Come Over Into Macedonia, H. Allen

The Lesser Half


JANUARY 1, 1931, stands out in the records as an important date in the evolution of the Macedonian program. In the early morning of that New Year's day Martha Parrott arrived to organize for us a program of home education.

Brown hair, blue eyes and slight of build this unusual young woman gave little outward indication, at least to the casual observer, of the creativeness of her fertile mind, or of the perseverance with which she could hold to a difficult task. But a thoughtful analyst of personality characteristics could readily detect under that quiet exterior a certain tough wiriness that savored of energy and drive. There was a fascination, too, in those changing moods of hers. Normally all business and with a manner verging on the over-serious, she could suddenly take on a vivaciousness that was charming or engage in unexpected and brilliant repartee.

Martha came well equipped for the job that she faced. She was, first of all, the daughter of a keen country pastor who ran a good farm on the side, and whose interest in all things rural led him to participate in every worth-while activity of his farming community. Product of such an environment, it was, perhaps, not illogical, even for a young woman, to select four years of agriculture at Cornell University as her college course. Returning home she ran, for a year, her father's diversified farm, and then went to the Penn School at St. Helena, South Carolina, where she engaged in the practical teaching and community work of that famous institution until the death of her mother called her back to the farm.

With such an experience packed into a few busy years and a growing ambition to serve mankind, she sailed the Atlantic, crossed the European Continent, and proceeded to Greece. There during three years at the American Farm School of Salonica she instructed peasant boys in the art of farming, built up a fine dairy, and acquired for herself a good working knowledge of the difficult language. Returning to America in 1928 she quickly achieved success as home demonstration agent in a northern county of New York State.

Martha now thought that her foreign endeavors were over. But such is the way of our lives that, as usual, all of this good experience was but the foundation for still larger service. It was only natural, therefore, that in our search for a leader of women we should learn of this versatile pioneer and send her a.'\ call to come over into Macedonia and help us.

The social position of the Greek peasant woman whom Martha now came to assist is most accurately defined by paraphrasing an expression which is frequently and flippantly used in America.. She is, in this somewhat remote part of the world, "The Lesser Half." It is to be inferred from this that the wife or the mother does not occupy the unfortunate status of a miserable slave, so common over wide areas of the Far East. On the contrary she is, in rural Greece, an active member of the family circle, and in her married state a helpful, though sometimes illiterate partner. But she would not be considered, either by her husband or by herself, as "The Better Half." According to the conventions of her society she is the junior member of this partnership. Her husband, aged father, or elder son is the one to receive special favors. When guests drop in it is the men who are served first it is the man who is given the most comfortable chair. If there are no women among the visitors the wife and the daughter will retire to prepare and later serve the customary sweets that are offered.

In the strenuous business of extracting a livelihood from the thin soil of the Macedonian farm, the wife is as much of a bread winner as her husband. She works by his side in the fields. Returning home in the late afternoon he may drop in at the Kafenion to rest his rheumatic bones, talk with the neighbors, or quench his thirst; she, however, must continue on to milk the goat or the cow, feed the oxen, and look after the garden—if there is one. Of course she prepares the food, manages the house and attends to the children. Her life is a busy one. Even as she walks to the market place, or chats with her neighbor in the cool shadow of the protecting wall, she is still active—spinning the woolen thread for her own or her children's clothes.

Characterizations regarding the Macedonian people or their mode of life must of necessity be most general. The refugees, for instance, were an heterogeneous lot. Originating as they did from widely separated sections of the Near East with varying backgrounds and differing standards of life, they do not present a clear picture that depicts the whole scene. Numbers of these folk were at one time fairly prosperous, having progressive ideas, and holding in many respects what is generally considered the Western point of view. This attitude was immediately reflected in their customary manner of living and the place they assigned to the womenfolk of their society. Others had always existed under difficult conditions, and the horrors and privations which attended their long trek from the interior of Anatolia simply hardened a bit their already primitive attitudes toward life and the home.

