Friday, October 6, 2017

Today is World Smile Day!--The Harvey Ball Story

I think all of us could use a reason to smile about now, so I'm reminding you that today--the first Friday in October--is World Smile Day, started right here in Worcester by the man who invented the Smiley Face icon.   I'm re-posting the story of Harvey Ball, the artist who created the original Smiley Face fifty-three years ago and never made more than $45 from his creation.  Then, in 1999, disturbed by the crass commercialization of the Smiley, Harvey began World Smile Day--the first Friday in October every year--to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  So today, let's all try to do a random act of kindness--improving the world "one smile at a time." 

When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny.  Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling.  But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life.  As he told  People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”
Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, was the creator of the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and internet icons.  When, in December of 1963, he picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and drew the world’s first Smiley Face, Harvey, a self-employed commercial artist, was working on an assignment from a Worcester insurance company suffering from employee discontent after a merger.  They wanted a campaign and buttons to raise company morale. They ordered 100 yellow Smiley Face buttons and then, when those disappeared almost over night, they ordered 10,000 more.
Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45.   When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain.  By the mid-seventies, according to the curators of the Worcester Historical Museum, the image had fallen out of favor.
But Smiley made a significant comeback in the late 1980’s when interest in acid and other psychedelic drugs became a major cultural phenomenon. The icon was embraced by trendy downtown club kids.  Those who grew up in the 1970’s—today’s most desirable consumer demographic —view the image with nostalgia. (Some of them also think it was created by Forrest Gump, the fictional movie character.)  When votes were taken by the U.S. Post Office for icons to represent the decade of the 1970’s, the most popular image by far was Smiley, whose stamp was issued in 1999.
Brothers Murray and Bernard Spain of Philadelphia added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” and took in a reported one million dollars in sales of Smiley products in the first six months of 1971 alone.  In 1998, French Businessman Franklin Loufrani claimed that HE had created the image in 1971, and he proceeded to trademark the face in 80 countries.  When faced with Harvey Ball’s earlier creation, Loufrani replied with a Gallic shrug:  “I  don’t care if he designed the Smiley face.  We promote, we own, we market.” 
Riled up by “the France guy” as he put it,  Harvey in 1999 created World Smile Day—the first Friday in October-- to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  And he trademarked it. Harvey said, World Smile Day® is open to every person on the planet.  No matter what color they are, or who they might pray to, no matter what country they live in.  World Smile Day® simply asks each person to live the day with a generous heart, do one kind act, to help one person smile.  Acts of kindness and smiles are contagious."
Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich?  To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.  I’m not ticked off about it.  I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset.  I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”
Even though he didn’t want to profit from it, Harvey Ball did want recognition for creating the image whose smile has been called more famous than the Mona Lisa’s.   He said  “Smiley is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created, as simple as it is.  It’s got a very, very positive message. Anybody can use it and reproduce it and it reaches everybody regardless of language, religion, nationality, all those things--as compared to some of the art you get today which you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking at…I’m glad Smiley came from Worcester.  The city should make more of it.  Because no other city has this.”
After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said : “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets.  His moral compass stayed on northh and never wavered."

And he left us the legacy of a smile.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Amalia’s Fairyland Birthday

When you’re almost six years old, nothing in the world is as important as the plans for your 6th birthday party.  Amalia had been planning her Fairyland Party all summer with her Mommy, who was busy researching and buying fairy-themed things on line and in nearby stores on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (especially Flying Tiger—a new store full of crazy stuff from Denmark.)

The invitations—found on Evite-- went out announcing “Once upon a time, Amalia turned six!”  But two days before the party, Amalia burst into tears because “This place doesn’t look like Fairyland!”

Yiayia arrived from Massachusetts,  Eleni started unpacking her purchases, and by the time eight of Amalia’s girlfriends and their parents and siblings were due to arrive on Sunday August 6th, the apartment on the 14th floor had turned into a magical place.

The hallway was lined with flowers and on the door was a poster welcoming all to “Amalia’s Fairy Party.”  (Eleni bought the poster on Etsy, downloaded it and had Kinko’s print it.)

