Finding my Roots

I know this is a post that a lot of you have been wanting to see for the past year. And I'm really sorry that it's taken so long! But I wanted to get everything up in the correct order, and I really feel that switching over to Squarespace hosting has been worth it for the general quality of my website. But now we've reached the grand finale: Greece.

Skip to the bottom for the video.

Xin Yun, Alec, and I parted ways in Bergamo. I was the first to go. Around 4 in the morning I left the hostel in search for the bus that would take me for the airport. The busses that we had taken in Italy required that you got on and purchased a ticket through a machine on the bus. I got all of my things on the bus, and didn't really see anyone getting their tickets. An asian man, who looked an awful lot like Hiro from the shoe Heroes, went up to the front to ask the driver about tickets. I needed to ask the same question, so I followed. He told us that the place we needed to buy tickets was a few blocks away. He gave us the exact time that he'd be leaving. And told us to run.

So then all of a sudden I'm running through the pitch back streets of a too-quiet Bergamo, Italy with a man who resembled Hiro to try and get tickets before the driver left with our luggage. We ran as fast as we could. But when we got there, the machine was entirely in Italian. And we didn't know which of the tickets it offered we needed. Luckily, I had searched the route the night before, which had given me the price. So I knew what number to look for. This man hardly spoke English, and he certainly didn't speak any Italian, so I had to help him get his tickets with charades.

In a very comical way we exchanged a glance and then booked it back through the streets to the bus. We got on and the driver immediately closed the doors and drove off. We validated our tickets and finally got to settle in for the ride to the airport. Then, it was onto my last European destination. 

Now for those of you who are not lucky enough to be in my family, let me give you a quick run-down of why, exactly, I was in Greece. I was not there just for the beautiful beaches and sunny weather. And, surprisingly enough, I was not there for the jaw-dropping food. But it's actually a pretty interesting story behind all of this. My great grandpa was the first to go to America. He came during the war, stowed away on a boat with his friend. He went back and forth between using his actual last name, Thymaras, and a tribute to his homeland, Spetsas. But he was told he'd have to pick one. So his name here was changed to George Spetsas. After the war, he wrote back to the family he had left in Greece to see who had survived. He sent back photos of the family he had made in America. When they made it over, they tried to find him, but he had traveled across the states quite a bit. They went everywhere asking if anyone knew George Thymaras, but everyone knew him as George Spetsas by then. He was going to try to back to Greece, and made plans for it, but had too many health issues which eventually lead to his death.

Then, my cousin Dawna, who is spectacular at genealogy, ended up piecing everything together after finding the different documents with both of his names. She traced everything back and found the family on Spetses. She got in touch with Kirk, the man I'd be staying with, and verified that they were really our relatives. But up until last summer, none of the American-born family had been back to the island. Most of the family who still lives on the island spends half of their time in Calgary, Canada. We've met a couple of them in Utah when they are visiting. But no one had actually been back to Spetses Island in Greece. 

So I had received an email from Kirk, who I'd been in communications with, that contained instructions on how to get to the island. The instructions were along these lines:

-get on the X96 bus at the airport

-get off at this specific spot (ask the bus driver)

-find a kiosk. there will be tons, and if you get off at the right spot, they should be RIGHT THERE

-buy a ticket and get on one of two boats that go to the island (he also gave me the times)

-call and tell me which time you're going to leave so I know when to meet you at the port on the island

I got off the plane in Athens and was lucky enough to walk out the door straight to the bus stop where the X96 left. The ticket cost €5 even. I got on the crowded bus just as the doors were closing. The tickets worked the same way as I'd explained for Italy- you had to get on and validate them. The photo above is of part of the crazy crowded bus. It was over an hour long ride, and I had to stand with my heavy bag against this door that was kind of flapping in the wind. But I couldn't help but smile at the fact that I had finally made it.

