Zenovia’s secret (Chapter 1)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 05/06/2022Back to Blog
Melbourne – Australia, June 2019
Zena had just buried her father, Demetrios Vassilopoulos from Alexandria of Egypt. For the first time in her life, she had felt so much sadness. Her heart was uprooted.
She was sitting in her apartment in central Melbourne, staring at the panoramic view of the Yarra River. Tears were coming out of her eyes; she, who never remember having cried in her life. At least no one sees her, she thought ironically.
Her father had come to Melbourne in 1952 – 1953, when the ethnic revolution in Egypt, nationalized his cotton processing factory in Alexandria. He had inherited it from his father and he from his own father. It was his fate to lose it.
In Melbourne he worked hard, in whatever job he could find, but his own knowledge was limited to cotton processing. However, with his education and his experience in business, he soon became active in the construction sector, with great success.
The intense effort to build his professional career from scratch, did not leave him time to think about marriage. At the age of 46, in June 1978 he met her mother. She was called Jane; she was Australian and much younger than him. They lived together for some time and Jane became pregnant. She did not want to keep the child, but Demetrios was adamant. So, in January 1979 she was born. Her mother, Jane, disappeared soon after her birth and never appeared again. Demetrios called her Zenovia, as his grandmother was called, a dynamic woman, who had left behind many questions, as his own father used to say.
So, Demetrios undertook entirely her upbringing. He was a loving, affectionate father. Zena grew up happily with him, even without a mom.
She remembered, smiling bitterly, how much she was tormenting him when he tried to set some limits or impose a punishment on her. Not only did she escape him, in the end she did hers. But he always forgave her.
A typical example is when he tried for years to send her to the Greek school to learn Greek. Not only she did not want to go, not only she did not study, but she also refused to answer him in Greek when he was trying to speak to her in that language.
-Poor, sweet father, she thought. You had a daughter so untamed and uncompromising! Maybe this, I took after my mother!
Nevertheless, her father was the man of her life. She had reached the age of 40 and did not have a single serious relationship. She never understood if this was because she was attached to her father or because she found all the men she knew unimportant and insignificant. Maybe it was both.
She, professionally, would characterize herself as a free journalist. She wrote political articles, but mainly environmental, and sold them to various newspapers and magazines in Australia, but also in America. She had worked for National Geography for a short time, but her uncompromising character did not let her commit permanently somewhere. She had traveled to many parts of the world, mainly in Australia, America, and Asia. From her job she had a significant income that ensured her a comfortable life while she lived in Melbourne. Most of the time, however, she was on the road, looking for new issues and passionately supporting the rights of the planet itself.
Now she was sitting on the couch of her living room, with a box full of letters, at her feet. On the top was a black and white photo of a very young woman – she would not be over 18, and an elderly gentleman. One would think she was his daughter, but her dad had told her that it was her great-grandmother, Zenovia, and her great-grandfather Demetrios Vassilopoulos, a cotton merchant from Alexandria.
-The unfortunate little girl, Zena thought, she should be poor, to get married to the old man!
She looked more closely at the photo, looking into Zenovia’s inexpressible face to find a sign of her feelings, a message from the past. In an instant she was trapped by her eyes, large, almond-shaped eyes, with dense eyelashes. She was surprised to realize that they had the same eyes, although they did not look alike in anything else.
Zena was tall, hair brown to blond, with black eyes. This made an impression on those who meet her. Her eyes, her gaze in general, were unusually intense and piercing. One would expect that with such light hair and white skin her eyes would be green or blue, even brown. On the contrary, her black eyes and strong eyebrows captivated those who looked at her.
-Who knows, what strange combination of genes gave me these eyes, she thought. Surely great-grandmother Zenovia played her part!
She remembered her father’s last days at Royal Melbourne Hospital, when he struggled with cancer. She was trying to be with him all the time. First time they had spoken so much. He, in a situation between this life and eternity, was trying to draw from his memory and pass on, to his always indifferent daughter, the story of the family. He talked to her about Alexandria, this most ancient city on the shores of the Mediterranean, with its glorious history, about his father, Evangelos Vassilopoulos, his mother Antigone and about her great-grandmother, Zenovia. His parents had died in a car accident in Alexandria, in July 1950 and since then, he has basically been alone. He had devoted himself to his business until the ethnic revolution of 1952 in Egypt, which resulted in his factory having been nationalized by the State. Then he decided to leave for Australia and make a fresh start. Nothing kept him in Alexandria anymore.
For the first time Zena learned that her great-grandmother was from Cyprus. A beautiful island near Alexandria that had a strange history, with conquerors succeeding each other. The last invaders on the island were the Turks. This happened in 1974 and no solution has yet been found. The Cyprus problem was played for 45 years at the tables of international poker unsuccessfully, because it seems that the special interests of the big ones did not favor the solution or rather favored the preservation of the situation.
-I would be interested in exploring it from a journalistic point of view, she thought. After all, my great-grandmother came from there.
But the most important thing – and the most difficult for Zena – was when her father told her about the box with the letters, title deeds, photographs, and relics of the family. He asked her to read carefully all the letters and do everything she can to find her roots in Cyprus.
Zena was amazed.
-I imagine that everything will be written in Greek. I, as you know very well, do not speak Greek. Why didn’t you do it, Dad?
-I’ve never had enough time. I was working almost 18 hours a day and I had to spend time with you as well. You can afford not to work for a few months and search for the traces of Zenovia. And to prevent your thoughts, the letters must not be given to someone to translate them. You must learn Greek so that you can read them yourself. There are family matters and must be managed by the family. That is, you, he said with bitterness. There is no one else left.
