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"Yes ?” she answered on the second ring.

I had  practiced my Greek for days. I  knew just what to say. 

"Hi Aunt Maria. I am Nikos Kachulis, Angelo’s son from America.”


"Uh huh.”


"We are in Sparta; we would like to come and visit you in the village tomorrow. I'm with my wife and two children. We have a car.”


"Un huh. ……Who are you ?”


I repeated myself.


"Nikos Kachulis, Angelo’s son from America.”


"Uh huh.”


We were told that although no one spoke English in the village, we would be welcome with open arms as  soon as they heard the family name. This was not going as planned.


I added a little more about our trip around Greece – where we had been, where we were going. 

"We are staying on the main thoroughfare  in Sparta," I said. "The children are really excited about coming to the village."


"Uh huh.”


"Who is your grandfather?”


"Demetri.  Demetri Kachulis. My father is Angelo.” I was getting more desperate with every question. "You know my family.”


The kids were looking a little nervous. They had learned enough Greek in the last year to understand what was happening, at least at my end of the conversation. My wife had no idea what was going on, but sensed something was wrong. I smiled reassuringly.


"Uh huh…. Uh huh…..Who is your mother?”


"Marina…… Thea, we would like to come and visit. Is tomorrow okay? We have a car.”


"Uh huh.”


I babbled on in fractured  Greek, saying anything I could.

I was  running out of conversation and not exactly feeling like a conquering hero or a son of the village, back from the New World.


"We'll come after lunch just for a few hours,  just so we can see the village and say hello. I’m Nikos Kachulis, son of Angelo. My grandfather is Demetri.”


"Yes. Uh huh….. And who is your grandmother?”


"My grandmother ?” I did not expect this.


Marika. Marika Kachulis


"Ahhhh Niko!” she exclaimed in one long exhale. "It's you ! Now I know, when I hear your grandmother's name. Niko is not a common name in the family. I thought you were related to some other Kachulis’ in  the village.”


Now, it all came spilling out. "How is your mother ?  And your father? You'll come tomorrow and stay over. I'll make lamb.”


"No Thea” – aunt in Greek- "we don't want to put you out. We only want to stop by for a few hours.”


A foolish thing to say to any Greek.


"No Niko, you’ll come, and you'll stay, and we’ll have lamb.”


"Oh Niko!”


I relax, and my kids and my wife relax with me.


We get down to business.


"Thea, which is the road from Sparta to the village?”


I have a detailed Michelin map spread out on the bed. It is before the days of talking phones and map apps.


"I see Daphni, Thea.” I circle it with a pencil.


"But be careful Niko, not Daph´ni, but Daph ni´ and not Daphni.


"What ?"


There are three Daphnis nearby, all with different spellings and accents, and that doesn’t count the famous Daphni, near Athens.

I circle  them all and spell out the one I think is right.


"Yes Niko, that’s it.”


"I see it, Thea.”


I find  the road from Sparta and give the route number. 


"Yes, that is the one.”


"How far Thea ?”


"It is not far, Niko.”


In Greece this could mean anything. We have gotten lost for hours, with explicit instructions, looking for somewhere that was “not far.”


"We will come tomorrow after breakfast,” I say.


"Yes Niko, come, and we'll have dinner, and you’ll stay over.”


I hang up the phone. We are buzzing with excitement.


My Greek guest mentality kicks in.


"We have to have something to bring.”


We cross the busy street of Sparta to the small market across from the hotel and buy something  to bring to the village.


The next day, after breakfast, we're off.


                                     Δ   Δ   Δ

It’s early Sunday morning and the light on the olive groves and the mountains in the distance gives everything a peaceful, shimmering quality, broken only by the purring of our happy little black car motoring down the road. The village is only 10 kilometers- about 6 miles - and soon after we pass the road sign we turn right, and we are on the main street, entering Daphni.


We stop at the first person we see - a  woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of the gate of what must be the only school in the village. I drop the window and  say good morning.


