All Stories, General Fiction

Lessons by Gigi Papoulias

The first time the piano teacher walked up the two flights to our apartment, my mother rushed to help him. “Thank you, but I can manage,” he said as he tap-tapped his way up.  He wore the thickest glasses I had ever seen. His eyeballs, massive behind the lenses, wobbled and darted – not quite focused on anything in particular. Tallish and round, he always wore a suit. His big shoes were shiny. Before he even entered the room, I could smell his cologne – heavy and manly. When he opened his mouth to speak, he sounded airy, womanly. Sometimes, when I’d play, he’d sing along in a shrilly opera-singer voice.   I’M a yankee doodle dan-DEE…

Every Saturday, Mr. Rowan would sit beside me on the bench and begin with the same question, “How many times did you practice this week?” and I would give him the same answer.

“I think it was maybe two, three times, after dinner, after homework – my regular schoolwork and my Greek lessons.”  I wanted to appear so overburdened, that it was only natural I didn’t have time to learn to play a perfect yankee doodle.

The truth was that I hated practicing. After dinner, the house was too quiet, too dark. I didn’t like being in the living room alone. My parents would be in the kitchen, watching the news with the door closed. Papou, my grandfather would be in his room, reading his newspapers. He didn’t watch the news with my parents because he didn’t understand English. Every day he’d put on a three-piece suit and cap, and take the bus downtown to meet other old Greek grandfathers for coffee. Sometimes my mother would send him to the music shop with a note from Mr Rowan, a list of sheet music to buy.

But on most days he’d come home with the latest newspaper from Athens, which was a day or two old.  The title of the newspaper was written in thick block letters with a red line underneath: Το Ποντίκι which meant “the mouse.” Next to the title was a cartoon of a cute grey mouse holding a long-stemmed red daisy over his shoulder, with a few red petals trailing behind. Whenever I’d practice yankee doodle, I could hear papou in the next room, sighing – his mousy newspaper crinkling and snapping.

When I got home from school one Monday, my mother was out and papou was sitting on the couch reading. There was new sheet music by the piano but it wasn’t a title that was included on the latest list from Mr Rowan. Papou nodded towards the piano, a hint of a smile on his lips. I sat down and began to practice the new song. At first, my fingers stumbled over the keys, losing the rhythm of the tune – papou hummed along until I got it right.

That week, I practiced every day after school while my mother was out doing errands. I got better each day, and papou even began to sing the lyrics in a proud voice while I played:

Ένα το χελιδόνι κι η άνοιξη ακριβή/ Lone is the swallow, and spring is precious.

On Saturday, when the doorbell rang, my mother pressed the buzzer and I sat on the piano bench waiting. Before Mr Rowan could ask his usual question, I told him that I had practiced a lot that week.

Papou emerged from his bedroom, dressed to go out, cap in hand. He paused by the living room and when I turned, he gave me a wink, put on his cap and left.  I spent the next twenty minutes blundering through yankee doodle, while Mr Rowan nodded, feeling the keys and gently repositioning my hands.  “How many times did you say you practiced this week?”

“I practiced every day. But not yankee doodle.”  I began to play the first few notes of the new song.  I heard a rattling in the kitchen, the sound of a glass falling over on the countertop. The kitchen door swung open and my mother stood motionless, her eyes went from me to Mr Rowan.

“Keep going, dear,” he said, his enormous gaze turned towards my face.  I began to play again and sang in a strong voice, Ένα το χελιδόνι… Lone is the swallow… and Mr Rowan hummed along.


Gigi Papoulias

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8 thoughts on “Lessons by Gigi Papoulias”

  1. Thank you for reading and commenting!
    A note about the song (as some people have asked me) – It’s a poem, part of a larger work, (To Axion Esti -“worthy it is”) written in 1959 by Odysseas Elytis (1979 Nobel Laureate in Literature). The words were set to music by composer Mikis Theodorakis in the early 60s. The poem and song symbolize the struggle for freedom, resistance, injustice, the suffering of the Greeks during WWII and the Greek civil war which followed – it’s a kind of revered anthem.


  2. Hi Gigi,
    I love music but am tone death and talentless! This is an emphasis on the infectiousness of passion and your own love that can be instigated from that no matter what the medium.


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