Saturday, December 15, 2012

My first job in advertising...sort of

I started working in summers when I was 14, in Coney Island.

My father had an ice cream parlor there but he didn’t let me work for him, he believed I should work for somebody else since fathers are too soft or much too hard on their own sons.

I went to work for a Greek friend of my father’s and his son went to work for my Pop.
He got the better deal than I did; his father was rough on the help.

My first job was working at a souvenir stand in Steeplechase amusement park, my second year I worked for another friend of my Father’s and his son worked for my Father, this went on for about 3 years.

At 17 I decided to get a job more closely related to what I was studying, I was attending the High School of Industrial Art, SIA. I found a job with a sign painter; I assumed sign painting would be sort of like advertising (I could use my Caslon skills).

I got this job at a sign painter on Ave U in Brooklyn named Gus. It was the first time I worked for a non-Greek, even though he had a Greek name, maybe he would pay better.

The first week I painted backgrounds, mostly white enamel, Gus was a minimalist sign painter. I never touched any lettering. Gus would occasionally let me fill in some lettering he outlined; I was making progress.

He tells me one day that we have to go take down some three-dimensional letters from an A&P in Queens.

This store was on a hill and Gus sets up some ladders, rather precariously; he hands me a screwdriver and tells me to start removing the letters as he scoots up his ladder.

I am terrified of heights and keep dropping the screwdriver and make absolutely no progress in removing the letters.

I tell Gus I cannot do this, I hate heights, especially on a ladder that is precariously balanced.

Gus looks at me sadly and delivers this killer line.

“ Sorry kid, you don’t have it in you to be a sign painter, you better find something else to do in your life”.

Could this be the end of my advertising career so soon?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brooklyn goes to Ascot

London in the late 70s…McCann would sponsor a day at the races, Ascot actually.

We would invite our clients, suppliers and senior staff for a day out. We had a tent with drinks and food.
It was quite a posh thing and it was something new and different for me.

In Chicago we would sometimes take clients to a baseball game. No Champagne, just beer and hot dogs

Now the real problem for Ascot was the outfit, men had to wear a morning coat. The ladies wore flowered dresses with big hats. I naturally had no morning coat so I went to Moss bros. to rent it. Moss bros. was an amazing store…Google it, you could find anything as well as pretty much rent anything in the way of clothes.

I owned a tuxedo since London was a tuxedo kind of place…but I had to rent a morning suit.

When you wear tuxedos or morning suits there are a couple of tests that tell you if they are rented or they are actually owned.

If they fit well and are clean, they are probably rented.

Guys that have their own usually don’t actually fit them any more; also if they have a slight green sheen they inherited them from their Grandfathers or their Fathers.

This green sheen adds a bit of class to the whole thing.

Guys that have their own do not seem to care very much about the shoes they wear…I have seen suede shoes with greenish tuxedos.

It really takes confidence to pull that off, I suppose when you have your own tuxedo or your Grandfather's, confidence is part of the package.

My tuxedos had no green sheen since my Grandfather was a fisherman in Asia Minor, no real call for a tuxedo and certainly none for a morning suit.

There is another test for a rented morning suit, the vest (waist coat) has no back, just straps, a real one has a back to the vest. If it is not greenish and you give him a manly hug you can tell by how the vest feels in back.
Remember no back to the vest and straps it is rented, probably from Moss Bross.

Back to Ascot.

The Queen came in her carriage and opened the event, Prince Phillip was there, I’m sure his morning suit was his own…no need to hug him and check on the vest.

It was a great day, lots of greenish outfits very classy, also lots of well fitting outfits, the Moss Bros. crowd.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Diving 50 years ago in Nassau.

We have been married over fifty years and we went to Nassau on our honeymoon.
It was January and not only did we go diving for the first time in our lives but we took our first airplane ride….lots of firsts on our honeymoon, no sly comments please.
The hotel arranged the dive boat, the captain was a cool guy and his mother was a crewmember and some weird other guy actually seemed to do all the work. The captain would be in the water with us when we dove. He wore a traditional scuba suit and tanks. We on the other hand (2 at a time) wore these huge brass helmets and were connected to the boat by an air hose and a rope. The captain’s mother was in charge of the helmets and connections to the boat, weird, but it worked.

