Category Archives: culture

There’s a Coin in my Cake! On #Greek #NewYears & Luck. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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Happy New Year! Kalee Chronia!

After two weeks of holiday celebration, work begins anew with the first blog post of 2016. In looking forward, into January and the months beyond while preparing for the March release of my novel Wings of Wax, I can’t help but also gaze back to past New Year’s Days.

In my memory we sit around my grandmother’s table, at the center of which is a simple round cake unadorned with frosting or candles. Still, the moment invites anticipation as my yiayia hovers over the modest loaf with a knife, her hand making the sign of the cross–straight down, then right to left–prior to conducting the first cut. Four of us are present–Mom, Dad, Yiayia, and I–though she divides the cake, the Vasilopita, into several slices. The first is for Jesus, the second for Mary, the third for St. Basil after whom the cake is named, the fourth is for the house, the fifth for the poor, and the rest goes to those of us at the table from youngest to oldest. We dig into, albeit carefully, our special dessert. Amid the wedge of cake on my fork, something shimmers in the light. Upon further inspection, I discover the lucky coin, wrapped in gold foil, and hoist it high for all to see. Another year of good fortune for me! As a child it took me a while to figure that Yiayia rigged the cake so that I always ended up with the prized slice, but no one else seemed to mind.

As my Greek readers will know, the cutting of the vasilopita cake is a tradition often occurring on New Years Day, though it can also be done later in the month. It’s similar to the Mardi Gras King Cake of New Orleans fame in which a tiny plastic baby is substituted for the gold coin. The vasilopita commemorates St. Basil who, according to legend, redistributed the gold and jewelry of Caesarean citizens who had ransomed their goods to prevent the raiding of their city by a foreign tyrant.

This year marks the ninth since my maternal grandmother’s passing. Due to her upholding of the vasilopita tradition, I hold a special place for her in my memory each New Year’s Day. This January 1st there was no vasilopita at home, though I suspect I’ll find myself at a party in the coming weeks in which the special cake will be cut. Maybe both my yiayias will look down to ensure that I have more good fortune this year.

In one way or another, we all make our own luck, whether literally, through baking it into pastry, or figuratively, in how we choose to approach and interpret the often random occurrences in our lives. May the new year be a lucky one for you! Here’s to 2016 bringing all the best things!

#Art as Life: On Arts Education & Smelly Markers #MondayBlogs

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Imagine, if you will, a baby crawling up a mountainous flight of steps, one little knee at a time, slapping the surface of each stair in announcement of his progress. His ascent is inspired not by the promise of toy or treat, but by a desire to view up close the spectrum of colors and shapes beckoning from above.

I was that baby, and the stairs belonged to some famous New York City art museum, the Guggenheim perhaps, to which my mother had taken me during one of our visits to the Big Apple. It seems I was drawn to art (pun intended), so the story goes, since before I could walk, willing to brave even the most arduous climb simply for the sake of a layered canvas. Growing older, and more mobile, I could often be found reaching for a pencil, or crayon, with which I would fill countless sheets of paper; first with scribbles, and then, as my hand grew more confident, superheroes and monsters. My favorite tools of the trade were those gold and silver markers that emit the smelliest fumes via which I would grow intoxicated and then preform “drunken” dinner songs for family. Ah, but that’s another story.

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A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

Mom, no doubt, was an big inspiration for this early creative streak. Aside from taking me to see the framed creations of the masters, she provided visions of an artist at work as she spent countless hours at her drawing table laboring at her craft. Art was, and is, integral to our family experience, woven like tapestry into the texture of our everyday life. My mother is a painter and sculptor, and her father, my papou, earned quite a name for himself in the art world despite his feeble beginnings as a Greek immigrant. My dad, who while in America earned a living through his electrician business, has since, in moving back to his native Greece, dedicated himself to his own artistic talents.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the company of artists, attending gallery openings and exhibitions–many of them my mother’s–wandering among the paintings in search of both inspiration and a makeshift play space. Now, as an adult, attending galleries and museums is still a favor pastime. When Mom is town from Monterey, it’s a joy to trek out to San Francisco and take in an art exhibit. Each painting, every sculpture, tells its own story. I’ve learned that the point of viewing art is not always to glean “meaning” from a piece (“What is this artist trying to say? What does it mean?”, you often hear people remark), but rather to observe how it makes you feel.

