Chios, Greece - (map)
Our hotel lies one block from the Chios main port and I decided to spend the final moments of evening light by the water. I found an empty bench on the walkway lining the harbor's edge. The water's surface was calm, still, and looked soft like velvet. Boats floated by, lights reflected off the water's surface, and local residents were out for an evening stroll. Parents pushed babies in strollers, lovers held hands, and friends conversed. People seemed to have no particular destination or time restraints - they were out to just enjoy the evening together. It gave me a wonderful feeling of community and that all was well in Chios.
Behind me cars and motorcycles zipped by on the street and a long row of cafes did a brisk business serving beer and coffee to customers at the outdoor tables. I watched as an old woman started to cross the busy street, hobbling with a cane. Her large plump body was easy to spot and the traffic stopped quickly, leaving plenty of space for her to cross. I chuckled when she paused in the middle of the street to shout a few cross words, wave her cane in the air, and wag her finger at the vehicles, as if to reprimand and warn them not to approach any closer. The growing long line of cars just waited patiently until she had hoisted her large body safely on to the curb before resuming their activity.
She turned my direction and when she approached, it was as if we had been good friends for a long time. Her entire face lit up and, despite all the empty space on the bench, she plopped down so close to me our hips touched. She grabbed my arm, squeezed it with affection, and began to rapidly speak in Greek. Not wanting to embarrass her, I meekly told her I only spoke English, hoping she understood. She paused to look at me carefully, studying my face and then with a comprehending nod responded, "Ah, English!" I smiled in relief thinking I was saved from an awkward situation.
But then she went right on speaking Greek! I tried to listen as words gushed from her mouth but I understood nothing - after all, it was all Greek to me. Eventually I just relaxed, watched her gestures and got the gist of her words. She pointed to passing boats, giving what sounded like a discourse on each one. She discussed the passers-by and grew particularly animated when babies passed. At one point, she paused long enough to fish in her large handbag and produce a piece of gum for me. I chewed happily with minty breathe as she continued to talk and explain an injury, pointing to her wrapped ankle and silver-tipped cane. Through it all I nodded frequently, content to be a listening ear.
After a while she gave my arm another affectionate squeeze, stood, and slowly began her next journey - to the next bench over. The sun had set by now and I headed back to my hotel in twilight, thankful for the chatty encounter.
Chios, Greece - (map)
We traveled today with Bill (or Vasili as he is known in Greece) and his family to the village of his father's childhood. Rather than write about this ourselves, Bill was kind enough to write this excellent entry for us:
I stood watching from the shore beneath the afternoon sun, thinking how they must feel. Much time had passed since they said their good-byes. And a lot had taken place. Like two energetic kids without a care in the world, the men splashed and swam about the warm Northern Aegean water as I sat on one of the large black stones that blanketed the beach.
"Swim on out here, you chicken!" Stamatie exclaimed to my dad from the shore's far reaches.
"You better hope I don't" he replied. "If I get my hands on you, you're going under!" he said before cracking into laughter.
It was the first time I heard my dad called a chicken. And I was thrilled.
My dad told me countless childhood stories of he and his best friend, Stamatie, swimming in this very spot. The two grew up together in the rural Greek Island village that sat 1,000 meters above our heads, carved out from the rugged mountain side.
"The water is crystal clear which you can see to the bottom – even from the village" he would tell me as I lay in bed.
Stamatie then focused his attention to me, still on the rock, as I watched this momentous occasion unfold.
"Yasou Vasili!" he bellowed in a deep rich tone. "Get out here!" he added, cupping his mouth while staying afloat.
I made my way to the water. The black stones were smooth, pill-shaped and large enough to stand on. I couldn't stay on any particular rock for more than a few seconds as they retained the sun's heat quite well, scorching the bottoms of my feet. Each rock served as a springboard to the next, which led me to the refreshing placid water that had been calling my name for years.
"I was home" I thought to myself after diving beneath the surface and watching a school of fish swim by.
I came up gasping for air and saw dad and mom, now in the water's depths with Stamatie. Then I looked for my wife. I turned back towards shore and saw her, my unparalleled inspiration, swimming with Tim, another inspiration. A dear friend and cohort of inebriated mayhem of years past; Tim was an ever-evolving individual in search of his next adventure. His girlfriend Michelle, I learned, was cut from the same cloth.
Tim and Michelle were traveling the world. They quit their jobs, left all behind and would go on to inspire anyone who would ever read their exotic and captivating stories posted on their web site. Starting in Panama and continuing through the hidden worlds of Asia, they made their way to Greece joining Cecilia and I along with thirty-six other family members and friends from the States, for our wedding. The site of Cecilia and Tim swimming together, back dropped on the opal beach humbled me in the same manner as did the site of my dad and Stamatie picking up where they had left off forty-six years earlier.
