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Гръцко кафе
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978-619-150-502-9
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978-619-150-516-6
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Rating (19)
4.2105263157895 19
Format
Paperback
Size
13/20
Weight
250 gr.
Pages
272
Published
19 January 2015

Greek Coffee

A fatal car crash with a Greek businessman capsized his young wife's life. She is a Bulgarian journalist. The raw truth surfaced. What follows is a bold entering into the depths of family history in which she (Katerina, the wife, the self-purifying woman) is looking for herself while wringing energy to deal with the pain...

This is just the plot framework of the novel "Greek coffee". Tangling autobiographical and fictional, historical and intimate, this storyline boldly dissolves the layers of time and looks at its faults concealing primary forces, old conflicts and stereotypes.

About the Author
Katerina  Hapsali

Katerina Hapsali graduated in economics and Spanish in the United States, then returned to Bulgaria. Since 2000 she has worked actively as a journalist, though she prefers the broader definition "a person of words" and it is hardly a coincidence that she's been preparing for her doctorate in philosophy now. Among her favorite media projects over the years are the radio show "Talk to her" (Darik Radio), and the magazine headings "Lie Detector" and "Women with History" (TEMA magazine). She is the first editor of "Harper's BAZAAR" magazine in Bulgaria. "Greek Coffee" is her first novel.

In March 2015, Greek coffee was nominated for "Helicon" 2015. This is the only Bulgarian award for high acchievements in all genres of fiction. 

In May 2015, the novel was awarded second prize in the „Prose“ category of the 43rd edition of the Literature Days "Southern Spring" in Haskovo, Bulgaria, a traditional competition for debut books of all genres. 

In June 2015, Greek coffee was nominated for  the National Literature Prize "Elias Canetti" of Rousse Municipality, Bulgaria.

Excerpt

Greek Coffee, a novel by Bulgarian author Katerina Hapsali

 

