A Year in a Mastic Village
Ο Γενάρης μας γεννά πάντα χιόνια και νερά [January always brings snow and water (rain)]
My name is Irini, I am fifteen years old and I live in Pyrgi, one of the twenty-four mastic villages of South Chios. I am still going to school but today I skipped class to help with the preparation of my sister’s wedding. She is getting married tomorrow because soon after the wedding, Giannis, her soon-to-be husband, has to go to the fields to plant some new mastic trees and start pruning the others. They say that from Monday the weather is going to be better for some time, which means no rain, so it is a good opportunity for Giannis to do that job. My little brother, Dimitris, always wants to join Giannis at the fields. It is very entertaining for him. But Giannis said that now it is very cold and he will get sick. He promised to take him with him at the summer when they will start embroidering the trees. Dimitris cannot wait! He is very thrilled with mastic trees and always was the one to listen more carefully at my grandmother’s stories while we, me and my sister, were falling asleep. It is not that I do not like mastic, as a tree at least, or that I do not care about the story of my ancestors. It’s just that I have become a bit more skeptical lately because of a story our grandmother told us some years ago. It was the first one to affect me and then I started having my own opinion about mastic.
The story was about a fire incident at our place when my grandmother was still a child. Let me just say that our house is in the neighborhood of Tsero in Pyrgi which is the oldest settlement of the current area called Pyrgi. It was originally built in the 15th century but my family did not do any changes in the structure of the building since then. Only necessary restorations and renovations. It was December, right after finishing with cleaning the mastic with water and letting it dry inside the house. The mastic was still spread on a sheet and placed under the big bed in the main bedroom. The main bedroom was the kids’ room. My grandmother has two sisters and one brother. In this bedroom they also used to keep a barrel with olive oil in order to get easier olive oil for cooking. The kids’ bedroom was the biggest room in the house. Her parents used to sleep in the kitchen where they had a smaller bed. Luckily for my grandmother and her siblings, one night they decided to do a sleepover at their cousins’ place. I say luckily because that night, a fire was caught in their house, starting from their room. The house has a small gap in the wall, underneath which the barrel with the olive oil was placed, beside which the big bed with the laid mastic underneath it was. My great-grandmother used to keep in this gap religious icons and a lighted candle. For some reason that I still cannot explain, the lighted candle fell on the barrel with the olive oil and then the mastic was also caught on fire. My great-grandparents realized in their sleep that there is a fire but is was getting big so fast that they just run down the stairs and went out of the house without rescuing any of their property. The upper rooms were destroyed but my great-grandparents slowly, and with the help of their families and neighbors, re-built and re-furnished the house. It must have been terrible and scary for my great-grandparents to wake up inside a fire. My grandmother and her siblings stayed longer with their cousins and did not realize completely at that moment what has happened. She found out more about this story only when she was bigger and at some point asked her mother why it took them so long to go back home from their cousins at that time and why the house was a bit different; the walls and furniture have changed while the painting on the ceiling had disappeared. Her mother and now my grandmother explain in their story that if the mastic was not there, there might have been less damage. I was astonished at the beginning because olive oil is flammable. My grandmother explained then that mastic tears contain also oil, mastic oil. Olive oil is of course flammable but when you have two kinds of oil and one of them has solid form, the danger and threat for damage is bigger.
Since our grandmother told us that story I look at our house from a different perspective. I try to picture how my grandmother spent her childhood here and how mastic is always present at the house. It is here during my generation but it was also here during the generation of my grandmother. I further realize now, after fifteen years of living in that house and belonging to a mastic-producing family and village, that mastic is taking most of my family’s time during the year. I mean, every cultivation has its needs and as a cultivator one must perform certain tasks every year in order to have production. For example, we also have a few olive trees, just to produce the olive oil needed by the family. The difference is that my father never brings olives in the house to clean them, dry them, or make other processes. He either sends them directly to the olive mill and later receives olive oil, or he brings only some at the house in order to prepare them to be edible. Mastic is totally another story.