I’m grateful that my family has gifted me with a life abundant in art. Just as I was exposed to paintings, so was I entrenched in the world of stories and poems as our home was one full of books. An artist’s life isn’t always easy, but it is ever vivid, consistently rich. When I was growing up, Mom taught art at my elementary school. I often heard classmates–the children of “square” families–say things like, “Art isn’t important becomes it doesn’t make money.” Well, sometimes it does, and it will, if nothing else, expose one to a spectrum of colors beyond the banality of dollar-bill green.

This post is inspired by the recent news that the Senate has passed an act making arts education part of the Common Core curriculum. Now, I believe Common Core is problematic in of itself for a variety of reasons that I won’t expound upon here, but this is a good thing for all. There surely is a place for art in schools. Today, more than ever, we need people who are unafraid to color outside the lines.

In Praise of #Gratitude: 4 Things I’m Grateful For. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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A heart full of gratitude

“In ancient Greek, gratitude was expressed in terms of praising. When Greeks wanted to say ‘thank you,’ they said: ‘That is excellent, I praise you,’ καλλιστ, επαινω.’ [This] brings us to the observation that in the Archaic and Classical period many hymnic texts of the Greeks did express ‘thanksgiving.’ The praise of a god, the narration of her or his birth, famous deeds and gifts to mankind, all this functions as thanksgiving.” — Jan-Maarten Bremer from the book Reciprocity in Ancient Greece; Oxford University Press, 1998.

This ancient Hellenic interpretation of gratitude as a form of praise–not simply an expression of thanks, but rather a paying of homage to pedestal-worthy recipients–inspires this week’s blog post as I reflect on four things I’m grateful for this holiday season. I had plenty time to consider the topic while celebrating Thanksgiving with Mom and extended family down in Monterey, California. I took a break from the usual writing routine to stroll the seaside trails with Mom and her pair of greyhounds, my thoughts churning amid the continual rise and fall of ocean waves. Here, in no particular order, are four things to which I’m offering praise as November makes way for December.

1. Bi-weekly phone chats with Pops: Dad and I have been talking on the phone quite often, Saturday mornings, usually. It’s a nice way to start off the weekend as I’m able to catch up on the news from Greece–stories of the latest haul from my father’s olive grove, the abundant crop offering a rich oil, luminous liquid gold. We speak of my cousins and their growing families, the delicious meals cooked by thea Anna. These conversations also serve as a way to prevent my Greek from getting rusty. They inevitably end in laughter as Dad shares a joke or too, comical reminiscings from our previous travels together in the Motherland.

2. Conversations with Mom that turn into escavations of family history: Mom and I speak often of her side of the family; my yiayia and her three sisters, that quartet of larger-than-life women who were the subject of an entire blog article a couple weeks back. Their stories are epic, abundant tales of which I have yet to skim the surface, though I’m committed to fictionalizing them in depth at some point.

3. Health: This is an obvious one, but it’s so important. I’m thankful that I’m healthy, and that, for the most part, my friends and family are healthy as well. Those who happen to be battling illness at the moment are often in my thoughts and I wish them a fast, full recovery.

4. Friends and supporters: I’m fortunate to have substantial friendships, tight bonds with people I have known for much of my life. I’m also grateful for the people I haven’t known as long, but who have brought an undeniable richness into my life. I have love in abundance, and to all of you–friends, supporters, faithful readers of this blog and my other writings–I offer praise. I’m grateful for all the people at my publisher, Booktrope–my editor Jessica West, my marketing guru April Gerard, and so many more–for the energy and enthusiasm and tireless work they have contributed to this process of Wings of Wax making its way into print.

Now, what are you grateful for this season?

March Madness: On #MyBigFatGreekWedding2 and New Novel Release Date #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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People Change. Greeks don’t.

