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—-Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
"A brilliant story at its heart ...an interesting saga of immigration, belonging, and community."
—-The Observer (UK)
"Imbued with forgiveness, with the rebuilding of lives and houses, and moving on from tragedy...In coming full circle [Gage] has helped soothe the pain of a traumatized family."
—-The Times Literary Supplement
"Through this moving family memoir, Gage allows us to be present at her rite of passage across that 'psychic barrier' from American to Greek, at the exorcism of a tragic past, and at the blessing of her reborn family house."
—-The Sunday Times (UK)
"Part personal memoir, do-it-yourself-manual, historical novel, family saga, and tourist guide, North of Ithaka tells of Gage's attempt to put her cultural confusion to rest by exchanging the skyscrapers of New York for the mountaintops of her ancestral village."
—-The List (Scotland)
"A fascinating portrait of a part of Greece seldom seen by tourists."
"North of Ithaka is a sort of cross between Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Driving Over Lemons . . . a monument to family history and an enthralling year spent in Lia."
—-The Daily Telegraph (UK)
"A tale far removed from those popular villa-restoration comedies and abounds with setbacks, superstitions, love and the often suffocating bonds of heritage."
—-The Australian News
North of Ithaka
<< e a a ds o .>>
"EVERY BEGINNING IS DIFFICULT."
My aunts said I'd be killed by Albanians and eaten by wolves. Of course, that only made me more determined to go. Determined, but a little wary. Maybe more than a little. It all started the weekend after Thanksgiving 2001.
"Lenitsa, you put on weight?" Thitsa Lilia asked as she cut into another sticky piece of pecan pie, untroubled by the fact that she currently weighed at least twice what I did. She was perfectly at ease with her appearance, if not mine, as she sat gossiping with her sisters. Three of my four aunts were clustered around the kitchen table of my parents' house in Worcester, Massachusetts, scrutinizing me as they ate the leftovers of Thanksgiving's desserts.
"I don't think so." I shrug. "It might be the sweater."
"Of course it's the sweater. You got a beautiful figure, just like your aunt," said Thitsa Kanta, referring to herself. She was the slimmest of the sisters, partly thanks to a lifetime of stomach trouble and partly because she worked to maintain her image of herself as the polyester-clad femme fatale who returned to Greece to visit after the war looking "like a movie star," she said, with short, permed hair instead of long braids. Today all the thitsas had carefully maintained bouffants that were almost as high as their self-esteem. But right now anxiety cast a cloud over Thitsa Kanta's perfect world. She sighed. "I don't know why you not married yet, twenty-seven years old and single."
"Maybe you join the church group when you go back to NewYork," Thitsa Olga suggested. The eldest and shortest, she had a medium-size build and a chestnut-colored bouffant, as opposed to her sisters' blond. "They got lots of Greek boys there."
"Maybe," I answered. There was no point in telling my thitsas I hadn't asked for their dating advice. Most people use the term Greek chorus figuratively. Well, I have the real thing, live and in person, a supporting cast made up of my four aunts: Thitsa Olga, Thitsa Kanta, Thitsa Lilia, and Thitsa Tina. I never used the proper Greek word for aunt, thia, in talking to them; it just seemed too grand. Our relationship was a mini-society that called for the use of the diminutive ending "itsa," a habit which made sense physically as well as psychologically. None of them is over five feet tall—in fact, they resemble Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, the fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty, more than any chorus in a Greek tragedy. But they fulfill the same function: commenting on any action taking place in my life, interpreting oracles, explaining the past, and making predictions for the future.
As I started boiling my Greek coffee in a copper briki, my father burst through the kitchen door. "Look at this," he bragged, brandishing a black-and-white photo. In it, my father is thirty-eight years younger and twenty pounds slimmer, standing in front of his parents' house, which has not yet fallen into ruin.
Every year on my summer trip to Greece, I made a pilgrimage to Lia, faithfully visiting the shell of this house, which I thought of as the Gatzoyiannis house, after our original last name. I loved seeing the people in our village, who showered me with hugs, kisses, and stuffed squash blossoms. But my family never stayed more than a day or two, and I was always a little glad when we left Lia to head to an island where the vacation could really get started. Our visits to the lost home made me anxious, because when the wind blew over the toppled stones, rustling the branches of my grandmother's prized mulberry tree, I wasn't sure if the house wanted me there. I knew that people had been tortured and killed in the house and buried in the yard. But it wasn't just the knowledge of this fact that made the grounds seem ominous. It was the appearance of the fallen house itself. The ruins were forbidding, especiallywhen seen through the arched frame of the exoporta, the outer door to the courtyard in front of the house. The wood of the door had rotted away, so I could step through the stone frame and onto a path to nothing, where the house once stood. All that remained was a collection of grim piles of gray stones swallowed by moss, and a rusted metal window frame smothered in swells of ivy. But in my father's old photo, the house still looked like a home. Rain had already damaged the roof in some places, but the outer door was still sturdy, and he leaned against it, smiling, wearing an open-collared shirt and excessive sideburns.
