Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Searching for Your Roots

There seems to be a natural pull from the past for people to seek out information about their ancestors. I'd venture to say this is the reason for so many websites:,, my . . . They go on and on. For us Americans our heritage usually lies in another country, unless of course, you are a descendent of a Native American. This may be the reason I was so attracted to my Greek husband in the first place. His foreign status reminded me of my Italian heritage that had been washed clean in an American suburb. The Greekness was so concrete and defined and familiar . . . but it was his, not mine.

I wanted it.

There's nothing worse than a convert, right? And I think I've proven that. Once I securely harnessed the wild Greek with a marriage license, I dove head first into the Greek culture, dragging my Italian extended family with me. (Nick's family were all in Greece.) And I was so successful that my nephew, Steven, with my Italian brother as his father and a mother who came from the nicest Long Island Brooklyn-Italian stock, came home from kindergarten one day with a heritage project sporting a large Greek flag. My brother, Jim, had a talk with him but I'm not sure Steven accepted it completely. Twenty years later he went to Greece for his honeymoon. . . I'm just sayin'

Cousin Dina, Tom, Nikki and Cousin Marianna
But this seems to be true for others as well. In my visits to Margariti, Greece, I've come across many Brits and Australians looking for evidence of their past. Some are former vacationers who had a memorable summer in their youth with a local Greek while others are themselves Greeks--children or grandchildren looking for evidence of their past. One in particular stands out in my mind. She was a young woman from Australia. She'd come to find her heritage and I was there alone with my kids that year. It was a very difficult situation for us both and when we found each other it was like finding water in a desert.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Face of Courage

Chevi & daughter, Anastasia
Imagine you are a young child running for your life, from an enemy of whom you’re certain wants you dead or enslaved. You’re being guided by the one person you trust the most: your mother. And yet at the very moment that you feel freedom is but a breath away, you are sent to your death by that trusted person. 

This is the story of Anastasia Lykas from the villages of Souli, in Epirus Greece. She was my mother-in-law, Chevi’s, great grandmother and her spirit remains in one of Chevi's daughters, a namesake—Anastasia, a woman of strength and determination.

Near the village of Zalogo atop the majestic cliffs that overlook the Preveza Bay and its lush green valley, stands a monument to those brave women who fled their enemy in 1803 during the Souliotes  War. One of them was twelve-year-old Anastasia Lykas. The monument is barely visible from the main road, but it remains an important tribute to the memory of those women, forced to make an unforgivable choice so their children would not experience an even greater horror.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

You're not Greek unless. . .

To be truly Greek is to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. The number of times a person attends church afterwards is not relevant nor is that person's lifestyle. Simply, you must have been baptized in the Orthodox Church to make the claim.

I did not make that plunge until Nick and I were twenty years into our marriage. I had taught Sunday school at the Orthodox Church and dragged my kids every week to those services and to church celebrations while Nick worked. In fact, Nick was there so rarely that at one church-filled Easter service Father John jokingly looked at him standing under a gargantuan chandelier and made a hand movement for him to move aside, first looking up at the light fixture and then at Nick, as if to say, just incase God enjoys irony.

Years before, however, as a young mother, having married outside my own faith and feeling the strain of being an outsider, I agreed to have our children undergo this major Greek blessing.

Nikki was baptized by Father John in St. John's Greek Orthodox Church on Long Island at the oblivious age of six weeks, as was common among my side of the family, the Catholics. However, Thomas was baptized by Father Basil from Senitsa. The ceremony took place in the Margariti church in Greece and at two and a half years old, Thomas was old enough to protest and call out to us while Nikki tried to execute an escape.  

Here is an excerpt from  the memoir, The Nifi:

     I helped Akis gently lift my son from his mangled clothing. Thomas liked his adolescent Godfather very much, as he was someone who always seemed to have time for fun, but that unwelcome new activity was now creating a scowl of distrust on Thomas' face. 
     "No! Go out." His little finger pointed to the church door, but he was quickly whisked away and was being carried up to the caldron of holy water near the altar, his cries escalating.
     I kept one hand on his warm back as I tried to keep pace with the others. 
     "I'm here honey. . . I'm here."
    "Hey, what are you doing to my brother!?" Nikki grabbed at the robes of the priest as he took the screaming little boy in his arms. She was readying to execute some kind of rescue as she pulled back her leg for a kick and I wondered at the wisdom of subjecting small children to such a ritual. 
     The relatives stood about with big smiles, talking and pointing at Nikki as she continued her efforts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Bed in the Yard

Without a doubt, the weather of Greece invites an outdoor lifestyle and with it comes the need for outdoor furniture. In the U.S. lawn furniture can be as fancy as a cushioned couch or as cheap as a metal put-together-with-spit-and-glue chair. In Epirus, Greece, those white plastic chairs that the gypsies sell off the back of trucks, are most likely what sit on balconies and in yards. However, before the 1990s, an overturned wooden box or the steps of a house, were a perfectly good place to sit.
And for siesta, there was always a bed out in the yard. Every house had one. I remember the peculiarity of it when I first came in 1983. But then those beds faded into the familiar background as the years progressed, until they slowly ceased to exist. This photo shows Cousin Evangelini at her house in 1988 preparing for siesta.

A bed outdoors had the same function as an outdoor lounge chair but really more practical when you think about it because it could be used inside or outside. In those days, there was no money to waste on something that would have a limited function -- like outdoor furniture, at least not until the EU money started to flow. And ione wanted to sit outside, rather than recline, a wooden or metal chair could easily be dragged from the house.

It wasn't until many years later that plactic products emerged with a vengeance. In fact, I helped to increase the barely-existent Epirote global footprint by bring plastic ziploc bags and plastic tupperware containers because I was not satisfied with the cloth that was laid over the food as protection from flies or the leftovers in the refrigerator, uncovered. Alas, I hold my head in shame.

After the two o clock meal, shops closed for the four hour “siesta.” And all movement stopped – even the animals slept. There was neither a bark nor a tweet (only a few light snores emerging from those beds) and it was a silence I've not heard since.  At first, it seemed odd to give so much time to the day for something as useless as sleep, but then as time went on, I could feel my eyelids grow heavy as I ate the afternoon meal and it just seemed natural.

My daughter, Nikki, however, wasn't having it. She never did see the point. On the other hand, Thomas, my son, was a true sleeper so he was completely on board with it all, no matter where we happened to be at the time. I also embraced it, though I usually slept less than an hour. But I would wake up so refreshed and ready to start anew.

There is something about having everyone around you just stop and regenerate. I long for those siestas when I'm away from Margariti. There is wisdom in such a custom.