It seems almost unnecessary for me to describe Greece, since so many people have been there already. I am one of the last of our family to make the journey back, and to meet our relatives in Greece; six of my eight brothers and sisters had already been. But I will describe the journey anyway, if not for the Gazises who have already gone, then for the Gazis children yet to be, who may want to learn about the country my father came from and about his family.
We nearly missed the train to Greece. The ticket office would take neither Visa, nor American Express, nor traveller's checks. Leaving behind the women of Women for Peace, who had accompanied us to help us find the ticket office, we raced from bank to bank, only to hear at each that they did not change travellers' checks. Two banks, and one tourist agency had refused us. "How are we supposed to get out of this country?" Joel exclaimed. Visions ran through my mind of uncle Takis (how much had Dad told him about our itinerary?) worrying about his niece who had been unaccountably detained in Skopje. Joel sent me back to the ticket office to alert the women, while he rushed off to find a bank on the other side of the Turkish bridge. As he arrived with the checks, Vlada arrived with the bags and offered to take us to the station. On the train (a Czech train) we had another brief worry when we learned that the conductor would not take Macedonian dinars for the couchette. Frantically, we searched for an adequate amount of another currency, and came up with Hungarian forints (illegal, incidentally, since Hungarian law forbids importing and exporting large amounts of their currency); these were acceptable.
Finally we sat stopped at the Greek border, facing the last obstacle to our entry into Greece: a simple form. Name, father's name, citizenship. Country of departure. Country of departure? This was a tricky one; the name of the country we had just left is in dispute. Fortunately, the Greek official gestured that we did not need to fill that part out. We returned the forms, our passports were stamped, and we were on our way into Greece.
We rode down to Athens through steep mountains and ravines, past white-washed houses with tile roofs (the tiles more rounded than those in the roofs of houses in former Yugoslavia), marble quarries, fields, and little boxes with crosses which Joel said mark where someone has died. The climate and vegetation appeared similar to my native California (when we got to Athens, I learned that the similarity extends to the little signs urging water conservation, seen everywhere). We passed many small fields of crops: cotton quickly followed by grapes quickly followed by melons. At one point, we saw a stretch of land where all the vegetation has been burned in a fire. The train was a very slow express train. It had arrived two hours late to Skopje, and lost more time as it passed through Greece. Several hours after we are due to arrive in Athens, we woke up when the train stops. Athens? No, Lamia. Athens was still a long way away. We arrived in Athens seven hours late. Joel remarked that Communism would have improved Greek trains (which are not electrified). (Trains in Croatia and Serbia did seem to run faster, so there might be something to the idea that Communism makes the trains run on time. On the other hand, this particular train was already late even in Skopje.)
Athens. Marble curbs to sidewalks, street vendors selling the worry beads and tasseled hats which Dad once brought home to us from his trips to Greece, a woman at a cafe selling flowers (reminding me of the children circulating in cafes in Zagreb), nondescript apartment buildings, more marble. I had been warned to be disappointed in Athens, that it was a gray, smoggy city, with ugly buildings. But I could not be disappointed to be there, in Greece.
Something else, though, did disappoint me: I found that I did not speak Greek. I could, it is true, recall the phrases to ask for directions. But I could not understand the replies. I could converse with the shopkeepers for a short while, but I mangled the simplest words. The sad thing about this is the amount of effort I have put into this feeble knowledge of Greek. Since we did not speak Greek at home, I found a Greek-American guidance counselor at my high school who gave me lessons in Greek for four years. I wrote letters to my father and to a cousin in Greek. When, after graduating from college, I found that my Greek had grown rusty, I purchased a set of twelve tapes, produced to train US Foreign Service people, and studied them. I put myself on a Greek speaking computer mailing list (until I changed jobs). And I reviewed the set of tapes again this summer. Now I asked for directions and was completely baffled by the response. It seemed a metaphor for my experience of Greece - much read about, but little understood. The one positive note was that however badly I spoke Greek, all the Greeks were delighted to hear me try.
