When someone gets married, it represents a melding of two families into one. Greeks, being the family-oriented people that they are, want more than a passing acquaintance with the family their offspring will marry into. Sometimes these unions are problematic and uneasy. In our case, Anoula and I couldn't have asked for a better situation. Our two families took to each other like we had known one another for years. There is something to be said for marrying someone with a similar background and religious faith, not that it is any guarantee of future success. It certainly eliminates a few areas of potential friction. My in-laws, Maria and Christos, have become a second set of parents for me over the years and I often refer to them as "Baba" and "Mama." That is because they treat me like a second son. Both are part of the generation that spent their youth embroiled in the tough decade of survival spanning the German invasion , the Occupation and the subsequent Civil War. Growing up in Athens during this time, they experienced their share of starvation, the loss of parents and were caught in the middle of urban combat between the British and Communist guerrillas. My father in law, an orphan, was in his late teenage years during the Civil War and was victimized by both the Left and Right. He was beaten by a Right Wing death squad within an inch of his life because he was unshavened and resembled a Communist guerrila with his scraggly beard. Later while working as a day laborer at the shipyard in Elefsina he was taken hostage, starved and marched into the hills for months by ELAS guerrilas before being released. My mother in law, the oldest of three children, was eleven years old at the height of the German Occupation. She lived on meager handouts and what her mother could scrounge in the Kesariani section of Athens. This neighborhood was a hotbed of anti-German resistance and the scene of indiscriminate round-ups and executions of its civilian inhabitants. After liberation, during the fighting between British troops and ELAS guerillas, the shack her family lived in was burned to the ground with all the family's worldly possessions. The entire family including her widowed mother and her two younger siblings were reduced to living under some pine trees and eating out of a solitary soup dish on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Despite these horrific youthful years, Baba and Mama managed to survive, although not unscathed. They raised a family by working hard during difficult economic times after the war. Throughout it all, they preserved their time honored sense of filotimo and pride in who they were. Their generation, now fading slowly, is increasingly under pressure in the twilight years of their lives, having to contend with rising prices, stagnant pensions and a health care system that is complex and unable to keep its many promises.
Through it all, they continue to love their country and Church, and to look to the hopeful future of their children and grandchildren. As is frequently the case with folks approaching the final years of their lives, they remember the good times and relegate the bad to the darker recesses of the mind. The music they grew up with lights up their faces and recalls the good times. I am always amazed by the ability of now forgotten tunes to make them smile and conjure up the memories they cherish.
One of the great composers and singers of their era was Vassilis Tsitsanis. He was one of the most famous purveyors of Rebetiko music, a muiscal form that originated among the Greeks of Asia Minor, and brought to Greece during the expulsion of the Greek communities there. Originally from Trikala, a very quaint little town in central Greece, Vassilis wrote some of his most unforgetable songs during the Occupation while living in Thessaloniki. In 1946, Tsitsanis returned to Athens and began recording many of his own compositions with other singers such as Sotira Bellou, Maria Ninou and Prodromos Tsaousakis. From then on, Tsitsanis enjoyed wide acclaim throughout Greece up until his death in 1984, when he was mourned by the entire country.
My in laws and others of their generation, forged in the crucible of the forties, adore Tsitsanis. His music is part sentiment, part art form, and it still has the power to awaken the bittersweet memories of the past. Back when I was a kid, my Thia Amalia gave me some of her old Greek Odeon 78 RPM records that she had bought at a department store or "pantopoleion" that catered to immigrant Greeks. It was called Prodromidis and was located in a west side Greek neighborhood in Manhattan. In those days, Mr. Prodromidis himself greeted his customers and you walked into an establishment full of every non-edible Greek product imaginable. In the back of his store he had a set of booths where you could listen to a record before deciding to buy it. Thia Amailia had all the Tsitsani's hit's including a song named: "Ta Kavourakia," which I loved. It was only later in my life that I realized the deep significance that Tsitsanis' work had for my second set of parents. When I hear Tsitsanis now I can't help but feel a certain fondness for the man and his music.
The following videos from YouTube include some great Tsitsanis hits sung by the unforgettable George Dalaras: Yiasou re Dalara. Tsitsani ese athanatos.