As the year comes to a close, the blogging trend seems to be to post an all-inclusive 2014 roundup, but I want to return instead to the beginnings of One Foot Out the Door this year. My inaugural (and still my favorite, so go read it!) post on this blog was called “It Started with a Little Goat.” It told the story of my first real experience with a culture totally unlike my own, a trip that was to be the impetus for a lifetime of curiosity about the world. If you really want to make sense of today’s post, take a trip back in time with me and read that post first. If you are in a hurry to get to this century’s story, plunge in below. (And if a roundup is really all you want, head over to An Eye on the World for a monthly line-up of photos from a few 2014 trips.)
The Village Revisited
When I left my grandfather’s tiny village in Greece, and my relative, Aunt S, decades ago, I had no inkling that I would sit with her on that porch and in that kitchen with my husband, my children, and my parents nearly thirty years later. She seemed elderly when I first met her; would she even be alive when I went back? A few years ago, our family decided to take a trip to Greece to see the country and meet a few distant relatives. At a holiday meal sometime before that, my father and I, over a few glasses of wine, prattled on about how wonderful it would be to go as an extended family, neither really thinking anything would come of this sentimental plan. Pondering it more seriously a few weeks later, I remembered my trip with my own grandparents (the theme of my original post) and realized this was an opportunity for my children and my parents that they might never have again. I broached the idea to my husband and kids and, with their blessing, invited my parents to join us on a vacation to Greece and a pilgrimage to my grandfather’s village.
The village is not an easy place to visit or even find, as I discovered when it fell to me to plan the trip and do the driving. Only some 200 kilometers southwest of Athens and a two-hour drive from Nafplion, where we started our stay, Papou’s village nevertheless feels as remote as a town in the Outback, a tiny village literally at the end of the road in the central Peloponnese. The maps I consulted and printed out before the trip showed a reasonable road up to Megalopolis, a “big city” of 15,000 or so people, then a thinner, but still solid, line off the main route, then a faint, dotted line that inched and curled past another small town to an end in our village.
The Greek that I started learning with Yiayia in the back seat of a car threading its way through the mountains years ago had developed some serious rust, scrubbed away and polished up every so often with a college course here, a Berlitz tutoring session there, some stubborn self-study, and even a little speaking practice with the dog over the years. It was enough to allow me to read the signs and ask directions, although we found in the course of several weeks that the Greeks are not particularly good with directions, a problem that is compounded when the listener catches only a third of the directions each time they are given.
Wedged into a stick-shift van (which only I could drive) with seven people, seven large suitcases, seven day bags, and a few stray purses and bags of snacks, we bounced and wove through the same shimmering Grecian landscape I remembered. Waves of heat lent a blur to the fields of olive trees and mid-summer-brown grasses, while a few wispy white clouds scuttled across a Mediterranean blue sky. An old R.E.M. CD was our soundtrack as we climbed and plunged, curved and skidded on the narrow, gravel-covered roads. Terrifying drop-offs beckoned on one side and then the other as we hairpin-turned our way toward the village.
The road finally came to a T and a small sign pointed to the right. Now we were truly on that dotted line, no more than a dirt path, and we slowly crept the last few minutes into town. My heart beat in my throat as I thought about Yiayia and Papou, now gone almost 20 years, and my days in this place out of time so many years ago. My mother, too, had made a previous visit to the village with her parents in the late 70s; she was feeling, as I was, a mixture of excitement, sadness, apprehension, and nostalgia as we passed the first houses outside the main village. Suddenly, we cried out together as we spotted the big black door closing the family home off from the road.
After an initial certainty that this was the place, we questioned ourselves and continued a few hundred feet farther into the village where we passed the main square and the church. Thinking we might have been mistaken, we started to climb past newer houses on a hill leading deeper into the village. Our progress was immediately halted, however, when the over-sized van could not squeeze between the buildings on either side of the road. We inched backward down a steep hill, tried to back between two other buildings to turn the vehicle around, and listed so far to one side that the far-back-row passengers were sure we were going to tip over.
Descending one by one from the van to the incredulous eyes of a few old men sitting outside a little store, we asked for the house where we had last seen Uncle T and Aunt S. A cheerfully energetic woman emerged from the store and eagerly responded. Yes, she said, S still lived in the house! She would call her right now and tell her we were going to stop by in a few minutes.
To give her a little time before seven American strangers descended upon her, we took a quick detour up the hill to the elementary school that Papou had attended before emigrating to the U.S. Our children seemed slightly more interested in the small school building than they had in any family stories or reminiscences so far, but their pre-adolescent indifference remained frustratingly hard to break through.
A little hot and cranky, we descended to the store and confirmed that S was home and waiting for us. We walked back down the hill and as we approached the gate, tiny Aunt S inched toward us, a huge smile on her radiant face. Clutching my mother and then me, and smiling shyly at the rest of the group, she led us up the crumbled concrete steps to the same grape-covered porch I had sat on for my last meal there years before.
As we entered the kitchen, my family’s mouths dropped open to see photos of my mother, their great-grandfather, and me on the walls. Whatever apathy they had been feeling melted away as they spied the jarring existence of their mother’s face – my own teenage face – on the walls of this worn little house in the middle of nowhere. That afternoon was a turning point in our trip. They had made a human connection to this beautiful land and its ancient people, and there was not a dry eye as we bade S farewell that afternoon. The trip ended up being one of our children’s most powerful family memories, and forged a bond with their grandparents that lives on today.