Even among the natives, whose traditions and customs are more fixed, there is also considerable variation. Those living in the tobacco sections of Eastern Macedonia have enjoyed from time to time a fairly good income from their small plots of land, while old settlers of Central and Western Macedonia know occasional periods of prosperity merely as a slight easing up on the strain of existence. They are perhaps more dependable, reflecting possibly the even tenor of their poverty. But they suffer more acutely from the superstitions that grow out of want and of ignorance.

The home varies rather less than the humans it shelters. But local traditions, refugee origins, available building materials, and even the crops of the region—all contribute in a measure to the type of construction. Furthermore, five hundred years of Turkish domination have also left their mark upon the dwellings as well as upon the food, habits, the dress, and the customs of these Greeks.

In Eastern Macedonia the common abode is of stone and usually two storied, and was, before so many refugees crowded in, fairly spacious. Ventilation and storage requirements of the delicate tobacco of this region benefit indirectly the occupants of these houses. The family lives on the second floor which includes an open-front porch extending the full length of the rectangular dwelling. Under the porch is ample, well-lighted space that is suitable for sorting tobacco and doing other odd jobs of the farm. Back of this, directly under the living quarters, are the stables.

In central and western sections of the province I found, as I eventually came to visit these regions, interesting variations of the dwellings I had first seen in the eastern part of the country. The majority of homes in the Salonica plain have only one floor, although two stories are not infrequently found. Building stones are more scarce and the construction is chiefly mud brick. Proceeding farther west and rising to the higher plateaus, stone again becomes abundant and a greater proportion of the homes boast of two floors. Just to the east of the capital, up near the Bulgarian frontier, there is a type of construction that is unusual. On each side of rough wooden uprights that form the frame of the house, slender branches are skillfully woven to provide a strong inner and outer wall. The space between is filled with small and broken stones. With this frame plastered over for the inside walls of the dwelling as well as the outside a very durable type of construction is achieved.

In most of these central and western areas the open porch is still common, included, as in Eastern Macedonia, within the one roof and the walls of the house; but in these districts it does not, as a rule, extend the full length of the dwelling. At the left this open space ends abruptly to provide for a corner-room which serves both as sleeping quarters for the family and a parlor for guests. With the sleeping mats rolled up and stored out of the way, two or three rush bottom chairs to supplement the low bench around the sides of the room, and possibly one small table to hold the usual array of cheap bric-a-brac, occasional callers may be entertained and name-days properly celebrated. proceeding directly across the porch one enters the main living Quarters of the house. Here the family cooking is done in the small open fire-place while this area serves also for eating, working, sitting and even providing for an overflow of sleepers at night. Sometimes a small storeroom opens off the back of the porch at the left. The floors of the home are of dirt, packed down hard and quite level. Standing in the open entrance-way is a crude native loom on which household articles and some clothing are made. Even this modest home must on occasion provide for two or three families.

When, in this western part of the province, two-storied dwellings are found the lower wall is extended across the front of the house to enclose the space under the balcony above. This provides larger quarters for the stabling of animals, or the storage of crops and reflects the more diversified farming of this region. To get to the living rooms on the second floor one enters directly at the stables below. From here a steep, rickety stairway ascends to the wide porch above.

Homes that were occupied originally by Turkish families have windows that are smaller in size and even more limited in number than is usually the rule. Still found in a few places are windows covered over with wooden lattice work, making it possible for the secluded Moslem women, who formerly lived there, to see out while remaining unobserved from the street. The second story of such dwellings will often be noted to extend out a bit beyond the walls of the first floor, thus giving a still better point of vantage to those who are confined within. Occasionally one of these old Turkish houses will be found to have a small room where the family bathing was done. Standing in a shallow tub the Turkish bather poured hot water over himself with a small copper bowl.

Home furnishings are much more primitive in the center and west of the province than in the narrow borders of Eastern Macedonia. No high priced tobacco made it possible in certain good years to purchase iron beds. Mattresses filled with straw or old pieces of rags, or often thick matting spread out on the floor, provide the usual facilities for comfort at night. Cheap kerosene lamps supply the little light that is needed. The sun directs the rising and the retiring of these hard working people and not much is required of artificial illumination. Sometimes a small tin stove supplies heat in the winter. More often the charcoal mangal serves for whatever heating is done. The mangal is a round open container standing on legs. It is filled with char coal, lighted and set outside to burn off the dangerous gas. When it is finally brought in the live coals provide a fair amount of heat for those who are sufficiently close.

