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Pushing Up Tulips Part I

When my Greek grandmother passed away in December, she left my father her house in Tanzania. So in February, we went to East Africa to sort out her affairs. This story is about our experiences and the drinks I tried along the way.

Free Falling

It's a special kind of happenstance when an item from your bucket list catches you totally by surprise. I always thought it would take some planning to see the Aurora Borealis. We were at least six hours into a 16 hour flight from Los Angeles to Qatar, sparsely populated by nervous travelers wearing masks of every color. The lights in the plane were low and most passengers had sunken down into their seats to sleep, tiny TV screens flashing at their faces. I was tucking my bottle of “mouthwash” (grain alcohol died green; for heaven's sake it's 16 hours on a plane) back into my bag when my black-masked father waved frantically at me from the port side. The headphone cord yanked at me like a leash as I crawled across a row of vacant chairs to gasp at the waving green curtains of ionized atmosphere hanging out there in the night.

It felt like we were passing by it slowly, yet we were probably going 500+ mph. Which, to anyone who understands parallax, means the Aurora is f*%#$ing huge. Green streamers for mountains. Green veils for titans.

A year ago, I wouldn't have seen myself doing this. I don't mean flying through the Aurora. I wouldn't have seen myself running off to attend a memorial in Tanzania and staying there for five weeks. Because, well, I had a life and plans and responsibilities to think about. I saw things moving along business as usual before the year-from-hell turned everything upside down.

In addition to all the standard plot twists that made 2020 feel like a Netflix exclusive miniseries, the great Screenwriter in the Sky penned a few extra just for my family, and it's been about as fun as a train wreck during a robbery. My twin sister developed a rare form of progressive multiple sclerosis that seems intent on making her walk like a ninety year old. Her symptoms came on during the first lockdown and I've since discovered a special kind of existential anxiety reserved just for twins whose twin acquires her first cane at the age of 33. And on top of that, a catastrophic fire leveled one third of my town in the middle of the wine grape harvest, turning homes and businesses to waste all around my apartment complex.

It's a small town. In case I forgot to say, Talent is a one-main-street kind of town, less than seven thousand people. Was. Now it's much smaller.

Last Fall was rough for the people of Talent and Phoenix, OR. My apartment is located in the complex in the background, still standing but with some feelings to work through.

Some experiences shake you so hard that something gets shaken loose. I never thought I'd be the sort of person to leap out of bed at the slightest noise, heart pounding so hard against my ribs it's like being kicked from the inside. I never thought I'd beg an urgent care doctor for sedatives after losing three weeks of sleep to night terrors, not to mention ten pounds of weight for lack of appetite. There came a point, a couple weeks after the national guard took down the caution tape and let us go back home to the burned side of Talent, when I found myself lying on my living room floor, doped up on Trazodone and staring at my own arm, asking it please to move and waiting patiently for it to respond as though it were not mine but a stranger's arm, and I wondered:

What am I doing? I mean, what am I doing with my life?

The big questions, the life questions, they have a way of loitering in the alleys of your mind until you're too punchdrunk to take them for granted. It's when you've been knocked on your ass that they saunter out of the shadows to remind you it's been far too long since you caught up. The year 2020 left me with a gift. A poorly wrapped unexpected gift dropped on my doorstep in the rain. It left me a new perspective on what matters. I had unresolved dreams rattling around inside me. I heard the sound each time my alarm went off after three hours of fitful sleep, summoning me to another long work day. I heard it each time my sister collapsed and it took her ten minutes of pure struggle to stand back up. It was the sound of time passing much too fast.

Here's the thing: I've always been nuts over spirits. I inquired with distilleries back when I graduated wine school but quickly discovered the onus was on me to acquire some production skills before I could work for them. And, well, I'd put a lot of time and money into that cherished wine degree. So I traveled the world making wine, trusting the skills would transfer if ever I found the opportunity to switch trains. Six years later, as I sent my sister links to cute canes on Etsy, I reeled at how fast the years had passed. I thought: I'm not getting any younger. Now is the time to grab a butterfly net and catch those dreams fluttering around my head.

I submitted my notice to the winery a few weeks later. I worked until the rains came and quenched the charred earth of Talent Oregon, and the grapevines all lost their leaves to the winter cold. I wrapped things up mid-December when the vines, leafless and brown, were in dreamless dormancy. I left without lining up another job because, well, I needed time to heal. It felt how I imagine base jumping would feel: both liberating and terrifying. But hell, I was already free falling. My feet left the ground when I spent all night watching Talent burn on a livecam. Everything else that followed was accomplished by gravity. Energized with the prospect of something wonderfully new, I purchased a whiskey textbook on Amazon and resolved to learn absolutely everything. And then my grandmother died.