"Wow," I said, looking up from that tanned young man to my father's face, now covered in a bushy gray beard. "You look girly. You're so skinny! And that shirt!"
"Not girly," he insisted. "Byronic—that's the word you're looking for."
"Lenitsa, bring that here so your old thitsa can see," Thitsa Olga demanded.
Staring at the photo, I felt as if a spotlight had been directed onto a dark corner of my mind, revealing the outline of an idea that had been hovering there, indistinctly, for years. Maybe it was time to extend those stopovers in Lia long enough for me to develop a new relationship with the village, one that was as rooted in the present as in the past.
Whenever I toyed with the idea of staying long enough in Lia to resolve my conflicted feelings about the place, I fell back on the same excuse not to go—what would I do there? The image of the home in the photo was the answer to my question; I could move to Greece and rebuild the crumbled house, transforming the ruins into a home again so that if my grandparents' ghosts ever wandered back, they would recognize it as their own. It would be a constructive use of time, with a tangible result. And along the way, perhaps living in the village where my grandmother had spent her whole life would help me feel as if I knew this woman I had never met. I carried her name, but I'd never known her. Living among my grandmother's neighbors might help me understand my namesake, my father, my aunts, and even the Greek side of myself better.
After all, there was nothing to keep me here. As my aunts pointed out, I wasn't married. And I was growing increasingly bored with my little job, my even tinier apartment, and the slow parade of would-be soul mates who marched proudly into my view to the fanfare of trumpets but turned out to be sweaty and silly when I saw them up close. Lost in my thoughts, I made my way to the table slowly—too slowly for Thitsa Kanta, who grabbed the photo by one of its serrated edges before I sat down.
"Look at NickGage's hair!" crowed Thitsa Kanta, differentiating her brother from her other significant Nick, her son, NickStratis. "He looks like a drug dealer. But so handsome!" She sighed. "Lenitsa, we all old now. Your father, your thitsas."
"You can see part of the house behind him," I said, pointing to a small room sticking out to the right of the front door, a little L-shaped addition to the square frame of the gray stone house. "What's that?"
"That was the plistario," Thitsa Olga said. "Where we wash ourselves. We fill a water barrel and it had a pipe and a thing at the end where water comes out."
"Yeah, that," she continued. "And there was a fourno where we cook, roast lamb at Easter. One side of that room was open, with a tin wall for the rain." I tried to imagine a teenage Thitsa Olga loading a pan into the beehive oven, her long braids swinging.
"And next to that room?"
"That was the mageirio, where we cook in winter," Thitsa Lilia answered. "It had a fireplace, where our mother make the corn bread in the gastra, that covered tin pot you put coals on top. We had pallets next to the fireplace, to sleep on in spring and fall. We sleep outside in summer, in the Good Room in winter."
I knew the house had only four rooms, not counting the basement where the goats and sheep were kept, but my aunts had managed to turn it into a whole country that they journeyed around seasonally, just like their flocks that had spent summers up on the mountainside and winters down in the valleys. The thitsas had nevertold me about this pseudo-nomadic aspect of their childhood. And I had never asked, because their youth held so much sorrow that it seemed to lurk under the surface of even the most pleasant memory, making the past volatile, shaky ground on which to wander. Even the happiest occasions weren't safe. When a friend of mine got engaged, I urged the thitsas to sing the traditional wedding songs of our village, which they did, smiling as their shrill voices rose in unexpected harmony. Then I felt horrified and guilty when Thitsa Olga burst into tears, sobbing that her own mother hadn't been there to sing at her wedding. But that Thanksgiving weekend I felt brave enough to venture forth. "And next to the mageirior?" I prodded.
"Oh that was the palia kamera, the Old Room," Thitsa Kanta explained. "That was the first room, built when my grandparents get married long time ago—a hundred and fifty years. It was small, just a cabinet and a door to the hallway."
