Category Archives: family

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!

Silver Bells: On #Gratitude, #Xmas music & #GreekAmerican traditions. #MondayBlogs

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This past Friday I finished a first draft of the latest short story for my collection-in-progress, and wrapped work at my day job prior to a two week vacation. I gave myself permission to take a break after a busy last few months, but here I am compelled to write another blog post, the last of 2015 as I won’t–for sure this time–be posting next week. I guess I felt moved to share my take on the holidays, and again reflect–as I did around Thanksgiving–on all I have to be grateful for. So, here’s my latest list of holiday gratitude, 1-4 in no particular order, and rest assured I’ve checked it twice!

1. I’m grateful to be a published author: Chief among 2015’s personal highlights was signing the contracts with Booktrope to become a published novelist. I’ve never put much faith in the Law of Attraction–the philosophy that your thoughts manifest your reality–but I will say that from the time back in those grad school days circa 2009 that I began the initial draft of the novel which would become Wings of Wax, I constantly imagined it being published. Each time I sat down to write I envisioned a completed book between covers. Six years later, and my debut novel will be hitting shelves in March, 2016. Maybe the Law of Attraction does work to some degree. This is technically my second book (the first was a collection of short stories published when I was a teenager) but this one feels like the beginning! Maybe I did manifest my reality. In any case, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my writing with readers.

2. I’m grateful for Christmas music. Sure, many tunes are a bit cheesy and over-the-top, but there’s something about the seasonal soundtrack that makes me smile. At their core, most Christmas songs speak of togetherness and possessing a generous spirit. That message is appropriate all year round, and these crisp evenings as I take the dog for a stroll after the day’s work is done, I’ve been listening to Soul and R&B renditions of classic holiday tunes: The Temptations’ rendition of Silent Night, Let It Snow by Boys 2 Men, and This Christmas by Donny Hathaway are all great selections.

3. I’m grateful to be in a position to give. It is better to give than to receive, so goes the old cliche. I’ll say it is wonderful to give and receive. I can give gifts, I can give love, I can give time, all of which bring a smile in return, and what a gift to receive!

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4. I’m grateful for a Greek spin on the holidays. Holidays are a time of tradition, of course, and in my family we continue to carry our own. For as long as I can recall we have hosted Christmas dinner. Growing up, when my parents were still together, the days leading up to Christmas were often intense. My Greek-immigrant father would grow moody, to say the least, in response to the rampant commercialization of the holiday, and often decry the Capitalist machine prior to decrying everything else. Opa! 🙂

But, alas, by the time the big day rolled around, things were okay again. Laughter and cheer were present as we opened our house to family and friends, everyone gathering to enjoy a typical Christmas meal of turkey and stuffing, albeit with a Greek twist. Alongside the holiday bird, there was village salad abundant with Feta cheese and Kalamata olives; Greek-style roast potatoes heavy on the lemon, garlic, and oregano; flaky, buttery, tiropita, and we made stuffing from a recipe passed down via my maternal grandfather who was from the island of Mytelini. It calls for chestnuts, figs, olives, bulgar wheat, Greek brandy, and other secret ingredients that make for a savory/sweet delight.

These days, Dad sends shipments of kourabiedes from Greece, and Mom travels up from Monterey to again claim her rightful place in the family home as Christmas preparations commence. We still do the open house party, Greek stuffing and all! There you have it, faithful readers. Rest assured, I’m grateful for you, too! Now to really take my break. May you all have happy, happy holidays abundant with traditions of your own! Καλα Χριστουγεννα και καλες γιορτες! I’ll look forward to seeing you in 2016!

#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?

You #Greek Olive! Delicious insults, #immigrant households, and #culture gaps. #MondayBlogs

"You... you... Greek olive!"

“You… you… Greek olive!”

He’s done something to make me mad–exactly what I don’t recall, though the affront occurred only moments ago, so caught up in my anger that details quickly lose importance. All that matters is that I’m angry now, mad enough to stomp my little foot, clench my tiny fists, curl my lip back in a snarl. I march over to my dad, gaze up at him and fire away with the greatest insult my pre-schooler’s mind can conjure: “Why you… you… Greek olive!”

