult life for himself… at least monetarily. In contrast, my own mother set the creative standard when I was growing up. As child I saw her in her studio, at her easel every day, no exceptions, working late into the night. Often I sat with my own drawing pad beside her desk, literally matching her output. Painting, drawing, and sculpting were not just parts of her routine, they were the elements that sustained her physically and emotionally. Her commitment to craft continues; and when people ask how I’m able to conjure the self-discipline to write every day — at least during the normal work week (treat it like a job, because it is a job) — I always defer back to Mom. She set the example, instilled in me the same, often obsessive, drive to get the real work done regardless of a day job. Musicians make music, painters paint, writers write. My mother, as well as my father, have always been my biggest supporters. Rendered in my mother’s likeness, as if via brushstroke, I follow her example. She’s one of my greatest barometers of success. If I can continue making a life for myself in which art remains at the forefront, I’ll know I’ve won.

I thank my parents, and Mom particularly, for laying a foundation; providing a canvas on which I’ve always been free to color outside the lines.

No Extinguishing The Joy

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As a small child I called candles, “Happies!”
Appropriate in light of how they signified joyous occasions in my home. We lit them for special dinners; and special dinners meant company, and company meant lots of laughter, joy, and utterances of Yeia’mas as we clinked glasses with the gusto of life-loving Greeks boasting kefi in abundance. Okay, I exaggerate. Maybe the enthusiasm wasn’t quite so grand during those meals. But the candles did flicker with fervor.

Even the occasional electrical blackout could be exciting: we sat in the shadows, eyeing one another’s faces rendered ghostly in the glow of tiny flames. And I can’t forget those Easters; church services, and keria with crimson cones to catch melting wax.

But, above all else, “happies” are associated with birthdays. Looking through an album recently, I came across photos of my second-year celebration; little Apollo all deep brown eyes and apple cheeks seated before a lavish cake my mother made. It was shaped like a yellow car — a taxi cab, perhaps — rendered in detail down to the red frosting brake lights. Another photo, maybe from my first birthday, shows me seated with Cookie Monster-blue icing around my mouth, “happies” in hand. In a third picture — no longer a toddler, but still a child — I’m blowing out candles with the force of the Anemoi: ancient Greek wind gods.

Speaking of cakes, for this year’s May 7th festivities I’ll have to find one large enough to hold thirty-five candles. Thirty-five has a nice ring. Surprising, given that there was a time when I’d be tempted to leave a couple candles off the cake, not so happy about singing another age goodbye.
Beyond those early days of mother-made baked goods, birthdays made me anxious. I remember back in ’91, turning eleven, I requested birthday dinner at Sizzler for some ungodly reason… perhaps buffets were all the rage back then. Or maybe, in my angst over being one step closer to teenhood, one year closer to junior high school, I sought to go out with a sizzle. What better way to conclude my last year of “childhood” (at least in my young mind) than by gorging on all-I-could-eat fried shrimp?

Turning twenty brought similar anxiety. Childhood was really over. I was getting old. Just ten years ago, on the cusp of turning twenty-five, I felt over the hill, half-way to thirty. Back then I imagined thirty as a purgatory between childhood and old age. Thirty meant I could no longer roar as I had in my twenties. No more partying, no more hanging out. Thirty meant shit had to get real. Come May 7th, 2009 I was chewing my nails in lieu of blowing out candles. Twenty-nine had arrived. The final frontier. Extinction-level event.

Three-hundred-sixty-five days later, come to find out Thirty was no big deal. Thirty felt good. I was ready to graduate from my Creative Writing MFA program, and the time to celebrate had arrived. Feels as though I’ve been celebrating ever since. Maybe Thirty really is the new Twenty. The Thirties have unexpectedly been better than the Twenties, roaring ever louder. On the cusp of thirty-five, I feel far more comfortable than I did ten years ago.

With the exception of my thirty-second birthday, I’ve been in a great mood come that first week of May, ringing in Taurus season with horns blazing. Actually, turning thirty-two was pretty cool, if not for the untimely end to a romantic saga. I recall the night before that birthday, feeling a little blue, I decided to watch, against my better judgement, “Requiem For a Dream.” Watch the lives of people worse off than me in order to feel a little better about myself, right? Eeh!! Wrong! But that’s a story for another blog.

So, here I am, ready to turn thirty-five on Thursday. I’m excited, as I have lots celebrate, much to be grateful for. A couple months ago, I signed the deal with Booktrope to publish my first novel. I’m surrounded by loving family, great friends and community, and a wonderful girlfriend. Good times.
Bring on the “happies!” Thirty-five of them to be exact. It may be time to blow out the candles, but there’s no extinguishing the joy.

Room For One More

Mentor Greece 01 CROP ORANGE

Let’s enjoy a beverage together.

You are my guest, my friend. Follow me into the banquet room of polished hardwood floors and high ceilings, and tall windows to let in the ample sun. Let me hand you a paper cup of kafe — there’s cream and sugar, if you so desire. Feel free to grab a glazed donut, or a chocolate filled, if that’s your preference. Step amid the crowd — silver-haired elders, middle-aged mothers and fathers, young children and older siblings all clad in their Sunday best. Take in their smiles, their nods of welcome, find seats among them at the round tables where conversations are carried on in the mother tongue. News from Greece transcends the Atlantic — stories of political happenings, of family life, cultural traditions, exchanged between sips of coffee and cookie nibbles. Share a laugh, tell a tale of your own. Feel the welcome, savor the smiles; you are one of us.

A prominent theme in my forthcoming novel, Wings of Wax, is community — the importance of being a part of one, the desire to find a place within a close-knit group. The book’s shy, stammering protagonist, Angelo, seeks to reconnect with the local Greek community in Oakland, California, to which he lost his ties after his father moved back to Greece when Angelo was a teenager. Much of the story showcases Angelo’s often comic misadventures as he attempts to combat an inherent sense of loneliness and forge true connections — to women, to old friends, to family.

Upon Wings of Wax’s release, readers will surely wonder how much of the story is based on my experience. Angelo — like myself — is the son of a Greek-American mother and a native Greek father who eventually returned to his homeland after their divorce. In addition, Angelo struggles to live with a chronic medical condition, as I have. In those respects, Angelo and I share commonalities. But I can’t say I wrestle the same feelings of alienation. Perhaps, when I was in my twenties more intensely did I experience a certain loneliness while struggling with dating and building confidence in general. Now, however, on the brink of turning thirty-five, things are quite different.

Yesterday’s trip to church — the parish at which I attended services sporadically throughout childhood, but now visit on most Sunday mornings — Oakland’s Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral, inspired this post. Sitting in one of the pews, gazing up at the grand ceiling mural of Jesus fondly regarding his congregation — all those people by which you are warmly surrounded — you can’t help but feel a part of something larger than yourself; and not only in the spiritual sense.

