The Old House
She answered on the second ring.
I had practiced for days. I knew just what to say.
"Hello Aunt Maria. I am Nikos Kachulis, Angelo’s son from America. We are in Sparta; we would like to come and visit you in the village tomorrow. I'm with my wife and my two children. We have a car.”
"Un huh. ……Who are you?”
"Nikos Kachulis, Angelo’s son from America.”
I had heard from everyone 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 about our trip around Greece.
"We are staying on the main avenue in Sparta. We 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….and running out of Greek.
"You know my family.”
The kids looked nervous. They knew enough Greek to understand what was happening. My wife had no idea, but sensed something was wrong. I smiled and waited.
"Uh huh…. Uh huh…..Who is your mother?”
“My mother?” I thought.
"Marina…… Thea, we would like to come and visit. Is tomorrow, okay?.... We have a car.”
I babbled on in broken Greek, stumbling through half sentences and disconnected thoughts- the weather, my parents, my children, not feeling at all like the returning hero or a grandson of the village, back from the New World. We were no closer to where I’d thought we’d be after the second telephone ring.
I started again at the beginning of my script.
"We'll come after lunch just for a few hours, just so we can see the village and say hello. I’m Nikos Kachulis, Angelo’s son. My grandfather is Demetri.”
"Yes. Uh huh….. And who is your grandmother?”
This, I did not expect.
Marika. Marika Kachulis
"Ohhhh Niko!” Thea Maria exclaimed in one long gasp. I could see her startled eyes, even over the phone. "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.”
It all came spilling out in a great rushing tide.
"How is your mother? And your father? You'll come tomorrow and stay over. I'll make lamb.”
“Demetraki !” she called her husband, and rattled off something in Greek. I had trouble understanding.
" Thea, No,” I used the Greek for aunt- "we don't want to put you out. Don’t make a fuss. 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!”
Here was the gush of love and affection I’d expected, that warmth that connected me to all the Greeks of my childhood.
I relax and smile. My wife and kids relax with me.
Thea and I get down to business.
"Thea, which is the road from Sparta to the village?”
It is long before the days of talking phones. I have a pencil and a detailed Michelin map sprawled across the bed. There are hundreds of villages in the Peloponnesian Mountains, and I scan the map and puzzle out the Greek names.
"I see Daphni, Thea.” I circle it.
"But be careful Niko, not Daph´ni, but Daph ni´ and not Daphnee.
There are three Daphnis near Sparta, all with different spellings and accents, and that doesn’t count the famous Daphni, near Athens. No wonder my mother’s family called my father’s people the Daffies.
I mark them all, spell out each one, and choose the one I think is right.
"Yes Niko, that’s it.”
I trace 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, looking for somewhere that was “not far,” often given a landmark we couldn’t find, and the assurance that “from there it is too easy.”
"We will come tomorrow after breakfast.”
"Yes Niko, come, and we'll have dinner, and you’ll stay over… Tomorrow then.”
I hang up the phone, we are buzzing with excitement. The kids piece it all together and explain it to mom.
My Greek guest mentality kicks in.
"We have to have something to bring.”
We hustle across the busy avenue, dodging a few errant Greek drivers, and buy flowers and sweets in the local market.
The next day after breakfast, we're off.
It’s early Sunday morning and the light on the olive groves gives the world a peaceful, shimmering quality, broken only by the purring of our cheerful little black car and the laughing chatter of children in the back seat.
The village is only 10 kilometers- about 6 miles - and soon after we pass a road sign, we turn right, onto the main street. The kids read off the village name in Greek letters, sounding it out “Entering Daph….ni.
We stop at the first person we see - a woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of the gate of a school. I drop my window.
"Good morning” she nods pleasantly, and returns to her task, the insistent scraping of the broom 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, resting on her broom.
"Yes, yes. What do you want?”
"Where is the house of Demetraki and Maria Kachulis?”
She tells me three times, each time more quickly and insistently and then, exasperated I still don't understand, leans her broom against the schoolyard fence, closes the black gate, and with a half-smile, motions me to follow.
