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A Conversation with Agatha Rodi

Agatha Rodi
A couple of months ago, I was pleased to review Amelie Gets Busy, written by Grecian author Agatha Rodi. The story concerns a young girl and her relationship with her grandmother, or yiayia. I was curious about Agatha's real-life yiayia, and also how the Greek financial crisis has affected her life and career as a picture book writer.

You dedicated the book to your mother and grandmother. Did your grandmother live on a farm similar to the one in the story?

Oh yes, my grandmother still lives on a farm in our village! She is around 93 - though her real age is not known to family members. You see, back then parents registered their kids years after their birth!

My yiayia's name is Athanasia, meaning Euthanasia. She's a very sweet Greek-type yiayia, thinking only of cooking and cleaning. Her witty remarks can make you wonder for days, and although she is illiterate, her comments on serious issues are very wise! I always admired her courage when she lived up in the mountains, without electricity, only having water from a spring far from the peak.

I also admired the way she confronted life in general. I would choose the word stoicism to describe her attitude towards life's dramas and great joys. I always have her in my mind, thinking of her daily life when visiting her, the way she reacted and how she treated her animals with tenderness. She was a real devotee and she introduced all her grandchildren to farm work and to the secrets of good cooking! The smells and the images are always there, even after so many years! Her cooking is still exceptional, that's why I couldn't resist writing about cookies, spinach pie and Feta cheese. She prepared dairy products on her own in the traditional way, too.

When recalling her special bond with trees and animals, I can only tell you she was very affectionate and respectful towards nature. She taught me to take care of everything and be patient till the fruits or food came out in their season. Her yard was full of chickens and roosters, birds and smelly roses. I couldn't stop playing with all the animals or not help her with the housework. I love my yiayia for being so alive and realistic about life, she is a true philosopher for me. She has been deprived of a lot, but she enjoys life's moments in a unique way, every time she has the chance.
My mother Nikolitsa has faced similar challenges in her life, and I dedicated my first book to both of them since their determination and persistence are truly exceptional. I could not do differently but refer to these two Greek warriors!

Τell me how the Greek financial crisis has affected you.
It is for us a constant reminder of tensions, stress and a fear which changes face almost every day. This is the simple truth of how people of any social status feel about our situation here. The feeling of insecurity prevails over any type of decision and makes you wonder about tomorrow and the future in general. Being both a school owner and a teacher working full time, even on weekends, to keep my school while paying new added taxes every month makes the situation unbearable and it has been 5 years now that this is happening.
There is no chance of economic recovery when the unemployment rates have risen frantically. Families are supported by in-laws, grandparents, close relatives or volunteers in every municipality, getting food and if they are lucky enough, finding a place to sleep. Unemployment means homelessness since mortgages aren't paid, then banks seize the houses. Is it a Greek Drama? Well, yes, unfortunately these two words fit best to what we experience.
It is unfair for all the Greeks who have worked very hard in their course of life, to struggle to have a decent life. The ongoing austerity measures from the government's part along with sentiments of disappointment and excessive frustration displayed by the Greeks, facing lack of peace and health problems are apparent. From my point of view, the Greek Financial Crisis functions as a means to steal everybody's joy and hope.
I personally don't intend to let this happen, no matter what the obstacles will be. I can't surrender to it. Here is a challenge to everybody, learn anew to compete with challenges that favor as well as the growth of character and wisdom!
 My grandmother Athanasia and my grandfather Gabriel outside their mountain home. 

How has it impacted you as a picture book author?
It is a fact that Greek publication houses face significant issues. The most renowned of them were forced to close down after being around for many decades.
The imposition of Capital Controls brought a freeze in the market so this has caused a series of events including writers, too. At the same time there has been a very promising community of entrepreneurs, either publishers or writers, whose purpose is to urge new writers to come out and are open to new things. Children's books sales were not affected so much, but books' prices have lowered so much that books are sold mostly at bazaars or at open markets for 2 euro. Financial crisis doesn't permit Greek buyers to give 15, 20, or 25 euro to buy a book from the bookstore.
If a Greek writer considers all the above seriously, then s/he may find no purpose on pursuing their writing goals. But this is not the case. My thinking is that a writer exposes their personal experiences on their book's pages and speaking for children's stories, they offer a vision to learners and a perspective. Although the Financial Crisis has left its scars I could never stop writing my children's stories.
I am surrounded by different age groups at my school on a daily basis. Both younger kids and teens dream big of their future and most of the time are impressed with what they have read in a book, asking for more details or even making inspirational comments. I teach English and French, so the texts used in different age groups cause a stirring of discussions and comments!
This kind of curiosity sparks my own imagination, both as a teacher and a writer. I need to escape from the harsh reality, to imagine and learn more from my stories. When I want to write, I forget the financial crisis and whatever is involved with it, I only expect to lose myself in the story. I consider myself lucky for being able to write what I like, to give hope and offer joy!

As a teacher, are you paid by the Greek government? How does that work out?

I am paid by the parents of my students. Although English and French Language is taught at primary, High School and Senior High School, the Greek educational system doesn't provide the kind of knowledge and practice needed for a Certificate or Diploma in a foreign language. This gap is covered by the private Centers of Foreign Languages that have mostly their students from kindergarten till Senior High school years. Parents have to pay for the annual fees and some of them choose to have private lessons at home.

It may sound strange but this is what happens here in Greece, having the Centers of Foreign Languages (CFL) being in a turmoil, especially this year when for three months, a special tax was imposed to parents who were obliged to pay 23% added tax for their kids teaching. After a great struggle, both by the parents and the CFL Owners, the tax was annulled at the beginning of December 2015 but the damage was already done.

Due to the financial crisis, unemployment, and the 23% tax, the CFLs had a 50% reduction in the number of their students.
 The view from my grandmother's house to the village of Santameri,
How is your yiayia dealing with the crisis?

You may think I am joking but I have asked her so many times about how she thinks of her children and grandchildren experiencing this situation, and how she feels about the future. Any time I recall her face and deep gaze, there is no sign of worry.

You see, for her it's the third time in her life she’s experienced economic destruction. The absolute poverty she experienced as a child can't be described or even compared with that of today, when she feels like a queen in our village house, having all the necessary provisions to live a decent life.

Her answers show us that she worries a lot, because she wants us to be happy. At the same time, her eyes tell us not to give up. When she is pressed - especially by me on how to overcome the whole situation since there is no way out - she chooses to pose questions to me, making me wonder about life's worth. She repeats that things will get better and I only have to be strong and not to lose hope or my inner energy. The future may be far away for her, but her belief is that things will be better since this is how life is.

"Everything is a circle and this one is not completed yet, so stop wondering and let's do what kind of chores we have for today!" What can I say? My grandmother Athanasia is one of a kind!

And what does she think of your writing?

Well, at the beginning - about 7 years ago - it seemed to her like a task I was assigned at school, or maybe she connected it with my job as a teacher. When I started interviewing her on clarifying certain information about our customs and celebrations, and daily village routines, she answered me in detail, but wondered who would be interested in those things.

She now has a smile of gratitude and an amazing spark on her face, this says so much than any words spoken. I do believe she is happy about me and feels very proud of what I do. As we say, her eyes' smile is Love winking at me!

1 comment:

  1. Great interview and example of courage and perseverance.


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