That’s one of the statements flashing across the screen in oh-so-appropriate blue letters across a white background during the My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 trailer which, at the time of this posting, I’ve watched upwards of a half-dozen times. As brief as the proclamation is during the two-minute preview, it contains–like much of the content in the first movie that was an unexpected smash hit back in 2002–a shimmer of truth amid the shiny gloss of Hollywood exaggeration. Of course Greeks as people, like anyone else, change and evolve, but our cultural values and traditions remain a constant; unaltered in time. A distinction is made in the film trailer between “people” and “Greeks” because the culture is larger than life: a living, breathing technicolor mosaic of language, customs, history, and ethnic consciousness that often, in the eyes of both non-Greeks and Greeks alike, puts us on par, for better or worse, with the mythical heroes of our ancient epics. That can be a grand burden to bare, so films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which simultaneously celebrate and poke good-natured fun at our enduring identity, are a joy to watch. Sure, I know some Greek-Americans who didn’t like the first movie, complaining that we don’t go spraying Windex on everything. But those folks, in my opinion, take themselves too seriously. Despite the few flaws of the first film, it was a treat to see our culture depicted on the big screen.

My mother tells stories of Americans flocking to the theaters in the 196o’s to catch acclaimed movie adaptations of ancient Greek dramas like Antigone and Elektra, as well as modern stories such as Zorba the Greek. Having seen DVD versions of these films, I don’t know if they were actually smash hits in their time, but they apparently drew a significant audience interested in Greece and Greek culture. Growing up in the 1980’s and ’90’s, I can’t recall many Hollywood depictions of the Greek experience–whether ancient or modern–aside from Shirley Valentine, and John Stamos’ Jesse Katsopoulos character on the popular TV sitcom Full House. So, when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out in 2002, I had to see it. It was a great movie–cartoonish at times, but consistently charming and fun.

Then I began to notice the phrase “It’s Chic to Be Greek!” commonly appear in the media. Greek culture in America–beyond the yearly food festivals that occur in most major cities–was all the rage once again. We Greeks have always been a proud people, but at that moment we, for the most part, stood up a little straighter as our time on the silver screen had arrived after long hiatus.

Now, the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding is scheduled for a March, 2016 release. My novel Wings of Wax, in a stroke of fortuity (wink, wink), will also be released that same month. The book was originally supposed to come out in December, but the publisher is taking more time to plan marketing strategy and build momentum to ensure Wings of Wax receives the best possible launch. I’m excited to have my debut novel hit shelves in the same time frame of Nia Vardalos’ film release. We Greeks stick together. Thank you, faithful readers, for sticking around, too!

A #Greek Bearing Gifts: On #Kindness, #Homeric Epics, and Culture. #MondayBlogs

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“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” a phrase once commonly heard amid the every day lexicon of collective American vocabulary dates back to a time when just about everyone read and studied the classics. The quote is, of course, a reference to Homer’s Iliad, and the Greek army who hid themselves within a giant wooden horse presented to the Trojans as a peace-making gift. Obviously, this present, which led to the downfall of Troy, turned out to be an unwelcome care package.

They say only the victors of wars write history, and yet gift-bearing Greeks were met with wariness for centuries after the battle and the Homeric epics that followed. Now that the phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” has fallen out of common usage, no longer are we Greeks who show up at birthday parties with wrapped boxes met with skeptical smirks, and that’s certainly a good thing. 😉 Yet, and on a serious note, in today’s culture we are often skeptical of those who bear gifts in the form of a kind gesture. The cynical among us automatically look for an ulterior motive or a sign of weakness when someone expresses an unprompted gesture of good will. A cynical person might think, “What is this other person expecting in return?” or “Why are they trying to get close to me?” It’s one thing to have a healthy guard up, and another to live life in a vacuum of paranoia. I chose to believe that a majority of people are good, and I think I’m happier because of that.

Despite the trickery displayed by the ancient Greeks in the Iliad, we are presented with a different view of gift-bearing Greeks in Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey. Set in the years post Trojan war as the Greek hero Odysseus struggles in his journey back to Greece after such a long period away from home, we see him time and time again rely on the kindness of both friends and strangers alike. The ancient Greeks treasured the concept of kindness, of helping others, both because it was virtuous and because they knew that there would come an occasion when they would find themselves in need of a helping hand.

