Aspects of daily life in Idaea
The Fig tree
August had already moved to Despina’s village. And like in many parts of the world, the end of August brings us figs. White or blue figs, which fill the mouth and the heart with sweetness. All over the world, wherever there are fig trees, Mother Earth provides this fruit in abundance. And then, we all run to collect them to eat and store for the winter.
Despina was in the garden of her house, on the swing. Her dad had made it for her, hanging it on a thick branch of a mulberry tree that was green at the time and provided some wonderful shade. Her mom came out of the house tying her white scarf carefully under her neck. In her hand she held a basket for Despina and one more fairly large shallow basket.
- Despina, come let's go to pick the figs that ripened today! Yesterday I saw some that will surely be ready today: Juicy and very sweet!
- Phew, figs again today? You see my hands are still red from the itching I got yesterday.
-Come on, you're exaggerating. The itching doesn't last that long. I'm not saying it's pleasant, but when we eat them dry in the winter next to the fireplace, you'll have forgotten this discomfort long ago! I think your hands are like that from the swing rope. If it's still like that when we get back, I'll put some balsam oil on you.
-Will you at least tell me a story?
- Ooohhh! As many as you want! Even three and four stories. The fig tree is one of the first trees discovered by man, and it has nourished many peoples. And every country has at least one story about it. Imagine that Greek Mythology has three fig tree stories.
So, they left the yard and after a few steps they were already in front of the first fig tree that was right below their house. Mom picked one by one the figs that she could reach while Despina, light as a bird, began to climb the branches. Some figs that were even higher were brought down with a crooked stick. They collected the ripe figs and went on to the next trees on the road that led to Grandma Evanthia's house. By the time they got there, the basket was full and the mission for the day was almost complete. They had not told any stories, because as often happened, when they went out to gather either fruits or herbs, their minds were emptied of every thought or word and they devoted themselves to their task. But when they got to grandma's house, Despina remembered her mom's promise.
- Mom, what happened to the story you were going to tell me?
- Yes, of course. I got distracted. How about going to grandma's house? I think we can lay out the figs here today and I will ask her to tell us that story? That's how I too will remember what it's like when your mom tells you stories!
When Despina and her mom entered the yard, grandma Evanthia was already outside because the sun was going down. At this time of day Evanthia liked to sit on the paved yard in front of her garden and breathe in its scents as the sun changed the colors in the sky's palette. She was close to seventy but that didn't mean at all that the years had caught up with her. A few random wrinkles and just a few white hairs made her look only a few years older than her daughter Maria, Despina's mom. This was not only because in Idaea people are slow to grow old. It was also because Evanthia knew better than all the women in the village the secrets of preserving youth. You see, she kept her own beehives and knew the recipes for all the healing and beautifying salves that people make with honey and herbs. But that is another story that we will tell another time. Now let's go back to today.
As soon as she heard the footsteps of her daughter and her granddaughter in the yard, she was all happy to welcome them. She saw the basket with the figs, and was even more delighted, because, although she was slim, but she had a very sweet tooth!
- Welcome, welcome to my home, I see you brought me figs, too! Here you go, let's sit here and prepare them. Let's eat some too. Yes?
- We had some already, mom, on our way here. You eat. All we need to do is wash our hands and face and get rid of this itch. And then we will come to sit and cut the figs, put them on the reeds to dry. Have you laid out the reeds?
- I have, of course. There they are, on the bench. And I have fresh water there in the bucket. And let's sit down. •
-Grandma, mom told me you'll tell us stories about the fig tree, said Despina, as she rubbed her little hands with the water that her mom poured for her.
- Of course, my child, I’ll tell you! Isn't that what grandmothers are for? One minute, I'll go get some knives so we can start cutting the figs. And then, I’ll do whatever you want!
When grandma came out of the house again, Maria and Despina were already sitting at the stone table in the yard, with the basket of figs in front of them • --So girls, what do you want me to tell you? We have two fables, one from mythology and one from Aesop, and of course stories from the Bible.
- Let's start with the oldest one, Gran Which is it?
- Good thought. So, let's start from the beginning. Once, when Zeus left this mountain and freed his siblings from the stomach of their father, Saturn, he didn't stop there of course! He started a war against him to take his power from him. And that war lasted ten whole years. Because yes, the gods were strong and had strong allies, but also Saturn's brothers, the Titans, were all-powerful. They had held the world in their hands for countless of years; almost since it was created. And what’s more important, they had the help of their mother Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Gaia knew that Saturn was unfair. She knew he would lose in the end, but what could she do when the Titans were her children and she loved them so much?
- Ah, grandma, I know about the Battle of the Titans, but how beautifully you tell the story! That's what I would do, just what Gaia did. I wouldn't want my children or grandchildren to suffer!
- Since you know it, what about this war, the Titanomachy, my clever girl? What happened next?
- The Titans lost in the end and because they were immortal, Zeus imprisoned them in the bowels of the Earth, the Tartarus and then had the One-hundred Handed monsters to guard them. I'm right, am I not, grandma?
