School Days

By the time I was five years old and started school, Dad had left for Australia. This was in early 1952. Next time I would see my father was eight years later on the 12th of March 1960 in Melbourne, Australia. I went to school methodically but lacking enthusiasm, however that first grade reader made a great impression on me as it taught me how to pronounce the Greek alphabet correctly, in particular I remember a caption together with a sketch of a grandmother feeding milk to a cat. The caption read: Ee Yaya thiny Yala stin Yata (grandma is giving milk to the cat). This was an example of how to pronounce the third letter of the Greek alphabet. Every other letter was taught in a similar way with a suitable caption. The teachers however, provided a good and relevant education with the limited resources they had.

A typical school day started out with the whole school lining up in front of the Greek national flag and singing the Greek national anthem; after that, the teacher would check every student's finger nails and when satisfied with the cleanliness of their fingernails the teacher would let the student go into the classroom, otherwise the student would be directed to go home to cut and clean his/her fingernails.

Topics at school were varied and relevant, including Language, History, Geography, Mythology, Calligraphy and Arithmetic. Physical activities included body stretching, push ups, marching and basic gymnastics without any equipment.

The school or anyone else for that matter didn't have any sporting equipment, not even a soccer ball. We didn't participate in sport. The school involved the community in social events as much as it could by staging plays and religious events.

I remember one year I was in a school play that was acted in front of our village community. I was dressed in military clothes and brandishing a replica rifle made out of wood. The play was a typical war scene, my part was to run on to the stage and inform the section leader that the partisans were approaching our position. Another activity I enjoyed and remember clearly was that we had to make a scale model of our region out of clay depicting villages, rivers, mountains and other relevant features. I dug the clay from the bank of our nearby creek and spent days at home working on it. I enjoyed making things, more about this later. The usual lessons of writing, reading and learning arithmetical operations with whole numbers and fractions were constantly practised. However I do not remember operations with decimals or percentages; nor do I remember any basic algebra being introduced. But I do remember that my interest in attempting and solving more challenging mathematical problems was sparked by a sweets vendor who used to come to the village on Sundays selling sweets and ice cream. I had no money to buy anything from him. I was just staring at those sweets and salivating. One Sunday the vendor challenged me with a maths problem. If I got it right he would give me a piece of cake he told me. Well I got the answer to the problem he gave me, and I was rewarded with a piece of cake. That was the beginning of my fascination for problem solving and how things work in general, more about this later on.


Dad standing on the left serving in the Greek National Army; he joined the Army in order to escape persecution from the partizani.

The teachers were conscious of the need to provide us with social activities. This involved outdoor excursions. Excursions usually took place in spring. 1st of May was a compulsory outing for the whole school: we would walk outside in the open fields and look at the new plants that sprung up after the long winter, enjoy the flowers and enjoy looking at birds and other animals. One particular year the whole school went on an excursion to the town of Kostur by bus; this was my first long trip outside the village. Kostur was built around the lake Kostur, the town was renowned for its fine fur industry. What stuck in my memory mostly about Kostur was the statue in the middle of the main cross roads, something I had not seen before. Later on I found out that a lot of other towns had a statue of a prominent person in the centre of the town. Another thing that I saw for the first time were people swimming in the lake, they were wearing small shorts, again something new for me. I liked being outdoors surrounded by nature and observing things no matter how minor.


Wagon loaded with hay - a representation of Dedo and me.

