Thursday, January 2, 2014

Vasilopita a tradition for all Greeks…that sometimes gets weird.

Every new year, pretty much all the Greeks, at least the ones I know, prepare, or buy and cut a Vasilopita to celebrate the new year.

It is an ancient tradition that honors St Basil.

A pita, or a cake with a coin in it, is cut into slices representing the New Year, St Basil, the Family, as well as each member of the family. Whoever gets the coin has good luck for the rest of the year.

When our kids were small we had to cut at least three pies, and I had to manage the cutting so they all won coins.

Sorry kids.

The pitas vary depending on the regions, some are more bread like others more cakelike, the decoration is usually the year or a New Years greeting, with almonds and sesame seeds…at least Mama’s were like that.

This year Jeannine didn’t get a chance to make her own, I went to the bakery in town and found this weird one…I didn’t buy it, it was much too creepy for me, I bought a plain one.

It had a bizarre effect on me, it immediately took me back 70 years, and it made me think of my father and his friends. Our pita was cut at midnight exactly, with the sign of the cross, all the appropriate blessings and all the anticipation of who would win the coin. I think Pop maneuvered it so the store was the winner frequently (good for the whole family).

This weird pita had some playing cards (real ones), an ashtray, edible, as well as two cigars in the ashtray…made of chocolate.

It reminded me of Pop and his friends that played poker after the pita was cut and they all smoked cigars.

70 years come racing back because of a Vasilopita proudly displayed in a bakery window.
Playing cards an ashtray and cigars…should have had a tsiporo glass as well, since they drank, pretty much all night.

Thinking about it now, I should have bought that pita.

I am going to go there today and see if he still has it. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My singing cousins

It is amazing, since I have a tin ear, that two of my first cousins were professional singers.

My Mother’s family left Turkey after the Catastrophe and went to France. My Mothers oldest brother was there to avoid the Turkish draft.

Mom married my Father in Paris and they went to the States in 1927.

When I went to Paris with my Mother in 1946 as a chubby American kid, to see my Grandmother, who unfortunately was dying, I met my Mothers family for the first time. 

Mom had an older brother and sister as well as two younger brothers and a younger sister.

Her older sister, my Thea Fotini, had three sons, Marco, Jean, and Vasso, they all were tailors, like the rest of the family. I have no idea why they were tailors; maybe the oldest brother who was there before was one.

Two of her sons, my cousins, Jean and Vasso, were singers as well as tailors, the tailors that sang or the singing tailors. Not their stage names. One, Jean Marco ( Marcopoulos ) became very famous after the war. He unfortunately died in a car crash in the early 50s, just as he was really getting famous and about to appear in a movie.

Jean would come to my uncle’s house where we were staying; he was in his early twenties, handsome and unbelievable charming. The family gathered there frequently to visit with us, since they hadn’t seen Mom in 20 years. Jean would bring his guitar and sing for us. He sang songs from Asia Minor, Greek rembetika songs, French ones that he wrote, and I vaguely remember him singing some popular American songs. I wish I could remember which ones.

All I remember is how happy the family was, he was magnetic and it was obvious that the whole family loved him and were proud of him.

Jean’s younger brother Vasso , just a few years older than me sang as well. He taught me to ride a bike with another cousin on the streets of Paris. I was a chubby American kid being harassed by my French cousins, as I wobbled down the street on a rusty bike.

God, they were patient but pretty cruel.

Quite a few years later 1956 or ’57 Vasso the younger brother came to the States with a group of singers,
“The Street Kids”, or something like that, to appear on the Ed Sullivan show. He was a very cool guy.
He came out to Coney Island to visit us; he asked me where he could buy some American Jeans. He wanted to take them back to Paris and sell them, he told me he could sell them for a fortune in Paris and make more than he was being paid for the Sullivan show, with the other three guys.