 Inside there were fairy wings and a floral crown for everyone.  And face painting by Jennie

 Here’s Amalia in full regalia and face paint.

 A banner over the table read "I believe in unicorns”. 

On the table was a pyramid of cupcakes from “Two Little Red Hens” in the following flavors: carrot, (Amalia’s favorite), red velvet, chocolate with vanilla frosting, and vanilla with chocolate ganache. And every cupcake had a fairy on top.
As soon as the guests got their wings and crowns, they set to making crafty mosaics of castles.

Eleni had set up a photo booth where she took a Polaroid photo of each fairy to take home. 

There was also “Pin the Wand on the Fairy”, “Fairyland Bingo” and cookies that Amalia had made of fairies and unicorns, for the girls to decorate.   Farinella's delivered their Palam pizzas, which are rectangular and nearly as long as the dining room table.

The climax, of course, was when the candelabra of candles were lit, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”, and Amalia blew them out.
Afterwards, all the girls closed themselves into a bedroom and tore into the pile of wrapped gifts.

And a parting favor for each fairy was a necklace with a small crystal bottle of fairy dust hanging from it, which could be sprinkled wherever fairyland magic was needed.  The necklaces are in this photo, hanging from the “wings” hanger.

The Fairyland Party was enjoyed by all.  Amalia is already planning a Mermaid party for her seventh birthday.  Or maybe a Gymnastics party…

Sunday, September 10, 2017

American Horror Story and the Smiley Face Killers

On March 3, 2016, I posted an essay titled "Are the Smiley Face Killers Back?"  It was taken  from my still-unpublished  book about the history of the Smiley Face icon--part of the chapter I wrote about various criminals (including O.J. Simpson) who have used the Smiley Face as a signature near the scene of their crimes.  The essay I posted last March turned out to be the most popular post I ever did. To date it has garnered 104,976 hits and 47 comments.  (If  you want to read the comments--most of them from people who believe the Smiley Face killers are real--click on this link to see the original post.;postID=698528054600824693   )

Then, last week, I read an article in The New York Times about the new season of "American Horror Story: Cult."  The season begins with Trump's victory on election night and the horror involves creepy clowns and "a rash of murders, the crime scenes marked with crimson happy faces" according to the Times.  Clearly the writers of this season's episodes are familiar with the alleged crimes of the real-or-not Smiley Face killers.  So I decided to re-post this essay, to see if anybody out there has evidence for or against the existence of these murderers.

I stopped watching "American Horror Story" at the beginning of the second season because it got too gory for me, but maybe I'll find the courage to watch this season.  Or maybe not.

On March 15, an article appeared in the Boston Globe that began: “State Police on Tuesday pulled the body of a 22-year-old Central Massachusetts man from the Charles River, ending a desperate search by family members and officials after he went missing last month while celebrating his birthday at a bar in Boston.”

The name of the young man was Zachary Marr. He was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College.  As soon as I saw this, I wondered if perhaps his death signaled a return of the fabled Smiley Face Killers gang.  I described the conflicting theories about the group in my not-yet-published book “The Saga of Smiley” in a chapter called “The Smiley Face Murders, the Happy Face Killer and O. J. Simpson.”  (Last month I posted about O. J.’s “suicide letter’ which he signed with a Smiley Face symbol.)

Here’s the section I wrote about the Smiley Face Killers:

As much as he may embody the phrase “don’t worry, be happy,” Smiley has sometimes been used as a symbol of the dark underside of society, appearing as an anti-hero in music, movies, even comics. And when it comes to Smiley, life has imitated art, as the happy face has been co-opted by some evil criminals who are all too real.

Smiley’s most famous link with crime is his role as an identifying mark left near the spots where the corpses of more than 40 college-aged men were fished out of freezing rivers or lakes during the decade of 1997-2007.  Inevitably, the unknown instigators of these deaths were referred to in the press and by investigators as the Smiley Face Killers (SFK for short).

In 1997, when 21-year-old Fordham University student Patrick McNeill wandered off from a night of bar-hopping in New York City and was found floating in the Hudson River three weeks later, his death was ruled a suicide, but his parents refused to believe it. 