I hop back in the car and drive as slow as the car can go, as she leads us through the narrow twists and turns of the village streets.
Finally, she stops and points. “The house of Demetri and Maria Kachulis.”
I thank her several times and she flashes me a half-smile, nods quietly and breaks into a grin. I step on the gated porch and knock on the door.
The door swings open and Thea Maria embraces me like she has known me her whole life.
Her husband, Uncle Demetri, comes to the door and begins to cry.
Demetraki -Little Demetri - is a short, middle-aged, round bellied man, who hobbles with difficulty. He has a special affection for the memory of my grandparents, who sheltered him and gave him a job when he was a young, illegal immigrant, sneaking across the border from Canada. He lived with them 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 again and again as we step through the doorway, and they welcome us into their home.
Although after three weeks in Greece, the kids have grown used to the welcoming gestures of strangers and physical affection from people they have just met, at nine and twelve, everything is still new and a wonder. 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, the first of many, and Demetraki talks of his days in New York.
"Your grandfather 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, giving way to some inner memory, reminiscing; the elevated train outside the 2nd floor apartment in Brooklyn, taking the B 53 bus 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. I answer, “kala – good…… They say hi.”
We phone New York, but there is no answer and no place to leave a message. I tell him a little about mom and dad- retired, loving grandchildren, taking college courses for fun - fitting together Greek words and phrases as best I can. I’m not sure he catches it all, but he smiles a smile beyond words. And we struggle for more to say.
Thea Maria takes an immediate liking to Martha; all the Greeks do. Although it is obvious she is not a Greek, they sense some kindred spirit in her. She is sitting on the couch and stands when Thea comes into the living room.
‘No,’ Thea Maria motions, Martha must keep her seat. She will sit on the floor. She shows us some photo albums- of her wedding, and a recent trip.
My cousin Heracles and his wife Panayiota come downstairs from their apartment and join us; she, small boned, wiry and friendly, works in an office in Sparta, and he, a part time farmer on the family farm and an impassioned soccer player. My cousin looks every inch a European soccer star, long black hair, dark eyes, strong quick body, energetic persona. Soccer is his love. Farming merely his work.
Their two-year-old daughter Maria races in behind them and sits on Demetraki’s lap, giggling and squirming and laughing. Her grandparents watch her every day, while the parents work.
Demetraki asks me about my job - playing and teaching piano, writing music for TV and videos, doing school programs for kids.
Panayiota knows some English from elementary school and enough comes back so she can act as a simple translator.
Everyone else speaks and understands nothing but Greek.
"Do you understand?” she asks Demetraki.
"Yes, he works in a “magazine” – a store of some sort.”
Panayiota catches my eye and smiles, “You tried,” her look implies.
She talks to him in Greek, and he nods.
“Is it okay?” she smiles at me again.
"Yes,” I return her smile. … En dax ee,” “It’s okay.”
Our eyes meet. We understand. We will act as a bridge over the Greek – English divide for the day.
Thea Maria hoists herself 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 Thea Maria keeps up a lively conversation as she works, calling out to Demetraki, and Panayiota and Heracles. Each one of them answers in turn, and grins 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 dismissed a second time, with a bigger smile and even more good-natured affection.
Thea smiles at me and nods as she rifles through pots and pans and platters in preparations for the meal. Her hands move quickly and effortlessly, their motions almost rapid fire, as she carries on a running conversation with Demetraki, who sits in his living room chair, looking a little spent, his cane leaning against the arm rest. In the background, little Maria runs back and forth between her parents and her grandfather, in noisy, childlike chatter.
Thea gestures and nods again at the scene, rolling her eyes and smiling, clicking her tongue, and grinning back at us. Her hands, moving in double time, never stop.
Uncle Demetri struggles to the edge of his chair, hoists himself up, leaning on his cane, and gestures for us to follow. He leads us to a shed in the backyard 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 homemade brew – rich and hearty red wine, from deep in the earth. The kids look on in wonder, like they are in a storybook.
After the first sip, he grins.
"Time to eat,” he says. “Come.”
