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MY GREEK DRAMA
LIFE, LOVE, AND ONE WOMAN'S OLYMPIC EFFORT TO BRING GLORY TO HER COUNTRY
By Gianna Angelopoulos
Greenleaf Book Group PressCopyright © 2013Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki
All rights reserved.
Olive trees, majestic as the sun plays on their leaves in the breezes coming off the Aegean Sea. The spicy taste of herb tea infused with fresh-picked thyme and diktamos. (This rare, expensive herb from Crete is believed to have medicinal virtues. In Virgil's Aeneid, for example, Venus heals Aeneas with a stalk of "dittany from Cretan Ida." My family too grew diktamos to brew for tea, a powerful potion that assured longevity. The locals call this herb erondas, meaning love.) The aromas of melitzana (eggplant), tomatoes, and lamb cooking over an open flame in summer, the time when it never rains. These are my memories of the place where I was born, the magical, historic island of Crete.
Greece is a country of islands. At present, four of the eleven million inhabitants of Greece live either in the capital city of Athens on the Attic Peninsula or in the mountainous northern provinces that extend to the borders with Albania and Bulgaria. But the soul of Greece lies in its twelve hundred to six thousand islands (depending on how you measure them) sprinkled across the Ionian Sea to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Aegean Sea to the east. Only about two hundred of these islands are inhabited, and of those merely seventy-eight have more than a hundred residents. Some of the islands are dry; they are covered in rocks, thyme, oregano, and white houses surrounded by blue sea and blue sky. Others are covered in pine trees. Rain, when it falls, falls in winter.
Crete lies three hundred miles south of Athens, in the southern Aegean. It is a true miniature of the flora and fauna of the entire Mediterranean. With more than three thousand square miles—twice as large as the state of Rhode Island—Crete is a large island, and its population exceeds six hundred thousand, rivaling that of such major US cities as Boston, Washington, Denver, and Seattle. It is the land of poets and artists. It is the birthplace of Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, who once wrote, "Happy is the man ... who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea."
The city of my birth, Heraklion, is Crete's largest city. A place Lord Byron called "Troy's rival."
An ancient fortress built behind solid ten-foot-tall stone walls that remain standing today, Heraklion has witnessed a history of invasion and cultural assimilation as Crete's natural resources and strategic location have been a pivotal point of interest for generations.
In the thirteenth century, for example, the Venetian Empire seized control of Crete and ruled the island for more than four hundred years. Renaissance culture had a pervasive influence on the island and assured the development of rich literature and arts traditions. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire drove the Venetians from the island and ruled Crete for two hundred years.
It wasn't until 1908, the year my father was born, that Crete declared its union with Greece.
Crete's economy has always been stronger than that of mainland Greece. The island boasts agricultural and tourist industries as well as a flourishing commercial port in Heraklion. Crete's natural beauty, along with its combination of cultural and economic riches, has bestowed upon many islanders a distinct sense of superiority. Cretans sometimes believe they are the super-Greeks—stronger, wiser, braver, and freer spirits who are blessed with more of all the virtues that are associated with the Greek people.
There has always been chatter on the island that Crete should break away from the rest of jealous Greece and become an independent nation.
For a long time I shared the feeling that we Cretans were a special people. At critical junctures in my life and career, my faith in the bonds of a shared heritage was rewarded. I always believed I could count on Cretans for assistance or, sometimes, a small miracle that I required.
Over the span of my life I have traveled extensively, meeting Greeks from across my homeland, all of whom seemed to subscribe to their own notions of regional exceptionalism. As a result, I have come to believe that while Cretans have been blessed and are, to some extent, a distinct culture, what we share with all Greeks is far greater than our differences.
As a young girl, I did not fully appreciate the heritage of Heraklion. I viewed my city as drab and unattractive. I did, however, appreciate aspects of Crete's ancient history. Beginning almost five thousand years ago and for almost thirteen centuries, Crete was the pinnacle of Western Civilization, home to the Minoans, who were renowned as the first palace-builders of Europe.
The most famous of those palaces is Knossos, the ceremonial center of a city built on the island between the seventeenth and fourteenth centuries BC. It was discovered and partially restored by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early years of the twentieth century.
I often visited Knossos during my childhood, biking there from my home, which was roughly three miles away. Most people think of antiquities as lifeless and colorless, your classic white marble structures. But Knossos was alive with color, most memorably lush red—le sang de boeuf. I marveled at the intricate architectural design that connected more than a thousand rooms, at the elaborate system of water and pipes that served to cool the palace and drain the sewage. I was dazzled by the sophisticated artistry, which included columns carved from cypress trees and stunning frescoes. But to a young girl from a conservative culture, nothing was more striking than the images of women decked out in elegant finery that left their breasts bared.
Years later, those images still resonated with me. When the director of the Opening Ceremony for the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics wanted to incorporate the beauty and sensuality of the ancient women of Knossos, I supported him. I only beat a diplomatic retreat after being warned that any nudity, no matter how deeply rooted in our heritage, might result in controversy.
However unprepossessing Heraklion's appearance, that was only a relatively minor concern of mine growing up there. I was far more distressed by what a cultural backwater the city was. I'm not talking about Minoan glories or Greek antiquities; rather, I'm talking about that 1960s and '70s youth culture—rock and roll, Hollywood movies, British fashion—with which I, like millions of young girls around the world, was totally infatuated. To be generous, I could say Heraklion gave me an appetite for life in a real city. And I would go on to spend my entire life living in major cities: first Thessaloniki, then Athens, and a decade in Zurich and London before, finally, a return to Athens.
I did not discover what it means to be truly Cretan—Cretan in heart and soul—in Heraklion. That transformation would occur in the countryside, in the tiny village of Embaros, nestled in a valley in central Crete.
When I was born, my paternal grandparents, Manolis Fazakis and Parthenia Daskalaki, had already lived in Embaros for some forty years, and it was there that they raised my father, Frixos, along with his older brother, Achilles, and sister, Ioanna.
My father viewed the family homestead in Embaros as the center of his universe. He insisted on taking my younger sister, Eleni, and me there as often as possible for vital infusions of the real Crete. So we visited during summer, during school vacations, and over holiday weekends. Sometimes my mother would entreat my father to let us stay in the city for a long weekend so that the family might partake of some more sophisticated social ac
Excerpted from MY GREEK DRAMA by Gianna Angelopoulos. Copyright © 2013 by Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Philoxenia 3
2 Family Names 12
3 "I don't need a son. I have Gianna!" 20
4 Growing Pains 28
5 Escape from Crete 37
6 The Golden Horse 46
7 A Touch of Basil 56
8 School Days 63
9 Parliamentary Steps 73
10 Turkish Delights 82
11 Un coup de Foudre 92
12 Second Chances 100
13 No Gain without Pain 107
14 Generation Next 119
15 Back to University 131
l6 London Calling 141
17 Sleeping with the Enemy 148
l8 Athens is in Motion 159
19 We Court the World 170
20 A Gold-Medal Performance 183
21 A Tale of Two Cities 198
22 Land and Water 209
23 Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Me 225
24 Omens and Bumps in the Road 236
25 "I Will Also Be There!" 246
26 G force 254
27 Games On! 264
28 Last Dance 274
29 New Pathways and Paradigms 280
30 A Greek Drama 290