When I started getting glimpses of the sea, I knew I had to get up relatively soon to ask the bus driver about the stop I needed. But there were still so many people. So I tried asking a woman who was standing closer to me if she knew the stop. Thankfully she spoke some English. She told me that she didn't know the stop, but that the bus driver was really nice and would help me. Also, that he spoke English. Which at that point was a definite relief!

Hoping to the high heavens that my bag wouldn't get stolen, I had to abandon Charles for a few minutes so that I could wind my way through all of people to the front. I asked the bus driver, who told me that he would give me warning before we got to the stop. I thanked him, then returned to my bag. Finally, a seat opened up, and I slowly worked my way up to the seat with my bag so that I'd be able to hear the driver announce the stop.

As promised, he let me know about the stop. I thanked him again and hopped off the bus straight into a wave of heat and and exhaust. I stood there for a minute and tried to get an idea of where I was and where I needed to go. As I looked down the long sidewalk, I could see a ton of kiosks every few feet. These had to be what Kirk was talking about! But all I could see were snacks and magazines and cigarettes. I saw a young couple walking along the sidewalk, so I went up to them and asked if they knew where to buy tickets for the ferry. I couldn't really see any kiosks selling the tickets, and the guys running them didn't really seem young enough to know English well enough to communicate. 

As I'd anticipated, the couple spoke English. The guy told me that they were walking in the same direction, so to come with them and he'd show me where to buy a ticket. He spoke with some people here and there in Greek to get directions for me, and we continued down the sidewalk for quite a distance. Finally, we got to an office on the sidewalk that sold ferry tickets. He had been so kind to help a stranger. I thanked them, and went inside. The air conditioning was nice, but it felt like ice compared to the intense heat outside. 

I explained where I needed to go, what boats I needed, and so on to the lady working at the front desk. She told me that I needed to go to port 7, and if I hurried I'd make it in time. She told me that there'd be a similar office to the one I was in at the port, and I could buy the ticket there. So I dragged Charles as best as I could through the busy streets to port 7. Out of breath and dying of heat, I busted through the door and ran up to the only counter that was open to ask for my ticket. They told me no, I needed to be at a different port. They started giving me directions, but I was so lost that I had no idea where they were trying to direct me. Out of nowhere, this guy who's got rows and rows of sunglasses draping off of his arms pops up in the doorway and starts saying something in Greek and making a bunch of different gestures. The woman tells me to follow the man, and he starts gesturing at me to follow and telling me to come with him. Now I am more confused than ever. Where did this man come from? Why does he know what I need? Is this even trustworthy?! But this lady, who speaks perfect English, is ushering me out the door and telling me I need to run, and follow this guy.

So then I'm back out on the street with €2 flip flops, a broken suitcase, and a dress that is absolutely soaked through with sweat. And I'm trying my best to run at the speed this guy is running along the sidewalk. He takes me to this small little building that's kind of like where you'd buy tickets if you were going to the fair. There's tons of lines, and this guy is doing a little dance next to me telling me that I have to HURRY. We can see the ferry that I need, and it hasn't left yet. But we know that I have no time left. I finally get up to the front and repeat the line that this guy has been rehearsing to me. The woman tells me that they only have business class tickets available, will that be okay? I practically shout at her to give me whatever ticket she has, and NOW. She tells me that it's going to be €45 and I throw a €50 bill at her, grab the cash and the ticket, and RUN. The sunglass guy is running alongside me but back along the land rather than the sea because I'm sure he's going off to wherever he's going to sell his merch. He's motioning for me to go, to run, to hurry as fast as I can. And he's shouting at me as he runs alongside me. We're both laughing at how insane this timing is, and I'm running to the ferry thanking him as many times as I can in between my panting breaths. I hand the ticket to the man at the ferry and he smiles at me, realizing how close I was cutting it. I get up onto the boat and try to figure out where I'm going. And all of a sudden we're off. It was THAT CLOSE of a call.

