Author Interview: Apollo Papafrangou

The Writing Life Blog

The Writing Life is pleased to welcome Apollo Papafrangou, author of the upcoming novel, Wings of Wax.

Apollo Papafrangou is a writer from Oakland, California, where he pens novels, short stories, and, occasionally, poems. He is a 2010 graduate of the Mills College Creative Writing MFA program, and the author of “Concrete Candy,” a short story collection published by Anchor Books in 1996 when he was just 15 years old.

His debut novel WINGS OF WAX, the story of a shy, young artist seeking to reconnect with his ladies’ man father in Greece, will be published in March, 2016 by Booktrope.

HBO Films optioned the movie rights to his story “The Fence” from 2000-2004, and his fiction has appeared in the 1998 Simon & Schuster anthology entitled “Trapped. Apollo’s work has appeared in “Voices,” a collection of works by Greek writers published in 2013 by Nine Muses Press, Quiet Lightning…

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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 Legend of Four Sisters: Memories of #Greek #Matriarchs… #Booktrope #flashfiction #Greekculture #family

From left to right: Mary, Iphie, Catherine, Caroline.

From left to right: Mary, Iphie, Catherine, Caroline.

Someday soon they will find their way into a novel of their own, someday soon I will immortalize them with my prose. It’s only right to share the tale of those four sisters: Catherine (my maternal grandmother) Mary, Iphiyenia, and Caroline. A beautiful quartet who immigrated to America from Greece and took their new home by storm, whether via the lightning strike-illuminations of their physical beauty, or the thunderous resonance of both their laughter and their wrath. They were women of grace and strength, unapologetic in regard to their fierce love for their family, culture, and one another; nor their often ornery tempers–though the latter they possessed in varying degrees. They were each artists in their own right, though my yiayia Catherine arguably pursued art to the fullest extent, marrying my papou, Theodore Polosa painter from the island of Lesvos who earned renown on American shores–and nurturing in their two daughters–my mother and her sister Kathy–an undeniable creative streak.

Caroline, meanwhile, studied the Classics at UC Berkeley and developed a flair for acting, landing the lead role in adaptations of ancient Greek tragedies such as Medea. Off stage, her penchant for the theatrical was ever evident in her ability to weave mesmerizing tales with a trademark cocktail in her graceful hand.

Of the four sisters, I spent the most time, growing up, with my yiayia Catherine and great-thea Caroline, and so I recall them the most vividly. By the time I was six or seven years old, Mary–eldest of the sisters–was in a nursing home (I fondly remember speaking with her on the phone, and receiving many cards in the mail), and Iphie was living back in Greece. Yiayia Catherine was near-constant presence in my childhood given that she lived just a few blocks away, and Caroline was a frequent vistor, as well, armed with candied ginger and starlight mints, and, of course, a witty story.

All four sisters have passed on now, Iphieyenia–the youngest of the four–the last to leave us just a few years ago. In attending Sunday services at the local Greek Orthodox Church, I inevitably run into someone who knew the sisters, and they inevitably speak at length about what amazing matriarchs they were, from their classy dress to the integrity with which they carried themselves. They are still well, and widely, loved to say the least.

Of course, no one knew them, like us–the family–knew them, and for all their grace they were certainly no strangers to some wild fights. For who are we Greeks without our drama? Their epic, drawn-out shouting matches–which my yiayia flippantly dubbed “discussions”–are things of legend, and yet, somehow, they always recovered from them in the end. Above all else, there was always love between them.

The following flash fiction piece is an humorously exaggerated take on the four sisters that I’ve titled “The Four Furies.” Hope you enjoy!

The Four Furies

Villagers referred to them as “E Tesseres Erinys,” In English, “The Four Furies.”

A college student studying Greek Mythology, I knew there were traditionally only three furies, but I wasn’t going to argue with the locals. Upon arriving in town after dusk, reeling in the wake of a seventeen-hour journey from California, USA, my eyelids bent on meeting each other as if compelled via magnetic pull, I  swore shadows moved with a life of their own.

“Ah, what you see shifting in the dark corners are E Tesseres Eryinys!