Some of the houses in this section have small secret chambers where are stored a few of the private possessions, and an eikon representing the favorite Saint of the family. In nearly every home is a sacred spot which might be considered the family shrine. On a shelf in one corner of the main living room stands a small wooden cupboard, sometimes made unnecessary by a nook in the wall. Resting inside of this is an eikon with a small olive-oil lamp which is lighted on Sundays and holy days. There also is a dry dusty flower taken from the church on Good Friday. An old shrunken candle preserved from the marriage ceremony of the father and mother completes this holy array.

In this section a woven reed or brush fence bounds the spacious farm yard wherein is enclosed not only the house with its stable but a thatch-covered hut which provides storage for seeds and for tools, and also a corn crib. The latter is constructed of twig soaked in water to make them pliable and then woven together in a very skillful manner. By this same system fences are made, wagon boxes constructed, and various other types of container provided. Sometimes there is an open well in the yard from which bacteria-laden water is hoisted for the use of farm animals an certain household needs including the quenching of thirst.

There also is the open-air oven which is everywhere to found among the bread loving Greeks. This is a sizeable affair, eight or ten feet square, although sometimes round, about five feet in height, and constructed of mud brick. It is plastered over and frequently whitewashed. The fuel, which is the same as that used for nearly all needs, may be bits of brush, or a certain type of tough weed found on the treeless mountainsides, or dried bricks of cow dung mixed with chopped straw. This is burned in the oven until the thick walls become thoroughly hot. The live coals and ashes are then removed while the heat remains to bake the round loaves.

It must be added that the dwellings described are virtually palaces compared to many we find. Low, mud-brick, windowless, thatched-roof huts are abundant. Some of these were always the abode of poor classes in the less fertile sections. Others were constructed by the refugees with their own hands from the small grants they received to help dig themselves in. And everywhere one sees the small standardized refugee homes which strike the attention of every newcomer.

Due to the large share of the refugee problem that Macedonia had to solve, there has been throughout all of the years since that influx a general state of untidiness in most of the homes of this region. On some of the Greek islands, and in sections of the mainland less disturbed by this tragedy, even the poorest of families have been able to develop a real homelike atmosphere and to acquire, bit by bit, choice heirlooms and picturesque pieces of home furnishings. But such items representing the accumulated heritage of many generations are in general lacking throughout rural Macedonia. With the confusion arising from a great social disaster and the strain of maintaining existence there is left little time or ambition with which to protect and develop the niceties of life. And the calamity which brought this about was still too recent even up to the outbreak of World War II to permit of much progress in the building up of a new civilization.

In a few of the refugee settlements water is scarce and sometimes almost impossible to secure, at least in its pure state. In such cases cleanliness becomes a lost art. But the aversion to bathing cannot be attributed to this fact alone, for between the numerous fountains of eastern Macedonia inherited from the Turks and the rather successful hydraulic efforts of the Settlement Commission in Central and Western Macedonia, the water supply throughout most of this region can be said to be fairly good.

Latrines were practically non-existent, and most of those that were found are more dangerous to health than none at all. Little attempt was made to protect food from the dust and the germ-laden flies that prevail throughout the long summer. Screened doors and protected windows were quite unknown so that insects and malaria-bearing mosquitoes came and went with the greatest of freedom. The situation was frequently made still more unhealthful and certainly most unsightly by the all-too-prevalent practice, in certain sections, of drying the dung fuel cakes on the walls of farm buildings.