We went out for about an hour to what seemed like the middle of the ocean.
He told us we were over a reef and the water was about 15 feet, seemed nuts, we could not see land.
The water was just about 15 feet; we were surrounded by an amazing sight, thousands of fish, coral, colors, plants, a new world for us. Never saw any of this in Coney Island.

Trained Groupers came to be fed and petted, they expected the tourists and were super to them, mostly because they got their supper from them.

I loved it and Jeannine adored it, she normally was not very good in the water and her going under water with this thing on her head was unbelievable.

The pictures pretty much sum it up. We were very happy under there.

For some reason, it took years for me to dive again, at age 69 I started to dive here in Greece. No big helmet on my head, but normal scuba stuff. We do not have what we had in Nassau, from the point of view of scenery, but it is much freer and still amazing.

What took me so long?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pavlo, my tailor.

I come from a family of tailors on my Mothers side.

Mama and her family ended up in Paris after the Asia Minor catastrophe.

My uncles were all men’s tailors and my Father was totally transformed when he went to Paris to marry my mother.

He embarrassed the Frenchified Greeks when he turned up in his loud American outfits; they made him a complete new wardrobe.

The only way they could introduce him to the other Frenchy Greeks.

Mama ran the workshop and was a talented seamstress and tailor herself.

When we went to Greece for the first time in the early 60s, we visited relatives in Edipso on the island of Evia.

These were my Fathers relatives, fishermen stock and all, except one cousin, were fishermen.

Fishermen on one side, Pops folks,
 Tailors on the other side, Mom’s family.

 Nevertheless the fishermen side had one tailor, I wonder how that happened?

 Every Greek village at that time had at least one tailor; my cousin Pavlo was one of the tailors in Edipso.

I really felt that I should have a Greek suit made by my cousin, my first custom-made suit.

It seemed appropriate that it should be Greek and by Pavlo.

OK, it is not Saville row; it’s a shop on an unpaved street on a Greek island.  That’s Ok; I am from Coney Island after all.

I wanted the trousers low cut like my Levis, Pavlo agreed but insisted on pleats.

The jacket had wide lapels and shoulder pads…nothing Ivy League about that.

Pavlo said the suit needed a vest (a waistcoat, for you Brits) my first three- piece suit.

We were going to be travelling around Greece and he had three weeks to make it, no time for fittings.

We arrive and I try on the suit, it seemed everybody in the village came to the unveiling.

Jacket is great, wide lapels and big shoulders…I feel good in it.

Trousers fit great, low cut and pleats, it works.

They help me off with my jacket and I slip into the vest, they do not reach the top of my trousers, normally the trousers are a lot higher. My low cut trousers have screwed it all up.

It works OK if I lean forward. Pavlo wants to make the vest over; no time we have a plane from Athens in the morning the next day.

I put on all three pieces and sort of bend over and everybody starts spiting three times (it means you look great and the spitting prevents the evil eye)

I wore that suit many times…made me look very continental, Greek at least. In the Greek restaurants in Chicago in the 60s it was recognized as a Greek suit, an authentic Pavlo.

The photo is Jeannine and me in Chicago; we were expecting our first child. I am the one in Pavlo’s suit.

I miss that suit.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“DESK DRAWERS!” I shouted at the top of my voice.

Learning a new language is not easy if you are older than two, learning it well is damn hard. I have yet to manage it in any language.

My English is still pretty Brooklyn and not just the accent.

I learned Greek as a kid, I even had a Greek teacher, Kyria Vangeli…I still spoke like an American that came from Asia Minor- a very weird Greek. Now after years in Greece my Greek is still the Greek of an American. I am called “to Americanaki.” The burden of the Brooklyn accent in all languages, you never lose it.

Five years in Spain and ten years in Mexico and my Spanish is passable, Mexicans are impressed with my Madrilenio accent and Spaniards are knocked out by my Mexican accent.