Thea Maria has laid out Sunday dinner; lamb, chicken, cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, bread and wine ; everything grown on the property. Even the herbs that season the meat and mix in the dipping bowls of olive oil, Heracles has bargained for, trading some farm vegetables with a neighbor.
The food is wonderful - a down home, Greek style, village feast.
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.”
We had coached the boys for a year about proper guest etiquette in Greece. “When we go to Greece, there is no refrigerator to go to and find something else. You can’t be too fussy. If we order something in a taverna and you don’t like it, it’s the only food we have that night. And if we are lucky enough to get invited to someone’s house, you can’t refuse what’s served. It’s hard to explain, but it would be like a personal insult. They would think you didn’t like them if you refused their food. At least take a little and try it, then everyone will be satisfied.”
Thea keeps an eye out as the platters circulate, making sure everyone’s plate is full. A serving plate of spiced eggplant comes around. She asks my youngest son in Greek “Would you like some meletsani, Demetri?”
There is a family back story. Our nine-year-old son Demetri hates eggplant in all its forms. It’s been a running theme of his childhood. This afternoon - meletsani-salada – a traditional eggplant dip with lemon, garlic, olive oil, onions and parsley - is one of the features of the menu.
Demetri looks up at Thea through his horn-rimmed glasses and answers politely in his best Greek.
Thea gives him a healthy dollop which he dutifully finishes first – cultural crisis averted. Then he digs into the feast in front of him, hands and forks all together.
Halfway through, Thea, making the rounds again, sees Demetri’s plate has no eggplant. Hovering with a ready spoon, she asks, "you want more eggplant, Demetri?” and without waiting for an answer, shovels a fresh serving on his plate.
Demetri stares at his plate, bewildered, then to Thea and then to me.
I gently cut in.
"It’s okay Thea," I smile. "Melitsani is not one of his favorites. But I would love some more” I add, scraping his helping onto my plate. “Everything is wonderful.”
She looks bemused, puzzled for a moment, then smiles.
"Demetri!" she 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 looks 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.
The age-old response.
"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 bit terrified at a car full of thirty-year-old Greek soccer players speeding over the mountains of Greece, with my precious sons rattling around the back seat.
"Thank you, but no, Heracles. I want them to see the village today. See where their great grandfather was born.”
He is up with a bolt of energy, excuses himself and declares, “I will be back for dinner ….with octopus !,” eliciting peals of laughter from the kids.
Thea clears the table in a flash, and we are swept into the backyard for 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. I remember her from Brooklyn.”
There is no family left in her village, but now I am sorry we don’t have time to go.
I take a moment and remember her.
He senses my mood.
"Next time,” he smiles, "when you come again.”
Thea ducks into the house and comes back with an oversized Coke bottle, dumps out the boy’s water glasses and fills them with soda and ice. The kids are wide-eyed and look back at us hopefully.
Soda is on the do not drink list in our house, but we smile, and they relax and eagerly guzzle their drinks, the ice cubes clattering against their glasses. She gives them a refill. We all know something bigger happening, that transcends family rules, health guidelines and wild little boy sugar highs.
Uncle Demetri watches the boys play with little Maria.
"They don’t seem like American children. 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, they are good with us… It’s so beautiful here.”
Propped in his chair, leaning on his cane, Demetraki gazes off, closes his eyes, and falls into a gentle sleep. He snores lightly.
"He drives the tractor every day,” Thea says. "He is very tired now. Come, we’ll let him sleep. I’ll show you the village and the church.”
Panayiota joins us and tells us a little about my cousin Heracles.
"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. 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 money sent from America by my grandfather. The placard over the doorway reads “To the Family of Demetrius Kachulis.” Thea cannot find the key; it is not 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. Resting on the head stone are objects of remembrance: a stuffed animal, some trinkets, an empty coke can, like offerings accompanying a soul into the afterlife. Thea says a short prayer and blesses herself over the grave as the sky begins to darken.
We walk to her brother’s convenience store – a drop-down wooden window opening to the cobblestone street, a single room, with some odds and ends haphazardly stacked on the shelves.
