by Evridiki Periclous-Papadopoulou
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 4, December 2013
The best bunny chow in town were made by Athena at her bakery, at the corner of Umbilo and Bulwer Road. Even Indians customers would say to her: “You make Indian food better than we do, Missus Athena.” Plentiful and hearty, Athena never left her customers wanting more. Curry minced meat overstuffed the bowls that she would make by hollowing out the bread rolls. And she would never discard the rest; she would make rusks with it, brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with plenty of anise, like her grandmother Asimina from Smyrna used to do. She would package them in clear bags, place the stickers that she had ordered featuring a photo of the mansions of Smyrna and the map of Asia Minor under the name ‘Asimina’s Smyrna Rusks,’ and sell them herself at the city’s outdoor markets.
Once a week, as soon as her goods were out of the oven, around three in the morning, she would load up the hot bunny chow and rusks into her small van and drive two and a half hours to the region’s largest market, Hillcrest Market, where she rented space. She would set her tables with white linen tablecloths, decorate them with flowers, and put her goods on display. Athena had her devoted customers; the Afrikaner ladies loved the pure white tablecloths with the cut embroidery and the wicker basket with the fresh flowers and aromatic herbs – that set Athena’s table apart from all the others at the market.
Athena spoke the language of the Zulu and would pass by Phezulu village to leave Smyrna rusks with the women “for the children,” as she would say to her friends Silindile, Zamile and Thandeka. She would always buy something handmade of theirs, like the wooden pillow on which she would lay her head when she had the opportunity to rest on the ground for a few moments. She hired Silindile, whom she called Sindi, as her assistant at the bakery. By 10AM she would sell out, pack up, and drive back in time for the lunch crowd, at the time when students got out from Kuazulu Natal University, down the hill, and throngs of young people would come into her shop for some inexpensive but tasty food.
The notebook with the recipes was salvaged inside their bundle of clothes, when they were loaded onto ships to flee the destruction. It contained grandmother Asimina’s secret recipe, which made her granddaughter Athena’s bunny chow tastier than any other shop’s in the city of Durban.
She was annoyed at first, “with flour my hands will burn in oven,” but grandmother Asimina insisted. Athenoula would listen to her grandmother’s words as though they were a fairy tale; she was old, in her seventies by then, bent by deprivation and pain. “We had it all in the golden era in the city of Smyrna, and my husband, your grandfather Evangelos, wouldn’t even let me touch water. We had servants and more servants, darling Athenoula, but my mother Nionia had taught me – along with playing the piano – how to knead, embroider, make appliques for linen tablecloths and keep house before I got married, ‘God forbid the need should arise,’ as she would say.”
Athena would stir the yeast with some warm milk and flour in a bowl, and let the mixture rise overnight. In the morning, she would heat up the milk, put in a little water to melt the yeast and then pour in hot oil and the flour little by little. ‘Little by little’ was underlined in the notebook and, every time Athena made the dough for the bread, it was like she was watching grandmother Asimina in the mansion in Smyrna doing it the same way, when grandfather Evangelos was away on his travels. Athena’s grandfather was a prosperous spice merchant who supplied spices east and west with his own ships. Master Evangelos did not want his wife, the beautiful Asimina, who knew the preludes of Bach inside out and performed them at soirees and charitable teas held in their home for the city’s aristocracy, messing around in the kitchen. She wanted her to be a Lady, made of porcelain, to stroll in the evenings dressed up and bejewelled at the best taverns on the waterfront, at embassy receptions. Everywhere Asimina went people admired her beauty, the jewelry and silk dresses that he would buy for her from merchants in Constantinople, Alexandria and Lebanon.
Athena had seen a photograph of grandfather Evangelos’ mansion in an album published years after the disaster. Grandmother Asimina recognized the neighbourhood, the street and the number. They bought the album from an antique shop in Monastiraki, when the three women – grandmother, daughter and granddaughter – traveled on what was almost a pilgrimage to Athens. Asimina held the album tightly onto her chest and did not say a word all day.