Five years after that, in a similar tragedy, University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins, also 21, was found dead, encased in the ice of the Mississippi River four months after he vanished from a Halloween Party. His death, too, was ruled an accidental drowning; yet another college student who had too much to drink and then fell into a body of water. 

But two retired New York police detectives, who had been investigating a large number of drowned college-age men for years, considered Jenkins’ body the missing piece in a puzzle that connected at least 40 victims, who, they believed, were victims of a gang.  The young men were all found dead in winter in a body of water after a night of drinking.

Retired detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon were on the track of what could be the biggest serial killing in U.S. history, which they attributed to a gang they called the Smiley Face Killers. In many of these cases, Smiley graffiti was found painted on a wall, tree or sidewalk near the point where each man was believed to have entered the water.

Duarte and Gannon claimed that the Smiley Face Gang had struck in at least 25 cities in 11 states in the U.S. since about 1997.  Virtually all of the 40 victims were athletic white college males; all were last seen leaving a party or bar with alcohol in their systems, then found dead in rivers or streams. Many attended colleges along the Interstate 94 corridor in the Midwest—in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa–and in 22 cases, a Smiley graffiti was scrawled nearby.  Each death had been ruled accidental by police.

Jenkins’ corpse convinced the detectives that his death was not accidental, because, when his frozen body was dredged from the Mississippi, his hands were folded across his chest in an odd pose that they said was inconsistent with an accidental drowning.

The parents of each of the 40 victims were convinced their sons had not died accidentally.  The press played up the story and detectives Gannon and Duarte appeared on television to discuss their theory.  “We believe they [the killers] were specifically leaving a clue for us or anyone who was paying attention to these drownings,” Detective Gannon told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He added that these were almost perfect crimes because the water washed away physical evidence.

In life, as on Law and Order, serial killers often like to leave a calling card, and criminologists told that the sadistic Smiley is an example of the kind of signature typically left by psychopathic killers who derive sexual arousal from their killings and are so proud of their murders that they’ll do anything they can to get credit for them.

But Smiley aside, not everyone was convinced there was a pattern here. Police forces investigating the deaths disputed the “Smiley Face Gang” theory that the deaths were linked.  Criminal profiler Pat Brown scoffed that the Smiley faces found near the water were nothing more than coincidences.  “It’s not an unusual symbol,” she said to a reporter for a Minneapolis paper.  “If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”

 On April 29, 2008, the F.B.I. issued a statement “regarding Midwest river deaths” which said in part: The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the “Smiley Face Murders,” … we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.

Their word may be law, but in this case, the FBI’s statement was not the final pronouncement on the Smiley Murders. On June 21, 2008, ABC News reported that Bill Szostak, whose son was found in the Hudson River, had written a petition aimed at getting elected leaders to call on the FBI to investigate not only his son's death, but also 43 similar cases in nine states; college men whose deaths had been ruled accidental drownings. He got 900 signatures on his petition the first day.

The FBI has not reopened their investigation, but parents of possible “Smiley Face” victims still maintain a number of web sites that post information about the nearly 100 young men who have died in similar circumstances.  These sites include a Facebook page called “the Smiley Face Killers,” which on April 24, 2013, posted an article from the Daily Mail saying that, “Police found the body of Brown student Sunil Tripathi, falsely accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber, in the Providence River in Boston.”

And just last week, a statement posted on the Smiley Face Killers Facebook page read:
March 15th, 2016, the body of Zach Marr, age 22, was pulled from the Charles River in Boston Massachusetts. Zach went missing on February 13th, 2016, and the circumstances are all too familiar. Zach was "Last Seen leaving the Bell in Hand Tavern, where he was hanging out with friends and family" only to disappear into the night without warning. One month later, his lifeless body is pulled from the river. We see the pattern time and time again, young male, out with friends, dead in water. Marr was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College, and Zach deserved a lot more out of a life that was cut short by the Smiley Face Killers. RIP Zach Marr.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Yiayia’s Travel Emergency Kit

Eleni, Amalia and Nico on the roof of their apartment building in Manhattan

Tomorrow  I’m headed to Kennedy airport  to travel with daughter Eleni and the grandkids Amalia (6) and Nicolas (2 ½) on our annual summer trip to Greece—a nine-hour overnight flight. (Eleni’s husband Emilio will be coming later and my husband—Papou Nick-- is already there.) 