"So the hallway ran all the way from the front door to the back door?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," Thitsa Lilia replied. "Outside the back door was a tree that made so many apricots. Farther on we had the chicken coop, past that the outhouse. On one trip from America, Patera brought a toilet seat up the mountain."
"But we wouldn't sit on it!" Thitsa Kanta giggled. "We weren't used to it, so we just stand on the seat."
"When visitors come, we drink coffee in the Good Room," Thitsa Lilia said. "It was on the other side of the hallway, opposite the palia kamera. On one wall was the fireplace and on the other wall Mana had the iron bed Patera brought set next to the window. You can jump from the bed out the window onto the veranda."
"Beyond that was the courtyard?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah, it was nice and flat, Patera had it covered in concrete," Thitsa Olga recalled. "In summer we bring our pallets and sleep outside, and we hear the shepherds playing their pipes. It was so beautiful! When I think of those times, I cry."
All three thitsas were misty-eyed, recalling the fragrant apricot tree, the haunting music of summer nights. This was the momentto spring an early Christmas present on them, to turn my hazy idea into an actual plan, to say it out loud so that I would be forced to follow through in order to save face.
"Guess what! I'm going to quit my job, move to Lia, and rebuild the house," I announced.
"What? You crazy?" three voices shrieked in unison.
"You gonna get killed by Albanians and eaten by wolves!" Thitsa Lilia wailed.
"Scorpions, they gonna hide on your pillow to bite you!" Thitsa Olga keened.
Thitsa Kanta rose from the table. "I'm going home now," she announced. "I can't listen to this, or I get sick—you know I have the acid reflux."
Thitsa Kanta always got physically sick in times of stress. When she was conscripted into the Communist army at sixteen, she couldn't keep any food in her weak stomach and fainted so often during target practice that they eventually sent her home. It may have been then that she realized a shaky stomach can get you out of many sticky situations, but I never imagined that the mere mention of my moving to Lia would be enough to make her ill. Now she was rising up to her full five feet, quivering with rage or nausea. "You go back to New York, back to your good job, and when you come home for Christmas, you tell us you changed your mind and you gonna stay right here and find a nice husband." She strode out the door, with Thitsa Lilia and Thitsa Olga marching behind her.
I was shocked. The thitsas are always urging me to do Greek things—date Greek boys, go to the Greek church, then sit around our kitchen table with them, drinking Greek coffee and eating Greek sweets (but not so many that I get fat and repel the aforementioned Greek boys). So when I told them I was leaving my job and apartment in New York and moving to Greece to live in the village where they grew up, I thought they would be delighted. Now, watching their reactions—which were extremely loud, even for the thitsas—I realized I had been as blind as Oedipus by refusing to see their fear of Lia and all the violence that they had witnessed in the placid-looking village.
Over the next month they continued to raise objections in the shrill, piercing voices they had cultivated shouting to one another across mountaintops back in Greece. Thitsa Olga called me to wail, "Aren't you scared of ghosts? How can you go to that house?" Each time Thitsa Lilia came to my parents' house to watch the Greek TV channels they got via satellite, she casually mentioned the mountain wolves or the desperate Albanian refugees walking across the border and into the village, no doubt in search of Greek American girls to kidnap for ransom or shoot out of bloodlust. My father was more supportive—he offered to buy me a gun to combat said wolves and Albanians. My mother, who isn't Greek but is easily terrified, worried that as I lay in bed I'd be smothered by falling ceiling plaster caused by goats jumping off the mountainside onto the street-level roof of my great-grandparents' house, where I planned to live while the Gatzoyiannis' house was being rebuilt. Thitsa Tina didn't say anything—as usual, she wasn't speaking to the others because of some sisterly squabble—but hers was a disapproving silence. As for Thitsa Kanta, she simply appealed to a higher power: "I'm praying to God that you'll meet a Greek boy, get engaged, and stay here."
I shouldn't have been surprised by their reaction. The house I wanted to rebuild had been the scene of musical summer nights, but it was also the site of the violence that shattered their family forever. My aunts remembered suffering in Lia during the German and Italian invasions of World War II, the years of starvation and conflict culminating in the arrival of Greek Communist guerillas who occupied the village during the civil war immediately following WWII. The soldiers sent local women on grueling work details, trained the girls for combat, and ultimately began to take all the children from their parents to deport them behind the Iron Curtain. The guerillas were losing the war, but they hoped if they resettled and indoctrinated the children and trained them to be soldiers, they might win a larger victory.
