From London I went back to Greece, to the Island of Kastellorizo where my ancestors came from in the early 16th century. Having migrated from Constantinople (now Istanbul) on this little rock of an Island, a couple of miles from the Turkish coastline, where they eventually settled.
The name of this Island means , Ďthe castle with the red plantí which grows wildly over its landscape. The structure belonged to 14th century Venetians who inhabited the Island. This lovely ruin blends into the rocky terrain overlooking is wonderful harbor where a Greek flag flows freely, above the neo-classical houses. In its time, the women of the Island would parade along the harbor wearing their best dowry complete with a lace umbrella, with the attitude ĎYou may look, but donít touchí.
When I was a boy I asked why my fatherís mother Kostandina, had such a huge nose. Itís because she came from a wealth of merchants, and she always had her nose in the air. And as we say in Oz,íA stuck upí, and her nose kept growing, showing off her importance. I never liked her nor she me. If she had an opportunity, she would pinch me hard when no one was looking. I somehow seemed offensive to her. Of course she died not a very happy woman and her hands were always empty.
As I was entering the harbor of Kastellorizo, having caught the boat in Rhodes which was a very rough crossing, the people whose ancestors were from this part of Greece began to cry. All the memories of their childhood or the many myths that their families had shared with them growing up had now surfaced. It looked more like a Greek tragedy.
I was always told, that once you see the Island for the first time it will be an emotional experience. To me it wasnít. To me it was a struggle remembering all those traditions they enforced upon us when they came to Oz and then handed them down rather rigidly in a different culture to theirs. And there were clashes. To always behave and remember not to ruin the family name. After all there were sisters that had to be married and we couldn't hurt their chances in the arranged marriage saga. It all seemed so silly now.
The island looked more like a fairy tale among its ruins, itís beautifully colored houses restored and all neatly presented on the waterfront as if they were on good behavior. Fishing boats of all colors docked while the fishermen mended their nets.
My youth had a lack of freedom and I balked at anything that made me feel like I couldnít breathe. My fatherís strict and contradictory rules and the abuse that went along with them still affect me today. Maybe thatís why these open spaces made me feel so free. And that these spaces I have chosen were part of the education that enhanced my being and most importantly to my spirit. Itís taken a lifetime, overcoming this Victorian attitude. My mother always came to my rescue and my fatherís frustrations of not being able to reach me weighed heavily on my youth. So when I saw the islandís beautiful harbor there were shadows weaving through the battered landscape. When I landed I went straight to the spot where my mother and fatherís family lived facing the harbor. It was now an empty space, so many wars and fires and earthquakes have destroyed a lot of its beautiful terrain. Pity, I would have loved to have sat in the environment that they had been brought up in. Maybe thatís what I was searching for, something that perhaps would help me understand better who they were and why my father was such a tyrant. Something must have seeded it. Maybe it was my grandmother who never showed any affection to us or to him, just authority.
I ended up facing the school that my parents attended in their youth. The magnificent neo-classical architecture; what the Island must have looked like before most of it took fire. And right next to it was the church of
St. Kostandinou and Eleni. As I entered the church and lit a candle, as I was embraced by the hundreds of icons, all exuding some kind of revelation but still intimidating. I even got to go beneath the church where people hid in secret chambers from their enemies. It was claustrophobic. I climbed back up into the church and sat at the pew. I took in the smell of the burnt out candles and envisioned how they all sat there on a Sunday praying to get rid of their guilt, austere and all those good manners carrying them through the sermon.
And the old lady who lived to keep her church pristine, thinking she would definitely go to heaven having donated her life to the church echoed by those daily chants. Simple and undemanding, she did her daily ritual.
A smile came to my face realizing how uncomplicated her needs were.
I prayed for my parents who had passed on in1995. I wish I hadnít waited this long to come here. To be able to call them and say ĎIím finally here and want to share my revelationsí. Or been here when they had visited and saw it all through their eyes, their eternal youth, their memories. But the cards didnít play it that way and now I was seeing it through their stories, their voice and how isolated they were on this small island furthest from the mainland of Greece. But I do recall my mother telling me that this little spot of earth and its inhabitants were part of the Trojan War in the 14th century BC. She loved that it had such an old rich history.
