Both Mom and Dad, who were born in Greece, were Vlachs. They called themselves Greek, but they were Vlachs first. My mother was born in Biasa, an isolated village located in the Pindus Mountains in northwestern Greece. For centuries, the residents lived a peaceful but nomadic life, herding their sheep and growing olives, and then trading wool and olive oil for coffee and tobacco with merchants who traveled throughout the region. Not in touch with what was going on in rest of the country, the Vlachs developed their own customs and language, and kept to themselves in a tribal way.
|VLACH WOMAN SPINNING WOOL|
My father was a Vlach as well, born in a village called Samarina, just over the mountain from Biasa, where my mother lived. In those days there were no roads that crossed those rugged mountains, so villages remained isolated from one another. Like the people who lived in Biasa, the Vlach sheepherders in Samarina preferred a simple nomadic life.
|SHEEP GRAZING IN THE PINDUS MOUNTAINS|
Who are the Vlachs?
Anthropologists, linguists, and historians are still studying the origin of the Vlachs, but many believe we are descendants of Roman people, who fled in the fourth century AD, when the Roman Empire was collapsing. Hordes of people were looking to escape from the Huns and finding a place of their own. Eventually, most of them settled in the region that now includes Greece, Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. The Vlach language, which my parents also spoke, is more like Romanian than modern Greek.
|VLACH MEN IN THEIR NATIVE COSTUME|
Only a mountain separated my parents from each other, but they didn't meet until they were here in the United States. They both had interesting stories to tell. In an effort to find safety during the first Balkan war in the early 1900s, my maternal grandfather left Biasa and his family, and sought passage to the United States. After several years of trying to figure out where to settle in this strange new land, he finally sent for his family because he found a place that reminded him of Greece. That place was called St. Johnsbury, Vermont. During the years my grandfather was away, war spread throughout the Pindus mountains, and my mother's village of Biasa was pillaged by soldiers, and her home was burned to the ground. Around the same time, my father, not having much of a family life in Samarina, came to America alone. As a 13-year-old runaway, he had only a New York address of a family member written on a small scrap of paper and tucked deep inside his jacket pocket.
|ORIGINAL IMMIGRATION FORM FOR MY MOTHER - 1920|
|SHIP MANIFEST WITH THE NAME OF MY MOTHER - 1920|
|A DRAWING OF THE SHIP THAT BROUGHT MY MOTHER TO THE UNITED STATES|
My Vlach parents
My parents told me early in life that I was a Vlach, something I should be proud of, but as a little kid, I didn't know what being a Vlach meant. I couldn't comprehend what being a Greek meant. I knew my parents were a little different from my friends' parents, but they weren't eccentric or old fashioned like some of the Greek people my parents knew. Instead they were hard working and forward thinking, always wondering what they could do to get ahead and educate their children. When they told stories about what their childhood in Greece was like, I thought they had lived on a different planet. To me, Greece was just that. Another planet.
|MOM, DAD AND ME IN THE 1970S|
My parents greeted other Vlachs they met like kin, whether they were from Samarina, Biasa or somewhere else. I can swear on a stack of bibles that my father knew every Vlach within a 200 mile radius of our town. That's just the way he was. Every summer we went to a Greek picnic in the southern part of our state, where we line danced to bouzouki music and ate roast lamb that had been cooking over an open fire for hours. My mother, not known for her Greek cooking, brought several large pans of spanokopita that she made from scratch. My father would oversee the skewers of kokoretsi blistering on a slowly turning spit. Greek Vlachs from all over New Hampshire and Massachusetts would come to renew friendships, tell funny stories, and reminisce about the old country.
|KOKORETSI (LAMB INTESTINES)|
Accepting my heritage
I don't know why, as a youngster, I renounced my Greek and Vlach heritage, but I did. Learning a different language seemed like a waste of time since we were the only Greeks in our small town. As a teenager, I rejected the idea of baptism in the Orthodox church because I knew it was a full body dunk. I never dated any Greek boys since the last thing I wanted to do was marry one. And yes, as an adult, I liked to cook Greek food, but I also enjoyed cooking Italian, Thai, and Indian. Not surprisingly, I never had any interest in going to Greece.
In 2007, Bruce and I took a trip to Turkey. Maybe it was the way the people smiled at me, or how they exuded warmth when they said hello, but many of the Turks I encountered reminded me of my Greek parents. The two cultures are so similar in their customs, their food, and their relics that my childhood memories came flooding back. I learned more about the conflicts between Turkey and Greece following the first World War. In order to staunch the bloodshed, the Greek and Turkish governments signed a population-exchange agreement. According to the terms of the deal, Greek Orthodox residents of Turkey had to relocate to Greece, while Muslim residents of Greece had to move to Turkey. As a result of this, entire Greek villages in Turkey became ghost towns, and after seeing one or two of these on this trip, I realized that I was ready, and it was time for me to visit Greece.
|GREEK GHOST TOWN IN TURKEY|
In 2008 we planned a trip and invited my niece, Susan, and her twelve-year-old daughter, Maddy. Fortunately for us, Susan is the genealogist in our family, collecting stories, old photographs, and family trees. Using social media she has even reconnected us with Vlach people from our family's past. Putting the trip together involved conversations with my aunt and her family in Rhode Island, who put us in touch with English-speaking relatives in Greece. After research and email communications back and forth, we settled on an itinerary that took us, three generations of Greek Vlachs, to meet our relatives for the first time, and explore the remote Vlach villages of Samarina and Biasa, where my parents were born.