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Karitsa, memories of times past

By Ioannis Vasileiou Gavriil*
Olden days at the family home
in front of the baking kiln with grandmother in the middle

I remember, from when we were very young, all year we would long for summer to head for the village.  By the time school broke up mother had everything packed, ready to go.  She too couldn't wait to see her brother and sisters.  Most often our cousin, Apostolis, and his mother, theia-Eirini, would come along as well. That way, we had company.
In those days the trip from Athens to Karitsa took many, many hours.  We would get up at four in the morning and reach the village by ten at night.  The bus station back then was at Agios Konstantinos.  There would be throngs of people everywhere and the bus was packed. Luggage was lifted onto the roof, covered by canvas and tied down.  The journey was exhausting and in some places hazardous, as along the narrow and twisting road at Kakia Skala and at Achladokampos.  On arrival in Sparti, we first had to move the luggage a fair distance by handcart to the bus station for Geraki and then wait two or three hours before setting off once again.  The road to Geraki was unsealed and very hard going by bus.   It was a great joy when, after many hours travelling, we would finally arrive - in earlier years in Geraki and later at Agios Giannis at Variko.  There, barmpa-Lampros would be waiting to greet us and to take us on horseback to the village.  As soon as we got off the bus we would dart off to see the horses that were tied up nearby.  It would take another two hours on the road with the pack animals to get to the village via Geraki-Variko-Zavrena-Platy Pigadi,-Kotroni,-Koumoutzi-Chouni-Agios Nikolas-Alonaki-the School-Karitsa.  We would load our belongings on the animals and then the children would also jump on while uncle and mother followed on foot chatting non-stop all the way to the village.  They had so much to say…  Now they are all together again, high above, perhaps talking things over from close up…
My recollections of the village are many.  They were beautiful years, at least for those of us from Athens.  But perhaps for the people of the village the going may have been tough.  The era of mass emigration had already begun.  Whilst nowadays life in the village enjoys many comforts, it lacks the charm, the simplicity and the vitality of yesteryear.  A lot of things have changed.  Back then the village, especially during summer, had many people.  Pack animals would climb up and down the mountain carrying goods.  There was activity.  You would hear the distinctive clip clop of pack animal shoes as well as the clanging bells around their necks.  These days all you hear is the sound of tractors and pick up trucks.  The young that remain are few and have difficulty marrying.  The old are gradually departing on life’s final journey.
Recollections of mine from those days, when my sister and I as youngsters holidayed in the village, are recounted below.  They are not in any particular order, but simply retold as they come to mind:
I remember that every day we had to collect water from the village spring, fill buckets testes and canteens pagouria and cart them home.  You needed to wait in line for your turn to fill up.  The spring was also a meeting place, mainly for women, who while waiting chatted among themselves about all the latest village happenings.
I remember that we would water the pack animals at the vat lekani of the spring or at the water pit gourna on the right as we came in.  It was one of the more pleasant chores and a delight for us to water the horses.  We would ride them, if saddled, otherwise we would lead them along by the halter and on the way listen to the sounds made by the horseshoes.
I remember when we went horse riding we liked to race.  We would prod them or whip them gently with the rein and that was all.  They would sprint or gallop.  Sometimes we would take a tumble if we were not careful.
I remember the times we would pay a visit to theia-Diamanto at Kakavouri.  To get there, we would wander off the main road dimosia and follow the goat track weaving its way through Vathi Pigadi-Vranika-Velota-Dentraki before coming to aunt’s hovel kalyvi.  It was a most wonderful trek of about two hours in the natural environment, across the rocky terrain of tilling fields, of shepherds’ hovels, of mountain slopes and of ravines.  At times we would go on our own without the company of barmpa-Lampros. After all we had gotten to know our way well enough.
I remember hobbling the pack animals when grazing in the fields during the night.  We would tie the two front legs together so that they would not be able to move freely or wander off too far.  The following day we would track them down, water them and take them back to the village if they were needed for work.
I remember the late afternoons when we would take the goats to graze at Chorafaki, the mountain slope facing the village, or at Stefani below theia-Eleni’s, my mother’s sister.