Dedo one day came to school and asked the teacher if I could be excused from school as he needed me to help him collect the hay that was dry enough to be picked up. I was to climb on the wagon and squash the hay as Dedo piled it on. I was overjoyed to escape from the classroom and help Dedo. Even though I was physically in the school I was always thinking about being outside. This is why I don't remember any other students around me in the school. I was very much a self-occupied student, making my own observations and always looking beyond the classroom. One such example was that of a painter, not quite outside the school, but a good distraction from the classroom. This particular man was painting the ceiling of the classroom, and as he covered the area that he was painting and needed to shift the ladder he would walk it as if he was on stilts instead of climbing down to shift it; I found this fascinating and very clever. I was an obedient student and paid attention to the teachers, because if one did not pay attention to the teachers the punishment was literally foul. If you misbehaved or did not pay attention to the teacher you would be assigned to latrine duty, which meant cleaning the outdoor toilets by first sweeping the waste into a ditch and then diverting a stream of water to wash the mess into the main village creek. Repeat offenders would be locked up under the school in the space between the floor and the ground during Saturday morning. This severe action was used to shame the student, as he/she was visible to people passing by the school. Being shamed was a great deterrent, and it worked as I saw this punishment applied only once in my six years that I was at school. I don't know what sort of misbehaviour would warrant such a punishment, but I am sure if my cousin George (this is my second cousin George, the one on Dedo Pavle's side) was caught trying to knock the school down one Sunday afternoon with a hammer he would have been peeking between the stumps under the school. George hated going to school; in fact he hated being confined in classrooms. I liked going to school but not necessarily being in the classroom. I enjoyed walking to school especially in winter, I liked walking on and pressing with my feet on frozen puddles and watching the air bubbles shifting under the ice and listening to the cracking of the ice under my weight. The path was covered with snow and frozen pot holes. I enjoyed sliding on it in my well-worn rubber shoes (donated by American aid agencies). The shoes had the word "Dunlop" and a chain pattern on the soles. I wore out this pattern during summer to make the shoes slippery for winter so I could slide on the snow with them.

In winter we had to bring our own fire wood to school to keep the school pot belly stove stoked. Those who didn't bring fire wood would sit away from the pot belly stove and feel the cold. It was during one of these winter days that I had my first personal encounter with the Gypsies. Two female Gypsies confronted me on my way to school and demanded that I give them the two logs of fire wood that I was carrying. I refused to hand over the wood; they threatened to put a spell on me that would make me sick and eventually kill me. I didn't want to freeze in the classroom and, secondly, if the teacher told Dedo that Manoli didn't bring any wood to school that day he would deal with me himself in his own stern way. So the Gypsies didn't get my fire wood. The Gypsies in general would not physically take things from you. They would persuade you to give them what they needed by threats or by begging, but not by physically snatching. On another occasion, a female Gypsy offered to tell my grandmother her fortune. Our downtrodden and insecure people were always desperate to find out if the future held better prospects for them; this made them an easy target for the Gypsies. That particular Gypsy asked for a loaf of bread and a knife so she could tell my grandmother her fortune. My grandmother dutifully obliged. The Gypsy cut out a square pyramid shaped piece from the loaf of bread, spat in it and proceeded to tell my grandmother her future prospects whilst reluctantly offering the loaf of bread back to my grandmother. Well do you think my grandmother would take the loaf of bread back with Gypsy spit in it? No way. The Gypsy got her free meal for that day. The male Gypsies would offer specialist services such as silvering our knives, forks and spoons for a small fee or food. I was very suspicious of this service even though I didn't know the potential harm of this procedure. They would melt a piece of solder in a pot and then dip the utensils in the molten solder to give the utensils that shiny silvery appearance. It didn't take long for our people to find out that this utensil silvering procedure was harmful to their health and consequently was rejected. Despite the deceptive methods the Gypsies used in order to survive in that competitive and harsh environment, I admired them for their persistence and never-give-in attitude. In fact I liked them. I loved their music, their dancing and their strong sense of survival against all odds. In the evenings they would set up their camp by the side of the road, light a fire and start their music and dancing. A piano accordion, clarinet and a violin would set the mood for the young girls to start whirling around and clicking their red shoes as they danced around the fire. They were poor, but they were rich in life.

The school had other functions in addition to educating the children of the village. It was the social hub of the village; the school ground in particular was used for panagiri (social events similar to fairs), for weddings, by visiting entertainment groups and as a social meeting place. The weddings were always a major attraction and were attended by most of the villagers; invitations were not required. When the music started, anyone with blood running in his veins would rush to the school ground and join in the fun.

A standout visual event for me was when I first saw a wedding party leading the bride and her family from Krepeshina (the next village, five kilometres away), to our village. I first heard the sound of the big drum, a slow rhythmic and low pitch sound that could not only be heard, but was also felt for kilometres along the valley. The band was leading the wedding party while it was playing a kind of sad sounding music (a family giving away their daughter). This was a fantastic sight of a group of people, taking the new bride to her groom and essentially to a new life in the nearby foreign village; yes a village five kilometres away was regarded as a foreign village because people very rarely visited other villages around them. The band and wedding party were wearing traditional costumes which were hand made from wool that was shorn from their own sheep. The musical instruments comprised the big drum, two small drums, a piano accordion, the ubiquitous clarinet and in some cases the gaida (an instrument similar to a bag pipe, but unlike the Scottish version this one was made from a sheep's skin and had one pipe). Each village had their own particular style of clothing, so much so that one can tell which village you were from by the clothes you were wearing.

