Happy Birthday, Yiayia!

20 Dec

I love walking around my central Athens neighborhood of Ampelokipi with my grandmother.  Its name means “beautiful gardens,” and at one time it truly was.  But for the past 30 years or so, its narrow streets have been crowded with tall, balconied apartments, its central boulevards crowded with even taller office buildings, its paved streets and sidewalks crowded with parked cars and the ubiquitous mopeds that defy death with every ride.

Ampelokipi today. Photo: http://www.scyscrapercity.com

(For more great images of how Athens has changed architecturally over the years, visit the web site “skyscraper city.”)

Yiayia tells me that when our two-story house was built on the hill known as “Tourkovouno,” (Turk’s Hill) because that’s where many of the Greek refugees from Sinope were settled when they were forced to leave their homes in northern Turkey in the early 1920s, she could stand on our front balcony and look over the tiled rooftops of the neighboring single-story dwellings all the way to the sea.

Now when I think back to the summers I spent in that house in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I can still see Yiayia closing the shutters as she settled me down for my afternoon nap, in part to keep the heat and bright sunlight at bay, in part to block out the sound of the jackhammers and cranes that were tearing down the old and erecting the new.

I was too young then to remember now what was being torn down. But Yiayia remembers.  As we walk along Kolchidos Street or Panormou Boulevard, she stops and points and conjures up the neo- classical villa with the tall windows and iron gates, bougainvillea trailing from the upper balconies, lemon trees scenting the gardens below. Mrs. So-and-so had to sell it to developers after her husband died, but now her grandchildren live in the apartment units they received in exchange.  Or Hariklia’s house just behind ours where the apartment building with the street-level shop now stands – Hariklia’s geranium-scented back balcony faced Yiayia’s jasmine-scented one, and when they needed a break from their daily housekeeping, they could step out, wave at each other, and exchange the day’s news.

If you go to the Plaka district, you can still see examples of the old homes, with their tall shuttered windows and stately doors, that used to be found all over the city. Most have been torn down to make room for Athens' exploding population.

Yiayia is very pragmatic about all the architectural – and social – changes she has seen.  Our neighborhood is no longer as pretty or safe or quiet as it once was, and you certainly can no longer step out on your balcony, wave at your neighbor, turn your face to the breeze and look out to the sea. But, as Yiayia says, her neighbors’ children and grandchildren are living, in some ways at least, more comfortable lives than their parents or grandparents did. They may not realize it, but Yiayia is old enought to remember.  After all, she will be celebrating her 94th birthday this week.

And so,  what present will I bring her?  What can I get for a woman who has lived through most of a horrifyingly brutal and ecstatically joyful and peacefully mundane century?

Throughout the years, in war and peace, she has stayed focused on her family, her cooking — and her flowers.  “You have to talk to flowers,” she always told me.  “They respond to the sound of your voice. And don’t forget to open the window, even in winter – they crave fresh air.  And spritz them, always spritz them, because they do miss the rain.”  Once, as we were closing up the house to leave for vacation, she scolded me for almost throwing away some cut flowers that would have been brown and brittle by the time we returned.  They still had some life left in them, she explained, setting the pot resolutely back on the sunny windowsill, and we should let them live it.

Yiayia planting a geranium for my house in Wisconsin.

Yiayia still loves her flowers but now, at soon-to-be-94, taking care of them has become a bit of a challenge. The watering can is heavy, and the walk from the kitchen faucet to the patio is long.  So perhaps this year for Yiayia’s 94th birthday, I will bake her a cake, and buy her a small hydroponic garden, one she can set on her kitchen counter, close to the faucet and to the sun streaming in her window.  And she can lovingly tend to them, like she tends to us, as she embarks, joyfully, on yet another year.

I remember Yiayia making a cake for special occasions,  like birthdays.  It had coffee flavored buttercream, brandy, almonds, and ladyfingers.  When I next see her, I will have to ask for the recipe.   Do you know which cake I mean?  If you have a recipe, I hope you will share it with me!

In the meantime, to all our grandmothers who will soon be celebrating birthdays, “Xronia Polla!” 


10 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Yiayia!”

  1. Christopher Tingus December 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Grandparents and so, so many cheriched moments! “Xpronia Polla”! and for those of us who are now older and have departed loved ones, “May God Rest Their Soul” a wonderful generation and oh.. how so fortunate were We who spent so much time with our beloved Parents and Grandparents!

    • KuZina December 20, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

      We are lucky, indeed!

  2. eleonora redaelli (@elereda) December 20, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    very sweet post

    • KuZina December 20, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

      Do you have a favorite family birthday cake recipe???

  3. Brian December 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm #


    • KuZina December 20, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

      Thank you, Brian!

  4. Yiota December 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    I loved your story Yiayia. I have a yiayia who lives in Greece who is 106 and she is also an amazing woman just like your yiayia. I have been to Greece with my family and walked the streets of Plaka, the old architecture is amazing.

    • KuZina December 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

      She is 106 years old? Oh, my! Just think of all the things she has experienced and seen!!!!

  5. Tina December 21, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Loved the memories you shared. It reminded me of times with my yiayia in Tourkolimano (now Mikrolimano) in Pireaus. Walked up that street in Plaka everyday for 6 weeks this summer. Xronia polla to your yiayia and keep the posts coming!

    • KuZina December 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

      Last summer I had a chance to walk along Mikrolimano (we, too, still call it Tourkolimano!) It was so beautiful watching the sun setting, although it was a bit frustrating having to fend off the waiters trying to get us to enter their restaurants! I also walked along that Plaka street — I wonder if we passed each other by????!!!!!

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