Mother and daughter had wanted to see Kokkinia because Evangelos and the twin boys would have ended up there when the crowds of refugees arrived at Piraeus. One of the two boys – she never learnt which one – did not survive. He slipped overboard amid the desperate crowds on the ships. Grandmother Asimina had learnt this through the grapevine. She dressed in black, even belated, for her lost child, and had both names commemorated in church, as she did not know which of the two had perished. Later she heard that many refugees emigrated to America and assumed that Evangelos, proud as he was, would not have tolerated Kokkinia and would have been among the first to set sail so he could launch lawsuits to claim the cash deposits, bonds and gold bars that he had with the Bank of Smyrna, so that he could return for them one day.
“We separated there, on the waterfront. The ship that I caught with Eleni, your mother, who was barely ten years old at the time, sailed for Cyprus and arrived at the Port of Larnaca. All the consulates were here, and I ran around asking about my family, but nothing, darling Athenoula,” her grandmother recounted dozens of times.
Asimina recalled her mother Nionia’s words, “God forbid…and here is that very occasion, Eleni,” she told her daughter, worn with deprivation and sorrow. Asimina settled there, in Larnaca, and raised Eleni by baking Smyrna rusks in some back rooms that she rented in the St. Lazarus neighbourhood. The rusks of the refugee Asimina, who had learnt from her mother “God forbid in an hour of need,” saved the two women. Asimina made a name for herself with that pure white linen tablecloth with the embroidered designs that she would lay out on her simple counter, along with a basket filled with aromatic herbs and flowers that she had planted in her small yard. That was how she supported herself and her little girl. The two women lived frugally, very frugally, even after Eleni married Charalambos and her granddaughter, Athena, was born. She died on her feet, standing behind the counter with her rusks, with the pain of the exile, with the pain of lost family and homeland – Asimina, the wife of the prominent spice merchant Evangelos Karapotasoglou that used to stop traffic whenever she strolled along the Ke, Smyrna’s coastal neighbourhood.
“Maybe one day all the money that we had in deposits will be returned and Athenoula will be able to study music at the Vienna Conservatory. And start the memorials for your father and brothers, my child, because if Evangelos had survived, he would have moved mountains to find us. I always knew that he was gone deep inside, but could not bear the thought, because the hope of reuniting with them was keeping me alive,” Asimina confessed to her daughter Eleni, before she closed her eyes. She opened that bundle, which was still hidden in the closet and took out the deeds, bank deposit books and share certificates that they had with the Bank of Smyrna. “Your father had the gold liras on him. We never imagined that we would get separated otherwise we would have divided them among ourselves. He embraced us all on the waterfront, and we never imagined this would happen, Eleni. I hid the papers in my bra and brought them here, so give you them to your child, too. Who knows, maybe it will all be returned to the beneficiaries one day…” Athenoula cried – she was a little girl when her grandmother Asimina passed on – but also took after her. She took her beauty and stature, her blonde hair and blue eyes, same as the Mediterranean itself, and grew up into a young lady.
Eleni lacked everything in Larnaca but never admitted her needs nor complained to her husband. “A man is a mainstay for a woman,” her mother told her when she graduated from the gymnasium, and Eleni didn’t think twice about marrying Charalambos.
Eleni got along well with her husband but conventionally, for theirs was not the love that every eighteen year-old girl dreams of, and she had no demands. She was sufficed with a simple walk along the Phoinikoudes on Sunday afternoons, with the Reggie’s ice cream bars that he would buy for them to eat sitting on a bench, looking at the sea, each with their own destinations. Eleni dreamt of their mansion in Smyrna and of sailing away to see her brothers. After the ice cream and the daydream, they would return home, to the back rooms that they continued to rent in the St. Lazarus neighbourhood even after their daughter Athena was born. No, Eleni never complained. It was Asimina’s soul that was tormented while she was still alive, always comparing yesterday with today, Smyrna with Larnaca.