"Good morning” she nods pleasantly, and returns to her sweeping, the insistent scraping of the broom on the pavement breaking the air over the still quiet village.

I step out of the car and approach her.


"Can you help me?”


She stops and smiles, almost resting on her broom.


"Yes, yes. What do you want?”


"Where is the house of little Demetri and Maria Kachulis ?”


She tells me three times, each time more quickly and insistently and then, a little exasperated that I still don't understand, rests her broom against the schoolyard fence, closes the black gate, and with a half-smile, motions me to follow.


I quickly hop in the car, and we drive as slow as we can, while she leads us through what seems like every twisty, turny, narrow street in the village.


Finally, she stops and points. “The house of Demetri and Maria Kachulis.”


I thank her profusely and she flashes  me half-smile, nods quietly and breaks into a grin. I step onto the gated porch and knock at the  door.


Thea Maria comes and embraces me like she has known me her whole life, although we have never met. There are hugs and kisses everywhere.

Uncle Demetri comes to the door and begins to cry.

Demtraki -Little Demetri – as he is commonly called -  is a short, round bellied, middle aged man, who walks with difficulty. He has a special affection for the memory of my grandfather, who sheltered him and gave him a job when he was a young, illegal immigrant, sneaking across the border from Canada into the U.S. He lived with my grandparents above their luncheonette on Broadway in Brooklyn, until someone turned him in to Immigration Services and he was deported back to Greece.


Thea and Demetraki  embrace us several more times as they welcome us into their home. After three weeks in Greece, the kids have grown used  to physical affection from people they have just met, and at nine and twelve, everything is new and surprising, but stepping into the Kachulis house in their great grandfather’s village in the mountains of Sparta, is like entering another world.


We sit in the living room with a small refreshment, and Demetraki  talks about New York.


"Your Papou -grandfather in Greek- was very kind to me. He took me in and gave me a job. I lived with your grandparents when I was a young man.”


He drifts off for a moment.


He remembered the elevated train outside the windows of the 2nd floor apartment on Broadway, and taking the bus from Brooklyn to Queens, to visit my parents.


"I remember their house.” He smiles. “How are they?”


I am struggling to keep up, but catch most of what he says and answer, “kala – good…… They say hi.”


We try to phone New York, but there is no answer. I tell him a little about my mom and dad- retired, loving grandchildren, taking college courses for fun - fitting together odd Greek words and phrases as best I can. I’m not sure he catches it all.


Thea Maria takes an immediate liking to Martha, all the Greeks do, although she has not one drop of Greek blood, and it shows. Martha is sitting on the couch and gets up when Thea comes into the room.  ‘No,’ Thea motions, Martha must keep her seat on the couch, while Thea sits on the floor and shows us pictures.


My cousin Heracles and his wife Panayiota come downstairs and join us. She  is wiry and friendly, works in an office in Sparta, and he  is a part time farmer and an impassioned soccer player. Heracles looks every inch a European soccer star, long black hair, dark eyes, strong quick body, energetic persona. Soccer is his passion; farming is his work.


Their two year old daughter Maria comes in behind them, darts ahead, and sits on her papou Demetraki’s lap, giggling and laughing as they play and tickle. Her grandparents watch her everyday while the parents work.


Demetraki asks me about my work back home- playing piano, writing music for TV and videos, doing school programs for kids.


Panayiota had learned  some English in school, and enough  comes back to her, so she can act as a simple translator.


Everyone else speaks nothing but Greek.


"Do you understand ?” she asks Demetraki.


"Yes, he works in a  "magazine” – a store of some sort.”


She talks to him in Greek. He nods.


Panayiota catches my eye and smiles, as if to say “ You tried. Is it okay?”


"Yes … En dax ee,"  I return her smile. "It’s okay.”


We understand each other. We will be the Greek -English bridge over the language divide for the day.


