In preparation for my study abroad program in Italy, I decided that I wanted to visit Greece for about two weeks, not just because of all the great things I heard about it, but I was curious to see if I could find family over there and also learn more about my Greek heritage.
Because of my heritage, I am already familiar with Greek customs and traditions. I attended Greek school, participated in a Greek dancing troop, went to the Greek Orthodox Church, cooked Greek food at home, and wore the little eyeballs (evil eye), so no one could harm us with their eyes called Mati. I also have cousins who play Greek music at Greek festivals, weddings, baptisms, and other events. We love life, family is everything, and we are very proud of our culture.
What non-Greeks may not be aware of is the heritage that shaped Greek-Americans after the classical period: the Eastern Orthodox faith, four hundred years of Turkish occupation, numerous wars in the twentieth century, all the struggles of immigrating to America, and the triumph of creating a Greek-American way of life. I have so many questions for my yiayia (grandmother) who came from Greece ; I only wish I would have asked her when she was alive. It wasn’t until I traveled to Greece, specifically to the island of Kalymnos (where my yiayia and papou came from) that I had a true understanding of what it must have been like to leave home and never return. I teared up thinking about what they had to go through to pack up and leave family and friends (I know that on my yiayia’s side of the family, she had 9 other brothers and sisters). Did they think they would go back to home someday or did they completely move on and accept their new life in America?
Back to the trip, I couldn’t wait to go to my motherland to explore deeper the roots of all the things I’d ever known. First, I had to go to the Italian Consulate in Pittsburgh to explain why I wanted to leave earlier than my other study abroad colleagues, especially because I was set to arrive in Rome at the beginning of September. Anyway, everything was approved and I left for Greece on August 19, 2007. I’ll never forget that day. It was hard to leave family but I didn’t let myself feel too homesick; after all, it was my trip-of-a-lifetime. Since I knew I was going to be gone for a semester, I told myself that I have to do this for me. It takes an emotional toll on a person to leave loved ones for an extended period of time. You can’t just be ready; you have to gear yourself up mentally and emotionally. Many people forget this side of the preparation process.
Anyway, I planned a nice trip. I knew I wanted to see the islands of Greece (and I highly recommend visiting the islands for an authentic Greek experience), so I did some research and found a wonderful website called iexploregreece.com which helped me create a customized trip of my own. This website led me to a beautiful two weeks in Greece that included flights, transfers, accommodations, ferry tickets, and more. The trip started in Athens and allowed me to explore the islands of Corfu, Crete, Santorini, and Mykonos. I saw and did all sorts of things from climbing volcanoes, hiking, swimming in hot springs, trying out my Greek language skills, sightseeing some of the world’s most ancient ruins, and most of all, appreciating my beautiful heritage.
After spending almost two weeks exploring the islands, it was time for a life-changing adventure: Kalymnos. The first thing I see is: “Welcome to Kalymnos, the Sponge diver’s island!” This Dodecanese Island tucked away near Turkey, is known for sponges.
Looking back, I just “winged” the entire trip. Just walking around the harbor and strolling into town, I found Hotel Evanik. I walked in and it seemed like a very nice place. I made reservations for three nights. After freshening up, I decided to walk a bit around town, hoping to find family. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my last “Diamantis” spelled in Greek letters. I took a few pictures making note of my Kalymnian roots. It was thrilling. I felt like Nancy Drew…first piece of the puzzle found… CHECK!
I walked into a shop and introduced myself and the owner had my last name. He explained that his side of the Diamantis family came from Egypt. Not really knowing much about my Papou’s side of family, I contemplated such news. Could I actually have some family who migrated to Egypt? I was intrigued at the thought of doing my own ancestry family tree search and that I was now possibly uncovering a new part of my family history. The gentlemen explained that he had a son close to my age who spoke English and he wanted to meet me for dinner. I happily obliged! I was excited to have plans with potential family on the island that my grandparents and cousins walked all over and grew up on.
