The books shown on the left are by Mike Papasavas. Click on the cover to order.
This interview was conducted by Douglas R. Cobb on November 19, 2010.
I'm here today with the author of a memoir that I found to be very gripping and page-turning, Three Grains of Wheat. It is about how sometimes the smallest things, like three grains of wheat, can make a big difference in the courses of our lives. At times, the author felt divinely guided, because at crucial turning points in his life, when he most needed help, he would encounter certain people who would provide him with the faith, hope, and other assistance he needed to carry on.
Thanks, Mike, for graciously agreeing to do this interview with me. Your memoir is one of the best I've ever read, and your odyssey that led you eventually to America is one I'm sure will fascinate our readers.
Douglas R. Cobb: At various times in your memoir, you mention journals you wrote in that you later referred to as you wrote your life story. I was wondering about how old were you when you first started writing in a journal, and why did you initially do so? Were you still living in Greece at the time you began using journals?
Mike Papasavas: I started writing my journal when I arrived in Germany. I was 20 years old and for posterity reasons I wanted to record my daily events, not only what I did that day, but the thoughts I’d made about my actions as well as the actions and reactions of others. At the end of each day I was writing about a third of a page. I wrote it in Greek, but in some very personal or sensitive situations, I was using either French or German words.
During my German adventure, I luckily had the foresight to record my observations and perceptions for posterity in a journal. As I look back on some of these entries with twenty-twenty hindsight, the scope of my naiveté, gullibility, and immaturity is embarrassingly evident—
along with proof positive that I had a definite flair for blowing certain events all out of proportion. (My readers will hopefully laugh along with me as my journal tattles on me for these and other youthful foibles).
Douglas R. Cobb: The three grains of wheat you placed under a rock one day you were helping your father with his farming was important to you, because they were symbolic of something. What were they symbolic of, Mike?
Mike Papasavas: When I placed the three grains under the stone, I promise myself that I would always remember that moment as a milestone for my commitment to abandon the village life and seek unexplored horizons. This was an act as if I wanted to bury the farmer’s life the same way the three grains would have never grown to their full potential under the rock. However, my subconscious symbolism of the number three had to do with the “Holy Trinity”.
Douglas R. Cobb: The train voyage you take from Greece to Bonn, Germany, was obviously an important turning point in your life. Is this why you write about your earlier years as memories, or flashbacks, which you had on the train ride, to demarcate your earlier years from the period when you made the oath happen, symbolized by the three grains of wheat, and left your old life behind to start a new one?
Mike Papasavas: I was committed to move on forward and start a new chapter of my life. The three grains of wheat were popping in and out of my mind to remind me that I should forgo my old self and what I left behind. I was totally convinced I would succeed in something, although I didn’t know at the time what “that something” was.
Douglas R. Cobb: You mention a couple of dramatic memories you had of living under the Nazis when you were younger, in Greece. Would you please tell our readers what happened to your father when he refused to cooperate with the Nazis? Also, to what extent would you say that living under Nazi occupation affected your life?
Mike Papasavas: My father was charged with concealing part of our own dry goods, instead of turning every food-related product over to the Nazis. I vividly remember the moment when the Nazis handcuffed my father because he concealed some of his own wheat so that he could feed his family instead of turning all of it to the Germans. I was truly shaken by all this, and my tear-filled eyes were glued on my father, who surprisingly maintained a calm disposition. I even noticed a tinge of a forced smile when he came close to me and, while putting his handcuffed hands on my head, he said, “Don’t worry son, everything is going to be fine.”
After my father was taken to jail in a black Mercedes, my hatred for the German soldiers peaked to an intense, white-hot anger. I wanted revenge! I was willing to do anything to get even with those black-hearted (Black hearted) bullies who took my father away.
Douglas R. Cobb: What are two or three important life lessons you learned when you were younger in Greece that helped you become a success later in your life?
Mike Papasavas: Never accepted the status-quo; trusted my instinct and that everything is possible if you don’t lose focus of your goal. Yes, I took risks, but I also knew that God would never give me more than I could handle. As in 1 Corinthians 10:13 “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”
Douglas R. Cobb: Who did you meet on the train who became your friends and aided you in Bonn? Also, who was Mr. Haas, and what role did he play in helping you stay in Germany?
Mike Papasavas: Among the key characters in the book is Edith Bahr – an English teacher in Bonn, whom I met on the train and later we formed a close (friendly?) relationship. She was my tutor in German and I in turn was teaching her Greek because she was planning to teach English in Athens.
