Demetra Angelis Foustanellas came late to writing. Born in 1957 in Ottawa to Greek immigrant parents — her mother from Samos and her father from Skopelos — she started writing about ten years ago. With a business degree from Algonquin College and some training in hotel management, she and her husband (and two young children) opened their hotel, Anema by-the-sea Guesthouse, in the small town of Karlovasi on the Aegean island of Samos in 1988. Increasingly intrigued by the differences between native and expatriate Greeks, she began researching Hellenic culture and historical fiction. Drawing on years of research and her own recollections of the 1970s, Foustanellas began writing her self-published novel, Secrets in a Jewellery Box, in 2006 in the airport while waiting to board a flight to Athens. Combining her business and writing skills, she founded, and directs, the Greece Workshops Karlovasi Samos, which not only organizes writers’ workshops but also accommodates groups for art, spiritual and educational workshops. Work and the benefits of rural life keep Demetra and husband Diamantis on Samos, while their grown children have returned to Ottawa.
Our interview was by e-mail. -Debra Martens
DM: Does running a hotel leave you much time for writing?
DF: My daily routine includes sorting and replying to e-mails, managing the front office, housekeeping and accounting departments of our small hotel business, and promoting workshops. At home I walk the dogs, tend my flowers and herbs. Because I have no regular working hours, I have very little quality time for writing. I do, however, make a point of keeping a pen and paper handy so whenever an idea for a story comes to mind, I can jot it down quickly and save it. Through my work, my travels, the internet and social media, I’ve met both expat and native Canadian writers, as well as writers, artists and musicians from other places in the world. Being in touch with other writers, and organizing and participating in creative workshops, has helped me grow as a writer.
DM: What do you see from the window of the room in which you write?
DF: Outside my window is a bougainvillea tree with dark pink flowery-like leaves (when in bloom) and next to it, a jasmine plant emitting a soft, sweet fragrance which lingers indoors from the open window. Behind this, is a vast evergreen forest.
DM: Do you participate in the local cultural activities?
DF: Yes, I enjoy being involved in cultural activities. As leader of Slow Food Samos, my team and I revive old recipes and document local traditions in an effort to preserve Samian culture and unify our community towards a sustainable future. My husband and I also cultivate a variety of vegetables, herbs, fruits and olive trees in the nearby village of Leka. In addition to supporting our farmers, students and homemakers, we often exhibit the work of local talent at our social events.
DM: Is there a word or phrase so apt that it can’t be replaced with an English one?
DF: A Greek word that cannot be replaced by one single English word is kefi. My translation would be ‘liberated joy’ or ‘sentimental euphoria,’ stimulated by music, dance, singing, and more often than not, wine. Kefi is a noun, and the modifier is kefatos (for males) and kefati (for females). An example of its use: The quick tempo of the bouzouki never fails to generate kefi. The wedding guests were full of kefi.
DM: Can you tell us an amusing story about cross-cultural misunderstanding?
DF: Which is the ring finger? Married couples of Greek Orthodox faith are expected to wear their wedding bands on the right hand, where the ring is placed by the priest, during the marriage ceremony. It’s not mandatory to wear it there, but many Greek couples do follow this tradition. But for some Greeks born and raised in countries where it is customary to wear the wedding band on the left hand, it may feel awkward to wear it on the right.
So, in many cases abroad, soon after the rings are blessed, they are transferred to the other hand.
Moral of the story: don’t rely on the ring finger to determine whether a man or woman is single…or not.
DM: How does living abroad affect your sense of self and your work?
DF: Living abroad has strengthened my self-awareness. The experience of having lived in both countries, Greece and Canada, has opened new horizons. I am more open to change and embrace diversity. I chose to write about immigrant life and the social differences within Greek culture. Had I not been exposed to both cultures in some depth, I would not have had sufficient insight to write responsibly about such sensitive and complex topics. I feel as much a Canadian today as I did leaving Ottawa over a quarter of a century ago.
DM: Do you keep up with or read new Canadian literature?
DF: Absolutely! At the moment, I’m reading The Boy written by Betty Jane Hegerat. Before that, I read Country Roads: Memoirs from Rural Canada, a selection by a variety of Canadian authors, edited by Pam Chamberlain. I’ve enjoyed Rosemary Nixon’s Kalila and Are you ready to be lucky? And of course Alice Munro’s My Best Stories.