Interviews

Ejo #92 – My Name Is Chrysoula Stathopoulos

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. Since 1933, I’ve lived in Lechaion, a small seaside town in Greece. But I was born in a tiny village in the Peloponnese mountains in 1916. I am 101 years old.

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. I’ve lived in Dubai since 2008. But I was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1971 and raised in Melbourne. I am 46 years old.

As the firstborn, I was named after my Dad’s mother, which is how the Greeks do. I hated my name growing up because nobody could ever pronounce it, and a lot of kids gave me shit for it. On the first day of Grade 2, my teacher actually accused me of making it up. I casually dropped the “oula” part of my name when I was 12, and made it official when I was 14. Over the years I’ve grown to love my full name again. It’s unique, and it’s who I am. It’s also something that connects me to my grandmother, my yiayia, whom I love dearly.

My twin sister Fotoula and I were the apples of our father’s eye. We had two older brothers, but we were the favourites and everyone knew it, including Mum. She scolded us once for making too much noise while we were playing and Dad looked at her very seriously and said, “Whatever you do, don’t ever talk to my girls like that again”. And she never did. Times were tough growing up because of the war, and we didn’t have a lot, but our house was filled with love and I always tried my best to make my Dad proud of me when he was home. He was gone for most of my childhood, working in America so that he could send money home for us. Every time he came home was a big deal and my favourite memory was of being bounced on his knees – me on one leg, and Fotoula on the other, the three of us laughing and laughing.

Even though Greek families usually covet a son, my parents had three daughters and I think that, secretly, my father loved being surrounded by women. My Dad drove trucks for a living in the early seventies, and he was gone for long stretches at a time. My earliest memory is of our flat in Elwood. I was wearing a nappy and crawling to the front door because Mum had told me that Dad was coming home. I remember bursting with joy when he appeared at the flyscreen door.

In 1924 my family moved down from the mountains so that we could attend school near Korinth. Some of the teachers were very strict, which I didn’t like very much. I certainly wasn’t used to being smacked, but the teachers had no problem hitting us if they got mad. I always studied hard, and tried to be the best student so that they would never have any reason to hit me. On 22nd April 1928 a big earthquake shook Korinth. Twenty people died, and nearly 15,000 people were left homeless. Even though our home was damaged, we were lucky that it wasn’t one of the 3000 that were destroyed, and that we still had somewhere to live. Our school had turned to rubble and, while it was being rebuilt, classes were held outside, on the football field.

Fotoula hated school. She would say, “Chrysoula, I’ve been to school for a week, now it’s your turn”. School wasn’t compulsory back then, so she could get away with it but it’s a shame that she never learned to read or write. I wanted to be a teacher or a mid-wife when I grew up because they earned 500 drachmas (about €2) a month, which was a lot of money for a woman back then. But I was forced to drop out of school in 1929, at age 13.

When we were young,my parents forced me and my sisters to go to Greek school on Saturday mornings. I hated it and faced each weekend with sickening dread. But my parents wanted us to learn how to speak Greek, and to appreciate Greek history and customs. Fair enough, but the teachers at the school we attended were sadistic fucks and what I remember most about those classes was the constant fear. It ended when a teacher pinched my cheek so hard he left a large purple bruise across my face. My crime? Not completing my homework. My parents, horrified that the tales of assault and battery were actually true, allowed me to drop out of Greek school at age 12.

In 1930 my beloved father got sick with double pneumonia. The closest doctor was in Didima, a village 100km away, and every time he came to the house it cost us 500 drachmas. When Dad died, we owed the doctor a small fortune and since we didn’t have the money, it was negotiated that I would go with him back to Didima and work as his housekeeper until the bill was paid. I didn’t want to go, but my older brother got very angry and slapped me across the face and told me I was going and that was the end of it. After that I was happy to leave, just to get away from him. My Dad would never have allowed anyone to strike me like that. But now he was gone, and I had no choice but to enter into servitude for nearly three years in a village where I didn’t know anyone and where they didn’t even speak Greek. During my time in Didima, I slowly learned some Albanian so that I could communicate with people, but I was happy when the debt was finally paid off, and I could return to my family, who had moved to Lechaion.

