Mar 26th, 2019, 12:00 PM

Tracing Family Roots in Northern Greece

By Anna Demmas
Image credit: Anna Demmas
Large Greek American family makes pilgrimage across the world to reconnect with history and knot family ties.

Greek heritage is much more than a dearly held family value; it is the knot that ties us together, the force that drives my family to spend an almost incomprehensible sum of hours insuring that roughly fifty family members from ages one to ninety-three will come together from all around the country nearly every summer. Each year however, we lack a meaningful mass of family members, our native Greek relatives, or the "Papadimas" family. For generations, promises have been made to one-day all return to our roots and visit them in the small village of Kastanéa, Greece. However, due to the immense effort required to organize these reunions in geographically perceivable locations, a pilgrimage across the world has been something more of a fantasy than a reality. Nevertheless, in a family of determined Greeks who never turn down a challenge, I'm not sure why I ever doubted the fate of these plans. It wasn’t long after I got the official word about the voyage that I began counting down the days until Summer 2018, when we would finally make it to the Papadimas village.

The journey began in the island of Corfu with an exhilarating 30-foot plunge into the Aegean Sea, an initiation some family members called it and a remedy for beating jet lag, dubbed by others. The Plymouth we jumped off had our last name, "Demmas" written all over it and from the moment it caught my eye, I knew that all fifty of us would soon be chanting each other’s names while taking turns diving off of it into the pristine turquoise water. In utter disbelief of the surreal beauty, I reminded myself that this was only the start of a life-changing journey. Soon, we would be making our way North West to do what we came here for and fill the void that had existed for too many years.

Cliff jump into Aegean Sea. Image credit: Anna Demmas

The massive Tsokas bus bumped and jostled us as we crept along the deserted mountain roads of Northern Greece. Minutes away from meeting two dozen family members in a village with a population small enough to count on a few hands, we would incontestably multiply it twofold. The view from the bus window became less and less familiar as we approached our destination and I wondered how our already skeptical bus driver, who was convinced we gave him the wrong location, would be able to maneuver this colossal vehicle up the steepening, narrow roads. Not only did the tumultuous laughter from inside the bus fade, but the landscape became increasingly desolate as scrawny olive trees and nomadic sheep replaced the bustle of occupied locals and noisy motorcycles. Feelings of uncertainty hit me almost as hard as the Aegean had the day before, only this time, the sensation of refreshment and relief that came after submerging myself into the sea was absent. Out of both habit and discomfort, I reached for my iPhone, but I couldn’t unload these fears into a Google search bar; beside the fact that we were miles away from a cellular tower, the village we were about to arrive in was so small that it could not be found on Google maps. Other than a few of my elderly family members who had visited the land ages ago, no one had any conception of the experience that would soon take place. While I had so many blood connections to this village, I felt like I was about to be an absolute foreigner. I contemplated how I would communicate with these relatives, how I would recognize them, and what they would think about my family’s rejection of the Greek way of life to settle in distant America.

Demmas Reunion Tsokos bus and driver. Image credit: Anna Demmas

The instant I set foot on the cobble stoned road, my fears were alleviated as strangers, who turned out to be my relatives, embraced me with open arms, pursed lips, and tears. No time was wasted becoming acquainted with one another; as we packed our way into a room just barely large enough for all of us, I couldn’t help but notice our almost identical noses and familiar rhythms of laughter. Once our joyful tears dried, a display of savory Greek dishes, freshly picked flowers, and nostalgic family photographs appeared into our lines of sight. Although vision would soon become blurred again from the seemingly endless rounds of ouzo and mastic shots, a profusion of senses would compensate. Who would have thought a bunch of tourists struggling to follow along with the notoriously repetitive beat of O’Zorbas the previous night had descended from such harmonious singers? Almost never was there silence in the company of the Papadimas’. Touch was another sense that this family did not hardly lack, but having a father who has been coined with the nickname “meaty claws” for his tight handshakes and firm pats on the back, this characteristic was rather predictable of the Greeks. Deriving from sights, gestures, and songs, these moments were far more memorable than any conversation composed of words I had ever had.

Inside the Papadimas village. Image credit: Anna Demmas

There were however, clear distinctions between these villagers and us, American Greeks that went beyond language and style. Their way of life was so antiquated that it felt almost intangible, as if I had warped back in time. The villages main and only supply of water came from a small well at the base of the local church, and meals were about as homemade as it gets with a vineyard in walking distance and farm animals, such as goats, wandering the streets the same way a stray cat or dog would. I began to wonder if the reason for this humble lifestyle could be accredited to a mere lack of privilege, an extraneous outlook on ambition, or perhaps an oblivion to the outer world, but it wasn’t any of these. The Papadimas’ were raised on an entirely different set of principles than we were in America, allowing them to appreciate values more than physical objects. It was quite clear that they were completely content with the way things were and always had been.

As I munched through the crunchy, spinach and feta filled, phyllo of the homemade spanakopita, I heard Nikkos, the eldest Papadimas, ask in an almost provoking tenor, “ti synévi me to ónoma?” Gleeful smiles turned into tense sneers. Nobody had a response. It was evident that the question had a controversial connotation but it took eager whispering from us younger, non-Greek speaking, Americans to find out that the phrase translated to, “what has happened to the name?” For years, my family has contemplated the idea of legally changing our last names from Demmas back to "Papadimas," its original form. I had always been in favor of the idea, but after making my way into the villages church with a few of my female cousins, a thought steered me in the opposite direction. We were told not to go near the altar; it was reserved for men. Although not exactly a shock to hear as a woman in a small orthodox church, the incident posed new questions about the steady lifestyle that I was witnessing. It suddenly dawned on me why my great grandfather changed his last name. His intentions were not to disrespect his family or abandon his culture. Rather, he was ready to embrace the new ways of life, and for him that meant changing certain aspects of it such as his name. Still holding his roots dear, just as I do today, he realized that the bonds shared within family do not need to be defined by a label when they are already engraved in the heart.

Family is the most important part of my life, but the comfort of it can limit us from taking risks and venturing out into the world. I have a vast amount of respect and love for my Greek relatives who have such limited resources but seem like the happiest people on earth. In fact, I strive to become more and more like them every day by learning to live without the “luxuries” in life. Nonetheless, thanks to my great papou, I have learned the value of ambition and adhering to goals while remaining open to change.