Her father’s voice, so weak and broken, was stern and imposing. She did not react. She felt guilty for the first time for her indifference.
Zena, born in a multicultural country, never felt the need to search for her family’s past. The inhabitants of this country came from everywhere in the world and the only thing that separated them was their past. Together they could create a new culture and inspire it in the rest of the world. Why did they have to cling to the past? Why should they know a story or a language that would separate them? That was her own philosophy.
Then, the fact that she had never met her mother, and as much as she did not want to admit it, this was a big emptiness in her life, that limited her interest to the present. She did not want to know about the past.
But now, she was entangled in this situation and did not know how to get out of it. Despite the promise she had made to her father, she had not given up her thought of giving the letters to someone to translate them. She would be looking for a trustful person, after all.
On the other hand, she was obliged, anyway, to retire from work for a few months. With the death of her father, she would have to manage her financial and inheritance rights. Her father had assured her that his business was lucrative and that she would earn a significant amount of capital if she sold it. She knew that the State would get a respectable amount, but there would be enough profits left for her. These situations were complicated, required time and patience, and it would certainly have been better if she were in Melbourne, rather than travelling.
-Maybe, she thought, it’s an opportunity to review some things in my life. I am now 40 years old, and I could stop running. I may focus more on political reporting. I will also read about Cyprus because it seems that this case is interesting.
Tears began to come out from her eyes again. She could not restrain herself. Her father is gone! In fact, he was the only person she had in her life. She did not have close friends. Most of them were her professional associates that she did not have much to do with them. On the other hand, her relations with men were brief and superficial. She had never shared her heart with anyone. She was independent and felt self-sufficient. But was it so? There has been always her father. The rock in her life, the anchor of her ship. Now, he was gone…
She got up to prepare a tea. While drinking her tea she began to look at the photos that were inside the box. In addition to photographs of Zenobia, there were photographs of grandfather Evangelos’ and his wife Antigone. To her surprise, Evangelos was a very handsome man. Tall, blond, he did not look much like the Greeks she knew. Maybe she looked more like him. Her father looked like his mother, Antigone. Brunette, with Greek distribution. Her attention, however, remained in Zenovia. She looked at her and looked at her again. She was a very beautiful woman, with harmonious features and bright eyes. How did she get married to this old man? Strange.
She realized that inside the box, there were, in addition to the photographs, letters written in Greek, with two different graphic characters and some official documents, which would be title deeds. These were written in English. They referred to some lots of land in the province of Paphos in Cyprus. There were some other documents in Arabic. These should be from Alexandria, she assumed. She tried to sort them out and put the letters in chronological order. They were written between 1922 and 1930.
-Zenovia, it seems, would correspond with her son, she thought.
As she was looking at the photos thinking, she slept on the couch. Her sleep was restless. She saw Zenovia coming out of the photo and trying to push her back in the frame, with her. She resisted, while Evangelos laughed and told her not to worry. She woke up sweaty and suddenly exclaimed:
-I know what I’m going to do. I remember that in the gym I go, there is a Greek who everybody calls “teacher”. I ‘ve never paid attention to him, but I think he is a teacher of the Greek language. First, I will speak with him and then see how I proceed. If he seems reliable I will ask him to translate the letters. I will never be able to learn Greek. Sorry father!
With this thought she relaxed and went to lie down on her bed. She slept relatively calmly, but in the morning she woke up with a headache. She took two painkillers and set off for the gym. She remembered seeing the teacher, usually in the mornings, there. It seems he would work in the afternoons and evenings.
She began to exercise and look right and left, lest she spotted him. At first she did not see him anywhere, but when she was about to leave, he showed up. He stepped on a treadmill and began to exercise. Although she herself was exhausted by what she had already done, she went up the treadmill next to him and greeted him.
-Good morning. I am Zena Vassilopoulos, she told him. Are you a teacher of the Greek language?
He looked at her in amazement. Never had this impressive woman looked at him. What has changed now?
-Good morning, he told her. I am Alexis Ioannou. I didn’t know that you were of Greek origin. I understood it from your last name, he explained.
-Yes, I have Greek origin on my father’s side and that’s why I would like to talk to you, if you have time after you finish. Are you really a teacher of the Greek language?
-Yes, I am, he replied with a laugh. I can see you in an hour in the gym cafeteria. If you can wait, of course.
-I will wait, Zena replied and greeted him.
To pass the time, she entered the sauna. There she relaxed and tried to put the issues that preoccupied her in order.
-Handsome man, it was the first thought that came to her mind. I have never noticed him before! And charming! He has black eyes, black hair, harmonious features, a toned body. He’s perfect!
She got angry with herself and her thoughts. I have a different purpose now, she concluded. And she prepared the words she would like to say to him about the issues that concerned her.
In an hour they met in the cafeteria of the gym. She was shining after the sauna and he was cool, after the shower he had taken. Both looked fresh and beautiful.
They ordered a freshly squeezed juice and sat on a coffee table near the window.
-I am listening, Alexis told her.
Zena explained to him about the problem that concerned her and concluded:
-In a few words I would like you to translate the letters of my great-grandmother and her son to me – I think so at least, because as you understand I can’t learn Greek at this age. I will pay you what you think appropriate.
His response was succinct:
-I disagree. This is the address of the institute I work for. I give Greek language lessons to adults every Tuesday and Friday, at 8.00 in the evening. Please come to try. You owe it to your father.
And leaving Zena dumbfounded, he left. An anger was stirred up in her for his audacity.
-Who, after all, thinks he is? I did not ask for his opinion. I suggested him to do a job.
To her surprise, however, she had decided to go the next day to the address he had given her. It was obvious. Something had changed inside her.