In late 2002 my beloved father was diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents tried to be upbeat and hopeful about the prognosis but as you can imagine, it was a total shock for all of us. My father was the healthiest and most robust man I’d ever known. He was invincible to me, a rock. In denial, I didn’t even believe that he was actually sick until he started showing symptoms a couple of months later. And after that, the decline in his health was rapid. Lung cancer is a truly horrible disease and over a ten month period I watched my father deteriorate from a tower of strength into an emaciated skeleton coughing up tar-black mucus onto my birthday cake, a month before he died. Shit like that stays with you, man. When we told yiayia that her firstborn had passed away, she cried. But because of the Alzheimer’s she sometimes forgets. Sometimes she doesn’t even remember who he was.

In 1933 I started working in the fields with my sister, picking fruit to support our family. We earned just 25 drachmas a day, which wasn’t much, but our lack of education didn’t leave us many options. A lot of people were in the same boat and there was a great deal of competition for these field jobs, so we weren’t always gainfully employed. In 1936 I met a man at work called Panagiotis, who was a real go-getter. He would schmooze around the taverns at night, networking for jobs, and his circle of friends always had paid work, thanks to him. He seemed like a nice guy, and he must have taken a liking to me because he started getting regular work for me too. Working side by side we started developing feelings for each other, and after a year we were engaged. We couldn’t afford to get married right away but I did move in with him which was illegal back then, so we pretended that I was his housekeeper and everyone fell for it! Haha! Suckers! We lived in sin for two years before we got married on New Year’s Eve, 1939. Ten months later we had our first child, Konstantinos, and then after that I gave birth every two years, with Roula, Chris, Toula, Sofia and our baby Stavros.

 

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In the fields.  Kon, Chris, Toula, Sofia, Stavros, Roula, Panagiotis and Chrysoula.  And a small kid.

 

I met my husband David at work in 2005. It was love at first sight, for me anyway. We worked together for a year, exchanging flirty glances across the tower console before we actually started going out. Two days later I moved in, and four months after that we were married. Most people at work thought it wouldn’t last but, after eleven years together, we’re still nuts about each other. We decided not to have children, which we sometimes lament, but usually not.

Over the years all my children except Stavros emigrated to Australia. Roula went first because she hated working in the fields and wanted a chance to start a new life. Kon joined her a year later, and then the others followed. I wanted them to be happy and to have a better life than I did so I didn’t mind them leaving, but my god I missed them so much. My children are my life and they have always made me so happy and so proud, even now. In 1976 I went to Australia for a visit and I had such a wonderful time, mostly because I got to see all my children and grandchildren. Little Chrysoula was, of course, my favourite*. She was such a delightful child, and she taught me how to count to ten in English, and even though my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’ve never forgotten: onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten! See!! I do have trouble remembering some things, but those old days are crystal clear. I loved Australia so much I went back for another visit in 1988 and I wish I could go again, but, even though I’m as fit as a fiddle, let’s face it, at my age it’s probably not going to happen. There is always someone here, one of my kids, looking after me, and I appreciate that. But I wish my grandchildren would visit more often.

I met my yiayia for the first time when I was five years old. She came to visit us from Greece and stayed with us for a few months. It was nice having her around because she was always smiling and laughing and hugging us and telling stories and crocheting beautiful things. Her skin was wrinkly, but soft, like well-worn leather. And you could tell that my Dad just LOVED having her around. They glowed around each other, overflowing with mutual adoration and respect. My grandmother was such a loving person and she taught my Dad to be honest and hard-working and to be proud of his achievements. In turn, he taught me the same.