"He lost his wife only a few months ago,” Thea says. “I come and see him every day. He doesn’t usually work Sundays, but he doesn’t have much else right now. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
They chat briefly as he closes up shop. In front of the drop-down window, we are introduced. He smiles, sad, bewildered, and lonely. We shake hands, but I know it is not enough. I want to reach out, embrace him, offer some comfort, but the moment passes.
At the end of the lane, we turn down another cobblestone street, this one rough and uneven, and come to “the old house.”
It is a one room stone hut, about thirty feet long and a dozen feet across. The roof, fluted ceramic tiles, is mostly cracked and broken.
Two open doorways and a few small window slits are cut into the front of the house. It looks and feels centuries old, from the days of the Spartans and Athenians, or the abduction of Helen from nearby Sparta, that set off the Trojan War.
We step inside.
"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.”
The room is divided in half by an open doorway in its center. A few shelves are carved into the walls, there is a cut away in the corner where a wood stove might have stood.
It still has no electricity, no plumbing or refrigeration, no running water.
“We use it as a farmhouse now.”
Thea snatches a few eggs from one of the stone shelves and places them in her dress pocket.
"For breakfast tomorrow,” she smiles.
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, working on the family farm, leaving the village at seventeen to make his way to America. We are silent, even Thea and Panayiota, like the ancestors are present in the house. I make my children touch the walls.
"Whatever else happens, remember, this is where you come from.”
I hope it sticks.
As we leave the stone house, an old woman comes hobbling down her driveway next door. We stop and she and Thea chat in rapid fire Greek. She smiles, glances at the children, and suddenly swings open the gate, embracing me and taking my hand, leading us up the driveway.
The woman motions us to sit at the outdoor table, ducks into the house and returns with a tray of drinks and sweets.
"She says she has a son in America somewhere, Vermont?” my aunt explains. "Maybe you know him. He is a farmer."
"I live not too far from Vermont," I offer, 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 start again in rapid Greek, I only catch a few words. When we're finished, the plates are cleared and the woman walks us down the driveway, her plump little hand in mine, warm, almost hot, like a fleshy piece of fruit that has sat long afternoons, baking in the sun. At the gate she lingers, still holding my hand, hugs me again and kisses me goodbye. The kids and Martha step back. It is just me and the old woman, a stand in for her distant son and my long ago ancestors. We both feel the loss.
"Thea, who was that?
My aunt shrugs.
“How are we related?”
”We don’t know. This whole area” she points, “ Kachulis row.”
Back at the house, Panayiota hops on her bike and heads off to a meeting of the village council, where she is a member.
I am left to communicate in Greek as best I can.
I sit on the porch with Demetraki in the early evening and the sun reappears. While little Maria plays at our feet, we talk, and a parade of tractors rolls by, coming in from the farms and every driver waves and calls out a greeting. One man parks his tractor and come to the gate.
"He remembers your grandfather; the first American to send money back to the village. People were starving after the war. They used it to buy guns for hunting. And the Civil War was going on” …. His voice trails off. “It was a terrible time. Everyone remembers your grandfather for that.”
The man shakes my hand, full of warmth and vigor and friendship.
Couples, individuals and families are out for an evening stroll, intermingled with the tractors, and most everyone stops and chats, curious about who I am. Another farmer parks his tractor in the middle of the road, comes to the gate to say hello, and dangles worry beards in front of little Maria. She laughs, delighted at the game.
It is like this every day, I’m told, farmers coming home from the fields at sunset, or part timers going to their farms at the end of a workday in Sparta. Demetraki rides his tractor mornings. He and Heracles work the farm together, when Heracles is not off playing soccer.
He looks back at me as the foot traffic starts to thin. 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 grandfather, maybe next summer.”
The screen door swings open and Thea, Martha, and the boys join us from the house. After Thea and Demetraki talk, he waves, smiles, and struggling with his cane to stand, heads inside.
"Come Niko. We’ll walk," Thea takes my arm. "He’ll rest. It is difficult for him to go too far.”