We went to an Army and Navy store on Mermaid ave. and he bought armloads of jeans, counting the thousands of French Franks in his mind. He and his older brother could adjust them to fit the buyers, remember they were first of all tailors.

He was an Asia Minor entrepreneur after all.

He also asked my sisters where he could buy some fancy brassieres. He was a charming guy and everybody helped him in the stores like crazy, his English left a lot to be desired but my French still sucks.
I am not too sure what he did with the bras and did he make them fit to order or were they for one girl.

I remember him on the show wearing a striped tee shirt and they all wore berets, as they should since they were after all, “The Street Kids” straight from Paris.

I found a site on the Internet that talks about my cousins but more importantly there is a note from my eldest cousin Marco’s daughter, Sophie Marcopoulos. She confirms that Jean was the center of the family and his death was a devastating event for the full family.

 The search continues, thank heavens for the Internet.

There is more family out there.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The smoking room

Pretty much everybody I know that smokes or used to smoke has started the same way.
As a kid 12,13 years old, they stole cigarettes from their Father’s pack.

My Pop smoked cigars, 5 cent White Owls, they even had a hole in them so you didn’t have to bite the end off…I would have preferred to have been able to bite the ends off. Seemed more cigar-like.

We had a luncheonette in Coney Island, since we sold cigars and cigarettes it was no big deal to steal a couple of cigars when I wanted to smoke. It never entered my mind to steal cigarettes, Pop smoked cigars so that is what I would smoke.

I have no idea if Pop knew. He never said anything. I suspect Moma knew, but she probably thought Pop was smoking more.

I would go the beach with a couple of friends to smoke, usually at night so we would not be seen.

We would climb up on to the abandoned lifeguard’s chair to smoke and look at the ocean…if we were lucky we had a full moon.

It seems like the epitome of the luxurious cigar smoking experience, view of the sea, two good friends sharing the experience.

Throwing up after the first few puffs at the beginning didn’t seem to take too much away from the experience. Eventually we were able to finish the cigars and did not even get nauseous or turn green.

The view, the friendship, the slight guilt, the danger of being caught, seemed to make smoking attractive.
I became a cigar smoker, preferred them to cigarettes. The real attraction, memories and friendship, was related to 5 cent White Owl cigars.

I eventually progressed to better cigars. Cubans.

I gave my Father a Cuban cigar once thinking he would love it, not a chance, he immediately started a White Owl and offered me one saying “Here is a real cigar. Pare ena alithino puro, vre.”

I could never smoke in front of my Mother or Father. No matter how old I was or even if my parents lived longer, it would have been impossible to smoke in front of them. It must have been a bizarre kind of respect or maybe even a bit of fear.

Of my entire cigar smoking experiences, great cigars after a great meal in exotic places… not one of them, lived up to smoking a cheap crappy cigar with some friends, up a lifeguard chair on the beach at night in Coney Island, watching the sea, even though I threw up after.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How to eat Barbounia

By far one of my favorite fish to eat is fresh caught and fresh fried Barbounia,
crispy from head to tail.
They are small and delicious…for you xeni, they are red mullets.

There is an old Greek expression that says,
“The cats in Greece do not eat Barbounia, there is never anything left for them.”

I go with some Greek friends to
a small place owned and run by a fisherman and his wife,
We eat there a couple of times a month.
Freshly caught Barbounia, a good Greek salad, Tsipouro, ice and water, best meze possible.
OK, before I get complaints, it is pretty good with Ouzo as well.

Obviously the place, like all Greek tavernas has its share of cats,
Although these are never pests and do not beg for scraps,
especially if you have ordered Barbounia. How do they know?
We have many friends in the area and sometimes they join us,
the men at least, since this is a man-thing.

They are not Greeks and they do not really know how to eat Barbounia.
They leave the heads and try to take the skin off, and all tails are left on their plate.
They even order beer…you guessed it, British.

The cats seem to know that these guys will leave some of their Barbounia,
they probably hear them speak English.
My American accent keeps the cats away, just like Greek does.

