My grandfather's village

Amy Brill tells the poignant tale of a search for her grandfather's village on a Greek island.

By Amy Brill
Published April 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

You should try to remember the name of the town you're in. I learned this one summer, island-hopping in the Greek Cyclades, browning in the sun and telling people I was there to find my grandfather's family. It's my mother's father I was talking about. He died when she was 9, and I don't know anything about him. I have several dead relatives I know nothing about, but only this one was from a balmy, languorous island set like an emerald in the clear Mediterranean. The rest were from Poland.

My search was not what I would call thorough. I didn't make inquiries before I arrived. I don't speak a work of Greek. I came armed with his name, the dates of his birth and death and the town he was born in. I could, at least, pronounce that. I had practiced. In fact, if I said only that, people sometimes thought I was from there -- an illusion that didn't last long.

It was midafternoon before I'd made it over on the ferry, gotten a bus into town and found a place to stay. I'd parked my bag on some nice woman's porch, and when I went back for it, she was sitting with somebody who looked like her father, or maybe her grandfather. I asked her, just for kicks, if she'd ever heard my grandfather's name.

"Makris," she repeated after me. "Makris."

It sounded different when she said it, and I tried to memorize the rolling "r" she put in.

She shrugged in my direction, but didn't look finished. People did that. If you didn't wait around, you missed the important part that was coming, and too bad for you.

"It was my grandfather," I said. "I'm looking for his family."

The woman looked at the man. She spoke to him in Greek. I understood "Makris."

He took a drink of something with ice. I heard it. That's how quiet this town was.

He spoke, then she turned back to me.

"My father says the name is from Galanado. You should go to Galanado."

I squinted at her.

"Galanado," she repeated. "Is here, is up there." She pointed up, toward the hills. I nodded and tried to repeat this word, so I would remember where I had to go.

She grinned and said it slowly: Ga-la-na-do.

She waved at me from where she stood on the porch. By the time I got back to the room I'd haggled for, I couldn't remember what she had just said. I went to the beach.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The next day I woke early, drank a cup of strong Greek coffee -- don't ever call it Turkish -- and walked along the shuttered beachfront kiosks, stepping over animals asleep next to stairways and stilts. I'd spotted a bike rental place from the bus, and when I found it I checked out the mopeds parked outside. The gears looked crusty, like they'd been sunk and dredged up, but the ones without gears looked all right. The guy at the desk inside looked sleepy, and I felt sleepy, so I smiled. A dog trotted out from behind him. It wagged at me so I scratched its head and waited.

"Miki," the man said.

I put out my hand, and he looked at it. Then he pointed to the dog.

"Miki," he said again.

"Right." I dropped my hand back to the dog's head. "Hey, Miki," I said.

We agreed on a price for the moped I wanted, and I signed the paper and handed over my passport for collateral. He looked at the photo, then up at me.

"It's me," I said.

He pronounced my whole name out loud once, like a statement rather than a question. Then he handed it back to me and waved me out of the office.

On the road, I quickly began to doubt the wisdom of my idea. I weighed the ruinous condition of the tarmac against where it might lead: The green hills were etched, irresistibly vibrant, against the blue sky, every turn flashing some combination of grove and sea and cliff. I kept going. Maybe my grandfather had taken these roads as a child, I thought. When I came to a junction I looked at my map. Then I looked at the sign. There it was: Galanado.

A half-dozen old men sat in the shade at the taverna, across from a market. They all stared when I parked the bike and got off, so I went into the market. The smell of sawdust made me want to buy bubble gum, but instead I read as best as I could from the grimy card I'd been carrying around for months. It said who I was supposed to be looking for. The woman behind the counter squinted at me, shrugged her shoulders. I tried again. She reached across and plucked it out of my hand.