Last year’s flight was the worst ever—none of us slept, our fellow passengers hated us and the flight attendants kept asking if there was anything we could do to stop Nico from crying.  That emergency was ended by showing him his favorite TV show-- "Lion Guard"—on my smart phone.

What I didn’t know last year was that both kids were getting over Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (also called Coxsackie Virus).  It hits children, usually under five, and goes away quickly, but in adults it's worse, especially  in older people with a compromised immune system—a good description of me last year by the time we got on the plane. Soon after arriving in Athens, I came down with fever, chills, blisters on hands feet and face, and by the time we left Greece, all my fingernails had come off.  (Eventually they grew back.)

This year’s flight to Athens has got to be better than last year’s, during which Nico, sitting on my lap and on his Mommy’s lap, watched the same Mickey Mouse cartoon five times.  Now that he’s over two, his parents have to pay for a seat for him.  

Amalia will be carrying a very clever travel aid designed for children between 40 and 80 pounds.  It’s called a Boostapak.  It looks like a backpack strapped to Amalia’s back, but turned over, it serves as a booster seat in a plane or car (secured by the vehicle’s seat belt.)  Inside the  Boostapak, Eleni keeps a change of clothes, a neck pillow in case Amalia falls asleep sitting up (Nico has one too), a vomit bag in case she throws up (which often happens on long car rides), a coloring book and some markers. 

Every long trip with little ones is a learning experience for this Yiayia.  Below in italics is an excerpt from a column I wrote in May of 2015, when I traveled with Eleni and the two kids to Florida on the book tour for her novel “The Ladies of Managua”, which she launched while on maternity leave from her job. Back then, Amalia was three and Nico was only seven weeks old.  The things in my emergency travel kit that applied to Amalia then are now more appropriate for Nico, but I’m happy to say that, although he was breastfed until he was two, he never had any interest in a pacifier, so losing the pacifier is no longer a cause for panic. 

(Written in Florida in 2015)
First emergency today: I pulled out a bright red and orange Indian print cotton dress to wear in the Florida heat. On the front was a white spot — the result of bleach or spit-up? From Amalia’s set of mini colored markers, which I carry for drawing pictures on napkins, I matched the color — the spot is gone until the next washing.

Yesterday, I noticed that the toes of my rope-soled espadrilles were starting to flap. Out came my mini-tube of Super Glue gel. I’ve used the stuff for everything from temporarily reattaching an automobile part to re-gluing acrylic fingernails.

Amalia has enjoyed more restaurants at three than I had at 18. She behaves well, aside from bellowing at the waiter, “I want bread and butter and water!” When her restaurant behavior gets too annoying, I hand her my smartphone, which has a series of animal puzzles  which I downloaded for free. She moves pieces with her fingers and is rewarded with electronic balloons to pop. For a real emergency, her mommy has kiddie TV programs downloaded to her phone.  (Update:  Nowadays Nico loves doing the animal puzzles and Endless Alphabet while Amalia has graduated to Berry Rush, Duolingo (for Spanish and English) and Peppa Pig’s Paintbox all loaded onto our phones.

Here are some more emergency tools from my toiletry case:

Band-Aids. Nearly any kind of boo-boo immediately feels better when you apply Band-Aids with a familiar character like Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins, those sisters from Frozen.  These character Band-Aids are more expensive, but can provide hours of fun—with kids sticking them on willing family members. Once, in a restaurant, a young mother complimented me on my colorful “bracelets” applied by Amalia, adding that she often wore the same.

Entertainment. Each child has his own favorite shows, whether it’s about trucks and trains, dinosaurs, or the beloved (by me and Amalia) “Doc McStuffins”, a girl who treats ailing toys while giving out health tips. Update:  Amalia now scorns Doc McStuffins as babyish, but longs to watch “P.J. Masks” and “Shimmer and Shine”—both of which her parents don’t allow.  But as I told her the other day, “The reason God invented Grandmas is to let children do things their parents don’t let them do--when the parents are out, or in case of emergency.”  Recently, when I was babysitting the two, I let them watch an episode of a certain taboo cartoon, and when the parents came in, Amalia stayed mum, but Nico, who rarely comes out with a whole sentence, burst out with “I do watch P.J. Masks!”  As his mommy observed, “Loose lips sink ships.”

