Monday, April 5, 2021

An American Boy With His Greek Communist Uncle

A few weeks ago my uncle Niko, the brother of my father, passed away, as I mentioned in my last post, and today I learned another uncle of mine, Philipa, the husband of my father's sister, died in Athens. Like my uncle Niko, I had not seen nor spoken with my uncle Philipa since 2001.

My uncle Philipa was an interesting character. Most of my stories with him go back to the summers of 1991 and 1992, when I spent some time with him.

What was interesting about my uncle Philipa was that he was a Greek communist, whose every fiber of his being was deeply political. And of all the members of my family, all his anger at both the government and ecclesiastical system was projected onto me. He wanted me, though I was only a fifteen year old American, to understand his perspective on politics and the Church. Why? I'm not sure. My thinking at the time was he either wanted me to believe things like him, because I seemed to be the only intellectual in the family, or he wanted someone like me to understand him and justify his thinking.

I recall my first encounter with my uncle Philipa when I was fifteen, having not seen him since I was seven, and the first thing he asked me was why I was going off into the mountains to visit monasteries when I could be at the beaches picking up girls. At first I thought he was joking, so I laughed about it, but then I heard him in a private conversation with my aunt, who is a pious woman, saying that he was going to take me next weekend to the whore house to knock some sense into me. My aunt basically told him to shut up and leave me alone, but that's when I realized he was somewhat serious.

My uncle was usually quiet at the table when we ate, but if there was a joke to be told he was all about it. And when he did talk, it was usually directed to me and he would give me one example after another as to why he believed every priest is a hypocrite, and for this reason he could not go to church, even though he claimed to believe in God. Today we would say he was more spiritual than religious. His examples usually revolved around certain alleged stories of greedy priests stealing money or asking for money when they technically should not, and how rich he believed the bishops were when he was left struggling to make ends meat working hard thirteen hours a day. He thought the priests had it too easy, while he had it too hard.

One of the reasons I think he ended up enjoying talking to me was because I actually listened to him. Everybody else always dismissed him, and I could see why he was dismissed because a lot of what he said was ridiculous, but the more I listened the more I realized that this man really believes all this stuff and is aching for someone to listen, so he could be justified. I never argued with him, mainly because my Greek at the time was too minimal, but I was also interested in what he had to say.

Perhaps one of the funniest things I've ever seen was done by my uncle Philipa. I was sleeping on the couch in the living room when all of a sudden I was woken by someone screaming at the top of his lungs outside on the street. I looked at the time, and it was 6:30 in the morning. I went out to the balcony, and saw my uncle alone walking up and down one block after another in the middle of the street screaming at the President and Prime Minister of Greece for raising his electric bill. Waiving the electric bill in his hand, he was screaming one expletive after another, waking up the whole neighborhood. My aunt was in the kitchen at the time, and I told her what he was doing, and she just shrugged, saying he does it every now and then whenever the government raises a bill even if it was just a few drachmas.

One day my uncle insisted I spend an entire afternoon with him so he can teach me by his example how hard his life was. He made his living as a leather maker, primarily for wallets, so he brought me for a few hours to show me the labor it took to make leather. Indeed, it was difficult work. Our conversation that day was primarily about how hard he has to work to make money, and that someone like me should appreciate the labor that people go through to make ends meat. He believed I was going to be a priest one day, so he especially wanted me to understand this.

I was sympathetic with the man, even though I disagreed with many of his views. My sympathy especially became evident one day when I was with my grandmother in Patras, who every month on the first of the month would invite a priest to her house to bless it. On this particular day a certain priest with a long white beard came dressed in his cassock and kalimavki, but he seemed rushed. He walked in, avoided any small talk my grandmother offered, took his stuff out of his briefcase, put on his stole, and immediately with a sort of stern tone began the service. The service lasted no more than two minutes, with the priest saying certain prayers all by heart with the speed of an auctioneer, and I could barely understand what he was saying, until I finally listened and heard him basically saying things from the Divine Liturgy?! Within about two or three minutes he was done, packed up his stuff and made for the door. Before he left, my grandmother asked him to give me a blessing, and expressed to him some of my aspirations for the Church, and the only thing he did was say "let him do it" a few times before he walked out. I must say, the priest was very rude, but quick to take the money from my grandmother, who looked at everything through her saintly eyes. When I commented on how quick he was, she tried to justify it, and said that he used to be a bouzouki player in a band before he was a priest. Then I commented how he still is a bouzouki player, but now he does it with prayers.

When I was a seven year old playing in my grandmother's neighborhood in Patras with all the other Greek kids, I recall how one day a bunch of us were playing soccer, when a priest walked by and we all stopped, got in a line in front of the priest, and kissed his hand before resuming our game. When I mentioned this to my father at the time, he told me that even when he was in the Greek army they looked at the priest as the higher officer, and if they saw a priest they either had to salute him or kiss his hand. Now when I was fifteen, being bombarded by my uncle about the hypocrisy and greediness of priests, I had that one encounter with my grandmother and I sort of understood where my uncle was coming from. Just one experience like that can alter your entire perspective.

Like I said, I had not talked to my uncle since 2001, when we hardly had any conversations, but he was still being very political. A few weeks ago my father told me that my uncle Philipa was sick and was probably going to die soon, and how every time they talk he always especially asked about me and cared about how I was doing. He was always a good guy at heart. Not sure though where his thinking was in his final days. May his memory be eternal.