Glykerini with Lemon

Born in Greece, Sophia Kouidou-Giles, lives in the USA. She has published in ‘Voices’, ‘Persimmon Tree’, ‘Assay’, ‘The Raven’s Perch’ and ‘The Time Collection’. Her poetry chapbook is ‘Transitions and Passages. ‘Return to Thessaloniki’, her memoir written in Greek and forthcoming in English, is published by She Writes Press.

Translator Notes on  ‘Glykerini with Lemon’

The day Maria Psoma Petridou gave me a copy of her book of personal essays, Και να βρεθεί, θα με κυνηγάει / Found or Not, It Will Chase Me, published by Παράξενες Μέρες / Strange Day Books in 2015, was the day I fell in love with her writing. It seemed like a natural act to follow it up with a translation of my favorite essay into English so that I could share it with my English-speaking readers. ‘Glykerini with Lemon’ is a vibrant portrait of a grandmother, told by her adoring granddaughter. There is a sparkle to the words that holds charm in the original Greek language and challenges the translator who attempts to create the English text.

‘Translation is a curious craft,’ wrote Emily Temple. ‘You must capture the voice of an author writing in one language and bear it into another, yet leave faint trace that the transfer ever took place.’ With starts and stops, rests and springs of inspiration, I worked to deliver and interpret the story as best I could, taking some liberties in the effort to transmit the excitement the piece exudes for me.

The interplay of the ebullient grandmother with her adoring granddaughter renders a compelling portrait of their relationship: warm, loving and vital to both. The story begins with Glykerini singing popular songs from Greek operettas. To capture the mood and romantic nature of her selections, I commit my biggest transgression in translating this piece: I substitute lines of the original songs with lines from popular American music written in the latter part of the twentieth century, the era of the essay scenes. My goal is to message the English reader with musical phrases that evoke similar romantic associations as the Greek melodies.

Jolly/vibrant/gorgeous and desirable are more suitable word selections than the more mundane happy/energetic/beautiful or animated to describe the wonderful character of Glykerini’s spirited personality. Her name, in its Greek roots, denotes the notion of sweetness (Glykos means sweet), a concept that does not cross languages. To keep that nuance alive, I add the tag ending ‘sweetie’ when the husband, Demetris, admonishes his wife to be modest: She was tender and sweet and he made sure she kept away from the attentions of daring admirers. He would whisper authoritatively through his teeth, always reminding her, ‘Be demure, Glykeria, sweetie.’

To better draw the character of an adoring granddaughter who loves listening to stories, the author skillfully paints a child who closely watches her grandmother: Tangled between her feet … curled up patiently in a corner.

Glykerini is the masterful storyteller. Her stories hold immeasurable value to the child, who wonders: What would my life be like without the dream, without the exciting travels of her imagination? The artistry of the author guides the final word choices, an attempt to transmit the trusting, tolerant and endearing relationship of this pair. Here, my job as the translator was to render it with everyday phrases, smoothly and unobtrusively, contributing to the flow of the story.

The closing lullaby, a loving song well known to Greeks whose grandparents were raised in Turkey but moved and settled in Greece, is from a genuine lullaby, literally translated. It highlights the part of the world and time frame where the story unfolds.

For me in my role as translator, the key is in the stops and starts, and rewrites that each time get me closer to delivering my perception of this text. It clearly is an interpretation of the original work. My hope is that this rendition captures the spirit of the author, delivering a tribute to all the Glykerinis the world over, a universal message at the heart of this story.


Glykerini with Lemon

Author: Maria Psoma-Petridou

Translator: Sophia Kouidou-Giles   

Early each Friday morning, a day devoted to general household cleanup, the old farmers’ market filled with the sound of musicals:

“You’re just too good to be true…” she sang.

My mind’s eye sees it clearly: Glykeria runs in and out, flushed, wearing her bandana, holding the duster in one hand and the carpet beater in the other.  Her every move is accompanied by her booming voice and heard all around the neighborhood.  Doors and windows are wide open. Mattresses, pillows, and bed covers are spread out in the sun. The household is topsy-turvy. Chairs are upside down, beds are pulled out, and brooms, dustpans, and dust cloths sit front and center. I am tucked in a corner watching silently. The aroma of needle bushes, climbing roses, and the bushy drunken honeysuckle hug the balcony….

“Come on babe, why don’t we paint the town…” she continued.