Then those words, “God forbid…” returned to Eleni’s lips “that my grandmother Nionia would say to my mother Asimina. When we first came here as refugees we began baking Smyrna rusks in our hour of need, and now that hour has returned for us,” she said to Athena when her young husband, a dock worker at the Larnaca Port during British rule, was killed in a labour accident.
At the funeral, Athena, Charalambos’ mother, saw her daughter-in-law and granddaughter for the first time. Athenoula bowed and kissed her hand, “My name is Athena, too, Grandmother. My mother named me after you, even if you never wanted her to marry your son. I’ve never heard her say a word against you to my father. My mother Eleni, the refugee, was a true lady, who grew up in silks and gold and with upbringing in her parents house, Grandmother Athena,” she told her grandmother from Lefkara, who had never spoken to them, because she didn’t approve of the marriage.
Even so, Athena went to Lefkara when her grandmother invited her. There she was introduced to a rich expatriate from Mozambique who had returned to his village to take a wife – this was the 1960s. Perhaps her grandmother wanted to atone for her behaviour or to deprive Eleni, her daughter-in-law, of her one remaining joy in life.
“A man is always a mainstay for a woman, my child,” Eleni said to Athena, just as her mother had said to her. She knew how painful it would be to part with her daughter, but realized that she would never return to Smyrna to redeem the gold from the Bank’s safety deposit boxes, so she could give her daughter the dowry she wanted to give her. Eleni wanted her child to have a better life than she had had.
Everything happened so fast… With her ways and beauty Athena charmed the expatriate Iacovos Aristotelous, her future husband. Overnight, Athena changed habits and homeland, thinking that she might be able to help her mother this way. With the loss of her father, her mother no longer had any financial support, other than by her hands that took up kneading again, more intensively now. Athena was hoping to bring her mother to live with her one day.
Athena got along well with her husband but conventionally, just like her mother and father. Although Eleni never said anything to her daughter, the girl knew. Iacovos was older, and Athena never felt the caresses and embraces of love. Above all, Iacovos did not give her a child. Athena would sit on the veranda of their mansion on Lourenco Marques Beach, on the western side of Maputo Bay, at the mouth of the River Tembe, across the Indian Ocean – a beach as beautiful as a postcard – and thought about Larnaca, Smyrna, her grandmother Asimina and her mother, Eleni, who did not withstand the separation and passed away within the year. The grandmother from Lefkara had also closed her eyes and the two women forgave each other in their last.
Yet Athena stood by her husband. She kept the books of Iacovos’ huge warehouses, learned Swahili from the dozens of Ouagiao labourers in their employ, never took notice of the colour of people’s skin, visited them in their huts, played with their children that gave her joy, and baked anise rusks for them.
But what gave Athena true joy was Iacovos’ promise that they would return to Cyprus one day to spend their remaining years. They waited for the political situation to settle down so they could take their money out of the country. “When we return, I’ll build a home on the highest point at Lefkara, overlooking the sea of Larnaca, so you can yearn for Smyrna in peace,” he would say to her. But Athena wanted to return so that she could run to the graves of her grandmother Asimina and her mother Eleni, to spread kollyva, to commemorate their names in church, to plant herbs so their tired souls could enjoy the aromas. This is how she wanted to pay her respects to the two women in her life, the most precious things held in her heart and memory.
“Durban is a second India, because the largest Indian community outside of Asia is in South Africa,” they informed her, and she packed up and left frightened and hounded from Lourenco Marques in the middle of the night, persecuted by the rebels of the Mozambique Liberation Front that had nationalized the properties of the Portuguese colonialists and of all foreigners in one night. They confiscated cash deposits, bonds and gold from the banks, looted the warehouses with rubber, cement, cotton and copra, the dried fruit of the cocoa, that Iacovos owned and with which he supplied the ships at the port of the capital Lourenco Marques.