I’m not sure if Argiris tried to scare me with such an explanation, but if so, he succeeded. My university textbooks defined the Three furies as “infernal goddesses,” “deities of vengeance.” To say the least, they were ladies you’d definitely want to avoid. According to Argiris, however, not only did one extra fury exist, she, along with her three sisters, inhabited this very village.

Granted, I didn’t know how much faith to put in anything uttered by Argiris. He was my distant uncle, though we were related, somehow, by marriage, not blood. This was our first time meeting, my first time in Greece, and I could tell by the way he tugged at the corner of his mustache and flashed a crooked smile in between sips of raki as we passed those initial hours at a seaside taverna, that he was one for spinning tales. Still, as time went on, and I continued to witness mysterious shapes shift amid waning twilight, I started to become a believer. More people spoke of the ‘Four Furies.’ At last, one evening, I encountered there truth.

They were indeed sisters, nearly identical in their Mediterranean beauty; dark eyes and skin like the sweet peach tone of sun-smooched nectarines. Though they lived separately, inhabiting four corners of the village, they moved as a quartet, at least in the times I saw them; eight shapely legs marching in unison over ancient cobblestone. They turned heads as they went, though every man knew better than to make. One didn’t whistle at passing queens.

I never spoke to them, though during lazy afternoons, I often occupied at an adjacent taverna table, sipping my iced Freddo while observing them, discreetly as possible, as they sat smoking and cradling cups of traditional Ellinko kafe despite the heat. They never seemed very “furious” to me. I didn’t know there names, but I secretly referred to them passed on what I could defer of their personalities. There was The Worrier, always hovering about her three sisters with lines of concern etched across her forehead, no matter the tranquil scene. There was The Charmer, ever leaned back ever so gracefully, and making her siblings chuckle via some inside joke. There was The Drinker, inevitably requesting a scotch on the rocks upon reaching the bottom of her coffee cup. And finally, there was the Beauty Queen, constantly checking her makeup via an elegant pocket mirror. The four sisters seemed relatively serene to me. So why the volatile nickname? The reason became apparent one afternoon as I strolled among the village homes clustered on a hillside above the harbor. My leisurely walk was jarred by the sound of shrieking voices; the cries of mythic Sirens in reverse, sure to prompt any sailor to reverse course. And I yet I stood mesmerized by the blood-curddling screams and swears, vengeful shouts and vicious threats. In the window of the modest stone home from which the commotion erupted, I saw the silhouettes of those four sisters. Furies indeed.

Won’t You Stay Forever? On Long Lost Relatives, #Greek Village Life, & #Flashfiction

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Last week’s blog on kindness and hospitality in the Greek culture–from the time of Homer, in which Odysseus often relied on the generosity of strangers to find his way home, to modern day Greece where natives welcome both tourists and refugees with the same open-heartedness–got me thinking about a particular adventure I had with my father some years ago. Amid the busy agenda that often accompanies visits to Greece–fun in the sand and surf, savoring huge meals in the company of relatives, and so on–Dad and I were given the task of tracking down the cousin of a close friend back in America. We understood he lived in a mountainous village small enough to not warrant mention on a map, though we knew the general vicinity of the town. So, with the same wanderlust that inspired our ancient ancestors, we took to our chariot in the form of a red Citroen, and headed for the hills. Up winding roads lined with the silvery leaves of olive trees we rolled, passing the occasional sheep herder–beard white as the fleece of his flock–stopping to wave as he guided the herd up the cliffside. Onward we traveled, slowing when we went by the occasional village, often consisting of nothing more than a few crumbling houses set back from the path. At last, we located our destination. I can’t remember the name of the town, but I know it was inhabited by many people with the surname “Kokoris,” that of our Greek-American buddy back in Oakland. We found his cousin, Yiannis, and quite a day ensued, the particulars of which inspired this recent piece of flash fiction included below. Yiannis fed us, told us of his life in the village, even offered us his bed. We had never met this man, but because we were friends with his cousin–a relative he had never known, though he’d kept up with his news through the years–we were treated like family.

Yiannis lives a simple existence in his village, one shunned my many Greeks through the years as families in rural areas have historically fled to the cities in search of better lives. Now, however, in the midst of economic difficulties, many people are returning to family homes in the village in order to live off the land, and in turn they’re finding happiness and success.