The Greek Orthodox churches across America have long been community centers for Hellenes. Since the times of early immigration from Greece, people have utilized the parishes not only as places of worship, but to maintain and strengthen ethnic ties and cultural traditions. When she was alive, my maternal grandmother — my yiayia — attended church most Sundays. Just between you and I, I think the reasons for her frequent visits weren’t motivated as much by religion as they were friendship. The coffee hours following services provided a place to catch up with old friends, savor tight bonds. People still recall my yiayia, who passed in 2007, as a lady of impeccable class, warmth, and style in ever-so-chic, customarily earth-tone garb. She is well remembered and loved by her friends.

If life is made up of fleeting moments, we must cherish them as we cherish our friendships. I’m fortunate to have many comrades with whom I share a significant history, knowing them since I was a young child. I thought of them fondly after church this afternoon while I sat at table of elders who appeared to have long-fostered ties. What is a community, if not a circle of friends? What is friendship if not a bond formed by common interest, mutual respect, and a mutual desire to lift one another to the highest potential?

Amid my community I’m always inspired to create, to write; but above all to spread genuine kindness, to enrich other peoples’ lives, to do better, and be better; to prepare another seat at the table so there is always room for one more.

Adventures in Hydrocephalus

“It hurts, mama! It hurts! It hurts!”
I’m five years old, sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s living room, clutching my throbbing head. Wincing, I watch my mother frantically trek the space, snatching purse, keys, coat. I’m whisked into her arms and carried out the front door with my grandmother in tow, raced toward the car in which my father awaits. We stop several times en-route to the hospital so I can vomit, unable to tell what I dread more: the pain in my head or the spasms of my stomach….

“Miracle Baby.” I hear the phrase and have to chuckle. It sounds like the potential moniker of a comic book hero’s infant sidekick: “In this exciting issue, Wonder Mom joins forces with Miracle Baby!” But then I imagine what those first days must have been like, and the name doesn’t seem so funny. Over the recent holidays, I ran into a family friend who took me aside and said, “Y’know, Apollo, I just have to say how impressed I am with the young man you’ve become. I remember how afraid we were after your mother gave birth. There was a great chance you wouldn’t make it at all. You were the miracle baby!” I felt my cheeks flush upon hearing this, assuming said friend was just being dramatic. But by all accounts my entry into the world was a difficult one.

I was born in May of 1980, two months premature, in Berkeley, California. My mother was ill with a bacterial infection called lysteria. As a result, I contracted lysterial meningitis. I endured seizures as a newborn which led to mild hemorrhages in my brain. Soon after, I developed Hydrocephalus. This is a chronic illness in which cerebral fluid builds up in the ventricles of the brain, and a operation must be preformed to install a device called a “shunt” which allows the liquid to properly drain. According to the Hydrocephalus Foundation, the illness occurs in “1.5 of every 1,000 births” and if left untreated can lead to coma or death. In addition, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, “Hydrocephalus poses risks to both cognitive and physical development. (Although) … Many children diagnosed with the disorder benefit from rehabilitation therapies and educational interventions, and go on to lead normal lives with few limitations.”

I fall into the latter category now, but in my earliest days it was doubtful I would ever walk properly, be able to see, and it was almost certain I would have some severe learning disabilities. With each month that passed, I defied more of the doctors’ expectations and miraculously developed into a relatively healthy baby, shunt and all.

As with most mechanical devices, shunts eventually wear down and revision surgeries are necessary. Symptoms of shunt malfunction include severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, general lethargy and compromised motor skills. The amount of revision surgeries needed varies greatly from case to case; some patients endure more than fifty in a life time, others only a handful. I have had four revision surgeries since I was born. In between these procedures, I was able to live a rather normal life, though each trip to the hospital would shatter the illusion that I was just like the other kids. Early on I developed a sense of my own mortality, unable to fully flaunt the shroud of invincibility with which most children drape themselves. I reflected often on life and death, and developed a preoccupation with my health, obsessing over the possibility of another operation.

My last trip to the hospital was in the summer of 1994. I haven’t needed Hydro-related medical treatment in the last twenty years… knock on wood… and I’ve since learned my strain of Hydro was a relatively minor one. Neurologists say it’s quite likely I’ll never endure another surgery. Whenever I have a headache these days, however (more often, perhaps, than the average person), I can’t help envision those frightful episodes from childhood. They had such an impact on me that I wrote about Hydrocephalus in my forthcoming novel “Wings of Wax.” Having the story’s protagonist, Angelo, struggle with the condition was a way for me to address, and come to terms with, my own hardships in that regard.

Today I’m healthy and happy. While looking over baby pictures this past Easter, and again recalling those early years, I wished, above all, that I could reassure that miracle baby… that miracle boy… everything would be okay.

Why Do You Write?

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I’m always surprised when I enter a home without books,the lack of literature seems amiss. With such a discovery, friends can suddenly feel like strangers — unfamiliar non-readers depriving themselves of stories. Maybe I’m being too judgmental, reading too much into the void, but I can’t help it, having grownup in a household where books were abundant and valued, and stories were a family affair.

As far back as I can remember, my mother read to me at bedtime. Depending on my age, my dreams swirled with technicolor visions ala Dr. Seuss, or the rolling river adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When I was about seven or eight, my father began the episodic evening ritual telling of Homer’s epic The Iliad.

Given my early introduction to fiction, I suppose it’s not surprising I would eventually author some myself. I began writing in third grade when we were given journals for creative writing assignments. My early tales were ghostly mysteries, capers involving lost dogs and eerie hooded figures, even red-eyed, revengeful cows. At the prompting of teachers, I read these stories aloud to receptive classmates. Before long I was penning tales at my own volition. At that age, I wrote because it was fun, and it was one thing at which seemed particularly adept. I didn’t care if my stories found an audience, I was happy creating for creativity’s sake.

In my teen years, fueled by adolescent angst and a budding social awareness, under the mentorship of Oakland author Jess Mowry, I penned a collection of short stories about the struggles of urban youth, published by Double Day. Back then, if someone had asked “Why do you write?” my answer, perhaps a bit naively, would have been to inspire positive change in the world. A friend, and fellow writer, had recently posed that open-mic question to other authors and garnered responses ranging from “To tell a good story,” to “escape.”

Why do I write?

It may sound a little cliche, but I write because I have to. I feel compelled to sit down at the desk five days a week (treat it like a job, because it is a job, as much as it’s art) and yes… gasp… create, whether or not the muse whispers. I also write to illustrate a cultural experience. I’m proud of my heritage, and the modern-day Greek-American perspective has remained largely unshared in contemporary literature. Hence my resolve to present fiction in a Greek-American voice.

