A writer learns about home, heroes and heritage on a trip with his father to his ancestral village.
With ancient ruins very much defining the present-day landscape of the country, a journey through Greece also makes a writer view his father with fresh eyes. Photo by: PITK/Shutterstock
The old man’s up before dawn—trying, as usual, to get the jump on sunrise. I can hear him puttering around in the guest room, zipping and unzipping his suitcases in the manic, obsessive-compulsive routine I’ve witnessed since childhood. For as long as I can remember, my dad has been tight-fisted with time: hunched over maps on the kitchen table, tracing the route that might save a couple of minutes on the Garden State Parkway or bypass a bottleneck on the Long Island Expressway. Hardwired by immigrant thrift to wring every ounce of productive energy out of the day, he hoards his minutes and hours the way he used to clip coupons from the Sunday paper.
Two days after arriving in Athens, we’re on our way to the Agrafa, a mountainous region at the southern end of the Pindus range that forms the spine of central Greece. The drive should take five or six hours, depending on the mood of both the rental car and the septuagenarian behind the wheel. A different man might’ve taken things at a leisurely pace: short cups of thick Greek coffee beneath the grapevines in my uncle’s garden; fresh-baked bread from the fornos; heading north along the coastal road that hugs the Aegean, stopping for ice cream at a resort town packed with toy poodles and sun-flushed Bavarian tourists. But my dad’s determined to make good time, even though 10 years into retirement, time is something he has in abundance. At the breakfast table he eats head down, elbows out, shovelling the food into his mouth like a condemned man with minutes to live.
The Agrafa is the place that made him: Buried behind its imposing peaks is the village of his birth. Geographically and temperamentally, the region constitutes a particular strain of Greek stubbornness. The mountainous hinterlands stretching north, toward the Albanian border, have resistance all but baked into the soil. During the 19th-century War for Independence they were the stronghold of the kleftes (literally, “thieves”), bandits, and highway robbers who in turn became freedom fighters against the Turks. When Italian troops came marching down from the Balkans in the Second World War, it was my robust mountain ancestors who repelled them. (A short-lived triumph: Outraged by their ally’s humiliation, the Germans would send in their own occupying army, to devastating effect.) These are hard-nosed, hard-headed people. Stubborn, like my old man.
Almost every summer he returns to his horio, his village, to reminisce, rekindle old friendships, and nurse the grudges he’ll take back to his New Jersey retirement community, along with a deep farmer’s tan and several gallons’ worth of his cousin Spiros’s homemade honey. Part of my reason for coming to Greece is to better understand the place that shaped him, a man who’d get a root canal from a proctologist if the guy had Hellenic blood. But I also want to see if I’ll recognise something of myself in the toothless yokels I imagine to be populating the local tavernas. That is to say, if I’m indeed my father’s son.
I watch him loading suitcases into the trunk, tendons bulging on his muscular forearms. The breaths come out of his mouth in short, percussive blasts. I’ve seen paramedics rushing gunshot victims to the emergency room with less urgency. We pull out with a brief, ceremonial toot of the horn. My uncle doffs his Pebble Beach baseball cap and flaps it cheerfully into the wind. The GPS’s arrival time moves from 11:48 to 11:49. “We lost a minute,” my dad says, grimly staring ahead.
“Take Greece away from the world—all that they accomplished—and what’s left?” my father says to me, the car bolting past parched olive groves and fields full of dingy sheep. The implicit answer is unwashed Neanderthals keeling over in their caves. “If you look in the dictionary, all the diseases, they have Greek names,” he reminds me.
“Pop, I’m sure they could find other names for them,” I tell him. “In Latin, maybe.”
My dad thinks this over and gives a derisive snort. “Architecture!” he says. “Philosophy!”