We eventually had to leave Yiannis that day, but by the time we said goodbye, it felt as though we were bidding farewell to a relative of our own. Yiannis, our most hospitable host, waved us along from his modest front porch, though it was plain to see he would have liked for us to stay.

Better to show you, rather than tell you, the details of that day, included below in slightly fabricated form:

The Visit

Apollo Papafrangou 2015

While driving the mountain road, I twice passed the sparse village; merely a cluster of terra-cotta roofed cottages among the silvery-green olive trees. Further investigation revealed a stone chapel and a single kafenio inhabited by three old men drumming their stubby fingers on their tabletop between sips of coffee.

Just down the path, a woman in a black headscarf greeted me with a toothless smile and pointed the way toward the right house. The man who answered the door after a trio of knocks sported a wild silver mustache and hands thick and knobby as weathered tree limbs.

In Greek, I explained that I was the friends with Sophocles, not the ancient playwright, but the homeowner’s cousin back in America. With eyes wide in apparent elation, the man named Yiorgos Kokoris invited me inside and insisted I take a seat at the table covered with a lace doily. In the center stood a ceramic vase shaped like a fish. From the fish’s mouth yawned a bouquet of orange wild flowers. To the right of the table, on the wall, a large screen TV showed an afternoon soap opera.

I sipped from the glass of Amita Motion Yiorgos had placed before me, then glanced into the adjacent room equipped with a modest bed, beside which hung painted icons of Jesus and Mary.

“My cousin in America sent you to find me?” the old man asked.

“Indeed,” I replied.

“My cousin Sopho! I’ve heard stories over the years. He is a rich man?”

I hesitated, unsure how to answer. In American standards, Sophocles was moderately wealthy, certainly a tycoon compared to mountain village life. “He invested in real estate through the years and is doing okay.”

Yiorgos stroked the wire brush strands of his whiskers. “He has a heart condition, yes?”

I nodded. “It prevents him from flying, though he wishes he could meet you in person. He’s getting older and wants to know of his last living relative here in Greece.”

Yiorgos contemplated the television for a moment, then said, “It is certainly lonely in the village. The young people realize the soil is too riddled with stone, too parched to nourish their roots, and so they plant themselves in fertile city ground. Still, amid the crisis, many have returned to reap what they may from ancestral lands. I had a wife once, but she died in child birth, unable to bare our first child, a son. Neither did the baby survive.

I was the youngest of nine children. No one else is living. My brother, the second youngest, he died only two years ago from a accident in the brain. One minute he was healthy and walking around, the next he dropped to the Earth never to rise again.”

“Did you ever think of leaving the village?”

“I did, as a young man. Drove a taxi in Athens for a few years, but the traffic, the smog, the people, steered me right back up the mountain. It’s okay. I have my lambs, my sheep. My books. My television.” Yiorgos contemplated the table cloth. I shifted in my seat. Then, the man asked, “Would you like a drink?”

I rarely drank during the afternoons, at least not back in the States, but figured the man deserved a drinking partner. Yiorgos filled two small glasses with tsipouro, handed one to me, clinked his own against it, then sipped the fiery liquor. I drank too, the buzz coming on fast as a stampede of cliff goats. I nursed the rest of my drink, but Yiorgos finished his and went for two more. When the man’s eyes glazed over, I figured it was time to get on the road again.

“Won’t you stay the night,” pleaded Yiorgos. “I have plenty food.” He opened an industrial freezer to reveal lamb carcasses splayed one atop the other. He shut the door after I gave a polite smile and nod, then he led me to a dim cellar heavy with pungent tang of home-made cheese. In one corner, a small metal frame bed with cotton sheets.

“Thank you, but I have to get back to my own family.”

Yiorgos nodded, and bid me farewell, but not before loading me up with spoon sweets, olive oil, and dried figs.

I hugged the man, promised to send photos of Sophocles and I, then got in my rental and drove off. When I glanced in the rearview, Yiorgos stood waving from his tiny porch.

            End

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.