Ο Φλεβάρης κι αν φλεβίσει, καλοκαίρι θα μυρίσει [February ‘opens’ the vein (of soil from heavy rainfalls), summer will blossom (The rainfalls of January and February are important in determining drought)]
Irini: Hi Grandma, good morning! Are you pinching again? Isn’t it very early?
Grandma: Good morning, my Irinaki! Early? It’s 10 o’clock, my love, almost noon.
Irini: Yeah, but it is Sunday, Grandma. Why you also work on Sunday? Don’t you ever stop working? This mastic has ‘eaten your soul’!
Grandma: Ha ha ha, ‘eaten my soul’! Why, my child? Come here and help me then.
Irini: Hm, ok.
Grandma: Come, come. It is not fun to pinch mastic alone. We used to do that with my ‘esmichtes’ (best girlfriends) but now things have changed, my child. There is not much love among people anymore. Today you turn your back and your so-called best friend stabs you.
Irini: Why do you say that, Grandma? I think you exaggerate. I have best friends.
Grandma: I know, love. But how far would you go for this relationship? What would be more important to you? Your friend or a boy? Oh, be careful with that knife! Pinch the mastic smoothly and continuously only with the sharp edge.
Irini: Ah, almost. What do mean how far would I go for my relationship with a friend? We are friends, I care for her. What more? How was it for you then?
Grandma: Ah, we were all the time together from morning till night. We were friends since we were kids and did everything together. In the fields from dawn till dusk, at the house to cook, clean and pinch mastic, prepare clothes for the field and feasts, and then repair the old ones. For us and our men and children, of course. All that together! Our men were either working in the other fields all day, or were sailors. Back then there were not many jobs to do. Difficult years. Most of the men of the villages around here embarked and were away for two, three, seven, some for even nine consecutive years. Young boys, at your age, were also going. So you see, we were alone to raise our children, do all the housework, and go to the fields and animals to bring food. We were more close to our friends, our girlfriends, ‘esmichtes’ (joined). Of course our family and especially our brothers or brothers of ‘esmichtes’ would help. Because you see, I could not go hunting for rabbits! I was hunting your mother and aunts! Ha ha
Irini: Ok, now understand how you mean ‘esmichtes’.
Grandma: You know, we were so close that we were trying to get our children get married in order to become officially one family and join our properties; fields, animals, money, houses. It is very important to know where your lovely children and your lifetime’s work go, my child.
Irini: And aren’t you tired Grandma to clean and pinch mastic? Every winter I remember you here at the house pinching the cleaned mastic at this round table, and as the day goes by, more and more people would gather, stay for a few hours, go, and others would come to continue the job. Every day, the whole winter, at least till March!
Grandma: And why are you so frustrated, my child? Did we ever obliged you help and you got tired?
Irini: No, it is not that. I like to help. You know that.
Grandma: So, don’t you like that the family gathers, some friends and neighbors might come over, we will pinch here together, your mother will prepare some warm and powerful snacks for the cold? And the next days we will visit the homes of others. Don’t you like being with people?
Irini: I do, you know that too. It is just that I see you doing that every year and I start to wonder if you like it or not. Sitting in the cold, pinching, it’s hard work, Grandma.
Grandma: Of course it’s hard work. What is there to like, my child? It is a job that must be done. That’s all it is. If we do not make it, we will not have money. It is that simple.
Irini: Yeah, ok. But don’t you have to like at least what you do? I mean, we speak about a product that we do not even eat! We do not cook it, drink it, or something. You just sell it.
Grandma: Yes, that’s right. It is our income. It is so valuable that we do not consume it, we only sell it to the Association. There are many people around the world, I heard that like mastic. I like the smell of it but I cannot think of eating it. Atotal waste!
March is already here and Irini prepares with her younger brother, Dimitris, March bracelets. They sit in the living room with their grandmother and twist white and red threads. Grandma is still pinching some mastic on the table.