The rich repertory of songs would last through the end of the day’s tasks in the late afternoon when everything would return to its original spot all spick and span.  Glykeria, white and plump like a freshly baked loaf of bread, with her full bust rising up in a rush, jolly and vibrant, would interrupt her song once in a while to exchange greetings with neighbors, only to start singing over again. This was the only day that she would allow herself to appear with such careless outfits, the only day I followed her around silently.  Glykeria was gorgeous and desirable.  Smooth white fresh skin, jet-black hair, gray eyes flecked with green accenting her bright face.  Her Demetrakis took care of her; she was the apple of his eye. She was tender and sweet and he made sure she kept away from the attentions of daring admirers. He would whisper authoritatively through his teeth, always reminding her, “Be demure, Glykeria, sweetie” and “Keep to yourself, Glykeria!” But Glykeria couldn’t care less! Her body was spilling over with life. Her pealing laughter enraptured you to tears, her song made you forget your worries.  Her storytelling, even for insignificant events, carried you to magic worlds, light and carefree, with humor and heavenly charm. She was a born storyteller!  With this innate gift that lifts trite events to miracles, she had you hanging by her words, pleading for her tales to never end.

I followed her around, inspired by her presence even on cleanup Fridays. Tangled between her feet, I counted the hours with impatience till the time came. History had taught me that this irrevocable ritual would take a long time before storytelling time could start in the kitchen.  I hugged my little bear tightly, whispering into its ear and curled up patiently in a corner. I knew well that after completing the dusting chore would follow the much more consequential “bath of the week.” Heated with chunks of wood, the water boiled and huffed since early in the day until the room turned into a steam bath. Glykeria would find me no matter where I hid and stick me into the water.  I would not escape the merciless scrubbing with the brush to get rid of seven days’ worth of dirt, cleanse my skin, light up my rosy cheeks, and open up my lungs.  It was a trial that I had to tolerate without complaint if I did not want to lose her favor as a “good child.”  What could I do? I sat on the wooden stool without a word, my eyes blurry from the steam, and Glykeria would wash my hair with green soap; she would torture my small body by scouring it up and down with the rough cloth until, as she used to say, all the “spaghetti” ran off my body. I was not stupid enough to protest.  For if she got angry and refused to tell me stories, what would I do? What would my life be like without the dream, without the exciting travels of her imagination?

Glykeria was my grandmother, my good witch with her broomstick always handy, poised to take me to her worlds ever since I came to life.  She was a note of joy, embrace, soft velvet presence that spread around me the subtle aroma of fresh lemon. A typical grandma who had all the time in the world to give me and yet who was so different from all others.  I grew up warmly tucked in her bosom. I was dependent on her “once upon a time….” That opening phrase would envelop me in a pink cloud; a flying carpet would lift me up to birds with human faces that spoke, would take me from one end of the earth to the other and beyond. From her mouth unfolded skeins of the most outlandish stories that seemed perfectly natural.

Grandma Glykeria walked this life in her own tempo.  She applied a basic rule with devotion: “love and take care of Glykeria,” and she rarely broke it.  A high school graduate with a bit of English and a bit of French, she presented as “well educated” compared to the majority of the women of her time.  Expressions such as “I am in a rush,”  “I am pressed,” “I am in a hurry” were unknown to her. She had an opinion about everything and did not hesitate to defend it mightily to men.  When she was pushed a bit more she would start to sing with pathos and meaning: “I am a young woman who will vote and smoke…,” signaling an irretrievable stance. She had stock sayings that she used to defend her positions, such as “a promise does no harm” or the infamous “A ‘no’ keeps trouble away.  Do you know what headaches a ‘yes’ may lead to?” She never gave up. Familiar with deprivation, war, and misfortune, she always found reason to laugh, a story to lift her spirits.  Easygoing, dashing, philosophical, and observant, she travelled in the best salons with her suits, her brocade lace, her hats with veils and her aristocratic ease, as if she came from old splendor or at least money. She smoked the occasional cigarette, and played a hand of cards with friends, usually pinochle, to pass the time.  She admired Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and Gina Lollobrigida.  Surely, this was not your typical grandmother!

She had another side to her persona: she made aromatic spoon sweets—black cherry, grape, strawberry—as well as tempting butter cookies and delicious petit fours with ample chocolate filling and walnuts that she kept locked in tin containers on her service chest, so that there was always a treat available for unexpected visitors.  My gluttony superseded the prohibitions.  I took care to locate the secret hiding place of the precious key to surreptitiously taste these culinary treasures. This challenged me. The mission was difficult and subtle because the hiding places kept changing.  I have concluded that she knew this all along and took care to make the game more exciting.