Bam! There it is. The ultimate slanderous remark spewed forth with all the force a four-year-old can muster. Maybe I figure that with Dad’s dark hair, his sun-kissed complexion that I’ve heard referred to as “olive-tone,” I associate him with–even if only subconsciously–those small, briny fruits. He’s an olive alright–something strange, something foreign, something that while common among our family dinner table seems absent in the cuisine of my non-Greek friends. And I figure that’s the ultimate blow that will surely do him in. So imagine my confusion when he starts to laugh… and Mom laughs with him. They are a strange breed.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a website called The Two Generation that features stories from people who have grown up in America as children of immigrants. They wanted me to speak, and eventually contribute an essay, about my experience as a Greek-American, son to an immigrant father. I gladly obliged, though I didn’t know where to begin. Among the memories flashing through my mind was the one I just described.

From an early age I knew Dad was different, as out of place as an olive tree amid an apple orchard (what’s more American than apples, right?) Sure, my mother is Greek as well, though she’s Greek-American like me, born to immigrant parents. Dad, however, was something else entirely. He spoke with an accent. I laughed when he said “sour” in place of “shower,” heaved a sigh when he insisted we converse in his mother tongue. Sure, he was my dad, but that didn’t mean I didn’t think he was strange.

My American friends had fathers who talked of childhoods spent playing baseball, hanging out in soda shops with friends after school, cruising muscle cars. My dad’s stories were flavored with many sea tales, and soccer instead of baseball. Sure, he hung out with friends but he also stopped going to school at one point to work construction alongside his older brothers. By sixteen he was living with a friend in Athens, some three hours from Ermioni, the Peloponnesian town where he’d grown up, and by twenty-four he was heading to America to his partner and newborn son.

My father, the youngest of six children, was the only one of his siblings to leave Greece. He came to the States knowing but a few words in English, and before long he’d earned his contractor’s license and started a business, patriotically, and appropriately, called Zeus Electric. Though he did well for himself, working to support a family and help raise a child, he never seemed to truly feel at home in America. Growing up in Greece, he’d had a certain affinity for American music and styles, often keeping company with U.S. tourists and hanging out in a circle of friends that included my mother’s Greek-American relatives. Surely it was something of a dream to finally come to the States, so I as a kid I never quite understood why he’d be overcome by a slump-shouldered sadness, his face holding a distant longing, whenever we ventured near the ocean–be it the Monterey Bay, Sausalito, or even the Oakland waterfront. “Ahh, Ellatha,” he ‘d say to himself. I’d just giggle at an another odd remark.

As a toddler I made my first trip to Greece, met my uncles and aunts, my plethora of first cousins, played in the ocean, scored ice cream from my yiayia. Throughout the majority of my childhood we visited at least every other summer. But of course the country wasn’t a part of me in the same way it was a part of my father. That’s to say that in returning to America at the end of each trip, I didn’t leave a part of myself behind, a piece of my being without which functioning in the States grew all the more difficult.

Dad and I clashed in later years. It was inevitable. He might as well have been from outer space while I was firmly entrenched on Earth. Growing into adulthood, and visiting my father’s homeland from a new vantage point, I finally understood that much of what irked me as a teenager was simply a result of our different experiences growing up. Sure, I’m Greek (or of Greek descent), but obviously not in the same way my father is. Sounds simple but it took me a long time to figure that out.

These days, I enjoy hearing my father’s stories of growing up in Greece, just as I relish his tales of arriving as an immigrant in a vastly different land, struggling to find work, struggling to build community even as he quickly got introduced to the local Greek enclave. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to leave your native land and start anew.

Those of us who, regardless of ethnicity, are first or second generation Americans grow up in the hyphen between two cultures, two identities. The stories our parents tell of friends and family they left behind, and experiences they gained, strengthen that link to our ancestral home.

In a sense, Dad is still a Greek olive, though I no longer use the remark disparagingly. Now, I can see the entire tree to which he belongs; those roots running deep… the roots that are my own.