I find out that I have to go upstairs. So I haul Charles up the steps and once again kind of stand there trying to figure out where to go. A man is checking tickets at the top, so he asks for mine so that he can help me find my seat. He tells me that I didn't actually need to bring my bag up, and tells me I can set it alongside the railing lining the stairway. I know that Greece is one of the places where you're supposed to stick to your bag like glue, so I'm hesitant. But there really isn't another option, and business class is mucho classy. Air conditioning (there definitely wasn't below), a bar, and TVs everywhere. Plus, not very many people. PLUS lots of people working. So I set my bag down and he shows me what seat I've purchased. But tells me that no one else is coming, so I can sit wherever I like really. I thank him and take my seat. I ended up moving to a window seat so that I can see where I am and enjoy the view of the sea. 

As soon as I sit down, the efforts of the past two hours hit me all at once. It took every ounce of my control not to throw up. I was overheated and exhausted. I also hadn't gotten to eat more than a biscuit from McDonalds at the airport in Bergamo. Then the second wave of nausea hits me when I realize that in all of the rushing I never got to find a pay phone to call Kirk and let him know when I'd be on my way. I didn't want to show up on the island and have no idea of where I needed to go. And no way to contact anyone. So I go back to the man who had taken my ticket and ask him if there is ANY way that I can make a call from the boat to Spetses. He tells me he'll look into it, but to go back to my seat for now. I try to calm my nerves and catch my breath. 

Roughly 20 minutes later the man came over to the seat I had chosen and told me to come with him. I hopped up and followed him to an employee door. He told me to go in the door and I'd be able to use a phone there. Then he went back to the bar, where he was now working. I felt so uncomfortable, but I followed his instructions and went through the door. It opened up into this small room just before where the captain was. There were stacks of paperwork everywhere, and one man sitting at a desk in between all of the piles. I pulled out my phone, which had the email, which had the phone number. I kind of looked around because I didn't know if this guy knew what was going on, then walked up to him and told him that I needed to make a call to Spetses. He took out his personal phone, asked for the phone number, and dialed it for me. It was fuzzy, but thankfully it rang through and I was able to tell Kirk that I had made it onto the ferry and would be there sometime soon.  He told me something about it not being a good day, which really confused me. But I couldn't really make out what he was saying, and I wanted to get this phone back to the nice guy who let me borrow it.

The ferry ride was several hours long. So I took advantage of the time and took a nap. Every time a stop was announced my heart jumped. But Spetses was the last stop, and we had a ways to go. As we got closer to the island, the waves got choppier and higher. The closer we got, the more I understood. Kirk had meant that it was a bad day for the water! Finally, the time came. I thanked the man who had helped me so kindly again as I grabbed Charles to head down the stairs. The remaining people were waiting around the back where the two exits were. The rough waves knocked us flat against the dock and everyone fell on top of one another. Then they opened up the doors for us. I took a deep breath and stepped off the boat into the blinding sunshine. I was halfway down when I heard "Alesandra! Alesandra! Welcome! Hello! Hello!"

As soon as I was fully on the dock, Kirk rushed up and gave me a huge hug and kisses on my cheeks and took Charles. I explained to him that it was heavy and broken, but he insisted that he take it. He ushered me down the dock speaking a mile a minute. He kept saying something about cars, but I really wasn't fully understanding (again). Then, he hands me Charles back and tells me to stay where I am. He heads back down the dock, and returns a few minutes later with a man. He introduces the man and tells him "he is Thymaras too!". I shake hands with the man, who says something to me in Greek. Is he a family member? Who is this man? I smile at him, and this guy is like the butler from the Addams Family. He's incredibly tall, and has no expression on his face. He stops shaking my hand, takes Charles, turns, and walks away. I have no idea what just happened. But Kirk is nodding and smiling, and starts leading me in the opposite direction. He's still going on about cars, which makes no sense to me. Until he stops in the middle of a massive row of quads and scooters and gets on one. He pulls it out and tells me  "okay, now you get on". I don't have time to think. Or process. So before I know it I'm on the back of this scooter zooming along the coast. No one wears helmets, there aren't stop signs, and communication consists of honking. Especially at blind corners. No stopping. I can't help but laugh to myself at everything leading up to this moment. And this moment itself.