Also, after several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a work visa, I was sitting on a bench in a park with my eyes closed, I rested my head in my palms and reminisced. That’s where Mr. Haas and another gentleman stood in front of me asking me if there was anything wrong. Communicating in French, I explained my whereabouts and my work visa difficulty. Mr. Haas was pleasantly surprised to hear that I grew up on the island of Rhodes. He said that he had spent six months in Rhodes near the end of the war. This is the exact conversation that took place:
“I almost fainted when Mr. Haas explained that he was the supervisor of the section that dealt with this type of immigration matter! He asked me to come see him the following day, saying he would personally furnish me with the necessary work permit documents. I looked at the business card he had given me and noticed, with great relief,, that his office was in Bonn. I gripped Mr. Haas’ hand so tightly, I must have cut off his circulation.
In my ecstasy, I exclaimed many thanks to him, to God, to all the German people, and to the whole world. I gushed in the few words I knew in German, “Danke soviel, ich sieht sie morgen”— Thank you so much, I will see you tomorrow”
Again, I asked myself who could have sent these gentlemen to find me in the park on a Sunday afternoon?
Douglas R. Cobb: What act of kindness did you experience at a restaurant at Christmas in Bonn?
Mike Papasavas: Here is what happened on Christmas day:
Late in the afternoon, I took a long walk on Main Street, which, unlike
every other day, was rather deserted. A few people were just passing
through, probably heading for a friend’s or loved one’s home. I wandered
aimlessly, gazing idly at the window displays in the closed stores. A few
bars and restaurants were open, however, and as I was getting a little hungry,
I ended up in a tavern a few blocks from the Post Lounge that our little
group had frequented so many times in the past.
Helga, the barmaid, knew me well and greeted me with a hug and
the usual holiday wishes. I decided to have my Christmas dinner there,
so when I asked Helga to bring me a beer and a knackwurst with sauerkraut,
she offered a crooked smile and told me that the first beer—plus the
food—would be on the house today.
Standing there silently for a moment, lost for words, I hugged Helga
and thanked her profusely for this wonderful gesture, which made my
Christmas away from home a little more bearable and a little more meaningful.
And then, averting her eyes from meeting mine, she wiped a tear
from my cheek.
Douglas R. Cobb: What did you learn about your friend, Heidi, that changed the way you felt about her?
Mike Papasavas: Heidi had a few traumatic experiences during her teenage years specifically intimate relations with her father. The result of the incest was two children being borne and lived with her mother. When I found out about the second child, I was convinced that there was an underlying tendency of instability or weakness with respect to her flirtatious and sexual needs. Here is an incident that changed my feelings about her:
“After we left the lounge and headed to my place, we met some friends
outside another lounge who insisted that we stop for a drink. The six of us,
including Kostas from work, sat at a round table in the middle of the room.
When we were about to finish the first round of drinks, I noticed Heidi was
making frequent eye contact with someone at the next table.
I pretended not to notice her blatant flirting until she excused herself to
go to the restroom, which was literally an outhouse located in the back of
the lounge. When the man she was flirting with followed her half a minute
later, I ran outside to see if my suspicion was justified. To my amazement I saw them standing in the shadows, kissing passionately as if they were
lovers who hadn’t seen one another for a long time.
I could not believe what I was seeing! My vision became blurry, my
blood felt as if it were boiling inside my veins, and my body literally shook
with rage. I rushed toward them, first pulling Heidi away and telling her I
would deal with her later. Heedless of my opponent’s larger size, adrenaline
took over and I started hitting the guy with all my might, striking his
face repeatedly with my fists until he fell on the ground in a bloody mess.
I had some bloodstains on my shirt when I walked inside, a telltale
sign that everyone took to mean I had gotten into a fight. But when they
saw the other guy walking in slowly and drenched in blood, Kostas and the
bartender marveled that I could have beaten a big guy like that. They made
comparisons to David and Goliath.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who was Yanni, and what did he do that made you come to a realization about the nature of some people?
I then dragged Heidi out the front door and, holding her flailing arms,
pushed her hard against the wall and screamed in her face, “How could
you do this to me? Didn’t you do enough already? Didn’t I forget or forgive
all your past wrongdoings? Why, why did you do this?”
“I am so sorry, he just grabbed me when I went outside,” she sobbed.
“No, I don’t believe you! I saw you were not making any effort to get
away from him, so no more lies! I don’t know what else to say. Let’s go
The following morning, after Heidi left, I realized that this incident
could very well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. What
happened was probably a blessing in disguise; far from being trustworthy,
she had revealed herself to be a weak, self-centered person who gave in to
temptation at the drop of a hat when she presumed nobody was watching”.