Now, why do you write?

It’s All Greek (Easter) to Me!

Greekeggs

Against the Spring palate, blood red is a stark contrast to baby blue, powder pink, lime green, lilac purple, canary yellow; yet I equate crimson with Easter more than the season’s softer hues.

As a child I hunted pastel eggs, but the ovals gracing our dinner table were a rich, vibrant vermillion. Occasionally, Greek Easter fell on the same day as its non-Orthodox counterpart. Either way, the Easter Bunny who visited my home possessed a thick mustache and a string of worry beads, and, during select years, scored candy at discount prices.

I remember waking early on those special Sunday mornings to scour my basket for chocolate prior to dressing for services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. We didn’t attend church with much regularity, with the exception of Easter. It was the one day religion took center stage as we cruised through the hills, passing the towering Mormon Temple with its peaked, space-ship-esque towers, and entering the lot below, our comparatively humble dome.

As I shuffled across the cobblestone plateia, careful not to scuff the polish on my little black Wingtips, anticipation grew en-route to the chapel. Stepping into the dim narthex with its holy icons, the somber faces of the saints painted in rich detail, while the deep violet, blue, and orange tints of their robes exuded a richness rivaled only by the pigments gracing the pages of my comic books. There in that shadowy chamber, I was given a candle. About an inch down from the wick was a translucent plastic cone, a wax receptacle the same deep red as those prized Easter eggs.

Reaching the pews, we lit our candles from the flames of other parishioners. Soon the chapel was awash with a crimson glow, the red color symbolizing the blood of Christ and, in turn, new life. As the priest intoned the liturgy, I kept my eyes on the ruddy flicker before me, illuminating that scarlet cone, yet I couldn’t help fixate on the eventual feast.

Some years, my family attended the church picnic, usually held at suburban fairgrounds, and I vaguely recall potato-sack races across vast green lawns, or egg relay games. But most vivid are memories of lambs roasting on spits, constantly rotating while being basted with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and herbs.

When we didn’t attend the picnics, we celebrated Easter at the homes of friends or family. My yiayia was known for oven-roasting leg-of-lamb, always well-done to skin-crackling perfection, as is the customary Greek method. While savoring each bite, I would sit in anticipation of the “shell game,” in which selected from the centerpiece bowl of eggs. I always picked a nice, heavy one. With orb chosen, I turned to the person next to me, raised my egg, point-side-down, and bashed it against my neighbor’s with a cheerful utterance of “Christos Anesti!” (Christ has risen!) In reply, my opponent declared, “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly, he has risen!) If my shell cracked, I was out of the game, left only to peel and eat my hard-boiled delight. If my shell remained intact, I advanced to the next round.

A simple game to end an exciting day and sumptuous meal, and yet even now as an adult, I anticipate it and all the Easter season brings, with joy. The stuff of a Greek-American childhood.

Why Open a Book?

I read an article once that posed the question, “What entertainment value does fiction… novels, short stories… hold in a world where it’s so easy to just watch TV, scour the internet, etc?” The answer was, basically, fiction is the only medium that provides a glimpse into another individual’s inner-experience.

Through reading stories we glimpse a character’s thoughts, emotions, conflicts. No other medium provides this and, in gaining this insight, we’re reminded we aren’t alone in the world.

I’m paraphrasing here, but writer Neil Gaiman basically put it like this, “When you watch a movie, you’re witnessing things happen to people. When you read a story you’re envisioning scenarios and being an active participant.”

I like that.

trope

Hey, friends! My novel WINGS OF WAX will be published by Booktrope!

I’m excited by the prospect of working with such an innovative company! Stay tuned to the blog page for updates, and my impression, on the process!

http://9musesnews.com/2014/11/16/poetry-by-apollo-papafrangou/

Hey, friends! Thrilled to announce that some of my poetry has been featured on Keri Douglas’ blog, “9 Muses News!”

Click the link below to read a few of my recent pieces, along with a brief
interview where I wax philosophical about growing up Greek; poetry as an artform; and the influence of mighty 3 Stacks!

Thanks for checking it out, hope you enjoy!

One of Many Random Thoughts…

My maternal grandparents were painters. My mother is an artist, too. My father, a house builder and electrician by trade, has an artistic streak as well. It seems this path for me, rocky as it can be at times, was inevitable. Sometimes I joke with Mom that I should’ve gone into business. She chuckles and says, “You never had a chance.” …Guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

A painting by my mother, Iris Polos from recent gallery show called

A painting by my mother, Iris Polos from recent gallery show called “Us.”

A self-portrait by my father Mihalis Papafrangou

A self-portrait by my father Mihalis Papafrangou

When I Reminisce

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In my household “Greek-lish” was spoken, a dialect in which English sentences were interspersed with Greek words. For example, before dinner my father might ask, “Epleenes ta heria sou, Apollo? (Did you wash your hands?)” Or, “Ela, Apollo, e yiayia sou ehee erthee.” (“Come, Apollo, your grandmother has arrived.”)

I knew from early on there was something a little different about me. None of my friends seemed to customize their sentences in such a way. Only a select few also called their grandma ‘Yiayia’, and celebrated Easter by dying all their eggs red and eating roasted lamb. No one else seemed to have a last name so long they couldn’t spell it until halfway through second grade: P-a-p-p-a-f-r-a-goo? No…

Despite having visited Greece, I only possessed a vague concept of my Greekness until one day, early on in elementary school, we were told to ask our parents about our heritage. The assignment was for everyone to write a paragraph about their ethnic backgrounds, draw the flag of their countries of origin, and bring a dish from their culture to share as part of a potluck lunch. This episode inspired a recent short story, titled, Somewhere Else. Maybe I’ll post it on the “Works” page. It’s part of my latest work-in-progress, a as-yet-untitled novel-in-short-stories. (That’s a lot of dashes!)

Anyhow, I went home that afternoon, wrote a paragraph about Greece being a Mediterranean country where “children played like goats jumping on the rocks”, in the words of my father, drew a big blue-and-white striped flag, and prepared a plate of spanakopita with the help of my mother and yiayia.

The next day at school we hung our heritage flags around the room, my Greek one alongside those of China, Japan, Nigeria, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, and Norway, among others. We read our paragraphs and ate our multi-cuisine lunch. It was then that it seemed to click. I understood that my Greekness was the reason that though I was often classified as “white” by dominant society, my skin was a little tanner than most. I learned that other kids had odd names for their grandmothers too, and we were all a little strange in the ways of our own special cultures.

