The only employee in charge of the records of Chiot immigrants and emigrants, was unduly unfriendly, to say the least! She was so busy, that after some pleading and trying to express my urgency, she told me that I could go 'by myself' to the room where all the old record books were kept and look through each book to see if my grandfather's name appeared on any of the sheets! Incredible! It is mindboggling to think that anyone can just go in and leaf through such books...but even more mindboggling was the condition of this room! Papers, book, old chairs, rubbish everywhere on the floor! Dust covered everything and it looked like noone had entered this space for at least the last 100 years! A complete disgrace to the shame of the Greek government. I could go on with the diatride, but to no avail, nor to any positive outcome. Needless to say, I found nothing that could prove any relationship of my grandfather to any of the names I did find. There were many Hellios-Helliou's listed, but no 'John/Ioannis Hellios, son of Nicholas and Maria.'
My search continues into the next century!
Here is a photo of my grandfather, somewhere in Greece/Chios? that my mother found in one of our relatives boxes of old photos. On the back was the inscription: John Hellis in the Old Country, age 23.
If you are thinking of coming to Greece to find your long-lost Greek relatives, it may be more difficult than you can imagine, especially if your relatives came from one of the island or even more complicated, from Mikra Asia.
When I set off to the island of Chios, after having lived in Greece long enough to know the ins and outs and to be able to speak the language well enough to sound Greek...I was sadly disappointed to find that the people were no long very interested in meeting any relative from the U.S.A. Further complicating the matter, was that the only time I can easily travel, is in the month of August...just in time to find all the public employees away from their desks, on holiday themselves!
My first stop was at the central office of the Mayor of Chios. Here is where all the records of 'registered' Chioites are kept, the most recent on computer, the oldest...well, here is where the story gets interesting.
As you walk through the village of PYRGI, AND if you are lucky enough to visit during the month of August, be sure to have a look out for the women of the village, sitting together stringing their treasures of wild red tomatoes.
I wanted to capture this scene, 'unseen.' To capture the natural atmosphere, which I believe I have. Now, however, I wish I had been my usual bold self, and gone closer to have an intimate chat with these women. I could have gotten a recipe or two, I'm sure, along with some 'closer' photos of this summer ritual of the village women of PYRGI.
It is then, that I post this one photograph as a tribute to the social customs of the society of Pyrgi on the island of Chios, where the women of this close-knit community, gather together to create their strings of 'red necklaces,' and to share their daily news. It is a tribute to the fast disappearing ways of the villages, too rapidly being displaced by the hypnotic new technologies; communication via mobile phone and e-mail. Here in Pyrgi, woman still sit next to one and other, talking and working in REAL TIME, in a real 'forum.' How much longer with this ritual last?
I'm sure that they would be amazed with our tips on VT, as they haven't time yet, for computers, as they string their tomatoes for future pots of warm red sauces...
If only I had sat with them!
Every summer, during the hottest month of August, the women of the village of Pyrgi, gather the ripest, reddest, wild tomatoes from the vines, and string them onto long ropes to be hung on their balconies. As I walked along the narrow streets of this colourful village, besides the 'scratched,'two-toned geometrical designs on practically every wall, there appeared a flash of red colour, as if to accent the monotony of the black and white designs. Red, round spheres of vibrant red tomatoes; Necklaces from the Earth, adorning the balconies above.
If I have learned one lesson when walking through the villages of Greece, it is to always 'look up.' You just never know what or who you will meet from a friendly balcony. Here is where the daily life holds court. This beautiful woman leaned over to answer my 'Kalimera' (Goodmorning) and to chat with a stranger below. She was very eager and proud to explain to me everthing about the planting of these special tomatoes of her village, from the day they are planted and left to ripen without the giving of water, until the day they are harvested and strung on thin ropes to hang on the balconies along the road ways.
I only wish I had asked her what her name was and if she could share her favourite recipe with me, or better yet, where I could taste something made from these tomatoes.
Maybe on my next visit!
I cannot quite work out why people dance at someone's death but this is the case on many occasions on the deaths of certain saints but the biggest celebrations take place on 15th August, the date of the death of the Virgin Mary, according to the Greek Orthodox religion.
I think we Greeks find any excuse we can to dance! this is not an exclusive custom of the island of Chios but of the whole of Greece. If you have happened to be in Greece on 15th August you know what I am talking about! Everybody returns to their home towns and villages on that date to participate in the celebrations. I actually find it a great day to be in Athens as it is empty and quiet but that is another story.
On Chios every village organizes a "panygyri" a folk dance on the eve of the 15th August. Lots of food, lots of drinking and lots of dancing of course, to island dances. If you happen to be on Chios on that day, do not miss it. It is a great way to experience the local people, and participate at the dancing. You will not be able to resist. I assure you. Not only that, but you will have a great time like everyone else.
You will find the biggest and more popular "panygyria" at the south of the island where the most populated villages are. But my favourite are the ones that take place in the north west of the island on the mountain of Amani. These are much smaller but more original. They take place at the village square and last until dawn.
Nowdays unfortunately, modern instruments have replaced the original folk instruments, (violins, lutes, utes, kanonakia, see my Turkish pages on that as our instruments are very similar) thus giving out a more electronic/harsh sound but sometimes the village authorities invite famous folk musicians who still play the original instruments and that is a real treat to listen to!
If you stay far away from the villages make sure you have booked a room well ahead to crash at dawn when the music and dance and drinking have finished. Alternatively you could crash on a nearby beach.
All customs in Greece relate to religion. Some of them come right down from pagan or ancient times and were incorporated into the Greek Orthodox religion.
My favourite custom and unique to Chios town takes place on New Year's Eve. The Chiots are known sea farers and this custom has to do with this. The boys of every neighbourhood in the town built their own navy ship for a whole year. This is an exact replica of existing navy boats with cannons, lights, and all the features of a real ship. Sometimes they reach the length of 3 mtrs or maybe longer. The boys dress up as sailors and pull the ship around the town stopping at every house, singing "praisies" to the house owners. The hosts return the gesture by giving them sweets and drinks and pocket money. All night long the cannons blow off as they go from one house to the other. The singing is accompanied by a local instrument , called "trabouka" made out of fired clay and leather.
It is a very moving custom as the praisies they sing are usually suited to each family talking about their sons who are sailors far away in the sea, their daughters, or their houses.
Nowdays all the ships from all neigbourhoods gather in the town square and the best ship and best singing crew gets a prize. They then proceed going around the houses like in the old days until dawn.