Amazingly, a Greek woman’s issues in Melbourne can be a lot like a Greek woman’s in Manhattan. Even though an entire globe separates our two communities, the experience of my “Greekness” through gender is much like our featured Hellenic Woman of the month, Spiri Tsintziras.
Spiri is a Greek-Australian writer with a background in social work. She is the author of Afternoons in Ithaka (ABC Books, 2014), a memoir based on a culinary, creative and spiritual journey that takes her from a tiny back yard in inner-city Melbourne, to a small village in southern Greece and back again. She is the co-author of Parlour Games for Modern Families (Scribe, 2009), which won the Australian Book Industry Award for Book of the Year for Older Children (2010), was converted into an app, and the rights sold to the U.K, Italy and China. She has had numerous stories about food, family and connection published in newspapers, anthologies and magazines. She blogs regularly at www.tribaltomato.com.
Here is an interview we conducted about her latest memoir: Afternoons in Ithaka.
What led to your writing career?
I’ve always loved stories—hearing them, telling them, reading them— and believe everyone has an important one to tell.
My father was known for his amusing (and often embellished) stories, and my grandmother too as I soon found out when I visited her in the village where my father grew up. When I travelled in Greece as an adult, I found other family members who loved to write, including my aunty and others in my father’s village– sometimes I wonder if the need to tell stories, and write them down, runs in the blood.
I wrote my first poem in year 8 (early high school). My English teacher noticed – and she bought me a journal to encourage me to keep writing. Since then, I have filled boxes of journals, scraps of paper and Word documents with poems, observations and stories. Some of them I have worked up into publishable pieces – others are still lying on the bottom of boxes, waiting for the day when I will have enough time to sort through them.
What inspired your writing the book?
I feel most content when I am writing, cooking, eating, reading, listening to music and dancing. This book explores all the things that are important to me, and how these things have given my life meaning. This book is about my journey of connection, with both myself, and those around me.
Afternoons in Ithaka is about self-realisation through the lens of food. It is my exploration of how I reconciled myself with my ‘Greekness ’and how I found a sense of place. It explores my adolescent and young adult struggle with my fairly strict father. The book was therapy to some degree – my father kept coming up in many of the stories as a very strong character against which I fought. In many ways, we fought because we were very much alike – independent, strong willed, stubborn. I guess my having these qualities as a young Greek woman didn’t help!
To what extent did your Greek heritage influence your career, your life, your perspective of life?
My Greek heritage influenced everything about me – from the food I like to eat today, to my relationships with people, to how I see life. Family is very important to me, both immediate and extended. There is a big part of me that feels that life needs to be fully lived at any given moment, that it needs to be lived passionately and truthfully. It’s not always easy, but I do try.
Did you encounter any conflicts due to your sex or the expectations of being “a good Greek girl” with your goals of pursuing your career? Do you carry any “cultural baggage”?
Having a strict father meant that I had something to fight against, as I was quite a feisty young woman. This impacted on everything from wanting to go out (only with a chaperone if my father had his way); to choice of career (I wanted to be a journalist – my father didn’t feel that was a suitable career for a woman); to how long I stayed at university (three years was OK, but a double degree was too long – shouldn’t I be looking for a husband and settling down?!).
One of my favourite parts of the book is when I got to a concert of Greek blues music when I was at university. My father drops me off early and glares at the musicians, as if they might steal my honour while I am there. That chapter ends with the following:
“The man with the honey-coloured eyes plucks at the strings of the bouzouki. His fingers move with strength and grace, and I allow myself to fantasize about what else he might do with those fingers. The bouzouki is accompanied by the higher-pitched chords of the baglama, and then the rhythmic strains of the guitar. A high, almost primal voice rises up, singing of poverty and loyalty, hashish dens and dispossession. I close my eyes and let the music seep into my skin. I become lost in the irresistible lyricism of the language. All thoughts drain from my head and my breath stills. Time seems to slow down; I feel as if my very soul is filling up with the sound of other people’s pain, with their tales of redemption and love. And so it goes, song after song. I could be anywhere; the boundaries of time and space have dissolved.
I jump with a start when I feel a rough tap on my shoulder. Dad is here. The concert isn’t yet over, but it’s time for me to go home.” (Afternoons in Ithaka, page 116-117).
A stifling home environment meant that I had to go away from home in order to find myself – be it to a country town where I went for my first social work job; to numerous trips to Greece. I had a real thirst for knowledge and wanted to explore as much as I could.
Constantine Cavafy’s poem Ithaka frames the book – it represents for me the importance of experience and exploration in order for me to find myself and what was important to me. We read this poem in upper high school, and it has resurfaced at various times in my life.
May you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy find things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stories of knowledge from their scholars.
Who are your role models? Explain why.