My Italian is basically Spanish with lots of Italian gestures and an exaggerated Italian accent. I could have starred in spaghetti westerns.

When I was transferred to the Madrid office in 1970, from London, I was Spanishless. I took an intensive
Month long Spanish course from Berlitz, two instructors, 10 hours a day.

Spanish was essential in the Madrid office; very little English was spoken, at least not in front of me.
I spoke or tried to speak only Spanish and naturally made some mistakes.

My greatest mistake was circulated around the office, even made it to the Barcelona office via my secretary, Mari Carmen. I was not corrected for months to the pleasure of everybody around the office, even the clients knew about it.

A lesson in Spanish; the word for balls or testicals is cojones, the word for desk drawers is cajones. You can guess what happened, whenever I was pissed off, I would yell out “CAJONES”. That’s right, desk drawers. The staff thought that if you were angry you yelled out “DESK DRAWERS” in English as well.

Occasionally I would hear “DESK DRAWERS, DAMN IT” yelled out in English to support me.

You make mistakes when you learn a foreign language, usually to the pleasure of the locals.

Read a Greek or Spanish menu translated to English for a great time; there is pleasure in revenge.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Butlins and the Yank

London, the mid sixties, the Ad business…everybody was full of themselves, great cars, preposterous salaries, lots of perks, trips to Europe for photo shoots, Cannes for the Ad Festival, a very trendy existence.

Not the norm for the typical English person.

A very unrealistic existence…creative guys getting paid more than the Prime Minister, and if you were an American, you lived even better.

We had about 6 or 7 yanks at McCann London; I suspect we were unbearable, some worse than others.

There was a popular resort in England at that time, Butlins, it’s still around, It was an all inclusive family resort, everything included, food, entertainment, pools, kid’s camp…the works, anything you could imagine.

They use to run these commercials with the attendants wearing red jackets, some very sexy girls to lure you in, I think even Billy Butlin appeared in them.

All of us were much too trendy for Butlins, we were above it. Trendy snobs in the ad world.

There was an exceptionally unbearable American, always complaining about the English and how bad things were.

He even bored the rest of us Yanks; you could imagine what the Brits thought of him.

He comes into my office one day and asks what can he do that weekend in England; he didn’t want to go to the continent. “Anyplace to see around here…sex, booze…a good time.”

Naturally, I thought of Butlins for his weekend.

I built it up and made it sound like a sex center with four-star food.

I told him no matter what it seemed like, he had to last until Sunday evening when all hell broke loose and they brought the French girls as well. Pretty soon everybody in the office is in on it, telling outrageous sex stories that happened to them at Butlins.

We see him off Friday afternoon in his E type Jaguar…good luck you schmuck.

Monday morning, I am in the office and he bursts in, I am a little nervous, God knows what he will do to me. He not only is a bore but he is a little nuts.

He walks up to me and in a calm voice asks me “when is the last time you went to Butlins?”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Greek saying, “If you haven’t built a house, or married off a daughter, you haven’t suffered.”

I have now done both, and I have not really suffered, at least not much.

Actually the saying should be “ If you haven’t built a house, or married off a daughter, you haven’t LIVED.”

I loved building our house, here in the Argolida, actually in Porto Heli.
I had a great time and it was a creative process…we are still friends with the architect so that should show what a good time we had, they were at the wedding as well.

The house played a role in the wedding; garden, terraces and chapel were all used.

Our daughter wanted as traditional a wedding as possible, very Greek, the village musical group leading her and me to the church, playing wonderful Greek and Epirot songs to start it off.

We have a small chapel on the property, with frescoes painted by our son in the traditional manner. We did part of the service in the chapel, the exchange of the rings.

The village band, clarinet, drum and guitar, playing the traditional music, led everybody through the garden to the terrace overlooking the sea where the crowning would take place and the guests could see the rest of the service properly.

Greek music, dancing and drinking took place after the service. Dinner was poolside later… with a disc jockey playing music that was arranged in NY, no real stress, certainly no suffering.

The priest, a childhood friend of mine, actually an Archimandrite, came from the States to perform the wedding. He did it in English as well as Greek so everybody could enjoy the beauty of the service. It was great to have him here.

