Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Other Greece

Standing in the middle of Issari, at the center of the tiny town square, is a small monument, honoring the town's war dead. On two previous visits to Issari, we had seen the many Kyriazis family members listed on the front face of the monument, honoring war dead from the wars of Greek independence in the 1800s.

But this visit has a stunning revelation. On the side of the monument there is a smaller plaque honoring those who gave their lives during the "time of the occupation 1941-1944". About ten names from the top, two shortened names, and a full last name.

Βασ Παν Κυριαζής.

For over forty years, Vassilis Kyriazis's sepia face has stared from a frame on the wall. For Bill -- Vassilis's grandson and namesake -- looking at that picture has been like looking in the mirror. The differences are minimal -- Vassilis's hair line was much higher for many years, then the same, then lower. And he had a huge handle-bar mustache.

But for some reason, we had thought that only our family remembered our slain grandfather. In the year that Bill's mom passed away, we all felt a special need to go back to her hometown, and honor her and how far her family had traveled to build a new life in America. Mom always remembered Issari, and her father. So now so would we, and her grandchildren.

And now, at last, we know that the town has remembered -- and honored him -- as well.

But regardless of how we missed the side of the pedestal on two previous visits to Issari -- 1990 with mom and Kary, and 2000 with Kristen -- now we couldn't. And suddenly this visit became more than just special. It sent chills down our family spines. And it was the high point of our trip to "the other Greece."

The other Greece

From the minute we turned off the gleaming new freeway that connects Athens to the Peloponnese, we were reminded that the "other Greece" still lives.

The new Greece of Athens and Antiparos -- Euro fashion boutiques, near-universal English, Thai restaurants and African hair weaves -- immediately gives way to the old Greece. We drive south from Corinth toward Ancient Epidauros, winding up and down, in and out, for almost an hour to cover about 50 kilometers.

When we arrive in the old fishing village, we are welcomed by our two-star hotel room, complete with window air conditioners, bare walls, and paper-thin bath towels. Gone is our five-bedroom seaside villa; welcome to a ten-by-ten room with a double bed and two small twins.

And yet Epidauros delights us. The waiter at our hotel's restaurant struggles with his two or three words of English, but he makes sure all of us are well fed. After dinner, we tour the local "eco-agriculture" festival. The local farmers -- who probably never advanced too far in the direction of chemicals -- have adopted all the hot European buzzwords to sell their wares to Athenians and the very few non-Greeks who have come for a weekend visit. It's still not high-season, so finding another non-native is something of a workout.

Epidauros -- and its amazing 2500 year old, 15000 seat, perfect acoustic theater -- are just a warm-up act for the emotional high point of the trip: a visit to Bill's mom's village. The drive from Epidauros takes about two and a half hours, broken up by a stop in the lovely (and slightly more modern Nauplio).

Our homecoming did not get off to a great start. Two days before arriving, we call the inn keeper to confirm our stay at one of the village's two inns. "Sorry. Medical emergency. I must be in Athens." Fortunately, the other inn is open, and has one room left.

Then, the new freeway from Athens to Kalamata (the Peloponnese's olive-famous southwestern capital) has a new bypass that almost takes us past Issari. But we find our way to the network of small side roads, and start winding our way up the mountain.

Issari is perched at the top of the western most slope in Arcadia. A cluster of forty or fifty houses -- about half of which have been renovated and still operational -- it was once a wealthy stronghold. It was also a redout for the anti-fascist resistance during World War II -- a movement that cost Bill's grandfather his life, and made his mother Eva's one return visit to the village in 1990 so bitter sweet.

We find the inn and are happily greeted by our hosts, Vassiliki and Fotini -- two women in their sixties who have retired to their hometown, and who keep up the inn to make a supplement on their retirements.

They led us to the town square, to Vassilis's house (recently renovated by another of his grandchildren, who lives in Athens). And they introduced us to another American family -- Andy and Nina Bacus and their kids -- who are also visiting Andy's grandfather's village.

The rest of the trip on the Peloponnese would take us through extraordinary vistas -- olive orchards and vineyards, rolling hills rivaling Tuscany in their beauty, a spectacular new resort near the historic town of Pylos, and the stunning ruins of Olympia.

But nothing would quite compare with three words on the side of a simple monument.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Channeling the Gods

A Play in One Act

Setting: A stone structure on the shores of the Aegean (never mind the swimming pool)

Cast: Annika Antholis as Zeus, Athena, and Artemis; Kyri Antholis as Aphrodite; Laurel Charles as Persephone; Jeannean Carver as Poseidon. Special appearances by the inflatable crocodile pool toy and by Laurel's favorite stuffed dog.

Plot: Poseidon captures Aphrodite. Artemis turns herself into a crocodile and saves Aphrodite. Poseidon captures Persephone. The dog Totero distracts Poseidon. Zeus, who is awoken from a nap, comes to save Persephone.

Result: Two days of preparation (kudos to Jeannean), and five minutes of belly-busting laughter.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Waiting for Tom Hanks

The routine is pretty rough here.

Wake up. Go to espresso machine. Make espresso. Stumble out to pool, patio.

Drink coffee. Stare at perfect sea. Stare at perfect sky. Feel 9 am sunshine on face.

Turn to the left. Stare up at Tom Hanks sprawling villa. Look for some sign of life.

After failing to see some sign of life, finish coffee and dive in pool.

Crawl out of pool and onto lounge chair. Bake in sun.

Wake up from lounge chair. Remember to put on sun screen. Return to espresso machine.

Go back to step one. Mid-day, replace espresso with ouzo-ade.

Try not to let the frolicking kids interrupt a good poolside nap.