After hearing about the deportation plan, my grandmother andnamesake, Eleni, plotted her family's escape to America, to join her husband, who had gone to work there before the start of WWII. But she was forced to stay behind for a work detail on the June night in 1948 when three of my teenaged aunts and my father, who was then nine years old, fled Lia. They walked down their mountain and across the mine-filled no-man's-land until they reached the nationalist soldiers' camp up on the next ridge. From there, the children were sent to live in a refugee camp and subsequently sailed to join their father. My grandmother, alone back in Lia, was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and executed for planning her children's escape. Along with thirteen others, she was shot by a firing squad in the mountains high above her house, and their bodies were thrown into a ravine.
With four of her children in a refugee camp, and one, fifteen-year-old Thitsa Lilia, threshing wheat for the guerillas in a distant village, my grandmother spent her final weeks without her family but in her home. The Communist guerillas had taken over my grandparents' house to use as their headquarters shortly after they arrived, an occupation motivated by both practical and political reasons. With its four rooms, the house was the largest in the village. But the guerillas also wanted to punish my grandmother for having a husband who worked in America, so they evicted her and her family. The Good Room became the guerillas' office, and the basement a makeshift jail where the soldiers corralled prisoners accused of disloyalty or spying for the nationalist troops. As many as thirty-one at once were crammed in so tightly that they were forced to sleep sitting up, their hands bound in front of them.
It was in the basement of her own home that my grandmother spent her last days, wondering if she would be the next to be called up into the palia kamera, the Old Room built for her in-laws' wedding, to be tortured or taken into the yard to be shot and buried, like dozens of others, under her apricot tree. The entire building bore witness to the inmates' suffering. A teenage girl escaped out of the palia kamera by knocking the rusted metal bars out of its old window. The soldiers watched the captives in the basement by looking through a trapdoor in the floor of the Good Room. But itwas the basement where the prisoners lived in terror and pain, and the basement ruins that frightened me most, even though I swore to my aunts that I wasn't scared. Each time I visited the ruins, I would approach the gaping hole of the foundation, choked with vines, nettles, and scrub pine, and stare through the hollow window casements into the twelve-by-fifteen-foot space. I never climbed down into the basement area—it was too overgrown. But when the wind blew down the mountain through the cypress trees around the church of Saint Demetrios, the moaning sound made me think of the prisoners' cries. I wasn't frightened of wolves or Albanians, but Thitsa Olga was right: I was scared of ghosts. This was why I needed to go: to reclaim the house from its ruins and myself from my fears, and the much sharper fears, sorrow, and memories of my aunts and father.
By now, the house had been empty for fifty years. After the guerillas retreated behind the Iron Curtain, taking all the surviving villagers with them, the Gatzoyiannis house stood deserted. For a few years after the war it was used by Greek nationalist soldiers assigned to patrol the Albanian border at the top of the mountain, in case the guerillas who had kidnapped Lia's children or had been deported behind the Iron Curtain after the war mobilized forces and returned. But by 1953 the fear of invasion had diminished, and the nationalist soldiers, too, abandoned the house. When my father first returned to visit in 1963, the roof had sprouted leaks. Rain dripped between the slate roof tiles, rotting the wood below so that the roof caved in and the house crumpled. By the time I saw it as a child, the house had tumbled down.
My aunts and father didn't destroy the house themselves. But their neglect of it encouraged its decline. I knew that my aunts resented their home for turning on them. Their happy memories there were so eclipsed by the tragedy that followed that each insisted, "I never want to see that house again." Although the ruins scared me, too, I felt it wasn't the house's fault. Each time I stood at its shell, surrounded by piles of stones, I sensed that the house had been as much a prisoner as the people crammed inside. It compounded myfamily's tragedy that the home my grandparents had loved was now nothing more than the ruins of a prison.
My aunts' feelings weren't a factor when I made my impulsive decision; it hadn't occurred to me that they would get so upset. But now, seeing their reaction, I was still determined to go. My father had restored his grandparents' home—the Haidis house—and organized the building of a village inn. But although he had an architect draw up plans to rebuild the Gatzoyiannis house of his childhood, he could never bring himself to start construction. I understood my aunts' violent opposition and my father's reluctance—they remembered the site as their mother's prison. But I was convinced that the house needed to be restored to a home. My aunts and father could not be turned back into the children who jumped on beds and fell asleep to shepherds' lullabies, but the house could be rebuilt as it was before the war.