An absolutely wonderful wedding, our other daughter was the combara; she did the crowning ceremony…everybody in the family was involved, paintings by our son, total supervision of everything by my wife. Heaven help the caterer if anything went wrong, by the way only Greek food, no sushi, no paella…just Greek.

So no suffering just joy.

Everything seemed perfect; we eventually viewed the many videos and found a slight anomaly, actually a hysterical one. The traditional Greek musicians, imported from a nearby village, were playing “roll out the barrel” when they escorted the procession from the church to the terrace were the remainder of the ceremony was to be held. Clarinet, drum and guitar sounding very villagy playing “roll out the barrel”, I never knew it was an Epirot song. 

I wonder what we will find they were playing in the other videos?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

‘’No way, that raise is much too much’’.

I started at McCann in 1960 as an assistant art director, straight out of Pratt, with a salary of 5,000 dollars a year, it was a good beginners salary, I was in a big agency and the future seemed great.

I was lucky to work on some great accounts with terrific people, the agency was set up with art groups, this was before art directors working direct with writers. I used to work with a writer on the sly; he would show his work with layouts and my ads all had copy, not just the visual, we were a little ahead of the time, at least at McCann.

There was lots of overtime and super money, basically I did pretty good, money wise…I took the subway home to Coney Island and charged for a cab (suggested by my boss).

Sometime in1961 I get a raise, I then made 7,000, with a higher rate of overtime and expenses, and I am making closer to 12 grand a year. When I told my father what I earned and what I did, he said,” shh, do not tell anybody” It was good money then. Try explaining to a Greek candy maker what an art director does.

At a base salary of 10,000 dollars the overtime stopped.

I was doing some good ads and had bosses that were generous with their praise, the upstairs took notice and I was summoned to some 30 something floor one evening. Big offices no cubicles, each guy had a secretary, drinks, cigars, mad men stuff. The executive Creative Director calls me into his office, the last time he did it was because I was cursing out a client, to myself, at 10 pm. This time he tells me I have a terrific raise, 10,700 a year. He is making out like it was a big deal. I would lose money if I took that raise. I told him I would accept a raise of 9,800 a year.

He now thinks I am crazy, I curse in the hallways and reject raises or negotiate them down.

I had done the math, 9,800 would make over 15,000 with the overtime, and no way was I taking 10,700. Overtime was necessary even if you didn’t get paid for it, it was a competitive world, and everybody was working all hours. Under 10 grand and you got paid overtime, over 10; you did the overtime but didn’t get paid.

I tried to ask for a bigger raise or a lower one…he just thought I was nuts.

He finally gave me the raise that got me off overtime…maybe that is what he was after all along.

Soon after that I left McCann with a McCann guy to work at the Ladies Home Journal, interesting time, great experience, some funny stories, tough women editors, no overtime. I’ll tell you about it sometime.

 The last overtime check I ever got was the McCann one.

I never turned down a raise or tried to negotiate it down, up yes, down no.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A flask…in Greece?

A flask to me, having lived in the UK and seen movies about prohibition, has always seemed a little sinister and sneaky and secret.
A flask seemed to represent a means of getting a drink when it was illegal or unavailable in some way, pub hours for example. Flasks also seemed to be filled with Gin, in my imagination, or Canadian whiskey, especially in gangster movies.

I have never seen a flask in Mexico, Italy, or Spain…booze was always readily available.

Greece seems like the last place in the world for a flask, people carry bottles openly and drinks are available pretty much anywhere. The flask seems to represent a certain amount of secrecy, I am sure users would call it convenient,
nevertheless to me it does have this slightly dark underside…even though I own a few.

All of this is to explain the surprise I had when I saw one and in use.

I was with friends having some tsipouro and some ouzo with a bunch of snacks (mezedes), Greek salad, octopus, marinated fish, all the typical stuff. A friend arrived and he slyly pulled out a beautiful silver flask from his pocket.
Everybody stopped talking and eating and watched this odd behavior. Was he bringing his own homemade tsipouro, or did he decide a gin and tonic was in order. He opened the flask and dramatically poured the contents over the marinated fish and the salad…what the hell was going on? Gin on the tomatoes? Gin marinated fish?