The road climbs through the foothills. My dad turns to cast a long gaze across the Thessaly valley, broiling under the harsh summer sun. If anything, nearly half a century in the lap of American empire has only hardened my dad’s dedication to the patrída. Hellenic greatness, both real and imagined, is as much a foundation stone of Greek identity as Aristotle and the Acropolis, and close to a decade of economic free fall has done little to dent pride in this country as the fount of ancient civilisation. To be Greek is to be endlessly acquainted with that separation and loss. Like the feelings stirred by the melancholy light settling over the Mediterranean each evening, hearts here brim with bittersweet longing for something ineffable, just out of reach.
I crack the window to whiff the pine trees climbing the mountainside. Fifty years ago, when this was just a narrow, unpaved strip of gravel and goat excrement, my dad and his brother would plod eight hours down into the valley and lead the family donkey to Karditsa, a clamorous town of tough market women and Gypsy traders that had all the charm of a Port Authority bathroom. It’s an incredible story to hear—incredible to imagine my dad, with twin Volkswagens in the garage, with a generous pension plan, with a flat-screen TV that makes his den look like the control room at Cape Canaveral, urging on his jackass like a peasant in a Russian novel.
As a toddler, my dad was forced to leave the village while civil war decimated the countryside. Handling the perilous switchbacks leading to the horio, he tells me about the orphanage where he spent the war years, and the Communist guerrillas who kidnapped children and sent them to training camps in the Soviet bloc. He tells me about the death squads that roamed the villages, and the partisan betrayals that tore families apart, and the German withdrawal in 1944: a scorched-earth campaign whose atrocities are still bitterly remembered by the Greeks.
The longer he goes on, the more the Greece of my dad’s childhood sounds like the fractured places I’ve encountered in my travels: Guatemala, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’m stunned by how little I knew about my father’s country, and about his past. Somehow the dad who’d spent more than four decades rooted to the same zip code, toiling with clockwork precision season after season, had had one of the most interesting lives of anyone I knew. Why, I wondered, had it taken so long for him to share this with me? And why hadn’t I ever asked?
My ancestral village is about the size of a truck stop, no more than a couple dozen houses built along a scraggly hillside and ringed by peaks whose names my dad can’t remember. Arriving on our cousins’ doorsteps, we’re welcomed with outpourings of rustic hospitality: fresh yogurt, homemade preserves, candied desserts made with fruits plucked from the orchards out back. When lunchtime comes, the tables are loaded with roast lamb, spinach pies, goat cheese, olives the size of a newborn’s fist. The paradox about these rough mountain hinterlands is that, while among Greece’s poorest, they’ve weathered the economic crisis better than most: Just about everything goes from farm to table in the span of 20 steps. The land is fecund, the gardens so abundant you just have to shake a few stalks for a hearty salad to plop onto your plate. As we leave the house of an old woman baptised by my grandfather, the village cantor, more than 70 years ago, she fills our arms with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, figs. “Ti allotheleis?” she asks my father. What else do you want? Pausing outside, she stoops to pick two sprigs of basil and presses them into my hand.
The memories of my childhood visits come back to me. Xenia, that particular brand of Hellenic hospitality, is perhaps the essence of the Greek experience. It conjures images of joyful tumult, of feasts on saints’ days, of reckless abundance. No wonder the philhellenic bug bit so many generations of travellers. Lord Byron was a regular one-man chain gang when it came to clearing the scrubby fields of Greek provincialism in order to lay down the fertiliser of high romanticism. “If I am a poet,” he declared, “the air of Greece has made me one.”
Fine words, to be sure. But it’s one thing to breathe Greek air and another thing entirely to have a Greek family. It doesn’t take long for me to realise that behind the doors swung open by cheerful cousins are dark corners cobwebbed with village intrigues. At every house we visit, our relatives pour out their grievances: over backstabbing neighbours, or wily in-laws, or stingy cousins in far-flung provinces. My father soaks up these complaints like he’s settling into a warm bath. Through the years he’s rigorously catalogued the ways he’s been wronged. Nothing seems to animate my dad like the sense that someone’s played him for a fool, and here he finds an audience made all the more captive by the fact that they’re likely to start gossiping about his own tight-fistedness as soon as they usher us out the door.