Irini: Grandma, tell us again that local saying about March and getting sunburnt.
Grandma: Οπ’ έχει κόρην ακριβή (he or she who has a precious daughter), του Μάρτη ήλιος μην τη δει (the sun of March should not see her). Μην τη δει, μην τη μαυρίσει (he should not see her, he should not tan her), μην τη ξεροκοκκινίσει (he should not turn her red). Αν τη δει και καμιάν ώρα (if he sees her even for an hour), α την κάμει σαν τη μώρα (he will make her black). Αν τη δει και βράδυ – βράδυ (if he sees her deep at night), α την κάμει σαν τηγάνι (he will make her like a pan).
Dimitris: Black? And why is it only for girls? What happens to the boys? Don’t they get sunburned?
Grandma: Ha ha, of course they get. That’s why you are wearing that bracelet too.
Dimitris: But the saying refers only to girls.
Grandma: Yes exactly. It is because in the past it was considered bad and inappropriate for a girl to be sunburned. Her skin should always be white like the porcelain. They used to observe the color of the skin in order to see which girl comes from a wealthy family and which worked in the fields and thus was poorer.
Irini: So it is bad for girls and women to work in the fields?
Grandma: No, honey, of course it is not. How are you supposed to live your family if you do not go to the field? It is not bad. Nothing is bad. Don’t you and your siblings have everything you need?
Grandma: Then we are fine. You wear the March bracelet to protect you from the sun because it is not good for the skin to get burnt. That’s why we wear it. We also wore scarves while we were in the fields to protect or head from the sun, although the mastic trees always protected us with their branches. They are beautiful trees.
Dimitris: Oh yes, they are! Look what I found yesterday.
He takes out of his pocket some dirty pieces of dried mastic.
Grandma: Where did you find those? Are you stealing?
Dimitris: No, Grandma, no! I picked them from our field.
Irini: When did you go in our field? With Giannis?
Dimitris: Hm, not exactly. With my friends. We made slingshot catapults out of wood and elastic plastic and wanted to try them out.
Grandma: Slingshot catapult? Why you made them and how you thought of it?
Dimitris: The other day we were dressed up for the carnival and mimicking fights of pirates that were trying to steal mastic from the village. We were thinking then of weapons and I remembered older male people telling stories about their childhood and what games they used to play. They all mention the slingshot catapult and rock-throwing fights between the neighboring villages. We got jealous, so we found big pieces of wood, carved them, adjusted elastic plastic and went to try them out of the village. We did not go that far! That’s why we went to our field, because it is closer to the village.
Grandma: And why you also picked mastic?
Dimitris: Well, I saw it and I remembered how Giannis and the others collected last September the mastic that is attached on the tree. They did not let me scratch the bark with the xistiri (tool for collecting mastic). That’s why I tried now. Please don’t punish me! I am just curious to learn!
Grandma: Ha ha, relax. I am not going to punish you. It’s ok. We just worry about your safety. That’s all. Do you know what that piece of mastic you brought is?
Dimitris: I wonder why it is so black.
Grandma: Give it to me to pinch it.
Grandma takes the black mastic tear and tries to remove the attached dirt with the sharp edge of the knife.
Grandma: You see that although I removed the dirt from the outside, the tear is still dark?
Dimitris: Oh yes. But why?
Grandma: This resin must have come out of the bark in late October or November; that is, after Giannis and others collected the mastic. You know the tree continues to produce resin, even after we have collected its first mastic resin. The tree is a living organism. After collecting, some of its wounds might still be unhealed and thus they still produce a bit of mastic resin but because the weather becomes rainy and windy at that period, the resin absorbs the water and dirt that falls on in. That’s why I cannot clean it very deep. Mastic and dirt have become one.
Dimitris: That’s a pity.