Modern day Greeks are known for their hospitality, their kindness to strangers, through open-hearted displays of philotimo. A recent image that perfectly expresses this is the widely circulated photograph of three elderly women from the island of Lesvos, a hotspot of entry for Syrian refugees fleeing to Greece. In the picture making internet rounds, the three women sit on a bench, one of them feeding a bottle to an infant cradled in her arms, while her two companions look on lovingly. Next to their bench stands a Syrian woman, the infant’s mother, contently gazing out in the distance while enjoying a moment’s rest. In this photo we see true kindness at work, the far-reaching impact of a small, positive gesture.

As much as Greek culture is one built upon the concept of hospitality, it is also one–like many Mediterranean cultures–built on superstition. Just as I have witnessed hospitality in my travels back to Greece, so have I seen bitter feuds between family and friends in the wake of a supposed glance from the “evil eye.”

Among Greek men–born of the land’s hardscrabble, arid terrain–there is a tendency toward machismo and leery suspicion of outsiders. Perhaps it’s a mechanism of defense, and yet it can lead to a cold, closed heart. In turn, you are left with a life of bitterness, and what kind of life is that? As a man of Greek descent, I refuse to follow suit. Many times I have felt alone, only to look around and suddenly find myself surrounded by loved ones, family and friends alike. The kindness I have shown, the kindness I live by, is ever reflected back at me. For that reason, my heart will always remain open, remain generous, and optimistic. I will be a Greek bearing gifts.

The #Greek Golden Rule of #Hospitality. #MondayBlogs #booktrope

Live with honor. Philotimo.

Live with honor. Philotimo.

In Greek the word “philo” means friend, though it can also mean to “cherish” or to “love,” as in “philosophy” (the love of wisdom), or “Philadelphia” (love between brothers). Timo or τιμη in Greek, means honor. So, one might assume that the wondrous Greek word φιλοτιμο (philotimo) simply translates to “love of honor.” Ah, but it comprises much more. A person can use philotimo, or someone can possess philotimo, so in a sense it is both a noun and verb, one that has no true counterpart in any other language, though people have long attempted to universally define the term. Articles and documentary films have been dedicated to that noble pursuit. Roughly, the phrase can be defined as “striving for excellence, the innate desire to always do the honorable thing,” or even as “true generosity and hospitality.”

As the ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, philotimo is an inborn trait for us Greeks; and I’m sure all you fellow Hellenes reading this article could share your own experience in exercising philotimo. In fact, it is best to illustrate philotimo rather than try to define it in words.

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The idea for this post came to me this morning in the wake of reading an article about Zorba’s, a Greek restaurant in Virginia. After spotting someone rummaging through their trash for food scraps, they posted a note by the Dumpster that said, “For your next meal, please come in and let us know you are hungry and unable to pay. You are a human being and worth more than a meal from a Dumpster. No questions asked!”

My initial reaction upon seeing that was to take a deep breath worthy of Thales’ famous quote. My next instinct was to spread word of such a perfect example of philotimo. In creating their sign, the restaurant owners treated a person in need with the respect and dignity deserving of us all. In the face of human tragedy, however ordinary, however small, they exercised compassion. They exercised true philotimo.

When I was a boy, eight or nine years old, I went to the hospital to endure surgery. Post operation, friends and family were at my bedside, showering with me with toys, balloons and treats. I shared a room with another child around the same age, though I noticed he rarely had visitors, apart from his parents, nor did he enjoy a windfall of get-well gifts. Finally, one morning, still weak from the operation, feeble on my feet, I got up and went to his bedside to bestow him with a balloon and toy from my stash. No one suggested I do this, nor did my roommate ask for anything. I simply felt moved to do so, and I believe it was this innate sense of philotimo that motivated me.

But you don’t need a sad occasion to witness philotimo. During holidays such as Christmas and those oh-so-joyous Greek Easters, we open our arms, hearts and homes (not to mention our ovens) to friends and family and ensure good times are had by all.

Seeing happiness in others makes me happy. Philotimo is meant to be shared. Philotimo is an extension of self.

Now, what does philotimo mean to you? I hope you’ll leave some comments below!