            “Siko, Chroni, siko!”
            Get up, Chroni, get up...
            That’s what your grandmother kept on wailing in the small, stuffy room.
            She wept with despair and rage. She looked suddenly old and insurmountably alone. Despite the tens of figures of people, immobilized in the heavy air, steeped with the sweet fragrance of incense.d
            I will never forget this very specific fragrance. Formalin and flowers.
            “Siko, Chroni, siko! Why are you doing this to me?”
            That’s what your grandmother kept screaming as she threw herself onto the open coffin. She covered your father’s heavily made-up face with kisses, stroked his unexpectedly grey hair. A few days earlier I had seen a young man off to work. Death, or possibly the encounter with it, had made him at least twenty years older.
            The village women would haul Demetra up and drag her back to sit on the small couch beside your aunt and your grandfather, who was stupefied with agony. Just so she could get up a minute later and go back to kissing your father.
            That’s how I found them, your Greek family. Arranged next to each other along the cheap old couch as if on display. Destitute, flattened – by the grief, by the heat, the saturating Greek heat, by the looks of the people, whose sympathy alternated with a dark foretaste of festivity.
            The village of Neos Stavros had never seen such a funeral. At least the villagers couldn’t remember one like it. And they remembered a lot. Even though they didn’t like to talk.
            A funeral with four bishops and hundreds of wreaths. With indecently expensive cars and busloads of construction workers.
            Siko, Chroni, siko....
            Your father, covered with flowers, his face blue, his hair – grey, did not get up. And never, ever again would his unparalleled chuckle resound. Nonetheless, that very day, the one willed on me to be the worst day of my life, I had the stinging feeling that he would get up. Your dad liked surprises. Three years earlier, he had given me an engagement ring just a few days after we’d first met... We sat in a smoke-filled Indian restaurant full of drunken Brits, somewhere around Varna. While I was busy with the order, your father dragged over from goodness knows where an off-key gypsy band, telling them to sing only “Miss Katerina.” “Pretty miss Katerina,” he sang, ardently, alluringly out-of-tune. And every time the chorus ended, he asked me in a sly, yet childlike way, “Lav, weel you merri me?”
            I was just laughing – it was funny, but sweet – and the gypsies would pick up their
instruments time and again, while the English tourists applauded. They obviously didn’t get the fact that the gypsies were playing one and the same song.     
            After the seventeenth time, however, Polychronis Georgiou Salis grabbed my frail shoulder, emaciated by dieting, and said in his incomparable Bulgarian: “Look hya. This is the lastime I propoz. Eef you don’t answer me now, I weel stop. I weel never ask you egein!”
            “Yes,” I said to him, before I could block the words. “I’ll marry you.”
            Your father kissed me. A brief, cheerful kiss, with no excess drama or frenzied passion. I’d already said “yes.” There was no reason for him to trample his male dignity one more time. The way they saw it in Neos Stavros.
            “Well, then, this calls for a song... Eh, Lorenzo, do you know the song “Miss Katerina?”
            Your father was that kind of man. He had a strange, yet seductive charm. He could get out of any situation with his grin and temperament. And yes, for some reason he called “Lorenzo” everyone whose name he didn’t know.
            That’s why on that day – the day of the hottest funeral, contrary to the facts and to all logic, I kept thinking that he would get up. That he would remove the piles of wilted flowers with his distinctive, clumsy gestures and dust off his six-and-a-half-foot, 350-pound body and say with his Greekest, most devilish smile:
            “Tek it eezy! Just a lital jok...”
            Siko, Chroni, siko...
***
            Eggs with wild onions.
            I hadn’t seen such a recipe anywhere. But I had eggs, and I had wild onions. I also had orregano. Ever since I married your father, I started putting orregano in everything.
            “Lav, you’ve become more Greek than the Greek,” Polychronis would laugh. When he still laughed. He, on the other hand, was becoming more and more Bulgarian in his ways, to my surprise and displeasure. His look was increasingly grim – out of habit, not for a specific reason. He tapped his foot nervously. He ate dinner early, went to sleep late, but he didn’t take me out. He was always rushing, insisting we “orientate ourselves.” I couldn’t understand where my easy-going Greek boy had gone. I missed him. But I didn’t know where to look for him, either. Definitely not inside the glass of tsipouro your father had taught me to drink with my salad in the evening. While he himself preferred Bulgarian rakia more and more regularly.
             We had met somewhere around there – at the crossroads of national identities, in the heart of the confused and touchy Balkans. “Hm, so Polychronis is from Northern Greece?” Boris, my father, your Bulgarian grandfather, had plunged into thought. “Well, in that case he’s one of ours, a Bulgarian boy!” “Her family has roots in Thessaloniki?” Georgios, your Greek grandfather, the father of Polychronis, had exclaimed excitedly. “That makes Katerina practically Greek!”