Coming from former Yugoslavia, I was of course on the lookout for the signs about Macedonia. After the articles I had read, I was at first surprised *not* to see much in the way of posters or graffiti about Macedonia. The graffiti we most noticed on the train down was simply the name PASOK (and, more rarely, Nea Demokratia). In Athens, I first noticed the signs about water conservation, then many handmade banners which appeared to say something about social security. I looked a little closer, though, and the signs were there. Little stickers on windows, and flags in stores, saying "Macedonia is Greece." (There was one in the hostel where we stayed.) T-shirts saying "Macedonia: 3000 years of Greek history." The amount of nationalist paraphernalia does not compare with that in Zagreb, but it may surpass that in Beograd (where the war is now unpopular and peace posters compete with nationalist graffiti).
There are some divisions in Greek opinion about Macedonia which I had not picked up from the American media, but I did not manage to learn fully what they are and how far they extend. The September 11-17 edition of Greek News, an English language newspaper in Athens describes an interview with Virginia Tsouderou, Greece's Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, represented as a moderating influence, as opposed to the "flag-waving" approach of people like Antonis Samaras. Unfortunately, the article did not go into much detail about the differences between the views of these two groups.
Certainly the arrest of the five socialists for distributing leaflets in central Athens opposing Greece's policy toward Macedonia aroused much criticism in Greece as well as abroad. Virginia Tsouderou is quoted as saying, "I strongly hope for an acquittal," and ascribing the arrest to "a narrow-minded policeman who thought he was doing his duty."
We were shocked to notice many military trucks in the streets of Athens. What was happening? The soldiers were beginning to remind Joel uncomfortably of Zagreb. It turned out, though, that they had a more benign purpose: there was a bus strike, and the trucks were replacing buses.
It was not only the buses which are on strike. It appeared that half the nation was on strike: banks, post offices, gas stations. And so it happened that, having passed through one nation, Serbia, where it was hard to get gas due to an international embargo, and another, Macedonia, where it was hard to get gas because the gas was being help up in Thessaloniki, we reached yet another nation, with yet another obstacle in the way of getting gas. The strikes, it turned out, were opposing Mitsotakis's policies regarding social security and privatization. They were nationwide, but not continuous; rather, they went on and off.
Sunday was free admission at all archeological sites, and we set out for the Acropolis. The largest crowd I had ever seen at any tourist attraction was here, on the stairs to the Acropolis. (I was later told by a Greek friend that we would have found less of a crowd if we had gone early in the morning.) A huge traffic jam of people moved slowly up the broad steps. I overheard voices in English, German, French, Russian. Slowly, very slowly we moved. But the sky was blue, as in the postcards (and not gray as in the slides Dad once brought home), and the beauty and simplicity of the ruin were still striking among the crowd. We visited the Temple of Hephaistus, and the Museum of the Agora, which contains jewelry, coins, pottery, a child's potty.
Emerging from the Agora, we came upon a modern Greek street market. People sold beads, books, tapes, hats, and an odd assortment of old appliances: a manual typewriter, a reel tape recorder. I was reminded of the Turkish market in Skopje.
Sunday night, we were in the youth hostel in Athens. We had seen the National Archeological Museum, the Areopagus, the Parthenon, and the Agora, but we hadn't seen a single relative yet. A knock on our door announced the telephone. Presumably, it was Uncle Takis or Uncle Alekos, who both live around Athens, and both of whom I had called a little earlier. I ran down. It was my cousin Lila, "I have a hotel in Volos. Uncle Denos was supposed to tell you that you can come up and stay with me for as long as you like." We told her we needed to check train and bus schedules and would call back.
Another knock announced another call. Uncle Takis or Uncle Alekos? No, this time it was Aunt Yvonni, "I am at Kalanera, near Lila. I am lonely. Come up and visit me and Lila." I explained that we had to check bus and train schedules. She asked if I have a car. Here I hazarded my first sentence of Greek to a relative, "Then exome autokinito. Prepei na taksithepsoume me to leoforio i me to traino." "Bravo!" said my Aunt Lila, "Milas arketa ellinika." And, as was practical, continued the conversation in English. She suggested that she would call her brother George, and have him drive us up.
The next phone call was from Uncle George, the one adult Greek relative who does not speak English better than I speak Greek, so the desk clerk, after listening to my mangled Greek, offered to interpret. We arranged for Uncle George to fetch us on Monday morning. By this point Joel, who had been planning to take me to Delphi on Monday, was disappointed. "We have been offered a free vacation in scenic Volos? Next to the cement factory?" Evidently, he had not heard great things about the beauty of the city of Volos.