Weddings and religious events were the main social interactions for people, they were the times and places where people could catch up with one another and young people in particular had the opportunity to meet potential partners. The music and dancing would go on all day, young men would lead the circle of dancers hoping to attract the attention of suitable mates. The young maidens would join in and dance in a demur way but making sure they displayed their latest costumes which showcased their domestic skills. I was too young to join in and not too interested in dancing, however I enjoyed the sound of the clarinet, such a clear and thrilling sound. My grandfather on Mum's side played the clarinet at home. I remember one day he had me seated on his lap and played the clarinet for me, it was a magical moment. Many years later at the age of 28 in Melbourne I bought a clarinet hoping to learn to play it as my Dedo did. The attempt was in vain, I found out that I had no musical talent and it was far too late for me to develop a musical skill.

Amongst the other activities taking place on the school ground at different times of the year were shows and acts such as dancing bears, acrobats and vendors selling all sorts of goods. I remember one such dancing bear routine that was performed in the school ground. That act was kind of difficult for me to watch. I felt sad and sorry for the bear as I watched this large old bear being dragged by a chain that was attached to its nose and how the bear was forced to dance on its hind legs and bow to the audience at the end of each act . The huge size and the painful screaming of the bear added to the drama of the act. A lot of people were amazed by the act and at the same time were frightened of the bear at such a close range. But it was not as frightening or dramatic as the wild bear I was confronted with one late afternoon in a nearby vineyard. The bear was foraging for left over grapes, as I was, when it at last saw me and lunged at me. I ran like a rabbit dodging vines, fences and rocks all the way down to the neighbour's house. His name was Pando Mladenov, he had a shot gun and I asked him to come and shoot the bear. He was calm and collected, he listened to me and in a calm voice told me that the bear would have gone into the forest by now and besides it was too dark to look for it now. I was very fond of that neighbour; he was humble and knowledgeable about hunting and fishing. I can still remember the scene of him cooking freshwater fish in a frying pan over an open fire outside his house. The fish were coated with flour and were cooking in olive oil with onions and salt. He gave me one small fish to eat straight from the hot frying pan - it was magic. I can still smell the fish and remember the taste of the cooked freshwater fish even now. At another time and at a different place he took me hunting one early morning, it was during winter, the ground was covered with fresh snow. We were the only people there, hiding in a circular bunker made out of rocks that was used during the Civil War. We waited for hours for this particular hare to appear and run across his firing range. Eventually the hare appeared and dashed past our bunker and out of sight in no time at all. The neighbour didn't fire his shot gun. He said the hare was too fast and he would have missed it. "No sense wasting a round," he said. I couldn't believe the patience and calmness of this man. He said we will get him another day. He was very fond of his German made shot gun. He liked talking about it as much as shooting with it. One day he described to me how to pick a good gun barrel from a poor quality one. He said "Open the gun stock, place you thumb nail at the end of the barrel and look through the other end of the barrel, now move your thumb and observe the light reflections from your thumb inside the barrel. If the reflections are smooth and unbroken the barrel is perfectly machined." Kole Mladenov, the son of Pando, was like his father, already an accomplished hunter even at the age of 12 years. He had a sling shot for hunting birds and a snake catching stick. The stick had two short branches in the shape of a "Y" at one end. By placing the "Y" end behind the snake's head he would pin the snake to the ground. He would then grab the snake by its neck, just behind the snake's head. Kole, also like his father, liked talking about fishing and snake milking. One day he showed me how he milked the venom from a snake. He had already caught a snake and had a glass cup with him; the glass cup had a fine cloth stretched over it that was held by a rubber band. Now, Kole squeezed the snake's neck causing it to open its mouth and expose it's fangs, then he forced the snake to bite the fine cloth. I saw the venom dripping into the glass cup. Kole told me that he sells the venom to a hospital in Lerin, but I found this hard to believe. Kole's knowledge of snakes most likely saved my life at another occasion, more about this later.