I remember the villagers returning from the tilling fields in the evening, pack animals loaded with lopped green branches to feed the goats.  You would rarely spot an animal coming back without a load.  At the very least one would be weighed down with branches.  Once the branches dried they would also be used to heat the bread-baking kilns.
I remember barba-Lambros with his booming voice.  He was the village crier ntelalis.  He would bellow from the grain-threshing ring aloni cum village square and be heard as far as the Far Side Pera Geitonia of the village.  This would happen when the village needed to be informed about an urgent happening, or about a community service order, or about the arrival of a travelling seller.  Selling may also have involved payment in kind particularly in olive oil.  Barmpa-Lampros would have called out: “Fellow villagers, fellow villagers we have traders from Elos selling beans.  Two okas of beans for one oka of oil.  Those interested in buying come to the threshing ring”… and so on …
I remember the friendship groups parees passing time at the threshing ring and under the maple trees –Sfontamakia- during midday rests on very hot days.  There they enjoyed the cool breeze. You would hear them chatting among themselves and raising their voices whenever they disagreed.  If you wanted to or if you were lullabied away by the babbling on of others you could catch a nap on the low ledge of the wall.  The Sfontamakia were the little parliament of the village.  There you could catch up on all the happenings. Children usually had other friendship groups and played in and around the threshing ring.
I remember the villagers chopping wood at Elatias behind Agios Giannis.  They would load the pack animals and return to the village where the sticks were stacked one on top of the other in trakades.  They then had enough wood for their cooking and to keep warm in winter.  Sometimes they would take the wood from Elatias to Elos in exchange for watermelons.  When the watermelons were brought to the village, to last all through summer, they were stored in the cool basement katoi of the house.
I remember the invitations to dinner with mother’s kith and kin.  Usually we had spaghetti with meat, lots of cheese and sauce in deep overfull plates.  Other times, as an alternative to spaghetti, the menu offered gogizes (hand-kneaded hollowed pieces of pasta).   
I remember going down through the trapdoor katarakti to the katoi when we needed to get cheese from the goatskin touloumi, or olive oil from the ceramic pot laina, or watermelons and so on.   There was not too much the katoi did not have: potatoes, onions, and even smallgoods, preserved meats, in oil in the laina.  The katoi was the food store of the house.
I remember once barmpa-Lampros coming home with a hare after a hunt.  Theia-Stamata hung it in the well to keep it fresh.  The well was cool and damp during summer and that's why its water was always cold.
I remember the lantern fanaraki that we carried to light our way at nighttimes when we walked along the tracks of the village.  The lantern was the torch of the time.  All that was needed was a little oil to light the wick fitili and matches.
I remember evenings in the dim feeble light of the oil lamp lychnari hanging from the shelf or from the fireplace in the back part gonia of the house; the vigil candle kanntili burning in front of the family icons; and, the kerosene lamp lighting up the front part patoma of the house.
I remember the food safe fanari in meshing hanging in the gonia.   In the food safe they would put meal leftovers, which would not go bad because the mesh let air in but kept the flies out.
I remember the little stools all around the low round table that we ate on in the gonia.  In the middle of the table there would usually be a large metal bowl tsanaka from which we all ate blithe vlita or dried edible greens chorta sano as well as fried potatoes that sometimes, after being thoroughly washed, were cooked with their peels – something we really enjoyed. The table was never without cheese, olives and leavened bread.  Cooking, of course, was by wood fire in blackened ceramic or steel pots tsoukali and tentzeris on metal stands pyrostia.  Food from the tsoukali was especially tasty.
I remember the women in the afternoons tending the vegetable plots, watering and collecting greens in their aprons.  They would hold the apron with one hand and pick greens with the other.  When they had finished they would put the greens in a bucket or basket to take home.  Only natural manure was used in cultivation.  You would have a tomato and it would be tasty and sweet.
