Saturday, 15 September 2012

Αλφαβητάριο (The Greek alphabet primer)

I had intended to update this post with more photos, but time is not on my side at the moment. I'm taking a blogging break until things settle down a little in the new school year.

clip_image001One of the most popular schoolbooks throughout contemporary Greek times is the alphabet primer, Αλφαβητάριο (al-fa-vi-TA-ri-o) by Ι. Κ. Γιαννέλη and Γ. Σακκά, distributed by the now defunct state body ΟΕΔΒ - Οργανισμός Εκδόσεων Διδακτικών Βιβλίων - Institute for Educational Books. It was first used in Greek schools in 1956 and stopped being used around 1978. By that time, the images portrayed in the book had become obsolete in many ways - but the book continued to be popular even after it was discontinued, and today it enjoys success as an iconic classic of Greek imagery. It has never stopped being printed; it's available in hardback form at most Greek bookshops. This book is one of the most often requested presents by diaspora Greeks who remember learning the Greek language from it and wish to help their children learn Greek through this book. Diaspora Greeks have been influenced in their Greek imagery by the first immigrant generation, which don't necessarily tie in with the present day and provide the main motivation for their alternative perspective of their ancestors' homeland: Greece is a land which stand still in time.

I was also one of those diaspora Greeks who first came across the written Greek language in this Alfavitario. I didn't actually use the book in Greek school classes because I skipped the first grade and began Greek school in second grade; my mother had already taught me to read Greek at the age of 4, before I even started primary school in New Zealand at the age of 5, hence I was considered ahead of the other children. Interestingly, my mother only attended the first three grades of primary school in Greece, but she was still able to teach me to read. I also recall my grandmother's letters - I could read everything she wrote, even though she wrote without following the standardised rules for spelling; she even wrote in the Cretan dialect. (The Greek sound-to-letter system is much more transparent than the English system - you may not understand what you are reading, but you will be able to read anything you come across in Greek once you learn the alphabet rules.)

I've kept my old, albeit very tattered copy of the Alfavitario for sentimental reasons, even though it's totally meaningless in modern times; the way we learn in the internet age, not to mention the pace of learning, is completely different. Although Anna and Mimi (the two main characters in the book) no longer exist in Greek children's minds, they are still remembered as friends among the people who were taught to read Greek using these books.

The book contains many timeless images of rural Greece, and suburban Greek neighbourhoods. The pictures use elements taken directly from everyday life and nature. Many of these images have changed radically over time in urban Greece, especially by the time the book became discontinued, but they have remained entrenched in rural Greece, and it is these images that both Greeks and non-Greeks keep in their mind when they recall the positive moments of a time when they lived in or visited Greece. These images form the basis of the continuing popularity of the book. Even though many of these images have lost their meaning in the modern world, they still hold an important place in Greek society today, both in locals' and tourist' minds.
Anna and Mimi from the Alfavitario made an appearance in last year's issue of postage stamps, which were all based on old Greek schoolbooks. A range of other items (paperweights, letter openers, etc) are also available.

It could be argued that these images will soon be obliterated by the changes being forced on Greece in the current social/political/economic climate. I'd argue that their eradication is impossible. These images are still with us today, and they don't look to be going anywhere. Only the clothes and hairstyles have changed, together with the addition of technology. The nature and traditions depicted have simply moulded into a more modern setting - or maybe the modern setting has simply established itself amidst the timeless Greek images.  

page 2-3: Classic stonework and iron fencing - Greek homes are still heavily adorned with them; old houses adroned with both are often preserved.

page 6-7: The Greek family - where a yiayia or papou still exists (and with advances in medicine, this is all the more likely), they are never left out of the picture. Yiayia may wear more modern clothing nowadays, but she is still a part of the picture.

page 10-11: National holiday commemorations celebrated at schools - they are still celebrated in the way that is depicted in the photo. Little flags are hung up under the ceiling, as shown below.

page 39: A spring water source - they're everywhere is rural Greece. We also fill plastic bottles from a local spring to use as drinking water.


page 50-51: The sailboat - although they are now highly taxable items to include in your income tax return, they are still vital elements on all islands.

page 54-55: Herbs - what Greek meal doesn't contain at least one fresh species? And fresh seafood - even though it's not always cheap, θαλασσινά (tha-la-si-NA - seafood) is still a quintessential taverna item, and a represeantative symbol of Greek summertime taverna food.

page 96-97: The plateia- it may be deserted these days, but it's still there. The church - Greeks aren't as religious as in the past, but the Greek Orthodox church still plays a spiritual role in every community, in an altered form often associated a caretaker in a broken society.

page 108-109: A pot of basil - a quintessential element of a Greek balcony.

page 114: The wooden μπατσούρι (ba-TZOU-ri, window shutter) - although they are more often made of aluminium these days, they are still an important element of any Greek home. 

page 120-121: The orchard - rural Greece is filled with fruit trees and olive groves. Sometimes, it's difficult to tend our fields, but for the time being, they will be there for us when we do find time. The fields always give you what you give to them.

These images have been around for a very long time in Hellenic territories, spanning half a dozen millenia. They have changed form over the years, adapting mainly to technological advances, but they are still around. In today's critical economic climate, they are even making a comeback in their old form.

page 102-103: The fireplace (or the σόμπα, SOM-ba, wood-fired heater) - it is now replacing oil-based heating, which is a relatively recent innovation in Greek history, 'fueled' by the ease with which modern comforts were once procurable. Yiayia is a quintessential Greek image, although she is more likely to be dressed in more modern clothing - black is not necessarily essential any longer.

That doesn't mean that Greeks are taking a step backwards instead of pressing on ahead. Quite the contrary: it shows that Greek history allows Greeks to cling to their past in order to help them survive the difficult present, so that they can continue to see towards the future.

A word of warning: the Greek punctuation system used in the book is different from the (simplified) one that is now used - Only the stress mark (΄) remains in use above letters. A previous edition of the Alfavitario used in 1950 also contains similar timeless images of Greece - a slideshow of some of its page contents can be found here. Thanks to Stamatia Eliakis for supplying me with her PDF copy of the book, which helped me tin uploading the photos.

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