"Ah!" she said, so pleased she clapped her hands together. "Kinotita d'marchio!" -- which sounded nothing like what I'd said. She called to her chubby son, who climbed onto a bicycle and began pedaling away. She motioned for me to follow him. The bright, white stones gleamed like cobbled teeth as I skittered after him on foot. No one answered the door he pointed to. Waiting in a patch of light, I listened to sounds from the open windows. An old woman kept peeking down at me.

A few minutes passed before a middle-aged woman approached. I stood up and brushed off.

"Hello," I said. "Are you the --" I looked at my card, "ki-no-ti-ta?"

She smiled. "Kinotita, yes," she said. "Come."

Just inside the door was a tiny office. Beyond it was a hallway, and a big open room, and a piece of a kitchen: her house. It smelled like lemons. I told her what I was looking for.

"He is the father of who?" she asked.

"The father of my mother," I said. "He died when she was a girl."

"Oh," she said. "That is bad luck."

I nodded. She continued looking at me from across the desk.

"I am wondering if any of his people may still be here," I said. "He had some brothers, I think. Maybe they had children."

Her eyebrows curled a bit, and she shrugged, then turned to pull a ledger book from the shelf behind her, the ringed kind I had in grade school. I gave her the name and waited.

"I don't see," she sighed, finally. "You are sure he was from here?"

"No," I said. "His death certificate said he was born on Ayia Anna. That's where I'm staying. But they said the name was from here."

She shook her head.

"No, you must go to Ayia Arsenios," she said.

I stared at her. "Where?"

"Ayia Arsenios. That is really Ayia Anna, not where you are on the beach." She paused. "Go to the kinotita there."

She explained which roads would take me there and showed me to the door.

"I hope you find," she called after me.

I passed through someone's olive grove a few minutes later and ate some fruit in the shade, imagining for a minute that I was a farmer's granddaughter. I thought of the tiny Bronx tenement my mother had described to me. Determined, I got back on the bike and headed toward Ayia Arsenios. I accidentally pulled through the town before I realized I was in it, and had to turn around and roll back. By now it was midafternoon. I asked a woman passing, "Kinotita?"

She pointed. The door of the office was propped with some spare mechanical part. Enormous, slow-moving fans hung from the ceiling. A dozen men were working in there, shuffling paper. I stood at the counter, looking at the little silver bell and feeling sorry for the third time that day that I was wearing shorts. They could see that I was standing there. Finally a man came over.

"I'm so sorry," I said, "but do you speak English?"

He rolled his eyes, then put up a hand, like a crossing guard, that I should stay. He went into another office and after a few minutes another man came out.

"Hello," I said. "English?"

He shook his head at me, made a so-so sign with his hand. He smelled like cigarettes in that way that some working men do, not at all like the smell after a night in a bar, and not like office people who step outside and then eat a mint. It smelled good.

Slowly, I said, "I am looking for the family of my grandfather. Named Makris. He was from here." I sighed. "I think."

He stared at me and said something in Greek. I shrugged. He shook his head. I stood there while they consulted, loudly. Smoky man won, I suppose, since the other guy motioned for me to follow him out into the street. Then he started walking. I followed him through several winding streets before he knocked on a door, then stepped back and called up to the window, "Maria!" His glasses were steaming up. My heart was pounding.

A woman came to the door and he waved his hand under his chin for me to talk. I said what I'd said in the office, slower even. I was beginning to sweat. She grimaced, looked back at my escort. She shrugged. I realized that we were looking for someone who could tell this man what the hell I wanted. Maria was not the one. We moved on. Two stops later a woman came to the door drying her hands and smelling of bread. She called inside, then pulled a girl forward and shoved her at me.

"Hi," I said. The girl looked about 16. She was wearing jeans.

"Hi," she said.

"I'm looking for the family of my grandfather," I said. "The father of my mother. I think he was from here. From this town. I want them to check this for me, check the records, if there are any."

She nodded as I talked.

"Where you are from?" she asked when I finished.