Grandma: Don’t say that. Many people used to live from this black resin. In the past people were not exclusively mastic cultivators. Like in my family, we also used to cultivate tobacco, wheat, peas, chickpeas, and olive trees. Some were also fishing. And of course we also had animals. So we were cultivating to provide food to us and the animals. Some families that did not cultivate many things, were also collecting mastic during the winter in order to not lose any chance of income. Because as I have told you so many times, mastic is our income. This winter collection of mastic is called ‘kakoloi’. So now you also did kakoloi.
Dimitris: And can’t we sell or use this mastic?
Grandma: Of course we can. The Association buys that mastic and distill it.
Irini and Dimitris: Distill? What is that?
Grandma: It is the process of distillation to produce mastic oil.
Dimitris: Mastic oil? Black and dirty mastic oil?
Grandma: Ha ha, of course not. With the process of distillation you separate the dirt and isolate the oil using water and heat. Vapors of water and oil are produced and when they are cooled, they liquefy and separate from each other.
Dimitris: All right! I trust you, Grandma! So can I go again with Giannis tomorrow and do kakoloi? He said he will go to plow the mastic fields.
Irini: Hey, no! Tomorrow is the Aghas and we said we’ll go to Olimpi! Aggeliki is going to be there, my ‘esmichti’.
Grandma: Ah, your ‘esmichti’! You remember what I tell you, eh?
The next day at Olimpi, Aghas is taking place. It is Clean Monday and the whole village is gathered at the main square to celebrate. Aghas is a satirical tradition of the Ottoman occupation. It started here in Olimpi in 1929 but later the other mastic villages started celebrating it too, although slightly different. At Olimpi, a stage is set at the main square of the village. Men are dressed like old guards and one them is the Aghas, the Ottoman officer that was the appointed ruler of the island. All of them then perform a courthouse. They call by name their co-villagers and accuse them for several things, either concerning mastic issues or regarding issues of village administration. A heated dialogue takes place and all cases are sentenced. In this way they represent the injustice that Greeks were facing during the Ottoman occupation; whatever they would have done or not, they would be accused and sentenced for it. Aggeliki was telling me that in the past two young men used to dress up like Aghas and Chanoumisa (Turkish woman) and they would go around the crowd with a big plate with food to share with the others. Then when the court would start, other girls of the village would continue distributing food and wine to everyone, all at the expense of Aghas. Now they stopped giving food and instead they make donations in order to gather money and fix or built new things at the village. Many people, especially the older, think that it was better the older custom of Aghas. Nowadays the feast is also big because of the event and the music, and many tourists know about it and come at this day at Olimpi.
Ο Απρίλης με τα πούλουα κι ο Μάης με τα ρόδα (April with the flowers and May with the roses)
Grandma: Dimitri why you moved the flower pot of Mrs. Maria in front of the next house’s door? Are you pulling pranks again with your friends?
Dimitris: No, Grandma! It’s not a prank. I did it because the girl I love lives there.
Grandma: The girl you love? What nonsense is that again?
Dimitris: It’s not sense. It makes much sense! The other day we were playing at the square near the coffee place. At some point the old men started talking with us and started telling us stories from when they were young. They said that on the night of the 1st of May they would steal pots and leave them in front of the house of the girls they loved. That’s what I also did!
Grandma: Pff, these old stories! You always take them literally. Please go and move the pot back to Mrs. Maria’s place. And after you finish, come back here to help me with these last pieces of mastic. We need to separate them.
Dimitris: Ok… I hope Eleni at least saw it…
Grandma and Mrs. Maria finish pinching some last mastic pieces while Dimitris comes back.
Grandma: Come here, my boy. Now take these mastic pieces and separate the pittas (big round mastic pieces of approx. 3-7 cm), fliskaria (smaller than pittas and translucent), tears (smaller than fliskari), and psila (very small round pieces). And don’t forget to gather afterwards in a box the dust. Nothing is waste.
