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Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Greek Collection: The baoulo (Το μπαούλο)

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Every now and then, I like to go through my cupboards to get rid of things I no longer use or don't want to keep. Now that the children have grown up a little, and they don't grow out of their clothes so quickly, I don't do this too often. Even so, when I do do it, I also tend to avoid certain cupboards, with the excuse that even though I never use the things in those cupboards - which coincidentally the original owner of those things never did either - I simply can't throw them away for sentimental reasons.

Some time last February, I once again opened up one of those cupboards and stared at its contents. A sense of grief came over me, as I thought about my mother who had toiled many hours in the mountain village where her home was located, making these hand-woven things: sheets, tablecloths, table runners (that is what they looked like to me - they were in fact body towels), pillow cases, aprons, tea towels, blankets, rugs, fabric for making other household items, and many other fabrics, all of which she had made herself on a traditional Cretan wooden loom, called 'argalio' (αργαλειό).
Αργαλειός νομός Ηράκλειου
A typical weaving loom in Crete. There is great interest in the argalio nowadays as part of popular history and culture, and it is still used in traditional fabric art, as a tourist attraction and in making souvenirs. From my reading, I ascertain that my mother's generation was the last to use the argalio for making their household linen needs, as they are the ones that did not actually use them int he way they were intended. But the truth is that to a large extent, most women of my mother's generation used the argalio for the purposes of preparing their dowry box, as Evdoxia Epitropaki explains: «I made all my dowry requirements with the weaving loom that my grandmother and mother used and I have kept them stored in my baoulo. The only thing I didn't make was curtains. I made everything else... Do not forget that at that time there was nothing ready-made.»

All these items, once made, were folded away and placed in a large storage trunk, called a 'baoulo' (μπαούλο - a dowry box in essence), in readiness for the day when my mother would set up her own home and she would need these things. Her two younger sisters did the same; each one had their own baoulo. At the age of 30, my mother left Greece, leaving these items behind in the baoulo, in the company of mothballs. Her first home in New Zealand was a dormitory in a rural town called Fielding, where she worked at the Fielding Agricultural High School. She arrived 'with half a suitcase', a common saying among early Greek immigrants, describing their arrival in a country of the New World with a handful of belongings; it often makes reference to the pride they feel about how, despite their very poor background and humble beginnings, they settled into a new country and became wealthy, now owning so many things that they would need more than one suitcase to pack them all into (something like a shipping container would be more appropriate).

I have kept my mother's baoulo - it now stores our Christmas tree and decorations.
The baoulo was lined with this design. It was clearly intended for use as a dowry box. 
It was painted brown, with a blue design on the top.
(On the state of the basement - it's a man's world: my husband stores his garden tools in it.

Nearly two years after her arrival to Fielding, my mother left for Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, seeking the company of other Greeks. The Greek community of Wellington was by then well established as the largest Greek community in 1960s New Zealand. Through the community, my mother met the people (who eventually became my godparents) who eventually introduced her to her future husband, my father. As she prepared for marriage, her mother wrote to her, asking my mother what she would like to be sent to her from her baoulo. I remember my mother telling me about this, something along the following lines:
"Nothing. I don't need any of that stuff. We have no need for such things here. You can buy everything you need from the shops. And it's all better than that stuff." The last time my mother sighted her 'stuff' was during her last visit to Greece. The fabrics had lived in the baoulo for over three decades.

My mother died shortly after her last visit to Crete. A little while later, her brothers asked me if I would like to take the baoulo to my house, as a way to free up space in their home. The truth was that these items were regarded as inheritance. Since my mother never took them away herself, they were now being passed on to her children. I remember my uncle bringing the whole baoulo to my first home in Hania using his pick-up truck. He helped me to place the baoulo in the spare room. I thanked him for his help, and after he left, I went through the magical experience of opening up the baoulo. I felt like a pirate going through his loot. Although I did not find any treasure in the baoulo, I found myself unlocking the secrets of my mother's past.

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