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Charmed Life

Fruitful Tradition

By Charles Cohen | Posted 11/5/2003

Drive through the alleys off Eastern Avenue in Greektown and you'll likely spot a fig tree, perhaps popping up from one of the manicured green backyards that have yet to be converted into parking pads. You might also spot a grape arbor, commonly grown by Greek families more for the plant's leaves (used to make dolmades, stuffed grape leaves) than its fruit. Growing up in Baltimore, I'd heard a lot about the fig trees, grape arbors, and legendarily clean alleys of Greektown, but to venture down the alleys uninvited would draw hard stares from suspicious old-timers stooping over pruned bushes.

But in the past seven months, I've finally managed to get myself invited into one of these backyards. I've been taking my daughter to a day care run by a Greek woman named Despina Alexandrou. For most of the time I've known Alexandrou, our conversations have been pleasant but strained because of the language barrier--that is, until August. That's when bed sheets started to appear, spread out on the family's fig tree. Alexandrou was always hanging laundry out on the line to dry, so I figured she was using the tree for more drying space. When I commented on her use of the tree, however, she looked puzzled. As she processed my words, there was suddenly an explosion of laughter. A flurry of Greek started to fly around the room between her and Ioannis (pictured, left), her husband, a lanky man who was eating a bowl of soup while his wife and I talked.

Ioannis quickly jumped up and beckoned me to come outside with him. He climbed up on the garden wall and pulled back the sheets draped on the branches of the tree like homemade Halloween ghosts. He revealed ripening red fruit. "Sigas," he told me, repeating it when I looked confused. "Sigas."

"That's Greek for 'figs,'" his wife clarified. Ioannis pointed overhead to a telephone wire on which a row of sour-faced blackbirds perched. He said the birds love figs.

"They pick the good ones, too," he said. "They go straight for them."

Despina teased Ioannis, saying that he's the only one in the neighborhood who tries to protect his figs with sheets. Most people are content to let the birds have their share, but not Ioannis.

"They think he's crazy," Despina told me.

She peeled one of the red, ripe fruits and said, "They have a big, white middle, like this." She offered me the fig, and I put it in my mouth. It tasted nothing like the dried version found in most grocery stores. Fresh sigas are so sweet that they make your mouth pucker.

Ioannis, with whom I'd exchanged little more than a friendly nod in the months that I'd known him, began detailing the art of grafting fig trees. You can take a branch, stick it in the ground, and watch it grow into a fig tree. He pointed out a neighbor's tree that was just a little branch clipped from his fig tree three years ago. Now it's a respectably sized tree, heavy with fruit.

For the month and a half after the Alexandrous introduced me to their fig tree, I watched as Ioannis did battle with the birds. He constantly moved the sheets around to cover up the ripest of the fruit. Those sheets would change positions several times a day, and the little tree produced an unimaginable amount of fruit, which the Alexandrous were happy to share. I got bags of the stuff from them, and the Alexandrous told me that their tree also fed 10 other Greek families in the neighborhood.

Maria Giannas, the Alexandrous' daughter, told me that her father has a passion for the fig trees.

"I don't think he's obsessed," she said as she watched her 3-year-old son Yianni (pictured, right) help his grandfather tend to an afternoon harvest. "But he's definitely committed."

Ioannis grew up on a small farm on the Island of Rhodes, Giannas told me, where his family grew figs and dried them on walls in the Mediterranean sun.

To families like the Alexandrous, there is more to the trees than their abundant fruit. They show that there is still a strong Greek presence in Baltimore. Helen Johns, a Greektown activist, told me that the fig trees help Greek-Americans identify with the towns and villages they've left behind and connect families to their ancient heritages.

"The fig tree is everything," she told me. "If you don't have any, someone in the neighborhood will make sure you get some. It's almost like a welcoming."

Which is exactly what it was for me that day in the Alexandrous' backyard.

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