My first real connection with the wider world started with a little goat, a katsikaki, as it was called in the tiny arid villages of central Greece. I was a teenager at the time, on my first trip out of the United States. I had just spent a few weeks at a Greek Orthodox camp on the western shores of the country, and now I was traveling into the heart of the Peloponnese with my yiayia and papou to spend a week at Papou’s childhood home.
A distant relative was driving and as we crawled along the rutted and twisted roads of Arcadia, my grandmother told me stories and taught me Greek in the back seat while the men sat up front, smoking silently as we rode. The road dipped and curled, backtracking endlessly upon itself as we climbed and descended the mountains and valleys. Although the windows were down, it felt as though we were looking through dirty glass as the dust swirled around us and the brown scrubgrass, muted green olive trees, and hazy summer sky melted together in a miasma of July heat. The car seemed to float across the landscape, its progress slow but steady in the oppressive warmth and constant thrum of cicadas and other chirping insects.
When she was young, Yiayia said, she had been rich and pretty and courted by many wealthy Greek suitors. She talked of trips on the Orient Express and her engagement to a young shipping magnate who had given her a silver ring encrusted with diamonds to herald the connection between the two aristocratic families. But that union was not meant to be, as my headstrong grandmother threw over the young scion for a dashing and hardworking immigrant new to America – my Papou.
It was his village we were riding to – a remote enclave of some 100 people, isolated and poor, deep in the heart of the mainland. Even the name conjured up images of ancient, black-garbed peasants, gnarled olive trees, mangy scrounging dogs, and mule paths that were now used as roads. Thoughts of the Orient Express, or even Athens, lay irretrievably far away as we pulled into the town square, a tiny area in front of the church. Old women emerged from the tiny stucco houses to wrap themselves around Papou’s neck – the long-lost son of the village. The widows fairly keened over my grandfather’s arrival, but the children and young adults turned their attention to me – a blonde, green-eyed teenager in a jean skirt.
The week passed in slow motion, with morning trips up the hill to fresh water wells and afternoon gatherings in the tiny square for coffee and too-sweet pastries. Knots of old men and widows clustered in the streets, and farm animals emerged from under the houses to roam the village by day. The goats were the ring leaders, the billies bullying and the ewes taking up camp where they wished. Their babies, the katsikakia, were still innocent and irresistibly darling. The little one that lived under our house was my favorite, with its narrow head and silky ears. It scampered on the slender legs of a fawn and craved affection like a puppy as it moved its soft body into my legs. I spent hours with the tiny kid, hiding in the cool stone pen under the house, traipsing along with him to the well, and feeding him extra morsels of food away from the watchful eyes of Aunt S and Uncle T, my elderly hosts.
Finally, it was time to leave the village and return to Athens. Our bags were packed, the car was checked for the return drive, and goodbyes were said throughout the village. Sweet little Aunt S set the table with her finest belongings and spent the afternoon cooking a farewell feast for my grandparents and me. The house was festive; delicious aromas filled the air and the adults were cheerful as they sipped their retsina and smoked companionably on the grapevine-draped porch.
We took our seats at the table and were touched at the time and expense our poor relatives had invested in this meal. It might be years before American visitors came again, and S threw everything into making our last night special. The wine continued to flow, the small plates were passed, and S left to bring in the main course. She walked through the blue-painted door with a huge platter in her hands and a look of pure pride and happiness on her face. She came straight toward me. Puzzled, I glanced at my yiayia; the adults were always served first here. Aunt S beamed; “To katsikaki sou! …your little goat!” Stunned, horrified, nearly hysterical, I looked back at my grandmother. “Smile,” she hissed. “Say thank you … and eat it.”
I grew up that day, choking down this token of my relatives’ love and respect for me and my grandparents. They had given to me what I loved most in that tiny village and, as wrong as it all seemed to me at the time, it remains a hauntingly strong memory of that first trip away from home.