I remember going to Bounou to water the vegetable plot.  We would get water from the well with a bucket tied to a rope, or with a kerosene tin that had a wooden handle.  The tin would have a horseshoe tied at the top to weigh down and sink one side so that it would collect water more easily.  To get the bucket to fill you needed to perfect a special manoeuvre with the rope.  If you did not know how to do it you could not fill it with water.  The first bucketful was for drinking.  You would lift the bucket and sip.  From the vegetable plot we would collect beans, blithe, tomatoes and much more.  After that we would go by the fig trees to pick figs; next on to Smertia, with its beautiful gardens, to drink from the spring; and, then head uphill towards the village through Trokles, a rising rocky track.
I remember theia-Eleni’s vegetable garden in Koprisia.  At the entrance there were two enormous boulders, one to the left and one to the right.   Inside there was a well that was not too deep.  It was said that that well was the source of the water channel from Koprisia.
I remember the gortsa (wild pears) that we ate from wild pear trees gortsies.  They were tiny but very tasty pears.
I remember the days the postman came to the village from Geraki. People would gather at the threshing ring waiting.  When he arrived, they would move closer and surround him.  He would then take out the letters from his bag and begin calling out names.  You would see those who heard their name and who received letters beaming happily.  Not a few were waiting to hear from their children.  Only older parents were left in the village since younger people had started new lives in distant foreign lands where at first they had to face many difficulties.  This was the period of mass emigration when villages gradually began to be abandoned. Every so often we would hear of yet another villager getting ready to go.  Sometimes the envelope contained surprises… dollars… spending money from the children for coffees…
I remember the loading of pack animals with bags of wheat to be milled at the mill and returned as flour to be kneaded into loaves of bread.  It was a very tiring chore since you had to go to the mill on the stream Mariorema, some hours away, wait in line to mill the grain and then return to the village in the middle of the night.  The mill worked day and night.  I remember barmpa-Lampros many a time returning totally exhausted from the mill very late at night.
I remember as well the women crushing wheat with two round stones.  The upper stone had a wooden handle.  It was a type of mill turned by one hand while the other poured wheat through a gap in the upper stone.  The wheat was crushed between the stones.  Other times they would crush wheat by rolling a rounded stone on a slab stone.  The crushed wheat together with milk would then be simmered to make frumenty trachanas.  Once prepared you would enjoy the fresh hot frumenty or pligouri, which was eaten with spoon.
I remember when theia-Stamata kneaded bread dough.  She would get up before dawn to do the kneading, make the loaves karvelia, place them on a plank and then cover them to rise.  Each time she baked, she would also make rusks paximadia.  She would then heat the kiln by burning sticks and branches.  The kiln needed to be well heated. Once it was ready she would turn over the loaves one by one from the plank using a wooden scoop and then place them in the kiln.  Finally she would shut the kiln using a sheet metal cover with a wooden handle.  Later on she would also put in the baking pans with the rusks.  Kneading and baking involved a lengthy process but the warm baking smells enticed us to wait and enjoy the fresh bread and rusks.  When the loaves were taken out they were left to cool and then stored on a platform resting on the beams of the roof so that they would be aired.  From there they would be taken down one by one as needed.
I remember on the day of the feast of Agios Giannis that well before the uphill trek to the little church on the mountain, barmpa-Lampros, very early in the morning, would carry out any repairs to our shoes. He would bring out all the shoe repairing tools – hammers, tacks, awls- and begin.  When we would first arrive in the village our shoes would be brand new but with all the running around among the rocks they would fall into disrepair.
I remember the Tounteiko threshing ring during harvest time.  Stacks of grain would be waiting in line. And then, one by one villagers would get the threshing done. Stalks were trodden over by horses, tied to a post in the centre of the ring, galloping round and round.  When that was done they would wait for a breeze and with large wooden forks toss the broken stalks into the air to winnow the grain from the chaff.  The breeze blew the lighter chaff further away while the heavier grain fell in a pile.  The grain would then be put into sacks and stored in large wooden boxes at home.  The chaff was put into larger sacks and then thrown into the hayloft in the katoi to feed the pack animals in winter.