It was his own olive oil; he claimed that the owner of the restaurant was too cheap to put enough olive oil on the mezedes. Everybody thanked him since there was never enough oil on the mezedes, the bread started to be dipped and glasses where clinked, even the owner joined us and made snide comments on the oil.

Seemed like a novel use of a flask, cannot imagine it done in the UK or in a gangster movie.

I wonder how the salad and fish would have been with gin on them?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jeannine does a double page spread in Playboy, no centerfold unfortunately.

It was impossible to live in Chicago, during the 60’s and not be aware or be involved with Playboy; bunnies, magazine or even Hef, as we called him.

We lived next to his mansion on the near north side, we overlooked his roof where the topless bunnies sun bathed.
It was pretty good even without a pair of binoculars. I remember when he had a fence built on the roof, we still had a view, but we did have to stand on a chair.

There was an awareness of the Playboy empire in Chicago, the mansion, the magazine, the girls that appeared in the magazine, the photographers, the whole infrastructure…all were very visible.

I know, people claimed to get Playboy for the articles and the authors, which were amazing and innovative, and not for the photos of those strangely innocent na├»ve girls…by today’s standards.

There was an amazing art director that was part of the creation of Playboy, he was Art Paul and was responsible for the beautiful look of the magazine. He was instrumental in the look of the photos, the retouching, the artwork, the full visual aspect of the magazine. I wouldn’t be surprised if he even designed the bunny costumes.

Every illustrator admired him and wanted to work with and for him. 

Jeannine went to see him, she was a freelance illustrator, she called him and he saw her, just like that. He loved her work and gave her a double page spread to do, not a photo, an illustration.

He had her do the Christmas food spread…a corduroy roast beef with silk potatoes.

It was no centerfold, although I liked to see the reaction when I told friends that Jeannine did a spread in Playboy. I didn’t always explain that it was an illustration.

Her double page spread was the most unique double page spread in Playboy, she was my centerfold though and always has been.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Chicago, our first international move

In 1963 we went to Chicago from NY, it was our first international assignment, at least that’s what it felt like.
Being a New Yorker, even worse a Brooklynite, Chicago seemed like a foreign country.

I hade a great offer from an ex boss that I respected, he was the executive Creative Director of McCann, so Chicago couldn’t be that bad. It wasn’t.

Jeannine and I set off for the first of our many moves; most after this were really international. London, Madrid, Milan, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Mexico city, Columbia, Athens…this one.

It is hard to imagine that Chicago would seem like a foreign country, but if you are a typical New Yorker anything else is the other side of the moon.

We arrive and find a great apartment on the near north side, two blocks from the lake, tenth floor, great view, even overlooking Hugh Hefner’s mansion.

Playgirls sunned themselves on the roof, Chicago is not bad, and as a matter of fact it is starting to look great, remember this is the summer.

Topless bunnies!

Nothing like this in Brooklyn.

This is summer, unfortunately winter arrives very quickly. Windy, cold, snowy, we have that in NY, but we are called the big apple and Chicago is the windy city and it is. That wind off the lake will knock you down and it does.

First a wind story, there is a copywriter, good guy, talented…but he had a terrible comb-over, OK, you know what is coming.

He always wore a hat when he went out, his hair on one side went below his shoulder, and he made Trumps hair look natural. He meticulously protected his hair, carefully sprayed, avoided convertibles etc. but it was the windy city after all, it was inevitable.

We are on the way to a client and on Michigan Avenue looking for a cab, and it happens, hat goes down the street, I am protecting the layouts, which were acting like sails. I look up and it happened, his hair is on his shoulder and his skull is shinning, nothing, zip not a hair. I become a teenage girl and start laughing like an idiot all the way to the client. I am such a shit; I keep lifting his hair up as soon as he repositions it.

God I was a bad guy. Chicago brought out the worst in me.

The cold, and it was cold especially with that wind, and now the snow, my God it could not have been worse.