I’ve been thinking about my yiayia a lot lately. I am writing this ejo to celebrate her, while she’s still alive. I don’t know if I will ever see her again. But I want to. The last time was five years ago. She recognised me, which was wonderful, but she is very locked up in her mind most of the time. Locked in the past. And the people around her, even loved ones, are very much in the periphery of her consciousness. But every time we are together, even though my Greek is shit and she can’t speak English, there is always a deep and loving connection between us. A circle of life and love that cannot be broken by distance or years apart.

We are Chrysoula Stathopoulos.

 

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* Some creative license MAY have been used in the writing of this ejo.

 

Ejo #87 – Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

As a society, we are crippled by the concept of death.  Grief, following the death of a loved one, can be such a lonely challenge to endure – but it needn’t be.  Having the support of your friends can help to take the edge off the pain.  But they don’t teach this kind of stuff in school so sometimes, despite their best intentions, the well-meaning remarks of friends can actually make things worse.  The last thing you need to hear when you’re in the depths of despair is “You’ll be OK”.  Yes, of course you will be OK.  But at that very moment you are not.  What you need is compassion, not a meaningless cliché.

When my father died, it almost destroyed me.  I’m not joking.  I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to feel as bad, as empty and as crushed as I did and to somehow still survive.  I was trapped in a black hole.  I felt completely alone, but I didn’t want anyone to reach into my darkness either.  I pushed people away.  It’s such a confusing, bewildering and miserable thing to experience.  I remember after a couple of months, going on a weekend away with some girlfriends.  I managed to keep the black hole contained, most of the time.  But there was one occasion when I could no longer fend it off, and the darkness just flooded out.  We were walking along, and without warning I started bawling uncontrollably.  My father was dead, and I just couldn’t stop crying.  I apologised to my friends and walked away, looking for a place to retreat and get a hold of myself.  I turned a corner and sat down on a bench, but instead of subsiding I was engulfed in sadness, collapsing in a heap of body-shaking tears.  My friends peeked around the corner, their faces contorted with anguish.  I could see they wanted to help me, to comfort me.  And even though that’s exactly what I needed, I was sending out a powerful force-field signalling them to stay away.

I finally got my shit together and we carried on walking, as though nothing had happened.  And I know it was just as bad for them as it was for me.  I’m not telling this story to shame my friends.  It was a terrible moment for all of us.  I tell it to demonstrate how tricky a minefield grief is, even amongst the closest of friends.  It is a harrowing abyss of ugly, difficult emotions for the person experiencing it.  And a sickening feeling of impotence and helplessness for the people around you.  Even though I know what grief feels like, I am still completely at sea when a loved one loses a loved one.  I still don’t know what to say or do.  I still feel helpless.  And I know that many others in that situation feel the same way.

I can’t write anything that could ever take away the pain of someone’s grief.  But I do want to try and alleviate the debilitating feelings of inadequacy most of us feel in the face of someone else’s bereavement.  I want to open a dialogue, to start talking about it, in the hope of making it less scary.  There is no “etiquette” handbook for what to say (or not say) to someone in mourning.  No two situations are the same, and everyone will react to the death of a loved one in their own way.  But I feel pretty safe in saying that there are a few things you should try not to say.  Each heading in this ejo is something that was actually said to a grieving person.  I know they were heartfelt thoughts from people struggling to know what to say, but these platitudes are just not helpful to someone who is in pain.

 “Be strong.”

The day my father died, the worst day of my life, someone told me, ‘Your Dad would want you to be strong, for your Mum.’  Wow, thanks, but I really didn’t need to hear that.  What was said stayed with me through the years.  Now, if I’m comforting a friend experiencing the heartache of grief, the one thing I do feel comfortable saying to them is, ‘You don’t have to be strong, it’s OK to fall apart if you need to’.  Because the reality is that you are going to fall apart in some way.  I spoke with several friends who have all lost someone close to them – a parent, a friend, a spouse – and they were kind enough to share their experiences in the hope of helping you (and me) next time someone is in need of support.