The weather is sunny and warmer and all the flowers have blossomed. Walking around the streets of Pyrgi, one can see the colorful flowers in the pots in front of the houses or on the balconies. Hanged small red tomatoes and yellow peppers ornament the engraved black and white shapes on the outside walls of the houses. This is also an old custom of the village. In the past they used to hang tomatoes and peppers all year long, outside and mostly inside the house. Nowadays they only hang some on the outside from spring until autumn. The children play on the square and streets while the old women started to sit again in front of their or their neighbor’s houses. They chit chat, observe and talk about their families and things that go on in the village. The old ‘esmichtes’ can be seen while their grandchildren play on a street further away. Giannis and his wife (Irini’s and Dimitris’ older sister) take a walk around the village. They are more relaxed now. Next month mastic cultivation starts again. Dimitris cannot wait because Giannis promised to take him with him. But for now, still the 14th of May, they arranged to go to the chapel of Saint Isidore to light a candle in order the new cultivation to be very fruitful. Saint Isidore is the protective saint of mastic. He was a martyr and was tortured by Romans in mastic fields. The legend says that when the Romans hit him, they also hit the trees. From these wounds, mastic started flowing. The locals say that the tree cried for Isidore’s suffering and that is why we call the mastic resin, ‘mastic tears’. They also have another interpretation of the origin of the Greek word ‘mastihi’. They say that when the locals saw the mastic resin which smelled so nice, they felt that it is their luck to have discovered it. ‘Our luck’ translates to Greek ‘diki mas tihi’, ‘mas tihi’ becomes ‘mastihi’.
Α δε λαλήσει τζίτζικας εν είναι καλοκαίρι (If the harvest fly does not sing, it is not summer)
Giannis: Dimitri go find small branches and make a broom to clean the soil underneath the trees.
Dimitris: Yes, I’ll run! But wait for me to make the table together!
Giannis: No, don’t run! Be patient. I’ll wait for you.
While waiting for Dimitris, Giannis saw one of the old mastic trees. Its branches have grown so much that you can almost stand completely underneath it. He had the impression that the tree was already that big when he was a child. His grandmother used to take him with her in the fields. Back then they were going with donkeys. He remembers that once they arrived in the field, his grandmother would take off the donkeys’ saddle, turn it over and place an old jute bag on the inside, and then place him inside. She would then hang the saddle with a rope from a branch and let him there to sleep as if he was in a swinging baby bed.
Dimitris: Hey, Giannis! Wake up!
Giannis: What happened?
Dimitris: Come! Let’s clean and level the soil and throw the white powder!
Giannis: Ok, ok. You are very excited and willing to work, young man! I will show you today how to make the first incisions on the tree.
Dimitris: Today? Kendima (embroidering)? But isn’t it early.
Giannis: No, it is not early. We always do the first incision right after cleaning the soil in order for the tree to ‘wake up’ and start producing mastic. But be careful, we will only make some very few incisions on the bottom of the trunk of each tree. Which tools are you going to use?
Dimitris: The kenditiri or baltadaki or korakomiti.
Giannis: Ha ha, well done, you have learned all of them! Do you want to know how we call the first embroidering?