One night I come home and we need to take the car out, it is snowing freezing and icy, no garage, I am trying to put the key into a frozen lock in the door, no luck…solid ice.

 I ask our doorman if he has anything to defrost the lock, some kind of Chicago deicer. He looks at me and says, “Everybody pees on their locks.” Must be a Chicago deicer thing, I figure he is joking and I ask him again, “everybody pees on their locks, Mr. Birbil, really.” He says, very seriously.

I go out, walk the half block to my car, wind coming off the lake is freezing, and I look around to make sure I am alone.

I pee on my car door lock, the key slips in and works, I unlock my car. I look down the street and there are two other guys standing suspiciously close to their cars front door.

Chicago deicer…the doorman was right, pee on the lock, but do it fast.

We had a traffic guy that was promoted to junior account guy. I was presenting some work to the account group, we had the Peter Pan peanut butter account. I was suggesting that we use Zero Mostel as Peter Pan. I thought it was a great idea, the account group asks the new guy to comment.

Yesterday I knew him as the traffic guy, today he is supposed to comment on my work. He tears into it, putting on a show for the account group, “It will not work, it is wrong for the brand.” He goes on and on about how wrong it is. He is probably right but I couldn’t resist, I look at him and say,

“Harold, I can see my face in your fingernails.”

He had gotten a manicure for his new job and I sarcastically pointed it out and put him down. I still remember that moment 47 years ago and still cringe.

I really enjoyed Chicago, it was the start of our international life, our son was born there and we made some great friends and did some good ads.

Next was London, slightly more international than Chicago…our son was only thirty days old when we went.

Not as windy, certainly not as cold and no peeing on car locks, much stronger accents and even a foreign language.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The value of Granny's great baklava

After graduating from Pratt in1959, a bunch of us joined the National Guard to avoid being drafted for two years and going to Viet Nam.

The Guard was only 6 months and you then served in the reserves for what seemed like the rest of your life, meetings once a week, five weekends a year, and two weeks of camp in the summer.

In those days they did not use the National Guard overseas, so I was pretty sure no Viet Nam and no two years in the regular Army.

You could get a job, start your life and career, at that time two years seemed like a lifetime.

To make the whole thing even less noble, I was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training and ended up staying there for the full six months, a couple of hours from NY. A pretty good deal, although no bragging rights and no wonderful Army stories about bars in foreign countries, or even bars in Texas, just Jersey.

My Mother and Jeannine’s family, especially her Grandmother acted like I was in the real Army suffering in some God forsaken country, “Granny I’m in Fort Dix, New Jersey, not that much of a God forsaken a place.”

Their concern for me was manifested by sending and bringing food, lots of it. It is a Greek thing.

Koulouria from Mama and Granny’s great baklava was the currency I was dealing with.

One piece of baklava was worth 6 brownies at least; one koulouri got you 2 brownies, two pieces of baklava meant no KP, or guard duty.

Man this stuff was dynamite I could negotiate anything. The baklava was worth it’s weight in gold.

I even thought I could use the baklava to get an early discharge? It was great baklava but unfortunately not that great.

Granny’s baklava made the Army a snap, “thanks Granny.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

“They want you to autograph their menu.”

London in the 6os, San Frediano’s tratoria, very trendy joint, I get this request from the waiter…”those people over there want you to sign their menu.”

 I suddenly feel pretty good, a kid from Coney Island in London and people want my autograph.
They must have seen my latest ad for Esso.

Mario, the waiter leans down and whispers in my ear, “ they think you are Omar Sharif.”

I have a mustache, dark hair and do not look very English, I evidently also look like a Pakistani protester, a guy called Tariq Ali. People don’t ask me for an Ali autograph, they usually yell at me in the street, the politest is “ go back where ya came from you tosser!”

I am evidently mistaken for an Egyptian or a Pakistani, never for some well-known English actor, not even an American actor or personality. I have to speak with my super pronounced Brooklyn accent…much louder.

Back to San Frediano, I sign the menu with a flourish, Omar Sharif your friend.
There are a few menus signed Omar Sharif by me, I hope they do not turn up on Ebay.

