By Alexis Kent
The mountain air had not yet submitted to spring, so we left our cottage on foot layered in sleeves, fleece vests, and scarves. We shared the narrow black concrete road with vehicles, although none came as we walked. We trudged along, my father, mother, sister, and I, descending a small hill then going around a bend before discovering the town square.
Orange-red stucco roofs atop whitewashed cement buildings lined two sides of the small plaza. In between them lay stones as flooring for this town square. In one corner stood the church, built entirely with the same gray stone, as if emerging from the mountain itself. Shops flanked the streets and the church’s clock tower, upright and sturdy, stood watch over the more modest buildings.
The sun was setting, still amply lighting our way. We each looked in different directions, flitting through our discovery of the town, a cacophony of energy and hesitation in response to our white-knuckled ascent up the mountain in a stick-shift four-wheel drive car my Greek father could hardly tame.
“Is that a shop? It looks like there is olive oil in the window,” my sister said.
“Do you think we can find milk for the morning?” my mom asked.
“More importantly, can we find coffee?” said Dad.
These are our first frenetic moments in the town of our ancestors.
“We need to eat,” I said.
“Do you think anything will be open? It looks awfully quiet,” said Mom.
There were few people around, with many closed doors and windows, when I noticed a slant of light from inside a building. A wooden sign in the shape of Greece with yellow and red lettering we could not read, hung to the side of the entry way. We stepped inside hoping for a restaurant.
Two pairs of surprised eyes greeted us, a woman behind the counter and her teenage son. Whiffs of roasted food cascaded to our noses. The woman had wavy dark hair, dark eyes, and rounded facial features matching her stout figure. She was dressed similar to us, layered to face the lingering winter. Her pushed-up sleeves revealed her pale skin.
Hand gestures highlighted our choice of tables. The four of us sat down across from a wood fire oven and stove. Plastic ivy leaves and trinkets strewn on shelves were the only other guests. Hints of lemon and thyme continued to creep out from the kitchen.
“Xereis na milas Ellinika?” the woman asked my dad as she handed each of us a menu.
Dad shook his head no with a cringed smile, looked down at the table, then to us for support.
“You need to learn Greek,” she chided, correctly assessing that he did not know the language of his heritage.
We read our laminated plastic menus typed in both Greek and English. The prices were written with magic marker, including a section labeled “Oily.” The tall, lean, gangly son, previously occupied by a game on his phone, brought glasses of water to the table and we exhaled gratitude.
“Efaristo,” I said.
“Efaristo,” Dad eagerly added.
“Efarsito,” exclaimed Mom and Jaime.
Reaching the apex of the mountain had been a more daunting journey than anticipated.
We had started in a valley, the sea in view. Diagonal sides of mountains form a small gorge, where the town of Leonidio is poised. Leonidio is a small Greek town set at sea level, overlooking Myrtoo Pelagos, a portion of the Aegean Sea. To get to Kosmas you leave Leonidio heading west directly into the mountain range, the sea at your back.
At first, eagerness and anticipation filled our car as we slowly trudged up the mountain. Jaime and I feverishly took pictures from the back seats, commenting on the loveliness of the day, while our parents smiled contently to one another in response to our excitement. We rolled down our windows to take pictures and sang along to the CD playing. The roads went straight for a while, turns intermittent as we were driven around the entire mountain. Occasionally, we would look out and see the sea.
A strange dizziness hit me, but only for a moment. I brushed it off, furrowing my brow, and reviewed the images I just shot on my digital camera. The sea was no longer in view, as we were inside the mountain range. Our height could now be registered only by looking down. There were no guardrails lining the road and no white or yellow lines indicating lanes. Just a concrete road, inching upward.
The switchbacks increased.
“I hope another car doesn’t come down this mountain,” said Mom.
Turn, creeping up the ascent, and turn again. Our car needed to pivot a full 180 degrees to remain on the road. Shaking, I tried to document our treacherous excursion by taking pictures of the GPS screen, which projected only bright pink zig zags on a gray background. With each turn, we watched the machine recalibrate, hoping for upcoming straight lines, only to see the same zig zag image on the display. Nausea. The pictures were all blurred from the movement of our car and my hands.
This is the road we came to see. The one built by the village that inspired my Great Grandfather to return home from the US with the gift of an automobile to his townspeople. And yet, I could not breathe.
I began to shriek with each turn. Our vehicle would roll back as my father would manually shift gears. I pursed my lips, squeezing my face muscles together, one hand clamping the handle, the other clasping my sister. The windows were sealed as if that would keep us from falling.
Turn back after turn back, we eased up the side of the mountain. When the road finally plateaued into a cruciferous forest, I cried. There was only green and gray; green pine needles, green grass, green moss and the gray concrete.
And then we saw the town. Small blotches of white and orange, distinct from the green expanse. I pointed and gasped. As soon as we saw it, branches of chestnut trees and pine once again claimed our view.
“You will easily find the town square” was the only direction we had been given about reaching Kosmas. Sipping our waters, we now understood.
Our host returned to the table, pad and pencil in hand. We ordered by pointing to various items. A Greek salad for some vegetables, pork souflaki for protein. Our host’s eyes widened and her chin descended to her chest. The pad and pencil were no longer upright, but behind her back. It was now her turn to be embarrassed as she shook her head. Still, we proceeded. We pointed to an item. She shook her head no. We pointed again, she said no. With a huff and hands waving it all away, she left our table and returned with the only dish they had.
Shallow white bowls of yellow broth with a gray brown slab of meat. A single basket of white, airy bread, similar to what my Greek grandfather used to make, accompanied our four bowls. The soup was simple, the ingredients few––broth, a slab of goat meat still bound by bone, fat and tendon. Half of a lemon on the side. The goat meat was so tender, it separated from the bone using only the side of a spoon. The soup tasted of being cooked a long time, a medley of flavors—an initial brightness from the lemon, followed by umami from the depth of the meat, completed by a subtle herb.
My sister, unsure of the goat meat, took her first bite. A smile emerged on her lips. We alternated between slurping broth and dipping dry bread to create sogginess we placed gently in our mouths with broth rolling down our fingertips and enjoying bites of the lean meat in our spoons.
We were a chorus of slurps followed by sighs.
For the last ten years I have served as the Middle School Chaplain at Breck School in Minneapolis where I teach World Religions to fifth graders. Breck has extended me professional support to pursue a myriad of experiential opportunities including living in a Buddhist monastery and taking a sabbatical year studying the world’s religions through the lens of holidays and festivals. Through my service at Breck, as well as with Episcopal Church camps in the Diocese of Southern Ohio and the Diocese of Massachusetts, I have cultivated a passion for creating innovative sacred spaces that call on prayer practices from a variety of religions. I recently I joined the board of the House of Prayer, a nonprofit with the mission of assisting in the work of discerning God’s voice within ourselves and the world.
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