We got to Kirk's home (photos above) and he showed me to my room upstairs. You get to the room either from the stairs outside or the tiny spiral staircase inside the house. He explained that he had another young woman staying with him as a guest at the moment, but that she was asleep, taking a nap. Then he ushered me into the kitchen and told me that we could talk. He pulled out all of this food and juice that he had in the fridge and told me to eat up. We talked about our family connection, and basically everything that had led up to my coming back. It was so immediately apparent that this moment meant as much to him as it meant to me. In fact, it probably meant more. He explained that they had never known about my great grandpa's family in America, and now for that family to be coming back, it was magical.

One of my favorite things that I learned about there was the designs on the ground. You can see in the photos above with the design that says "1981" and the design below my feet. It's very expensive to get this done. And it's understandable why. All the design is made of is sand and flat stones. People collect the flattest stones they find at beaches. Then, they're sorted between light and dark, to make the designs. They're wedged into the sand that's laid out where the design is desired. And that's all there is to it. It's just tension holding all of those stones in place. If you wedged one out, the whole thing would start falling apart. Isn't that insane? Many houses or businesses that use this design choose to include the date either of establishment or that the design was implemented. Both Kirk and his sister had it at their houses, and I saw it all over downtown. I never would've thought anything of it (other than that the octopus one in town was really cool), but having it explained gave it so much more significance.

Once we had gotten to sit down and have a bit more breathing room to think and comprehend, I understood that he was saying the man I had met was a taxi driver. Cars are not allowed on the island, other than cabs and a select few that have special licenses. Everyone walks, takes carriages, or travels by quads or small motor bikes. Since I had luggage, we required a taxi to drive the bag up to the house.

The cab driver dropped the bag off at the front of the house, and Kirk helped me get the back up to my room. He told me to settle in and rest, and then he'd get me and we'd all go out for dinner. Since my whole day had been go go go, it was nice to sit down for a little bit. Everything was kind of overwhelming, and wasn't easy to soak in right away. The clock kept ticking away and I was wondering when we'd get to eat. The snack had been nice, but it was really just fruit, and I still hadn't had a proper meal all day. I was also exhausted, but between the adrenaline and the energy from the nap on the ferry, I wasn't able to take a nap. Around 9:30pm I was giving up and getting in the mindset to get to bed early. That's when Kirk shouted up to see if we were ready to go to dinner.

Since his scooter could only hold two people, he took us one by one. He dropped me off in town first, then brought down his other guest. I wish I could remember her name! We walked all along the water through the town. Finally, he got to the restaurant that he was wanting. The tables were literally on the sand of the beach. We could take our shoes off and feel the sand in between our toes while we ate. That night we feasted. It was the first food with actual substance that I'd had in Europe. I was so excited. We had about 3 appetizers, and then Kirk ordered a whole veal steak for me. We ate and we drank and soaked in the sights and smells and sounds. I finally felt full. It was the best feeling ever.

From then on, our days were pretty much all the same. We'd get up around 8am. Have our coffee and fresh pastries from the bakery down the street (pictures below). Then we'd pack up, hop on the scooter, and drive along the single road that goes around the perimeter of the island to get to the beach. Most days we'd go to his brother's beach. It was definitely my favorite. Secluded, and tucked between two gorgeous, tall hills. Plus, it was free. The beaches would charge a few euros per beach chair. The beach itself was free, but if you wanted a place to keep your stuff and lay out, then you'd have to pay. We'd lay out at the beach until about 4. Then, we'd go somewhere on the island for lunch. Kirk took me to a different place every single day. He'd explain what all of the different dishes were on the menu, since most of them were in Greek. And we'd always share a Mythos beer. One day, while I was swimming in the sea, Kirk picked a ton of figs from the trees at his brother's. He brought them along to lunch and we had them for dessert at the restaurant. It was such a funny thing, to me, to be eating food that we brought in. 