She locks her arm in mine, and we stroll in quiet, while Panayiota talks broken English with Martha. Soon, we are at the village square; mostly men sit around at outdoor tables, talking, smoking, and drinking coffee. Everyone is instantly aware of us. They all have a familiar look, like they are relatives, and eye us with intense curiosity.
Thea approaches a table, speaks quickly, and suddenly four men are up, their brilliant white smiles flashing, their shining black eyes glowing like smoldering coals, , shaking my hand, embracing me, bowing respectfully to Martha and smiling and patting the boys. The tables around us relaxe and slip back into animated conversation.
I would give a lot to sit with the old men of the village, but I know my pigeon Greek will only carry me go so far.
I introduce us in Greek. After a long day, my language skills are starting to give out.
Having no Greek on a visit to the country is like walking by a great restaurant with the door closed; at least you can peer in and see some of what goes on. Knowing a little, is like catching an whiff of the food as you pass; you might get lucky; the door swings open, the music comes bursting out and you are drawn in. The Mediterranean flavors fill your senses, just enough to make your mouth water and long for more.
I can at least step into the restaurant, even get a table, taste a sample of the menu and tap my foot to the music. But to sit down at the feast and dance the night away, to celebrate like a Greek, is heartbreakingly beyond me. My lack of the language is one of the few regrets of my life.
We stroll in the darkness back at the house.
Herakles is still not home. Thea and Demetraki exchange anxious looks, we hear the strain in their voices. She looks at the clock on the wall -ten o’clock.
He shows up an hour later. Like all mothers everywhere, his mother has been fretting, preoccupied, wondering aloud “where are they?” “what is keeping them?” and listening to the silence outside for the sound of a car door slamming.
When he arrives, the interaction needs no translation. She is annoyed and questioning, but mostly relieved and happy to see him. His father keeps a low profile.
To deflect the situation, Heracles reaches into a paper bag and announces “octopothi,” as if fresh octopus will forgive him, eliciting peals of laughter from the boys that break the tension of the room.
It’s time for sleeping arrangements.
"For you, Chris,” my cousin manages in English, pointing to the crib brought down from upstairs, provoking another outburst of laughter. Two-year-old Maria will sleep with her grandparents tonight.
Heracles takes us upstairs to their apartment. We sit on the couch in front of a home entertainment center: CD player, record player, good European speakers and a decent sized TV blaring a Greek soccer game. He is only one generation removed from being born in a stone hut, like his father.
"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 throw them out. Is that true Niko?”
"Yes, in a way, sometimes. What about here?”
"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, Heracles’ sister, were moving to Athens. Now they find out, it is not such a great life. Many are coming back to the village.”
Heracles steps into the other room and Panayiota lowers her voice, 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 kindergarten teacher or the soccer player'?”
"That’s him”… “Come” she reaches for his hand and 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. “She must 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 and surfs around the channels, as Panayiota excuses herself. Heracles clicks off the game and motions me to follow him.
He guides us to the bathroom. When we are through, he leads us to their bedroom.
"No.” I step back and point to the couch. “We will sleep here.”
There is a bit of friendly back and forth, until he raises his finger again, one of the many inimitable Greek gestures we had gotten used to, and proclaims “Niko, forget it.”
He and his wife 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. There is no debate.
We woke at dawn to roosters crowing and the sound farm animals emanating from the earth. A humming tractor cut the air in the distance.
We lay listening, not wanting to break the spell, knowing that soon we would be leaving this peaceful picture of village life, who knows when to return. It felt like we had lived in Daphni for a year, although it had only been a day. We were already a part of things.
Thea made a simple breakfast - bread and butter, eggs from the old farmhouse, some cheese from the goats on the property. We ate slowly, quietly, and thanked her, and hugged them all a hundred times. It was impossible to leave -we felt it on both sides.
As we climbed through the Peloponnesian Mountains, speeding by roadside fruit stands, looking off at mountain villages hanging from rock side cliffs, and gazing down long lonely valleys from the precipitous heights of stunning mountain scenery, we were excited to make Olympia by night fall. But our hearts and minds drifted back to the village. We would never see Daphni again. But we never forgot the day of our return. It became another place to call home.