Monday, 30 January 2012

The way we were: Studying in Italy (Σπουδές στην Ιταλία)

My husband attended university for one year in Italy in the late 1970s. 

My family was poor. We lived in various old rented houses around the town, most of which were demolished once we vacated them. My parents couldn't really afford much more than the basics in life for me, which we had. That's why they made a conscious decision to have only one child; they both knew what it meant to come form a family with too many mouths to feed. There was always good food on the table, I had a warm bed to sleep in and I went to school and got an education.

σάρωση0036When I started high school, my father made it clear to me that he wouldn't provide me with pocket money unless I worked. Every weekend, starting spring and finishing in autumn, I'd take the KTEL bus from Hania and go to the village, where I was responsible for irrigating the fields. In those days, the water would be passed through cement channels, and I had to move the hoses around to make sure that each tree was watered. I never questioned why my father never did this, and why I had to; it was just what was expected of me.

During my teens, I also started working on construction sites during the summer when the school holidays started. That was a way of supplementing my pocket money. I'd carry buckets of cement up ladders, lay bricks and scrape off the runny bits of cement. A lot of my friends did this work too, so I didn't feel alone or left out. It was a way of life back then in the late 60s and 70s. If you were poor, that's what life held for you back in those days. If your parents were rich enough to supply your monetary needs, you were lucky. I was unlucky. With the extra money I made, I was also expected to pay for my extra tutoring, so I paid for my private English lessons. I was a good student, and I liked school very much.

Eventually, I wanted to go to university, but I didn't get a place in the business schools at the Greek universities that I applied for. I felt devastated, so I asked my parents if I could go to Italy and study there. Italy was where many Greek students headed to for tertiary education because it was cheaper to study there than England. My parents agreed; I was to find out much much later what I couldn't realise then, and that was that they couldn't actually afford to send me abroad for an education.

I began to learn Italian before I set off for Pisa. A friend of mine recommended the University of Pisa to me, and he said he knew where we could find accommodation. I enrolled for an accountancy degree there. My friend set off in late summer, a little earlier than than I did, for Pisa, but told me that he would meet up with me at the airport. I never saw him again. When I arrived in Pisa, I didn't find him at the airport. Instead, I was greeted by two other Greek students, Nikos and Yiorgos. They were both from Hania. I was welcomed into the country like I was some kind of celebrity; they were all smiles and hugs. I wondered how they found out I was arriving; I hadn't told anyone I was coming!

Nikos and Yiorgos introduced me to a lot of people on my first day. It seemed that every one in Pisa was Greek, not Italian. They took me to a friend's house, where I stayed for a couple of nights before finding accommodation with a group of other students in a very old narrow house with three floors,  at Number 82, Via Mancini. The house was so old that when the bus passed by on the street, all the furniture in it rattled and moved. The wardrobe in my room moved a few inches every time the bus passed, and I'd have to move it back in place against the wall. But the house was actually quite comfortable - it was heated, we had running water, both hot and cold, an indoor bathroom (all of which I didn't have back home) and we could cook our meals in it.

Greek-Italian rendition of "Il Sultano di Babilonia e la prostituta"

I was expecting Pisa to be like Athens, in other words, like any other big city that I knew, and so far, Athens was the only one. But it wasn't like that at all. It had a really good transportation system, everything ran on time, and people were very polite. I had heard the phrase 'una fatsa, una ratsa' spoken by Greeks about the Italians, but I can't say that I found that. The Greeks were wild compared to the locals. The Cretan contingent there was even wilder. Italian men visited hair salons, not the barber, and had their hair blow-dried, if they actually felt that they needed a haircut in the first place.  They wore gold chains, and sprayed themselves with perfumes. At first I thought they were gay, but then I relaised that they couldn't all be gay. They were just Italian men. But they liked us as friends, and I never felt like a second-class citizen in Pisa. We socialised among the Italians as if we were at home.