Death in the time of COVID-19. My masked father stands with his siblings and other relatives around my grandmother's casket. He is third from the right.

It was misty, locked-down, lonely January when Dad and I sat on the couch deliberating over how best to resolve my grandmother's affairs. He had just come back from Greece, where my grandmother spent her final years. He and his four brothers carried her casket at a Greek funeral shrouded in incense with orthodox priests singing their blessings ritualistically up and down a minor scale. He brought me back two pieces of her: a small handkerchief from her bedside table and her last tube of stubby, gummed up lipstick. I opened it once and thought it better to let my grandmother have the title of “last user of this lipstick”.

Dad had just a couple weeks in America to hug his family and prepare for the next leg of his journey. To Tanzania, my grandmother's birthplace, where her 1930's home awaited him on the family property, brimming with termites and infested with colonial history. Our family story is colorful, twisted, multilingual, and laden with the cultural baggage of Greek diaspora and East African colonialism.

Did you know a small community of Greeks established itself in the East African colonies at the turn of the century? Yeah, most people don't. When my school friends in the first grade noticed my father's accent, they asked me where he was from. I thought I'd show them. I found a globe and searched the whole African continent for Greece. Dad had a lot of explaining to do when I got home.

Dad's big fat Greek family has lived on a forested hill overlooking the Indian Ocean since the time of my great grandfathers, who left Crete because they were tired of being oppressed by Turks. It is a shady microcosm with its own shop for the vehicles, a family cemetery where my grandfather lies buried, a flock of sheep, and about fifty Massai hired to guard the houses at night and tend the animals. There is a house for each of my four uncles and their families, plus my grandfather's house just two doors down from my grandmother's, where he lived out his years after their divorce. Various other homes were built in recent years for renters to supplement the family income, turning the hill into a verdant housing estate.

A Massai shepherd looks after the family flock. Most of the Massai on the hill have chosen to retain their traditional clothing and customs.

Dad's itinerary gave him five weeks to sort through heaps of paperwork and a lot of home repairs. We sat on the couch brainstorming how to handle it all, and I confessed: I wish I could be there with you. Then I remembered I wasn't working and my brain gushed adrenaline. We hadn't had an opportunity like this in twenty years. I turned on a dime and bought my flights with a week to spare. Next thing I knew, I had my masked nose pressed to the scratched window of a jet plane, hoping nobody had sneezed coronavirus all over it, watching the undulation of crackling green banners of giants. Green flags in an electromagnetic wind. Green shrouds for stars.

Circa 1998: My grandparents and their six children, plus one son in law, may he rest in peace (Gilberto died of a COVID19-related heart attack last year). From the left: my uncle Michel the Professional Hunter, my father the Restaurateur, my uncle Dimitri the Gem Dealer, my uncle Minas the Card Reader, my grandmother Stella the Artist and Seer, my grandfather Dimitri the WWII Veteran/ Farmer/ member of The Resistance and other things I cannot talk about, my aunt Louanna the Proprietor of Santorini cave house getaways, her ex husband Gilberto, and my uncle Yiannis the Garage Engineer.

Drinks and Eulogies

Like any good Greek family, ours celebrated its small grieving reunion with enough food to feed a small village. A flock of uncles and aunts and cousins gathered for dinner each evening on the patio of a different house, serenaded by about ten billion insects of the muggy East African night. We ate Tanzanian food, we ate Greek food, and we ate various other wildly incongruous things my international family enjoys: flatbread made from fermented millet, European cheeses from my French aunt's secret collection, home cured salted fish, European chocolate from my Dutch aunt's secret collection, honey collected from wild African hives.

The view from The Hill isn't bad. Those things in the distance that look like islands are cargo ships.

Good food is a way of life for the Greek side of the family. My father likes to repeat my grandfather's old refrain at mealtimes, “When the children have eaten, the father is full”.

These words are not spoken lightly. When my grandfather was young, his parents felt inspired to move from Tanzania back to Greece for his education. When he came of age, Nazis invaded. The young man from Africa joined the resistance. He ended up in the custody of the German secret police, who subjected him to torture and starvation.

Needless to say, he didn't stay in Greece after his release.