There’s a single taverna in town, Voula’s, which my father circles past every hour, looking for familiar faces. By late afternoon the tables are full of ruddy men shovelling back plates of bean stew and sausages; they drink prodigiously, shot after shot of village rotgut. Though most are old enough to collect whatever meagre pensions the government can still offer, they have a look of mountain vigour about them: strong hands, big appetites, laughter that rattles the roof beams. Judging by the empty carafes of moonshine soon cluttering the table, I suggest to my dad as we leave that we’d gotten on famously. His jaw tenses. “They all seem nice,” he says to me, “but they’re probably fighting like cats and dogs.”
Sunday morning. Church bells are Dopplering across the valley. The morning’s Byzantine church service, recited in its archaic, ecclesiastical Greek, has probably been performed without amendment since the Great Schism; we breeze through in time for the communion wine. Afterward, as the congregation gathers by the door, my dad slips on a pair of shades with the word “Ironman” branded on the frame. “When you go outside, you have to put your sunglasses on so they can’t see your eyes,” he says to me.
This isn’t exactly how I’d pictured the week unfolding. Driving up from Athens, I’d imagined a triumphant return to a village I haven’t seen in 30 years, when my brothers and I were pint-size celebrities—the little Amerikanakia in tube socks and short shorts, pumping drachmas into the arcade games in the back of cousin Pericles’ store. But throughout the week we have to steer clear of certain homes. The enmities are, in the manner of most family dramas, timeless and of obscure origin. Zigzagging our way past his estranged sister’s house one afternoon, I think about how every slight through the years has made its way into my dad’s moral ledger. It’s possible that what I’d imagined to be a personality tic is in fact rooted in the horio. To see him here, among the generations of grumps and grouches who populate our family tree, is to recognise the source of a temperament as coarse as the Greek gravel crunching beneath our feet.
But I meet a different man here too, reminiscing over shots of cheap village hooch: an animated storyteller, hands shuttling the air in front of him, the way a weaver works his loom. All week long the stories come gushing out. My dad’s face seems younger, bright-eyed and mischievous, transforming him into the village prankster of 70 years ago. “I remember …” he’ll say to me, stopping outside an old stone house, a riverbed, a nondescript pile of rocks. The Greece that had always seemed as distant to me as the land of Homer and Sophocles comes alive in the horio, so that the sheep pens and poplars and homemade beehives remind me of a place I’ve always known. Even a language I can speak only in simple sentences sounds more fluid here, its very cadences stirring something deep inside the hippocampus. All of this, I realise, is part of my life’s story—an inheritance that, much like my thinning hair, is scripted into my DNA.
One afternoon we climb the back roads to the village cemetery. The gate is loose and squeaks on its hinges. My dad swings it open with a disapproving grunt. He goes sloughing through the overgrown grass, pausing at each of the headstones to recite the names and deeds of the dead.
I stop to think about that summer night almost 50 years ago, when as a young seaman my dad decided to jump ship in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Though in his telling he leaped headlong into his new American life that night, the truth is that a part of him never left the horio. He’s been bound to this place by love and longing, no more able to shake it than he could the heavy, telltale accent that’s stayed with him through the many years of his American exile. Somehow none of this felt so obvious before. I had to travel halfway around the world to meet my Greek father for the first time.
Tramping through the grass, I stop beside a grave with our surname chiselled into the headstone. Written in Greek, it’s somehow both my own and something else entirely. Nearby two peroxide blondes are stooped behind a grave, rummaging through a wooden cabinet full of cleaning supplies. The tombstones are scrubbed down daily by widows and sisters and daughters who meticulously plump the plastic floral displays and tend to the brass lanterns, keeping their candles burning. My father says a few words to them and then introduces his American son. I don’t catch their names, but I know they’re family, still.
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