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From Pennsylvania Back to Tzoumerka, a Road Traveled in Song (Vid & Pics)

June 6, 2018
Achilleas Kouremenos

ATHENS – Vasiliki Scotes was born in a small village in Epirus, Greece, but lived most of her long life in Harrisburg, PA. Nearing the age of 100 she spent the last few years dictating to her son, Ambassador Thomas Scotes, as many songs as she could remember from her childhood in Theodoriana. The resulting book, entitled A Weft of Memory, was first published in 2008 and is being reissued this year.

The story of her journey, at age 103, from Pennsylvania to Theodoriana in Arta, the multi-faceted narrative of the immigrant, and the sounds of Epirus, were enjoyed by the many who attended the Hellenic American Union event “Immigration, foreign land, memory, song” on June 4 in Athens.

When you leave your home, you do not leave it entirely, a piece of it lives inside of you, Vasiliki said in the documentary “Last Song to Xenitia” which was screened at the event and which was created by her granddaughter, Athena Scotes. The piece she kept inside her when she immigrated to the U.S. in 1931 was the songs that echoed the poems inspired by the Tzoumerka Mountains. Their silences accompanied her in the difficult times living in a foreign land.

At age 100, she decided to transfer this pure cultural heritage to her son Thomas Scotes, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Yemen, who recorded them in the book that led to his mother being honored in 2010 by the President of the Republic, Karolos Papoulias, with an award for the preservation of popular oral tradition.

“I owe them nothing, nothing is owed to me,” said Vasiliki with humility and surprise at the award.

At this point of the journey she meets the great musician Lakis Chalkias, who has undertaken to sing the narratives and songs of Vasiliki. When I die, accompany me with the clarinet and not with the priests’ psalms, she said, visibly moved.

Her emotion is interrupted by the sound of the protestors in Syntagma Square, which at that time hosted the protests of the “Indignants.” It is the cohesive element of three generations of immigrants, as the economic crisis has led and leads thousands of young people to leave Greece even today. Vasiliki and Athena go to Syntagma Square, where Vasiliki takes the microphone to urge the protesters not to give up but to stay in their country and continue to fight for a better life, as “you are forced to keep your head down” in foreign countries.

Then the documentary travels with images and music to Vasiliki’s beloved Tzoumerka. “Now it’s not a dream, it’s true and I’m seeing it for the last time,” said Yiayia Vasiliki.

Returning to the village, where she was received with a celebration in the square, she can only remember her childhood and think about the conditions of the era that forced her to leave school. She wanted to become a teacher.

“She became a professor. Here is her lecture! Here is her lesson, we saw it. Let that be her legacy,” Alexander Kitroeff, Associate Professor of History at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, said in the discussion that followed the screening.

“Here is what will be left behind, her songs! Each creator would like to leave behind is what he created,” said Haris Vlavianos, a poet and essayist, who described the work of Vasiliki and Thomas Scotes as “a labor of Hercules.”

Finally, Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou, Assistant Professor in Folkloristics & Society, Department of Philology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said the book “makes an important contribution to the study of the oral tradition of Greek-Americans.” The fact that Scotes did not alter his mother’s songs and poems, even when there were imperfections in the meter, the professor considers it a hub for the existence of one “pure speech that highlights the ways in which it is preserved, but also transforms the language in the environment of long-term immigration.”

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