            We never learned to love each other without insisting we become the same. Without sticking the other person in our own scheme of things – making them either a Bulgarian, or a Greek.
            But let me get back to the eggs with wild onions. In the cool morning of that day, the day that would mark our life forever, I decided to cook myself something. I didn’t do it often, I had neither the time, nor the desire. You had recently turned a year old, and amid caring for you and changing diapers, I would often forget about myself. But it was right then that I decided to have breakfast. Isn’t it strange how sometimes our body takes over indisputably, knowing what is best for us. It was to be my last peaceful meal for a long time to come.
            I tiptoed across the cool kitchen of our mountain villa, praying you wouldn’t start to cry before I had finished preparing my unusual breakfast. You were sleeping serenely, with your hands upright, like the healthy, happy baby that you were. I even finished my coffee and managed to sneek in a text message to my brother: “Eggs with wild onions. Life is good.”
            Sometimes text messages were my only connection with reality. But you wouldn’t understand that. Only mothers with young children would.
            My brother replied: “You epicurean!”
            A few hours later he would be on his way to see us. And he would lie to me that he had grown tired of life and that he missed me. That for this reason he had taken off  in the middle of the work week, leaving Sofia for the Rhodope mountains. And I would swallow it all... I am naive sometimes, I must admit.
            Shortly after 9:00 am the blood came. Thick, sticky. Out of the blue. From my nose. I stared at the drops that fell on the dirty dishes in the sink. I laughed. “That’s just what I needed,” I said to myself. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I thought it might be an alergy. As a child, I sometimes had reactions to house dust. But the villa was sparkling clean. There was a bit of everything on the stone shelves – dried herbs, scented candles, baby bottles and juices, half-read books, raspberry wine... Everything but dust. Anxiety slithered around my throat. By now, the blood came pouring down. There was no doctor in the Rhodope village. But then you flew by in your walker like a tipsy soldier and I rushed after you. The small wheels rattled over the stone floor, you toddled and laughed, taking a sharp turn around the dining room table, arms open wide, as if you wanted to embrace the whole world. My brave, trusting child – life hadn’t taught you yet what fear was. The May sun stuck its tongue out from behind the candlesticks and the pitcher of water. For a few seconds there, all was well with the Universe.
            “Put some cotton in your nose, at least,” the old woman who helped around the house and with you scuttled behind me.
            Maria was from another Rhodope village, but came every morning at 9:00 am, with incredible punctuality. She would climb the steep hill, then the steeper still stone steps and she would start cleaning, ironing and singing to you. She was deathly thin, with short, badly colored red hair. She had raised two children and had recently had a cancer removed. She smelled of medication and pickles. And she made the best meatball soup on earth. I even liked Maria sometimes – when she didn’t voice her opinions about the world. I once fired her mentally with a blast, when she said that several gypsy kids could grow up around you. The last thing I expected from the house help was proposals for social reform. “Kam on, she iz eh good woman, let her help,” your dad kept saying. “You kent do everything yourself, you are onlee human!”
            For a while already, we would see your father only on weekends. Polychronis built roads. Highways. The Greek engineer Salis would win auctions, travel to sites all over Bulgaria, make calculations, lay asphalt, meet trucks and limosines, discuss with workers and politicians and then, on Friday night, he would lumber into the house, exhausted, carrying five or six plastic bags. He liked to spoil you, and I would get mad at him. I cannot understand to this day why you had to have hundreds of toys. Instead, I wanted him to give you hours. Hours spent with him. With us. “Justah wait a bit, lav,” Polychronis would say. “Everything weel work out. We weel be a normal family. Have prescience.”
            “Prescience” is what your dad used to say instead of “patience.” He spoke the most vibrant Bulgarian in the world. He once told a minister of something that he should “have prescience.” I laughed, the minister didn’t. The truth is that “prescience” is not my strong point.
            “Here’s cotton, stop running after him,” Maria was shoving a pack into my hand.
            Our game of tag was over. The sun began to mope. I almost hated Maria at that moment. But she was right. I had to stop the blood. I shoved a couple of balls of cotton up my nose, I breathed like a fish out of water, mouth wide open. My breath was heavy with the scent of eggs, coffee and wild onions. I must have looked funny, because you stared at me and burst out laughing, but then again you laughed a lot. You were not the kind of neurotic child that could discourage people to have kids of their own.
            I managed to curb the blood, but its presence lingered on throughout the day. It finally dried up in the early evening, around 6 pm. The time of your father’s death. 