One TV cartoon show that never fails to absorb both kids and yet has their parents’ approval is “Lion Guard.”  Nico knows the names of all the jungle characters, but I still can’t keep them straight.

Diapers. Most toddlers, at a certain age, become obsessed with the subject of poop. I generally travel with a flat, fold-up plastic potty seat for both sanitary and convenience reasons. But lately, Amalia scorns it, saying she can use a regular-sized toilet seat. When I bought the delightful book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer, she made me read it over and over. As for babies in diapers like Nicolas, there seems to be a growing trend toward cloth diapers and diaper services. Eleni and Emilio used them in both Manhattan and Miami (better for the environment and for the kid, etc). But even the most adamantly environmentalist parents have to use disposable diapers for travel — so eco-friendly parents insist on Naty and/or Seventh Generation organic diapers. 

Snacks. Whether headed to the South Pole or to Grandma’s house, we pack a supply of juice boxes and Amalia’s go-to snacks—Cheerios and Goldfish. She’ll eat strawberry yogurt as long as there aren’t chunks of strawberries(!) and it tastes best if Dora and Boots are on the container. I make sure that her flip-top plastic water cup really is watertight. (General rule for all things plastic—if it doesn’t have “BPA free“ printed on it, avoid it like the plague. )

An extra pacifier. The essential in every Grandma’s travel emergency kit is an extra pacifier. With first grandchild Amalia, I didn’t realize that pacifiers come in different sizes, and a panicked dash to the nearest pharmacy ended in disaster when I bought the wrong size. Wise grandmas know to get one of those straps that attach the pacifier to baby’s clothing and to carry an extra, just in case.  (Update: No more pacifiers, hallelujah!  One clever Mommy had a “farewell party” for the pacifier, tied it to a balloon and let it sail away while everyone waved good-bye.)

We also travel with a small bottle of children’s Tylenol, a thermometer for kids and small packets of hand wipes and baby wipes

And, of course, an iPad that allows us to access programming for kids when needed. Parents inevitably quote the rule about letting toddlers watch no more than one hour of screen time a day or their brain will be destroyed. As soon as you, a grandma,  realize that a TV set or computer screen will turn your granddaughter into a hypnotized zombie and give you some precious quiet time, you’ll start to feel like you’re her drug dealer. But you’ll do it.  

Now if only someone would invent barrettes for toddler girls that actually stay in.

Update: I promise to report on how the nine hours to Athens on an airplane goes this time, and if you have any tips on how to stay calm and in control when traveling with children, please pass them on!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Older Women and the Rules of Society

(I posted this exactly two years ago, both here and in the Huffington Post, but I think it's still as relevant today.)
  On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Maria Agustina Castillo returned to Sacred Heart in New Orleans, where she attended high school under the strict supervision of the nuns in the early 1950s.

“I feel like, as women, we’re always trying to figure out the rules of the world around us.  We’re raised to listen to the rules of society, as opposed to men, and I sort of realized by the time you figure out the rules, they’ve all changed.  Older women carry so many worlds inside them—both the societies that don’t exist anymore and themselves at a younger age.  I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored.  People of that age stop worrying about what others think.”

When I read those words last Sunday in an interview in the Worcester Sunday Telegram, they struck me as deeply wise, because they encapsulated many things that I’ve learned in my 75 years.   And I was doubly impressed because that statement came from my 40-year-old daughter, Eleni Gage, who was being interviewed about her newest novel “The Ladies of Managua” by reporterAnn Connery Frantz.

