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Culture

Greeks and Their Parties

I don’t really think its a question of my getting older. Not really. Its just that of all the ways I could (and do) spend my time I now enjoy sitting down and being with my relatives and old friends the most.

And while it’s true, that as the old saying goes: “Who doesn’t like a party?” I’m not thinking, here, of just any celebratory situation. Hellenic Festivals and fraternal organization annual dances (fine and as they may be in their own right) just aren’t the same. Somehow time seems to be moving faster for me now.

I get less done. And as Thomas Jefferson so famously noted my daily pursuit of happiness is more a vague goal than a regular experience.

To begin with I never seem to have time to do anything. I’m always driving around on one errand or another. Everyday there is something in the house (or around the house) I have to fix, adjust or maintain. If its not that its something that came in the mail, email or by telephone that I have to immediately address.

Compounding all that I have to handle various family duties which must be done. My other job involves research and writing which always offer me a sense of purpose unlike anything else in my life. So, as the Greek saying this discussion of parties, if it makes any sense so far at all, may sound to you as if “I am crying with a loaf of bread under each arm.” But its much more than that.

Why did I work my whole life, just to answer the mail or fix the gutters. Honestly, how much of one’s mail (or now email) is any more than just a waste of time and energy? Okay, a percentage is mandatory and sometimes even enjoyable but in the end mindless bureaucracy and ever changing consumer culture are in the end just draining.

Family parties or gatherings of relatives and friends—as I have encountered them among the Greeks—are on their own plane of experience. It is not something that Greeks readily talk about but once you experience it when you see it or hear about it outside your own family and close friends its general form immediately strikes you as totally familiar.

Essentially in its setting and execution it is structurally the same party over and over. The social setting(s) (home, backyard, some common place where you and yours always gather) are always the same, the relatives and friends (with death, marriages, births and occasionally emigration slowly altering this collective) are the same with the modern life addition of moving for work sometimes altering this group while the reason for the event (life cycle observances and annual holiday events) are the core of all such gatherings–again the new additions of graduations and other such social advances add to this schedule of mandatory gatherings.

Recognizing such gatherings among the Greeks is easy and in a very fundamental way stabilizing because of its familiarity. Oddly enough I once read an introduction to an ethnography about miralogia (laments sung at funerals) that gave me this same sense of familiarity. In her introduction the anthropologist offered an amazing description of vastly different social settings and circumstances in which she came to learn about laments.

Aside from fieldwork among a set number of people and a fixed geographic location for a specific length of time she was offering an additional list of places, circumstances and individuals that taken collectively served to inform the basis of her understanding of such events. It was her employment of a wide collection of personal experiences understood collectively that enriched her social analysis.

Sometimes I am reminded of such parties by much simpler events. I recall once seeing a Greek movie (and this is all I can really recall) where one of the Greek women was peeling an orange with a knife and trying not to break the peal. Not much I admit but it triggered any number of fond memories.

While I think this general description of Greek parties is accurate—it doesn’t sound like very much fun. But as the event progresses so do the conversations, laughter, eating, dancing and all the rest.

Parties are also the occasion for private conversations. Some of these exchanges are long involved tales others no more than a passing but quite telling comment. Naturally such gatherings are where you learn about family history. And often in ways one would not expect. I only met my maternal grandmother’s youngest brother Spiro once.

Sometime just before 1922 the year my grandmother first arrived in the United States Spiro repaired a broken motorcycle and took off for California. Spiro was just 15 years old and as the story goes tired of having to turn over his pay check to his oldest brother.

When I met my uncle Spiro he was in his mid-80s and having coffee in the living room of a cousin’s home. Somehow the conversation turned to the family house in the rural village of Planetrou. Spiro (who came to call himself, Sam and ended up owning a string of garages in the southern California desert) recalled that there was no lock on the front door of the village house.

To keep the children from wandering about late at night my great-grandmother Angelike would often tell them stories late into the night.

One story she often told was of the young women down by the village river. These women, who only came out at night, would sit on the rocks next to the river and comb their long hair by the moonlight. According to my great-grandmother if any children happened to go down to the river to see these women they were often caught spying and taken away. Oh, how my uncle Spiro laughed at that memory. He found it especially funny because it scared him so as a child.

But I took his simple recollection in a completely different way. I was stunned. Unknown to my uncle Spiro his mother was telling him a tale of the Nereid or nymphs. The world famous 1896, painting by John William Waterhouse (which I saw in poster form on many a dorm room wall in my college years), shows Hylas, a companion of Hercules who was abducted by the “naiads,” e.g. fresh water nymphs—in just the manner described by my great-grandmother.

Greek folklorists, call recollections such as my uncle Spiro heard (and as I did in a Skokie, Illinois living room) “monuments of the word,” by which they mean the manner in which our Classical past has come down to us in modern times.

The parties I am recalling here are not all full-blown holiday extravaganzas. Some are no more than halva, bread, black coffee and conversation mixed with laughter in the late afternoon. Now in the summer months we sit in the backyard and talk about the garden and amongst ourselves. I am sorry to report that the impromptu singing and even group singing, I remember as a child, is mostly gone, now.

A little over a year ago I was at my brother’s godmother’s funeral. I was talking with the eldest of the daughters who as a lawyer had moved away years ago. As we spoke together over the next few days she was surprised to learn how many of the older and not so old people we had grown up with had died. As we recalled our memories of the past I said to her that “our village” was disappearing. Now I’m not so sure.

I thought of all this because just this past week I went to a party of relatives and old friends. There were children running around. Mothers holding babies. Young adults and old people with canes. Roasted lamb, oven baked potatoes, tossed Greek salad, feta, olives and cheese covered the three tables set end-to-end around which the family and friends gathered.

A table in the kitchen was covered with sweets that various people had brought. Greek was spoken. Translations offered as needed. People laughed and some cried. When the party ended kisses and hugs were exchanged along with promises that we should all meet more often. It was the same party, I hope I am always able to attend.

 

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