Aegean Odyssey

Alistair Taylor-Young

Between the Turkish coastline of Izmir and the Greek island of Chios, all kinds of dramas have played out over the years—political and, for George Kalogerakis, personal as well

From Travel and Leisure, August 2006

My father's father used to say that in Alatsata, there were "twenty thousand Greeks and one Turk: the cop."

He was talking about the Alatsata of his youth, the village just outside Izmir, Turkey, where he was born—a Greek—in 1892. Izmir was Smyrna then, and Alatsata was still Alatsata—not Alaçati, the booming Turkish seaside resort it is today.

I'm in Alaçati/Alatsata for the first time, with my parents and my 12-year-old son. Down by the water it's part honky-tonk (inflatable-beach-toy shops, Internet cafés, pizza parlors), part beautifully renovated houses (courtesy of wealthy Istanbulites). The resort seems to have sprung up about an hour ago, out of nothing: the palm trees along the shore road are tiny and young. My parents, who have been here before, remember an empty crescent of beach; on this hot August morning a half-dozen years later, the same stretch of sand is filled with colorful umbrellas and lined with hotels and restaurants, spas and wellness centers. And it's mobbed.

But we're not here for a seaweed wrap. We're in search of The House—my namesake grandfather's house.

My parents found it once before, with the help of Hasim, a kind-eyed, Greek poetry–reciting retired Turkish butcher. (This time we find Hasim with the help of a passing Bulgarian-Turkish woman who, weirdly, also grew up in The House.) Hasim has spent his entire life in Alatsata but considers Greece his patrída, or native country, because his parents came here from Crete. That was during the population exchange following the events of September 1922—events Greeks refer to as the katastrofí (just what it sounds like) but Turks prefer to call "the liberation." This epic uprooting of humanity did not involve residents of Newark, New Jersey, where my dad was born later that decade, but he nevertheless considers Alatsata his patrída. The blurring and crisscrossing of cultures is a popular, if sometimes tragic, sport in this part of the world.

But back to the ancestral pile. It's just off a pretty inland square dominated by the large mosque of Alaçati Pazaryeri Camii, formerly a Greek church, Tis Panayías. (A minaret has simply been added on top. Inside, evidence of a Greek Orthodox church persists—bishop's throne, altar, columns—and some 19th-century Greek graffiti artist has tagged a marble wall with "Ioannis Halagas, 1874." But the pews have been replaced by rugs, and scattered prayer beads cover the floor.) A few quick turns up some narrow cobblestoned streets, and there it is—too soon, almost, given the years of anticipation. The house has that classic whitewashed Mediterranean look, wooden window frames, and bright blue curtains. An old lady, also all in blue, is on the roof. A period of smiling and gesticulating commences, but sweet as she is, communication is hopeless. Neighbors get involved, and a Turkish gentleman who once lived in Miami translates. The woman invites us inside, but we can't understand a word she's saying as she leads us from room to tidy room. I try to take it in: small, clean, cozily furnished, pale blue walls—not dramatically unlike an equivalent Greek home, just as she's not dramatically unlike an equivalent little old Greek lady. But it's too much. All I can think is, My grandfather was born here, in this house.

This small corner of the planet—Alatsata, Smyrna, and the neighboring Greek island of Chios, which also figures in my family's saga—has a complicated history, not all of it pretty. Greece's war of independence in the 1820's, which ended 400 years of Turkish rule, was a bloody affair—check out Delacroix's The Massacre of Chios (1824) at the Louvre—and despite having much in common on an individual level, the Greeks and Turks have, with occasional time off for civil behavior, been at it ever since.

Settled some 3,000 years ago and visited by Alexander the Great, Smyrna saw its Greek population reestablish itself in the 17th and 18th centuries. After World War I, in which Turkey had aligned itself with Germany, the Allies made conflicting promises to the Greeks and the Italians about who would control the city. In 1919, the Greek army, partly in response to anti-Greek violence, seized Smyrna. And in September 1922, over a five-day period, the armies of Turkish commander and future president Kemal Atatürk marched in, laying waste to the city. Some 100,000 Greeks and Armenians (most of whom had come from the north) were massacred—the Turks still dispute this—and Smyrna was (indisputably) burnt to the ground, the fires racing down to the water. Watching the grisly proceedings from just offshore were three American destroyers and 18 additional Allied warships. But the West was most concerned with protecting its oil interests, so the Allies did nothing and later allowed history to gloss over the tragedy.

