A Final Family Reunion

Going Back Again

 

by Theodore Modis

 

Last time I visited my hometown, Florina, ten years ago, I decided it was the last time. Florina had changed too much and there was no one left from the people I had known as a child. It was nothing like the first time we had visited with my mother and Carole thirty-five years ago. Then it was my homecoming, I was freshly married, and had just completed my long studies in the US. The three of us had paraded the town’s main street stopping every few meters to greet acquaintances.

            “How are you, Mistress Theodosia, welcome back,” was a frequent greeting. Having spent thirty years as a teacher in Florina my mother was known to many as Mistress Theodosia.

            “This is my son and his wife,” … “Yes, she is American.”

            “Son of George Modis! Why don’t you come back and we’ll vote for you,” was another typical remark as we moved from one encounter to the next. Carole had been stunned by such celebrity treatment, which had left neither my mother nor me indifferent.

            By the time we had reached the town center – George Modis Square – the sequence of encounters culminated with an embarrassment.

            “Oh, Theodoraki, do you remember me?” Asked a lady of my mother’s age looking at me pointedly.

            There was no chance I would remember her and the sorry event she was about to unearth from the depths of my Freudian forgetfulness.

 

I must have been less than ten years old when inspired by cowboy movies I wanted to improve my aim. I made myself a dart out of a cylindrical piece of wood at the end of which I inserted a nail backwards – not a trivial task for a young kid. Then I attached some chicken feathers at the other end and was ready to show off to the other kids.

My first throw was across the street aiming at the trunk of a tree. There was a breeze, however, which made the dart drift and get implanted on the leg of one of the kids sitting on the sidewalk nearby. I was shocked and so was the kid. I pulled out the dart whose nail had deeply penetrated. The hole was tiny and seemed innocuous. But we were both in shock so we walked into the café in front of which all this was happening and showed the bleeding hole to the café owner.

“That’s nothing,” he decided “here, let’s put some ouzo on it.”

Over lunch at home I was brooding.

“What is the matter?” asked my mother.

“Nothing,” I refused to say.

But she knew me better and insisted. I broke down and told her everything. She was alarmed. A death of a friend’s kid from tetanus had been indelibly written in her memory. She grabbed my hand and we went out looking for the kid’s residence. With some effort we located the boy and took him to a first-aid station for proper treatment, which included a tetanus shot.

Still a week later, the kid’s mother showed up at our house saying that his leg had been infected and there had been doctor’s and pharmacy bills. My mother reimbursed her for everything with apologies. I had never seen that kid or his mother again until now.

 

            But going back ten years ago was different. We did not have my mother with us. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday and was less mobile. This plus the changes Florina had undergone in twenty-five years resulted in zero flamboyant encounters for us as we strolled down Florina’s main street. Many new people from the surrounding villages had moved into the town and most of the locals had moved on to Thessaloniki or Athens. I was frustrated at not recognizing anyone so at some point I walked into the town’s largest hardware store still under the last name of a childhood friend and asked to speak with Christos. “Oh, Christos has become a doctor and now lives in Thessaloniki; and who are you?”

So our visit to Florina ten years ago was less than a memorable experience and I had concluded that after a certain time one should no longer seek to go back. There was also something else. Without our mother and wanting to squeeze in a daily excursion to the beautiful Prespa-lake region, neither Agla nor I hesitated in skipping the traditional visit to my father’s grave at the scenic cemetery of St. George in Florina’s outskirts. And yet, it had been many years that anyone had paid respects to our father’s grave in which my grandmother had also been buried eight years after her son died. My mother had been disappointed at us for not passing by the cemetery to see how the tomb was doing.

 

            Now a new trip to Florina was imposed on Agla and myself. My mother who died five years ago was buried at the cemetery of Thessaloniki with the understanding that some day her remains would be transported to Florina to be placed in the same grave as my father. The progressively increasing rent for a grave at the busy cemetery of Thessaloniki now reached 1000 Euro for one more year so we decided that it was time to undertake the painful operation of finally putting our mother together with our father. An added source of worry was the fact that the small St. George cemetery in Florina had long been closed to public because a larger new one had opened in the other side of town. We had heard stories of people being rejected when they tried to do similar operations.

            Agla wondered whether we should first call to find out. But I was adamant, “I’ll talk to the bishop,” I said. “If need be, I’ll go to see the mayor. There should be a weak spot somewhere for the name of Modis in Florina,” and I quietly stashed away a copy of my mother’s autobiographical novel in my suitcase. It is a book I convinced her to write when she was ninety. My idea had been that an autobiography spanning a century would make interesting reading; I had even suggested a title One Century, One Life. But when the book was finally written, I realized that my mother had described mostly the ten idyllic years she spent with my father before I was born, so the book’s final title became One Love, One Life. It would now constitute my ultimate card when arguing with the mayor about her rights to join her husband in their final resting place.