Eleni’s book is about three generations of women in Nicaragua and the secrets and tensions between them.  Her favorite character is the grandmother, Isabella, who was sent as a teenager from her home in Nicaragua to finishing school in New Orleans where she learned things like how to get into a cab properly, how to set a nice table, and how to make fudge.  This character is based on Eleni’s Nicaraguan husband’s grandmother, who is still alive today to dispense advice on proper behavior.  Isabella, in the book, is the mother to Ninexin, a heroine of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution. She lost her husband to a bullet, is devoting herself to building a new Nicaragua, and is frequently reminded by her daughter Maria and others, “You couldn’t have been a good revolutionary and a good mother.”  As Eleni commented to the Telegram, “Guilt is hard to escape, especially for women.  You’re expected to do certain things, raise your kids in a certain way.”

Years before Eleni was born, I discovered the difficulties of learning the rules of the game when I married a man from a close-knit Greek family.  I was a very naïve Presbyterian from Minnesota.  Nick and his sisters had suffered starvation and worse during the Greek civil war and eventually escaped in 1949, coming to Worcester, MA to join their father, a cook, whom nine-year-old Nick had never met.  As retribution for engineering the escape of her children from their Communist-held Greek village, Nick’s mother was imprisoned, tortured and executed. (He told her story in the book “Eleni” which was later made into a 1985 film.)

Once I married Nick in September of 1970, I realized I was involved in a game to which I did not know the rules, especially after our son Christos was born ten months later.  We lived in an apartment in Manhattan but would drive nearly every weekend to Worcester, MA, to visit Nick’s elderly father and his four older sisters.  I was always breaking rules without realizing it.  At our son’s baptism, which culminated in Greek line dancing while Nick’s father Christos balanced a glass of Coca Cola on his head, I was wearing a long dress. In church, while my baby was being dunked and tonsured, and holy oil was put on his hair, I would nervously, in the front row, cross my legs.  Every time, my father-in-law would stand up, walk across the church and tell me in a stage whisper that I was not supposed to cross my legs in church. (It was a long dress, people!)  Also, when I took the baby home, while the party was still rollicking, I washed the holy oil out of his hair.  Big mistake!

Nick once told me, in the early years of our marriage, that a Greek wife must always be ready to feed unexpected guests at a moment’s notice.  And I have never been a good cook. But luckily he is.

Over the next 45 years I learned—to cook moussaka, to do Greek dances, to speak Greek.  And I had two daughters, including Eleni—although having a son first, Christos, gave me a major boost in the eyes of the Greeks. (The three requirements Nick spelled out when we decided to get married, were 1. Quit smoking, 2. Name the first two children after his parents and 3. Marry in his Greek Orthodox Church.)

Well I did all that—It helped that The New York Times sent our family to live in Greece for five years while Nick was their correspondent in the Middle East.   Along with our children, I learned the language and the rules of the game.  Years later, back in the U.S., when strange odors emanated from my teenaged son’s closet, I wasn’t surprised to find in the pocket of his church-going suit a bulb of garlic that one aunt had hidden against the evil eye.  It’s now an ordinary occurrence to have my future read in my coffee grounds by one of Nick’s sisters and, when things seem to all be going wrong at once, the kids and I regularly ask another aunt to do an exorcism against the evil eye.

Eleni said in last week’s article that, as she was growing up, I would point out rituals and celebrations to her—the rules of our game. She became so interested in them that she majored in folklore and mythology at Harvard, learning things she has put to good use as an author of three books. (Her second, “Other Waters” was about an Indian psychiatrist in New York who thinks her family has been cursed.) 

It was very gratifying to learn that my early efforts to discover the rules of the game sparked a lifetime’s education and writing career in my daughter. (Well, the Telegram’s reporter referred to me as “Jane” instead of “Joan” but whatever.) The part of Eleni’s statement about older women that gave me the greatest encouragement was: “I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored. [That’s me, for sure.] “People of that age stop worrying about what others think.” [I hope that will be me, as well!]

Friday, July 28, 2017

Going to the Great Pita Pie Festival in Lia, Greece

 One of my very first blog posts, back in August of 2009, was this one about the Great Pita Pie Festival in Lia, Greece, started by the first woman mayor of  Nick's native village.  It's still going strong eight years later,  scheduled for August 17 this year. Our family will be there for all the delicious fun.  (And the villagers mentioned below will all be there too!)

