Thursday, September 30, 2010

"I don't have a name day, nobody sends me flowers"

When I was working in Greece, where name days are even more important than birthdays, I had a client, he was Swiss and worked for Nestle, he was the chief marketing officer, he complained to me one day that he did not have a name day. It seems he was not getting flowers or presents once a year like everybody else.

I diligently looked up Greek saints; after all he was a client, but also a friend. No luck, no Greek saints called Ray, or Raymundo. What a great opportunity to create a new saint. Ray was in charge of all Nestle brands, but we worked with him mostly on Loumides, Greek coffee.

We had to create a reason for this saint, we decided that Raymundo brought coffee to Greece and that was reason enough for sainthood. There would be no Cafenia, no intense discussions, no Greece as we know it today, without St Raymundo’s contribution. Real reason for sainthood.

I have been a creative guy my whole career, art director, creative director, all my life creating ads, commercials etc. I never had the opportunity to create a saint. This was a terrific opportunity, not too many ad guys get to create a saint.

We decided to make this saint coming to Greece on a boat, from the east, and holding a cup of Greek coffee. We debated if there should be a parrot on the boat, but decided that would much too commercial, after all we are talking about a saint, St. Raymundo.

A saint without an Icon is impossible; we had to have an Icon. I went to see an icon painter that had done some icons for me as presents. My first problem, he was willing to do it, but he could not put a golden halo on this figure, he would lose his icon license or something. We finally settled on the design.

Now we had to write the declaration for this saint, almost a saint, since his icon had no golden halo.

One of our creative directors wrote it up, with all the pomp that these things have to be written up with. We aged the paper, not worrying that it was printed up off his computer. We also decided that his name day would be December twelfth. It was the day everything was finished by, seemed like a good day.

The Icon, document and flowers, with a note saying Chronia Polla, was delivered to Nestle, never again would Ray have any complaints about not having a name day and not getting flowers. Another satisfied client.

All of you remember the day; the twelfth of December is St Raymoundo’s day. Send flowers and notes, after all he was responsible for an indispensible part of Greek life.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

For a few drachmas more...

We first came to Greece in the early sixties and visited relatives in Edipsos, on the island of Evia, a small Greek town.
We were there a few days and I went to the barbershop with a cousin for his twice-weekly shave. I never had a barber shave me; I was looking forward to it.

When my turn came, the barber asked me if I wanted a shave with a view or not.

The shop went quiet, they all looked at me to see my reaction. The barber continued his sales pitch, he said “ for a few drachmas more”, I could have my shave with a view of the sea.

How could I resist, I said “naturally with a view”, how were they going to do that, since we were on a side street. The barber’s chair was moved to the street and turned to the left and looked down the street to a glimpse of the sea.

I was seated in the middle of the street, facing the sea, not a bad view of the sea; I also was not a bad view to most of the town, sitting there like a goof.

The young boy that was helping the barber ran out with a bucket of hot water, some towels and a brush and soap. I was lathered up and got my first shave from a barber. I had a view and a great shave, it was worth a few drachmas more. It really was worth it when the raki came out with all the customers as well and we toasted my view.

I have had many professional shaves throughout the world, never was I asked if I wanted a shave with or without a view.

It seems like a great sales pitch.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"What the hell is my name Pop?

When my father came to the States in the early nineteen hundreds, he like so many had his name shortened or even changed by the immigration guys. I am sure he would have accepted any name, Smith, Jones, Ramirez, or Shapiro, anything, just to get in.

He ended up with a shortened version of his Greek name, Birbil, but what was the original? When I was a kid I was not that interested, I just added an - os when I wanted to give my Greek name, Birbilos. In Greece I used Birbilis, it was common and I was able to use it easily.

When I was a kid, my father told me that we were originally from Crete and had been moved to Asia Minor in the late seventeen hundreds. The village in Asia Minor was Mixaniona, on the Sea of Marmara. It supposedly meant not Chania, but I have been unable to get much information about that.

Back to the name, when I wanted to get my Greek nationality, I had to prove that my father was Greek; his papers in the States had him down originally as a Turk.
No amount of reassurance from the Greek Church in Brooklyn was enough for the Greek government. I had to have a copy of their wedding certificate, they married in Paris in 1928, how do I do that?

