|THE BRIDGE IN MY MOTHER'S VILLAGE|
I had a similar reaction when I saw the church in Samarina, the village where my father was born. It wasn't just the church that brought me to tears. It was seeing the lone pine tree growing out from the church's apse, just the way Daddy said it did. Over the years I'd forgotten about that tree, but now, with my own eyes, I could see the tree looking strong and healthy which made me feel really homesick for my Dad.
|IN SAMARINA THE PINE TREE IS STILL GROWING OUT OF THE APSE FROM |
THE VILLAGE CHURCH IN 2008
|NOTE THE CHURCH AND THE SIZE OF THE PINE TREE. THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN FROM A BOOK PUBLISHED IN 1914 ENTITLED THE|
NOMADS OF THE BALKANS: AN ACCOUNT OF LIFE AND CUSTOMS AMONG THE
VLACHS OF NORTHERN PINDUS
In 2008, four of us traveled together on what I like to call "exploring Pam's roots trip." There was my niece, Susan, her daughter Maddy, and Bruce and I. With the exception of Bruce whose Jewish roots come from Eastern Europe, we were three generations of Greek-American Vlach women, visiting the birth place of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents in the remote mountain Vlach villages in Greece
We started our trip in Ioannina, a university town that sits on the edge of a beautiful lake in northwestern Greece, in the Epirus region to be exact. Ioannina is the home of an extended family of Brajitulis cousins, once, twice and three times removed. Only a few of them spoke English, but all of them were eager to see us. I'm not sure we knew what to expect; we certainly didn't imagine they would roll out the red carpet, but they did. In each of the three Brajitulis households we visited, we were greeted with shouts of joy, hugs and kisses, and more delicious food than we could possibly consume. From the stories (and jokes) told to us in Greek but translated into English, we learned how my parents -- Nick and Lucia -- were adored, and how much their visits back to their homeland meant to the families who stayed behind. My niece Susan and her daughter Maddy brought a large manila envelope of historical photographs they found in my mother's belongings after she died. I brought the family stories, and Bruce brought the video camera.
|A FEW MEMBERS THE BRAJITULIS FAMILY WITH PAM, SUSAN & MADDY|
My mother used to say, Pammy, when you go to Greece, you will have to go in August because up there in the mountains, the snow doesn't melt until June, and the roads don't open until July. Since August can be a very hot month, I'm sure I added "heat" to my long list of reasons why I didn't want to go to Greece.
Well, my roots trip was in May, and maybe it was climate change, I don't know, but the snow was long gone, and the roads were perfectly clear. And yet, on the day we drove to my father's village of Samarina, travel was a nightmare, due to the dense fog we encountered as we drove up to this mountain town, known as the highest village in all of Greece. At one point, the visibility was so bad, Susan stepped out of the car to see if we were still driving on the main road. Telling this story now sounds amusing, but at the time it was a little scary because we weren't on a road at all, but instead we were driving in a parking lot next to a ski lift. After finding ourselves back on a paved road, we stopped to ask for directions. When we heard the musical clanging of bells and spotted the herd of goats, we asked the shepherd in English how we should go, but all he heard was blah, blah, blah, so he was no help at all. And as far as the bartender in Smixie was concerned, he too only heard blah, blah, blah.