Ermioni, Greece… My Ancestral Home, Your Next Vacation Spot

View overlooking the town of Ermioni, Greece

View overlooking the town of Ermioni, Greece

I view the ocean from the front porch of the family home, the water a shade that can only be described with the Greek word galazio, which technically translates to “light blue,” but encompasses tones found only in the Mediterranean sea and sky, the light blending the two until they are nearly indistinguishable. On summer mornings, while watching the waves, I enjoy traditional Greek yogurt in the company of my aunt. My father’s sister is an extremely warm woman who, despite my protests, always insists I start the day with freshly ironed boxer briefs. I get the sense that were I to show up with a stranger, he or she would receive the same treatment: plenty of crisp laundry and bountiful meals prepared with fish caught only hours before and garden-grown vegetables, bread delivered warm from the bakery. The hospitality of the Greeks is a cliché that holds great truth, even if one doesn’t have family to cook for them, nor with whom to explore the town.

As a thirty-four-year-old Greek-American living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have been making trips to see my relatives in Ermioni, Greece since I was three. Ermioni, where so many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins reside, is a seaside town some three and a half hours from Athens on the east coast of the southern peninsula called the Peloponnese. Ermioni is a town of a few thousand people, all of whom appear to greet me with smiles and utterances of ‘kalispera’ as I stroll the harbor area called the mandrakia on the late afternoons in summer when the heat is tolerable.

The mandrakia is lined with shops offering anything from komboloi, the traditional “worry beads” local men fiddle while sipping coffee, to bathing suits of all styles. Nearby tavernas serve classic Greek fare, while the bars and nightclubs stay open through the wee hours of the morning and offer ocean-side seating so customers can watch the fishing boats enter and depart the dock. Beware should you enter one of these establishments on a special occasion, however: I attended a late-night birthday party during my last trip in which we broke nearly every liquor bottle in celebration and then danced the traditional zembekiko atop the glittering shards.

Summer nights in Ermioni tend to start late and finish later. Near ten o’ clock we gather at any one of the tavernas for a light meal, then my cousins and I venture toward the bars. Fun as the parties on the harbor can be, I enjoy the hours before everyone ventures out. We gather as a family in yiayia’s yard. I relish the sound of the Greek words as they swirl around me and escape my own tongue. Then, as pensive silence inevitably ensues, my uncle emerges after a nap, in underwear freshly ironed, to belt out an old folk tune. We laugh together, as a family.

Oakland, Greece

Young Greek dancers on the square!

Young Greek dancers on the square!

Kalos Orisate!

You may have traveled to Greece before… or perhaps you haven’t, but it’s on your list of vacation destinations. Would you believe it if I said there’s a way to journey there from American shores without spending money on airfare, or boarding a cruise ship? At select times of the year you need only stroll the grounds of your local Greek Orthodox church to be transported to those isles of sun, sand, and sea; to find yourself trekking among those white-washed homes and idyllic windmills.
Spring has sprung: it’s May and my birth month declares that summer is near; and with summer comes Greek Festival season. Generally a proud people full of philoxoneia, no doubt my fellow Hellenes will agree that this is one of those times of year at which we are proudest. Our hearts beat blue-and-white as we staff various food and craft booths to benefit our churches, while sharing our culture with the broader community. In short, we invite festival goers to be Greek for the weekend, and what a joy it is.

Over the course of May 15th, 16th, and 17th (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) thousands strolled the plateia of my church, Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, CA, seduced by bouzouki notes that twanged amid the salt-tinged breeze as it beckoned toward the sizzle of saganaki; the garlic-infused aroma of roast lamb; and the golden glisten of fried calamari. They danced, drank, then danced some more. When their heads felt light, and their feet heavy they sat in the kafenio for sips of dark, strong coffee, chatting about good times had like actual Greeks back in the horio.
I’ve been attending our festival since I was quite small. In one photograph from my toddler days, I’m gazing into the camera while wearing a yellow beret and a matching T-shirt with the phrase “SON OF A GREEK” emblazoned across the front. Mom says she and dad purchased it at one of the clothing booths.

I recall, in later years, racing my non-Greek friends across the courtyard, eager to be first in line at the gyro booth. The same crew got a kick out of seeing me trade a few “foreign” words with my Greek buddies as we all sat together taking bites of tender meat wrapped in fluffy pita bread.
Over the last several years I’ve volunteered at the calamari booth, just like the protagonist, Angelo, in my novel “Wings of Wax.” It’s hard work — leaning over a hot fryer, narrowly avoiding oil burns in the quest to feed the hungry masses — but hard to complain about after seeing happy faces. I’m among my community, among friends, shooting the shit in Greek with the boys, as we dish out crisp amber rings of succulent squid. It’s a pleasure — an honor — to toil at one of the festival’s busiest stations, providing Greek hospitality to guests sharing in our heritage. The hours pass quickly, and by festival’s end I already feel nostalgic about the experience. More than that, I’m filled with pride, not only in respect to my culture, but simply because I helped make someone’s weekend; provided them with many good memories. I gave them a taste of Greece right here at home, and that’s the best feeling.

Portrait of the Artist as Mother

“The Cradle” – Berthe Morisot (1872)

Happy belated Mothers Day to all the mamas out there, especially my own: a loving parent, a dear friend, an artistic inspiration.

My mother is an artist, painter and sculptor, who has always brought her creative sensibilities to every facet of life, whether it be her sense of style — exemplified in vibrant colors and occasional animal prints; or her style of parenting — encouraging me to pursue my own artistic ambitions at all costs, exerting no pressure to take the safer and more mundane path in respect to career choices.

The protagonist in my forthcoming novel, “Wings of Wax,” is an aspiring illustrator whose mother doesn’t always understand his artistic pursuits, concerned that despite his passion for craft, he has chosen to make a difficult life for himself… at least monetarily. In contrast, my own mother set the creative standard when I was growing up. As child I saw her in her studio, at her easel every day, no exceptions, working late into the night. Often I sat with my own drawing pad beside her desk, literally matching her output. Painting, drawing, and sculpting were not just parts of her routine, they were the elements that sustained her physically and emotionally. Her commitment to craft continues; and when people ask how I’m able to conjure the self-discipline to write every day — at least during the normal work week (treat it like a job, because it is a job) — I always defer back to Mom. She set the example, instilled in me the same, often obsessive, drive to get the real work done regardless of a day job. Musicians make music, painters paint, writers write. My mother, as well as my father, have always been my biggest supporters. Rendered in my mother’s likeness, as if via brushstroke, I follow her example. She’s one of my greatest barometers of success. If I can continue making a life for myself in which art remains at the forefront, I’ll know I’ve won.