But if nothing worked, I was determined to pay an Albanian to dig the grave under cover of darkness and secretly put my mother’s remains where they belonged. “Wouldn’t I love to be there,” responded Carole when I told her of my intentions.

           

            Agla was alone at the gruesome process of unearthing our mother’s remains. Agla has often been the one who gets the snake out of the hole as one Greek proverb goes. Two days later I was present for receiving the varnished box with the officially disinfected bones. The man did not let us touch the box. He put it himself in the trunk of Agla’s 37-year old VW beetle. The box would fit under the curved hood only on its side! Fortunately, it had a locking mechanism. We put no other luggage around it. We immediately set route for Florina.

            We took the new Egnatia superhighway bypassing the town of Edessa with its picturesque waterfalls. We were too preoccupied to indulge in touristy sightseeing. While driving, Agla kept verbalizing her worries. How there were no friends or relatives of ours left in Florina, whom we could possibly contact for help. And then she thought of Eleni.

“Eleni may still be there,” she exclaimed.

            “Do you know where she lives? Do you remember her last name?” I asked doubting.

            “I can probably locate her house,” she said, “but in any case, I’m sure people around there will still remember Socratis.”

            Eleni was Fotini’s daughter. Fotini had been my mother’s helper from the day my mother had children and throughout our childhood in Florina. She was hard working but very poor, uneducated, and thankful to my mother for providing work for her. She had three children of her own (no husband) and they lived in a one-room house at the town’s gypsy-like quarter with rugs hanging instead of doors. Eleni was a teenager when Agla was born. The hard years in Florina with long cold winters had resulted in a bonding between Fotini and my mother, two otherwise incongruent women.

            Fotini came to my mother asking for advice and help with every serious problem she had. One of her early problems was when Socratis began courting Eleni, eventually seducing her, but refusing to marry her. My mother’s interventions played a decisive role in Eleni and Socratis finally getting married. In the decades that followed Eleni had her own share of hard life: four children, money problems, and an unfaithful husband who beat her. Finally they all moved to Canada seeking better fortunes, which they found.

Fotini did not like Canada and frequently returned to Florina for prolonged vacations. In one such trip, she came to see my mother, now living in Thessaloniki, with another serious problem. Eleni’s young daughter in Canada had met a young man who wanted to marry her but there was a snag. In the tightly-nit immigrant community of Greeks there were rumors that Eleni’s daughter was not a virgin. The young man refused to believe them arguing that they were motivated by jealousy. Eleni and Fotini, however, had good reasons to be worried. When the plans for the wedding began, Fotini came to my mother for help.

My mother told Fotini that the girl should come to Thessaloniki as soon as possible. Within a couple of weeks Eleni brought her daughter to my mother and the three of them went to see a gynecologist in Thessaloniki. There is nothing illegal about this type of operation and the gynecologist proved understanding once my mother explained the situation to him.

Several weeks later a thanking letter from Canada told about a great wedding that took place, which was coronated the next day by the display of the wedding sheets stained with blood according to the custom.   

 

The VW beetle with its odd cargo pulled in Florina around noon. I was in no mood to go searching for Eleni so we went straight to the cemetery. It wouldn’t be hard to locate my father’s grave because it is next to my uncle’s and his mother’s both of which have been decorated with large marble statues. And yet we couldn’t see my father’s grave! Not only was it entirely covered by wild bushes growing all over but also there was no longer a cross with the names on it. We were heartbroken. Moving the bushes I saw that the cross had broken into several pieces that were scattered around and the heavy marble plate was darkened with mold stains.

We looked around for help but on Saturday noon the church was closed. We walked out on the street hoping to find someone connected with the church. There was an Albanian cutting the grass that grew wild on the sides of the road.

“Is there anyone from the church around here?” Agla asked him.

“I don’t no. Church closed,” he said.

“Is there anyone who can help us clean a grave?” Agla insisted.

“I do it,” he said and immediately stopped what he was doing, picked up his heavy equipment (chain saw and wire grass cutter, both gasoline powered) and followed us to the grave.

He worked for half an hour. I gave him ten Euro. He said nothing and walked away. I gathered all the pieces of the broken cross and placed them on the marble plate. It looked pathetic.

 

 

We went back to town in search of a marble mason.

 

            Minos the marble cutter was a young man who was obviously taking over his father’s business. He drove with us to the cemetery, took measurements and jotted down the names to be carved on the new, heavy-duty cross. He agreed to bring and install the new cross and even to bring the necessary machinery to clean the marble plate. The only question was when would the new cross be ready. Tuesday afternoon would be the earliest he could do it by. We had to agree.

