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Greek translation Greek dictionariesEleni Vainas [ CV ]
Warm Hearts and Skillful Women

When Maria Lalic, a Compendium Poet who also works as a tour guide in her native Serbian language, invited me to join a group that was traveling to Epidavros and Mycenae, I did not know what surprises were before me. Although I had been to the area before, she knew I wanted to write first-hand about what it is like to travel with a group in a tour bus; my only similar experience had been in 1979 when I visited Delphi. The trip in June has become a cherished memory, not because of the curiosity factor or splendor of the artifacts I saw nor the beauty of the scenery we passed in our travels, but the spirit and kindness of the people I traveled with: a group of women from FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, visiting Greece because they were skillful (and fortunate) enough to have won a three day tour of Greece.
With the exception of the tour guides, I had conversations with only three of the women, one in Greek, two in English, but hand signals, smiles and Maria's translations sufficed with everyone else, and I came away from that Friday with knowledge of how alike we humans are in our differences.

In addition, instead of the usual coin dropped onstage in the theater at Epidavros to test the acoustics, I had a rare treat: I heard a renowned actress with the National Theater of Belgrade read an impromptu poem. And it's true. You can hear well, even from the highest seat. The fact that I could not understand one word didn't detract from my experience!

First-prize winners of a trip to Greece, the women were from 22 cities in FYROM. One hundred women of different nationalities from there all traveling together in two buses, staying three-to-a-room, getting along, seeing new places, having fun, and enjoying their time free of normal routine. Each one had won the coveted title of "Skillful Woman," prize winner in a competition that tested competence in cooking, baking, meal presentation and table decor. Afterward one of the women showed me pictures of her winning cakes. She had rosette studded and other floral cakes whose beauty and delicacy rivaled any I'd seen at New York weddings. Her work took an entire day to prepare.

Early in the trip, before we were even in the Peristeri area of Athens, the women on my bus began to sing rousing happy songs that my feet took to mean "dancing time!" So did others: at a certain point there were at least 6 women dancing in the aisles. If I had had the aisle seat, maybe...

In 7/8's time, the music and songs led to much laughter. I heard the 1-2, 1-2-3 beat of the Greek music I'd grown up with.

At the end of one song that evoked thoughtful laughter, Maria translated for me:

"Mother, give me wine to get drunk
to forget all my troubles.

I'll give you wine my dear son,
as much as you want to drink,
but your troubles you'll never forget."

Later, when the women sang a mournful song that touched my weepy places, Maria told me they were singing it for her: it was from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Considering the problems of war that led to her living in Athens, melancholy music, full of longing, was appropriate.

The tour I joined was handled locally by Galini Tours in Koukaki. Running foreign-language tours in Greece means putting together unique combinations of people. Beba ("Baby") Valsamakis, originally from Zemun near Belgrade, has lived in Greece for 25 years, and with her Greek husband Costa designs and handles tours for people who speak Serbian, Croatian, Russian or English, locating restaurants and entertainment. So when Vesna Chipchic, well-known on stage, radio, cinema and television screens in her native Belgrade traveled to Greece recently and wanted to take a tour run in the Serbian Language, she called Beba. One tour was available in Serbian, the FYROM Skillful Women, and Vesna and her party joined it.

When The Former Republic of Yugoslavia was one country of 24,000,000 people and six separate republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia), the actress became well-known throughout the Republic because of a national television series called Hot Wind. Delighting the fancy of audiences throughout Yugoslavia, Vesna played the put-upon wife of a man who caused constant problems because he lived his fantasy whenever he could: that of the life of a Greek man, despite the fact that he had never traveled to Greece. His odd behavior extended to missing work, spending the day listening to Greek music, dancing Greek dances, eating foods and going to restaurants and bouzoukia to continue his fantasy. He behaved like a typical stage Greek, dancing, drinking, eating, making music and chaos.

Vesna's husband's odd behavior was a major cause of problems for her, but not for her fans. They loved the situations she had to deal with constantly, and they loved her. Even today, years after the series ended and there is no longer one National Television station broadcasting to all of the former republics, the actress is well-loved.

The program's theme of living quite well, despite the fact that the living is fantasy, intrigued the minds of a nation dealing with war much too close to daily life.

If this trip to Greece was a sort of homecoming for the character she played on Hot Wind, the actress herself was a delight. A lively woman with a warm and welcoming smile, lovely rounded face and a sunny disposition, Vesna showed warmth and generosity to her FYROM fans, smiling a welcome, nodding a yes when yet one more person wanted a picture taken with her. And agreeing readily when Maria asked her to demonstrate the acoustics by giving the impromptu reading that charmed her audience.

During the bus ride, Maria gave orientation talks in Serbian while I read her English guidebooks to familiarize myself with what we'd be seeing. The visit to the Epidavros Museum was perfect for women interested in things domestic: the tunics and other clothing on carved statues from both Greek and Roman influences have sculpted folds, softly draped, that look like real fabric, and as if they would move when touched. Beba gave the accompanying lecture to the entire group.

We then took a five minute ride to Xipolia, a ceramic souvenirs shop it was hard to leave, and then to Kolizeras restaurant in Mycenae where they treated us graciously and fed us well. Photos of past guests included Jackie Kennedy Onassis, American President Bush, and other dignitaries too numerous to list.
We overstayed in every stop along the way, unfortunately making Mycenae just a drive-by, since the gates were about to close when we arrived. The upside? A night out at the Plaka.

Two of the many unexpected pleasures of the trip (besides absolutely fantastic pitas, one cheese, the other cheese and leek, FYROM specialties in taste and shape made by one of the women and shared with Maria and me) include a possible invitation for me to attend the renowned Struga Poetry gatherings next year, and a definite invitation to join these women at the next contest in their homeland so that I can write about it. They want women from other countries to enter the competition: opening it internationally is their way of introducing the world to their own special corner of it, to let us see we are not so different after all.


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