Being Icarus: On #Halloween, Book Releases, & #GreekMyth. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope #writer

"Icarus" by Frank Frazetta

“Icarus” by Frank Frazetta

I’ve got my wings, the apparatuses fitted to my back with wax, and I’m armed with the wise advice to avoid soaring close to the sun. And still I lose momentum, unable to resist the gravitational pull, my biggest danger not that glowing orb in the sky but the firm ground below it. I can’t afford to crash, so I just keep treading air. To hover is enough for now.

It’s mid-October. Not only is Halloween looming in the near future, but my debut novel, Wings of Wax, for which I revealed the cover last week, is scheduled to hit shelves in a mere month-and-a-half! I’m ecstatic, and somewhat frazzled as I scramble to tie-up loose ends, do what I can to build momentum for release day. The closest thing I can compare the feeling to is anticipating an exam that you know you’ve studied for, though it’s down to the wire and you worry there’s more you could do to prepare–take another glance at those flash cards, try to decipher the chicken-scratch scrawl passing for notes in your binder. The deadline looms, and though you’re reasonably confident in your ability to ace the test, nevertheless the beads of sweat moisten your forehead.

Still, I’m more joyous than nervous. I’ve been waiting a long time for this opportunity, this moment, and it’s almost here. The knowledge of that fact has been a beacon as of late, guiding my flight as I glide through some stormy skies. I’ve recently encountered some turbulence in my personal life, but the book release date is keeping me centered, giving me something to look forward to as I weather these clouds, confident that they’ll give way to blue skies again eventually. And, hey, it’s almost Halloween.

I must admit I’m pretty indifferent to the 31st of October. Not since a child have I really dressed up, and who needs Trick-or-Treating when you can just go out and buy your own candy? I’ve spent the past few Halloweens at home, handing out snack-sized Snickers bars to kids dressed as everything from I-Phones to classic vampires. The funniest, and often most clever, costumes tend to be worn by parents toting infants. Last Halloween, I opened the door to find on my porch a mother dressed as a kangaroo, her baby peeking out of her pouch in full “joey” regalia. Then a Facebook friend posted a photo of her little one dressed as a pea pod, which I thought was pretty great. These sights always inspire to me to reflect on my own costumes of years past. I’ve been a zombie, a vampire, a werewolf. I remember trekking to pre-school in a devil costume, proudly touting my trident; my artist-mother having creatively painted my face with little flames. I wish I could find that photo. It was a cool get-up for a four-year-old.

Around that same era of my childhood, I often wore a navy-blue knit cap with plush silver wings sewn to the sides. Despite being named after the Hellenic sun deity, I proudly went around like a young Hermes, messenger god in the ancient Greek pantheon. No matter that it wasn’t Halloween, I was determined to fly. Such desire is still with me today.

October 31 is a time to play pretend, create your own character as we writers do every time we start a new story, begin a new book. In one sense Wings of Wax is a story about costumes, about the personas we adopt and wear until we learn how to embrace our authentic selves. In another sense it’s a story about flight–actual and metaphorical–and the heights we’re able to reach when stop sabotaging ourselves from getting off the ground. So this, Halloween, inspired by Angelo’s plight in Wings of Wax, I will be Icarus. A wiser, more cautious Icarus, staying wary of the sun’s heat.

I’ve long been passionate about Greek history and mythology. It’s from where my name originates, after all. As I may or may not have mentioned in a previous blog, there was a period in my childhood when my dad would relay to me from memory excerpts of Homer’s Iliad as a bedtime stories. I believe those epics influence my dreams, the ones that arrive during both sleep and waking hours. In autumns past I flirted with the idea of being a Spartan warrior for Halloween. Another year, I considered crowning my head with an olive wreath to go as an ancient philosopher. I never seemed to get around to assembling those outfits, however.

But this Halloween I will be Icarus, a version of him without the tragic descent. Maybe I’ll purchase a pair of wings. Or perhaps I’ll forgo a costume once again in favor of simply focusing on the idea of flight and reflecting on the  meaning of the Icarus myth. Either way, I will keep soaring, and I in staying airborne, I have all of you to thank: My friends, my loved ones, my family, my readers. This is a journey we take together. You keep me strong, you keep me lucid. We’ll reach this grand destination together.

