I still remember my first school book – the Αλφαβητάριο, (Alfavitario). It’s in the pages of this book that I learnt to read my first words - Λά, Λά, όλα Λά, Λά, Λόλα (La La Ola, La La Lola). It’s also in the pages of this book that I read my very first poem about swallows, and saw my first picture of swallows – one was flying towards a nest towards two open-mouthed baby birds.
Stories, pictures and poems of swallows – or Χελιδόνια (helidonia) – also featured in my school book the next year, and the year after that. In fact, swallows featured in so many of our books as we were growing up, which explains why our generation loves swallows so much – we were always taught that they were a natural part of our environment, something to look out for and look forward to.
As children, we’d always know that the swallows would start arriving in February and March, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring. My older brother Loris – who was always the one to answer my questions, and who remains to this day my walking library – had told me that the swallows came all the way from Africa and that they would stay until July.
Like me, he also remembers how we’d run in and out of the house as children, accompanied by the swallows darting in and out of open doors and windows, our singing and shouting accompanied by their twittering and chirping.
Swallows had made their nests on the ceiling of our bedroom – something that was considered a great blessing and a sign of happiness and prosperity. It was unthinkable to remove a swallow’s nest once they had settled – like refusing a winning lottery ticket!
So, when we were visited by our swallows, doors were left open from early morning until late evening, and we welcomed the new family into our own. My father even built little platforms under their nests to protect our beds from their droppings.
But even when you weren’t lucky enough to have swallows in your own home, children in Greece would always welcome the arrival of swallows and the coming of spring with "The Helidonismata".
This is a tradition on 1 March, when children would go around neighbourhoods holding a paper swallow and singing a song about their arrival.
This was just one of the many songs we had about our favourite birds. There were countless songs, poems, children’s stories and folk tales that featured swallows.
In Cyprus, for example, we find the swallow (‘sielioni’ or ‘sielionatzin’ in the Cypriot dialect) as a love symbol in poetry:
Πέμπω σου σαιρετίσματα με το σελιονάτζιν,
Εσούνι πίννεις το νερόν μα εγιώ πίννω φαρμάτζιν.
(I am sending you regards with the swallow, you drink water but I drink poison)
Αγαπώ σε τζ' αγαπάς με,
θέλεις με τζαί θέλω σε,
πέμπω το σελιονάτζιν τζαι μηνώ τζαι φέρνω σε.
(I love you and you love me, you want me and I want you, I send the swallow to message you to come)
Σελιονάτζιν να γινώ,
στα σείλη σου να κάτσω,
να σε φιλήσω μιά τζαί δκυό
τζαί πάλαι να πετάσω.
(I will become a swallow, in order to sit on your lips, to kiss you once and twice and again to fly away)
Next time you see swallows flying past with their characteristic scissor-shaped tail, remember that this is a bird that holds a special place in the hearts of Greeks and Cypriots!