***
            “Oh, maiko, maiko...”
            “Maiko” means “mother” in Bulgarian. But no, it wasn’t your Bulgarian grandfather who said it.
            It was your Greek one. Georgios. The one who said I was Greek.
            He said it like a curse.
            He repeated it like a mantra.
            He had heard it from his folks, goodness knows when; they, in turn, had heard it from their folks... Somewhere in Asia Minor. In Turkey. And no, Georgios has no Bulgarian roots. He has no Turkish roots, either. Your father’s father claims he’s a Greek, Achilea mou (footnote 1, from Greek, my Achileas) despite the fact that sometimes, when he’s very sad or very happy, he’ll utter a phrase in Bulgarian...
            We live in a packed, steamy hamman, my son. Of languages, identities. A hammam where, sooner or later, we are all stripped naked, although we keep trying to hide behind some embroidered towel. A hammam I won’t call Globalization, it’s too multi-cultural, hypocritical. Politically correct, so to say. Greek words, Turkish words, you see? If I can teach you one thing before I go, it is to say things directly. To make sense when you speak. With delicious, merciless words.
            Many rivers flow into the blood running through your veins. You are yet to negociate your identity with this confused world, but let me tell you the most important thing – never be ashamed of all the different voices singing inside of you. Within you warriors doze, while meek peasants toil the land; you harbor rebellion and humility, madness, delight, blue blood. The shadows of our dearly departed write your fate along your veins. The centuries, my son, are not merely the past. They whisper. And if you sit quietly, so quietly that you don’t scare them away, you might even hear their murmur. The hushed history inside of you. The most roaring silence you will ever hear.
            I want to tell you this story. The story of Achileas Polychronis Salis, before he cried out for the first time on that gloomy April Good Friday morning. Not in order to tell you who you are, this I leave to you. I want you to know who you were before you came to be. To better understand the whisper in your blood. Hear me out. Have “prescience.”
            I promised myself you would know where you come from. I’ll do all I possibly can to open up the secret chest of memories. As much as those still alive will allow me to. We seldom think of wiping clean the rear view mirror of our lives. But I’ll try. This I vowed on the day of the hottest funeral.
            That was when I first decided you must know your father. Not the way he will reach you one day, changed, embellished beyond recognition, but the way he really was – an impressive, big Greek boy, who always got lost in the labyrinth of his own, only too Balkan ambition. This ambition was your father’s Minotaur, the one who ended up killing him. And he was no Theseus, he wasn’t strong enough to realize he needed help. He didn’t allow me to be his Ariadne. He was too macho for that.
            “Enough with these ledends, mom, what’s all this Theseus and Ariadne stuff,” you will probably cut me off some day, when you read this. “It’s all old wives’ tales!”
            I used to react the same way. I could never understand why we need to read make-belief gibberish from times long gone. Youth doesn’t like to look back, it is arrogant, wonderful. It charges on, with its beautiful head held high. Youth never watches its step. That’s also why it stumbles, of course.
            I now know that myths are not simply stories pulled out from the mothballs of time. Legends, Achilea mou, carry all the wisdom this world has suffered for, an insight drenched in blood and tears.
            As for Theseus, he is a hero not because he shows off his pumped-up muscles on antique vases. Theseus is a hero because he achieves his goal. He enters the labyrinth and kills the Minotaur. But he manages to do that only because the king’s daughter Ariadne is at the entrance of the labyrinth, holding a ball of yarn in her tender hands. Thus Theseus never loses his way, he keeps holding on to Ariadne’s cord. Her frail fingers win the battle with the Minotaur, not the magnificent muscles of Theseus.
            But your father had no way of knowing that. Hear my story, you’ll see why...
            Later on, I decided you must also know the others – those whose whisper you sometimes hear in the wakeful night. The ones whose gestures you are already mimmicking, without even knowing it, looking at me with their eyes, soon to be asking yourself and the world their questions. The ones who guide your step, who sometimes even let you fall, but then always pick you up and wipe your nose.
            Your history began writing itself long before you were born, before you settled comfortably inside of me in the shape of a silent, tenderly trusting comma – on a laid-back summer afternoon in Santorini.
            I can tell you who you were. You have your whole life ahead of you to decide who to be.
            The puzzle is huge, only you can put it together. You are a Bulgarian, a Greek – you are from the Balkans. A mythical hero. The son of a king and a goddess, of Peleus and Thetida, mortal and eternal, modest and proud. Rich, poor, any which way. But always with dignity. Never forget this. You are Achilleas, the warrior, and Troy – the unconquerable, the one you will ultimately conquer – is yours for the taking. If you still want it.
            “I’m not from here or there,” your father claimed. I never understood him until now. He was neither from here, nor from there. I was the same. So are you. Nowhere is ever really “here” or “there.” On this peninsula of ours, soaked with blood and semen, we are all from everywhere.
            “Oh, maiko, maiko...”
            Your granddad, your Greek grandfather, barefoot, his hair white, his shirt – open, was drinking ouzo in the morning. I looked at my watch. Ten-thirty. Which glass of his was this?
            I had come for the Ninth Day Memorial service. Nine days without your father. Without my husband. The big Greek boy.
            Every day since the death of your father added an extra couple of fluid ounces of ouzo to your grandfather’s breakfast of champions. I wondered if he would ever emerge from his alcoholic stupor.
            I couldn’t blame him. People drink only in two cases. When they want to and when they have to. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two.
            I sat down next to Georgios and stroked his head. He winced as if I’d slapped him. Your grandfather is a real Greek, as I already told you. He doesn’t take compassion lightly.
            Greek men are a specific breed. It would be good for you to know this, as you will always be part Greek. “Those Greeks are real Tu
rks!” A worried friend of mine had said this after I announced that your father and I were getting married. “Be careful, Katerina!” I had laughed heartily. The huge, grinning Green boy, who had proposed to me in an Indian restaurant on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast to the sounds of an off-key gypsy band and the applause of drunken Brits, he wasn’t someone such clicheès could possibly apply to. That’s what I thought. Back then. “The Greeks are Turks, pretending to be Italians,” is what Boris, my father, your Bulgarian grandfather, exclaimed when I told him I was marrying the boy from Neos Stavros.
            Polychronis and I tied the knot despite the force of the clicheès. Perhaps even despite ourselves. We both wanted it to work. We both wanted the others to be wrong. We were in love in spite of them, or so we believed. It turned out it was only ourselves we loved. This marriage had to succeed, urgently. That’s how you came. Ironically, the best-loved child in the world. I met you not on the Good Friday, when your cries filled the hallways of that dreary hospital in Sofia, but nine months prior to that. You were born in Bulgaria, but I conceived you in Greece.
            A year             after our wedding, your father finally took me on a three-day seaside family holiday, between his packed schedule and my silent panic attacks at the sight of our vanishing happiness. Him – the leading professional in a Greek construction company, me – a former journalist and socialite. Him – overweight and unsightly, with a bright future ahead of him. Me – slender, beautiful, but supposedly in the past tense.
            I drank a lot that afternoon. More precisely, five brimming glasses of wine. A wine with the poetic name of Ifestio. Which means “volcano” in Greek. There was no way you could be a lethargic kid – here you are now, playful, giggling, plunging towards me, your little fists menacingly clenched. You try, yet again, to grab at my computer as I write this. Who knows, you may be right. 
            Your father also had several glasses of Ifestio that afternoon. He ate quite a lot. I didn’t reproach him, not even after the third plate of calamari.
            I don’t know if I would have had anyone to tell this story to one day if I hadn’t said to him straight up, without any preludes, my eyes fixed on his over the mountain of empty plates:
            “We need a baby. Immediately.”