σάρωση0025I shared a room with a Greek from Sparti. The other three students all had their own rooms: an Italian from Sicily, a Greek from the island of Chios and a Greek Jew from the island of Rodos. He was really shifty and made himself out to be the boss in the house. He kept himself to himself and we tried not to get in his way. He had a raging temper when he felt bothered by something. Not even the Sicilian could get round him. We all took turns at keeping the house clean. Except for the Roditi. He never did any of the cleaning.

We all took turns at cooking too. I remember cooking fasolada and yemista. They were easy cheap meals to make. But most of the time, we ate lunch at the student restaurant, which we had to pay for. At every meal, we ate a primo piato of spaghetti or pennes with a choice of a thin red or white sauce. It wasn't very tasty, but it filled us up. Then there was a second meat course (chicken or pork) served with a bit of salad, and some rice or potatoes. There was never any dessert, but we sometimes got a sanguini orange, or occasionally an apple (never a banana - that was imported and too expensive to feed students with). That kept me sustained throughout the day.

My parents sent me money every month and they phoned me once a month to see how I was doing. I never wrote letters to them, but I sent them a few postcards instead. They would also send me some of our olive oil from our own production, packed in a can, along with some cheese and some paximathia (rusks). That formed my morning and evening meals. The money was just enough to pay the rent and to buy my meals at the restaurant. I also bought some milk for breakfast, and some bread, which I could sometimes sneak out from the student restaurant. But the money never lasted me the whole month. My parents were too poor to send me any more; they sent me what they could afford, and I was too proud to ask for more. By the end of the month, I would not have enough money to spend on enough food. The other boys would always help me out, but I felt embarrassed about my situation. Most of the time, I'd simply dip some bread in the olive oil that I had left a piece of cheese sitting in so that it would have more taste, and just wait for the next month when my parents would send me more money.

bread and oil

Nikos and Yiorgos turned out to be involved in the PAK movement. I found that out after a few weeks of settling into studies. They asked me to join the Greek students' chapter in Pisa. I couldn't say no, after all that they'd done for me. They were my friends, they found me friends, they found me a home, and when I had no more money, they'd make sure that I was looked after. They even introduced me to girlfriends and took me to parties. The Spartan I was sharing a room with was also involved in PAK. He was quite wealthy. During the weekends, he would hire a car and drive us around the area. Only the Roditi didn't come with us. He often stayed in the house alone. We got as far as Florence once, where the Spartan paid for the hotel.

At the end of the university year, towards the beginning of summer, I returned back to Greece with Nikos and Yiorgos. They had a car and we drove back into the country, taking a ferry to Kerkira. Cars were always stopped and sometimes searched in those days. We had only just left dictatorship rule and the political situation in Greece was still messed up. Nikos and Yiorgos gave me specific instructions on how to behave when we driving across the border and when we were talking to customs officials. They had printed out a whole lot of politically-related leaflets and posters in Italy, which they wanted to smuggle back into Greece. The literature was all hidden below the trunk of the car. Our suitcases were sitting on it.

We weren't searched, but it was an uneasy feeling not knowing if I was safe. It was the first time I had ever felt frightened. It made me question relationships of this type: I was in need and they helped me out, but they also put me in danger. I vowed to myself not to return with Nikos and Yiorgos to Pisa in the following term. I would try to make it alone.

σάρωση0032What I didn't know at the time was that I would never return to Pisa to complete my studies. When I arrived back home, I found my father in very poor health. He had just been diagnosed with cancer. He had his vocal chords removed; he never smoked again after that, and he used a special microphone to talk. I signed up for a mechanics course in Hania. That way, I could also help with the work on the fields. When I graduated, I spent three years doing military duty. I never left my family home after that. I began working with my father; we shared the shifts in his taxi. I also maintained our olive and orange groves. What else was there left for me? At least I never had to work again in construction, because I'd already done enough of that.

If you liked this story, you may also like to read about:
- one of my husband's favorite children's bedtime stories, and
- why I never make lahanorizo in our house.

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