Last week, when we drove up the winding mountain road in northern Greece and arrived at Nick’s native village of Lia, just below the Albanian border, we were thrilled to learn that the famous “Yiorti tis Pitas”—or “Festival of Pita Pies” was happening the very next day—Saturday Aug. 22.

The Greek calendar is full of religious holidays—like the August 15 festival of the Virgin Mary, which is second only to Easter in importance—but each village also has its own Saint’s Day (Lia celebrates July 21—the feast day of the Prophet Elias.)

But we had never been lucky enough to be present at the “Festival of Pita Pies” which, as far as I know, is unique to Lia.

Our neighbor in the village—Dina Petsis –was elected Lia’s first female president in 2006 and she brought to the village the Festival of Pita Pies—a kind of harvest festival—now in its third year. Pita pies are the traditional delicacy of this area of northern Greece. The pitas are not desserts, but savory pies with all manner of good things baked between layers of phyllo dough. (But Dina also cooked a sweet apple and cinnamon pita as well—because I asked for it.)

In 2002—when daughter Eleni spent a year living in Lia, rebuilding the ruined family home and writing her travel memoir “North of Ithaka”, Dina introduced her to the secrets of pita making,including a pita made with 13 kinds of wild greens including nettles, and another cheese-y pie called “dish rag pie”. Eleni even learned to make a sweet cake that a single girl can bake and take to church, which she called in her book “Get a Man” pie.

Last Saturday, Dina, who is not only village president but also the finest cook in Lia, let Eleni help her make 5 different kinds of pitas. All the village women from miles around were cooking their specialities. Dina’s contributions included a pita full of various greens, a quiche-like pita featuring zucchini (everything from her garden, of course) another pita with macaroni and cheese in it, and my personal favorite—a pita filled with chicken and rice. (The secret ingredients, Eleni told me, were mint and grated carrots.)

Dina had been so busy getting ready for the Pita Festival that she cheated this time and used store-bought phyllo dough for her pitas, although most of the village women proudly make their own homemade phyllo dough, which is rolled out on a board with a stick that resembles a broom handle.

A large, level area in the village, shaded by plane trees and called the Goura, was strung with lights and Greek flags. The ladies contributing pitas came early. There were 76 pitas in all, cooked by more than 30 women. Notis, who runs the one village store and coffee shop in Lia with his wife Stella, had been roasting lambs on spits all day for those who were not satisfied with pita alone. He and his helpers also sold beer and local wines. Notis would hack meat off the lambs with his cleaver, fill a plate and weigh it to know what to charge.

But the pitas were free. Daughter Eleni and Dina and her helpers cut the pitas into squares and brought each table a plate filled with a variety. There were no prizes—for no one could taste every pita and decide which was the winner. (Our table, however, unofficially awarded first prize to Dina’s Cotopita—the chicken pie.)

Then Dina, in her role as president, gave a speech of welcome and the orchestra began to play. The clarinet player, as usual, was the star, assisted by a fiddler, a bouzouki player, a singer and a young boy on the tamborine.

Our village priest, Father Procopi, along with Dina, started the dancing and the lady cantor from the church joined in. (In the photos Dina is wearing a black and white blouse and Eleni a turquoise dress.) Then, as the high spirits (kefi) increased, more pita-baking women and exuberant young people joined in the dance. The older men mostly watched and drank and devoured the 76 pitas donated by the expert cooks.

We went to bed around midnight, but Dina and her husband Andreas didn’t stop dancing until 2:30 in the morning.

We’ve already marked next year’s calendar for August 22-- the fourth annual Yiorti tis Pitas in Lia.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Grand Old Fourth with the Grandkids

This year we were lucky to have daughter Eleni and her two kids, Amalia, 5, and Nicolas, 2, come to stay with us in Grafton, MA from June 27 to July 5.    Although they live on the 14th floor of a New York high-rise and have Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art  a few blocks away, the simple pleasures of life in the country delighted them and Nick and I loved sharing an old-fashioned Fourth of July weekend.  Along with Eleni and kids on this visit came Emilio’s niece from Nicaragua, Maria Agustina, who is staying with them while she looks at colleges in the northeast.  Eleni’s husband, Emilio, couldn’t make it to Grafton because he was so busy launching his new coffee company Eleva, back in New York. 