Greek Coffee, a novel by Bulgarian author Katerina Hapsali

 

            “Siko, Chroni, siko!”
            Get up, Chroni, get up...
            That’s what your grandmother kept on wailing in the small, stuffy room.
            She wept with despair and rage. She looked suddenly old and insurmountably alone. Despite the tens of figures of people, immobilized in the heavy air, steeped with the sweet fragrance of incense.d
            I will never forget this very specific fragrance. Formalin and flowers.
            “Siko, Chroni, siko! Why are you doing this to me?”
            That’s what your grandmother kept screaming as she threw herself onto the open coffin. She covered your father’s heavily made-up face with kisses, stroked his unexpectedly grey hair. A few days earlier I had seen a young man off to work. Death, or possibly the encounter with it, had made him at least twenty years older.
            The village women would haul Demetra up and drag her back to sit on the small couch beside your aunt and your grandfather, who was stupefied with agony. Just so she could get up a minute later and go back to kissing your father.
            That’s how I found them, your Greek family. Arranged next to each other along the cheap old couch as if on display. Destitute, flattened – by the grief, by the heat, the saturating Greek heat, by the looks of the people, whose sympathy alternated with a dark foretaste of festivity.
            The village of Neos Stavros had never seen such a funeral. At least the villagers couldn’t remember one like it. And they remembered a lot. Even though they didn’t like to talk.
            A funeral with four bishops and hundreds of wreaths. With indecently expensive cars and busloads of construction workers.
            Siko, Chroni, siko....
            Your father, covered with flowers, his face blue, his hair – grey, did not get up. And never, ever again would his unparalleled chuckle resound. Nonetheless, that very day, the one willed on me to be the worst day of my life, I had the stinging feeling that he would get up. Your dad liked surprises. Three years earlier, he had given me an engagement ring just a few days after we’d first met... We sat in a smoke-filled Indian restaurant full of drunken Brits, somewhere around Varna. While I was busy with the order, your father dragged over from goodness knows where an off-key gypsy band, telling them to sing only “Miss Katerina.” “Pretty miss Katerina,” he sang, ardently, alluringly out-of-tune. And every time the chorus ended, he asked me in a sly, yet childlike way, “Lav, weel you merri me?”
            I was just laughing – it was funny, but sweet – and the gypsies would pick up their
instruments time and again, while the English tourists applauded. They obviously didn’t get the fact that the gypsies were playing one and the same song.     
            After the seventeenth time, however, Polychronis Georgiou Salis grabbed my frail shoulder, emaciated by dieting, and said in his incomparable Bulgarian: “Look hya. This is the lastime I propoz. Eef you don’t answer me now, I weel stop. I weel never ask you egein!”
            “Yes,” I said to him, before I could block the words. “I’ll marry you.”
            Your father kissed me. A brief, cheerful kiss, with no excess drama or frenzied passion. I’d already said “yes.” There was no reason for him to trample his male dignity one more time. The way they saw it in Neos Stavros.
            “Well, then, this calls for a song... Eh, Lorenzo, do you know the song “Miss Katerina?”
            Your father was that kind of man. He had a strange, yet seductive charm. He could get out of any situation with his grin and temperament. And yes, for some reason he called “Lorenzo” everyone whose name he didn’t know.
            That’s why on that day – the day of the hottest funeral, contrary to the facts and to all logic, I kept thinking that he would get up. That he would remove the piles of wilted flowers with his distinctive, clumsy gestures and dust off his six-and-a-half-foot, 350-pound body and say with his Greekest, most devilish smile:
            “Tek it eezy! Just a lital jok...”
            Siko, Chroni, siko...
***
            Eggs with wild onions.
            I hadn’t seen such a recipe anywhere. But I had eggs, and I had wild onions. I also had orregano. Ever since I married your father, I started putting orregano in everything.
            “Lav, you’ve become more Greek than the Greek,” Polychronis would laugh. When he still laughed. He, on the other hand, was becoming more and more Bulgarian in his ways, to my surprise and displeasure. His look was increasingly grim – out of habit, not for a specific reason. He tapped his foot nervously. He ate dinner early, went to sleep late, but he didn’t take me out. He was always rushing, insisting we “orientate ourselves.” I couldn’t understand where my easy-going Greek boy had gone. I missed him. But I didn’t know where to look for him, either. Definitely not inside the glass of tsipouro your father had taught me to drink with my salad in the evening. While he himself preferred Bulgarian rakia more and more regularly.
             We had met somewhere around there – at the crossroads of national identities, in the heart of the confused and touchy Balkans. “Hm, so Polychronis is from Northern Greece?” Boris, my father, your Bulgarian grandfather, had plunged into thought. “Well, in that case he’s one of ours, a Bulgarian boy!” “Her family has roots in Thessaloniki?” Georgios, your Greek grandfather, the father of Polychronis, had exclaimed excitedly. “That makes Katerina practically Greek!”