The acrobatic act was more amazing than the bear act. Two bare chested muscular men suddenly appeared apparently out of nowhere with their props in hand. At first, they executed somersaults, then walked on their hands, lifted one another over their heads and basically attracted everyone's attention by displaying their physical strength. When a sizeable crowd gathered, a flat wooden board with large nails sticking through the board appeared and was shown to the audience for authentication. The board was placed on the ground and then one of the men very carefully lowered himself on the board of nails to the amazement of the crowd. Before the crowd stopped gasping with amazement the men staged another incredible act of strength. This time the stronger looking man stretched his arms overhead and leaned backwards until he touched the ground with his hands. He transformed himself into a human table, his arms and legs acting as the legs of a table, his abdomen horizontal and flat above the ground like a table top. The other man produced a large rock which he struggled with but eventually he managed to place it on the human table's stomach. The gathered crowd was amazed at the strength of the man supporting the rock on his stomach. The act did not end there. The standing man then produced a big sledge hammer and proceeded to swing the hammer and hit the rock held by the human table. The hammer blows were convincing as one could hear the sound produced by the sledge hammer striking the rock and chips of rock flying everywhere. The audience could not believe their eyes, some were shocked, others could not look and others were shouting "Stop." I stood there and carefully observed the whole act. I loved observing and analysing things. I instinctively knew the rock somehow softened the sledge hammer's blows, but I couldn't explain how. It would have been much more painful if the man was hit directly by the sledge hammer, I thought to myself. I wanted to learn more about these sorts of things. This act stirred my interest in science, although I did not know what science was then.

At a different time, a different season but at the same school ground, this time all of the space between the school and the adjacent church was used. It was the most important religious event of the year, the re-enactment of the resurrection of Christ. Oblivious to me, the whole village was lined up between the school and the church and they were absolutely silent, all including me gazing at the assembled clergy who were waiting to enter the empty and darkened church to re-enact the resurrection. At the stroke of midnight a light in the church would spontaneously appear indicating the beginning of a new era. Starting from the original light source in the church each person had their candle lit by another person until eventually everyone had a light to take home; bringing into their home the essence of Christ. To describe the scene that has been etched into my mind all this time requires the skill of an accomplished writer, or an imaginative poet, none of which I am. Even now, as I am about to start describing it, I know that I can't do it justice. However I will try to describe it as best I can and as I remember it.

This scene could have been set up by a skilled movie director. God surely played a part in this as well because Easter fell early in that calendar year and winter lingered on later than usual, sprinkling the ground with fresh pure white snow. The bright full moon was hung at just the right spot in the sky to provide sufficient light for the clergy and their paraphernalia to stand out against the darkened background. The probability of all of the above coinciding at one time and in one place was too great to be real, yet it was real. The church candle lights (before they were blown out) provided the warm amber light that added the last touch of perfection to this amazing scene. Time stood still for the crowd to absorb the majestic beauty and the significance of this event. Standing knee deep in the glistening pure snow an altar boy was holding a tall gold cross enhanced by the warm glow from the church lights. Behind the altar boy and at either side of him there were two banners stretched between two poles and each was held high by two clergymen. The banners had religious figures embroidered on to them. Four brightly coloured silk ribbons where attached to the poles and were fluttering in what felt like a still night air, this was a surreal scene that defied the laws of nature itself. Slightly behind and under each banner stood two priests dressed in the most elaborate robes that they possessed, each holding the incense burner in their right hand and a golden grail covered with a knitted doily in their left hand. At a respectful distance behind the priests stood several ladies dressed in their best traditional costumes, their costumes included the apron with its embroidered lacework. Each lady held an icon of their patron saint in front of their apron. Each icon was framed by the lace around the perimeter of the apron. All stood still ready for action. The scene was set, the church lights went out and the procession began to move. It was an instant and gentle motion without any jerky movements and they all glided towards the church. From my vantage point I had a three quarter view at the start of the movement, then the procession passed me at right angles. I was mesmerized by the fluttering of the ribbons in the windless night. No sound was heard, the snow was hardly disturbed, all of the participants seemed to float on the snow with no apparent body movements. As the procession moved away and headed towards the church, the scene started to fade away as it does in a well photographed movie scene. There were no apparent foot prints left in the snow. All eyes swivelled left and witnessed the procession enter the church. Then the scene started to lose its magic as the gathered crowd grouped together and began to enter the church. Now, that magical scene lost its effect, sadly it turned into an ordinary church service scene as the last person entered the church but the original magical scene still lives on in my head to be revisited and retold again and again.

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