maria topali

In the form of an interview

What is your relationship with the so called Western Districts?

I was born and raised in Callithea, near Prasinos Mylos. It is part, I believe, of the municipality of Thessaloniki but it lies outside the western gate and it also borders Sykies and perhaps Neapoli; certainly Varna. In actual fact, Varna is a Bulgarian city on the edge of the Black Sea. My grandfather came from the Black Sea. When finally, after many years in the prefecture of Evros, he became a resident of Thessaloniki, he opted for this western district because it was high up. His homeland in Pontus was at 1600 meters above sea level, if not more. The sea to him, was a dirty and dangerous place of mortality. In Kalamaria, at the camp near the sea, the refugees continued to die massively due to disease and hardship. The area was a swamp. In Callithea, my grandfather used to say, the climate was “healthy”.

All of this and more is quite well known, facts I share with perhaps hundreds of thousands of other people. Refugees settled in Kalamaria and in our ears tolled the heavy accent of Pontus along with Slavic words such as “Varna”. But this Varna was a negligible distance away from the well known “Svarna” language schools where people flocked in the 60s and 70s. Thanks to Google I was informed that they have changed with the times, still in the same field of activity, in the same city. So, what is the West? It is a place of altitude, with a distant view of the port where every September there are fireworks during the International Fair and the ships at port are decorated with bright streams of lights. During that same time, there is ice cream. September in the west vibrates at just the perfect pitch.

My grandmother though comes from the south, wearing a black headscarf. When she visits with us, she lowers the part covering her mouth so she can speak. She smells of grannyhood, it isn’t all that nice. Grandfather, with whom we live, is the chief: he chose the place for our dwelling, he built the house, he has money. Grandfather smells of beeswax and tobacco. He is a beekeeper. The bees also live in the west, on the roof of our house to be precise. The grandmother from Roumeli, she too makes use of the foreign syllable “sv”, as for instance in the phrase by which she forbids us to roll around in the mud.

There is also my svelte daughter, my youngest, born at a completely different latitude. A while later she will call herself “swelte” putting an end of sorts to this legacy. And my father, from Roumeli, he also found refuge in the west (and north). In the post-civil-war dirtroads of the west, the reneged communists of Makronisos grow up tightly embraced with those who turned them in, their blood and kin. Most children belong to both ideological camps because the west is a place of admixture. By contrast, the great old cities of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, Smyrna, Thessaloniki, Alexandria, maintained separation among the tribes. People there didn’t much mix even if today we like to call them melting pots. Nonsense. Only in the poet’s eye, did admixture happen, if at all. What, however, might have been taking place at the summertime grazing lands of the Pontus mountains, the “pachari”, where young shepherdesses spent summer alone with their animals at 2000 feet while not far away the Kurds (and the Seljuq Turks before them) set up their own revelries? It’s all in the bibliography. Love affairs and betrothals in the countryside. On the other side of the mountains were the springs of the Tiger and the Euphrates rivers. In the mosaics of the western districts amid the small gardens with the rose beds and the rocks, later blown up to yield real estate for construction, stocky men and women of Pontus sometimes beat their feet to rhythms that arrived from the beyond, from the grazing fields of summer. During the Exodus, the rhythms left to the west. The western side is, after all, the exit of the city. Of every city. Of every place. There is no return to the east. When we leave, we always travel westward. Alongside the western districts unfolds, as you also know from Athens, the conveyor belt of the national arterial network, and the railway too. If you want to leave, you will pass through there. And as for us, who grew up in those places, we always had in our ears the humming of the flight.

Tell us about the lemon tree

I believe the lemon tree was planted by aunt Georgia. Apart from bees on the roof we also had chickens in the yard from time to time. More important than everything else was the sandpit which they filled with sand from the seaside AND with seashells. A truck would come up to the western heights and empty in our yard its cargo of sand, filling the sandpit. That was for us to play, with or without water, but with plenty of white shells. The lemon tree was a bit further down. I had difficulty recognizing the house because there have been more stories added, the yard is cemented and it is flanked by completely different buildings. It is nevertheless impressive that the lemon tree has escaped unscathed. It must be in its fifties, like me. I am fondly attached. Wherever I see a lemon tree, here, there and everywhere, it’s this one I think of. It is aunt Georgia’s which is to say mine, and it is there, I went and visited last year. Full of lemons in mid-winter, in the bitter cold. Impossible, as you can see, to put emotion aside in these narratives. After that I remember, a song with the yearning of care: “A lemon tree I planted, I’m on my way to water”. You miss what you can no longer care for. It’s something inconsolable.

And the last question: how are the western districts placed in relation to the centre?

The western districts flow into the centre from which they are of course constantly exiled. So, one mustn’t expect there to be any courtesy wasted between them, especially on first contact. There’s nothing unusual about this. On the other hand, keep in mind what I told you about the exit: when one is constantly next to the highway’s humming, next to the noise of the train, one isn’t easily mystified by the centre, any centre. We may have had our problems over in the west, but we ‘ve known from early on that the world is a track in constant motion. We weren’t easy to fool with talk of missing centres and suchlike.