Feeling confident, I continued my journey around the town. I went down this extremely narrow street with lots of authentic Greek homes and saw clothes and towels hanging on a line in the middle of the street. I looked up and saw “Kakias” on two stores. Another clue! I walked in and talked with the owners who didn’t speak much English but introduced myself in Greek and explained how I was related. The owners, George and Katerina, walked me over to their other family’s store and I was introduced with more family! They showed me this great scrapbook of all the familiar faces of my cousins from back home. When I started naming them off, they got excited about me, an American family member who traveled thousands of miles to just unexpectedly say hello and learn more about them. They had a son, name Giannis (which means John), and he spoke English enough to translate more of the things I couldn’t say. We made plans to meet up again the following day to catch up and explore the island.
I went to have dinner with some potential Diamantis cousins and met the shop owner’s son, Michael. He was very nice and really enjoyable to talk to. When the food came out, it was interesting to see the seafood platter looking back at me. I was forewarned in travel books that I read before departing for Europe that it’s very common to still see things with eyes and other parts that normally, in America, they would just cut off. Not being a huge seafood fan, I was squeamish about it but didn’t want to disappoint these wonderful hosts who were treating me to a wonderful dinner. While trying to taste a little of this and that, the shop owner who shared my last name encouraged me to eat a Kefthathe (a Greek meatball). I happen to love Kefthathes so I was eager to pop one in my mouth. I thought to myself, well, it does taste different that’s for sure—definitely not like my mom’s! He asked me if I liked it. I shook my head in agreement that it was very good. He said, “good, because you just ate Octopus.” I about died. Octopus? I didn’t even ask what part it was. I didn’t want to know. I remembered seeing legs of tentacles as a platter on the table, separate from these little meatballs, what more could there possibly be? I took a sip of my wine that we were having with the meal and thanked God that I kept my food down. I’m glad my potential family member tricked me; it helped me to try something new that I normally wouldn’t have tried! Anyway, after finding out that Michael was also studying in Italy and learning Italian, we chatted about connections, Kalymnos, his dad’s shop, and other things.
Kalymnos was like no place I’ve ever visited, it was just so relaxing. Everybody went to the beach, to the disco bar, nobody cared if anybody was late. It was so incredibly laid back that you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself! Michael took me to a disco bar to dance. No matter what language a person speaks, some things, like dancing, are universal. That night, I received a present from my newfound friends, a pair of lovely earrings. They are yellow with delicate swirls on them and I still have them as a souvenir of my special trip.
The next day, my cousin Giannis picked me up from the hotel. In his car, we went all over the island. We explored everything. He took me to this beautiful church made of stones and it had the most amazing view of the port. I recognized this view right away from the black and white photo that was hanging up in my parents’ dining room of this exact same port. I began snapping photos instantly remembering that my dad asked me for a color version to hang up in the dining room after I returned home from my European adventure. The view was incredible. You could see how mountainous Kalymnos was and how the people lived in the valley. He pointed off to the horizon to a land not far away, which he said was Turkey. I couldn’t believe how close and yet so far away I felt from everything.
I really enjoyed the laid-back feel of the island. It was truly another world. Giannis then took me to these great beaches where we swam in the most amazing warm Mediterranean waters. It felt good. I wondered if my yiayia and papou and cousins went to that exact same beach to enjoy an afternoon of swimming and lounging. My cousin explained how he went there everyday.
I decided after a wonderful day of exploring that I would call my dad. I remember that phone call so well. I explained how I was on the island of Kalymnos, met our cousins, and explained in details all the wonderful things I did, saw, explored, everything. I could feel the emotion in my dad’s voice as if he wished he was there meeting these people that I have had the pleasure of meeting. He’s been to Greece only once but not Kalymnos. He was so happy that I was there and so was I. It felt like a pilgrimage, and it was so fulfilling, like my Greek adventure was complete.
Saying goodbye to my newfound family and Kalymnian roots was sad. I enjoyed that my cousin Giannis took me to the port to say goodbye and how happy he was that I came. It was truly my pleasure. I never expected such a fantastic outcome from such an unplanned trip. My mission finding my family was complete and it is something that I can say that I will always cherish for the rest of my life. Over four years later, these beautiful memories are highlighted in my life through family get-togethers, scrapbooks, and feeling more than ever closer to my Greek roots. I am very proud of my heritage and encourage anyone who has roots somewhere in the world, to explore them. It is an unbelievable and rewarding experience.
This post was submitted by Anastasia Diamantis.
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