|SUSAN, MADDY AND PAMMY CALLING OUT "WHERE ARE WE? "|
About that time I noticed there were reception bars showing on my cell phone, so I called the number of the hotel in Samarina where we were staying and hoped someone would understand me. The phone rang a couple of times and suddenly I heard a man's voice shouting, "Pamela, Pamela. Is that you?" "Yes, it's me," I shouted back, wondering how he knew my name or how he knew the call was from me. Again, he shouted, "Pamela, is that you? It's Likos." Then I remembered that the Greek word for Yes is Neh, which, of course, sounds like the English word for No. In desperation and hoping I would be understood, I shouted back to Likos "Yes, No, Yes. I mean Neh, Neh, Neh." Suddenly the line went dead. "Oh, damn," I said to the others in the car, "I lost him." A minute later my cell phone rang, and a woman's soft voice speaking English with only a slight accent said, "Pamela, is that you?" "Neh, Neh," I responded quickly without thinking. "I mean "Yes, Yes. I'm Pamela." She said her name was Stella, and she was Likos's daughter. She asked where we were, and although I wasn't entirely sure, I told her we were on the road outside of Smixie. "Stay where you are," she said. "My father is coming to find you. Look for a red jeep." And then I heard a click. She hung up. So, we turned off the engine of our rental car and crossed our fingers waiting for the red jeep. Thirty minutes later out from the dense fog, the red jeep appeared. A man with a sweet-looking face and a big grin rolled down the window and said, "Pamela, is that you? It's Likos." "Neh, Neh," I shouted back with relief. He made a U-turn in the road and signaled that we should follow him.
Finally we arrived at the comfortable hotel Likos owned in the Vlach village of Samarina, but we were starving, since the box of baklava we'd eaten for breakfast was long gone. I called Likos's daughter on my cell phone and told her how happy we were to be in her dad's hotel, but now we were hungry and had no idea where to find food, since we thought we were on the outskirts of town. "I'll call you back," she said. A few minutes later my cell phone rang and Stella said, "My dad will take you to eat in a restaurant in town." "Oh, that's so nice," I said. "We'd really appreciate it." Hoping she could come along and serve as our translator, I added, "Would you be able to join us?" She laughed and thanked me for the invitation. "I'm in a boarding school about three hours away, " she said, "so it's not possible, but you will like the food." That's when I realized, with amusement, that the translator for our communication with Likos was nowhere near the location where the conversation was taking place.
All four of us piled into Likos's jeep, and in the heavy fog he drove into town, parked the jeep, and escorted us into a rustic taverna. The unassuming place was bustling with activity and very noisy until the five of us stepped through the front door. That's when everyone went silent. Even the server stopped to see what was happening, and they all watched as Likos led the four of us to a table nearby, sat us down and handed us menus. Soon conversations around us began to resume, but it was clear people were very curious who we were and wondering why Likos was escorting us into the restaurant. We nodded appreciatively, as he pointed to some items on the menu he thought we might like. As he strutted into the kitchen, Likos puffed himself up like a proud peacock, all the while grinning and looking back at us and then over to the other patrons as if to say to them these people are mine. That's when we figured out that Likos owned the restaurant!
The red carpet was rolled out for us again. Likos emerged from the kitchen carrying a platter of grilled sausages, lamb chops, and fried potatoes slathered with melted goat cheese. And, of course, there was the ubiquitous Greek salad and plenty of dense bread, the white kind with a thick crust, good for soaking up whatever juices remained on our plates. Likos sat down and ate with us at the table, seemingly content that everyone was happily scarfing down his delicious food.
|SUSAN, MADDY & BRUCE IN LIKOS'S RESTAURANT|
After Likos cleared the plates we showed him the letter of introduction that my cousin had written in Greek, saying we were descendants of the Pispirikos family and explaining why we were in Samarina. I should have assumed he already knew, since my cousin in Ioannina made the hotel reservation. Susan opened the thick manila envelope filled with black and white photos of my parents when they were young and other ones they took when they returned to Samarina on visits in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Likos became excited and very animated when he recognized my parents and loved seeing the old pictures of the village and the local people who were still around.
|SUSAN AND I LOOKING AT OLD FAMILY PHOTOS WITH LIKOS|
|ON THE LEFT, MY DAD AS A YOUNG MAN. I THINK THE OTHER MAN MAY BE HIS BROTHER|
Something special happened to me that evening in the restaurant, although I can't put my finger on exactly what it was. It felt almost spiritual, maybe even akin to magic. As I sat there listening and watching Likos look at the family photos and interacting with Susan, Maddy and Bruce, I had a sense of connecting. Maybe it was some other strong emotion, like really missing my parents. I don't know, but it felt deeper. Maybe I was finally feeling what it means to be a Vlach.