Lost in Translation – Vassara Style

January 29, 2017

 

This month, Vassara lost yet another dear villager, my Uncle John Katsaforou. Renamed “Tatz” in Seasons of Sun, my uncle, (called “Theo” in Greek) was a former law man, and respected by all. The village will miss his presence. I wrote this homage to him, offering a small glimpse of how he will be remembered by my youngest child.

My Theo Yianni Katsofouro will be remembered by many people. Living a long, vibrant life lends itself to abundant experiences that touch many lives.  I could write a novel about my Theo Yianni, who was like a father figure when we spent summers in Vassara during the 80s and 90s.  His voice was uncanny, along with his demeanor. We knew he’d protect us from anything.  During the wildfires in the 80s, Theo Yianni Katsafouro offered to drive us through the flames to safety if need be.  When he came to Chicago for my cousin’s wedding in ’86, he entered O’Hare airport, adamantly refusing to stand in the “Non-citizen” line, and it took me several attempts to coax him where he needed to be to make it through customs. Later during that visit, he got a hold of my father’s electric saw, and the trees around my childhood home were dramatically pruned for decades to come.  When I cooked him Kraft Mac & Cheese one afternoon, he laughed at the orange powdered cheese, but smiled at his first bite, saying it was ‘no makaronatha’, but not as bad as he expected. I tried to capture his legendary creation of what I termed a ‘limousine from Hell’ in my novel, Seasons of Sun, when he tied our kitchen chairs to the back of his white pickup truck, driving us to Agio Sotiro for liturgy on August 6th, but the most endearing experience with Theo Yianni was yet to occur.  It happened just a few years ago, in 2011, when we visited Verrioa for Panayia’s on August 15th.

 

That morning, the bells at St. George rang out early and loud to signal the feast day had arrived.  We drove our rented car the short distance to Verrioa with Theo Yianni riding shot gun.  I sat somewhat nervously, in the backseat with my children, trying not to think about how high up we were as our small sedan twisted and turned through the hills.  Oblivious to danger, my five-year-old daughter played with a My Little Pony while I kept busy translating a conversation my mom was having with Theo Yianni so the kids could understand. My daughter showed little interest as she brushed her Pony’s mane with a plastic toy brush and stared out the window. Theo Yianni spoke of the old days, telling stories of things he had witnessed over the years.  My son and I were fascinated.

 

Despite Theo Yianni’s age, his mind was quick and he seemed in appearance at least twenty years younger.  When we reached the church, he directed us to a good spot to park the car, and we began walking along an uphill dirt road to reach the church.  A long line of cars filled the sides of the mountainous road as many visitors came for services.  I remember watching Theo Yianni climb the rocks with ease, carrying a cane that seemed needless.  I was astounded that a man his age held such vigor.  His enthusiasm for life was as vibrant as his steps were energetic.

 

 There were benches in front of the church with collection baskets, and we placed our coins inside, taking bees wax candles to light in memory of our departed loved ones. Within minutes, my son disappeared with his friends and cousins from the village, his close group of comrades had grown tighter the more we visited Vassara.  My mother stepped away to greet a relative, and I found myself standing outside the church with my 90-year-old Uncle John, and my 5-year-old daughter. We took our places amongst the many near a tree, and tried to hear the sermon broadcast from tiny speakers atop the church’s roof.  Smiling to myself as I held the hands of both my aged uncle and adorable toddler, the responsibility to bridge their two worlds hit me.  I thought about the long history my uncle must have witnessed in his nine decades.  My daughter was yet to learn the history, and truly, that would be my duty, I knew, as I introduced her to her ancestral country for the first time that summer.  Sandwiched in-between them, I was grateful for the significant role of connecting his past with her future.

 

When the service ended, Theo Yianni led us near the line that was forming to receive artoklasia from the priest.  My daughter in heaven. With white powder coating her plump cheeks, she chomped on her piece of artoklasia that seemed as large as her face.  Her grin said it all. Church in Greece was something she liked. Theo Yianni suggested we find a spot to watch the auction that was about to start, so with sweet bread in tow, we walked to the opposite side of the church and stood amongst the crowds waiting for the auctioneer to begin. Farm animals were brought forward, along with cages of chickens that clucked in what seemed to be their deep-set objection.  While the scene reminded me of a pending slaughter house, I think my little Athena thought we were at a petting zoo.

 

Mommy! Look!” she squealed in excitement, pointing to the baby goat that was being pulled over by a tattered rope around its neck to the auctioneer who greeted the crowd.