-Hmmm yes almost. But there is also something you don't know. Otherwise we wouldn't be telling this story today. Sykeus was one of the Titans. His name means Fig-Tree His mom Gaia surely had a weak spot for him, because when he ran to her to help him, she hid him in her bosom. And when things had calmed down, she transformed him into the tree we know. Thus, he lives to this day, not in Tartarus, but in his mother's bosom and enjoys the sun. But from what I see, we haven't had any sun for a while now. No more figs to cut. Enough with the stories for today. Time to get up little by little. If you bring me figs tomorrow, I will also tell you about the female fig because, as you know very well, figs have two natures: they are either female or male. Go lay the figs where I showed you and I'll bring a clean towel from the linen closet to cover them. Ok?
When Evanthia came out of the house, she was holding a lit oil lamp as well as the towel. It was already getting dark and they had to have something to light their way home. Despina left happily. She had really liked the story as her grandmother told it! Now she wouldn't whine if mom told her to collect more figs. Instead she was already looking forward to hearing the next story.
Despina woke up to the smell of the burning wood and its crackling sound in the wood stove. It was the day when mom baked the week's bread. The two of them might have stayed at home, but they had to take bread also go to Gran who lived alone and did not bake, and to the father in the mitato -and save some for her siblings who might visit this week. After the bread mom would always bake some pie and, now in August, the figs that had already dried on the terraces. Then they would place them in a large jar in their cellar among myrtle and laurel leaves. They always kept a large stock. It was the staple snack for school along with raisins, almonds and walnuts. But even the cold evenings in front of the lit fire, they had their share of these precious fruits. They would have their share even on the most solemn evenings like the Winter Solstice and Christmas and New Year’s Eve; then she and mom would make the sycomaids.
Everyone said mom's sycomaids were the best! But the image of mom kneading and the dough and shaping it brought her out of her reverie. Surely Mama would be kneading at this hour, and if Despina didn't go out on her own, she would hear her calling her name in a little while. So, she ran to catch up with her. Because, what's better than a mom who doesn't yell? A mom who tells stories!
So, she washed, dressed quickly, braided her thick blond hair into a big braid, and ran into the yard where indeed her mother was
over the trough, fermenting as the sun shone its first rays on her. - Good morning, my mom! Did you see that I came by myself today?
- Good morning my girl! And you did very well! Come lend a hand and put the bread in the oven.
- Yes, but do you remember what you told me yesterday? That if I come today by myself, you will tell me a story?
- Can these promises be forgotten? I already know which one I’ll tell you. Since your grandmother said yesterday, she would tell you the fable about the female fig tree, I will tell you an Aesop fable.
And they began, together now, the eternal rite of preparation of the most basic and precious food of man as the mother began a teaching, which even her daughter had requested.
- There was once an olive tree and a fig tree, planted side by side. The olive was a bit snobbish. It was partly because she is considered one of the most important plants, partly because it can live for many centuries, maybe also because she is a gift of a great goddess to the people… she was very proud! So… she said to her neighbor: "Look how fat my torso is!" Look at my foliage how beautiful, silver green and always alive it is! While you, my little fig tree... Every year you drop all your leaves and remain bare all Winter and Spring. You are condemned to grow new leaves from the beginning…"
The fig tree did not speak. What could she answer anyway? It was true, wasn’t it? She really was naked half of the year. And she was so ashamed of it!
But a very heavy winter came. That year it snowed very much. No one had ever seen so much snow before! In fact, it snowed continuously for a whole week, and not once did the sun come out. The big, bare branches of the fig tree were so thick theycould carry the snow while the smaller ones were facing upwards and snow could not sit on them. So, the fig tree was not bothered so much by all this snow. But the olive tree... Her dense, beautiful silver-green, never dying foliagehad to carry so much snow thatthey feltheavier every day. So, one by one herbranches began to break until she was left with only one. It looked like a rooster's plume! When spring came and the snow melted, the first eyes began to pop on the trunk of the fig tree, and then her large green leaves sprouted and gave shade to passers-by on the side of the road. But the olive tree had no longer branches so it couldn’t have leaves. Now she was the one to feel doubly ashamed. She started growing small branches on her body and struggled day by day to make a new beginning. It would take her years to achieve her former glory. That is why, as the years pass and we grow – all of us, humans, animals and plants -
we become humbler. We see and admire the gifts of our neighbors and do not think that what we have or what we are is the best. Each of us is unique.
That is why, as the years pass and we grow, humans, animals and plants, we become modest. We see and admire the gifts of our neighbors and do not think that what we have or are is the best. Each of us is unique and unrepeatable. It took them all morning: and the bread went in the oven and came out baked and ready, as well as the pie and the pans with the dried figs. Despina tasted them all without fail and went back to bed for the obligatory siesta that never really came. In the afternoon he would help in the garden, pick figs again and go to grandma's to hear another story.