I wonder if Omar Sharif was ever mistaken for me?   

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Inside a pyramid

While in Mexico, during the early 90’s, we were shooting a commercial for our GM client. The agency people and the production company would do anything they could to keep me and the head GM client off the shoot. They knew we would get super involved and break their balls (it’s good to be the boss).

At this shoot, we were in Mayan country, previously to keep us out of the way, we were sent on cruises, drives in the mountains, great restaurants, anything to keep us distracted, sometimes successfully sometimes not.

We were sent to Chichen itza, an amazing pyramid; I had been there before and was looking forward to it. We were going to go up a narrow interior stairway that led to a throne room.

Today this stairway is closed because of its narrowness and state of decay.

On the day we visited, the stairway was closed to the public and opened especially for us for a short time. We could go up without too much shoving and pressure. I am claustrophobic so this was a great help. Connections are always nice.

Clint and I started up this dark, narrow, steep staircase made of rough stone steps, dimly lit…very scary. We could imagine ancient kings going up this interior stairway, although God knows why since it led to a tiny interior throne room, no view, nothing.

We finally make it up this narrow tunnel, huffing and puffing all the way, we are not in the shape that the ancient Kings and priests must have been. We entered this small room with the jaguar throne, Clint thinks it looks like a sewing machine…thanks Clint; there goes the romance and the objective of the climb.

We start down and Clint makes a profound observation.

“ The Mayans were amazing people, they were great builders, scientists, advanced astronomers, great artists, they had a culture that lasted thousands of years…you would think that they could have invented the banister?” 

This is said at the top of this narrow, dark, steep staircase, obviously without a banister. I crack up and almost plunge down this preposterous stairway.

As we stagger down, we hear people coming up…they have opened the entrance to tourists. All we can think of, at least if we fall we will have a cushioned landing.

In all of Mexico, on the thousands of pyramids and temples there are no banisters. I wonder why? Perhaps they knew it would make life miserable and dangerous for future tourists, since they would all be mostly white and fat.

This could be the ultimate revenge of the indigenous peoples, no banisters!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pop's Clacquesin

I wrote about Mama’s tsourekia, it seems only fair to write about Pop’s Clacquesin.

What the hell is this thing? It is a drink. French and hard to come by, they sell about 10 bottles a year. Nobody seems to drink it anymore. The distillery has even been made it into an event center; weddings, business meetings etc.

Pop went to Paris in 1927 to marry Mama. He was in the States before the Asia Minor catastrophe. Mom went to France after the catastrophe and they were married there. I wrote a blog about this part of their life.

Evidently my Father was introduced to Clacquesin when he was in Paris. It remained in his mind for years; he obviously could not get it in the States, at least not in Brooklyn. He would occasionally mention it in a very nostalgic way.

When my Mother and I went to Paris in the 40’s to visit my dying Grandmother, we must have brought him some bottles back, which my uncles got for him, they might have introduced it to him way back then in the 20’s.

This strange drink (Clacquesin) remained in my mind as well for years (60 years at least) for some weird reason. Without ever tasting it, it had the same effect on me as it had on Pop…I remembered it for years.

We met a French family here in Porto Heli a couple of years ago, and aside from them laughing at my pronunciation of Peugeot, they knew the drink that my father loved. They very kindly brought me a few bottles from France, which probably increased sales by 50%.

This drink has pine resin in it and other plants…which probably reminded Pop of foul tasting Retsina, which is made with pine resin as well. There might be a Greek connection after all; Frenchified Greeks might even have made it as well, although that is pushing it. The label implies a very exotic culture, jazz, dancers, and dinner jackets, almost bohemian.

Recently, my first cousin (her Father and my Mom were brother and sister) was visiting us. She was born in France and moved to Greece when she married a Greek. I showed her the bottle of Clacquesin that I had, she immediately perked up told me that her father and her uncle (my two uncles) would drink this together in Paris as an aperitivo. They drank it with lemon juice or lemonade. These were the guys that got Pop hooked on this drink.