My mother is one of my earliest role models. She is forever connecting with people. She is an optimist, and sees the best in everyone. Her bungalow at home is like a Greek cafeneion. She is an unofficial ‘village social worker’ – I think her approach to people led me subconsciously to becoming a social worker in my professional life. She is warm, generous and a feeder. This is an example of an early chapter when I was about 8 or 9 years old that captures who my mother was.
“My mother’s sisters and Dad’s many family friends usually come by on weekends, and neighbours drop in during the week. There is the gypsy-eyed Despina from the housing commission flats, with her band of eight grubby children. There is Maria from next door, who teaches me to play solitaire and pontoon before I have started school. Even I know, small as I am, that her cheeky smile masks her troubles with her hard-drinking husband, who heads off to the factory each morning in a grey overcoat. And there is Yiayia Yiannoula, the undisputed matriarch of the street, clad from head to foot in black, still mourning her husband who died decades ago. Despite her diminutive size, I am scared of her penetrating black eyes, which are framed by her tsebera, her headscarf. Mum listens to each visitor’s woes, gives sage advice, and always manages to see something promising in their coffee grounds – they will come into some money unexpectedly, their husband is going to stop drinking, or their daughter will finally start showing some respect.” (Afternoons in Ithaka, pages 30-31).
My father was another huge influence – he has passed away now, but he was fiercely intelligent, funny in a wry sort of way, and loved a good story. He pushed me to be the best person I could possibly be. He imbued in me a love of the Greek language, a love of the rhythm of words, and a love of books.
Finally, by best friend Katerina was a big influence later in life – she reminded me to keep living mindfully, to be true to my art and to myself, and that it’s all about the journey.
Can you share with us any stories of growing up Greek and Australian that would make us see you as the person you are really?
I love food – from growing it, to cooking it and sharing it with others, to eating it. I now write a regular blog (www.tribaltomato.com) about food, family and connection. One of my earliest memories is of visiting my mum’s village near Kalamata in Greece, and my Yiayia baking bread in her wood-fired oven.
“Yiayia turns the bread onto the covered table. I feel giddy with hunger and want to sink my face into it, but I have to wait a little longer for it to cool. Finally, Mum takes the serrated knife and cuts me a wedge. She tears a tomato apart with her hands and mashes it along the bread, then drizzles the bread with olive oil, crumbles a wedge of feta over it, and sprinkles some of Yiayia’s dried oregano on top. She hands it to me on a plate.
I bite into the warm bread. It’s chewy and dense, wet with the juice of Yiayia’s tomato and the green olive oil. The briny, creamy taste of the feta and the bitter aftertaste of the oregano are better than anything I have ever eaten back home. Flies buzz around me, wanting to share my sandwich. I shoo them away. I’ve waited a long time for this. It’s mine.” (Afternoons in Ithaka, page 18).
We now have a wood-fired oven in our back yard, and regularly get together with family and friends to bake bread and other goodies to share. Food is the excuse to connect with others – something that is very important to me.
Do you have a favorite Greek saying or motto?
“ He who is hungry dreams of bread loaves.”
How do you negotiate the conflict between being a driven professional career woman with the demands of being a “good Greek wife and mother”?
I am mother to Dolores and Emmanuel, wife to George and daughter of Chrysoula. I am also a sister, a cousin, a friend. These things are important to me and I have reconciled myself to that. I was much more driven as a younger woman with career and ‘achievement’ in the traditional, linear sense. Now, my sense of satisfaction and achievement comes a lot more from within—I think I have a more balanced approach. I believe you can’t be good at everything – this just sets you up to fail, so you have to be good at the things that are important to you. For me that is about family, home, creativity.
What are your goals and dreams for the future?
A few years back, my friend Katerina asked me ‘If you had only five days to live, what would you do?’ This is what I answered:
‘I think for a while. I would spend time with family and friends. Hold my husband and children close. Write letters to those I love. Cook and eat. Read. Write. Swim in the sea. Now that I work from home, writing for a living just as I’ve always wanted and spending time with my family, there is not a great deal more to yearn for.
‘Probably the sort of things I’m doing now,’ I say. ‘I don’t have a pressing need to do anything differently.’ (Afternoons in Ithaka, page 325)
This is not to say I don’t have goals and dreams (living exclusively off my creative writing would be nice!) but I feel very content with the present.
For my children, I hope that they too do the things that will truly fullfil them and give them a sense of a life well lived, and that they show kindness and respect to those around them.
What advice would you give young women of Hellenic decent coming of age with regards to career, family and life?
Ask yourself what is important to you and try to be true to yourself on a daily basis.
Your Greek heritage, in all its infuriating and delicious incarnations, is what makes you who you are – embrace and celebrate it!