            “Actually, we also want to put in our mothers remains,” I ventured timidly, when I saw him test-lifting the heavy marble plate.

            “That would be no problem,” he replied, “we can do it Tuesday when I bring the cross.”

            “But until then do we drive around with the bones in the trunk of our car?” Agla objected.

            “Oh, you have them here?” He seemed surprised. “Why don’t you bring them over and we can put them in right now,” he continued.

            That would suit us just fine, I thought to myself as I rushed to the car.

            The varnished box was actually quite light. As I carried it up the stairs toward the grave, it crossed my mind that we had not seen what was inside. It would have been trivial to do it right there because there was no lock on the box’s locking mechanism, but I had a good excuse: Agla and Minos were waiting for me to do what we feared would be so problematic, so there was no time to waste.

            Minos and Agla raised the marble plate high enough for me to place the box inside, but the space underneath was littered with rocks and concrete and I was forced to lean forward getting my head and shoulders practically inside the grave. As I struggled to wedge the box in the space available I heard Minos and Agla talking unable to make out what they were saying. Eventually, I surfaced to find Minos bursting into laughter as Agla began screaming. In a split second I realized that Agla’s finger had been caught under the marble plate. “RAISE THE PLATE,” I shouted at the guy, “don’t you see her finger is caught?”

            He complied embarrassed. Agla’s finger was promising to soon become blue. “I thought she was laughing at my joke,” he said awkwardly. Apparently when I was half inside the grave he had winked at Agla making a wisecrack of the sort, “what if we closed your husband inside!” They also took us for husband and wife with Grigori our son later at the hotel, even after I specified a room with three separate beds.

            But despite the mishaps, we felt euphoric. There were no more obstacles in our trip’s mission and we had three days until Tuesday afternoon to tour the region. Agla pointed out that we had visited Prespa more than once whereas had never visited nearby Monastiri our father’s hometown.

            Monastiri, today called Bitola, is the first town across the border from Florina into FYROM (the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia). Despite the fact that my grandfather owned land and boasted the biggest house in Monastiri in early twentieth century, my grandmother quit the region after her husband’s assassination. Over the decades the crossing of the border between Florina and Monastiri saw days of tranquility but also days of high drama and terror. Under communist Yugoslavia escape stories from Monastiri rivaled those of eastern Germans striding the Berlin Wall.

            Agla’s suggestion found me cold. I had not been excited to come back to Florina in the first place, much less to visit a town I had known only through my grandmother’s stories, many of them in the form of a moiroloï (dirge). In the local tradition, at moments of intense self-pity, my grandmother would embark on an improvised descriptive lamenting recounting all her misfortunes with a fair amount of detail. How much of this would I be able to crosscheck with a visit to FYROM’s Bitola today?

            Grigori too had an effective objection. “They’ll stamp my passport with ‘Has been in Macedonia,’” he complained, “me who has lived in Macedonia all his life.”

Grigori and I would rather go to Prespa again.

 

The hotel we stayed at – King Alexander – was up some way on one of the two mountains that flank Florina. It commanded a panoramic view of the town and the opposite mountain. It was also close to the part of town where Eleni’s house used to be.

 

 

            Following the afternoon siesta and Greek coffee on the balcony we began asking around for the house of Eleni and Socratis. A man in his forties who did not entirely conform to the image of a local volunteered to bring us to where Eleni was. He brought us to the large two-house complex right across the hotel where we stayed. The estate was a cross between a spacious summer residence and a farm. A couple of dogs accompanied us across the yard barking but not menacing. There were more animals (chicken and geese) at the far end of the long yard. The young man shouted, “Mom, you have visitors.”

            Eleni came out and looked at the three of us with suspicion.

            “It’s me, Agla, the daughter of Mistress Theodosia,” Agla rushed to clarify.

            “My God,” Eleni exclaimed, “is it really you and Theodorakis?”

            I hadn’t seen Eleni since I was a small child. The woman in front of me bared faint resemblance to what I had retained in my memory; she also bared the marks of the passage of difficult times. Despite her eighty years her hair was dyed black and she maintained a straight posture, but she obviously had false teeth that moved disconcertingly as she spoke. Her chin trembled intermittently but not the way it does with old people. My mother had told us that she had had a nervous breakdown of some sort.

            She shouted at her other son, Giorgos, to come out of the nearby shack. He was in his undershirt, fat, unshaven, and with a pain on his neck. He looked old. We pulled some chairs and we all set in a shady part of the yard. They offered us refreshments.

            “When I was fourteen you were a baby and I was carrying you in my arms,” Eleni told Agla. “Now I have four children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild,” she continued contemplatively.

            Giorgos explained to us that with the money he made in Canada he built these two houses here to reunite the family even though some family, like the younger son Petros who brought us to Eleni, lived permanently in Canada and came only visiting for the summer.