That same night the rebels robbed all wealthy homes along the waterfront, including that of the Cypriot merchant. They cut the power lines around the house, jumped the tall stone wall around the garden, cut the ironwork at the gates, killed the dogs, came into the bedroom and shot him at close range. Athena was sleeping in the next room, which they did not enter.
“And here is again that hour of need, Grandmother and Mother,” Athena whispered as she was crossing the border into South Africa with a bundle on her back, exhausted, accompanied by her most loyal servants. In that bundle she carried, along with the necessities for the journey, the deeds, bank books, and keys to the safety deposit boxes from the Bank of Mozambique, along with the others, those from the Bank of Smyrna – none of which had any value so that they could help her open a bakery and make bread, something that she knew how to do very well.
Athena kneaded the dough by hand in the early years, when she first arrived as a self-exile from Mozambique. Later she brought a professional kneader that mixed the ingredients for the dough for the bunny chow – cheap food for the tens of thousands of Indians who had come to the area to work in the mines after the discovery of gold and diamonds. It was on this that she had based her decision to come to this city in any case. Athena had a talent for spices and knew exactly what to put in the bunny chow to make them the most delicious in the city. She often wondered whether grandfather Evangelos was guiding her; he knew spices better than anyone in Smyrna. Perhaps he was helping her this way from above.
She would cover the dough with the large hand-embroidered Lefkaritika table runners that her sisters-in-law had sent from Lefkara – they were the final communication from her late husband’s side of the family. They had expected their children to inherit the great fortune of expatriate Iacovos Aristotelous and were disappointed, or thought that Athena had packed everything and moved away, so they severed ties with her forever.
One day, white police officers attacked her shop, took all the cash from the till, ripped the bags of flour, broke the counters, overturned the tables, shot at the glassware and made a mess of the bakery. They beat Athena although she did not resist; she simply opened the till for them and stepped aside. They left her bleeding and unconscious on the floor. Sindi helped her get back on her feet and Athena rebuilt the bakery – what other choice was there anyway?
“The Afrikaners justify apartheid as the will of God,” Athena said with indignation to Sindi, who replied that the attack was meant as warning, “to not involve yourself with the locals and never return to the women’s village. I am a slave and I work for you, so I don’t bother them.” The two women talked among themselves one evening, feeling downhearted knowing that skin colour had never come between them. Sindi wished for Mandela’s quick release from prison.
Athena smiled when Yiorgos, who passed by her shop a few times, flirted with her, but when he kissed for the first time, so spontaneously that he jumped over the counter – he was younger than she, but a fully grown man – she felt all that she had missed with Iacovos. She reflected on the happiness that she had not experienced as an eighteen year-old girl.
He removed her apron, forced her to close down the shop, winked at Sindi admitting to their conspiracy, took her in his arms and dragged her to the beach, to the best hotel in the city. He ordered fresh lobster in a private room of the restaurant and had the old black musician play the preludes of Bach on the piano for her. Yiorgos caressed her hands; he kissed them; “I know all about you, Athena,” he said and enfolded her softly in his arms. From the Oyster Box Suite that overlooked the Indian Ocean and the entire beach of Durban even beyond the port, he let her dream sweetly while he sat in an armchair looking at her. Eventually she coiled up to him like a small snail. “From this ocean we will leave together, you for Larnaca and perhaps for Smyrna, and I for Famagusta, to reopen “The Wave,” my father’s restaurant. It was located on the golden sands of Famagusta. Its tables sank into the sand; it smelled of fish meze and seafood chowder, my mother’s specialties. I am a refugee. I came to Durban to work and save money so that when Famagusta opens up, which it will without doubt, I can renovate my parents’ house in the St. Lukas neighbourhood and the “Wave”. I have pledged to do this in memory of my parents, who were killed by Turkish soldiers as they were trying to leave with their car, during the second invasion in August 1974. They didn’t make it out in time. I was a reservist and I was captured at Mia Milia outside Nicosia. When I returned from Adana, I discovered what had happened. A priest who was with me in prison, Father Philippos, had relatives here. He convinced me to come with him,” Yiorgos said simply, calmly and firmly what he believed.
