By 9:30 Wednesday morning we are ready for our trip to Zarafona, or as it is called now Kalithea. For years my father had been telling me how wonderful a village it was, placing it in a sort of competition with Kalohori, which was my village in his mind. Zarafona was his. If the people in Kalohori were cold, the people in Zarafona were warm and loving. If a relative in Kalohori would invite you for coffee, in Zarafona he would slaughter a goat. I had been anxious to go, not because I wanted to prove my father wrong, but because I believed him. Zarafona is an isolated mountain village twenty miles from Sparta and on the way to nowhere. The last stop on a little used mountain road. I had no doubt that we would be treated like royalty.
Unfortunately we have a problem. Niko and Cora found a note taped to their door saying that they must vacate their room by noon because it had been reserved previously for someone else. We wait while they find a new place in a building behind the Hotel. By ten everything is under control and we set off. Niko and Cora are in the front seats of their new Saab, Amarandi, Andrea, Mitch and I in the back. To get out of Kalohori the road goes back and forth in a series of switch backs until you find yourself on a ledge, suspended a couple thousand feet above the sea, that runs the length of a mountain. The view is spectacular if you can overcome your terror. Just before the road cuts around the mountain and turns inland, there is a riverbed that drops into the sea in what looks like it must have been a spectacular waterfall a few million years ago. At the bottom of this ancient waterfall is a mansion, unapproachable except by boat. It was built by a strike-breaker from San Francisco by the name of John “Blackjack” Jerome, (same last name as Andrea) in the forties as a place he could retire or escape from the pressures of "business". He had even furnished it but had never lived there. The furniture had disappeared and the house now belonged to the goats.
We turn right on a dirt road at Lampokampa and drive north towards Agios Dimitrious through what could only be called a high desert. There are no houses, just an occasional shed and field of grapes. Lots of rocks, scrub and beehives whose inhabitants bounce off our windshield or feed on the wild thyme, which is everywhere.
Our first stop is Yeraki, an old village that sits on a fertile plain at the foot of the mountains. We all need to change money and while there is no bank, there is a post office that has a big sign that says Exchange. Niko wants to change his Dutch Postal checks. He signs them and hands them to the clerk, who refuses to cash them, saying he had been warned about them that very morning. He shows Andrea the warning letter in Greek. Somehow Andrea convinces him that Niko and Cora are not counterfeiters and after twenty minutes of haggling he agrees to cash them. Then when Niko pulls out his Postal Identification card with his official signature, again the man balks. The card looks strange to him. There is a piece of tape on it and it looks like it had been through the laundry, which it had. Again he refuses to cash the checks. Again Andrea convinces him that it is legit. Finally after half an hour, Niko has his money. Mitch easily cashes his travelers checks. When it's Andrea's turn she pulls out her hundred dollar bills. The man jumps up, waving his hands. No, no, no. He had been warned about counterfeit hundred dollar bills that have turned up in Patras. No way. So having successfully guided Niko through his financial transaction, Andrea is unable to complete her own.
Meanwhile, Amarandi and I walk up to the big platia and order a frappe. Every two minutes Amarandi tells me she has to go to the bathroom and I have to walk past all the old men. By the third or fourth time they are all laughing. Each time I tell her this is the last time, but then she says it in a way that makes me think that this time she really has to go. Finally I send her off with her plastic bucket to clean up the platia of all the little receipts that have fallen from the tables.
I wonder what's taking the others. Have they gotten lost? The platia is pretty obviously located in the center of town. It would be difficult not to find it. Little do I realize that while I am cheerfully going back and forth to the toilet with Amarandi, Andrea is involved in another pointless activity trying to complete our transactions with the postal clerk. Finally they all show up, relieved that their money-changing ordeal is over. We have coffee, check out the view from an old cafeneon, and continue on our way. As we get in the car I'm approached by an Albanian, selling a cassette player. I'm able to talk him down from fifteen thousand to seven, without saying a word. If we wait another minute he'll pay me me to take it, but it would be just another appliance to complicate my simple life.
As we turn onto the road to Zarafona, storm clouds are gathering. The road climbs into the mountains, the sun disappears and the temperature drops to almost sweater weather. The first familiar landmark is the Venetian castle with it's tower, visible from miles away. I'm feeling a little apprehensive. I haven't been here since I was a little kid. Still, my memories are very strong. I recognize the tiny church my grandfather had built on the outskirts of the village. The surrounding fields are lush and greener then I remembered but that could be due to the large amount of rain that has been falling this summer, a rain that at this moment is beginning to fall again. As we park the car at the entrance to the village it feels like an autumn day. We walk to the platia. I can hear people talking in the cafeneon which looks a little run down. The dirt roads I remembered as a child are now paved with cement. In the village square are two of the largest platanos trees I have ever seen. What a great place to hang out, reading, writing, drinking ouzo, I think to myself.
I tell Mitch, Nikos and Cora to wander around and we will find them later. Andrea and I take a sleeping Amarandi in her stroller down the road on the other side of the square towards the house my family had stayed in twenty-five years ago. Even though it is now paved the street is completely familiar to me and I have no problem recognizing the house of my grandfather, or of my cousin Evie's on the corner. As we approach the house, my cousin Leonidas is on his balcony.
"Are you Nikos?" I mistakenly ask. He knows who I am and comes down the stairs, embracing me and kissing me on both cheeks. He corrects me and I introduce him to Andrea and the still sleeping Amarandi. We go upstairs where he offers us some ouzo, then he goes outside to the balcony where he cracks some almonds with a stone and brings them to us for meze.
Leonidas tells us my brother James had been there and left the evening before to return his car in Kalamata and catch the train to Nafplio. He had been staying at Leonidas' brother Nikos house up in the village.
