The newly-arrived lady from Greece parted her fleshy lips in a smile, treating me to a display of milk-white teeth so well proportioned as to rival the columns of the Parthenon itself. As she continued to expostulate with me, in an attempt to disabuse me of my misconceptions with regard to matters Helladic, I began to wonder whether her teeth were subject to entasis, that brilliant slight convex curve in the shaft of a column, introduced by our brilliant ancient ancestors to correct the visual illusion of concavity produced by a straight shaft. Indeed, I began to calculate how far above her head, if one was to extend the height of her admittedly magnificent teeth, they would meet, until a gentle tap of her heavy bangle bedecked arm upon mine once more diverted my attention upon her.
Momentarily that is, for seconds later, realising that her monologue was punctuated neither with commas, or full-stops, I began to muse that while the ancient Greeks did have punctuation, sporadically using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots as early as the fifth century BC as an aid in the oral delivery of texts, and even developed an elaborate system of dots, placed at varying heights, to mark up speeches at rhetorical divisions, such as the ypostigmi, a low dot on the baseline to mark off a komma (a unit smaller than a clause), a stigmi mesi, a dot at mid-height to mark off a clause (known as a colon) and the stimgi teleia, a high dot to mark of a sentence (periodos), such notions seem not to have carried on to their Helladic descendants. Were the Turks perhaps at fault and could we blame them for this as we do all of our other shortcomings, I pondered. How would the nation seek recompense for the retardation of its progress?
A short, sharp tap of my interlocutor’s foot and I was jolted back to an appreciation of the undulating cadences of her voice. She was a lady well shod, in porphyry tooled leather cowboy boots tapering dramatically at their point, which was why I was rubbing my leg in discomfort. I began to consider that during the days of the Emperor in Byzantium, the wearing of such leg-wear would have been considered a capital offence, for only the Emperor himself was permitted to wear porphyry buskins, this being the imperial colour, though said buskins would have borne upon them the seal of the double-headed eagle, at least during the late Palaeologian dynasty.
In my head, I attempted to visualise the last emperor of Byzantium Constantine Palaeologus about to remove his imperial buskins and other regalia so as to not afford the Ottomans the opportunity to claim his body as a trophy. Mysteriously, in my mind’s eye, it was a pair of tapered porphyry tooled leather cowboy boots he was attempting to cast off, looking frantically for somewhere to sit in order to undertake this difficult task.
“Are you paying attention to me at all?” came the indignant tones of my monologist. Looking up, I perceived a slight waywardness in one hair of an otherwise breathtakingly straight set of eyebrows. I began to reflect upon the Greek word αλφαδιασμένος (levelled), which seems to denote the medieval use of an alpha-shaped instrument, when the question was again repeated: “Are you listening to me at all?”
“Συγνώμη,” I apologised. “Ήμουν με τους χίλιους στ’ Άγραφα.”
“What are you talking about? How were you with the thousands at Agrafa? You’ve been here the whole time. And who are these thousands?” she pouted, arching her eyebrows ominously.
“It’s an expression, isn’t it?” I responded. “Isn’t it just a way of saying, sorry I was distracted?”
“So you don’t find what I’m saying interesting, is that it? And anyway, I’ve lived in Greece all my life and I’ve never heard such an expression. Sounds like complete nonsense anyway,” the lady huffed, reaching into her bag in order to retrieve a compact. She powdered herself plaintively, lamenting the lack of manners exhibited towards her by male Greek Australians and the outlandish conceits of the Greek language they seemed to rejoice in. Immobilised by her distress, I could only think to ruminate over her complete disavowal of an expression I had used all my life and her posing of the compelling question:
“Who are the thousands of Agrafa?”
“Ήμουν με τους χίλιους στ’ Άγραφα,” is an expression that has been handed down within the extended family by my great-grandmother and is used heavily to denote one whose mind is not where it should be. It is also employed by persons hailing from her village and its surrounds, near Ioannina. Yet over the successive weeks following my ill-fated conversation I came to learn that this expression, which I have never reflected upon and considered perfectly mainstream, is not readily understood by almost all Greeks I have spoken to not hailing from the prefecture of Ioannina, and in most cases is met with complete incomprehensibility.
Yet this expression seems to have a venerable provenance, derived from local lore. According to one source, the origin of the phrase has to do with Greek Revolutionary hero Yiorgos Karaiskakis’ ambition to become the captain of Agrafa, and his occupation of the region with a thousand men. Apparently, this was achieved with the connivance of Omer Vrioni, the impaler of Athanasios Diakos. However, there is a demotic song entitled Του Ζαχαράκη which refers to the thousand of Agrafa, and which predates Karaiskakis’ exploits by about thirty years:
Το μάθαταν τι έγινε κάτου στην Παλιοπάτρα;
Η κλεφτουριά παράδωσι κι τα καπιτανάτα.
Ου Ζαχαράκης του σκυλί, ν’ αυτός δεν παραδίνει:
-Δε σε φουβάμαι, βρε πασιά, κι εσένα βρε βεζύρη.
Ν-έχουμε χίλιους στ’ Άγραφα, χίλιους στο Μισολόγγι
κι τιτρακόσια ολόγυρα, νούλοι Σαρακατσάνοι,
ν’ αυτοί δεν παραδίνουντι, πασά δεν προσκυνάνι.
However, the mention of 1,000 men seems to be a literary trope in Greek folk songs of the region, especially when it comes to the region of Agrafa, a place so remote that it did not, as its name suggests, appear on any maps. In the folk song Tolios, mention is made yet again of 1,000 men swanning around Agrafa, looking for a good time:
Δεν έχω άδεια να βγω να ιδώ τον Τόλιο που διαβαίνει
τον Τόλιο τον περήφανο τ” άξιο το παλικάρι
πως πάει απάνω στ” Άγραφα να μάσει παλικάρια
χίλιους νομάτους έμασε χίλιους και διαλεγμένους.
There is also a variant of a folksong about the exploits of the famous klepht Katsantonis that employs this motif. Thus, I don’t think I will ever find out who exactly the thousands of Agrafa were. What I do know is that they have provided exquisite company for me over the years, for they are the refuge to which I flee when the mundanity of the world encroaches upon my sanity. It is there that I go to know, in my quest to unlock the mysteries of one of my great-grandmother’s other common expressions: “Όλα τα ‘χει η Μαριορή ο φερετζές τής λείπει” (Mariori has everything and only lacks a headscarf), an expression used when one is perceived to hanker for something superfluous. The origin of this phrase is well documented however, for it is attributed to the Epirot Prime Minister Ioannis Kolettis. At a function for King Otto I, he noticed that a wealthy society widow, Mariori Kontoleon, was sporting a veil so that attendees could not see her blush, something that was considered unfashionable. In his usual forthright manner, he coined an expression used around Greece to the present day. Seek me therefore, with the tens of hundreds, in the lands of the unwritten.
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.