For the best Barbounia and the smartest cats, go to Giorgo’s place,
Just do not speak English, especially with a British accent.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Crystals in the Labyrinth!

I was getting dizzy when I turned my head a certain way, or when I got up.
It even happened when I rolled over in bed at times.

Was I having a hangover, was it my blood pressure, was it something in my brain, what the hell was going on? Balance has never been a great strength of mine, in anything, even walking.

It had to be my age, old geezers seem to stagger around, and I was on that road.

I went to my local doctor, here, in the town where we live in Greece.

He happens to be a cardiologist, and we have a drink in town when we meet up.
After a bit of a chat, discussing the quality of the barbounia (fish) in the taverna where we meet, he tells me it is not my heart or my blood pressure. It must be my inner ear.

We are about to leave for the States and I figured I would see our general practitioner there.

I visited our doctor in NY and as usual he sends me to an “expert,” actually to a specialist in dizziness.
In reality to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Turns out he is a Greek, we are all over and evidently experts in dizziness.

Great office, 30 diplomas on the wall…very impressive guy, he even has a beard.

I start to feel that he will cure my dizzy spells. I tell him what is going on and he says,
“Crystals are loose, they are roaming in the labyrinth.” That is one hell of a diagnosis! I love it.

 All this within 15 seconds, and he also tells me, all of this, is in my inner ear.

“ What is the treatment for these rambling crystals?" I assume it might be surgery or something equally complex.

He makes me lie on a table with my head lower than my body. He turns my head to the right and then to the left, he then has me sit up and says to hold on to the table, not him, since I will be dizzy.

That is it…he managed to get the crystals where they belong…no more dizziness. I figure he should be wearing horns and furs…seems like witchcraft to me.

OK, let me explain a bit, the inner ear is like an octopus with channels going all over, somewhere on top is a platform with crystals balanced on it. This platform sometimes weakens and some crystals fall off and get into the channels and cause havoc, vertigo, dizziness. It could be caused by age (me) or an accident. 

Voila, crystals in the labyrinth.

He thinks I should have a session of physiotherapy. The therapist is a great looking Russian girl, she puts a mask on me and tells me to keep my eyes open, she makes me go through the same thing, head to the right, then to the left, sit up. All this while connected to a computer.

Shazam! It is done.

No more dizziness. This should last a while. If I get it again, follow these instructions: head back, to the right, to the left, sit up and those crystals scramble back where they belong and out of the labyrinth.

All of this is available on the Internet. I could have done it myself, but I would not have had as much fun.
No Greek doctor, beard, diplomas, Russian therapist, masks, computers and amazement.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Turkey to New York, now and 100 years ago.

We normally go to the states once a year for doctors and family. We go direct from Athens non-stop.
This year there were no direct flights from Athens to NY during the winter, evidently they will start again in June.

The decision was where do we connect?
France was out, I hate Charles De Gaulle airport, did not want to do Germany nor the UK.
Turkish Airlines keeps getting great reviews so we decided on Istanbul as a connection to the States. It is a city we love and my Parents were Greeks from Asia Minor…it also occurred to me that Pop made the same trip more than a 100 years ago, more about that later.

The flight from Athens to Istanbul was good, on time, great food even on the short hop, new plane and good service, so far so good.
We arrive and realize it is a huge crazy airport.

Turkish airline personnel speak English…but nobody at the airport seems to, I asked somebody in a uniform if he spoke English and he said, “yes I do” and walked away. I guess he realized I was Greek. We eventually found our gate…even though it changed twice.

A word of warning, if you are flying from Athens and it is a Greek flight your destination is called Constantinople but fly Turkish airways and it is Istanbul.
By the way, Istanbul is Greek as well, it comes from the Greeks saying, “ Is tin Poly” (to the city), the Turks took to calling Constantinople, Istanbul.