I remember Ta Pigadia, tilling fields behind Agios Giannis on Elatias.  I had spent a few nights there with the goatherd of barmpa-Giorgi Malavazos (Krekos), the husband of theia-Eleni.  To sleep, we would lay green branches on the ground and on top black goat hair quiltsThese, however, were near impossible to sleep on because even if fully clothed the bristly hair would prick all over your back. In barmpa-Giorgi’s tilling fields at Pigadia they had planted potatoes, which were dug up by hoe and then collected.  Theia-Eleni had two mules, Moula and Tsiniaro.  Tsiniaro kicked a lot and you couldn’t get near it.  With those two pack animals we would go up and down the mountain.  We would load the canteens full of water and the sack trasto with bread, cheese, olives and rusks and off we would go.
I remember behind the village towards Koprisia there were walnut trees.  We would pick and eat walnuts.  We would crack them open with stones and when we stripped them our hands would turn yellow and bitter from the peel.  The terrain in this area had a purplish tinge.
I remember the women spinning yarn.  They would take a distaff on top of which they attached a loose ball of wool.  Next fibres from the distaff would be hooked onto a drop spindle and whorl and spun using fingers and thumb.  After that they would wind the yarn around the spindle and an ever growing ball would gradually take shape.
I remember the women weaving on the loom in the little room under the sunroof, an extension of the katoi.  They would toss the shuttle containing the bobbin from side to side, step on the foot treadles, and pull the combs. This was done over and over again.  So, bit-by-bit the fabric was woven and rolled around the cloth beam.  Preparation for weaving was as complex as the terminology of the craft: warps, combs, and so on.  Bobbins would be wound with the yarn fed through the spinning wheel.  The yarn would be unreeled by the spinning wheel and with one hand be guided into the bobbin.  The bobbin in turn was spun by the sviga, which was rotated with the other hand.
I remember drying the figs on the sunroof in baking pans or on stone slabs.  Every so often we would pass by to have some.  In the end what was left were threaded together into rings.
I remember housewives making soap in the cauldron.  They would throw in fatty oils (oil with all sediments and dregs), lye ashes (water with ashes from certain timbers after being strained), kalia (a chemical substance purchased) and salt.  They would then light a wood fire under the cauldron and boil the contents to thicken and gel together.  When cooled it would be cut into cakes of soap.  We would take some of that soap ourselves since it was good as a shampoo as well as for washing clothes. “Pure soap from my village,” mother would boast.  The washing of clothes in the village was done in the tub with lye ashes and village soap.
I remember the old Grammatikakis shop which was above barmpa-Lampros’ house.  I recall that barmpa-Dimitris was tall and slim with a certain disability on one hand.  He would serve wine from the barrel and for mezes he offered dried beans stragalia.
I remember that telephone connections with the village were very complicated affairs.  In order to telephone it was necessary to book a set time through intermediary operators.  The telephone was kept in the office of the village council.  It was a magneto telephone that you turned by hand to signal to the other end.  A lengthy process was involved for two parties to be able to communicate by telephone. It was a process bereft of any sense of urgency but not its quaint appeal since you needed to: inform the other party to be at a particular time by the telephone; to have the operators make the connection; and, for you to then speak.  Communication by telegram was simpler but no less quaint.  In order to minimise costs a lot of words were cut out in messages and when reading the receiver had to unravel its meaning.  Many times you had to laugh at the strange reading of words cut.  For instance, in a telegram to barmpa-Lampros mother would write: “Coming Thursday two animals.”  What she really wanted to say to uncle was… wait for us at Geraki on Thursday and bring along two pack animals because we will have many belongings… But if she were to write all that she would pay an exorbitant fee.
I remember Sophocles Tountas who was blind.  He would walk in the village on his own without help, walking stick in hand, as if he had his own eyes.
I remember Spyros Tsipouras, a friend of barmpa-Lampros.  They would forever together be talking of hunting and hares.  Great hunters… the both of them.
I remember the folk who in summer would go to Elos to work on the rice fields in order to make some money.  On their way back to the village they would pass from the open market at Alaimpei for some shopping.  When they returned they naturally looked worn out but at the same time satisfied with all the shopping they had done.
I remember in the patoma the stack with linen and rugs, feather quilts, sheets and so on.  They were all placed on a trunk covered by a beautifully embroidered white sheet.  Usually these were the trousseau proikia brought in by the housewife daughter-in-law.  It was also mandatory that somewhere on the wall for a portrait of the grandparents to be hanging. In the village the paternal home was passed on to the son who along with the daughter-in-law was responsible for looking after the parents.  When daughters were married they would leave home and stay at the home of the groom together with their in laws. 
