There is a saying in Greek, “I Ellada pote den pethainei” (Greece will never die) and today I saw why this is true.
I’d gone to the Public Power Company (DEH) office to pay my son’s bill. No, I’m not a doting mom with a spoiled child. My offspring left Athens two months ago to take up a job in a recently liberated country south of here. The bill was huge, not because he left his freezer on but because it included the newly imposed tax on private property. This tax has caused an uproar among Greeks since nonpayment can result in your own private blackout. They instantly dubbed it “To Haratsi,” in memory of a head tax levied on Christians in the Ottoman Empire, which every male over the age of 12 had to pay every year if they wanted their head to stay attached to their shoulders!
I hadn’t been to the office in years so when I saw two doors, one marked payments and the other reimbursements, I naturally entered the first. And plucked a numbered ticket from a machine. The paper in my hand said 240, the number on the overhead board read 150. So I sighed and went outside to wait.
As I sat on a bench, bundled up on this typically March day, the sun made furtive, feeble attempts to break through the gray clouds. But from a folding chair at the far edge of the building, an old woman had taken over the job of spreading cheer. Wearing an ankle-length brown overcoat and a black and white wool scarf to protect her head and ears, she was selling “koulouria” – sesame rings – from a big nylon bag.
But this was not one of those frail ladies in black that one sees often near the Central Market, who squat next to their wares with a pathetic pile of greens or a branch of bay leaves. No, this woman was an entertainer.
As people came and went, she kept up a commentary: “Buy a koulouri from this grandmother,” “Buy a koulouri in forgiveness of Pangalos (our fattest and most controversial Socialist MP),” and to a customer, “Sto kalo (go with the good), thanks and have a nice weekend.”
Sometimes she would break into song with a deep throaty voice that was capable of piercing high notes, as if she’d come from the same nest as Yma Sumac. She must have been the life of the glendi at those country fairs round churchyards, where Greeks dance and sing all night. Maybe she still is.
“Koulouria gouria,” she’d cry, making a rhyme with the word for luck. “Take one for your mother-in-law to dip into her coffee.” And if a mother with a child in a pushchair, she’d ask loudly, “Ah, ena paidaki, do you think he’ll grow up to be prime minister?”
She brought a smile to many faces, even though they’d just been relieved of considerable sums of money.
And she was certainly not shy. A woman lit up a cigarette on the bench next to me, and she said, “Kai to diko mou tsigaro, pou einai (and where’s my cigarette)? So the woman got up and offered her a Marlboro.
Every now and then, she’d give a shout, “Any of you unemployed out there? Come and get a koulouri, it’s on me . . . as long as you show me your card from the Bureau.”
From time to time, I’d get up to check the progress inside. When there were only about 50 ahead of me, I went myself to buy a koulouri. And took two, one white and one “diet” made of dark flour. Usually the size of bracelets, these were as big as halos.
I complimented the woman on her voice and she beamed an almost toothless smile. Her name was Eleni, she comes to this corner next to the PPC office and has been selling her sesame rings every day, rain or shine, but not snow, for the past five years. She lives in Menidi, a working class suburb west of here. Before that she did odd jobs. She has a pension but it doesn’t go far and her son is unemployed.
“Ola ta paidia tis Elladas einai anergoi – all the kids in Greece are out of work.”
A guy calls to her, “Why should I buy a koulouri without cheese?”
(A wedge of kasseri is the standard accompaniment to this traditional midmorning snack.)
“You want cheese? I’ll bring some on Monday.”
I’d been waiting half an hour before I overheard someone saying you could pay the haratsi in the second office without a number. So I went in the reimbursements door and stood in line for a mere five minutes.
But for once I wasn’t angry at the misleading information. Eleni had given me a wonderful show, which I never would have enjoyed if I hadn’t sat on that bench for so long.
I thanked her and said goodbye. Any time I want a free concert and sit-down comedy, I know where to go.
Greece will never surrender with people like Eleni to keep our spirits up.
I wish I could have taken her photograph, but I’d left home without even my cell phone. Here’s one instead of the koulouri seller on Ermou Street in central Athens. He doesn’t have an iota of Eleni’s survival qualities.