The thitsas resented their old home, but their feelings about the village weren't so cut-and-dried. They spent most Sunday afternoons listening to radio broadcasts of music from the region and calling old friends and relatives to wish them happy nameday and hear the latest gossip from the village: who was making moonshine, how the restoration of a church was going, whose child was getting divorced (a horrible thing, but it happens to so many families these days), or having a baby boy, may he live for them.
Sorrow about what had happened in the village pushed my aunts away from Lia, but love for the villagers and their homeland wouldn't let them go completely. As for me, I couldn't explain exactly what it was that drew to me to Lia, why I needed to explore my ancestral land. I knew it was my fear of sadness and guilt that my own life had been relatively sorrow-free that made me feel relieved each time I left Lia, but I couldn't say why I yearned to return and live there. I knew only that this place was integral to the emotional history my family shared. It was a place where my aunts, father, grandparents, and all who had come before them belonged, and I wanted to make space for myself there, too. When I waxed philosophical, I reasoned that this was the essential dilemma of immigrants and their children, who shuttle back and forth between twohomes, feeling disloyal about belonging to one more than the other. My need to go to Lia seemed unnatural to my aunts. The generation that leaves a country always wants to assimilate and move forward, while those of us in the new homeland can't resist looking back, like Orpheus, to see from where we came.
For my aunts, however, nothing was philosophical; they were taking my defection personally. When it became clear that they couldn't stop me, the thitsas became resigned to my leaving. They didn't like it. But since I am as intractable as anyone else from Epiros, our native province, there was nothing they could do. (In Greek, when you want to say someone is stubborn, you call him or her an Epirote-head.) So my worried friends and family members started offering advice. My roommate in New York suggested that I fill a tin can with coins and shake it at any attacking goats, to scare them away. My mother gave me a key chain that also functioned as a rape whistle and high-powered flashlight. Thitsa Kanta, as concerned with my standing in the villagers' eyes as with my physical safety, said, "Just dress nicely, and close your windows when you change clothes."
I nodded at everyone with a smile that meant "I'm too nice a person to tell you that you're being ridiculous." I was sure I'd be safe living in the renovated pink stone house that had belonged to my great-grandfather Kicho Haidis. Lia is home to only 140 families, and although there really are both wolves and Albanian refugees, the crime rate is basically zero. This compares quite favorably with Manhattan, even post-Giuliani. At first glance, Lia looks like not only a safe village but also an enchanted one, with a natural beauty so lush and overripe that it's almost embarrassing. Year round the steep mountainsides explode with green overgrowth and riots of wildflowers, and in spring enthusiastic mountain streams gush right over the road. It's enough to make you want to tell Mother Nature to rein it in a little; she doesn't need to try quite so hard.
Lia's dramatic beauty masks a history of turmoil. The village has always been a scene of oppositions. Even geographically, it narrowly missed being split in two. When the borders of Albania wereratified in 1913, the province of Epiros was cut in half. Today one half is in Greece and the other section, Northern Epiros, is Albanian. Lia is on the Greek side, but just barely, and when communism first fell in Albania in 1991, illegal immigrants started escaping over the mountaintop border into Lia, only a kilometer below it, in a constant stream.
My aunts don't care much about borders, treaties, or politics. They remember Lia as a place of violent hostility between villagers during the civil war of 1946-49. The locals were sharply divided in their political loyalties, and at my grandmother's trial some of the villagers testified against her. After growing up and becoming a journalist, my father wrote a book about those years. Like me, the book is named after his mother, Eleni. Before moving to Lia I had never read it or seen the film based on the book. When my friends found out, they were always incredulous. "You're kidding," they would say. I always answered, "It just hits too close to home."
Since the age of six I knew I wasn't willing to read the story of my grandmother's life and death. My family lived in Athens when I was three to seven years old as my father investigated the events. I still remember the time a middle-aged man from Babouri, the village next to Lia, stopped by the house we were living in, gave me a bar of Ion chocolate, then went into the living room and told my father how he watched his own parents be tied to a tree and shot during the civil war. I sat on the stairs, eating the silky chocolate in its red, white, and pink wrapper and listening, unnoticed but terrified. It was then that I decided to avoid sad-looking old Greeks and their traumatic memories as much as I possibly could.