It is very early in the morning. The sun has just come out. Giannis and Dimitris leave their car by the road. From the moment they get out of the car, the smell of mastic surrounds them. This smell is very characteristic. The sweet, rich and unique smell of mastic. Some trees are low, others bigger, and the young ones just inches tall. Above all the trees, on the bottom of their trunk, there is a white ‘table’ (the leveled and cleaned soil with white powder). From June till November (when the rains start), one can simply identify the mastic trees because of the white soil like circular targets ready to be ambushed. Giannis started explaining things to Dimitris already from the car. For example, that we do not embroider the young trees, only the ones that are older than three years old. It is not the first time that Dimitris hears that information. He is going to the mastic fields from an even earlier age but back then no one explained him what to do or not. He was observing with the natural curiosity of a child. His friends make fun of him because of the fact that he likes going to the field and pay attention to the work that needs to be done. They are always bored and most of the times that their parents or grandparents took them to the fields, they would play around and complain that they are bored and want to go back home. Many of the kids have this attitude and it is not much wonder. But there is an indirect educational purpose on that. The kids might play around but at some point they might observe because they get bored of playing in the nature and little by little they will start helping. Grandma explained once to Dimitris, when he was younger and inpatient to grab a kenditiri and embroider a tree, that when she was younger it was extremely mandatory for the children to follow their parents in the fields because back then they did not have babysitters and the grandparents would also be on that or other fields. Thus the children were joining the fields from dawn till dusk. Nevertheless, the job of embroidering (‘kendima’ as it was originally called) is a very precise work. One must learn to embroider correctly a tree by staying close to an experienced mastic cultivator for years. By embroidering the cultivator creates wounds in the bark of the tree but the tree is a living organism. One must learn where to start wounding it and how deep because the purpose is not to just wound the tree and destroy it but to learn how the organism of the tree works; how it produces the mastic resin, when an incision is hurtful for the tree, and when it just scratches it.
Furthermore, it is not only the physiology of the tree that must be learned but also the properties of the mastic resin itself. Mastic resin is produced in the form of liquid, as any other resin. The uniqueness of the mastic resin lies on the fact that according to the weather conditions it can become solid. For this reason, embroidering takes place in August and September; a rain-free and warm but not completely hot period. Extreme heat does not help mastic resin to dry. Fresh air is also important for the resin to dry and that is why Giannis prunes the trees every winter; to grow at the point of letting as much sun and wind is needed to dry the mastic resin.
Giannis: Dimitris did you collect any dried pieces?
Dimitris: Very few. There was not much mastic produced from riniasma.
Giannis: Ok. Let the rest to dry well and we will collect them next time if they are ready. Now grab your kenditiri and come here. You will make vertical or linear incisions of 10 to 15 cm long and 4 to 5 cm deep. See? Like this one. From which part of the trunk you start to embroider, you remember?
Dimitris: From the bottom because the resin starts to be produced at the bottom where the trunk is also bigger and by making embroideries often, you move upper and upper on the trunk, and the resin follows.
Giannis: Well done, kiddo! I am impressed.
The first mastic has started to be collected from the fields and brought to the houses in the village. You can clearly recognize which house is owned by a mastic producing family because as one walks on the street, suddenly mastic smell is all over. The funny and interesting thing is that not even a meter before and after the closed door, nothing can be smelled. But when one passes near and in front of the door, the smell is everywhere; appearing and disappearing suddenly.
It is not very late at night and Irini and Dimitris sit with their Grandma.
Irini: Grandma of all the stories you tell us, you never told us any old song that you and your ‘esmichtes’ used to sing?
Grandma: What song, dear? We only sang in the fields.
Dimitris: In the fields? Why?
Irini: Tell us some songs. You remember any?
Grandma: If I remember? Ha ha, of course, I remember. We were spending so much time in the mastic fields that we would sing and make pic-nicks. Let me think. Here is one we were telling while we were embroidering:
Εμπρός παιδιά κουνήσετε, εχάραξεν η μέρα (Come children move, the day started)
Και θα τον κόψει η ταχυνή τον ψεσινόν αέρα (And the dawn will make yesterday’s wind stop)
Πιάτε τα τσεντηστήρια σας να πάμε στα πηξάρια (Grab your kenditiria to go to the mastic trees)
Αμέτε εσείς στο Ψάρωνα τσαι βω στα Χοβελάρια (You go to Psarona and me to Chovelaria)
Τσαι σαν κοντέβγει να γίνει ολόρτο μεσημέρι (And when high noon is almost there)
Η μια τον ένα γάιδαρο στη Βληχωνή να φέρει (The one –she- the donkey to Vlichoni must bring)
Κουνέλια να φορτώσουμε, κολάτα, κονταρούδια (Rabbits to load, kolata, kontaroudia)
Κι η άλλη ας φεύγει στο χωριό αντάμα με τα βούδια (And the other –she- can go back to the village with the cows)
Εμπρός παιδιά κι η εποχή ε θέλει χασομέρια (Come children and it is not a period to lose time)
Μακάρι που και νάχαμεν ακόμη δέκα χέρια (I wish we had ten more hands)
Irini: That was nice, Grandma. But why it refers only to women?