Perhaps they all went to the clubs that are represented on the label. A Greek American candy-maker (Pop), two Greek French brothers-in-law that are tailors (my uncles) in a club listening to jazz, smoking cigars and drinking Clacquesin, having a great time, maybe even listening to Josephine Baker…I like that image, I hope they did it.

I now occasionally have one with lemon juice and toast Pop. It has been a long time, but the drink now has a role. My son and I will have a drink and feel a connection with family, uncles, Father and Grandfather, and I actually like it as a drink. We probably should be listening to Jazz and smoking cigars.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mama's tsourekia

Ok we all have heard it, “ my Mother was the best cook,” “nobody can make meatballs like my Mother,”
“ She made the best mousaka,” etc. etc. Mama was the best blah, blah.

I wonder, did anybody have a Mother that was a lousy cook? Will anybody fess up to having a Mother that could not boil water? There have to be some out there.

 Nevertheless it seems all Greek mothers are, or were great cooks.

I will continue in the same vein, Mama was a great cook…especially at tsourekia, and her koulouria were pretty sensational as well. They say people are either good cooks or good bakers, Mom was good at both, but she was a great baker, as my size when I was a kid will confirm.

The tsoureki is the traditional Easter cake, made with a hardboiled egg, dyed red as decoration some times.
 Mama made hers in a twisted version as well as the more traditional round shape. I remember the smell that permeated the apartment; actually the whole building had that amazing aroma. The neighbors knew that something great was in the making, if they played their cards right would get a tsoureki, actually they all got one.

My wife Jeannine is a spectacular cook, creative and always experimenting, even she agrees, Mama’s tsourekia were great. She has no idea why Mama’s were so great.

Mama was from Asia Minor, and learned to really cook from a Sicilian neighbor that lived downstairs, sounds like a pretty great combination of skills and tastes, maybe that was the secret.

We have eaten them all over the world, many Jeannine made, relatives have made them…we bought them in bakeries in Greek areas of NY, London as well as in Greece itself. Good ones, delicious ones…never great ones, at least not like Mama’s. I have no idea if this taste and aroma is in my mind or if it was real, I want to hope it was real, Jeannine agrees that they were spectacular. She might just be encouraging my fantasies.

Pining for great tsoureki might be a little shallow, maybe I am pining for a time gone by and the tsoureki is some baked symbol of that time, how come I didn’t pick something like baklava or cataifi.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Greek fisherman's cap from New York

Greek fisherman caps are surprisingly famous and I love them.

 I live in Greece, actually on the coast, near a fishing village.
Try buying a Greek fisherman’s cap in the village; it is not going to happen. They do sell some cheap tourist versions, which no Greek fisherman would be seen dead in. By the way, the Greek fisherman usually wear baseball caps with I love NY on them.
The traditional Greek fisherman’s cap is mostly seen on old retired fisherman…the hats look older than the guys wearing them.
 As a good non-fisherman, Greek American, I wanted one and looked all over here in Greece for one, no luck…non of the thick woolen caps that the old guys wear.

 By the way the old guys are about 90 to 100 years old, so I can refer to them as old guys.

Back to the caps, while in NY I went to my favorite hat store on Fifth Ave. and 30 something street, JJ hats. I buy my Borsalino hats there as well as my cloth caps when I want to do the English thing. I walked in there a couple of years ago and see the traditional Greek fisherman’s caps, thick woolen one. Inside it said made in Greece…they also had some touristy ones, white, cotton etc. nevertheless the classic one was heavy wool, embroidered visor…really great.

There is a label inside that tells me they are made, since 1885 in an ancient village outside of Athens. No mention of the village’s name. A company in San Francisco exclusively imports them, the only Greek fisherman’s cap available in the US…it seems the only country in the world you can get them in, and I gave up on getting one in Greece.

I should import them to Greece from the US, even though they originally come from and are made in Greece. I have to try to find that ancient village outside of Athens that has a Greek fisherman’s cap industry.
I now have my cap and bought some for friends here in Greece.

I will stroll by the fishing boats and see if the fishermen are attracted to my cap, might be a side business.

If you want one, you can order one on line from JJ hats, or let me know.