The official WINGS OF WAX cover is here!!! #Booktrope #debutnovel #comingsoon

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Hey friends,

I’m so excited to share with you the official cover for my novel coming soon from Booktrope, Wings of Wax.

The immensely talented designer Shari Ryan created this concept, a vision of a drawing table belonging to the story’s aspiring artist of a protagonist, Angelo Koutouvalis. The “sketch” of the Bay Bridge behind Grecian columns represents the novel’s two settings, the San Francisco Bay Area and Greece.

Since the story is, in one sense, a travel narrative, there’s the imagery of a passport and boarding pass, along with a miniature Greek flag representative of both the country and the protagonist’s pride in his ethnic heritage.

All I did was give Shari a brief description of what I had in my head in regard to a cover, and she did the rest. I’m really happy with the result, and I hope you like it, too. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!

Room For One More. #community #friendship #GreekAmerican #culture #booktrope

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Digging into the archives for this post on the importance of community and friendship. Seems appropriate after we all, hopefully, enjoyed a nice weekend with people we care about. 

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.

Today’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.

Crossed Signals: On being #Bilingual, & The Bloopers of a #GreekAmerican Boy in #Greece. #flashfiction #MondayBlogs

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The lessons were informal, though they served as instruction nonetheless. Reminiscing now, I realize that in all likelihood they served as fodder for those early childhood outbursts when I deemed my father a “Greek olive,” a delicious insult in my young mind (those of you who read my previous blog exploring the origins of that nickname will recall such episodes of reducing Dad to tree-fruit status). On those mornings when I was perfectly content playing with my Masters of the Universe action figures, Mr. Greek Olive would sit me down at the kitchen table while he put on a performance of sorts, pointing to his eye, nose, mouth, ear, etc, while I had to recall the equivalent Greek word. Most of the time, I fared pretty well, dutifully announcing “matee,” “meetee,” “aftee,” and so on. The language quiz was fun for those thirty seconds in which I was distracted from the fact that Skeletor was still waiting for me on the kitchen floor. Inevitably, however, I would squirm in my chair, eager to get back to my toy battles. According to Dad, whenever he tried speaking to me in Greek in those days, I would reply in English; picky when it came to the flavor of foreign words on my tongue.

All grown up now, and bilingual despite my early protests, I feel for Dad’s frustration. As a kid, a looming question in our house was, “Who will teach the boy to speak Greek?” Given that all my paternal relatives still live in Greece, and my mother, herself an American of Greek decent, wasn’t raised with the language, the responsibility rested on the shoulders of my father and my maternal grandmother. Yiayia, having seen little importance in passing on the language to her children, took a similar stance when it came to her grandchild. And so, Dad was left to take up the role of teacher to a pupil with an appetite far more suited to Greek food than phrases.

For a number of years in my childhood we traveled back to Greece every other summer. I picked up quite a bit of the language simply via osmosis while playing with my cousins. As I grew older, Dad altered his tactic to a more formal style of instruction, writing out the Greek alphabet with vocabulary and conjugated verbs for me to study. If I bucked against the early approach, imagine how I felt about this technique. Still, despite my resistance, I learned some Greek. Growing up the son of an immigrant, it’s virtually impossible not to attain at least the most rudimentary knowledge of their mother tongue. Now I wonder why I didn’t just take formal language classes through our church’s Greek School, but that’s another matter.

These days, when I’m out-and-about among the cultural mish-mash that is the San Francisco Bay Area, I enjoy listening to people speak in their native tongues. I’ve never agreed with the “Why-don’t-all-these-immigrants-just-learn-English” philosophy. Sure, it’s important to assimilate, to some degree, to one’s new homeland, but I believe there is immense value in retaining the cultural customs and language of one’s former home. American culture is an international culture, so diversity of language is, in itself, truly American.

Anyhow, all this is to say, that despite my rocky beginnings learning a second language, I did, in my early twenties, finally begin formally studying Greek. I can now read, write, and carry a level of fluent conversation. I even dream in Greek on occasion. Improving my Greek through the years has allowed me to not only strengthen family ties with relatives in the old country, but also connect on a deeper level with the local Greek-American community, as the stories of our shared experience are best uttered in the mother tongue. Even Dad is impressed with my progress.