The family washing is done at the village fountain, or preferably by the side of a stream. Lacking these sources of water supply the village housewife may be forced to avail herself of a ditch in the field. Usually performed on Saturdays and in large groups working together, this routine task offers the opportunity of much pleasant chatter as well as scandalous gossip. Standing barefoot in the shallow water of a slow-moving stream with the week's washing spread out on the stone, she soaps, scrubs, pounds with a flat wooden ladle and rinses. Returning home with her load in her arms she spreads out the wet garments on fences— and even the ground—to dry in the sun. Bedding is none too frequently washed, but is quite often aired. A common sight are the bunchy mattresses, home-spun quilts, and covers of all hues hanging from windows or placed on the fence in the yard. The hot Greek sun is a good cleanser and a powerful disinfectant. It protects the ignorant peasant from many of his own unhealthful practices.

Yaourt, pilaf, peta, boulgour, and dolmas are words often heard in the village at meal time. Much more common, however, are the black bread, cheese from sheep's milk, and ripe olives, which, with lots of sour pickles, form the main part of the diet. Rice, although somewhat of a luxury, is more frequently used than potatoes. Horse beans, garlic, onions, tomatoes, kolokithia (a small green squash) and cowpeas are the usual vegetables. Kitchen gardens are surprisingly few, or such was the case a few years ago. In spite of his rural environment the peasant often lacks the green food so essential to health. Especially is this true in the winter. A few vegetables grown here and there at the edge of the yard, or in one corner of a distant field, constituted the extent of home gardens until a vigorous campaign promoted by our field agriculturalists (and later by our home welfare workers) resulted in an increasing number of good garden plots located fairly close to the house, and including an adequate assortment of green foods.

Meat is a distinct luxury and usually is enjoyed not more than six or eight times during the year. It is nearly always goat or possibly lamb, which could be more properly described as aged mutton; on rare occasions it may be an old hen selected from among the few scrubby mongrels which make up the farm flock. Christmas, Easter, or one of the other religious days is usually the occasion for celebrating with meat. A form of anemia, somewhat resembling malaria in its symptoms, has been found in certain areas as a result of insufficient red meat.

In most of the Near Eastern countries, including Greece, the influence of long years of Turkish domination is still strongly noted in the food habits of the people. In all of these places special dishes that are at first understood to be typical of the region are found upon further investigation to come from one common origin. This is true of yaourt, pilaf, boulgour, and dolmas. Yaourt is one of the many products of the numerous varieties of bacteria that thrive in all milk. The best yaourt is made from sheep's milk. It looks exactly like curd. Yaourt is reported to have an important medicinal value, particularly for intestinal troubles. Eaten with or without sugar it is a common food of the peasants in those regions where sheep or cows' milk is available. Pilaf is made from rice seasoned with various condiments and covered with thick sauce, and in its ideal state is cooked with choice bits of meat. This essentially Turkish dish covers the whole gamut of food standards, from the very economical and tasteless serving of the poor home to the delicate handiwork of a skillful chef offered in the most expensive hotel and charged for accordingly.

Dolmas present an almost equally wide variety of combinations, but in their better form consist of rice mixed with bits of lamb or chicken, the whole seasoned well and rolled up in grape leaves. Substituting cabbage leaves and omitting the meat the peasant still calls it a dolma. Boulgour is another dish which serves many purposes—a thick soup, a hot gruel, for the sick, or particularly as a substitute for the more expensive rice in the pilaf. It is made from wheat. The grains are washed and cooked for several hours, dried in the sun, then ground and finally sifted in the light breeze to remove all traces of husks. In this form boulgour is stored for later use as occasion demands.

Peta may be considered as a purely Greek product, although I would not guarantee what a thorough study of its origin might prove. Frequently served by the village housewife it is one of the most inexpensive and tasteless of dishes. Ordinarily made of coarse flour with only the barest touch of eggs or of oil, and baked in the open-air oven, it looks somewhat like a large pie or one-layer cake. Sometimes squash or spinach is included inside of the crust. When served in connection with religious anniversaries, as it generally is, it can become with the proper seasoning and more careful preparation quite another peta. It is always eaten on New Year's night just after the clock strikes twelve. Imbedded somewhere in the peta is a small coin. The one who finds this piece in his generous helping will enjoy good luck throughout all of the year.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]