I climbed up the steep slope to the top of the Island where I could see the Turkish mainland very clearly two miles away. The old enemy looking very powerful from a distance. And didnít they, the Ottomans spread the worst kind of dominance. Very brutal and sadistic. You think of the Armenian genocide and itís power over Greece for three hundred and fifty years. I kept thinking, íWhere was God? í Their screams were silent.
I eventually came back down to have an early dinner. Everyone I met was charming. The few restaurateurs tried to hustle me in but I was in no hurry. I settled at one table and a woman approached me who knew my mother well. ďYou look so much like herĒ. I smiled and sat at her simple café, overlooking the bay. It was sad when she spoke of my parents and the kinds of people they were. The father, who after my success finally accepted me, and loved talking about it as if his influence helped me to do the right thing. When I really escaped his lack of embrace. But I shared with those who listened, how much my journeys in life made him feel that some part of him succeeded through me. What the hell, it changed him late in life for the better and I know that if parents donít want you to go beyond them, in fear of losing you, you have to leave them behind and be true to your own self. As Milton Katselas, my teacher used to say to me, ďOut create them.Ē And by having success, it broadened their vision and certainly mine. And so I came to peace with myself finally, and was able to let him go, gracefully.
The next morning at dawn, I got up and caught a small boat to take me to the Grotto. As I stepped onto the boat I was greeted by my driver. As we motored out I could see the clarity of the water below where my father as a young man had dived into, bringing up hundreds of sea urchins in small nets. What we remember. Fifteen minutes later, traveling around the rock, with its historic remains I was reminded what history had passed by these monuments. Age old battles, of domination, from the Greeks, to the Crusaders, Turks, Italians, French and finally back to the Greeks. The reason we left early in the morning was because, if the sea was high, the Grotto would disappear. We arrived and entered the caveís narrow entrance and there was that water, so blue it almost appeared artificial. It was aqua marine . So beautiful I dived in and felt the silky water that my father had described to me when he was having one of his good days. The light piercing through the cave created a magical atmosphere. I kept thinking to myself, how my parents had swam here in their youth. And now here I was.
I got back into the boat and headed towards the hotel. At dusk I began to walk along the different paths and take in the symmetry of this land and how many of its inhabitants lost their fortunes during the early 20th century and made their way to America and Australia. I grew up believing that we were part of an enormous heritage with royal connections, and that if you were not from Kazzie (nickname of the Island) you were not a Greek, but a foreigner. All this self importance about the kind of history you came from and the lifetime it took to remove this imprint.
Suddenly I heard a flute playing and a shepherd rounding up his goats and sheep at the bottom of the hill . Not much has changed here, unlike America where everyday brings change and little time to realize success. It was a beautiful scene where I imagined holding my father and motherís hand leading them up the hill, being young again where there was time to laugh and have that afternoon Greek coffee where some old lady would read your fortune.
But they have gone now. As the sun set behind the horizon, I felt them slip out of my hands and disappear to wherever that next stage of life may be. I miss them dearly now and see them whole, and realizing how difficult it was for them to leave this tiny paradise and go to an Anglo country, where they had to put their pride aside and start at the bottom where little fantasy was left for them in this great and newly developed country called Australia.
I left the following day having a better sense of who my parents were by visiting their place of birth and the stories that unfolded when I was young.
Their little Kastellorizo with its remains, itís old and new inhabitants, and those who left and brought their children back to witness their heritage, and keeping it alive. As the boat was pulling away, I couldnít help but sing quietly to myself a melody that my family had taught me and the sound of my mother playing the mandolin. Now I began to get emotional. At a distance a smile warmed up my face and I felt the magic that only far away places can give you, especially when you have connected with your past and shifted into new beginnings . Itís as if the Island had waited for me till I came, so that my quest was fulfilled by being there in the present.
It seems that all these journeys I have taken, were places to hide, to forget, to escape, and eventually discover their meaning by going through them and the revelations that were waiting for me to embrace. It helped me weave the fabric that I would wear for the rest of my life, and in the end bring me closer to the God in me.