Thea is up from the floor, kisses little Maria on the top of her head, and excuses herself to the kitchen. The downstairs is an open floor plan except for a bedroom off to the side, and she is part of the conversation while she works, calling things out in Greek to Demetraki and the rest of the family. The talk is lively and free around the room, broken by warm hearted smiles in our direction.


Martha steps around the couch into the kitchen to help, and Thea beams  and shoos her away. She tries again  and is swiftly and decisively dismissed a second time.


Thea smiles in my direction, watching Martha go, while she rifles through preparations for the meal, her hands moving quickly and expertly, all the while carrying on a running conversation with Demetraki, who sits in a chair looking a little spent, his cane leaning against the arm rest, while little Maria runs back and forth between her parents. Thea motions with her head, rolling her eyes and  clicking her tongue, smiling back at us. Her hands never stop.


With Thea going full steam in the kitchen, Uncle Demetri struggles to stand, leaning on his cane, and  hoists himself up. He takes us to the back yard shed adjoining the house and points to two barrels.


"One is for this year, one for next.” He taps this year’s barrel and hands us a glass of the  richest, heartiest wine we ever tasted, while the kids look on, still in wonderland.


"It's time for dinner,” he say. “Come.”


We carry our glasses  into the house, where Thea Maria has laid out Sunday dinner; lamb, chicken, cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, bread and wine ; everything grown on the property, they tell us. Even the spices that season the meat and mix in the dipping bowls of olive oil, Heracles had bargained for, trading some farm vegetables with a neighbor.


The kids puzzle at a chicken leg on their plates and Thea picks up on it; she doesn’t miss much around the table. "Me ta heria pedia” she says, "with the hands, children.”


The food is wonderful - a down home, Greek style, village feast.


We had coached the boys all summer about proper guest etiquette. “When we go to  Greece in September there is no refrigerator. You can’t be too fussy. If we order something in a taverna and you don’t care for it, it’s the only food we have. And if we get invited to someone’s house, you can’t refuse to eat what you are served. It’s hard to explain, but it would be like a personal insult. At least take a little and try it.”


Thea keeps a watchful eye as the platters circulate, making sure everyone has enough. When the eggplant comes around, She asks in Greek “Would you like some meletsani, Demetri?”

There is a family back story. Our nine year old  Demetri, hates eggplant. And this afternoon - meletsani-salada – a traditional eggplant dip with lemon, garlic, onions, olive oil and parsley  - is on the menu.

Demetri looks up shyly through his horn rimmed glasses and answers politely in his best Greek, “yes please.”


Thea gives him a healthy dollop which he dutifully finishes first – cultural crisis averted. Then he digs into  the absolutely delicious meal in front of him. Halfway through, Thea is making the rounds again, and sees Demetri’s plate has no eggplant. Hovering with a ready spoon, she asks, "you want more eggplant, Demetri?” and before he can answer, gives him a fresh serving.


Demetri looks from his plate, to Thea and to me with a bewildered expression, and I gently cut in, scraping his helping onto my plate.


"It’s okay Thea," I smile. "Melitsani is not one of his favorites, probably one  helping is enough.”


She looks puzzled for a moment and then smiles.

"Demetri!" she says, and ruffles his hair.

There is so much good food, going around, the table is surprisingly quiet –- but only for a moment.


"Heracles has a soccer game today” Thea says evenly, looking over at her son. “If you want, the boys can go with him.”


"They can come and sit on the bench,” he chimes in, grinning at them.


"Where is it?” I ask.


"Not far.”


"Can we walk to it.”


"No, you must take a car, about an hour away.”


I quickly calculate. It will take the afternoon, we are only here for the day, and I am a little terrified at a car full of thirty year old Greek soccer players speeding over the mountains of Sparta, with my precious sons rattling around the back seat.


"Thank you, but no, Heracles. I want them to see the village today.”


He is up, excuses himself and declares, “I will be back for dinner with octopus !,” eliciting peals of laughter from the kids.


Thea clears the table like a lightning bolt, and we retire to the backyard with bits of lamb and grapes and Greek coffee.