Next day, at 10, Uncle George arrived. Short, stout, and gray-haired, he looks like an older version of Dad. Looking at him, I had trouble imagining the young soldier who once fought in the Greek Civil War. But he still carries the mark of that war; his right hand is missing, and so he keeps it constantly in his pocket, except when he drives.
We ran poor Uncle George around Athens for an hour, getting our bus tickets for Budapest from Larissa. (We had a misunderstanding about whether the travel agency took our credit cards - it didn't - and the banks were on strike). Finally, we were on the road. After we had driven for some time, Joel pointed out Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off the Persian army. (I interpreted this information to Uncle George and got the answer, "What war?" - obviously my Greek had failed the challenge. After I explained that we are talking about ancient Greece, I got another account of the battle, this time in Greek.) We stopped at a restaurant and selected food from the kitchen.
Finally, we arrived at Lila's hotel. Lila's two children, "and the big baby," her husband, were all asleep. It turned out (to Joel's relief), that Lila's hotel is not in Volos itself, but rather in the small neighboring town of Plantanidia, a lovely village which is right on the beach. After a brief conversation with Lila, we continued to Aunt Yvonni's house in Kalanera.
"My niece Lynn!" Aunt Yvonni hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. "I have your picture from five years ago. You haven't changed a bit! You look like a princess, with a crown." (It must be my wedding picture, with the flowers in my hair.) Those of my siblings who have already visited Greece will know that it is good to be hungry when you visit Aunt Yvonni. "I have fixed a little something for you to eat, with no meat." This little something was a large pan of cooked vegetables. It was accompanied by the little bit of bread, the little bit of feta cheese, the little bit of salad, and the little bit of wine. The Greek word which is useful at this point is "arketa." The next day, Aunt Yvonni gave me two presents: a travelling combination brush and hand mirror, and a sweater, "made in Greece by Aunt Yvonni."
Back at Lila's hotel, we were given a room and met Lila's husband, a quite good backgammon player, and her two sons, Vassilis, 5, and Giorgos, 3. Vassilis and Giorgos were shy at first, but warmed up to Joel after he presented them with coins from various countries (leaving out the Macedonian money, since the hotel window had a "Macedonia is Greece" sticker). Later, when Joel imitated a mosquito, Vassilis and Giorgos asked for him to imitate it again and again. And again. And again.
The boys had a lot of energy. Favorite activities included catching crabs on the beach, riding a tricycle quickly and noisily around the table, ringing the neighbors doorbell (these last two frowned upon by adults), riding branches which Aunt Yvonni had cut for them, and, for Vassilis, proposing improbable methods which he could use to go fishing. Also being picked up by Joel and carried as he ran around the courtyard.
Our American grandmother has described Uncle George as stiff and formal when she visited Greece. If so, his grandsons have loosened him up. Now he plays hide and seek with them, runs around the courtyard with them, and joins them in jumping along, riding the sticks which Aunt Yvonni cut. They listen wide- eyed as he tells them story. His hand, however, stays firmly in his pocket, even when he is running after his grandchildren.
Lila showed me the family photographs. Grandfather Gazis appears in many, always young and always in uniform. An officer in the Greek Army Corps of Engineers, he died in World War II, so there will be no photographs of him in his old age. Grandmother Gazis appears, young, with long hair and that distinctive angular nose which she has passed on to so many of her children and grandchildren. Lila, her namesake, has it, as do her sister Phrini, Aunt Yvonni, Uncle George, my father, and myself. Here in Plantanidia, I see more Gazis noses than I have ever seen, and for the first time see another woman with my nose (as my sister Carey did not inherit that trait). Grandmother Gazis appears again, old. "She was an unusual woman, like a man," Lila said, "When few women smoked, she smoked. She raised five children alone during the war after Grandfather disappeared." Grandmother appears again, surrounded by beer bottles, "She liked her beer."