Grandma: Eh, I told you before, my Irinaki. Women were mostly going to the fields at my time.
Irini: Ah yeah, right, I am sorry. And you only sang while embroidering?
Grandma: No, honey. During collecting the mastic was also a great period. We were collecting mostly in September until mid-October, like nowadays. At that period the hunting season also started. You know, children, we were spreading white sheets near the mastic trees that we were working so that the hunters can have a hint that people are there and they would not shoot.
Dimitris: What were they hunting?
Grandma: Rabbits, grouse. All over us!
Irini: So you were alone, only women, in the fields with hunters strolling around? Wasn’t it dangerous?
Grandma: Dangerous? No, dear. Quite the opposite. Don’t look at what happens today. It was very different back then. Imagine that that the collecting season was also as courting season for the villagers. The women, the unmarried, would go in the fields and the men hunters would have the opportunity to see them outside the village and court them. Some men, especially the younger ones, were leaving small pieces of paper under the rocks on the ground so that the young girls would find them while collecting mastic.
Irini: And what would happen if the mother of the young girl collected the love note instead of the daughter?
Grandma: Ah don’t ask. If the mother did not approve the sender, she would go to his mother and complain. Old times, my child.
Dimitris: And what songs did you sing while collecting?
Grandma: Well, this is one that a few older women of my age might remember. The younger women do not know it.
Στο μάζεμα του μαστιχιού (While collecting the mastic)
Σκοπώνε τραγουδούσαν (They sang a song)
Τον άρεσε κι αρέσει τον (Τhey liked it and it was liked)
Όσοι κι αν τον εκούσαν (By any who heard it)
Ο κάτω κόσμος μάτια μου (The underworld my eyes)
Νάτος σαν τον απάνω (Here it is like the above)
Μον’ήθελα να παρακαλώ (But I only wanted to beg)
Γρήγορι να πεθάνω (To die soon)
Όταν σε πρωτοείδανε (When you were first seen)
Τα μάτια τα δικά μου (By my own eyes)
Ήταν το στήθος μου ανοιχτό (My chest was open)
Και μπήκες στην καρδιά μου (And you entered in my heart)
Irini: Isn’t it a bit dark, Grandma? Why she wanted to die?
Grandma: Ah, my child. Don’t ask for interpretations. A song has different interpretations for each person and working with mastic is a very hard job. All year long you are either in the field working with the tree, which as I have said many times is not an easy job to learn and manipulate another organism because it reacts to weather and your contact with it, or at the house working with its product. You have seen how meticulous pinching the mastic is. You cannot do these things automatically, it needs a hand. At the Association they have built machines to do other things, like an automatic separation machine of mastic pieces according to their size. But pinching still needs to be done in hand. No machine can articulate that task. Enough with mastic. Go eat and ask your mother if she needs help with the preparations for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
Irini and Dimitris: All right.
It is the 15th of August and as in any village or city of Greece, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is celebrated. Here in Pyrgi it is a custom that women carry the sacred icon of Mary around the village, asking her to bless the village. On the way back to the church, the icon is transferred through changing on the hands of the local women. This tradition is performed only by women and Irini’s and Dimitris’ mother is taking part this year. Irini watches and wonders if she will perform too one day while Dimitris is looking around the crowd to find his beloved Eleni to wish her happy name day. He seems to be unlucky this night but the young boy already has another plan on his mind to express again his feelings to Eleni. He learned something these days from his Grandma and an idea popped in his head.
Giannis: Dimitris collect first the dried mastic, sift it a bit to get rid of most dirt and come here to show me. Then we will embroider together some trees.
Dimitris: Ok. I am on it!