After lunch we'd go home and take a nap for a couple of hours. We'd lounge around the house, see family, and take care of chores after. Then, around 9-11pm, we'd go back out into down for dinner. We'd walk around the streets and see all of the stands that were open. We'd have loads of food and then go back home. One of my favorite things was the ride into town at nights. The flowers were SO fragrant. You can see a bunch of the pink flowers that were all over the island in the video below. You can see the downtown area with all of the shops and the boats below this. The last photo is actually the restaurant where we ate the first night.

Something that really surprised me was just how many stray cats there were. Kittens would be playing on the beaches and at the restaurants. And cats were lined up by the dumpsters looking for dinner. They were EVERYWHERE. I'd wake up, look out my window, and see a few laying in the shade or strolling down the streets.

The entire extent of my trip, my family kept saying "go, tell them, you are with your roots now".

One of the nights that we went out, Kirk took me into the nice hotel that's downtown. He explained all of the history behind it. Then we went out for dinner and lots and lots of ice cream. Below are a bunch of pictures from my trip. In the middle, there are a bunch of pictures from the cave that we visited. One of the days that we went to a different beach, we went into this tiny little cave. The seals go in there to have their cubs, and a lot of people used it during the war to hide for safety. There's a little drip of natural water that collects in a sort of bowl that the rock has formed. The story goes that if you drink from the water, you'll have a boy. I didn't brave it!

Eventually, it came time to leave. There are only a few times throughout the day that the ferry travels between the mainland and the island. I wasn't going to have enough time from when the first ferry left in the morning til when my flight left from Greece back to the states. So we had been talking about plans of where to stay for the night before. Lucky enough for us, one of Kirk's good friend's sons came to visit the last few days of the week. He and his girlfriend stayed with Kirk, and they decided that I'd go back with them to Sounio, which is much closer to Athens, and is on the mainland. He'd be staying with his family for a few days before he left. By the time we made the decision, it was time to leave. We had one last breakfast, the four of us, then got on a different ferry than the one I'd arrived on. This one had a much shorter route. It also had a really nice deck that we spent the majority of the trip on.

While I was there, I'd been trying to get in contact with the relatives we have met in Utah, Peter and Matina. They live on the mainland, closer to Athens. Eventually Kirk and I gave up trying to find out where they were (and when). So it came as a total shock when they were on the same ferry as us leaving the island! You can see them in the picture below, with the orange and yellow shirts. It was a quick little moment that passed by before any of us were ready for it to be finished, but it was a wonderful moment all the same.

Next was our short stay in Sounio with the family of Kirk's friend. We pulled up to this huge, crazy looking building (first picture below). I didn't really have any idea of what we were doing, so I had no expectations for our stay. But oh my gosh the place was gorgeous. You can see more in the video at the bottom of this blog post. It was so modern, and clean, and pretty! I thought maybe these buildings were little hotels. I asked someone, and was told that the family just owned the condos, and rented out half of them. Sometimes unexpected luxury is the best kind. We spent the day in Sounio and celebrated the birthday of the uncle of the guy who was staying with Kirk. There was a big, delicious Greek feast. Music was played and lots of translations were made.

Kirk spent the first night with us in the condos. The next morning we got up and drove up to Athens. The subway there was pretty different from a lot of the other ones I'd used over the summer. Athens was a lot dirtier than I expected it to be. It was hazy and polluted and honestly pretty gross. We went up to the rooftop of a hip little cafe for a faraway view of the acropolis. Kirk parted with us there. Saying goodbye was difficult. I couldn't find a way to thank him enough for all he had done over the past week. Kirk showed me so much hospitality and kindness.