*          *          *

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“My first experience with death was when I was 14 and one of my best friends died.  My mother was deeply unhelpful.  ‘These things happen’, ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’, etc.  All I wanted to do was shout and scream and listen to self-indulgent indie music with a roll-up between my fingers.  A couple of decades later my father, also my best friend, snuffed it.  I wanted to just talk about my amazing father and cry and mention his name more than once without people all looking a bit shifty and looking at the floor and not knowing what to do.  I did not encounter these problems when I was 14. Apart from people also saying when dad died ‘he wouldn’t want you to feel like this’.  FUCK HIM, HES DEAD!!  I’m sad.”

 “I understand how you feel.”

“I think the worst thing a friend said to me after both my parents were killed was, ‘I understand’.  I know they thought it was comforting, but it wasn’t.  They didn’t understand.  How could they?  I didn’t expect them to.”

 “At least she’s no longer in pain.”

“When someone is grieving, say something meaningful or don’t say anything at all.  The number of trite, hallmark kind of statements I got after my mother died made me want to punch people in the face.  Yes, it’s true that ‘these things happen’, ‘it was for the best’ and ‘now she isn’t in any pain’ but it lacks any empathy at all to say these things. 

“It will get easier.”

“What didn’t work for me was being told that someone knew exactly how I felt, and then getting advice on when I should feel better.  Being told how you should feel, or how you will feel, is not helpful.”

“Life goes on.”

“Life goes on for you, but I just lost someone and life has stopped for me.  Also, don’t push someone to talk about it unless they want to talk.”

“It’s time to get over it.”

“Even though time passes, grief doesn’t.  You just learn to manage it better.  I think once the funeral is over people just forget and move forward – but clearly not those who were deeply affected.  There is almost an expectation that you should just move on and get over it, not understanding how deep and prolonged the impact can be.  I think we need to all be more mindful, especially in the first year after someone has died, how hard it can be for those left behind.”

 “Time heals all wounds.”

“I don’t believe that time heals.  For me it’s a constant thing I carry with me every day and no matter how much time passes, it never gets easier.  Especially important events in your life when you wish your parents were there to share it with you and hold your hand and tell you that they love you.  They never saw me or my brother get married, or had the opportunity to meet their first grandchild.”

“These things happen.”

“Some people can be dismissive.  The ones that reacted as if I had just told them that I’d lost my handbag.  I don’t blame them for reacting like that.  I guess some people don’t know how to respond or act in tragic circumstances.  But it’s not helpful when you are grieving and upset.”

 

As you can see, hollow adages don’t work.  So if you can help it, please don’t use them.  What stood out after talking to my friends was that all everyone wanted was to have their grief acknowledged.  Here is what they told me:

 

“The best way to help is to just be there.  Offer some food, your company, your time.  Ask what they need and be willing to listen.”

 “Amongst the confusion, the numbness, the tears and anger I remember something one person said to me when I lost my parents.  It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.  He said, ‘I have no idea what you are going through.  This is the hardest thing you will ever have to go through in your life.  I am here for you if you need me’.  That was all I needed to hear.  I wanted someone to acknowledge that it was hard and that they had no idea how I was feeling.  I wanted someone to just hug me and not speak.”

 “Just agree that the situation sucks and is incredibly shit.”

“One of the nicest (if you can call it that) things someone said, and they were a work colleague who I wasn’t good friends with, was “I heard your mother died and that’s really terrible.”

 “People don’t know what to say or what to do.  The answer is, just let them be.  If they want to shout and scream, just hold them and let them.  They don’t want any answers from you.  You can’t give them any.  Just listen, patiently, for as long as they need.  There is no solution.  Let them remember, let them tell you the most boring anecdotes, let them bore themselves with the memories, and most importantly let them be what you might consider a drama queen.  Because when it happens to you, you’ll see that it’s not that dramatic after all.  It’s life.”

 

What have been your experiences with offering or needing support after someone has died?