There's something haunted and tangled about my own family's history hereabouts as well. My dad lived on Chios between the ages of five and seven, so we spend a few days there on our way to Turkey and are welcomed by his cousin Emilia, who is 80; they haven't seen each other in about a lifetime, but they played together here as children. Emilia's aunt Angeliki was, for a brief time in the 1930's, my dad's stepmother. Brief, but intense: there were allegations of starvation and what amounted to a kidnapping. My father, as is his custom, has always offered up a gauzy idyll of round-the-clock frolicking in the backyard, knocking olives off trees with bamboo sticks and gathering resin from the mastic trees for fun and profit. In fact, it is not a very happy story, and it left that branch of my family hurt and embittered.

"This place has a mystique for me," my dad says wistfully. We're sitting on our hotel balcony in the Kambos area, outside the port of Chios—just off the main road, through a gate, and across a courtyard centered around the mánganos, a horse-drawn wheel connected to a well, that gives our hotel its name (Manganos). The setting is beautiful: pear and persimmon trees close by, orange groves beyond, cypresses and the island's signature stone walls in abundance. On a distant hill, a monastery is visible.

Identifying it as Agios Konstantinos, my dad recalls that Angeliki, his stepmother, used to spend her days walking many miles to one monastery or another, taking him, barefoot, along. (On Sundays, he was allowed to wear shoes.) Word started getting back to my grandfather—who was working in the States as a waiter and sending money—that his only child was not thriving, in fact was gradually turning into skin and bones. Whether it's accurate or another kind of possibly inadvertent glossing of history, Angeliki's family's recollection—which dovetails with my father's—is that she loved the boy and took good care of him.

"I never had an unhappy memory of the three years I lived with my stepmother," says my father over the din of the cicadas. What exactly did he do here for three years, I wonder.

"Do?" he says. "I walked to monasteries."

On one notable occasion, the two of them took the boat to the island of Tinos, where an annual pilgrimage celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin. During the service in the crowded church, Angeliki went into a hysterical religious fit and had to be escorted out. "I decided years later that she was probably the main reason I chose psychiatry as a profession," my dad says. "I realized, later on, that she was a very troubled lady."

My grandfather left Turkey for America in 1908, at the age of 16. (His siblings in Smyrna and Alatsata scattered before the fires as well, but my great-grandparents were still there in '22; they fled to Chios.) Years later, while working at the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, my grandfather became smitten with a coworker, an Irish-American Wellesley girl. They married, and my dad was born in 1927. Two years later, she died. My grandfather was still in his thirties, a widower with a small child. Within a year, his parents arranged his marriage to Angeliki, who had also come from Alatsata and was therefore a patriótissa—one of their own. The couple had planned to live in the States, but even before the ship sailed there were tantrums, outbursts—Angeliki couldn't bear to leave her mother. She went anyway and lasted roughly one miserable year in New York before prevailing upon my grandfather to allow her to return to Chios. But it was conditional. Someone had warned her, If you ever expect to see your husband again, don't go back to Greece without the boy.

"So I was basically sent to Chios," my father says, "as a hostage, at the age of five." My grandfather, unable to both work long hours and take care of a small child, was buying time while he figured out what to do; he asked his brother Vasili, who was living in the village of Thymianá on Chios, to keep an eye on the boy.

Not far from the grocery store Vasili had owned in Thymianá, we sit down to a delicious meal at the Talimi taverna. Over the next few days, we do the Chian grand tour.