"From New York," I told her. "Is that your mother?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "New York City?" I nodded.

"You are alone?" she asked.

I nodded. Eyes wide, she turned to her mother and talked very fast for longer than I thought it took to say what I said, in any language. The man who'd brought me had one unruly eyebrow that dipped and curled with each expression, and as the girl spoke, his face lifted into the first semblance of a smile I'd seen so far. The girl's mother was speechless.

"You go with him," the girl said, pointing. "He understands what you are looking for."

We ended up on a porch across from where I started out. My guide was humming a little tune, now that I might be family. There was a small crowd gathered by the staircase that led from the taverna to the street, watching. He pounded on the door a few times, and a guy around my age opened the door, wearing pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was a mess. The older man briefed him and there was a lot more shrugging. The sleepy guy told me, "One minute, OK? Sit."

"OK," I said, and sat on the edge of a green metal chair. My guide leaned against the post. I waved away some flies. My eyelids were sweating, and my arms, every part. My hands were filthy. I tried not to cry.

The screen door squeaked and the young man came out. He had combed his hair and put on pants. He sat across from me.

"What exactly are you looking for?" he asked.

"Do you have a name?"

"My name is Nicolas," he said.

"Nicolas." I held out my hand, and we shook. For the fifth time that day, I told my story. "I don't know if there is anyone to find ..." I trailed off and shrugged.

"What was his name?" Nicolas asked.

"Makris," I said.

He introduced my guide, Mario, to me. We shook hands. After they talked, Nicolas pulled out a note pad. "OK," he said to me, "tell me what you know."

So I gave him what I had -- two dates and a full name -- and he transferred that data into legible Greek. The men from the taverna had crossed the street and gathered around us. Nicolas was some kind of star in that town.

"I go to the university in Athens," he explained to me. "I'm just home for this weekend."

"It's my lucky day," I said.

Mario was talking to the men gathered, and they were talking to each other. It was getting loud. One or two men climbed up on the porch and peered over Nicolas' shoulder. "Makris," I heard. "Makris."

"This man says this name is from Galanado," Nicolas said to me.

I shook my head. "I've been to the kinotita there. She said it is not from there, and I should come here."

He nodded, impressed, and repeated it back. Now there were a half-dozen old men standing around. Mario detached himself and went up the street.

"He goes to get the books," Nicolas said.

I sat back in the chair and watched the talking. The men had formed a semicircle and were arguing and frowning and shrugging, their hands flurrying the air. Someone pointed in the direction I had come from; then another indicated some other, unknown place. Their words rose and fell in time to their hands, or the other way around. One was biting on a pipe. Another wore a taxi driver's plaid cap, backwards. He smelled like tobacco, and his hands were knotted and wide as boards. He winked at me.

Mario returned and parked himself in the other chair. Pages were turned, his brown fingers marking columns of faded names. The men peered over his shoulder, calling out and smiling, clapping each other on the back when their names turned up. This was a soldier's log. After half an hour, they got to the end of the book. Then they tried another book. Our shadows shifted. There was no Makris in any records there.

"There were probably many towns with this name, Ayia Anna," Nicolas told me, sitting up and stretching, "before the war. Many of them are named something else now, probably." He looked sorry when he said it. I nodded without saying anything. He wrote for me, in careful university English, the name of the right minister, the right department, in Athens. One of the old men said something in his ear. Nicolas looked up at me.

"He says you should come back to Ayia Arsenios," Nicolas said.

"Where?" I said.

He smiled. He had perfect teeth.

"Here," he said, gently.

"Of course." I felt my face flush, and I laughed. "I'll remember. Efcharisto. Thank you."

I shook hands with Mario, who smiled shyly, and then with each of the old men there. They stood, all of them, and waited to shake my hand. In theirs, my hand looked small and pale as a child's, but I didn't feel lost at all.

Amy Brill

Amy Brill is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, Premiere and Talk, among other publications.


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