Of course, I still have slip-ups, and what I find most fascinating is the fact that when learning a new language, one has to gain a certain mastery over both verbal, and non-verbal cues. Body language is as much a linguistic component as is the spoken word.

My recent flash fiction piece, included below, comically explores this intersection of body and spoken language. Home you enjoy, ελπιζω να σου αρεσει, and please share your own experiences learning Greek, or another language!

Crossed Signals
–Apollo Papafrangou, 2015

I’m eight years old, and my sweet tooth is loose, though the gradual detachment from my gums does little to dull its plight. In this Mediterranean heat Yiayia offers me an ice cream bar and I extend eager palms, undeterred by the frosty burn of the treat’s wrapper against my skin. I amble to the edge of the garden. Over the low wall the ocean seems a single step away, though a fishing boat bobs toy-like at the horizon. I brought toys with me on this trip, toys from America, playthings my cousins have seldom seen. I’m eight years old, and though I’ve already been to Greece a handful of times, it’s still difficult to comprehend that these fellow children, despite our obvious resemblance, are my relatives. How can we be related and yet live a world away from one another, how can summer be the lone season fit to re-tighten family ties?

My friend Prokopis, son to Koula, Yiayia’s neighbor, saunters toward me, his skin the color of beach sand, eyes dark as the olives we eat with the mid-day meals prepared by Thea Anna. “Yasou, Prokopi,” I say.

Yasou, Marko.”

When we left for Greece, two hands were all I needed to tally the amount of Greek words known to me. Now, when I close my eyes I picture jumbled phrases crowding my throat, the syllables releasing with greater ease each time I open my mouth, making room for more.

“Prokopi, sou aresei pagotoh? Theleis ena?

Prokopis regards my ice cream bar, his tongue darting out for an instant, like that of the lizards who skitter across the cobblestone, to wet his lower lip. But he only tilts his head in what I translate as a gesture of refusal. We lean against the garden wall, regarding the soil now as our bare toes descend into the patches of earth bordering the tomato vines. We talk of games, of Greek cartoons, all the while Prokopis’s gaze returns now and then to my steadily diminishing ice cream. I lick at the dribbles of chocolate, sweet tiny streams between my fingers. I wonder how he could pass up such a treat on a day hot as this, but I don’t ask.

Yiayia emerges from the home’s side door carrying basket of laundry to hang on the line. With furrowed brow she contemplates the scene: me standing there with a sticky ice cream wrapper, Prokopis’s hands all too clean. She waves me over, asks why I didn’t offer an ice cream to my friend. When I explain what happened, mimicking Prokopis head-tilting gesture, Yiayia lets out a laugh that rattles her dentures. She explains that in Greece such a head movement means “Yes.” My face turns red. I don’t want to look at Prokopis, wary of what he must have been thinking all this time. Instead, I scamper past Yiayia, into the kitchen and over to the freezer, re-emerging outside with a pair of ice cream bars, both of which I give to Prokopis. I say sorry, but he only nods his head, the Greek way, I infer, of saying “Don’t mention it.”

There are still so many things to learn; new words are bad enough, and now I have to contend with body language. But Prokopis is smiling. Surely a good sign in any language.

Plight of the #Greek #Fishermen. #MondayBlogs #flashfiction #Greece #culture

Greek fisherman contemplates the sea.

Greek fisherman contemplates the sea.

It’s an iconic image, that of the classic Greek fisherman: burly son of Poseidon, heir to the sea God’s kingdom; eyes fierce beneath his crown in the form of a sturdy-brimmed cap, grasp wielding not a trident but a net cast into the indigo depths of the Aegean. Many a postcard features images of these legendary aquamen in their kai′kis (or caiques)–the small wooden watercraft by which they earn their trade, often painted in brilliant hues and bestowed with female names. Since ancient times the Greeks have been a seafaring people, braving unpredictable oceans to trade with or battle other Mediterranean cultures. Prominent Hellenic storytellers, from Homer to Niko Kazantzakis, have depicted such adventures. Visit any museum featuring exhibits from antiquity, and you will spot at least one artifact from ancient Greece showcasing a painting of a fisherman displaying his bounty.