Not that hunger was anything new in the family. My great grandfather went hungry as a child growing up in a poor Cretan village subjugated by Turks. Generations of starvation seem to have produced a serious passion for enjoying good food. And for finishing everything you put on your plate, so help you God.

Good food and drink. Greek bottles inevitably make their way out of the cupboard. Thank heavens. We had a eulogy to write. We enjoyed two Greek beverages whose names often need a little explaining, lest they be confused with Italian and Turkish drinks (both of which are serious faux pas): Vinsanto and Raki.

You may have encountered the Vin Santo of Tuscany, a desert wine made from grapes dehydrated in the sun. This Vinsanto hailed from the volcanic slopes of Santorini, where grapes have been made into wine since ancient times. It tasted like honey and sunshine condensed into a viscous wine with abundant dried fruit notes.

And you might have heard of anise-scented Turkish Raki, but Cretan Raki, aka Tsikoudia, is quite different. This spirit was made in the image of grappa in a tiny distillery in our family's ancestral village in Crete. It tasted about as you might expect booze made in a basement from fermented grape solids to taste. It an earthy, hand-hewn collage of the grape's spicy side, its vegetal side, and its wild side.

Both were sipped with enormous pride.

I brought wine from America to share with the family. Pictured above is one jetlagged hostess.

It struck me that I had actually begun to feel a little better as soon as I put some distance between myself and Talent. I was still jumpy, sure. Still haunted by an unshakable sense of foreboding and snappy with my dad. Still waking up at night in a panic a few times a week. But a little less burdened with worry. It helped not having to see the burned wreckage of whole neighborhoods all around me every single day. I did my best to socialize through the brain fog of jet lag.

In Dad's family, socializing takes the form of passionate outbursts regarding family history, arguments about something a distant relative said two generations ago, stories about that time the pet warthog brought an entire dinner buffet crashing to the floor by pulling at the tablecloth, tirades about the European Union, praise of Donald Trump by an uncle who votes Communist, and somewhere in the milieu, my voice pointing out logical fallacies and asking for stories of my grandmother. We still had a eulogy to write.

My grandmother. Any time the topic came up, a pause followed. A couple people would look at me sideways, wondering if they were about to demolish any preconceived notions.

“She was as her father made her.”

“She should have gone to college. She spoke eight languages. Imagine what she could have...”

“Five fluently. The other three she could get around in.”

“She could shoot a cigarette out of your grandfather's lips.”

“She stopped hunting when she was a child. She liked animals more than people.”

“She let our nannies raise us and she sent us to boarding school when we were five.”

“People came from all around for her to read their cards.”

“She knew the first president of Tanzania, had ambassadors over for coffee, met Che...”

“She said whatever she wanted, didn't matter who she was speaking to.”

“Whenever she needed money she sold family heirlooms.”

“When she stole the bicycle and crashed it, her father forbid anyone to help her until sundown. She lay there under the bike with the shifter through her tongue. How old was she, six?”

“She got kicked out of multiple schools for bad behavior. Don't put that in the eulogy.”

“She had eight miscarriages. Don't put that in the eulogy either.”

“She is the reason you are an artist.”

“Her father once left her on the island overnight. When she was eight.”

“She would take his money and give it to the homeless.”

“...Because she loved the attention. It made her feel like God.”

My grandmother was a poet, a narcissist, a card reader, a high society socialite, a crack shot, a crusader for women's rights, a witch, an artist who created sculptures by assembling pieces of intricately twisted wood found in the bush and spray painting them, a Jedi master at getting money from people, a matriarch, and a language genius. She was the daughter of a rich and half-crazy Greek colonist who made his living hunting elephants and striking fear in the heart of anyone who pissed him off. She was brilliant and intricately flawed. She treated young servants like her own children and her own children like servants. She loved me in a distant sort of way (specifically a distance of 9,742 miles) because I was the first born grandchild and because I carry the name of her estranged mother, who ran off with another man when my grandmother was eight and was thereafter only permitted to see her daughter for approximately 20 minutes a year.

The vast majority of their observations were not allowed in the eulogy.

We worked on it some more over morning coffee. Spicy coffee ground finely with cinnamon and made Greek-style over the stove top. Yet another family tradition whose cultural origin is hard to pin down. It typically comes with a side of fortune telling. Uncle Mina, eldest of six, a soothsayer and schizophrenic with a long history of alien abductions and midnight conversations with the devil, laid his mother's playing cards carefully upon the table. As he turned them over, he saw various relations represented in the kings and queens. He saw aunts and siblings and cousins scattered across the world. Living in Greece, in America, in the UK, in France. For some, he remarked, “They will come here. Soon.”