When the annual fast started 40 days before Easter, my own martyrdom started.  She had me running to the services at St. Demetrios Church and attending all liturgies during Holy Week, without exception, at St. Minas Church, carrying a stool in one hand and the Missal in the other, demanding that I pay attention to all that nonsense. If I dared move or protest, the threat came immediately: “Contain yourself! Christ is here and is watching you!” I was a mere five- or six-year-old girl; how could I react with such a presence next to me!  I got the same treatment during mealtime.  “We don’t speak with a full mouth.”  “Don’t rest your elbows on the table.” “We do not snicker or fidget in our chair.” “We do not wallow in our plate” “A young lady is always polite and appropriate.  Christ is in the center and is watching….”  Well, if you dare, do not obey!

A commanding Glykeria sprang from this melodious, carefree insouciance. It was not easy to doubt or ignore her. Men must have secretly loved her and women wanted to befriend her and seek all kinds of advice. Often I eavesdropped by the reception door, curious to pick up threads from the lively conversations. All those who met her must have been her devoted admirers, including me, of course.

She was the center of my young life.  I was a sweet brushstroke on hers, the student that she never had, the audience that she never dared seek.  Another era, different morals.  Our most exclusive hour, our most personal time was around three o’clock in the afternoon, right after the noontime dishes were put away.  Every day, even on Fridays.

Relieved from the obligations of the day, she settled on the kitchen couch, gathering her feet on the kitchen couch cushions. I sat next to her holding my bear. She had two transparent bottles set on the table in front of her. One contained plain glycerin, the other a mix of glycerin and lemon.  Next to those was half a lemon slice, a large chunk of cotton, and a clean towel.  As I settled in, I watched her studiously. With slow motions she wrapped the towel around her top, pushing it down to free her bust, and then she tied her hair with a wide ribbon.  I swallowed silently. Further away the overheated ceramic stove kept the room hot.  You would hear only the crackling wood when she picked up one half of the lemon, using the cut surface to disinfect her hands. I had estimated the length of time it took to complete this process, and if she was slow I struggled with impatience.

“Come on, Grandma! Go on! Tell me the story!” I would complain.

“Which one do you want today?” she would ask without interrupting her sacred pastime.  Which one? Anyone would do!  If she would only get started! She would shape whatever I chose, even the most ordinary story, in her own way, and each time it would come out different.

“Shall we … shall we say…” she thought out loud.  She was in no hurry.  She had her timing.  She would open the first bottle that contained just glycerin … drop a little on her palms … spread it on her chest, her neck, and face with soft massaging motions. It looked as if she was concentrating.  I watched her lips move….

“So, we say, once upon a time….”  Relief! I succumbed unconditionally to the seduction of her words! Nothing stopped her story or her self-care now.  These activities occurred jointly.  A bit of glycerin and Tom Thumb met Judy Garland; some rectifying massage and I would climb on the beanstalk entering behind the scenes of a filming production.  Two or three more drops and Cinderella, my heartfelt and trustworthy friend, would take me to her palace. A hard massage around the eyes and Pinocchio would come with Geppetto to visit me at my house. I watched these developments enthralled, with my heart beating fast. Her skin shone.  And so did her eyes that filled with tears each time she conjured up a scandalous scene.  And those came often. I laughed with her without knowing why, while begging her to continue by pulling on her skirt:

“Go on, Grandma! Do not stop! What happened next?”

And Glykeria would continue on. She spoke and spread the glycerin, and I spread my thirsty roots to drink the nectar of her imagination. When it was time to open the second bottle with the lemon, the tale was about to end.  With the massaging of her fingers came the time to “live happily ever after….”

By the end of the story my eyes had turned to lead and I was fast asleep, while her hand petted my forehead.

“Sleep and I will order your dowry in Smyrna, and your clothes and jewelry in Venice….”   

Author: Maria Psoma Petridou lives in Thessaloniki, Greece. An art columnist for thessnews.gr, she has published: “Something Out of Nothing” 2019, an essay collection, a “Second Pair of Wings” 2017, a novel,”Found or Not, it Will Chase Me” 2015, short stories, and” Lifelong Service” 2006, a poetry anthology.

Maria Psoma Petridou

Translator: Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA.  She has published in “Voices,” “Persimmon Tree,” “Assay,” “The Raven’s Perch” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry chapbook. She published “Return to Thessaloniki” a memoir written in Greek and forthcoming in English by She Writes Press.

Sophia Kouidou-Giles

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