            We sat there chatting calmly for a while. There was an atmosphere of harmonious contradiction. They felt like friends but we hardly knew them; they felt like relatives but we had nothing in common. What was there to talk about?

            Agla made a remark about the dogs and mentioned her experiences with dogs.

            “I had a big dog once,” picked up Giorgos, “no pure race or anything, which got along extremely well with the three little kittens of the house. All three of them slept on him regularly savoring his body warmth. He never complained. One day, however, the dog must have perceived something suspicious, he suddenly jumped and ran toward the gate. The three kittens instinctively clawed themselves on his back. And the dog kept galloping for a long time with the three kittens wobbling around attached on him. It was hilarious!”

            I had my camera with me and thought of taking pictures but I was afraid it would embarrass them; or, rather, it would embarrass me. Adjectives like picturesque, photogenic, or touristy seemed out of place here.

            A young lady and her boyfriend all dressed up came by to meet us as they went out for an evening ride to Prespa. She was one of Eleni’s granddaughters. I wondered whether her mother was the one who my mother had fixed up.

            We heard a rooster crow, which prompted Giorgos to tell us another story. “In Canada where we live peopled complained about the crowing of too many roosters disturbing their sleep. A law was passed and all henneries were equipped with very low ceilings. It appears that if a rooster cannot cock himself up, he wont crow!”

            “Tomorrow we are going to have a barbeque. There will be thirty people here. Please come and join us,” continued Giorgos.

            “Oh, yes, please do,” repeated Eleni and proceeded to elaborate on the invitation and insist Greek style.

            “Mom,” interrupted her Giorgos, who had obviously been more affected by Canada’s Anglo-Saxon culture, “stop pestering them. They know we want them to come. They will, if it suits their program.”

            As we prepared to leave, Petros, who had been very quiet up to then, approached me and said.

            “I live in Vancouver. I am in the phone book. If you ever find yourself in Canadian soil, no matter where, give me a ring and I will come pick you up and show you the country.”

            We drove back to the town center somewhat overwhelmed. We had expected to come across no one we knew in Florina. Passing in front of our old house it now looked sad and neglected but hanging in there.

 

 

            We parked downtown not far from Modis Square. The VW beetle certainly made an impression in the midst of only modern cars. As I came out of the car in front of a group of young men drinking summer coffee concoctions, one of them asked me: “would you sell it?”

            “No, it is part of the family,” I said, “We’ve been growing old together.”

            “Where are you from?” he continued obviously alluding to us looking strangers.

            “From right here,” I responded, “We are from Florina.”

            He looked at us in disbelief. I volunteered a clarification, “The name is Modis.”

            “Like the Modis Square?” he wanted to better understand.

            “Exactly,” I replied.

            “Hugh!” he exclaimed surprised, if anything, at the coincidence of someone being named the same as a square.

            Dinnertime was approaching and I reiterated my desire to taste once again the famous soutzoukakia that we used to eat on summer nights in the many tavernas spread around the central square (not named Modis at that time). The permeating smell of those sausage-looking spicy meatballs grilled on charcoal is indelibly imprinted on my sensory memory and is affectionately associated with my childhood summers.

But now the central square was surrounded with fancy coffee shops and bars crowded by young ladies exposing their shoulders and thighs, none of which would be interested in a soutzoukaki. I even tried sniffing my way toward the delicacy – always emulating how we did it when I was a child – only to find myself in front of a hotdog-and-hamburger stand. Disappointed and tired we sat at a rather chic restaurant off the main street. The waiters, all young men, were untraditionally attentive, polite, and soft-spoken.

            “May I suggest a local delicacy,” asked one of them as I was reading the menu. “It is called soutzoukakia and consists of …

            “I know what it is,” I interrupted him. “I’ve been looking for it all over town.”

 

            The next morning it was Sunday and Agla proposed that we go to the St. George church – now that we had nothing to fear – and ask a priest to do a trisagio (short memorial service) on the grave. In preparation I wrote down the three names George, Theodosia, and Paraskevi on a piece of paper confident that the priest would not cross check them against the names barely readable on the broken-cross pieces.

            This time the church was not only open but it was packed with people. We timed it so that we wouldn’t have to wait long before the mass finishes and we can present the priest with our request. Working our way toward the priest in the crowded church Agla bumped on a well-dressed lady. They both burst out with exclamations.

            “Tasitsa!”

            “Agla! What are you doing here?”

            “We came to put our mother’s bones in the grave of our father. And you? I thought you had moved to Thessaloniki?”

            “Our children live there, but Yorgos wants to finish his days in Florina. He has retired, of course, but he likes it here.”