            We never learned to love each other without insisting we become the same. Without sticking the other person in our own scheme of things – making them either a Bulgarian, or a Greek.
            But let me get back to the eggs with wild onions. In the cool morning of that day, the day that would mark our life forever, I decided to cook myself something. I didn’t do it often, I had neither the time, nor the desire. You had recently turned a year old, and amid caring for you and changing diapers, I would often forget about myself. But it was right then that I decided to have breakfast. Isn’t it strange how sometimes our body takes over indisputably, knowing what is best for us. It was to be my last peaceful meal for a long time to come.
            I tiptoed across the cool kitchen of our mountain villa, praying you wouldn’t start to cry before I had finished preparing my unusual breakfast. You were sleeping serenely, with your hands upright, like the healthy, happy baby that you were. I even finished my coffee and managed to sneek in a text message to my brother: “Eggs with wild onions. Life is good.”
            Sometimes text messages were my only connection with reality. But you wouldn’t understand that. Only mothers with young children would.
            My brother replied: “You epicurean!”
            A few hours later he would be on his way to see us. And he would lie to me that he had grown tired of life and that he missed me. That for this reason he had taken off  in the middle of the work week, leaving Sofia for the Rhodope mountains. And I would swallow it all... I am naive sometimes, I must admit.
            Shortly after 9:00 am the blood came. Thick, sticky. Out of the blue. From my nose. I stared at the drops that fell on the dirty dishes in the sink. I laughed. “That’s just what I needed,” I said to myself. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I thought it might be an alergy. As a child, I sometimes had reactions to house dust. But the villa was sparkling clean. There was a bit of everything on the stone shelves – dried herbs, scented candles, baby bottles and juices, half-read books, raspberry wine... Everything but dust. Anxiety slithered around my throat. By now, the blood came pouring down. There was no doctor in the Rhodope village. But then you flew by in your walker like a tipsy soldier and I rushed after you. The small wheels rattled over the stone floor, you toddled and laughed, taking a sharp turn around the dining room table, arms open wide, as if you wanted to embrace the whole world. My brave, trusting child – life hadn’t taught you yet what fear was. The May sun stuck its tongue out from behind the candlesticks and the pitcher of water. For a few seconds there, all was well with the Universe.
            “Put some cotton in your nose, at least,” the old woman who helped around the house and with you scuttled behind me.
            Maria was from another Rhodope village, but came every morning at 9:00 am, with incredible punctuality. She would climb the steep hill, then the steeper still stone steps and she would start cleaning, ironing and singing to you. She was deathly thin, with short, badly colored red hair. She had raised two children and had recently had a cancer removed. She smelled of medication and pickles. And she made the best meatball soup on earth. I even liked Maria sometimes – when she didn’t voice her opinions about the world. I once fired her mentally with a blast, when she said that several gypsy kids could grow up around you. The last thing I expected from the house help was proposals for social reform. “Kam on, she iz eh good woman, let her help,” your dad kept saying. “You kent do everything yourself, you are onlee human!”
            For a while already, we would see your father only on weekends. Polychronis built roads. Highways. The Greek engineer Salis would win auctions, travel to sites all over Bulgaria, make calculations, lay asphalt, meet trucks and limosines, discuss with workers and politicians and then, on Friday night, he would lumber into the house, exhausted, carrying five or six plastic bags. He liked to spoil you, and I would get mad at him. I cannot understand to this day why you had to have hundreds of toys. Instead, I wanted him to give you hours. Hours spent with him. With us. “Justah wait a bit, lav,” Polychronis would say. “Everything weel work out. We weel be a normal family. Have prescience.”
            “Prescience” is what your dad used to say instead of “patience.” He spoke the most vibrant Bulgarian in the world. He once told a minister of something that he should “have prescience.” I laughed, the minister didn’t. The truth is that “prescience” is not my strong point.
            “Here’s cotton, stop running after him,” Maria was shoving a pack into my hand.
            Our game of tag was over. The sun began to mope. I almost hated Maria at that moment. But she was right. I had to stop the blood. I shoved a couple of balls of cotton up my nose, I breathed like a fish out of water, mouth wide open. My breath was heavy with the scent of eggs, coffee and wild onions. I must have looked funny, because you stared at me and burst out laughing, but then again you laughed a lot. You were not the kind of neurotic child that could discourage people to have kids of their own.
            I managed to curb the blood, but its presence lingered on throughout the day. It finally dried up in the early evening, around 6 pm. The time of your father’s death. 