Earlier that day I had rented a Jeep, which gave me a sense of security for what lay ahead. Tim secured the magnificently compact Fiat Panda, whose tires were as wide as a ten-speed bicycle. We left the town center and followed signs to the village, and started by climbing a series of treterous switchbacks that propelled us high over the town center, giving us a breathtaking view of the port and neighboring Turkey. The road had no guardrails to keep us from plummeting over its narrow path. The steep road kept us at a constant incline while our seats bore the brunt of our weight. With every hair pinned turn I met, I could feel my heart pound in sync with the revving engine. In the Jeep, we sat perched even higher from the road's surface. But I remained cool and toggled between first and second gears with a smooth clutch action allowing for a sweet symphony to emanate from the transmission below. I felt pretty good.
"You know, Vasili failed the maneuverability portion of his driver's test" mom said.
Silence fell on us all as she laughed out loud in a hearty tone, breaking the tension that she just had supplied.
The only person in the Jeep with me who didn't feel any fear was dad. On this very road which was once a dirt and stone path, he and his uncle would make the 10-hour trek to the town center by donkey to sell their harvests of olives, plumbs and lemons. Now things were in perspective and with one eye on the road and the other focused on the Panda in my rear view mirror, we continued up the mountainside to the village.
A lifetime of questions and events ran through my mind as we passed olive, fig, lime, and almond groves. I thought back to my childhood in a small Ohio, steel mill town. Most of Egrigoros' inhabitants immigrated there in the 1950's, after learning of the plethora of unskilled and highly paid steel-mill jobs. My great uncle Modestos led the wave. He first arrived, scouted the land, and sent back word for the rest to follow. It was a prosperous time filled with unheard possibilities for those who came from the village's dirt floor homes. In America they were able to buy land, fertile, unlike the rocky mountainside to which they were accustomed. They built homes with indoor plumbing, and garaged black topped driveways, which they filled with automobiles. This, along with every other hair-raising notion of what America offered, called them in droves.
When the recession of the 1980's hit, the small town felt its impact. The treat of Japanese steel crept into our sleepy hollow, forcing riotous union meetings, wildcat strikes and crippling work stoppages. All feared for the worst. Husbands were laid-off and wives sought work cleaning homes and ironing clothes. Slowly, the steel mills began to grind to a debilitating halt, which transcended to every immigrant's kitchen table.
"Times were tough," I thought to myself, but we somehow managed.
As we neared the village, we were greeted by kilometers of Sparta bushes lining the road. They were small bright yellow flowers whose intoxicating fragrance wanted to put me to sleep. They filled the air, setting the tone for that June afternoon. With Cecilia as my navigator, ever glued to a map, we passed a sign that read "Egrigoros, 2km."
"I never thought I'd ever see that," I said to my passengers, recalling my dream of visiting the place of my father's birth.
After our hour-and-a-half long vertical climb, we arrived in the village. Egrigoros was comprised of fifty or so small huddled homes, all of which were hand built of stone and mortar with terracotta and slate roofs. Some homes were built into the mountain itself. Others stood freely, tethered to poles by telephone, electrical, and clotheslines. There were no streets in the village, only cemented walking paths, which intimately wrapped around the houses connecting the families as one. We learned that less than six families live in the village year round. Each family, whose roots were planted in Egrigoros, still kept a home here. Most were in great condition as they served as summer retreats. Others still, were neglected and overgrown with fig trees, Sparta, and wild brush.
At the top of the village sat the olive oil factory, which I later learned was built by another uncle of mine who had operated it for the past 35-years. As we drove down the village's dirt road entrance and parked our cars, I saw a lone man standing at the far end.
He seemed tall and strong, and was lit by the descending sun. A coifed thick white cloud of hair hung over his stark black eyebrows. Then I saw his eyes, sheer blue in color, radiating warmth as they introduced themselves.
"Stamatie" I whispered to myself.
"Yasou Modestos!" he enthusiastically yelled out which seemed to have echoed throughout Egrigoros and on to the neighboring village.
"Yasou Stamatie!" dad replied, matching his excitement.
The men greeted one another like brothers. Their hands met for a much overdue handshake, which pulled them into each other's arms, laughing like the kids they were.
Everything at that moment seemed to move in a slow and subtle manner. I turned to Cecilia who could only smile watching the moment. My brothers were taken aback by Stamatie, as was I, who looked just as he did in the only photograph we had of him. It was taken the day dad left the village. Both teenagers were proudly dressed in suites, standing with arms on the other's shoulders. Much hadn't changed. Mom ran to Stamatie and embraced him with a loving hug. I then turned to Tim and Michelle who simply watched as the villagers came running out, welcoming us all to their home.