            Tasitsa was a cousin of ours, whom again I hadn’t seen for years. Her grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Her husband was a gynecologist and his sister had been a colleague and friend of my mother who enters the picture once again (it must be this trip’s destiny). Back some sixty years ago my mother had mediated for Tasitsa who lived in Kozani to meet Yorgos who lived in Florina with the intention to get married; what they called an arranged marriage. The union turned out successful and they lived happily ever after in Florina.

            Tasitsa was also very religious, knew all the priests, and when we mentioned the trisagio, she took Agla by the hand and walked over to the priest.

            “Father, would please do a trisagio for us,” she said and continued on infor­ma­tion she shared with the priest “but you also need to go to that other thing.”

            “We can do the trisagio right here,” answered the priest, “it is the same as if we went to the grave.”

            He immediately began reciting at a rate so rapid that it seemed miraculous he was not getting tongue-tied. He suddenly stopped jolting me into reality. He needed the names. I handed him the paper with the three names and as soon as he read them Tasitsa added “and Nikolaos and Chrysavgi.” The priest repeated the two names after her and off he went again continuing his frantic recitation. A few minutes later there was another pause (obviously he could not read at that speed) “and Nikolaos and Chrysavgi,” added Tasitsa again and the priest repeated after her again.

            When the ceremony was over, Tasitsa wanted to go for coffee and I suggested that we drive to the small coffee shop up the mountain. Driving up the steep mountain road, five of us in the Volkswagen, we passed in front of a hotel perched on that picturesque spot.

            “This is the Xenia Hotel,” I said having more memories come to the foreground again.

            “No they have renovated it and renamed it,” Tasitsa brought us up to date. But in my head I was back in 1974 when Cyprus was invaded by the Turks and Greeks mobilized for war. We had been vacationing in Greece and had Yorgo baptized. But in the turmoil and preparations for war between Greece and Turkey my mother and I came to Florina to seek advice from my uncle George Modis who was old, retired from politics, and vacationing at this mountain hotel. With all border crossings closed, one of our ideas was that he shows us the way out of Greece secretly as he had done so often between Florina and Monastiri when he was active as a Makedonomachos (Macedonian fighter).

            When we met with him, it was obvious that he was preoccupied with the events in Cyprus. “I don’t understand,” he kept saying “why couldn’t Greece send some airplanes, boats, or intervene in some way.”

We hesitated before revealing the purpose of our trip.

“It is very easy to cross the boarder,” he said. Then he added as an afterthought, “But for a Modis to cross the border secretly wouldn’t be right.”

“Yes, of course, Yorgo, you are right,” said my mother and we dropped the subject.

At the mountain café Tasitsa seemed to know everyone and be highly respected. The lady café owner greeted her joyfully and came out to personally wait on us.

 

 

“On hot summer days we used to drink visinada,” I reminisced again. “Do you have it?”

It was a drink made out of black-cherry syrup. In those days my mother used to make black-cherry blancmange to offer guests in small quantities with a spoon and a glass of cold water. We children drained the syrup from the jar and dilute it with water into a summer drink, dangerously undermining our mother’s ability to play proper host to visitors.          

“Of course we do,” said the lady and brought three of them, one for Agla, one for Grigori, and one for myself.

            Later Tasitsa insisted to invite us for lunch with her husband at a nice new restaurant they now frequent. She wouldn’t take no for an answer so we made an appointment for 2:30 pm. She gave us instructions on how to go; we’d all meet there.

On the way to the restaurant we stopped by St. Nikolas, the church outside the town diametrically opposed to St. George. It was a spot where we used to go for picnics with family but also with the school when I was in elementary school. I distinctly remembered lots of water even a small waterfall.

            Despite being prepared by now for disappointments, I was taken aback to see the dry water channels sadly attesting to previous running waters.

 

My mother (schoolteacher) 2nd from the right and I centered in primo piano.

           

 

I made Agla pose over the spot where we used to have our picnics.

 

 

 

Agla 3rd from the right, my mother 3rd from the left,

and I, as always, centered in front.

 

 


The church has been extended with new structures that hide the fountain, which we did not succeed to see running anyway.

 

 

 

Agla is the tall girl waiting to access the water.

 

The phrase “living color” popularized when color photography first appeared may be more appropriate as a euphemism here. The black-and-white pictures are the ones that are full of life.

 

Tasitsa’s favorite restaurant consisted of a house where the owners live and its large garden where the tables are set up in the shade of the vine arbour. Her husband, Yorgos Lalagiannis, now 88, was the first gynecologist in Florina where he practiced for many decades. Like most short people he still sports a Yale chin (always upward).

“I have brought in the world 6,582 babies,” he boasted.

Thea’s question immediately popped in my mind. Avoiding the choice between addressing him as “Yorgo” or “Mr. Lalagiannis” I simply said, “How did women deliver during the war years? Was there a hospital in Florina?”