It was very hot, and as soon as they arrived, everyone headed for the pool while Eleni Nikolaides (“Yiayia Nenny”) and Mommy inflated pool toys like Hank the Octopus. Papou Nick looked after grandson Nico on his kickboard.

 Every morning Amalia and Nico would set out carrots and other treats for the bunnies that seem to be reproducing like, um, rabbits all over our property.  The baby bunnies became so tame that Nico could almost pick them up, which had him screaming with excitement.

 The pair had several tea parties on the porch, and Nico was happy for hours playing with his Nemo water table on the lawn.

Friday night, June 30, the Worcester fireworks display in Christoforo Colombo Park on Shrewsbury Street was threatened by rain, but it stopped just long enough for the pyrotechnic display, which we watched from afar in the Beechwood Hotel’s parking lot.   Amalia counted with glee how many of the explosions included the three colors of our flag.

 The next day, Saturday, we went to a “Crab Festival” in the parking lot of the Sole Proprietor restaurant.  It was celebrating the 25th year that Buster the Crab will be enthroned atop the restaurant throughout the month of July to advertise the special crab menu.  

 The kids got free face-painting, balloon figures, and the chance to enter a Buster coloring contest (which would score them a free meal if they came in July with their parents.)   
From there we went to the nearby Worcester Art Museum, one of the best small museums in the country.  The kids admired the medieval chapel and colored in an exhibit of sacred art. (The museum has become very child-friendly.) 

 They loved lying on pillows to look up at the hanging art, with flashing lights and waving plastic cones that are inflated by fans.  That exhibit is called  “Reusable Universe” by Shih Chieh Huang.
 The little ones were captivated by the pink plastic flamingos gathered in the museum’s courtyard, where we ate lunch from the Museum Café.  (Did you know that the plastic flamingo –1957, as well as Tupperware –1946, both originated in Leominster, MA the “plastics capital of the world”?)
Sunday started with a tour of Westboro and Grafton, including a horse farm.  We stopped for an ice cream at Grafton’s Country Store on the picturesque Grafton Common.

After lunch we went to Worcester’s Ecotarium, a science and nature museum that currently offers an exhibit called “Did Dinosaurs Poop?”, combining two topics of riveting interest to Amalia and Nico.  They even got to dig for fossilized dinosaur poop in this sort of sandbox.  The stegosaurus you see outside is Siegfried, who lives at the Ecotarium but no, he doesn’t poop.

One highlight of the Ecotarium was the 12-minute ride on the miniature Explorer Express train around the park, but the biggest hit of all for Amalia and Nico was standing inside the hurricane simulator to feel the force of the winds.

On Monday, July 3, Amalia worked all afternoon making a patriotic farewell cake for her Papou Nick, who was about to leave for Greece where he will spend the rest of the summer.  When she stuck a candle in it, it  became an early cake for his late July birthday.

As soon as Papou left for the airport, the rest of us headed to the Grafton Common for the annual Fourth of July concert.  All of Grafton, young and old, gathered around the bandstand, most dressed in patriotic colors. 

 Amalia investigated the cannons, which are shot at the beginning and end of the concert, and the men dressed as Civil war soldiers.  Nico checked out the flavors of the Cones on the Common.
On Tuesday, July 4, we all headed to a celebration in Millbury’s Dean Park, where hundreds of people were strolling about in the heat, enjoying the music, barbecue and games.

 There were lots of different kind of inflatable challenges and bouncy houses, and Nico and  Amalia were determined to try every one, despite the long lines.  One inflatable was a long obstacle course, but Nico plunged in fearlessly, moving as fast as the big kids, climbing up walls and eventually coming out the other end at the same time as his sister.
 We were planning to go to another, more distant fireworks display that night, but after the heat and activity of the day, we were all too tired. We elected to stay home and just watch the Macy’s fireworks from New York on TV.

The next day we drove back to Manhattan.  It took five hours instead of the usual three, and Nico threw up in the car just as we reached the New York border, but nevertheless, we all agreed, it had been the best Fourth of July ever.