The family, as a military family, moved around a lot. A photo from 1936 shows them in Florina. I know from Dad that they were in Ioannina at the time of the Italian invasion, and that they spent much of the war in Volos. Pictures appear of the children. Uncle George, as a young man, very thin. One of the brothers jokingly wrote, "1943. Buchenwald." on this photograph, and Uncle George indeed looks quite emaciated. Aunt Yvonni, young and beautiful. Aunt Yvonni is fair for a Greek, with her medium brown hair and green eyes. Her hair color nearly matches mine. Dad, as a young child. The boys' hair was cut in a girlish page boy cut until they reached a certain age, so Dad in some of these pictures looks like me as a child, in others like Carey. All five children on the day of their baptism. Many of Lila and Phrini as girls. Yvonni, George, and Dad, all dressed up in costumes (Dad dressed as a girl).
I had Lila interview Aunt Yvonni on the family history, in Greek (Aunt Yvonni's preference), while I recorded. "The Gazis family comes from Kozani. Your grandfather, Evangelos Gazis, had a very sharp mathematical mind. When his teachers would explain how to do a problem, he would say, but you could also do it this way. Denos takes after him. Your grandmother spoke a little of many languages. Her father was a merchant, with a business in Thessaloniki which sold clothes - fezzes and other Turkish clothes and European clothes."
My cousin Phrini lives with her father and works in a bank. She did not come up with us, but said that she might come up later, if she got paid, and if she got gas (both uncertain in the strike). One evening she arrived, a little stockier than her older sister, in jeans and high heels, smoking a cigarette. The boys were all over her. They grabbed her, and she chased them.
Here in Plantanidia, I learned another thing about Greek strikes. One evening the lights were out. "I wonder when they will come on," says Joel. "They will be on at 9pm," my Greek relatives assured us. Sure enough, promptly at 9pm, the lights came on. "Christos anesti," said Aunt Yvonni, repeating the words of the Greek Orthodox Easter service at the point when they light the candles, "Christ is risen." It turned out that it was a scheduled strike. What is more, the strikers announced the schedule ahead of time. The next day, I saw an article in the paper announcing the times of the scheduled blackouts in each town.
One day, we went up to the village where Anthimos Gazis once lived. Anthimos Gazis (no relative, as far as we know) was a hero of the Greek revolution. His village is up the side of Mount Pelios, among trees and steep drops. There is a cafe, and an old narrow gauge railway, no longer in use. We walked along the railway and came to a bridge. By its side was a table with some graffiti on it - a poem about the heartbreak of love and another poem about the beauty of the spot. Lila and I climbed down the side of the stream; Joel and her husband went ahead over the bridge. Lila and I followed along a cliff and across two bridges (one over a precipice), and we talked about having cousins at a distance while growing up, about Grandfather and Grandmother.
Later, Lila took Joel and me into Volos. I saw Anthimos Gazis street, and Lila took me by the corner where the Gazis's used to live. The streets were dirt then, but are paved now. An apartment building stands where their house once stood.
At the Volos harbor stands a modern monument to those who died in Greece's War of Independence. We strolled through a park filled with works of modern art, past a train ride for children which reminds me of a similar one, called the Bambi Express, in Skopje. It may be because I was so recently in ex- Yugoslavia, but my memories of Volos were all of war. Here were once German soldiers. Somewhere in the surrounding area were the guerrillas, and somewhere were hidden the Jews of Volos. (According to Marvin Gilbert in _The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War_, "In the Volos region, another Greek rabbi, Rabbi Pessah, through his contact with the resistance, obtained shelter for more than 752 fellow Jews of Volos. When the Germans came to deport the Jews of Volos, only 130 were found.") As we walked along the harbor, I thought of the Allied bombing. Alekos was near the harbor that day, Dad once said, and saw a German soldier, terrified.
Lila brought up a more peaceful memory. "This is where the young men and women would walk in the evening." Yes, Dad had talked about that, too. Instead of dating, the young men and women would meet when they all came out to walk during the evening.
The time came for us to go, and we rode out on a bus headed for Budapest. But not without getting another taste of Balkan politics. At the Macedonian border, the customs agents passed through the train, checking passports. Australia? Fine. Hungarian? Fine. Ireland? The passport was a little shabby, and the owner was admonished to take care of it, but all was well. America? Dobro! (More Macedonian enthusiasm for America.) Greek? 40 marks, please. All Greek passports were taken off the bus. When they were returned, a Greek in front of us showed us hers. A visa, saying Republic of Macedonia. A stamp, also saying Republic of Macedonia. Two stickers, just for good measure, both saying Republic of Macedonia. Macedonia, reminding the Greeks of what its name is.