Going home to Kourounia
As I get older and the world seems increasingly to implode (climate change, ISIS, US governmental gridlock, the resurgent Russian bear, Greece tied up in another Gordian knot of debt and political stasis, and, personally, the aging of relatives who once constituted our whole world), I keep thinking back to the good old days when I was young—if they ever existed.
Part of my good old days was the first seven years of my life when I lived in Chios, Greece with my grandparents, on a farm with animals and lemon groves and tomato plants that we watered with rainwater collected in a cistern and plugged with one of my grandfather’s old shirts. A highlight for me were the trips my grandmother and I made periodically (my grandfather stayed to tend the farm) to visit my mother’s relatives up in the village of Kourounia—where my paternal grandparents also came from before they commuted to the town of “Chios” and the farm community of Kofinas.
Kofinas was flat and sleepy. But Kourounia was up in the mountains, perched on the side of one mountain and facing another, and the houses were a splash of white with red-tile roofs and blue doors and red doors and green shutters and flowers sprouting in all colors according to the season most of the time in the shiny yellow tins that olive oil came in and were square and so fit perfectly in the trough along the terrace where the “nikokires” of the village displayed their flowers.
We took a grumbling old bus (blue and white) with a picture of the saint bestowing his blessing above the front windshield along with a plastic sprig of flowers and the steering wheel wrapped in a rainbow-colored tape and the “magnitophono” on the dashboard sometimes playing Yiotia Lidia and Stelios Kazantzides and we choked back the dust boiling in the window as the bus hung on the lip of the road and groaned its ascent up the mountains to the hills and then sailed along the hills through resin-smelling forests to the northern villages of Chios. And when we reached Kourounia, it was a homecoming for the ages: my grandfather “O Neamonites” met us at the “bus stop” outside the kafeneio and it was a privilege because he was the merchant prince of the northern hills and looked the part, with several gold teeth and big bear of a hug, and a general store nestled among the swaying cypress trees that smelled of the cheeses and olives and spices he sold and the smoked herring not far from “Neamonites Vrisi” where the chickens came to drink and the water ran teeth-numbing cold straight from the inside of the mountain.
It was a fabulous magical world for a kid and the memories of it are evoked hauntingly in the photographs of my cousin George Michalakis featured in this issue. George used to visit Kourounia periodically all the way from Kenya (where he grew up) and like me he never got over the spell it cast over him. His photographs evoke both his memories and capture that microcosm of a world that once existed in those hills and is being revived in the memories of the children like George and me who visited or lived there and as we get older will think of it as our special refuge from all the vicissitudes of this world.