After four years in Athens, we moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where my father and his sisters had come to join their father, and where they all still lived. By the age of thirteen, I had noticed that other kids didn't agree to have dinner with their parents' friends "but only if no one mentions Albanian internment camps." Our house in Worcester was a favorite stopping point for Greeks looking to rescue relatives stuck behind the Iron Curtain or to unburden traumatic memories of war-torn childhoods along with others whocould understand their pain. I felt sorry for these wounded people, but, I have to admit, a tiny bit annoyed that they were disturbing my viewing of a Three's Company rerun. So I decided that my parents weren't doing a very good job of sheltering me from life's harsher side. It was up to me to shield myself from unpleasant realities. I became obsessed with Technicolor movie musicals. (And I was shocked—shocked!—when they didn't have a happy ending. Why did no one warn me that the king dies at the end of The King and I?) I read all the Anne of Green Gables books. And when I imagined myself grown-up, I looked just like Marcia on The Brady Bunch. None of my friends had murdered grandparents or nightmares about rotting piles of stone surrounding gaping holes that had swallowed up their family's home. Why did I? Our family history was easy enough to ignore if I made a conscious effort to do so, leaving the room when my aunts started reminiscing about growing up, or spending the local premiere of the movie Eleni in the cinema lobby so that I wouldn't have to watch the torture scenes. I quickly learned that a little proactive vigilance could stop a lot of nightmares from forming.
At the same time, I knew that tragic memories weren't the only inheritance of Greece my aunts passed on to me. I was fascinated by the transplanted Greek village culture that surrounded me in Worcester. Since my mother isn't Greek (she's from Minnesota), she pointed out that my aunts' quirky habits and superstitions were actually folklore that had been passed on through generations and had survived the long boat ride across the ocean. This was my inheritance. I shouldn't hand my aunts soap, scissors, or a knife, because that would cause an argument. Occasionally I'd find a putrid garlic clove tucked into the pocket of my good coat, where Thitsa Olga slipped it during church, to protect me from the evil eye. And when Thitsa Lilia opened my bedroom door to wave incense around as I studied for January exams, I knew she wasn't doing it for ambience but to exorcise evil spirits on Saint Basil's Day.
Perhaps because of the dark shadows lurking in my family's past, I was always eager to have luck on my side and evil spirits out of my bedroom. I became more intrigued by Greek folklore as Igrew older, and often felt torn between two equally compelling realms. I loved the sitcom-safe American pop culture and yearned to be like the blond, well-adjusted icons I admired. But part of me was irresistibly drawn to the darker mysticism of my aunts' beliefs and customs. Although I never understood the motives behind my aunts' machinations, I was intrigued by the rituals themselves, by how relieved and reassured my aunts seemed when they wafted incense throughout the house or repeated an incantation guaranteed to remove the evil eye. So when I got to college, I put my cultural confusion toward class credits, studying folklore and mythology, with an emphasis on modern Greece. Once I graduated, I moved to New York and started a career that combined my interest in rituals with my relentlessly optimistic desire to focus on the lighter side of life, writing about celebrities, weddings, and beauty products for women's magazines.
After five years in New York, I had an apartment, a career, and all the free makeup a girl could ever want. But I still felt as if something was missing from my life. I knew that as much as I was steeped in my family's hybrid culture, I was neglecting a part of our past, a history I had spent years trying to ignore. I felt as if there was a part of myself I had yet to meet, the part that somehow belonged in Lia while the rest of me felt relieved each time I drove out of the village toward the ferry boats that would whisk me away from the mountaintop I couldn't help but fear. As I approached an age when I could no longer consider myself "growing up" but rather "grown-up," I felt compelled to confront the complete history of my family, to examine the sorrow that existed back in Greece, and the joy as well. Maybe facing my past would somehow jump-start my grown-up future and provide the piece that seemed to be missing from my present existence.
So as 2001 ended, I began preparing for my move to Lia. My friends didn't really understand why I was so willing to trade Sex and the City for introspection in Epiros. My career was finally at a point where I had an assistant instead of being one, they pointedout, and now I was going to run off, in my miniskirt and mules, to a village where a woman wearing pants was unheard-of just a generation ago? I explained that I was doing it for my family, to transform the ruins of past generations into a home for future ones. But the real reason was even more personal. Having spent my girlhood living among my family's ghosts, and my adulthood trying to avoid them, I felt driven to return to the site of my ancestors' home to seek out the shadows of my past and turn them into protective spirits for my future. I wanted control over a past I couldn't change. And I hoped to integrate the American and the Greek sides of my self into one well-adjusted whole.