“Yes, there was a hospital but it had no maternity ward. Women simply delivered at home with the help of a midwife.”

“But what about caesarians? You cannot do a caesarian at home.”

I must have touched a sensitive chord.

“I was the one to perform the first caesarian operation in Florina in 1956. The inconvenience was we had no anesthesiologists and therefore performed the caesarians with ether,” he did not want to stop but I interrupted him.

“But what did women who needed a caesarian do before 1956?”

He continued from where he had left ignoring my question. “After 1956 we got proper anesthesia and I performed caesarians routinely at the hospital.”

I came back to my question, “How about when we were born during the war?”

Before 1956 women could give only natural birth. Those who didn’t either lost their baby or died.

 

 

Lunch lasted for more than a couple of hours. We talked about relatives and reminisced about old times. Nostalgia reigned in this mid-summer garden spot. At some point Tasitsa noticed, “There goes Danny Dosiou.”

I turned around and saw two old ladies slowly leaving the restaurant holding each other. I grabbed my camera and ran to take a picture. I gave no explanations but everyone at my table understood my reaction. Florina is known for its strong cultural tradition. Many of its inhabitants have excelled both in Greece and abroad as painters, sculptors, musicians, and singers. Danny Dosiou was a violinist with a brilliant career in Paris. I know a student violinist from Geneva who came all the way to Florina just to take private lessons from her.

 

 

On the right Danny Dosiou, an internationally renowned violinist.

 

When Agla later saw my picture she remarked, “Too bad you did not take her picture facing you.”

“She is making an exit,” I verbalized my thoughts, “and a heavier one at that than from the stage.”

 

In the late afternoon we walked around Florina taking pictures. As with people, I was again interested only in old “stuff”, buildings that I would recognize, often in ruins.

 

 

The Peltekis house across the street from ours (Agla is looking at ours).

 

The two-story house across the street from our house had an old-fashion coffee shop (Kafenion) on the ground floor frequented by older men playing backgammon (tavli) all day. It is in there that we turned for first aid – i.e. ouzo – when I nailed the poor kids leg with my dart.

On the first floor lived Peltekis, a Greek-army officer who was hard of hearing. One night during the Greek civil war – after the Germans had already left – some drunken bandit came knocking on the front door of our house. My mother and grandmother got really scared because they lived alone in the house with two small children. My grandmother tried to talk sense to the bandit from the first-floor window but all in vain. He was shaking the door threatening to force it open. My mother came out to the balcony and began crying for help to Peltekis across the street. But she was knocking on a deaf’s door to quote another Greek proverb! Eventually Peltekis’ wife woke up and shook her husband into alertness. It did not take him long to get his pistol, shoot in the air from his balcony, and shout threats to the bandit he could not see that if he didn’t go away immediately he would come down and kill him. It was enough to resolve the situation. But my mother the next day had an iron bar installed reinforcing our front door so that it wouldn’t be so easy to force open.

Another house with a story was the Tegos’ house. Back in the 1930s Tegos Sapountzis was the mayor of Florina. He had a beloved daughter Athina, whom he wanted to give as wife to an aspiring young lawyer, Yorgo Modis, my father. Athina was impressed by my father and even took the initiative to begin a correspondence with him. But shy as she was she asked her literary acquaintance – my mother – for help in writing the letters. My mother even wrote the letters in her own handwriting, which was particularly artistic. This made the two young women good friends. So when the big moment came for Athina to meet Yorgo in the flesh, my mother was not simply invited at the banquet thrown by the mayor for the occasion but she was also seated next to Yorgo on the other side. That was it. During the dinner my father paid more attention to my mother than to Athina.

 


The Tegos Sapountzis house

 

            Passing by the river in front of my school I saw a tree where there shouldn’t be one! So I began telling the story of me coming out of school one day and seeing a bunch of people trying to cut down an enormous tree. They had cut a wedge on the river side of the tree’s trunk and were trying to pull the tree down with ropes into the river. The tree eventually fell but on the other side landing on the roof of a small house. The owner of the house came out screaming in despair for the damages in her house.

            As I was talking in a loud voice, an older lady close to the house I was pointing at asked, “when were all these things happening?”

            After a moment’s reflection I answer, “about 55 years ago.”

            “Where are you from,” the usual next question.

            “We are from here. Modis is my name,” the usual answer.

            The lady came closer. “Are you the son of Yorgo and Theodosia Modis?” This time we were recognized!

            “Yes, I am,” I answer.

            “I had her as a teacher the good lady,” she continued nostalgically. We chatted for some time and found out about the whereabouts of many people we new in common.

 

 

The tree (a replacement), the house, and the lady in the red blouse

behind the car, who was my mother’s student.