Ejo #83 – Fergus Miller: Because Your Candle Burns Too Bright

In late 2012 my friend Svetlana was given a subscription to a music streaming service as a gift, from her husband Andrew.  One of the first new albums she discovered was from a band she’d never heard of called Bored Nothing.  I’ll let Svet describe her reaction:

I have no idea what made me click on the Bored Nothing album, but doing so literally changed my life.  I became completely obsessed with it.  It was absolutely perfect in every way.   I listened to it five times a day for two months. I’d listen to it when I got dressed in the morning, driving in the car, hanging up the washing. I drove my family crazy. I probably drove my neighbours crazy too as I’d blast it through the speakers while jumping on the trampoline with the kids.

I kept thinking that if I were an indie movie, this album would be my soundtrack.  There was a song for every single mood I’ve ever experienced.   Elated, serene, sad or pissed off – I could find a track that matched my frame of mind.  It wasn’t just the music that I loved, it was also the incredibly thoughtful and poignant lyrics.

I asked my friends if they had heard of Bored Nothing and not a single one had.  Sadly, they were all listening to the same stuff they listened to ten years ago because they couldn’t find new music that they liked.  So I started a music blog – to help my old-fart friends discover new music.

And that’s how the Australian music blog “7 Seconds Of Sound” was born.  The fifteen months I spent as guest writer on the blog were, creatively, some of the best of my life.  I love music and I love writing, so when Svet asked me to be a contributor it was a no-brainer.  The rewards were many.  The discovery of incredible new music that I would otherwise be oblivious to.  The opportunity to hone my writing (and interviewing) skills.  And a wonderful new way to bond with my gorgeous friend, Svet, whom I missed dreadfully.

Another, unexpected bonus was the chance to actually get to know some of the artists we were reviewing.  Both Svet and I got close to a couple of musicians, our admiration for them as musicians evolving into a mutual appreciation of each other as human beings.  I feel lucky to still be in contact with a couple of the people I reviewed, and to call them my friends.  But my experience pales with the rapport that Svet developed with Ferg.  They transcended the fan/artist bond that brought them together to form a true friendship (OK not BFF’s, but still, the type of friend you can message at 4am knowing they won’t get pissed off at you).  Svet describes meeting him for the first time, at one of his gigs:

I was so ridiculously nervous. It was pretty comical considering I was a confident woman almost twice this dude’s age.  I just walked up and said “Hello, I love your music” suddenly stuck in a weird, awkward moment with my musical hero.  Shaking like a leaf, I told him how super nervous I was and he asked “Why? Are you about to take a test?”.  I laughed, but didn’t tell him it was because he’d been in my head for hours a day, every day, for months.

When the gig finished Ferg came up to me and Andrew, and we started chatting. He gave me a record of his self-titled album. I was so blown away by this. The artist that I was obsessed with was not just a great musician but such an incredibly lovely and generous person. I told him about my blog and asked if I could interview him, and he agreed.

That was in early 2013. They did the interview and had a couple of drinks.  Over the next few years they sent each other emails and messages (yep, even at 4 o’clock in the morning) and had lots of diverse and interesting conversations at his gigs.

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Earlier this month Fergus Miller, tragically, killed himself.  He was 26 years old, he was a beautiful person and he was an incredibly talented, self-taught musician who played almost every instrument on his debut album.  This ejo isn’t about his depression or about his suicide.  It’s about Ferg.  It’s a celebration of his spirit, which will always live on in his music.  It’s about making sure that as many people as possible can hear the songs that he gave life to.  It’s about music, and how it eclipses all the bullshit and rises above the pain of the person creating it (however excruciating), to become something that touches and connects people.  And perhaps even soothes their own pain.

Svet has, understandably, been devastated by Ferg’s death.  She cried for days after learning the terrible news from his wife, Anna (who must be utterly heartbroken).  The intensity of Svet’s grief caused her to be angry at herself though, reasoning that they hadn’t been close enough for her to have the right to be so sad:

“But after listening to his friends and family talk at the funeral and seeing all the touching tributes on social media, I understood my grief. Ferg was such a warm and sweet person. He gave so much of himself, through his music and his relationships with people, that even meeting him once felt like you’d known him for a lifetime.

