Winter 1973. Jingle bells weren’t ringing that year for me. Although I’d gone through the previous Christmas in Greece, I was homesick for the American commercialism like standing in long lines to get a photo with Santa and hearing Christmas carols in every store. My husband Yianni and I had moved to Athens, Greece two years earlier. In that time, I had become more comfortable arguing with taxi drivers, buying meat from an open-air butcher shop, and knowing the difference between salad tomatoes and those for stuffing. Mastering my homesickness was a work-in-progress.
On November 17, on an impulse, I decided to take my 3 year-old daughter Vera and my 3-month pregnant self downtown to visit Lambropoulos, a large department store decorated for the holidays where I hoped to get back some of that Christmas feeling.
George Papadopoulos, an army colonel who had seized power in a coup d’etat in 1967, was the dictator of Greece at the time. He was responsible for torturing and imprisoning thousands of Greeks during his reign of power. Student and labor union unrest were rising. I knew all this from the news, but I lived in an insulated world on Antheon Street in Aghia Paraskevi, a quiet suburb of Athens. My days were filled with playing with little Vera on a large veranda facing a garden of rose bushes and learning from my landlady Yiota how to make moussaka and crochet baby jackets.
Fortunately, that day the bus wasn’t full and the streets were empty. I wondered if it might have been a holiday, and I had made the trip for nothing. But Lambropoulos was open, and Vera and I enjoyed walking through the toy department. It wasn’t until I stopped to buy deodorant on the first floor that I heard the great front doors clang shut.
I looked up and saw people banging on the doors begging the security guard, “The tanks are coming! Let us in! Let us in!”
Their desperate faces pressed against the glass made my stomach cold. I asked the store clerk, “Ti yinete? What’s happening?”
She replied, ”You have a small child and you came downtown to shop? You shouldn’t be here! What kind of a mother are you?”
Panic rising up my spine, I steered Vera’s stroller to a pay phone and called my husband. I was frantic: “Yianni, Tanks are rolling down the street! How can I get out of here?”
He was relieved to hear my voice. Earlier that morning, he’d tried to call me at home to warn me not to leave the house. His office was just two blocks away from Lambropoulos.
“Don’t leave the store! Meet me in the men’s department. I’ll be over in five minutes,” he shouted into the phone.
As Vera and I waited, the store managers opened the door after each tank passed by and let people in from the street. Tear gas wafted in, Vera began to cry, and my eyes were stinging. In the distance, I heard rat-a-tat-tat, like great handfuls of pebbles thrown on a tin roof. I later learned it was machine gun fire and forty-two people were killed that day. Most of them were students who had barricaded themselves inside the Polytechnic Institute, Athens premier engineering university, about two miles away.
Chaos increased inside the store as a salesman began taking cash out of the register and turning off the lights. I asked him where everyone was going, and he motioned to the basement. Just as I turned to find the stairs, the phone rang beside the cash register. The salesman picked up the phone and asked if my name was Kyria Pantanizopoulou, Mrs. Pantanizopoulos. I grabbed the phone. It was Yianni, our Greek god, our savior, our daddy! He had made it inside the store and was searching for us in a men’s department on the third floor; I was waiting in the budget men’s department on the first floor. Just as the salesman turned off the light, Yianni appeared, kissed me, grabbed Vera in his arms, and we headed towards the basement. Yianni was so calm, like this tank thing happened all the time; governments crumble, tanks roll by, tear gas fills the air we breathe. No problem.
When we heard no more tanks passing by, we decided to leave the basement and walked five blocks through a haze of tear gas to his cousin’s office. As his cousin drove us to Aghia Paraskevi, we passed smashed store windows and miles of people walking because buses and taxis weren’t running. Everyone was trying to make it home before the 4:00pm curfew after which martial law began. Papadopoulos announced on the car radio that after that hour, all people on the streets would be shot, no questions asked. When Yiota saw we had returned, she ran downstairs and brought us a big piece of galaktoboureko pie to soften the frightening experience we’d just come through. My husband and I shared a small glass of brandy. Little Vera brought me a book to read to her. Christmas decorations weren’t that important anymore. The roses were still blooming, and we were home.
1 quart of milk
½ c. sugar
1 TBL butter
1/3 c. farina (Cream of Wheat, not instant)
4 large eggs, well beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
½ lb. filo
½ c. melted butter
1 ½ c. sugar
1 c. water
1 TBL lemon juice
Heat milk and sugar in a deep pot. Add butter and farina slowly. Cook 10 minutes stirring constantly. Remove pot from heat and cool. Add eggs and flavoring. Set aside.
Brush melted butter on the bottom of a rectangular pan. Alternate a sheet of filo and melted butter for about 6-8 sheets. Pour cooled custard over the filo. Continue laying sheets of filo and butter on top of the custard until done. Cut partially through the top layers only, making squares. Bake at 350° F. for 45 minutes or until nicely browned.
While the galaktoboureko is baking, prepare the syrup. Boil the water and sugar for about 10 minutes. Add lemon juice. Pour the hot (not boiling) syrup over the hot pie. Allow to cool before serving.
If you prefer a drier version, sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon instead of syrup on top.
(This essay was published in Knoxville Christmas 2007 by the Knoxville Writers’ Guild)