I thank my parents, and Mom particularly, for laying a foundation; providing a canvas on which I’ve always been free to color outside the lines.

No Extinguishing The Joy

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As a small child I called candles, “Happies!”
Appropriate in light of how they signified joyous occasions in my home. We lit them for special dinners; and special dinners meant company, and company meant lots of laughter, joy, and utterances of Yeia’mas as we clinked glasses with the gusto of life-loving Greeks boasting kefi in abundance. Okay, I exaggerate. Maybe the enthusiasm wasn’t quite so grand during those meals. But the candles did flicker with fervor.

Even the occasional electrical blackout could be exciting: we sat in the shadows, eyeing one another’s faces rendered ghostly in the glow of tiny flames. And I can’t forget those Easters; church services, and keria with crimson cones to catch melting wax.

But, above all else, “happies” are associated with birthdays. Looking through an album recently, I came across photos of my second-year celebration; little Apollo all deep brown eyes and apple cheeks seated before a lavish cake my mother made. It was shaped like a yellow car — a taxi cab, perhaps — rendered in detail down to the red frosting brake lights. Another photo, maybe from my first birthday, shows me seated with Cookie Monster-blue icing around my mouth, “happies” in hand. In a third picture — no longer a toddler, but still a child — I’m blowing out candles with the force of the Anemoi: ancient Greek wind gods.

Speaking of cakes, for this year’s May 7th festivities I’ll have to find one large enough to hold thirty-five candles. Thirty-five has a nice ring. Surprising, given that there was a time when I’d be tempted to leave a couple candles off the cake, not so happy about singing another age goodbye.
Beyond those early days of mother-made baked goods, birthdays made me anxious. I remember back in ’91, turning eleven, I requested birthday dinner at Sizzler for some ungodly reason… perhaps buffets were all the rage back then. Or maybe, in my angst over being one step closer to teenhood, one year closer to junior high school, I sought to go out with a sizzle. What better way to conclude my last year of “childhood” (at least in my young mind) than by gorging on all-I-could-eat fried shrimp?

Turning twenty brought similar anxiety. Childhood was really over. I was getting old. Just ten years ago, on the cusp of turning twenty-five, I felt over the hill, half-way to thirty. Back then I imagined thirty as a purgatory between childhood and old age. Thirty meant I could no longer roar as I had in my twenties. No more partying, no more hanging out. Thirty meant shit had to get real. Come May 7th, 2009 I was chewing my nails in lieu of blowing out candles. Twenty-nine had arrived. The final frontier. Extinction-level event.

Three-hundred-sixty-five days later, come to find out Thirty was no big deal. Thirty felt good. I was ready to graduate from my Creative Writing MFA program, and the time to celebrate had arrived. Feels as though I’ve been celebrating ever since. Maybe Thirty really is the new Twenty. The Thirties have unexpectedly been better than the Twenties, roaring ever louder. On the cusp of thirty-five, I feel far more comfortable than I did ten years ago.

With the exception of my thirty-second birthday, I’ve been in a great mood come that first week of May, ringing in Taurus season with horns blazing. Actually, turning thirty-two was pretty cool, if not for the untimely end to a romantic saga. I recall the night before that birthday, feeling a little blue, I decided to watch, against my better judgement, “Requiem For a Dream.” Watch the lives of people worse off than me in order to feel a little better about myself, right? Eeh!! Wrong! But that’s a story for another blog.

So, here I am, ready to turn thirty-five on Thursday. I’m excited, as I have lots celebrate, much to be grateful for. A couple months ago, I signed the deal with Booktrope to publish my first novel. I’m surrounded by loving family, great friends and community, and a wonderful girlfriend. Good times.
Bring on the “happies!” Thirty-five of them to be exact. It may be time to blow out the candles, but there’s no extinguishing the joy.

Room For One More

Mentor Greece 01 CROP ORANGE

Let’s enjoy a beverage together.

You are my guest, my friend. Follow me into the banquet room of polished hardwood floors and high ceilings, and tall windows to let in the ample sun. Let me hand you a paper cup of kafe — there’s cream and sugar, if you so desire. Feel free to grab a glazed donut, or a chocolate filled, if that’s your preference. Step amid the crowd — silver-haired elders, middle-aged mothers and fathers, young children and older siblings all clad in their Sunday best. Take in their smiles, their nods of welcome, find seats among them at the round tables where conversations are carried on in the mother tongue. News from Greece transcends the Atlantic — stories of political happenings, of family life, cultural traditions, exchanged between sips of coffee and cookie nibbles. Share a laugh, tell a tale of your own. Feel the welcome, savor the smiles; you are one of us.

A prominent theme in my forthcoming novel, Wings of Wax, is community — the importance of being a part of one, the desire to find a place within a close-knit group. The book’s shy, stammering protagonist, Angelo, seeks to reconnect with the local Greek community in Oakland, California, to which he lost his ties after his father moved back to Greece when Angelo was a teenager. Much of the story showcases Angelo’s often comic misadventures as he attempts to combat an inherent sense of loneliness and forge true connections — to women, to old friends, to family.

Upon Wings of Wax’s release, readers will surely wonder how much of the story is based on my experience. Angelo — like myself — is the son of a Greek-American mother and a native Greek father who eventually returned to his homeland after their divorce. In addition, Angelo struggles to live with a chronic medical condition, as I have. In those respects, Angelo and I share commonalities. But I can’t say I wrestle the same feelings of alienation. Perhaps, when I was in my twenties more intensely did I experience a certain loneliness while struggling with dating and building confidence in general. Now, however, on the brink of turning thirty-five, things are quite different.

Yesterday’s trip to church — the parish at which I attended services sporadically throughout childhood, but now visit on most Sunday mornings — Oakland’s Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral, inspired this post. Sitting in one of the pews, gazing up at the grand ceiling mural of Jesus fondly regarding his congregation — all those people by which you are warmly surrounded — you can’t help but feel a part of something larger than yourself; and not only in the spiritual sense.

The Greek Orthodox churches across America have long been community centers for Hellenes. Since the times of early immigration from Greece, people have utilized the parishes not only as places of worship, but to maintain and strengthen ethnic ties and cultural traditions. When she was alive, my maternal grandmother — my yiayia — attended church most Sundays. Just between you and I, I think the reasons for her frequent visits weren’t motivated as much by religion as they were friendship. The coffee hours following services provided a place to catch up with old friends, savor tight bonds. People still recall my yiayia, who passed in 2007, as a lady of impeccable class, warmth, and style in ever-so-chic, customarily earth-tone garb. She is well remembered and loved by her friends.