Of course, I didn't tell anyone that—it all seemed too pathetically earnest, too 1970s divorcée: "Yeah, it's real important that I go live on a mountain and find myself" So I wrapped my earnestness in irony, referring to my plans as "my little odyssey." Just as Ithaka provided a psychological home for Odysseus even though he spent most of his adulthood away from it, so Lia loomed in my mind: as a home from long ago that would require much effort to be reached. Odysseus had spent ten years after the Trojan War trying to get home to Ithaka, a small island southwest of Epiros; I could take ten months to journey through my family's home. My catchphrase worked; most of my friends just assumed I was getting back to my more scholarly roots, reviving my interest in folklore. And I half believed it, too.
Still, it was obvious that I had a split personality—at least to anyone who looked at my official documents. My American self, Eleni N. Gage, had a blue U.S. passport that would permit me to live in Greece for only three months without registering as a foreign alien at a police station every so often. But because my father was born in Greece, I was entitled to a maroon and gold passport as Eleni Gatzoyiannis, which would permit me to stay indefinitely. So throughout January, February, and March of 2002, I spent at least one morning a week at the Greek consulate in New York, sighing dramatically as the passport officer informed me of new documents that Mr. Natsis, the all-powerful official in charge back in loannina, required. I had hoped to reconcile both sides of mypersonality into a well-integrated whole, but I couldn't even get them official identification. "I'll take my papers and deal with this when I get there," I snapped at the clerk. Clearly, if Eleni Gatzoyiannis was going to be found, it wasn't going to be at the consulate in New York.
I wasn't surprised by this setback; Greek bureaucracy is notoriously, well, byzantine. But it forced me to acknowledge that my odyssey might not be smooth sailing. Walking away from the consulate, I remembered something from one of my Greek literature classes. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus gets to Ithaka and is delighted to have reached home. But in Nikos Kazantzakis's retelling, Odysseus finds Ithaka disappointing and feels trapped, wishing he were still at sea. As the weeks sped on, I began to worry that my odyssey would end up a letdown. What if I went to reclaim my Greek past and, after a year of loneliness, didn't like what I found? But it was too late for second thoughts; I had already rented out my bedroom in my apartment and quit my job, stubbornly eradicating my life in New York.
Then, in the round of medical checkups I conscientiously scheduled before setting off for the remote mountain village, my doctor found a tennis-ball-size cyst on my right ovary. This was nothing to worry about, she assured me. Women get cysts all the time. But after my laparoscopic surgery and the tumor's biopsy, it turned out that my cyst wasn't a friendly garden-variety growth. It was a low-malignant potential cyst, a rather rare type of tumor that isn't cancerous but isn't completely benign, either. A follow-up CT scan showed that I had two small cysts remaining on my ovary. These might just be normal cysts that would clear up on their own, the doctor explained. But if blood tests indicated elevated levels of cancer hormones, they could be low-malignant potential tumors as well and would have to be removed, delaying my trip even longer.
Normally, this medical misadventure would have terrified me. But right now I was a woman obsessed. I was so wrapped up in planning my departure that my medical troubles just seemed like a hassle, an unfair delay. My initial departure date had been March 21, the fifty-second anniversary of the day my father and aunts hadarrived in America. It had all seemed so perfect, so circular, and now this had put my odyssey on hold. I was frustrated, raring to go. But as I waited for the results of my blood tests, part of me started whispering in my ear, in Greek, "Can't you recognize an omen even when it kicks you in the gut?" I had assured my aunts that my surgery was routine and successful so that they wouldn't worry. They didn't know about the complicated results of my biopsy but maybe it was a sign that they were right about the misguided foolishness of embarking on my trip. They had taught me to look for omens in the first place, to see ladybugs, spilled water, even broken dishes as good luck, and Tuesdays, scissors left open, and a heap of black residue left at the bottom of a coffee cup as unlucky. Maybe this tumor was a warning that Lia was somehow inherently evil, a place that brought misfortune to all who lived there—or even contemplated living there.
The Eleni N. Gage who smiled in my blue American passport knew it was a coincidence that this health problem was revealed just as I was due to leave for my trip—and a lucky one, too, since I had taken care of it before setting off. If I hadn't caught it, the doctor said, my ovary might have twisted around it and exploded when I was on a mountaintop miles from medical care. But the Greek side of me insisted that there are no coincidences. This was the hand of fate trying to keep me away from Lia, from reclaiming my past. It might even be divine intervention; the obstacle God sent in response to Thitsa Kanta's prayers for a man—or some other unexpected turn of events that would make me stay.