In a café in the lively main square of Pyrgi, we drink visináda, a sweet wild-cherry drink, watch a vicious game of távli (backgammon), and look around at the geometric black-and-gray patterns on the houses, unique to this village. Up the road lies the larger medieval city of Mesta, its self-contained Old Town a maze of stone buildings and shady squares. The tour never feels grander than it does at the Argentikon hotel, a restored 16th-century, eight-acre estate—it once belonged to an Italian family called Argenti—whose rose gardens and indigenous, aromatic lemon trees and orange groves sprawl unseen behind a high wall along a Kambos back road. Argentikon has Chios's oldest working mánganos, which our host, Mr. Dorizas, gamely demonstrates for us. Watching him in harness one is acutely aware, despite his commendable forward lean, that this contraption was designed to be pulled by animals, not middle-aged hotel managers in light cotton suits. A drive to the southern tip of the island brings us to Emboriós, with its popular beach of charcoal-colored lava pebbles. Our friends Costis and Mary—London-based Greeks who, like many other Chiot shipowners, return every summer to the home they maintain on the island—spoil us with a late seafood lunch on their patio. We tell them we're headed for Alatsata in a couple of days. "Ah," says Mary, "apénandi." Which means, essentially, "across the way." Greeks will go to any lengths to avoid using the name of the country they still feel took their land.

Apénandi can be reached in 45 minutes by ferry, from the port of Chios to Çesme. This is a common day trip, not requiring a visa, which thus encourages shopping: it's a more benign population exchange than the one the countries participated in back in 1924, which made refugees of 1.5 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks. We wander Çesme's clean, bustling streets and market stalls. Spices and sweets, motorcycle jackets and toys are set out on racks and in bins. I'm tempted by a windup doll billed as "The Dance Person," though mainly for the box it comes in: "To Bob Up and Down," promises the ad copy.

Our goal, of course, is The House in Alatsata, but there's much more to see in the area. We visit Sirince, two hours and a half of highway driving to the southeast of Çesme. We are charmed by the small, traditionally decorated, 128-year-old hotel Sirince Evleri—tucked away in the green, hillside village and reachable by footpath—and also by its sociable owner, Ahmet Koçak. Faded Greek carvings are detectable on one of our room doors. Over an early evening meze on the hotel roof, Ahmet tells us that the village's current population is 765, but that it once was home to thousands of Greeks—all gone in the exchange of 1924.

In the town's souk we browse an antiques shop filled with Ottoman-era jewelry and 78's of Frank Sinatra and Yves Montand. There's a photo—framed like a soap-star glossy in a Manhattan shoe repair shop—of the current Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, said to be a regular customer when he comes down from Istanbul, the seat of the Patriarchate. Bartholomeos won't find much to do at Sirince's old Greek Church of St. John the Baptist; it's an eerie, empty shell in the twilight. Nearby stand two grand old houses: one was the Greek hospital, the other belonged to the Greek doctor. These are now being renovated (by people from Istanbul).

Ephesus, a short drive away, has its own multicultural population exchange going on, involving the transfer of thousands of tourists between cruise ships and buses. We're at the site early the next morning, but it's already crowded, the visitors trickling down in rivulets from the top and pooling, inevitably, in front of Hadrian's Gate. Ephesus is extraordinary; someday, I must go back and really see it.

Smyrna's most famous exports were Homer, rembetika music, the modern poet George Seferis, Aristotle Onassis, and figs. But Smyrna is gone; it's Izmir we are visiting.

The indoor/outdoor market in the old Konak neighborhood is a slapdash jumble of sounds, colors, and images. Everything is for sale here: we come across "the last barrel maker in Turkey" (all sizes), and a copper and iron shop where my son, Theo, buys a dagger and I can't resist a walnut–and–mother-of-pearl távli set. In cafés, young people sit on rugs talking and drinking tea. We squeeze into a closet-sized musical-instrument shop for an impromptu baglamás performance by the young clerk, peer into a 15th-century caravanserai, and explore an enormous mosque.

Ahmet and his ever present attaché case are in from Sirince for business, and we meet for a lemonade outdoors in the Kadifekale neighborhood, at the very top of the city. The sun is sinking toward the Aegean. "Izmir is my love—after Sirince," Ahmet says. "I am at home here." Then he grimaces at the café's Turkish music. "I prefer Theodorakis," he confides, alluding to one of Greece's most famous popular composers.

That evening, as we walk along Izmir's sweeping harbor, it's impossible not to think of the horrors that befell the Greek population in precisely this spot 80-odd years earlier. Yet here we are, watching young men practice break-dancing moves on patches of grass as we discuss where to have dinner and the dondurma—Turkish ice cream—to follow. Theo has his fortune told by a rabbit (don't ask): it's on a folded piece of paper and says something about "kurtulacaksin bu gunlerde." The future, in short, as unfathomable as the past.