If life is made up of fleeting moments, we must cherish them as we cherish our friendships. I’m fortunate to have many comrades with whom I share a significant history, knowing them since I was a young child. I thought of them fondly after church this afternoon while I sat at table of elders who appeared to have long-fostered ties. What is a community, if not a circle of friends? What is friendship if not a bond formed by common interest, mutual respect, and a mutual desire to lift one another to the highest potential?

Amid my community I’m always inspired to create, to write; but above all to spread genuine kindness, to enrich other peoples’ lives, to do better, and be better; to prepare another seat at the table so there is always room for one more.

Adventures in Hydrocephalus

“It hurts, mama! It hurts! It hurts!”
I’m five years old, sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s living room, clutching my throbbing head. Wincing, I watch my mother frantically trek the space, snatching purse, keys, coat. I’m whisked into her arms and carried out the front door with my grandmother in tow, raced toward the car in which my father awaits. We stop several times en-route to the hospital so I can vomit, unable to tell what I dread more: the pain in my head or the spasms of my stomach….

“Miracle Baby.” I hear the phrase and have to chuckle. It sounds like the potential moniker of a comic book hero’s infant sidekick: “In this exciting issue, Wonder Mom joins forces with Miracle Baby!” But then I imagine what those first days must have been like, and the name doesn’t seem so funny. Over the recent holidays, I ran into a family friend who took me aside and said, “Y’know, Apollo, I just have to say how impressed I am with the young man you’ve become. I remember how afraid we were after your mother gave birth. There was a great chance you wouldn’t make it at all. You were the miracle baby!” I felt my cheeks flush upon hearing this, assuming said friend was just being dramatic. But by all accounts my entry into the world was a difficult one.

I was born in May of 1980, two months premature, in Berkeley, California. My mother was ill with a bacterial infection called lysteria. As a result, I contracted lysterial meningitis. I endured seizures as a newborn which led to mild hemorrhages in my brain. Soon after, I developed Hydrocephalus. This is a chronic illness in which cerebral fluid builds up in the ventricles of the brain, and a operation must be preformed to install a device called a “shunt” which allows the liquid to properly drain. According to the Hydrocephalus Foundation, the illness occurs in “1.5 of every 1,000 births” and if left untreated can lead to coma or death. In addition, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, “Hydrocephalus poses risks to both cognitive and physical development. (Although) … Many children diagnosed with the disorder benefit from rehabilitation therapies and educational interventions, and go on to lead normal lives with few limitations.”

I fall into the latter category now, but in my earliest days it was doubtful I would ever walk properly, be able to see, and it was almost certain I would have some severe learning disabilities. With each month that passed, I defied more of the doctors’ expectations and miraculously developed into a relatively healthy baby, shunt and all.

As with most mechanical devices, shunts eventually wear down and revision surgeries are necessary. Symptoms of shunt malfunction include severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, general lethargy and compromised motor skills. The amount of revision surgeries needed varies greatly from case to case; some patients endure more than fifty in a life time, others only a handful. I have had four revision surgeries since I was born. In between these procedures, I was able to live a rather normal life, though each trip to the hospital would shatter the illusion that I was just like the other kids. Early on I developed a sense of my own mortality, unable to fully flaunt the shroud of invincibility with which most children drape themselves. I reflected often on life and death, and developed a preoccupation with my health, obsessing over the possibility of another operation.

My last trip to the hospital was in the summer of 1994. I haven’t needed Hydro-related medical treatment in the last twenty years… knock on wood… and I’ve since learned my strain of Hydro was a relatively minor one. Neurologists say it’s quite likely I’ll never endure another surgery. Whenever I have a headache these days, however (more often, perhaps, than the average person), I can’t help envision those frightful episodes from childhood. They had such an impact on me that I wrote about Hydrocephalus in my forthcoming novel “Wings of Wax.” Having the story’s protagonist, Angelo, struggle with the condition was a way for me to address, and come to terms with, my own hardships in that regard.

Today I’m healthy and happy. While looking over baby pictures this past Easter, and again recalling those early years, I wished, above all, that I could reassure that miracle baby… that miracle boy… everything would be okay.

Why Do You Write?

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I’m always surprised when I enter a home without books,the lack of literature seems amiss. With such a discovery, friends can suddenly feel like strangers — unfamiliar non-readers depriving themselves of stories. Maybe I’m being too judgmental, reading too much into the void, but I can’t help it, having grownup in a household where books were abundant and valued, and stories were a family affair.

As far back as I can remember, my mother read to me at bedtime. Depending on my age, my dreams swirled with technicolor visions ala Dr. Seuss, or the rolling river adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When I was about seven or eight, my father began the episodic evening ritual telling of Homer’s epic The Iliad.

Given my early introduction to fiction, I suppose it’s not surprising I would eventually author some myself. I began writing in third grade when we were given journals for creative writing assignments. My early tales were ghostly mysteries, capers involving lost dogs and eerie hooded figures, even red-eyed, revengeful cows. At the prompting of teachers, I read these stories aloud to receptive classmates. Before long I was penning tales at my own volition. At that age, I wrote because it was fun, and it was one thing at which seemed particularly adept. I didn’t care if my stories found an audience, I was happy creating for creativity’s sake.

In my teen years, fueled by adolescent angst and a budding social awareness, under the mentorship of Oakland author Jess Mowry, I penned a collection of short stories about the struggles of urban youth, published by Double Day. Back then, if someone had asked “Why do you write?” my answer, perhaps a bit naively, would have been to inspire positive change in the world. A friend, and fellow writer, had recently posed that open-mic question to other authors and garnered responses ranging from “To tell a good story,” to “escape.”

Why do I write?

It may sound a little cliche, but I write because I have to. I feel compelled to sit down at the desk five days a week (treat it like a job, because it is a job, as much as it’s art) and yes… gasp… create, whether or not the muse whispers. I also write to illustrate a cultural experience. I’m proud of my heritage, and the modern-day Greek-American perspective has remained largely unshared in contemporary literature. Hence my resolve to present fiction in a Greek-American voice.

Now, why do you write?

It’s All Greek (Easter) to Me!

Greekeggs

Against the Spring palate, blood red is a stark contrast to baby blue, powder pink, lime green, lilac purple, canary yellow; yet I equate crimson with Easter more than the season’s softer hues.

As a child I hunted pastel eggs, but the ovals gracing our dinner table were a rich, vibrant vermillion. Occasionally, Greek Easter fell on the same day as its non-Orthodox counterpart. Either way, the Easter Bunny who visited my home possessed a thick mustache and a string of worry beads, and, during select years, scored candy at discount prices.

I remember waking early on those special Sunday mornings to scour my basket for chocolate prior to dressing for services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. We didn’t attend church with much regularity, with the exception of Easter. It was the one day religion took center stage as we cruised through the hills, passing the towering Mormon Temple with its peaked, space-ship-esque towers, and entering the lot below, our comparatively humble dome.