           

 

One thing I did not want to miss seeing again was the railroad station. I had fond memories of Florina’s railroad station. My mother and I used to go there in cold winter evenings to wait for Agla’s coming home for Christmas and other holidays from Anatolia where she had gone to school two years ahead of me. Waiting for the invariably late train to arrive, I used to put my ear on the tracks to detect the coming train ahead of time, as I had read it was done in books.

 

 

It is a remote small-town railroad station whose particularity is that unlike usual train stations where trains come in one way and go out the other way, here the access is only on one side. The other side ends in a mountain: the end of the line.

 

 

The tracks stop here!

 

           

The next day, Monday, we began early for our trip to the Prespa lakes. The region includes two lakes and a large national reserve rich in bird and vegetation species. The Big Prespa lake is split among Greece, Albania, and FYROM with the latter claiming the biggest part. Little Prespa is almost entirely in Greece. The island of St. Achilios in Little Prespa has now been connected to the shore with a 600-meter long floating bridge. When we began crossing the bridge, a fisherman just pulled out his nets full with some enormous fish. He threw them in the trunk of his car still alive in the nets. “They are going to Kastoria,” he answered the concerned looks on our faces, as he got in his car and drove away. His remark did not explain why Kastoria, which has a lake of its own needed all this Grvadi fish from Prespa.

 

 

 

 

The most striking highlight from our Prespa excursion was the visit of a remote little church up high in an enormous cave on an inaccessible shore of Big Prespa. It is the most impressive one of several such shelters Christian monks sought during the centuries of Ottoman occupation.

 

 

One of several cave shelters.

 

We hired a boat to visit the caves. The most impressive cave is not far from the three-border crossing point on the lake. A large number of steep steps mostly inside the cave brought us to the little church at the top, which is entirely covered with well-preserved Byzantine frescoes dating from the middle ages. Coming out of the cave on the way down we were facing the Albanian coast across the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

            We came back to Florina in the afternoon. It was our last evening in town and there were still a few things we had not visited. Agla wanted to see the old market. It was still there, right next to nicely renovated Loukas’ house.

Loukas was a pediatrician. He was also a good friend of our father. He owned much land with chestnut trees. His wife was stunningly beautiful but they had no children. He was present when Agla was born, and then again when I was born. On each occasion he had one large chestnut tree cut and offered as a present to the Modis family. One tree became a built-in closet and the other one a built-in china cabinet. I remember both of them distinctly for their dark-color wood.

 

Loukas’ house (our pediatrician)

 

            As we walked by his house I asked Agla, “Do you realize we are on another Modis street?”

Agla knew about the square, of course, but had forgotten about the street of Captain Modis. He was the brother of my uncle and had died while fighting the Turks deep in Asia Minor in what later became known as the Asia-Minor catastrophe of the Greek army.

 



 

            “In fact, it is on this street that you were born,” I told Agla.

            It all came to her. Early in her marriage my mother did not live with my father because his mother had still not accepted the fact that her son had married a refugee. (Following the Asia-Minor catastrophe there was a huge exchange of populations whereby 1.2 million Greeks came as refugees from Constantinople and Asia Minor, my mother amongst them). So my mother lived in a rented lowly apartment while my father shuttled back and forth between this apartment and the big house where his mother lived; the big house he had built with my mother in mind (it was in her honor that our house features red arcs of the Byzantine architectural style).

 

 

The house Agla was born in on Captain Modis street.

           

My mother pregnant on me lived in this house during the early days of the German occupation. When the Germans arrived they arrested my father together with my uncle and another prominent lawyer named Pavlidis. It was their way of depriving the town from its leaders to minimize the chances for organized resistance. Following several agonizing days in the Florina prison, the three political prisoners and others were transported to the jails of Pavlou Mela in Thessaloniki. My mother told me that she witnessed the convoy march underneath her window on Captain Modis street. She was holding Agla in her hands and looked in despair out of the window as she waved to her husband.

 

            It was getting late and we were hungry so we directed ourselves toward the central square again. On a dark street we passed in front of a small illuminated entrance carrying the sign: Antiquairies.

“What language would that be in,” I wondered to myself.

We ventured in a longest narrow corridor whose walls and ceiling were entirely covered with old photos and old bizarre objects of all sorts hats, knives, balances, ironing irons, army helmets, lamps, etc. Most interesting to me were the photos, in many of which I recognized the people. Centrally positioned was the picture of Mr. Liakos the dean of Florina’s gymnasium. He had been a good friend of our family and there were often gatherings where he was present. But I reminded Agla how mad he had become when my mother decided to send us both to Anatolia in Thessaloniki instead of his gymnasium in Florina. Things got worse when the word spread and many other families in Florina followed my mother’s example by letting Liakos’ institution down in favor of Anatolia.

He eventually mellowed down and there were more parties again with all of us later.