I have cousins in Paris, they said, “no problem”, I thought it is never going to happen. They went to the church in Paris, Agios Stephanos, and in five days I had the copy of their wedding certificate.

Low and behold, Pop’s name was down as Birbilakis, Cretan as all get out.

So my Greek name is Birbilakis, Grigorios Polichronis Birbilakis. Some moniker. I did some more checking and many of the refugees from Mixaniona have - akis at the end of their names. Pop as usual was right, we were originally from Crete.

The Turks are responsible for Greek last names, they gave us last names so they could tell where we were from. The -aki at the end of names in Crete were an insult, it meant little, it was Birbilaki, little Birbil, (the word Birbil is the name of a bird, a Nightingale or the sound it makes). The Greeks added the s to diminish and even eliminate the insult of -aki. No more little captains, little birds, or little anything.

The Greeks from various parts of Greece have specific last names, if you were from Constantinople your ending would be -oglou (son of), if from the Black sea area it had an ending -des, this went on all over Greece. You can identify pretty accurately where Greeks originated from by the ending of their names

I am in the process of getting in touch with the town council of Chania, in Crete to see what information I can get about when the move happened. I am not too optimistic, maybe I should check the churches there, they seem to function a lot better than the government.

If I make any progress on this I will let you know. Any ideas will be greatly appreciated.

Monday, September 6, 2010

There ain't no Olive trees in Coney Island

As a Greek from Brooklyn, my vision of Greece was Olive trees, a view of the sea, Cypress trees, and a small church.

My parents were Asia Minor Greeks, they were obsessed with the sea, we lived in Coney Island, I am sure the sea being so close was one of the reasons they settled there. No Cypress trees and certainly no Olive trees in Coney Island.

When we visited the village in Turkey where they were born I do not remember any olive trees, they all lived off the sea, fishermen, all of them. I suppose the cemetery had Cypress trees, but I do not remember them.

My vision of Greece certainly had Olive, and Cypress trees, as well as a church.

We bought a piece of property in the Argolida, near Porto Heli, big Olive tree area and plenty of sea views.

The property we bought, for some reason, was the only five stremmata piece in the Argolida with no Olive trees, no Cypress trees and no church, nevertheless we have an amazing view of the sea. That is something I could not have fixed, the rest we could do something about.

I found out that Olive trees could be transplanted, moved from one area to another.
Had we planted seedlings, my grandkids would have seen mature trees.

We transplanted two and three hundred year old trees, exactly where we wanted them. We have one at the top of the driveway. A friend told us we were very lucky to have found that tree in such a perfect location, he is a lawyer so what can you expect. He could not conceive of moving such a large and old tree.

The Cypress trees as well, were transplanted, a much easier job than the Olive trees. We also built a small chapel, named for my wife’s late brother, Agios Demitrios. Our son painted the frescoes in the church, more about that later.

I wanted our very modern house to look like it was dropped in the middle of old stone walls, old Olive trees and an old stone chapel. It worked.

It helped being in advertising and supervising photo and television productions.

“You want an Olive tree there, you got it”.

“Old stonewalls, no problem, you got it”.

“Cypress trees there, near the front door and here, you got it”.

I realized building a house is a lot like doing a TV commercial, what you want, you get, and you pay for it.

Back to the Olive trees, they have been in this part of the world for thousands of years; it is inconceivable to imagine Greece without them.

We make olives to eat and even make or own oil, although we have to steal some from abandoned fields to have enough olives for a decent amount of oil.

I have become a Greek when I talk about my Olives,

“The best oil, and just taste that olive, and you cannot buy stuff like that”.

I sort of even believe it.

The sea, Olive trees, Cypress trees, old stonewalls, a stone church, what more could a kid from Brooklyn want?

I could use my own water and not have to have it shipped in by truck. We did dig a well at the beginning and we found part of our view, sea, even crabs came up.

No real complaints, not too many guys from Coney Island have their own Olive trees.

I often wonder what Momma and Pop would think.