As I shuffled across the cobblestone plateia, careful not to scuff the polish on my little black Wingtips, anticipation grew en-route to the chapel. Stepping into the dim narthex with its holy icons, the somber faces of the saints painted in rich detail, while the deep violet, blue, and orange tints of their robes exuded a richness rivaled only by the pigments gracing the pages of my comic books. There in that shadowy chamber, I was given a candle. About an inch down from the wick was a translucent plastic cone, a wax receptacle the same deep red as those prized Easter eggs.

Reaching the pews, we lit our candles from the flames of other parishioners. Soon the chapel was awash with a crimson glow, the red color symbolizing the blood of Christ and, in turn, new life. As the priest intoned the liturgy, I kept my eyes on the ruddy flicker before me, illuminating that scarlet cone, yet I couldn’t help fixate on the eventual feast.

Some years, my family attended the church picnic, usually held at suburban fairgrounds, and I vaguely recall potato-sack races across vast green lawns, or egg relay games. But most vivid are memories of lambs roasting on spits, constantly rotating while being basted with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and herbs.

When we didn’t attend the picnics, we celebrated Easter at the homes of friends or family. My yiayia was known for oven-roasting leg-of-lamb, always well-done to skin-crackling perfection, as is the customary Greek method. While savoring each bite, I would sit in anticipation of the “shell game,” in which selected from the centerpiece bowl of eggs. I always picked a nice, heavy one. With orb chosen, I turned to the person next to me, raised my egg, point-side-down, and bashed it against my neighbor’s with a cheerful utterance of “Christos Anesti!” (Christ has risen!) In reply, my opponent declared, “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly, he has risen!) If my shell cracked, I was out of the game, left only to peel and eat my hard-boiled delight. If my shell remained intact, I advanced to the next round.

A simple game to end an exciting day and sumptuous meal, and yet even now as an adult, I anticipate it and all the Easter season brings, with joy. The stuff of a Greek-American childhood.

Why Open a Book?

I read an article once that posed the question, “What entertainment value does fiction… novels, short stories… hold in a world where it’s so easy to just watch TV, scour the internet, etc?” The answer was, basically, fiction is the only medium that provides a glimpse into another individual’s inner-experience.

Through reading stories we glimpse a character’s thoughts, emotions, conflicts. No other medium provides this and, in gaining this insight, we’re reminded we aren’t alone in the world.

I’m paraphrasing here, but writer Neil Gaiman basically put it like this, “When you watch a movie, you’re witnessing things happen to people. When you read a story you’re envisioning scenarios and being an active participant.”

I like that.

trope

Hey, friends! My novel WINGS OF WAX will be published by Booktrope!

I’m excited by the prospect of working with such an innovative company! Stay tuned to the blog page for updates, and my impression, on the process!

http://9musesnews.com/2014/11/16/poetry-by-apollo-papafrangou/

Hey, friends! Thrilled to announce that some of my poetry has been featured on Keri Douglas’ blog, “9 Muses News!”

Click the link below to read a few of my recent pieces, along with a brief
interview where I wax philosophical about growing up Greek; poetry as an artform; and the influence of mighty 3 Stacks!

Thanks for checking it out, hope you enjoy!

One of Many Random Thoughts…

My maternal grandparents were painters. My mother is an artist, too. My father, a house builder and electrician by trade, has an artistic streak as well. It seems this path for me, rocky as it can be at times, was inevitable. Sometimes I joke with Mom that I should’ve gone into business. She chuckles and says, “You never had a chance.” …Guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

A painting by my mother, Iris Polos from recent gallery show called

A painting by my mother, Iris Polos from recent gallery show called “Us.”

A self-portrait by my father Mihalis Papafrangou

A self-portrait by my father Mihalis Papafrangou

When I Reminisce

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In my household “Greek-lish” was spoken, a dialect in which English sentences were interspersed with Greek words. For example, before dinner my father might ask, “Epleenes ta heria sou, Apollo? (Did you wash your hands?)” Or, “Ela, Apollo, e yiayia sou ehee erthee.” (“Come, Apollo, your grandmother has arrived.”)

I knew from early on there was something a little different about me. None of my friends seemed to customize their sentences in such a way. Only a select few also called their grandma ‘Yiayia’, and celebrated Easter by dying all their eggs red and eating roasted lamb. No one else seemed to have a last name so long they couldn’t spell it until halfway through second grade: P-a-p-p-a-f-r-a-goo? No…

Despite having visited Greece, I only possessed a vague concept of my Greekness until one day, early on in elementary school, we were told to ask our parents about our heritage. The assignment was for everyone to write a paragraph about their ethnic backgrounds, draw the flag of their countries of origin, and bring a dish from their culture to share as part of a potluck lunch. This episode inspired a recent short story, titled, Somewhere Else. Maybe I’ll post it on the “Works” page. It’s part of my latest work-in-progress, a as-yet-untitled novel-in-short-stories. (That’s a lot of dashes!)

Anyhow, I went home that afternoon, wrote a paragraph about Greece being a Mediterranean country where “children played like goats jumping on the rocks”, in the words of my father, drew a big blue-and-white striped flag, and prepared a plate of spanakopita with the help of my mother and yiayia.

The next day at school we hung our heritage flags around the room, my Greek one alongside those of China, Japan, Nigeria, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, and Norway, among others. We read our paragraphs and ate our multi-cuisine lunch. It was then that it seemed to click. I understood that my Greekness was the reason that though I was often classified as “white” by dominant society, my skin was a little tanner than most. I learned that other kids had odd names for their grandmothers too, and we were all a little strange in the ways of our own special cultures.

Ermioni, Greece… My Ancestral Home, Your Next Vacation Spot

View overlooking the town of Ermioni, Greece

View overlooking the town of Ermioni, Greece

I view the ocean from the front porch of the family home, the water a shade that can only be described with the Greek word galazio, which technically translates to “light blue,” but encompasses tones found only in the Mediterranean sea and sky, the light blending the two until they are nearly indistinguishable. On summer mornings, while watching the waves, I enjoy traditional Greek yogurt in the company of my aunt. My father’s sister is an extremely warm woman who, despite my protests, always insists I start the day with freshly ironed boxer briefs. I get the sense that were I to show up with a stranger, he or she would receive the same treatment: plenty of crisp laundry and bountiful meals prepared with fish caught only hours before and garden-grown vegetables, bread delivered warm from the bakery. The hospitality of the Greeks is a cliché that holds great truth, even if one doesn’t have family to cook for them, nor with whom to explore the town.