Mike Papasavas: Yanni was a fellow I met during my vacation in Rhodes, Greece in 1968.We hung out very often and one night and promised to help him fulfill his dream of going to America. I finally managed to bring him to the States after I borrowed money from the bank to pay for his ticket and other expenses, but he promised to pay me back tenfold when he settled in the new country. Six months later he met and married a wealthy lady whose father bought him a ritzy restaurant where Yanni was enjoying the American dream. After a few disappointing events with Yanni, this one was the tipping point:
A few days before the closing on the house I bought, I decided to call my friend, Yanni. With
the help of his father-in-law, he had bought a restaurant that was doing
very well. I asked him if he could lend me about $1000, which I would
repay after I collected the first month’s rent.
At first, he didn’t recognize my voice; neither did he know who I was
when I told him, “This is Mike from Rhodes.” I was getting a little annoyed,
so finally I said, “I’m the person who brought you to this country!”
When he finally realized who I was, he told me all about his restaurant
and said that I should come over for dinner sometime. I then told him that
I had called because I needed a short loan to cover part of the closing costs
for the house I was buying. He said he was willing to give me the money,
but it had to be at the end of the month.
“Yanni, I need the money now, because the closing is in two days,”
I replied. “I was hoping you would say yes, in which case I would drive
down to your place and pick up the check.”
Without missing a beat, Yanni responded, “I’m sorry. I have to wait for
my accountant, who takes care of all my bills twice a month. If you stop
over in two weeks, I will give you the money.”
At that point, I was not only angry, but also hurt that I was getting the
brush-off from someone who had once told me I was his savior and that he
would do anything for me if I ever needed his help.
After pausing for a few seconds, I said heatedly, “Listen, Yanni, and
listen good. I asked you for a favor and you downright refused to help
me. The last time we met, on your wedding day, you treated me like garbage
with that humiliating best man situation. When I left the reception, I
thought I would never speak to you again, but I tried to give our friendship
another chance by asking you to help me out. Well, this will probably be
the last time you and I have a conversation, because you are not worthy of
being called a friend. You are a pitiful excuse for a human being—a selfish,
inconsiderate jerk. Good-bye!”
I hung up the phone without giving him an opportunity to reply.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who knows what certain twist and turns of fate, that we sometimes hate at the time they happen, play in the way our lives turn out, for the better or the worse? What happens while you lived in Germany that caused you to return to your homeland for a few years?
Mike Papasavas: I went to Cologne for the purpose of renewing my
passport, which was about to expire. At the Greek consulate, I was told that they could not renew my passport in Germany and that I should go back to Greece for a few days to receive the required approvals. Despite my pleading for a possible exception, they were not willing to compromise their initial decision, which left me with only one choice: I would have to
go back to Greece.
After visiting with some friends and my two sisters, Despina
and Mary, in the city, my first order of business was the renewal of my
passport. I went to the appropriate service bureau and stumbled across a
huge problem. The gentleman who reviewed my records informed me that
they could not renew my passport because there was an outstanding military
obligation that I had to clear up with the army recruiting office.
At the recruiting office, I told the clerks that I had fulfilled my military
obligation before I traveled to Germany. I showed them the signed papers,
which indicated I was to be excluded from serving in the military since I
was the firstborn male in a family of eight children. I also presented a receipt
showing the amount of money my father had paid to obtain the signed
exclusion document, which I had needed to travel outside the country.
I was then informed that an amendment was currently in effect that
superseded the previous year’s ruling, which had granted exclusion to the
firstborn male from military obligation. Moreover, I would have to serve
in the army for one year! As for the money my father had paid, the clerks
stated it would be returned within a few weeks.
Douglas R. Cobb: How did you get granted leave to attend your sister, Vasilia's, wedding?
Mike Papasavas: While in the Army in Athens, my sister, Vasilia, was about to get married in the
village. At this point of my armed service, I was not yet eligible for a short
leave, so I couldn’t attend the ceremony. When the appeals to my sergeant
failed, a scheme occurred to me.
I approached the lieutenant colonel in charge of the entire base. I told
him I needed a few days’ leave to attend my sister’s wedding, and in turn, I
would bring him a few umbrellas from Rhodes. Umbrellas were one of the
most well-known items imported from Italy, yet a rare bargain in Rhodes
for those on the mainland. The umbrellas would be inexpensive, because
all items bought in Rhodes were duty-free, which made them less than
half the price they would be if purchased in Athens. My idea won over the
lieutenant colonel, who immediately approved my request and granted me a five-day pass.
Douglas R. Cobb: Why did you decide to travel to Canada, a bit later in your life?
Mike Papasavas: I was planning to move to Sweden and took the train to Cologne to get the appropriate visas from the Swedish embassy:
On the train, I saw Vasili, an old coworker, sitting just across from me.
After exchanging pleasantries, I asked him to sit beside me. When I told
him I was going to the Swedish embassy, his face lit up with pleasure.
“What a coincidence!” he exclaimed. “I am also on my way to the
Canadian embassy to get the necessary visa approvals for migrating to
I was intrigued. “What made you choose Canada? Can you tell me a
little more about it?”
