Visiting Ancestral Roots Reveals Similar Courage and Ache

6 min read

Have you ever visited a place you had thought about, even dreamed of, for a long time? You want to rub your eyes to be sure they aren’t fooling you and that what they are showing you is real and true.

You open your eyes wide as if expanding their surface area will let you take in as much as possible of what you see. You savor your experiences, each site, conversation, flavor, and sound. That way, you can hold onto all you can when you leave, as you will.

Finding Home in Greece

During the first half of October, I visited for the first time the Greek islands, where my late dad’s grandparents emigrated to America around 1920. I traveled with my two sisters, a brother-in-law, and a niece. In Plomari, on the North Aegean island of Lesvos, I asked at the ouzo factory about Dad’s mother’s family. They are well known in Plomari, the guide said.

Source: Courtesy of John-Manuel Andriote

Looking up the steep stone steps in Plomari, Lesvos, Greece.

Source: Courtesy of John-Manuel Andriote

Enjoying lunch at an outdoor taverna on the harbor’s edge on a bright, breezy October afternoon in Plomari, we marveled at the intrepid souls across the road who scaled the steep stone steps ascending through the network of connected old hillside homes toward the azure sky. I found out later the taverna is owned by one of my favorite cousin’s cousins.

I also heard that my “yiayia”—my great-grandmother, whom I only knew when she was an older woman—used to fly up and down those steep steps as if they were level ground.

During the months before the trip, I had a sense that traveling to Greece at long last—to celebrate my 65th birthday, no less—would somehow make things clearer for me and let me understand myself and maybe my family in a new way. I didn’t know what that would mean or what it might look like.

The morning of my birthday, I snapped a selfie and shared it on Facebook while sitting outside at the Route 36 coffee shop a few doors from the apartment we rented in Mytilini, the capital city of Lesvos. One friend wrote that I looked “incredibly Greek.” Another wrote that she had never seen me looking happier or more confident.

They both had caught onto what I felt as I marked an important milestone birthday—even if I didn’t plan to retire or join Medicare for at least a few more years. As a third friend wrote, quoting my own words, I was projecting in my photo a strong sense that I was “coming home to myself.” It seems I was giving off that aura of confidence and contentment from feeling in sync with what I know is my best.

I felt a powerful sense of connection and continuity when visiting places familiar to my great-grandparents and seeing vistas that may still look similar to what they would have seen 100 years ago. I pictured the headstones on their graves back “home” in Connecticut, almost 6,000 miles from where they started in Greece.

I recalled the times I had put flowers on those graves and said out loud, “Thank you.” Thank you for choosing optimism, acting on your dreams, and taking the chance that they could come true. Thank you for leaving what I have now seen with my own eyes is an incredibly beautiful island paradise. I embody those dreams and carry them forward.

From talking with the guide at the ouzo factory in Plomari, I also know that all of the local jobs in the area had disappeared just before my great-grandparents left for America. Now I could understand why they chose to leave paradise. It helped me understand better why I have been able to move many hundreds of miles away from where I started life in eastern Connecticut to take advantage of or cultivate a new opportunity—to have a better life, just like my great-grandparents.

Without using a term like “role models” to describe what they had done and been, those people from the tiny port of Plomari on Lesvos island modeled what it looked like to take a giant leap of faith in pursuit of a new, better life.

As the two weeks in Greece wore on, and my skin soaked up more and more of the Mediterranean sunshine, I couldn’t help but think that my dark “olive” skin was exactly the color it should be. Although I hadn’t learned to speak even basic Greek, despite good intentions, I gamely offered “Good morning” and “Thank you” in Greek and enjoyed the sense that even the small effort was appreciated.

I understood better than ever what “the Mediterranean diet” is and why I mostly follow it: fresh, local, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and (mainly) seafood, prepared with plenty of olive oil and dried herbs. The food was simple and beautiful, as were the made objects: the crafts, the small solid homes, the clothing. “Greek blue” was everywhere—in the sea, in the sky, painted on the doorways of sun-bleached white shops with terracotta roofs. That uniquely blue shade has, maybe not coincidentally, always been my favorite color since I can recall having a favorite color as a boy.

My eyes, opened wide, took it all in. I took away far more than stunning photos, several of which I plan to enlarge and frame. I also took away more than what my eyes alone could soak up. I left Greece with a fuller understanding of why my dad could put on Greek music and be lifted up and out of his troubles for a while.

I had a strong sense that life would continue after seeing all around me in Greece how new life continues on amidst the ruins and reminders of what came before, even long before. The past can be as much a part of the present as the stories we tell about how we got here, where we come from, and who we are.

The Ache of Homesickness

My trip to Greece helped me finally understand my deep connection to my forbears and how I inherited their courage and resilience. Now that I have seen what they gave up and sacrificed for their dream of a better life, I understand the tremendous price they paid for their dream in the inner ache of homesickness for a place that represents everything good but cannot provide you with the life you want to live.

I understand it because, besides carrying on their determination and perseverance, I also carry the ache for a long-loved place unable to provide the life I want. Greece showed me the necessity of keeping the ache in check while carrying on with life as it is today.

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