As a thirty-four-year-old Greek-American living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have been making trips to see my relatives in Ermioni, Greece since I was three. Ermioni, where so many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins reside, is a seaside town some three and a half hours from Athens on the east coast of the southern peninsula called the Peloponnese. Ermioni is a town of a few thousand people, all of whom appear to greet me with smiles and utterances of ‘kalispera’ as I stroll the harbor area called the mandrakia on the late afternoons in summer when the heat is tolerable.

The mandrakia is lined with shops offering anything from komboloi, the traditional “worry beads” local men fiddle while sipping coffee, to bathing suits of all styles. Nearby tavernas serve classic Greek fare, while the bars and nightclubs stay open through the wee hours of the morning and offer ocean-side seating so customers can watch the fishing boats enter and depart the dock. Beware should you enter one of these establishments on a special occasion, however: I attended a late-night birthday party during my last trip in which we broke nearly every liquor bottle in celebration and then danced the traditional zembekiko atop the glittering shards.

Summer nights in Ermioni tend to start late and finish later. Near ten o’ clock we gather at any one of the tavernas for a light meal, then my cousins and I venture toward the bars. Fun as the parties on the harbor can be, I enjoy the hours before everyone ventures out. We gather as a family in yiayia’s yard. I relish the sound of the Greek words as they swirl around me and escape my own tongue. Then, as pensive silence inevitably ensues, my uncle emerges after a nap, in underwear freshly ironed, to belt out an old folk tune. We laugh together, as a family.

9 thoughts on “Blog Archive

  1. katinavaselopulosk

    Awesome! I would need that much room to say why I read and write! For many of the same reasons you do too, Apollo. Much of it is included in my Sailing to Ithaca. All best with your new book! Looking forward to reading it! Xristos Anesti!

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  2. katinavaselopulos

    Oh, my! The twist of life! Are we pray to its whims or is it our inner higher power and wisdom that becomes our armor and our means to fight and stand tall, thriving despite major physical disabilities?

    I certainly believe it’s the second one. We come to this world with both disabilities and perfection. It’s up to us to live and work through the hardships so as to unlock, and live in and with the higher better self.

    Amazing story, Apollo!
    Amazing Grace!
    Amazing you!

    For sure, there is a purpose you are in this world.
    Trusting you to make a difference.
    From the little that I know you, I know that you are on the right path, the path that will bring you to great destinations.

    God bless you and inspire you to wonderful things, my awesome friend!

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  3. Penny Kontakos

    I understand your torment at a young age as I was considered in Adelaide by my parents and relatives as mentally retarded and undisciplined to the point of wild because I did not speak and at about 3 years old when my parents took my older brother to the Children’s Hospital due to asthma which in the 1950s there was no medicines, the nurse noticed me and later a doctor told my parents who were simple people from a Spartan mountain village that one of the two children might not survive and they could not understand what he was talking about. They explained I was deaf and had acute tonsilitis which needed immediate removal and a dangerous operation especially at my age. My mum later told me the incubators in those days were massive and metallic which had a glass pane so they could see me as they were afraid I would catch infection after the operation.

    For years I was stammering as I was taking a long time learning to speak my parent’s language and later the English language at school and I turned out a loner as I did not want to be ridiculed and would get into fights with boys and girls and usually would win .. since growing up with only brothers and their friends. I started showing I had gifts in a girl’s technical high school and those who knew me from kindergarten were shocked of each accomplishment I made be it in painting the scenery for the school theatre, a mask made from a shoebox lid and toilet tissue with glue and paint that the school sent to the Art Gallery in Adelaide and given a sticker on it, being first in mathematics, writing about the life of the Communist Mao Tse Tung or an Essay on the differences between watching MacBeth on film at the cinema or on stage at a theatre which were stencilled so the students could use when we had to do our National Leaving Exams to help remember the events and reasons more easily by the way I made it like a story. When I finished high school a school mate shocked me by saying she envied me as I was more prepared for the outside world than they were as I was an individual and never needed to be in a group like the rest of the girls who needed it to be secure as we had gangs in those days but I was the only one they avoided as from first day of school some Sharpies (short hair and skirts) had picked on me seeing me alone and I warned them but they laughed with my stammering but in the end, all of them (five) were beaten to the ground by me and later on any girl who felt threatened would come to me for help.

    Many years later when my father had taken me to Greece to find a nice Greek boy and settle down in Greece, my husband who was a primary teacher learned English in one year by me so he was able to pass the exam required by the Greek Ministry of Education and sent for five years as a Greek Education Consular to Adelaide so he could meet my mum and brothers and my uncles and cousins as we are a typical big Greek family. One day I saw a lady saying how upset she was that her 10 year old son was stammering, and I asked her if she recognized me. She did not know at first but when I explained her face brightened up saying she remembered me with a terrible stammer and how was it possible I had none. I told her instead of complaining and giving complex to the child that there ways for the child to improve by speech therapy and as a good parent to take him to places where she and the child could get support. An ignorant parent is the worst enemy for a child who needs support and care and above all confidence.

    I always give people like her the true story of my village who were against having two deaf people marry thinking their children would become deaf too, but they did not listen and married and their children were normal and I said did anyone bother to check their tonsils since the whole village do suffer every now and then from tonsilitis and my husband’s Godfather died at an early age as he had them removed at 21 but left immediately for the village which was far from civilisation and bled to death after a meal which caused the wound to open.

    Apollo, I truly wish you the best in your books which I am sure touch people’s hearts as it is not only your love in books that gave you this gift but also being deprived of things what other people take for granted that made you understand the true meaning of life and how we should share it to others.

    Bless you my boy,

    Theia Penny
    (yes we villagers do believe for elders to be called Aunties and Uncles out of respect of age)

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    1. apollopapafrangou Post author

      Thank you for sharing your story, Theia Penny!! What an inspiring tale of overcoming tremendous odds, and thriving in the face of adversity! We truly have something in common, struggles which not everyone can understand.

      “An ignorant parent is the worst enemy for a child who needs support and care and above all confidence.” I agree with the statement wholeheartedly! Very well said! I’m so grateful my parents were so supportive of me, especially in my creative endeavors, and though times weren’t always easy, they were always there. It sounds like your parents stuck by you as well! You have blossomed in spite of hardships, and you seem like a truly warm soul. I’m glad to hear you found solace and strength in the arts, too, with your painting and writing! Thank you again for your touching, insightful, and poignant response to my post! I’m truly touched by words, and am glad to have met through social media.

      Να εισαι παντα καλα, Thea Penny!
      Blessings to you!

      Apollo

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  4. Pingback: Suggestion Saturday: April 25, 2015 | On The Other Hand

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