It’s impossible for me to write – or think – about Kerkyra (Corfu) without thinking of my adopted grandparents. They were actually Mr Chef’s paternal grandparents and two of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met. Their names were Christos and Efthimia, but everyone knew them as Ito and Mia. This was because Ito suffered from an illness (possibly polio) when he was three years old and, as a consequence, was totally deaf and unable to speak clearly. Ito was how he pronounced his own name, and Mia was what he called his wife. So we all did the same.
Both Ito and Mia were born in the Corfiot village of Agios Matthaios to poor farming families. Ito’s father left the island for some years during Ito’s childhood. He apparently went to America and amassed quite a fortune (doing what, no one knows). He returned to the village with a pile of money, having become so mentally ill that he was incarcerated on a small island the Corfiots used as an asylum. He later drowned trying to escape. However, before he was taken away, he reportedly buried most of his fortune somewhere in the olive groves. Periodically, so my husband tells me, the villagers would form search parties to try and dig it up, but to date no one has located it. The rest of the money he stashed around the house, but it came to a rather an unfortunate end … .
Mia and Ito, who were terribly poor, worked the land for food. They swapped their excess produce for stamps, which they could exchange in shops for things they needed. As a consequence, they had no idea what money looked like. One day, many years after the American Adventure, a traveller passing through the village saw Mia and Ito’s children playing with American bills. He asked them where they had found them, and told them they were playing with real money. By then, however, most of the bills were gone: they had been using them to light the fire!
As I mentioned, Ito was deaf and mute from the age of three. Everyone in the village knew him, and his family and friends knew his own special sign language and sounds. A few times he got into trouble with outsiders who didn’t understand him – such as the time he was nearly arrested upon awakening from a snooze under an olive tree because the policeman thought he was an illegal immigrant from Albania! Mia always understood him, though. She told me once that she decided to marry Ito and no one else because he was a good man with a good heart.
Ito loved to draw. He worked his fields until he couldn’t walk anymore, he sat outside the house and drunk his coffee until he could barely stand up anymore. But he never stopped drawing. He had a distinctive style, almost like a child’s, with bold colours, and his figures look a bit like the ones from traditional Greek puppet theatre. He drew what he saw – churches, priests, houses, donkeys, people drinking coffee and playing backgammon, people fishing, cars and motorbikes. I kept many of his drawings. They many not be high art, but there’s something special about them and I love them.
Ito had a great sense of humour, he loved to dance, and he was very proud of everything he had. It wasn’t much, but to him it was the world: his pieces of land scattered about the village, his animals and plants. The first time I met him, when he was still working some pieces of land, he took me on a very slow tour of his favourite one, stopping at every tomato plant, every courgette flower, every olive tree. If it could be eaten, he gave me some; if it smelled good, he wafted it under my nose; if neither was appropriate, he pointed. “A-o,” he commented on each and every object. Kalo. Good.
That is what I loved most about Mia and Ito: everything was kalo. They had such hard lives, they were so poor. Neither went to school. Ito could write his initials, Mia nothing at all. They woke at the crack of dawn and worked the land all day. Mia told me she used to take her two oldest children to the orphanage so that they would get a hot meal. They had three stillborn babies and lost another two children in infancy. Towards the end of their lives, they both lost the use of their legs and were in great pain, and Mia lost the sight in one of her eyes. But did they ever complain? Did I ever see self-pity in their eyes? Sadness, yes, when Mia talked about the children she lost. But they were overflowing with love.
My father-in-law told me a story about the time some gypsies came to the house. They asked Mia for a bit of olive oil and, while she was filling a bottle, they started helping themselves to her potatoes. The potatoes she’d grown in her fields, dug up and lugged back to the house. The potatoes that she needed for her own meals.
My father-in-law didn’t think she’d noticed. “Mama,” he said. “They’re taking your potatoes.”
“Oh, I know, my boy,” she replied, “but if they are hungry, they can have them. Anyway, look at their skinny arms! How many potatoes do you think they can carry?”
Mia would sit and talk to anyone – no matter if they understood her. My mum, my friend from the UK, whoever. She would take their hand in her two old hands – they were soft like a baby’s cheek, despite her age – and chat away with a big smile that almost made her eyes disappear inside the wrinkles. She adored my children. She wanted to fill her house with great-grandchildren.
I’m staying in that house with my kids right now, and I almost feel like Mia and Ito are sill here. I miss them, but it was time for them to go. No more pain, no more suffering – their old, hard-working bodies had had enough. I wish they could have met my youngest one, though, just once. They would have loved her.
We named her Efthimia, but everybody calls her Mia for short.