Dimitris starts by collecting mastic from the trees that are on the end of the field. Their field is next to one that Eleni’s family owns. Today they are not here. What a great opportunity to sneak into their field and place a love note under a rock surrounded by mastic pieces. Maybe he will be lucky enough and Maria will collect that mastic and the note too. He already has the note in his pocket, he prepared it since he learned from his Grandma about this old custom, but he did not have the opportunity yet to leave it at Eleni’s field. He also takes with him a small sieve and a basket to put the collected mastic.
Dimitris: Giannis, I’m done with collecting and sifting. But there are still some tears that are not dry enough to collect.
Giannis: That’s ok. We’ll see if they are ready by the end of the week.
Dimitris: But you know what else I saw? Some mastic tears that are not dry are blue or green. Is this normal, Giannis? Did we do something wrong?
Giannis: Wrong? Ha ha, of course not. Some mastic trees, like the maroulatos or even sometimes the pixaria, make blue or green mastic tears because their roots have much humidity which passes in the resin and therefore it takes that color. You will see that when they are completely dry, the color will also disappear. It just needs a lot of sun and air to dry well.
Dimitris: Oh, that’s funny. Can it also become red?
Giannis: Emm, not really.
Dimitris: Ok! I look forward to see the color disappear! Nature is amazing!
Giannis: I really like how you get so enthusiastic with nature, Dimitris.
These last months of the year revolve around collecting and sifting the mastic tears. Giannis and Dimitris are going to the mastic fields almost every day, very early in the morning, come back at midday, and then sift at home the collected mastic tears of the morning crop. Dimitris is very happy at last because this year Giannis took him most of the days with him but also let him to work. He learned to embroider correctly the trees, although he still needs to practice so that he will not hurt them more than is needed. Collecting the mastic tears is another social gathering at the fields and this year he was able to express his feelings to Eleni. If you wonder, Eleni finally got his note while collecting their mastic tears and said to her mother if she can go play with Dimitris at the village square. Sifting proved to be another process that Dimitris should practice over the years. It needs a special knack of moving the sieve with your hands in order to separate the mastic tears from the dirt. Some are moving the mastic in front of the sieve and leave the dirt on the other side while others do the opposite move. Dimitris decided to try it and his Grandma started teaching him. Maybe it won’t be of such a use to learn how to do it because nowadays machines are slowly developed. Nevertheless it is not bad to learn a skill or art, as they say in Greece, because you never know when it will become handy.
Luckily for Giannis, they managed to finish the work at the mastic fields before the rain started. All the mastic producers are always informed about the weather because strong winds can scatter the mastic tears around while rain destroys the crop even more. Nevertheless this year was good. Now, in November, Giannis will deliver the mastic of last year’s crop to the Chios Mastiha Growers Association, and Grandma, Irini, Dimitris, the ‘esmichtes’ and the neighbors will start clean and pinch the mastic that Dimitris and Giannis collected this year. Another cycle begins of hard work for producing mastic; work that needs time, a whole year as it seems, commitment and strength because of the many demanding processes, and love because the mastic trees are living beings and their relationship with humans is reciprocal.
- Documentary: Like Sisters: Women in a Female Village, ZDF.
- Fotopoulou, S. V. (ed.) (2016) Aspects of intangible heritage in Chios. Athens: Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation.
- Kallinikidou, A. (2017) Chios Mastiha Museum. Athens: Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation.
- Kaplanidi, D. (2019) Fieldwork notes and interviews in the villages of Pyrgi, Mesta, Olimpi and Emporeios, Chios Island.
- Kolliaros, G. (2003) Mian volan ts’ enan tsairon iton: Folklore of Chios: The 21 mastic villages. Chios: Aigeas Publications.
- Olympitou, E. (n.d.) Introductory observations. PIOP Archive.
- Varlas, M. and Papastefanaki, L. (2009) Archive of oral testimonies concerning work in the processing of mastic. PIOP Archive.