***
            “Oh, maiko, maiko...”
            “Maiko” means “mother” in Bulgarian. But no, it wasn’t your Bulgarian grandfather who said it.
            It was your Greek one. Georgios. The one who said I was Greek.
            He said it like a curse.
            He repeated it like a mantra.
            He had heard it from his folks, goodness knows when; they, in turn, had heard it from their folks... Somewhere in Asia Minor. In Turkey. And no, Georgios has no Bulgarian roots. He has no Turkish roots, either. Your father’s father claims he’s a Greek, Achilea mou (footnote 1, from Greek, my Achileas) despite the fact that sometimes, when he’s very sad or very happy, he’ll utter a phrase in Bulgarian...
            We live in a packed, steamy hamman, my son. Of languages, identities. A hammam where, sooner or later, we are all stripped naked, although we keep trying to hide behind some embroidered towel. A hammam I won’t call Globalization, it’s too multi-cultural, hypocritical. Politically correct, so to say. Greek words, Turkish words, you see? If I can teach you one thing before I go, it is to say things directly. To make sense when you speak. With delicious, merciless words.
            Many rivers flow into the blood running through your veins. You are yet to negociate your identity with this confused world, but let me tell you the most important thing – never be ashamed of all the different voices singing inside of you. Within you warriors doze, while meek peasants toil the land; you harbor rebellion and humility, madness, delight, blue blood. The shadows of our dearly departed write your fate along your veins. The centuries, my son, are not merely the past. They whisper. And if you sit quietly, so quietly that you don’t scare them away, you might even hear their murmur. The hushed history inside of you. The most roaring silence you will ever hear.
            I want to tell you this story. The story of Achileas Polychronis Salis, before he cried out for the first time on that gloomy April Good Friday morning. Not in order to tell you who you are, this I leave to you. I want you to know who you were before you came to be. To better understand the whisper in your blood. Hear me out. Have “prescience.”
            I promised myself you would know where you come from. I’ll do all I possibly can to open up the secret chest of memories. As much as those still alive will allow me to. We seldom think of wiping clean the rear view mirror of our lives. But I’ll try. This I vowed on the day of the hottest funeral.
            That was when I first decided you must know your father. Not the way he will reach you one day, changed, embellished beyond recognition, but the way he really was – an impressive, big Greek boy, who always got lost in the labyrinth of his own, only too Balkan ambition. This ambition was your father’s Minotaur, the one who ended up killing him. And he was no Theseus, he wasn’t strong enough to realize he needed help. He didn’t allow me to be his Ariadne. He was too macho for that.
            “Enough with these ledends, mom, what’s all this Theseus and Ariadne stuff,” you will probably cut me off some day, when you read this. “It’s all old wives’ tales!”
            I used to react the same way. I could never understand why we need to read make-belief gibberish from times long gone. Youth doesn’t like to look back, it is arrogant, wonderful. It charges on, with its beautiful head held high. Youth never watches its step. That’s also why it stumbles, of course.
            I now know that myths are not simply stories pulled out from the mothballs of time. Legends, Achilea mou, carry all the wisdom this world has suffered for, an insight drenched in blood and tears.
            As for Theseus, he is a hero not because he shows off his pumped-up muscles on antique vases. Theseus is a hero because he achieves his goal. He enters the labyrinth and kills the Minotaur. But he manages to do that only because the king’s daughter Ariadne is at the entrance of the labyrinth, holding a ball of yarn in her tender hands. Thus Theseus never loses his way, he keeps holding on to Ariadne’s cord. Her frail fingers win the battle with the Minotaur, not the magnificent muscles of Theseus.
            But your father had no way of knowing that. Hear my story, you’ll see why...
            Later on, I decided you must also know the others – those whose whisper you sometimes hear in the wakeful night. The ones whose gestures you are already mimmicking, without even knowing it, looking at me with their eyes, soon to be asking yourself and the world their questions. The ones who guide your step, who sometimes even let you fall, but then always pick you up and wipe your nose.