When I had last seen him, Leonidas was a young man in his thirties. Now he is pushing sixty. His hair is gray and he has the sadness of years in his eyes. Still he has a great smile and I try to humor him as best I can with my limited Greek, putting him at ease. He'd never married and lives in the big house all by himself.
"You're lucky," I tell him," though you may not think so. Those who are married wish they weren't. Those who aren't wish they were. Either way you can't win."
He agrees. As we continue talking an old woman joins us. I don't know who she is at first because she says her name is Metaxoula, the mother of Evangalia. It takes a moment for the bell to ring that Evangalia is my cousin Evie, who's memoirs about growing up in Zarafona I had just read that spring. If Leonidas is sixty, Metaxoula must be close to eighty, yet she is lively and talkative. We tell them we have come with a couple from Holland and a friend from America. Leonidas insists we bring them back and he will feed us lunch. I argue that we don't wan't to be a burden on them and that our friends are probably having a great time in the cafeneon, but he won't take no for an answer. While Andrea goes off to find the others I sit drinking ouzo talking to my relatives as they begin to cut potatoes, tomatoes, and onions in preparation for a feast.
"Can I help?" I ask.
"You just watch" answers Leonidas.
I begin to feel uncomfortable that our arrival and feeding is too much of a an economic strain. How can they feed all of us? I watch Metaxoula fry the potatoes while Leonidas goes to get water from the cistern. There is tap water for the village but sometimes it is shut off, he later explains. Just as Andrea returns with the others it becomes very dark and the rain begins pouring. Amarandi wakes up too and I bring her into the kitchen to meet her relatives. She is in no mood for introductions and clings to me while hiding her face. Finally we all sit down to dinner. Leonidas goes out again and comes back with what I think is a bottle of Metaxa brandy, but luckily turns out to be some of his home made retsina, which is as excellent as retsina can be. As we eat and drink everyone loosens up and soon it seems like we are all the closest of friends. Metaxoula has made scrambled eggs mixed with fried potatoes and I have never tasted eggs so good. Amarandi sits on my lap and eats from my plate and Leonidas keeps refilling my wine glass. Outside it's rain, thunder and lightning while inside we carry on, Andrea translating the difficult parts of the conversation for me, while I the simple abridged readers digest version for our friends.
Suddenly I smell something horrible. First I think that the overabundance of rain has backed up the ancient indoor plumbing. Then I realize there is no indoor plumbing and that the toilet is an outhouse in the backyard, twenty yards from the house. Amarandi has taken a dump in her underpants, and on me. Andrea leaps to the rescue and rushes her outside to assess the damage. The conversation continues until we see a flash of lightning and then hear screams from the yard. Andrea is yelling for me to come quick. I jump up. I imagine the outhouse having been struck by a lightning bolt toppling over the cliff and down into the ravine carrying my family with it. I run down the stairs and open the gate. Amarandi is screaming hysterically while Andrea is trying to keep from laughing. Leonidas' little puppy had snatched Amarandi's shit-filled underwear and run off with them. It's my job to get them back. It proves to not be so difficult. The puppy is not that attached to them though I would prefer that he keep them. Andrea insists that they were expensive and I continue with the rescue operation, fighting off the puppy, handing them to Andrea and the still screaming Amarandi. By this time Leonidas has come to see what the commotion is and he gives Andrea some water to clean up the mess.
I return to the kitchen where we party, talking, laughing and playing with the miraculous pocket translator that Niko has brought with him. Amarandi begins playing with all the little breakable statues and ceramics that are scattered around Leonidas' house. When the rain finally dies down we take a walk to his brother Niko's home. As we walk through the wet streets of the village Andrea points out various beautiful old houses as the kind she wants to live in. I ask Leonidas if there are houses for sale and he replies that there are none. All of the empty ones are tied up by too many relatives. Besides, as Metaxoula had told us when I mentioned it before, "Why do you need a house? You can stay with us."
When we get to Niko's we are welcomed by his wife Marika, who brings us upstairs to the balcony where she serves us sweets, nuts, candy and more ouzo. Mitch wants to say no but I assure him that it will be an insult to do so, perhaps resulting in his death and he smiles and says efcharisto(thank you) to her as she hands him a glass. Amarandi plays with her two little cousins, Niko and Marika's grandchildren, Dimitra and Maria, while we talk and look at wedding photos of their parents, uncles and aunts. Niko and Cora who had gone to explore the village drive up in the car and join us on the balcony. As Marika leans over to hand Niko a big glass of ouzo we wave our hands, "No! He's the driver." She laughs and pours it into Mitch's glass who again smiles and thanks her, his eyes growing glassier every moment.
Cousin Niko is out collecting honey and expected back any minute but we are worried that it will be dark before we leave for Kalohori and Niko our driver, will have to negotiate the dangerous mountain road in his semi inebriated state with this added disadvantage. We decide that Andrea, Amarandi, Leonidas and I will go visit Eleni, Niko and Leonidas' sister who lives a few houses away. When we arrive she knows who we are, embracing and kissing us. She invites us into the kitchen and serves us some loukoumia and some more ouzo, which by this time I have built up a sturdy resistance to. She gives us a tour of her enormous house and Amarandi finds a big red bear that she claims until we pry it from her little fingers when it is time to leave. We kiss Eleni good-bye, promising we will return. Like everyone else she tells us that next time we can stay in her house.
When we get back to Cousin Niko's his truck is in the driveway and our friends are happily munching on honeycomb. Niko walks over and embraces me. He looks entirely different from how I remember him but I take everyones word that indeed it is him. We talk and joke and he explains how the honey is extracted from the hives. Reluctantly, we know it's time to take our leave. We climb into the car and wave goodbye until we turn the corner and out of sight. I wonder if I will ever see them again.