“Here, I have some brochures—you can read for yourself,” he said,
handing me two or three folded pamphlets.
By the time we arrived at the station in Cologne, I was enthralled
with the positive benefits of the Canadian lifestyle and the unlimited opportunities
that awaited new immigrants. I also knew that if I immigrated
to Canada, I would be closer to my sister, Despina, who was already in
America, somewhere near New York City. Then and there, I made up my
mind to change boats mid-stream.
Sending Sweden my mental regrets, I followed Vasili to the Canadian embassy instead of going to the Swedish one.
Douglas R. Cobb: Douglas R. Cobb: I really love both of Homer's most famous literary works, The Iliad and The Odyssey. As I read your memoir, Mike, I was struck at the (here's a phrase I also used earlier) many twists and turns your life has taken. That's why I liked reading your comparison of your life to that of Odysseus.
What were a few of the temptations in your own life, that your succumbed to or overcame?
Mike Papasavas: During a ten-day business trip to San Francisco with Ed and Steve (my boss):
When Steve returned from the men’s room, she said to him, “Listen,
I know you’re interested in me, but I like Mike. I’m sorry for being so
direct, but that’s how I am. So if you don’t mind, Mike and I will go sit in
the lounge area.”
Steve was speechless for a few moments, but with his usual, agreeable
tone, he commented, “That’s all right, go ahead. Don’t worry about me,
Mike. Go with her and have fun.”
Sheepishly, I went with the young lady to the lounge area, where we
were alone for a while, enjoying our drinks. The more drinks she had, the closer she sidled up to me on the comfortable couch. At that point, I told
her we should stop before the situation got out of hand.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t continue,” I said. “I’m a happily married man
with two children, and I can’t give you what you’re looking for, so I’m
going back to the bar to join my friends.”
Her lovely face turned the most ominous shade of red and she started
shouting, “So what if you’re married! You’re not the first one or the last,
buster—everybody cheats on their spouse. You can’t just walk away and
leave me like this. I won’t be treated this way!” She looked grotesque now,
this woman scorned, with her face twisted in the agony of rejection.
After she stormed out of the lounge, I felt good about myself for having
the moral principles to resist this most alluring temptation. Back at
the bar, when I told Steve and Ed that I walked away on this bewitching
creature, they thought I was out of my mind. I then brought up the analogy
of how the Greek hero Odysseus had avoided the three Sirens—whose
beautiful singing lured sailors to their death on the rocks surrounding
their island—by ordering his crew to tie him to the mast of the boat so he
couldn’t escape and be seduced by the Sirens’ promises of wisdom and
Just as Odysseus had escaped from the alluring Sirens, so had I escaped
from a mortal temptress. They still thought I was crazy to let an
opportunity like that get away. However, I was satisfied that the decision I
had made—as a devoted husband and father—was the only one possible.
Douglas R. Cobb: There are many more questions I wouldn't mind asking you, Mike, but I'll limit myself to two more.
First, why is it that you don't refer to your name until later in the memoir, and what significance does each of the names have to you?
Mike Papasavas: Frankly, I wanted to disassociate myself from the name Emmanuel as I only recall a completely different person and many unpleasant memories:
It was when I met Angela that I realized I was really a different person,
a transformed individual. Angela managed to evoke many of my dormant
talents that helped me reach new realms of success on the personal, social,
and professional levels. I wanted to forget about the old “me” and I wanted
to forget the name Emmanuel and its derivations—a life void of adventure
and passion. I wanted to erase that part of my past, especially up to my
high school years, which were filled with failures and disappointments, a
period during which nobody thought I would ever succeed in anything of
I liked and I wanted to keep my new name, Mike, as the representation
of a person with elevated values and ideals, the person Angela discovered,
the person I accepted for the first time in my life, the person I was at peace
Douglas R. Cobb: You've had a lot of passions in your life, besides your career and your family, such as music and art.
Which of the other passions would you say has had the greatest influence of your life?
Mike Papasavas: I would succinctly answer this question in the following manner:
Music was my first passion that has not been developed to its full potential outcome
Art followed music as another medium with which I could express my inner feelings
Writing was the outcome of the music and art blend which allowed me to go to a deeper self.
If I had to select one, it had to be music because the suppression of the potentiality of this talent resulted in the spawning of the other artistic forms of expression. But fortunately, my two sons picked up where I left off and became excellent musical artists
Douglas R. Cobb: There is no way I can thank you enough for agreeing to do this interview, Mike, but thank you, anyway! It's been an honor for me to do this interview, because you've led one of the most interesting lives I've ever read about. I wish you many more years of happiness with your family and grandchildren!
Read Our Review of Three Grains of Wheat by Mike Papasavas