I remember the cupboard with the two little wooden doors on the wall of the patoma. There, giagia kept the sweets under lock and key.  Sometimes she would chase us away with her walking stick.  She could not cope with our noise.  She, however, would give us treats like sweets, walnuts and almonds.
I remember the square noodles chilopites and the frumenty trachana prepared by my mother together with my aunts.  They would knead and then roll out the dough into sheets before spreading them out to dry on the beds and on the trunks.  After that they would slice them into small squares and dry them further.  Trachanas was heated and then let to cool before it was carved into small pieces in the baking pans and once again allowed to dry.
I remember on the day of the feast of Agios Giannis on 29 August, the great feast of Karitsa, from very early in the morning the horses would be festooned with colourful handmade blankets batanies, beaded halters and so on.  Then virtually the entire village would trek uphill, on horses, mules and donkeys or by foot, for mass at the tiny church of Agios Giannis high up on the mountain among the firs.  The festival would then begin in the evening with music players in the shops and at the threshing ring. Out-of-towners from other villagers would also come to join in the festivities and dancing.
I remember the schoolteacher Mr Porfyris.  I happened to be in one of his lessons once.  He was an imposing, somewhat strict but very good teacher.  The old school was where the village council now is.  It was a single room with one teacher for all grades.
I remember Sofokli’s motorcar that at first used to come as far as Agios Nikolas and then later up to the school.  It was practically the only car coming to the village and it was driven by a woman, Sophocles’ wife Tasia.  We would sit fixedly watching it as it slowly made its way up the mountain to the village, leaving behind a cloud of dust.
I remember barmpa-Lampros ploughing the field at Ntariva.  He would hold the plough that was pulled by the horse and perspiration would be running.  I also wanted to have a go and see if I too could actually plough.  When I had had a go uncle praised the way I held the plough and that I really had the makings of a tiller… This, of course, was not to disappoint me.
I remember barmpa-Michali Roumanos, with the black tunic foustanela, who on greeting you squeezed so hard it made you have second thoughts about offering your hand.
I remember theia-Eleni’s home and the home of barba-Vangelis Katsampis (Vatsouras) where we played with the kids in Stefani at the edge of the village.
I remember the wedding parties that would come from other villages on horses festooned with handmade blankets; the proikia -clothing and linen the bride had collected for her marriage- loaded onto pack animals to be taken from the home of the bride to the home of the groom; the wedding customs such as the ring-shaped bread kouloura that was cut and thrown to the crowd; as well as other customs, all of great interest and a pleasure to witness.
I remember that when you wanted to go somewhere you would go on horseback or if you preferred on foot.  There were no other means.  You would sit on the saddle or on the hindquarters if you were a child.  In this way two could ride.
I remember papa-Anastasis the priest of the village.  His daughters were friends of mother’s.
I remember before leaving for the village mother would buy presents to take with us.  Most often these included exercise books, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners and sweets for the cousins and coffee and sugar for giagia.
I remember when leaving the village we would be treated with many things, most often village soap, trachana, chilopites, walnuts, almonds, dried figs, grape must pudding moustalevria, dried greens chorta sano and mountain tea which had such a sweet fragrance.   The hare that father would always half jokingly ask for barmpa-Lampros never quite managed to deliver… it would always slip his mind… during our last days there.
I remember the hovel at Komatakia.  We would go there and let the horses graze at night.  We would unsaddle them and rest the saddles on the wall outside.  Inside we would reflect that here our parents had spent a part of their life.  In the olden days they all lived in hovels.  That is where our parents were born and where they lived; around here they had their chattels, their tilling fields and their work.  But regrettably today the hovel where mother was born, left abandoned, has endured the consequences and damage of the passing of time.  It is pretty much half collapsed… but in reality it could not have been otherwise.  Those that had once lived in it, that had loved it, and that had looked after it have long since passed away.
