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The Secret Message of the Rooster

Secret Message of the Rooster


Relatively very few people in the world speak Greek. This is one of the reasons why Greeks feel the need to learn foreign languages, particularly English, German, and French. When I was a student in high school, French was a mandatory part of the curriculum.

This attempt of public education to familiarize students with at least one foreign language, however, was not very effective. Students could not acquire even elementary proficiency without additional courses. Many families were hiring tutors or were sending their children to private schools for foreign languages.

My sister and I were privileged to grow up in a family that could afford to have a French nanny. So by the time we went to school, we were speaking French fluently. My family thought it was a good idea for me to learn another foreign language in addition to French.

So they enrolled me in the German School of the Academy of Munich that had recently opened in my hometown, Thessaloniki. I attended that school in the afternoons, while I was in high school during the German occupation. Within two years, I acquired sufficient knowledge of German to be able to read, write, and converse comfortably.

Proficiency in German allowed me to write many love letters to Zarah Leander, the beautiful star of the German movies with whom I was infatuated. But she broke my teenager’s heart by never answering my passionate letters.

My enrolment in the German School of the Academy of Munich, however, had also some unpleasant consequences. The Germans had Greek men working in factories and construction jobs, particularly on projects of the Organization Todt, the famous German engineering firm that was building bunkers and fortifications. This necessitated Greek interpreters. Students and graduates of the German schools of Thessaloniki were good sources of German-speaking Greeks.

I was one of those students and, sure enough, one day in March of 1942, I received the feared order to report to a specific office of the German occupation authorities as a prospective interpreter. My family was upset and alarmed but tried to take the bad news with calm and dignity.

“They are not going to take you. You are too young,” my mother reacted, but her worried expression betrayed the fact that she knew her optimistic assessment was unrealistic. My poor mother. She was, of course, concerned, but I suspect she was also feeling a little guilty because she was the one who insisted that I attend the German school. Needless to say, such feelings were entirely unreasonable. Who could have imagined, at the time, that one day we would be occupied by the Nazis and that German-speaking Greeks could be drafted as interpreters?

“We cannot risk it,” said my father as he was extinguishing his cigarette in an ashtray full of cigarette butts. “We have to think of some safe way out of this predicament, and we have to think fast.”

“What can we do?” I asked. “I must report in two days.”

“Can the German consul do anything?” wondered my mother while changing my father’s ashtray with a clean one. The German consul was a patient of my father. Before the war, my father used to be the physician of most consulates in Thessaloniki. The doctor patient relationship, in many instances, developed into a social connection, sometimes even into a friendship. My parents maintained a social contact with the German consul, but the relationship could hardly be called friendship.

“I don’t think you have enough familiarity with the German consul to ask him to intervene. And I am not even sure that he could help. Besides, is he still in town?” I asked.

“That we could find out, but I don’t believe it would be proper and productive to ask for his help,” my father agreed. He then lit another cigarette, took a deep puff, and staring at the window across the dining room, exhaled slowly a fine gray cloud. The setting sun was throwing long fading shadows, and the chill of the evening was starting to creep in.

“Leave,” my father said after a few minutes of agonizing silence. “Go, get away,” he repeated.

“Go where? How?” I asked, surprised.

“Go to Athens. To your uncle. I can put you on the train tomorrow evening before the curfew.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It may be dangerous. First of all, don’t they ask for a travel permit? And then what are you going to say to the Germans when they come here looking for me? Why did I disappear? Where did I go? Besides, even if you tell them you don’t know where I went, they could still hunt me down, find me, and arrest me in Athens. And in that case, who knows what they could do to me and especially to you who—”

“Don’t worry about us,” my father interrupted. “But yes, you are right. They may get you in Athens, and yes, this could have grave consequences for you.”

“Oh my God, I am getting a headache. What are we going to do?” exclaimed my mother as she got up. She placed the empty coffee cups on a tray and took them to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, she came back with two glasses of water and a new suggestion.

“Why don’t you go and tell them your knowledge of German is very limited? Pretend you don’t quite understand what they are saying and speak with great difficulty.”

“No, Mother. It won’t work, and it may also be very hazardous. The Germans may have school records showing my good grades and the high level of my proficiency. They may get very angry for my attempt to deceive them. They may even shoot me on the spot for that. No, it won’t work.”

“He is right,” my father muttered.

He pushed his chair back, stood up, and slid his hands in his pockets. He remained still for a moment, and then he lit another cigarette and walked slowly to the window.

A thick silence filled the room as the darkness of the night enveloped the city and obscured our presence. My father was still standing in front of the window, staring down at the empty street. After a while, he bent over, closed the shutters, and pulled the drapes tight, in conformity with the strict blackout instructions of the occupation authorities. He then lit an oil lamp, placed it on the table, and sat quietly next to my mother.

No one spoke. Several minutes passed that felt like eternity. My mother was looking at me with an expression of weariness and concern. She could see the anxiety on my drawn face. An atmosphere of gloom and desperation started to seep into the room. My mind was in overdrive.

Where were the Germans going to take me? Were they going to keep me in Greece , or would they send me somewhere north? Perhaps to Germany. Would I survive the daily Allied bombing raids? Would I be able to communicate with my family? There must be a way to avoid this. How could I make the Germans reject me as an interpreter? I was thinking and thinking. Suddenly it came to me. A brainstorm.

Yes, that’s it.

I got up, turned toward my father, and with an unquestionable confidence in my voice, I shouted, “I have an idea!”

How to Keep Young

How to Keep Young

We do not know what exactly causes aging.

There is a quagmire of competing theories. Gerontological research, involving genetics, neurology, metabolism, biochemistry and physiology, is booming, but the holy grail of aging is still elusive. There are still misconceptions that are, at least partially, responsible for suffering the undesirable manifestations of aging. Most of us have been led to believe that cognitive decline is inevitable. Dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease are hanging like the sword of Damocles* over our heads. We were also led to believe that our bodies decline, that life becomes less enjoyable and fulfilling, and that, generally, we are going downhill.

We may accept those misconceptions as a fact of life, or we may abandon them and adopt a more optimistic attitude and a positive self-perception of aging.

How we perceive aging can actually influence how we age. With a positive perception and some adjustments in our lifestyle, we may be able to prevent, attenuate, and even reverse the frailty of aging.

My prescription provides incentives, mental tools, and precepts for achieving this goal.

The instructions for each particular objective are given with the corresponding rationale and, whenever appropriate and possible, with the scientific basis.

Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers

To the children of Africa

A bowl of rice.
Thousands of gazing eyes,
and thousands of hungry flies.
Children with transparent skin.
Tender flowers without leaves.
Little birds without wings.
A hut of straw.
A desperate hug.
Lifeless bodies and silent tears.
The elusive hope.
A nightmare.

Under the same sun, under the same moon,
a grooming salon for darling pets.
A thousand shares.
The corporate jets.
The white yachts
The diamond rings.
A house of glass,
and golden dreams.

Why can’t we hear the children’s cry?
How can our laughter cover the moans?
Why can’t we smell the shadow of death?
Are we so blind, are we so deaf?
Is it that thick our crystal shell?
A smile and a tear.
The face of one soul in two parallel worlds.
Under the same sun, under the same moon.