When my great-grandmother died, she was taken back to Greece and laid to rest in the
village cemetery. This was the last time my pappou left Canada and visited his home. It’s been
Now, here I am. After a month in Greece with my sister, we’ve found ourselves in our
valley. A smattering of small, Mediterranean villages spill down the sides of the mountains, and I
can call four of them my own, one for each grandparent. Being here feels like going on vacation,
but also like coming home. I shuffle into flip-flops and onto the heat-drenched porch with my
coffee in hand. Inside, my aunt curls her hair. My sister is still sleeping.
The olive trees for which my maternal grandmother’s village is named grow in well
organized patchwork groves which rest, intermixed with fig and orange trees, like a quilt draped
over the valley. They have settled comfortably between the mountains and the ancient sea.
Sunlight and the breeze occasionally tease the olive leaves into rippling like silver-green waves
across the earth, and a short distance below, the foamy sea waves lap at the crumbling banks of a
serrated cliff. The earth never quite decides on sand or dirt or stone. Paved roads, dusty roads,
and donkey roads cut through the groves and weave up the sides of mountains like red seams
hinting at generations of travel. The mountains themselves are a comforting presence which
stand proud and untouched. Lazy clouds wash their edges smooth, like stones in a river so large
it doesn’t have to obey time. Shadows drift across the face of the mountain and shapely groves.
The arrhythmic buzzing of cicadas provides background music for every moment of existence,
impervious to it all.
I stand in the shade of the porch. The olive trees ripple. Cicadas buzz. The waves roll
onto the shore. I take a sip of coffee, and my aunt emerges from the house. My hands find
themselves in my wind-tangled, morning hair. She, of course, is always meticulous. She is my
father’s sister who also lives in Canada, and it’s our first time in Greece together. Though born
across the Atlantic Ocean, she radiates with the unique intersection of love, carefully crafted
poise and the animalistic tenacity it requires to endure life here. Her name is Aphrodite.
We spend the day on the beach. That evening, we have dinner with family in my
pappou’s village of Sykea. We sit at the long table outside in the platea at the center of town. My
great-uncles sit at one end, and the women at the other. The men communicate in story, grunt,
shrug, laugh, grunt. I see exactly why the word laconic was named after this region of Greece.
They’re endearing in their stubbornness. My aunt is a product of their iron-clad hearts. Their
love is all-consuming yet well-concealed. I think that my pappou should be here.
My Theio Lambro is my yiayia’s younger brother, and my Theio Giorgi is my pappou’s
younger brother. They know each other well independent of their siblings’ marriage. Everyone
does in these tiny villages. Theio Giorgi’s laugh lights up the dark streets. Through deep crevices
and crooked teeth, he embodies true happiness. Theio Lambro is recalling a story from their
trouble-making youth. Theio Giorgi was driving them in a pickup truck on a cliffside, and Theio
Lambro took a turn so he could nap. What Theio Lambro never revealed until now, at least 45
years later, is that he had no idea how to drive manual, and with Theio Giorgi sleeping in the
passenger seat, they barely got home alive. Theio Giorgi exaggerates his shock. We’re all
The best stories in my family are revealed at the dinner table, in the kitchen or kouzina,
after some wine and good food – it’s the picture of Mediterranean indulgence. Food is love.
Stern, teasing Lambro will never tell me he’s happy we’re here. He criticizes my bad Greek
constantly. Still, he gets my attention across the table and offers me the last piece of octopus. He
buys us more saganaki because he sees how fast we ate it. He constantly refills my glass with
wine. Then, of course, he teases me about my drinking as if it’s not his fault. As if I can refuse.
But I find myself smiling. This is familiar.
“Do you girls want to see the house your pappou grew up in?” Theio Giorgi directs his
attention to us. The cicadas buzz. It’s a short walk down the road until we have to turn on our
phone flashlights to see up a crumbling path. The house is a squat, stone-and-plaster thing, built
on a hill. It’s not hallowed ground but we’re reverent. I’ve been here before, too young to
remember. There’s a quivering thrum in my chest. Theio Giorgi unlocks the door.
I blink and wave away dust. He turns on primitive, bare lightbulbs and we walk through a
narrow hallway past a bathroom. I know this is new, because my father tells stories of losing his
slipper down the hole-in-the-ground that was their outhouse one night, and dropping matches into it to see. This was another kouzina-conversation, and I can picture him chuckling as he
describes the rancid smell of burning shit.
We all disperse. The three small rooms are barren and unfurnished, but I open every
built-in drawer and cupboard frantically, searching for artefacts. My heart clenches. I try and
imagine parents and their six children fitting here. I fail. Theio Giorgi explains how his mother
would cook from a single small pot over the fireplace and how they would share bowls. He
describes how the warmth of the kouzina would bring them all together at the end of the day.
These are things I can know. Others are harder. I know my father’s oldest brother is an
alcoholic with numbers tattooed on his left forearm akin to concentration camp survivors. For
this, I have no explanation. I’ll never get one. I know my pappou was taken out of school after
grade three and sent to the mountains alone for weeks with the sheep. He would be so hungry he
wouldn’t dust the ants off his loaf of bread before eating it. As a young man he laid the
foundation for the village’s coveted church. But I also know that I’ve never known anything.
There are some things I never will.
The back of the house slopes down the hill, and there is a second, lower entrance separate
from the main living space. Phone flashlights are mandatory. The animals were kept here,
underneath their floorboards. Theio Giorgi unlocks the chain sealing the door. I think to my own
horses and their acres of grazing land, and can’t conceptualize the thought of a horse, a donkey,
goats and the occasional pig in this cramped, rocky cavern. A rat darts through the eerie
shadows. I press my shaking hands into my thighs as I crouch. Eventually, my shoulders feel
lighter and it doesn’t feel like a betrayal to leave the space. Theio Giorgi chains it closed again,
and we drift away.
Silence hangs over us. I wipe my eyes and my sister sniffles. Theio Giorgi gives a sad
smile but we can see the same tragic weight on him. My pappou isn’t here but I feel like I know
him a little bit better for having come here. Theio Giorgi tells us to buy him a plane ticket and
force him to come, but Theio Giorgi also loves Greece. I say that we’ll try but this doesn’t feel
like a bond I can repair.
Some things, like my pappou’s refusal to return to Greece, remind me even as I believe
so strongly that their stories deserve to be told, I’m not doing this for them. I can’t fix this for
him. He can never have access to my musings about whether I’d ever risk bringing a girl home to meet the family. My grandmother doesn’t understand my university degree at all. They can’t
know me. But they love me unconditionally. No, not but. And. And they love me.
The truth is I come here for me. Because I love the feeling of knowing and being known.
I don’t know very much about them, but I know what it’s like to be loved by them. I know I run
the risk of not seeing them as the whole, lively, brimming people that they are. I’m
simultaneously afraid of, and searching for, the sensation of being wholly known and loved by
the same people. It’s not something I experience in my culture.
I think maybe love comes first, because being loved invites vulnerability. It reduces the
risks associated with exposing the stripped wires of our hearts, in such a way that we can make
The cicadas buzz. I’m extremely grateful. Sitting around the kouzina table, laughing and
sharing. Transcending barriers. I’ve already experienced true love.