While Martha and the boys play with little  Maria, Demetraki motions to me and points to a nearby hilltop.


"There is your grandmother’s village.”


We have no family left in the village, but now I am sorry we don’t have time to go. I take a moment and remember her.


"Next time,” I say.


"Yes, next time,” he smiles, "when you come again.”


Thea excuses herself and comes  rushing back  from the house with an oversized bottle of Coke. She grabs the boy’s water glasses, dumps them out and fills them with soda and ice cubes, in one blur of motion. The kids are wide-eyed and look back at us hopefully.


Although soda is on the do not drink list in our house, we smile, and they relax and eagerly guzzle their drinks, the ice cubes clattering in their glasses. We  know there  is something bigger happening for all of us, beyond decaying teeth and wild boy sugar highs.


Uncle Demetri watches the boys roll a ball to little Maria.


"They don’t seem like American children,”  he says. "Except for the language, they seem Greek.”


"Do they want to watch TV ?” Thea askes.


"No, they are okay,” I smile.


"Are you sure?”


"Yes, Thea. They are good with us. It’s nice out.”


Sitting in his chair and leaning on his cane, Demetraki gazes off, closes his eyes, and falls into a gentle snooze.

"He drives the tractor every day, Thea says. "He is very tired now. Come, I’ll show you the village and the church.”


Panayiota joins us and tells us a little about Heracles, as we walk.


"He was the best soccer player in the region of Laconia. At  fourteen, big soccer  clubs from Athens offered to train him to join their team, but he would have to move to the city: Athens. His parents said no. How can a fourteen year old boy live away from his family ?  It is too young. He still plays in a local league, but now he is thirty five. He doesn’t like being a farmer much.”


We walk to a small chapel, built with funds sent from America by my grandfather. I read the placard over the doorway “To the Family of Demetrius Kachulis.” Thea cannot find the key; it is not in the usual place above the door mantel.


"Someone must have not returned it” she shrugs.


She leads us to a gravesite, in the cemetery adjacent to the chapel. It’s her  recently departed sister in law, she tells us. Resting on the head stone are objects of remembrance: a stuffed animal, some trinkets, an empty coke can, like the offerings that would  accompany a soul into the afterlife. Thea says a short prayer over the grave as the sky begins to gray. She  blesses herself and we move on.


Down the street is her brother’s convenience store – a drop down window on a single room, with some odds and ends casually stacked on shelves.


"He just lost his wife,” Thea says, "only a few months. I come and see him every day. He doesn’t have much else right now. He doesn’t usually work Sundays, but he doesn’t know what to do with himself.”


They chat briefly. As he closes up shop we are introduced. He smiles vacantly towards us, looking sad and  bewildered and lonely. We shake his hand, but it is not enough. We want to reach out and touch him and somehow comfort him, but we don’t.


At the end of the lane, we turn down a rough cobble stone street. We are on our way to “the old house.”


It is  a one room stone hut about thirty feet long and a dozen feet across. The roof is made of rows of small, rounded ceramic tiles, most of them cracked and broken. There are two open doorways and a few small window slits cut in the stone. It looks and feel centuries old, like  from the  days of the Spartans and  the Athenians, or the abduction of Helen from nearby Sparta that set off the Trojan War.


We step inside. The room is divided in half by a stone wall with an open doorway. There are  a few shelves cut into the walls tucked here and there, and a cut away, where a stove might have stood.

"Your grandfather was born in this house,” Thea says. "Mother, father, six children on one side” she points, “farm animals on the other. Demetraki was born here too. The family lived here until 1950.” 


"It still has no electricity, no plumbing and no refrigeration. We use it as a farmhouse .” Thea snatches a few eggs from one of the stone shelves in a corner and puts  them in her dress pocket.


"We will have for breakfast tomorrow,” she says.


I pause, overcome with feeling, picturing my grandfather as a boy, imagining his life here in this stone hut, walking down the narrow lane we just came up, and leaving the village at seventeen, to make his way to America. We are all strangely silent, even Thea and Panayiota, like the ancestors are in the house. I lead my children around and make them touch the walls.


