Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Partridge

In 1967, my grandmother Afendra Kourelis came to Athens for a short visit with my parents, who just had their first baby, my sister Afendra (or Angeliki). Giagia Afendra was raised in Leukada, a small agricultural village in Fthiotis, in continental Greece (Sterea Ellada). One of the treasures that she brought along from the village were folk lullabies she sang to her baby granddaughter, no doubt the very same tunes she sang on my father's bedside back in 1929, when my father was born. Mid-60s Athens was a booming metropolis, but my grandmother hated the city and could not wait to return to her fields. But modern Athens offered new media like television, film, phonograph records and tape recorders. My father did an amazing thing at that moment, to record his mother's lullabies. My father's obsession with recording sound is itself an interesting topic for another posting. I found the reel-to-reel tape a couple of years ago and transcribed it into a CD, which I am now going through closely in order to lern the songs and, in turn, sing them to my own infant daughter. The whole experience has been incredibly moving, listening to a woman born in 19th-century Greece. My infant sister is making baby sounds, while my parents (both deceased) are engaging with her in silly ways. It is also fascinating to hear my father, who was born and raised in Leukada but became totally urbanized as a teenager. While encouraging his mother to sing more of those old songs, he flips into the local dialect, a different voice from the one we grew up with. The songs were recorded in a small apartment in the neighborhood of Kypseli. My sister's childhood photo album contains a picture of this very visit, with a grandmother wrapped in her black tsemperi, sitting royally in a tight balcony.

Some of Afendras' songs are difficult to decipher because of the thick Sterea Ellada dialect. Among the discernible tracks is the song of the Marked, or Striped Partridge. I transcribe my grandmother's lyrics below, trying to be faithful to all the words, even the ones that I don't undrestand (like the "mo" and "mari" insertions).

Που ήσαν πε μαρί πέρδικα
που ήσαν πέρδικα γραμμένη
κι ήρθες το πρωί βρεμένη

Ναι μανί μαρί πέρδικα
ναι μανί ψηλά στα πλάγια
στις δροσιές και στα χορτάρια

Κι έτρωγα μαρί πέρδικα μω
κι έτρωγα το μαντριφύλι
κυδωναύγουστο σταφύλι

Where were you partridge?
Where were you, you marked partridge
that, in the morning, you returned all wet?

Yes, said the partridge
I went to the high slopes
where there is dew and grass

And I ate
I ate the clover by the sheepfolds
and the quince-like grape of August

The song is amazing in many ways, and I have not gone through any close linguistic or symbolic readings. I know that in Byzantine literature, the partridge symbolized the church and fidelity but also temptation and betrayal (see, 14th-c bird epic, Πουλολόγος, etc.) To me, the song has clear sexual connotations; the partridge returns all wet having tasted some forbidden fruit. The wonderful thing about Greek folk songs is an ambiguity that leads to multiple readings. In the context of an infant, the wet partridge stops being sexual and becomes a metaphor for the baby that wetted itself overnight having traveled to idyllic dream-lands.

I also love the way that the partridge is described as "γραμμένη," which literally means "written," but refers to the "γραμμές," the lines that marked its body. Alectoris graeca, the partridge indigenous to Greece, has beautiful black stripes on its wings. In English it is known as Rock Partridge. The partridge, moreover, has a beautiful voice and is, thus, a worthy model for the crooning singer. Alcman, the Archaic poet from Sparta, for instance, learned his poetic skills from partridges. To call a partridge "
γραμμένη" also adds an element of inevitability, the participle form also means "fated," as in "it has been written." My friend Nassos Papalexandrou, whosε family is from the same region as mine, tells me that his mother still uses the word "γραμμένη" to describe the beauty of well shaped facial features, like eyes and lips.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States