My second mother is half-Armenian, half-Greek and was born in Istanbul, Turkey. This endearing ” queen of hospitality” shared her knowledge with me about being a descendant of a survivor of the Armenian genocide. I am always fascinated to ask her about her upbringing in Istanbul from parents of mixed heritages. Exotic cuisine, homeopathic practices, religious customs and superstitions are all part of her background. I interviewed her about her Armenian background as well as her Greek lifestyle, growing up in Istanbul. I translated this somewhat as she is multilingual. Where were you born?
I was born in Istanbul. My father was Armenian and my mother was Greek. My mother was born in Istanbul. People told my grandfather to take his family from Armenia and go to Istanbul in 1915 because of the genocides. There were many Armenians in Istanbul.
What can you tell me about the Armenian genocides?
My grandfather and his family were on a train when they witnessed people sabotaging the train and lighting it on fire. Many people got off the train but many people died. My grandfather’s family got off the train. He lost his fortune and had to support his family by selling containers of water on the street. He also sold Turkish carpets and worked in the auctions, pricing carpets.
(writer’s side note: She also describe other violent acts to me that occurred during the genocide.)
How many years did you live in Istanbul? What heritage did you identify with?
What customs did you practice growing up? Did you have any Armenian customs?
Just receiving Armenian Orthodox communion. After 15 years of age, you wear a headscarf to take communion. Armenian women cannot baptize others or be a koumbara (sponsor role) in a wedding. My mother told me once I married, I’d take on my husband’s Orthodoxy. I never found an Armenian Orthodox church in Greece so I found a Greek Orthodox church.
Tell me about the cuisine you grew up with?
My mother and grandmother cooked Greek foods and Turkish foods. For example, Imam bayildi, Youverlakia, Moussaka, Baklava and Kadaifi are Turkish in origin. My mother cooked dolmathakia and keftethes. Antranik was an Armenian restaurant in Bosphurus and the chef made Topik which is a garbanzo dish. (a vegetarian meatball with a chickpea-paste.) Pictured here are Imam bayildi and Youverlakia.
There are 4 islands near Istanbul, across from Bosphorus: Proti, Antigone, Halki and Pringipo. Halki had a seminary and a Turkish navy. Pringipo had beautiful houses! Every Sunday, after we went to a Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul, we’d have lunch in Bosphorus.
It was beautiful in Istanbul, but in 1954 there was vandalism. Churches were burned and stores were looted. Cyprus was separated in 1974 in a Greek-Turkish conflict.
Describe the homeopathic practices that you’ve told me about before.
My dad took me to a hodja (a Muslim priest) who cut my skin between my eyebrows to help me heal from jaundice. (writer’s side note: There was another jaundice treatment she shared with me but I am not going to elaborate on that one). My mom gave us a daily, morning drink of mournolatho which is an oil. It smelled so bad, I closed my nose. (pinched her nostrils together). Then we ate an orange after it.
Tell me about the superstitions that were part of your background. I remember you telling me about them when I had my first son.
A superstition for mothers and newborns was for new mothers to put a dirty diaper under their doormat for 40 days. When visitors came over and stepped on a doormat, they didn’t know that they were stepping on top of a diaper. It was supposed to ward off the exposure of germs. Another superstition I practiced was to never take a knife or scissors from a person’s hand. They had to put it down first and then I’d take it. It was believed that you’d avoid a fight or conflict this way. Also, if someone gave you soap, you were supposed to give them back a coin.
(Writer’s side note: my sons have noticed that she handles scissors and knives this way.)
What is your favorite thing about moving to America when you got married ?
Everything! It was so different…. the lifestyle. Having a house and car was new to me. I lived in a house in Istanbul but in Greece, I lived in an apartment and took public transportation. I liked everything about moving to America.