            Your history began writing itself long before you were born, before you settled comfortably inside of me in the shape of a silent, tenderly trusting comma – on a laid-back summer afternoon in Santorini.
            I can tell you who you were. You have your whole life ahead of you to decide who to be.
            The puzzle is huge, only you can put it together. You are a Bulgarian, a Greek – you are from the Balkans. A mythical hero. The son of a king and a goddess, of Peleus and Thetida, mortal and eternal, modest and proud. Rich, poor, any which way. But always with dignity. Never forget this. You are Achilleas, the warrior, and Troy – the unconquerable, the one you will ultimately conquer – is yours for the taking. If you still want it.
            “I’m not from here or there,” your father claimed. I never understood him until now. He was neither from here, nor from there. I was the same. So are you. Nowhere is ever really “here” or “there.” On this peninsula of ours, soaked with blood and semen, we are all from everywhere.
            “Oh, maiko, maiko...”
            Your granddad, your Greek grandfather, barefoot, his hair white, his shirt – open, was drinking ouzo in the morning. I looked at my watch. Ten-thirty. Which glass of his was this?
            I had come for the Ninth Day Memorial service. Nine days without your father. Without my husband. The big Greek boy.
            Every day since the death of your father added an extra couple of fluid ounces of ouzo to your grandfather’s breakfast of champions. I wondered if he would ever emerge from his alcoholic stupor.
            I couldn’t blame him. People drink only in two cases. When they want to and when they have to. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two.
            I sat down next to Georgios and stroked his head. He winced as if I’d slapped him. Your grandfather is a real Greek, as I already told you. He doesn’t take compassion lightly.
            Greek men are a specific breed. It would be good for you to know this, as you will always be part Greek. “Those Greeks are real Tu
rks!” A worried friend of mine had said this after I announced that your father and I were getting married. “Be careful, Katerina!” I had laughed heartily. The huge, grinning Green boy, who had proposed to me in an Indian restaurant on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast to the sounds of an off-key gypsy band and the applause of drunken Brits, he wasn’t someone such clicheès could possibly apply to. That’s what I thought. Back then. “The Greeks are Turks, pretending to be Italians,” is what Boris, my father, your Bulgarian grandfather, exclaimed when I told him I was marrying the boy from Neos Stavros.
            Polychronis and I tied the knot despite the force of the clicheès. Perhaps even despite ourselves. We both wanted it to work. We both wanted the others to be wrong. We were in love in spite of them, or so we believed. It turned out it was only ourselves we loved. This marriage had to succeed, urgently. That’s how you came. Ironically, the best-loved child in the world. I met you not on the Good Friday, when your cries filled the hallways of that dreary hospital in Sofia, but nine months prior to that. You were born in Bulgaria, but I conceived you in Greece.
            A year             after our wedding, your father finally took me on a three-day seaside family holiday, between his packed schedule and my silent panic attacks at the sight of our vanishing happiness. Him – the leading professional in a Greek construction company, me – a former journalist and socialite. Him – overweight and unsightly, with a bright future ahead of him. Me – slender, beautiful, but supposedly in the past tense.
            I drank a lot that afternoon. More precisely, five brimming glasses of wine. A wine with the poetic name of Ifestio. Which means “volcano” in Greek. There was no way you could be a lethargic kid – here you are now, playful, giggling, plunging towards me, your little fists menacingly clenched. You try, yet again, to grab at my computer as I write this. Who knows, you may be right. 
            Your father also had several glasses of Ifestio that afternoon. He ate quite a lot. I didn’t reproach him, not even after the third plate of calamari.
            I don’t know if I would have had anyone to tell this story to one day if I hadn’t said to him straight up, without any preludes, my eyes fixed on his over the mountain of empty plates:
            “We need a baby. Immediately.”

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