"Whatever else happens in your lives, remember, this is where you come from.”


I hope it sticks.


As we leave, an old woman comes hobbling down  her driveway next door. We stop and she chats with Thea and Panayiota. Suddenly, she swings open the gate, embraces me, takes my hand, and leads us up the driveway.


"She says she has a son in America somewhere, Vermont?” my aunt explains. "Maybe you know him. He is a farmer."


The woman  motions us to sit at the outdoor table, ducks into the house and returns with a tray of drinks and sweets.

"I live not too far from Vermont," I manage to say, between bites of baklava and sips of lemonade, "but I’m sorry, I don't know your son.”


She smiles and strokes my arm.

"En daksee -it’s okay,” she says softly. "En daksee, endaksee.”


The three women talk again in rapid fire Greek, I only catch a few words. When we're finished, and the trays are cleared, the woman walks me down the driveway, her plump little hand warm in mine, almost hot, like a fleshy piece of fruit, that has spent the afternoon baking in the sun. At the gate she lingers, still holding my hand, hugs me  and kisses me goodbye.


"Thea, who was that? How are we related?”


My aunt shrugs.


"Cousins, we don’t know. This  whole area is Kachulis row.”


When we get back to the house, Panayiota hops on her bike and rides to her  meeting  of the village council. I am left  to communicate in Greek, the best I can.


It’s early evening and  the sun reappears. I sit on the porch with Demetraki, as little Maria plays at our feet. As we talk, the tractors roll by, coming in from the farms, and every driver waves or calls out to us. When my brother visited in the 1980’s, there was only one car and one telephone in the village, and there are still more tractors than cars on the road.


Intermingled with the tractors, couples, single people, and  families are  out for an evening stroll, and most everyone stops and chats. They are all  curious about who I am. One farmer parks his tractor in the middle of the road and comes to the gate.


"He says he remembers your grandfather; the first American to send money back to the village. They used it to buy guns for hunting. People were starving after the war. And the Civil War was going on ….  Everyone remembers your Papou  for that.”


The man smiles and shakes my hand, full of energy and gratitude and warmth.


It is like this every day, I’m told, full time farmers coming home from the fields or part timers going to their farms at the end of a work day in Sparta. Demtraki rides his tractor mornings and he and Heracles work the  farm together when Heracles is not off playing soccer.


He is impressed with how much Greek my older son Chis is speaking.


"Demetri is not speaking, but you can tell he is listening and understands. If they came for three months in the summer, they would be fluent. They should come with their Papou, maybe next summer.”


Thea, Martha, and the boys join us from the house, and after Thea and Demetraki  talk, he waves and struggles to stand, leaning on  his cane and heads inside. 

"Come Niko. We’ll walk," Thea says. "It is difficult for him to go too far.”


Thea locks her arm in mine, and we stroll in quiet, to the village square. There are mostly men sitting around at outdoor tables, talking, smoking, and drinking coffee. Everyone is instantly aware of us. They all have a familiar look, like they are related, and they eye us with intense curiosity and  a just a small hint of suspicion.


Thea approaches a table and speaks quickly to one man, too fast for me to catch. Suddenly four men are up at once, their  brilliant white teeth and shining black eyes flashing and smiling, giving me the warmest of handshakes and embraces, bowing respectfully to Martha and smiling at the boys. The whole square relaxes and goes back to their conversation.


I introduce us in Greek, not knowing what else to do. After a long day, my Greek speaking brain is starting to run out.


I would give a lot to sit and talk the night away, drinking Greek coffee with the men in the village, but I know my pigeon Greek will only take me so far.


Knowing no Greek on a visit to the country, is like walking by a good Greek restaurant with the door closed; at least you can peer in and see some of  the action. Knowing a little, is like catching a brief flavor of the food as you pass; if you are  lucky, the door swings open, the music comes blaring out and the rich aromas fill your head, just enough to make your mouth water.