This unfathomable: In November 1933, with my great-uncle Vasili continuing to send back alarming reports about my father's condition, my grandfather contacted a Greek travel agent in New York and arranged to abduct his own son. An Italian ocean liner, the Vulcania, was anchored and ready to sail in the port of Patras in the Peloponnese. At nightfall, with all other passengers on board, a lone rowboat carrying my father and Angeliki, who had finally been persuaded to return to the United States, set out for the ship.

My father, who was not quite seven at the time, says he can remember the scene as if it were yesterday: "We pulled up to the ship and the oarsmen helped me up and onto the ladder. Then the rowboat pushed off with my stepmother still in it. She was screaming, 'To pedi mou, to pedi mou!' ['My child, my child!'] That was the last I ever saw of her."

My grandfather raised my dad in the United States, essentially alone but with the sporadic help of relatives, remarrying late in life when he was living in Astoria, the Greek section of New York City. He died in the mid-1970's. I remember him well, tending his garden, a warm, gregarious man who took great pleasure in being alive.

Angeliki, like her fellow Greeks from apénandi, was left to an unhappy fate on shore, watching as the ships that represented all they wanted—for the Smyrnean Greeks, salvation; for Angeliki, her stepchild—steamed toward the open sea. Back on Chios, she lived with her family, who later revealed that she grew disconsolate and gradually deteriorated; they said she would often watch approaching ships and wonder who might be on them.

"They faulted my father for not having done right by her," my dad says now, "but they knew little of the tortured life he'd had with her. They could only see my father as having been unnecessarily cruel in abandoning her."

Angeliki's family eventually sent her to the asylum of Dafni, outside Athens. While trapped there during the Nazi occupation, this well-meaning but disturbed woman, who had been suspected of undernourishing her charge, died of starvation.

On Chios, her descendants—and step-descendants—are sitting happily down to dinner at O Kambos, the taverna owned by Emilia's son, which occupies the ground floor of the house my dad lived in during those years with Angeliki—his old room, in fact, is now part of the taverna. Tonight we're out back, at a table by the olive trees. The mood is light and the place is packed, even when we leave well after midnight. Back in our rooms at Manganos, we hear loud Turkish music coming from over a nearby hill.

Of course we do. It's been a week of cultural and emotional whiplash. Istanbul-born hoteliers with a passion for Mikis Theodorakis. Luxe Greek hotels created from rundown Italian estates. Turks from Bulgaria. Turks from Miami. Technically Turkish self-described Cretans who've spent their entire lives in the formerly Greek Turkish village that my Greek grandfather—a Turkish citizen, by the way—called home. The crazy, often overlapping, language, food, gestures, ruins, airspace of two chronic antagonists whose differences and similarities seem both crucial and beside the point. And, yes, that painful family saga, which, seen up close with some of the players in the very place it unfolded, is even more heartrending than I'd always imagined it.

Not long ago, my father's first cousin Thalia, a teacher and tutor who now lives in Athens, sent him a wonderful letter, handwritten in English, that filled some of the gaps in the family history. Here is some of what Thalia wrote:

"To be honest, I and all the children who knew [Angeliki] at that time avoided discussing this sad story because it hurts us….I remember her, a rather tall woman with black hair, good-looking, embroidering, playing her mandolíno and singing, attached to her mother. She was the fourth child of the family; her father was buying and selling quantities of produce from their village of Alatsata. She had gone to school and got the basic education of the times. Her father died young, and Marigitsa, her mother, had to bring the children up. They were not rich, but they had their own big house, fields, and they lived well until they were forced to become refugees and go to Chios. You remember the place opposite the school. It's the place you lived.

"From the moment she lost you she collapsed. I will never forget the day she knocked down her mandolíno and never played again....Her situation was hopeless, so they decided to send her to a hospital in Athens. My brother Nikos visited her at times (he was studying at the university). One day during the German occupation, he was informed that she died. He went to the hospital and they gave him her engagement ring (vera) with your father's name. I don't know what happened to it. She never took it off her finger. In lucid intervals she always hoped she would meet again with you and her husband. Well, I think I have written a lot.... Let bygones be bygones forever."

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