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.

 

Seasons Sequel!

September 23, 2016

I’m proud to announce my third book is officially underway – a Seasons of Sun sequel!  This will be a collection of essays and short stories detailing modern day trips to Greece, offering a glimpse of the village since the days of Seasons of Sun!  Filled with funny recollections of everything from ordering furniture (Greek style), to heart felt visits to significant places, this new work (untitled as of yet) will keep you laughing and hopefully touch your heart as we all return to our beloved village of Vassara once more!  Details to come in the months ahead….stay tuned!

Renewed Eyes

January 16, 2016

It’s all about the sunglasses, purple and pink, purchased for five euro at the ocean side kiosk after I stepped on the nice American pair bought especially for our trip. They became a symbol of our vacation with colorful hues that didn’t match any outfit in my suitcase.   The whimsical style made me smile every time I put them on. My son but a similar pair in green and black and my daughter’s pair came in blue with small pink flowers on the sides. The three of us wore them in unison everywhere we went, taking selfies, celebrating our ‘Summer in Greece’ look. I wear them now the thick of winter, and through the lenses I see an American landscape frozen over in ice and snow, wishing we were still in Naufplion,  that tourist beach town we visited for the day, walking the charming ancient, vendor-filled streets, buying candy and fresh filo cheese pies, stopping at the confectionary to guess what each glass bowl contained, and not really caring as each of us filled our own clear plastic back with sugared mysteries we had never seen in the States; gummy frogs and chocolate covered berries. Buying iced coffees to cool off after lunch, lazily passing the day, I knew we’d cherish our excursion, a golden, glorious days in the sun, wearing our shades. Through them I see life more beautifully – full of optimism, fond memories, and above all, high hopes for tomorrow’s trips in similar fashion.

20150724_135220

 

Stay in Sparta

November 4, 2015

I once heard Rick Steeve’s say “skip Sparta” on one his shows, but I couldn’t disagree more. Sparta is a wonderful place to pause, and appreciate ‘the real Greece’ that resides deep in a valley, unaffected by tourists. A great hotel, one I’ve stayed at for decades, is Hotel Menelaion.  Strategically located on the main strip through Sparta’s center (just look for the row of palm trees), this hotel has everything from a beautiful swimming pool, delicious daily breakfast (comes with the room) and a hop skip from the village square where everything takes place.

Ancient ruins are at your disposal, both at the town’s museum as well as a close drive to the castle of Menelaios (Lion’s Gate) and Epidauros. Also, the beaches of Mauvrovouni, outside Gythion are less than an hour’s drive.  Sparta’s town square often has art shows, dancing and live entertainment.  The shop owners are friendly, and a bi-weekly farmer’s market, called the ‘pazari’ takes pace on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Get there early! Crowds arrive quickly for the freshest fruits and vegetables in town!

.20150710_203531

20150715_153330 20150715_150050 20150715_153342

With so many charming stops in the Peloponesse, Parori still stands out as a favorite. I’ve been visiting this little village since 1975, and each and every time I am charmed by the majestic mountains where freezing cold fresh spring water continues to flow.  A natural wonder for sure, I’m taken aback each time by the sound of the rushing waters as they hit the moss covered rocks below.  Bring your empty canisters, bottles and jugs. This is a stop you won’t want to miss.  With several restaurants next to each other, find the one that serves “pagoto” ( ice cream ) because more likely than not, it’s a hot, hot day.

Cats meander under the tables looking for scraps and don’t be surprised if a water fight breaks out between children (I speak from experience).  This refreshing town is a must do, and a quick few minutes drive from the center of Sparta.

Enjoy!

Coming up…more beautiful towns near Mount Tayetos, beautiful Naufplion, the ancient sites in Athens, and of course, our beloved village of Vassara!

This is Why We Travel

September 1, 2015

A bit out of sequence, but before we make stops on our Virtual Trip to Greece….let me share with you a piece I’ve written that sums up the feeling of visiting the village once the trip is winding down. This is the effect our vacations have on us, and this is why we travel…..