After that day, when Yiorgos spent all the money he had saved since arriving in Durban on the noblewoman, he stopped working at Huletts Sugar Factory at the port, loading sugar for export – Athena had asked him to do so, anyway. He joined her at the shop and, after years of hard work, they opened a second luxury shop on Florida Road, near the Botanical Gardens amid the green. With the regime change, clubs, expensive restaurants, boutique hotels had opened there. They were filled with the tourists that flooded the city for the FIFA World Cup South Africa in 2010.
Athena had teams travelling to the outdoor markets, always displaying the bunny chow and the Smyrna rusks on those crisp white tablecloths with the embroidered designs along with the baskets filled with flowers and herbs. Grandmother Asimina’s rusks became a sought after item at supermarket not only in Durban, but also in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Athena and Yiorgos also exported them to neighbouring countries such as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, always carrying with them the map of Asia Minor and Smyrna’s mansions on their label.
The contract which transferred the label and patent for grandmother Asimina’s rusks that Athena signed when she sold her business to a third generation Greek businessman – the son of a refugee of the Asia Minor catastrophe – broke her heart. She fell asleep clutching the notebook with the recipes and the album they had bought in Monastiraki from where they had copied the mansions for the label.
Yiorgos slipped his arm around her back and took her in his arms as if she were made of porcelain, just like grandfather Evangelos had once held his wife Asimina. He pampered her all night in the suite of the Oyster Box Hotel. “We started here and here we will finish, before we return home.” He told her that everything was changing in Durban, and reminded her of the last attack on her Florida Road shop when they beat and robbed her, even yanked the gold cross from her neck. There was no point in laying charges. “It was a policeman who beat me. I recognized his gun. I know the cops in my neighbourhood. President Zuma should do something about this crime wave,” she told Sindi, who felt badly about the attack, which had been perpetrated by people of her tribe, who were now paying back in kind.
Tired of all the heartache, Athena went down to the beach of Umhlanga. She walked barefoot on the sand, climbed up to the red lighthouse, and from there she saw “the Rainbow Nation, the multicultural South Africa” being born. She stretched out her arms and ran on the beach singing for Sindi, who was watching from above, Billie Holiday’s song “the trees of the south have a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” Athena had bled and fermented in the racism, xenophobia and ideology of the apartheid.
She told Yiorgos that she wanted to make the journey back on her own. At Durban’s King Saca Airport, she thanked him for making sure that grandmother Asimina’s rusks went to someone from Smyrna. She realized that the choice of the buyer had not been a coincidence, when George closed her mouth with a long kiss.
“I’ll continue this in Larnaca,” he said to her when he gave her the deposit slip from a Cypriot bank that represented all their hard work. “We’ll redeem it together and build our dream,” he called out to her, without turning back to look at in the passenger area for the flight to Mozambique. She did the same when he boarded the flight to Cyprus.
Athena took out from the bundle, which she was still carrying with her, the bank deposit books, share certificates and bonds from the banks in Smyrna, Mozambique and Cyprus. She tore them. She made paper boats with them, dozens of paper boats, in which she placed the keys to the safety deposit boxes. She let them float out to the ocean. She was sitting on the beach of Moputo – as the capital of Mozambique was now called – where she had gone to scatter flowers and aromatic herbs in memory of Iacovos. She clutched onto the notebook with grandmother Asimina’s recipes, which she never parted with, and whispered heartbroken “God forbid in an hour of need…” It was March 15 2013, and the international news agencies had just announced the collapse of the banking system in Cyprus and the confiscation of large deposits.
Translated by Irena Joannides