I needed reassurance from people who didn't live their lives trapped in the thrall of omens but also wouldn't think I was ridiculous to consider them. So I called my parents to float my theory that if one prays for a suitor to keep one's niece from going to Greece, God thinks it's hubris and sends a tumor instead. They found that unlikely. My father explained that the thitsas didn't really want to sabotage my trip, they were just worried about me because of the horrible experiences they associated with Lia. "We all go to the village in our nightmares," he said. I knew that. Even I sometimes visited the village in a recurring nightmare in which I followed a neonblue dragonfly up a hill to find myself at the windswept piles of rocks that were the ruins of my grandparents' house, about to fall into the gaping crater that was once the basement. That's when I'd wake up. This dream was part of the reason I was so determined to see Lia in the stark light of day, to incorporate it into my everyday life instead of relegating it to vivid memories, hazy dreams, or stopovers between island-hopping, short visits that were protected by the unreal enthusiasm of vacations.
The next morning my doctor called. The tests were good. I was free to go to Greece—as long as I had ultrasounds every few months to make sure that the remaining cysts weren't growing; if they disappeared or stayed small, they were most likely normal growths. I boarded a flight that afternoon. The people around me on the plane shifted their legs over their under-the-seat bags and complained to the surly stewardess about the lack of blankets. I just sat there, grinning. Just when I had finally become ready to face my fears, it seemed as if fate wouldn't let me do so. But there I was in midair. Not my oncologist, not the Greek consulate, not even the all-powerful alliance of my aunts could keep me from moving to Lia. I was about to embark on my odyssey, to become a native in the village of my family's past, and perhaps even change my future.
NORTH OF ITHAKA. Copyright © 2004 by Eleni N. Gage. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.
Posted July 29, 2011
Perfect! I read this having never been to Greece, and with no immediate plans to visit it, and I couldn't put it down. It's a perfect armchair travel book: informative, colorful, evocative of a place and people, and, not always found in this type of book, drop dead funny! I laughed out loud in several places, and the only other writers who do that to me are JD Salinger and Bill Bryson, so Ms. Gage is in good company.
Eleni Gage deeply loves the country, especially her non-touristy corner of it, and it shows on every line. She's not just popping in during a sabbatical and 'doing up' an old house; she's heavily invested in the place, emotionally and physically, and she walks the talk, including going to mass, observing religious holidays, and inviting the locals over, even if they are decades older than herself.
I began reading this in a bookstore and bought it because of the first sentence: "I'm trying to crucify three oranges."
A poetic, intelligent, and moving book.
Posted August 3, 2010
This story resonated with me because I am also Greek American and long for my ancestral history.However anyone can find this story compelling. It is filled with folklore,history and plain old human connection that transcends any generation ,any culture. With the globalization of this world and its multicultural citizens, our journey in this world can indeed be complex as we long for our roots but we can discover the richness of our homeland. I hated to see this book end and got quite attatched to its characters (they reminded me of my own family). I was also impressed with how mature Eleni Gage was when she wrote this at her fairly young age. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In 2002, Manhattan magazine editor Eleni N. Gage decided to rebuild her paternal family¿s villa in the Greek village of Lia on the Albanian border. Her four aunts, residents of Massachuestess, were upset and angry as they feared their neice would be murdered by Albanians. In their minds that was the good outcome the bad outcome would be the return of the curse of their late mom, Eleni¿s paternal grandmother, who, in 1948, was tortured and executed for enabling her children to escape the Greek civil war (see ELENI by Nicholas Gage). Still the obsessed Eleni believes she must do this to pay homage to her grandmother and to provide solace to those still impacted over five decades since her murder. With the help of the townsfolk and the hindrance of the bureaucracy, Eleni¿s odyssey begins. --- This is a fascinating memoir that is at its best with the reactions by the author¿s Greek-American relatives and the Greek villagers to the energetic American¿s objective. Readers will feel the impact of her grandmother¿s death on those still living in the village and in Massachusetts though over fifty years have passed. Though warm and well written, NORTH OF ITHAKA never leaves the audience with a sense of importance or wonder even when making the case of good omens vs. evil memories. Still this is a fine entry that is best read after obtaining her father¿s memoir ELENI that hauntingly describes what happened in 1948. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.