The aroma of the herbs from kipo, the old Greek hands that make the finest filo for spanakopita in Melbourne’s suburb of Collingwood, the tenderness of the crusty home-baked bread from the wood fired oven, yiayia’s flavoursome crushed tomato sandwich that exudes Greek childhood. This is what Spiri Tsintziras breathes life into in her new book Afternoons in Ithaka, published in January by ABC Books.
Laid out in an unusual form, in a combination of a memoir, prose and gastronomy recipes, it is as if Petalidi, the seaside village outside of Kalamata, and the inland mountain village of Kiparisia, on the western coast of the Peloponnese, have put their magic together with suburban Melbourne to mesmerise the reader.
And that’s exactly what her parents’ native villages did to the author herself, Spiri Tsintziras, while she was looking for herself hidden somewhere between her Greek home setting and Australian environment, in a search for a sense of place and of self in that place. The book is a memoir of self-discovery, and family connections, of the power of food. From recipes for Greek coffee, Chrysoulas’ bread, Irene’s briam to the significance of the evil eye, rembetika, and then an over-engineered wood-fired oven in suburban Melbourne, as a reminiscence of Spiri’s childhood.
Though with a 15 year long background in social work, words and communication were always a passion for the Melbourne based Spiri. Obsession with people, their stories and words, and the need to tell them led her to take up writing more seriously. She says she has been lucky enough that some of her stories are now starting to find their audience, in the same way that generations of storytellers from her family had their own audience.
“My father was a big storyteller, he loved having an audience, he loved exaggerating a little bit … when I went to my father’s village, that had a couple of hundreds population in its heyday, I found that there were people who developed a newspaper, there were storytellers and authors … It makes you wonder if it’s actually in the blood,” Spiri tells Neos Kosmos.
Author of numerous childrens books, and a co-author of Parlour Games for Modern Families, the winner of the Australian Book Industry Award Book of the Year for Older Children 2010, Spiri’s opus has always, in some shape or form, involved her Greek background. Subliminally, it is her heritage, her passion for food, for gardens, for a more natural way of living that informs her writing. But Afternoons in Ithaka is her first memoir, distinctively Greek.
“I feel as if I have been waiting to write this book ever since I was a kid. It just felt that once I started writing, it encapsulated all the stories and thoughts and excitement I had about being Greek and finding my place in Australia. This book is so much about trying to reconcile being Greek and what that means to me in the Australian setting. I had to go to Greece quite a few times to work that out,” Spiri reveals.
While, on the first look, it seems as though the culinary journey between Greece and Australia is above all a spiritual one, in search for the inner self. Throughout the book, it surprises with the veracity and thoroughness of Spiri’s childhood memories. It was enough, she tells, to just dive into the memory, and then let the story unfold.
“I guess that memory is a little bit subjective in that way – the way I remember things may be so different to the way my mum remembers it. I may have had a powerful memory or a thought or I might have seen a photo or remembered a particular incident – and then I would just write. I let the story unfold. And more often than not – it did.”
In this collection of stories that enclose Spiri’s life to date, the tone the author sets is spontaneous, funny, honest, loving.
The food, family connections, her childhood years Spiri remembers with delightful but nostalgic memory. It is as if with this book, the author is trying to preserve from time all the memories and sentiments that connect her to her Greek childhood. But the connection to it hasn’t always been like this.
“When I was a teenager I thought being Greek was really daggy. My father was quite strong and strict in many ways. So, for me being Greek, while it had a lot of beautiful things, it also felt very limiting and very strict. I guess my father was living in the Greece of the 1960s, so me being a fairly independent and feisty young woman, he found it challenging. The first time I went to Greece as an adult, I discovered the Greece that my dad knew had changed, it was more liberal and exciting. I had to sort of find that Greece to be able to reconcile myself back in Melbourne. It took me a lot of time to embrace what it meant to be Greek, I had to find that out for myself. Not through my father.”
Nostalgia for the way of cooking, for tradition, for kids’ games, for past things, is a like a river stream that flows through more than one of Spiri’s books. There is something to learn from that way of living, Spiri says.
“I’m interested in nostalgia because when you think back, of memories, the old way of doing things, we have a tendency to romanticise that it was better then. There is a tendency of my generation, because we are so city bound, and so disconnected in a way from the land. There is that saying that you need to know your past in order to know your future. Looking back helps you understand who you are now and who you want to be.”
Connecting her spiritual journey inseparably with food, Spiri Tsintziras explains food in Greek culture is an amazing way of connecting people. Food in Afternoons in Ithaka is used to illustrate a bigger story. The one about how food and culture, language and music, people and their stories, family and memory come together to make us who we are, to create the sense of meaning and identity.
“We sit around the table, we discuss, fight, laugh; so many of our connections happen around the food. In this book I don’t think I have romanticised food. I just wanted to explore.
“I guess this book was a big exploration about how I found my place in the world – and food has been a constant. I’ve changed and explored and moved around, got married and had kids, but the passion for food has been a constant. And the need to express myself, to write and speak and find my voice. It’s about the frustration of living in two worlds where I couldn’t fully explore myself in the English voice, but knew only basic Greek. It’s about how I reconciled all that to come where I am at this moment.”
To see more of Spiri’s work, visit her website www.tribaltomato.com. To purchase Afternoons in Ithaka, visit ABC Shop or their online store www.shop.abc.net.au
The book is also available at all reputable bookshops.