I can at least step inside the restaurant, linger for a moment, get a table and  tap my foot to the music, and even taste a modest sample of the menu. But to sit down at a full course meal and dance the night through the night, is beyond me. My inability to speak and understand Greek better, is one of the few regrets of my life.


After the village square, we stroll back to the house. Herakles is still not home.


Thea and Demetraki exchange anxious words and she looks at the clock on the wall -ten o’clock.


He shows up an hour later and his mother, like all mother’s everywhere, has been fretting and preoccupied, wondering aloud “what is keeping them” and listening in the silence for the sound of a car.


When he finally arrives, the interaction needs no translation. She is annoyed and questioning, but mostly relieved and happy to see him, while his father keeps a low profile.


The kids are fascinated by Heracles. He wins their heart when, to counter to his mother’s worry and his extreme lateness, he reaches  into a paper bag and announce “octopothi,” as if fresh octopus will forgive all sins.


Little Maria’s crib is brought down stairs, as the family makes sleeping arrangements for us.


"For you Chris,” my cousin manages in English, pointing to the crib, provoking another round of laughter from the kids. Two year old Maria will sleep with her  grandparents tonight.


Heracles takes us upstairs to their apartment, where we sit on the couch in front of his home entertainment center. There is a CD player, good European speakers and a decent sized TV that blares a Greek soccer game. He is only one generation removed from being born in a stone hut.


"Heracles’ parents watch the  baby, while we work during the day,” Panayiota tells us. "And now tonight, since you are here, she will stay with them. We have lived above them since we got married, it is very helpful. We hear in America, when the children are a certain age, the parents push them out. They are on their own. Is that true Niko?”


"Yes, in a way, sometimes. What about in Greece ?”


"In Greece your parents help you, in your 20s, your 30s, your whole life. Maria and Demetraki put this addition on the house for us to live here. For a short time, people a little older than us, like Heracles’ sister, were moving to Athens. Now they find out, it is not such a great life. Many are coming back to the village.”


As Heracles steps into the other room, Panayiota lowers her voice, as if she is confiding in us.


"I am glad he still plays soccer. He was the best in the region.”


"Yes,” I say. "When we asked at the hotel in Sparta if they knew the name, they said ‘you mean the soccer player'?”


"That’s him” she smiles, as he rejoins us on the couch. 


"Do the boys play sports ?” she asks. "I want Maria to play basketball when she is older.”


“No !” Heracles raises his pointed finger in the air. “I want her to play soccer. Niko, I hear in America, all the girls play soccer. When Maria is old enough, I would like her to go to America and play.”


He glances  at the  game on TV, as Panayiota excuses herself. Heracles clicks off the game and motions me to follow.


He guides us to their bedroom.


"No,” I point to the couch. “We will sleep here.”


There is a bit of friendly back and forth until he raises his finger again, Greek style, and proclaims  "Niko, forget it.” They will sleep end to end on the couch, we will have their bed and  the boys will sleep  with blankets on the floor. It is all arranged.


                                        Δ   Δ   Δ      


We  awoke  at dawn, to the  rooster crowing, the sounds of farm animals and  the humming of the tractors emanating from the earth, painting a peaceful picture of village life. We lay listening, not wanting to move and  break the spell, knowing that soon we would be leaving the village.


We felt like we had lived in the Daphni for a year, although it had only been a day.


Thea made us a simple breakfast of bread and butter, and the eggs gathered from the old farm house. We ate quietly and thanked her and hugged them all a hundred times. It was impossible to leave -we all felt it on both sides.


With one last goodbye, we drove out of the village, passed the school, and  took the road North, with Sparta at our back. We were excited and eager to make Ancient Olympia by nightfall.


But as we climbed through the Peloponnesian Mountains, staring out at road side villages, watching solitary goat herders  on the hill sides and looking down lonely valleys from the precipitous heights of gorgeous mountain scenery, our hearts and minds could not escape; we were still back in Daphni.


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