 

 

Trying to bite a boiled egg. Liakos animating, Agla in the back, me at the left.

 

At the end of the long corridor two women and a man welcomed us and soon were asking us where we are from. As they all were of a certain age we answered knowing what to expect. The man was a little weird (as manifested by his collection of oddities) but all three of them were respectful and polite. They wanted us to stay longer and chat but I was overdue for some more soutzoukakia so we left.

 

Tuesday morning was devoted to cultural activities: Florina’s museum, which did not exist last time we were there. Trying to find the museum we drove around various parts of the town. Around a sharp turn I exclaimed, “The Sentezy House!” surprising myself for recognizing it so fast. I pulled in front of the house that was in ruins but seemed to be undergoing works.

When I was fourteen the Sentezy family consisted of two spinster-looking women living in a fairytale-like dark house buried inside a jungle-like garden. My only visit to that house was in the summer of 1957. I had to prepare a herbarium for school as an over-the-summer class assignment and my mother knew exactly where to take me for inputs. I still have this herbarium with entries such as cactus tricoloris and jasmine pasquale. Visiting that house and its garden left a lasting impression in my mind. It was a taste of what it would be like inside a classic novel of the sort Withering Heights or Great Expectations.

 

 

 

I did not expect much from Florina’s museum. I figured that some E.U. funds found their way to this Greek outpost with bureaucratic justification. I was pleasantly surprised. The Florina museum is quite remarkable with findings dating as far back as the Hellenistic times and before. In fact, tombstones of around 100 AD fill up a hole in the evolution of ancient Greek plastic art toward Byzantine iconography. Relief graves like the ones found in Florina fall right before the Egyptian Fayum, which then evolved to Byzantine art.

 

 

 

            Minos had said that the cross wouldn’t be ready until 5:00 pm. Having no stamina left for other museums and more memorabilia we decided to go back to the mountain café of Sunday and wait there for the time to pass. We sat at the same table and ordered black-cherry refreshments.

            “We don’t have that,” said the young waiter.

            “Are you out of it?” I asked.

            “No, Sir, we simply do not carry that drink,” was the answer.

            “That cannot be,” I insisted “we had it here on Sunday.”

            “We have some for us,” he admitted, “but we do not offer it to our customers,” he explained.

            Realizing that it was all Tasitsa’s influence that had gotten us the drinks on Sunday, I did not insist. “O.K. I understand,” I said, “We’ll have lemonades.”

            The waiter went back and a little girl that had followed our exchange, obviously related to the owners, showed up in a few minutes sipping a large glass of black-cherry drink through a straw in an ostentatious way and smiling at us with meaning. Ten minutes later the waiter came with three black-cherry drinks, no explanations given.

 

            Minos’ workers showed up at 5:30 with the new cross and some heavy marble polishing machinery. They cleaned the marble plate and cemented the new cross. I asked them to also cement the plate.

            “They are usually just sitting on the grave,” one of them told me, “but we’ll cement it, if you want.”

            I wanted to. I wasn’t going to take any chances on someone lifting it by curiosity and fancying the varnished box inside.

 

 

When all was done, I noticed that there were the old broken-cross pieces lying around with names still visible on them. I picked them up not knowing what to do with them. The man saw my perplexity and said, “Let me put them inside too.”

            “But the plate has been sealed,” I objected.

            “The cement hasn’t set yet,” he said, “I can lift the plate slide them in and seal it back.”

            I did not like the idea. I had supervised the cementing to my satisfaction. The plate would never seal as well afterward.

            “No it’s all right,” I said, “I’ll think of something,” and I carried the two pieces to the trunk of the Volkswagen.

 

            Finally, it was all done. My mother was with my father. They were next to my uncle and his mother. In the latter grave were also the remains of Captain Modis. A final meeting place for this family’s three men, their mothers, and one’s spouse.

 

           

            The return trip to Thessaloniki was uneventful and even though it had been an intense weekend full of emotions we did not feel the low after a high. It was night when we arrived. We parked by the sea close to Agla’s apartment and we were about to say goodbye when we both thought of the marble pieces in the VW trunk. “What shall we do with those?”

            We couldn’t easily dispose of them in a garbage container. Scripta manen and even more so when they are engraved on marble. Not to mention exposing ourselves to the possibility of voodoo and other magic, in case any of it can be effective. Looking around me I saw the sea.

“Tomorrow night we have a ceremony here whereby we through these pieces in the sea,” I said.

            Twenty-four hours later Agla took the smaller piece, I took the bigger one and walked to the seafront. She was embarrassed and threw her piece close by. I backed up picked up speed and threw my heavy piece deep in the sea almost being carried along with it.

 

            This chapter on our parents thus closed on a spot not far away from where they had spent some of their most idyllic moments.