Vassara 2015

Paula Renee Burzawa

As the days deplete to a remaining few, my heart begins to twinge, feeling the familiar pull of angst that will set in and remain until I return. The same forlorn longing to stay in the village has begun to appear on the faces of my children, as they too have anticipate our coming departure, where we will make our fond farewell to Vassara.

This place is almost too enchanting to be real, and the other world, the one I belong to mostly now, is calling for a return to reality. Time spent in Vassara during the ‘Summer of 2015’ was sweeter than ever. After 15 trips to Greece, for the first time, I arrived without an agenda. Decisions of ‘where to go’ and ‘how to spend each day’ were spontaneous, and felt as carefree as the pink oleander flowers that bloom across the white stone houses, merely by accident.

The quiet is what I will remember most. Such quiet. Not a sound through the streets on a hot afternoon, except the flapping of a sheet on a clothesline, or a distant bell around a stray dog’s neck. Vassara is the ultimate peaceful place, allowing us to once again hear our own thoughts. There are so many running through my mind as a lifetime of memories exists at every corner, and within the deep set wrinkles on every villager’s face. It’s as if time stands still in Vassara, allowing us to step inside a magical time capsule where nothing exists outside the village. The feeling of isolation is welcomed. No crisis here. Everything outside Vassara can wait.

I watch my children grow in their souls while we are here, and recognize all of the lessons they are learning about culture and family history while making new friends, and deepening their ‘ellinismo.’ Star-filled nights running in the platia with a large group of children will make Vassara eternal in their hearts also. The torch is successfully passed to the next generation that will love the village as we do.

Here in Vassara, every face holds a deep set meaningful memory. They are all part of some grander design, like puzzle pieces creating a masterpiece befit for a museum. The storekeeper, the uncle, the aunt, the friendly neighbor, the cousin, the teenage friend who is now a mom or a dad too – I love them all. For the first few nights in Vassara, I’m kept awake by the overwhelming weight this place encompasses in my life. Rewinding each minute, I try to embroider every fond moment in my memory. I will cherish these days like a gift when I am gone.

I feel God in Vassara. I feel Panayia. I feel my ancestors, history, friendship, love and passion for all things pure and whole and real. Ever timeless is Vassara’s touch. Ever loving is our God who blesses us with this extraordinary place.

Back by popular demand, as I did in years past, I’m taking all of you on a trip to Greece. We’ll visit Vassara (of course!) Mistras, Naufplion, Mavrovouni, Athens and more! Pack lightly, because this is a virtual trip! I’ll show you all of the magic, enchantment, and delicacies that have kept me coming back year after year to the land of the gods!

20150707_174924

Vassara Celebrates!

August 21, 2015

This weekend my village of Vassara celebrates its annual Panagiri. With church services held at Panayia sto Vraho – a cave-like church in the nearby mountains, the feast day begins. We celebrate the Virgin Mary and all Her miracles. A giant festival follows, filling the townsquare. Likewise, Chicago’s Greektown holds its own Greekfest – and while my feet dance on Halsted St, my heart keeps the beat in Vassara

20150724_200556

Well,surprisingly enough – not EVERYTHING I write is about Greece. In the last few years, I’ve been working on a new project, featuring memories from the 70s, and more specifically, those that feature the ‘wise old’ advice and standards of my father.  The articles are published quarterly in the Arlington Heights Almanac, a fabulous publication created by my friends Jim and Mindy Elgas.  Here is the link to my Writer’s Page that allows readers to enjoy my latest piece, along with some of the Editor’s favorites. Hope you enjoy.

http://writerspage.almanaclocal.com/paula-renee-burzawa.html

….and don’t worry, some fabulous posts from Greece 2015 are coming soon!

Happy Summer everyone!

Listen up! Click on the link below to hear my WBEZ Radio interview about Tasso’s Journey – and get a behind the scenes look at what it took to piece this historical look into my Greek grandfather’s life in Vassara, Greece. Enjoy!