Going home to Rizes

RIZES, Greece — When I mention our family's village in Greece, I usually write that Rizes is the most beautiful village in the universe.

And it is.

Your family's village might also be the most beautiful. This is possible. I understand that. But this village is mine.

The name means "roots," and it nestles at the root of the mountain of Agios Elias, along a fertile plain in Arcadia, in the heart of the Peloponnesus, where tourists don't go.

When tourists tell me they've been to Greece, they often mean Athens and the islands and grilled octopus and ouzo and the beach. But there is no beach here.

So tourists don't go high up the mountain to the old monastery to see this: the sweet cherry trees in blossom, with their pale pink flowers. And within days, the sour cherries will pop. The potato plants are ready to sprout. The wheat is green in the fields. The apple trees are budding.

At the monastery, I could hear the church bells ringing from down below and kids playing soccer in the square, their shouts echoing on the tiled roofs of the thick-walled houses, each one with a courtyard and grape arbor.

And I thought of my family, my father and uncle and aunts and cousins and grandparents, and the generations upon generations reaching back to before recorded history.

That's when it happened. I didn't see it coming. It started with nothing really, just a catch of breath, and then came the rush of it.

"Don't be embarrassed," said my cousin George Ganios, who was up there with me. "You think you're the first man to cry here? They all do it, my boy. You're in Rizes. You're home."

And it came at me, relentless, all those stories our family would tell at Sunday dinners in America, the extended clan gathered around to listen to the same village stories we'd heard the Sunday before.

How Truman the white mule fell as if dead in the road, until someone ran to tell my grandmother and she said the special prayers to fight the evil eye. When she finished, Truman shot up, snorting and alive.

Or the time my grandfather, Papou Ianni, fell into the well. Or the story of the wolf and the boy, or the time Thea Alexandra caught my dad trying to cheat her out of a piece of sweet bread when they were children. The stories of Sophianos, my great-grandfather's brother, who was a mountain guerrilla and outlaw known as a klepht, and was shot dead by the army as he visited his fiancee in Rizes.

And story after story, of the Italians and Germans during the occupation, and of the Civil War and the famine.

As children, we demanded those stories, and the elders doled them out like candy. It was our way of connecting to the permanence of what had been left behind.

But the other day, I was there.

The first stop was to see my first cousin Kostas Zaharias, a physician at the hospital in Tripoli.

"Where do you want to go first? To the village or up to the mountain?"

To the graveyard, I said, and he nodded.

"Of course," he said. "We'll light candles." And within minutes we were there.

The dead are not buried in the ground here. The ground is too rocky, so the coffins are placed in white marble crypts above ground. Our grandfather, Papou Ianni, died when he was 95. Yia Yia Angela was there next to him, having lived to her mid-80s until her death in 1968.

There was good light from a warm sun, but the air was hazy. The westward winds from Turkey had been blowing for days. And still the white crypts glimmered in that light, next to a field of sheep and goats.

I made the sign of the cross and said a prayer for them. The marble was warm.

For some reason, the men in our family have children late in life. I never met my grandfather. And my sons never met theirs.

Kostas recalled how he and his sister Sophie shared our grandfather's last moments. "We were alone with him when he died," he said. "I was, what, 9 years old?"

And as he said it, I considered the timeline, the length of the family, how just a few generations can reach back into the ages, to the time of the Turks and before.

Then we went up the mountain to the monastery. We lit a candle in the church of St. Nicholas, where an icon of Christ had been placed in 1902, donated by Riziotes who'd gone to Chicago. And we found the names of our clan among the donors, Karkazis and Pagonis and Kringas, names that don't mean a thing to you, but each had a story around our dinner tables on the South Side when we were children.

They were old even in the stories, and dead long before I was born, and I thought of them as dour grandfathers in blue suits and starched collars, not young immigrants donating the icon from a Chicago of sooty skies and the smell of blood and wool in the air from the stockyards, the young Riziotes desperate to reach back home across the sea.

Cousin George's cellphone rang, and we went outside to the edge of the mountain so he could talk. It was his nephew calling from America, my cousin Vasili Panos, an Oak Brook dentist and godfather to one of my sons.

"Vasili, he's here," George said, facing west into the sun. "We're at Agios Nikolaos. Why don't you walk outside to the balcony so you can wave to us? Vasili, can you see us from America? We're waving so you can see and come to Rizes."

Back in the village, another cousin stopped us, and we hugged and talked. The number of cousins amazed Tribune photographer Chris Walker.

"Another cousin?"

A whole village of them, I said, and we went into the coffeehouse where more cousins waited, the circle of chairs getting wider.

They wanted to know about President Barack Obama, and American politics. And about their own politics too. Especially about the recent protests in Athens outside the Parliament building, which had once been the palace of the king. The people in the coffeehouse didn't feel much kinship with the rock throwers of the hard left.

"We don't have such people in this village," one old man said. "This is not the village of such people."

The others grunted in assent. More stories were told. But soon it was time to go.

I asked my Thea Tula, the only one of my father's siblings who remained in Greece, for the reason Rizes is so beautiful.

"Because your father was born here, and your grandfathers and their grandfathers and their grandfathers," she said. "That is why it is beautiful. Do you understand me?"

And like that, it was on me again, pressing my chest, making it difficult to breathe.

"Ianni, you understand?"

Yes, Thea, I understand.