In the more recent past, many Greeks–at least those residing by the sea–made their living via fishing boat. Setting sail at dusk, returning at dawn, they made enough money to feed their families. But now that tradition is in jeopardy; a majority of Greece’s fishermen in danger of being relegated to the realm of myth. What a shame that would be.

A classic Greek fishing boat.

A classic Greek fishing boat.

I was inspired to write this post after coming across a feature on The Atlantic’s website profiling Austrian writer/photographer Christian Stemper and his book Lupimaris (Wolves of the Sea). The work offers pictures and portraits of fishermen from the island of Paros. For Stemper, the inspiration to create the book came after he visited Greece and listened to the tales of these aquatic travelers, their faces and voices worn following years spent traversing the ocean. The images, of both the men and their boats, are stunning in their vividness. (Check http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/the-endangered-fishermen-of-greece/404188 for the feature.)

Apart from its sheer beauty, The Atlantic article struck a personal note. My paternal great-grandfather, Thanasi, was a fisherman from Paros who wanted to work in Ermioni, the Peloponnesian coastal town where my father was born and raised. I don’t know if he found the same success in his new home, but he managed to lure my great-grandmother Eleni on board, so I suppose it all worked out.

Anyhow, further investigation into the plight of today’s Greek fishermen reveals that their trade is endangered largely due over-fishing in the Mediterranean–much of the damage caused by commercial trawlers that bulldoze the ocean floor. Measures, such as strict regulations, have been taken to combat exploitation of the oceans and the fish population is already rising to sustainable levels, but by-and-large the younger generation no longer sees the fishing trade as a viable option in earning an income. There is a danger that fishing via caique will disappear. However, I’m reminded of my uncle Mihalis: to supplement his dwindling pension, he has taken to the sea in a caique to catch fish which he then sells to the markets in Ermioni. In fact, many Greeks in the face of the economic crisis are returning to old traditions. Perhaps, out of necessity and hunger, the Greek fishermen will rise in greater numbers once again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To accompany this post, I’d like to share a recent flash-fiction piece further exploring the Greek fisherman theme:

DESPINA

At some point, months or years before I arrived, Yiannis adopted the slump-shouldered gait of a widower, his gaunt face fixed on the ground, apart from the times his eyes traced the shoreline. His hair and beard were sardine-silver and contrasted against the perpetual darkness of his attire with the shimmer of fish scales reflecting from the shallows of a moonlit sea. I befriended him one evening after he waved me over to share a plate of meze, extending his hand and offering a place at his taverna table with the classic hospitality of most Greeks. I learned he had spent the majority of his years working as a fisherman, though he’d given up the trade for reasons he didn’t offer. Instead, we spoke–rather he spoke while I listened–of a woman named Despina who I assumed was his deceased wife.

“Despina was there for me every morning,” Yiannis said one evening as we sat sipping ouzo and gazing out at the oil-dark ocean. “She greeted me with a brightness, with an open heart, every morning, no matter what had occurred the night before. Basking in her glow, I was ready to face the day.”

“Sounds like a beautiful lady,” I said.

Yiannis nodded. “She wasn’t one for early sustenance, but let me eat my first meal in her company, always, and then we set to the sea. We basked beneath the sun, watched the ebb and flow of the waves, together we endured the occasional storm. Whether the expedition brought a bounty, or only a scarce haul, Despina was never wavering in her support, in her comfort, in her loyalty.”

“She sounds truly spectacular.”

“She was indeed.”

“I can’t imagine how that loss must have felt. How it still feels.”

Yiannis drained the remainder of his drink, motioned for the waiter to bring him another. “My biggest regret is letting her go.”

I raised an eyebrow. Yiannis had never spoken of his loss in such a way. “There was nothing you could do, friend. It’s not your fault she died.”

Yiannis regarded me with those coal-black eyes. “Died? Who?”

“Despina,” I said. “Your wife.”

Yiannis laughed. “My wife? Palikari mou, I’ve never been married. Despina was my fishing boat. I was forced to sell her years ago.”

“Oh. …I’m sorry for your loss.”

Yianni offered only a stiff nod, then turned to the ocean again. “God bless her soul, wherever she is, however far the sea has taken her.”
End