I remember many endless things about that time, but now the years have moved on and village practices have changed. I, however, pine for the olden days when everything was so simple…
One should have seen the day we were leaving the village.  We were disconsolate and at the moment of goodbye tears were streaming from our eyes.  But at sometime everything in life has an end and our three months in the village all of a sudden seemed to have gone by in a flash. Barmpa-Lampros was again the one to escort us to Geraki and the one to farewell us last.
Barmpa-Lammros’ home was our base when we went to the village. Uncle’s family, theia-Stamata and cousins Tasos and Christos, as well as giagia when she was alive, gladly welcomed us and looked after us with great pleasure for as long as we stayed. We were one family, one kin.
Theia-Eleni’s house was our alternative base.  There lived barmpa-Giorgis K Malavazos and cousins Thodoroula (Roula) Kapetanos now living Adelaide, Georgia Theodorakakos also living in Adelaide, Kostas and Tasia.  For us young ones it was the house of adventure.  They had the goatherd and we tagged along with them on the mountain, among the firs, through adventures…
To finish, there was theia-Diamanto’s hovel at Kakavouri.  She was married to Nikos Ch. Maroudas and lived there all the time with cousins Christos and Tasos now living in Melbourne.  The quaint little hovel was situated in an out-of-the-way picturesque grazing field. I can say that with these wholesome people I had the most memorable of experiences.  They loved me and were glad whenever I went to see them.
From that time, ever since childhood, I visit the village just for a few hours once or twice a year.  Relatives are no longer there.  The ancestral home has been shut down.  My uncles have died. There are no more than four or five houses that I visit.  What I miss most is that my contact with the village is gradually being lost.  But, I too am growing older… until when will I be returning…
That is what I remember from my childhood days, from my life during summertime in the village.  So, I have attempted to provide a picture of everyday life and of activities in the village of old.  For me they are all wonderful memories; a connection with the past, with my kith and kin that no longer exist and with my family that also no longer exists.

*About the author

My name is Ioannis Gavriil. I am the son of Maria and Vasilis Gavriil. I was born in Athens in 1945. I am married to Katerina Balaskas and I have two boys Vasilis and Nikos.
My mother Maria, nee Tountas, was born in Karitsa of Laconia and was one of the sisters of Lampros Tountas. My grandfather from my mother’s side was called Anastasis Tountas (Mikroutsis) and my grandmother Georgia Lampros (or Giorgitsa) was from Agios Dimitrios.
The mother of my father, (my grandmother) Maria or Marigo, was also born in Karitsa of Laconia and was one of the sisters of barmpa-Pantelis Tsempelis (Farmakis). My grandfather from my father’s side was called Ioannis Gavriil and he was from Cyprus.
My mother Maria, and two of her sisters, Katerina and Eirini, and for a short while Diamanto and Lampros also, left the village and settled during those difficult years in Athens for a better life. But their love and nostalgia for the home-village and the family was immense. They were very a closely-knit family, especially the siblings, and kept frequent contact with cards and letters.
My father was born in Athens. I was also born in Athens and so was my sister Georgia who is no longer with us. My sister loved the village and hoped one day to have a house there.  She did not manage to do so as she died far too early…
The love of my mother for the village and its people was exceptional, unique I would say. This was easily discernable by all. Her interests, activities, letters regularly written to siblings, all showed how much she loved the place.
Our house in Athens, during the period of mass immigration, especially the 50s and 60s, was a small transit centre for mother’s relatives and fellow villagers travelling to America, Canada and Australia, as well as for those villagers who had need to come to Athens with health problems.  Mother would never say no to any villager who knocked on our door.  She happily provided hospitality to all and was generous in assisting. I remember that every so often we were at the harbour or the airport to say goodbye to a villager who was leaving.
Acknowledging that this website on Karitsa, may perhaps present the last opportunity to record the journey of the village through the passage of time, to remind the old and acquaint the young with the history of the village before it is too late, I too wanted to contribute.
This contribution, treasured memories of times past when we as a family spent our holidays in the village, as well as efforts of mine in researching and recording historical details on and about Karitsa are devoted primarily to my mother and my sister, with whom we shared everything that had to do with this part of our common heritage.
IoannisVasileiou Gavriil
April 2004

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