I went back with the guy to stay in the condos for one more night. We'd eaten in Athens, so by the time we got back we just hung around. In the evening we went for a sunset swim in the sea. I was glad that I got one last swim in before I left. That had to be my favorite part of Greece: the warm waters. His sister took me out into the open water (rather than the bay area) and let me use her goggles. It was absolutely breathtaking to be floating so high up compared to the sea floor but to be able to see every living thing in between. And so clearly!

I spent one last night in the amazing room. The next morning the guy drove me up to Athens to the airport. I was grateful for all of the hospitality that this family had showed me as well. They didn't even know me, and we hardly had time to get to know each other even in our day and a half together, but they took me in as their own.  A story they had shared at dinner the first night has always stuck with me. Kirk's friend was a doctor. Several of his patients had started asking him for personal cash donations because they couldn't afford simple necessities to keep on living. I think that story really showed the current situation in Greece. Such stark contrast in wealth.

Also, this family had explained why everyone in Greece shunned the stray animals so much. They were normally loving pet owners. But when it came to strays, many of them carried diseases because the owners could not afford to get them proper health care at the vet. Eventually the pets would wander off and become strays, but a simple little nip could end up being really dangerous.

The last little story that I feel like sums up Greece was our drive to Sounio from the ferry. We needed a rest stop, and finally found a small area on the side of the road that had two toilets. They looked really modern, clean, and nice. I didn't need to use them, so I stayed by the car and just stretched my legs instead. When everyone discovered that the doors were locked and went around the back to see if there were any other entrance options, they found that people had used the surrounding area to do their business. Basically the entire hillside was one huge sewage site. When they told me this, I looked over the railway along the freeway; people had used this entire area because the doors were locked. They were exposed to all of this traffic on the freeway! That will always stick with me. 

But I think the most impressionable memory from my week there was from my time on the island. Every day we'd make this beautiful trip to the beach on the scooter. And every day this trip would take us by the island's landfill. They were always burning the garbage. But the saddest thing to me was that 80% of this garbage was plastic. It really struck as a reminder that recycling is important. And cutting down on initial purchase and use of plastic is critical. We all matter, no matter what corner of the world we're on! It's not just lazy Americans.

All in all, Greece was painfully lonely. It was hard to spend this much time surrounded by people who all you want is to be able to talk to them and ask so many questions. But the language barrier made that next to impossible. I didn't really get any time to myself, which was also really hard as an introvert. I wanted to be able to go explore the island and have the ability to order off of the menu by myself. I did get to see all of the island that I wanted to see, and explore the little shops, but it was my first taste of really, truly being a minority. Of not being able to communicate and having to kind of sit on the sidelines and try to just soak it all in.

I did find it funny how much I still managed to fit in, despite the difference in language. When I walked into a shop alone, the owner would speak to me in Greek. I apologize and explain that I didn't understand. They'd start again, in Greek, until I'd say that I only speak English. They'd take a long, good look at me and finally say something along the lines of "So you're half Greek, eh?". I'd explain the situation, and everything would click for them. I looked so much like my family that I just totally fit in there. I didn't get a single look. I was one of their own.

Despite this experience being one of the most challenging in my life, it was also one of the most rewarding.  Although I think those two tend to go hand in hand, when you really think about it. It's a really interesting life, to be so connected to your roots, but so disconnected from them. I have grown up with a lot of my Greek culture. So many mannerisms in my family were identical between my U.S. family and my Greek family. The only difference was the language (and the location). There was a sort of unexplainable familiarity to meeting them. Even though there was an immense distance created by the language, things seemed oddly familiar. They all looked so much like me. They all acted so much like me. They all sounded so much like me. They were family. And somewhere down the line, this would have been my home. I had gone where no U.S. Spetsas had gone. I had found our roots.