It seems to me it would be OK to call it Istanbul at the Greek airport, although I like the idea that we are going to Constantinople.

Flight to the States was great…crowded but not a problem, good food, good drinks, good entertainment, movies, internet…more drinks, more food and we arrive in NY right on time.

I suddenly started thinking about my Father making the trip about 1913 more or less.
My grandfather would send his sons abroad so they would not have to serve in the Turkish army.
Pop made the trip before the Catastrophe in 1922.

I have just a few hints about his trip as well as a bit of research.

The village, Michaniona, is on the Sea of Marmara…at least 6 hours away from Constantinople by ship.
Pop spoke about having been to the “Poli” when he was a kid. Perhaps he went there and took a ship to Smyrna and then took a ship to England.

He once told us, when I was transferred to London, that perhaps he should have stayed there,
a hint that he was there at some point. After all, his older brother Theo Stefanos went to England before, avoiding the Turkish draft as well. When he returned to Greece after the Catastrophe he was called “O Englesos”, I wonder if I have any English cousins, Theo Stefano was the family rascal after all.

It is possible Pop went to the States via England.
He must have worked for some relative when he got to the States and became a candy maker. They usually went to be with a relative and were apprenticed to whatever that relative did.

I do not know what his trip was exactly, but it had to be complicated and long and difficult.

I bitch about delays at airports with a drink in my hand in the first class lounge. Pop took a month at least to make the trip, maybe more. A kid with no knowledge of where he was going exactly, I feel for what he must have suffered.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

“Damn it… another dog in a yard.”

While in college I worked for the post office at Christmas time delivering mail.
This was pre Internet and it was snail mail, especially at Christmas time, tons of it.
Two to three weeks of helping the regular mailman.

It was my first government job; my second was the Army a few years later.

Before I go any further, I have to explain something; as a kid growing up in Coney Island, dogs were not part of my life as they are now. Through my wife and kids, all dog lovers I have become pretty much a dog person.

In an immigrant neighborhood where I was raised, nobody had pets, certainly no dogs, maybe a cat for mice if you had a store. Dogs were scary; think of the expression “junk yard dogs.”

I delivered mail in Brooklyn, but a Brooklyn different from Coney Island.

I delivered mail in a neighborhood that had single and double family houses. These houses had front yards with fences around them and they had dogs; big noisy, snarling, vicious, rabid dogs, between me and the mail box, which was usually on the porch. Perhaps the regular mailman knew each dog personally…but not me, to me they were “junk yard dogs.” All dogs were supposed to be dangerous.

There was only one way to deliver the mail, after all, the mail must get through, even though it was
only Christmas cards and life magazines and ads.

I opened the gates and the dogs ran out, free and happy I guess.
I could deliver my load of mail. I have created a whole neighborhood of released happy dogs involved with each other, probably mating and making more dogs for next years Christmas help.

I am not proud of this crappy thing I did, I would like to personally apologize to my daughter Chris (she is a great dog lover, check her blog,

I remember arriving at a house, no yard, and no dog. I start to put some mail in the brass slot at the bottom of the door and I am ambushed by a dog on the inside, he grabs my fingers and I try to pull my hand out and the mail slot closes on my fingers cutting them. Freezing weather, bleeding fingers and the dog is on the inside proudly barking away.

How do I get me revenge on this beast, it actually might have been a tiny poodle, but to me he was a snarling Ridgeback; I get a life magazine out of my bag, I have no idea if they even subscribed. I put the magazine in the slot until the dog gets a hold of it. I then pull him into the door and then ram the magazine in…hoping to skewer him; I must have missed because he continued barking and probably making fun of me, giving me the “paw.”

Aside from the cold and the dogs, delivering Christmas mail was OK, meeting for coffee and killing time so we could go out on a second run and drag it into heavy overtime.

I now know all dogs are not “junk yard dogs’” at least the ones I have in my yard aren’t.