 

‘Oh boy,’ I thought to myself, wondering what in the world would become of that baby goat as I looked around at the villagers who seemed to assess the goat’s worth with a similarly sinister expression.  The goat was untied and held in the arms of a young man who stood next to the auctioneer.  The young man struggled to control the squirming goat like a moving sack of potatoes as it cried out over the man’s description,

 

A fine young goat for your holiday feast! What say you, villagers of Vassara? Who will start the bidding at 50 Euros?”  Shouts of various bids were heard amongst the crowd. Several men held up their hands and the chaos began.

 

Me, Mommy, Me! I want the goat! Can we get him?” My five-year-old wanted in, but clearly with a different purpose. “We can take him home with us to Chicago?”

 

Before I could explain, Theo Yianni turned to me with an enthusiastic smile. “Does your daughter want the goat? I’ll buy it for her!”  He said.

 

Oh no, Theo Yianni, that’s not necessary!” I retorted with politeness while panic started to settle in.

 

Mommy! The goat! I want the goat!”  my daughter persisted, and I could see in her face that although she didn’t understand the language, she knew Theo Yianni was offering to buy it for her. Like a kid in a candy store when the mother says ‘no’ but another adult convinces the parent to let the child have the candy bar, she was already well versed in how the game was played. She was out to get what she wanted, and even at the young age of 5, would not let language be a barrier!

 

Yes!”, she said to my Theo, fashioning the sweetest smile on her innocent face. “And I’ll bring him home on the airplane, and we’ll keep him in the backyard and I ‘ll feed him and play with him after school.”

 

First, we’ll slit its throat. I could have him on the spit by Noon. We’ll eat him for dinner tonight!” my uncle added in Greek. The two of them continued to talk to one another in languages the other didn’t understand. All I could do was stand in astonishment and shake my head.  Before I could stop him, Theo Yianni raised his arm and bid on the goat.

 

Yes, we’ll pay 65 Euros!” He shouted. The crowd reacted loudly and counter offers were heard in response.

 

We’ll name him Spotty – ‘cause he’s got lots of spots!” Athena started to jump up and down with excitement and let go of my hand to stand near her new favorite relative. 

 

He smiled down to her and answered, “That meat will be tender. He’s a young goat. And we’ll slather him with olive oil and lemon. You’ll love the taste!”

 

Oh, I love you Theo Yianni!”  she hugged his leg. “He’s the best, Mommy!”

 

Theo Yianni patted her head. “It will be a meal she will remember!”

 

With no one around to help me, not my son or my mother, all I could do was say “No, no, no, no!” I kept repeating to both of them, unable to explain my uncle’s intentions to my daughter, but trying to inform my uncle that Athena wanted a pet, not dinner. The crowd’s bidding drowned me out and I feared within minutes we were going to be leading ‘Spotty’ to our rent a car, where Athena would be preparing him for a trip to Chicago while my uncle sharpened his hunting knife. The goat’s price grew higher, and I begged my Theo to stop bidding.

 

No problem!” he told me. “I planned for this. Really, the money goes to the church. It’s not a big expense.”

 

You don’t understand.” I told him. “She wants to keep it like a pet!” I shouted as loud as I could in desperation, hoping to be heard over the crowd. My Theo put his arm down and he burst into laughter along with several villagers next to him.

 

The auctioneer pointed to a man who had just outbid Theo Yianni, warning, “Going once. Going twice. SOLD!”

 

Oh Mommy. We didn’t get Spotty.” My daughter put her head down with sad eyes. “Now he’s going home with someone else.” She clutched her My Little Pony to her chest.

 

Yes he is, sweetheart.” I put my arm around her, “maybe next time.” I lied.

 

Just then my mother and son walked over carrying a large plate of Diples tied with a large bow and cellophane.

 

Look what Yiayia got!” my son announced.

 

Not as much fun as Spotty.” my daughter sulked.

 

Not as tasty as braised goat!” my Theo Yianni added as he took my daughter’s hand and headed toward the car. She looked up at him and smiled. I wondered how long I’d have to wait to explain this one to her.

 

When the sad news reached us that my Theo Yianni Katsafouro had died, Athena’s face fell in sadness, as she will remember him always as the beloved uncle in Greece that was willing to buy her a goat. He meant so much to so many that loved him, and we pray God welcomes him Paradise for eternity. God bless you Theo Yianni.

 

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