We may not have known each other well but I will never forget his sincerity and kindness to me over the years. His music has played in my head pretty much every day since I first heard it in 2012. It inspired me to set up a music blog that resulted in some incredible experiences and connections with artists I respect and admire from all over the world.”

A regular series on 7 Seconds Of Sound was called “Give Me Five” where we asked musicians to talk about five songs of their choosing.  As a tribute to Ferg, I’ve asked Svet to select five of his songs, and to write a few words about each one.  I’d really love it if you would take the time to listen.

“Bliss” – Bored Nothing

“My second post on the blog featured Bored Nothing’s “Bliss”. I love this video as it shows what makes Fergus so bloody special. Here was this dude who just wanted to make music for the love of it. He doesn’t look like he has tonnes of cash to buy the most expensive instruments or put together an extravagant and stupidly shallow video clip. He just obviously loves making music and is lucky enough to have awesome friends who help him make video clips.  Even if he had millions to spend, his video clips would probably still be the same as there’s nothing better than hanging out with your mates and a bunch of ducks in the backyard.”

 

“Get Out Of Here” – Bored Nothing

“Get Out Of Here” and “Charlie’s Creek” are definitely my favourite Bored Nothing songs. Both songs have a nostalgic beauty to them and flawlessly balance Ferg’s soft voice with quiet instrumentals. He is a great storyteller of sad tales of love. It just blows me away that he was probably about 20 when he recorded these songs and possibly much younger when he wrote them. Maybe it takes the confusion of adolescence to write sweet songs like these but so many people try hard to capture the bewilderment and uncertainty of that stage of life and fail whereas Ferg seems to be able to do it effortlessly.

 

“We Lied” – Bored Nothing

This film clip is a perfect visual accompaniment for this gorgeously wistful song. It was filmed during Bored Nothing’s 2014 European tour.  It’s serene and simple with no hint of boastful pretense of life on the road. It feels a bit voyeuristic watching it as you’re not just observing a band during quite moments on tour but you’re watching sweet and intimate moments between Ferg and his girlfriend at the time, fellow musician Anna Davidson. They were married not long after this video was filmed.

 

“Public Phone” – Wedding Ring Bells

I once gave Ferg some completely unsolicited advice and luckily his gentlemanliness prevented him from telling me to get stuffed. I told him two things. The first was to definitely include subdued tracks like “Get Out Of Here” and “Charlie’s Creek” on his next album as the focus of those songs are his beautiful lyrics and his great vocals. The second piece of advice was to incorporate more cowbells in his music. Disappointingly, he never did the cowbell thing but after Bored Nothing broke up, the self-titled album for his next project Wedding Ring Bells was laden with softly sung, quietly played songs. Public Phone is my favourite track on that album, with its sweetly sung philosophical lyrics about love and the inevitability that it will end in bitterness and disappointment. It’s the perfect song to listen to while looking out the window on a rainy day.

 

“You Win, Baby” – Wedding Ring Bells

Ferg’s friend Marcus Sellars put together an incredibly touching playlist for Ferg’s funeral. He included a lovely demo version of “You Win, Baby” that sounded like it was recorded in his lounge room. Ferg was playing this song to his friends for the first time and there was some funny banter between Ferg and his mates at the beginning, including his friend Catie saying she needed to put on her glasses so she could hear better. It was so nice hearing his laughter and listening to how relaxed and happy he was. For a moment I forgot where I was and then he started singing and it hit me yet again that Ferg was gone, at which point I completely lost it and broke down in tears. 

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For nearly two and a half years 7 Seconds Of Sound has been on indefinite hiatus.  During that time I’ve applied gentle pressure on Svet, every now and then, to perhaps revive the blog, because I miss it.  In a way, now that Ferg is gone, it’s almost like the closing of a circle.  Even though I never met him, Ferg had an effect on both Svet’s life and mine.  His life was short, but his influence was wide.  Rest in peace, Fergus Miller.