Minas (right) reads my father's (left) cup on a rainy morning. I don't know what he saw but, judging by the strain in my father's smile, something dire was foretold.

That vain hope sticks in their hearts like a thorn. That the Hill will call back its children, and it will be like the good old days when the whole family lived on the Hill, the heart of a vast sisal estate, before the first true Tanzanian government nationalized all but a sliver of my wealthy colonial grandfather's land and made him a poor man, whose shrunken nest my grandmother promptly fled with the zeal of a bird caged too long.

She later returned and lived most of her life as his neighbor, bringing her inheritance back with her.

There's a lot of nostalgia for colonialism among my father's siblings, who have since bounced back from my grandfather's poverty. It's become a tense subject, since my generation is rather embarrassed about colonialism. Our conversations about it are made even more awkward by the fact that every house on the Hill has domestic staff, all African, preparing their meals and washing their clothes. Any time I tried to do something for myself, I was told not to create unemployment. So I waited for the coffee to come to me while I scribbled notes on our third draft, feeling painfully over-privileged.

The eulogy came together as a wistful collection of my father's memories. He spoke of a deeply spiritual woman, a free spirited woman, an unstoppable woman. An indomitable antihero with whom I was was never close to enough for her to hurt my feelings by lying for money, but whose wild and courageous stories inspired me to live life by my own rules.

When the big day finally arrived, various aging Greek settler's children and Tanzanian one-percenters gathered for a garden party at my Grandmother's house, now my father's house, where they admired her artwork and gasped at the view of the Indian ocean with its distant assemblage of giant cargo ships. A Swahili choir sang joyous East African harmonies. My aunt Zoomed in from Greece to read my Grandmother's poetry on a large screen, my father gave a choked-up eulogy, and everyone was tearful.

Greek funeral traditions with African flair.

I went from teary to furious when I discovered that all the working class Africans who came to pay their respects had been segregated to a small patch of plastic chairs under a giant bamboo about a hundred meters away. I brought them stolen buffet food and the guest book as a tiny protest. They seemed happy but also clearly thought I was behaving strangely.

Everyone at the garden party had a little too much cheap South African wine, the Orthodox priest vomited in the bushes, a fist fight almost broke out between two of my uncles, and a cousin accused her father of racism. Unable to do much about any of it, I resigned myself to bringing people coffee. You know, to level the score. And considering everything else that could have gone wrong, I think that's the best we could hope for.

My grandfather was buried on the hill. My grandmother chose cremation, so that her ashes may be scattered in the East African bush, in the Greek islands, and in Oregon on the shores of Crater Lake.

Lightning in the Attic

Dad decided that the most reasonable way to patch the corrugated metal roof of his mother's house, now his house, was to go up in the attic during a thunder and lightning storm. You know, so we could see where the rain was coming in.

I had spent the sunny days trying not to think about the roof. Sheltered in the cool interior of the house's twelve inch concrete walls, I cataloged the extensive collection of paintings and small sculptures, about half of which my grandmother made and the rest she bought from local artisans. She wrote the names of her children on the hidden side of some, intending for those pieces to go to them when she died. As for the unallocated majority, it was up to us to divide them fairly. Which meant taking about a hundred and fifty phone pics, sharing them online with the extended family, and running everyone's requests by everyone else. This kept me busy while dad wandered the house measuring walls and peering inside the gaping hole where a section of ceiling had sagged until it ripped open. The dark wound smelled of decay.

Everything erodes, rots, decomposes, and decays ten times faster in the tropics.

Sometimes I caught her scent in a hallway. It took me back to those rare childhood memories of my grandmother, clad in flowing Muumuu dresses with colorful prints, reading fortunes in playing cards and telling stories and shouting for her maid. She never bothered to look for her staff when she needed them. She would sit at her kitchen table and cry shrilly in a voice that carried all the way to Kenya. Then she would turn to me with a gracious smile, as though nothing odd had happened, and tell me the story of the time she saw the ghosts of twins that she miscarried wandering the halls in the middle of the night. This house creaks at night, she warned, but don't be afraid of the noises. The spirits who visit us are friendly.

One of my grandmother's many backgammon boards, open on the veranda.

