Working at a high-end resort, it is easy to forget that the traditional Greek lifestyle does not involve ritzy hotels and upscale restaurants. The population of Greece has slowly migrated toward its major city centers (Athens, Thessaloniki, etc) and has established a more urban standard of living. Yet many of these city dwellers still travel to their ancestral villages in the mountains during the hot summer months. They return to these remote homes to relax in the cooler elevations and to take part in a smaller, more rooted community of people.
When my Aunt Renee suggested we take a trip up to Vervena, the village where my great-grandparents were born, I was thrilled at the prospect of a new adventure. We set out from the resort in the early afternoon and crisscrossed the hills into the heart of the Peloponnese. Vervena is just about 20 km south of Tripoli, but located at the very top of a range of mountains. Shortly after setting out, we saw a sign pointing to “Nestor’s Palace”.
“Want to check it out?” my Aunt asked, with a smile.
“Absolutely!!” I exclaimed.
The large metal roof that protected the excavation was visible from the Dunes Course, but I had not had a chance to come visit the site. We took a brief tour of the area, walking through the royal palace to the megaron. The outline of the ancient dais was left in the dirt, set right before a huge hearth. As we walked around the impressive central hearth, we were thrilled to see that a portion of the art decoration was still intact. There was too little time left in the day to visit the museum, unfortunately. But seeing the excavation was well worth the stop.
The narrow, winding road up to Vervena had left quite an impression on my parents during their visit, so I was prepared for the worst that Greece could offer. Apparently, I have become numb to some of the “shocking” Greek roads during my stay here: I found the drive surprisingly easy and the road well-paved!
We reached the village in the late afternoon. Aunt Maria, the second cousin of both my Aunt Renee and my father, greeted us through a screen window as we pulled up to her house at the very edge of the town. She greeted us with so much warmth and so many smiles, I felt that I had known her all of my life. We went inside to find a table set for lunch. The food was all local fare: fresh feta cheese (hands down, the best I have ever had in my life), bread, beans, and a main dish that involved chicken and handmade pasta.
We laughed and spoke in a friendly mix of Greek and English (I am fairly competent in understanding “Greek-lish” at this point). Aunt Maria had Frank Sinatra music playing, but when the tape ended, the silence was a sound all of it’s own. Our voices seemed muted in the stillness of the mountaintop. Goat bells tinkling in the wind was literally the only sound to penetrate the area. The food and the quiet were so relaxing that I started to nod off a bit.
The Aunts sent me out to the back porch to relax while they chatted some more. I dozed as the sun began to appear below the roofline of the house. The next time I opened my eyes, dark clouds had gathered on the horizon and I could hear a low rumble. I had not witnessed a drop of rain in the last few months, so it came almost as a shock to realize that a storm was brewing. I went back in as the clouds rolled in.
The house practically shook at the first crack of thunder. The rain followed shortly after. A steady throb pounded on the rooftop, accented by massive roars of thunder. Aunt Maria laughed heartily saying, “Mighty Zeus is angry tonight!” The thunder was unlike anything I had ever heard, echoing around the mountaintop, resounding like an old musket misfiring in a tight attic space.
We settled back down at the table to wait out the god’s fury. Aunt Maria flashed a special deck of cards before her and Aunt Renee explained, “Maria is known for her talent at reading people’s futures in the cards.”
Aunt Maria quickly chimed in, “Not Tarot. Tarot it is Satanic.” She selected the Queen of Hearts to represent Renee and then shuffled the deck. Dealing the cards out in a precise pattern, Maria began to look pensively over the fortune at hand.
“You will meet a blonde man in the future,” she told Renee, lifting up the King that had been played above the Queen of Hearts. “Someone new. He has a brother,” she continued, as another King appeared, “or another man in his life.” At this she looked up with a wry smile.
She continued with Renee’s love life, then moved on to her future job prospects. Then it was my turn. As I moved to sit across the table from Aunt Maria, a great crack of thunder made me jump out of my skin. And it also zapped the electricity. Everything went quite dark, as the sun had long since been obscured by the stormclouds. Maria moved from the table to the far corner of the room where a tray filled with candles, many mottled with old wax, sat. She lit half of them and carried the tray across the room to where we waited in the dark.
Talk about a time warp. I sat silently listening to her read my future in the cards as the thunder and rain continued to pound outside, the candles casting shadows across our faces. My fortune was rather unclear… many men were “thinking” of me, but there were no serious suitors in my near future. My career path looked rather promising, though! The monsoon rains pounded down for a little longer, then stopped, with just about an hour ‘til sunset.
“Let’s take a look around the village,” Renee suggested. We walked outside, carefully skirting the newly formed puddles, and went to the central square of the town where we met Nikos, another distant relative. He ushered us into his kitchen to sample a shot of his personal liquor, made from local berries. Nikos was a small man with a huge personality—and hardly spoke a word of English. Renee acted as Translator while Nikos told a little about our ‘family history’.
“Our village is situated in the territory of Arcadia, very close to the Laconia border. The Arcadians are the direct descendents of mighty Zeus,” Nikos explained. “Zeus caught sight of a beautiful nymph one day. Her name was Callisto and Zeus disguised himself as a swan to hide his dalliances with the fair nymph. Unfortunately, Hera, Zeus’ wife, found out about Zeus’ deviance and turned Callisto into a bear.“
“A bear?” I asked, confused by the numerous animal transformations.
“Yes, yes. She is in the stars,” Nikos nodded.
“Ursa major,” Renee confirmed.
I was still unsure where the Arcadians fit into the picture.
“Callisto’s child by Zeus was the first Arcadian.”
Renee looked confused at this point, too, “The first Arcadian was a bear cub?”
“Oxi. No,” Nikos said, as if it was all very simple. “She had a human child. He was the first Arcadian.”
Right. Pretty cool, I guess!
We continued our grand tour of the village. At one point, Nikos just stood still and pointed to several houses in a row, saying, “Bouzeos, Bouzeos, Bouzeos…” He pointed out the house that belonged to my great-grandfather and the ruins that were once the home of my great-grandmother. Renee attempted to explain the family tree; most of the family immigrated to America, while just a few stayed in Greece.
We ended up on the front side of the village, at a little café that appeared to be the evening hangout spot for the residents. The men talked over their tiny cups of Greek coffee, the women smoked and minded the children who ran up intermittently. We sat down and enjoyed the incredible view: endless hills and mountains splayed out all around us, with the sun setting directly across from our vantage point. It was a moment when everything was so very real and natural that it seemed to border on the surreal.