When the clouds gathered and drops started to fall, when the wind picked up and the giant leaves of the Teak trees flapped around, it was time to explore the hidden side of the house, the dark creaking cave that hangs overhead, sanctuary for termites and centipedes and wasps. We opened the door in the ceiling to the attic and directed the end of a tall paint-splattered ladder into the pitch black void. Dad cautioned me to stand only on crossbeams. The central ceiling is fourteen feet high and the large asbestos panels cannot support our weight.

Not only would a fall of fourteen feet onto concrete covered with shards of asbestos suck for all the expected reasons, we'd probably end up going to the hospital in a country where the president had been claiming for almost a year that he'd cured Coronavirus with three days of prayer. Where just a few state facilities are allowed to test for COVID-19, primarily for people who want to fly out of Tanzania on airlines that require it, and ordinary doctors refuse to run tests for fear of losing their licenses because they contradicted the president. Where no social distancing measures had been implemented despite a continuous stream of international travelers to Dar es Salaam. And where the hospitals were likely crawling with multiple strains of uncontained COVID-19.

The smile of someone who has no idea what she's gotten herself into.

As I crept across the dusty beams pointing my flashlight around for the glitter of drips, a rip of thunder reverberated in my chest and made me freeze. The rainfall picked up. Dad crouched nearby with his hired helper, Musa, setting up a lamp. I peered into low corners and found damp pools slowly growing, the dried up remains of an old midden, spiderwebs and termite highways. Lightning flickered through the vents, followed by thunder a few seconds later. Dad and Musa turned on the lamp.

The pale light illuminated the middle of the attic but made the peripheral shadows darker. I looked around and saw that we were surrounded by an ancient network of electrical wires stapled to every crossbeam, exposed filaments peaking out of junctions with exposed metal mounts, everything twisted and confused by decades of shoddy home repairs, all of it sheltered from the rain by a corrugated metal shell. Another flicker of lightning followed almost immediately by a sonic explosion of thunder that slammed into us like a shockwave.

Um, Dad. We're standing in a death chamber and we need to leave.

Dad was busy talking in Swahili to Musa. I interrupted him again. Just a second, he said. More lightning with the near-simultaneous house-shaking sound of Zeus shouting “Fools!” I shouted at my father that we need to get the fuck out of here or we will all be electrocuted and die.

Okay, he said. We'll come down, he said. You first and I'll be right behind you.

So I descended the ladder, feeling almost as optimistic as I'd felt the night he refused to leave his wooded home in Oregon while a house-vaporizing wildfire burned his direction. If anything, that night had taught me that when my father says “I'll leave in a few minutes," what he really means is “I'll leave when I see flames." God damnit, Dad. How many times will I be in the position of arguing the likelihood that you'll die horribly if you don't back down? I stood at the base of the ladder and barked ultimata into the void, where my father continued his conversation with Musa. I Greekishly threw my hands in the air and walked away.

I thought about the time Dad decided to make an electrical repair to my childhood home. He tied a rope around his waist and handed me the end. He told me “If I start shaking and can't speak, pull on me so I let go of the wires." I was a scrawny ten-year-old but totally down to save my father. I was free of the practical fears that accumulate in the back of your mind with life experience.

The lightning and thunder struck again simultaneously. The lights flickered. I marched back to the base of the ladder and barked at Dad some more. He continued his conversation with Musa.

After several rounds of frustrated walking back and forth, I finally saw my father and Musa descend. When Dad turned to me, a despairing look in his eyes, I knew that I was about to receive a cultural lesson. “I had to give him examples. It's a Swahili thing.”

My father, the most polite and diplomatic person in his entire family, couldn't just order Musa to leave the attic. He felt he must do the culturally respectful thing and explain why they were leaving by offering three or more supportive examples from prior experience. This spawned a whole conversation in the attic while deadly electricity flashed across the sky overhead and I paced the house sweating and struggling with my own personal lightning in the attic.

I had to hand it to my father. “Rude” doesn't begin to describe the manner in which the older generations ordered their servants and workmen around. If you called them out on it, they defended their behavior by insisting that if you're too soft, “They'll walk all over you." They lived with the upper-class anxiety that their impoverished staff would rob them blind if they did not live in fear.

Somehow, my father's compassion was strong enough to survive all the childhood lessons in callousness. In fact, those experiences left him with a determination to right generations of wrong. Nowadays, he tries to repair the old racial wounds with simple acts of kindness and respect. Respect means accepting a little vulnerability. It means putting your concerns second. It means not fearing the lightning while you ask someone politely to leave the attic.

It was a priceless lesson. But he only gets to teach it once. Next time I'll use a rope to drag them both down if I have to.

This story is continued in Part II


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